Here there be dragons...

"I'm telling you stories. Trust me." - Winterson

Beginner drawing adventures

As always, I'm forever amazed by the learning curve when I target something really new; especially things that seem so obvious once you know them.  These are some of the things I've discovered in the last few weeks:

- there is a distinct difference between tutorials that aim to teach a drawing skill and tutorials that aim to have you successfully draw an image at the end.   I'm getting much better at following the second type (see pics below ;).  And honestly, still so green I've learned something from literally every one, so Follow-the-Leader it is.  For now.  As to actually learning to do anything on my own - I'm being a little facetious - I do try those too and it IS making a (slow) difference.  But I very much love the "follow along and get results" version for now (yeah endorphins!).  Except there's a sad dearth of dragons, so at some point will need to apply those skills to creating my own.

- there are coloured pencils that are wax based, coloured pencils that are oil based, coloured pencils that are really pastels in disguise, and who knows how many others lol.   And while the online pastel enthusiasts tend to be serious purists about it, the others tend to mix and match intentionally.   All of the above are friggin expensive.  I should go back to a nice affordable hobby.  Like riding.

- Pastels generally, but of course not always, are layered dark to light.  The others go light to dark.  In both cases they need WAY more layers and colours than I would ever have imagined.   And some of those colours are wildly not something that would ever have occurred to me; this is an example of the difference between ability to follow and ability to do it myself ;).

This one theoretically took 22 pencil crayons, of which I had about 15 ;)
By far my favourite in-colour follow-along artist (Bonny Snowdon Academy) so far.

- my thought of learning to draw with pencil first seems to be the right track - all the others seem to start with very light pencil (cause it's erasable) and then build up from there.

This was one of the first, and still a favourite.
Follow-along instructions by my overall favourite YT instructor I've found yet:  Mark Crilley

- many "beginner" tutorials still often assume more skill than I posses.   Also, some of the ones for pencil crayons will share a sketch to trace first for colouring - I tried this a couple times and found it even more confusing since sketches for colouring often don't look much like what I would consider sketches lol.  So now I either take their version and use a grid to try and draw a simpler version myself (this is most reliable although still involves a ton of erasing) or I just do the outline and make up the rest as I go along.  Kinda depends how much patience I have at the time (eg - the kitten was a grid, the flower below was 100% freehand DIY lol - I just can't bring myself to care about the flowers at this point). 

- paper matters.  OMG does paper ever matter.  These two pictures were a day apart (first coloured pencil effort), with no practice in-between, following the exact same instructions, using the exact same materials.   All I changed was the paper.   Unfortunately though, I generally have no idea what paper to use for what and why -- and of course the internet has ALL the opinions ;).  In some cases it makes sense (if you're water painting you prob want something thick enough to handle being wet), theoretically all the pencils need to be layered so something with texture to allow layers is good.  But too MUCH texture gives what happened here.  And then on the flip side - the kitten above would've had whiskers if I'd had thicker paper lol - apparently the trick is to emboss the whiskers into the paper before ever starting anything w colour, except it was just in my little sketch book; there wasn't enough paper depth to emboss anything lol.

The difference the paper can make

- my social media doesn't know what to do w me having another hobby - mildly amusing to see it trying to figure out whether I want drawing, embroidery, handstands, fitness, dance, or something else completely random ;)

I see a long hot bath with a ton of epsom salts in my future ;)

So the free week of Ninja Warrior / Yogi Flight School classes has come to an end.   Although apparently they'll continue to provide feedback for another week, so if I manage to Stack my Shit anywhere in that week I will take advantage of that.

Day 2 was Wed and the focus was headstands.  I watched the video to see if there was any good learning (spoiler alert - there was!  But far too much of a visual aid required to translate to text - had to do with a cue for how to engage your core upside-down), but I actively don't want to stand on my head so I just did a normal workout to replace that day in my week.

