Category Archives: random thoughts

Fluently Fluenz

Although there is still much more about our brains that we don’t know than we do, what those who study our noggins have discovered is that learning a language is an activity that pays relatively high dividends.

Learning a foreign language creates more connections

For most of us, because of the complexity, learning a new language is not easy.  It takes time, thought, effort, recall, and lots of practice.  It’s kind of like aerobics, resistance training, and yoga all combined into a well-rounded mental workout.  And like physical exercise, the results are proportional to the effort we invest.  When we learn a language, brain scans are showing the firing of neural synapses actually help expand the plasma membrane where we need it most — memory and recall.

Good advice, but may not be too helpful for actually learning the language

As an added bonus, brain heads are also detecting a host of extra side benefits from learning a language, such as an increase in creativity, flexibility, openness, focus, and an improvement in general cognitive skills.

This seems to be about my speed

Having been in rural China (on and off) for a few years means that getting to know the basics of Mandarin not only makes life a bit easier but also a tad more enriching.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, most business communication is conducted in English, giving me an excuse and an out.  Still, I’ve poked around at several different learning methods, from podcasts, to classes, to a book and CD — each one improving my rationalization skills for avoiding the mental workouts.  I even tried using a stone of the rosetta variety, but nothing was sparking the neuron stimulation I was looking for. Then I found Fluenz.

While I’m still well entrenched in the beginner stage, it’s kind of thrilling to be able to direct a taxi and order food without pointing to everything like a dumbo.  After a few years, that’s not saying much.  Anyone with normal intelligence would be a lot further along.  But the fact that I’ve found something that is not a chore is thanks to the structure and format of this online and downloadable course.

This must mimic my own circuitry — minimal

The co-founder, Sonia Gil, has developed a method that actually makes learning the language engaging.  The premise of Fluenz is that each language requires a slightly different approach, at least for English speakers. I can’t speak for their other courses, but the Mandarin version consists of three levels, each one with more than a couple dozen sessions.  Each session is broken down into many, aptly named, workouts.  The exercises include a short dialogue with and without translation, explanations, matching words with photos and sentence structures, practice writing what you hear with the correct inflection (pinyin), and more. The sessions are pleasantly mixed and diverse enough that the learning process is stimulating.  Additionally, the iPad and iPhone versions are appealingly interactive.  The course also includes digital flashcards in a variety of formats, mobile podcast practice, and a short dictionary.

My rationalization skills for avoiding study time are still well-honed.  Many days spent justifying why not studying Mandarin is in my best interest has made me an expert at fooling myself.  The one phrase I’ve got memorized for the Chinese people who try to speak to me is “tīng bù dõng” which in essence means, I’m clueless about your language, so it’s fruitless to talk with me. But because I’m an oddball in their world, the locals are curious.  They want to converse. By not trying, tiny grains of richness evaporate, so it doesn’t seem right that I deny them, or myself, those scattered yet potentially wholesome morsels.

With luck, if the gray matter is not too thin and I can somehow overpower the phony excuses, I’ll eek out of baby phase at some point and into toddlerhood. If so, I’m hoping to eventually savor some of those residual benefits.  I won’t hold my breath, but if there’s a chance, it will be thanks to the Fluenz course.

And if I can power through, I just may pick up another Fluenz language and chalk it up to encephalonic health care.  Not being in the country where the language is spoken doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the effort.  Daily mental calisthenics with so many perks could be a worthy commitment.

Catching restorative Z’s

During my 40’s & 50’s, I was an avid alarm clock user.  It was set for 5 am, weekends included.  I was either in the gym or outdoors doing something active every day at 5:30 am, no matter what.  The daily morning engagement was a commitment.  It didn’t matter if the evening prior was filled with late fun, the outdoor date with myself at 5:30 in the morning held.

To get up at five, meant I should have been in bed and asleep by nine the evening prior.  That never happened.  It was more like 11 pm, or sometimes 12.

We should not need one of these

In my 30’s I didn’t get up that early.  But the idea may have been festering for years. During the time I lived in San Francisco, I met a young, upwardly mobile, apparently successful and vibrant couple, each running their own business.  We became friends and occasionally jaunted up to Napa and Sonoma on our motorcycles for lunch.  Curiosity led me to ask about their workout routine.  They explained that they got up at 5 am to workout in their home gym so they could fit in their physical activity before their day jobs.  Their answer to “what time do you go to bed and sleep at night” left me with my jaw hanging open.  Nine pm they said. They were my age, early 30’s.  How could anyone go to sleep at 9 pm every day I thought.  But they did. They were not going to trade-off sleep.

