Survival, Part I: Are You Prepared?

A few months ago, I posted about the usefulness of Microsoft’s OneNote program for organizing a large amount of information, notes, files, etc. I have an ebook at work that I use to share different kinds of files with everyone in my company. I also have a personal ebook that I’m just getting started which will contain my medieval research.

Then there’s my mega ebook which I call “The Survival Binder.” The purpose of it is to organize all the tidbits of info I find on survival and homesteading in one location, which I can then print and keep a backup paper copy of.

Are You One of Those Prepper Nut-Jobs?


Crazy Dave said there would be zombies!

Despite the fact that “preppers” and “survivalists” have become a little less-maligned in the last few years, most people still look at such people with a certain amount of bewilderment and downright disdain. And, you know, there really are some weird people out there with weird ideas. It’s hard to take anyone seriously who is screaming about how the zombies are going to eat everyone’s brains. Methinks someone’s brain has already been consumed.


No hablo ingles, Senor Grasshopper.

Unfortunately, people dismiss the whole idea of preparedness just because there are some people who take it to crazy extremes. If you throw away the zombie nonsense, though, you’ll find it’s very sensible. (And I think you will find most “preppers” are sensible people; you probably know some but don’t know you know them because the first rule of prepper club is that you don’t talk about prepping. Also, you never see sensible preppers on TV because sensible makes for boring TV.)

Survival Scenarios

It seems to me that all survival scenarios can be broken down into three different types. While the survival requirements of each have some things in common, each also requires some distinct skills and resources.


A temporary survival situation lasts hours up to 3 days.


These situations last from 3 days up to a month.


These situations last longer than one month.


Okay, so what do these types of survival situations look like (minus crazy things like zombie attacks or low-probability things like a high altitude nuclear detonation EMP)?


  • Rioting/ Looting
  • Terrorist Attack
  • Bad Weather
  • Utility Outage
  • Car Breakdown
  • Lost

There have been numerous examples just this year of rioting and looting and mass demonstrations that have trapped people either within the riot zone (e.g. people trapped in their cars when the road is blocked) or have left them either unable or unwilling to go home.

I was right here in Chattanooga, not 5 miles away, when a terrorist shot and killed 5 of our Armed Forces members. That’s considered a rather low-level terrorist attack compared to some. Parts of Boston were on lockdown following the Boston Marathon bombing while the police searched for the bombers. Terrorist attacks can happen anywhere and depending on the target, the severity, and police response, you may find yourself trapped at work or school, or unable to leave your house for hours or even days.


This is all true. We had almost no warning about the snow or how bad it would be, and since it was already spring, many people were not prepared.

Here in Tennessee we still talk about “The Blizzard of ’93.” In the middle of March, just a couple of days after having a high of nearly 80 degrees, we got a foot of snow overnight. (In the mountain areas, it was 2′-3′.) My parents and great-aunt and -uncle were trapped in the Smokey Mountains at a rental house with little food and no utilities (including no water) and no way to get out. I was staying with my grandmother and dad and we had water but no electricity or phone (this was before cell phones). The interstates were shut down for a day or two. Secondary roads were unusable for longer than that. We were without utilities for 3 full days. When my parents got out of the mountains after 4 days, there was still no utility service. In some communities around Gatlinburg, it took 1-2 weeks to get power restored.

But even though that was a once-in-100-years snow for us, bad weather (and the utility outages that tend to go with them) happens all over the country all the time. Think about people in Florida after Hurricane Andrew, New Orleans after Katrina, and the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy. You usually get a little warning before a weather disaster, but if you and a million other people are all at Wal-Mart at the same time, what supplies do you think will be left? Here in the South, we call that the milk-and-bread run. Whenever snow is even mentioned as a slight possibility, all the milk and bread get bought up very quickly. (We like our milk sandwiches down here.) So how much larger will the run on supplies be if the weather forecast is much more ominous?


The 2003 Northeast Blackout left people hoofing it in places like New York City. Luckily, it was well-tolerated. A blackout in NYC in 1977, however, was met with rioting and arson.

But utility outages aren’t only limited to bad weather. There have been several blackouts in major cities over the years. Recently, there was the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. These sorts of outages give you no warning and can happen at any time of the year.

Thanks to cell phones, most car breakdowns are an inconvenience and annoyance, but nothing more major. However, there are still times (such as during very bad weather) when you may find yourself broken down or stuck in a ditch and there’s little or no chance to get help any time soon. If it’s summer and the heat is intense and you have no water, this can become problematic after a few hours. If it’s winter, though, and temps are below freezing, it can become a problem in a much shorter period of time.

A broken-down car often leads to the final scenario on my list: getting lost. Most people think that getting lost is something that only happens to people who go hiking, but plenty of people get lost when they abandon their car and try to find help. Doing this in the dark or during bad weather or leaving the road for a “shortcut” across country all greatly raise the possibility that you will get lost. And while cars make pretty poor shelters because they have almost no insulation value and no way to produce heat if the motor isn’t on, being in one is still better than being exposed to the elements, especially if it’s raining or snowing (being wet increases your chances of hypothermia drastically; you can even get hypothermia when it’s not below freezing if you stay wet) or there is a bitterly cold wind.

So, temporary survival situations crop up all the time. In your lifetime, you have a high probability of being affected by at least one of these scenarios; maybe, like me, you’ve already lived through one or two. Being prepared to ride out a temporary survival situation–whether that’s at home, at your job, or in your car–is just smart. While there’s a low probability of death in most temporary survival situations–meaning you’re not likely to die if you are trapped in your house with no heat and no food for three days–being prepared means the difference between you (and your family) being miserable and scared and treating the situation with mild annoyance or even amusement.