Day 3 was on Friday, which I tried today, and was the one I'd been waiting for - handstands.  It was super useful because it helped me solidify some concepts which I've heard before in my adventure but hadn't yet fully grasped.  Some reason I used to both go to riding clinics (even when I had awesome coaches at home) AND encouraged my students to do the same thing.   Sometimes it's a different phrase, expression, approach - whatever - that makes the light go on.   And then you go home and do the hard work :)

So nothing really new here - less focus on strength and flexibility, although I am *completely* toasted rn, so obviously still required.   But they just acknowledge that if you don't have it, it will be harder for you (and you prob won't be straight, but conceptually can balance upside down), and move on.   

Their philosophy is the warmup should get the body ready for the movement you're trying to do.  While this is not stated in Karin's course (that I've been taking), certainly all of her w/u exercises are relevant in exactly the same way so not life changing.   Except for two things - one, when I'm NOT following the program and just do my own warmup, I'd never even considered that.   And two, this one called out which w/u exercises were *also* relevant to the modifications.   THIS was key for me.   

In particular - we were doing hollow body hold (those who know...) and w/ one knee bent I can do it solidly (aka back firmly attached to the floor and straight leg hovering just above the ground), with both legs straight I'm not even close.  And never have been able to.  Last summer, through Karin's program, is the closest I've ever come to having the lower-back strength to have both legs straight and low with back connected (Squirrel note: to be fair, I'm 90% sure that program fixed it NOT through repetition of this exercise but through the flip-side which she calls body-line hold but when I google that I get a million things so not sure what it really is.  It worked though ;).

Now... to execute what I've learned ;)

Back to our story -- the in-person clinician before xmas of course also had hollow body hold in his warmup, as has every other pilates class ever, and he came around and checked that everyone could get their back connected which is pretty standard.   But with both him and the online program, I took it as a strength building exercise.  Super useful, super brutal, but somehow my little brain didn't make the connection to mirroring the handstand (because - well - NOTHING is straight lol).   But in today's workout, it introduced the modification (again standard) of bringing one knee to the chest.   Which I can do.  Cool.   And then the line that turned on the light - "you're now in the position you'll need to be in for X modification when you're upside down".

Because it showed me how easily, lying on the floor, I could correctly perform the movement for one of the modifications (one knee bent) that I CANNOT do with both legs straight. But since I mentally filed it under "building core strength", I never clued it that the fact that I can do it w one knee bent means I'll be potentially able to engage that same part if one knee is bent when I'm upside down.    

Not that you can't do a handstand w/o - just that it will likely have a fairly dramatic banana bend to it ;) 

So yeah, that was key.   There was also "the wall is lava" lol - point being, once you can kick up, the wall is only for strength building.   Move a bit further off the wall and kick up, but if you touch the wall, you fail ;).   Honestly, I'd figured this out ages ago, but I just loved the idea of turning it into a kids game - made it way more entertaining.  They also suggested trying this one with a split stance, which was new to me so I gave it a go.

The wall is lava!

And then lastly was the feedback from when I sent them my video for coaching from my free-standing handstand (with said bent knee), in the middle of the room.   "...squeeze the glutes to stabilize the hips.  Your hips opened to the left side and that's why you needed to bail out."  I, wait, what???  lol. If it had ever occurred to me to consider it, I would've figured my hips opened *because* I was bailing.  But she's absolutely right, at that point I wasn't focused on squeezing my glutes (which 100% requires attention, but so does pushing away from the floor, and engaging the core, so since you start bottom up, I have to just keep cycling through them.  Lol in some videos you can actively see when my mental focus shifts).   And when I looked at the video *many* times after it's obvious once a pro has clearly identified it for me ;-P

Alas I was exhausted by then so will have to wait a day or three before I try that again.   That pinpoint accuracy though is super useful.   If I'd shown up to the live instead of watching the replay, that's what they do in the breakout rooms.  And what the clinic I went to before xmas in-person did as well.

So the adventure continues.  I'm hoping to get at least one more coaching feedback set in, so we'll see.   Right now though my body is on strike.  lol, happy, but on strike.  If I get off the couch there might be consequences that I can't risk.   

