All posts by Alexander Van Berg

Great Processes

Chicken Or The Egg, When To Really Learn Spanish Tenses, And What Has Worked For Me

One challenging aspect of language acquisition is the chicken or the egg problem.  Languages tend to have many moving parts, which in turn are all dependent on each other.  Thus, there is not a strict, orderly sequence of lessons you can simply march through to learn the language.

Although I suspect language experts and theorists have studied this concept in detail, as well as specific manifestations of the problem, I’ve never really heard anyone talk about it as it pertains to learning tenses in the Spanish language.

In my experience, you can only learn so much Spanish before a lack of proficiency in the tenses start to become an learning bottleneck or roadblock.

To illustrate with an overly simple example, you can learn how to say different colors in Spanish, without any comprehension of the Spanish-language tenses, but it will be quite painful to at the same time study general Spanish idioms, which have a much greater dependency on tense knowledge.

The interesting question is this: Where would one draw the line in Spanish curriculum, and say that Spanish-language tenses must really be learned before this arbitrary line in the sand is crossed?

I’m definitely not an expert, but I’ll share my personal observations and use popular Spanish educational books as a proxy for Spanish curriculum and the Spanish language in general.

You can really learn up to, and probably finish, Spanish 3: Advanced Conversation, without really learning Spanish-language tenses.

However, starting with Ultimate Spanish Beginner-Intermediate: A Complete Textbook and Reference Guide, I would say you really want to have already learned Spanish-language tenses.

I read Spanish 3: Advanced Conversation while concurrently writing and learning Flawless Recall: Universal Memorization Method For Conjugating Regular Spanish Verbs, For Students And Teachers.

My results have been very good.  Where as I would have previously been blocked or significantly slowed down while trying to read Ultimate Spanish, I am now able to read it normally.

I would also point out that Spanish 3 and Ultimate Spanish (both by Living Language) are pretty good books.  I definitely recommend both of them.  Just looking at the marketing, I was worried Ultimate Spanish might be a rehash or regurgitation of Spanish 3, but it’s not.  It’s a completely separate book, and it’s definitely a step up from Spanish 3.  Finally, both of those Living Language books have some typos that might tend to really confuse you if you don’t have a decent understanding of the Spanish-language tenses!


ChatGPT: A Wily Son Of Gun

I previously shared my thoughts on the new,  experimental AI-enhanced search engines.

Here I’ll share some chat excerpts that showcase some colorful and interesting discoveries.  At this early stage, you really can’t read too much into them.  However, one has to suspect the following: The heart of these issues will be difficult to tamp down.


Vintage Quotes

Traditional double-sided poster for Reminiscence (2021).  Back of poster has reverse image to enhance colors when backlit.  Film did not achieve financial success, due in large part to the COVID pandemic.

No such thing as a happy ending.  All endings are sad.  Especially if the story was happy.

Reminiscence (2021)


Searcher Beware: ChatGTP, Microsoft, Google, and Bard 

There was recently a lot of buzz surrounding Microsoft’s heralding of ChatGPT, which is an AI technology that Microsoft is incorporating into their search engine Bing.  Google responded by announcing the release of Bard, which will add analogous AI enhancements to their own search engine.

I dabbled with some of the new technology, and my top 3 takeaways were this:

1.) If this had all occurred circa 1998, the value would be much higher.  But after 20+ years of people using search engines, we have already built up a native understanding of how search engines workWe have a native understanding of how to parse through search results, get what we want, follow-up on what we want, and so on.  At this point, it’s not really a burden to us, and it tends to facilitate us getting what we want, as quickly as possible.

If someone wants to try to synthesize those search results for me in a natural-sounding language, that’s great, but I imagine I’ll often want to dissect it back into its original pieces (i.e. the search results we’re all familiar with) and just process this at a lower level (i.e. the search results we’re all familiar with), to maintain a higher degree of search fidelity.

As an analogy, over the course of many years a software engineer will eventually build up a native understanding of a particular programming language.  Although there are certain scenarios where it would be useful to have a technology where a programmer can speak in a natural-sounding language to a computer, and have it spit out code, or conversely, have someone explain existing code in a natural-sounding language, often times that’s just not optimal and in fact it’s painful.

