Most Saturdays that aren’t post-perreo recovery days I like to spend at least a chunk of the day either taking care of chores that I didn’t get to during the week (booking travel, responding to personal emails that require long-form response, etc).

This ritual allows me two nice things: for little small things that I know i want to do, I can simply note them in my to-do list app and schedule them for Saturday so I don’t interrupt my productive work flow but it also makes sure those things actually get done.

Today I did two great Saturday tasks of fixing small things that had been bugging me for a while:

  • I fixed my vim config so that searching for a word with # or * won’t automatically jump to the next occurrence (which may be off the screen)
  • I updated my google docs default styling settings so that the header sections and titles are automatically styled the way I like without having to adjust them

These two things seem small, but they’d been driving me bonkers for a while and I feel great being able to check them off the list and reaping the benefits of my very-slightly-increased-productivity for years into the future!

Believe me they’ll bury it

For reasons I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my favorite poem — The Applicant by Sylvia Plath from her collection Ariel. This poem really blew me away the first time I read it — it was honestly the first time that I really felt viscerally impacted by a poem.

Before The Applicant, I had just never really … gotten poetry. I’d read lots of poems in school, and I had learned about the rhyme schemes for Sonnets but I had never appreciated a poem the way I appreciated other forms of fiction or art. When an assignment called for dissecting a poem, I’d always grimace a bit — I’d dutifully read the poem, look up any foreign words, and write an essay commenting on the imagery and assonance without ever really understanding the appeal. I figured I just wasn’t a poetry person, and that was that.

The first time I read The Applicant, it was a shock to my system. I read it once, then I read it again, and again, and again. I couldn’t get enough of it. I downloaded it onto my phone so that I could read it on the subway on the way to work. I spent hours with the poem and I learned something that will come as no-surprise-at-all to people who learned to appreciate poetry before the age of 30: the more you read a poem, the more you can appreciate the layers. Just as you can’t really appreciate a painting while flipping through a coffee-table book, poems must be read over and over and over again (ideally aloud) to be appreciated.

After a while I decided to bite the bullet and just learn the thing by heart so that I wouldn’t have to keep pulling up the text every time I wanted to enjoy it. So for the last two years I’ve kept the poem with me — I recite it to myself when I’m stressed out or need to take my mind off some unpleasant task, like my own modernist lords prayer.

The poem is plainly a treatment of the strictures of traditional domestic life, especially for women. The subject of discussion in the poem is marriage, though of course the wife-to-be never speaks — she is referred to consistently as “it” (“will you marry it?”) and is treated as a domestic good to be given away, or sold, like a vacuum cleaner on a payment plan.  The narrator of the poem, one imagines, is interviewing the (presumably male) titular applicant who is looking for … something. That something may be a wife “willing / to bring teacups and roll away headaches / and do whatever you tell it” or it may simply be admission to the club of normalcy that comes with a wife, and a job, and house with kids and the aspiration that if only you can do what everyone else is doing you’ll be liked, respected, and happy.

And this is the aspect of the poem that really speaks to me — this club of normalcy is tightly binding for everyone involved. The suit is black and stiff — it chafes — and once you put it on, it can be very hard to take off. And here my favorite line in the poem, “believe me they’ll bury you in it” is doing triple duty: it’s the suit salesman’s pitch, claiming such quality and endurance of material that it’ll last you your whole life; it’s that haunting prospect of assuming that persona of normalcy and living it without deviation for the rest of your life; and most profoundly, it’s saying that you, the person you were before, will be buried in it — your individuality itself will be subsumed by the suit and what it symbolizes.

I don’t think it’s hard to imagine why I in particular might find this compelling — I’ve always taken pride in defying people’s expectations (not infrequently in a way that I’m embarrassed about now) and explicitly rejecting the idea that what might make other people happy (or what other people tell other people might make them happy) will work for me. I love The Applicant for expressing those feelings so powerfully, and I hope that, if you hadn’t encountered this poem before, you too might have a new favorite.

I’ll leave you with this recording of Sylvia Plath reading this poem which always leaves me with her voice rattling around in my head for a few hours after listening.

Book Review: Las Muertas (The Dead Girls)

A few weeks ago I finished reading Las Muertas by Jorge Ibargüengoitia and was blown away. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I struggled quite a bit with the vocabulary in this book even though it was recommended to me as a novel in Spanish that would be reasonably accessible for an intermediate Spanish speaker. However, even with such an obstructed reading flow I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. Ibargüengoitia’s style is very straightforward — he uses short sentences without much flowery language or imagery but he writes about absurd situations with a deadpan tone that I found very engaging. Maybe you can imagine a funny Ernest Hemingway south of the border.