Down the rabbit hole...

Sometimes this is how it seems ;)

This meme has been around for years and exists with most "how to draw" things, but have to admit, sometimes it seems all too accurate!

Also - hyper focus much?  I started about 8:00pm, give or take a bit.  C went to bed I think 10:30 or 11 - I know it was before 11:15 cause I sent a text then and wondered at that point if he was still awake ;)   I took one break when C went to bed to let the dogs out and chill them out, and relocate upstairs where it’s quite and comfy and doesn’t spin the animals that OMG FUN THING SHOULD HAPPEN.   And shortly after that I finished and was thinking about whether I wanted to do some Spanish before reading my book and going to bed, and realised it was only a min or two shy of 2am.   Oops.  So I’m writing this post and THEN heading to bed.  Targeting 2:30 ish ;)

Was an interesting experience though.   I WAS able to follow the tutorial (if you're selective, YouTube is way more helpful than books that teach as per the meme) - I know it's teaching me to duplicate rather than draw myself and I'm okay with that - for now, because it's also giving me the basics and teaching me to notice details and visualise the world differently (squirrel note - it now drives me insane to see the dots that Nola's whiskers grow out of - I never really clued into how defined they are and that they're in rows before I tried to draw a cat  😂.  A degree of detail that has just never been relevant in my life).

In today's adventure though, The most frustrating part was that I could NOT replicate the level of black seen in the tutorial with my black pencil crayon that also broke EVERY time I tried to sharpen it; it’s prob a decade old Crayola so…. Fair enough.  I did just buy some new pencil crayons but for some reason that pack doesn’t have a black.  Sheesh.   And I was super disappointed cause for all the other issues with the fact that this was drawn by a complete beginner, it would’ve looked WAY better with a deeper black and layer upon layer upon layer wasn’t really changing anything.

SO - then I figured, what about a different medium?  Lol one of the books I’ve been entertained by suggests pens every once in a while.   I had some very real doubts about this and - consider how many hours were invested - it’s not like there’s an undo for a sharpie.   Honestly, for all the crazy things I’ve done randomly in my life, this one took the most internal convincing.  AND - I should’ve gone w my gut, cause I liked the original better.  Fail.  Lol certainly not tragic and actually looks better if you don't look too closely, but it's too obvious if you do ;).  But the end deciding factor was - it’s in a super cheap sketchbook and is not something I’m super proud of, does it really matter if I wreck it?  Well….  Turns out, a little bit ;).  But the rest holds true so some day, that’s not today or this week or next week, I will try it again and see what happens if I do the same thing with:

  • Better paper (I never in my life thought I’d know or care about different drawing papers.  Although given how much of a difference *writing* paper makes to me, I can’t believe I didn’t clue in to that earlier.
  • A really good superstar black pencil crayon (or 6!)

I am more proud of myself than I should be for testing out the marker though - I’d rather learn that lesson ruining something that was really hard but the end result wasn’t awesome than something I’m thrilled with.  I DID do a practice run on another page, but it wasn’t enough to give me a real feel for if it’d work.   My compromise was to take a pic of the "finished" pencil drawing before adding marker.   

I also learned that I have absolutely no idea what a “rubber pencil” is or why one would want/use one.  But it definitely did NOT do what I’d hoped it would ;). A set of 4 of them, all white, came with my other pencils.   On that thought - a few weeks ago I learned about different weights of pencils lol - I made it all the way through life without ever knowing what existed beyond HB or why anyone would care.   For the most part, this exact situation is why people might care lol.  But even that doesn't get to true black. 

Next step - colour!  Lol.  OR maybe 30 steps from now.  But some day!

Stack your sh*t

So I’m doing Yoga Ninja Bootcamp at Yogi Flight School this week in an attempt to learn how to “stack my shit” (their phrase, not mine, but I kind of love it.

