Econstudentlog

Words

I’ve usually in the past combined these lists with other stuff, but I am now strongly considering making these lists into posts of their own in order to make a potential lack of ‘other stuff’ to include in such posts less likely to stop me from posting the words; stuff I don’t blog is more likely to get lost to my memory, so I don’t want to give myself any more excuses not to blog stuff I want to remember/learn than I have to. Most of the words are from books I’ve read over the last weeks, I rarely spend time on vocabulary.com these days (I don’t encounter enough new words on the site these days to justify a significant amount of activity there; there are too many review questions, likely a result of me having mastered words much faster than they’ve added new ones..).

I’ve by now decided to stop (more-or-less…-) systematically checking in each case if I’ve already included a word on a similar list in a previous post; not all the words on these lists from now on will necessarily be ‘new’ to me (to the extent that the words on the previous lists have been, that is…) – so some of these words (and the words to come, assuming other posts will follow) are likely just words I’ve forgot about, and some are words I simply consider to be ‘nice’/’unappreciated’/’not encountered often enough’… I decided to split the words in this post up into smaller groups of words, as one big chunk of words looked slightly ‘scary’ and unapproachable to me. There’s no system to the groupings, the words were originally randomly added to a list I keep of words I knew I’d want to get back to at some point and the cut-offs I later applied when writing this post were more or less completely arbitrary. If you want non-arbitrary groups of interesting words, I refer to the goodreads lists.

Saudade, malapertauriferousfrissonanchorite, lacquerermisoneismcamarilla, cloy, cooper, prevaricatory, impugn, prestidigitation, compeer, lapidary, contumely, contumelious.

Dotard, creel, parricide, assonance, habiliment, assail, mimesis, investiture, irruption, tenuity, tribulation, analectic, succour, augercanker, apophthegm, haruspex, rapine.

Sward, chafferer, argol, sprightly, disport, eyas, garishly, teeter, flocculent, crick, dandle, picaresque, newelanamnesis, imprecateemically, mulch, sommelier, julienne.

Logomachy, chockablock, fusty, diarchy, perfervid, estivationlogy, tumescence, portcullislox, unprocurable, admonitory, kelp, enjambment, lithography.

February 14, 2017 Posted by | language | Leave a comment

Random Stuff

i. On the youtube channel of the Institute for Advanced Studies there has been a lot of activity over the last week or two (far more than 100 new lectures have been uploaded, and it seems new uploads are still being added at this point), and I’ve been watching a few of the recently uploaded astrophysics lectures. They’re quite technical, but you can watch them and follow enough of the content to have an enjoyable time despite not understanding everything:


This is a good lecture, very interesting. One major point made early on: “the take-away message is that the most common planet in the galaxy, at least at shorter periods, are planets for which there is no analogue in the solar system. The most common kind of planet in the galaxy is a planet with a radius of two Earth radii.” Another big take-away message is that small planets seem to be quite common (as noted in the conclusions, “16% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-sized planet”).


Of the lectures included in this post this was the one I liked the least; there are too many (‘obstructive’) questions/interactions between lecturer and attendants along the way, and the interactions/questions are difficult to hear/understand. If you consider watching both this lecture and the lecture below, I would say that it would probably be wise to watch the lecture below this one before you watch this one; I concluded that in retrospect some of the observations made early on in the lecture below would have been useful to know about before watching this lecture. (The first half of the lecture below was incidentally to me somewhat easier to follow than was the second half, but especially the first half hour of it is really quite good, despite the bad start (which one can always blame on Microsoft…)).

ii. Words I’ve encountered recently (…or ‘recently’ – it’s been a while since I last posted one of these lists): Divagationsperiphrasis, reedy, architravesettpedipalp, tout, togs, edentulous, moue, tatty, tearaway, prorogue, piscine, fillip, sop, panniers, auxology, roister, prepossessing, cantle, catamite, couth, ordure, biddy, recrudescence, parvenu, scupper, husting, hackle, expatiate, affray, tatterdemalion, eructation, coppice, dekko, scull, fulmination, pollarding, grotty, secateurs, bumf (I must admit that I like this word – it seems fitting, somehow, to use that word for this concept…), durophagy, randy, (brief note to self: Advise people having children who ask me about suggestions for how to name them against using this name (or variants such as Randi), it does not seem like a great idea), effete, apricity, sororal, bint, coition, abaft, eaves, gadabout, lugubriously, retroussé, landlubber, deliquescence, antimacassar, inanition.

