Lift.do’s Quantified Diet Project

I received an email today from Lift.do about their Quantified Diet Project. I’ve been meaning to write about Lift.do for a while, since I discovered the site from Tim Ferriss’ blog. Lift.do is an application for iPhone, Android as well as online, to provide daily motivation with various habits you want to form. They provide plans to allow you to build up your desired habit, with plans ranging from a simple daily reminder to check off to providing you with daily step by step plans to get you from the start to your goal.

Continue reading Lift.do’s Quantified Diet Project

Madrid in Review

Good

I’ve improved my Spanish

Before I came to Madrid, I struggled with conversations, because I couldn’t understand people when they talked. I was attempting to translate in my head, and was only about to translate about one word before the other speaker was two sentences further along. Now I can understand a lot more. I don’t understand every word, and I need to concentrate, but I’m getting there. I’m not conversational by any stretch, but my understanding has massively improved.  I put this down to language exchanges, which allowed me to talk to real Spanish speakers and pushed my abilities. This is something I am going to try to continue with in Rio and in South America. I do find that not understanding a single word can prevent me from understanding an entire sentence, so I need to work on my vocabulary a little more too.

Improved my dental health

I never used to floss my teeth. I’d always been told that I should, but it always seemed like a hassle using regular floss. Then I discovered dental floss sticks and it suddenly became much easier. I believe I have successfully integrated then into my nightly routine. It adds a few minutes, but given the smell left on the floss, removing that rotting food and plague is well worth the time for reducing the chances of bad breathe and causing cavities. I’ve also noticed that I no longer have blood in my toothpaste from bleeding gums after I’ve brushed my teeth which shows the health of my gums had markedly improved.

Proved the concept of location independence works

One of the main reasons for moving to Madrid first was to test whether I could be as effective in Madrid as I was in Brighton, while still being close enough to jump on a plane in an emergency. There was a slight delay in getting internet set up, but the VoIP phone system worked and none of my clients were any wiser the fact that I was not in Brighton. My two weeks in the Maldives may put this to the test, but I think it’s sustainable.

Saved money

I was spending £1000 a month on rent and bills in Brighton. My rent in Madrid was closer to £425. I need to spend some time calculating my spending in Madrid, but even with buying numerous plane tickets, I’m in a better financial position than I was. The Maldives will probably be expensive and I know the cost of living in Brazil is surprisingly high, but I hope that this trend will continue. It does show that the United Kingdom, and Brighton in particular, is an expensive place to live.

The bad

Getting out of shape

When I moved to Spain I replaced measuring my weight with measuring my waist, which is a better approach, especially if you are weight lifting. Unfortunately, in the last month I have increased the measurement around my waist, and my clothes are feeling tighter. I’ve only added about an inch, but it’s still disappointing. I put this down to a couple of things. Firstly I have not been exercising. Before I left Brighton I’d started weight lifting, but I have not been able to continue this in Madrid. I will have to make a concerted effort to fix this in Brazil. Fortunately my girlfriend has been going to the gym there, so we will be able to go together.

Secondly I have been socialising. I’ve been spending most weekends with some English friends who are not avoiding carbs, which means that when we go to restaurants or they visit, I fail to eat according to my diet plan. This requires much more will-power and not giving in.

I also think I’ve been failing to stick to one particular plan. I normally aim for a ketogenic diet, but I’ve been reading Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body, and attempted to integrate some of his Slow Carb diet into my daily diet. Unfortunately, I think this meant I wasn’t really following either.  I need to pick one and stick to it.

Finally, I think I’ve been drinking far more alcohol than I would in England. Normally I’d order a soda and lime, but I don’t know an equivalent low-sugar drink that is typical in Spain. Going to language exchanges has only increased the number of opportunities to drink.

Procrastination

I possibly procrastinated more in Madrid than I did in Brighton, and this is my current major flaw, which I need to resolve if I want to continue making travelling a viable option. Part of this is down to not sleeping properly, despite attempting to fix this early into my stay here. The main problem here is lack of self-discipline and structure to my day. I think it would be a better idea if I worked on making getting out of bed soon after waking and showering first thing in the morning a habit. I also need to stop having distractions. Imgur and Reddit are a major time sink for me. I should investigate blocking these sites during the day and increasing my usage of tools like Focus@Will to get more things done. Planning my tasks may also help. I’ll be writing some more about these measures in a forthcoming article.

As much as I don’t think it is good to rely on other people to fix my problems, I hope that being around other people working, when I’m in Brazil, will help instil some of these habits in me. It’s harder to waste time looking at cute pictures of cats when the person next to you is writing away.