My family, for instance, weathered the blizzard quite well because my grandmother had a wood burning stove. So while the house wasn’t heated evenly, every room stayed a tolerable temperature and the living room was quite toasty warm. My grandmother–having grown up cooking on a wood burning stove–was able to cook all of our food on it, so we didn’t go hungry (even if we were a bit short on our normal snacking supplies). She even had an oil lamp, which we used in the evenings. Many puzzles were worked and many crafts were made over those three days. I think I got all of my spring break reading done, too. So, overall, a bit annoying, but no big deal. Now imagine you have no heat, no light source, and only some cans of cold vegetables to eat. You’ll survive, but certainly not in the relative level of comfort we enjoyed.


  • Continuing rioting
  • Major bad weather/utility outage
  • Temporary disability
  • Money shortage

While most rioting is temporary, there are cases where it can go on for many days–to the point that the National Guard is called in and curfews or even lockdowns are put into place. The Rodney King riots in L.A. in 1992, for instance, lasted 6 days and required not only the National Guard, but also the Army and the Marines to intervene to restore order. 55 people were killed as a result and over 2,000 people were injured.


2009 ice storm in Kentucky.

Large weather events, like hurricanes, can cause much more a few days’ worth of headaches. After a hurricane or even a devastating tornado, people might find themselves living in a tent or camper for weeks while they wait for their house to be repaired. Utilities might be off for a week or more, or water contaminated for several weeks. There’s also the possibility that back-to-back storms, like the ice storms that hit Kentucky a few years ago, can keep people bottled up at home and utilities off for weeks. Or, in the case of some friends of ours who lived through that, they got to enjoy having power and getting out of the house for 1-3 days before another ice storm tore down their lines and iced up their roads for several more days.

But disasters aren’t only the widespread kind caused by weather or people. Sometimes a survival situation strikes only your household. A family member of mine recently had to go on disability. Although she had short-term disability insurance, the insurance company was reluctant to pay her what she was due. (My husband had a similar situation come up when he was out of work for a couple of weeks and his insurance made him jump through a lot of hoops and ended up not paying him.) Her long-term disability kicked in before her short-term insurance ever paid out. Arguing with the insurance company became a daily chore. It also meant she was without any income for a few months.

If you found yourself unable to work for a couple of weeks or more, how would you get by? What if your backup plan, like insurance, doesn’t pay out as expected or when expected? What if your bank account gets hacked and all of your money is taken and it takes more than a week to straighten out? Or imagine that you have an unexpected emergency, such as a major car repair, that leaves you strapped for cash. Maybe you can afford the repair and still afford your rent/mortgage, but what if you have little money left over for things like utilities and food? What if your power gets shut off and you can’t afford to have it turned back on until next paycheck? Or what if you can’t immediately pay for your emergency and you need to cut corners for a few months to save up the money to cover it?

Being strapped for cash can create a survival situation that almost exactly resembles those caused by weather or power outages. (The only difference being that you can contact other people for help, such as family members, a loan company, or a charity like a church or food bank. But depending on your situation, you may not have access to (or want to ask for) help.)


  • Long-term or permanent disability or unplanned early retirement
  • Job loss, business failure, or death
  • Major economic downturn or collapse
  • Major civil unrest or war
  • Catastrophic failure of utilities (esp. power grid)
  • Government overthrow

You can also think of long-term survival situations as “the new normal.” This is when there is little to no hope that life will go back to the way it was before the disaster, so you have to learn to live in your reduced circumstances.

Most preppers/survivalists (certainly the ones you see on TV) spend most or all of their time preparing for long-term survival situations. While you’re more likely to experience a temporary or short-term survival situation, if you’re prepared for the long-haul, you will generally have the skills and supplies you need to manage most shorter crises.

As I have already mentioned, an unexpected disability can leave you cash-strapped for the short-term, but if it turns into a long-term or permanent disability, being poorer will become your new normal. You will get hit with the double whammy of increased expenses for doctors, medicines, and special equipment plus a reduced income.

Job loss–especially in an economic downturn–can also create a survival situation. Even if you qualify for unemployment insurance, it, like disability insurance, only provides you with a portion of your regular take-home pay, which can leave you short. If you don’t qualify or it runs out before you’ve found a job, you will have no money at all. Even a temporary job will probably leave you no better off than you were on UI, meaning you will still be short money. If you are self-employed, a failure of your business is the same as losing your job. Or your spouse may die unexpectedly, leaving your household short an income (maybe even short its primary income).

ap100916053695-croppedEveryone reading this blog right now lived through the Great Recession (maybe we’re still living in it; certainly we seem to be living in a Great Stagnation). I was one of millions of people who lost their jobs in 2008. It took me two years to find another job and it was for greatly reduced pay and no benefits. At one point both I and my husband were unemployed and while we had a surprisingly good time hanging out with one another all day, the stress of how we were going to pay the bills certainly makes that period one we don’t wish to repeat. Thankfully, we had paid off all our debt, but the mortgage, when we were both working good-paying jobs, and we had built up a little emergency pantry. While we were not working, we ate our way through all of that food.


In Venezuela, people wait in lines for hours just to get into grocery stores, only to find the shelves almost completely bare.

The other possible long-term scenarios are more remote, but not impossible. Venezuela, as we speak, is collapsing. Inflation is spiraling out of control and in Caracas, hungry people have already eaten all the animals in the zoo. Cats, dogs, and pigeons aren’t safe roaming the streets in any major city. Yet Venezuela is sitting atop a wealth of oil; everyone should be living like Saudi princes. Instead, their government was taken over by socialists, then the socialists started taking over people’s businesses and expected them to work all day for a loss. People wouldn’t work for free (much less pay to work), so things like dairy farms began to shut down until now you can’t even find toilet paper and aspirin, much less really crucial things like food and medicine. History is littered with failed states, including democracies and republics; we’re not immune from a government-induced social or economic collapse. And as the Japanese demonstrated at Pearl Harbor in 1941, we’re not immune from military attack, either.



