New Word Wednesday: Zymurgy

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your word of the day:

zymurgy noun

  • the study or practice of fermentation in brewing, winemaking, or distilling

Origin: mid 19th century, from Greek zumē “leaven,” on the pattern of metallurgy

While beer isn’t my choice for alcohol, I’ll happily partake of the other results of zymurgy. My family has a history of practicing this art: as kids, my brother and I were paid $0.01 per dandelion head to pick dandelions for my mom to make wine. One summer we each earned around $15! It takes a lot of dandelions to make wine…luckily they were readily available on our property.

Enjoy your new word!






Skills for Language Learning

We take for granted that public speaking is its own skill, separate from reading, debating, writing, or listening. We understand that these skills need to be practiced separately: being a good writer is no guarantee that you’ll be a good speaker. The same philosophy applies to learning a new language. To be fluent in the language, you need to practice your skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Looking at your skill level in these separate areas can give you areas to focus on: for example, I’m fluent in Spanish. However, my skill in speaking it is not as great as my skill in listening, writing, or reading. It’s something I have to practice more, so I can speak smoothly and confidently, without tripping over my tongue.


There are lots of ways to practice the various skills. The language app Duolingo makes sure to test these skills separately: translating from written phrases, transcribing spoken phrases, and speaking into the microphone. For practicing listening, try finding podcasts, tv shows, or news broadcasts in your target language. This can also help with gaining familiarity in different accents. Most of my experience with Spanish came from Latin American accents, and it took a while to get used to the accents in Spain (with their odd habit of dropping consonants all over the place!). Taking the time before the trip to find some examples of Spaniards speaking would have smoothed my transition.

Some resources for practicing the listening skill, here: SBS On Demand offers free movies in lots of languages; Librivox has audiobooks; here’s a list of Latin American movies to watch; and this is a tool to control playback speed in files, to catch parts you missed the first time through.


Practicing speaking could involve: finding someone on Skype or Italki to chat with (this also improves your listening skill!); reading aloud from a book or article in your target language; or narrating your activities and life (describe the people and things you see around you: what they’re doing, what they look like, etc.). Make it a habit: the more time you spend in your target language, the more confident you’ll be speaking it. Don’t wait until you know “enough” of the language to start doing this! You will never know enough; there will always be more words to learn. Instead, slip in whatever words you do know. If you come across a word that’s missing from your vocabulary, go look it up.


To practice reading: switch your phone/browser/computer to your target language; go to a used book store and pick up books to read (to start, try ones that you already know, comic books, or kids’ books. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to read at the same level as in your first language!); try any of these sources for reading material; try a bilingual puzzle; read comic books; or play 20 questions.


Don’t waste time trying to find the best or the perfect resource for language learning. It’s much better to find a decent source, and then just start using it. There will always be something better! If you find it, then switch, but don’t stop learning.

What are your favorite resources for learning the different language skills? For me, the real test for Spanish was when I went to Spain and discovered that I can indeed hold a phone conversation without stumbling! That was a great accomplishment. Even after that, though, I was still looking out for ways to improve my skills. This is an ongoing journey!




Productivity Tools

Productivity and time management are essential skills to learn, but everyone finds their own best practice for managing their time. The method that works for one person most likely won’t work for someone else. Here are some tools that have worked for me lately:


I’m not overly fond of keeping a time sheet, but I have found that tracking the time I spend on projects helps me stay focused and not waste the day browsing the internet. I use Toggl to track my time: I can split it up by client and project, and all I have to do is mark when I start and stop working on a task. At the end of the week if I want to look at how I did, the site has reports available to show how much time was spent on each project/client, and how much time was logged overall.

The reports have a twofold benefit for me. First, they provide me with data: am I spending enough time doing actual client work, as opposed to internal projects? Am I getting a reasonable amount of work done each day? I can compare the time spent on a project to the time I estimated it would take, and see how accurate my predictions are. This helps make me better at scheduling my week without being under- or over-busy. Second, it (oddly enough) helps with my perfectionism. It’s easy for me to get into the mindset of thinking that I should get 8 hours of productive work out of an 8 hour day, but that’s just not reasonable. Distractions come up, there are bathroom and lunch breaks, switching tasks takes time, sometimes you just need to take a minute and not do anything…all these little breaks add up and getting 6-7 hours of work done is much more reasonable. Seeing the numbers reflect that has helped break me of the feeling of never working hard enough.


