Reading: Tor and Shelfari

Not actually what my bookshelf looks like Source: http://laurenreadsya.tumblr.com/post/34905023288/bookshelf-porn-5

Not actually what my bookshelf looks like
Source: http://laurenreadsya.tumblr.com/post/34905023288/bookshelf-porn-5

Despite the fact that my bookshelf is overflowing and my collection of ebooks is threatening to take over my phone, I’m constantly keeping an eye on new sources for reading material. Usually I can keep from buying all the books I find interesting by just adding them to my Amazon wishlist (which is up over 200 items now…), which means that anyone looking for gifts has a huge list to pick from!

Two of my favorite ways of finding out about new books (other than wandering through a used bookstore for hours) are publisher Tor Book’s online magazine, and an email digest called Shelf Awareness.

 

Tor.com is the online sci-fi / fantasy magazine published by Tor Books. They publish articles on sci-fi and fantasy books, movies, and TV shows, convention news, rereads of well-known series and books (such as Harry Potter or the Wheel of Time), interviews with authors and other people in the industry, thoughts on fandom events, compilations of art…there’s tons of stuff. Their email list gets sent out every Thursday, and the articles are fun, but my favorite part is the “New Original Fiction” section. There are a couple new pieces each week, from Tor authors: either short stories or excerpts from new books. There are some really great stories, and it provides access to short fiction that I don’t often get in my regular diet of novels!

 

Shelf Awareness is the main contributor to my Amazon wish list right now. It’s a twice weekly e-newsletter about books and the book industry. Lists come out of a selection of new books being published that week, selected by industry members. The newsletter also includes some quizzes and articles for book lovers, interviews with authors, and a neat section at the end called Author Buzz. In it, authors write about their books and offer readers a chance to win a copy.

Shelf Awareness doesn’t focus on a particular genre – it has a bit of everything. I find an interesting title in just about every issue, which has been hard on my self-control! Maybe one day I’ll work through my backlog of paper and digital books (not likely)…if that ever happens, I certainly won’t be short on reading material even then!

 

What are your favorite sources for new books and things to read?

Cheers!

-H

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Skills for Language Learning

We take for granted that public speaking is its own skill, separate from reading, debating, writing, or listening. We understand that these skills need to be practiced separately: being a good writer is no guarantee that you’ll be a good speaker. The same philosophy applies to learning a new language. To be fluent in the language, you need to practice your skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Looking at your skill level in these separate areas can give you areas to focus on: for example, I’m fluent in Spanish. However, my skill in speaking it is not as great as my skill in listening, writing, or reading. It’s something I have to practice more, so I can speak smoothly and confidently, without tripping over my tongue.

 

There are lots of ways to practice the various skills. The language app Duolingo makes sure to test these skills separately: translating from written phrases, transcribing spoken phrases, and speaking into the microphone. For practicing listening, try finding podcasts, tv shows, or news broadcasts in your target language. This can also help with gaining familiarity in different accents. Most of my experience with Spanish came from Latin American accents, and it took a while to get used to the accents in Spain (with their odd habit of dropping consonants all over the place!). Taking the time before the trip to find some examples of Spaniards speaking would have smoothed my transition.

Some resources for practicing the listening skill, here: SBS On Demand offers free movies in lots of languages; Librivox has audiobooks; here’s a list of Latin American movies to watch; and this is a tool to control playback speed in files, to catch parts you missed the first time through.

 

Practicing speaking could involve: finding someone on Skype or Italki to chat with (this also improves your listening skill!); reading aloud from a book or article in your target language; or narrating your activities and life (describe the people and things you see around you: what they’re doing, what they look like, etc.). Make it a habit: the more time you spend in your target language, the more confident you’ll be speaking it. Don’t wait until you know “enough” of the language to start doing this! You will never know enough; there will always be more words to learn. Instead, slip in whatever words you do know. If you come across a word that’s missing from your vocabulary, go look it up.

 

To practice reading: switch your phone/browser/computer to your target language; go to a used book store and pick up books to read (to start, try ones that you already know, comic books, or kids’ books. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to read at the same level as in your first language!); try any of these sources for reading material; try a bilingual puzzle; read comic books; or play 20 questions.