Now - I’m thinking maybe it’s worth a minute to unpack that sentence ;).  This is not flight school in the learn to fly a plane sense but more in the learn to balance without your feet sense.  When I first decided to learn handstands there were two online programs that quickly came to the top of my possible options - Karin Dimitrovova and, shortly after, Yogi Flight School.   For a large number of reasons, I chose Karin’s program and am SO glad I did because for me it was, and is, exactly what I need and nothing I don’t AND a fixed price (forever access).  I’ve since also acquired her flexibility program which is equally awesome.

However, targeted advertising being what it is, I still get many Many MANY ads for every possible competitor out there.  Consistently though the one that has caught my attention was the flight school.  So when they offered a free week, sure, why not.   Not even a credit card sign up and cancel later situation.  What I didn’t realize was it’s live sessions (thankfully recorded) AND 1-1 coaching if you’re willing to send them a video of you trying stuff (either post on FB or email).  

Hmmm interesting.  The live was never going to work - esp once I realize it’s TWO HOUR sessions that start at 11am MWF in my timezone this week.  Right.   I’m doing well if I can cram all my work into a 10h work day; I’m not taking 2h out for misc fitness.   

So I missed Monday but that night I figured I’d sign in and see how useful, if at all, the sessions would be.  Now at this point I’d already seen a lot of very excited posts from people on FB about learnings from the session so maybe?   They’d already released a half hour session before that was not my cup of tea but prob a lot of other people’s (ditch the “story” - aka excuses, any body type possible, basically barring a medical reason if you’re willing to put in the work, you sb able to do “it”.  Note “it” is not fully defined.  One of my original hesitations was their focus is yoga, not handstands.  And, well, I’m not a yoga-y type person ;).  I agree there are great benefits, but I get SO aggravated by the mindset lectures that it defeats said benefits.  Mindset is one of this team’s top things, but they also do a whole lot of swearing and practical reality so I figured I could go along with it.  Interesting take on ensuring the warmup targets exactly the muscles that will be used for the target exercise in the same way it’ll be used (eg “core” isn’t enough - side crunches aren’t the best choice if your target is a super-straight handstand).

So the first hour of the video was all theory that I paid partial attention to on high speed and skipped all the mindset stuff cause really - self doubt and lack of motivation aren’t really my thing ;)

The second hour though was an actual coaching session, which I did on Tuesday, and also at high speed but DID the exercises.  Alas, handstands aren’t till Fri but today was crow, which I have tried - not well - before so figured worth a go.   AND, at the end it said if you’d send vídeo they’d help.  I guess the next two sessions they’re doing breakout groups for actual live coaching.  We’ll see.   And you know what?  It made a big difference.  Although I definitely have gotten so used to my arms being straight that I neglected to bend my elbows and was having a very challenging time 🤣.  Apparently that’s a quite advanced move and they don’t recommend doing it often because of the strain on your wrists (remember the ones that less than a year ago I couldn’t even have flat hands in a plank?  Yeah - those wrists ;)).


May last year vs Now w zero practice in-between other than this course

So once I actually did it properly it was 100x better than when I learned it before handstands while trying to build wrist strength.   So now I’m actually fairly excited for Friday’s.  Tomorrow is headstands which I actually actively don’t want to do.  So I will watch the video to get any learnings / building blocks / etc, but I’ve done too many scrunchy things to my neck over decades of horseback riding to be willing to actually balance on my head.

Friday might make for an interesting blog post though ;)

I've been told ;-P

So TalkPal, the AI I’m using to practice speaking Spanish is, obviously, new tech - with all the challenges one might expect and then a few given the whole generative AI concept.

This one happened today and I’m still highly bemused by it, so thought I’d share.   I tried the “phone call” option (ie - no text shown since it’s mimicking being on a phone.