The second tool I use is Asana, for task management. I’ve tried various to-do lists, and so far this one’s sticking much better than the others. What works really well for me is that it’s browser (or app!) based, so I can access my list anywhere. Also, I can split tasks up by project, task, and sub-task, set due dates and priorities, add comments, and add followers (if someone else is involved with the task too). The task list is split into Today, Upcoming, and Later: by default, Today is ranked highest in the list, followed by Upcoming, and then Later is on the bottom, and usually hidden. When I set up a new task, it goes into Upcoming. The Later category is for tasks that are low priority that I can work on when I have free time. They’re things that it would be nice to get done, but they’re not needed.

At the beginning of the week, I set a few weekly goals: larger projects that will take several days to complete. I also go through my projects and list the smaller daily tasks that are due to be completed this week. Then at the beginning of each day, I review my list and see what needs to be done today, and move it up on my list. Then I get to work!

Having the tool open every day and taking a few minutes each morning to set my priorities and goals for the day has really helped my productivity. I get to see each day that I set goals, and then I accomplish them, which is a great feeling. In addition, having a Today section gets rid of the urge to keep pushing tasks off if I don’t feel like doing them. I want to check them off, not just move them down the list.


I keep this matrix up next to my desk to remind myself of what actually needs to be done. Source:


Finally, I keep in mind the Important/Urgent matrix (shown above). It’s fairly self-explanatory: important tasks are the big things, the ones that will have major impact and really need to be completed. Urgent tasks are like a phone ringing: they create the impression that they must be taken care of now, whether or not that’s actually true. Sometimes, it is true, as with an emergency or a project on a deadline. Often, though, it’s just a phone ringing, or an email popping up: it feels important because it’s at the top of your mind, but there are little to no consequences for not taking care of it immediately. It’s easy to get caught taking care of the Urgent-Not Important tasks, and forget to work on the Important-Not Urgent ones instead. When setting priorities for my day, I keep in mind this list and try not to focus too much on the Urgent tasks, to the detriment of the Important ones.


Do any of these tools work for you? What’s your favorite method for productivity or time management?



New Word Wednesday: Zeugma

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your new word for the week (thanks to Kelly for showing me this one!). Once again, it’s about words:


Zeugma noun

  • a figure of speech in which a word applies to two others in different senses (e.g. John and his license expired last week), or to two others of which it semantically suits only one (e.g. with weeping eyes and hearts).

Compare to syllepsis, which as basically the same definition, because English is confusing.

Origin: late Middle English, from ancient Greek ζεῦγμα, zeûgma, “a yoking together”


The Wikipedia article talks about the many conflicting definitions for zeugma and syllepsis, and it seems no one has actually cleared up which word applies to which usage. Some flavors of wordplay:

  • Using a single word in relation to two other parts of a sentence, even though the word only grammatically or logically applies to one. For example, “They saw lots of thunder and lightning” (since one can’t actually see thunder), or “He works his work, I mine” (since “I works mine” is ungrammatical).
  • Using a single word with two other parts of a sentence such that it must be understood differently in relation to each. For example, “give neither counsel nor salt til you are asked for it”, or “You are free to execute your laws and your citizens as you see fit.”
  • Broader definitions can include any case where a single word governs two or more other parts of a sentence, such as in “Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason.” Spelled out in full, the sentence would read “Lust conquered shame; audacity conquered fear; madness conquered reason.”


There are other fun versions, with names like diazeugma, hypozeugma, prozeugma, mesozeugma…there are plenty of ways to categorize wordplay.

So! Got any fun zeugmas (zeugmae, perhaps?) to share?





How Many Senses do Humans Have?

