2009-07-31

Baby Got Way Back

With the incredible super-seriousness of my last post, and the subsequent discussion, I've been wanting to write something light and airy, fresh and clean. Maybe now's the time to recount a story I've been wanting to put into words for a while. It goes way back...

Back when I was a wee lad of just 17 years, I had the opportunity of participating in the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships for high school athletes. The evening after the race, which was in the late morning, we had the honor of a beautiful banquet dinner, awards ceremony, and guest speakers. The main speaker was Olympic gold medalist Al Joyner, who is perhaps better known for being married to Florence Griffith-Joyner, "Flo-Jo", who still holds the 21-year-old 100m world record, and who died only two and a half months before these championships.

Al Joyner had a very good speech prepared, but the biggest moments of the evening for me came when, after we were done with dinner, and done with the awards, a couple of dudes on stilts and dressed like aliens busted in the door just as The Beastie Boys Intergalactic started pumping through the sound system. The aliens were keepin' it real, and getting people out on the dance floor, including Al Joyner. Yes, I've busted a move next to Al Joyner.

We were having fun as kids do, enjoying a little post-race fun with some of the fittest high schoolers in the country, and the DJ just kept the songs coming. Perhaps the DJ wasn't a runner; perhaps he didn't think, but fairly soon, he dropped Sir Mix-a-Lot onto the turntables. I didn't think twice; the song is good, and I like dancing to it. Baby Got Back. But Al Joyner... he knew. In the middle of the song, Mix-a-Lot proudly proclaims, "I keep my women like Flo-Jo."

At this point in the song, I swear on everything that is holy that every single person in the room whipped their head around to look wide-eyed at Al Joyner, and immediately froze. There was that record-skip sound exactly like in the movies. RRrrrrreeeeeeeeeeatt! And we were just staring at him, frozen.

He's a class act, that Al Joyner. He never missed a beat; he clapped his hands together once, with a hearty laugh, and the party continued as if nothing had happened. The music had never stopped, and everything was okay again.

My condolences to Flo-Jo. Sir Mix-a-Lot was indeed paying you a compliment, and Al Joyner knew that. God bless you both.

2009-07-27

Equality

Equality is a dangerous word.

There are some things that have been done in the name of equality which are counteractive to its principle. That's hypocrisy at its grandest.

I am writing this blog post as a reference for myself and my acquaintances; I have wanted to make this point on many occasions, and it would help if I could simply refer to this, a hopefully well-formed, well-expounded argument. As a disclaimer in advance, I want to mention that I've been in many arguments in which my opponent, so to say, thought that I was denying the existence of a problem, such as sexual prejudice. In reality, I was fully aware that there was a problem, but I simply felt that we were going about solving it in the wrong way. This is one of those cases. I am not denying the existence of a problem, but I am considering the many manifestations of said problem, and refuting that the "solution" indeed solves anything.

The two main targets I concern myself with here are Title IX and Affirmative Action, but there are certainly others. Many of you are familiar with these two instances of enforced equality in the United States, but if you're not, Title IX (well, it's executors) requires universities to spend equal amounts of money on men's and women's sports, which Affirmative Action places minimum bounds on the numbers of so-called "minority" employees (or students, etc.). In both cases, someone is required to give preference to, or increase the participation of, a certain group of people, when compared to the general population.

Both legal measures started with a good heart. The lawmakers noticed (or claimed to notice) a disparity, and they moved to correct it. Good for them, I say, for seeing a problem and then correcting it.

But they went about it wrong, unfortunately, and this has been realized, as witnessed by the general disuse of Affirmative Action in today's workplace. This is not the case with Title IX. Despite the fact that the big Title IX boom around the turn of the milennium has come and gone, its effects still linger. The "problem", whichever way you want to look at it, has not gone away.

Let me [carefully] explain my opinion. As a mathematician, I like logical reasoning, so I'll go about my arguments in that--my favorite--way, in a fictionalized hypothetical circumstance.

