Peace and green shifts

As I head to France for the first time since the attacks, they are being displaced in the news. Here’s some relevant vocabulary.

2015-11-30 15.06.06
Screenshot of BFM TV’s iPhone news app today. Source: my phone.

I’m on my way back to France for the first time since the 13/11 attacks. I’ve been trying to keep track of the mood of the country, and it’s been interesting to see that mood evolve over the course of the past two weeks. What I have to go on in that respect is my cousins’ Facebook posts, and the news stories that show up from BFM TV. To give you the flavor of how much the attacks seem to have moved off of la une (the front page), here are some words from the top stories on the BFM TV iPhone app today. (Definitions from

  • en cause: in question, involved.
    • être en cause: to be involved in; to be party to a suit
    • …so, the second story is “COP21: it’s peace that’s in question,” warns Hollande.”
  • le virage: bend, turn, curve; (figurative) shift.
  • minière (adj.): mining.  So, the last story is about the shift towards “greenness” of a former mining town.

As you can see, stories about the attacks are no longer à la une.  The top stories are all environment-related—Ségolène Royal (current French Minister of Ecology); COP21, the United Nations climate change conference that is more or less paralyzing Paris today; more on COP21; a mining town turned green.  You have to scroll down a couple screens to get to a story about the attacks.  Seems like a good thing…

What’s making us sound stupid today

say tray sheek
“Carine says, ‘thinking: c’est très chic.’ Picture source:
One of the really frustrating things about French for me is being able to do obscure things like read about the semantics of agentive verbs in French, but not being able to use !@#%$ pronouns correctly.

Here’s something that I got wrong on an assessment test on the Lawless French web site.  It turns out that if a pro-form (a cover term for pronouns, pro-verbs, etc.) is replacing an infinitive or a relative clause, you are probably going to replace it with le or l’.   The way that Laura Lawless puts it is that you’re using the pro-form to stand in for a “previously mentioned complete idea.”  If I understood Laura’s lesson correctly, replacement of an infinitive with a pro-form works like this:

  • Ils veulent frapper le quartier général?  Do they want to strike the headquarters?  Oui, je le pense.  Yes, I think so.

Replacement of a relative clause works like this:

  • Tu veux que Daech soit puni?  Do you want Islamic State to be punished?  Oui, je le souhaite bien.  Yes, I really want it.

So, let’s memorize this:

  • Infinitives can be replaced with a pro-form.
  • Relative clauses can be replaced with a pro-form.
  • The pro-form should be le/l’.

Who knew?  I sure didn’t.  See the Lawless French web site for more.

My niece is puce, but she is not purple

Screenshot 2015-11-25 23.44.37
Google Image results for the search “puce.” Picture source: screenshot.

It has often been noted that male speakers of American English typically have much smaller color vocabularies than female speakers of American English.  One of my professors in college used this observation to help us learn to think through hypotheses.  Does it suggest that males have fewer color receptors than females?  Does it reflect not a fact about biology, but a fact about society?  How could you tell?  (It’s society.)

So, when my baby brother and I got into a Thanksgiving contest to see who knew the most English color terms, it was clear that things were not going to get very far, in the absence of my sister-in-law agreeing to adjudicate disagreements, and she quickly grew weary of us and disappeared to formulate a new adhesive or something.  It turns out, though, that Google Images is a great way to find out what a color term means.  Is chartreuse more of a yellow, or more of a green?  Go to Google Images.  (It’s more of a green.)  My brother doesn’t believe me that vermilion is a kind of red?  Go to Google Images.  So, when we started arguing about puce, the way to a resolution was clear.  You can see the results above.

What are all those fleas doing mixed in with the purple, though?  It took me a second to puzzle through, but you may remember this from an earlier post on high tense rounded vowelsPuce is French for “flea.”  “Wait,” said my brother—“haven’t you been calling my daughter ma puce?” Indeed, I have been—as you might remember from the same post, this is something that you could call a granddaughter, a niece, a young cousin.  See, this is one of the many reasons that I love my brother: if he runs into some string of phonemes that he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t ignore them—he tucks them away for safekeeping somewhere and looks for ways to figure out what they mean when the opportunity arises.  Runs in the family, I guess–I hope that ma puce will be the same when she grows up.

