Wednesday, August 26, 2020


For the last five years, I have kept up a constant and generally futile battle to get the children to speak German at home. Roswitha made a really lovely sign to hang at our table - "Sag es auf Deutsch!" (Say it in German!) - and the rule was that the family spoke German at breakfast and dinner. But the battle was, as I say, futile. We were never willing to punish English with sufficient severity to convince the children that German was worth the trouble, and at any rate they would generally just not speak rather than switch languages. I wasn't too terribly worried, though, because we went through the same struggle in reverse while raising our oldest two in Germany, and within a couple of months in America they had switched entirely to flawless English.

The real secret, I think, is constant exposure. When we previously lived in Germany, I never spoke German with the children. They knew I understood it, so they would never say a word in English to me, but I simply spoke English to them all the time. And Rose and I always spoke English together - I didn't actually speak any German at all until we'd been together for a few years, so we have always been more comfortable speaking English together in any case. When my parents came to visit or we made a trip to America, it was clear that it was working; as soon as they encountered people who didn't do what they wanted when it was demanded in German, the kids would switch it up and make their requirements known in beautiful, unaccented American English.

We obeyed roughly the same rule during our five years in America, with the exception that I would speak a lot more German with the kids, mostly because speaking German at home was how I was trying to keep in practice. But as I said, the kids were not enthusiastic participants.

Now, though, Elijah, the middlest of our three children, is sitting on the couch with his cousin, teaching him to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in perfectly beautiful German. Considering that he's been speaking German again for all of two days (we spent the first nine days, remember, in the bubble of quarantine), his ability is incredible. He's making lots of grammatical mistakes, especially confusing the gender of nouns and conjugating irregular verbs incorrectly, and he's missing a few words - teleport, goal, climb - but his cousin is infinitely patient and in the time I've been typing this I've heard Elijah use all three of those words correctly. He'll be indistinguishable from any other native speaker within a couple of months.

It makes me so happy to see my children growing up bilingual. I was such a poor student, in such a bad educational system, and had such awful teachers, that I literally never realized that I had a knack for languages and a passion for learning them until I started learning Japanese as a young adult. I'm really jealous of them for getting a second language right out of the gate. And, of course, since they are now going to be getting their educations in Germany, they'll have the opportunity to pick up another two languages before heading off to college.

Of course, I am very aware of the danger of projecting my own passions onto my children. I'm not going to be some super pushy Polyglot Papa, forcing the children to their language lessons every day and making sure their Latin is up to snuff. It's entirely possible their passions are going to be electronic music and football, and if that's the case I'll dig deep and find a way to love them anyway. But whether they come to love languages as I do or not, they'll always have the gift of being conversant in two languages and comfortable in two worlds. I think that's pretty special.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020



Yesterday afternoon, after nine days in quarantine, we finally got the call from the local health office: our negative Covid tests had been processed, and we were officially free to leave our apartment. Quarantine here is strict - there is no provision for any activity outside your residence, period. No walks, no drives, nothing.

We immediately arranged a play date with our niece and nephew at a neighborhood playground. For the first time since March, I got to watch my children play with other children. Such a simple thing, children playing with children, the most normal thing in the world. But of course for half a year the closest thing to playing with friends that our children could experience was a surreal mockery of the real thing. Sitting in a chair ten feet away while a friend jumped on a trampoline, sitting on the deck while a friend played in the yard. Now they were running around, climbing, digging in the playground sand, laughing and jumping and doing what children are meant to do. This was the moment that made me think all the insanity and stress of the last two months have been totally worth it; my children get to have something like a normal childhood again.

To be honest, the adjustment to living in a part of the world where Covid-19 isn't a huge danger is going to be very difficult for me. I have an invitation in my calendar for a meeting next week; a training session in a conference room with six people I've never met. I'm totally terrified. 

I know for a fact that there's no real reason to be worried; with extensive testing (I can't find local positivity rates yet, but Germany has a nationwide positivity rate below 1%), there have only been 12 confirmed cases of Covid in the county of more than 100,000 residents that we live in in the last 14 days. The county-wide rate is 0.84 daily cases per 100,000 residents, compared to about 17 in the Benton-Franklin County area we left. Context is important here, too; the current rate here is the result of a significant rise that is likely to prompt official action, and the rate back in Washington is the result of a reduction by half over the last month that seems likely to prompt folks to relax even more.