“Food for five years, a thousand gallons of gas, air filtration, water filtration, Geiger counter. Bomb shelter! Underground… God damn monsters.”

I hope I haven’t depressed you too much, but I hope I have also made it clear that it’s important for you to have some sort of immediate safety net that will allow you to survive hard times. “Survival” doesn’t mean eating rats on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific or preparing for the zombie apocalypse (or an infestation of graboids); it means being ready for the next cash shortfall or power outage.

In following posts, I’ll cover what you need to know and have to survive each type of survival scenario and how I got all the information I wanted organized on OneNote.



Leveling Up in Real Life


In case you need this, it’s a T-shirt! Click pic for link.

Someone posted on Facebook recently that we shouldn’t call a birthday “another year older” but rather call it “leveling up.” “Reaching level 50” sounds much better than “turning 50 years old.”

America is still a relatively young nation and is obsessed with youth. Youth is seen as innovative and dynamic, whereas older people are stuck in the past and inflexible. But in other cultures, age is revered. Like wine, you are supposed to get better with age.

It seemed like a good idea at the time . . .

It seemed like a good idea at the time . . .

And, if we really think about it, most of us will acknowledge this as true. When we look back at things we did as teens or twenty-somethings, we cringe. If we could go back in time, we’d go back with all our knowledge and make better life decisions. That’s because back then we may have been healthy and good-looking and full of energy, but we were dumb as a box of rocks because we didn’t have any real life experience. Mistakes, tragedies, and the occasional triumph have taught us a lot since then.

What if instead of lamenting getting another year older (I have a birthday coming up, so this has been on my mind!) we really do look at it as leveling up, like in video game?


Ask me about the time a co-worker’s 50th birthday cake caught on fire during an office party . . .

Of course, birthdays come around regardless. You might have accomplished nothing–maybe you’re even worse off than the year before–but you still add another candle to the cake. But no one wants to be the same old person they were the previous year; no one wants to get to the end of their life and see, when they look back, that they haven’t improved themselves at all since leaving school.

So, what can you do to make sure that when the next birthday rolls around, you’re better than you were the year before? How about borrowing a page from D&D and other RPG games and work on gaining “experience” in the following categories:



This is a good category for fitness. Everyone either wants to get a little more physically fit or wants to maintain their current fitness level. I doubt there’s anyone who says, “No, really, I’m happiest when I wheeze walking across the parking lot.” Figure out what you most want to accomplish (make sure it’s realistic!) and make it a point to train to reach that new level.

For instance, if you are really out of shape and overweight, your goal may be as simple as “walk up the stairs without wheezing.” If you practice it regularly, you will soon find that you can do it (and probably more besides). Then, when your birthday rolls around, you can look back and say, “A year ago, I couldn’t even do stairs. Now, I can walk up and down them without a problem.” Or maybe you’re recovering from an accident or surgery and your goal is to regain flexibility. Or maybe some part doesn’t work well (or at all) and your goal is to do physical therapy or strength training so you can be more independent.

Remember . . .


Sometimes life hits us hard and wounds us–to the point that we “lose” some of our experience points. Maybe you were an Ironman athlete, then an accident crippled you and you can no longer do it. Maybe you had a successful business, but a divorce and an economic downturn left you bankrupt.

If you think about life as one big quest, you have to realize that sometimes you are going to fight some huge monster or get stuck in some trap and lose. And it will hurt. But you always have the ability to build back up from where you are right now. Instead of giving up the game, salvage the situation and try to regain your lost ground.

Constitution (aka Endurance)


This is where I would put things that take a lot of willpower, but not necessarily a lot of physical ability. For instance, dieting/healthy eating. Having a kid and successfully getting it through another year of life (despite its seemingly repeated attempts to kill itself or you) is endurance. Keeping a clean house or decluttering both require endurance, as does getting (and staying) organized. Even making it a point to be on time when you normally run late is a level up in the constitution category. And don’t forget novel writing!

  • Chore Wars – Have your housemates (or even co-workers) compete against one another to gain experience points and gold or treasures (which you can allow them to cash in on real-life rewards) by doing chores (or anything else that you dread doing).
  • Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui – Still my favorite book for clutter-clearing and organizing motivation.
  • Scott H. Young – He’s all about focus, willpower, and leveling up. Be inspired!



This is a category for things that require work with your hands or creativity. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano or pick back up an instrument that you played long ago. Or maybe you’ve been meaning to spend more time on your carpentry or painting. Or it can be something a little more simple: you want to redecorate or even remodel your house this year. Or you can take cooking classes, pick up knitting, etc. Learning to dance also requires dexterity.


This is all about knowledge. If you’re in school, you are automatically leveling up in this category, but then you graduate and it’s like it’s the end of the game.


Except it’s not. You spend 18-22 years learning how to be a functional adult, but after that you still have 50+ years to live! Don’t let your mind atrophy! Studies have shown that working puzzles and learning languages and other things that exercise the mind lower your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. It’s as important to give your brain a workout as it is your body.

If you wish you were more up-to-date on what’s happening in the world, make it a point to read newspapers or the online news. If you think your career would be aided by learning a programming language, find some courses online and work on it. Or go back to school for your degree (or another one or a more advanced one). Make it a point to read more or listen to books on tape so you at least have something to talk about at a dinner party. Enter competitions like spelling bees, geography quizzes, or maybe even tryout for Jeopardy! Even if you don’t win the competition, the study and practice you have to do just to compete is a win for you personally.