Let us first consider the case of men and women in the workplace, and further assume that a certain lawmaker would like to increase the number of women hired, an idea similar to, if not a part of, Affirmative Action.

Now, when I ask this lawmaker why he wants to pass a law to increase the number of women hired, he might say, "The number of women hired today is considerably lower than the number of men; men and women should be equal."

"Equality," I might say. "Interesting. Why do you think there are fewer women being hired?"

"Because they're being discriminated against in the workplace, and I won't stand for it!" The lawmaker might reply.

"So there should be the same number of women in the workplace as men?" I say.

"Yes," the lawmaker says, "Well, the same as the proportion of working-age individuals. So, perhaps slightly more women than men."

I reply, "You're saying that, proportionally speaking, there should be no difference between men and women?"

"That's correct. They should be equal."

Then I would get to my point: "Are men and women equal?"

The lawmaker would get cross, "No! Of course not! That's why I'm trying to make a law! To stop the discrimination!"

"No," I'd say, "I mean: are men and women the same?"

He might look confused. "Well, no, but in the workplace they should be considered the same!"

"So, they're not the same, but in the workplace they should be considered the same?" I say.

"Of course there are differences between men and women; that's anatomy, you know, but that doesn't matter."

"It doesn't matter?" I reply with a smirk on my face. "Should basketball teams hire equal numbers of short people and tall people? Should Google be forced to hire half of its employees from the under-100-IQ set? Should we have deaf telephone operators? I'm sorry for the absurd examples, but to say that we must treat two vastly different groups of people (the biological difference doesn't get much bigger than that between males and females) exactly the same in every case in the workplace, or the university?"

"Well, we can't discriminate!" might be the lawmakers response.

"You're saying we're not allowed to discriminate at a job interview? That sounds counterproductive. Interviews are held in order to discriminate between candidates."

"Yes, I know," the lawmaker says, "in each case, that's true. But, on average, we should see equality between men and women."

"What if I told you that more men than women want to be, for example, engineers?" I ask.

"There's no reason that women can't be engineers," he replies, "there should be equal numbers."

"Then why are there more female than male elementary school teachers?"

"Because that's an arena where women are no longer, or never were, discriminated against," the lawmaker says confidantly, "Engineering is a different type of job."

"So you're telling me we should have quotas based on sex for the jobs in which there are more males than females, but not in the jobs in which there are more females than males?"

"Yes," the lawmaker says, slightly unsure of his answer, "but it's not that simple."

"I'll leave that that battle for another day," I say, "but let me ask you something else. Are you telling me that even though we can both admit that there are huge biological differences between men and women--namely sexual organs, but also height, weight, body composition, voice pitch, and the list goes on--you won't admit that perhaps women and men differ also in such intricate areas as preference for a certain type of job?"

"Men and women should be treated equally." And the lawmaker's eyes glaze over.

I turn to the camera and say, "And that, kids, is why you can't ever win an argument with a person who doesn't think logically. But, if you're wondering what good can come of all this, I can tell you there is hope. You see, I'll admit that there is still prejudice in the workplace, in universities, and elsewhere, but we can't just force everyone to be treated "equally". First of all, it's not an efficient use of our resources if we force organizations to make choices that are not in their best interests. And, using a law to discriminate is just as bad as the original discrimination, even if it is in the "reverse" direction. Who's to say the orginal discrimination even exists? If you know it exists, fire the person who's doing it. Trace it all the way back to the source; prejudice should not be tolerated. But, as in the case of Title IX, perhaps girls don't like some sports as much as guys. I find that believable, particularly because high school sports see the same disparity as colleges, even when boys and girls truly have equal opportunity."

"We need to fight any kind of prejudice, but putting a Band-aid over the problem isn't going to help, particularly when that Band-aid is prejudicial by design. Too many qualified candidates have lost job opportunities, too many companies have lost better-qualified candidates, and, perhaps more to the point, the single largest effect of Title IX was to take opportunities away from men instead of giving them to women. We can certainly do better than that. Let's instead make laws that get rid of the immoral discrimination, and don't just cover it up."