 

Don’t waste time trying to find the best or the perfect resource for language learning. It’s much better to find a decent source, and then just start using it. There will always be something better! If you find it, then switch, but don’t stop learning.

What are your favorite resources for learning the different language skills? For me, the real test for Spanish was when I went to Spain and discovered that I can indeed hold a phone conversation without stumbling! That was a great accomplishment. Even after that, though, I was still looking out for ways to improve my skills. This is an ongoing journey!

 

Cheers,

-H

Productivity Tools

Productivity and time management are essential skills to learn, but everyone finds their own best practice for managing their time. The method that works for one person most likely won’t work for someone else. Here are some tools that have worked for me lately:

 

I’m not overly fond of keeping a time sheet, but I have found that tracking the time I spend on projects helps me stay focused and not waste the day browsing the internet. I use Toggl to track my time: I can split it up by client and project, and all I have to do is mark when I start and stop working on a task. At the end of the week if I want to look at how I did, the site has reports available to show how much time was spent on each project/client, and how much time was logged overall.

The reports have a twofold benefit for me. First, they provide me with data: am I spending enough time doing actual client work, as opposed to internal projects? Am I getting a reasonable amount of work done each day? I can compare the time spent on a project to the time I estimated it would take, and see how accurate my predictions are. This helps make me better at scheduling my week without being under- or over-busy. Second, it (oddly enough) helps with my perfectionism. It’s easy for me to get into the mindset of thinking that I should get 8 hours of productive work out of an 8 hour day, but that’s just not reasonable. Distractions come up, there are bathroom and lunch breaks, switching tasks takes time, sometimes you just need to take a minute and not do anything…all these little breaks add up and getting 6-7 hours of work done is much more reasonable. Seeing the numbers reflect that has helped break me of the feeling of never working hard enough.

 

The second tool I use is Asana, for task management. I’ve tried various to-do lists, and so far this one’s sticking much better than the others. What works really well for me is that it’s browser (or app!) based, so I can access my list anywhere. Also, I can split tasks up by project, task, and sub-task, set due dates and priorities, add comments, and add followers (if someone else is involved with the task too). The task list is split into Today, Upcoming, and Later: by default, Today is ranked highest in the list, followed by Upcoming, and then Later is on the bottom, and usually hidden. When I set up a new task, it goes into Upcoming. The Later category is for tasks that are low priority that I can work on when I have free time. They’re things that it would be nice to get done, but they’re not needed.

At the beginning of the week, I set a few weekly goals: larger projects that will take several days to complete. I also go through my projects and list the smaller daily tasks that are due to be completed this week. Then at the beginning of each day, I review my list and see what needs to be done today, and move it up on my list. Then I get to work!

Having the tool open every day and taking a few minutes each morning to set my priorities and goals for the day has really helped my productivity. I get to see each day that I set goals, and then I accomplish them, which is a great feeling. In addition, having a Today section gets rid of the urge to keep pushing tasks off if I don’t feel like doing them. I want to check them off, not just move them down the list.

 

I keep this matrix up next to my desk to remind myself of what actually needs to be done. Source: http://examinedexistence.com/three-popular-ways-to-prioritize-a-hectic-schedule/

 

Finally, I keep in mind the Important/Urgent matrix (shown above). It’s fairly self-explanatory: important tasks are the big things, the ones that will have major impact and really need to be completed. Urgent tasks are like a phone ringing: they create the impression that they must be taken care of now, whether or not that’s actually true. Sometimes, it is true, as with an emergency or a project on a deadline. Often, though, it’s just a phone ringing, or an email popping up: it feels important because it’s at the top of your mind, but there are little to no consequences for not taking care of it immediately. It’s easy to get caught taking care of the Urgent-Not Important tasks, and forget to work on the Important-Not Urgent ones instead. When setting priorities for my day, I keep in mind this list and try not to focus too much on the Urgent tasks, to the detriment of the Important ones.

 

Do any of these tools work for you? What’s your favorite method for productivity or time management?

Cheers!