Lynda – This is a subscription service for video classes, but if you are committed to learning a lot in a short period of time, you can almost certainly get your money’s worth out of it. We have a subscription at work and I have used it to learn new software products and have even taken a few classes on work organization, leadership, and public speaking. Someone I worked with used it to learn better photography skills.

  • Coursera – Free classes by top colleges.
  • EdX – Same concept as Coursera.
  • LibriVox – Free audiobooks (Mostly older books that are out of copyright.)

Wisdom (aka Intuition)

In RPGs, this is where you track your ability to do magic, repel magic, or sense things like booby-traps or whether or not someone is lying. In real (Muggle) life, this is a category for all your inner stuff and spirituality.

If, for instance, you are in a bad relationship, make it your goal to get out of it! Or, if you look back and see that you have had a string of bad relationships because you keep winding up with the same kind of person over and over again, take the time to be introspective. Why do you keep falling for that kind of person? Does it stem from a childhood trauma? Is it because your self-esteem is low? Is it because you feel a need to save every wayward person? Work on getting your emotional/inner house in order.

indexAlternatively, if you are spiritual or religious, you may set yourself a goal of praying daily, keeping a thankfulness journal (or any other kind of journal where you work through your feelings and can analyze how you view yourself and others), going to religious services, etc.


This is all about interactions with other people. If you’re an introvert, this will be a challenging quest. But even introverts need human contact. If you are lonely and feel that you have few (if any) friends, make it a point to join some sort of social club, gaming night, etc. Or maybe you’ve been busy and need to put your friends on your calendar so you can stay connected. Or maybe you want to become a manager or leader, but you find yourself feeling a bit awkward around others or people have complained that you don’t handle work relationships well. Find some classes to help you be a better speaker, learn leadership skills, or even just learn the art of interviewing well and giving a good handshake.

mosaic7This category can also include things that really put you out in front of people, like modeling or acting, leading or volunteering in a social organization or charity, teaching, and even running for office or campaigning on someone’s behalf! And don’t forget learning languages; the more ways you have to communicate with others, the more you will be leveling up your charisma. Oh, and travel also requires charisma, since you are out of your normal element and have to interact with all sorts of new people in new circumstances.

  • Fluent in 3 Months – Intensive language learning. (This is what encouraged me to give learning languages another try.)
  • Duolingo – This is what I’m using to learn Spanish.
  • Memrise – A smart flashcard website that has a lot of languages, but they also cover other topics.
  • Toastmasters – Costs to join, but many people swear by it. Helps you with public speaking, selling, and social and business interactions.
  • Nomadic Matt – Advice on traveling cheaply and long-term.


Some things will overlap categories. While learning a language is mostly charisma (especially if you make it a point to speak to others in your target language), it’s also intelligence. Dancing is a lot of dexterity and creativity, but also strength. When things overlap, either put your goal into the category it most closely matches, or put extra effort into it and let it fulfill two categories at once.

Level Up!

63166726As I mentioned, I’m less than a month away from my birthday. And as I see (and feel) my youth slipping away, I find myself wondering what I’ve done and what I’m going to do. The last thing I want is for one year to be like the year before, and like the year before that, until I realize I’m just piddling around, wasting time, waiting for death to arrive. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, one thing everyone agrees on is that one you’re dead, you won’t improve. Heaven, hell, or non-existence: in any scenario, you only have what you came in with.

groundhog-day-drivingEven if you believe in reincarnation, you enter the next life with only the spiritual progress you’ve made in this one; if you make no strides at improvement, you will essentially just repeat your life over and over again. How boring!

So, if you have a birthday coming up (or just recently passed one), consider making yourself a “character sheet” and decide on what things you want to improve about yourself over the course of the next year. (Or just set goals for 2017 and allow yourself a little head start.)

Constitution (Endurance)

Wisdom (Intuition/Spirituality)

Don’t make the goals impossible. Losing 100 pounds in a year is probably not going to happen. If you’re really out of shape, running a marathon next year is also probably not going to happen. Set goals that you know you really could do if you just set your mind to it. For instance, I know I couldn’t be native-fluent in Spanish in a year, but I could certainly finish the Spanish tree on Duolingo in a year.

Remember when you’re setting your goals that you won’t really have a year to accomplish X because you have to also spend time on the other categories. (You don’t want to be a caveman with incredible strength and no intelligence. Or a know-it-all with absolutely no people skills. It’s okay to be better at somethings than other things, but to be a socially-acceptable and well-adjusted human being who is tolerated and not mocked by others, you have to work on everything at least a little bit.) Just like being in school and taking six classes, you are going to have to find a balance between your categories. Maybe you will try to work on a little bit on everything every day. (Some things, like exercise and journaling, certainly work better if you do them frequently.) Or maybe you will do one or two things at a time in big chunks of time. (Travel, performing a play, or completing a craft project are all things that tend to be a do-them-and-be-done challenge.) Whatever works best for you and your type of goals, spend at least a portion of your year working on each one.

And don’t be afraid to change your goal mid-stream. Like I said, life sometimes hits you and you find your goal is no longer attainable. (Or maybe you’ve just realized that you’ve set a goal that’s unrealistic or it’s really not something you wanted to pursue in the first place.) So just change goals. That’s always better than just giving up entirely and not even trying. At least then, when you get to the end of your year, you can look back and say, “Things were pretty bad, but I managed and I’m better off than I was when things were at their worst.”

file4991280736472Judaism teaches that life is like a spiral staircase: you appear to be going in a circle–seasons come and go and your birthday and holidays come around, pass, then come around again–but in reality you are moving up (or down!) a spiral. Every time a holiday comes around again, or you read the same passage in the Bible that you read last year, you’re supposed to see it in a different light because you are supposed to have changed over the last year. Of course, when you take stock of the past year, you will hopefully see that you have moved forward in a positive way! No one wants to go down the spiral.