I apologize if you read this far and this is old news to you. But, I'm sure you know someone who might benefit from the arguments I present above. There are still people in this world for whom "equality" means men being allowed to be wet nurses, and the blind being given jobs as chauffeurs. If you disagree with anything I have written here, please write to me, whether in the comments section, or the email address listed in my profile. I enjoy having my opinions changed for the better.

2009-07-23

Random thoughts

The city of Vienna is considering banning "Bermuda Shorts" from public swimming pools, because they apparently soak up 2.5 liters of water (liter-a-waters) per person per day, which is a lot more than Banana Hammocks, Sausage Slings, and Pickle Packers. Sorry, America; there will be no swimming for you in Vienna. It's a Speedo or nothing.

The number of people I can smell as they walk by me in a subway station (for example) increases exponentially with the temperature.

Lance Armstrong may have given up his chance at winning the Tour de France yesterday, principally by being a good teammate and riding in support of Alberto Contador. Check out an awesome analysis of what happened here.

2009-07-21

Book Review: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

While I was reading the book:

I just read a review on this site about this book, saying that the it was boring and strayed away from the "main plot" too much on "tangents" and "thoughts". I think the reader missed the point. By the way, she started reading it because she... BA-dum BUM... heard about it from Oprah.

-----------------------------------------------

After I was done:

Partially in reference to the review I mentioned above, let me reiterate a point I made in a prior review, in which I described my theory of what makes a "good" book: "main plots" suck. Seriously, if you've got some motivation, moral, conflict, crime, romance, or whatever pulling you through the pages just to get to the end, you can't enjoy each page. For me, the pages have to be interesting in order for the book to be good, and many-a-time a driving plot ruins this. J.S. Foer almost falls victim to this in Everything is Illuminated, but everyone knows how great a book that is. He almost forgot the trees for the forest.

Tolstoy didn't. He remembered the trees, and he built the forest out of them. I've had someone ask me, "Isn't Anna Karenina a total love story?" And my answer was, "no." Sure, there are a few loves stories running through the entire book, and they might even be the main focus, but considering marriage and social relationships were possibly the most important thing amongst 19th Century Russian gentry, it's only logical. This book is about life in a specific time, in a specific place, among specific types of people. Plus, immediately after I finished this book, I began a real love story (on recommendation from my aunt), and the two books are worlds apart.

Anna Karenina is for those readers who like to transport themselves into the shoes of people probably very different from themselves, and spend a little time there, learning about their perspectives, friends, ideals, and dreams. And, from the shoes of these other people, you can (I did) learn bits of wisdom about yourself and your own life.

I highly recommend this book, but be aware (if you're not already) that my version was 980 pages, with more words per page than average. It took me about six or eight times longer to read than a standard 250-page book. But I honestly never got bored reading it, and was a little bit sad when it ended, because I wanted to read more about Levin and Oblonsky.

2009-07-20

Battle Belgium

Explanation of the title:
The title of this post comes from a sign we saw while running past what looked like an indoor arena on the outskirts of Hasselt, Belgium on Sunday morning, after the big track meet in Heusden on the previous evening. For those of you who didn't read my last post, I ran in a heat of the 5000m at the meet (it ended up being the "National" heat 2, or the fourth heat) hoping to set a new PB.

Boring details:
For you running nerds, here are some times I remember passing a clock during the race: 1:06, 2:51, 4:31, 9:41. Side note: there were rabbits in the race who were supposed to run 2:48/km (14:00 pace) until 8:24 at the third kilometer. I wasn't too far behind those guys for the first part of the race. Matching my splits above with their respective distances indicates I started the first 1600m (4:31) faster than I ever have, except for the 4:26 I ran at the 2003 NCAA regionals, when I finished in 14:10 for fourth and qualified to nationals. The 9:41 was the 3400m mark, I believe, making my 3000m/3200m splits something like 8:33/9:07, which would be a bit too slow for my taste. Then obviously I died in the last 2km. I got really confused at the end and thought for sure I would still be under 14:20 until I saw the clock while on the homestretch.