-H

Language Learning Tools

A small selection of all the languages I’d like to learn… Source: http://www.aflclc.com/

 

One of my goals (ignoring the obvious impracticality of doing so) is to learn ALL THE LANGUAGES. Right now I’m learning German and improving my Spanish. Also on my list is Thai, Russian, Portuguese, Swahili, Mandarin, Hindi, Scottish Gaelic, Arabic…the list goes on. If I want to learn all these, I’ll need to be very motivated and find the best tools that fit my learning style.

Two of those tools are Duolingo and Memrise. They’re great (free!) language learning sites that I’ve been using for the last year and a half to bring my Spanish skills from rudimentary to full fluency, and to begin learning German.

 

Duolingo has many languages available, and more in development: currently they have Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese, and are developing Dutch, Irish, Danish, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Russian, Polish, and Romanian. As you make your way through a course, you learn individual lessons which introduce a number of new words. You get three “hearts” to spend on wrong answers in a lesson: if you run out of hearts, you have to start the lesson over. Sometimes it can be tedious – like when you’re on the last question and you lose your last heart – but it does drive home the lesson. People learn better when they fail, and even if it’s frustrating, it helps the words stick.

The course works well on its own, but it’s when I noticed it also tracked how many days in a row I’d practiced that I really started to commit. I wanted to see how long I could keep a streak going (59 days so far!), and that made it much harder to let excuses get in the way of practicing the language. Even if I only made a little progress each day, it was still progress, and better than nothing.

Recently I’ve been getting the people around me into the site too. You earn points by completing lessons, and this has spawned a small race each week to see who can get the most points. Yes, in the end they’re meaningless numbers, but if it works to inspire you to learn, that’s a good reason to me.

 

Memrise is a site I discovered a little later in my language learning process, when I decided I wanted to start really expanding my Spanish vocabulary. The idea of the site is to use spaced-repetition (reintroducing a new concept frequently at first, then at longer intervals as it becomes fixed in long-term memory) to help you learn. The courses are user-created and span a huge variety of topics: tons of languages (including less common ones like Cherokee, Slovak, and Klingon), standardized tests, astronomy, psychology, history…obviously, quality isn’t as consistent so you have to do a bit more work to find a good course, but there are lots to choose from. I’ve been learning the military spelling alphabet and Morse code in my spare time…

 

What are your favorite language learning tools? And what languages do you want to learn when using them?

Cheers,

  • H

Free Ebook Sources

I am a voracious reader, and have a definite problem when it comes to books: I acquire them more quickly than I can read them. This leads to an overstuffed bookshelf, and an e-reader full of even more options, many of which I’ll never get to. I hold out hope, however, that I will one day read all the books! The inconvenience of reality has not managed to remove this desire…along with the desire to learn all the languages and do all the things.

If you do not have this problem (or if you do and are perfectly happy to keep striving for it!), there are a number of sources for e-books that make a great alternative to overflowing bookshelves. Here are a few sites to check out:

 

Project Gutenberg is a huge database of books that are out of copyright, which have been digitized and uploaded for free use by anyone. They have some 46,000 books available, made possible through the work of some very dedicated volunteers. If you somehow run out of reading material here, either you’re spectacularly picky or you’re not human. I use this site frequently to get classics (and one day I shall read them!).

Open Library is an enormous project dedicated to creating a web page for every book ever published. It is open source and community-edited, and is part of the non-profit Internet Archive, which has the even more lofty goal of creating an archive space for the entire Internet, and all the knowledge contained in it. Books are available to read online or in many downloadable formats, and the site also includes links for borrowing or purchasing. My method: click random links until you get to a book! It’s the closest you can get to wandering through the stacks in a physical library.

TUEBL is another source for ebooks to download. I’ve found this site very fruitful for finding more modern books. As a warning, the site doesn’t have the best design: make sure the download link you click is the actual link, and not an ad. TUEBL has also started a new Women in Tech project to help women to learn to code. With the knowledge that their user base is 80% women, they wanted to help get more women into the technology industries. So, they have partnered with the education program OneMonth to start learning to code, and to help them get access to jobs in the industry through their business network.

 

There are many more sites to check out; these are merely the ones I use most often. Enjoy, and find lots of new reading material! You have no excuse to run out of books this way…

Cheers,

  • H

Adventures Abroad: Travel Hacking

I went to Spain in June!