I assemble these numbers, as I have nearly every day for the last half year, so that I can do my best to make rational decisions about risk. But it's really hard to make rational decisions; when I was still in Washington, it seemed obvious that the rational thing was to hunker down, avoid social contacts, and so that's what we did, and it was a constant struggle not to feel like I was crazy for doing what the science said would keep me, my loved ones, and my community safe. Now the rational thing is clearly to be cautious, but to go to work in person when necessary, shop in stores, visit friends and family. But after six months of living in a much more seriously impacted community, now I can see that it's going to be a struggle not to feel like I'm crazy for not being hyper-vigilant and avoiding social contacts at all costs.

One new experience today that I'd completely forgotten about; quiet. Rose has taken the kids to the park again, and I am sitting at home, entirely by myself. This may very well be the first time I've worked for an entire uninterrupted hour since February, and it's utterly glorious.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The multiverse and improbable outcomes

I've been occupying my mind the last couple of weeks by going deep on a few ideas of a philosophical nature, mostly inspired by my recent reading of Neil Stephenson's Anathem. If you like books that make you think thoughts and also take you on wild sci-fi adventures, read Anathem. I'm sending the paperback on a tour of as many friends as I can get to read it and buying myself a hardcover copy that I can read a few more times and annotate. It's that good.

So here's a thought that's been bothering me about the multiverse theory. To summarize it very succinctly, the multiverse theory holds that, every time a random quantum-mechanical probability is resolved (for example, an unstable atom decays or does not), new universes are spawned to reflect each possible outcome. So in one universe an atom splits and in another it doesn't. With the incomprehensible number of quantum events taking place throughout the universe at any given moment, the number of universes that this idea would give rise to is vast on a scale beyond my ability to even attempt to convey it.

So here's the idea that's been sending my brain in circles: What if there is some very common quantum-mechanical effect that, for example, has a 90% chance to cause the entire universe to explode in fire during any given second. So after every second, there are nine universes in which everything has been annihilated and one in which it has not. Then after another second, that survivor universe has spawned another ten outcomes, nine of which are on fire. And so on and so on for trillions of years. What if ten copies of humanity are being spawned every second, and the version writing this post, and the version reading this post, are the fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction, the tiny surviving remnant of a vast apocalypse?

This is basically the anthropic principle raised to the highest possible degree - what if the universe we inhabit at any given moment is, in fact, one of only a very tiny fraction that's managed to survive as long as it has, and the only reason that we perceive the universe as being a stable and constant phenomenon is that all the versions of the universe that have demonstrated its inherent instability resulted in all observers being instantly destroyed?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Via Jon Rosenberg:
Enjoy your guns, gun owners. I hope they make you happy in a way that breathing, smiling six-year old children cannot.

Friday, June 8, 2012


Rose just sat with Josie and drew a few pictures.

Rose draws a sun, Josie says "Sonne!"
Rose draws a star, Josie says "Stern!"
Rose draws a crescent moon. Josie says "Banane!"

From the mouths of babes

This evening, I was reattaching a toilet paper holder that has come off of its mount, and Josie came in looking at me with wide eyes. "Papa, doing?"

I'm constantly amazed at the things that Josie can say. Bilingual children start speaking more slowly than children raised with a single mother language on average, but Josie's development in German seems to be just about typical, and her English is already getting pretty good, too.

Some of my favorite things that she says:

- In addition to "moo", "oink oink", and other animal sounds, she's learned to moan "braaaaaains" when I ask her what zombies say.
- She's obsessed with running fast, and she always announces "'Phine, nell!" ('Phine, fast!) before she takes off.
- Whenever I put her socks on, I get one crooked and she complains "nein, Papa, falsch. So 'rum." (no, Papa, wrong. This way around.)
- When I tell her I love her, she's started saying "vuv yuu" back to me. It melts my heart.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On big numbers

I have a real issue with the way numbers associated with macroeconomics are reported in the news. Ezra Klein writes that the American Federal Reserve is planning to perform quantitative easing to the tune of $600 billion.

The reason this sort of thing bugs me is that the number is essentially meaningless, because it is beyond comprehension. Your average person (or even your average above average person) is going to look at that number, and their brain is going to gloss it as "a metric Jesusload of money."

What I would much rather see is values like this in per-capita terms, and broken down over time: $600 billion is roughly $1,900 per American citizen. Spread out over seven months (the Fed plans to inject the money into the economy by purchasing treasuries between now and June), that's $271 a month per person in additional money entering the economy.

Isn't it a bit easier to comprehend the Fed's action and its possible impact when it's put like that?

