Ulrich News – September 2014

1. Interview with Peter Thiel

This week I had the real pleasure of interviewing Peter Thiel with my colleague Mike Useem. Peter is the co-founder of Paypal, which is where he got his start on becoming a billionaire. He’s a provocative public figure, and is known as a libertarian. Listen to this five-minute excerpt of my interview with him, where I challenge him about whether or not independent action can really address major societal challenges. I found him thoughtful and reasonable all around on the points we discussed.

Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel

2. Update on learning Chinese: Excellent Resources + My Public Commitment

In July, I wrote a post on my efforts to learn a few dozen Chinese characters while in China this past Summer. That early learning was so interesting that I kept going, and have been studying the language more seriously for the last few months. I have taken a multi-faceted approach and have been really energized by my steady progress. To calibrate you, I still can’t understand much of what a native speaker says at normal speed, but just tonight I bought two lobsters at my local Chinese grocery in Mandarin and we communicated quite well. (The fish guys there don’t speak English, which is perfect. I find myself buying a lot of fish now, for practice.)

In order to use the power of peer pressure and fear of public humiliation,  I’m committing publicly to continuing my study at least through July 2015. I believe I can get to about a second-year collegiate level of speaking, writing, and comprehension with a year of efficient study. What is efficient study? That is going to have to be another post. However, if you are interested in learning Chinese, consider these resources, which I’ve found very helpful. These are in approximate order of my frequency of use:

  • Pleco Dictionary App. Damn good. The best.
  • Speaking with my Chinese-speaking students, I have about 20 students this Semester who are native or near-native speakers of Mandarin. I asked each one of them to speak to me like a 3-year-old for the first five minutes whenever they run into me. Fun. (It usually takes three repeats —  so one of my early phrases learned is “please say it again” 请再说一遍。I also have a half dozen colleagues and former students who put up with this. Thank you all.
  • Chinese Pod (app and website) — wow — very good audio lessons. I think you could learn Chinese just from these. Very engaging and well done. I listen to two of these lessons each direction on my bike commute. No one seems to mind my practicing Chinese as I ride.
  • Nuli Nuli-- excellent system for teaching characters, reading and grammar. You create target word lists and it drills you systematically. I simply entered the 1000 most frequently used characters plus vocabulary words I encounter in practice. I find it only takes a couple of minutes of effort to learn a new character and a few more minutes per day to retain what you know.
  • Anki flashcard system with basic Chinese “card deck”. I use this 15 minutes every morning with my first cup of coffee. Excellent for audio comprehension.
  • I also use Muzzy quite a bit. This is a video system created by the BBC for teaching kids foreign languages. The movies are really good for simple dialogue. I watch with English subtitles until I get the story, then I listen to the Chinese audio on my bike. I can pretty much understand every word after a few times through. Here is an example of the first episode of the videos. Yes, these are made for pre-school kids — but that’s perfect for a newbie. I ripped the audio from all the movies and then put those files on my iPhone for listening while walking or biking.
  • Pinyin Pro 1.1. (app) – very good pinyin pronunciation app. I tested four different apps with native speakers and they voted for this one as the best neutral Chinese accent. (Pinyin is the Romanization of Chinese characters and is absolutely critical to learning the language.)
  • Google Translate to generate pinyin from characters and to get a guess at translation. Translation from English to Chinese is really too literal to be useful in actually learning language, though.
  • And yes, I also have a tutor. Shout out to 杨蕾. She is a Penn PhD student and has a lot of experience tutoring smarty pants Americans. It helps a lot to be accountable to someone — for me that’s once a week, often by Skype.

I also found the Hacking Chinese website quite useful, and very consistent with my hyper-analytical approach to things.

Let me close with a provocative hypothesis. Chinese is a very simple language. It has one very tricky aspect — the characters used to represent the language do not usually tell you very much about how to say them. So, if you don’t know the character, you are stuck. But, technology has largely mitigated that weakness. To write Chinese on a computer or smart phone you just need to be able to recognize the character, not write it with a pen. So, if you don’t care about being able to write with a pen — only with a keyboard — Chinese has gotten a lot easier to master in the last few years.

I think it will take me about 300 hours to get to a level that allows basic conversation, reading, and writing. The problem is that I don’t have 300 new hours of capacity in my normal schedule over the next year or so. Instead I have just added audio to a bunch of daily activities like walking and biking, in order to be able to get as much learning time as possible in an already impossible schedule.

I’d love to share notes if any of you are also taking on this super interesting challenge.