Ohio shoutout:
I had race number 513.

Some thoughts on the race:
It was cool being at a meet with all of those talented people. But, clearly the talent wasn't in my race. Honestly, I felt like I was on the track with a bunch of elementary school kids. One guy pushed me back right at the start and then a few laps into the race, he reappeared and tried to cut me off for an entire lap, pointing to the rail telling me I should let him over. One time, when he tried to come over, I refused to move for him, and he stumbled and I believe he had to put his hand on the ground to keep from falling. But, then he still didn't leave me alone! I ended up letting him get in front of me, and then I passed him on the outside (never saw him after that). It seemed like no one else on the track knew how to run, either. Everyone was pushing and cutting me off, and another guy who cut me off later in the race almost went down when I didn't move for him. These guys are seriously idiots. They turned my whole race into an obstacle course instead of a nice, smooth run. But, it doesn't change the fact that I was struggling to breathe as easily as I should have been during the race; that was my main problem.

More whining:
Overall, the race was close to a worst-case-scenario, but I am happy, though, that I took the chance I did. I had to spend about €400 on transportation and hotel, and if I would have run well, it would have been worth it. At least this time around (as opposed to some other races I've run in Europe) I had friends with me, who also ran, and we had a good time. Only one of the three of us ran well, but that's the way it goes, sometimes. It was also cool to see the faster heats (my friend Martin was in the third, and ran 13:46) where there were a lot of recognizable names and faces.

Euro meet anecdote:
I apparently sat next to Pamela Jelimo in the van back from the stadium. Among other things, she was the Olympic gold medalist at 800m in Beijing, and and won a cool million dollars by winning all six 800m races of the 2008 Golden League series. I didn't recognize her in the van because it was dark, but after we got out of the bus, Martin told me that he thought it was her. I don't have confirmation though. Looking back, its funny to think that I asked a millionaire Olympic gold medalist if she might be able to "squish over a bit" because another athlete wanted to get in.

Something/someone else cool:
Thomas Chamney dropped 3.5 seconds off of his 1500m PB in Heusden, bringing him down to 3:37. Last week he missed the world championships A-standard in the 800m by 0.01. He gave this interview after his race in Heusden:

Track and Field Videos on Flotrack


When he said he was "going for a pint", he wasn't kidding. We saw him at the kebab shop at midnight, and then at a pub between 2 and 3am. One of my friends knows him, so he came over and talked to us for a while. Yeah, he acts like that all the time, and it's really hilarious. And his girlfriend is smokin' hot. But he had time to talk to us "little people". Actually, I was with a 3:39 1500m guy and a 13:36 5000m guy, so I was the only "little" person around. The last thing I saw Thomas doing was, as he was leaving the bar in the drizzly, chilly weather, ripping his shirt off and was yelling like he had just scored a goal in the World Cup.

Closing remarks:
I guess all of that is what happens at European track meets. I've decided I like to do that sort of thing every now and then, but I don't want to make a habit of it. It can get lonely, and chaotic, and it's not all that much fun, unless maybe you run really well, which is not something I want to bank on. Plus, after chasing some cash in Baltimore, I realized I don't like running for money, though I have no problem taking it after the fact. That'll be my excuse why I'm not a professional; I want to be the best amateur I can be, and also do something else with my life.

2009-07-12

I've got the speed; do I have the stamina?

As most of you have heard a little bit about how I'm running some races this summer, I figured I'd fill you in on the whole story. Not that it's really a bit story, but maybe you'd find it interesting how I'm trying to have a sort of track season for the first time since college, way back in 2003.