I’m going to spend a little time thinking about what I want to accomplish and I’ll do a follow-up post once I’ve decided. Feel free to discuss your own goals in the comments.

Learning Languages – One Month Follow-Up

It’s been one month since I started learning Spanish and Hebrew online. So how has the project been going?

Well, the first thing I can say is that I stuck to it! There were some days when I didn’t get to it until late in the evening or after a hard day at work when I was brain-dead, so I chose to do review instead of learning new words, but I did make quite a bit of progress. In Spanish, I went from Level 6 to Level 8 (and like most games, each level requires exponentially more experience than previous levels) and increased my fluency from 20% to 40%. I also completed 10 modules and kept all of my completed modules up-to-date.

Hebrew got off to a rockier start as I felt that I just couldn’t keep up with it on Duolingo; I felt I needed a remedial course to give me vowels. (When I checked back with Duolingo partway through, I did notice that did better with their vowel-less words because I was starting to develop a rhythm with words and I did better at guessing which vowels should be there.) On Memrise, I completed about 4.5 modules and learned 116 words.



Look at all that golden goodness.

I can certainly say that I’m more interested learning languages than I used to be. Duolingo’s golden modules are especially addictive because you can see yourself making progress. And the fact that they occasionally lapse and you have to review them makes sure that you’re not stuffing new material into one side of your brain and having old stuff fall out the other side.

Another benefit to Duolingo over traditional classroom learning (note: I took 3 years of Spanish in high school) is that it doesn’t make a big deal about verb conjugations. Yes, you have to use the correct conjugation, but it’s presented in such a natural way that it seems easy to grasp it. When I was in school, we were forever drawing conjugation trees so we had to conjugate every verb we learned into all of its possible formations. When irregular verbs came along, there was a big deal about how the spelling changed and how careful you had to be to spell it correctly, etc. Duolingo just throws a verb down and that’s it. If a verb is in the “we” that’s all you need to know; there’s no mental recitation of all the other permutations. If it’s spelled one way, it’s spelled that way. There’s no elaborate explanation for why it’s spelled that way and not some other way.


I drew hundreds of these things. In fact, classmates started to borrow my notes because I conjugated everything.

It adheres to what I’ve said before: if you want to learn to be a good writer, read; you learn grammar most by example, rather than by instruction. You will get to the point that something “sounds right” even if you can’t quote the grammatical rule that makes it right. The same thing is true here with Duolingo: when you have a pronoun, you automatically choose the correct verb conjugation because it sounds right.

Memrise isn’t as slick and game-like as Duolingo, and you can only learn words, not grammar, but it does have the advantage of allowing you to create a mnemonic with pictures and/or words, and I found that to be very helpful in getting words to stick in my mind.


876e1b8c8f540c2382df9e56b3fd11fe809b8f9d63cd04e9e3b02d9b7c701a5aScott Young had a post last week about not having too many projects. For the curious and the intellectual, especially, I think there’s a desire to learn all the things! which leads to learning something for a few weeks or maybe even a few months, then switching to something else, then switching again, ad nauseam. You never master (or even come close to mastering) anything because you switch to a new project too quickly. Or you try to take on too many projects all at once, split your focus, and give up on all of them, again, before you’ve mastered any of them.

I once heard a rabbi say that people in a relationship go through two stages: infatuation and love. Infatuation is the rush you feel when you first fall for someone and your whole world revolves around them and everything is great and there’s so much chemistry and it’s just one big high.

Then the chemistry becomes a background noise that you don’t feel so much and you start seeing the flaws in your partner. He farts. She throws her wet towels on the floor. He never shuts the freaking cabinet doors. Her friends act like mean girls in high school, but she insists on inviting them over once a week.

In other words, the new wears off. You’re then left with two options, you can either dump this person because you see now that it will never work, you can dump this person just because you want the high again, or you can actually love the person—the real person, not the newness or the chemistry or the high.

I think projects work the same way: you get excited about doing them, then they start to get hard, then you stop either because they really weren’t the right project for you anyway, or because you’re looking for the high, not the commitment.

When I started, I really wanted to learn Hebrew because I have a religious incentive to do so. But I chose to continue learning Spanish because, well, I had already started it and I kind of hated to see it go to waste. (Also, I probably kept it up because it was easier than the Hebrew, so it allowed me to feel accomplished.)

But even though the project is just “learn languages,” learning two languages at a time is still splitting my focus. In the Spanish course,  I am starting to get beyond what I learned in school and I’m feeling the need to go back and pick up the Memrise companion course so that I can use the “mems” to help me remember some of the harder, less familiar words. In other words, if I’m to continue with the Spanish, I need to put more effort into it.

Up Next?

I think I have to accept that two languages is one too many right now. I will progress faster if I can concentrate all my effort on just one. Hebrew is harder and will take longer to learn, so as much as I want to learn it, I think I’m going to kick it to the curb for the time being. Even though I can make more use of it than I can the Spanish at the moment, I have progressed so much farther in Spanish, I don’t want to give it up.

So my next goal is to get all the way through the Spanish tree on Duolingo (using Memrise as needed to help me learn more difficult words). There are still 43 modules to go (including harder ones, like different tenses), so at my current rate, I’m looking at least 4 months to finish it—probably more like 6+.

After that, it should be a matter of maintaining the Spanish—either by reading in Spanish, watching movies in Spanish, or by conversing with another Spanish speaker—or probably all three. (I might even practice by translating some of my posts into Spanish, but I won’t have any immediate feedback as to correctness.)

