Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Doubtful Choice for 2016

In this historic election (Is it really? "They" always say it is.), many voters are trying to figure out which candidate to vote against. Both are deplorable—or "deplorables" to use one candidate's word. (I would not care to know or even meet either of them.) The following is a strategy that you might consider regardless of your political proclivities. I set out my thinking here without making any endorsement. I will not recommend Clinton or Trump or any of the third party candidates of whom I am aware. (For the record they are—in alphabetical order: Darrell Castle, Constitution Party; Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party; Evan McMullin, Independent; and Jill Stein, Green Party.)

Senator Ted Cruz, in coming out for presidential candidate Donald Trump, said that every voter faces five choices in this election:

Voting for Hillary Clinton,
Voting for Donald Trump,
Voting for a third party candidate,
Voting for a write-in candidate,
Not voting for anyone.

I would narrow it to four choices because two of his choices, the third-party and write-in vote, are virtually the same with a negligible statistical difference in their potential influence on the outcome of the race. In reality, only either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. What impact will your vote make on that “binary choice”? Actually, statistically speaking, not much of one.

Voting is a civic ritual in which I believe as an article of democratic-republican faith, and the popular vote will indirectly help to determine who the next president will be, but my individual vote will not likely change the outcome. Indeed, the lesson I took away from the close presidential election in Florida in 2000 was not that “every vote counts and especially so in a close election,” but that the closer the election, the less my vote will count, because if there is a recount, someone else, a third party, will reinterpret my vote and potentially change it. (A corollary concern is whether, if I leave the presidential contest blank on my ballot, some corrupt official will punch their favorite candidate for me.) So my actual choice is more strategic. If we assume that, like me, most people are voting against one of the two main candidates rather than voting for one of them, we must look at the odds.

If I am willing to take moral responsibility for voting for the lesser of the two deplorable candidates, then I might just decide that, since one is worse than the other, I will vote for the other without any qualms or further deliberation. An alternative to making this decision ahead of time would be to wait to see how the pre-election polls are shaking out in my state or county. If we pretend for a moment that my vote does count, it might help to vote against the worst candidate if the worst candidate is leading. If they are close, theoretically this might even make a difference. But if the lesser of two evils is winning in the pre-election polls, then my strategy would be not to vote for either candidate. That way I am not responsible for the lesser of two evils winning and the worst candidate would not win in my state or locality anyway. This is a matter of fine distinctions, of course, because it matters how close the polls are. If the race is very close and the lesser of two evils is slightly in the lead, then I might want to vote against the worst candidate in order to make sure that he or she loses.

On the other hand, if the polls clearly show that the lesser of two evils is winning by a comfortable margin in my state or county, then there is no point in my voting for him or her. My strategy would then be one of voting for a third-party candidate or not voting for president at all. If that turns out to be the case, my current preference is to vote for a third party candidate. This would not be a viable choice for me if I had not been able to find a half-way decent candidate. I strongly reject three of the four that I am aware of and am not super enthusiastic about the one for whom I would be willing to vote as a last resort.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Conservative Media Not United

Whereas most of the Democratic Party and the mainstream media would like - and always have liked - to paint all of conservative media with the same brush, anyone who closely observes the right will see that there is a dramatic lack of unity - now more so than ever. Donald Trump has created more of a rift on the right than Hillary Clinton has on the left, despite the surprising appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders.

I consume conservative media but not all of it, of course, because that would mean being glued to the radio, TV, magazines and internet 24/7; however, I do sample a variety of different commentators. Online, it soon became clear that while Breitbart and the Drudge Report are pro-Trump, National Review and Red State turned against him almost from the start. Indeed, while National Review tried to remain somewhat measured in their criticism of Trump, both Breitbart and Red State were shrilly unfair in their respective support and opposition to him. (Now we know that the Breitbart editors were essentially part of Trump's campaign and have recently made that official.)

On television, FOX News at first opposed Trump and then came around to supporting him enthusiastically. This curiously mirrored the position of the Republican National Committee. As the GOP went, so went FOX.

