Hand signs that convey sound

Sign language is a way to communicate with symbols: each gesture has a particular meaning.

But don’t be misled by these simple examples; sign language isn’t simply a signed form of English. Its grammar and usage are quite different. People who grow up Deaf and learn, say, American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language must learn English as a second language.

One strategy to help bridge this gap is “cued speech”, in which the speaker communicates with both voice and signs simultaneously, but the signs are used to convey sound (phonemes), not meaning. As Wikipedia says, “It adds information about the phonology of the word that is not visible on the lips” and can therefore help improve lip reading skills as well (a similar mouth shape could make more than one sound, like “b” and “p”, so the listener can distinguish “bear” and “pear”).

Here’s a short video:

This got me thinking about the ways that we communicate in writing. For example, in Japanese, kanji is a symbolic language like ASL (characters indicate meaning). Hiragana and katakana are phonetic (spelled the way they sound). It can be difficult to remember how to pronounce all of the kanji, even for native speakers (and younger folk may not have encountered a particular kanji yet). So it is common (e.g., in newspapers) to annotate a kanji with its pronunciation using tiny hiragana letters above it (called furigana), to help you pronounce it. Rather like cued speech, but for text!

From this perspective, an alphabet is a curious thing. It’s not (quite) phonetic (at least in English), and it’s not symbolic; letters have no independent meaning. Yet it is very versatile, and just 26 letters suffice to allow us to represent all of English. Learning correct pronunciations for otherwise identical spellings, however (words ending in “ough” such as through, tough, though, etc. being the canonical example), is left up to the reader.

Flying to Oceano, by the beach

Today I flew to a little airport north of Los Angeles that is right by the beach – Oceano County airport (L52). There was some uncertainty in the morning as to whether the weather would be suitable; the marine layer was hanging out along the coast, and at 7:30 a.m. I got this alert for Airmet Sierra (IFR and mountain obscuration — basically means CLOUDS and “VFR not recommended”).

Airmet Sierra

However, I waited until the updated TAFs (Terminal Area Forecasts) came out at 10 a.m., and they were favorable – the clouds had dissipated at many locations along the route and were expected to continue to improve. I took off from El Monte and flew to Santa Monica, where I picked up Manuel. We then took off for Oceano, with me piloting and Manuel handling comm. For this takeoff, I got a “line up and wait” instruction for the first time! I rolled onto the runway and readied myself to stop and sit there, but then the controller cleared me for takeoff before I’d quite stopped so I went full throttle and took off.

We’d planned to get flight following to Oceano at an altitude of 6500′. However, when we made that request, the SoCal controller was too busy and told us to try back later. He then started chewing out some unfortunate pilot who was flying IFR but apparently wasn’t adhering to her assigned altitude and/or heading. Another VFR pilot called in with a flight following request and was also denied. Eventually we switched to another frequency and got someone who was less busy. Having ADS-B in the cockpit (which plots nearby planes on the GPS display) is great as a source of additional information, especially when the controllers are too busy!

Here is a shot of the beautiful coastline as we headed northwest:


It took us an hour and 20 minutes from SMO to Oceano. It was smooth and uneventful. Near the end of the flight, we went right over the Santa Maria (SMX) airport, which was one of the stops on my long solo cross-country flight as a student pilot last year. It was fun to be going a bit further and to a new destination!

Oceano is a tiny airport, with a runway that is only 2300 feet long. That is plenty of space to land a Cessna 172, but it’s also important to be ready to go around if anything delays the landing. The most likely runway in use (given the weather reported at the nearest stations) was runway 29. We were coming from the southeast, which set us up almost perfectly for a straight-in approach. But for an untowered airport, it’s better to approach with a regular downwind entry so you have more time to scout out the runway (and any traffic). So I swung to the west and came up along the beach, then entered downwind for 29 on the 45. No one else was there. I treated it like a short field landing and came in steeply with full flaps. I didn’t land right at the start of the runway; I think I’ve gotten so used to El Monte’s displaced threshold that I feel uncomfortable aiming for the dirt before the runway. But of course, the plane always floats and it’s probably perfectly fine to do so. Still, I had plenty of runway; I didn’t even use up half of it. It wasn’t my best landing as the plane was swinging a little left and right (wind, I assume) and I touched down not quite aligned. I think I should have added power to delay touching until we were fully straight. But this was minor and the landing was safe and controlled.

Here’s the view on final approach to runway 29!

Oceano runway 29

We parked and decided to go get some lunch. This biplane was running its engine nearby (coughing and sputtering, poor thing). Someday it would be fun to go for a ride in an open cockpit! The airport also has bikes you can borrow to get around and a campsite!


