French Camp III: Learning French

Friday, Jun 26, 2009 7:00 am
William Barnes

This is potentially the least exciting subject (with only one picture), but perhaps one day a prospective Sainte Anne student will stumble across it and find it useful: what was the learning experience like?

The day after I arrived I took a two-part (written and oral) placement exam. There are four major levels (Debutant, Intermédiare, Avancé, Perfectionment) the first three of which have a few sub-levels. That evening I was placed in Intermédiare 1.

The Class

I had two 1.5 hour long classes each day. I must admit that I didn’t learn much in class. I was an exception. The majority of people I talked to above Debutant stated that they could speak and understand much better than they could read and write while I had no trouble with writing and grammar but could barely speak. The class work in Intermédiare 1 consisted of articles, futur proche, and passé composé. On the one hand, I thought that it was too basic for me. I knew all the grammar and was really bored by that. On the other, I went in completely unable to speak in French and I’m not sure I could have handled participating in a more advanced class. Perhaps I might even have been better off being a level lower as Debutants focus much more on speaking skills than Intermédiares and I didn’t benefit much from the more advanced written work.

Big Bird

My professor was a musician named Patrice Boulliane. He was a good teacher, but also he was quite the interesting character. At the end of the session I came to the conclusion that probably any teacher could have taught the material but I’m glad I got Patrice for the experience.

Outside Class

While I didn’t learn much new in class, I did learn a lot outside of it. They kept us very busy; meaning that we had no time to sit around on our own. We were always doing something with other people. And when you’re with other people, you talk… or try to talk. I was nearly mute the first week. The Debutants were the same. But with practice everybody got better. By the end, I could understand most of what I heard and reply almost as often. The progress with the Debutants was just amazing. Some people who started out not knowing a word of French were speaking better than me by the end of the session.

The strictness of the immersion was definitely a good thing. I’m told that at some other programs, French is merely suggested rather than obligatory. I know that if I had been allowed, I would have used at least a little English for those really complicated sentences. But being forced to use French meant I had to either learn how to say what I wanted or come up with an alternate way to phrase it.

Moving On

The immersion is over and I’m unlikely to be able to go back any time in the near future. Given that I have a fairly good grasp of all the grammar (I read ahead while I was bored in class), what really remains for me is practicing spoken French and expanding my vocabulary. I’ve found two French podcasts I like. Learn French By Podcast plays a conversation of about one minute and then discusses key points. Coffee Break French is more focused (so far) on learning little bits of vocabulary and important phrases. It also has much better hosts. The first is too business-like to really enjoy. I’m also thinking of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer in French since I already know it mostly by heart.

Managing Gmail

Saturday, Jan 31, 2009 1:13 pm
William Barnes

It has now been a few months since I switched to Gmail. Here is what I’ve learned.


There are two Firefox extensions that are absolutely great:

Better Gmail 2 is a collection of Greasemonkey scripts that customize the Gmail interface in various interesting ways. Folders4Gmail allows you to create nested labels. There’s a script that moves the new mail count to the start of the window title (so you can see it when the end of the title is cut off in a tab or the taskbar). You can hide the chat and invite boxes in the left column. Good stuff.


Gmail S/MIME lets you send and read signed and encrypted mail. You’ll also need an email certificate (Thawte has good free ones).


Labels are great but it’s still a pain to actually label all your messages. So create filters. I have all my email addresses forwarded to Gmail, so I have filters that label mail from each one (so my address gets label F/W and my address is label F/UT). I briefly considered Getting Things Done but found it too complex. I did, however, steal a few ideas. I have a set of “projects” labels (P/UTL for law school, P/LR for law review, P/CS for CourtServices). And of course filters to do most of the work. Here’s a good one:

From: ( || prof.two || prof.three), Label with: "P/UTL"

What does it do? Any email coming from one of the specified professors (just a list of all my profs) gets labelled as being part of the law school project. I wish Google would just let you create contact groups and label email from the group, but this is close enough.

