Check out the podcast I contributed to the Being James Bond site on visiting Tokyo.

Precepts for Living Like James Bond

Plagiarizing myself from the Being James Bond forum:

1. Seek out new experiences.
2. Nothing is "out of your league."
3. Every crisis is an opportunity to be cool.
4. Always be learning.
5. Keep looking for ways to "level up"--physically, mentally, and financially.
6. If you're not savoring your life, figure out what needs to change, and change it.
7. Do it with style.

"If You're not Paranoid, You're Crazy"

Worthwhile article at The Atlantic.

Personally I find it reassuring how often the so-called "expert" algorithms yield wildly inappropriate Web ads ("Burmese mail-order brides!").

Some Standard Language-Learning Resources

If you plan on teaching yourself one or more foreign languages—especially some less common ones—you owe it to yourself to have some familiarity with the following resources. This post will be followed up with one offering some specific plans for using these to attack a new language.

Teach Yourself Books: These have a venerable history in the United Kingdom and figure prominently in my own personal history. Some decades ago they were practically the only available resource for many less common languages. I have bought over a score of these (and even read a few of them). Teach Yourself offers roughly 60 languages as well as other topics. These are probably the most traditional resource on this list. Each book offers a series of lessons, each of which typically consists of dialogs, vocabulary lists, some explanatory material, and some exercises. A "Teach Yourself Complete" course comes with a couple of CD's which may prove critically useful.

Strong points: Good for all-around learning, probably the best resource on this list for learning grammar.

Language/30 courses: 33 languages available. One course consists of 2 CDs plus a booklet (or the digital equivalent). The content is essentially like a phrase book, with a few basic vocabulary lists. There is no explanation of grammar, and only the scantiest introduction to non-Latin scripts (if relevant). As limited as these are, I have sometimes found them a useful first introduction to a language. And it doesn't hurt to commit a sizeable stock of standard phrases to memory.

Strong points: Good for pronunciation. The booklet provides a useful transcript.

Weak points: You won't learn grammar with these, unless you're extremely good at making inferences.

Pimsleur method: 50 languages available. I keep intending to do a separate post on this system. It is essentially an all-audio method. A full course consists of 30 half-hour lessons on CD (or the digital equivalent). The structure is simple: listen and say what they tell you to say. It is an easy ramp up into the language. Vocabulary and grammar are introduced gradually. Explanations of grammar are avoided as much as possible in favor of learning by imitation and repetition. The program also uses a spaced-repetition principle to maintain what you learn. Short courses are also available consisting of the first 10 lessons or whatever. For the more popular languages, as many as three courses are available (meaning 90 lessons). By the 90th lesson, you will have developed some nontrivial conversations skills.

Most courses have a smaller set of "reading lessons" that provide a basic introduction to the writing system. Unfortunately these are not closely connected to the audio lessons.

Strong points: Lots of speaking practice. Can be multitasked with walking, driving, etc. Helps develop an intuitive feel for the language.

Weak points: Could be so much better with a transcript. You may want to add a grammar resource.

Foreign Service Institute (FSI) courses. I want to mention these, although I have yet to try working with one. These were designed by the U.S. government for training diplomats. Many courses are available. The approach is traditional, generally comprising both a text and audio files. Since you pay taxes, you've already paid for them; i.e. they are copyright-free. Altruistic citizens have been digitizing and uploading these; see the preceding links. As of this writing, courses for 48 different languages are available; more may appear in the future.

Practical Joke #15

1. Start a television ministry, denomination of your choice.

2. Build the ministry up to many thousands of followers. Collect millions in donations.

3. Build an enormous new megachurch with room for thousands of attendees as well as facilities for televising the services.

4. Make sure the sole restroom in the church is located directly behind the pulpit, so that anyone needing to go to the restroom is seen doing so on national TV.

Alimony Seen Through the Gender Prism

Today I am grateful to Kate Bahn, feminist economist (as she styles herself). Because she has given me an easy topic for a blog post. I read with interest her piece "In Defense Of Alimony, From A Feminist Economist," and it provoked an immediate urge to respond.

