It’s easier to expand than to fix…

I feel like everything I learn about coding is already a well-known software truism. But, I wanted to report in on my progress with the EFL worksheet software by saying that it’s moved back to the top of the priorities list and I’m working on it, but slowly.

There was a bug where the gap fill sentences created for capitalized vocabulary (‘Baltic Sea’ and ‘Vienna’ are examples) didn’t work correctly.

I immediately realized that the code put the entire sentence into lowercase (with Python’s .lower() method) before looking for the word. No problem, I thought, I’ll just find where the word is searched for and have it search for the lowercase text of the word. Problem solved.

I genuinely thought that was something I could do quickly, by way of getting back into the coding game…

More than an hour later, I found the spot where I forgot the extra .lower() call and everything was fixed. But I needed a full hour to figure out where in my code that happened.

A full hour.

I’m discouraged that I had such a hard time finding my way through my own code.

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If you want to teach English, be ready to learn

I’m going to say right now that I’m not a normal teacher. I didn’t like school, I wasn’t big on university, and I certainly didn’t want to be a teacher.

And, I believe, that’s part of why I’m a good teacher.

Why “teaching” doesn’t work

For better or for worse, the people I teach have been conditioned by years of experience that teachers teach and learners learn. And, as soon as they recognize that I’m teaching, most of their brain shuts down and they go into ‘learner mode’ which is just a step above ‘hibernation.’

And, learning (and teaching) does take place, but it’s an uphill, grinding process.

Sometimes, it’s what students need. But, I’m lucky that I hate doing it as much as they do, and they can see that. Then, they’re willing to accept that it’s something that I, in my professional opinion, think is necessary and know I’ll try to get us through it as quickly as possible.

The important thing is this: nobody thinks that I shift to ‘teacher mode’ to avoid demonstrating my ignorance of their work.

Learning is a better model

First, most EFL teachers will agree that we never understood English grammar so well as when we started teaching it. There’s something about teaching that makes you really understand a thing.

Once my students are able to start putting coherent sentences together, they learn a lot more if I ask them to teach me. Then, building on the fact that they’re fully engaged in trying to explain something — with pictures and gestures as well as with language — they’re quick to pick up vocab. (I only have to introduce the word ‘screw’ once, if it’s important for explaining how to use their product.)

This builds on a few things. First and foremost, most people in highly specialized jobs are used to (but not happy with) being surrounded by people who say “this is my husband, he is an engineer but I don’t really understand what he does.” They’re ready for someone to want to understand.

Second, most people are, by their nature, helpful. If I can find something even tangentially related and can genuinely need their help, they’re engaged and motivated to use the language.

How to be a teacher who learns

The trick, I think, is to be humble and curious. There is no shame in saying “I don’t understand your work, but I understand practicing an instrument. Is it like that?”

The first lesson or three with me is generally spent getting to know the person, of course, and establishing what they’re goals are, but my agenda is mostly to find the things about their job that I think are interesting. Once I have found those, I try to ‘master’ them if I can (“take me to your desk and show me how you do this”) and get to understanding other parts of their job relative to them.

I am blessed in that I enjoy building up my mental model of the world, and can be fascinated by the design processes of battery systems because they help me think about other things better. If you’re not naturally curious, I suggest you figure out how to be unnaturally curious.

An example

I will be restarting private lessons with a woman who works as the head of the accounting department in a company nearby. In the last block of lessons, she was willing to endure book exercises, but only really spontaneously used vocab when talking about sports (not what she was paying me to get better at discussing) or teaching me to appreciate the nuances of finance.

If I could find a newspaper story about a company selling its building and leasing it back, I knew I had an hour of conversation just by going in and saying “why does this make sense?” She was proud of what she did and happy to show me why some things that seem counter-intuitive (why sell something that you know you will need) actually can make sense.

As I approach restarting the lessons and I need a plan, I know we’ll stick with the book we had, but I bought myself a copy of Financial Intelligence for Entrepreneurs. If I ever want to be an entrepreneur I need to learn it, and I know that I’ll have conversation material for a half year’s worth of lessons.

Google Fit Goals – A meditation on motivation

A while ago, Google Fit introduced the possibility of adding weekly goals in Google Fit. Of course, I didn’t use them.

After all, I liked Google Fit as a pedometer and activity tracker. I was too busy to count my steps or time my activity throughout the day, but I wasn’t too busy to know how often I’d been jogging that week. The idea seemed stupid to me.

Then, recently, while playing absent-mindedly in the Google Fit menus, I set up my “run three times a week” goal.

