A life in 20 minute chunks

Recently I have begun to live my life in 20 minute chunks. This sounds a bit odd but I've discovered it is a good technique for getting me to undertake more with my time. Previously I used to commute into work on the train. This took 40 minutes and was effectively dead time out of my day. I decided to use this time in order to study the four languages which I'm trying to learn; French, Italian, Mandarin, and Setswana. I spent the first 20 minutes of the journey into work on French and the second 20 minutes on Mandarin. On the return journey home I spent 20 minutes on Italian and the final 20 minutes on Setswana.

This method of chunking up my time in order to learn was productive. It allowed me to rotate through the resources I needed on the train journey and it allowed me to progress a little more every day. More recently I don't commute and no longer have this enforced dead time available for study. This means recently the amount of time which I spent studying decreased dramatically.

I decided to re-adopt this method of performing things 20 minutes at a time and expand on it slightly. This method is similar to the Pomodoro technique where you set a timer and carry out as much as you can in that time. However, the difference is I'm not trying to do things at a frantic pace I'm just doing what I can for 20 minutes. The main driver for starting this was because I have a number of projects which had no effort put into them because I was trying to schedule large blocks of time to get them done. In other words, I was always looking for two or three days when I could dedicate myself to a particular project in order to get it accomplished. However, these two or three days never appeared magically in my schedule.

I decided to initially restart the 20-minute chunks of study for the four languages which I'm studying and I added in a 20-minute block to study mathematics. I have many mathematics books which I wanted to read and to study but I've never managed to find the time. Now I'm working my way through these 23 mathematics textbooks starting with the basic mathematics book and I will progress 20 minutes a day until I finish all the calculus books.

I've also begun to apply this technique to other things. The large programming projects that I searched to find to 3 days for, I now chunk up into 20 minutes of work. The books I wanted to write I now simply work on them for 20 minutes a day. Wile this short amount of time doesn't lead to huge amounts of progress on any of these projects it builds some progress on all of these projects.

The reason I enjoy this technique is that it gives me a number of benefits. The primary benefit which I've noticed is there is always some progression on a project. The small niggling worry in the back of my mind nothing was happening on a project has now stopped. Another benefit is I can rotate these 20 minute chunks as I please. So for example, if I have a 20-minute study of Italian scheduled but I've forgotten to bring the textbook with me I can simply replace that 20 minutes of work with something else. Another benefit is these 20 minute blocks of time are more easily made into a habit.

There are projects tasks and things I need to do which cannot be subdivided into 20 minute intervals but that is okay because I know I can spend a large amount of time on an indivisible project but catch up on the other project tomorrow.

This method might not be for everyone, but I found that it certainly works for me. I don't need to put a great deal of thought into my day or into my calendar. I have just blocked out a series of 20 minute intervals and I have a piece of paper where I put a check mark beside a chunk which I've accomplished. So it makes my scheduling easier and it means I accomplish a little something on everything every day. TOP

The richest retailer you've never heard of: Alexander Turney Stewart

Today when you think of innovative retailers you think of Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Phillip Green, Sam Walton, or Steve Jobs, but one of the richest men in history opened the first department store in 1848. Alexander Stewart business success is estimated to have made him one of the twenty wealthiest people in history, with a fortune equivalent to approximately 90 billion 2012 US dollars.

Mr Stewart was a true innovator. Not only did he open the first department store (The Marble Palace), he was also responsible for the mail-order industry. Mr Stewart focused his efforts on retaining customers and making the customer experience the best possible. This first department store was actually a sort of migration between the high street shop and department store.

Later, in 1862 Mr Stewart opened a true department store called the "Iron Palace". This six-storey building had a cast-iron front with a glass dome skylight and grand emporium. Over 2000 people were employed there. The establishment's nineteen departments included silks, dress goods, carpets, and toys.

Beginning in 1868, Stewart began receiving letters from women in rural parts of the United States asking for his merchandise. Stewart replied to these letters by sending out the requested goods and even paying the postage. Once received, women would send back the money to pay for their orders. Seeing potential for the mail order business, by 1876 Stewart had hired twenty clerks to read, respond and run the mail-order business.

Stewart died as one of the richest men in New York, just behind a Vanderbilt and an Astor. Out of the twenty-four clerks who entered A. T. Stewart & Company in 1836, six still worked for the company in 1876. To these long-term employees, Stewart showed his gratitude by leaving them more than $250,000 (equivalent to $6,000,000 in 2017) in his will.

Stewart's Marble Palace was designated a landmark by the City of New York in 1966.

In the first week of his career, Stewart had an argument with his salesman. It went as follows:

One day an old lady came in and accosting the young man alluded to, asked to see some calicoes. She seemed satisfied with the style, but asked, with prudent caution asked.

"Will this wash?"

"Oh! yes, ma'am."

"Then I'll take a little piece and try it, and if the colours are fast, I'll get some of it."

"What's the use of taking all that trouble," said the clerk. "I have tried it, and I know it holds its colour."

The old lady felt assured and took a dress. Ladies did wear calicoes, then. Mr. Stewart was an interested observer during this exchange and when the lady departed, he stepped up and said:

"But, Mr. _, why did you tell that old lady such an untruth about that calico?"

"Oh ! that's all in the way of business," said the salesman.

"But," said Mr. Stewart, "that doesn't seem a good way of business. That lady will try the calico; it will fade—she will come and accuse us of misrepresentation and demand her money back, and she will be right."

"Oh! then I'll say, 'you are quite mistaken, ma'am; you never got the goods here; you must have got them at the store above.' "

"Well then, if that's the case," said Stewart 'don't let it occur again. I don't want goods represented for what they are not. If the colours are not fast, it is easy to explain to them that certain colours are not fast, and cannot be made so for the price at which they are sold, and they will buy as soon, knowing the truth, as any other way."

"Look here, Mr. Stewart," said the salesman, "if those are going to be your principles in trade, I'm going to look for another situation. You won't last very long!"

The salesman found another job, but it seems Mr Stewart's principles in trade stood him in good stead with the customers as proven by the fact he is one of the twenty richest people in history.

