Started Duo Yiddish course

Yesterday I saw that Duolingo has announced a Yiddish course. I signed up for it today.

My father’s parents were native speakers of Yiddish. My father knew a fair bit of it, but I don’t think he was ever fluent in it. He didn’t speak much of it around the house. On the other hand, he would often recite a rhyme in it, “Es war a finster nacht in Brownsville” and there were lots of expressions, such as the mild curse “A schvartz yar af Columbus,” “A black year on Columbus,” which he said every now and then. That latter is sort of the immigrants’ lament “The streets aren’t really paved with gold here, maybe we shouldn’t have come after all.” Older relatives asked me many times, “Do you speak Jewish?” by which they meant Yiddish, but I didn’t. When I was a kid Jewish magazines would have articles every couple of months about “Yiddish is dying out! What are we going to do?” When I rode the subway out to my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn on vacations from college, there would be a couple of people reading Yiddish newspapers in every subway car. The newspaper (The Forward) is still in business but nowadays only publishes in English. In recent years I have heard older men speaking Yiddish in the locker room at the Jewish Community Center, but when I say “recent” I really mean fifteen or twenty years ago.

The strange thing is that although the language is disappearing as a means of everyday communication, more and more Yiddish words are making their way into mainstream English. A couple of years ago I parked my car outside a Newton Art Association board meeting and the woman who pulled up behind me got out laughing and asked, “Were you listening to NPR? Did you hear what Kai Ryssdal just said?” I don’t remember what it was, but it was a couple of words of Yiddish that I hadn’t thought of as American English up to that point.


In the morning we went over to Mahoney’s Garden Center in Brighton and came home with several bags of potting soil and composted cow manure and a lot of plants to put in the garden. It’s another sign of emerging from the pandemic and going back to stores. We walked up the hill across the street and around the Andover-Newton campus again. At home, we did some raking of the front yard and admired the lack of junk leaning against the garage doors after the cleanup we did yesterday.

The peppers I’m starting on the study windowsill, on a heating mat, have sprouted! The ‘Hidalgo Serrano’ from Fedco are the first.

Duolingo Strategy 2

I didn’t get around to strategy in the previous post. Duolingo is deliberately involved in “gamification of language learning”, that is, making it a game. It has weekly contests for how much you can study, measured in experience points. Starting first thing Monday morning (Midnight Sunday night Universal Time) as soon as you complete one lesson you are entered in a league of thirty people (I presume, the thirty people who are at the same level league and completed one lesson at about the same time). In all but the highest level of league the 10 people who have the most points in the next 7 days are promoted to the next higher level league and the five people who have the fewest points are demoted to the next lower level league. In the highest level league only the three people with the fewest points are demoted, and there’s nowhere else for the top people to go. Basically you get ten XPs for each set of about 15 exercises you complete plus up to five points bonus per set for correct answers, or (for a limited set of languages) somewhere around 15 points for reading a brief story and answering questions about what’s happening in it. But there are all sorts of special things going on also — on some days you can get a lot of points for doing a set of exercises within a diminishing set of time limits, for instance. A language course is divided into lessons with (usually) four to eight sets of exercises, and the last set of each lesson is good for 20 rather than 10 XPs, and gives you double XPs for all lessons you do in the next 15 minutes. So that’s where my strategy comes in. I just don’t do the last set of exercises in a lesson unless I want to spend the following 15 minutes doing more, but leave it for the first thing to do the next day. If I go through one set of exercises in each of 8 languages I can rack up 150 points easily with the double points. Currently (but it won’t last long) I’m sitting pretty, at first place in my highest level league:

This won’t last!

To be honest, this is a particularly low scoring group for a Diamond-level league. Almost every other week, the person in first place has at least three to five times as many points as I do by this time in the week. I have been in first place on Sunday night (Eastern time, so right at the start of the week’s contest) once or twice before, but never on a Wednesday.

We did a bunch of yard work today, pruning rhododendrons and grapes and tidying up in front of the garage doors.

Duolingo Strategy

Some time between the time Arlene & I went to Costa Rica (on a Caravan tour, in 2010) and to Guatemala (another Caravan tour, in 2015) I started studying Spanish on a website called Duolingo. Actually, Duolingo kept track of me; it says I started in September, 2014. I got surprisingly far by the Guatemala trip.