The world of conservative talk radio presents the ultimate melange of opinion, with the talkmeisters who have heretofore been assumed to all be on the same page instead dividing sharply over Trump. Depending on what is available in your media market, you could start your radio listening day at 9 a.m. with Glenn Beck, who absolutely despises Donald Trump. He has said that after years of defending whoever the Republican candidate is, it is a relief to know that whatever comes out about Trump, Beck does not have to defend him.

Shortly after noon, however, Rush Limbaugh will come on your radio to passionately defend Trump no matter what is said about him (or what fresh outrage Trump has committed). So far, then, we have three hours of Beck bashing Trump, and three hours of Rush beating back all attacks on the GOP's standard bearer whether they are fair or unfair. (As to the unfair attacks on Trump, of which there are admittedly many, didn't Trump use unfair attacks on his opponents during the primaries? Never mind.)

Then, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., you could listen to Sean Hannity, who defends Trump with such passion that it makes it seem as if Rush did not defend him at all. After 6 p.m., we have Mark Levin, who supported Ted Cruz against Trump in the primaries but has recently said that he will vote for Trump but not at all enthusiastically. To Levin, it is really a matter of Hillary Clinton being so objectionable that he is willing to hold his nose and vote for Trump.

If you are in other markets or turn to a different station, you might also hear Laura Ingraham, another conservative talk show host who actually goes Sean Hannity one better in her passion for Trump.

So much for the notion that if you listen to any of the conservative talk shows you will get the same opinion, and so much for the longtime media-promoted conceit that listening to these shows will make up your mind for you. Talk-radio listeners have never been more on their own.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Duolingo: Learning a new language for free

Duolingo (

(This post was updated 28-30 October 2016.)

See further update in separate blog post here.

The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, said, "To have another language is to possess a second soul." (Charlemagne spoke Frankish and Latin fluently.) The famous spy, Sidney Reilly, was so fond of quoting this saying that many people have erroneously attributed it to him. (Reilly is believed to have been fluent in English, Russian, German, French, Italian and, possibly, Portuguese.)

Duolingo is an on-line language learning app that teaches two dozen or so languages for free, although it can honestly boast only that you will be sort of half fluent at the end of a course. It does not teach any language in its totality. Although I cannot now recall how I stumbled upon Duolingo, it was probably through an ad on Facebook and happened at the beginning of September.

Duolingo was launched on the 30 November 2011. Luis von Ahn, the CEO of Duolingois a professor of computer studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the inventor of CAPTCHA and is a contributor to TED talks. Severin Hacker, is the Chief Tech Officer. He got his BS in Computer Science from ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) in 2006 and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University in 2014. He was one of Ahn’s students. Ahn's initial funding was grant money from the National Science and MacArthur Foundations. The company has made money by offering corporate translation services. (Customers have included CNN and BuzzFeed.) 

Duolingo’s Investors include:

Google Capital 
Union Square Ventures
New Enterprise Associates 
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers 
(Al Gore and Colin Powell are among KPCB’s advisers.)


Ashton Kutcher, well known actor and owner of A-Grade Investments
and Tim Ferriss, self-help author, start-up adviser and investor.

Most of these investors are venture capitalists specializing in information technology companies. People who run these venture firms have previously advised, invested in or developed such businesses and brands as Kickstarter, Uber and the Sims. 

While language courses for English speakers are popular through Duolingo, English courses for speakers of other languages are popular, as well, but English is often all that is available to them. While speakers of French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Russian, Arabic and Turkish can learn a few other languages besides English, English is currently the only course available for speakers of such languages as Dutch, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi and Tamil.

The largest number of learners must be those who are studying English from another language. I am not sure why I cannot find the numbers on that in one place, but Duolingo currently claims to have about 120 million users worldwide. However, if you add up the foreign-language speakers who are studying English according to Duolingo, it comes to 213 million, including 88 million Spanish speakers learning English. The largest number of English-speakers studying a single foreign language is about 69 million who are studying Spanish. But add 69 million to 88 million and you are already over 120 million, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Duolingo's figures. The best explanation might be that learners are signing up for multiple languages, as I have, although, if you speak only one non-English language such as Greek, the only language course currently available to you through Duolingo is English, so you could not sign up for more than one language.