One lesson I think we can take away from this is the principle of customer service and honesty are timeless retail principles. TOP

1st scientific hand-held calculator, the HP-35 was introduced in 1972.

The progress of technology is pretty amazing when you think about it. The HP-35 was the first hand-held calculator which has trigonometric and exponential functions. Today there are dozens of apps you can get for free on your smartphone which does much more than this simple calculator, and costs less. The $395 price tag of 1973 would be about $2,500 in today's dollars.

Before the introduction of hand-held calculators people had to use slide-rules for most complex calculations. The HP-35 was the first scientific calculator to fly in space in 1972.

During the development of this product the development team found a bug in the original product. It seemed 2.02 ln ex resulted in 2 rather than 2.02. Rather than just ignore it, HP told all their customers and offered replacement models. At this point they'd already sold 25,000 of them. However, less than a 3rd of the customers returned the buggy equipment for a new one.

Dave Packard famously said, "We're going to tell everyone and offer them, a replacement. It would be better to never make a dime of profit than to have a product out there with a problem."

The HP-35 was also the first electronic calculator to use Reverse Polish Notation. In the 1920's, Jan Lukasiewicz developed a formal logic system which allowed mathematical expressions to be specified without parentheses by placing the operators before or after the operands.

Computer scientists realised RPN was very efficient for computer maths. As a postfix expression is scanned from left to right, operands are simply placed into a last-in, first-out (LIFO) stack and operators may be immediately applied to the operands at the bottom of the stack.

Other pocket calculators couldn't evaluate complex expressions or anything that involved parentheses or algebraic precedence. The introduction of RPN allowed the HP-35 to manage complex equations.

The HP-35 is on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian. This calculator which to modern eyes seems crude changed the world. It made the slide rule obsolete and paved the way for even more complex electronic devices.

I often hear people today complaining about the world they live in, but they forget that actually the world they live in is a great improvement on the past. Each new technology introduces a new paradigm, a different set of circumstances for people to wrap their mind around humankind is moving forward.

Somewhere in some R&D offices today, someone is working on something that will make something else obsolete. Something which although seemingly inconsequential will be part of the building blocks of a new future. TOP

Free and Legal Language Challenge

I recently joined up to The Free and Legal Language Challenge which dares participants to learn a language to the European A2 level using only legally accessible materials available for free on the Internet. There is a variation of this challenge which allows the use of library material, not just the Internet. I myself signed up for two languages, Czech and Setswana.

For the Czech challenge I opted to use the library exception and I've taken books out of my local library. One of the stipulations of the challenge is you cannot spend any money on it. Has to be free. My library is free for books, but they charge for audio, so the only books I've been able to take out are the ones without audio.

The other language Setswana I opted for the pure challenge, which means I can only use materials I can find on the Internet, and which are both legal and free. I had initially assumed this would be a very daunting task, since Setswana (sometimes called Tswana) is a minority language in Africa and only spoken by about 7 million people. Compare this to English which has about 360 million people who speak English as their first language. I've managed to find a lot of public domain material from the Peace Corps, as well as television and radio from Botswana where the most Setswana speakers live.

The interesting thing about a minority language like Setswana is you have to be a lot more creative when you want to learn. There aren't any courses at your local community college, unless you live in Botswana or South Africa. You're not likely to find someone who you work with who speaks it. There are no audiobooks on Audiable. You really have to dig around to find things.

Although there are companies still who are selling a lot of pre-packaged courses for languages, this challenge is there to prove to people that you don't need to be spoon-fed a language coursebook by coursebook. The idea is you can take some control of your own learning schedule and find things for yourself.

The Internet is the great equaliser. It allows people without a lot of money to learn new things for themselves and to better themselves. It is a pity that governments across the world seem determined to restrict, monitor or control this great human experiment. But even with the restrictions and control, there is information about there for you.

So why not rise to the challenge yourself and learn a language? It could be a FIGS (French, Italian, German, Spanish) or one of the smaller minority languages like Setswana. Why not learn? There are people taking the challenge to learn Portuguese, Finnish, and even Swahili. It doesn't cost anything and it is legal. Go for it! TOP

EU Citizens not welcome here!

Have you heard about the new GDPR law which the EU will begin enforcing soon? It is another example of a law which isn't well-thought-out and causes unanticipated reactions.

GDPR is a data protection legislation which will allow EU citizens to review and have their data deleted. The premise is admirable, the results not so much. In order to implement all the required security, hire data managers and store consent forms and all the other associated work this regulation requires it has created a cottage industry. Consultants abound and everyone is scrambling within the EU to become compliant.

Large organisations outside of the EU such as Google and Facebook have also setup teams to deal with the impact of this on their systems and are spending a fortune to become compliant.

But some small and medium-sized businesses outside of the EU have done something different, although predictable. They are collecting lists of Geo-IP addresses for EU countries. Why? Because once the regulations start being enforced in May 2018, these companies will simply geo-block EU citizens. The draconian legislation and the huge cost of becoming compliant isn't worth the hassle for many small business and charities outside of the EU. Much quicker and a lot less hassle to simply block those people and never let them sign up in the first place.

If you have existing customers who are in the EU? Easy, delete them and any reference to them and never let them return. Simple application of the 80/20 rule is that if only 20% of your customers are EU, it is probably cheaper and quicker to just drop them.

This directive has any number of other problems, such as being in direct conflict with some anti-terrorism, anti-grooming, and money laundering laws but when has the creation of conflicting regulations ever stopped a bureaucrat?

So come May 2018 and you discover you can no longer login to your favourite 2nd handbook seller in the USA, or that bottle making place you used to buy from in Brazil, or any number of other small business you know why. GDPR has made EU citizens unwanted pariah for many business who don't have deep pockets like Facebook or Google.

This is another example of the unintended consequences of laws and regulations. For example, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the USA in 1989, many coastal states enacted laws placing unlimited liability on tanker operators. This lead to many oil companies leasing operations to independent ships to deliver oil to the United States rather than their own fleets. Use of these independent ships will less stringent standards and risky insurance lead to the probability of spills increasing and the likelihood of collecting damages decreasing as a consequence of the new laws.