The best use cases for this type of technology were, to the best of my knowledge, actually being played out in cars and even homes years ago.  When you’re in a car and need a hands-free search, this is very useful.  When someone is not tech-savvy, this can be very useful.

You just have to take those synthesized search results with an extra grain of salt, and you accept that potential loss of precision and accuracy, because you’re driving and at that moment that’s the best you’ll be able to do.

The bottom line is classic search results, and the need for them, will never go away.  Many times we will prefer them.  In a lot of cases, we need them.  To articulate what should be a simple, canonical example of this truth, if one wanted a 2nd or 3rd medical opinion, they would not want a clever intermediary to synthesize the net cacophony of all those doctors’ voices.  To the contrary, they would want to hear the entirety of each opinion, and they would want each opinion siloed.

2.) Beware of insidious errors!

For reasons unknown to me, one of these new, state-of-the-art technologies refused to “talk like Sub-Zero ”.

OK, so then I asked a more modest follow-up question, at which point it rattled off some synthesized information, and buried in the middle of that synthesized information was the worst type of error possible.

Relative to its context, it was a critical error, but it was not an obvious error.

Nothing drew any attention to this error.  It was very inconspicuous.

It would not be immediately obvious to anyone else what your misconception is.  Instead, they would assume your sense of humor was just kind of off, you were acting kind of strange, etc.  They would not feel compelled to stop and correct you.

There is very little in the ambient environment that would cue you to the fact that you are mistaken!

Indeed, it is the type of error that you can have in your head for decades until you finally realize that you have it wrong!

It had claimed that Sub-Zero was the “main character” in the Mortal Kombat franchise.

And, if someone were using a search engine as they normally would, I don’t believe they would ever come to that conclusion.

3.) The top search companies will compete as they normally do.  Anything is possible, but there is little reason to expect this will fundamentally change the search engine landscape.

People noted that Bard got a question wrong.  For reference, when I used ChatGPT, most of the answers were wrong, or had one or more significant inaccuracies within the answer.  Not surprisingly, this all reflects what we get in our normal search results, and have a native understanding of how to deal with.  So in closing, I would also add that I don’t expect these AI enhancements to fundamentally change the accuracy of our searches.

Poor Design

“Red And Yellow (May Soon Again) Kill A Fellow”

One of the great things about living in the Rio Grande Valley is the sheer lack of natural predators.  In my experience, there are really only two natural predators that come up often enough to really care about: killer bees and coral snakes.

Coral snake photograph by elvissa under the cc-by-sa-2.0 license (

Both predators afford most people reasonable opportunities to avoid an attack, and up to the present, most people could also survive an attack if medical attention was rendered.

You might be surprised to know that the remaining supply of coral snake antivenom is scarce, and it expired a long time ago!  Since then, the FDA has repeatedly extended the expiration date of the remaining supply, using laboratory analysis of the supply to justify the extensions.

Well, you can probably visualize the sorry state of affairs if the FDA isn’t throwing out this expired product, but instead performing scientific analysis on it, in the hopes that it’s still good.  That alone tells you things can’t be good.

The science behind coral snake antivenom is simple by today’s standards, and there’s actually only one limitation to its production: cost.  The corporation that used to make it stopped making it because they decided it wasn’t cost effective.  In doing that, one approximation for the price of a human life has been implicitly calculated for us.

Google’s search engine displays text from inside the paywall of this medical journal, and it claims the expiration date of the existing supply is now set at 2024 – one year from now.

Without the antivenom, the current standard of care is essentially to let the patient die in a hospital bed, while simultaneously experimenting on the patient’s body with some slightly-better-than-random, unproven, erratic treatments.  This is indeed a sorry state of affairs for a country this advanced.

Is hope on the horizon?  Yes and no.  On the one hand, we have been looking at producing a novel coral snake antivenom from south of the border.  On the other hand, the official announcement regarding this is… fairly somber:

Trials for the coral snake anti-venom are complete and the product is now an investigational new drug, according to FDA standards. A private entity holds the Investigational New Drug Application and will make the decision about pursuing further FDA approvals needed to commercialize the anti-venom.

There is a great deal to be skeptical about.  A “private entity” owns this investigational new drug and will decide whether or not to try to get it approved medically.

