French, powered by artificial intelligence

I can’t believe it was three long years ago that I first wrote about the magic of the Duolingo language learning app. Three years of free French lessons (with a few hiatuses here and there) and I definitely feel like I know more of the language than I ever have before. What’s also amazing is looking back at my initial post, to see how the app has developed.

It has a fresh and much cleaner look now, the lesson style has changed slightly from a “three strikes and you’re out” approach to a more “keep trying and you’ll get there” system. There are also a lot more languages out there to choose from, I’ve already experimented with a spot of German and Dutch, but always come back to the more familiar French.

duolingo-chatbotsWhat’s great about the app, though, is that they’re always trying to innovate and develop, introducing new concepts and dropping those that don’t work. Recently, they’ve introduced a new Chatbot feature, in which you are tasked with indulging in a text message style conversation in French.

From grabbing a slice of pizza to hailing a taxi, Bots prepare you for real-life conversations — minus the awkwardness and anxiety. The hardest part of learning a new language just became easy.

Duolingo Bots are powered by artificial intelligence and react differently to thousands of possible answers. Feeling stuck? Hit “help me reply” and they’ll come up with suggestions. Best of all — the more you practice, the smarter they get.

At first, I was superbly excited by the idea – having a go at piecing together full conversations is a great idea, even if it is with artificial intelligence rather than a real life French person. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t quite live up to my expectations, as the conversations are more structured than I’d imagined. You have a variety of options you can say, and as you start typing an auto-correct style feature will help you if you’re stuck. But if you type something that the app isn’t expecting, then you can’t submit it, even if it still fits within the conversation.

It’s still a fun experience though, feeling as though you are participating in a conversation, and it’s always a good feeling when a question is asked and you know exactly what is being said. It’s not quite what I imagined it would be, but it’s still a really good development – and one that is stacked full of potential for future updates.

On the record – Quirky, dancey, French (Weeks 37 to 40)

Here, in this bunch of albums, you can see the direct result of this year’s Apple Music Festival. I’d always planned to listen to Bastille and their new album, but their appearance at the Roundhouse only spurred me on to move it up the list. Christine and the Queens and Passenger also both came from that fortnight of music, as I wouldn’t have known to pick those albums up without it.

Mr C’s choices, meanwhile, offer a distinct range of songs, and I’ve noticed that we’ve started trying to pick different genres to each other. If I’m listening to alternative guitar bands, he picks 1980s solo female superstars. If I’ve gone for European dance music, he picks an evergreen male star with a rich history of songs (and drama)!

Title Artist Year Notes
Week 37
Wild World Bastille 2016 Listened to an older Bastille album just two weeks ago, and it’s interesting to hear the differences. Still a good album, still full of the drums and drama, but with more of an edge to it. Found the radio inserts a bit odd, but enjoyed the album from start to finish.
Heaven on Earth Belinda Carlisle 1987 I know the three main singles from this album but I’ve never really indulged in any extra-curricular Belinda tracks, and I thought it was a really solid album. It’s intensely eighties, obviously, but she has a great voice and it’s got some really catchy stuff in there.
Week 38
Hard II Love Usher 2016 I was sort of dreading this one because I’m still conscious of disliking Drake’s album. However, this was a really solid R&B/hip-hop outing, very relaxing and brilliant to drive home to of an early autumn evening.
Body Talk Robyn 2010 I only knew one song going into this album and it was a bit of a surprise, as the songs were all far more dancey than I had anticipated. I loved it though, really great songs, sort of quirky like Gwen Stefani, with some odd but brilliant lyrics.
Week 39
Chaleur Humane Christine and the Queens 2016 Saw Christine appear on the Elton John Apple Music Festival evening and was instantly obsessed. Watched her on her support act evening too, and then quickly downloaded the album. Amazing, love it all. Quirky, dancey, French, and Tilted gets right inside my head.
Faith George Michael 1987 It’s exactly what you expect from late 80s George, the songs sound mostly similar except for a couple of slightly out of place ballads – at one point he goes very Sinatra swing. However, very entertaining, if a bit “I’m so sexy” in places.
Week 40
Young as the Morning Old as the Sea Passenger 2016 Brilliant album. After embarrassing myself watching Passenger on AMF10, I figured I should listen to the new album, and I’m glad I did! Distinctive voice, great guitar riffs and lovely tunes – ranging from easy listening, to the more slow and depressing sort, it’s a relaxed album perfect for chilling out to.
Kick INXS 1987 Ah, I really enjoyed this album. These are one of those bands where I think I don’t know any of their songs but I knew at least three of them and they’re all good ones. It’s beautifully eighties, with those keyboards and drum kicks, but at the same time it hasn’t aged horribly, there are some proper classics on there. Also like how the songs lead into each other nicely, proper album work.

