Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How to learn a foreign language for free

I have been learning Spanish since a month now. (Me encanta aprender espanol!) 
I know, that probably doesn't make me any expert to write an article as this. But I believe you will find some worthy recommendations here (specially resources you should use). Best of all they are all FREE! 

Learning through mems

Earlier in the year when I read Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein I was fascinated with this whole business about remembering things. Certainly, the memory championships are won by ordinary human beings and not wizards. So it was exciting to learn a technique or two about improving memory.  Cutting short, there was a Guardian article on how Joshua Foer learnt a language in 22 hours. There he refers to a site built by former memory champions called A site where you can learn languages (among other things) through visual cues (mnemonics or what they shortly call as "mems"). Till date, I remember some of the complicated phrases in Spanish thanks to memrise. It is fun and addictive. Give it a shot!

Learning via apps

One of the best language learning apps out there is Duolingo (only available in iPhone as of now). Thanks to Mr. Ashton Kutcher, who tweeted this and there hasn't been a day where I didn't use this app to learn Spanish. Ok, there was a day and the Duolingo team promptly sent me a reminder (whoa!) that daily practice is essential to learn a language. So now you must wonder, there are several apps, so why this app? I think what works in this app is you can take short lessons in under 5 mins or so (if you were waiting in a line somewhere, commuting, or just bored), you could switch to this app and learn a word or two. Also, the app structures the lessons really well (so you are progressing from one level to another) and is very comprehensive! 

Learning via podcasts

I love my iTunes! Specially podcasts and iTunes U. I could sit on them the whole day and forget to work. They are that addictive. One of the most popular language learning series on iTunes is Coffee Break Spanish. These are short podcasts (weekly I think) that cover Spanish lessons offered by Scottish anchors Mark and Cara. They make it really interesting through conversations, basic phrases, holiday jingles and what not. Basically very very simple but effective.

Learning via iTunes U

And then there is the traditional way of signing up for a language course. This is the least recommended, honestly. Because you are going to find yourself less and less motivated to stick to it. But one of the things I was struggling with while learning Spanish is grammar. Grammar, yes, is important. So I found a course by University of Arkansas on iTunes U called the 5 minute Spanish. This focuses only on grammar and is a 5 minute series (again!). Very effective in getting rid of those grammar questions. 

A nagging question for instance was when to use "es" and when to use "esta" in Spanish. A 5 minute lesson in this course just crushed it! 

Learning with a buddy

Honestly, if I continued to live in the States, I would easily find a Spanish speaking buddy. And that is probably the best thing to do anyway - practice speaking a language with a native speaker. But since I am in India, I learn by practicing with a friend who is also interested in learning the language. So we try to do conversations as if we were two native Spanish speakers. It is fun to make mistakes and laugh over it. Plus, we add our own creative ways of remembering it :)

Learning by listening/reading

This is something I caught on to a little late because I had to build up to the basic Spanish words before I start watching Spanish videos. I picked up a Spanish book recently and I watch Spanish commercials on YouTube. Although, I am still on the lookout for a nice Spanish soap or TV show that I can follow (Recommendations welcome:))

So really when I was watching Life of Pi I jumped up at the scene where Pi is in the hospital and there is a headline in the local Mexican newspaper that reads something like "Chico 277 dias..."

I immediately grip my friend's arm and say hey I know what that means. I had to show off you know ;)

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Movie recommendation: No Country for Old Men

Note: The movie that inspired me to read the book (from which it was adapted). Need I say more?

Genre: Crime, Thriller

If you enjoy symbolisms in movies, this one will be definitely liked. This movie at first viewing might also seem to be borderline meaningless. Until you get the symbolism of it all. That I got it only in the second viewing, is something that I will admit to frankly. Plus a second viewing is a must, to have a greater appreciation of this movie. It grows on you, like vintage wine or cheese.

Don't worry about the title, not yet. When the end credits roll you will totally get it. The movie follows a drug deal gone wrong in a remote Texas county. Moss (Josh Brolin), a smalltime plumber, stumbles onto the scene and walks away with the booty. However, there is a pyschopathic killer Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who is on the trail and will stop at nothing to get his money. There is also an old sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) in the mix, who investigates the murders and is struggling to understand the gravity and deadly repercussions of the crime.

Sounds ordinary? It won't if you see it. On the outside it seems like the classic cat chasing mouse thriller but inside it questions the intentions of crimes we read about in the news, everyday. Crimes that have no motive. Crimes that are so maniacal, it is gut wrenching. And such a story, as seen through the eyes of the sheriff, tells it all. That we live in a world full of violence, that is unexplainable and unfathomable. And this is what the sheriff struggles with - to understand the psyche of Chigurh. 