I didn’t improve my Spanish as much as I’d hoped

I knew that I need to spend more time conversing with native speakers if I wanted to improve my Spanish. Sadly I didn’t do this as much as I should. I spent far too much time talking with English speakers. I had also planned to visit far more language exchange than I did. I suspect that going to one every day the week was unrealistic, but I should have started sooner. Benny Lewis advocates a zero English approach and I failed spectacularly far from this goal. I will have to improve this in Brazil and in any south American countries we end up in. It’s going to be frustrating, but my experience of the improvement language exchanges have made to my Spanish shows that I need to get out of my comfort zone and make the effort and to deal with that frustration if I’m to progress in a decent time frame.

I didn’t explore further afield as I should have

I didn’t really get much change to venture out side of Madrid at all. I had planned to visit Segovia a few weekends ago, as they have a beautiful castle and a Roman viaduct, but a few friends weren’t able to make it, so we postponed our trip until after the new year, but I don’t be here now, so I won’t make that. The only real time I visited any tourist sites was when my friend from England came to visit and we went to see art galleries. I need to make an effort in future to spend more time sightseeing. I am trying to avoid experiencing cities as a tourist and to get a better feel for living in a city, but I shouldn’t avoid things that countries have to offer. The Tapapies festival is the kind of events I should be looking out for more. I think I need to work on working harder, so that I have more free time to experience these events and locations, rather than spending my day procrastinating.

I will be in Brazil during Carnival, so it will be pretty hard to ignore that. I’ve also realised that I need to take more pictures, especially of myself, as I don’t have many of my time in Madrid.

So that’s my review of my two and a half months in the Spanish capital. Some good, some bad, but the bad points are just places I need to look to improve in the future. Do you have any suggestions on how to improve the places I’m lacking? What are your good and bad points of your last few months or for this year? What do you want to improve next year?

Language exchanges in Madrid

I’d mentioned previously about using language exchanges for improving your language skills and for making new friends, and Madrid has many different language exchanges or intercambios throughout the week. They’re the perfect opportunity to practice your Spanish, help other people practice their English and to make new friends. There seems to be a hard core of people who attend these events and you’ll soon recognise them and grow your social circle. Here’s a list and description of some of the language exchanges in Madrid I’ve managed to attend so far. I’ll add to it as I discover new events. Feel free to let me know updates, so I can keep this list up to date.

Monday

Jardin de Bosco – 19:00

This was a tiny bar just around the corner from Tribunal station and Plaza de dos de mayo. The bar had just about enough room to fit the ten people who turned up to the event, but this was a good number to enable everyone to take part in one or two conversations. The glitterballs and music didn’t really help the atmosphere though

Tuesday

Jardin de Bosco – 19:00

This is the same event as on Monday. Again, a small group of about 8-10 people sitting around a table. This makes it hard to talk one-on-one with someone, so if you’re not very confident generally or with your Spanish, this may not be the event for you. If you’re more fluent, you will probably get more out of this. The music was a little too loud, which made it harder to hear people.

Hello Lola, Olé Lola, Calle de San Mateo – 20:00

This is a fancy bar with around 40 people sitting around and chatting in a nice atmosphere. The sitting arrangement means that there’s not as much mingling as there might be at other events, but everyone is friendly and you get to have longer conversations with people. There’s an organiser greeting everyone when you arrive and they give you a national flag, so everyone can see where you’re from. They also have drink promotions for people attending, but I don’t know if they’re great value. I think this is my second favourite event on Tuesday.

Atomic Bar, Calle de Barco – 21:00

This was possibly my favourite event of the evening, which about 40-50 people cramming into a small bar close to Gran Via. The crowd was fairly young and made up of a lot of students. There was a very varied crowd, as I spoke to people from Ireland, America, India, Mexico and China as well as Spanish. Unfortunately, with that number of people, it was very noisy and harder to hear people.

Calle de Valverde – 21:00

This event is arranged by the same person that originally arranged the event in Atomic Bar, but she felt Atomic bar was too small for the number of people going and found a bigger venue. Unfortunately, not everyone got the message, which has resulted in a split between the two venues, so I don’t know if people will start migrating to the new venue or continue to go to both. It did mean that Atomic Bar was a little less crowded the first night of the new location. My only complaint about the new venue is that people started sitting around a small table, which made it harder for new people to join conversations.

El Parnasillo del Principe – 22:00

We turned up about an hour after this even had started, and I think it had already started to wind down, although apparently this was unusual. This did have the huge advantage of allowing me to have a one-on-one conversation with a Spaniard for most of the time we were there, which was very useful for my Spanish. It was obviously an older crowd at this event, with most people being over 40. As this event happens four times a week, I think I will save this for another night.

O’neills Irish Bar – 21:00

This is an event I wasn’t aware of until we were walking home, so I can’t tell you anything about it.