  • le chartreux: Carthusian monk; a breed of large cat with yellow eyes.
  • vermeil (adj.): vermilion, ruby.
  • le vermeil: “silver-gilt.”

Definitions from

The author declares no competing interests

Screenshot 2015-11-25 18.26.18
The “no competing interests” statement from a paper that I submitted the other day. Picture source: me.

Since this blog is mostly about my adventures and misadventures in trying to learn French, I often write about sources that I’ve found useful in my studies.  I often wonder if people think that I’m getting paid to shill for them.  In fact, the opposite is true—I pay for the use of any of the resources that I talk about in this blog that aren’t free.  If I don’t say very much that’s bad about French-learning resources in general, it’s because I don’t say very much that’s bad about anything, at least not in public—in my life in general, I tend to mostly talk about things and people that I can say nice things about, and to mostly avoid talking about things and people that I can’t say anything nice about.

Why I belonged to the Croatian Fraternal Union

Why the state of emergency in France allows the government to dissolve associations.

I am a joiner. Give me a chance to be part of a community, and I’ll jump on it. At various points in my life, I have belonged to (or still belong to) the Colorado Association of Black Professional Engineers and Scientists, the Jewish War Veterans, the Croatian Fraternal Union, Veterans for Kerry, the United States Judo Federation, Veterans for Obama, United States Judo Inc., Veterans for Hillary, the Colorado Judo League—you get the picture.

You may have noticed the odd fact that the state of emergency in France gives the police broad latitude to “dissolve associations.” What’s that all about? In France, you have (at least in theory) one identity: you are French. When there is a census in France, it is forbidden to ask what your ethnicity is, or what your religion is. (If you’re reading this, and you’re French: our government absolutely asks those questions, and more, in America. You’re not required to answer, but the government does ask.) Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow explain the situation nicely in their book Sixty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong. Since the Revolution, everyone has been part of the Republic—no one is excluded. Since your primary identity is as a citizen of the Republic, why would you need or want any other identity? Belonging to anything else is thus viewed with a non-zero, if small, amount of suspicion. “Associations” have to be approved by the government. According to the French Wikipedia page on the 1901 law regarding associations, …parmi les premières mesures de l’Assemblée nationale figurent la dissolution de toutes les communautés religieuses, d’habitants, de métiers, collèges, hôpitaux, confréries, congrégations, qui étaient innombrables, ainsi que l’interdiction par la loi Le Chapelier de reformer des associations d’ouvriers ou d’habitants pour défendre leurs intérêts. “Among the first measures of the National Assembly figured the dissolution of all “communities” [“community” was the term for a non-profit association of any sort under the legal system of the Ancien Régime] that were religious, of inhabitants of any areas, of professions, schools, hospitals, guilds, parishes—which were countless—as well as the interdiction by the Le Chapelier law against reconvening associations of workers or of inhabitants of an area in order to defend their interests.” The law of 1901 clarified a number of aspects of the regulation of associations, along with renaming them associations in place of the earlier term communauté, and gave the regulations their current form. Today there are about 1.3 million associations in France, with about 11 million members. (I don’t think that this includes union members, although it’s not clear from the Wikipedia article. My favorite is an association for the promotion of the past subjunctive and the passé simple tense—now, unfortunately, defunct.)  You can search a list of French associations for ones that interest you here.

So, that’s what’s up with the odd fact of the state of emergency giving the police the power to dissolve associations. Here is some vocabulary from the Wikipedia article on the law of 1901. Definitions from

  • la confrérie: brotherhood, fellowship; friary; association, society; trade guild; fraternity.
  • la société: most commonly, this refers to a business or a firm.

