Kids and computers

I am in total awe. Watching a five-year-old kid (who cannot yet read) handling his laptop is quite unnerving. He is doing his homework and his fingers, are flying unhesitatingly on the keyboard. It is truly impressive.

I always thought that to use a computer you needed to be literate. But it does not look like it anymore. The kids today are starting to run all kinds of electronic devices practically in their cribs. They hold a nursing bottle in their left hand while making deals on a smartphone with the right hand.

Many adults still don’t know how to use a computer and are afraid of even trying it. By comparison, kids jump fearlessly into cyberspace with the exuberance of young goats. They are not afraid to make mistakes and they will write code before knowing how to ride a skateboard.

“Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live.” Martin Golding

 By the way, I find tele-learning quite entertaining and effective. The teachers are doing an outstanding job and the kids seem to enjoy it.

 Today, everything changes very fast and you need to constantly update your knowledge to keep up and stay in the race. Our elders learned a trade at a very young age and could easily survive a lifetime by doing the same thing over and over again.

Today, it is almost impossible, for kids will have to compete with very smart robots. And employers greatly favor uncomplaining machines over ever-whining people.

But kids (besides being hyperactive) are resilient and creative. Impossible is not part of their vocabulary. What we thought impossible twenty, thirty years ago, is quite feasible for them. They are talking about Mars like it was next door. Their motto is:

“If at first, you don’t succeed; call it version 1.0”

 It is fitting because they will have to be extremely resourceful in the coming decade. Pandemics and their associated ills are quite real and could surge again at any time. Trying to deny it or ignore it, is utterly foolish and dangerous. Most everybody understands that it hurts business, but what good is a business if all the potential customers are sick or buried?

By the way kids, we don’t need a businessman or an autocrat to run America. What this country wants is a blend of a skilled diplomat and a fair, compassionate human being.


By the long road

You probably never heard of Boris Ivanovich Fomin, but you ought to.
In 1920, he composed a song called Дорогой длинною (By the long road) with lyrics by the poet Konstantin Podrevsky. This tune subsequently went around the world like wildfire.

The above might not mean anything to you, but this traditional Russian folk song is better known in America as “These were the days” and this might ring a bell. I am pretty sure that everybody has heard this tune in one language or another at least once. In France it was known as “Le temps des fleurs” and it was performed among other artists by Dalida.
In Russia “By the long road” is considered a drinking song and is widely performed everywhere.

My wife helped me to discover a Russian singer who does a fantastic job with this tune. His name is Aleksandr Malinin and I bought at least half a dozen of the songs he performs. I am totally bewitched and I cannot stop listening to him.

The first verse of By the long road goes like this:

You rode on a troika with sleigh bells, 
And in the distance lights flickered.
If only I could follow you now
I would dispel the grief in my soul! 

I consider this to be a rather awkward translation, but it gives you an idea of what the song is about.

By the long road, in the moonlight, 
And with this song that flies off, ringing,
And with this ancient, this ancient seven-string,
That has so tormented me by night. 

This by the way (for the conspiracy-obsessed) is not a Russian presidential interference. There is no hidden message here and I am not supplied with any hush money by the Kremlin.  I just love the sound of the Russian language, and frankly, I am tired of contemporary American music. Just repetitive, monotonous, unmelodic crap.

One of my personal challenges during this dreadful pandemic is also to improve my  Russian (I have to know what my wife is plotting with her cronies) and it is a way to “joindre l’utile à l’agréable” (mix business with pleasure).

You can, by the way, hear Aleksandr Malinin on YouTube.


Are you bilingual mon ami?

I just heard a TED lecture about bilingualism, and it reminded me of something I wrote about 10 years ago. Here is a slightly edited version of that story.

Some people are bi. Bisexual, bimanual, bipartisan (disappearing species alas), bipolar, bi-something…  Me, I am just bilingual.
It is a mild affliction caused by prolonged exposure to foreigners; a fairly common condition in America. To avoid this kind of contamination, it is recommended to stay away from the natives, wash your hands often, and cross yourself when you hear something that sounds “étranger.”

Bilingualism is the subconscious ability to speak two languages fluently. It is like having some kind of mental ambidexterity, or like driving a car with a stick shift.
When you drive a “stick” you are not conscious of what you right foot, your left foot, your right hand, or your left hand are doing. You let your limbs do their own thing while reflecting on something else.
The same goes for bilingual people. They let the “bilingual” part of the brain do the talking while giving the monolingual part a rest.

The bilingual phenomenon happens naturally for some, and artificially for others. It happens naturally when parents, both natives of the same foreign land, relocate to another country.
Their children will first hear and absorb their parents’ native tongue, and then they will unconsciously assimilate English simply by proximity with the natives. Without even realizing it, these kids will turn into bilingual bots.

For some, like me, this phenomenon didn’t come naturally. I had to work for it. When I came to America, I spoke some dubious, hesitating English. I was alone, and I had to quickly learn how to communicate with the natives to fend for myself.

When you learn a second language, you instinctively translate into your native tongue everything that you hear and read. One day, shortly after arriving in San Francisco, a storefront window sign caught my attention. It said “Venetian Blinds”. This was easy to translate; I assumed immediately that Venetian Blinds was a charitable organization supporting blind Venetian natives.

As I explored the streets of the city, I noticed this ubiquitous sign again and again and I started to wonder why so many blind Italians had settled in this city. I knew that Bank of America’s founder was Italian, but did he also sponsor all these blind “paisanos” to join him?

Another day I glanced in wonderment at the SF Chronicle’s headline. It said in big bold characters “Cons escape”. The word “con” in French means stupid, dumb. I naturally translated “idiots escape”. I thought that it was a rather strange headline but “when in Rome…” and I accepted the fact that in America even stupid people can escape from a well-guarded prison.
On second thought, if stupid people could escape, what about the smart ones? San Francisco must have been swarming with smart escapees…

To become truly bilingual, you need to discard the translation mechanism and slip into the skin and the mind of a native. Smoking pot and drinking wine might also help. This operation takes a lot of practice but being curious and being a voracious reader also helps.

I remember that the word “cockpit” puzzled me (and still does) for a long time. Did pilots originally fight like mad chickens in the “cockpit”? Everybody knows that large planes have dual controls, but did pilots and co-pilots actually brawl in this cramped space? I am getting goose pimples just thinking about it.

Some words are also misleading. They are “false friends”. They sound and often spell like words you are familiar with, but they have a different meaning. Take the word “sale” for instance. I saw it in the windows of many stores. In French, “sale” means “dirty”. Were all these downtown stores peddling some X-rated stuff? I am not averse to some tasteful smut, but still…

Bilingualism is not a terminal disease and it is not genetically transmitted. Your children, and probably your grandchildren, will probably become totally immune to it.

But if you get a certain buzz speaking and (especially) cursing in the language of your forbearers, indulge in this guilty pleasure. Speak and curse away like Jean Lafitte. It is fun and highly therapeutic.