My life

Sunday crafts #3: Assembling my new table tennis racket

Since we could no longer go to the gym last spring, my stepson and I began playing ping-pong several nights a week. I have an assortment of rackets, and started out with one with Gambler 4 Kings rubber, but as our skills progressed, I switched to a sticky rubber called Blütenkirsche, which has a German name but is made in China for a Japanese company. It gave me much more control for spins and loops. I had installed it on one side of an inexpensive 42-year-old Harvard racket. On the other side are the rotted remains of a Yasaka Tornado sheet I bought in about 1980 before the rule that rubber must be black or red. (You can see where I carved the handle to make it more comfortable for my penholder style.)

That old racket is not very lively, so I hunted online and found the Palio Energy 03 that has four carbon layers and many great reviews and costs only $15. The Blütenkirsche Tokyo rubbers are also $15 each. I will use the non-tacky one for the back of my paddle.

To attach the rubber, a water-based contact glue is applied with a foam applicator to both the wood and the sponge backing of the rubber.

When it has dried to the point of being transparent, the rubber can be attached to the wood, beginning carefully at the handle and rolling it out from the bottom upwards.

The rubber is then cut, following the edge of the racket. I used a new utility knife blade, but would have been better off with a good X-Acto knife. (As you can see, I wasn’t careful enough while gluing and the black rubber ended up a bit crooked.) I left the protective film on until I was finished, to avoid damaging the rubber’s surface.

I look forward to trying my new racket, but don’t know when that will be. My stepson is not as eager to play now that the gym has reopened.

My life

Sunday crafts #2: Elastic for face mask

I bought several of these masks from a neighbor, but have never been happy with the ribbons. They are a pain to tie behind my head, especially with my left index finger out of commission. So today I removed part of the ribbon and added elastic, double so it will last.

The sewing is a little ragged, and the outcome not particularly elegant, but it should be much more convenient. I prefer having it go around my head instead of just my ears. Ear elastic can give me headaches. Two more to go…

My life

Snobbery and bicycles

At some point in my life, I discovered that I was guilty of being a snob. My attitudes regarding bicycles will serve as a case in point.

When I was a kid in Colombia, our family bikes were a girl’s Schwinn and a man’s bike. The Schwinn had coaster brakes and was about the right size for most of us (24″ wheels). I rode it a lot, in spite of it being a girl’s bike, because the man’s bike was too big for me. It had hand brakes linked by rods rather than cables and looked a lot like this:

My best friend and his brothers received Monareta bikes for Christmas in 1969. Monark was Colombia’s premier bike manufacturer and made excellent road bikes. The Monareta was similar to what we now call a hybrid; it had the lines of a road bike but with a straight handlebar.

Shortly after that we spent a year in KC, and my dad bought my brother a cool 20″ Western Flyer with a banana seat and high handlebars. He bought me a 26″ three-speed, which was a great disappointment until I actually rode it and realized that what it lacked in coolness, it made up for in speed and comfort. We had a lot of adventures with those bikes.

In college is when my snobbishness began. I rode an old Schwinn ten-speed inherited from a brother-in-law, and found that I looked down my nose at two general categories of people. On the one side were the kind of people who turned their handlebars over to make them comfortable. They were dweebs.

On the other side were people who bought biking jerseys, biking shorts, gloves, cleats… The most annoying of all were those who rode recumbent bicycles. They were insufferable, like vegans or the guy who checks you in at the Apple store.

I didn’t actually know anyone with a recumbent bicycle; I just saw them at occasional events. The first one I became friends with many years later was a fellow blogger who was a brilliant artist and toured Europe with his wife by bicycle, which happened to be recumbent. A very nice guy, and far cooler than I was.

At the age of 60, I have again taken up bicycling as my main means of exercise. I find that, to mitigate the discomforts of biking at my age and weight, I have changed the handlebar style, used thick handlebar tape, padded the seat, and bought padded gloves. I am also looking into gel-lined shorts. In short, I have become an insufferable dweeb.

And now I look at pictures of recumbent bikes and note that the rider’s weight does not rest on his crotch and hands, but is distributed along his back. His hands are resting rather than supporting his weight, and he doesn’t really look any dweebier than I do. Hmm…

My life

My bike

Last fall, one of the nice mountain bikes I inherited from my dad got stolen. In order to ride with my stepson, it became necessary to fix up my old 1986 Raleigh Pursuit, which meant tires and inner tubes and oil and a better seat.

