My Review of The Storm Before The Storm

The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I first encountered Mike Duncan from his impressive History of Rome podcast, which I listened to all the way through, and I since been listening to his Revolutions podcast, which is equally good. So when he announced that he was writing a book I knew I would buy it. This is a book about how the Roman Republic became a imperial dictatorship, and it has great relevance in the days of Trump. When the founders of the American experiment in democracy were constructing their system (embodied in the Constitution) they were very aware of the historical precedents of the end of democracy in Greece and Rome, and attempted to build in safeguards against the failure modes shown in those precedents. Trumps attempts to become President for Life are echoes of Sulla (though Sulla did lay down power after accomplishing his aims), but it looks like Trump will not succeed. But the example of Rome also points out the dangers of extreme inequality that happens when the oligarchy pursues its self-interest at the expense of the wider population, and the Social Wars tell a tale of how restricting citizenship disrupts society. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history, or an interest in how countries change their social and political arrangements.



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International Keyboard

The next learning experience for me involved learning about typing in Spanish on my American English computer. And the answer is actually quite simple, and involves software. There is a setting you can make to switch your keyboard to International Keyboard, and there are both British and American versions available. I first printed out the keyboard layout from the Wikipedia site linked above. I suspect that after a bit of practice I will get used to the added functionality, but I am keeping this printout around in case I need to do more. I have already discovered that this is so easy it won’t take long at all. And I want to give a shout-out to @pilum@octodon.social, one of my Mastodon contacts who steered me to this.

KDE for Spanish

To make the software change, I went into my System Settings in my Kubuntu 18.04 machine, then to Input Devices–>Keyboard–>Layouts, then click on Configure Layouts. That will make the next steps open for you. In the first drop-down, make sure it says “Any Language”, and in the second one the layout for your existing keyboard. In my case that is English (US). These settings may already be the default, but this is what I did. Then you pick your variant, and I picked English (US, international AltGr Unicode combining). Then you can add a label, and I picked Int as the obvious one. Click OK, and you should see something like this (in KDE).

Settings for Alternative keyboard layout

The last step is to click Apply in the lower right. Then go to the Advanced tab, click Configure Keyboard Options, and scroll down to Switching to another layout, and pick a keyboard shortcut. I picked LeftCtrl+LeftShift. Again, click Apply on the lower right. If you have done this correctly, you should see a new indicator appear. Mine is in the bottom tray, and looks like this:

Keyboard layout indicator

You can press the shortcut key and watch it switch back and forth.

The key difference in this International layout is the Alt key on the right is now dedicated to producing International characters. For example, many European languages have the letter “n”, which we inherited from the Romans. But Spanish has an additional letter other languages don’t have, called the “enya”, which is ñ. With my keyboard in the International setting, all I do is hold down the right Alt key and press “n”, and I get an ñ. Couldn’t be easier. Some other Spanish characters are equally easy.

¿ = Right Alt+?

¡ = Right Alt+!

á = Right Alt+a

é = Right Alt+e

í = Right Alt+i

ó = Right Alt+o

ú = Right Alt+u

Other Languages

There is more than just Spanish, of course. There are versions of a, o, and u with umlauts for those with a need for German, and a few Scandinavian characters. Also, you get a few currency symbols like the Euro, Pound, and Yen. So this is a generally useful setting if you have any need for these things. Now that I know how to do it, I will always have this option available on any computer I have.

Windows 10

I mostly use Kubuntu as my daily operating system, but I do keep one Windows box around for things like Gaming, so I thought it was worth taking a look at how to add a new keyboard layout there. To begin, click on the Start button on the lower left, then Settings. Click on Time and Language. Then click Language, select English (United States), and click Options. Go to the Keyboards section on the bottom, click on Add a Keyboard, and go to United States – International. When this is added, you will see new indicator on the bottom Task Bar. It will say ENG US, but if you click on it a pop-up window will open that lets you switch. If you switch to the International keyboard, the indicator will change to ENG INTL. From here, everything works just the same as it did with KDE, The Right Alt key will let you add all of the special characters.