iii. “The point of rigour is not to destroy all intuition; instead, it should be used to destroy bad intuition while clarifying and elevating good intuition. It is only with a combination of both rigorous formalism and good intuition that one can tackle complex mathematical problems; one needs the former to correctly deal with the fine details, and the latter to correctly deal with the big picture. Without one or the other, you will spend a lot of time blundering around in the dark (which can be instructive, but is highly inefficient). So once you are fully comfortable with rigorous mathematical thinking, you should revisit your intuitions on the subject and use your new thinking skills to test and refine these intuitions rather than discard them. One way to do this is to ask yourself dumb questions; another is to relearn your field.” (Terry Tao, There’s more to mathematics than rigour and proofs)

iv. A century of trends in adult human height. A figure from the paper (Figure 3 – Change in adult height between the 1896 and 1996 birth cohorts):

elife-13410-fig3-v1

(Click to view full size. WordPress seems to have changed the way you add images to a blog post – if this one is even so annoyingly large, I apologize, I have tried to minimize it while still retaining detail, but the original file is huge). An observation from the paper:

“Men were taller than women in every country, on average by ~11 cm in the 1896 birth cohort and ~12 cm in the 1996 birth cohort […]. In the 1896 birth cohort, the male-female height gap in countries where average height was low was slightly larger than in taller nations. In other words, at the turn of the 20th century, men seem to have had a relative advantage over women in undernourished compared to better-nourished populations.”

I haven’t studied the paper in any detail but intend to do so at a later point in time.

v. I found this paper, on Exercise and Glucose Metabolism in Persons with Diabetes Mellitus, interesting in part because I’ve been very surprised a few times by offhand online statements made by diabetic athletes, who had observed that their blood glucose really didn’t drop all that fast during exercise. Rapid and annoyingly large drops in blood glucose during exercise have been a really consistent feature of my own life with diabetes during adulthood. It seems that there may be big inter-individual differences in terms of the effects of exercise on glucose in diabetics. From the paper:

“Typically, prolonged moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (i.e., 30–70% of one’s VO2max) causes a reduction in glucose concentrations because of a failure in circulating insulin levels to decrease at the onset of exercise.12 During this type of physical activity, glucose utilization may be as high as 1.5 g/min in adolescents with type 1 diabetes13 and exceed 2.0 g/min in adults with type 1 diabetes,14 an amount that quickly lowers circulating glucose levels. Persons with type 1 diabetes have large interindividual differences in blood glucose responses to exercise, although some intraindividual reproducibility exists.15 The wide ranging glycemic responses among individuals appears to be related to differences in pre-exercise blood glucose concentrations, the level of circulating counterregulatory hormones and the type/duration of the activity.2

August 13, 2016 Posted by | astronomy, demographics, diabetes, language, Lectures, mathematics, Physics, random stuff | Leave a comment

Random stuff

I find it difficult to find the motivation to finish the half-finished drafts I have lying around, so this will have to do. Some random stuff below.

i.

(15.000 views… In some sense that seems really ‘unfair’ to me, but on the other hand I doubt neither Beethoven nor Gilels care; they’re both long dead, after all…)

ii. New/newish words I’ve encountered in books, on vocabulary.com or elsewhere:

Agleyperipeteia, disseverhalidom, replevinsocage, organdie, pouffe, dyarchy, tauricide, temerarious, acharnement, cadger, gravamen, aspersion, marronage, adumbrate, succotash, deuteragonist, declivity, marquetry, machicolation, recusal.

iii. A lecture:

It’s been a long time since I watched it so I don’t have anything intelligent to say about it now, but I figured it might be of interest to one or two of the people who still subscribe to the blog despite the infrequent updates.

iv. A few wikipedia articles (I won’t comment much on the contents or quote extensively from the articles the way I’ve done in previous wikipedia posts – the links shall have to suffice for now):

Duverger’s law.

Far side of the moon.

Preference falsification.

Russian political jokes. Some of those made me laugh (e.g. this one: “A judge walks out of his chambers laughing his head off. A colleague approaches him and asks why he is laughing. “I just heard the funniest joke in the world!” “Well, go ahead, tell me!” says the other judge. “I can’t – I just gave someone ten years for it!”).