(Squirrel moment - skip this paragraph if you just want the actual story). Some notes on this one:

  • the visual display is very similar to what you’d see if someone were calling you on a generic smartphone.  It causes the same anxiety as when a real person does it ;).  I imagine if you actually enjoy your phone ringing, you will enjoy this too.  Super smart approach.
  • You can still translate what the AI has said and see the text version; you can also get her to repeat herself
  • You get feedback on what you’ve said if you click the feedback button but it wasn’t as obvious to me whether there was feedback there or not, and all comments from my original post still apply on the questionable quality of said feedback (validated, might I add, by my actual real-life Spanish teacher).
  • There doesn’t appear to be any way to “teach” the app - which seems fairly short-sighted since that’s kinda the whole point of generative AI (regardless of which approach, this doesn’t just apply in phone mode).
  • Conversation memory is still quite short.
AI Phone Screen

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.  She (AI’s name in this one was Emma) had asked me something generic about my plans for the day and I gave a pretty basic answer along the lines of relaxing by reading a fantasy novel and playing outside w my dog.

And I got this answer:

🤣 so, I mean, it does tell me my pronunciation was clearly off in a potentially fatal way somewhere because let’s be honest - that's not a challenging sentence to construct.  I *know* the words (at least the ones I was *trying* to say) were correct.  And completely innocuous.   And yet twice I got this error.   On the third time I managed to get it to understand and the conversation continued.   But because this version doesn’t script what you said, I couldn’t see what it *thought* I was saying in order to fix it.  And once you get that error, you can’t click through to where it’ll give you a translation ;)

So yeah - idk what that was about, and probably never will, but I’m still mildly amused.  If nothing else, if I can get it to understand me, people sb super easy!

Exploring some AI possibilities with Language Learning

Today I booked a hotel for a March Break trip, ordered a coffee and cookies, and had an in-depth conversation with the Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and War.   And I did it all in Spanish.

And honestly - that's the coolest part of this post.  All the rest is boring background on how that came to be.  Read or not as you see fit :).  

So one of the biggest things that’s holding me back in comfort and usability of Spanish is the ability to practice speaking on a regular basis and a variety of topics - esp when work gets crazy so I struggle to fit in lessons which require a committed time that spans a large number of time zones that don’t include my evening.  And, well, if I’m getting up super early it’s either to exercise or to commute, not to think or talk!   And, well, to the best of my knowledge I have exactly one friend who’s a native Spanish speaker and more often than not there are others with us who do not speak Spanish, so not super appropriate to practice.

A bit before Xmas (?  I think - little fuzzy on dates between extreme work chaos and then Xmas “does the calendar even exist” period ;) the guy behind the Storylearning concept started pushing the Your Teacher AI platform.  I wasn’t holding my breath and they were very clear that it’s new and buggy and developing tech, but I gave it a try since I’m usually pretty willing to be an early adapter, but OMG it couldn’t hold a conversation past 3 exchanges.  And I hate small talk w a passion.   Now, to be fair, apparently “memory” is up soon on the roadmap, so maybe in few months or so it’ll be good, and it would be good to just talk at, but I was ready to strangle it in seconds (worse than trying to convince the grocery machine that the item IS in the bagging area), so noped out of that one.   BIG plus, I’ve since come to appreciate, was the thoroughness and accuracy of their grammar corrections (which you could set how picky you wanted it to be) AND its speed of both recording and displaying answers.   So I may go back to that one some day.  Today is not that day, because despite the advantages, if I’m not willing to talk to it, there’s no point at all.  I was truly amazed at how quickly it drove me insane.  Not a great start.  Although…. Part of that frustration is I could see so clearly how useful it *could* be.

So then I started exploring other options.

Next up was Languatalk, which is where I currently source my instructors from (5/5 stars for teachers - highly recommend! - WAY better than Italki, Verbling, Busuu, or literally *any* other teacher platform I’ve used since starting this adventure) since it seems to be the only one w any significant kind of quality control re competency of the teachers.  They also have a fairly good collection of level-rated videos and podcasts etc.   They have recently started offering a subscription-based AI web-app (Langua) that I was curious about, but it’s not super affordable and I was hesitant after the above exp.