For English speakers, sixteen courses are fully up and running with an additional four in Beta and seven more on the way. I am among the alleged 41 million-plus English speakers learning French. The two least popular of the up-and-running courses seem to be Welsh and Vietnamese (with 309 thousand and 251 thousands learners respectively). Even Hebrew, which is still in Beta, has more learners than Welsh. 

For Romanian, which is nearly ready for Beta, more than 50 thousand English speakers are on the waiting list, while for Klingon, which is not nearly ready, almost 96 thousand await the opportunity to study the fictional language of Commander Worf of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.” BTW, Klingon is one of two artificial or constructed languages in Duolingo’s curriculum; the other, Esperanto, already has 564 thousand learners, and is the only constructed language that will soon become available in Beta for speakers of another language, Spanish.

Duolingo's CEO, Ahn, is a pioneer in crowdsourcing and invites interaction à la wikipedia-type input in Duolingo but with the understanding that in order to add or change content, you do need to establish that you have some expertise in the language you want to work with. To me, the Duolingo method is very reminiscent of the behaviorist psychology theory of learning. There is a lot of simple, rote learning, but when you make a mistake, you will get a do-over. Or two or three. Until you get it right. You might never progress, but you will never actually fail—unless, I suppose, you never get anything right. You will not get a chance to create your own sentences, either written or spoken. In fact, you won’t get much chance to learn to speak your chosen language, although each test sentence is read aloud by a native speaker, and, if you want to, you can repeat it to yourself, which I think is an excellent practice. 

Learning mainly consists of written translation of test words and sentences from the target language to your language and vice versa, more or less in a seventy-five percent to twenty-five percent ratio—more translating from the language that I am trying to learn into English than translating English into it. This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that I can progress very quickly. The disadvantage is that my ability to speak the language improves only very gradually if at all. Vocabulary can easily be forgotten, and there is no incentive to remember it because, in the majority of sentences, it is possible to put the cursor over a word and get its translation. I expect to be able to read, somewhat, but not to speak French when I am done with the French course.

In each lesson, there is a “Report a Problem” button in case you notice something wrong with the program. (If, for example, you give a right answer but the program tells you that you are wrong.) There is also a button labeled “Discuss sentence” that allows you to ask questions and get answers in a discussion/comments thread.

It is estimated by language-teaching experts who have studied Duolingo that after 34 hours, I will have the equivalent of a 130-hour first year college course in the language. By comparison, it is claimed that students of the expensive Rosetta Stone method will have such an ability after nearly twice as many hours as Duolingo, although I would wager that Rosetta Stone students would have benefited from that course's greater emphasis on speaking skills. The experts also found that students tend to drop out of these types of courses after less than two hours of study. (I am a Rosetta Stone drop-out, but largely because my previous computer died and when I got a replacement computer it was older and only supported some of the features of the Rosetta Stone program; I intend to go back to it later, though.)
The focus of each lesson is a series of interactive sessions. Each lesson offers a written text describing the grammatical rules covered in the interactive sessions. You are not required to read this text, and, since it is at the bottom of the page, you might tend to ignore it and jump into the interactive portions of the lesson. However, I have found that I do better on lessons when I have bothered to read the text ahead of time. The text often contains helpful hints that make sense of irregular and idiomatic features of the language I am trying to learn.
Another feature of Duolingo is what I call the cheat factor. On many (though not all) test questions, Duolingo lets you check the meaning of each word by putting your cursor over it and, voila, you have the word instantly translated. Be warned, however, that the program is subtly monitoring how you are doing. It gives you points for correct answers and takes away points for wrong ones. It also notices your weak areas and takes educated guesses at which skills you are forgetting. It even seems to assume that, if you skip a few days, you will forget more than if you visit the site every day. This is why it will urge you to retake a few lessons every time you go back to the course, and the longer you wait between lessons, the more lessons will be highlighted for you to retake.
As you progress through levels of proficiency—very much, and deliberately so, as if you were playing a computer game—you win points called "lingots" that can be traded in for special materials at the site's store. Around Christmas, which is about two months away as I write, you can use your lingots to get information about how the culture that speaks your target language celebrates Christmas, if they do. 