Political mutilation in Byzantine culture.

v. World War 2, if you think of it as a movie, has a highly unrealistic and implausible plot, according to this amusing post by Scott Alexander. Having recently read a rather long book about these topics, one aspect I’d have added had I written the piece myself would be that an additional factor making the setting seem even more implausible is how so many presumably quite smart people were so – what at least in retrospect seems – unbelievably stupid when it came to Hitler’s ideas and intentions before the war. Going back to Churchill’s own life I’d also add that if you were to make a movie about Churchill’s life during the war, which you could probably relatively easily do if you were to just base it upon his own copious and widely shared notes, then it could probably be made into a quite decent movie. His own comments, remarks, and observations certainly made for a great book.

May 15, 2016 Posted by | astronomy, Computer science, history, language, Lectures, mathematics, music, random stuff, Russia, wikipedia | Leave a comment

Random Stuff

i. Some new words I’ve encountered (not all of them are from vocabulary.com, but many of them are):

Uxoricide, persnickety, logy, philoprogenitive, impassive, hagiography, gunwale, flounce, vivify, pelage, irredentism, pertinacity,callipygous, valetudinarian, recrudesce, adjuration, epistolary, dandle, picaresque, humdinger, newel, lightsome, lunette, inflect, misoneism, cormorant, immanence, parvenu, sconce, acquisitiveness, lingual, Macaronic, divot, mettlesome, logomachy, raffish, marginalia, omnifarious, tatter, licit.

ii. A lecture:

I got annoyed a few times by the fact that you can’t tell where he’s pointing when he’s talking about the slides, which makes the lecture harder to follow than it ought to be, but it’s still an interesting lecture.

iii. Facts about Dihydrogen Monoxide. Includes coverage of important neglected topics such as ‘What is the link between Dihydrogen Monoxide and school violence?’ After reading the article, I am frankly outraged that this stuff’s still legal!

iv. Some wikipedia links of interest:

Steganography.

Steganography […] is the practice of concealing a file, message, image, or video within another file, message, image, or video. The word steganography combines the Greek words steganos (στεγανός), meaning “covered, concealed, or protected”, and graphein (γράφειν) meaning “writing”. […] Generally, the hidden messages appear to be (or be part of) something else: images, articles, shopping lists, or some other cover text. For example, the hidden message may be in invisible ink between the visible lines of a private letter. Some implementations of steganography that lack a shared secret are forms of security through obscurity, whereas key-dependent steganographic schemes adhere to Kerckhoffs’s principle.[1]

The advantage of steganography over cryptography alone is that the intended secret message does not attract attention to itself as an object of scrutiny. Plainly visible encrypted messages—no matter how unbreakable—arouse interest, and may in themselves be incriminating in countries where encryption is illegal.[2] Thus, whereas cryptography is the practice of protecting the contents of a message alone, steganography is concerned with concealing the fact that a secret message is being sent, as well as concealing the contents of the message.”

H. H. Holmes. A really nice guy.

Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1861 – May 7, 1896), better known under the name of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or more commonly just H. H. Holmes, was one of the first documented serial killers in the modern sense of the term.[1][2] In Chicago, at the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Holmes opened a hotel which he had designed and built for himself specifically with murder in mind, and which was the location of many of his murders. While he confessed to 27 murders, of which nine were confirmed, his actual body count could be up to 200.[3] He brought an unknown number of his victims to his World’s Fair Hotel, located about 3 miles (4.8 km) west of the fair, which was held in Jackson Park. Besides being a serial killer, H. H. Holmes was also a successful con artist and a bigamist. […]

Holmes purchased an empty lot across from the drugstore where he built his three-story, block-long hotel building. Because of its enormous structure, local people dubbed it “The Castle”. The building was 162 feet long and 50 feet wide. […] The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes’ own relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a labyrinth of rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways leading to nowhere, doors that could only be opened from the outside and a host of other strange and deceptive constructions. Holmes was constantly firing and hiring different workers during the construction of the Castle, claiming that “they were doing incompetent work.” His actual reason was to ensure that he was the only one who fully understood the design of the building.[3]

Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

“The Minnesota Starvation Experiment […] was a clinical study performed at the University of Minnesota between November 19, 1944 and December 20, 1945. The investigation was designed to determine the physiological and psychological effects of severe and prolonged dietary restriction and the effectiveness of dietary rehabilitation strategies.

