Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Two Spanish Language Learning Programs

I've been trying to teach myself Spanish with a couple of computer based training programs. The first program I tried, Transparent Spanish. This program has been pretty good for helping me build reading a vocabulary. But I had a very difficult time listening to the recorded speech. The parts of the program devoted to helping you develop listening and speaking skills lack instruction.

This second program, Pronounce It Perfectly explained why I had difficulty discerning words while listening. Apparently in Spanish not every syllable is pronounced. If a word ends in a vowel and the following word starts with the same vowel, the words are run together and only one syllable is pronounced. Sure that makes pronunciation easier, but that makes it much harder for people like me to develop listening skills.

My one complaint with Pronounce It Perfectly, is the timing. After listening to a phrase, the program asks you to repeat it. But half the time, the program doesn't give you enough time to say the whole phrase before it moves to the next one.

I wouldn't recommend relying solely on either of these programs. But both have their strengths and weaknesses. Using them together I'm building at least a little skill.


Update Feb 2023: Neither of the programs mentioned above held my attention very long. In Aug 2022 I started using duolingo, and that has held my attention longer than any other language learning program.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Royal Classics

I've been using the Royal Classics Recital guitar strings for about 4 months. I absolutely love them. These strings give my guitar a beautifully rounded sound.

But these strings do have their down side. The G-string is a little tinny when open (though it sounds fine when fingered). The strings are more sensitive to the weather than the D'Addario. With the D'Addarios, I only had to retune the strings daily for the first couple of weeks. After that, they stabilized. I've been using the Royal Classics for several months now and I still have to retune them almost daily.

Also lately, I've been playing several songs with drop D tuning. Going back and forth between the D and E tuning makes the sixth string lose it's tune even more often. But it's worth it to get the beautiful sound.

Monday, May 30, 2011

You are your own Gym

I picked up You are Your Own Gym because I have only a 110 barbell set.

The good: lots of different exercises you can do with just your body and stuff around the house, like chairs, towels, phone books, etc.  Lauren shows how to exercise nearly every muscle group, and how to vary the intensity for beginners to more advanced fitness levels. I've only tried a couple of the exercises so far, but they do seem to be challenging.

The bad: Lauren's statements about aerobic exercise and nutrition are totally wrong. Lauren states you don't need aerobic exercise to burn fat, just increase your lean muscle mass. Most people probably need to do both. Lauren also states that you need 2 g of protein for every lb of your target body weight. That's only true for competitive bodybuilders. The average person does fine with 0.8-1.2 g of protein for target body weight.

Using Lauren's exercises may help improve your fitness. But make sure to include some aerobic exercises, and get your nutrition information from a better source.


Update Feb 2023: Recent studies have  shown that walking within the first hour after eating lowers blood sugar, which is essential for burning fat and maintaining a healthy weight. So Lauren's assertion that  you don't need aerobic exercise to burn fat has again been proven wrong.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lightning, A poor beginning

I've  started reading blogs about writing. One of the blogs I read said that the purpose of the first chapter is not to start the plot, but to help the reader become invested in the main character; get them curious or interested in what happens to this character.

Also this week, I start reading Dean Koontz's Lightning. I see that the first few pages are from the POV of a throw-away character. We need to get to the second chapter before the main character is even old enough to have a point of view. This was very annoying to me, and managed to hammer in the point of the blog I just read. I almost put the book down. But a lot of people like Koontz, so I'll try and read a little further to see if there is anything else I can learn from him.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


If I had known that Megamind was a Will Ferrell movie, I'd have never have rented it. Good thing I didn't know, because this was a thoroughly enjoyable film.

I've seen/read a lot of stories where the hero had to become as evil as the bad guy in order to defeat the bad guy. But this is the first story I've seen a villian has to become a hero in order to defeat a false hero. That alone, mades the story worth watching. But the well written satirical references to Superman and Lex Luthor made the story charming as well as innovative.

The animation and the acting were good. But it was the writing that made this a film standout for me. The film explored a couple of familiar themes:

  • does a hero always have to be a hero, can't he ever retire?
  • What's a person to do after they've finally succeeded in accomplishing their life long goal? In this case, it was the villian who finally defeated the hero.
  • once evil, always evil?
  • can love turn an evil villain good?
From my perspective as an aspiring novelist, I loved seeing these themes twisted and shown from the villain's perspective. It's so different from the super hero comic books which are predominantly written from the heroes' perspectives.

This is a good movie to watch and to learn from, especially if you're interested in learning a bit about writing satire.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dancer of Gor

I am rereading Dancer of Gor as part of my research before producing a slave training hypnosis recording. I originally read this book when it came out in 1985. It was the first book I read about erotic slavery and I loved it.

Perhaps I just loved the idea of the book so much that I didn't notice how poorly written the book was. Or perhaps I've developed a more critical eye now that I am reading to learn how to write my own novels. But now that I'm trying to learn something practical from Dancer of Gor, I find it horribly written.

The main character is pathetic and whiny; hardly sexy at all. The language is flowery, the dialog overly verbose and repetitive. Lots of run-on sentences that digress into flashbacks. Plus the electronic version that I'm reading is rife with typing errors (or maybe they're OCR errors).

The poor quality of this book is a sharp contrast to the high quality of the first book in the series, Tarnsman of Gor.