Other stuff

Every once in a while I see people checking their email and they have hundreds of read messages in their Inbox. The greatest feature of Gmail is “archive”. After you read an email, click the “Archive” button and it disappears from your Inbox. But where did it go? It’s still there; it’s in the “All Mail” view at the left side. But if you happen to be one of those people with hundreds of messages in your Inbox, you’ll be amazed at how much better it feels to only have one or two. Of course, if you want to leave it in your inbox (to finish reading later, perhaps) then you just leave it there. Just use the Inbox for stuff you haven’t read or that you intend to re-read imminently.

If you use Remember The Milk, then there is an extension that not only puts your Todo list in the sidebar on Gmail, but can automatically create tasks and link them to a specific email when you Star a message.

I am considering getting rid of Remember The Milk and just sending myself emails with Todo items and using Gmail to manage my Todo list completely. I might steal from GTD a little more and make S/Action, S/Complete, etc labels. Remember The Milk is great, but it’s just another service that I have to pay attention to.

The University of Toronto claims that there is some difficulty in forwarding messages to Gmail but they are terribly unspecific. I have a filter to prevent email from the school from being marked as spam, but they seem to indicate that the problem isn’t simply that. So instead of forwarding my email to Gmail, I’m using POP to collect it. That should reduce the chances of Gmail bouncing a forwarded message (not that this seems very likely to begin with). Of course, it introduces the possibility of a delay since Gmail only checks every hour, but you can always force it to check for new email now if you’re expecting something.

There is also this post on backing up Gmail.

Update 4:57pm

How to force Gmail to check for new mail on your (or other) POP account: Settings->Accounts->Check mail now


Ultra Vires

Thursday, Nov 27, 2008 7:36 pm
William Barnes

There has recently been some controversy regarding the Faculty of Law student paper Ultra Vires. The University of Toronto Law Union has taken issue with Ultra Vires’ practice of granting honorariums to volunteers at the end of the year. Having read the paper’s account, received a mass-email from the Law Union, had an interesting discussion with some classmates, and, finally, having not written anything on here for months, I decided to put my thoughts into writing.

The Law Union

Who are they? The email identifies three “co-chairs” of the group. The co-chairs are third-year students at the law school. They use a Gmail address to send their mail. They are not listed on either the Faculty of Law or the Student Law Society websites. In fact, other than their mention in Ultra Vires two weeks ago, I cannot find any evidence that they actually exist.

My suspicion is that they formed for the specific purpose of complaining about this. My further suspicion is that they are simply a few students who learned how to write a demand letter at their summer jobs and are itching to try out their new weapons. My opinion is that they may be the reason people don’t like lawyers. I could be wrong about these three things. I am open to correction (luckily nobody reads this blog, so I will remain correct).

The Issue

At this point, I realized I should have been writing this entry in the style of a case brief. Just for fun.

So the issue is that rather than giving leftover money to the students (as Osgoode’s student paper does) or simply investing the money in next year’s paper, the Ultra Vires [UV] board has been giving the extra money as honorariums. These honorariums range (according to the newspaper) from $500–$1500. The Law Union [UTLU] objects to this practice. I have no such objection.

The Arguments

That’s our money!

No, it isn’t. UV is funded by advertising. It gets no funding from the law school or our student union.

But they get office-space!

True. If the Faculty of Law is like the rest of UofT, however, UV pays (a token amount) to rent that office. In that case, we would lose no money. In the case that the office is truly free to UV, I believe that we get our money’s worth out of the paper.

They’re volunteers. Volunteers shouldn’t expect to get paid.

Two problems here: (1) they don’t expect anything, and (2) they are not being paid. The money they get at the end is contingent on the paper bringing in more money than it spends. If they lose an advertiser or have unexpected costs, they get less or don’t get anything. Also, the money is not payment (i.e. not a salary), it is an honorarium. Non-profits often give honorariums to people who volunteer for them. Ever go to a presentation and see someone jump up at the end and give the speaker a mug or flowers or other gift of some sort? That’s an honorarium. When I chaired the student life committee (such as it was) for SAC-UTM, I received a certificate and a cheque for $400 at the end of the year as a thank you for all the work I put in. It is common practice for non-profit groups to reward volunteers. Further, even if it were a salary, non-profits are fully entitled to pay salaries. If you really have an issue, you should take on UTSU, who not only pay salaries and honorariums, but receive money directly by student levy.