Since I first wrote this, I have finished the French course. I am Duolingo-certified as "fifty-five percent fluent in French," but this is the end of the course. I do feel as if my elementary knowledge of French is much improved, but, as I expected, I cannot speak it. I am supposed to be able to push a button that automatically alerts my LinkedIn profile to my proficiency level, and I was holding off from doing this until I reach 100 percent. But I tried doing it when I got to the end of the course, and it did not worked for me; so I had to manually added my "elementary" proficiency in French to LinkedIn.

What's "Pass the popcorn" in French?

The night that I finished the French course, I decided to try to watch a movie in French. I could have watched one that was actually made in French, but instead I manipulated the language menu of the DVD for an American-made movie ("The Nice Guys") so that the actors would be dubbed in French while the subtitles would be in French, as well. This was sobering. Generally, I was not able to follow more than a small fraction of the dialogue, either because I could not remember even the vocabulary that I had studied well enough to keep up with the rapid pace of the dialogue, or because the vocabulary of the movie far exceeded that of the Duolingo course. I noticed, for example, that the verb "racrocher" was used more than once. It means "to hangup" (the telephone), yet this very useful word was never covered in Duolingo's French vocabulary. 

As I was watching "The Nice Guys" dubbed in French, I also noticed—although this has nothing to do with Duolingo—that the dubbed speaking script is not on the same page, so to speak, with the French subtitles, which may have been intended to go with the original English soundtrack rather than with the dubbed French one. For example, in one scene, the character Tally is dubbed saying "D'accord" (the French equivalent of O.K.) but the subtitle says "Merci."
After I started taking French, I decided to add other languages. I added German and Russian, in each of which I have only taken the basic lessons so far.

The Alphabet in French and German

I am flying by the seat of my pants here, but since this is online, perhaps someone will be gracious enough to correct me in the great likelihood that I make mistakes.
The commonly used letters of the English, French and German alphabets are similar in appearance but not necessarily in pronunciation. I will focus here on what I understand to be the French and German pronunciations of the letter names. I will not use the proper international phonetic letters, but I will loosely acknowledge them.
The first six letters as well as the ninth, eleventh through twenty-first,  and the twenty-fourth are similarly named in French and German:
A [ah] B [be] C [se] D [de] E [e (long English A)] F [ehf] – I [i (English long EE)] – K [kah] L [ehl] M [ehm] N [ehn] O [oh] P [pe] Q [ku (English KOO)] R [er] S [es] T [te] U [u (English OO)]– X [iks]

The seventh, eighth, tenth, twenty-second, twenty-third, twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth  letters are called differently in French and German:
French: G [zhe] H [ahsh] – J [zhi] – V [ve] W [doobla-ve] Y [igrek] Z [zed]
German: G [ge] H [hah]-  J [yot] – V [fow] W [ve] Y [ipsilon] Z [tset]

Saying "We must protect the environment" in twenty different languages

In the lesson entitled “Nature” I was taught how to say, “We must protect the environment,” “It is good for the environment” and similar sentences in French. Now, I had also signed up for German and Russian courses, but so far have gotten furthest in French. So I looked ahead in the German and Russian courses, and, sure enough, there are lessons on “Nature” there, too. I cannot access them, though, because you have to do all the lessons that come before that one in order to open it.