It rode pretty nice (once I figured out the correct way to install the seat, which is wrong in the picture) and I used it for a couple of months until one evening in early June, I stepped hard on the pedal to enter the street, and the chain snapped. My foot shot down as the pedal spun, and I rolled the bike to the right.

When I got up, my finger was bleeding from a bad cut on one side and a massive scrape on the other. Fortunately I was only four blocks from home and hadn’t hurt anything else.

The injury to my finger involved stitches and then a splint when it started to develop a Boutonniere deformity (finger gets pulled into a stair-step configuration), since ligaments were also damaged.

As a result, I decided I’d better upgrade the bike, so nothing else will give out on me. The handlebar was bent from the accident, and decades-old brakes and cables are not as reliable as new ones.

Since I never used the lower part of the traditional handlebars, I decided to go for bullhorns this time. I changed the cables and brakes and chain, put new gearshift levers up on the goose neck (they had been down on the frame, well below my knees), and replaced the old rat-trap pedals (which were always upside down since I took the rat-traps off long ago) with nice mountain-bike ones. Aldi was selling a gel seat-cover for cheap, and I have discovered that you can never have too much gel between you and a bike seat, so that’s on there too. The outcome is pretty cool for an old fat guy’s bike.

And of course the old bike helmet needed the padding replaced… and I discovered that one more downside of putting on 80 pounds in middle age is that your hands get to hurting really bad when you lean forward and support your weight on the handlebars. Gloves with gel pads in the palm are a necessity.

With all the money I put into replacements and upgrades, I could have bought a bike off the rack at Walmart, but it wouldn’t be as nice as this one is now, and it wouldn’t be designed for my height.

I also looked into a speedometer. The last one I bought cost under $10, but now everything is $50 or more. Fortunately, there are apps that are just as good, and will also map your ride.

My speed is pathetic (18.2 kph is just over 11 mph); probably some of you can ride faster uphill in the Rockies than I do on flat land in Florida, but I don’t care, I get 45-60 minutes of exercise a day touring the neighborhood and it’s doing me good.

My life

I had a dream

I dreamed last night that I entered a very modern train station and saw a one-car train tip sideways to avoid a car on its tracks and continue on a set of rubber safety wheels designed for that purpose.

While I was watching, a tiny one-passenger train car much like a Smart car also tipped sideways and whizzed past, its passenger hanging upside down from his seat belt and yelling and gesticulating at me, and I realized I had inadvertently stepped onto the tracks and blocked its way.

I went about my business in a hurry, hoping I didn’t encounter that passenger, who appeared to be a railroad employee.



An interpreting assignment in Bogotá was offered so I jumped on it. I flew to Medellín on Saturday, and today my wife and I came to the capital. It’s great to be back in Colombia even if it’s just a week.

Following are some curiosities that I found worthy of a picture.

Yesterday’s menu referred to chicken wing drumsticks as “colombinas de pollo” (chicken lollipops).


On our way to the airport today we passed this load of bricks. They tend to be hollow here and are used for structure rather than siding, although they may be exposed and varnished.


This itinerant vendor was offering pineapples for CP$2500 (90 cents US) apiece.


Colombia, Food, Language, My life, Spanish, Travel

A week in Colombia

Movie review

Grumpy movie review: La La Land

With the first scene, one realizes that this movie is going to be weird: an LA traffic jam turns into a spectacular song-and-dance routine, with dozens of dancers leaping and spinning over and around cars. However, when the first singer opens her mouth, her singing voice is a whisper. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Emma Stone plays an aspiring actress working at a Starbucks next to a major studio. Ryan Gosling is a frustrated jazz pianist. She goes from audition to audition; he gets and loses gigs that are beneath him musically. They dislike each other,  warm up, fall in love, move in together. (She drops her erstwhile boyfriend in the process.) Gosling’s character dreams of buying a jazz club and making sure jazz stays alive. She encourages him in his dream and even creates a logo for the club.

To make a living he takes a job with a fusion jazz group and goes on tour. She is upset by his absence and they have an argument when he has a brief chance to return. She accuses him of selling out his dream. She writes a one-woman show and rents a theater to present it. He misses her opening night because of a photo shoot for his band. Her show is a flop and he wasn’t there, so she goes home. He hears a phone message from a director offering her a job interview, and drives cross-country to her parents’ house to pick her up for it. She refuses, but changes her mind at the last minute and goes back with him. At the interview she is offered a movie job in France, which she takes. They pledge each other their love but recognize that they have no idea what will happen.

