Now I look back and January seems to be a very long time ago. Somehow already at the end of the first week of January, it felt like the end of it. Time crawls. This just proves that the feeling of how time goes is very subjective. (Interestingly, I wouldn’t say that time “drags” for me because this verb has some negative connotation, like when one doesn’t know how to entertain oneself. That’s definitely not my case, so I chose “crawls”. Is it the same feeling for native speakers, I wonder?)
We had an official New Year break till the 9th in Russia, so there was a good opportunity to go skating together with my husband. He’s training to improve his technique, and skating is one of his workout types. For me, it was to remember the past. I had skated a lot when I was in high school and university, but then I gradually gave up. How amazing it was to discover that the body remembers everything! Pity, it’s not the same with languages. Not exactly the same – one does keep access to the language skills, but the more time passes, the more limited this access becomes. But with movements, it’s much more solid. What a relief!
I even thought it would be nice to take figure skating lessons – I absolutely love the combination of speed, music and movement. But it would also mean that I would have to break my current skating habits and relearn the skills. That is by no means hard, but it should be doable. (No pain, no gain). Anyway, skating was fun!
Second week of January, I decided to start a “marathon” and do something from data analytics every day. The main idea was that of baby steps and incremental change: if I spend even 30 minutes a day on it, a lot will be done in a month, without much stress or frustration.
I lasted five days and then something else came up so I got busy. But even during these five days, I caught the feeling of accomplishment and progress as I started my day with analytics, and it felt good. As if I’m moving on.
I did one course on datacamp called Writing Efficient code with pandas. The information there was half-familiar, so it was easy. But the presenter’s accent, or rather not very English intonation, made it difficult for me to keep focused. That made me think that intonation may be more important than the pronunciation of particular sounds, but let’s not get distracted by language.
Then I checked out Kaggle, but for now the code is too difficult for me to understand. Still, it was interesting to read what cases the community is working on. For example, this one called Contradictory, My Dear Watson is about identifying relationships between different sentences – do they complement or contradict each other? Or are they unrelated? I’ve no idea (yet) how it can be done using machine learning, but the fact that it can be done opens a whole lot of opportunities for automated text analysis.
Then I did a couple of exercises from this website, which I really liked – they are simple and fun. Plus there are solutions, so I can compare mine with the others’. There’s some magic in writing a piece of code that gets input from the user and gives some reply – the exercises were guessing games and I enjoy writing what my code says to the user. I also found an app with lots of small problems to solve in Python, but they are so low level that they don’t make much sense to me.
Then I started reading a Telegram channel with the IT industry news and since then haven’t come back to exercises or courses. But still, it’s a comeback and I’m happy I’m finally doing something in this direction. With the news, I learned about a relatively new algorithm that generates natural language, GPT-3, and I’m still impressed. Especially because I know what it takes to start writing more or less confidently in English, and here it is, producing grammatically correct text with a nice choice of lexis that wouldn’t have come to my mind. Here’s an article it produced for The Guardian. And here’s how an author collaborated with the algorithm to write a story.
I wonder how it might be used for language learning. I already found one all – Polyglot AI, which offers dialogues with a chatbot in English, Spanish and Chinese to help the learner. I’m eager to try it out. The algorithm is also used for an online game AI Dungeons where it plays the role of the game master – excellent for practising creative writing (and reading), and fun. It got stuck after a page and failed to pick up my intentions of developing the plot, though. But I’ll try again =)
I’m still trying to do about 10 hours of reading a week but can’t always fulfil it.
Anyway, in January I finally finished The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. It is an amazing book in its complexity, level of detail and language. At one point I got a little bit tired of the author repeating, again and again, his main idea that most historic events are directed by trade, but soon got over it and ended up with a much better understanding of politics and how it works in the world. I took notes of 20 (out of 25) chapters and I think I will come back to this book later to appreciate it more. In total it took more than a year to finish this book (about 38 hours of reading time), but now I’m proud of myself and it is what I thought it would be – a jewel in my library.
I also started another book, called The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil, which I saw as another jewel but for now, I’m only getting more disenchanted with it. For one, there are too many large figures, larger than billions and trillions – figures about the value of markets, or speed or processing information, or the like, figures that say very little to a non-technical person like me. Because it’s hard to imagine the difference between 10 20 and 10 30.
The book is also very repetitive. At first, I thought I didn’t understand the topic well, but then I found this in other reviews. Finally, I started marking some paragraphs as ‘repetition’ to help myself get through the text. Is it something to do with the structure of writing?
Another thing is about the author’s opinion, and it’s very interesting to compare the two books. Both authors have a very clear argument to make, but Peter Frankopan only supports his by numerous evidence (all very well-referenced, and from sources in different languages). So it reads as an astonishingly well-documented point of view, but it’s also very unobtrusive. Ray Kurzweil, on the other hand, believes that he’s right and I get the impression that he’s trying to impose it on me as a reader as if there is no other scenario for the future but his in which a human and a machine are merged together. As if he lives in a bubble.
That is a very strange feeling given the track record of the author. I haven’t finished the book yet and I will think again of my perception of it, but for now, I’m a bit disappointed. I thought it would be a much better read, both in terms of the language and ideas.
So, to get distracted from The Singularity… I started The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. It’s highly recommended on the net for those interested in linguistics, with excellent reviews, but for now, I’ve got a very similar feeling of disappointment and puzzlement. Is it something about American authors and American culture of being overly confident and ambitious?
To be fair, I do find interesting facts about language and I like the many quotes the author gives to exemplify a point. But the explanation of the syntax and morphology… they are so strange and confusing. The intention was, as I understand, to explain complex theories in simple words and examples, but I got lost in them. And I can’t understand why the book is called witty. There are attempts at humour but I can’t find myself laughing.
So I wonder, where’s the problem? I’m not an author, not a super knowledgeable person with hundreds of books read, and certainly not a professor. Why, then, do these bestsellers look so unimpressive to me? I’ll keep reading to find out.
For years, I’d been thinking about learning to play the cello. I am fascinated by its deep mellow sound, and I enjoy Baroque music. But the instrument is expensive to buy, the learning takes tons of time and it’s not of my immediate goals or needs, so I only played with the idea.
Then, last week of January, I found out that a cello can be rented for relatively small money. Why did this never ever come to my mind? It’s such a simple idea, and such an obvious one – rent the instrument for a while, try it and see how it goes. What can be simpler?
The same day I found YouTube video lessons for beginners, and now I feel most inspired. I could basically get a cello next week and start practising, isn’t it magical?
In the meantime, I practised the piano a little bit – first time since the summer. Why is it always so difficult just to sit and start playing? That’s a mystery to me.
The term itself is contradictory, but I’ll use it in the meaning of “no mobile games, no Instagram and no Facebook, at all”. In the second week of January, I got stuck with the above mentioned and wasted lots of time there. So I decided to introduce a ban.
It took me three days to stop feeling my head buzzing! Then, time and time again I found myself craving to open Instagram for “a little bit of fun”. But no. I resisted (it wasn’t too difficult, to be honest).
Now I’m enjoying better focus and slowly reorienting myself to doing useful things (like this blog, or the piano) instead of getting a portion of little excitement over REEL videos. It does take more effort, but it pays off.
It feels as it was in my childhood: life goes by slowly, there’s a lot of time on my hands, peace and quiet are all around me. Life is wonderful without social networks. Now I feel more in the bubble than ever, and it feels good.
Let’s see what February will bring!