Wednesday

J&J Books, Calle de Espiritu Santo – 20:00

This is a small American bookshop and bar, and they have events Wednesdays, Thursdays and now Saturdays. The venue is pretty small, but around 20 people turn up and it’s one of my favourite events. Given the other events on Wednesdays and Thursdays I’d recommend leaving this until Saturday, but I don’t know if it’s less busy during the week.

MadridBabel

Fran from MadridBabel let me know about this popular group held on Wednesday nights near Sevilla metro station. You can read more information in his comment. http://experimentalnomad.com/language-exchanges-madrid/#comment-889

Thursday

Kruger, German 20:00 – 22:00

This exchange was a very small affair with about 10 people in total, with a mixture of Spanish and German conversations. The bar was large, but very friendly and quiet, which made the conversations easier to understand. It’s a little hard to find because it’s in the tunnel between Plaza de Los Cubos (Cine Princesa) and Calle de Martin de los Heros.  If I was looking to practice my German this would definitely be one of the best places to go.

Beer Station, Plaza de Santo Domingo. 22:00 – late

This was by far the busiest event I’ve been to so far. It’s organised by the same people as the Tuesday night event at El Parnasillo del Principe. There was around 60+ people packed into a large bar with a selection of beers available. The large number of people here made it noisy, but this was definitely the most social of the gatherings. I managed to spot four or five people I knew from other events and chatted with a few. Highly recommended.

J&J Books, Calle de Espiritu Santo – 20:00

See Wednesday.

Saturday

J&J Books, Calle de Espiritu Santo – 20:00

See Wednesday.

Sunday

Beer Station, Plaza de Santo Domingo – 19:00

This is the same event as the event on Thursday at Beer Station and Tuesday at El Parnasillo del Principe.

MadridBabel

See Wednesday.

Which is your favourite language exchange in Madrid? Have I missed any events? Do you have any reviews of these or other events?

Improving your confidence

Someone on a forum asked for advice on how to improve their confidence and to overcome their negative thoughts and opinions of themselves:

I am not a very good looking male and very insecure about what other people think of me. I always have this opinion that no one ever likes me when they meet me for the first time and only after seeing me for couple of times, they get adjusted to my face and start having normal conversations. I routinely say no to people who go out because I am afraid I’ll be left alone. This is also partly due to my high school years where my classmates used to tease me for looking like a old school villain. After this point, I never really got close to anybody. I have friends who I regularly meet but no one who I can share my problems with

I read these anecdotes on reddit where some guy gets enough courage to ask a girl for her phone number and turns out that its not so bad and she agrees. For me that scenario is so outlandish I rule it out as a fantasy. I am constantly striving to not give a fuck but somewhere in the back of my mind the feeling always lingers. I look at people around me and all of them are better looking and I sometimes feel like it is a requirement to exist in this world and achieve success. I frankly don’t know how to overcome this self doubt in me. I imagine I cannot be that unique in this world that somehow this entire universe is conspiring to fuck me over, so this must be something in my head. What should I be doing so I don’t worry about what other people think of me?

I thought that my response would be useful for a wider audience:

When I was a teenager, I used to feel very similar to you at times. I wasn’t popular at school and didn’t get invited out to many things, and never really had a girlfriend and wasn’t very confident.

The first thing to realise is that people’s opinion of you will be hugely affected by your own opinion of yourself. This means that if you see yourself negatively, they will pick up on this and it will cloud their judgement of you. Never ever put yourself down in front of people, or be self-deprecating. You might think that you should avoid being seen as arrogant or narcissistic, but negativity is far worse for you. Arrogance is often mistaken for confidence and that’s what you want to develop. Confidence is just people faking it; they have the same insecurities that you do. It can be draining, but put on a positive public front.

Stop saying no. Seriously, start saying yes more. If you keep saying no, eventually people will just stop asking you and then you can’t say yes or no. Is being left alone in a bar or club really any worse than being left alone sitting at home?
Are you worried about not being interesting? Become more interesting. Start new hobbies. Go out and do things. Join clubs. This will have several advantages:

  • You’ll meet new people
  • You’ll have things to talk about
  • You’ll be active and have less time to have negative thoughts.

You can find free community events on sites like meetup.com. Go along and start talking to people. It’ll be hard at first, but they’ll be welcoming of new members and you won’t be the only new person there, and remember every single person going was new at some point.

If you’re concerned about your appearance, it’s amazing the affect a new haircut can have on your appearance. Find yourself a decent hair salon and get yourself an appointment with a stylist. It’ll be expensive compared to your average haircut, but you only need to go once to get your new style, but it will pay dividends. You may want to spend a little more on future haircuts, but you don’t need to pay much more. For example, I used to pay around £8-9 for a hair cut every six to eight weeks and now pay £13 every month, but the improvement in my appearance is definitely worth it.