Five years later, we see her back in LA in an expensive house, with kids and a tall handsome husband who looks a lot like her pre-Gosling boyfriend. They go out for an evening, get caught in traffic and take the nearest exit, where they end up at the jazz club she once visited with Gosling. The club’s logo is now the one she designed for him. There is a band playing to a full house. Gosling spots her and plays a composition she had heard him play before, and we see sweet images of what their life would have been like if they had been together. (These scenes are much more middle-class than her current life appears to be.) Then she goes home with her husband.

As I said at the beginning, the whispery voice in the first song sets the tone for the film. Throughout the movie, it is obvious that Gosling and Stone are neither dancers nor singers. They sing and dance competently, but nothing like Fred and Ginger, Julie Andrews, Judy Garland, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby. Gosling does his own piano playing, which is lovely but not technically complicated. (The internet tells me he learned to play in three months for the role.) The skilled performances are by the secondary characters who are professionals.

So we have a musical that does not star singers or dancers, and we have a romance that is not a love story. The story line left me very unsatisfied: These people don’t have cell phones? Is she just shallow or did something happen to end their relationship?

How can a movie be so spectacular and work so well when so many things are not quite right? I don’t know.

Language, Movie review, My life

Grumpy movie review: Arrival

A Linguist’s View

Arrival is a movie about a linguist, Louise Banks, selected by the government to communicate with aliens that arrive in twelve huge vessels parked around the globe. It seems to have been written by someone who has dabbled in linguistics but has little idea of what linguists actually do.

An army officer arrives at Louise’s door with a recording of noises that are the aliens’ response to a certain question. He proposes that Louise analyze the language by means of such recordings. Louise tells him that analysis will require face-to-face interaction and can’t be done as he proposes. As he leaves to interview the alternate candidate (apparently Louise’s rival), she tells him to ask the alternate what the Sanskrit word for “war” is and what it means.

The colonel returns some time later and tells her the word and that the guy said it meant “struggle.” She says it actually means “desire for more cows.”

By the time this interaction takes place, the colonel has already selected her, so the point of the Sanskrit word discussion is unclear. In any case, in all languages, words have more than one meaning or use, so linguists discussing definitions must include context rather than simple definitive statements like these. This is in fact one of the main points of the plot, which hinges on the issue of multiple meanings, specifically the fact that “tool” and “weapon” could be alternate definitions of the same alien word.

Other misconceptions about linguists:

The movie indicates that Louise knows multiple languages; she has translated sensitive Farsi recordings for the government, she speaks fluent Chinese with the president of China, she announces in class that she is going to address the question of why Portuguese sounds like it does.

However… if the government needs Farsi recordings translated urgently, they are not going to entrust them to an American university professor, they’ll use an Iranian translator. Why? Because someone who has learned half a dozen languages as an adult is unlikely to know any of them at the depth and nuance necessary for such sensitive work, no matter how bright she is. Language learning requires vast amounts of time and context, and there is no indication that Louise has ever lived in Iran.

Nowhere is there any indication that Louise has ever done fieldwork in a previously unwritten language. Her first session with the aliens makes it clear that she has no experience in monolingual elicitation techniques. She doesn’t even have the standard 100-word list used by field linguists for basic phonological analysis. The military would have been far better off recruiting SIL missionary linguists whose training is geared precisely to learning and analyzing previously unwritten languages.

Louise’s scientist companion asks her about the idea that learning new languages rewires one’s brain. She tells him about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that one’s view of reality is filtered by language. This becomes the heart of the movie; as Louise delves into the alien’s written symbols, she experiences flashbacks of things that haven’t happened yet, and eventually we discover that the aliens’ language allows people to see the future.

However… this begins before there’s even any indication that they are delving into tenses (past, present, future), and it doesn’t seem to matter that she’s only learning the language’s written form. And it only happens to her, not to the team working with her and not to linguists at the other 11 sites who are also learning the language.

And as usual, time paradoxes are created and not resolved. Louise learns something in a forward flashback that allows her to solve a problem now… but knowing about it now means the conversation she sees in the future would not happen the same way.

Still, it was fun to see a linguist featured in a movie, even if it’s a caricatured view, and to have the chance to pick a story like this apart. I will definitely watch it again.