In the UK pressure from environmental groups saw the UK government implement a 5p plastic bag charge. The unintended consequence of this legislation is an increased health risk. After the implementation of this tax a study found some interesting things about the "Bags for Life" which replaced the disposable bags. In 12% of bags the researchers found Escherichia coli - commonly known as E Coli. Most strains are harmless, but some can result in bloody diarrhoea, and sometimes kidney failure or even death.

A classic example of unintended consequences' comes from the prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s. This drove legitimate producers out of business while consolidating control of an illicit alcohol trade into the hands of increasingly well-funded organized crime syndicates.

Will GDPR go down as another example of lawmakers admirable ideals causing a vastly different behavour? Time will tell. TOP

46 Crazy Missions to bring you out of your native language shell.

When you are learning a new language it is often difficult to use; it even if you're in a country where that language is the primary one. If you set yourself some objectives or "secret missions" for things to do while in country it can make your language use more fun and more productive. I've listed 46 missions below that can help you get started speaking in your target language. This series of "missions" will involve you talking to real people in real situations to help speak outside the safety of your native language. After all striking up conversations with strangers and small talk are few peoples strong points, so having some kind of plan is essential.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it.

  • Find a book you don't have, but want which was written in the target language. Then go through bookstalls asking for the book, ask if they've read it, what their opinion of the book is.
  • Ask people to play leapfrog with you in the park, see how many you can talk into it.
  • Find someone who can juggle 3+ objects. Ask them to teach you to juggle.
  • Apply for a job in a restaurant.
  • Order food in a restaurant and negotiate your bill when it comes. See what happens, don't annoy or get arrested!
  • Haggle at the grocery store.
  • List 25 unusual things you might find in a city, then ask people to help you find them. Like a scavenger hunt. Pink bicycle rack, or green church.
  • Start a band. Try to find people who can play guitar, drums, etc. Ask people if they know anyone.
  • Try to speak to everyone you meet for 1 hour. Perhaps standing outside a metro station.
  • Call in to a local radio show and request your favourite song. Use the opportunity to get some publicity and to say hi to your mum.
  • Volunteer your time and assistance at a local church, animal shelters for a day.
  • Try to organise a game of softball, basketball, football or some other sport.
  • Order food over the phone (take out or delivery)
  • Try to find a random appliance by asking someone at a shop where it is. For example a blender, or tea-kettle.
  • Go shopping at an outdoor market
  • Find a bakery and ask about the different things they have (it is nicer for everyone involved if it is not busy when you go)
  • Buy concert tickets at a ticket window/desk
  • Go on a tour that is conducted only in the language that you're learning.
  • As a take on the last one, go to a museum and use the audio guide that is in the language that you're learning.
  • Anytime you see someone with a dog ask them what breed it is, its name, how long they have had it. Time the encounter and try to get the next person talking longer than the last.
  • Improvise a film pitch, starting with a made-up title. Then approach people and ask them if they would like to be involved in the film and what they could undertake. You get points for each person who'll give you an email address.
  • Try to fit these questions into a conversation with someone serving you (waitress, hotel desk, etc) "What's the strangest thing about where you grew up?" or "What does your name mean?" (If they say, "I don't know," reply, "What would you like it to mean?"), points for each question you can fit in.
  • Try to find 10 people who believe in alien lifeforms. Ask as many people as you can, until you've found 10. Each time you find someone, ask them to elaborate on what the aliens might look like, what they eat, how they communicate, etc.
  • Tell someone you want to start a conversation with someone else (perhaps opposite gender) and ask this person for ways that you could start a conversation with this other person. Bonus points if you can convince them to introduce you to a stranger.
  • Select one item you are going to collect during your visit. Try to buy one of these every day in a different place. (for example a pencil) Then find increasingly more obscure places to find it. This might help in a hotel because you can tell them your mission and get them involved, or a taxi driver may help.
  • Try to take a class in flower arrangement. Don't prepare in advance, try to find the class when you arrive.
  • Go to a supermarket and get a shop assistant to help you find something, then ask questions about the products and the hopefully the assistant.
  • Compliment people on their clothes and accessories. One point for each thank you, bonus points for each minute you can keep them talking.
  • Try to attend one of these: Art shows, Book readings, Music concerts, Museum exhibitions, Outdoor festivals, Geek gatherings, Parades/rallies/protests
  • If you see anyone begging (and they don't look dangerous) strike up a conversation with them and pay them for their time.
  • Go to a restaurant and ask the waiter to select your entire meal for you and ask him or her to explain their choices. Bonus points if you can get someone at the next table to choose instead.
  • Ask random people to tell you a joke.
  • Go to a real estate agency and ask about some properties they have on offer. Try to find one like the one you live in at home. Describe what you want to the agent.
  • Get your fortune told by a fortune-teller
  • Find a fish market and ask about the various types of fish, names, what they eat, bottom dweller, how to prepare, etc.
  • Make a film with your digital camera, tell them you want to get people to explain their opinions on: "the best font to use on a newspaper", "which tastes better dark meat or white meat on a turkey", "which is more socially significant tennis or football".
  • Purchase dog treats, go to the park and ask the owners if you can give the dog a treat. This works well with the suggestion above about dog owners.
  • Always be on the lookout for queues. If you see one queue up immediately (regardless of what the queue is for) and talk to the surrounding people.
  • Find a library and ask for recommendations about a topic (not languages) and try to get the assistant or someone else to help you select books.
  • Go to church talk to the priest.
  • Purposely sign-up for a long bus ride to another city and speak to the surrounding people.
  • Use the "Party with a local" app. http://partywithalocal.com/
  • Play Ingress. https://www.ingress.com/
  • Find Games & Comic Stores and play a game, many will have games in the store you can play with other customers.
  • Go to a Convention and talk to all the advertisers
  • Attend a free seminar. Many businesses present free seminars to gain new clients such as brokerage firms, home improvement stores, and technology stores.