The novel follows the story of two sisters (las Baladro) who operate a brothel in semi-rural Mexico in the 1960s. The story is sordid and sad and tragic as it follows the Baladro sisters through a series of mishaps that endanger their business and the lives of their employees. While the sisters are reasonably sympathetic characters in the beginning of the story, throughout the novel Ibargüengoitia provides more and more glimpses of the sisters’ callousness and greed so that by the end of the novel they appear fully despicable.

Structurally, the novel is told in a series of flashbacks starting with the attempted murder of an ex-lover by one of the sisters. This initial attempted murder is, interestingly enough, the most sympathetic portrayal of the sisters because it’s a crime born of passion. This initial act is contrasted with the acts of dispassionate cruelty that are portrayed in the novel. Interestingly, we as readers (or, at least, I as reader) are much more willing to tolerate violence and mayhem when it is born of passion than when it is born of avarice or banality. We are able to identify with the emotions that are driving the characters which humanizes them to us even if we wouldn’t necessarily condone the actions themselves. However, as the novel progresses and we observe the dispassionate cruelty of the sisters we are repelled precisely because of the lack of passion which motivates their actions. A murder born of passion feels much more acceptable than a murder born of greed. This is obviously reflected in our judicial system — we treat crimes of passion and “temporary insanity” with more leniency than we do “premeditated” murder even though from a utilitarian perspective one might reason that the crimes are equally morally wrong.

Beyond the philosophical and ethical underpinnings, I just really enjoyed the way Ibargüengoitia portrayed life in rural Mexico during this period. The characters (especially those treated in B and C subplots that only pop up briefly) are delightfully funny and Ibargüengoitia’s use of Mexicanisms and down-home colloquialisms bring the period to life. So far Las Muertas is probably my favorite book that I’ve read in Spanish so far, though I’m looking forward to tackling Pedro Páramo starting this week.

Book Review: The Fifth Sun

I recently reading the Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend and if you’ve seen me in the past few weeks you probably already know that I can’t stop talking about it. The release of this book coincided well with my desire to learn more about the history of Mexico generally and about life for the pre-conquest peoples of Mexico more specifically. Before reading Fifth Sun I had a very rudimentary knowledge of pre-conquest Mexican culture but had struggled to find any sources that gave me a holistic picture of the current state-of-knowledge about the Aztecs and also held my interest — I had read a mixture of academic articles, wikipedia entries, and the excellent Aztec Empire comic series but I still felt like I didn’t have a very good sense at all about what life was like for the Aztecs and what exactly happened during the 16th century conquest of Mexico.

A few things I’ve learned to start:

  • The “Aztecs” is a misnomer that has permeated popular history / culture. There never existed a group of people who would have collectively referred to themselves as “Aztecs”. The people who founded modern-day Mexico City (then called Tenochtitlan [TAY-know-ch-TEET-lan]) were known as the Mexica (me-SHE-ka) and, at the time of Cortés’s arrival, controlled the most powerful city-state in the region (meaning that they had conquered and required tribute from other city-states covering a fairly large swathe of central Mexico).
  • The Mexicas (and many other people in central Mexico) spoke a language called Nahuatl which is still quite widely spoken (~1.7 million speakers). We get the words for tomato (tomatl), avocado (ahuacatl), and coyote (coyotl) from the Nahuatl language.
  • A lot of what is commonly known about the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the beliefs and histories of the people who lived there before the arrival of Europeans are likely fabrications created by the colonizers to both justify their conquest (spiritually, politically, and legally) and to portray the conquered peoples as naive and unsophisticated. For example, the Mexica did not in fact believe that the Spanish were Gods when they arrived in Mexico, and in fact Moctezuma acted strategically and politically throughout his dealings with the Spaniards.
  • “La Malinche” is a figure mostly unknown in the US and served as Cortés’s translator; in Mexico, her name is synonymous with traitor-to-Mexico. However, with a full understanding of her history and the geopolitics of the region before the arrival of the Europeans, her story becomes much more sympathetic and much more compelling.

What I found really incredible about this book is the way that it really captures and brings to life what life was actually like in pre-conquest Mexico. Townsend achieves this by relying primarily on sources written by Nahuatl historians and scribes during the first 100 years after Cortés’s arrival in Mexico. These documents were written in Nahuatl but using roman script learned from the Spanish, and for many years have been generally ignored by historians or sitting dust-covered in European libraries.

