Friday, November 18, 2011

Government drug deal

Something new to flow your anger juices! Although Smallpox has been eradicated throughout the world and it sounds like the U.S. government already has enough vaccine for every man, woman and child in the U.S., it's now supplementing its $3-per-dose stockpile with an experimental $255-per-dose stockpile bought from a company led by a heavy Democratic party donator.

Its effectiveness can't be legally tested on humans, but hey, this isn't really about treating smallpox anyway, now, is it?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Kill Switch

In case you hadn't heard, there are some bad intellectual-property laws coming down the pipes. First up we have the so-called PROTECT-IP act in the U.S.; read all about it in this article, which is called "Kill Switch" because the bill gives companies a "kill switch" to block websites (I don't know the details... I'm too tired to look into it further today.)

Then of course there's ACTA, the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which was recently signed by 8 countries and, naturally, has little to do with counterfeiting. Some of ACTA's anti-citizen provisions have been toned down since the days when ACTA was a strictly secret document, but it's still an ugly mofo. Signatories include Canada, the U.S. and Australia, but the fight isn't over since For more, read EFF's recent post on the subject.

And finally, the Conservatives have reintroduced a copyright reform bill, bill C-11 (replacing bill C-32 that existed before the election). While not as bad as its predecessor, bill C-11 makes bypassing digital locks illegal, even if you have an otherwise legitimate and legal reason for doing so. For instance, if C-11 becomes law you can still legally copy a CD (that you purchased) to your computer or to an MP3 player for personal use, but it will become illegal to copy any part of a DVD or Blu-Ray disc (that you purchased) for any reason, including legitimate reasons such as making an excerpt for commentary (as news programs do when they play a few seconds from a music video to introduce a story about the artist in the video). It will be illegal solely on the basis that DVDs use digital locks (i.e. encryption) while CDs don't. The Canadian Coalition for Electronic Rights (CCER) is urging everyone to send letters in opposition to this bill.

Contractor Corruption

If you have your ear open for corruption in the US government, you will have noticed that contractors seem to be a big part of the problem, because they not only cost a lot of money, but frequently allow their projects to fail or go vastly overbudget--especially when it comes to software, my specialty. Consider the New York CityTime software system for managing the city's payroll. Initially budgeted at $63 million, this ballooned to $600 million over time, until the city realized that the project was plauged by corruption and decided that it wanted its money back.

During the same time that New York was paying hundreds of millions of dollars for their software system, my own employer paid one employee (me) well under half a million dollars to produce a GPS navigation system that is probably deployed in thousands of commercial vehicles across North America (I mean, I think so; I don't have figures). So, I am at a loss to understand how some of these software systems end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the federal sphere, meanwhile, corruption seems to be standardized and entrenched through a network of government contractors. I had the impression that these government contractors were a giant rip-off of taxpayers, but what I didn't know was that despite the high price to the government, the individual contract workers enjoy no more in benefits than their government worker bretheren. "ideonexus" explains in his must-read posting:
A study by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) found the Government pays IT Contractors nearly twice as much as its own IT Workers.
Why so much? The government also pays for office space, equipment, utility bills, and even employs its own management. Yet the contract workers temselves are paid no more than government employees:
Whenever a government position would open up in our department, contractor employees would jump at the opportunity for stability and better benefits.
That is, the government pays double for contractors, but only half of that money actually goes to the workers they are paying for, and none of it pays for office space or equipment. So where does that extra money go? Corruption, my dear boy! Corruption!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I'd just like to repost an insightful comment by "fyngyrz" that I read on Slashdot today. The topic was how some people become huge jerks when granted online anonymity. But sometimes society can be a big jerk, too. Sometimes when a person does something wrong, and crosses a certain line--or is wrongly convicted of doing so--collectively we are never willing to forgive, nor forget.

There's another important issue here: Anonymity can be a worthy tool for social reaction and revolution when the individual expresses a minority or otherwise unpopular opinion; some of the other nasty habits of society include ostracization; limiting availability of jobs; sabotaging retirement; false accusations, false imprisonment, inappropriate listing on the no-fly, no-buy, and the sexual/violent offender (AKA as the you're-fucked) lists; singling out for "attention" from the local (or not local) cops; vandalism; burning crosses on the lawn; DOS, etc.

While true free speech cloaked in anonymity definitely opens the door for the proverbial "Internet Superturd", suppressing it isn't something that uniformly does good. For instance, Google+'s recent insistence on "real id" effectively eliminates any viewpoint that is sufficiently off-center to present a personal risk at a level unacceptable to the speaker. This in turn means that as the speaker's social load and dependencies increase - family, depending upon keeping one's job, political position, etc. - the more effectively they are muzzled in a "real id" environment.

Another example is Facebook's TOS where they forbid anyone on the s/v offender's list from joining; anyone put on that list is now locked out and locked to the bottom level of society; doesn't matter that they've paid their debt to society by serving time, paying fines, whatever the judge decided: they're permanently locked out, not to mention often having to live under a bridge or in a camp. That kind of ostracism is way too powerful a tool to use against someone who is supposedly free to walk around; they'll never re-integrate, they can't. If you're going to treat someone that badly, you'd better have the sense to put them in jail and keep them there or else you're just grooming a very, very angry person whom someone will unhappily meet on a dark and stormy night. Unfortunately, this only treats the unfairly listed -- kids having sex across age lines, polygamists, pee-ers in bushes, etc. -- even worse. By far the best solution is to treat payment of sentencing debt as 100% presumed rehabilitation unless shown otherwise. The government shows no sign of being responsible here either, nor forcing corporations like facebook to be responsible, which again brings us back to the need for pushback. And given the lynch mob mentality associated with these matters, anonymity is definitely called for.