But volunteers should do it solely out of the goodness of their hearts!

Maybe so. But there is no reason to think that the editors at UV do it for any other reason. The payout isn’t guaranteed. And if they are doing it for the money, then they are obviously idiots. If they took the time they spent on the paper and got a job at McDonald’s they would earn much more.

But volunteers at association X don’t get honorariums!

Well, then take it up with X. Obviously, if they receive funding from SLS or the Faculty, they won’t be able to pocket the money. That funding comes out of a pool set aside for club expenses. If the club is totally self-sufficient, then, barring any other regulations, it’s their prerogative to give or not. If the honorarium makes a difference to you, then volunteer for UV; I hear they’re looking.

This entry is too long!

Nobody reads my blog, so you don’t exist. Clearly, you have more pressing matters to address.

They get to use the Faculty of Law name and distribute in the school, we control them!

There might be something to that. Certainly, if the Faculty decided that they didn’t like the practice they could make access to the school and it’s name contingent on doing something else with the money. Talk to the Dean. If the Faculty has no problem, then UV has no problem.


I’m cutting the entry artificially short perhaps. I’m stopping not because I’m out of arguments and counter-arguments, but because I’m out of time.

UV is self-sufficient. They can do whatever they want to do with their money (as long as it’s legal). In the last issue, the editor compiled statistics from surveys submitted by 2L students after their On-Campus Interviews. These statistics are well-worth whatever honorarium she gets. The students at the Faculty of Law get more value out of the paper than they theoretically spend on it.

The students at UTLU ought to reflect a little bit more and consider doing something of value themselves before sending bullying letters filled with unsubstantiated claims to try and take things away from other people. It’s obvious that people aren’t going to like my generation of lawyers any more than the last.

Course Waiting Lists

Sunday, Jul 13, 2008 2:01 pm
William Barnes

They don’t work.

Prior to UTM bringing in course waiting lists last year, I had never failed to get into a course I wanted on account of it being full. Last year, I was denied three courses. Yet, everybody seems to think they’re a great idea.


The argument goes: fairness dictates that courses be first come first serve. Prior to the wait list, if a course was full, you had to log on to ROSI every few hours waiting for a spot to be available. A wait list preserves your spot in the queue. Consider a course with an enrollment limit of 50 students. Prior to the wait list, the 51st student to try to sign up would not be guaranteed the first opening if someone dropped the course. If the 100th student to attempt to sign up happened to do so just after a drop, then he would be successful. Or, if the 52nd student kept coming back every few hours, he might get the spot even though number 51 got there first. A wait list ensures that number 51 gets the 51st chance to sign up. Fair, no?

No. If number 52 cares so much about getting into the course, then, in all fairness, he should get in.

A bird in hand…

People seem to think that they will be more likely to get the courses they want if they can just put their name on a wait list. There are two problems. One, as stated above, a person who is only marginally interested in the course is granted the same priority as a person who is desperate to take the class. Two, wait lists result in dead lock: no sane person is going to drop a course they have while they sit on a wait list in the course that they really want.

Imagine I really want to take PHL245 but it is full with a wait list of 14 people. I add my name to the wait list but, realizing my odds are slim, I sign up for a class I don’t want to take (PHL274) just in case. PHL274 fills up with people doing the same thing because nobody wants to get caught without a full course load. This happens to all the courses. Every course is full and wait listed. A few weeks pass and people start reconsidering their original decisions. Someone in PHL245 decides that PHL274 looks like fun. But, whoops, the course has a wait list of 20 people and is filled with people who are either reconsidering their decision or never wanted the course in the first place. Very few people will move.

Without wait lists, I would drop a course I didn’t want to take because I know that something will open up if I am persistent. But with wait lists, I know that nothing is going to open up.

Without wait lists, I will get into the courses that I really want, because I will put extra effort in. With wait lists, I will get into the courses that are available on sign up day and people who want courses less than me will get into courses that I really want because their start time was earlier than mine.