Said differently, we are at T-minus-one-year until the remaining supply of coral snake antivenom expires, again, and the good news is a “private entity” is toying with the idea of having their new experimental drug studied to see if it might work sufficiently and also pass FDA standards.

While we should hope for the best, that small flurry of haphazard, seat-of-your-pants scientific activity is almost a distraction or an excuse for the few informed people that even follow this to feel OK about letting the remaining antivenom supplies dwindle to zero – thus silently condemning a new generation of coral snake bite victims to death.

To me, this is an unprecedented experience, and feels as vulgar and foreign as being informed that for some reason we don’t have any more tetanus vaccines, so new tetanus victims will probably die in a hospital.

The truth is this is a shining example of the need for government intervention.  Government should mandate the production of a reasonable supply of proven antivenom, and provide grants if necessary.

The whole truth is people that live in affected regions – like the Rio Grande Valley – have an interest in making that happen.


Flawless Recall: Universal Memorization Method For Conjugating Regular Spanish Verbs, For Students And Teachers by Alexander Van Berg… Now In Its 8th Edition!

This foundational book has already progressed to its 8th edition.  Helpful diagrams have been added, there is enhanced clarity, and minor errors have been corrected.

To reiterate my own progress from an earlier post:

Before I designed this system, I had spotty recall on maybe just a few tenses.  I’m now able to write out the entire 18-tense conjugation chart purely from memory, and I also have a better understanding of what the tenses actually are.  (If you’re counting, that chart has upwards of 200 or more facts, and those facts are not conveniently packaged.)

Flawless Recall: Universal Memorization Method For Conjugating Regular Spanish Verbs is better than ever in its 8th edition.  I highly recommend it – there’s never been a better book for reliably learning this aspect of the Spanish language!


Cinematic Vocabulary

If you happened to read one of my older posts, you’d know I’m a fan of Yimou Zhang’s Shanghai Triad.

And if you know anything about me, you know I also like to classify things – perhaps to a dubious level sometimes.

By chance, I recently saw a newer film titled The Wasted Times.

One review on IMDb probably describes it best:

There is not a shot out of place, not a word uttered or note of music that is not just right in this film. I admit I had to watch it twice to get all the nuances. You must listen for when they are speaking Shanghainese or Japanese and you must understand a bit about what was happening in china and shanghai in 1937. There are family ties, triad ties, Japanese secret society ties and love ties. There is betrayal of all these ties. Jumping back and forth in time makes the plot unravel slowly and like a game of mah-jong the final betrayal is revealed when all the tiles are exposed at the end. This is a great movie. It does not have any kung-fu or wire-work or epic slow motion gunfights and white doves – but it is a truly original masterpiece. I recommend it to anyone who wants to see a thoughtful movie and be challenged by what a great piece of cinema is.

So what is the relationship between Shanghai Triad and The Wasted Times?  Well, Hollywood has started to develop a vocabulary for this, and it includes terms like reboot, remake, and re-imagining.

But The Wasted Times doesn’t seem to really match any of those terms.  I’d contend The Wasted Times is a spiritual successor to Shanghai Triad, where a spiritual successor would be one or two levels beyond a re-imagining.  It’s adopting the environment, the general context, and the era, but not any of the specific characters, relationships, or plot lines.

If you enjoyed Shanghai Triad, do yourself a favor and see The Wasted Times.  I have to admit, I was touched by the final scenes – complete with an alien form of chivalry.  It was extremely well done.  In fact, everything was very well done, and it tends to suggest the setting in these two films (1930s Shanghai) really lends itself to a cinematic rendering.  Something about 1930s Shanghai tends to be very crisp, and very compelling, with plenty of surface area for an artist to work with.

Although I probably wouldn’t agree with all of the director’s viewpoints, it’s very hard to argue with the quality of the film.  The Wasted Times is a very worthy and a very formidable spiritual successor to Shanghai Triad.

Still from Er Cheng's The Wasted Times (2016).
Still from Er Cheng’s The Wasted Times (2016).

And now for the dubious levels of classification.

This film incorporates a creative device that I have never seen any vocabulary for: At the end of the film, the main characters briefly meet in a completely different setting for the final resolution.