In general right now, our government is doing a lot of things it shouldn't be doing, and these activities are currently pushing hard against individual rights of free speech, free travel and privacy. IMHO, anything that does away with anonymity under these circumstances is extremely unwise.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Micropayments please

Like I said over 5 years ago, I wish the internet had a good micropayment system (not controlled by evil companies that claim to be our pal) that allows people to pay in amounts of 1-99 cents in a couple of clicks, without security risks or giving away any personal information. Clearly, millions of individuals and businesses could directly benefit. Getting people to click a couple of times to donate 25 cents is a heck of a lot easier than getting them to input their credit card number or to log in to PayPal. So why hasn't it happened yet?

I have no idea. I'm just thinking out loud. I wonder if it could somehow be built around that Bitcoin thingy (I'm sure it could, but I'd be more impressed to see it based on "normal" currency, I think.)

Anyway, hey, good news in the the Thomas Drake case. I hear he won't face 35 years in prison for accidentally still having copies of a classified document or two in his basement, or whatever it was. Yay. (Link 2)

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Bradley Manning is Still Screwed

I heard a rumor (I forget where) that Bradley Manning (alleged leaker of the Collateral Murder videos and a large number of confidential government documents) is no longer being tortured, but my Google News search isn't turning up a confirmation. Instead it appears that President Obama decided to let the 23-hour-per-day solitary confinement and daily nude inspections to continue, even though Pfc. Manning has not been convicted of any crime:
Obama registered his approval of Manning’s torture in characteristically vague and noncommittal terms: “I’ve actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures … are appropriate. They assured me they are.”
He's been in solitary confinement for about a year now. You should ask yourself this question: can you imagine living in solitary confinement for a year? You sure as hell can't. Like the distance between stars, I think it is simply beyond the power of the human imagination. Maybe if you've been in solitary for a couple months you could start to imagine it. But normal people cannot.

To be sure, I wouldn't call for his release. If he did what he is accused of doing then it's probably very illegal and some sort of punishment is to be expected. But what his captors have done is worse: inflicting an unconstitutionally harsh punishment on an individual who has not even had a trial yet. It's a clear case of "setting an example". They know the punishment is unreasonable and illegal, but they do it to send a message to anyone else who would consider leaking confidential documents to the public.

Their message is this: You will suffer a fate worse than death. Being an American citizen offers no protection. We don't need enough evidence for a trial. And no amount of protestors can help you.

Spanish Quick Reference updated

I just updated the "Referencia Rápida de Español" to v2.11. Again, sorry about the dumb filename, I can't control it. Anyway, I just added some stars (*) on some homonyms, and added a couple of new "short phrases" (deleting a couple of less important "reverse verbs" to make room):

It makes sense. = Tiene sentido.
I don't understand. = No entiendo.
..that which (what).. = ..lo que..

Perhaps the last one needs explanation. You'll see the word-combo "lo que" sometimes. It's used as a connector that usually translates as "what" in English. However, the English word "what" should not be translated as "lo que" unless it can be replaced with "that which". For example, "What are you doing?" translates as "¿Qué haces?", not "¿Lo que haces?" because "That which you are doing?" makes no sense. However, the sentence "I want what I want" translates to "Quiero lo que quiero" because "I want that which I want" does make sense and means the same thing. ¿Entiendes? (You understand?)

I wonder if I should write some more blog entries about some of the interesting/important bits of Spanish grammar I have learned. For instance I could explain the preterite tense and reflexive verbs better now. I could also explain why you don't really have to learn about "strong" and "weak" vowels.

Also, under verb chains: I try to see = Trato de ver.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Prosecution of Thomas Drake

“I feel I’m living in the very country I worked for years to defeat: the Soviet Union. We’re turning into a police state.” - J. Kirk Wiebe, retired NSA Analyst

ThinThread, the “little program” that he invented to track enemies outside the U.S., “got twisted,” and was used for both foreign and domestic spying: “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.” - Bill Binney, crypto-mathematician

On October 31, 2001, soon after Binney concluded that the N.S.A. was headed in an unethical direction, he retired. He had served for thirty-six years. [...] Binney said of his decision, “I couldn’t be an accessory to subverting the Constitution.”

“It was my duty to oppose it,” she told me. “That is why oversight existed, so that these things didn’t happen again. I’m not an attorney, but I thought that there was no way it was constitutional.” - Diane Roark, former staff member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the NSA

“strange things were happening. Equipment was being moved. People were coming to me and saying, ‘We’re now targeting our own country!’ ” - Thomas Drake, linguist and computer expert
Today I learned about Thomas Drake, father of five, who has become a target in the U.S. government's war on transparency. As this must-read article explains, the Obama administration is prosecuting five people under the 1917 Espionage Act, more than all previous Administrations combined; and the article focuses on Thomas Drake, who told the Baltimore Sun about wasteful spending at the NSA and privacy violations.

It's interesting that three of the people quoted above were registered Republicans. In the Bush years, most people that followed the story of the warrantless wiretapping program thought that these invasions of privacy, and the vast increases in military and so-called "national security" spending, were driven by Republicans--but once Democrats got control over the House, Senate and White House, approximately nothing changed. If anything, Obama has been even tougher against whistleblowers than his predecessor, I have seen no indications that the warrantless wiretapping program is winding down, and in most other ways I doubt Obama acts differently beyond his rhetoric. So what's really going on here? I really don't know--but I'm pretty sure the administration would like to keep it that way.