Why deploying the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is a really big deal

Deploying France’s one aircraft carrier to the Middle East is a big commitment. Here’s the historical and military context to help you understand why–plus, some French vocabulary.

The HMS Coventry takes a missile during the 1982 Falklands war between the United Kingdom and Argentina.  Picture source:
The HMS Coventry takes a missile during the 1982 Falklands war between the United Kingdom and Argentina. Picture source:

I was a young sailor during the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina in 1982.  We all watched in silence when footage came on the news of the HMS Coventry taking an Argentinian surface-to-surface missile–it was obvious that despite the US Navy’s excellent firefighting training, not many people would be walking away from a hit like that on one of our ships.

The last time two fleets within sight of each other shot cannons at each other was early in World War II.  Since then, naval battles have consisted of the opponents launching planes or missiles against each other.  Aircraft carriers are the primary source of naval power today, and the purpose of most other ships is to protect or support the aircraft carriers.

Screen source from the BFMTV iPhone app.  Picture source: me.
Screen shot from the BFMTV iPhone app. Picture source: me.

So, it’s a big deal that France just deployed its aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, back to the Middle East.  The cruise was announced on November 5, 2015, but after the 13/11 attacks in Paris, the destination was changed from the Persian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean, in order to be better able to hit Daesh (Islamic State) targets in Syria.  Deploying your aircraft carrier (France only has one) is endangering your aircraft carrier.  It’s also committing to a theater of operations–being off the coast of Syria means not being off the coast of West Africa, where France also has strong commitments and heavy involvement.  Things to think about while you watch the news today…  Here’s some vocabulary from the story about the current Charles de Gaulle deployment that showed up on my cell phone today.  Definitions from

  • le chasseur-bombardier: fighter-bomber.
  • la rafale: gust (of wind); burst (of gunfire); barrage, torrent, succession.  The Rafale is France’s main fighter jet these days.
  • le porte-avions: aircraft carrier.  See above.
  • le déploiement: deployment; roll-out; spreading, extension (e.g. of wings)
  • le navire: ship, boat, vessel.


Dopaminergic error signaling in songbirds can prevent human tragedies

How research on how songbirds learn to sing could prevent tragic cases of languageless humans, plus some French vocabulary.

The syrinx: the organ that birds use to sing. Schematic drawing of an avian syrinx, from Wikipedia. 1: last free cartilaginous tracheal ring, 2: tympanum, 3: first group of syringeal rings, 4: pessulus, 5: membrana tympaniformis lateralis, 6: membrana tympaniformis medialis, 7: second group of syringeal rings, 8: main bronchus, 9: bronchial cartilage (Page source: See page for author [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)
Scientific talks can get as boring as hell if they’re not in your field.  However, I recently heard a talk that was outstandingly interesting—not just because it was a really good talk, but because the speaker sang like a songbird.

Among other things, I work on the use of language processing to find treatments for spinal cord injuries, so every once in a while, I go to a conference on computational neuroscience.  Computational neuroscience is a very broad field, and I might hear talks on subjects as diverse as optic nerve injuries in rats, the mechanics of how to measure brain activity in a mouse, and some of the truly horrifying things that you can do to a rodent in the name of science.  A couple months ago, at a computational neuroscience conference, I heard a very nice talk by Jesse Goldberg of Cornell University on the topic of dopaminergic error signals in songbirds.

Why is it important to study dopaminergic error signals in songbirds?  Songbirds present an excellent opportunity for studying how humans learn language.  Not all birds sing.  Ornithologists distinguish between bird calls and bird songs.  All birds have calls, but only songbirds sing.  Song acquisition in songbirds has some similarities to language acquisition in humans.  We tend to think of animal behaviors  as instinctive, and many of them are, but even instinctive activities may require some amount of social context and experience to learn correctly.  Language is very much like this.  Humans have an instinct to acquire language, but the specifics of the language that they learn have nothing to do with genetics—it’s completely a matter of which language(s) they’re exposed to in childhood.  If I had been adopted by a Malayali family, I would be speaking Malayalam today, not English.  Similarly, songbirds have to be exposed to adults singing the song of their species, or they will not learn it.