Having not raced since the marathon on Mallorca with Jeff last October, after which I didn't run for six weeks, and barely ran for another two months, I started running regularly again in February in preparation for a half marathon in Heidelberg, Germany at the end of April. I have friends near Heidelberg -- I met them through other friends at a backwards running race -- and they invited me to be on their team for the race. The three fastest people would count towards the team scoring. I was rushing to get into shape, because after the marathon I had taken more time off than ever, or at least since junior high school. Even though I didn't win like I thought I could have, I enjoyed some great racing on that course, and came in fourth place, less than a minute behind the winner. It was this great racing, strategy, surges, and just having fun out there which kind of re-ignited the spark of wanting to race again.

I continued training and improving quite rapidly. Within a few weeks I knew I was in much better shape, and could most likely win that half marathon, if it were re-run. Then, an interesting thing happened. On the evening of May 28th, I came down with a stomach ache and a fever. I didn't sleep much that night, but by the next day my stomach ache had gone away, but I was still feverish and extremely tired. Even sitting watching TV wore me out, and I had to lie down often during the day. Before I had gotten sick, I had planned to go buy some vitamins at the drug store, which is close to a half mile away. I was so tired, I knew it would be a kind of challenge for me to get there, but I did it anyway. I also bought a thermometer, which it turns out doesn't work very well, but I think my temperature was around 101 degrees that afternoon. After sleeping a ton and drinking only fruit juice all day long, and lying down even when I wasn't sleeping, I felt much better by early afternoon on the third day, a Saturday. After being so tired and weak, I felt a little like Superman. I also had this strange feeling feeling that this fever would be a sort of positive turning point for me, much like the weekend fever I had in August 2001 was a turning point for the negative, because that's when
the mononucleosis started. One thing that being sick did accomplish was that I went from being the heaviest I'd ever been to my ideal racing weight, which means I lost about six pounds.

Even more than that, I felt pretty good the entire next week, better than I usually do, and on the following Friday I decided to try some fast running to test myself. What I did was run easy up one of the big hills around here, and then run down it very fast, to let my legs practice running faster. I found a nice, gradual downhill road that is about 5% downgrade for over 5km. I ended up running a 14:30 downhill 5k. I've never done this sort of thing before, but I was pleased with the result. Still even better, only three days later, I stepped on the track for the first time in years, and tried some 400m repeats. I decided to do 12x400m with 1 minute rest between them, with a goal time of 69 seconds per 400m. I could feel that my legs wanted to run that day, so I was excited to see what I could do. I was very surprised to find out that not only did my legs have no problems running 69 seconds, but that they gradually wanted to run faster, so my average for all of them was 67 seconds, and my last two were 65. This is one of my best track workouts ever. (I think the best I ever did at Miami was maybe 66 average when we did 3-minute goes, which is almost twice as much rest). Anyway, I was extremely happy with this workout, and afterwards I was more excited to race than I had been in years.

I laid out a plan, starting two weeks later:
June 21st: local 5km road race to kick off the racing season
June 28th: 5000m at an international track meet in Villach, Austria
WEEK OFF
July 11th: 1500m at an international track meet in Kapfenberg, Austria
July 18th: 5000m at HUGE track meet in Heusden, Belgium

July 18th would be the main focus, because the conditions could be perfect for a fast time. Last year, there were five heats of the 5000m, and the THIRD heat had a group of twenty guys between 13:50 and 14:10, which is ideal for me. This meet has more fast 5000m runners than any meet I've ever heard of.

The little road race turned out OK. On a very nice day, I ran 15:08 (my goal was under 15) by myself the whole way. And then my backpack got stolen afterwards, which wasn't cool. I'm still working on replacing everything from my wallet, my mobile phone, etc.

The following weekend in Villach, the plan was to run 2:50/km with an italian guy who was trying to run 14:10 to qualify for a championship race. Unfortunately, it was raining pretty hard before and during the race, so we started at "only" 2:53 pace until 3km, when I couldn't even hold that pace any more and dropped off. The italian must have run 2:45 for the last two kilometers, because he finished in 14:09, and I must have run 3:07, because I finished in 14:54, which was still second place. I was incredibly disappointed about this race, and I reminded myself that I shouldn't get so excited about races, because if they don't turn out well, I get... well.... very disappointed. The problem here is that I don't have many races, so I only have one or two chances to run well, and if I don't, then I'm out of luck for a few months.