Meanwhile, while it's nice that Bin Laden is finally dead, we should question whether it was worth three trillion dollars.

On a related note, I saw Fair Game on Netflix the other day. I recommend that, too. And Recount.

Friday, April 15, 2011

China criticizes USA internet freedom?

The Chinese do have a point, but it's almost too absurd to believe. The government that developed the Great Firewall of China is criticizing the US for its double standards? China, of course, has a history of "hidden" internet censorship--making websites appear to be offline, randomly dropping connections, forcing search engines to silently remove search results for queries that the government considers sensitive, and regularly deleting posts made on domestic websites. It's not too hidden, though--the government wouldn't want citizens to actually end up believing that they have free speech; then the government would have to lock a lot of them up for speaking the wrong opinion. I don't imagine they can afford to have as many prisons as the US, and it's impractical to execute all of them, too. So it's a good thing they do explicit censorship, too.

Anyway, it a comical case of the pot calling the kettle black. When you see that China is blocking reports and internet searches about the middle east uprisings, and even about time travel, it sort of makes you feel better about the U.S. government private industry harassing Wikileaks and its supporters. Or seizing laptops at the border without official suspicion or warrant. Or the whole Guantanamo Bay thing. Or any number of other policies. Surely, human rights activists in China wish they had our problems.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Avaaz supports Bradley Manning

I was delighted to find out that one of my favorite organizations, Avaaz, is starting a campaign to stop the torture of Bradley Manning. I signed the petition and donated to the Washington, DC ad campaign immediately.

Last time I went on vacation to the U.S., the self-checkin kiosk wouldn't work for us and the check-in agent said there was some sort of "flag" on me. On her screen I saw a bright red box with a message containing a three-letter acronym that I neglected to memorize. She explained that she'd have to make a call, went away for fifteen minutes, then came back and said I was cleared. On the way back to Canada, the same thing happened again, and the agent informed me that I could expect this to happen every time I crossed the border.

What sort of list am I on? Was I put on a list because of opinions on my blog (the blog's probably not prominent enough for that), or because I donated money to WikiLeaks in response to the Collateral Murder video? Bradley Manning is the person accused of giving that video to WikiLeaks, and given his harsh and unconstitutional treatment, I wonder if I should be worried for myself, too. Obviously, they can't imprison everyone that supports the cause of truth and transparency in government, but they can harass them a little bit at the border, and like lawsuits against people that share a couple of albums on the internet, they could pick a few targets at random just to create fear and discourage activism.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Software Patents Suck

Thanks to "Chris" at for this PSA:
If you develop an application and want it to be fully legal, I have to disappoint you. You have no chance to come up with anything, that won’t be in breach of at least one patent, as they now exclude you from use of most basic techniques. Most likely, you’ve already broken a dozen patents just by thinking about your app. Every Tuesday, the US Patent Office publishes some 3,000 new patents, many overbroad, generic, or just plain ridiculous. Piles of them created a legal maze, impossible to navigate even for companies employing armies of cloned, genetically engineered super-lawyers.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Maxed Out

Well, maybe we should all just step back and look at the bigger picture. Last night my best friend and I watched a movie called Maxed Out, a movie made before the financial crisis. In it there is a picture of the National Debt Clock sitting at 7.3 trillion dollars. About 6 years later, it's nearly doubled to 14 trillion, increasing at well over one trillion dollars per year. The link above has another number that I also wonder about, the "US Total Debt" which "includes household, business, state and local governments, financial institutions, and the Federal Government" and is sitting at $55.2 trillion or $676,000 per family. With a debt and deficit so unfathomably large, is there really any hope of paying it off? I don't see any signs of deficit reduction either: it seems like Democrats don't want to talk about it because they don't want to threaten any government programs; meanwhile, Republicans might talk about cutting programs, but in reality they won't touch most of the core budget including national "defense", and any spending cuts they do make will be cancelled out by tax cuts.

U.S. federal politicians, for the most part, seem not to care about the big picture. Oh, they might say they care for the cameras. But I think they believe that their jobs in the House and Senate are just that--jobs. They are not there primarily to serve Americans; rather their main concern is to keep their jobs, and it's hard to do that without serving their corporate sponsors. The sponsors don't want spending cuts--after all, every spending program benefits the private sector somehow. The sponsors do want tax cuts--especially corporate tax cuts and Bush tax cuts.

Surely this can't continue forever. Sooner or later, creditors will demand their pound of flesh. My guess is that China can already dictate US foreign policy toward it. I haven't studied history enough to guess what will come next, but you know the saying, "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it"? The "doomed" part has me worried.

Aww, heck. The big picture sucks. Let's stop looking at it again.

My life sucks.

Things haven't been going my way recently. My own life seems like train wreck about to happen. And the news lately, oh Lord it's depressing, isn't it? I mean, obviously there's the gigantic earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Then there's all this crazy stuff that happened while I was on vacation last month... the violence in Libya and Bahrain... and there were a bunch of stories I saw on Slashdot I thought were important enough to blog about, but I can no longer find the stories, as Slashdot seems to have deleted its front-page archive. The only way to go a month in the past would be to click "many more" on the main page about 60 times, waiting for the older stories to load between each click. And thanks to my awful memory, I cannot remember a single one of the stories I wanted to blog about.