I think my mental shorthand for this is a Point-Break-style ending, although there are obviously other films that have the same device.

In The Wasted Times, as in the original Point Break, this style of ending works because it further pronounces and embellishes key traits for some of the characters.


Languages Inside Languages

Back in the era of the Iraq War, it was often repeated that Arabic was a “valuable” language to know, in terms of government recruitment efforts.

In the post-Iraq-War era, Arabic remains highly relevant to America, but it seems like America may have new strategic challenges ahead.

It kind of depends on whether you see the glass half full or half empty.

If you think the glass is half full, the USA and China will cooperate on everything and there will be blinding economic prosperity, for many.

If you think the glass is half empty, the USA and China will repeatedly butt heads, and increasing levels of confrontation will be the order of the day.

And here enters the subject of Cantonese, a Chinese language much older than Mandarin (the language favored by the government of China).

Cantonese happens to be spoken by many Chinese dissidents, and it’s currently being used to disseminate anti-government messages inside China.

One could characterize it as the “language of resistance” inside China, and abroad by older generations of the Chinese diaspora.

If the glass is half empty, it makes me wonder if Cantonese might soon be one of those “extremely valuable” languages, in terms of government recruitment efforts.

Weighing in its favor, it’s more of a greenfield language right now.  If you’re applying for a relevant government job, you’re less likely to be competing against an entire room full of Cantonese experts for that job (as compared to Arabic).

Weighing against it is the fact that many Cantonese speakers tend to also know English (technically, the same can be said of Mandarin).  Thus, the necessity isn’t quite as high.

But also weighing in its favor is the fact that the severity of the potential conflicts between the USA and China is quite high – probably a lot higher than conflicts where Arabic was relevant.  This fact alone sort of promotes the value of the language up several notches.

I know next to nothing about Cantonese, but several things in that article fascinated me.  One of them is that Cantonese can be expressed very similarly to Mandarin, while retaining a completely different meaning.  This almost suggests a degree of steganographical potential.  Furthermore, it suggests that automated censors will not be able to handle this.

Great Design

Flawless Recall: Memorizing Spanish Days Of The Week, For Students And Teachers by Alexander Van Berg

Flawless Recall: Memorizing Spanish Days Of The Week, For Students And Teachers has just been published, and this book is interesting.  The paperback version is short, it’s $10, and it’s full color.  It’s roughly 38 pages and mostly pictures, so you could almost call it a “picture book”, but it’s for all ages.  In my opinion, it’s the sort of thing that’s perfect as a small gift for new students of Spanish – for Christmas or any other gift-giving occasion.

The book description probably has the best summary:

Flawless Recall: Memorizing Spanish Days Of The Week is a refreshing and highly effective take on a very old subject: English speakers memorizing the days of the week in Spanish.

Part educational and part mnemonic insight, part riddle and part whodunnit, part comical and part cautionary tale, part celestial and part sinister, and part quixotic and part horrifying, you will never look at Monday morning the same way again!  Most importantly, once and for all, you will remember the days of the week in Spanish!

As a minor rest stop in the Flawless Recall series on the Spanish language, you will analyze the same simple story, forwards and back, several times over.  Afterwards, your mind will thank you as it sinks its teeth into the extremely tractable content.

Memorization is involuntary once you read this short, easy, breezy, and unforgettable Flawless Recall book!  You are now one step closer to conversational Spanish!

Right now the book is working its way to the different marketplaces.

Great Design

Flawless Recall Expansion Book: Memorize Irregular Conjugations Of QUERER, For Students And Teachers by Alexander Van Berg

Flawless Recall Expansion Book: Memorize Irregular Conjugations Of QUERER, For Students And Teachers has been published, and in a fitting tribute to the Spanish verb querer, the book will be available for FREE, or as close to FREE as each individual marketplace will allow!

This represents an unbeatable value for anyone who has already learned the original, foundational system in Flawless Recall: Universal Memorization Method For Conjugating Regular Spanish Verbs, and for new students of Spanish, it makes the value proposition even more alluring.

A very motivated student could learn the foundational system in the original book, read this expansion book for free, and then start writing memorization content for any irregular verb that he’s interested in.

The book is currently working its way to the different marketplaces.