We walked 3 blocks to the Rock & Roll diner, which is converted from two old train cars! It is charming and fun. :) It serves diner fare, BBQ ribs, Greek food (?), and Mexican food.

Rock n roll diner

We returned to the airport, added fuel to the plane, and then got ready to leave. The clouds were rolling back in. Vandenberg airport was reporting IFR conditions, although Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo (our closest weather-reporting airports) were still clear. We watched the noisy biplane take off, and I think he may have had a paying customer, because he was dipping his wings in crazy maneuvers before even clearing the runway! I’m not sure I want to go flying with him!

Manuel was the pilot for our return to SMO, with me on comm. That meant I had more opportunities to enjoy the view. I took pictures of all of the airports we flew over and also a nice shot of clouds off to the side and below:


For most of our flight, though, it was clear skies. Manuel took us on a more coastal route than I had used on the outbound trip. Here is Point Dume:

Point Dume

As we approached SMO, we observed that there were some clouds in that area. We kept a careful eye on them and decided it was acceptable for a VFR approach. Manuel made a very nice landing on runway 21! He hopped out and I started back up to return to EMT before the clouds thickened. 25 minutes later, I was back at El Monte! What a great flying day!

Learning kanji with modern tools

One of the challenges that Japanese presents to the aspiring language learner is that it employs three writing systems that you really must learn. Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries in which each symbol stands for a sound. That is, they are phonetic representations of spoken words, and there aren’t that many of them to memorize – less than 50, plus some diacritical marks that modify the sounds to create additional variants.

Kanji is different. Kanji are logographic characters that were borrowed from the Chinese. “Logographic” means that each character represents an entire word or phrase. There is no longer an obvious connection between words and their pronunciation, so you must instead memorize the sound that goes with the symbol, as well as its meaning. Since there are far more words than there are syllables, there are thousands of kanji to learn. Intimidating!

Today, however, we have great technological assistance for memorizing things. Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) have become popular for learning not just languages but also subject-specific terminology in your native language. For kanji, we have wanikani. It teaches you kanji in little doses, then tracks how long it’s been since you were tested on each one and periodically quizzes you to keep your memories fresh. Anything you get wrong comes back more often, enabling you to focus memorization effort where it’s most needed.

So far, after a few weeks of daily practice, I’ve learned 60 “radicals” (common kanji building blocks), 45 kanji, and 83 vocabulary words that use those kanji. I have several more under active practice and repetition. It’s fun!

Another great tool for reinforcing your kanji is the wanikanify Chrome browser extension. Once you enter your wanikani API key, this extension converts any text in a webpage using what kanji you have already learned. Here’s an example from southwest.com:

wanikanify southwest.com

You can see that the English text was literally translated into kanji whether or not it makes sense in context. 本 means “book” as in the object that you read, not to “book” a hotel. However, just seeing the reminder of what “book” is helps! And if you mouse over the kanji, a voice speaks the kanji out loud! (Here, “hon”.) It also displays the original English text that was replaced, in case you don’t remember (or the context is so odd that it doesn’t make sense).

As you learn more kanji, more of the page will be replaced with vocabulary you should be able to decode. Effectively, you are reading English in kanji, which is how kanji came about in the first place – the Japanese mapped their oral language into the Chinese characters. To actually learn Japanese, you must also be diligent about learning the pronunciation (which wanikani also quizzes you on). These tools combined make for great practice and great entertainment!

Learn Japanese writing from a native child’s perspective

At various points in my travels, I’ve picked up books for learning Japanese that are aimed at Japanese children. It is a fun challenge to try to use them in my own language learning. These books are aimed at kids who are native speakers but are now learning to write. In contrast, I already know how to write (hiragana well, still learning katakana) but my vocabulary is very small.

One book I have is titled “こくご” which translates to “national (Japanese) language.” It starts out by having you practice writing hiragana syllables and moves on to writing whole words. Some exercises have you draw lines to connect words with pictures.

The hardest parts for me are

  1. Reading the instructions (which are probably aimed at parents or teachers, since the kids are still learning to read and write).
  2. Coming up with the requisite vocabulary, which is simple but still a stretch for me.

For example, here is lesson 7 (click to enlarge):


I am using colored pencils because… why not use colored pencils? Much more fun that way!

You work right to left and top to bottom. First I wrote my name (キリ) and the date (month 8, day 5). The instructions translate as “in the box, opposite of meaning of word, let’s write.” So then I got to figure out what one phrase meant (read vertically) to figure out what to put in its vertical partner that would mean the opposite. #1 is “high mountain” so I entered “low” (mountain).