Which brings me to my own life. Which sucks. I met a sweet girl on the nude cruise last month. We became so close, I think she loved me. I knew that she wasn't "the one", so I avoided using the word "love" myself, but I did love her, just not in a I-want-to-spend-my-life-with-you kind of way. She just wasn't intellectual at all, and I really need someone that can explore issues with me intellectually. Nor was she interested in programming or linguistics or anything geeky. I don't know if she was interested in politics, but--while the evidence is ambiguous--I suspect now that however she leans politically, it's probably quite far from me. But I enjoyed the way she talked about the ordinary things that happened in her day, and about her family and extended family. She seemed to really enjoy the simple things in life. In that way I wish I was more like her. While I worry constantly about whether I'm accomplishing anything with my life, and whether I can manage to give to the world enough more than I take, and while I am pained by the evil and suffering in the world, and while I wonder why people don't strive more to build a better society, and love strangers more, and be more rational and less biased, and more willing to question...

Well, she just lives her own life and doesn't seem to worry about anything else. I love seeing her smile and laugh and talk, even if my crap memory forgets most of what she says. She just started a blog with the most adorable font ever... I'd like to link to it, but I don't know if she would want that. But you know, while I religiously avoid wasting anything, she has no problem ordering more food than she can eat and throwing the rest away. I disagree with doing that, pretty strongly, but I think it may indicate why she seemed so happy. It's Hakuna Matata in practice: living without worries.

After the cruise she announced she was going to fly to Calgary to see me, choosing, a little while later, 10 days in July. I offered to pay half.

But then we had a little fight. Over something so embarrasingly trivial. Not trivial to me, mind you, but to most people the issue of the inhumane conditions of Bradley Manning's detention probably isn't worth ruining a relationship over. It's just that to me the idea of solitary confinement for seven months is absolutely terrifying; unless he's at least given an ample supply of books to read, it absolutely qualifies as torture. (Unfortunately there is no word on what he's provided with in there.) I personally relate to Bradley Manning, because although I've never leaked classified information, I probably would consider becoming a whistleblower if I discovered evidence of criminal activity that my employer was covering up. While I do question the wisdom of publicly releasing 1,100 to 250,000 classified diplomatic cables (depending on how you count them), I do believe that releasing the Collateral Murder video was fully justified, after the military took the position that the pilots had done nothing wrong. I told her the story of what happened in the video, of how about 12 people were killed (including a pair of reporters) and how two children were wounded.

In addition to solitary confinement, he's reportedly not allowed to exercise (I know that would drive me insane--my body hates to be inactive for long periods of time) and made to sleep naked without a blanket or pillow, which might also be tough to tolerate. My outrage over this treatment of an American prisoner in America, and my active imagination about what permanent solitary confinement would feel like, kept me awake for perhaps three hours one night and another three on a different morning. I explained this to her, but she was unmoved. She couldn't get past the fact that what he had done was illegal. Nor did it matter that he hadn't had a trial or been convicted--she said something about some Iraqi or Iraqis having brutally and repeatedly raped an American soldier, as if to provide some justification. I was baffled.

Her dad, evesdropping on the conversation, jumped in to support the way Manning was treated. They agreed that what he had done was treason, and entertained the notion that death was an appropriate punishment. Her dad began to talk about how people were treated like Manning all the time, and how you could be imprisoned in the US indefinitely for "contempt" of something... contempt of court? I forget what he said exactly, but his tone of voice was unmistakably dismissive. His message seemed to be "big whoop, this is how we do things in America, get over it". He decried the release of any information deemed secret by the US government, but he also said he wouldn't believe that Manning was really forced to sleep naked unless he saw a "video" of it. I pointed out that a video of that, besides not being fit for public release anyway, might well be classified. At the time, though, I wasn't sure how to convey the irony that he considered the release of secret material to be a serious crime, while simultaneously demanding to see material that might be secret before he would believe that the government/military was doing something wrong. Heck, I still don't know what to say. If you don't get it, you don't get it. Personally I'd love to see a long time-lapse video of a week of his detention. It might clear up this controversy nicely.

I did make a mistake about him being naked, by the way. Reports actually say that he is stripped nude only temporarily for some sort of embarrassing inspection every night, and he was only made to sleep semi-nude (with underwear) for two nights. Anyway...

As I had explained to her earlier, my new CPAP machine didn't seem to be working for me, and I was especially tired because this issue kept me awake a couple of extra hours that morning. Certainly, I was too tired for a charged political/moral conversation directed against my beliefs. At some point I felt the anger rising, announced that I'd talk to them later, and cut off the conversation out of frustration. A little while later I sent a text message: "Talking to you and your dad is really disheartening. Get back to me when you learn empathy."

Well, as you might imagine she didn't take that very well.

We've exchanged several emails since then, mine long and explanatory--but not apologetic--hers short and terse. Her latest reads, "Thanks for the invite to to Calgary, but at this time I need to pass on it. [...] my parents don't want me traveling by myself since i had the surgery."

My instinct tells me that's not the real reason, though. I think what this really means is "our relationship is over".

I have been tired almost every day since last September or so. Productivity at work has been way down, especially after I returned from the cruise. The thing I'm supposed to be working on is an intersection of technologies I've never really used: WCF or TcpClient/TcpListener and/or DCOM (I'm still not sure which to use; I'd prefer WCF but I can't seem to comprehend it), and Visual FoxPro. With my low mental capacity and depression over the fight with Hillary (that's her name), it's just not working and I'm falling ever further behind. For a separate project, I have some really cool ideas about how to write a universal "flick list" control sort of like the iPhone has, but in the form of a Windows Forms control, with automatic animations of changes to the list. But I'm having trouble fleshing out some key ideas.