Not that I feel the urge to refute anything that Bahn says. I'm quite sympathetic to the sacrifices that women make for the sake of marriage, and am all in favor of their fair treatment in the event of divorce. It's just that Bahn and I apparently see gender roles in marriage through very different prisms. And therefore alimony appears a much trickier issue to me than to Bahn, especially as an issue of fairness to women.

In my circle of acquaintances I know of no men paying alimony to their ex-wives. I do know of women paying alimony to ex-husbands. The typical story runs like this: Couple gets married, wife has a decent job, husband somehow never gets around to finding a job. (I suspect this has something to do with the general male malaise of our times.) After some years, the couple gets divorced, to which failure of the husband to find a job may be a contributing factor. And because the ex-husband never had a job, the ex-wife is stuck paying him alimony.

Doesn't seem fair to me.

I have seen this happen even in cases where the ex-husband has a history of beating the ex-wife.

One can try to cast this story as the husband sacrificing his career for the sake of the marriage, but I really don't think so. For example, the wife may be paying for child care as well as supporting the husband because the husband is unwilling or unable to mind the children.

An alternate version of this story is where the wife wants to divorce but can't, or won't, because of the looming burden of alimony.

(Sarcasm on: And thus feminism triumphs.)

Question for discussion: If we imagine this scenario with the genders reversed, does it change how we feel about the situation? Should it?

Another question: Is there an objective way to distinguish the spouse who sacrifices his/her career for the sake of the marriage from the slob who won't get a job? Is it a real distinction, or just perception?

So, I don't know whether alimony is a good idea, or not. I just don't see it as the slam-dunk that Bahn does.

Learn Khmer Script the Lazy-Ass Way: The Consonants

Photo by Kim Seng.

This post describes a mnemonic system for memorizing the consonants of the Khmer script. It is similar in spirit to my method for the Thai alphabet, but uses different gimmicks. Khmer vowels will be handled in an upcoming post.

Here are the main issues that I encountered in committing the script to memory:

First issue: Khmer uses a three-way contrast for stop consonants rather than a two-way contrast as in English. For example, whereas English has unvoiced, aspirated T versus voiced, unaspirated D. Khmer has a three-way contrast:

Unvoiced, aspirated, like English "T"
Voiced, unaspirated, like English "D"
Unvoiced, unaspirated, kind of in between English "T" and English "D"

I don't want to get into some tangled web of Khmer phonology here—and I'm no expert, anyway. The point is that there are three categories to keep straight.

Second issue: Khmer consonants come with a built-in vowel, sometimes "A", sometimes "O." So this needs to be memorized along with the consonant sound. Example:

is pronounced something like KA, whereas
is pronounced something like KO.

Third issue: Khmer letters sometimes rely on rather minor (to my Latin-alphabet mind, that is) differences to make important distinctions. For example, the difference between Khmer letters:


is scarcely more than that between the Latin letters


but whereas the Latin letters are merely different styles of "S", the Khmer letters are completely different consonants. I found a few cases particularly diabolical; we'll visit those later.

The overall idea is to choose a name for each letter: something concrete and hence visualizable. The name also serves to encode various aspects of the letter, phonetic, visual, or both. Let's now revisit the first two issues identified above.

First issue: Khmer stop consonants show a three-way contrast between unvoiced aspirated, unvoiced unaspirated, and voiced. I used the same principle as Chinese Pinyin: represent aspirated Khmer stops by unvoiced English letters (P, K, T) and represent unaspirated Khmer stops by voiced English letters (B, G, D). The voiced Khmer stops are represent by a combination of the equivalent English voiced stop with a following "r" (Br, Dr). There are actually very few of these.

Second issue: Khmer consonants come with an inherent "A" or "O" sound attached. This is handled simply by using "A" or "O" as the first vowel sound in the name.

Khmer also includes a fair number of non-stop consonants (like English R, S, V, etc.). The first issue does not arise with these but the second does.

The names for the "A"-series stop consonants are given in the following table. Each cell shows the Khmer consonant, the English name, and an approximate representation of the pronunciation. I use an apostrophe to distinguish aspirated stops: thus t'a is aspirated t followed by a, while ta is unaspirated t followed by a. Don't worry about the words in parentheses just yet.