In what must have been a truly gargantuan effort, Townsend (who knows Nahuatl) pulled together a full understanding of the geopolitical and royal-family drama that occurred during the 100 years prior to the conquest. Using this context, she is able to craft a history that is able to capture not only the events that occurred (which makes for a very boring adam-begat-seth type of history) but also the motivations of the key players. Townsend’s knowledge of both the political power struggles and the family histories of the characters allow her to reconstruct plausible motivations for what would seem like totally unfathomable actions otherwise.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a modicum of interest in the topic. It’s highly readable while also being very clearly a well-researched work from a respected academic. One tip that I’d give to a reader which helped me quite a bit is to try to get a handle on Nahuatl pronunciation before jumping in. While Townsend does a good job of avoiding an overwhelming soup of incredibly foreign-sounding names, I found that actually pronouncing the names out-loud while reading the book helped me keep track of the characters.

Learning a language is hard.

I moved to Mexico a little over a year ago and it’s fair to say that I drastically underestimated how difficult it would be to learn to speak Spanish. Before moving here I had been doing some on-and-off self study (i.e., duolingo) plus a mixture of the occasional italki tutoring lessons and two short beginner Spanish courses through Idlewild books in New York. I remember vividly being on the plane here, feeling very confident that I’d be speaking fluently in a few months — really ready to start my Spanish-speaking Mexican life.

I also remember, very vividly, approximately 48 hours later, when I realized 1) how little Spanish I actually knew 2) how difficult it was to communicate with real native speakers even just doing basic every day tasks and 3) how much work I was going to need to put in to be able to reach even a basic functional level of Spanish.

Since then I’ve been putting in at least half an hour a day of dedicated study time, probably averaging around 45 minutes a day over the past year (made up of 20-30 minutes of Anki flashcard review plus another hour of dedicated study on a grammatical topic every few days). That amounts to over 330 hours of dedicated practice over the last 450 days, which doesn’t include the non-dedicated practice time of just … trying to live my life in Spanish. I can now finally say that I speak Spanish — not fluently, and I still make lots of grammatical errors, but I can sit down with a native speaker and talk about my hopes / fears / dreams and actually make jokes (a big milestone!). Using the CEFR framework, I’d put my level in between B2 and C1.

Even with all of those hours of dedicated practice, the amount of vocabulary that I will need to be “fluent” or to simply read a book without having a dictionary at my side is truly staggering. I’d estimate that today I can recognize and understand between five and ten thousand words in Spanish (that is, I have them in my “passive” vocabulary, so I don’t use all of those in speech and writing). Even with that amount of vocabulary, reading a book is a real slog. I recently finished reading a novel, Las Muertas by  Jorge Ibargüengoitia (review forthcoming!), and I made the decision to underline and create an Anki card for every single word that I had to look up in the novel. I ended up with 579 cards. The book is only 183 pages! That’s 3.16 words that I had to look up per page just to get through the novel. And this is a novel that was recommended to me as being relatively straightforward such that someone at my level could get through it.

What that has made me realize is just how large a vocabulary you need to have in order to have native-like comprehension of the culture (books, TV, movies, etc.). Depending on how it’s measured, estimates for the active (words that are used by the person in speech or writing) and passive (words that the listener / reader can recognize and understand in context) vocabulary of native or fluent speakers of a language very widely. This post summarizes some of the research on the topic and notes that “U.S. native English speakers would have acquired a vocabulary of 42,000 words at age 20 and about 48,000 words by age 60.”

 U.S. native English speakers would have acquired a vocabulary of 42,000 words at age 20 and about 48,000 words by age 60.

Just let that sync in — 42,000 words just to have the comprehension of a 20 year old. Over the course of 10 years, the Wall Street Journal used 20,000 unique words! While it is the case that you don’t need to know the meaning of every single word to grasp the meaning of a paragraph, I can tell you that when you’re speaking with someone and they ask you a question that uses a word you don’t know the definition of, the conversation pretty quickly goes dead.

For this reason, most of my study time today is on two things: 1) acquiring more vocabulary via my Anki cards and 2) practicing listening and speaking at a “real life” pace with native speakers. In order to get from where I am today (let’s say 7.5k words) to where I need to be (40k words) I’ll need to learn close to 18 words a day for the next five yearsLetting that sync in for a second, it’s no wonder to me that so many people find learning a new language so daunting — the sheer magnitude of vocabulary you need to know feels truly astronomical!