The other thing you can do is to improve your fashion. There are a few subreddits here that will teach you how to dress for your body shape and to look more stylish. Basically, if you look like you take care in your appearance, people will respond to you better.

If you’re overweight, make small changes to your diet and go to the gym and start lifting weights. If you’re scrawny, go to the gym and start lifting weights. In fact, just go to the gym and start lifting weights. Can’t afford to go to a gym, buy a set of adjustable dumbbells and start from there.

The universe isn’t conspiring to fuck you over; you are fucking yourself over. Put more effort into your mental well-being and your confidence will improve and everything else will follow.

How to make friends in a new city

One of the biggest fears people have about travelling, or just moving to a new city is the effect it will have on their social life and whether they will be lonely;  one of the first things my mother asked about when I said I was moving to Madrid was about what I’d do about my social life. However, with a little bit of work, you can easily make new friends anywhere and here are some of the methods you can use to make friends in a new city, even if you’re the shyest of people.

Meetup.com

This is possibly the biggest way of meeting new people. Meetup.com lists community events that are happening in your city. They range from mothers’ meetings to speed dating to software development lectures, and most of them are free and open to anyone interested in attending. I found dozens of groups in the Madrid area, with something I’d be interested in every day. In particular, I found 10-15 language exchanges, which is something I’ll mention below.

Dating Sites

There are plenty of free dating sites you can use to meet new friends. Two of the most popular sites are Plenty Of Fish and OkCupid, but there are plenty of other dating sites you could use. Most people might be on there to find a romantic partner, but I’ve found that a reasonable proportion are happy to make new friends there. You can explain that you’re new in the city and looking for friends, or you can just treat it like any dating experience and you never know, you might find more than friends. It might be harder for straight people to find friends of the same gender using this method though, although I can’t speak for the successes of gay users.

Reddit.com

Reddit is an online link-sharing and discussion site and one of the largest sites of its nature on the Internet. The site is separated into “subreddits”, with each subreddit covering a particular topic, but you’ll often find a subreddit for the town or city you are living in. For example, there is a Madrid subreddit, which gets a couple of posts a day. Often they’ll arrange or advertise social events, or may have an associated Facebook group where you can get to know people in your city.

Language Exchanges

Language exchanges are social networking events that allow people to talk to native speakers of a language and practice their conversational skills. But they are one of the best ways to meet people and to make friends, because they are full of people who want to talk and are great social and networking events. You don’t have to worry about speaking another language, because there will be people who want to talk to you in your language. I visited three language exchanges last night and spoke to 5-6 people for 20 minutes or longer and got the number of a guy who had just arrived in the city.

I will be writing more about my experiences of language exchanges in a later post.

Other large Internet communities

If you are a user of a suitably large community site, like Imgur, Twitter, tumblr, 4chan etc, there’s a good chance that someone there lives in your new city. Start following people on Twitter or on Tumblr or post that you are new to the city, or will be arriving soon and are looking for people to meet up with. The advantage here is that you will have a shared culture from the community already formed, so you’ll have some topics to fall back on.

You can use each of these methods to find new friends and expand your social circle. You don’t need to wait until you’re in the city to start using them either. Change your dating profile location to your target city and start joining groups on Reddit or Meetup.com and getting to know the feel of the groups and city before you arrive.

One of the first people I met in Madrid was a woman who saw my profile on OkCupid and messaged me, even before I’d left England. The second person was someone who’d posted to Imgur saying they were in Madrid and looking for new friends. I messaged her and we met up and she introduced me to even more friends.

The sooner you start making friends and research events, the better your first few weeks will be.

Fixing bad breath problems.

I’ve never been told that I have bad breath, but I decided I didn’t want to wait until people told me to make sure I don’t have a problem with my breath. The biggest advantage of working to improve the chances of my breath not smelling is the improvement of my dental health, because bad dental health is one of the biggest causes of bad breath. I would avoid using things like breath mints, as they only mask the problem temporarily, and don’t fix the underlying cause, although they can be useful for emergencies. Here’s some of the things I’ve been doing to improve the situation:

Cleaning my teeth twice a day

I’m ashamed to admit that a few years ago I would often only brush my teeth once a day. Generally I’d brush them in the morning and before going out. This was not enough. However, after a breakup about four years ago, one of the things I set out to do was to make brushing my teeth a twice-a-day habit. Previously, in an evening, I would go into the bathroom late at night, and collapse in the bed, and then not want to get back up again, so my dental health suffered from my laziness. Now, I have slowly made it a routine of heading to the bathroom before going to bed, and using the toilet and then cleaning my teeth. By making this into a habit and a routine it has become almost second nature, and my teeth are all the better for it.