The similarities between acquisition of song by songbirds and acquisition of language by humans do not  end there.  Human infants babble.   So do songbirds.  If human infants don’t have feedback, they stop.  (Human babies, whether hearing or deaf, babble vocally.  They also babble manually.  Hearing babies who aren’t also exposed to sign language stop babbling manually, but continue babbling vocally.  Deaf babies stop babbling vocally, but continue babbling manually.  Expose a hearing baby to both spoken language and signed language, and they will continue babbling in both modalities.  I don’t know whether or not songbirds that aren’t exposed to song from other members of their species stop babbling.)

If the songbird is going to transition from babbling to the song of its species, it will have to be able to tell whether or not it is singing well.  How can a bird tell if its song is any good or not?  It looks like it happens through dopaminergic signaling.  Dopamine is an organic chemical that is best known for being associated with rewards and pleasure in humans.

There are things that you can do to a baby songbird that you cannot do to a baby human.  You can raise them in isolation from other members of their species.  (Once upon a time you could deafen them, but I hope that no institutional review board would allow that today.)  If a songbird is going to learn to sing, it can’t be exposed to the song of its species at just any old time—it must be exposed in its childhood.  Raise a songbird to adulthood in isolation and then put it in a community of its species as an adult, and it’s too late—the bird will not learn its song.  There is what we call a “critical period” for this kind of instinctive learning behavior—the learning has to take place by a certain point, or it can’t happen.  The same is, unfortunately, true of language acquisition in humans.  It is why I will never speak French natively, no matter how hard I study.  It is why when deaf children are raised in isolation from other deaf people, they end up in the horrific situation of not having any native language, spoken or signed.  (They will typically invent a signed language within their family, but can’t use it to communicate with anyone else, and can’t later learn another signed language natively.)  It is the reason for the horrific story of Genie, which I won’t depress you with if you haven’t already heard it.  The bottom line is that there are situations that can lead to human beings who have no language, and this is a horrible, tragic thing.  If we can learn things from songbirds that might help us to help these people—and there are far too many of them in countries where there are not adequate services for deaf people—then I, personally, am happy to have some of my tax dollars (as we say in the US) go to research on how songbirds learn to sing.

In Jesse Goldberg’s talk about his research on dopaminergic signaling and the role that it plays in the acquisition of song by songbirds, he sang the song that the baby birds were trying to learn, making for one of the more memorable scientific talks I’ve ever attended. He sang beautifully!  Since the French Wikipedia article on songbirds is short and not very interesting, here’s some vocabulary from the French Wikipedia article on dopamine:

La dopamine (DA) est un neurotransmetteur appartenant aux catécholamines, issu de l’acide aminé tyrosine. Dans le système nerveux central, elle active les récepteurs dopaminergiques postsynaptiques. Elle est principalement produite dans la substance noire et dans l’aire tegmentale ventrale2, situées dans le mésencéphale (partie supérieure du tronc cérébral). Bien que la dopamine, avec la noradrénaline et la sérotonine, soient très minoritaires dans le cerveau, puisqu’ensemble, elles concernent moins de 1 % des neurones, elles jouent un rôle modulateur final essentiel des sorties motrices et psychiques.

  • être issu de: to stem from, to derive from; to be produced by.
  • bien que + subjonctif: Although.  We’ve seen this construction before, but it bears repeating, as I forget about the subjunctive every time, I’m sure.
  • minoritaire: in (the) minority
  • la sortie: I think that in this context, it’s an efferent nerve, but I’ll have to check—it’s not in  It looks that way from another token of it that I found on the French Wikipedia page on the insect nervous system.

