French + Wine


I do a lot of public speaking; usually a couple of conference keynotes, and a dozen or more invited talks every year. During conference dinners and meet and greets, there is sometimes alcohol, and it’s hard to pass up a free drink, especially when it’s sometimes quite excellent.

Since 2013 I’ve pretty much stopped drinking at conferences; I had a run-in at a gig in New York with a sales guy from one security company, who’d also had a few too many and started liberal-baiting. I’m not sure if I’m a liberal, exactly, but I wound up leaving before things got ugly, and it gave me a lot of reasons to reconsider the wisdom of getting potted. Normally, I’m hard to anger, but with a couple of glasses of wine in me, I was seriously thinking about just flattening him. I took that incident as a warning sign. Then there was AUSCERT in 2013, when I split a few bottles of wine with Whit Diffie at the conference dinner and the next morning, when I showed up for a panel, the kindly Australians had given me a glass with 4 shots of tequila in it, instead of water. I took that as a comment on drinking and decided that I did not want a reputation for being unprofessional – that’s a sure-fire way to make sure you suddenly have a whole lot of free time on your calendar.

AUSCERT did inspire me to open my talk with this infographic, of which I am duly proud

Back in 2012 I was invited to speak at ASIMM annual conference, in Charlevoix, Quebec. It was a lovely trip, a fine old hotel, an interesting conference, I gave an OK talk (I think) and then there was the conference dinner, and I headed home. During the conference dinner, I was seated with the organizer and a few notables, and there was some pretty decent red wine being served with, uh, um… I forget the main course.

Now, let me back-fill a bit: my degree is in psychology and the University where I studied is attached to a famous medical school, and the department was split between neuroscientists and old-school pop psycho-babblers. One of the topics I remember being really interested by was the affect of various things on memory. When we learned about how amphetamines boosted short-term memory I tested it by taking a hit of street benzedrine and cramming for my stats final (which I aced, N=1)  I also learned about the effects of alcohol on memory. At that time, I was not experimenting with alcohol, though as I have aged I notice a distinct difference between what I remember when I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine, and when I haven’t. Let’s not even get into talking about Ambien; I got some of that for long flights to/from Asia in the late 90s, and there are whole flights that are completely blank spots to me. When I broke my jaw in 2013 they dropped me under a general with some Fentanyl and there are two whole days missing from my memory.

Just an illustration, from another dinner, IDC security conference, Ljubyana 2008

That wine interferes with our memory shouldn’t be news to any of you. But, as the conference dinner went on, I had a truly striking experience: most of the others at the table were speaking Quebec French, which is different from the French I learned as a kid in the south of France, and in Paris. When the dinner started, I could understand them just fine, and was able to dredge up bits of French to reply with in turn. By the time I had finished the first glass of wine a weird thing began to happen: It was getting harder to understand the Quebec French, and I was really having trouble assembling French of my own. It took me a few minutes to figure out, because I don’t even think in terms of “one glass of wine affects me” and I’d never experienced alcohol inhibiting what I’d consider ordinary speech. It was fascinating and, of course, I remarked on it to my dinner companions; I said “I have had one glass of wine and now I am having trouble assembling a sentence in French!” Their response, of course, was to pour me more wine.

As the second glass started to hit me, I felt a distinct un-meshing of the gears in my head. That’s the only way I can describe it. I had the distinct sensation that there was a translation engine running that had to interpret Quebec French into the French I knew, and that it was struggling to keep up. I’ve been very drunk before, and never experienced anything like that with English, presumably because my brain has gotten a lot of drill with that language. My French was melting away from me, perceptibly, and progressively. I was struggling to keep up with their French, and had to switch to English when I wanted to say something. Please don’t get the impression that I was bleary-eyed and potted on just two glasses of wine – that’s a pretty typical “no problem” amount for me (though I will not drive a car if I have had more than a half a glass of wine) the remarkable part of this experience was the explicit sensation of losing my ability to speak a language.