Don't waste peoples time, or be annoying, and above all stay safe!

All of these secret missions are supposed to be a fun learning experience for you, but remember that the people you're encountering have their own lives to get one with. Most people will not mind a few minutes interaction, and if you're a customer then they are more likely to invest a little time on you. But if you're not going to buy, and they are busy then leave them alone.

Use your common sense when approaching strangers. Never go anywhere alone with someone, and never approach anyone you feel may be dangerous. Be aware of your surroundings, stick to well-lit areas where there are more people around. Trust your intuition – if you feel uncomfortable for whatever reason, try to get yourself out of that situation, fast. TOP

Why does your shirt keep coming untucked? It's the economy!

I'm going to have a little rant today about mens clothing retailers and shirts. I'm sure that if you're a man who regularly wears trousers and a collared shirt you've noticed how painful it is to keep your shirt tucked in.

What you might not realise is that the reason is economical. You see when a retailer places an order at a factory for some clothes, both the factory and the retailer are trying to optimise the margin they make. This means they are both economical about the materials used. One of the materials is the cloth to make the shirt.

If you can reduce the length of the shirt tail by 2 inches or about 50 millimetres and you're ordering 100,000 units you'll save 5 kilometres or around 3 miles of cloth. If we suppose this additional material would allow for another 3,000 shirts then for the same material cost you can sell another 3,000 units. This is the obvious economic advantage of making a short-tailed shirt.

Now let me expand on the not so obvious economic disadvantage of doing this. That reason is; I return the shirt.

I return the shirt because as a consumer it annoys me to keep having to re-tuck the shirt. In addition, once I've identified a company who short-tail their shirts, I don't buy them any more. So, you lost margin on the first shirt because I've returned it, but you've also got a loss of sale problem. Lost sales are those selling opportunities that you have lost because an item was out of stock or because you do not carry a particular brand or line of merchandise or any other reason that caused you to lose the opportunity to sell.

Retailers have a difficult balancing act. You can save money by using lower quality materials, or not giving the consumer the feeling of getting value for money, or you spend more on materials than you might.

Another annoyance to me as a customer is when the retailer reduces the number buttons on a shirt. This has the effect of allowing the shirt to spread open just above the belt line and exposing the wearers skin to the world. Again, the solution for the consumer is to return the shirt for a refund. Buttons cost money and the reduction of 100,000 buttons on an order of 100,000 shirts would be significant.

Have you purchased a high quality branded shirt where the pocket has been replaced by a logo? Fashion statement, or economic shortcut to save many metres of cloth?

For myself when buying a shirt I check to make sure that it is long enough to stay tucked in every time I sit down. I make sure there are enough buttons so that at least one button will be below the belt line and it has a pocket.

Retailers are in business to make money and sell things, so if short-tailed shirts with no pockets sit in stores unsold then you'll see a readjustment of the fine line the retailers walk when designing and ordering clothing. TOP

Blogging What?

I've been wondering lately what to write on the blog. I want to write but sometimes I struggle for ideas about what to write. As Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith said in 1949, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

If only it was that easy!

I suspect the majority of bloggers did the same thing I did and turned to Google for help. Searching for blogging ideas turns up pages of "101 best blogging…", or "35 Blog topics that work", etc. But mostly these are just the same 75-150 ideas reworded and regurgitated for people. Not much use if you want to create some content which isn't just a "cookie-cutter" blog, or marketing site disguised as a blog.

Any time spent on this blog will quickly show you that there is a variety of topics. Computer stuff, language stuff, writing, and so on. The reason is of course that I'm writing about stuff which interests me and things I do, or would like to do. This means that most of the "101 best blogging ideas" aren't relevant to me, and have no interest.

The only real "theme" for the blog, is I'm interested. So all the advice about stick to a theme for your blog, or keep on target, or determine your market, don't apply. If I'm interested in a topic, and I know something about it, or if I've just spent a lot of time learning about it then I write about it. This means a lot of readers get a bit of a shock when they come expecting a non-fiction writers blog, or a fiction writers blog, or a computer programming blog, or business management blog, or speakers blog.

A blog was originally "web log", and blog was coined by Peter Merholz, who jokingly broke the word weblog. But the purpose is the same, to keep a log on the web. This blog harkens back to the original. I'm just keeping an online log of stuff which interests me.

This blog has sparked some other things which I've either written about or presented. In fact, I hope to be performing a presentation in Bratislava about demotivation and demoralisation. The idea for doing the presentation was a direct result of the blog (see below) and the research I was doing around the area of demoralisation when learning.

I wrote my "Plan for your unemployment now!" while unemployed. You can see these topics are focused around my life. So searching for "99 blog posts you can do", is just a waste of time for me.

If you've landed on this page because you were looking for "What to blog about" in your Google search then I'm afraid I've completely disappointed you. I don't have a bullet pointed list of topics for you to select from. But I do have some advice for bloggers. Stop being another carbon-copy cookie-cutter blog site and talk about yourself and what interests you. I don't know about everyone else, but I'm more likely to come back to read a persons blog, than an another marketing time sink website.

Oh, and if you're a mailing list subscriber, feel free to send me some topic ideas!


Language Learning On A Tight Budget

It costs too much!

One of the problems with learning a language is that all the courses seem to cost so much! You're not going to get a course for less than £40 or $50 in most cases. Tutors generally charge by the hour, and classes can be expensive.

Is it possible for you learn a language without spending a fortune on resources? It is possible, but you'll still need to spend a little money.

Learning on a budget?

Getting resources doesn't have to be expensive if you got a bit of time to search around for resources. There are some free courses you can get on the Internet, and you can often find books and resources cheaply in a charity shop. Where do you start, and what do you need?

All beginners need some or all of the following resources.

  • A course book, preferably with audio disks.
  • Some books in the target language.
  • Flashcards or some kind of Space Repetition system.
  • Access to some target language audio or video.

The great resource hunt.

In order to get resources for not a lot of money you need time. A resource hunt will take longer than if you just log onto Amazon and buy everything you want or need. But it will cost a lot less.