Attacking the entrenched

saint denis notre-dame
A photo of Saint Denis, one of the patron saints of Paris, on the south wall of Notre Dame. You might recognize this view: it’s the picture at the top of my blog. Picture source:

Catching up on my favorite French news show by podcast after getting back from Japan, I immediately learnt some new words.  As my show was starting, the police attack on the terrorists in the Saint-Denis apartment was still in progress.

Saint-Denis was the burial place of the French royalty from the 600s to the 1820s.  Pépin le Bref, King of the Franks, was crowned there in 751; Graham Robb, in his book Parisians: An adventure history of Paris, tells the story of how Napoleon saw an operetta about him the night that he (Napoleon, not Pépin le Bref) lost his virginity.  Today Saint-Denis is better known for the role that it played in the Paris attacks of 13/11.

Here’s how the show opened.  My news show, not the operetta.  Zipf’s Law…

Des hommes sont aujourd’hui retranchés dans un appartement en Saint-Denis au nord de Paris. La police antiterroriste a donné l’assaut.

  • se retrancher:  to entrench oneself; to hide away, to take refuge.  (If it’s not reflexive, it means something totally different.)
  • un assaut: assault, attack.
  • prendre d’assaut:  to storm, to take by storm.
  • donner l’assaut (à):  to attack.

The avarice of the old: What to pack for an international flight

I love a good what-to-pack-for-your-international-flight list. Here’s mine, along with its intersection with Zipf’s Law.

The avarice of the old: it’s absurd to increase one’s luggage as one nears the journey’s end.

–Cicero, from Rand Lindsly’s Quotations and

I love a good what-to-pack-for-your-international-flight list.  Here’s mine, along with its intersection with Zipf’s Law.


la capuche (de jogging): Hoodie.  This is the number one most important thing in my travel trousseau, and I basically never get on a plane without one.  You want a pullover, not one that zips up the front, and you want a big hood.  There are reasons for both.

A good hoodie serves multiple purposes. (1) A hoodie keeps you warm. It can get cold on planes, especially on long international flights at altitude and/or when you’re sitting by a window. If you’re worried about getting too hot: you can take your hoodie off if it gets too hot, but if you don’t have it with you, you can’t put it on when it gets too cold. (2) A hoodie provides storage. Remember that you’re going to get one with a big front pocket. You can stick your boarding pass in there, your phone, etc.  Do, however, be careful about dropping things in the toilet–that big front pocket is convenient, but it’s not very secure.  (3) A hoodie covers your eyes while you sleep. Remember the big hood. No point in wearing one of those dorky eye masks.

Dark clothes in case of spills: one big gust of wind while you’re in the air is all it takes to spill a cup of coffee down your front.  Black clothes help to disguise spills. This includes the aforementioned hoodie.  Plus, if you’re going to France, you will fit right in.  Well, you’ll have to lose the hoodie.

Food: being hungry on a long flight is miserable.  Showing up at your hotel at 2 AM, exhausted but too hungry to sleep, is even worse.  You always want to have some kind of non-crumbly, non-greasy, non-messy food in your backpack.

Gum/toothbrush (small toothpaste only).  You’re going to feel gross when you get off of that long flight, and if you’re planning to kiss someone when you land…  Just remember that you can only carry on the little tubes.  (I tried to carry on a mostly empty regular-sized one way back when liquid restrictions first went into effect, and was informed by the proud TSA agent that mostly-empty regular toothpaste tubes with maybe 3 ounces of toothpaste in them are dangerous in a way that 3-ounce toothpaste tubes apparently are not.


le pantalon de treillis or le pantalon cargo:  (Loose) pants with cargo pockets: you’re going to be sitting in that airplane seat for a long time, and there are a number of things that you’ll want to get your hands on over the course of the flight–a phone, tablet, or iPod; your passport for filling out immigration and customs documents; headphones; and your wallet.  Put them in the seatback pocket, and you might forget them.  A pair of pants with cargo pockets gives you some extra storage on your person.  Make them loose just because it’s no fun sitting in tight pants for 6-12 hours.