Of course, you probably know what happened next: my cheerful hosts gave me another glass of wine, in the name of science. By the time I was done with that, I was unable to understand Quebec French, at all, and I noticed – because I was now paying attention – that my English vocabulary had simplified slightly and I was using shorter sentences. I thought then, as I do now, that we probably think of our use of language as a unit, normally, and don’t pay attention to gradations of quality in our speech. Dessert came, and I excused myself, went to my room, took a long hot shower, and went to sleep; I had a long drive the next morning.

I’m 54 now and I notice that my memory is not what it used to be, in many ways. I’ve asked my dad, who’s 85 and as sharp as ever, and he says it’s pretty much what happens as we age. Dad, a university professor, was one of the hard-drinking academics of the 70s and 80s, I remember many wine-fuelled dinner parties with his colleagues, where I sat quiet and listened to drunken historians swapping stories of revolution and analyzing politics. He says that that slow erosion is typical and it’s probably nothing more; both of my paternal grandparents died with Alzheimers’ so I monitor my brain.

Have you ever experienced a comparable thing? Where a skill that you have a fairly good understanding of, begins to go away? I’ve lost certain manual skills through disuse, but this was sudden, and very perceptible.

------ divider ------

When I was at NFR, we used to have an annual holiday get-together, engineering team meet, and feast. Some of the group didn’t drink, some enjoyed the Demon Weed(tm) and some drank. One of the engineers, Mark S., was a former NASA rocket scientist who loved measuring things, and entertained himself by going around the room before the party started, and had everyone do a “drop test” on a yardstick. The “drop test” is where you hold your fingers 2″ apart at the bottom of a yardstick that someone else is holding, then, when they drop it (ideally giving no cues) you pinch your fingers together and try to catch it. The drop distance is usable to measure reaction time; Mark made up a lookup table, and he did 3 samples of each of us, then as the drinking and smoking began he did another measure an hour later, then tried to record our consumption (self-reported!) we’d usually stay at the hotel across the street from a steakhouse, so nobody had to drive, and some minor drinking to excess was undertaken. I don’t have them anymore, but on monday, when we all crawled in to work, Mark had personalized response-charts that measured the effect various substances had on each of us. It was interesting that being high did affect response times, but (predictably) nowhere near as bad as alcohol, which was linear for some of us and on a curve for others.

Whit Diffie: I’ve known Whit for a long time. We seem to perenially wind up sitting next to eachother at various dinners going back to the 1991 RSA conference in San Francisco. I was “that annoying kid that is doing firewalls that break stream encryption.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with him in any other context! It’s the life of a professional conference-goer. There was one memorable dinner at Higashi West in 199?6 where Whit and I were sitting together and Dan Farmer pulled out a truly fine bottle of vintage Port from the 1970s and started slamming it down like it was Coca-Cola. Diffie began pouring other people large amounts of the stuff, cautioning us to treat it with respect; I managed to rescue quite a bit but he rescued a whole lot of it.

Comments

  1. Dunc says

    I do have a sort-of-comparable experience… I used to juggle quite a lot – balls, clubs, devil stick, and so on. It’s my experience that even a very small amount of alcohol – one which otherwise has no perceptible effects whatsoever – has a very marked effect on juggling ability.

  2. Brian English says

    Have you ever experienced a comparable thing? Where a skill that you have a fairly good understanding of, begins to go away?

    It’s weird. I’m a native speaker of Strine, and in my travels I’ve struggled after a few snifters or pints to understand some British dialects, but no common USian ones have not been an issue (Never dealt with outback Appalachian or mid-western, so can’t say). I guess that’s familiarity via TV.

    I taught myself spanish from books, then lived in Spain and after initial cluelessness listening to Andalusians whilst checking out Seville, Granada, Cordoba, etc,… lived in Valencia and picked up the lingo. I got so drunk so often, it was more efficient to do a sample for blood content in my alcohol system, but didn’t struggle in Spanish whilst drunk (Never bothered to learn Valencian, cough, Catalan). I guess that’s immersion, because everything in media, conversations (save with a few other Striners, was in Spanish), it took a few weeks back on Straya to think in Strine again….It was weird to search for a word in English that I knew in Spanish when speaking to family.

    I have no self control. I also find myself immensly boring sober, so I’d be terrible at conferences.