It wasn’t until my later 50’s, that I was slapped upside the head (actually the neck).  Yea, ok, I’m a (real) slow learner.  Little did I realize that length, and of course quality, of sleep, is just as important as eating and exercising well.

Sleep researchers say that adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep a day.  Throw out the 3rd standard deviation, and that leaves more than 80% of us requiring between 7.5-–8.5 hours daily — depending on our individual rem sleep cycles.  If we trim or curtail our required sleep-time, we are not doing ourselves, or our bodies, any favors.  In other words, cutting sleep short creates metabolic distortions.  And, if we are getting the right amount of sleep we shouldn’t need an alarm clock to get out of bed.

A common habit — eating into healthy sleep time.

Most of us have (self-created) demanding, competitive, activity-filled lives, hell-bent on productivity and getting ahead, that a major challenge is squeezing life into our waking hours.  Unfortunately, sleep usually takes a hit.

It’s not surprising.  Many business success self-help books extol the virtues of waking up earlier, burning the midnight oil, and other push-the-envelope advice, ignorantly neglecting the health repercussions of extended sleep deprivation.

We’ve all had to work on less sleep from time-to-time, but when it becomes a lifestyle, then long term health is compromised.  The right amount and quality of daily sleep set us up for optimal physiological and biological performance.  It’s just as important as exercise and diet, if not more so.

The challenge for most of us is not waking up early, but getting to bed, lights out/devices off, so that we can wake up, alarm free, after a full night’s sleep.

I still have the morning date with myself but without the alarm clock.  It’s still a tug-of-war getting to bed on time.  But seeing that compromising sleep-time is a health disservice, it’s worth protecting like gold. 

Cigarette smoking is not harmful

And if you believe that you might also be convinced that cellphone microwave emissions are not harmful.  But then again, it’s possible they both are.

One could argue, and make a strong case, that smoking one, two, or three cigarettes would not cause physical harm.  Likewise, the same could be said that one, two, or three five-minute phone calls with a cellphone against your head is harmless.  But the answer is, in both cases, different if we are talking about the cumulative effects over decades.

Smoking was sexy

It only took us (in the USA), about 100 years to go from romanticizing cigarettes after WW1, to permitting smoking in airplanes and hospitals, to then thinking they may be harmful, to realizing that they indeed are,  then making it compulsory for a warning label on the side of their package, to banning the marketing of them, to the airlines slowly going smoke-free, to moving the warning to the front of the cigarette package, and only recently prohibiting them from restaurants, bars, and public spaces.  Are we in the romance stage for cellphone usage?  It’s much too early to say, but initial studies are showing there are indeed undesirable effects.

No other generation in history has carried powerful handheld devices that emit radio frequency close at hand as we do today.

Taken from Dr. Devra Davis presentation

It was barely 25 years ago when I acquired my first clunky mobile cellphone.  It was a business expense since I was in the field working in Brazil, so not everyone had them.  It also wasn’t so smart and didn’t stay with me like an appendage.  There was no such thing as WiFi at that time.  Now of course, just about everyone on the planet has smart handheld devices and/or tablets with them at all times.  The market is so device saturated that we’ve begun advertising phones to children and tablets to babies.

Consider that the electromagnetic waves that power cellphone connections are the same kind and frequency used in microwave ovens.  They both generate heat.  The only difference is the power used to produce them.  The few studies done so far for cellphone electromagnetic safety have been industry funded studies.  (sound familiar?)

Taken from Dr. Devra Davis presentation

Consider also that companies like Apple bury the warning inside legal mumbo jumbo, advising against the use of these devices against the body.  The headset that is provided is not because they want to give us something extra, but because the radio frequency absorption rate tests indicate a potential health risk. They are implying that there could be consequences for not keeping space between your body and the device.  The statement leaves them legally off the hook.

In the about/legal section of every Apple mobile device

The fact is, we don’t know exactly how unhealthy sustained exposure to these microwaves is.  We do know that children and babies have softer bones and tissue.  Several countries, such as France, have recently banned marketing cellphones to children.

Cellphones emit the strongest pulse radiation signals when 1) a call is answered, 2) we travel (walk or drive) and connectivity switches from tower to tower or 3) there is other cellular activity.  The non-industry testing that has been done so far suggest that constant use over decades, beginning at an early age, points to negative consequences.

We won’t have real data until perhaps 40 years into continuous use.  We’re not there yet.  Then again, the difficulty will be the lack of control groups as nearly everyone uses these devices.  Therefore, it may be prudent to be safer rather than sorry(ier).