Example Spanish Duolingo exercise. “Would you like chocolate or strawberry ice cream?” “Chocolate. Nobody likes strawberry ice cream.”

As soon as Duolingo came out with a Chinese course, I started that; I had studied Chinese at work at Dragon, but forgot most of it. I’ve gone through the Chinese course on four times, and still can’t read very many characters, but they don’t look like chicken tracks.

Duolingo has silly sentences on purpose!

By now I am doing eight languages: besides Spanish and Chinese, there are Japanese, Russian, French, German, Dutch, and Swedish. Here for the record are the stories: I studied French for four years in high school and was able to read real French literature by the time I graduated. I was badly in need of a review when I started the Duolingo course. I studied German for one year in college and read lots of math papers and a book or two in German when I was in graduate school, but needed a review, even more than French. I studied Dutch by myself for a couple of weeks before my bicycle trip in Europe after my sophomore year of college, just because the trip was going to end in Holland, and got to the point that I could walk into a store and ask for 200 grams of Gouda cheese in Dutch — but the shopkeeper loved that I tried. Before our trip to South Africa in 2017 I thought that Afrikaans is a lot like Dutch, and it might be worthwhile to try to learn a little more, so I worked on the Duolingo course (which is a lot of fun, I think because the people who developed the course just didn’t take themselves so seriously as some of the other developers. It has lots of sentences like “Don’t pull the rhinoceros’s tail!). Also, the Dutch word for ‘shopping cart’ is ‘winkelwagen’ How can you not enjoy a course where you learn that? I didn’t use the Dutch one bit in South Africa, but did read signs in Dutch in the museums in Amsterdam on the way home. Where was I now? Russian — Arlene and I spent a week in Moscow and some time in Saint Petersburg in 1998, while Anne was living in Moscow, and then I went to Armenia the next year (where Russian is the second language, because it was part of the Soviet Union before 1989). I had tried to learn Russian in graduate school, when a Russian professor gave an informal class for math grad students, and didn’t get very far at all, but remembered some phrases, and had learned the alphabet. When we were in Moscow I got good at saying “good morning” and “good evening” appropriately, and heard the “Caution! The doors are closing!” warning on the metro at every station. I could just about read the names of the stations on the metro while going down the escalator (so as to know whether to turn right or left for the platform going the direction we needed to go) but it was an effort. When I was in Armenia the next year, all the signs were in the Armenian alphabet and also Cyrillic, and I forgot that I didn’t know Cyrillic that well and just read it effortlessly. Also, Anne was talking Russian to our drivers and I was listening and I got so I could understand a little. But mostly, there are a lot of Russian immigrants in Newton, so it’s a little useful here.

Russian example. On the iPad it automatically switches keyboards so you type the Russian answer on a cyrillic keyboard.

That leaves Japanese and Swedish. The electronics company I worked for in the ’80s sent me to Germany for a week on about four days notice, and I was glad I knew some German; but when I got back I thought, this company does a lot of business with Japan, so it would be a good idea to learn some Japanese. I didn’t really do anything about it, and they did send me to Japan, and I was completely at a loss; so I took a Japanese class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education after I came back, and learned enough that I was able to navigate a department store, read station signs on the Tokyo subway, and ask for directions; but I wanted to learn more of it, so, Japanese on Duolingo. Swedish was just because Arlene wanted to watch “Beartown” on HBO, and I thought a little work on Swedish in Duo would be a plus. I didn’t get beyond recognizing three or four words in the dialog, but that’s OK.

Oh, we did go walking at Nahanton Park again today, and saw our first-of-year tree swallows.

Back in Whole Foods

In the next step of emerging from the pandemic, I went food shopping at Whole Foods. In what some people call “the before times”, Arlene would go shopping there three or more times per week, buying what she wanted for that day’s meals. During the pandemic we have had virtually all of our food delivered, either from there, Imperfect Foods, or a delivery service called Mercato, which we used mostly to get fish from Captain Marden’s Seafoods in Wellesley. Today around lunchtime Arlene suggested leftover pot roast for lunch, which I nixed because I didn’t have any bread (right after Passover) to make a sandwich on. Then she said, “sometime later I’d like you to get some things from Whole Foods.” I said, “or I could go right away and get some bread to make a sandwich on.” So that’s how it worked out. The store was a lot the way it used to be, except that the salad bar wasn’t there any more, and someone had to direct me away from what would normally have been one of many checkout lines to a single queue along marks six feet apart.