Of course, I don't know if it was the rain, or something else, but I was a little sick and had heavy arms and legs for the following week. I was hoping that I had been sick a little even during the race, because then I'd have a good excuse for the poor performance, but that's hard to say. I hardly ran that week, and I started regretting the €200 I spent on hotel and flight to Belgium, because it was clear I wasn't going to run well. At least I had a weekend off, when I could rest.

The week after the weekend off, last week, I felt better, but not 100%. I managed a 3x500m workout in 1:19 per repeat. That was my tune-up for the 1500m in Kapfenberg. It was barely a workout, but I don't know if my sickly body could handle much more without getting run-down again.

Something worked in my favor. Yesterday I ran in Kapfenberg, on a very nice day, and I got out well in 63 for the first lap, in the second lap there was a sort of traffic jam, and everybody slowed down. I had to sidestep a bit to not step on people's heels, but once I got out to the side, I passed several people and was feeling really good at that pace. I maintained a good tempo, and then with 600m to go, I tried to start hammering for home. I was on the second place guy's shoulder at 150m to go, but of course I'm not a miler, so I got buried on the final straightaway to finish sixth. I didn't know my time, until after I cooled down, but I was thinking I was under 4:00, and my PR from 2001 (sophomore in college) was 3:58.62. Like I said, something worked, because the results on the wall read 3:56.55! That's over 2 seconds off my 8-year old PR! It might even be a bigger accomplishment than my 3000m PR from last year, because 2 seconds in a 1500m is more than 3 seconds off my 3000m time, and in my life I've run at least ten 1500s, whereas I've only run five or six 3000s. (Then again, I could have gone a lot faster in that 3000m race) Anyway, I'm excited about my 1500. Now I'm happy with running again, and I'm not really thinking about quitting.

So, fresh off a big improvement over a time I ran when I was a younger, sprightlier 20-year-old chap, I'm both excited and nervous about this coming weekend. I've got a lot of pressure on myself for this, partly because I'm traveling all the way to Belgium and spending a lot of money for this one race, but I'm trying to get into the mindset I know is the best for me. Back in college, when I ran 14:03 in 2001 and then 14:02 in 2003 (both at Penn Relays), I went to the races thinking mainly of staying relaxed in the first part of the race, and then simply *racing* the last part. Obviously worrying about times is not good for me, and it's not fun. The feeling I had yesterday of passing people on the third lap was simply awesome; it's something I had forgotten about. I want to have that feeling next week again. That means I have to forget about the clock and just race. I hope I can do that.

The race is late Saturday evening, Euro-time, and the web site is
http://www.sport.be/kbcnacht/2009/eng/
in case you're interested in having a look at results.

2009-07-10

Transformers: still not as good as in 1986

I saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen last night, and I had a handful of thoughts about it. There are some spoilers in there, so beware. Here they are:

  • Michael Bay can't resist cheesy moments. Several times I thought, "No, please don't use this cliché again,", but then he would. But I forgive him.
  • The rumble in the forest is an awesome scene.
  • Optimus Prime died in the original Transformers movie, and it was one of the least-expected and best cinematic decisions of all time (maybe I'm exaggerating). The best part about it was that they never brought him back. Take a hint, Michael Bay (or screenwriters).
  • Megatron almost died in the original Transformers movie, and he came back as Galvetron. I liked that better.
  • Can Hollywood let a main protagonist or antagonist stay dead? (And a side comment with a Shia LeBouf connection: please let the Indiana Jones series die where it is now.)
  • One small detail that made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen cross the line from disappointing to enjoyable: Peter Cullen. I disliked Megatron's voice, and I cringed every time Starscream spoke, but Optimus Prime made everything right again.
  • I liked Jetfire a lot, despite the liberties the screenwriters took with his character.
  • I did not like the Constructicons.
  • Bumblebee is a little annoying.
  • The final fighting scene between Optimus (we're on a first name basis) and Megatron reminded me of TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze. I think Optimus turned into Super Shredder for a few minutes.
  • Megan Fox is hot, but that Decepticon chick may have been even hotter. Maybe.
  • Come to think of it, I should have gone to whichever university Shia LeBouf goes to in that movie. For one, huge dowm rooms. Two, I own some tight shirts. And, three, the students there are insanely good-looking.
  • John Tuturro is still awesome.
  • I desperately wanted to hear the song "The Touch" during the movie.
  • What, was Eric Idle busy during filming?
  • Can we please have a Transformers 3, maybe with Unicron?
  • Please don't put Christian Bale in it.
I think that's all I have for now. Maybe I'll think of some more things later, though.