Following are a few tips:

  • Keep the phone on airplane mode whenever possible and use Wifi (wifi dosage is less than cellphone RF)
  • Use a headset or speaker to talk on the phone, not the phone against the head
  • Don’t keep the phone on your body when not in airplane mode (i.e., pants pockets or bra)
  • If you keep the turned-on device on your person, line your pockets or bag with an RF blocking material
  • Don’t sleep next to your turned-on device
  • Don’t let children carry phones if it can be prevented (unless you don’t mind them being part of a large experiment)

Of course, there’s always the option of keeping the phone turned off most of the time and living life outside the device.  But we may have reached the point of no return.

Projecting future experiences

It’s what we do.  We plan.  Whether a goal, vacation, or appointment, we plan experiences.  Very few of us waddle through life bumping into “whatever.”  We think about what we’d like to have for dinner and where we’d like to be next year.  Our natural state has evolved into a highly anticipatory one.

Planning successful trips takes thoughtful projecting


It’s with a future experience in mind, now that the weather had turned clement, at least in the temperate climatic zone of Northern Hemisphere, that I’m projecting winters to be significantly less cold.  Which means relocating.  Where that will be is still looming as sort of an unknown.  I’m open to reasonable suggestions.

Niggas and Bitches

And the music we listen to.

iTunes, like other music applications, makes it easy to listen to a variety of music by creating a myriad of playlists.  They are easy and convenient, allowing the listener to discover new music or enjoy a specific genre.  One such playlist is Beats 1 Best of 2016.   They say that “2016 was one of the best years for new music.”  Peppered throughout the lyrics in 15 of the top 30 songs on this “best of 2016” playlist is a profusion of “niggas” and “bitches.”  Many more of those tracks shout out words that would be bleeped from TV.

The Best of 2016 represents what we demanded to hear the most.  Fifty percent of the time, at least for the top 30 most played songs, we had an affinity for niggas and bitches.

Owned by Apple and available on iTunes, Beats is a radio station and a collection of curated playlists, available worldwide, incorporating most genres including not only HipHop/Rap, the most popular, but also R&B/Soul, Pop, Dance, Alternative, Electronic, Heavy Metal, Latin, and so on. 

Sure, Beats doesn’t represent the entire music-listening public, but it’s not a thin slice either.  No Country music songs made it to the Beats “Best of” list, which says something as there is a healthy swatch of fans who are fulfilled with twangy music.  This fetish for niggas and bitches appears rooted in the genres of HipHop/Rap, R&B, and Pop, so a large segment of the population enjoys melodic messages with plenty of strong overtones as part of our musical vernacular.

When I lived in Colombia 10 years ago, what amazed me was how every young adult knew, and sang, every lyric to every song that played on any radio pop station or anywhere music was played, even if the song was in english and they didn’t speak english.  I rarely know the lyrics to an entire song in my own language so it was striking to observe everyone, seemingly without fail, sing complete lyrics to every song.  For sure they are now singing about niggas and bitches.

There is no judgment here.  No right or wrong.  It just is.  I deleted the Beats playlist from my library, not because I mind lyrics about niggas and bitches, but because it was overly redundant.   But if you like hearing about niggas and bitches, then listening to Beats playlists and radio is where you want to be tuned.


I’m talking to you foreigner.

What is it about the spontaneous urge to blurt out a greeting to a stranger in their language?  It happens to me without fail at least once a day as I’m passing someone, either on foot or bicycle.  

Yesterday I was the recipient of the impromptu “hello” three times. First while walking to the park, one in a group of school age boys across the street yelled “hello.”  Then inside the park, an old man, a park worker, gave me a “hello” as I passed by.  Then again on a backroad, as I was biking to the factory where I work, a young man belted out “hello.”  Yes, the urge seems to strike all ages, except that it’s exclusively the male gender who displays the extroverted verbal gesture.   Depending on the distance, I either wave, smile, nod, or return them with a hi or howdy, or sometimes a combo.

The yen here to shout out hello is usually done by someone who’s english vocabulary does not extend beyond that word.  Perhaps the compulsive expression just feels good —  connecting with a foreigner in their tongue.  The locals here do not use that greeting among themselves.

I can’t help but wonder if I lived in a small town and an oddball Chinese person walked by if I’d impulsively yell out ni hao even if I knew no more of their language.  Or if I passed a Mexican would I blurt out hola,  or marhabaan to an Arabic looking dude.  Anyway, the Chinese have got to presume I’m english speaking.  I could be French. They are not saluting me with a “salut.”  Then again, we all look alike and english is the universal language.