On Esperanto

Esperanto was developed in the late nineteenth century by Ludovik Zamenoff, a Polish Jew whose hobby was linguistics. It is possibly the easiest language in the world to learn, and is certainly the easiest constructed language, though one might well wonder why anyone inventing a language would make it difficult to learn, yet language inventors often do. Someone once told me that Esperanto reminded her of Spanish. This is likely because it reminded her of Italian, only she is more familiar with the sound of Spanish than Italian. Italian, you see, was one of Zamenoff’s languages*, whereas he knew Spanish much less well. Esperanto borrows its vocabulary from many languages, but the only non-Indo-European language that influenced it at all is Hebrew. On one hand, it seems to represent all Indo-European languages, but on the other it represents the European ones better than the Eastern ones.** Nevertheless, it has a tightly organized minority of speakers in places you might not expect, such as China and India.

A feature of Zamenoff's work that I particularly admire is that he prioritized his borrowing based not only on commonality of similar words in other languages but distinctiveness of sound. For example, a lot of Indo-European languages have words for the positive conjunction that sound similar to each other. English and German both have "-nd" (that is, "and" in English and "und" in German); meanwhile, French, and Latin both have "et," and Italian, Spanish and Russian have, respectively, "e," "y" and "и," which sound very much alike. Instead of using one of these, however, Zamenoff realized that these words could get lost in the middle of a sentence and might be easily mistaken for a syllable of another word. To give Esperanto a more distinctive positive conjunction, Zamenoff brushed aside the more common words and borrowed the Greek conjunction "kai" instead (only spelled "kaj" in Esperanto).

Though a recent book about Esperanto, "Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language," by Esther Schor, says that his language was French rather than Italian (at least according to Joan Acocella in her 31 October 2016 New Yorker book review), which contradicts what I remember learning many years ago when I first studied Esperanto.

** Esperanto, like many Indo-European languages has a word, "ke," for "that" or "which" that sounds like "ke(r)" or "kay." (Spelled "que" in Latin, French, Spanish and other languages.) It sounds like "kay" in Bengali, too. On the other hand, Esperanto, like most European languages, has its verbs take a conditional form. (I would have gone with you.) Most languages, including most non-European Indo-European languages (such as Bengali and Hindi, for example) do not have the conditional.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Military Use of the Revolver in the Age of the Semi-Automatic Pistol

Although the Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol became the standard sidearm of the United States military in 1911, the revolver continued to be in use throughout World War I and World War II. Indeed, there was a similar mix in the use of semi-automatics and revolvers in the British, French and German militaries in the early twentieth century. I admit that for years I was insufficiently curious about why this was so. If I had hazarded a guess, I might have supposed it had to do with the general reliability of the revolver. (I have met people in the present day who still prefer revolvers to semi-automatics.) That explanation is partly true, but is not the whole story. The Colt 1911 semi-automatic pistol, or M1911, is pretty reliable and has only recently been replaced as the sidearm of choice by some U.S. military units. (It is very heavy compared, for example, to the Glock 19, which was recently adopted by U.S. Marine special operations units.)

No, the primary reason that the revolver did not disappear from military use with the advent of the semi-automatic pistol was that World War I and World War II each came as such a surprise that supplies of all kinds of weapons were insufficient for the suddenly expanding armies. In the United States during the First World War, production of the M1911 semi-automatics could not be geared up fast enough. Consequently, the two major U.S. arms contractors, Smith & Wesson and Colt, went back to making revolvers since the machines and technicians were still available to manufacture them.

Smith & Wesson already was an experienced producer of revolvers for World War I. Great Britain, too, had had a shortage of arms at the outset of the war; so the British bought many .45 revolvers from S&W. (Later, at the outset of World War II, they would order a number of S&W-made .38 revolvers.) S&W’s production of revolvers for the British in 1915 prepared them to be ready to produce similar revolvers for the United States when it entered the war two years later. The resulting revolver was designated the M1917, and Colt was also allowed to manufacture the same revolver with the same designation.