The soundtrack to your studies

The BBC recently published a short video that explained why some people respond better to having music playing when they’re studying and others work better in silence.

This is a topic that has been on my radar for a long time, because Mr C and I differ radically on our approaches to concentration. He can listen to music as he works and learns, whereas I don’t favour silence but certainly prefer a white noise that requires no additional concentration.

We knew there must be some kind of hardwiring in our brains that differs on this subject (as on so many other topics too), but it’s brilliant to hear about the actual science and reasoning behind the different ways to go about learning.

Music’s effect on our attention can be two-fold. So if someone is very bored with a task, not really engaging with it then having something like music in the background that does excite the person, and raises their level of attention to their environment, can help focus them on the task in hand.

One of the classic psychological theories of performance describes the way we behave on an upside down u-shaped curve. The two points at the bottom are the non-optimal places to be, down here is boredom, mind-wandering, low in attention. Over here is stress, over-stimulation and panic.

Just in case you find that hard to picture, I have taken the liberty of producing a top-notch, well-researched and carefully crafted graph to illustrate:


Music is a stimulus that can move us along this u-shaped curve. So if you’re down here, bored low-attention, low energy, music can bring you up the curve towards your optimum. The other side of it, of course, is if you’re already at your optimum, or worse slightly over then too much music in your environment can push you towards feeling stressed, anxiety and panic.

Basically, it comes down to energy. So people who are more introverted have a higher level of internal energy within them, so they don’t seek a lot of stimulation from the environment because they are already close to their optimum for performance. Whereas extroverts, they are seeking external stimulation, they’re seeking things from their environment, because their internal battery is lower. So that is why extroverts have often been found to perform better when music is in the background, as opposed to people who are more introverted.


Not the legacy they were hoping for

I’ve been paying a bit more attention to my Apple Watch exercise rings again recently, and although I usually work on a week by week basis, I was perusing the history in the accompanying iPhone app. There, you can see how you’ve done each month and it’s also a good way of comparing days, ie. seeing if you often take Fridays off.

I was surprised, however, going back a couple of months, to see a trend I hadn’t really noticed at the time.


Can anyone see where the Olympics happened?

There must be some kind of irony in the Olympics being incredibly inspiring in terms of sports and goals and achievements, and yet to indulge in the wonder of it all, I basically had to sit on the sofa for two weeks.

The 11th of the 22nd

I started watching 11.22.63 a long while ago, and have just, finally, after such a long time, gotten to the end of it. I was so looking forward to watching this series, James Franco goes travelling through time in an adaptation of a Stephen King book? It couldn’t really sound more perfect if it tried.

The first episode was massively intriguing, and I forgave its slow pace as it was setting up an absolutely intriguing premise. The moments where he jumped through the time travel window and found life to be exactly the same again and again, I loved all that stuff.


Gradually, however, I started to lose interest in the series. The date of the title is backwards to my UK mind, and as it’s not a date I particularly know, I found it quite difficult to know where I was in the timeline at any given episode. The characters were good, but I couldn’t see any chemistry between Jake and… I don’t even remember her name it was that memorable a relationship. It was nice to see Franco stretching his dramatic wings further, but I was more interested in the headmaster/secretary, or Marina and the fake brother.

As the series wound to its conclusion, things did start to ramp up a little. I liked how out of control it all started to feel. Jake has worked on this project for three years and it could all go wrong right at the last minute – and mostly due to situations outside of his control. I also thought the moral choices at the end were good: head back and just see her one more time, then leave things well alone.

It looked great, and the attention to period detail was incredible, but in the end the series just wasn’t as riveting as I hoped.

Podcast of the Month: With Her


I’m not an American citizen, so am interested in their election only so far as what happens over there seems to affect us anyway. I’m not usually one to talk about politics either, because it always seems to be to be a topic that causes arguments and resolves little. Even so, I think it’s worth highlighting a presidential candidate who has set up her own podcast, called With Her, to cover the last few months of the campaign.