  • The first place to try to find language learning resources is your local library. If you have a library around you where you can checkout materials this is the place to start. Often libraries will charge if there is some audio or visual portion, but books are normally free.
  • Charity shops are a good place to look for language resources. Although they might not have the target language you want they do often get items for popular languages.
  • Online resources listed below will give you free access to many materials, and use of a search engine can often turn up even more.
  • The language learners forum has a "Master List of Resources" which gives links to huge numbers of both paid and free resources.

Other resources

The Internet is a real boon for language learners because you can get a lot of resources in your target language for free. Some of these include:

  • YouTube videos
  • Podcasts
  • Newspapers

The sheer volume of information being loaded up to the Internet is amazing and not all of it is in English. It is easy to find if you can just translate your search sentence into the target language and pop it into Google.

After you get to the point where you can speak a little you should think about doing language exchanges with someone who natively speaks your target language and who wants to learn your native language. Normally you can find paid tutors on sites like iTalki.com but you can also find people who want to do language exchanges. This is free and you can use free software like Google Hangouts, or Skype to connect and talk to native speakers.

A lack of money doesn't mean a lack of resources.

You can find a lot of resources for learning if you just think about it. If you're paying for Netflix or similar you can watch films and TV in a lot of foreign languages, so your target language might be among them.

Don't let a lack of funds stop you from learning! TOP

Resolutions are a waste of time!

It is the first of January and I've not made any resolutions. I'm not going to bother with resolutions this year because it puts too much pressure on. This year I have things I want to achieve, goals really, but resolutions no. What is the difference? To be honest I don't know.

In my mind a goal is something which you work toward, but a resolution is something you deny yourself. Now this isn't always true, but most New Years resolutions are about losing weight, or getting fit, or doing something which involves denial.

A goal seems to me to be a much more self-affirming thing. It is movements towards something instead of movement away. Obviously, you can restructure a resolution to a goal. Change; "I'll never eat another chocolate bar." to something like; "My goal is to reduce the chocolate I eat by between 90-100%". It is different because it is a little more forgiving. If you eat any chocolate then you've killed your resolution dead, so might as well eat more right? But using the goal where you'd built in some slack, you'd say; Right that takes me down to 99.6%, but still within target.

But call them resolutions, or goals, or targets, whatever you want. If you are going to do them, then at least build in some slack. Another example might be if you are going on a diet and you're only going to eat 1500 calories per day. You should change this goal to something like, I will eat less than 11,000 calories per week. This is only a couple of hundred calories more than 1500 per day, but it means if you go out with a friend and over eat one day, you haven't "blown your diet", you simply need to make up the difference before the week is out.

We're all human, and we're going to mess up, so put that in your plans and give yourself from slack. Personally I think if you're moving in the direction of your destination, regardless detours, then you're doing OK.

Happy New Year everyone. TOP

Are you demotivated, or just demoralised?

Recently, on the language learners forum I administer, the subject came up about learning a minority language. I didn't join into this discussion because, for me, the thought of learning a new language filled me with both dread and anxiety. Learning a language takes a lot of time and effort, and the thought of doing it again made me cringe.

This reaction was a little strange since I've long been a lover of languages, and learning new things in general. I've commuted to work on trains with 3-4 books in hand always trying to learn more. So this reaction took me a little by surprise. I sat down to analyse why I didn't have even the remotest interest in learning a new language. I carried out some research on my feelings and even went down to the library to do a little more research.

I also noted, as you probably did too, I was interested enough in learning why I had no interest in learning to learn. I stumbled across a discussion amount psychologists discussing children and motivation. Generally this appears to the parents as the child has lost motivation to go to school or do homework, etc. That is the symptom and the parents assume motivation is the culprit. It seems however that motivation isn't the problem but demoralisation.

What is the difference between demotivation and demoralisation?

Motivation is having a strong reason to act or achieve something, and so demotivation is the opposite. Not having a strong reason to act. Demoralisation is to be deprived of spirit, courage, discipline, etc.

There is a subtle difference here in human psychology. You could have the greatest motivation in the world. The example given in the thread I spoke of earlier about learning a new language was you'd be given a million dollars for every language you learned. A million dollars is a great motivation, a good reason to act. But a demoralised person wouldn't take up the challenge, simply because they don't have the spirit or discipline to achieve the task.

If you're motivated it is easy right?

Motivation sucks for long-term activities. Motivation is OK for something you can do in a short time frame, but for a complex task with lots of effort required the shine wears off quickly.

Learning a language is a long term objective. Forget about all those marketing blurbs that tell you that you can learn a language in three months, they are just marketing. To really learn a language well you're talking about years of effort, study, practice and work. Trust me, as a person who has learned two languages to a pretty high level, it is hard work.

Human beings want to do well. They want to be praised and recognised for the efforts they have put into a task and to get rewards for doing this. Adults and children are not different in this respect. Our ability to work hard, to sustain effort, requires a feeling of accomplishment or progress along the way. We also need to have some confidence in our eventual success. Long-term goals involve many instances of anxiety, frustration, and discouragement. Demoralisation is when you cannot bounce back from these setbacks and frustrations.

You may be frustrated, discouraged, anxious or angry in your long-term goal. There is a very good chance you'll become disillusioned, self-critical or pessimistic, and lose confidence in you ability to accomplish these goals.

This described me in a nutshell when I thought about learning yet another language. I had become demoralised.

Overcoming demoralisation

I've written a book about problem analysis and one of the major reasons for not fixing a fault, is we haven't identified the root cause of the problem. So if I try to learn a new language by giving myself more reasons to do it, in fact I would have made it worse. Why worse? Because I would throw on a ton of reasons I should do it, and therefore make myself feel even more guilty and anxious. I probably still wouldn't do it, because the root cause of the problem is demoralisation, so adding more motivators would just make the situation worse.