Meanwhile, I think I have enough health problems for a 50-year old. Everything from a weird knee that makes crackling noises, to a tight ass, to thin skin. Well, one of those is not actually a medical condition. I was at the dentist for a filling the other day, and as the dentist had my mouth held open he announced "oh, I see a shadow. We'll have to do another filling" and proceeded to charge me double price to put two holes in my tooth instead of one. That's a total of 7 to 9 fillings (I forget) since I started going to this dentist about 3 years ago, compared with 0 fillings prior to that time. Finally, I have moderate to severe mixed sleep apnea, two-thirds central, for which the $2200 machine I'm trialling is only partially able to correct.

Finally, it's starting to look like I'll never get to have a wife and kids like I wanted. Who really wants to marry an introverted naturist that never cleans his room, hates doing chores, is tired all the time, depressed half the time, has one of the worst-quality memories in the world, and complains about his life on his blog? Who knows, maybe I have bad breath too. I just don't have a woman to tell me so (hmm, I think I phrased that wrong).

Update: I sent a proper apology. She was glad to receive it. But we're still out of touch with each other.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Spanish Quick Reference v2

The four-page Spanish course

When you go to a foreign country it's comforting to know that you have a way to communicate if you need to. To this end, I looked online for a Spanish Quick Reference and didn't find one. Then a friend went to Cuba, and I decided to make one myself. Later, a hard drive crashed and I lost the original document (only the PDF remains), but I wanted to make a new-and-improved reference with more information.

The new reference (update 2.20: Sept 2014) requires two double-sided sheets of paper, but the first sheet is most important (the second sheet contains supplemental information, so you can generally go without it). My reference goes well beyond the usual pleasantries like "buenos dias" and "¿Donde está el baño?", and will hopefully allow you to express almost any thought in "pidgeon Spanish". It is designed primarily to help you learn and speak Spanish rather than understand it; for the purpose of understanding Spanish, perhaps later I should make a mini-dictionary so you can look up the most common words.

Sorry about the strange file name. The reference is hosted on, which requires the name to be scrambled. Updated to v2.1 Feb. 8 with various minor revisions, such as a new list of "no translation needed" adjectives, and a few more words and phrases such as "mucho gusto" (pleased to meet you) and "probablemente" (probably).

I used various techniques to pack a lot of words into a small space. For example, the verb table on page one is divided into three columns. Each column is a different size, and I divided the entries into columns according to how much space each one required. I put the widest entries in the large left column, and the smallest entries in the thin right column. The nouns, adjectives and adverbs are divided the same way, except with two columns instead of three.

This blog entry is a combination of the tips I wrote for the first quick reference, plus the final page of the new quick reference, which is a very quick introduction to grammar in general and Spanish in particular.

My ambitious goal with this reference is that you can go to any Spanish-speaking country with a double-sided sheet of paper and engage in basic pidgeon conversation. To do this, you need to understand basic Spanish grammar and how to use this reference. Good eyesight also helps!

To say something in pidgeon Spanish, don't try to translate word-for-word. Instead, try to boil your idea down to simple, independent components, and translate those. Also, study the reference sheet in advance, and look specifically for things that are said differently in Spanish than English. Some examples:
  • As I will mention again later, object pronouns typically appear before the verb, so someone might say "yo te invito" for "I invite you", (where yo = I, te = you).
  • "An hour ago" translates to "hace una hora" (literally "ago an hour"; "hace" also means "do").
  • Never leave out the word "that" (que): say "I think that we're going to eat" (Creo que vamos a comer), not "I think we're going to eat". Say "the boy that I saw" (el niño que vi), not "the boy I saw". And watch out, "que" has many different meanings.
  • Some verbs are spoken in a reverse style: "It pleases me" (me gusta) instead of "I like it", "the face hurts me" (me duele la cara) instead of "My face hurts", and so on. There is a small section on this topic on p.2
  • One says "I have 15 years" ("tengo quince años") instead of "I am 15 years old".
  • There are many "fixed phrases" in Spanish (little phrases one should memorize). For example, "aquí tienes" ("here you have") is equivalent to the English fixed phrase "Here you are", meaning "I present this to you". Far too many of these exist to list them on the quick reference, but a few are provided in the "Small phrases" section on p.2. It is not uncommon that a fixed phrase in Spanish has a different meaning than its direct translation suggests. For example, "otra vez" ("another time") actually means "again" (because Spanish has no word for "again"). Another example is "Dar la mano" ("to give the hand"), meaning "give a handshake".
If you can't find a translation with my quick reference sheet, look for a different way to say the same thing. For example, it doesn't include the noun for "work" (trabajo), but it does include the verb for "work". You won't find "thirsty" or "to drink", but you can find the words "quiero", "agua", and "bebida" ("I want", "water", and the noun for "drink"). I didn't include the word for "clean" ("limpio") but "dirty" ("sucio") is on there, so after you review the "small phrases" section, you could ask someone: "¿Cómo se dice (how to say) lo contrario de sucio (the opposite of dirty)?"

If you use Google Translate, give it a whole sentence at once (including the period!) to get its best translation. Be careful: Google Translate often does not translate correctly or faithfully. has a good dictionary.

The reference can only be so tiny because Spanish is phonetic. The spelling of any word tells you how to say it! Study the rules on p.2. Practice pronunciation as much as possible, and remember: H is silent! Note: “y” (and) is pronounced “i” as in “sí”. Ordinarily "y" can sound like "j" in "joy", but it must makes more of an "i" sound if it appears at the end of a word.