The motivation of the study was twofold: First, to produce a definitive treatise on the subject of human starvation based on a laboratory simulation of severe famine and, second, to use the scientific results produced to guide the Allied relief assistance to famine victims in Europe and Asia at the end of World War II. It was recognized early in 1944 that millions of people were in grave danger of mass famine as a result of the conflict, and information was needed regarding the effects of semi-starvation—and the impact of various rehabilitation strategies—if postwar relief efforts were to be effective.”

“most of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression.[1]:161 There were extreme reactions to the psychological effects during the experiment including self-mutilation (one subject amputated three fingers of his hand with an axe, though the subject was unsure if he had done so intentionally or accidentally).[5] Participants exhibited a preoccupation with food, both during the starvation period and the rehabilitation phase. Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation.[1]:123–124 […] One of the crucial observations of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment […] is that the physical effects of the induced semi-starvation during the study closely approximate the conditions experienced by people with a range of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.”

Post-vasectomy pain syndrome. Vasectomy reversal is a risk people probably know about, but this one seems to also be worth being aware of if one is considering having a vasectomy.

Transport in the Soviet Union (‘good article’). A few observations from the article:

“By the mid-1970s, only eight percent of the Soviet population owned a car. […]  From 1924 to 1971 the USSR produced 1 million vehicles […] By 1975 only 8 percent of rural households owned a car. […] Growth of motor vehicles had increased by 224 percent in the 1980s, while hardcore surfaced roads only increased by 64 percent. […] By the 1980s Soviet railways had become the most intensively used in the world. Most Soviet citizens did not own private transport, and if they did, it was difficult to drive long distances due to the poor conditions of many roads. […] Road transport played a minor role in the Soviet economy, compared to domestic rail transport or First World road transport. According to historian Martin Crouch, road traffic of goods and passengers combined was only 14 percent of the volume of rail transport. It was only late in its existence that the Soviet authorities put emphasis on road construction and maintenance […] Road transport as a whole lagged far behind that of rail transport; the average distance moved by motor transport in 1982 was 16.4 kilometres (10.2 mi), while the average for railway transport was 930 km per ton and 435 km per ton for water freight. In 1982 there was a threefold increase in investment since 1960 in motor freight transport, and more than a thirtyfold increase since 1940.”

March 3, 2016 Posted by | biology, history, language, Lectures, random stuff, wikipedia, Zoology | Leave a comment

A couple of lectures and a little bit of random stuff

i. Two lectures from the Institute for Advanced Studies:

The IAS has recently uploaded a large number of lectures on youtube, and the ones I blog here are a few of those where you can actually tell from the title what the lecture is about; I find it outright weird that these people don’t include the topic covered in the lecture in their lecture titles.

As for the video above, as usual for the IAS videos it’s annoying that you can’t hear the questions asked by the audience, but the sound quality of this video is at least quite a bit better than the sound quality of the video below (which has a couple of really annoying sequences, in particular around the 15-16 minutes mark (it gets better), where the image is also causing problems, and in the last couple of minutes of the Q&A things are also not exactly optimal as the lecturer leaves the area covered by the camera in order to write something on the blackboard – but you don’t know what he’s writing and you can’t see the lecturer, because the camera isn’t following him). I found most of the above lecture easier to follow than I did the lecture posted below, though in either case you’ll probably not understand all of it unless you’re an astrophysicist – you definitely won’t in case of the latter lecture. I found it helpful to look up a few topics along the way, e.g. the wiki articles about the virial theorem (/also dealing with virial mass/radius), active galactic nucleus (this is the ‘AGN’ she refers to repeatedly), and the Tully–Fisher relation.

Given how many questions are asked along the way it’s really annoying that you in most cases can’t hear what people are asking about – this is definitely an area where there’s room for improvement in the context of the IAS videos. The lecture was not easy to follow but I figured along the way that I understood enough of it to make it worth watching the lecture to the end (though I’d say you’ll not miss much if you stop after the lecture – around the 1.05 hours mark – and skip the subsequent Q&A). I’ve relatively recently read about related topics, e.g. pulsar formation and wave- and fluid dynamics, and if I had not I probably would not have watched this lecture to the end.

ii. A vocabulary.com update. I’m slowly working my way up to the ‘Running Dictionary’ rank (I’m only a walking dictionary at this point); here’s some stuff from my progress page:

Vocab
I recently learned from a note added to a list that I’ve actually learned a very large proportion of all words available on vocabulary.com, which probably also means that I may have been too harsh on the word selection algorithm in past posts here on the blog; if there aren’t (/m)any new words left to learn it should not be surprising that the algorithm presents me with words I’ve already mastered, and it’s not the algorithm’s fault that there aren’t more words available for me to learn (well, it is to the extent that you’re of the opinion that questions should be automatically created by the algorithm as well, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet at this point). The aforementioned note was added in June, and here’s the important part: “there are words on your list that Vocabulary.com can’t teach yet. Vocabulary.com can teach over 12,000 words, but sadly, these aren’t among them”. ‘Over 12.000’ – and I’ve mastered 11.300. When the proportion of mastered words is this high, not only will the default random word algorithm mostly present you with questions related to words you’ve already mastered; but it actually also starts to get hard to find lists with many words you’ve not already mastered – I’ll often load lists with one hundred words and then realize that I’ve mastered every word on the list. This is annoying if you have a desire to continually be presented with both new words as well as old ones. Unless vocabulary.com increases the rate with which they add new words I’ll run out of new words to learn, and if that happens I’m sure it’ll be much more difficult for me to find motivation to use the site.

With all that stuff out of the way, if you’re not a regular user of the site I should note – again – that it’s an excellent resource if you desire to increase your vocabulary. Below is a list of words I’ve encountered on the site in recent weeks(/months?):

Copaceticfrumpyelisiontermagantharridanquondam, funambulist, phantasmagoriaeyelet, cachinnate, wilt, quidnunc, flocculent, galoot, frangible, prevaricate, clarion, trivet, noisome, revenant, myrmidon (I have included this word once before in a post of this type, but it is in my opinion a very nice word with which more people should be familiar…), debenture, teeter, tart, satiny, romp, auricular, terpsichorean, poultice, ululation, fusty, tangy, honorarium, eyas, bumptious, muckraker, bayou, hobble, omphaloskepsis, extemporize, virago, rarefaction, flibbertigibbet, finagle, emollient.

iii. I don’t think I’d do things exactly the way she’s suggesting here, but the general idea/approach seems to me appealing enough for it to be worth at least keeping in mind if I ever decide to start dating/looking for a partner.

iv. Some wikipedia links:

Tarrare (featured). A man with odd eating habits and an interesting employment history (“Dr. Courville was keen to continue his investigations into Tarrare’s eating habits and digestive system, and approached General Alexandre de Beauharnais with a suggestion that Tarrare’s unusual abilities and behaviour could be put to military use.[9] A document was placed inside a wooden box which was in turn fed to Tarrare. Two days later, the box was retrieved from his excrement, with the document still in legible condition.[9][17] Courville proposed to de Beauharnais that Tarrare could thus serve as a military courier, carrying documents securely through enemy territory with no risk of their being found if he were searched.” Yeah…).

Cauda equina syndromeCastleman’s disease, Astereognosis, Familial dysautonomia, Homonymous hemianopsia, Amaurosis fugax. All of these are of course related to content covered in the Handbook.

1740 Batavia massacre (featured).

v. I am also fun.

October 30, 2015 Posted by | astronomy, history, language, Lectures, medicine, personal, Physics, random stuff, wikipedia | Leave a comment

(10.000) Words…

“The language denotes the man. A coarse or refined character finds its expression naturally in a coarse or refined phraseology.” (Christian Nestell Bovee)

10.000

(Click to view details/full size)

Doff, pabulum, astringent, enervate, mountebank, argot, sluice, sequin, indite, vitiate, simper, tarry, casuistry, saturnine, sidle, meretricious, fugacious, esurient, scabrous, disquisition, winsome, sedulous, badinage, abeyance, effrontery, minatory, synecdoche, lubricious, adjure, asperse, encumbrance, careen, desuetude, syllepsis, limn, bathetic, surcease, taut, tribulation, chrysalis, farrier, vane, virago, rictus, gewgaw, vituperate, curdleichthyology, abrogate, stultify, approbatory, intrepid, nugatory, contumacious, append, vociferate, tenebrous, arrogate, vermilion, descry, sententious, repine, procrustean, undulate, abstemious, palter, iniquitous, endue, lugubrious, obloquy, obdurate, importunate, apotheosis, obviateperegrinate, sacrum, …

