Sunday, January 13, 2008


1. The Serenity Prayer as used in AA:

God, grant me the patience to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

2. Virtues of a programmer, according to Larry Wall, Randall L. Schwartz and Tom Christiansen in the second edition of Programming Perl.
  1. Laziness - The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful, and document what you wrote so you don't have to answer so many questions about it. Hence, the first great virtue of a programmer. Also hence, this book. See also impatience and hubris.
  2. Impatience - The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. This makes you write programs that don't just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them. Or at least pretend to. Hence, the second great virtue of a programmer. See also laziness and hubris.
  3. Hubris - Excessive pride, the sort of thing Zeus zaps you for. Also the quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won't want to say bad things about. Hence, the third great virtue of a programmer. See also laziness and impatience.
3. Praxis at Axxel, my 24-hour gym.

Axxel is open 24 hours a day 361 days a year (362 in leap years). On Christmas Eve it closes at 3 pm, opening again at 11am Christmas Day. On New Year's Eve it closes at 3 pm, opening again at 11am New Year's Day. It offers some 250 classes a week.

A few days before Christmas I was working out on a crosstrainer when one of the trainers came up and asked if I would like to join a half-hour Power Circle on weights machines. Ääääähm... My legs are very strong, but my arms are pitifully weak, result of never really understanding the weights machines. I go along for this class, in which one puts in one minute on a machine, changes machines in 30 seconds, puts in a minute, changes machines, and so on, for two circuits of 10 machines. The instructor explains various machines which I have never used before.

Although I have never been back for the class, I do use most of the machines almost every day now that I know how to use them. In fact, knowing how to use them increases the likelihood that I will go to the gym; I had a very nasty flu at the beginning of the year, when I was really not up to an hour of aerobic exercise, but half an hour did not look too bad and doing half an hour on the weights gave me something else to do afterwards.

The gym costs something like 450 euros a year. The classes come free with the membership. It is available, as I've said, for all but 40 hours in any given year.

4. My knowledge of German is rather like my level of physical fitness. It is very good for reading newspapers, books and so on, not so good for bureaucratic forms; it is reasonably good for listening (I can understand the radio, am easily lost in colloquial conversation), feeble for speaking and writing. Spoken and written sentences come out like flea-infested pets, crawling with grammatical mistakes that must be combed out.

5. My German course operates on the basis of a convenient fiction - that a language can be divided up into Beginner 1, Beginner 2, Intermediate 1, Intermediate 2 and so on. If you can read Adorno you should know the declensions of definite and indefinite articles like the back of your hand. The course runs for a month, 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, 198 euros. As far as I know there is no language-learning facility comparable to my gym, where you can go in at any time day or night, day after day, and work on your weaknesses.

6. My stepmother, who is Brazilian, has lived in the US for 17 years and still does not speak English fluently; she keeps making the same mistakes, just as I keep making the same mistakes in German. My 12-year-old half-brother understands only a little Portuguese and doesn't speak it.

7. A New Year has begun, a time when people often try to break bad habits and form good ones. As anyone knows who has tried, it is certainly within our power to change habits; doing so requires not courage but patience. If one has fallen into the habit of muddling by in a language, one can change this by performing a simple task on a daily basis: one can go over the principle parts of irregular verbs every day for a month, for instance, until one knows them by heart. One can go over verbs with fixed prepositions on a daily basis. One can learn three nouns and their plurals every day for a year.

8. My father has been in AA for some 20 years, and he has succeeded in the only goal required by AA: he has refrained from drinking every day for 20 years. The principles as formulated by AA, however, have not been conducive to producing a situation that would have made life much easier for my father, stepmother and brother. My stepmother was once a senior civil servant in Brazil; she attended a language course upon coming to the US, and it was an -- I will not say an exceptionally bad one. It was, like most language courses offered by universities, not remotely on a par with the language training given my father by the State Department, training whose purpose was to enable Foreign Service officers to use the target language at a professional level.

Attending the course produced in my stepmother the conviction that she could not master English, that she did not have a gift for languages. The language courses of the Foreign Service Institute, however, routinely produced competent speakers of the languages of the countries to which officers were posted; the courses were a sort of linguistic boot camp, in which students were required to memorise dialogues and repeat these until they were automatic. The level of tedium which both teachers and students were required to endure has no equivalent in most language schools. And yet, had she had access to a first-class language programme, she could ultimately have found employment in the US at a level suitable to her professional qualifications. Which is to say, in the absence of government-sponsored language training, the patience required to master a simple task on a daily basis may make the difference between social marginalisation and full participation.