However this is not enough.

Flossing

I’d always read that flossing was important, but it had always seemed like an effort, especially with traditional dental floss making it hard to reach the back teeth.  This was until I discovered dental floss picks.

Dental Floss Picks

 

These are very cheap to buy, with 20 costing me €1.50, although they do come in larger quantities available online, which should be cheaper.  By using the dental floss picks to floss between each tooth, you can help remove all the tiny fragments of food that have become stuck there. You might not have realised how much food can remain in your mouth after you’ve finished eating, but all this material is food for the bacteria that makes your mouth smell. In addition, the food particles will rot, causing additional smells and causing gum inflammation. If your gums bleed at all when you brush them, this is the cause.  You should aim to floss daily; I have been doing it in the morning, but I think I will aim to add it to my night time routine to prevent food staying over night. I’ve been shocked at the smell of the picks after I’ve finished, so it must be doing something to help and leads on to my next section:

Mouth wash

Mouth washes can help dislodge food particles and help kill off the bacteria that cause plaque. However, many of the mouthwashes available on the shelves cause more problems than they solve. This is because they contain alcohol or ethanol, to give them a “kick” to the taste, but, while this might kill off some bacteria, it ends up drying out your mouth, creating a better environment for bacteria to grow, and if they contain sugar to make them taste better, they’re just providing extra food for the bacteria.

You should look for a mouth wash that contains chlorhexidine digluconate, like Corsodyl. This is normally used for treating infections in the mouth and isn’t recommended for day to day usage, especially as it can stain your teeth. This might be a good option if you have a serious problem with inflamed and infected gums to get the problem under control, but I wouldn’t recommend you used it long term . However, Corsodyl does produce a lower dose mouthwash called Corsodyl Daily, which doesn’t contain alcohol.

Any staining that does occur can be removed with brushing, and reduced by not eating food with tannins, like tea, coffee or red wine for at least an hour after using the mouth wash. The other thing to know is that most toothpastes use an ingredient called Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, which stops chlorhexidine digluconate from working correctly, so wait at least 5 minutes after brushing your teeth and rinse thoroughly with water before you use the mouthwash.

Tongue cleaners

The surface of your tongue is a perfect location for bacteria to breed, with many pockets for them to be trapped in. Your tongue can be one of the biggest sources of bad smells in your mouth. The front of your tongue tends to be cleaner from the contact with your teeth, but the back is harder to keep clean. This is where tongue cleaners or scrapers can help. They allow you to brush and scrap all the dead cells, food particles and bacteria that’s become trapped in the surface, which will be causing the smell.  One problem you will encounter when using a tongue cleaner is invoking your gag reflex. The best solution to this is finding a cleaner with the lowest profile you can find, and relaxing your tongue. You should also find that you become more used to the sensation after a few weeks of use. You should also attempt to avoid touching the roof of your mouth, which will trigger your gag reflex more. Your gag reflex is one of the reasons why using a tooth brush is not very effective, as they are generally far too tall to reach very far back into your mouth.

Additionally, reducing the number of bacteria on your tongue will help prevent them spreading to your teeth and gums where they can cause inflammation.

Drink Water

Being hydrated makes it easier for the body to produce saliva, which has an antimicrobial function, which helps cut down on the number of bacteria in your mouth. This is one of the reasons you get “morning breath” as you don’t produce very much saliva while you’re asleep and bacteria can flourish.

You can also use water to rinse your mouth out after eating and drinking, to help you dislodge any food particles that may have become trapped in your gums or between your teeth, before they become a bigger problem.

I’ve been trying to increase my water intake for other reasons, but this is just another reason to keep trying. I may start making sure I have a glass of water with me when I go to bed too.

Visiting my dentist

You should visit your dentist regularly. I’d visit mine twice a year if I could, but my dentist told me every nine months. They will be able to spot any dental health problems that could be causing your bad breath problems. Any cavities could fill with food, which will become trapped and rot away. They can also point out any areas you need to pay special attention to with brushing and flossing. They can also help remove any plaque or tartar, which has built up on your teeth, and give your teeth a polish. Just generally having good dental health will help improve the situation, as well as giving you a smile you can be proud of, which will help your confidence.

Other causes of bad breath

There are some causes of bad breath, which are not related to your mouth. These can include your diet and medical conditions. Some diets, like very low carb intakes, are known to cause bad breath. This is because when you eat under 20-100g of carbohydrates a day, your body enters a state known as ketosis, where it uses ketones from fat as fuel, and a by-product of this is acetone, which is expelled through the breath. In some cases, the smell is a result of a problem in the lungs or gastrointestinal tract, or to a systemic infection. If you still have problems after you’ve used these methods, you should talk to your doctor to rule out other health problems.