In a way it makes absolutely no sense for someone like me to spend as much time on this stuff as I have over the last year or two; I almost never engage in conversations with other people as I rarely interact with other people at all (and also tend to avoid conversations when I do because conversations are usually unpleasant), and when I do both interact and converse with other people I only rarely engage in conversations in English as my first language, and the first language of most of the people with whom I interact regularly, is Danish. If the aim were to improve my vocabulary in order to hide my stupidity (‘make me look smarter’), I’d do a lot better by learning some more fancy-sounding Danish words. As it is, I can’t even remember the last time I last looked up a word in a Danish dictionary, but it’s been at least a few years (if not much more than that). Of course on the other hand I do read a lot of books, and I only read books in English. So it’s probably not a complete waste of time. But I’ve been thinking lately that I might derive a lot more benefit from these sorts of activities, in the sense that more words would ‘stick’, if I actually had to interact with other people in English on a daily basis. It seems to me likely that in a sense my language production capabilities might not be improved as much by these activities as are my language consumption capabilities. What I mean by this is that I frequently encounter new words I’ve worked on in the books I read, but at the same time I’m very rarely forced to ever actually use any of them in conversations with other people, so I don’t. I don’t know enough about linguistics to tell if this distinction between production and consumption matters, but it seems to me that it might. On a related note I’ve recently had the idea that my activities in these areas might implicitly be lowering my opportunity costs of book-reading, compared to personal interactions with others, because these activities make it easier for me to read books but does not at the same time much improve upon my social skills (e.g. conversational skills; though I’m on a related note open to the suggestion that conversational skills and vocabulary size are in some contexts relevant to this discussion in fact perhaps best conceived of as orthogonal variables (which doesn’t help at all…)) – which is hardly what I would conceive of as a desirable outcome. Oh well.

As you should have been able to infer from the screencap above and/or the post title, I’ve by now reached another major milestone (here’s the first one) on the vocabulary.com site as I have now ‘mastered’ more than 10.000 words on the site – I figured it made sense to make a post about this and related matters, and this is the post in question. In the time that has passed since I wrote the post to which I link above the site has undergone a few minor changes, but actually most of it works pretty much the same way it did last year; if you’re curious about how the vocabulary.com site works and you have not heard about it before, go have a look at that post before reading on. As I have noted before I don’t fully trust the vocabulary.com dictionary; or at least I like Webster’s online dictionary better, which is why the links above are all to Webster entries. I’ll often ‘check out’ particular words which I’m curious about after having encountered them on vocabulary.com, because sometimes specific interpretations of the words in question are simply wrong, or at least so I would argue; if the site is trying to tell me that a specific word means X, but I ‘know’ that it doesn’t and the Webster entry also provides zero support for this specific usage/interpretation – or actively ‘disagrees’ – then I go with Webster and I’ll get annoyed at the people behind vocabulary.com (again). One thing to note when making comparisons here is that in general I believe that the vocabulary.com dictionary has a greater ‘range’ of meanings covered, which also means that if you look up the entries to which I link above you might fail to appreciate how many different types of questions that might be required for someone to ‘master’ the words on vocabulary.com; if the word has some rare meaning in a very specific context, you can expect vocabulary.com to ask you about that before you master the word (and you can expect a subset of those questions to be poorly worded, making you angry at the programmers behind the site). This also means that even if you think you know a word, the site may still cause you some challenges along the way.

I’ve used the site pretty much every week during the last year, though in some periods I used the site very little; the relative inactivity meant that I dropped out of the top 100 list for a while, but over the last weeks I’ve done some more work on the site, and I’m now back in the top 100. So I seem to focus more on improving my vocabulary than do most users on the site, which I actually find somewhat curious given that this tool has apparently been introduced to thousands of children throughout the US. On the other hand I’ve put in a lot of hours when you add them all together (the site actually logging the hours you put in is incidentally a new feature which was not present when I posted my first couple of posts about the site a year ago; I actually didn’t like this feature to start with, in part because I realized how much time I’d spent on this stuff).