Then we’ll see about picking up the Hebrew again. Or maybe something else. In 6 months, who knows what project I’ll be interested in?




Getting Serious about Languages

I was reading Scott H. Young’s blog post the other day about Ultralearning (which I just call my normal obsessive behavior) and I’ve decided to get serious about learning Spanish and Hebrew. That means daily practice of 15 minutes or more of each language. So far, I’ve been hitting one or both in the mornings for about half an hour. (I would have thought that my brain wouldn’t be awake enough to handle foreign languages first thing, but, surprisingly, I find myself looking forward to doing it and it actually feels good–like stretching gets the stiffness out and makes your body feel awake. Learning a little something first thing wakes my mind up.) And then, just because I’ve become rather addicted to it, I’ve been doing some at lunch and in the evenings as well.

I mentioned a few days ago that I’ve been using Duolingo for Spanish. And that’s been going just swimmingly. (Although, fair warning, conejos and cajones are not related words, even if they sound really similar. ChuckIt took me a minute to figure out why it looked like “my balls are eating carrots.” I mean, granted I don’t know much about the care and maintenance of testicles, but I was pretty sure they don’t eat carrots. Unless maybe they belong to Chuck Norris.)

Learning Hebrew has been a lot more of a struggle, though. I mean, about the only positive thing I can say about it is that it makes me feel like a Spanish genius by comparison. (Which is, admittedly, no small thing; I never cared much for Spanish in school because I felt that I wasn’t very good at it. It was right up there with math as something I could manage to do, but not without a lot of effort.)

Hebrew is traditionally (and modernly) written with almost no vowels (and the vowels that are shown could be consonants in disguise. You don’t know). And there are three basic scripts: traditional, modern, and handwriting. You can think of modern Hebrew script as printing and handwriting as cursive. Traditional script is more like calligraphy. The Torah is written in the traditional script without vowels, while prayer books and other things meant for non-native speakers are written in the traditional script with vowels. These are the letters I learned to read.

Duolingo, however, throws you right in with the modern script and no vowels. So I’m sitting there, looking at a word that consists of one silent letter and an M. How the hell are you supposed to pronounce __mm? Or is there a vowel associated with the silent letter? Maybe it’s really __mm.

Someone fluent in English is going to have little to no trouble reading a text message where most of the vowels are stripped out of it. (Dn’t blve me? Try ths sntnce out fr sze: th qck brwn fx jmpd ovr th lzy dg.) In fact, most people read some sort of bastardized English like that every day. But imagine that you’re Chinese and you are only vaguely familiar with Roman letters. Try learning English via those text messages.

My first attempt at Hebrew on Duolingo was agonizing; even when I completed a lesson, I felt like I really didn’t know anything. But somewhere along the way I heard about Memrise. Memrise also has language learning classes (among other things; they also have a lot of other classes), but whereas Duolingo is more like a language book which gives you whole sentences and makes you write what you hear, translate what you hear, and translate what’s written into and out of the language–i.e. you learn grammar and actually how to speak–Memrise is really just a fancy flashcard system that gives you words one at a time in either English or the target language and you pick the correct answer from multiple choices.

You may think that Memrise is inferior to Duolingo because words without context (i.e. grammar) or without learning to construct whole sentences (i.e. speaking) is a waste. But if you’re in a hurry to learn a language, you will probably prefer to learn as many new words as possible, rather than worrying about putting them in sentences with words you already are familiar with. (When I was in school, learning verb conjugation was of supreme importance, followed by using the gender-correct definite or indefinite article. But in reality you can generally make yourself known if you just know the words; being grammatically correct is nice, but not actually necessary to basic understanding. If a child or foreigner says, “Me wants water,” you know what they mean. Or “Yesterday I am going to movies.” Even though the tense is wrong and the definite article is missing, you still know what’s meant, especially in context–i.e. you asked the question “What did you do yesterday?”)

Memrise also allows you to make “mems” for your words to help you remember them better. (You can also uses mems created by others if you’re feeling short on creativity.) Adding a visual image to something you are trying to memorize is a classic memorization technique. (Look up memory or mind palaces.) tumblr_m4u7m5Fzpe1qjdni4o1_1280

Personally, I am still getting a lot of mileage out of Cartoon Hebrew which turns the letters into pictures that helps you remember what sound the letter makes; when you see that a particular letter looks like a tub, you don’t forget that it makes the “t” sound.


I’ve made a mem that associates the Hebrew word Chai with its meaning, alive.

Like Duolingo, Memrise uses spaced repetition to help you retain words. When you make no mistakes, words come up for review less often. The more mistakes you make, though, the more frequently you see the words in review.

The other benefit to Memrise is the one that applies to me: it’s simpler. Rather than trying to figure out several words at a time, I’m only presented with one at a time. And, even better that, Memrise has multiple courses–one of which specifically teaches Biblical Hebrew words in traditional script with vowels. That means I can actually read words without guessing what vowels they should have. And after a couple of days of working with just it, I feel that I’m walking away from it actually knowing some words–both knowing how to pronounce them and what they mean. The frustration level is down and the excitement level is back up.

And, oddly enough, after working with just Memrise for a few days, I went back to redo my Duolingo lessons and made it through them with the same rate of success that I expect from a Spanish course. Some of this may just be from practicing my letters so I’m more confident with what they sound like (even if I only get the see the consonants), but a lot of it is probably down to just practicing one word at a time and pairing the harder ones with mems so they stick in my mind better. This is easy to do because there is a Duolingo companion course at Memrise. I have found that I learn better if I start with the flashcards (and mems) on Memrise, then switch to Duolingo to tackle using them in sentences.