Languages are never translated word-for-word, but all languages have the same basic elements: nouns, pronouns, verbs, descriptive words (adjectives, determiners and adverbs) and connective words (conjunctions and prepositions). The reference is packed with all of these.
  • Nouns (people, places, concepts) are the things we talk about. For example, a boat (un bote) is a noun.
  • Pronouns (e.g. he, they, it) refer to nouns introduced elsewhere.
  • Verbs (e.g. jump, speak, seem, be) combine with nouns to make sentences: un bote va (a boat goes).
  • Adjectives (e.g. tall, happy, late) describe nouns: bote pequeño rápido (fast little boat). Note that Spanish adjectives normally come after the noun, but a few are normally placed before it, e.g. otro (other), bueno (good), mejor (better), pocos (a few). Put numbers in front, too.
  • Determiners (e.g. the, an, each) are little words that come before nouns: el bote (the boat).
  • Adverbs (e.g. today, there, happily, very) describe the time, location, or manner of verbs (llueve hoy = it rains today) or adjectives (muy mojado = very wet) Conjunctions (and, or, if) combine two phrases of the same type: estes y esos (these and those), ver o ser (see or be).
  • Prepositions (e.g. to, for, on, except) serve the same purpose as adverbs, but are followed by a noun: a casa (to home), en la piscina (at the pool)
In the examples section,
  • Verbs are underlined,
  • Nouns/pronouns are bold, and
  • Descriptive words are italicized
  • (In parenthesis: literal translations and words needed in only one language).
This is to help you to see how the English and Spanish sentences are related. (Ésto es para ayudarte a ver cómo las frases Inglés y españoles están relacionados.)

Spanish grammar is more complex than English. Firstly, all nouns have a gender (masculine “m” or feminine “f”) that affects nearby words:
  • Un hombre bueno: a good man
  • Una mujer buena: a good woman
  • El otro horno: the other oven
  • La otra esquina: the other corner
Feminine forms most often end in “a”, masculine forms most often end in “o”. When space permits, this guide marks masculine nouns “el” and feminine ones “la”. The word “the” can also be plural (e.g. los hornos, las esquinas). To make a plural noun, just add -s (or -es if the word does not end in a vowel.) Even adjectives have plural forms: palabras importantes = important words.

Luckily, the order of words in Spanish is often the same as English. For example, the order of the words in this sentence is exactly the same in both English and Spanish: Por ejemplo, el orden de las palabras en esta frase es exactamente el mismo en ambos Inglés y español.

However, pronouns tend to be in different places in Spanish. The pronoun table is on p.1. Here are three rows from it:
I/me yomememí*
you (fam.)tú*teteti
he/him él*loleél*
The star * marks words with multiple meanings. Pronouns are complicated, so study this well:
  • There is no word for “it”, so it is usually translated as “lo” or “la” (him or her): lo for masculine “it”, la for feminine “it”. Use lo if you are unsure.
  • Subject pronouns are the ones that come before the verb in English, e.g. “I, we, he, she”. So “él cocina” means “he cooks” or possibly “it (m) cooks” (as in “the oven cooks”). One can move a subject pronoun to the end (“cocina él”).
  • The direct object comes after the verb in English, e.g. “me, us, him, her”; however, in Spanish it often comes before the verb. So “él cocina” means “he cooks”, but “lo cocina” means “sb. cooks him/it.” (“sb.” is short for “somebody/something”) An indirect object corresponds to the third, middle noun in English sentences. For example, “I give him a bird” translates to “Yo le doy un ave”, and “He gives it to me” translates to “Él me lo da”. The direct object may not be present, so “le voy a mostrar” means “I'm going to show (something to) him/her”, but “lo voy a mostrar” means “I'm going to show him/it (to someone)”. However, notice that “te” or “me” can be a direct or indirect object. So “te voy a mostrar” means “I'm going to show you”—either “show you something”, or “show you to somebody”.
  • Prepositional pronouns come after prepositions, e.g. a mi = to me, para ti = for you, como él = like him.
  • There are also “formal” ways of saying “you”. It's very confusing; just remember, use “le” or “usted” when saying “you” to old people.
By far the most complex issue is verbs. The system of Spanish verbs is terrifyingly complex, no doubt one of the most complex in the world. Spanish verbs have around a hundred regular forms (called conjugations) in total. Verb forms depends on tense (present, past, conditional...), person (first person “I”, second person “you”, third person “he/she”), number (plural or not) and mood (indicative/ subjunctive). Moreover, regular forms may vary depending on whether the infinitive ends in -ar, -er or -ir. Basically, a table of conjugations for one verb can fill a page. Finally, some verbs are irregular, meaning they have their own special conjugations. And Spanish speakers often leave out the subject pronoun (“yo”, “tú”, “él” etc.) because the verb already encodes it!

The first thing to know is that there are two verbs for to be (is): estar and ser. Both have dozens of forms, but the most important are estoy/soy (I am), estas/eres (you are), esta/es (someone or something is), and estan/son (they are). A table on p.1 lists some of these:
tenseI doSb. doesI didSb. did
be - sersoyesfui*fue*
be - estarestoyestáestuveestuvo
  • ser describes the time or date (es lunes = it's monday; son las tres = it's three (3:00); ella es tarde = she is late).
  • ser also describes qualities that are innate or expected: soy blanco = I'm white, ella es feliz = she is happy (normally), él es malo (he is a bad guy)
  • estar describes location or present status: está aquí = it's here, estoy feliz = I'm happy (at present), él está malo = he is ill (a few adjectives can change meaning when you change from estar to ser.)
Other than that, don't worry too much about verbs at first: just use the infinitive form (which ends in -r) so that people know you aren't any good at Spanish yet. Tell them, “hable muy despacio, por favor” (speak very slowly please) and “no hablo español” (I don't speak Spanish). You could also ask for "una palabra a la vez" (one word at a time). Use time phrases when appropriate: “ahora” now, “hoy” today, “ayer” yesterday, “próximo mes” next month, "mañana" tomorrow, "esta mañana" this morning, "en la mañana" in the morning (yes, mañana means both "tomorrow" and "morning"), "en el pasado" in the past, "en el futuro" in the future.