The site is in my opinion very bad at explaining how to properly use the site to learn new words in the semi-long run, so I should probably explain why I recently came to ‘rediscover’ my joy of using the site. The main factor rekindling my interest was that I discovered how to use ‘lists’ to focus on new words. If you play the challenge without any bells and whistles and never add lists or anything, you’ll at some point get to a situation where you may well be given 500 questions without ‘mastering’ more than one or two new words; the site will recycle and recycle, asking you hundreds of questions about words you’ve already mastered and occasionally ask you about a new word which you’ll never get enough questions about to actually ever master – this is incredibly frustrating, to the point where I last year decided to send the vocabulary.com staff an email suggesting they make changes to the algorithms, because this just seemed insane and probably killed the motivation for a lot of users. You’d put in 20 hours almost without being allowed to actually achieve mastery of any of the new words, then suddenly you’d ‘master’ more than a thousand words one after the other because now suddenly the site could be bothered to finally allow you to show that you’ve mastered those words the site last asked you about last April – or whenever. Or not – I have a suspicion that a lot of users have given up before this point was reached and just said ‘screw this’ before getting to the mastery questions at the end of the line, and that stuff like this may be part of the reason why I’m in the top 100 list now. If this is true it’s sort of sad, because it seems like such a big missed opportunity; what you’d ideally want is not just a site useful for learning a few thousand words after which the way the site is coded will contribute strongly to making many people sick of it, but rather a site which mixes new words and old in an optimal manner which might encourage users to keep using the site in the long run. People may argue about what’s an optimal mix, but I don’t think you can argue with a straight face that the current configuration is anywhere near this point – and if the perceived optimal mix is different for different people, why not allow users to have an influence on this variable in the first place? In a way the site implicitly does, in an admittedly roundabout manner, give people some influence on these sorts of variables via the lists, but I remained unaware of this for a very long time so a lot of users presumably don’t know this. Either way I certainly think I’m justified in assuming that far more care has been taken to optimize the user experience early on than has been taken to making sure the site remains useful even to people who’ve already mastered a lot of words; I’d argue that the site has an excessive focus on review questions, compared to questions about new words, and from personal experience it has seemed to me that this problem seems to get bigger and bigger the more words you learn.

Adding to the problems mentioned above it also does not help that some of the review questions – not many of them, but some – are so poorly thought out that you can’t really tell what the right answer is supposed to be despite knowing very well what the word means, so you risk getting stuck in loops where a substantial proportion of the questions you’re asked are about words you already know at least in part because the questions are bad (if you answer a tricky review question like that incorrectly, you’ll be given quite a few more other questions in the future about this word you don’t care about and don’t want to answer questions about anymore, because an incorrect answer to a review question is always taken by the site as an indication that you don’t understand the word as well as you should, and never as an indication that someone should seriously have a closer look at some of those shitty questions (again, there aren’t that many of them, but they’re very annoying to someone like me)).

So in short, if you’re contemplating using the site or already does, don’t do what I did – instead of just playing the basic challenge, at some point it becomes necessary to instead start exploring the lists. If you add a list to learn, the site will mostly (though not exclusively) focus on the words on the list you’re currently learning, avoiding the outcome outlined above. You can add more than one list simultaneously. I’ll put it bluntly – if you don’t use lists, this site will eventually kill pretty much all desire to use it, because you’ll eventually get to a point where you’ll feel you’re not making any progress and you’ll also at the same time have the distinct impression that the site actively refuses to give you any opportunities to making progress. I can’t be the only person who until recently did not use lists, and frankly without lists this site is a disaster waiting to happen. If you use lists well, it is however a very useful tool.

The site does not help you with grammar – if you know about a site that does, I’d be curious to know about it in the comments below. On a related note I thought I should end this post with this quite amusing quote from Jerome Jerome’s book Three Men on the Bummel, published in 1900:

“In the course of the century, I am inclined to think that Germany will solve her difficulty in this respect by speaking English. Every boy and girl in Germany, above the peasant class, speaks English. Were English pronunciation less arbitrary, there is not the slightest doubt but that in the course of a very few years, comparatively speaking, it would become the language of the world. All foreigners agree that, grammatically, it is the easiest language of any to learn. A German, comparing it with his own language, where every word in every sentence is governed by at least four distinct and separate rules, tells you that English has no grammar. A good many English people would seem to have come to the same conclusion; but they are wrong. As a matter of fact, there is an English grammar, and one of these days our schools will recognise the fact, and it will be taught to our children, penetrating maybe even into literary and journalistic circles. But at present we appear to agree with the foreigner that it is a quantity neglectable. English pronunciation is the stumbling-block to our progress. English spelling would seem to have been designed chiefly as a disguise to pronunciation. It is a clever idea, calculated to check presumption on the part of the foreigner; but for that he would learn it in a year.”

June 1, 2015 Posted by | language, personal, quotes | Leave a comment