Demoralisation is really about failures and bouncing back. Psychology Today tells us that:

  • Failure distorts our perceptions of our abilities such that we feel less up to the task or less capable of reaching a goal than we actually are.
  • Failure distorts our perception of the goal itself such that it seems further out of reach.
  • Failure makes us believe that whether we succeed or not is out of our control.

Therefore, to escape the feelings of helpless and hopeless you need to regain control, and also have feelings of pride, accomplishment and usefulness associated with the long-term task.

For me getting control requires a number of steps, and your path may be different, but here are some starting points.

  • Review your thoughts about the goal and try to find over generalisations. When you use words like: Always, Never, Forever, etc.
  • Review your goal and list anything you can do now, which you couldn't do 1, 2, 3 years ago. In other words, list your accomplishments.
  • Admit that you might be mistaken about a pessimistic conclusion. Introduce some doubt.
  • Put your demoralised thoughts on trial. Write them down on a piece of paper, then become the solicitor who is going to prove the statement wrong. You’re not just playing the “devil’s advocate” here. Really look at the statement and find what is truly wrong with it. You have to believe and to know there is a mistake in the statement.
  • Review actual failures which aren't just pessimistic thoughts, and try to create workarounds for problem areas.
  • Scale back on you ambitions if required.

If your goal to large?

It is possible that you've picked a mountain to climb that might be too high. My goal for languages is to reach a fluency level of C1 in the language. C1 is Proficent User on the CEFR scale but this goal might be too much. Or if I were to undertake learning another language I might want to set my goal to a much lower level. It might be that just having a low tourist level A2 might be fine.

Don't sell yourself short

If you're also in the middle of accomplishing a long term goal, you're going to be attacked by self-doubt and frustration. But don't let it lead to being demoralised. Try to keep it all in perspective and keep trudging on. Winston Churchill once said. "If you're going through hell. Keep going."


Do you listen? Or only hear?

Often people don't understand the difference between listening and hearing. I've been spending a lot of time lately undertaking lessons in French with tutors and the difference in my behaviour when speaking English and with French has come to light.

Hearing or Listening

When you are listening to someone you're paying attention to what they are saying. This is a pretty simple definition of the word and most people probably believe that when having a conversation this is what they are doing. However, in reality most people are hearing what is being said while formulating their next statement. They aren't giving the speaker their undivided attention. Most of their attention is focused on their own reply. I would call this behaviour more hearing, than listening.

True listening is when you give your full and undivided attention to the speaker. Thinking about what they are saying and being actively engaged in the listening process. In addition to giving your full attention you need to encourage the speaker, and concentrate.

I've recently noticed that I'd fallen into some old bad habits of not actively listening. I've had some training in active listening and knew what I should be doing, but over the years I'd fallen back into bad habits. The reason I noticed it was simple. I was trying to listen in another language.

Listening comprehension in a second language is one of the most difficult things to do. Firstly you need to parse and understand the words, and in some cases reconstruct it into your native language in order to understand. This means you have to concentrate on what the speaker is saying. You need to identify not just the individual words, but the meaning of what they are saying.

In a recent YouTube discussion I had with Dave Prine he mentioned he was always scared when he asked questions in a second language he might miss a negation word, like "don't" or "not" which would change the meaning of a sentence. My suggestion was to paraphrase the answer back to make sure that you had understood. Now this is a trick I learned from Active Listening class which I'd taken a long time ago. Even if you don't say the paraphrasing back to the person out loud and are paraphrasing in your head, it still means you are giving them your full attention. Because in order to paraphrase, you must understand.

When I'm doing a lesson or conversation in another language I have to actively listen. I thought I would mention some things I learned.

How to Listen

In order to listen you need to pay attention to the speaker, and one tip we've already discussed is listening to paraphrase what the speaker said. If you're unable to paraphrase something, then it means you didn't understand or hear it, so that is the time to ask questions for clarity.

When language learning you'll spend a lot of time asking for the speaker to repeat, or to say it differently if they are using a lot of unknown words or concepts. Don't interrupt to make a counterpoint or to argue, only interrupt if you need some clarification and have a question about what they are saying.

Engage in the conversation and give the speaker feedback such as nodding your head, using small verbal comments like yes, and uh huh.

Be respectful of the other person and their views. While you might have a personal reaction and find yourself responding emotionally to what someone said, say so, and ask for more information. It might be you've misunderstood.

Barriers to Communication

There are many things which can inhibit communication. The primary one is simply trying to listen to more than one thing at a time. For example, trying to listen to someone and also trying to listen to the radio station is a sure-fire failure.

Try to remove any distractions which might keep you from hearing and concentrating on the speaker's message.

You need to get interested in the topic, and listen with an open mind with no preconceptions or prejudices about either the topic or the speaker. Sometimes we can't listen to the message because we're distracted by the appearance of the speaker, or their voice or mannerisms.

Listening is a skill you need to develop

In your native language, or when using a second language listening is a skill which has to be developed and nurtured. You cannot assume you're a good listener. You need to make sure your fully in the moment when you're listening, and you're engaged and focused. TOP

Writing a book in a month is too easy!

November has come to an end, and so has Nanowrimo.

If you're not familiar with Nanowrimo, it is a charity which tries to get people writing every November. They challenge you to write a book, or at least 50,000 words of a book, in the month of November. I participated for a number of years, and managed to complete a book a couple of times, and some years I failed. About two years ago I looked back at when I'd completed the challenge and when I didn't and discovered there were reasons why I succeeded or not. They weren't the same reasons, but they are related to each other.

The reason I succeed.

I "won" the Nanowrimo challenge just because I'd written down 50k words. But a review of these words showed me that even in the years which I'd won, I hadn't produced a book. I'd managed to get a lot of scenes with no coherent theme bolted together. I did go back and edit two of these horrible first drafts into a book. It took a lot of work, and a lot of rewriting, and I probably only managed to salvage about half the words I'd written during the challenge. So although I technically won the Nanowrimo challenge, I didn't have a book at the end of all that work.

The reason I won on word count was a simple single mindedness to write at least 1666 words every day of the month of November. I can type about 50 words a minute so this should only take me about 30 minutes to perform. But, it didn't just whip out 1666 words in 30 minutes, it would take me 3-4 hours to do this!