Chromebook

I have an old Linux laptop, but it is not only old, it is large and heavy, so about a year ago I purchased a Chromebook to replace both the laptop and my Android tablet that died. It has worked out well for me, and I decided to implement the International keyboard here as well, and it is quite easy. Open the laptop, and go to the bottom right and click on the Time. This will pop-up a window that has a Settings button. Click that, then scroll down to Advanced. Go to Languages and Input. The very top setting is also called Languages and Input, and in the bottom of that area is Manage Input Methods. Open that, and put a check mark in the box for US International Keyboard. As soon as you do, you will see a new indicator on the bottom tray (called the Shelf in Chromebook) that says US. Then click the Back button to go to the Input Methods area, and you will now see two keyboards. Click the one you want enabled. If you select the US International Keyboard, the indicator on the bottom tray will now read INTL instead of US. Then click the button for “Show input options on the shelf”. That will turn the indicator on the shelf into a clickable button marked IN (for Input) that lets you select your keyboard.

So, I now have the International keyboard installed on all of my computers, and that is a good thing. It should help me with my learning of Spanish.

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Spanish Tools, Continued

In the previous post I looked at smartphone apps and Web sites that have helped me learning Spanish. Now I want to mention some YouTube channels and Podcasts that I have used.

YouTube Channels

All Language Resources

Channel Address: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3iaeeUxWOgUXFK6kfIp_Ig

This might be a good place to start since it is pretty much a review site for the various tools that are available. Like all review sites, it is people’s personal opinions, so it takes a little time to figure out how reliable they are. I’d try a few of the free resources they recommend and see if you also like them before I would spend money on a paid site just because it came recommended. They also have a blog for their Spanish reviews at https://www.alllanguageresources.com/spanish/. Of course, they cover many languages, not just Spanish.

¿Qué Hora Es? Spanish For Beginners (Season 1)

Channel Address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyLl_0d0EBw&list=PLTpetkN815Qyuc2RbC1kxxMQvxjQ3RnYG

This is a television program produced by AIB network, which appears to be based in Georgia in the United States. It is presented as a classroom-style series of lessons, with the instructor, Dr. Danny Evans, writing on a white board as he presents to material. I find this to be a very valuable addition to the other tools I use because it provides the more systematic background to the grammar of Spanish that is not so easily grasped from the smartphone apps. Lessons run 15-20 minutes each, and I try to do one every day. Of course, as a YouTube channel I can repeat a lesson, and I have on occasion taken the same lesson two days in a row just to help cement my understanding. At the end of each lesson is a brief bit of culture information as well.

Culture Alley Spanish

Channel Address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWEXFfqwh7w&list=PL80Flen6gkH_9j4OxsDucs9mbKjl5ccvU

Culture Alley is a YouTube channel offering free language instruction in several languages, Spanish being one of them. The language courses are offered in a PowerPoint style as a series of slides with a voice-over. They are well done, and like the ¿Qué Hora Es? channel above offer a systematic look at grammar which supplements the more flashcard-oriented approaches of many of the smartphone apps. Lessons are 15-20 minutes long, and there is a little bit of culture at the end.

Daily Practice

The key to learning anything is daily practice, so my approach is to set aside some time every day to work on my Spanish. My daily schedule for this starts with the smartphone apps I mentioned in the previous posts, which will take me about 15-20 minutes. I get a daily nag on my phone for those, so I start there. Then I go to the YouTube channels above, which will take me 30-40 minutes to hit both ¿Qué Hora Es? and Culture Alley. On some days that is all I do, and it ends up being about an hour. But if I am not pressed for time I will hit a few of the Web sites I mentioned in my previous posts. I find I look forward to my daily session and that after about 3-4 weeks of work it is starting to sink in. If I keep it up for a few years I should be able to survive a trip to Mexico.

Podcasts

I listen to a lot of podcasts in general, so it was natural for me to add Spanish language podcasts. But they are not part of my daily cycle. The way I listen to podcasts is driving in a car, or working around the house. If you are going to be washing dishes or mowing the lawn, why not listen to podcasts while you do these things so the time is more productive? I also like to walk for exercise, and listening to podcasts while doing that just makes sense. So while these are not in my daily routine exactly, they are a nice supplement. Now a note on getting these podcasts : Many of them do not have an RSS feed. I got a lot of them through iTunes, which I do have installed on my one Windows machine.

Coffee Break Spanish

Web site: https://radiolingua.com/category/coffee-break-spanish/

Reviews

This is one you will hear mentioned by a lot of reviewers, and it is a good one. Short episodes of 15-20 mins. are conversational, and you get to hear words and phrases and repeat them. I think the name of the podcast is that the episodes are short enough that you do one on your coffee break, if that is a custom where you live. The host, Mark, is a Scottish man who is also the founder and CEO of the Coffee Break series. Seasons are set in levels that go from beginner (Season 1) to more advanced (Season 4). Advanced is all relative, of course, so it probably is more accurate to say it gets to maybe high Intermediate. This is also available through the Google Play store. They also have a YouTube channel.