Hopefully, with these steps, your breath will be one less thing to worry about, and boost your confidence in social situations.

Improving sleep patterns

I’ve noticed recently that my sleep pattern has drifted away from what I’d like, with me falling asleep at 5am and waking up after 10:30 some mornings over the last week. I can attribute some of this to being ill over the weekend, which kept me awake late into the night, but it doesn’t excuse all of my late nights. I can’t blame the infamously late Spanish lifestyle as not even the Spanish are up until 5am during the week. No, this is my fault and I want to fix it. Fortunately, this site is partly about self improvement, so here is what I plan to do about it:

No laptop in the bedroom

To make matters worse is that I have been failing to get out of bed until several hours after waking. It’s been far too easy to wake up, open the laptop, fire up reddit and then never move from my bed until gone midday. Even when I do start working from my bed, it’s never the best work environment.

It’s a double edged sword; having the laptop in bed makes it too easy to be distracted by the internet before I go to sleep. I’ll just read this page I say to myself or I’ll look at Imgur quickly and then 2 hours later I’m still awake.

The other problem with this is that the light from the laptop screen provides an unnatural light source that confuses our brains.

Rule 1: No laptop in the bedroom. No Exceptions.

Alarm to wake up

"Sleeping Sheep" challenge
“Sleeping Sheep” challenge

I haven’t been using an alarm while I’ve been in Madrid and this is clearly the simplest and most obvious trick to waking up at a reasonable time. As I’m travelling light I don’t have the space to carry a dedicated alarm clock, so I’m using my mobile phone to wake me up. The application I’m using is called Sleep As Android, which I’ll discuss properly further down, but one of the features it has beyond basic alarms is the ability to have a challenge for you before it turns off the alarm. You have a choice of solving a maths question, either as a multiple choice or a written answer, a rather adorable “hit the awake sheep” puzzle or scanning a QR or NFC tag or by shaking the phone.  Of the choices, the QR or NFC tag option would probably do the best to make sure you’re awake if you place the code to scan far enough away from your bed. I fear the maths and sheep would be too easy to go back to sleep after.

An alarm to go to sleep

One of the biggest problems is staying awake long after I should have gone to sleep. I’ve configured Sleep As Android to give an alarm when I should be going to bed. The time is based on the time you want to wake up and how much sleep you want, plus a little time to get ready for bed. I’ve set the alarm to go off between 8:00 and 8:30 with seven hours of sleep (I generally require less sleep than the average) so I should get alerted to go to sleep around 12:45. In previous experiments with the software, it’s been fairly easy to just ignore it, so this part will require some dedication to be useful.

Sleep tracking software

I’m a geek, and love to measure things. As I’ve mentioned, I’m using the Sleep As Android app, but there’s also SleepBot for Android and SleepCycle for iOS which do similar things. Basically, they track the vibrations that your movement makes while you sleep. The theory is that your body goes through several sleep cycles throughout the night from light sleeping to deep sleep (and from there into REM sleep, where you do most of your dreaming). Using the vibrations, through your mattress, the app can detect whether you are asleep and which stage of the sleep cycle you are in. The app website has a very through page on the topic if you’d like to read more.  One downside to this method is that if can be heavily confused if you share a bed. If this affects you, and you can afford it, the excellent FitBit One has a wristband you can use while you are asleep, which should reduce the effect of more than one person in the bed.

Armed with the the knowledge of where you are in your sleep cycle, the app can wake you at the best time so that you aren’t overly tired when you wake up. The observant amongst you might have noticed earlier that I said I’d set my alarm for between 8:00 and 8:30 and this is why. Sleep As Android will set off the alarm at some point during that half hour period where I’m not in a deep sleep, allowing me to wake up feeling more refreshed.

device-2012-08-14-154314

One more feature that could come in handy is the ability to record noises during the night, so I should be able to discover how much I snore and if I talk in my sleep.

Other options

I’m making sure that my room is a suitably cool temperature, with no external light if possible (thanks to the amazing external blinds most modern Spanish houses appear to have), have drunk plenty of fluids during the day and emptying my bladder before I go to sleep.  This was one of the useful side effects of my drive to make cleaning my teeth twice a day a habit a few years ago.

People often discuss sun lamps when talking about improving your sleep. Unfortunately, these are usually very bulky, like the Philips HF3485 Wake-Up Light. There are more compact options available, which I might investigate. In the mean time, Sleep As Android appears to have the ability to use the flashlight on the phone to increase the light, but I fear it will not be completely suitable as the light, while very bright, doesn’t increase ambient light as much as dedicated lights.

In Tim Ferriss’s book, The Four Hour Body, he discusses several options, including using supplements to increase the amount of deep sleep you get, so this might be something to investigate in the future, depending on availability outside the US.