If you want personalized flashcards to help you learn, download Anki. Anki 1.0 was just a simple flashcard system that ran on spaced repetition. But it’s my understanding that the newest incarnation allows pictures and even sound, so you can make mems, attach pronunciation recordings, etc.



After 7 long months without any form of internet in our house whatsoever . . .


. . . and without any access to Facebook . . .


. . . the cable achievement has, at last, been unlocked! We have internet!



And now . . .





The dog’s going to have to throw her own ball and the cats will have to scratch each others’ butts; tonight is internet night!



A few months ago, I found out about a wildly popular free language-learning website, Duolingo. It works on the principal of what you might call “natural” learning, which is to just start learning words without any emphasis on grammar or spelling, the way a baby starts picking up words and simple phrases (although it will correct those things for you). Duolingo is crowd-sourced, too, with the lessons written by a selected group of native-speaking volunteers and corrections or additions coming from suggestions submitted by the users. This keeps it from being very formal and getting out-of-date; instead, it better tracks how the language is actually spoken by native speakers today—complete with learning modules covering slang.

The recorded audio is also from native speakers, so you don’t have the problem that I had when I went into my second year of Spanish in high school and our very American teacher left and we got a Mexican teacher instead and none of us could understand her at all for the first few weeks until we adapted to her (proper) accent.

Duolingo also has a social-media aspect with forums where you can discuss the language(s) you’re learning or just chat about learning languages, foreign travel, etc. You can also tie it into your Facebook, where it can not only post updates about your progress, but it can allow you to compete with other friends who are also learning languages.

I did some research online and found that studies have actually been done to test Duolingo’s effectiveness and it’s found that people learn as much using it as they do when taking a college language class (and in less time). That’s in addition to the fact that 1) it’s free, and 2) you can move at your own pace. Someone who is committed to learning a language and/or is good at learning it can progress very quickly through the lessons, whereas a person in a regular class is stuck learning at the same speed as everyone else. That could be why more than a few schools are using Duolingo in their classrooms as an aid or supplement to their traditional teaching methods.

Duolingo is set up something like a game with short lessons that can be squeezed into otherwise wasted time, like while standing in line, commuting, waiting on your kids, during a lunch break, etc. (Needless to say, it has a mobile app.) When you complete a module, you get happy music to make you feel proud of your accomplishment. And you can do different things to earn “lingots” which are the site’s currency and allow you to “buy” things like extra modules (modules are chunks of related lessons) or a free pass to skip learning a day. (There are rewards for keeping up a “streak” of daily learning; if you buy a pass, you can skip a day without breaking your streak.)


My Spanish lessons are in here . . . somewhere. Also, the names and dates of all the presidents. And how to spell Massachusetts and Connecticut. Oh, wait, I got those both right on the first try! Yay memory balls!

I tried Duolingo out using the Spanish course and found that 1) with some light prompting, I was able to remember a surprising amount from my three years of high school courses (that should be a relief for other people who learned a language long ago and think it’s long gone; you probably only need a little refresher to get it fished up from the recesses of your long-term memory), and 2) I found it pretty easy to add new words and phrases. Of course, not every word I learned stuck the first time around. But that’s okay; modules that you have previously completed (they turn gold when they’re finished) will degrade if you don’t keep practicing or if you make mistakes on those words when you encounter them in subsequent lessons. So you will have to go back and repeat part of the module to get it back to gold status.


I have been a slacker. These are all the modules I’ve completed, but I haven’t kept them up.



I got the Basics 1 module back up to gold. I can bebo leche with the best of them once again!



Here you’re given a written and audible phrase in Spanish to translate into English.


I got credit for my answer (which, orally, would have been understandable) even though I didn’t spell it correctly. The correction is shown at the bottom. Note the accented letters under the text box that you can use.

Duolingo has a combination of questions; in each lesson you will be asked to translate audio and written text from the subject language into English and also from English into the subject language. There’s also an option to respond verbally in the subject language, but obviously you have to have a microphone to do so, and since a lot of people don’t have access to one, you can turn that option off in your settings so that you never get that kind of question.

The current list of languages offered are:


Languages that are in development:


Duolingo also has resources for people to learn to speak English, but I’m not sure how many languages their website comes in (since obviously I don’t see it from that direction).

I really just worked on the Spanish modules to learn how to use the program and to kill time until Hebrew became available, which is what I’m most interested in learning. Hebrew is now available, but it’s still in beta, so changes may still be forthcoming. One of the things I wish they would do is embed a Hebrew script keyboard on the site. In the Spanish course, you are provided with accented letters on the screen that you can click when you need to insert an é or an ñ  in your response text. The Hebrew course, however, has no on-screen keyboard that you can use for Hebrew characters. (And my keyboard at home and work are both fresh out of Hebrew letters.) I found on the discussion forum the suggestion to use a virtual keyboard. That works and I’m now able to progress through my lessons, but I hope that they will get one embedded right on the page so I don’t have to constantly switch back and forth between the two websites all the time.

Medieval Monday: The Rise of the English Empire

Henry VIII is a young man when he becomes King of England. His father had been a notorious miser and never felt secure on the throne due to his poor claim to it. He gave England peace, but nothing more. Vivacious, handsome, and well-educated, Henry VIII brought the light of the Renaissance to England.

Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived

Catherine of Aragon – Henry marries his brother’s widow—despite the fact that she was 8 years his senior. Catherine had spent years caught in a power struggle between her father and Henry VII and had been neglected and impoverished. When Henry declares he will marry her as soon as he is king, he is seen as a romantic and valiant knight.

Catherine becomes pregnant numerous times, but miscarries often and her one live-born son dies shortly after his christening. Mary is the only child they have that survives infancy and Catherine gives her a new European education with the intention that she will rule in her own right, as her grandmother, Isabella of Spain, did.