The sight of Chigurh is menacing and sends chills down the viewers. And Javier Bardem just epitomizes evil in this character - a kind of lunacy that is hard to imagine or comprehend. This conversation from the movie substantiates Chigurh's description:

Man who hires Wells: [about Chigurh] Just how dangerous is he? 
Carson Wells: Compared to what? The bubonic plague? 

There were scenes where my hair stood up; seeing him walk with the cattle gun (he carries a shotgun cylinder that is used in slaughterhouses to kill cattle). My heart pounding when the sheriff goes back to the scene of crime in the motel and Chigurh is inches away from him. And that with no background score, an ominous silence (except for the creak of the footsteps and the sound of breath) made it as intense as it could get. For that and the unconventional storytelling, I have to give credit to the genius that is Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski, True Grit fame)

The problem with this movie is - either you like it or don't get it. Some things I appreciated on my second viewing is the way the Chigurh's character is given no justification - he is simply monster of a man - no explanations for his behavior. That good doesn't necessarily triumph over evil, all the time. That sometimes the unexpected of things can happen and you wouldn't see it coming (similar to the climax of this movie that jolts you for a moment and also leaves you confused). This movie is as good as it can get for a modern Western tale. But watch it closely to get its intricacies.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Interactive R learning site

I am really bummed finding this site on Hacker News this morning. (Follow the comments there to find more dope)

Kind of like Code Academy for R (language).

This is a brilliant way to not just introduce you to R but give a peek at the power of visualizations using R. I am ploughing through the lessons and you should too.

For example I am right now visualizing a dormant New Zealand volcano in lesson 3. And a simple command in the interpreter gifts me with its 3D contour and heat map.

Full points to the folks behind it. Also clever of them to put plugs to relevant Oreilly resources:)

More power to data scientists!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Movie Recommendation: Senna

Note: During a chance browsing, I bumped into this documentary on Netflix. Easily one of the best documentaries I have watched (more than once). A must watch, even for non-Formula One (F1) fans like me. Strongly recommended!

Genre: Documentary, Drama, Sports, Memoir

I am not a Formula One fan. I don't even watch the sport or follow any related news. My only reference to F1 is perhaps a name "Schumacher" and the word "McLaren" inscribed on my boyfriend's bike. So yes, that disclaimer was meant for everyone like me who knows nothing about the sport and doesn't care much about it. So imagine my surprise when I just felt so taken by this documentary on Senna. 

Ayrton Senna was a legendary F1 racer from Brazil, who had near mythic status in the world of Formula One. And this is a documentary spun over recorded events and archived footage of his life (I have a dislike for documentaries that are huge portions, reenacted). Parts of this documentary were so intense, it broke my heart. I now have a huge appreciation for F1 racing drivers and the sport.

The opening lines of the documentary nails the mood and story that is going to unfold as Senna's voice booms in the background:

"1978 I came to Europe the first time to compete outside Brazil in the world championship. It was pure driving, pure racing. There wasn't any politics. No money involved either. It was real racing."

It follows the struggles of Senna in the world of Formula One championships. From a young passionate driver to a cult figure, battling his arch nemesis Alain Prost, riding high on emotions and spirituality as an individual, fighting for the safety of drivers and yet fiercely competitive on the track purely out of love and passion for driving. The documentary with its haunting background score makes it a thrilling ride (ya pun intended but true to the word). You get a glimpse of behind the scenes of F1, as seen and experienced by Senna.

It is exciting to watch the rivalry between Senna and Prost and heartbreaking to watch the tragic climax. But what caught my attention (and will surely draw yours too) was his spirit. His raw passion and spirit to ride above controversies and hold his home country Brazil so close to his heart (he was deeply concerned and involved with finding hope for Brazil's poverty and economic instability), even though a large part of his life was spent living in Europe and pursuing a racing profession.

The scene that nearly made my eyes wet was the one from 1991 Brazil Grand Prix. (I was eating at the time and stopped chewing the food in my mouth). This was the first time he had won in his home country. And that, after beating all odds of driving a broken car and triumphantly waving the Brazilian flag on the win.

This movie is a perfect tribute to the icon that is Senna. And kudos to the director for not including re-enactments or third person interviews on Senna - they just break the narrative in a documentary. This is one of the major reasons why people who like movies (commercial ones) hate documentaries - because they are made boring by such distractions. The documentary is so well put together (thanks to its deft editing) that it is part sublime and part fascinating at times.

This is also a movie that will teach you a thing or two along the way. That nothing comes easy. That, come what may, you should never give up. That a sport can truly be a form of art or passion (because all he ever wanted to do was to race). That nothing can break a human spirit, so pure that it leaves behind a legacy called Senna.