Further reading

Tapapiés food festival

For the last two weeks, the Lavapiés area of Madrid has been running a food festival called Tapapiés. 62 restaurants and bars around the neighbourhood offer a small plate of food for €1 or a plate and a small beer for €2. Each dish is a fusion of different cuisines from around the world. We managed to visit 13 venues:

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Venue:  Fantástico
Dish:  golden chicken marinated in spices with peanut butter sauce and coconut milk over  rice flour bread, beetroot and fried onions.
Origin: Indio-Bangladeshi and Thai
Basically satay chicken, but that’s definitely not a bad thing. The rice flour bread and beetroot was a strange mix to my British tastes, but I enjoyed it.

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Venue:  LA DE ESPRONCEDA
Dish: Mini venison hamburger
Origin: Spain
There was a little bit too much bread to meat, but how can you not enjoy food that makes you look like a giant?


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Venue: EL ECONÓMICO SOIDEMERSOL
Dish: Stirfry with chicken, rice, carrots, red and green peppers and teriyaki sauce.
Origin: Spain/Philippines
This dish was a little cold, as it had been sitting out for a while behind the bar, but tasty nonetheless.

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Venue: ACHURI
Dish: Tortilla corn, beans, meat, tomatoes, cilantro, spices
Origin: Mexico/Burkina Faso
This was one of the more interesting dishes we tried, with the mixture of more common Mexican taco with the meat filling in a Burkina Faso style. Again the mini taco and tiny glass of beer made me feel like a giant.

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Venue:  O PAZO DE LUGO
Dish: Secret burrito – Flour tortilla, Iberian pork, green asparagus, red onion, green and red pepper, garlic, leeks and salsa.
Origin: Mexico/Spain
I’m always suspicious of anything described as “secret” or “surprise”, but these were really tasty.

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Venue: PARRONDO
Dish: Bull’s tail wrap, with a goat’s cheese sauce
Origin: Italy/Andalucia
This is by far my favourite dish in the entire evening. I hadn’t had bulls’ tail before, but it was very nice, and had a sweet after taste. Highly recommended.

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Venue:  LA LIBRERÍA DE LAVAPIÉS
Dish:Cream cheese, sardines, apple and pomegranate on toast
Origin: Mediterranean
I think this was my second favourite dish, with the pomegranate really adding something to the dish.

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Venue: LAMIAK
Dish: Fish egg tart with cod, salmon and mussel
Origin: Basque country
This was actually the last dish we ate, and one of several seafood dishes, with various fish and seafood on a stick, with a crisp pastry tart.

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Venue: TABERNA ENCANTADA
Dish: Toast with anchovies, tomato puree, basil and olive.
Origin: Catalan/Mediterranean.
I don’t normally eat anchovies, but the sweetness of the tomato puree really offset the taste of the fish. One of my more favourite fish dishes of the day.

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Venue: ALMA CAFÉ
Dish: Mixed meat, with vegetables and legumes on toasted rustic bread
Origin: Sevilla
I enjoyed this dish, and we noted that it was one of the best we’d eaten so far, but was overshadowed by the bulls tail later in the day.

Unfortunately I failed to take a photo of a few dishes, so these are from the Tapapiés site rather than my own:

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Venue: GANDHI BAR
Dish: Crispy spinach rolls, cauliflower, red and green peppers, potatoes, carrots, peas, onion, garlic, wheat flour and mild spices.
Origin: Bangladesh
We actually ended up eating a samosa instead of the roll pictured, because this was the only place that had several options on offer, but it was served with a number of dips, and a nice example of indian cuisine.

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Venue: EL PALADAR DE LAVAPIÉS
Dish: Cod, walnuts, almonds and cranberries, milk, garlic and extra virgin olive oil.
Origin: La Mancha
This was our first dish of the day, and our first fish dish. The mixture of fish and nuts was a great introduction to the festival.

You’ll notice some cards in a couple of the photos; these were scratch cards you could use to win some prizes. You could also use them to vote for your favourite venue with the associated code on each card, you typed into the website. Sadly, we failed to win anything. 🙁

This was definitely one of the better ways of spending an afternoon, sampling cuisine from around the world, and for very little money. We ate 13 dishes and drank 7 small beers for a total of €20.

How I’m improving my Spanish

I’ve been learning Spanish for nearly three years and my biggest weakness is understanding spoken Spanish. I can read and write fairly well and my vocabulary is sufficient for my level. I think this is because I can take my time to read and to write where as with speech, the other person has moved on to the next sentence before I have had a chance to understand the previous sentence. In addition, I struggle to separate out individual words in speech.

As I’m in Madrid for the next three months, I thought I’d share the techniques I am using to improve my Spanish.