Grid organizer
A grid organizer. (Picture source:
Organizer for storing cables, earphones, etc.  I use a grid of straps like this one.  The grid itself takes up some space, but it’s worth it to not have to find and disentangle your cords in four different pockets of your backpack.

Electrical adapter: one of the nicest things that can happen to you in an airport is discovering that United has put you on a Lufthansa flight to Europe. The only potential fly in the ointment is that your laptop battery is not going to last through the whole flight, Lufthansa has European plugs, and your European plug adapter is probably in your suitcase.  Solution: if you’re going someplace where you’ll need an adapter, toss it in your backpack, not in your suitcase.  This also prepares you for the hassle of lost luggage–when you get to where you’re going, you’ll be able to charge your cell phone if you thought to put the charger in your backpack, not your suitcase. The same logic applies to layovers in foreign airports, actually.

belkin power strip
Picture source:
la multiprise, la prise multiple: Power strip.  One of the biggest hassles in airports these days is finding an electric plug when you need one–an unoccupied one, that is. I carry a small, lightweight power strip with three regular sockets and a couple of USB plugs. If the only outlet that you can find is already occupied, just ask the occupant if they would mind letting you plug in the power strip. It doesn’t cost them any juice; not only have I never had anyone say no, but because there are three sockets, there’s yet another one for anyone else who’s been hanging around looking for an outlet, and you’re quite likely to make some random stranger happy. It feels good to make random strangers happy!  You can find a small one at Radio Shack or similar places for about $8, or get a really light-weight and space-efficient one for about $20.  (I should point out that the Guatemalan TSA once insisted on confiscating my power strip.  I’ve never had a problem anywhere else, though.)

Sunglasses case: You don’t need a reminder to bring sunglasses, but might not think to put your sunglasses case in your backpack.  What you’re trying to avoid is your sunglasses getting crushed in your coat pocket in the overhead bin, in your backpack–wherever.

Cell phone battery: this is the latest thing that I have no clue how I ever lived without. You can buy a spare external battery for your cell phone for about $20 to $50. This will get you enough juice to recharge your phone from one to four times, depending on how much you spend. I use it on planes, and on the long commute home, and in hotels rooms that don’t have a wall socket next to the bed, and…  You get the picture.

les pantoufles (f.) slippers and/or chaussettes (f.) socks:  This is a bit more of a judgement call. The problem to be solved is particularly a winter thing.  You’re wearing your big heavy boots because it’s cold outside on the way to the airport, but you don’t want to sleep in them. You can’t go into the disgusting airplane bathroom in your stocking feet, though. Slippers are comfy, but they take up a lot of room in your backpack. My current solution to this is the kind of non-slip socks that they give you in the hospital.  If you get the long ones, then they’re long enough to keep your ankles warm (i.e., be sure not to get hospital footies, which are too short), and I like to tell myself that the rubber strips on the bottom keep my tootsies out of the puddles of…I don’t want to know what…in the bathroom.  You will also want to bring regular socks in summer to wear under your sandals.  Yes, you will look like a little old man from the Midwest, but it’s better than freezing all the way through a transoceanic flight in the summertime.

les lentilles (f.) (pronounced [lɑ̃tij], transcription from contact lenses.  If you wear contact lenses, you might want to bring a contact lens case filled with solution and a pair of glasses for when you go to sleep on that long flight.  This has plusses and minusses.  The plus is that showing up somewhere with your lenses glued to the insides of your eyelids, unable to see if your taxi driver has turned the meter on or not, is a hassle.  The minus is that if that little contact lens case leaks in your backpack and gets a lifetime’s accumulation of USB thumb drives wet, you’re going to be unhappy (voice of experience…).

Spare set of clothes: I once spent my first (and only free) evening in amazing Cambridge, England searching for someplace to buy clean underwear instead of wandering the colleges, as my luggage hadn’t arrived with me.  Since then, I keep a zip-lock bag with a T-shirt, a pair of underwear, and a pair of socks in my empty suitcase when I’m at home, and I toss it in my backpack before a trip.  It takes up a lot of space, but it’s better than dirty underwear.