Anne Boleyn – Henry and Catherine have a great marriage, although he takes the occasional mistress. When Henry falls for Anne and she refuses him, he loses his senses. When he can’t get Anne, he tries to get rid of Catherine, but she proves just as stubborn and refuses to retire to a nunnery so that he can marry Anne. Anne is a Protestant and she begins to influence Henry. Despite the fact that he once wrote a piece so eloquently in favor of papal supremacy that the Pope declared Henry a “Defender of the Faith,” Henry ultimately rejects the Pope’s authority and places himself at the head of the Church in England. And as such, he grants himself a divorce, marries Anne, and exiles Catherine to a cold, run-down castle.Anne Boleyn

The fiery Anne that so enthralled Henry when he couldn’t have her soon becomes tiresome when he actually has to live with her every day. Anne’s family rise fast with her, generating jealousy at court, and she was already thoroughly hated by the people. She gives Henry a daughter, Elizabeth, but she loses her second daughter and produces no sons. Soon, a combination of political factions and Anne’s own behavior begin to poison Henry against her. After a serious fall from a horse while jousting—which gives him a leg wound that never heals—Henry becomes more temperamental and tyrannical. Anne and her brother are set up and Henry allows them to be tried for incest and treason. Both are executed.

Jane Seymour – While Anne is falling out of favor, Jane’s star is rising. Quiet and unassuming, she is more like Catherine in temperament than Anne. As soon as Anne is out of the way, Henry marries Jane and in a short time she is pregnant. She gives him a son, Edward, and everything seems to be going well. But a short time later, she dies of a fever (probably from an infection contracted during childbirth).

Anne of CleavesAnne of Cleaves – Anne of Cleaves was an attempt by Henry’s advisors to make a political (rather than love) match for Henry. They, like him, wanted England to be a major European power. Anne, however, ended up coming with little in the way of political status. Furthermore, she inadvertently angered Henry when they first met and he took a set against her, nicknaming her the “Mare of Flanders” for her supposed ugly face and body odor. They were reluctantly married, but his anger with her only increased until he couldn’t stand her any longer. He offered her a divorce, which she (wisely) took. She was given a nice castle and a sufficient pension and was styled as “the king’s sister.” She appeared at court occasionally and kept up a friendly correspondence with both princesses.

Catherine Howard – Catherine Howard was a young teenager when she wed Henry, who was old enough to be her grandfather. Henry was as besotted with her as he had been with Anne (who was a cousin of Catherine’s) and he doted on the vivacious young woman. Unlike her predecessors, Catherine was too young (and perhaps too stupid) to be a decent queen. She certainly wasn’t smart enough to realize how perilous court could be. Like Anne before her, she was denounced as an adulteress by those who resented her family’s rise to power. Unlike Anne, though, the charges against her were probably true. She too was sent to the block.

Katherine Parr – Katherine, a widow, was selected to be Henry’s wife not out of love or a desire for male heirs or even political alliance; she was needed simply to care for the ailing king and perhaps act as a calming influence on a man who was now even more suspicious and distrustful than his father had been. That didn’t work too well, as Katherine found herself in serious trouble with Henry over some rather trivial disagreement. Some quick groveling spared her from what would have probably been her own trip to the block, but she lived in fear of upsetting him again. When he finally died, everyone at court breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The Children of Henry VIII

Edward VI was still a child when he became king after his father. He was as intelligent and well-educated as his father, but lacked all of his father’s size and vigor. He expanded his father’s Protestant reforms (which really didn’t go farther than making the king the head of the church and robbing all the monasteries in England; in all other respects, the Church of England looked like the Catholic Church), but other than that, he did little in his few years as king. He died while still a teenager—most likely from tuberculosis.

Just before his death, Edward bastardized both of his sisters and named a cousin, Jane Grey, as his successor. This was done to prevent Mary, a staunch Catholic, from taking the throne. It didn’t work, however; Lady Jane Grey reigned for only nine days before Mary’s forces took the throne by force. Jane Grey was later executed when her parents tried to raise another rebellion against Mary.

BurnHenry’s firstborn daughter, Mary, was fast approaching middle age by the time she took the throne. She married a Spanish cousin—much to everyone’s dismay—and hurriedly tried to conceive an heir. But Philip apparently didn’t care for the much-older Mary and could hardly be enticed to do his husbandly duty. Mary thought that she was pregnant twice, but each “pregnancy” failed to produce a child—or even a miscarriage. Likely both occurrences were a sign that something was wrong with Mary’s reproductive organs. She dies just five years after gaining the throne, most probably from a uterine tumor. But, before she dies, she restores England to the Catholic Church and burns so many Protestants that she is forever dubbed “Bloody Mary.”

Elizabeth is a young woman when she takes the throne and ends up being the most like her father. She is extremely intelligent and well-educated, with all the charm and wit that her mother possessed. She returns England to the Protestant faith and takes it further away from Catholicism in appearance. English Catholics become a source of ongoing danger to her, but she refuses to take any action against most of them, thus ending her sister’s bloody religious purges.

She gets England a toe-hold in North America and with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England begins to become a recognized naval power. Her reign is long and politically stable. Unlike her father’s reign, when backers of the latest queen held the most power, Elizabeth rather adroitly plays one faction against the others, never allowing any one family to have too much power. Her weakness was Robert Dudley (and, later, Robert’s stepson, the Earl of Essex), but even though she showed both men great favor, she refused to marry them, thus denying them the greatest prize of all. In the end, England had but one mistress and no master and she refused, until the very last, to even name an heir. It was only after her death that James VI of Scotland—her closest male relative—was named James I of England and finally united the two countries.