I cut several sprouts of quince bush to try to root, following the directions from yesterday’s MOFGA presentation about rooting cuttings to make rootstock. I wouldn’t mind having a flowering quince bush in Casco nor grafting some tips of my quince trees onto this rootstock and having several quinces for fruit.

We walked up around the Andover-Newton campus today. I turned my “Pacer” app on to record the walk and found that I had taken 2442 steps and covered 1.06 miles doing it. The naturalized crocuses behind the president’s house are almost all gone by; you wouldn’t know that they had been there unless you looked carefully.

Quick Notes Apr 4

We went walking in Rock Meadow, a conservation area in Belmont, with Charley, Maija, and Ari. Part of the idea was to give Patsy some time alone when she could concentrate on her thesis. Arlene and I used to go birding in Rock Meadow often, but we’ve only been there twice in quite some time. Today we took a trail that we haven’t been on before, through a lovely section of rolling meadow and some woods. We didn’t see any remarkable birds.

When we got home it was time for me to tune in to a zoom presentation about growing apple trees from MOFGA. There were four different one hour sessions. Unfortunately I had missed half of the one I was most interested in, but I learned a lot from the second (about propagating fruit trees, especially the rootstock parts) and third (about how to care for baby trees and what the main dangers to baby apple trees are — mice, that can eat the bark all around a tree; deer, that can eat most of a small tree; and apple borer grubs). The fourth was listed as “apple tree genetics” but really more like apple tree genealogy — what are the parent and grandparent trees of this and that variety? The presenter, from the University of Washington, has a big database of apple DNA and can do a “23 and me” style analysis of apple DNA to tell you what variety an apple tree is.

For supper we had take-out Chinese food from Dumpling House in 4 Corners. I drove over to pick it up. This is a BIG DEAL, another “emerging from the pandemic” thing, one of the first times we have eaten restaurant food in a year. We had chicken – cabbage dumplings to share, Arlene got chicken with vegetables and I got kung pao chicken. Kung pao chicken is supposed to be hot, but I have never felt it was very hot before this batch. I don’t know if I’m out of practice eating food that has a lot of hot pepper in it or if this really is spicier than most. Whatever, it suited me just fine.

I finished editing the audio for the euphonium parts of “Overture to Candide” for SymBa. I say parts, plural, because there is a split for a dozen measures near the end and I recorded and edited both parts.

Inside a Speedball Handle

  • Indexed some mounts for Fred Mullet stamp dies that Arlene had and wants to use for gel plate printing
  • Fixed three Speedball linoleum tool handles and learned that their collets are really pretty simple

There was a broken blade jammed inside this Speedball linoleum tool handle that I wasn’t able to get out until I disassembled the handle. The knurled part (did you know there’s a name for that diamond pattern that’s there so you can get a good grip? The K is silent, as in knight) comes off if you grip with a good pair of pliers and turn hard. The two pieces to the right of it form the collet. The upper one flips over (around a vertical axis) and fits over the lower one; then both fit inside the knurled part, and sit in a cup cut out of the top of the threaded part. When you turn the knurled part down onto the handle, the tapered part of the inside of the knurled part (see how much I like showing off that word!) forces the tapered parts of the collet together to grip the blade firmly. On the left is the broken part of the blade that was the problem.

  • Baked a third Passover cake mix
  • Got my “Reopen and Risk” statistics project working on desktop, but it is failing as installed on the web 🙁

Update: The failure was due to a spelling error on my part. I was looking for a file called “US_vaccinations.csv” which didn’t exist. There was a file called “US_Vaccinations.csv” which the Mac program found, but the program uploaded to the web didn’t find. Using an upper-case “V” consistently fixed the problem. That’s a rookie mistake but one that I still can make. The problem is fixed, and you can now go to ReopenAndRisk and see how COVID-19 vaccinations are progressing in your state compared to other states.