Pen: sounds banal, but most countries today still expect you to fill out immigration and customs paperwork by hand, and the flight attendant is not going to be happy about lending you theirs.

Carrying it all

le cartable: you probably already know the term sac à dos for a backpack, but you might not know this one.  You’re going to want a backpack to carry all of this stuff on the plane.  (Backpacks are a dead giveaway regarding your Americanness, but (a) you probably ARE American, and why bother trying to hide it, and (b) I haven’t figured out how to do without one.  For air travel, there are two or three things you can think about.  One is width.  You will often want or need to stick your backpack under the seat in front of you, and on some aircraft the aisle seat and window seat don’t have enough space between the brackets that hold them in place to accommodate a very wide bag.  Similarly, depth is an issue.  It’s tempting to buy a super-deep backpack that can carry half your wardrobe, but if you stuff one of those things full, there’s no way that it’s going to fit under the seat in front of you.  Just don’t go overboard with either width or depth, and you should be fine.  Compartments and pockets are another thing to think about.  If you don’t mind having a bunch of little pockets, they’re good for organization.  On the other hand, I would avoid a bag with lots of stupid straps and buckles that aren’t really necessary if you’re not mountaineering in the Himalayas–they just get caught on things.

I still haven’t figured out how to get my hair cut in French


What my hair looked like after I told the barber to cut it “for judo.”
 In Japan, I know how to  se débrouiller. I’m in a rush to get the airport, but the bus that I had planned to take is full?  No problem–I can figure out how to take the train. The taxi driver can’t read my carefully laminated map?  No problem–I know how to pronounce the English hotel name with a Japanese accent. The barber doesn’t speak English, and he wants to know how long I want my hair, and I don’t know how to say “really, really short” in Japanese?  Not an issue, ’cause I do know how to say “for judo,” and in Japanese that’s just another way to say “really short hair.”  

My general ability to se débrouiller (mostly) in Japan is actually quite surprising, because I’ve only spent maybe 10 weeks of my life here, and because I’ve spent much more time than that in France, where I do not know how to se débrouiller in the least.  In what kind of Parisian store does one buy flash cards?  I haven’t a clue. How do I find the door to the post office?  It’s a mystery. Is that woman flirting with me?  Honestly, I have no idea. 

The anthropologist Raymonde Carroll maintains that the reason that the French and Americans have so much trouble understanding each other is that we, and our countries, look so much alike. You go to Japan, and you expect things to be different and to work differently–everything (and everyone) looks different. To the American in France or the Frenchman in America, everything (and everyone) looks the same, and we expect everything to be the same and to work the same. Maybe that’s why I’m so surprised that I’m basically incompetent in France, and why I feel so capable when I manage to pull off the simplest interaction in Japan–my expectations of the place, and of myself, are very different in the two cases. 

I decided to stick with the “for judo” length–I’m old and fat, so why try to pretend that I have hair?  In France, I settle for whatever length the hairdresser decides to give me, ’cause I still haven’t figured out how to explain what I want. 

  • Se débrouiller:  to figure things out for oneself, figure out how to make things work, be resourceful. (Translation by me.)
  • Se débrouiller pour faire qqch: to manage to do something.  (Collins French-English Dictionary)
Curative Power of Medical Data

JCDL 2020 Workshop on Biomedical Natural Language Processing


Criminal Curiosities


Biomedical natural language processing

Mostly Mammoths

but other things that fascinate me, too


Adventures in natural history collections

Our French Oasis


ACL 2017

PC Chairs Blog

Abby Mullen

A site about history and life

EFL Notes

Random commentary on teaching English as a foreign language

Natural Language Processing

Université Paris-Centrale, Spring 2017

Speak Out in Spanish!

living and loving language




Exploring and venting about quantitative issues