Monthly Archives: October 2013

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.


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:


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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 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 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

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.


I’ve recently started using 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). 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 to improve your language skills.

Initial impressions of Madrid

I’ve finally arrived in Madrid. I actually arrived in Madrid last Thursday at midnight, but I’ve had a few days to settle into my new location. I travelled from Paris to Madrid by TGV and AVE high speed trains. It was a far more expensive and longer journey than if I’d travelled by plane, but I think it was worth it. It was much more comfortable, because it was easier to get up and walk around, and it was just a case of walking up and jumping on a train and getting off again at the other end rather than having huge security controls and waits for planes. It definitely didn’t feel like 10 hours of travelling. My noise-cancelling headphones were definitely a great idea though. The main bonus of the train journey was the views of the French countryside, and the hills on the edges of the Pyrenees mountain range.  I was a little disappointed that the Spanish/French border was under a tunnel. The sun had pretty much set by the time we arrived in Figueres, so I didn’t get to see any of the Spanish countryside or of Barcelona this time.

I’m living in a small suburb of Madrid called Villa de Vallecas, which is just to the south east of the city. The area had a reputation of being a working class area, and a strong resistance to Franco’s regime, but the area has improved in the last few decades. The flat is in a fairly new development very close to the metro station, and just around the corner from the Church of San Pedro Ad-vincula, which is a very pretty building. The flat is a one bedroom furnished flat, with a double bed, shower, television, kitchen with dishwasher, washing machine and freezer.  There’s also a decent sized dining table I can use as a desk to work from. I don’t have internet installed yet, which is coming next week, so I’ve been relying on using my mobile internet connection, which has worked pretty well other than having a low data limit, so I’ve had to restrict my internet usage.image

I’ve spent a lot of my time watching Spanish television, with Spanish subtitles, to help improve my comprehension of spoken Spanish. One thing I’ve noticed is that I understand what is going on pretty well, but I think this is more down to reading the subtitles than listening to the speech, but even this is forcing me to read quicker, and to understand the words in a shorter amount of time, which will help with the speech, as it’s the speed of understanding which I’ve struggled with. I tend to end up watching mostly dubbed American television, because it’s a better quality than some of the Spanish drama/soaps and is more likely to have subtitles.

I have noticed a few things with Spanish television though. They have considerably longer adverts than I’m used to in Britain. They think nothing of having six minute long ad breaks, compared to the usual three I’m used to. Also, they will happily cut programmes in the middle of scenes. I was watching La Caza De Octubre Rojo (Hunt For The Red October) last night and they cut away from Alec Baldwin mid-sentence. They also often don’t bother with title sequences or end credits. I was watching a run of episodes of Dos Hombres y Media (Two and a Half Men. Don’t judge; listening is more important than what I’m watching) and it was very hard to know when you had switched episodes unless you were watching the show carefully. The final thing I noticed is that they’re far more open about sex and nudity in the middle of the day. They were happy to show full frontal female nudity and sex scenes at 2pm in the afternoon, which would have been restricted to after the 9pm watershed back home.

I have been out to the city centre a couple of times. My friend/landlady, Rosa, took me on a tour of the touristy parts of the city centre, showing me from Atocha station, past the botanical gardens and a few museums to (the vodafone sponsored) Puerte de Sol, Plaza Meyor, the Royal Palace (and the Almudena cathedral which looks like it was built from a blue concrete). Rosa also introduced me to a couple of cinemas that are showing Versión Original films, which will have Spanish subtitles, so I can keep watching films. I was one of the things I was going to miss about Brighton, having visited the wonderful Duke Of Yorks and Komedia cinema so much over the last year.

On Sunday night I met up with a local friend, Aitziber, who showed me around the slightly more fashionable/cool area of Tribunal, where we had a few drinks. I have to admit that we mostly spoke in English, but I will have to attempt to work on talking more Spanish. I can understand her pretty well when she does speak Spanish, but I think for the first meeting, it was better for the experience to not be too frustrating for both parties. We did also go to an Irish pub, because it was across the road from our metro station, where the best beer they had was Tetleys on draught and was served with an inch of head.

They’re most of the things I’ve remembered so far about my first few days in Madrid. I’ve got plans to see a film tomorrow and another on Thursday, and to meet up with an American girl on Friday, because I think it’s important to make sure I have an active social life in my new city, even if I’m only here for a few months.