9. The prevalence of New Year's Resolutions and their high rate of failure remind us that it is exceptionally difficult for individuals to alter their habits one day at a time. The impatience of the computer programmer may be what's needed to create structures in which it is easy to change habits.

Both my gym and my language school are commercial organisations. The former operates by aggressively selling memberships. Its machines represent a very high capital investment (it has 5 Woodway treadmills, for instance, which sell for about $10,000 apiece); the teachers of its classes come at a cost; it makes a profit because all members do not make use of its facilities 365 days a year.

The language school operates by compelling students to pay for the time they use, pulling students into the system and pushing them out again a month or two later.

Both physical training and language learning rely on repetition over a long period of time. The business model of the typical gym is one in which the delinquency of the many subsidises the assiduity of the few - and in which most reps are performed on machines, not sentient human beings. It is well suited to the requirements of physical training, in that it offers all members the opportunity to train effectively at a low price. Generally speaking, when gyms get overcrowded they do not raise their membership fees, they open another branch; the potential subsidisers always outnumber the determined users.

The language school, on the other hand, is set up in a way that precludes the first requirement of language learning, namely repetition on a daily basis over a long period of time.

The gym offers classes at fixed times which may be attended ad hoc, as well as equipment which members may use at any time at their own convenience.

The language school caters for a wide range of nationalities - in my class of 12 are students from 12 different countries. It has pragmatic reasons for adhering to the purism so common in language instruction, that is to the practice of providing all instruction in the language to be taught. Use of German as meta-language leads to all sorts of problems: students whose native language does not feature a particular grammatical concept must grasp the concept through an explanation in a language often imperfectly understood. Exercises are immensely time-consuming for those whose vocabulary is limited, since each involves the looking up of several words. It is consequently not possible to focus on the specific grammatical point to be mastered. This does not present problems for me, but there, is course, something counter-intuitive about a method of instruction which depends on a student possessing an extensive vocabulary.

The gym, unsurprisingly, permits one to focus on specific muscle groups, specific forms of training (cardio-vascular, strengthening, stretching and so on). It is much easier to see rapid improvement at the gym if one bothers to go at all.

10. Both America and Germany sometimes find that the issue of immigrants who do not master the language of the host country is a contentious one. Unfortunately the structure of the institutions which provide language instruction is not conducive to producing fluency. The issue of preserving the linguistic heritage of the children of immigrants is, of course, not on anyone's political agenda.

My brother has only one living grandparent, a grandmother who lives in Brazil; he is unable to speak either with her or with any of his mother's other Brazilian family unless they speak English. I like hearing my stepmother speak Portuguese, which I can generally understand pretty well, but I can barely put a sentence together. All very American. All very Australian (my colleague, Ilya Gridneff, is the son of a Russian father but grew up speaking no Russian.) One way and another, there is an immense loss of cultural capital. On a personal level, this causes many problems for my family; on a national level, well, I wonder whether there is any country in the world that can afford to squander talent in the way that is now the norm.

11. TBC. I talked a while back to Johanna about German on Demand. Then I talked to Rose who was going to have a meeting with Nadja of the Exberliner. Then Nadja had flu. Rose is meeting Nadja today. Yesterday I went over to Another Country, the English-language bookshop in Kreuzberg, to talk to Alan before the Planning Meeting about whether AC might be willing to keep materials of a sadistic grammatical nature in stock for commitment-shy transients. I think what's needed is not a politician, but the sort of person who has the kind of genius that makes for a good gay bar.

12. NB. Re resolutions. It is easier to rectify sins of omission than sins of commission, easier to acquire virtues of commission than those of omission.


Jenny Davidson said...

I love this post!

Also I am full of envy re: Woodway treadmills, my running coach has one but it is not for general use, only for very expensive private coaching session! You can run downhill...

Lee said...

Wonderful post. Patience in order to change habits - yes! I live the convenient fiction that I speak German, maybe I ought to try a gym. Not sure about this, though:
'It is easier to rectify sins of omission than sins of commission, easier to acquire virtues of commission than those of omission.' I think I'm becoming increasingly skeptical about aphorisms, cynical old bat that I am.