So targeted ads being what they are, I started getting ads for MakeYouFluent - another platform that offers AI learning.  Something about it felt really scammy though, and as I read more reviews I decided it probably wasn’t for me.  This was reinforced when every day they started sending me an ad for a reduced amount off the subscription.  As of this evening I’m up to 85% off ;-P.   Which means if you DO decide it’s for you, I’d suggest doing the intro “placement” test and then ignoring it for a week or so ;).  But to me, that means it’s really not particularly worth paying for.

Moving on, I fell down a rabbit hole but one that proved fairly awesome, in that I found all sorts of options and eventually decided to give TalkPal AI a try - whose app is brand new but apparently has had a web version for a bit (app on the Apple Store only had 1 review and it was 1 star - I will have to contribute something to help fix that).   This one has both free and subscription options, as well as a free trial.   So did read some reviews, but given the whole free option I was mostly just doing due diligence that the company was legit.

And this - for what I need - so far seems fairly excellent.  To be candid, and fair, it’s NOT nearly as good about transcribing the conversation (and the AI is working from the transcription so I’ve at times be marked “wrong” for my spelling or punctuation - when IT did both!) but it’s mostly good.  My biggest complaint there is it’s VERY slow - I keep thinking the app has frozen while I wait for it to figure out what I said.   

BUT - for me - it’s worth the wait, because not only can it carry a conversation, but it can prompt all kinds of options.  I figured I’d start out simple and see what happens.  The first choice was “chat” - I told it to ask me something interesting and we had a whole conversation about what we would do if we could control time, what time periods we’d like to visit and why, and eventually how to bring about social equality in the future.

Now - it definitely still has significant frustrations, and if your answer is long, it won’t show all of it, but the conversation was enough that it got me to talk, and to think, in Spanish.  And that - for me - is the whole purpose.   Other options include: 

  • Role Play (both common and completely fictional scenarios - examples: “booking a hotel” (basic - I did this one and a coffee shop one just to test it out; also cause real life interactions are where I struggle the most), “reporter interviewing a witness” (intermediate), “yearly review” (Professional), “planning a strategy to defeat a dark wizard” (fun).  Lol that last category also includes (amongst others): 

Just the concept of some of these made me laugh

  • Characters - chat with a historic or fictional character (awesome range of people, no idea how much of a “personality” each will have, but they give you a brief bio when you start up a conversation and go from there.  So far I’ve spoken with Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Queen Tamar of Georgia.  Lol the list is wild and interesting - I’ll definitely chat w both Loki and Shakespeare at some point ;).  
  • Debates - so many topics, not sure I want to debate w an AI but we’ll see :).  Here’s the first few options.  I haven’t done any of these yet (common - I only found this app yesterday!)
Lots of topics for people to have opinions about ;)
  • Photo mode (describe what you see in a photo).  This one is particularly relevant to me personally as it is one of the questions on the Dele B2 exam.   However, I didn’t love how it “corrected” the answer so will be good practice if I do it and send the screen shot to my *actual* teacher ;).  It’s also good for those whose anxiety kicks in even talking to a robot because there’s no opinion or creativity required.  Literally just talk about what you see.

Now, in reality - Teacher AI (the first one) is definitely the better for actually learning the language (and even they are clear it’s not for true beginners) but TalkPal is stronger - at least for me - for just talking.  Maybe the truth there is in the name :)

What really gets me is that my notes in the first 5 mins were super frustrated w TalkPal as well, but after that I got increasingly excited.  If it has enough variety to hold my attention for a week, I’ll deem it a win :).  I will say though, the ONLY reason it’s useful to me is because my grammar knowledge well exceeds my speaking ability; this means I can critically consider the feedback it gives and reject it if it’s wrong.   Conversely the feedback in Teacher AI was almost all correct.

Neither system lets you go back, or lets you save/print a script of the conversation (would be super useful), and both have the frustrations you’d expect from talking to a machine.   But if they could combine those two systems, it’d make for one very powerful tool.