People are generally familiar with the five basic senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. However, it’s less well-known that humans have closer to 21! Aristotle is credited with the traditional “five senses” model, and science has advanced a little bit since that time. There can be some debate about what a “sense” actually is: the common definition is “any system that consists of a group of sensory cell types that respond to a specific physical phenomenon and that corresponds to a particular group of regions within the brain where the signals are received and interpreted.” Here are the senses humans have (or at least the ones discovered so far!)

  • Sight – color: sight is actually two senses. Color is detected with the cone receptors in the eye.
  • Sight – brightness: detected with rod receptors
  • Smell: based off a chemical reaction, and separate from taste, though the two combine to produce flavor. This is why food tastes funny when you have a cold.
  • Sound: detecting vibrations along a medium that is in contact with your ear drums, such as air or water. The density of the medium affects the vibrations reaching your ear, which is why things sound different underwater.
  • Touch: This is an interesting one, because there is a unique touch sense, separate from your senses of pressure, temperature, pain, and itch. Your skin is the largest organ on your body and it gives you lots of data!
  • Taste: This can be argued to be five senses, each based off chemical reactions with the taste receptors on your tongue. There are different receptors for sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (which detects the amino acid glutamate, often found in meats).

And here already we can see the beginning of the debate. I only listed the “five” traditional senses, and depending on how those are counted, they could be as many as 14!

  • Pressure: something is pushing on a part of you. This has to be differentiated from detecting atmospheric pressure changes, because that is still debated. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that humans can detect changes in atmospheric pressure – becoming sleepy or experiencing joint pain in low pressure periods – but there’s nothing conclusive.
  • Itch: this is actually distinct from other touch-related systems! Evolution has provided us with some strange things.
  • Thermoception: Ability to sense heat and cold. This can be counted as two senses, because the body has different types of thermoreceptors for detecting external and internal temperature.
  • Nociception: sense of pain. This was originally thought of as overloading other senses, but in fact it is a separate system. There are three different types of pain receptors: cutaneous (skin), somatic (bones and joints), and visceral (body organs).
  • Proprioception: my favorite sense, and one of my favorite words. The sense of where your body is without looking at it. This is how you know where your foot is even if you aren’t watching it move.
  • Tension: sensors in your muscles monitor how much tension they are under
  • Stretch: receptors found in the lungs, bladder, stomach, and intestinal tract, to tell when those organs are full. A type of stretch receptor that senses dilation of blood vessels is involved in headaches.
  • Equilibrioception: this is what your inner ear is for. Detects balance, acceleration, and directional changes. Without this sense you can’t tell which way is up – it’s a little important!
  • Hunger: self explanatory. Your body says to give it calories! The brain can actually sense the difference between different macronutrients, and the body has some learned appetites which explain a craving for, say, salty foods, when you are short on sodium.
  • Thirst: my rule of thumb is that if I feel thirsty, I should have been drinking already…
  • Chemoreceptors: involved in detecting blood-borne hormones and drugs. Can also detect carbon dioxide levels in the blood: the brain uses that information to control breathing rate.
  • Magnetoception: the ability to detect magnetic fields. Not as strong as in many other animals like birds, but experiments have shown humans do have some sense of direction in this way. This can be tested by placing a person next to a strong magnetic field and disorienting them. People in this scenario are much worse at re-orienting themselves in terms of the earth’s magnetic field than people who are not near a strong magnetic field.
  • Time: No singular mechanism has been found to explain how humans tell time, but there is conclusive proof that this sense is startlingly accurate. There seem to be different mechanisms for short term (minutes to hours) and long term (circadian rhythm) time keeping.
    One interesting fact about humans’ time sense is that it is dependent on age: people within the age range of 19-24 years were able to tell within 3 seconds when 3 minutes was up, whereas those in the age group 60-80 thought 3 minutes had passed when the actual time was 3 minutes and 40 seconds. So as you get older, it’s not that the world is speeding up; it’s that you are slowing down!

It’s always a source of joy for me that there are so many things we still do not know about our own bodies. It’s easy to get jaded and think that science has answered every question, but the fact that we still have so many gaps in our knowledge is tremendously gratifying. We’ll never run out of new things to learn!