 

If you reacted to that statement with the thought, “I wish I could do that…” you really can do that. I promise. What’s stopping you from traveling? The usual culprits are money and time. Time…well, that’s in short supply for everyone, but having money to travel doesn’t mean you need to be rich. Ever heard of travel hacking?

The idea is this: credit card companies are willing to give out a lot of rewards for the honor of having you as a customer. They bank (ha!) on you running up a balance and not paying it off each month, so they can charge you boatloads of interest. Pay the balance on time, however, and instead it can be a nifty way to get some really good perks. For example, Chase has a credit card which earns you one United Airlines mile for every dollar you spend. This is a good start, but buying a plane ticket can easily cost upwards of 50,000 miles, and that will take you quite a while. So, people look for shortcuts, known as travel hacking: the fine art of maximizing your rewards in order to earn free flights as quickly as possible.

For example, that same Chase card gives a 50,000 mile sign-up bonus if you hit the spending goal within the first few months of having the card. That’s enough for a flight right there! This is the card I’ve been using lately, and I’ve earned over 100,000 miles since I opened the card late last year.

With a few credit cards like this opened, the sign-up bonuses add up quickly. A good breakdown of the available travel credit cards and how to choose the best one for you can be found at http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-tips/picking-a-travel-credit-card/. Things to look out for when picking a card include: a large sign-up bonus with a low spending minimum, how many points you earn per dollar spent (usually 1:1, though some cards give you more), low annual fees (it’s easy to spend more on annual fees than you would save, if you don’t fly often!), and no foreign transaction fees. Also, make sure the card you get allows you to transfer points into the miles you need: no use getting the United card if you only fly American Airlines!

If you’re really bored, you can sign up to take surveys for miles: it’s tedious, but does add up over time. United Airlines has programs with http://www.e-miles.com/ and http://www.e-rewards.com/. The sooner you start with these programs, the sooner you can be pleasantly surprised by the amount you’ve earned! In addition, airlines have shopping programs, where you go through their website when making purchases online and earn several miles per dollar you spend (for United, the site is https://www.mileageplusshopping.com/). Finally, you can earn bonus miles by eating at restaurants who have partnered with the airlines, found at http://mpdining.rewardsnetwork.com/.

There are lots of other tips: people who make travel hacking an art try to avoid spending money if it doesn’t help them earn miles in some way. A quick search online will reveal myriad websites dedicated to finding the best and easiest ways to get free flights. My favorite resources are: Nomadic Matt (www.nomadicmatt.com), a travel blogger; and The Points Guy (thepointsguy.com), a very thorough site with credit card reviews and a ton of other information for maximizing your rewards, gaining elite status, and getting the most out of your miles. Here is an excellent guide to getting started: http://thepointsguy.com/beginners-guide/.

The idea behind travel hacking is that travel should not be unobtainable, and that you can in fact get a plane ticket without it costing you a limb or two. So, next time you hear about someone’s travel plans and think “I wish I could do that…” take some steps to do it for real. The only issue at that point is finding the time to travel, and unfortunately no one’s covered “time hacking” yet…

 

Cheers,

  • H

Helpful links: News and Interesting Facts

I tend to be very strict with my inbox. I minimize my subscriptions so the only emails that get sent to me are ones I actually want to read. Two such subscriptions that made the cut are TheSkimm and Today I Found Out.

TheSkimm is a weekday news digest that covers all the big news of that day – in their words, “across subject lines and party lines” – and sends out a summary with some clever commentary. They try to keep things humorous (a recent discussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine included the phrase “liar liar vodka on fire”), while still being thorough and fair. They admit when they don’t have all the facts and don’t make up information to fill the gaps. TheSkimm is my favorite way to get the news without having to get angry about it.

Today I Found Out is a blog that’s very much in line with my own: every day, they will post about something new and interesting they learned. Topics are wide ranging, from “How the Maximum Occupancy of a Building is Calculated” to “The Town That’s Been Burning for Over Half a Century”. The write ups are straightforward and engaging, and there is a very dangerous looking “Random Knowledge” button if you’re interested in wandering down the internet rabbit hole…

Enjoy the new links and go out and learn!