The reason it took so long, is one of the reasons I failed during the years when I didn't win the challenge.

The reason I failed.

The reason I failed some years, and the reason it took me 3-4 hours to accomplish what should have taken 30 minutes, was because I was staring into space trying to think of what happened next. In other words I didn't have an outline or a plot map for the novel.

There is a saying; Proper planning prevents poor performance. Also known as, the 5 P's.

With an outline you already know what is going to happen in that scene, because it is in your outline, so it is easy to sit down for 30 minutes and knockout the 1666 words you need.

Knowing what I know now…

I could complete the Nanowrimo challenge in the first week of November. In fact I figure I could write a book in a weekend if I wrote for 9 hours each day. 9 hours is 540 minutes. 540 multiplied by 50 wpm is 27,000 words, times 2 days, and you've won the Nanowrimo challenge.

At the end of it you'll also end up with a coherent first draft of a completed novel, because you've followed an outline. When I failed the Nanowrimo it was always because I started a novel with one scene, or one simple idea. One scene or idea will not get you to the end of 50k words, or the normal 75k words typically required for a full length novel.

To create the outline you'll need around 72 scenes of about 1500 words. Now a scene is roughly defined as where the action within a scene is ‘unbroken’ in the sense that it does not include a major time-lapse or a leap from one setting to another. So the characters might be moving from one place to another, but the action is unbroken.

If you did the maths earlier you'll know that 72 scenes of 1500 words would be well over the 75k for a novel, but some will be scenes short of 1500 words and some longer. Regardless a 100k novel is a good target to aim at.

So how to write the first draft of a novel in a weekend? Easy!

Outline 72 scenes in order, don't worry about chapter breaks. Write at least one paragraph describing the action of that scene. After you've got your outline, set a timer for the exact amount of time it should take you to type 1500 words. In my case that would be exactly 30 minutes. Then type like mad trying to complete the 1500 words, or the timer runs out. Take a couple of minutes to complete your target word count, or tidy up the scene. Take a 10 minute break. Repeat until complete.

I know that Stephen King doesn't use an outline, but he is Stephen King. I need the ticking of the timer to motivate me to write and to beat the clock. Also, don't worry about typos and grammar and other stuff, that is for later. Ernest Hemingway famously told a young writer named Arnold Samuelson; The first draft of anything is shit.

I know this method makes it sound easy, but actually it isn't. Writing is very hard work, but once you have a draft it becomes easier. It is much easier to polish something than to polish nothing.

Do I really use this method?

Yep! In fact, I'm currently writing a full length novel for my subscribers; only available to them. It will be a serialised novel delivered weekly, but I'll be using the outline method to make sure my first draft is smooth and conherent, then another 3-4 drafts to get it right for publication.

So if you want to see how this method works, then subscribe and see. TOP

Plan for your unemployment now!

Who cares, I got a job.

You've got a good job, the company needs you, and everyone loves you. So no problem right? What are the chances of becoming unemployed?

Well in the UK, like most of the first world, your chances are about 1.5 in 100, on average. Which means about 1.5% of people who are in work right now will become unemployed every three months. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK calls this "the hazard of unemployment". This doesn't sound too bad right? After all, it is only 1 in every 66 people. But want to know the real kicker? The real problem is ONS calculate the chance of you getting back into work within three months is only 20-30%.

This means you've got a 1-in-66 chance of being unemployed, and you're not likely to get a job within three months time. People who are out of work for more than six months are considered the long-term unemployed, and they make up over 40% of the unemployed. The good news is if you have reusable skills in an industry with isn't downsizing, you'll probably get a new job between 1-6 months.

But can you last 3-6 months with no income?

If your answer to that question is; Hell no! Then you need to plan for your unemployment and start right now, today. Don't wait, you need to worry about this now, before you lose your job. So what do you need to do to plan for your unemployment? Well to start with you need savings. You need something to live on for the 3-6 months with no income, and you need a plan to get back into employment.

The Plan

[1] Determine how much you earn.

The first thing you need to do is to sit down and check your finances. Look at your payslip and determine how much money you are paid net. Gross income is the amount you earn before taxes and other payroll deductions. Net income is your take-home pay after taxes and other payroll deductions. You need to use the net figure. This is the amount of money you need save. Multiply that amount by three to get the minimum about you need to save, and double that to get the ideal amount. Remember you're only 20-30% likely to get a new job in the first three months, so six months money is better.

[2] Determine how much you spend.

Calculate the amount of money you spend each month, and write down what the money goes toward. If this is starting to sound like budgeting, you're right, it is. After you have a list of your monthly outgoings, and if you're like most people there is more month than money, you need to start making some cuts.

[3] Cutting back and saving. Emergency Measures.

The next step is the critical one. You need to go into emergency lock down on spending until you can get your emergency fund full. You need to involve your family, if you're not living alone, and explain that you're trying to get three months emergency funding in the bank. Then review your spending habits.

  • First cut out anything which is a luxury item. Gym memberships, sky sports TV, play groups, magazine subscriptions, morning Starbucks or anything which you can live without for a few months and isn't required.
  • Put at least 10% of your monthly income into a savings account. Every month, without fail. This is building your emergency fund, it isn't optional. Pay yourself first. It is easier to just have the money put straight in the account. If you consider it already spent, you'll manage. If you can't put in 10% then put in as much as you can, but ask yourself what you can cut back on to get that 10% next month.
  • Get control of personal debit. If you have credit cards with balances due on them, switch them to interest free for 12 month cards. Pick the debit with the largest interest rate, credit cards, store cards, personal loans, and pay that one off first. Make extra payments on the one which is costing the most, and minimum payments on the others. As soon as that one is paid off pick the next highest, put the money you were paying on the first debit toward the second and pay it off. If you follow this strategy you'll eventually pay them all off and can put more money into your emergency fund.
  • This should go without saying, but don't take on any more debit until you've got your emergency fund full.
  • Start a "side hustle". This is second income stream from something which isn't connected to your primary employment. Washing cars at the weekend, or refurbishing and selling toasters, selling crafts, babysitting. It doesn't matter what it is, there is surely something you know how to do, which someone will pay you for. Find it, and do it. Put that money into your emergency fund.