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Language Learning Tools

A small selection of all the languages I’d like to learn… Source:


One of my goals (ignoring the obvious impracticality of doing so) is to learn ALL THE LANGUAGES. Right now I’m learning German and improving my Spanish. Also on my list is Thai, Russian, Portuguese, Swahili, Mandarin, Hindi, Scottish Gaelic, Arabic…the list goes on. If I want to learn all these, I’ll need to be very motivated and find the best tools that fit my learning style.

Two of those tools are Duolingo and Memrise. They’re great (free!) language learning sites that I’ve been using for the last year and a half to bring my Spanish skills from rudimentary to full fluency, and to begin learning German.


Duolingo has many languages available, and more in development: currently they have Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese, and are developing Dutch, Irish, Danish, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Russian, Polish, and Romanian. As you make your way through a course, you learn individual lessons which introduce a number of new words. You get three “hearts” to spend on wrong answers in a lesson: if you run out of hearts, you have to start the lesson over. Sometimes it can be tedious – like when you’re on the last question and you lose your last heart – but it does drive home the lesson. People learn better when they fail, and even if it’s frustrating, it helps the words stick.

The course works well on its own, but it’s when I noticed it also tracked how many days in a row I’d practiced that I really started to commit. I wanted to see how long I could keep a streak going (59 days so far!), and that made it much harder to let excuses get in the way of practicing the language. Even if I only made a little progress each day, it was still progress, and better than nothing.

Recently I’ve been getting the people around me into the site too. You earn points by completing lessons, and this has spawned a small race each week to see who can get the most points. Yes, in the end they’re meaningless numbers, but if it works to inspire you to learn, that’s a good reason to me.


Memrise is a site I discovered a little later in my language learning process, when I decided I wanted to start really expanding my Spanish vocabulary. The idea of the site is to use spaced-repetition (reintroducing a new concept frequently at first, then at longer intervals as it becomes fixed in long-term memory) to help you learn. The courses are user-created and span a huge variety of topics: tons of languages (including less common ones like Cherokee, Slovak, and Klingon), standardized tests, astronomy, psychology, history…obviously, quality isn’t as consistent so you have to do a bit more work to find a good course, but there are lots to choose from. I’ve been learning the military spelling alphabet and Morse code in my spare time…


What are your favorite language learning tools? And what languages do you want to learn when using them?


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New Word Wednesday: swain

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your new word for the week:


swain noun

  • a young (male) lover or suitor

Example: “a young lady and her swain”

Origin: late old English (denoting a young man attendant on a knight), from old Norse sveinn, “lad”


I enjoy finding archaic words like this – they’re great for Scrabble. Now if only there were more things to do with the letter Q…


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Cooking Adventures: “What’s In My Kitchen?” Soup


Your soup probably won’t look like this. You don’t have this lovely lady’s kitchen!


This isn’t so much a recipe as a framework, because soup should not be a meal you have to go out and buy ingredients for (provided, of course, you have more than ramen in your kitchen!). When I make soup, I use whatever ingredients I have available at the time. It’s a great way to use up miscellaneous ingredients that might be hard to assemble into a full meal otherwise.

Here’s the framework I use:


“What’s In My Kitchen?” Soup

  1. Stock pot! If you don’t feel like making ALL THE SOUP, use a regular saucepan instead. Alternatively, use a crock pot. If you leave things to cook for longer and use less liquid, you’ll end up with stew.
  2. Liquid: generally water, milk, or some form of broth. I make my own broth by simmering chicken and steak bones with vegetable scraps (onion and carrot skins or other bits that you wouldn’t want to eat on their own, but which still have plenty of nutrients) in water with a bit of vinegar for 12-24 hours. Making your own broth gives a much tastier and more nutrient-dense result than storebought varieties, and it’s cheaper too.
  3. Protein: anything goes here. Chicken, beef, sausage, bacon, pig snout…this can also be a good way to use organ meats, if you don’t know how to cook them on their own. They’re much less scary as part of a mixture like this. If you don’t want to use meat, try dried beans or lentils instead – though you’ll probably want to soak them first so they finish cooking at the same time as everything else.
  4. Vegetable: well, what’s in your kitchen? I usually keep onions, garlic, carrots, and potatoes stocked, which is a good start. Root vegetables like turnips or parsnips work great, as well as green beans or peas, or leafy greens like kale or bok choy. When to add the ingredients is determined by their hardness. Root vegetables can be added at the beginning, while leafy greens should only cook for a few minutes right before you serve the soup.
  5. Carbs: this isn’t required, but can be nice for adding more bulk to your soup. Options include rice, barley, or quinoa. These grains are generally unexciting on their own, but in combination with the soup they can combine really well.
  6. Seasoning: I always enjoy this part. One of my favorite memories of learning to cook with my parents was making burgers with my dad. We’d add the ground beef, bread crumbs, and an egg, and then stand in front of the spice rack pulling out whatever looked interesting at the time. For a start, I’d recommend salt! One of my other memories is always having to add salt to my mom’s soups, because she was of the opinion that 1 Tbsp was plenty for a pot 🙂
    Otherwise, have fun with it. Use your nose to find out what works for the particular combination you have in the pot. Possibilities include pepper (black, white, or cayenne), red pepper flakes, curry powder, oregano, thyme, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, basil…the list goes on. If you want to use fresh herbs, add them near the end of your cook time so they retain their flavor.

So, you’ve gathered all your ingredients. Turn on the heat and let things simmer until the vegetables and meat are all cooked through. Congratulations! You have now accomplished soup.



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Free Ebook Sources

I am a voracious reader, and have a definite problem when it comes to books: I acquire them more quickly than I can read them. This leads to an overstuffed bookshelf, and an e-reader full of even more options, many of which I’ll never get to. I hold out hope, however, that I will one day read all the books! The inconvenience of reality has not managed to remove this desire…along with the desire to learn all the languages and do all the things.

If you do not have this problem (or if you do and are perfectly happy to keep striving for it!), there are a number of sources for e-books that make a great alternative to overflowing bookshelves. Here are a few sites to check out:


Project Gutenberg is a huge database of books that are out of copyright, which have been digitized and uploaded for free use by anyone. They have some 46,000 books available, made possible through the work of some very dedicated volunteers. If you somehow run out of reading material here, either you’re spectacularly picky or you’re not human. I use this site frequently to get classics (and one day I shall read them!).

Open Library is an enormous project dedicated to creating a web page for every book ever published. It is open source and community-edited, and is part of the non-profit Internet Archive, which has the even more lofty goal of creating an archive space for the entire Internet, and all the knowledge contained in it. Books are available to read online or in many downloadable formats, and the site also includes links for borrowing or purchasing. My method: click random links until you get to a book! It’s the closest you can get to wandering through the stacks in a physical library.

TUEBL is another source for ebooks to download. I’ve found this site very fruitful for finding more modern books. As a warning, the site doesn’t have the best design: make sure the download link you click is the actual link, and not an ad. TUEBL has also started a new Women in Tech project to help women to learn to code. With the knowledge that their user base is 80% women, they wanted to help get more women into the technology industries. So, they have partnered with the education program OneMonth to start learning to code, and to help them get access to jobs in the industry through their business network.


There are many more sites to check out; these are merely the ones I use most often. Enjoy, and find lots of new reading material! You have no excuse to run out of books this way…


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New Word Wednesday: zoon

Happy Wednesday, and here is your word for the day, courtesy of an online Scrabble dictionary:


zoon noun

  • an animal developed from a fertilized egg
one of the distinct individuals that join to form a compound of colonial animal; a zooid (such as coral)

From Greek ζώον (zòon) meaning animal or living being; plural ζώα (zòa) 




zoon intransitive verb
to fly with a humming or buzzing sound

Used mainly in the Southern U.S.

Example: “That mosquito zooned around my head all night; I didn’t sleep a bit!”


So, two forms of a word, with two different pronunciations, and very different origins. Definitions for this word were somewhat sparse online (not even in the OED!), but it still counts for Scrabble, and everyone knows that’s the important part. Go impress people with your obscure word knowledge!


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