By the way: I am hopefully going to be posting around here occasionally again. The birth of the Loaf massively reduced the time I could invest in the Umlaut, and my massive fondness for Starcraft 2 has basically eaten what free time I have left, but when the muse strikes I shall scurry over here to share my thoughts with whatever readers I may still have.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The year in books #22, #23 & #24

It's a three-fer special today at the American Umlaut! Woot! Despite the absence of my words here at the ol' Umlaut, I have not stopped reading books, but I've found myself with less and time to write about them here. The birth of the Loaf, the release of Starcraft 2, and a renewed passion for playing the piano have all left me... well, I wanted to say "with less free time," but of course, I have plenty of free time and am simply choosing to spend it with my daughter, my game and my instrument. I find, though, that it remains very important to me to get my thoughts about the books I read down somewhere. I especially like writing about books I've loved - telling a friend about a book that has fascinated or moved me feels a bit like introducing two friends and watching to see how they hit it off. I love letting you all know what I've enjoyed, and I really love all the times I've heard from my readers that they've looked at something I recommended here and enjoyed it.

So let's get to it. The first book to be discussed today is Terry Pratchett's The Last Continent, a Discworld novel describing the adventures of Rincewind and his fellow Unseen University wizards as they explore EcksEcksEcksEcks, the titular last continent, which bears a striking resemblance to Earth's Australia. I have shared my thoughts on the Discworld books generally in my previous post about The Hogfather, so this review can be short and sweet: This is the only Discworld novel I've ever found less than fabulous. The humor felt quite forced in places, and the fact that I'm not terribly familiar Australian culture or the stereotypes the English associate with Australians left me never sure if a particular characteristic of the continent in the novel was a Discworld-specific funny thing or was supposed to be, in some way, making fun of Australia. If you're a big Discworld fan, then I suppose you're going to read this one in any case, but if you're not, I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to the world or to Terry Pratchett's writing, which has otherwise never failed to impress me.

Books two and three in today's Review Spectacular are Dan Simmons's Hyperion and it's sequel, The Fall of Hyperion. Hyperion came out in 1989 and won the 1990 Hugo award for best novel, and when The Fall of Hyperion came out the next year it got a Hugo nomination and won the Locus. The reason that I am writing about the two books together rather than as separate pieces is that they are essentially a single novel in two volumes. Based loosely on The Canterbury Tales, Hyperion follows five pilgrims (a private detective, the former governor of a colony planet, a priest of a religion worshiping life, a catholic priest, and a great warrior) as they make a pilgrimage to the site of the legendary and deadly Shrike creature, taking turns telling the tale that has led them to make the pilgrimage. As their stories are more or less completely independent of each other, the book is less a novel than a collection of novellas, which together serve to paint a coherent picture of the far-future universe in which they are set, tied together with interstitial bits detailing the pilgrimage itself. The Fall of Hyperion is much more traditionally novel-like in its structure, continuing the story from the point of the pilgrims' arrival at the Shrike temple.

If you like science fiction, you must read these books. Even if sci-fi isn't your cup of tea, I suspect there is a great deal to appeal to the mere appreciator of fine literature. They reach heights of artistry and depths of philosophical thought that you rarely find in literature of any kind, and they do it while telling a captivating, epic story. Revealing any more of the story would ruin the fun of letting the books reveal it themselves, so just take my word for it: these are good books!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The year in books #21: The Silent War

I hadn't planned to read this novel, but discovered it at my in-laws' place and thought it looked interesting. Ben Bova's name is legendary in the sci-fi world, and so far The Kinsman Saga is the only work of his I've read. At least, I thought so - as I got a few chapters into the book, I realized that I had, in fact, read it once before, but had almost entirely forgotten the story.

The Silent War tells a tale of corporate war over the question of who will rule the almost limitless resources of the asteroid belt. It contains all of the elements of an excellent sci-fi thriller: it's action-packed; persons are beaten, exploded, perforated and otherwise caused to become partly or entirely nonfunctional. It is thrilling; there are alliances, betrayals, secret schemes. It is wonderfully paced and an entertaining read. (Related question, am I the only one who finds the term "page turner" silly? All books are page-turners. That's how books work. Saying a book kept you turning pages until the end is like saying a movie kept your eyes open until it was over.) The only part of the book I found uninteresting was the short story that, split in two, serves as opening and closing act for the novel proper. I suspect I'm missing the backstory necessary to get what was going on there; this is the third book in a trilogy, and I haven't read the other two, though that didn't make the rest of the novel any harder to understand.

Throughout my reading of this book, the one thing that bothered me was the same thing that bugged me about The Kinsman Saga: Reading the book is fun, but there's nothing particularly memorable about it. It's absolutely clear that Bova has mastered the craft of writing entertaining novels, but I feel like a novel - especially a science fiction novel - should aspire to more than being simply entertaining. The power and beauty of sci-fi is the practically limitless ideas its conceits allow an author to explore, but there's nothing surprising or particularly thought provoking in The Silent War. The concept of a future in which corporate actors are more powerful and important than state actors - one of the main themes of the book - is about as speculative in a 21st century novel as the concept of a future in which people carry Internet-connected devices in their pockets.