    Side hustles work best when they are mature. Don't wait until you're unemployed to try to build a side hustle business, do it while you can. Dig your well before you're thirsty!

[4] I have 3-6 months income saved, now what?

After you've managed to get your emergency fund full, then you can relax a little. But you should still keep saving, so that when life's emergencies come up, you have a savings buffer which you can pay with. So the car breaks down, you have some money saved. Never take your emergency fund below what you've determined you need. You might want two savings accounts in order to make this work.

The worst happens, you're unemployed.

You've lost your job. How doesn't actually matter, what matters is getting back on your feet. You need to get back into employment before your money runs out, and before you become long-term unemployed. It is much harder for someone who has a long break from employment to get a job.

You have a new job now, that job is finding another job.

[1] Sign up!

You need to get down to the job centre to sign on, or sign up for unemployment benefits. Whatever help is available in the country you're in, go and get it. You might think it is a stigma, or you are embarrassed, but get over it. It is money out of the system you've paid for and deserve. It will also slow the leakage from your emergency funding.

[2] Set a application target.

Don't putter about working in the garden. Don't watch TV. Don't sit around moaning about the last job. Like sales people you need a target, and finding a new job is a numbers game. Set a target for the number of applications you can make in a work day. Get up in the morning and work for 8 hours applying for jobs. In person, on the Internet, over the phone, doesn't matter how you apply, but do it.

When you first think of a target number of applications, then double it and add 10%. If you think you can only apply for 10 jobs a day, then double that number to 20, add 2 and your target is 22 applications per day. Don't stop until you've applied for 22 jobs or the 8 hours is up. If you consistently hit your target every day before the 8 hours is up, then double your target again.

Thomas J. Watson, CEO of IBM famously said: "If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate." In other words, if your not getting enough responses to your applications, then apply for more jobs.

[3] Work the side hustle!

You've got a second line of income, work it harder than you've every done before. If you didn't take the time to do a side hustle before, now is the time to start. If you did wait until now, you're not going to get as much money as you would if it was a mature hustle, but every little bit of income helps now.

You might find that your side hustle begins to make you as much or more money as the job you previously had. If that happens, then welcome to your new job. You can stop applying for jobs and start owning a business.

[4] Network

Networking with people you know, and telling them you're looking for work is one of the things everyone will tell you that you need to do. Personally, I don't think much of this plan of action. It might help, but I wouldn't depend on it. Applying for open, known positions is much easier and faster. In my experience networking is more useful for people who have a job and are looking to change.

If you have a job, then you're in a position to network more. Networking really is helping other people, meeting with them, listening to them. Not just handing them your card and hoping they have a job. Networking, like a side hustle needs to be done before you need it. You need to know a lot of people who would like to help you, before your unemployed.

I have a job and I have savings, I'm good right?

Well …

Another thing to remember is retirement is just another form of unemployment. If you want to have money in your retirement, then you'll need to save money for it now.

Retirement is just long-term unemployment without any intention of going back to work. However, in this day and age having money through your retirement can be a struggle. You need to plan for this type of unemployment too. The best thing to do is talk to an Independent Finacial Advisor, someone who can show you how to invest your money wisely.

But some measures I would recommend are:

  • Try to pay off your mortgage in advance. This is just like the strategy for paying off your debit, and this is likely to be your largest debt.
  • Try to invest in something which pays higher rates of returns.
  • Spread your investments around.
  • Pay into a retirement fund.

Good Luck!

I hope this brief post will help you to start thinking about the possibility of becoming unemployed and taking measures to prevent it from becoming a catastrophe for you and your family. If you liked what you read, please click-to-tweet this post.

Tweet: Plan for your unemployment! 1-66 people will be unemployed in the next 3 months. It could be you.


Price reduction on books to $0.99

I have reduced the prices on three of my books in order to gather some additional reviews of them. They are now down to $0.99 for the remainder of 2018, and after that we'll see. Below are the links.

Ignition, Book One of the Librarian Series

Wild Justice, Book One of the Frontiersman

African Extrication, Book One of Les Retraites

I've setup some quick Click-to-Tweet links below to share with your followers the reduced prices! Thanks for your help in spreading the message.

TWEET: Ignition is on sale now for $0.99, limited time offer! https://goo.gl/iCFwM
TWEET: Wild Justice, on sale for only $0.99 , limited time offer! https://ctt.ec/b1f81+
TWEET: African Extrication, on sale for $0.99, for a limited time! https://goo.gl/sr6K66


Updated the RSS system

I've spent a lot of time updating the system to give RSS notifications when there is a new blog entry. It is difficult to remember to come back to visit sites to see if there is a new entry or more information, so it is always useful to have the website "ping" you when there is an update.

Personally I prefer a free and opensource system called Tiny Tiny RRS for my own subscriptions, but there are many other. Now that I've managed to get the system configured I'll be sure to start giving better and more interesting content.

I'm also planning a lot more videos showing software and systems I use for language leanring or for just learning new things in general. I hope you'll have a look at the courses section of the website where I post my YouTube videos, or you can subscribe directly to the YouTube Channel. TOP

First post on new blog.

This is my first blog post after my site was hacked a few months ago. I've decided to take the time to organise the site so that it is a static site with only html pages and no dynamic database driven content engine. If you're wondering what happened, it seems the hosting platform was compromised and some malware was attached to the top of the php pages.

With this iteration of my blog, I've turned off dynammic pages and done everything with a straight html, written in the emacs text editor with org-mode.

In addition to reworking the website, I've published my new book, African Extrication and I'm putting the finishing touches on the sequel Italian Detente.

I'll keep this short and sweet, since it is just an update on why the blog hasn't been available for a long time. I'm reserving the space to dig all the old posts out of the database and repost as static blog pages. This should be done in a couple of weeks.