Truthfully, I’m glad for the daily salutation from an always unknown and varied source.  It’s certainly better than many alternatives, like a version of catcalling.  I take the extemporaneous acknowledgment as a form of welcoming a foreigner into alien turf.  I’m chalking it as a net positive for humanity.

Conclusion:  If you’ve read this far, consider giving the next foreigner you see in your town a big hello in their language.  Hello!  There’s really no downside.

Security Blanket Syndrome

When the Peanut cartoons were around, one of the more familiar images was Charlie with his security blanket.  He frequently dragged it around with him.  In my early teens, I remember younger siblings, from time-to-time, toting their security blankets around the house. images My mother actually called them security blankets.  She said that holding the familiar blanket had a calming effect making a child, like the name implies, feel secure.  Psychologists call it “security blanket syndrome.”  Thankfully, children eventually grow out of it.

Now, humankind may have entered an evolutionary stage where entire generations are coping with a new type of security blanket syndrome.  Except the blanket has been replaced by the smartphone.  Never before in the history of humanity has a behavior affected so many so quickly.

hopefully the SB doesn't revert to this

hopefully the SB doesn’t revert to this

The phenomenon is evident just about everywhere in the world.  From city streets, transit systems, restaurants, cafes, workplaces, homes, just about anywhere and everywhere, smart devices are by our sides, or in our face.  Most people, it appears, would be lost without it.  And the vast majority would never leave home without it.

During the first half of my life, cellular phones and smart handheld devices didn’t exist.  They weren’t invented yet.  Today, toddlers are issued iPads and no young teenager, young adult, or fully-developed human is ever without a smartphone.  images-3

There’s no doubt that these devices are loaded with benefits — incredibly advanced tools that have improved our ability to learn, as well making us more proficient and effective.  They are even quickly replacing our wallets.  At the same time, our new found security blanket has gradually taken control.  Our smart devices have become our subliminal master.

The biggest indicator that this instrument has taken over as our security blanket is during periods of aloneness, even, or especially, when others are present.  It’s so obvious when people arrive at a restaurant, a metro car, or a waiting room when the first action is taking out and turning face toward the handheld device.  It’s like most of us are uncomfortable just being in our own heads.  We’ve got to be connected and occupied at all cost, like a fix — as long as it’s not with the strangers around us.unknown-2

If it were all about efficiency, productivity, or learning it would be one thing.  But whenever other device screens are in my line of sight, which is often, I see abundant scrolling of social media sites like FB, (executing the rapid thumb flick and hold, stopping at each image for a split second before flicking to the next screen), playing games, scroll chatting, or watching soap series.  It’s ubiquitous, and it’s an obsession.

If we don’t think our handhelds are the not humanity’s new security device, we could ask ourselves if we could leave home without it.  That accidentally happened to me the other day.  I was 1/2 kilometer away on my pedal bike heading to work when I realized I left my iPhone at home.  I stopped immediately.  It was windy and cold.  The thought of backtracking was not appealing, but neither was spending unknownthe day without my device.  My head was instantly spinning with the scenarios, “How will I,.., What if,…Can I….?”  I finally shook myself out of the sudden analytical stupor and decided to forget the device.  It wasn’t crucial to the day.  I continued on my way to work with a suddenly empty feeling.  How, I thought, could not having a handheld device make me feel insecure like I was missing something?  Strangely though, that hollow feeling turned into one of freedom.  I returned home later that evening without a scratch, no worse off for not having had the security of the device with me all day.

don't leave home without it

don’t leave home without it

Could that be an occasional exercise, I thought, leaving home from time-to-time without my smartphone?  If the feeling would elicit emptiness, insecurity, or loneliness, turning to one of freedom, it might be an exercise worth employing.  At the very least, I can make an attempt to viciously resist the temptation to pull out the device, without specific purpose, so that I don’t become a screen slave to its powerful psychological pull.

On one hand, it could be said that our new gadget-turned-sidekick is expanding our human experience.  But on the other, if or when we become subservient, we could be capping it.

I’m not even close to giving up my device.  To the contrary, I love having my little companion close by.  At the same time, I’m recognizing that there may be internal training required to show the device which or who is boss.  If there is a security blanket syndrome present, I’d better make sure it is coming from the device and not from me. 🙂

Test Question, (to determine the level of security blanket syndrome):  Is your smartphone the first thing you reach for upon waking up in the morning?