  3. Brian English says

    but no common USian ones have not been an issue

    Arggg double negatives. I added the not because I thought I’d written an affirmative…

  4. says

    Dunc@#1:
    even a very small amount of alcohol – one which otherwise has no perceptible effects whatsoever – has a very marked effect on juggling ability.

    What does it hit, your cognitive ability to strategize patterns, or your eye/hand coordination? Or both?

  5. Siobhan says

    Where a skill that you have a fairly good understanding of, begins to go away?

    Walking upright?

  6. Dunc says

    Marcus @#4: hand / eye coordination. You don’t really think about the patterns, that’s all muscle memory. It’s really the ability to throw accurately that goes – the main trick with juggling is to make sure that the balls go in the right places, then catching them is easy. It only takes a very small variation in the weight of a throw to put a ball out of pattern, and then you’re trying to recover, which is harder… So you can quickly end up with an escalating instability, where every attempt to recover from the last error introduces an even greater error somewhere else.

  7. says

    Dun@#6:
    Gotcha! Compounding error. So interesting!

    My World of Warcraft raid team used to raid on a bottle of wine, each. Over the course of a couple hours we’d get more and more “relaxed” and the mistakes got funnier and funnier. Then, I tried the same thing one night playing Elite and kept flying ships into the side of stations, and otherwise screwing up – it was an interesting lesson in the comparative subsystems of our brains that get stressed by alcohol. For damn sure I do not want to fly in an airplane with a drunk pilot!

  8. says

    Shiv@#5:
    Walking upright?

    They say alcohol disinhibits you.
    From your desire to stretch out full-length on a cold surface. Yeah, that’s it.

  9. says

    Marcus:

    Have you ever experienced a comparable thing? Where a skill that you have a fairly good understanding of, begins to go away?

    No. A moderate amount of wine (no more than two half glasses) increases my thought expansion and memory. It often enhances artistic efforts, too.

    I’ve read countless studies which detail the positive effects of a moderate intake of red wines.

  10. says

    Caine@#9:
    I’ve read countless studies which detail the positive effects of a moderate intake of red wines.

    It certainly expands my creativity, and helps me with lateral thinking and disinhibits my few inhibitions.

    It also appears to kick my French translator out of gear and into neutral.

  11. Raucous Indignation says

    I remember with great fondness one night in the dorms when a girl who was fed up with my general behavior, told me, “You’re drunk!” My inebriated self was able to haltingly dredge up the classic two line retort to that accusation. One phrase. At a time. Truely, my ability to speak my native tongue had been reduced to having to figure out, a few words at a time, how to parse compound sentences. I found that hilarious. I fell over laughing. I really did fall over too; I was tetteringly inebriated.

  12. says

    Raucous Indignation:

    My inebriated self was able to haltingly dredge up the classic two line retort to that accusation.

    I’ve always gone with the classic “I’m not as think as you drunk I am.”

  13. naturalcynic says

    Wayback when I did some cross country skiing, one glass of wine was just about right to overcome inhibitions and rigidity when I tried to telemark.

  14. Raucous Indignation says

    Nope. It was thus:
    “I may be drunk, but you are ugly.
    And tomorrow I will be sober, and you’ll still be ugly.”

    In addition my detestable behavior, I was wrong on two accounts.
    1) She was not ugly, far from it.
    2) I was drunk again the next day.

    She was quite lovely too. Aaah, I would have done so much differently if I wasn’t raised by a pack of sociopathic wolverines …

  15. chigau (違う) says

    I used to find that my skills at darts and pool were enhanced by the first beer and half of the second beer.
    After that they rapidly declined.

  16. says

    By the time I had finished the first glass of wine a weird thing began to happen: It was getting harder to understand the Quebec French, and I was really having trouble assembling French of my own.

    When I had a glass of Glühwein during a Christmas party in Germany, it didn’t influence my ability to understand and speak German. Although I didn’t notice it having any effects on my mind, which means that I simply didn’t drink enough for interesting things to start happening.

    and I noticed – because I was now paying attention – that my English vocabulary had simplified slightly and I was using shorter sentences. I thought then, as I do now, that we probably think of our use of language as a unit, normally, and don’t pay attention to gradations of quality in our speech.