DuoLingo Podcast

Web site: https://podcast.duolingo.com/spanish

Reviews

This podcast is a bit different from the others. It presents stories narrated by native speakers in different countries. So it is in Spanish, but they do speak more slowly than normal speech. And there is an English narrator who intercuts some material that helps explain what is going on. The idea is that you may pick up some words and phrases in the Spanish narration, then the English part helps you stay on track and confirm what you heard. They are putting out one episode a week of around 25 minutes. The first one, for example is narrated by a reporter in Mexico about his favorite fútbol star, and how he met and became friends with him.

From a Zero to a Hero

Web site: https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/babbels-spanish-podcasts

Reviews

This is an introductory level Spanish podcast from Babbel with a student, Catriona, who is Scottish, and her teacher Hector, who is Spanish. This is very beginner-oriented, so I would recommend this for anyone starting out who does not know any Spanish (which describes me!) Babbel also has an higher level podcast for when I get to that level. Also, while I have purchased a subscription to Babbel, this podcast is free. I think it serves as marketing for their product.

Spanishpod101

Web Site: https://www.spanishpod101.com/helpcenter/getstarted/itunesfeeds

Reviews

When you read the reviews you will see a certain common view, which is that the content is good but the marketing is annoying. And I think that is a fair assessment. I think I get more out of accessing this content directly on the Web site than as a podcast because I can download transcripts and read along as I listen to the audio

Notes in Spanish

Web Site: https://www.notesinspanish.com/

Reviews

This is actually three separate collections, for Beginners, Intermediate, and Advanced. It is presented by a husband and wife team where the husband (Ben) is British, and the wife Marina is from Madrid. The focus is on peninsular Spanish and culture, and it works well as a podcast.

News in Slow Spanish

Web Site: https://www.newsinslowspanish.com/

Reviews

I mention this only because I see it praised in so many places. It is really aimed at the Intermediate or above student, so I am not quite ready for that as yet. I did note that they have two different series for Intermediate, one that focuses on Spain, the other on Latin America. I’m definitely going to be getting this when I am ready for it.

Summary

The first thing I want to repeat is that I am not claiming that these are the best tools available, or that you are guaranteed to learn with them. As a former teacher I know that the student matters more than the instruction. I aim to put in 1 hour every day using these tools, and I know that if I keep showing up I will make progress.

Second, many of these places have a podcast, plus a Web site, plus a YouTube channel, and so on. If you want to learn a language find the tools that work for you. I watch a lot of YouTube, listen to a bunch of podcasts, always have my smartphone handy, and have a web browser open in front of me pretty much 24×7, so I have picked tools that work for me. A lot of these tools are available for free, but I find the ones that I pay for tend to push me a bit harder. You decide what works for you.

Finally, there are lots of languages, and at least for all of the major ones there are similar sites, often from the same companies I mentioned here. I have seen other European languages, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and so on. I had my reasons for picking Spanish, but I think it is a good idea to learn another language in general.

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¡I’m Learning Spanish!

As long as I have to stay in all of the time In the Year of the Plague, why not do something productive, like learn a language? I decided to do just that, and since there is a whole lot of Latin America that I have not seen (I have spent one day in Mexico), I thought I should learn Spanish so that I could talk to people when I can resume tourism. I am trying to spend one hour each day on this, and I have found some tools that I like and find helpful. Some are free, some are paid for, and some have a free level and a paid level. For those latter, I can use them at the free level until I know whether I would spend the money. The tools come in four forms:

  • Smartphone apps
  • Web sites
  • YouTube Channels
  • Podcasts

Now, in many cases they overlap, like a web site or smartphone app that also has a podcast, but here is what I have been using. Please note that I am not saying these are the best, just that they are ones I found and use. So your mileage may vary here.

A note on dialects and pronunciation: Spanish is spoken in a large part of the world, but spoken somewhat differently in different countries. Latin American Spanish is different from what is spoken in Spain, and different countries in Latin America may speak slightly differently. I am mostly looking to learn Spanish as it is spoken in Mexico. This is just something you need to be aware of when studying, since some learning tools may use the Spanish of Spain, and others the Spanish of Latin America.

Smartphone apps

I have an Android phone so these are apps from the Android App store, but I would be very surprised if at least most of them are not also on the iPhone app store.