Watching Television

I’m spending a lot of my time watching television. It doesn’t matter what I’m watching, so I’m watching a lot of television that I wouldn’t normally watch. The important thing is that they have subtitles in Spanish. Reading the subtitles and listening to the audio allows me the opportunity to recognise the sounds of the words and associate them with the words I can read and recognise. The other effect this is having is that I am improving my reading skills considerable, as I need to read the subtitles at the speed of the speech. One thing I have noticed is last summer I managed 20 minutes of a film in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, that this year I am able to keep up with the subtitles much better and watch hours at end without too much trouble.

Occasionally there shows which don’t have subtitles, and it’s interesting to see how much of this I can understand. I’m hoping that over time this will improve massively. I have also noticed that watching films in French with Spanish subtitles are harder to watch as the French distracts me as I know a little bit of the language. I don’t know if another language will have the same effect. Watching English films with Spanish subtitles also allows me to see how they translate into idiomatic Spanish.

Conversation

I am talking to friends in as much Spanish as I can. It’s incredibly frustrating at the moment, with me not understanding everything they say, and having to ask them to repeat what they said, but I’m hoping that this will improve over time. I am attempting to understand as much as I can from the few words I do understand and attempting to understand everything else from context. Sometimes this works, other times it goes hilariously wrong. This is the few things that allows me to practice speaking. I find some people are considerably easier to understand than others, based on their speed, accent vocabulary and pronunciation.

I’m also attempting to talk to people in shops and bars when ordering food and drinks, and this is far more frustrating, as they are strangers and aren’t as patient with me as my friends would be. I’m finding that we have a much harder time understanding each other, but this might also be partly the result of cultural norms in these situations. However, if I don’t do this, then I will never gain the confidence to talk to strangers.

AnkiSRS

http://ankisrs.net/

This is a spaced-repetition flashcard application that runs on pretty much everything. I use it on my phone to remember words during spare moments. With a spaced-repetition system, you are shown a word and you mentally translate it and reveal the answer. You then pick one of four buttons corresponding to how easy you found it to remember the answer. and if you failed to remember the program will put the card back into the pile to remember again today, but if you remembered  it easily, it will schedule it to come back up further and further in the future. The idea being that words you struggle with you need to test more frequently and words you find easier are more ingrained in your long term memory. You can create your own anki card deck or you can download card decks that other people have created and there are plenty of decks for Spanish and other languages. I’ve also used Anki to learn topics like all 197 national flags.

Anki is available on online, iOS, Android, OS X, Windows and Linux.

Memrise

http://www.memrise.com/

Memrise is another SRS system, however this one is tailored more towards making associations in your mind. Given a particular item, people will add hints, which they call “mems”, to make associations in your mind. For example, To drink – beber: “Justin Beiber can’t even drink yet.” Remembering that Justin Beiber can’t drink will make it easier to associate beber with to drink. They also use a planting seeds, growing and watering the seeds metaphor to refer to learning and remembering the memories.

Memrise is available online and on iOS and Android.

Duolingo

http://www.duolingo.com/

Duolingo is a free online language course. It is great for testing your knowledge of topics, but might not be great for learning grammar or vocabulary in the first place. One nice feature is that it allows you to test your speaking too with speech recognition. It’s organised into several small topics, which you need to pass before you can progress to the next topic.

Duolingo is available online, on iOS and Android.

Google Translate

http://translate.google.com

I find Google Translate very useful for looking up words or phrases I don’t understand quickly. Having it on my phone makes it very easy to check if I understood a word correctly or what it means if I didn’t know it previously. I think it would be a good idea if I started my own Anki deck with words I didn’t previously know, so that I can increase my vocabulary.

Hopefully these techniques and tools will give you some useful ideas on how to improve your language skill too. Remember that you don’t need to travel to the country to improve your language. You can watch DVDs with dubbed audio and many cities have language exchanges if you want to talk with people.

Update:

iTalki.com

I’ve recently started using italki.com to talk to teachers and native speakers to help improve my Spanish (and Portuguese as I’m currently in Rio as I write this update). italki.com allows anyone to sign up as students and you can find professional teachers, informal lessons from people who are not professional teachers, but enthusiastic about their language and finally find students who are learning your native language and you can have a language exchange. The taught classes cost some money, with the professional lessons costing a little more than the informal tutoring.

I am currently having weekly Portuguese lessons from a Brazilian woman who lives in Ghent, Belgium and more from a lady in Rio, both over Skype. The cost of lessons are generally cheaper than the cost of a personal tutor in person, with them costing around £9 an hour, although I suspect I could find cheaper tutors if I looked. Some people offer classes around $5 an hour.

Speaking the language and having conversations is by far the best way of learning a language. I highly recommend using italki.com to improve your language skills.