Screenshot_20171112-182058.png

And, I’ve grown to like it. I feel a pressure to get that purple line all the way around the circle, and really want to avoid having to see an incomplete-goal icon for the next weeks. It’s genuinely a motivation.

I like to think I embrace motivation

I teach a lot of middle-aged Germans who grew up in communist East Germany and who feel baffled by anything that smacks of ‘gamification.’ After all, they didn’t need points and badges to get things done back then, why should they need them now?

These are the same people who think that Carnival (or Halloween) is stupid because they don’t need to be forced to have fun. (But go ahead and ask them when they last put on a costume…) Or that Valentine’s Day is a joke imported from the west and they can be romantic anytime. (But then, ask them when they last bought roses…)

My point is, there are people who think they are strong enough to not need tricks. But, in most cases, they’re the ones who are also mostly satisfied with their current level of… whatever. They might say “I should run more” or “I need to take more time for my wife,” but the inevitably say it in a tone of voice that makes clear they have accepted it will not happen.

On the other hand, I like to think that I embrace motivation. I have a sense of who I am and who I could be, and a clear understanding of how big the difference between those two people is. And, though the person I want to be (a third person altogether) might have the willpower to not need motivational tricks, the person who I could be certainly embraces them.

TL;DR: The Google Fit weekly runs tracking is more motivational than I thought, and I’m frustrated that I didn’t realize that I was dismissing something I would like to embrace.

On the need for new business vocab and some bad suggestions

Listening to a recent episode of StartUp on the race for autonomous cars, I heard a (former?) Uber executive say that Uber was a “tech company.” This was said as a way of explaining Uber focusing on the tech of self-driving cars.

The idea seemed to be “don’t think of us as a taxi company, we produce tech.” And, I guess that’s an acceptable worldview.

The thing is, I don’t think the world needs tech. The world needs something more… But I don’t know what.

Let me try to explain what I mean

I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, is looking for more tech. We use tech but really what we want is to recombine the things around us. Recently, the tech sector has broken things apart and put them back together in new ways. It’s what Uber did, and Airbnb, but what people needed was a way to better utilize cars and apartments, and make some money.

What I’m trying to say is that I wish we had companies that looked at the world in general and said “what could be? And how can we contribute to making it happen?” Most of what makes our future utopia happen will involve tech, but, much more, it will involve using tech to change the way other parts of the world function. Ideally for the better.

Hearing the unnamed exec say “we’re a tech company, so we’re focused on the tech” (paraphrase!) I thought Hmm. His vocabulary is limiting his worldview. He needs to see the world differently.

Some alternatives

So, what vocab can be used to see the world better? To be honest, I don’t know. But, here are a few possibilities.

  • Solutions. As in “we’re a solutions company.” pros: we need solutions. cons: It sounds like empty corporate talk.
  • Holistic. As in “we take a holistic approach.” pros: Existing vocab, already means something close to what I want it to mean. cons: Sounds fatuous, will frequently be ignored or made equivalent to “using crystals for health.”
  • Big picture. As in “we’re a big picture company.” pros: Should encourage big-picture thinking. cons: Corporate newspeak, so universal that it already has been parodied in “re your brains.”
  • Intrastructure. As in “we’re in intrastructure company.” pros: I made it up, so it can mean whatever we want. (Infrastructure is the structure between stuff. Intrastructure are the structures that connect things.) cons: Doesn’t have a meaning yet and can easily become another empty word. Will be mocked before being adopted.

All of those are bad ideas. But, I don’t think I have to wait to have a solution before I point out the problem. I am, of course, eager to hear what your ideas for an alternative are.

The history game

This is part of me trying to share the things that work best in my lessons. Unfortunately, this one starts a little weird, as it’s probably not going to be great for you without some modification. My version is all the way at the bottom of the post.


The history game

You won’t believe this, but I didn’t have a single intermediate to advanced group that didn’t get into sorting historical events. The idea is that students are given events from different ‘timelines’ (their town, their country, the industrial revolution, basic American history, whatever) and have to sort them into order.

Sure, we all know that the Declaration of Independence was signed before George Washington became president, but was that before or after the local landmark church was built?

Gameplay

I generally ask the students something like, “who do you think knows more about history, you or the person on your left?” And we sort of all talk about the other people’s history knowledge, never our own. (Because that gets more talking done.)

Then, I say we have a history test, and we’ll see. (My students all know that the ‘tests’ aren’t real, and they still get wound up.) They all insist they’re not “good at history.”