Babbel

Web site: https://www.babbel.com/

Reviews

Babbel is a program I paid for, and they offer subscriptions from monthly up to annual, with annual being the most affordable at $83.40, though you can get discounts if you look around for places where they advertise. I actually paid 22.15 for a 6 month subscription using a link from SciShow, where Babbel advertises. I plan to renew for a full year in January since I like what I am getting.

To see what you get included, go to https://support.babbel.com/hc/en-us/articles/360037580132 for a breakdown.

Now to my personal take: For me Babbel works well. I get nagged every day, which you might not like, but for me it gets me on to the next lesson very regularly. Each lesson does not take all that long, but it combines vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, and sentences. For the spelling part, they have a keyboard that you can hold down letters to get special characters like the tilde-n (enya) and the accents in vowels. This is usually the first thing I do in my hour of Spanish every day.

Duolingo

Web site: https://www.duolingo.com/

This app can be used for free if you receive ads, but in my case I used a free trial period for a few weeks, then signed up for one year to Duolingo Plus for 83.99. This was Apple’s 2013 App of the Year.

Reviews:

This as a very gamified app gives you a lot of cheer-leading encouragement. That may or may not be to your taste, but I don’t object to it. As with Babbel, I get daily nags that it is time for a lesson, and as with Babbel, I like that. As Woody Allen said, 90% of success is just showing up, and if I do that every day I will learn the language.

Memrise

Web site: https://www.memrise.com/apps/

This app uses the “Freemium” model just like Duolingo. There is good content for free, but you can get a premium subscription. Right now I am using the paid version, for which I got introductory offer of $44.99 for one year, with renewals at $89.99 per year, which I can cancel at any time.

Reviews

This is more of a flashcard app to help you memorize words and phrases. The interesting wrinkle here is that it is mostly crowd-sourced. This is the third of my daily apps, and like the others it gives me daily nags to take another lesson.

Spanishpod.101

This app is paired with a Web site, and I actually find the Web site more useful. Another Freemium model here, I did try the basic subscription (lowest paid level) at $72 for two years, which on an annual basis is less than the others.

Web site: https://www.spanishpod101.com/

Reviews

This app focuses on the spoken language, and while it has some uses, as I said I tend to use the Web site more. The main downside is that they relentlessly try to upsell you. Right now I am more inclined to not renew in two years, but maybe I’ll change my mind. Having an app on my phone means I can get in a quick lesson anywhere at any time.

Spanish Words Learn Español

This is a free app on Google Play, which focuses on audio flashcards. There aren’t the bells and whistles of Babbel or Duolingo, but then you don’t have to pay for it, and that counts for something. It first shows you a list of words, then drills you to see if you remember what you learned, sometimes by spelling out the Spanish equivalent to an English word, or by selecting the English equivalent from a group of 4 when given the Spanish word.

SpeakTribe Spanish

Web site: https://www.speaktribe.com/

This is another free app I downloaded from Google Play Store, and it is one of the ones I tend to check out every day.

Reviews

This is another gamified system where you accumulate points needed to move to the next level. There are 5 levels, and each one has lessons that combine written and spoken Spanish

Learn Spanish Offline

This is an ad-supported app, so expect a pre-roll ad every time you open it. It is, however, free, so that’s the trade-off here.

Reviews

You get lists of words, phrases, and sentences in various categories (e.g. Greetings, General Conversation, Numbers, Time and Date). On each list just click on a word or phrase in English, and hear the translated Spanish equivalent. Useful as a supplement to other tools, but not sufficient by itself since it won’t cover any of the grammar, for instance.

Web Sites

Right now there are two Web sites I tend to check in to every day.

Spanishpod101

Web site: https://www.spanishpod101.com/

Reviews

See above for reviews

As I mentioned above, I also have the Android app, but I prefer what I find on the Web site. It is well designed, with short lessons that start by giving you some vocabulary which you can click on to hear in Spanish, then there is a downloadable “Lesson Notes” that that discuss some aspects of grammar and some cultural insights. Then there is dialogue which you can download in MP3 format and a downloadable transcript. I tend to download both and play the dialogue while reading along with the transcript. You can also sign up to get a daily e-mail for the Word of the Day, which will take you to a page where you can hear the word spoken both by itself and as part of a few sentences. The main downside is what I mentioned before, the relentless upsell you get. I receive an e-mail at least every other day urging me to upgrade my subscription. Right now I am inclined to not renew when my subscription runs out, but I have 2 years to think about it.

Spanish Obsessed

Web site: https://spanishobsessed.com

This is also a great podcast, but a number of these tools cross over different media.