Unvoiced AspiratedUnvoiced UnaspiratedVoiced
(tailless) Kangaroo
(fluorescent) Chamber
(fluorescent) Jam
(fluorescent) Taxi
(fluorescent) Tarp
(fluorescent) Papaya

Some of the table cells are empty because the alphabet contains no letter in that category. On the other hand, the t'a cell contains two letters. So far as I can tell, these are identical in pronunciation (which unfortunately does not imply they are interchangeable, any more than "f" is interchangeable with "ph" in English).

The remainder of the "A"-series consonants are given in the following table. Again, don't worry about the terms in parentheses as yet.

Khmer letterEnglish namePronunciation
(inverted) Halo ha
(fluorescent) Lace la
Satellite sa
(fluorescent) Quasar !a

The last of these requires special attention. The sound of the consonant Quasar is a glottal stop. Since English has no letter to represent a glottal stop, I used "Q" instead. This also seems to be a common convention in Khmer textbooks.

The foregoing completes the list of "A"-series consonants. We turn now to the "O"-series. Again, we start with a table showing the stops in three categories:

Unvoiced AspiratedUnvoiced UnaspiratedVoiced

(fluorescent) Kookaburra
(fluorescent) Totem

And the remainder of the "O" series are in the following table:

Khmer letterEnglish namePronunciation
(inverted) Nozzleno

This wraps up the list of consonants, handling both the first and second issues identified above.

The third issue is not actually that difficult to deal with, but the explanation will be pretty lengthy. Let's take a comparative look at some of the consonants. Consider first this list:


Note that all these Khmer letters have in common the "gables" element:

The names of these letters therefore all contain the letter M as a clue to the shape. Initial M (as in Motor) does not count.

(If you are alert, you have noticed that one letter NYOtainori didn't make the list even though it contains the "gables" element. Unfortunately it was hard enough for me to find a word starting with NYO, so you have to remember this one on your own.)

Next consider this group of letters:


Note that all these have in common the "pompadour" on top:

And these letter names are distinguished by the letter P. Again, initial P (as in "Pomegranate") is irrelevant here.

Next group:


Note that the first two characters here "Rosebud" and "Voicebox" are almost identical: the only difference is that "Voicebox" includes a little extra fillip at the top:

The same structure is also at the upper-right of "Taxi". The clue for this structure is the letter X in the names "Voicebox" and "Taxi".

Note in particular the following five letters, which drove me to distraction:


These are the "Five Marx Brothers" of the Khmer alphabet:

Extraordinary measures are needed to keep them straight. The "M versus P" principle ensures that we won't confuse "Totem" with "Papaya", for example, but what about "Tarp" versus "Papaya"? I adopted the additional rule that letters with a smooth bottom:

get monosyllabic names ("Jam", "Tarp"), whereas letters with a crooked bottom:

get polysyllabic names ("Totem", "Papaya", "Jockstrap"). This "syllable" rule applies only to this group of five and cannot be relied upon for other letters. 

I wish this disposed of all opportunities for confusion, but no. Consider next this pair:


The only point of distinction is the orientation of the little loop at the upper left:


I would have liked to think of yet another way to use word forms to distinguish these two cases, but by this point the system had too many moving parts to fit another one in. So I use a descriptive adjective to identify those letters with left-facing loops, thus: "fluorescent Kookaburra." The other names qualifying as fluorescent are:

Chamber, Doll, Jam, Lace, Papaya, Quasar, Tarp, Taxi, and Totem.

Consider next this group of three:
In this case, two distinguishing features need to be remembered: (1) "Kangaroo" is missing the little serif at the bottom; and (2) "Nozzle" is written with reversed orientation. Therefore the "Kangaroo" is a "tailless Kangaroo" and the "Nozzle" is an "inverted Nozzle." These points are important not merely for distinguishing these consonants, but for distinguishing them from some of the vowel symbols to be discussed in the future. 

Similarly "Halo" is described as "inverted" to keep the orientation distinct from "Lozenge" and "Satellite."

Thus endeth the system for Khmer consonants. In a forthcoming post, I will take up the system for Khmer vowels, compared to which the consonants are a day at the beach.