I spread out a lot of events — without year — on individual strips of paper and I make one end of the table the future, and the other end the past, and say “The rules are simple:

  • You turn over a paper and read it out loud. Then, you just fit it into our timeline. I’ll start with (takes paper), “JFK is born. Hmm. I think that happened between the future and the past.”
  • The next person turns over a paper. And has to fit it into the timeline. “First steam engine invented.” That was clearly before JFK was born…
  • As the game continues, we can all discuss where an event fits, but only the person who turns it over gets to make the final call. That leads to a lot of “do you think Bismark had a chance to read ‘Das Kapital’?” conversations.
  • When we’re finished, we’ll check our results. Originally, I didn’t think this was an important step, but after so much energy is invested in it, it’s a hit.

Generally, we’re all impressed by some surprising things (the American wars against the Indians ended in 1924! Who would have guessed?) but impressed at how well we’ve done.

The prep

At the bottom of the post is the stuff that I use, but it’s pretty tuned to Dresden, Germany. The thing is, there are a lot of different timelines on Wikipedia, and I took events from different ones that I thought my students should know, and sorted them into one single timeline.

I took events from:

And I put them together. I’m not going to lie, I invested an hour or so in making this (which is why I’m sharing it). That’s more than I generally invest in a single lesson, but it was a winner across five different intermediate / advanced groups and I’ll be keeping it in my back pocket as an activity for when I fill in for a colleague or whatever.

My version

This is what I use. I copy the events twice, using the first list as the answer key and printing the second set larger and without the years in order to make the papers for the table.

7500 BC: Oldest known people in the area of Dresden

742: Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was born

800: Saxony was founded

962: Holy Roman Empire was founded

1434: The first record of the Striezelmarkt is made

1455: Gutenberg Bible was first printed

1492: Christopher Columbus lands in Puerto Rico and ‘discovers’ America

1517: The reformation started

1624: New York City (then, New Amsterdam) was founded

1670: August the strong was born

1681: Pennsylvania founded

1710: Production of Meißner Porzellan was started

1712: First steam engine was made

1743: The Church of our Lady was built

1749: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born

1776: The American Colonies declare independence

1787: The Constitution of the United States was signed

1788: The Abitur was introduced in Prussia

1789: George Washington became President

1814: The Great Garden was opened to the public

1815: Otto von Bismarck was born

1816: Steam locomotive that runs on rails patented

1818: Karl Marx was born

1820: Zugspitze climbed for the first time

1830: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) was founded

1839: Railway between Dresden and Leipzig opens

1848: The “Communist Manifesto” was published

1849: May uprising in Dresden

1870: Deutsche Bank was founded

1871: The German Empire was founded

1889: Adolf Hitler was born

1892: The diesel engine was invented

1893: Blue Wonder Bridge was constructed

1895: First Nobel Prize was awarded

1911: Ronald Reagan was born

1917: John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born

1918: King of Saxony abdicates (quits his job)

1924: The ‘wars’ against the American Indians (native Americans) ended.

1934: Udo Jürgens was born

1945: Dresden was bombed

1946: Donald Trump was born

1954: First German World Cup victory and Angela Merkel was born

1956: First Eurovision Song Contest

1959: Hawaii becomes a state

1961: Barack Obama was born and Berlin Wall was built

1976: Apple (the computer company) was founded

1990: Germany reunified

1991: First BRN was held

1992: Soviet forces were withdrawn from Dresden

2002: The 100-year flood happens

2014: Last (most recent) German World Cup victory

Oldest known people in the area of Dresden

Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was born

Saxony was founded

Holy Roman Empire was founded

The first record of the Striezelmarkt is made

Gutenberg Bible was first printed

Christopher Columbus lands in Puerto Rico and ‘discovers’ America

The reformation started

New York City (then, New Amsterdam) was founded

August the strong was born

Pennsylvania founded

Production of Meißner Porzellan was started

First steam engine was made

The Church of our Lady was built

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born

The American Colonies declare independence

The Constitution of the United States was signed

The Abitur was introduced in Prussia

George Washington became President

The Great Garden was opened to the public

Otto von Bismarck was born

Steam locomotive that runs on rails patented

Karl Marx was born

Zugspitze climbed for the first time

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) was founded

Railway between Dresden and Leipzig opens

The “Communist Manifesto” was published

May uprising in Dresden

Deutsche Bank was founded

The German Empire was founded

Adolf Hitler was born

The diesel engine was invented

Blue Wonder Bridge was constructed

First Nobel Prize was awarded

Ronald Reagan was born

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born

King of Saxony abdicates (quits his job)

The ‘wars’ against the American Indians (native Americans) ended.