Reviews

So you could just download the MP3 files and listen to them on your MP3 player like any other podcast, and in fact I do that as well. But the reason I like to go to the Web site is that I can read along with them as the audio plays. Like many other learning Spanish podcasts, this combines a native English speaker with a native Spanish speaker. You can also download both the MP3 file and the transcript from the Web site.

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My Review of After Shock

After Shock: The World’s Foremost Futurists Reflect on 50 Years of Future Shock—and Look Ahead to the Next 50 by John Schroeter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a good book, but somewhat mixed by its nature. As the subhead says, it is a collection of essays by futurists, and they are both looking back on the Tofflers’ Future Shock, and looking ahead to the future. As such, the quality of each essay can vary. Some of them will be excellent, others might leave you wondering how this person got a reputation for insight, but on average they will make you think. There was only one essay that I started and abandoned two pages in. The other point that should be clear is that this is an optimistic book. The editor who put this together is the Executive Director of the Abundant World Institute. I am an optimist despite Covid-19, Trump, and all of the other evils of our time. The future is so bright I gotta wear shades.

That said, this is a thick volume, and not one that you would just sit down and read through like a novel. I would advise that you should dip into it for an essay or two at a time. Since I read on my Kindle, I tend to have several books I am reading at any time, which makes this easy.



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My Review of Change by Design

Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


This was not the best book I have ever read. The main premise is that design is very important, which is not something I disagree with, but the book is mostly a retelling of anecdotes of how the author used design to solve various problems. If you are a design junkie, pick it up, but if you pass it by I suspect your life will somehow be complete anyway.



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My Review of The Tower and The Hive

The Tower and the Hive by Anne McCaffrey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is the fifth an concluding novel in the series of the same name, The Tower and The Hive, and it wraps up that various plot lines. Overall is the final defeat of the Hive in what is a war of extermination where the only question is who will prevail. But there is still conflict to navigate here. As anyone who has studied the history of the two world wars of the 20th century will recognize, once the outcome on the battlefield is settled other scores come up as nations jockey for position. In this case, we have two allies, the Human Nine Star League, and the Mrdini, who both are looking to expand, and who settle planets with the same ecology. Deciding who gets what is problem, made even more difficult by the high birth rates of the Mrdini. And the family of telepaths that have led the fight for the Humans is trying to keep things together, but essentially they are just employees of Federation Teleport and Telepath, and their power is resented.

I listened to the audio book version of this novel.



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My Review of Tips for Time Travelers

Tips for Time Travelers by Peter Cochrane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Peter Cochrane was the head of the research labs at British Telecommunications, and this book is a series of short essays on his ideas about future technologies. Given that this book was assembled in 1999 (I believe the individual articles were written in the 1990s), events have overtaken some of his projections, but they are still interesting. At 2 pages per essay, this is a book best dipped into rather than read at one sitting. There are 108 of these short essays in this book.





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My Review of Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This is the second of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, and it is not quite as good as the first one. It is quite easy to go too far into caricature with a character like Wimsey, and I think Sayers does so here. And it has a lot of the Golden Age tropes of mysterious goings on in the night with everyone keeping secrets. But at least there are plausible reasons why they are keeping secrets. Lord Peter’s brother, the Duke of Denver, is accused of murder when he is found bending over the body of Lady Mary’s fiance, with whom he had quarreled earlier in the evening. The man was killed with the Duke’s pistol, and all the Duke will say is that he was going for a walk (at 3am!). And why was Lady Mary up? IF you like golden Age mysteries, this will be satisfactory, and it is where Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard begins to become part of Wimsey’s family, which is very convenient for future stories.



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My Review of The Doorbell Rang

The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Rex Stout created two of the great characters in the genre of mystery, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Nero Wolfe is fat (one-seventh of a ton!), mostly immovable, a gourmet, and an orchidist. Archie is the man of action, Wolfe’s eyes, ears, and leg man who can be relied on to bring back anyone Wolfe needs to talk to. The Wolfe novels frequently are inspired by events contemporaneous to their writing, and in this case it is about FBI.

Rachel Bruner has a problem with the FBI. She has been sending out copies of a very critical book, The FBI Nobody Knows. She is a wealthy widow and has sent out 10,000 copies to various influential people around the country. Now she believes she is being tailed, wire-tapped, and otherwise harassed by that same FBI. She hires Wolfe to take on the job of making them leave her alone. He agrees to take on the job, but then things get increasingly complicated.

This is one of the best Wolfe novels, so if you like mysteries you should pick this up. If you get hooked on Wolfe as a result, well, join the club. I’ve read all of them.



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