When you're ready, memorize the “important conjugations” on page 1, so you can say correct phrases such as “tengo una idea” (I have an idea) or “ella debe salir” (she should leave).

Also, you should learn that “-o” endings usually mean “I (present tense)”, and “-es” endings usually mean “you (present tense)”. After you have practiced Spanish for a long time, you should start using the verb table on p.3. Note: a lot of related nouns also end in “o”; e.g. “almuerzo” can mean either “lunch” or “I eat lunch”; “trabajo” is “work” or “I work”.

A pronoun after the verb may merge with it to form one word, e.g. dime (tell me), llamarse (to call oneself). Some Spanish verbs are “reflexive”, typically involving the word “se”; these are different from the “Reverse verbs” listed on p.2. I'll explain those briefly in the list of "tips" below.

A word's range of meaning varies a lot between languages, e.g. sentence normally becomes "frase" in Spanish, but a punishment for a crime is a "sentencia". "to work" is trabajar, but if you want to say "This thing doesn't work", it should be "esta cosa no funciona". I carefully picked translations, but watch out for variations of meaning, especially when entries are marked with a star (*) or tilde (~).

Here are some more tips:
  • When a woman describes herself, she uses feminine adjectives, but when a man describes himself, he uses masculine adjectives. For example, "Soy rico" means "I am rich", but it also indicates that I am a man. A woman should say "Soy rica". The adjectives on the reference sheet are in masculine form; change any -o ending to -a for feminine.
  • Watch out for words with multiple unrelated meanings. Common examples are el/él (the/he), la (the/her), si/sí (if/whether/yes), está/ésta (is/this), se/sé (meaning itself, himself, herself, themselves, or "I know"), que/qué (meaning "that", "than", or "what", among other things). Often, the presence of an accent mark (or in spoken Spanish, different emphasis or rhythm) conveys the difference.
  • Be sure to review the "No translation needed" section on p.1, bottom-right corner. This is divided into two halves: masculine nouns on the left, feminine ones on the right. To save space, these Spanish nouns, which are spelled similarly to English nouns that mean the same thing, are not listed elsewhere on the reference. At the bottom are nouns for people, which do not happen to change form depending on gender: "el doctor" the (male) doctor, "la doctor" the (female) doctor. Remember, although spelled like English words, you must pronounce them according to Spanish rules! For example, "doctor" is pronounced "doke-TOR", not "DAHK-ter".
  • Likewise there is a section on p.2 for adjectives that need no translation. I recently discovered a large number of these adjectives, and included them in microprint: correcto, incorrecto, importante, final, falso, diferente, decente, delicioso, digital, elegante, evidente, extra, extremo, fatal, familiar, fantástico, favorito, federal, flexible, genérico, genético, glorioso, ilegal, ilegible, imaginario, histórico, honesto, horrible, humano, ignorante, impenetrable, incalculable, imprudente, incoherente, injusto, incomparable, incompatible, incompetente, incompleto, inconveniente, inteligente, invisible, irritable, lamentable, paternal, perfecto, permanente, persuasivo, popular, público, radial, receptivo, redundante, regional, repugnante, resonante, ridículo, robusto, romántico, selecto, transparente
  • As in English, words can have many synonyms; usually I did not list them on the quick reference unless there was unused space. I can only hope that a Spanish person doesn't have to continue learning new words into adulthood like an English person (as the English language contains around a million words).
  • When you want to use a verb pair like "I can say", "I want to eat", "He learns to swim", etc., the first verb gets the tense information and the second verb is simply the infinitive, e.g. "Puedo decir hola"(I can say hello), "Quiero comer" (I want to eat), "He learns to swim" (Él aprende a nadar). Roughly like English, some verbs require the "to" (Spanish "a") after the first verb while others do not. The reference has a list of these "verb chains" in small print on p.2. Luckily, Spanish doesn't seem to have the helping verbs that make English grammar more complex (except for the many forms of "have"--haya, hubiere, etc.--which the quick reference does not cover at all).
  • Verbs that end in "s" usually mean "you" or "we", e.g. comes = You eat, comemos = We eat, comías = you used to eat, comimos = we ate. Some "you/we" conjugations do not end in "s", but if it does end in "s" then you know that the verb includes the concept of "you" or "we". The "we" verbs usually end in "mos" so you can tell them apart from the "you" verbs.
  • "you" plural familiar (vosotros) and its many conjugations are only required in Spain. Latin America uses "ustedes", which conjugates the same way as third-person plurals like ellas/ellos.
  • The Spanish equivalent of "ing" endings is "iendo" or "ando": está comiendo = is eating, está hablando = is speaking. However, after a preposition, an infinitive is used instead: "antes de comer" (before eating).
  • If you need past, future or some other tense, I hypothesize that you will be understood if you just use the infinitive form (hablar, comer, vivir) plus a time phrase (en el pasado, en el futuro, hace poco, pronto). When possible, use "va a" (El va a comer = He is-going to eat) or "voy" (I am going) so that you can speak about the future correctly without conjugating the verb. "va" or "voy" can be used by themselves to mean "going" (Voy ahora = I am going now). Oh, by the way, a common phrase is "vamos"--literally "we are going", but it usually means "let's go".
  • Occasionally, the word "lo" (which should mean "him" or "it") means "the" instead. This occurs in idioms (fixed expressions) such as "lo mismo" (the same), "lo contrario de" (the opposite of). "lo" also appears, without any apparent meaning, in fixed expressions such as "por lo tanto" (therefore) and "a lo mejor" (probably).
  • Finally, a word about the reflexive verbs. Most often, reflexive verbs are actions that you do to yourself: levarse (wash oneself), llamarse (call oneself; be named), ducharse (shower oneself; take a shower), quitarse la ropa (undress, literally "remove oneself the clothing"). So I might say "me ducho" (I shower myself), or "se ducha" (he/she showers themself). There are many reflexive verbs, so "se" (self, not to be confused with sé "I know") is much more common in Spanish than English. In fact, the concept of reflexive verbs goes well beyond what makes logical sense; many reflexive verbs are not actions that we think of as doing to ourselves. For example, "despertarse" means to wake up oneself, although English speakers don't think of this as something we do to ourselves because we are unconscious when it happens. Similarly, we may say about a baby "el bebé se llamo Gloria" (the baby calls herself Gloria), although the baby may not even know its name yet. Finally, some reflexive verbs even describe actions we clearly do to something else. For example, "estacionarse", meaning to park a car, literally means "to station oneself". However, a reflexive verb is never between two people: the object of the reflexive verb can involve inanimate objects (like clothes being removed or a car being parked) but not a person. At least that's my working theory.
Finally, study the examples, watch the excelente BBC online course “Mi Vida Loca”, read this page repeatedly, and practice as much as you can. ¡Buena suerte! (good luck!)