Cheers,

  • H

Lifelong Learning Sources

I graduated college in fall of 2011, but I haven’t stopped learning since then. Since that point, I’ve: gained fluency in one language and am well on my way to a second; learned to sword fight; continued improving my skills in Excel and VBA; learned how to sharpen a knife; learned to tie a lot of useful knots; learned how to make sauerkraut, cheesecake, Thai chicken soup, and pulled pork; and many more skills. That’s the point of this blog, after all: to highlight all the interesting things I learn and share them.

Some of these topics I learned about on my own, through self-study. Others were taught to me by peers with subject matter expertise. But one huge area of learning that I’ve only recently started exploring is MOOCs: massive open online courses. These are websites such as Coursera or EdX which offer free, university-style courses online on just about any topic imaginable: I’ve seen offerings in the field of languages, computer science, business, engineering, history, sustainability, law, and lots of others.

These courses are (usually) not offered for college credit, but instead present you with a certificate of accomplishment. I recently completed a course through Coursera on systems engineering, offered through the University of New South Wales. It consisted of a series of video lectures, accompanied by weekly quizzes and homework assignments, a midterm exam, and a final exam. Students were free to participate to the level they wanted, with discussion forums and more involved assignments available to those who were interested. For me, it was nice to feel like I was back in school again, because I miss it quite a bit (though I’ll admit, nostalgia makes it easier to forget all the late nights and stressful exams!). This way, I can continue my career and still get a chance to learn new things.

MOOCs are available through lots of different sources. So far the only one I’ve tried personally has been Coursera, but MOOC List points to lots of sites. Others I’ve heard good things about include CodeAcademy, MIT, and Stanford.

I may go back at some point for a formal degree program, but for now I’m happy getting my continuing education from alternarive sources. There’s so much to learn, I’ve no fear of running out of things to keep me busy…

So, discuss! See any courses you’re interested in? One of the great things about MOOCs is the emphasis on community participation, despite geographical limitations. So go out and learn something new!

  • H

Links: Style and Self Image

I first started getting interested in style shortly after I entered college. Before that, I wore t-shirts I’d received in giveaways, jeans that vaguely fit (and often vaguely not), tennis shoes, and baggy sweatshirts, and thought to myself that was good enough, because I was smart, not pretty. As often happens in these situations, I needed someone outside myself to tell me that yes, I could be smart and pretty at the same time, and for that matter, I was pretty now! This was a revelation, and it inspired me to start reflecting with my outward self what my inner self was beginning to feel. However, I had no idea where to start, so predictably enough, I went to the internet for guidance.

I’ve learned a lot in the last 6 years about style, and the most important lesson is that you have to dress for yourself first. If you dress for someone else, often you’ll end up feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious. Dress for the look and feeling you want to have, and you’ll feel good about yourself, and that confidence will shine through. If you feel good, you look good, and that happiness shows.

A number of wonderful women online helped me come to this realization, and they’re included in my blogroll:

The lovely ladies at Academic Chic have sadly moved on to other projects, but they left their blog up as a reference. They have lots of inspiration for dressing for various body types and events (from travel to weddings to pregnancy). In addition, being academics, they ran a number of experiments in color theory, pattern matching, and capsule wardrobes, among other topics. I have a lot of their outfit ideas saved for when I’m stuck on what to wear.

Sally McGraw at Already Pretty is an amazing woman. She has a ton of important ideas about the intersection of style and body image, and uses her own journey to self-love and self-confidence as inspiration to help others on that path too. She believes in giving women as many opportunities as possible to discover positive self image, and style is one of those opportunities. She emphasizes only following style “rules” if they suit you, thrifting whenever possible (because every trend has been here before!), and above all, enjoying yourself. Also, her cats are adorable.

Angie at You Look Fab has a ton of helpful advice on dressing for the body you have today, shopping wisely, and developing your personal style. She also cultivates a very active discussion forum which is well worth checking out. The folks there are smart, endlessly helpful, and extremely welcoming.

Style is an ongoing journey and I’ve been enjoying my trip thus far, largely because I’ve had resources like these to remind me that the opinion that matters most in this case is my own. If I’m comfortable and happy in my body, I’m doing it right!

Cheers,

  • H