    I don’t drink almost at all. I never liked the taste of any alcoholic beverages I have tried. It’s just that I don’t like the taste of alcohol itself (the more alcohol in a drink, the more I dislike the taste). And even if I bring myself to swallow alcohol like one would swallow some bitter medicine, I don’t like the effects it has on my mind. It gets harder to think clearly and concentrate and I don’t like it, it feels like my ability to think is dissipating. I don’t even like the effect of lowered inhibitions. I’m not a shy person, if I want to do something, I can do it while being sober. And the few inhibitions I have, well, I like having them, because they keep me safe and ensure that I don’t land in a hospital (or a morgue) for stupid reasons.

    During parties I usually don’t drink at all, which enables me to observe the behavior of those who are drinking. The first glass of wine usually has no noticeable effects. After that I start noticing simplified vocabulary and shorter sentences (here my observation is identical with yours). Once people get really drunk, it becomes very boring for me to listen to them. People tend to become incapable of assembling proper sentences long before they realize that it’s time to go to sleep.

    I am usually the first person to leave a party. By the time people get drunk and start talking nonsense, it gets boring for me. I better go home and read a book instead.

    My problem with foreign languages during parties or in bars or whatever is very different. There’s usually lots of background noise (music, conversations), and the loud noise makes it harder for me to hear what others are saying. In Latvian or English missing a few sounds is not a problem for me. I can still understand what others said from the context. But while hanging out in bars with my German friends it was a huge problem. Missing a few sounds meant that I often failed to understand what they were saying. Just listening to others became a mental effort, because I had to seriously concentrate. And that was on top of the fact that it is always harder for me to use a language which I don’t know that well. When I speak in Latvian or English, I only have to think about the content, about what I want to say. In other languages I also have to simultaneously think about how to put together a grammatically correct sentence and try to remember all the necessary words. This is why your observation about having trouble using foreign languages while drunk seems only logical for me. Speaking in a foreign language is inherently harder (at least for me). In Germany I regularly participated in debate tournaments, which were obviously always in German. I actually noticed that my performance in debates got poorer simply because I had to speak and think in a language I know less well. And that was quite a big blow for my ego. At home I was an exceptionally good debater, but in Germany it turned out that my skills were about average.

    By the way, since my native language is close to useless (it has very few speakers), I have been using mostly English for what has been about half of my life by now. Therefore when speaking English I don’t get all those problems, which I have when using all the other languages I know.

  17. says

    To Raucous
    “I may be drunk, but you are ugly.
    And tomorrow I will be sober, and you’ll still be ugly.”

    So the worst thing that can happen with a human being who happens to have a female body is being ugly? I find this a very interesting choice for an insult. And also one you never hear being directed at a guy.

    If somebody told me these lines, I would seriously consider smashing my fist against their face. And not because I care about my appearance that much, I just dislike sexist insults. But then again, I seem to be good at intimidating people. Nobody dares telling me anything like this. Even while being drunk.

  18. says

    Chigau @15
    I do the same thing when bowling.

     

    Raucous @14
    A classic line. Although my preferred response to “You’re drunk!” is a big shit eating grin and and overly loud “Yes, I am.” delivered as if the accusation was a compliment.

  19. says

    Ieva Skrebele:

    And also one you never hear being directed at a guy.

    You’re wrong there. That is directed at guys. It’s an example of what passes for humour in frats and such. It’s just one of those juvenile assholities, when you get people who are still very young, and yet of, or close to, legal drinking age.

  20. Raucous Indignation says

    @17 Ieva Skrebele I will not defend my behavior from that time in my life. I know it was detestable. But Caine is right; I did say that to men. I said it a lot, what with drunkenness being a common condition for me at that age. Sometimes I even substituted “stinky” or “smelly” for ugly. I was quite the wag. I can’t imagine why George Carlin’s fans didn’t abandon him for me. Please take no offense from my ill behavior from decades ago. I made peace with my friends and family and also myself a long time ago.

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