The Production Function: To-Dos

I focus a lot on trying to maximize my own productivity — I always feel like I have way more things that I want to get done than I have time for doing, so I’ve put into place a number of systems that help me make sure I’m making progress on the things that matter to me without letting all of the other little things in life slip through the cracks. A number of people have asked me about my system for staying productive, so I’ll at least outline it here.

Key Features

  • Make heavy use of google calendar for scheduling — I’ll block off time for heads-down work, for dinners with friends, or just to mark when someone will be in town visiting. I trust the calendar over my memory, so if it’s an event is not on my calendar it’s very unlikely that I will show up!
  • Inbox zero — in both my email inbox and my to-do app, I make sure to get to inbox zero by the end of the day. Doing this helps me keep my mind clear of clutter and reduces the anxiety of opening up an email client and seeing a huge inbox of things outstanding
  • I use Things for my to-do app, and I use it religiously. If it’s not in Things, it probably won’t get done.
  • I use Instapaper for tagging things to read at a later date (though I’m considering switching to Pocket)
  • I use Netvibes for an RSS reader (though I’m considering switching to … anything else)

In this blog post, I’m going to focus on the techniques I use for my to-do system, and will save how I use some of these other tools for future posts:

Basics of the to-do system:

I have two goals for my to-do system: 1) work on the things that are most important, 2) promote habits and good behaviors I’m trying to develop and, 3) don’t forget anything.

  • First thing in the morning I review my to-do list which will have a mix of things scheduled weeks ago, recurring events that show up every day or week, and things that I added the day before. I will sort all of the tasks according to their priority and will make adjustments as necessary — if the list looks too long, I’ll proactively push things to tomorrow or next week.
  • For activities that I’m trying to build habits around (doing my Anki flashcards, writing in my journal, writing blog posts, running) I’ll use repeating tasks that pop up every day or every week
  • As things pop up during the day, I make heavy use of keyboard shortcuts to quickly add tasks to the “Inbox” which I can sort through later
  • By the end of the day, I’ll have either completed all of my tasks or will have rescheduled tasks I couldn’t get into the future. I’ll also generally take a look at what’s scheduled for the next day so that I know what’s coming down the pipe.

Between the morning and end-of-day review sessions I generally feel like I’m able to consciously prioritize the work that’s most important. The dopamine hit of box-checking also encourages the habits that I don’t enjoy (e.g., writing in my journal, running) but that I know are good for me. Overall I feel like this system works very well for me and I have very little to change.

Writing good to-dos:

The most important trick for making this system effective is writing good to-do items. For me, that means making an item that feels achievable in <2 hours of work — often times I’ll have a to-do item that I’m sort of dreading but that doesn’t have a strict deadline, and I’ll find myself pushing it off day-after-day-after-day. When I observe myself doing this, I know I have to change the to-do item to make it something that feels easier to accomplish which will make it feel less painful to start.

For myself, that generally requires a very simple change from “do x” to “start x”. That’s almost always all it takes to go from making zero progress, to getting the thing done. If I have an idea for a blog post, the to-do item “write blog post on x” feels very daunting — that’s normally at least a few hours of worth of work staring at me from my to-do list. However, if I change that to “outline a blog post on x”all of the sudden that seems extremely doable, something I can crank out in 30 minutes at a coffee shop. This applies to software engineering problems as well — going from “build feature that does x” to “start on feature that does x” makes all the difference in the world in terms of how much progress I’m able to make. Often, even though the to-do item only says “start”, I’ll go ahead and finish the whole thing because once I’ve got the momentum going I don’t want to stop at all.

All sorts of things:

I don’t just keep work things in my to-do list. I’ll often include names of musical artists I want to listen to, movies I’ve heard about and want to watch, or even just ideas I have for interesting things to learn more about. My to-do list enables me to keep my email inbox at zero, because when I get an email that I know I won’t have time to deal with properly, I’ll simply create an item on my to-do list, paste in a link to the email, and schedule for a time in the future when I expect to have enough free time to deal with it.

Having a good system for adding things to my to-do list allows me to shift the decision from “is this thing worth doing right now?” to “when will this thing be worth doing?”. This takes a lot of the pressure off of getting things done that you know are important but you also know will disrupt your flow or aren’t the most important thing to do todayIf someone sends me a link to an article and asks my opinion on it, I can simply pop it in my to-do list and tell the person I’ll get back to them “sometime this weekend”. There’s no requirement that I get it done before I forget about it, and having a trustworthy system for deferring the prioritization decision means that I don’t end up distracted by all of the incoming items.