Other countries had similar problems in World War I. The French outsourced semi-automatic sidearm production to Spain, which produced a semi-automatic called the Ruby. Unfortunately for many French soldiers, the too great demand for these pistols led the original Spanish producer to subcontract the manufacture of the Ruby to other Spanish companies, which often produced pistols that were inferior and which did not fit with the same replacement parts or even the same ammunition. (Despite its dismal reputation, the Ruby nevertheless reappeared in service throughout the first half of the twentieth century, mainly in guerrilla campaigns and the armies of poorer countries.) Under such circumstances, French soldiers preferred revolvers whenever they were available. Some soldiers in other armies, including the U.S., also preferred revolvers. Incidentally, reserves of older guns were not ignored in either World War. Stockpiles of old revolvers were always brought out and refurbished as needed. (In World War II, the walnut stocks on the M1917s were replaced with hard plastic so that they could be put back in service.)

During World War II, S&W made a .38 revolver for the U.S. Navy that was similar to the one they made for the British, except that it had a shorter barrel. These were ideal for Navy and Marine aviators who always want light-weight and compact gear with them in the cockpit so that it is not in their way when they do not need it but, nevertheless, will be at hand in case they survive a crash in enemy territory. The new .38 revolvers made by S&W in World War II were designated the “Victory Model” or “V” series. (Everything in World War II was designated Victory-this or Victory-that whether in a theater of combat or on the Home Front; a private vegetable patch, for example, was called a “victory garden.”) All these revolvers had serial numbers that began with “V” or “VS.” (President Harry S Truman was the owner of serial number V1.) These and other revolvers were often issued to security guards, both military and civilian. (So they often ended up on the Home Front.)

It is worth remembering that despite the proliferation of revolvers and their use by Navy aviators, Air Corps pilots and security personnel including Military Police and Shore Patrol, the M1911 semi-automatic continued to be the official sidearm of the U.S. military. (During World War II, my father was a private in the Third Armored Division, which was part of the First Army under General Omar Bradley, and his assigned weapons were a Thompson sub-machinegun and a Colt semi-automatic pistol. BTW, he once told me that he had found it preferable to use the machinegun outdoors and the pistol indoors.)

You might have expected that the end of World War II, with the reduced size of the military, should have meant that now there were enough semi-automatic pistols to go around, so that the revolver would have been phased out for military use; yet revolvers—primarily .38s rather than .45s—continued to be issued and used. New ones were actually ordered from manufacturers, though primarily for use by security forces and flight crews. In service from 1951 to 1959, the M13—also designated the Aircrewman—was a .38 revolver that was designed for the U.S. Air Force by Colt but was also produced by S&W. It had a two-inch steel barrel but an aluminum frame and cylinder. Because this cylinder could not take the explosive force of a regular .38 cartridge, the gun was practically useless unless supplied with special ammunition. When the M13s were decommissioned, they were not only recalled but destroyed so that there are very few left. (Indeed, I strongly suspect that this was because the military was afraid of these guns falling into the hands of civilians who would injure themselves by using the wrong ammunition.) It was replaced with standard .38 revolvers such as the kind used by policemen (before the police began to go semi-automatic in the 1980s).

At the end of 1977, the last revolvers ordered by the United States military were 6,500 Ruger .38s, which went primarily to the security forces of the military (i.e., Military Police and Shore Patrol). Though some of these revolvers continued in use until the end of the twentieth century, they have since been largely replaced by semi-automatic pistols.

Monday, October 3, 2016

That Was Then, But This Guy Doesn't Know How

Gary Johnson, Libertarian candidate for president, was recently embarrassed when asked who his favorite living world leader is. He had trouble thinking of one. When I first saw that, I thought, "How appropriate it would be for a libertarian to say, 'I can't think of any because there are none.'" He didn't say that. He let the interviewer have it his way. (Indeed, Chris Matthews actually told Johnson that he MUST answer the question!) 

How different it was in 1972 when the first Libertarian presidential candidate, John Hospers, was asked by a reporter, "If elected, what will you do for me?" 

Hospers replied, "I'll leave you alone." 

Talk about Staying on Message. A concept I do not think Johnson quite gets.