2009-07-06

How to learn German in two years

Since a lot of people have asked me how I learned the German language so well in a relatively short time, I figured I'd write it down and post it on the internet. What follows is a rough diary of what I did, written as a sort of plan for you to do what is prescribed in the time frame noted. Of course, if you didn't do what I say to do in, say, October 2005, feel free to move the whole schedule up to a convenient date for you.

September-December 2005: Learn first words of German, using Pimsleur audio CDs in your car, one lesson per day, 100 days. I borrowed the starter set of CDs from the library, but then I bought the full set from something like www.cheappimsleur.com, which apparently doesn't exist any more. It may have turned into www.ultimatelanguagestore.com. You may be able to download them using your favorite torrent client or related software. That's good for an MP3 player.

January-August 2006: Do nothing. (not recommended)

October-December 2006: Enroll at Berlitz, six hours per week, five weeks (good, but too expensive).

January-April 2007: Move to Vienna, enroll for two months at the Deutsch Akademie, the first month 12 hours per week in the normal course level M2(1) or something (it was something like the 7th month/level after starting from zero). The second month I took a "Konversationskurs", which met only six hours per week, but we talked a lot more. (Talking is very important.)

May-July 2007: Be very frustrated that you still can't speak conversationally, but that the courses don't seem to help much any more. This is the hardest part of learning. You need to try to spend at least an hour per day on MOST DAYS doing something with German, more than half of which is either speaking or writing (emails, or anything in complete sentences). You should also read stuff which is "slightly above" your level of German, by which I mean that you should understand most of what you're reading without any help, but looking up a word or two every couple of minutes is good, too. Also, try to use a German-only dictionary, like a "Deutsch als Fremdsprache" one. That's much better than translating into English. Actually, that rule
should carry over into everything: that is, when you're doing something in German, use English as a last resort, and tell that to everyone with whom you speak.

NO ENGLISH WORDS DURING GERMAN CONVERSATIONS, UNLESS IT'S ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.


Most people you speak with will try to translate every word you don't understand into English; tell them to stop it. They won't listen to you, and you have to remind them to stop it. You can't get into the habit of translating words back and forth.

August 2007 to present: People will finally speak to you in German without finding it incredibly boring and annoying. Use this to your advantage, and talk to them a lot. Write emails to them, and continue to read in order to build vocabulary (but it's not as important as talking to people).

The final, and sort of main thing you should know is that, in my opinion, once you know all of what I just wrote, the hardest part is yet to come. Learning a language is an exercise in tolerating discomfort. You have to think a little like a masochist in order to learn a language reasonably quickly, because conversations can turn very awkward and painful when you're having a bad German day, and you just have to keep telling people not to speak English, and you have to keep talking to them. But it gets better.

People say it's hard to learn a language if you're no longer a teenager or younger, but I knew literally three words of German before I started with those CDs in my car on my way to work when I was 24 1/2, and it seems to have worked out okay.

I wish you luck with your learning of German. I have a friend who lives here in Vienna, and who stopped trying to learn German because "it didn't work". I don't know how long he tried, but it definitely doesn't happen overnight.