The podcast is gloriously low-key, just a host with one of those soft radio voices chatting with Hillary wherever she happens to be that week. Having said that, I’ve listened to four episodes and Ms Clinton has only been available for two of them. Some interesting guests filled in, her daughter, her running mate, and both had stories to tell that were still worth listening to, but you have to wonder that she must have known she would be busy when agreeing to start up a podcast in the first place. How big a commitment to it did she make?

The show is interesting to me, though, because for the most part it has avoided actual political discussions – presumably because Hillary gets to do a lot of that on a daily basis – and instead focuses on the more human side of the campaign trail. Is there any down time, what do you do to relax, how do you stay in touch with friends and family, etc, etc. It opens up a more accessible side of a presidential candidate, who you otherwise would see mostly shouting policies at cheering or booing crowds.

It’s not a groundbreaking show but it’s refreshing to have such personal access to such a high profile political figure. I assume the podcast has a shelf life too, there would be no reason to continue if she doesn’t succeed, and I can’t see a president having time to chat every week. Even so, however you feel about the election and its participants, you have to applaud the boost this gives to the podcasting cause.

Five reasons Apple Music Festival 10 rocked

I was superbly excited going into this year’s Apple Music Festival, even more so than usual. Previous years have seen me bouncing around in glee at the concept of a fortnight’s worth of free live music, streamed around the globe to be soaked up in the comfort of my own living room. This year, given my focus on musical education, I was looking forward to it even more! Plus, the line up looked exceptionally good.


Thankfully, I haven’t been disappointed. The festival is still going on but the acts I wanted to see have all performed, so here’s my round up of five reasons AMF10 (ten years of live music!) was one of the best to date.

    1. They’ve created some fabulous playlists. Before the show even got going, the Apple Music curators were hard at work crafting some wonderful playlists to hook in to the show. Some were the more straightforward selection of a featured artist’s work, or some songs that were played in a particular year, but there were also a handful of brilliant collections. A particular favourite is this, the playlist of live covers played during previous festivals.
    2. It’s an incredible line-up. I think I’d have been excited it if it was only Bastille or Elton John on the menu, but it wasn’t, it was both. As well as Robbie and Britney and OneRepublic and Alicia Keys and oh wow, my head has exploded with joy. Not only that but I’ve been introduced to a handful of support acts that have also knocked my socks off, so this year has been a real success.
    3. Elton John’s live radio show was great. Elton could have come out on stage and sung his classics and received a rapturous standing ovation. But he did more than that. Echoing the radio show he does on Beats1, Elton invited new acts to join him, performing one of their songs and then joining them in a cover of his own music. I must admit, I haven’t listened to Elton’s show in a long time but I’m determined to get into it now, as I loved all four of the acts he introduced. And he still had time to do Rocket Man.
    4. It’s available in several different ways. With their own streaming platform, it’s no surprise that the festival was locked down to Apple Music subscribers only, but I can understand how that could be frustrating for those left outside. For the lucky ones who got to tune in, there was a new way to do so this year, as the live shows were also broadcast on Beats1 in audio only – this was good for listening to a band who have a particular fondness for strobe lighting, as well as getting backstage gossip before and after the shows as well. It may be a paid for service now, but you get more bang for your buck than ever before.
    5. Replays are up even quicker. I can remember being so frustrated at missing out on a live show in previous years because it could be an interminable wait for the replay. In some cases, there was no streaming replay at all which made it even more frustrating. So far this year, I’ve seen the replays popping up the day after each artist has performed which means it’s much easier to pick and choose who you watch and when – the perfect situation for a modern audience.

Of course, it’s not all rosy. On the flip side to all this goodness, I found the schedule quite hard work to find, not so much the list of artists but what times they would actually be appearing. Getting the stream to work on the app wasn’t always straight forward, if we were loitering in the app it would sometimes require a restart otherwise the content wasn’t appearing. And I thought there were far fewer details about support acts than there have been previously, almost as if no one was expecting anyone.

But for an essentially free fortnight of live music, inspiring a new-found love of Christine and the Queens, and allowing me to revel in the quite astounding back catalogue of OneRepublic, I have no significant complaints.