Monday, January 03, 2011

Learning Spanish

My Spanish learning is coming along fairly nicely. I still can't understand most spoken Spanish (Hable muy lento, por favor... ¡soy un principiante!), but given a little time to examine, I can understand a significant amount of written Spanish.

I'm using and BBC Languages ("mi vida loca"). The BBC's lessons are free and more entertaining, but don't teach as much; and you can learn a lot on for free if you rely on peer review. Livemocha is sort of a low-quality version of Rosetta Stone, without a computer to check your pronounciation, with lazy translations (e.g. "entregando" translated as "giving" [dando] instead of "deliver", "submit" or "surrender"; "tomando" translated as "eat" [comer] instead of "taking in" which would be more accurate), and poor teaching practices: failing to introduce the gender of many new nouns, failing to introduce the infinitive form of new verbs, and using present continuous probably far more than real Spanish speakers do. Plus there is absolutely no explanation of spelling rules, grammar rules, or differences between different Spanish-speaking countries. And their word choices seem off; for example they always use "automóvil" for a car instead of the more common "coche" or "carro". Still, when combined with other sources of information such as this grammar tutorial and verb reference, you can learn a lot from Livemocha.

I wish they'd focus on breadth rather than depth though. Livemocha seems to have introduced three or four verbs each that all mean "take" and "put", two words each for "pour", "hair", "hot" and "rough"... and after dozens of lessons they still haven't introduced important words such as: make (as in, he makes me happy!), know, learn, seem, understand, find, hear, say, try, maybe, probably, together, too much, slow, therefore/so, if.... They also haven't introduced conversational phrases such as "I don't understand", "I know/I don't know", "anything else?", "say again?", "pleased to meet you", "How much does it cost?", "The bill please", "for example", "my name is ____", "come here", "let's go", "how do you say?", "wow", "yay", "really?", "are you sure?", etc.

After studying Esperanto awhile, I realized that you can express a good percentage of your thoughts with only a few hundred words--but when it comes to natural languages, which are a minefield of ambiguity and strange rules, only someone that knows the language well can choose "safe" words that are not likely to cause confusion. For example, in Spanish there are at least two words for "hot", "caluroso" and "caliente", used in different contexts. If you only have time to learn one of those words, which one should you learn? I heard that if a person is described as "caliente", it means horny. Hot food is supposed to be described as "caliente", but if it also means horny, it's probably better to teach beginners "caluroso" and risk that they will call food "caluroso", rather than risk that they will ask a woman if she is "caliente". ¡¿Qué?!

Google translate constantly ticks me off for various reasons. Its dictionary, for example. Quite often there is one very good translation for a word, for example, "difícil" means "difficult". But when you put "difícil" in Google translate, it offers "difficult" first plus 18 other possibilities: hard, tough, tricky, complicated, awkward, arduous, problem, painful, heavy, delicate, difficile, grave, picky, off-putting, complicative, tender, wild, touch-and-go. Damn it, I want a translation, not a thesaurus. Most of these translations are very misleading, of course. Rocks are "hard", Leather is "tough", magicians are "tricky", women are "complicated", nerds are "awkward", circumcisions are "painful", and pidgeons are "wild", but probably "difícil" is the wrong translation in all of these cases. When they give me 19 possibilities, how am I supposed to know which ones are important enough to worry about? Because "difícil" is spelled like "difficult", it's probably safe to assume that "difficult" is the only translation that matters. But what if the word had been something unrecognizable like "falpike"--how would I know which translations are relevant? Spanish-English dictionaries, I fear, might be even worse than Esperanto-English ones. And not only is the dictionary terrible, Google's translation engine sucks and cannot be trusted either, but I have better things to do right now than to investigate why.

Oh dictionary writers, why don't you give some examples that would clearly show what a word means in different contexts? Or why not explain with complete sentences? Especially on the internet, you have enough space.

Anyway, I plan to make a new version of my Spanish Quick Reference that incorporates some corrections, some new words, and a third page with common conjugations of 25 verbs. I might have to expand it to four pages actually; perhaps I'll dedicate a page to examples or something.