Perhaps Norman was trying to match the voice of the narration to the personality of the viewpoint character. In that, he succeeded–if he wanted to portray a character who was whiny, had no self confidence, and viewed herself only as the lowest form of chattel. I wouldn't want this character as a slave in my house. Nor would I try to write from the viewpoint of such a pathetic and annoying character.

Tarnsman of Gor was a tightly written adventure novel in the Edgar Rice Burrows tradition. It had a strong hero, and solid adventure. A delight to read. But if I weren't trying to mine Dancer of Gor for ideas for my hypnotic recording, I'd chuck it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Against All Things Ending

Against All Things Ending (The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 3)

Stephen Donaldson's writing as seriously deteriorated over the years. When I read the first series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant back in the early 80s, I thought the writer was brilliant. That series was a master piece of world building and character development. Even The Second Chronicles were in many ways brilliant. But in The Last Chronicles, Donaldson trips over his horribly-written female lead.

It's one thing to write a character that has a broken past and is full of self-doubt. It's another thing altogether to bludgeond the reader with constant repetition of those doubts.

Against All Things Ending, like the first two books in The Last Chronicles, is extremely, annoyingly  repetitive. That repetition and the frequent use of obscure words makes this book a chore to read.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Galaxy Blues and Spindrift by Allen Steele

I few months ago I read Allen Steele's Galaxy Blues. It was my first Allen Steele novel and I enjoyed it. Steele introduced the novel and his main character with a detailed description of a well-thought out his escape from a starship. The narration was light and straight forward, interesting and easy to follow while giving solid depiction of the main character's personality. Not only did I want to read more, I wanted to emulate that narrative style in my own writing. Steele maintained the light narrative style throughout the novel, revealing the characters through their interaction with their environment, which made the book a light, easy read.

Because I enjoyed Galaxy Blues, I was looking forward to reading more of Steele's Coyote series. So when I saw Spindrift on the library shelf, I snatched it up. For most of this book, Steele again does an excellent job of revealing his characters through their actions. However, for the frame character (prolog and epilog), the narration failed to accomplish this.

Spindrift is told in a 'frame' style. The prologue and epilogue relate events 53 years after the main story. From the description on the inside cover, you'd expect Shillinglaw to be a main character, but he only appears in the prologue and epilogue and his chapters seem to be more of an afterthought, filler to make sure the novel meets word-length requirements.

Spindrift is not a particularly thought provoking or challenging novel. There are no plot twists or surprises. There also isn't much world building. (I assume most of it is done in the earlier Coyote novels, which I haven't read.) And some of the characters are a bit one dimensional. But Steele mostly does a good job of developing distinct and engaging view point characters and of revealing characters through their actions.

Since this book chronicles first contact with alien races, it represents a total change in direction for the Coyote series. So if you're a Steele fan, you'll want to read Spindrift first in spite of it's flaws. If you're not a fan, you can skip Spindrift (though I would still recommend Galaxy Blues).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I rarely read books written before 1960, and I rarely have access to science fiction from non-English writers. So when I saw We on the library shelf, I thought it would be a good opportunity to expand my horizons.

We is a social satire written in 1921 by Russian satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin. The main character, D-503 is a mathematician who lives in the One State, where all live for the common good and there is no concept of individual freedom. According to the back cover, D-503's life is disrupted when he experiences love. But that's not the way it read for me. Reading D-503's description of his feelings reminded me more of the obsession described in Maugham's Of Human Bondage.

The character is totally out of control. His actions and feelings are totally foreign to him and contrary to everything he believes. Yet, he insists on maintaining his beliefs in spite of his new experience, which reminded me of Voltaire's Candide.

Satire can be difficult to read if you don't know the subject(s)  being spoofed. And I confess that I know so little about Socialist philosophy that most of the book's references probably went passed  without notice. But I still found the narrative interesting. The view point character, D-503, is a mathematician, and he often describes people and places in mathematical or geometrical terms; something I haven't seen in any other novel. The narrative style also incorporated stream-of-consciousness elements. Sentences were often left incomplete, and the subject of the narrative often jumped without transition. This made the book difficult to read.

Personally, I wouldn't have classified this book as a classic. The story wasn't anything special. But some of the narrative choices were interesting. So the book may be worth studying if you're an aspiring author.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Belkin Cushdesk

I got the Belkin Cushdesk (Pitch Black/Soft Gray) for xmas, and I like it... mostly. The primary reason for getting a lapdesk is to prevent the my laptop computer from burning my legs. The cushdesk is thick enough to prevent the computer's heat from reaching my legs, even when watching online TV shows or playing games that really work the graphics card. The top is solid enough to keep the computer flat, and the bottom is soft enough to be comfortable on my legs.

The Cushdesk is about 3 inches wider than my 15" Macbook Pro, and wider than the piece of wood I had been using. So it took me a few days to get used to its size. But I did. The bottom is angled, so that the computer is almost level when my legs are crossed, which works well for continuous typing.

My only complaint is when I slouch to a nearly laying position. Yea, I know I shouldn't. But I often sit in a bean bag chair, and end up sliding down to the point where I'm almost laying flat. Then I raise my knees so I can see the computer. When I'm in that position, the raised rubber stopper isn't raised high enough to stop the computer from sliding off the cushdesk and into my stomach.

But when I'm siting up, like I'm supposed to, it's quite comfortable.  Had I been shopping for this, I would have balked at the price. But it was an xmas gift, and I like it. Thanks, mom.


Update Feb 2023: 12 years  and I'm still using the same one.