  • Did a lot of music editing for SymBa; down to one measure and then the divisi part right before the ending
  • Watched episode 4, season 1 of Shtisel
  • No walking, no serious cooking (matzo brei for breakfast and that cake mix don’t count)

TJs second time in a year

This is definitely an “emerging from the pandemic” post; the big event of the day was that I ventured to Trader Joe’s to do some serious grocery shopping. Arlene and I had been there once before since the start of the pandemic; it was during special early morning hours (and we had got up early specifically for them) for seniors-only shopping. The idea was that older people were at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19, so they (we) were allowed to have the store to themselves for limited hours, so that the store would be less crowded and shoppers could stay at least six feet from each other at all times. To make that possible all aisles were marked with one-way arrows, which they still are. Now, with a majority of high-risk people (including me) vaccinated, there’s much less concern. People aren’t being so careful to stay away from each other at all times, though they are pretty good about minimizing the length of time they’re closer. There are marks on the floor six feet apart for checkout lines, so you’re not close to anyone in the line for any length of time. There had been a rule against bringing reusable shopping bags, out of concern that they could be contaminated with virus. I brought a bag and asked the guy standing outside the door bringing shopping carts back from the parking lot whether or not I was allowed to have it. He told me that reusable bags have been allowed since September first. Besides asparagus, string beans (I really like their Haricots Verts), and a pineapple, to make up for the lost Imperfect Foods order, I stocked up on blintzes, coffee, cookies, and ghost pepper potato chips.

We walked in Nahanton Park, hoping to see bluebirds or swallows hanging around the birdhouses by the community garden plots. We didn’t see any, nor any other really interesting birds. There were still juncos around. Yesterday I downloaded a pedometer phone app which I used for the first time on that walk. It reported that I had walked 1.23 miles in 46 minutes (pretty slow but par for the course for a birding walk), taking 2934 steps. The total for the day was 5019 steps, for a rating of “marginally not a couch potato, but you only burned off 155 calories.” The most interesting, though definitely not the prettiest, thing that we saw on the walk was a dead beaver floating in the river. I could see the broad, flat tail well enough with my polarized sunglasses to be sure of the ID. I took a picture for the record, but it doesn’t show the tail and you’re just as happy that I’m not including it here.

Grafting a Quince tree

My big project for this spring is to learn how to graft apple trees. The biggest reason is that one of our apple trees in Casco is some unidentified heirloom variety. All of the apple trees that were there when we bought the place have been doing poorly for the last several years. We actually lost one completely, the red delicious, a year ago. The macintosh produced some good fruit in 2019, but not much. We thought the problem was lack of rain, but found out recently that dwarf apple trees have a life expectancy of around thirty years — which is about how old all of these are. The only way to still have apples of the unidentified heirloom one is to graft a scion of it (that’s the technical term for a snip of a tree you want to propagate!) onto a new root. So I ordered some scions of other heirloom varieties and twenty pieces of rootstock from Fedco Trees (so I can practice on other stuff, and get some more heirloom varieties going if it works) and signed up for a zoom class on grafting from MOFGA, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardners Association. Also, I’ve watched several You Tube videos about grafting apple trees. I’m psyched, but don’t know what kind of results to expect.

When I was in college I did something right in a biology lab, preparing a slide of Drosophila (fruit fly) salivary gland chromosomes. It took some care working with really small stuff under a microscope, and it was enough to make the professor think I was good at that kind of thing. Grafting seems to require a similar level of care and respect for the biology of the material, so I’m holding onto that memory to maintain some confidence.

I wanted to try grafting out before I get all the apple material, both to see what the plant material is like and to become familiar with the tools and process. We have a flowering quince bush in Newton on the edge of the driveway which sends up more stems from the ground than we want (in fact, we have to cut dozens off every year to keep the area clear for getting out of the car). Quince is closely related to apple — you would guess from cutting a quince fruit across the middle that it’s related to apple and pear, and you’d be right — so I thought that digging up a shoot for rootstock and cutting a scion off the top would be an easy way to get material similar to apple to try out. I dug a shoot up a couple of weeks ago and stuck it in a bucket of water to keep the root from drying out. Earlier this week I was pleased to see a few leaves starting at the top of the shoot, so I knew the root was supplying water where it needed to; so today I cut off a scion, gathered my grafting supplies, and tried. Here’s what it looked like:

That’s a roll of tape at the top; it’s special extra stretchy plastic that will hold the graft together, keep it from drying out, and protect it from infection, but allow the tree to grow as much as it needs to. The little piece of wood with the hole is to protect my fingers from the knife below it — you stick each piece of tree through the hole, slice it off on a long taper, and cut back through the middle of the stick towards yourself or rather towards that piece of wood on the other side of which you are holding the other end of the piece of tree. The treekote wax is really sticky stuff which will keep the cut end of the scion from drying out; you only want two buds on the scion because there’s not going to be much water getting through the graft at first, not enough to support a lot of buds, and you don’t want to lose any of it by evaporation. Part of the exercise today was just getting the feel of the treekote, the tape, and the knife. I can keep an eye on this and if the buds open and leaf out I’ll know that I have a basic understanding of the process; plus a flowering quince to plant in Casco. And, I’ll think seriously about cutting scions of the quince trees in Casco to graft onto other shoots of this rootstock.