Udo Jürgens was born

Dresden was bombed

Donald Trump was born

First German World Cup victory and Angela Merkel was born

First Eurovision Song Contest

Hawaii becomes a state

Barack Obama was born and Berlin Wall was built

Apple (the computer company) was founded

Germany was reunified

First BRN was held

Soviet forces were withdrawn from Dresden

The 100-year flood happens

Last (most recent) German World Cup victory

November Training Plan

So, here’s a thing I’ve been doing: I’ve been running 5k for time as my weekly hard run for the last several months. And the times have been improving. As in, I’m running at speeds I’d never run at before. (I’d do so much better at the APFT than I did back when I had to do it!)

Check out the October run time:

october5k

The November plan:

For core fitness, I’m starting simply by trying to expand my current plank-a-day workout to a 5m plank workout every day. I discovered that in this lifehack article (fun fact: all the photos are of women in revealing workout clothes… but when it comes time to teach you something, of course, there’s a man in the video)

Because I have had foot pain, I thought another good place to start was by resolving to do three of these activities each day (I might revise that down to two).

Lastly, as I’ve had a ‘function’ for my Tuesday runs (traditionally, they’ve been my hard runs — see this month’s planned hard runs below) I’ve decided to make Thursday my ‘goofy’ run, which is to say, I’m going to try and run while stopping intermittently to do other exercises. (Like this one, which I don’t think I could do in good conscience in my apartment.)

Here are the four Tuesday hard runs I have planned.

Hard runs:

  • Intervals: Max interval at 23:00 5k pace (4:36/km)
  • Mile repeats: Pace 4:36/km
  • Intervals: Max interval at 22:00 5k pace (4:24/km)
  • November 5k for time

I’ve really only resolved to try this monthly training plan thing this and next month. And this month is really mostly about experimenting with habit-forming. We’ll see how it goes.

BandLab: First impressions, my setup

I recently started experimenting with BandLab, a pretty cool combination cloud music editing platform and app. The idea is pretty cool: use your mobile device to start on a project, away (presumably) from your cushy office and laptop. Then, you can work more readily at your laptop, later.

The app includes collaborative tools, and the option to ‘fork’ someone else’s work (if they’ve made it available) in order to make it your own. I like the idea.

So, I downloaded the app, and I made an account.

This is a different kind of account. It’s an accounting of my first impressions.

Recording on my mobile device

Because the phone’s built-in mic seemed to pick up more of the sounds of my fingers on the keyboard than the actual piano, I bought a splitter and a patch cable to record directly from the piano’s headphone jack.

Initially, I planned to use one headphone jack for the phone, and the other for real headphones (because it’s valuable to hear what you are playing — at least at my level of incompetence).

It was an adventure. I plugged everything in, and it seemed to work, but something about the setup was sending phantom headset volume control signals to my phone. The phone volume wasn’t important, but the constant notification was overlapping other things on the screen.

Grr.

Google research was no help. Different apps were suggested, and I installed and then uninstalled them. (Guess whether they were effective or not.)

So, in case anybody is curious, here is what I learned the hard way: using the splitter with a microphone plugged in but no headphones caused the weird signal. I guess I could have gone digging for my old jogging headphones, just to have something plugged in, but I didn’t feel like standing up.

So, I tried using BandLab’s live patch-through setting, to hear what I was playing. That drove me crazy because there was a minuscule between playing a note and hearing it and that drove me crazy.

Now I know, and I think that the next time I sit down to record, things will go more quickly. (Most of the time I had blocked out to try recording went into sorting out the cables.)

My first impression

So, what did I think?

I’ll save you long, wandering reflections on how bad my piano playing sounded when played back to me. Instead, I had two takeaway lessons from my first attempt to record something in more than one track:

  1. Playing with a metronome is going to be important if I want this to work. Sure, you can listen to what you’ve already recorded as you play, but I need to get my rhythm locked down better. I loved that BandLab broke things down into measures (you can see them at the top of the multi-track window), but that’ll only be helpful if I stick with them.
  2. I’m going to need to think more deliberately about the building blocks of a piece. That goes for ABAC type song structuring, but also for ‘what is this track for?’ kind of thinking. What I did was pretty basic: play a piece I know on piano, play it again with the ‘strings’ setting on the epiano, combine them in the app.

Where is all this going?

I don’t know. With all the other things I’m working on, I don’t know why I have this in my head. There is a ton for me still to learn, but I’ve really enjoyed my time at the piano, and this gives me a little something to work towards.

Will I post songs that I’ve written? I don’t know. I have ideas for things to write about, though no real lyrics, yet.

More likely is that I’ll post MP3s of ‘orchestrations’ I’ve made for existing songs, or instrumental music that I’ve put together on several tracks.

Only time will tell.