After completing a lesson, you get to put a sticker on it! The book came with a page of over a hundred stickers. I used a yellow mouse sticker on this one. :)

I also have “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein in Japanese. Someday I hope to be able to read it!

Flying to Santa Monica and Hawthorne… and over LAX!

Happy National Aviation Day!

I got to commemorate this day by visiting two new airports. My first stop was the Santa Monica airport (SMO). First I did a bunch of research on the SMO website. I appreciate the amount of information available, but this airport has so many rules and dire warnings (including written warnings and fines) that it is rather intimidating to plan your first flight there. They have specific procedures that include the following instruction:

“Maintain pattern altitude or above as long as practical. Approach as steeply as is safe and aim for a point further down the runway if your aircraft is capable.”

That is, they would like you to start high, land steep, and go long… all things one generally tries to avoid.

At any rate, I took off from El Monte and got flight following to SMO at 2300′. I had my GPS set with a direct route to SMO, but from my pre-flight planning I also knew that all I needed to do was follow the 10 freeway and stay under the LAX Bravo airspace (starts at 2500′). I kept it at 2300′ and was mindful of my heading. I didn’t encounter any other traffic, and it was a nice ~25-minute flight to SMO. I flew right between downtown L.A. on my left, and Dodger Stadium on my right:

Downtown LA Dodger Stadium

While 2300′ is still at least 2000′ feet above the ground, boy, it feels low when you are flying over the city! (I did not fly over the skyscrapers.)

I got a straight-in approach to runway 21 at SMO. It is a big, wide runway! I landed and discovered that they don’t have many painted taxiway exits. Instead you can exit the runway wherever it is paved. I got off the runway (I thought). It turns out that the huge asphalt expanse is still part of the movement area so you have to keep going and get on the taxiway itself before you’re officially clear of the runway. The controller prodded me and I got myself onto the taxiway. After I parked, I noticed several other arriving planes hesitate in the same way and then have to be urged to keep going. :)

A woman with two small children was watching planes land from the observing deck which is right next to transient parking. She was so thrilled that I had parked next to them (I guess because they could see a plane up close?) and wanted to know if I did it for their benefit!

I picked up Manuel and we took off, now headed for the Hawthorne airport (HHR). What lies between SMO and HHR is a really big airport called LAX. LAX offers a couple of ways that small planes can cross over it at low altitudes. The one we decided to use is called the “mini route”. I had flown it once before with my instructor (and my mom), but not as a licensed pilot! All the responsibility for an accurate and safe flight was on me.

SMO has strict instructions for how you depart it on runway 21: you take off, then at the end of the runway you turn 10 degrees to the left to get over a golf course, then turn to heading 225 to head out to the beach. You are not allowed to turn left before Lincoln Ave and you’re not allowed to turn right before the shore. We flew out over the beach and then kept climbing in a right turn to get us up to 2500′. I had plugged in the SMO VOR so we could fly precisely the right heading, 128 degrees straight at LAX. SMO handed us over to LAX and then I got to read back LAX’s magic words: “Cleared into class Bravo, maintain 2500.” We flew over all of LAX’s runways and planes and terminals, and then we were out the other side of the Bravo airspace. LAX handed us over to HHR, and I started descending (Hawthorne is RIGHT NEXT to LAX).

2016-08-19-laxI landed at HHR (my first time there too! It’s also a nice wide runway!) and we switched seats. Manuel took off and flew us to the Palos Verdes practice area and did some very nice steep turns. Then he took us in to the Torrance airport (TOA) which I also had never been to. Then we took off again and headed back north to SMO. That meant traversing the LAX mini route a second time, this time with Manuel at the controls. Because it’s the same altitude in both directions, it’s like a one-lane tunnel; you don’t get cleared in if someone else is coming in the other direction. (You can however get cleared in behind someone else going the same direction. There are rules for how to pass if you’re going faster than the plane in front of you.)

The picture at right is the view looking down on LAX as we crossed over northbound!

Manuel landed the plane at SMO. Unlike most airports in the area, SMO charges a landing fee, which will probably be two landing fees since we landed twice in that plane. I tried to find a way to pay it there, but apparently it will be auto-billed at some later point. Huh.

I flew back to El Monte (EMT) solo. Again I got to take off, fly over the golf course, head to the beach, and turn before heading back east. The SMO tower was giving flight following to EMT for two other planes, so he added me to his list; I never switched to SoCal. I also never got any traffic alerts – hopefully because there was no traffic :) Around downtown the SMO controller told me to contact EMT, who told me to make right traffic for 19. This was the first time I’ve approached EMT from the southwest and it was great! I made a precise 45-degree entry to the downwind, and I was cleared #3 for the runway. Uneventful landing and I was done! Fantastic day!

Older entries »