My very strong suspicion is that I'm reading the wrong Ben Bova books. A lot of authors who produce dozens of books over decades of work seem to produce much less truly original thought in their later books, even as their craft improves (see Piers Anthony: Macroscope is packed with brilliant ideas and dissolves into almost unreadable psychobabble about two-thirds through. The Xanth books, in contrast, are totally readable but hadn't produced an original idea in ten volumes or so when I finally gave up on them). I suspect that Bova wouldn't be so well known if all his novels were the sort of popcorn space thriller represented by The Silent War and the Kinsman Saga books.

My final verdict is that this is an excellent book for a sci-fi fan's day at the beach or intercontinental flight. If you're looking for something with psychological or speculative depth, however, you'll find this one lacking. If any of you happen to be familiar with Ben Bova and have a book suggestion for me, please drop by the comments section!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The year in books #20: Windup Girl

Slowly, ever so slowly, I am catching up with my backlog of books to review here. I think that actually getting through fifty books this year is entirely impossible, as I've only read twenty-five so far, and most of them were prior to the arrival of the world's cutest poop factory in my life. Today, though, I awoke at five o'clock, so I'll take the chance to jot down my thoughts on the fourth Hugo-nominated novel I read this year.

The Windup Girl is, alone among this year's Hugo nominees (with the possible exception of Wake, which I've been assured I'll be receiving in celebration of my birthday today), actually a science fiction novel. The Hugos are officially awarded for science fiction and fantasy, and there are sub-genres such as the sort of social fiction represented by The City & The City that fall under the broader category of speculative fiction which I am happy to see embraced by the awards. But I grew up reading Heinlein and Niven and Asimov, and nothing warms my heart like excellent, well constructed sci-fi. With The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (possibly the least-pronounceable author in the genre) has produced exactly that.

It behooves my to provide my definition of sci-fi - even within its own fandom, the genre's boundaries are subject to intense debate. I consider science fiction, as I believe I mentioned in another recent post, to be fiction that concerns itself with the human meaning of technological change or scientific discovery, or uses the conceit of a future or alien culture to explore the human experience from a novel perspective. Ringworld, which explores not only the Ringworld itself, but the impact of technologies as diverse as instant teleportation and direct stimulation of the brain's pleasure centers, is an excellent example of the former. Star Trek's technology is essentially magical and arbitrary, but the series are among the best science fiction of the second category, using the unique setting of a future populated by hundreds of alien races to produce allegories of modernity.

The Windup Girl is excellent science fiction of both types. It portrays a world in which the oil has run out and the energy economy has become focused instead on the efficient production, storage and transmission of kinetic energy for industry and transportation (largely in the form of genetically-engineered mastodons used to crank up nanotechnological springs with capacities in the gigajoules, which I find absolutely brilliant). In parallel to the collapse of the oil-driven industrial world, diseases engineered by warring food cartels (whose products are, of course, immune) have wiped out much of the world's food supply and left even the companies themselves scrambling to find new genes to keep their harvests a step ahead of the next mutation.

Enter Anderson Lake, a "Calorie Man" working for AgriGen, sent to Thailand in search of both genetic diversity and inroads into a nation that has kept itself independent of the food mega-corporations. And enter Emiko, member of the first generation of New Japanese, genetically engineered "windup girls" created by childless Japan to replenish their aging labor force, left behind to be exploited or destroyed in Bangkok by an owner who planned to buy the newest model upon his return. The two meet as Thailand is plunging into rebellion, and their fates, and those of the many other brilliantly realized characters that populate this novel, hang in the balance.

As you can see, The Windup Girl packs a lot of novel ideas into a few hundred pages, and it explores them in a way that is compelling and interesting, and reduces the thundering pace of the story not a single iota. This is the first book I've read in months that I found myself completely lost in, in love with the world it takes place in and the characters that populate it, and excited by the ideas within it. As if it weren't enough to pack a novel with interesting characters, a driving plot and a fascinating premise, Bacigalupi also paints the entire thing onto the backdrop of Thai history and culture with a remarkable realism.

The Windup Girl has the goods. It has four or five novels worth of the goods. And yet it's being sold for the same price as books of normal conceptual density; a bargain of which you should avail yourself at your next opportunity.

I had forgotten, until I started writing this, just how much of an impact this book had on me. I retract my previous vote for The City & The City (which is nonetheless excellent) - The Windup Girl is the speculative fiction novel of the year.