I cut several aluminum soft drink cans up to make metal tags to label the grafted trees when I have them. There’s no way to tell what variety is what unless you have a label, and you want to have a label that will last for years in the weather. Several years ago I bought a few metal labels at a nursery; they had cardboard backing to support the metal around the writing, and that’s lots better than what I did, but this should work.

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We got an order from Imperfect Foods today that was really imperfect — Arlene knew right away that something was off because it was two or three times as heavy as our previous orders. There were also things right on top that we never order. That’s because it was for someone else! There was a label with a name on it, and an address 70 house numbers away (that works out to about a dozen houses away the way this street goes). We looked up the name on whitepages, left a phone message, and walked down the street to see if anyone was there — not carrying 25 or 30 pounds of imperfect food. They were home, and they had two cartons from Imperfect that weren’t ours nor for them either, but were addressed to Hammond Pond Parkway. I don’t know what they ended up doing with those, but they did drive to our house and pick up their order.

Peppers p-p-Planted

I have finally started my pepper seeds. Three years ago I bought one “Lemon Drop” pepper plant and got a great crop from it, more peppers than I had ever grown on one plant before. The next year I bought a plant labeled “Lemon Drop”, but it turned out to be some other variety, mislabeled. Last year I bought seeds and started my own Lemon Drop seedlings, heck, I bought a windowsill heating mat so the peppers would have nice warm soil to start in, and the rabbits ate all of those pepper plants before they produced. I’m trying again. I also have Serrano pepper seeds starting; so, a total of thirty peat pots of seeds planted, 10 Aji Limo (that’s the Lemon Drop) from Scheeper’s seeds, 10 Serrano from Scheepers, and 10 Hidalgo Serrano from Fedco.

I didn’t do much else constructive today except make a lot of progress on the statistics project (we have graphs! but the data needs some more crunching, to get statistics on a percent of population rather than absolute basis), cook supper, and bake another Passover cake mix.

We walked up the hill across the street and around the Andover-Newton Theological School campus. The crocus field behind the president’s house is still there, but the flowers are past their prime.

It’s also important that this evening was the start of my mom’s first yahrtzeit, the anniversary of her death according to the Hebrew calendar. It’s appropriate to go to synagogue and recite a memorial prayer, which we did as a zoom service. There were over thirty people on the zoom, because it was also the first yahrtzeit of Bernie Rubin, the Bernie of Bernie and Phyl’s furniture. A lot of his grandchildren and other family were there for that occasion. We’re not sure what his relationship to the synagogue was — when we reviewed his obit it said he lived a few towns away — but it seemed to be significant.

Horn Pond Trip

We walked around Horn Pond today! It’s the first time we’ve been there in several years, but more importantly, the farthest we’ve been from home since the last time we came back from Casco, which was probably in October.

Horn Pond is in Woburn, three towns away from here, an urban wild area that we’ve been birding in since we lived in Cambridge. There is a lot of wetland there with varied habitat. It’s particularly good for ducks in the fall.

We had already seen a lot of turtles (not the first for the year, but close)

…Coots, a water bird that we haven’t seen in a while, chickadees up close — someone seems to be feeding the birds at Horn Pond and left a handful of sunflower seed on the stump just off the trail on the left below; there were two chickadees going in and out of the hole in the top of the broken tree on the right. Maybe they’re digging out a bigger hole to nest in, maybe there are bugs to eat in there…

…a swan that looked as if it was sitting on a nest

Then someone asked us if we had seen the owl. We hadn’t. He said, “there’s someone photographing it, just past that shack (it was really more of a birdwatching blind) — he’ll point it out to you.” And so it was!

See it? It looks as though the tree broke years ago and a branch became the new leader. Just above the break, in front of the newer part of trunk is the owl. Don’t see it yet? here —

As barred owls go, it wasn’t hard to see; but we wouldn’t have found it by ourselves.