Singapore – Asia baby steps

By , December 31, 2010 8:09 am

As a Westerner you couldn’t ask for a gentle introduction to Asia than Singapore.  With English speakers and signage everywhere, shopping malls, American chain stores, and skyscrapers to rival New York, it would be entirely possible to completely miss out on the real Asian experience.  As the plane descended into the airport I even spotted a huge ferris wheel which looked near identical to the London Eye (near the right hand side of the image):Singapore from the air

Luckily however Corinna booked us into a little place in the heart of Little India, which couldn’t be further from that mirror image of the West. More on that later.

On arrival in the airport my first task was to locate Eli, which proved more difficult than anticipated as neither of us had remembered to agree a meeting plan, and somebody had accidentally directed him to the wrong terminal.  That hiccup aside, we finally figured out how to navigate the various metro lines to get to the hotel. Immediately it became obvious how modernised public transport is here. The trains were cleaner and quieter than in London, and even had coloured LEDs built in to the maps above the carriage doors, so you can see exactly where you are.

After freshening up at the hotel and re-arranging the contents of my shiny new backpack a few times, I headed out with Eli to soak up some of the local atmosphere. It wasn’t long before we encountered our first of undoubtedly many temples on this trip, in this case an intricately decorated Hindu temple on an otherwise fairly bland road in the district:First of many temples in Asia

We headed in the direction of where Corinna was about to finish work and experienced our first “Asian” shopping mall, which was incredibly similar to something you might find in London, other than a slightly creepy Santa at the entrance:Creepy Santa

Then we found Corinna who had just finished work, and after playing human frogger on a large roundabout just as the heavens opened, the newly formed Epic Adventure Dream Team had our first meal together:

first meal together


Adventures in South East Asia Quiz

By , December 24, 2010 5:58 pm

“Which Team Leader Are You?”

You are deciding how to pack for a 3.5 week trip to Southeast Asia. Do you:

a) find a promising looking 46l pack and then revisit the same hiking shop twice more over three days deliberating whether it will be big enough, finally deciding it will after googling for packing advice on your phone to find a backpacking article which says that travelling light is the one true way to exploration nirvana?

c) pack all your worldly possessions into two small suitcases, move house, choose a tiny 32l pack over Skype which will fit 6 items of clothing which can be worn in a total of 712 ways, several phrasebooks, and large amounts of sickly sweet cough medicine?

e) opt for a rather charming and slightly oversized brown leather pouch from World War One, together with a 36l pack with attachments for two shoes which masquerade very effectively as two extra suitcases surreptitiously enough that no airline hostesses bat an eyelid when you take them on the plane as hand luggage?

You’re feeling social and decide to check out the local nightlife. Where do you go?

a) You read every Lonely Planet publication and internet review for the best spots, and use Google Maps to successfully navigate to a beach party/concert of local music where you purchase a rá nâat and jam along.

c) You accidentally accept an offer from a John who asks to “enjoy” you, and after realizing your mistake and fleeing the scene, you spend the rest of the night practicing the Thai phrases for rejection.

e) You befriend two Thais who turn out to be diplomats who gift you an elephant on which you ride to Cambodia.

The sun is up and Bangkok is bustling. Wake up! What is your breakfast choice?

a) You don’t dare open your eyes before 10am. Ask again later …

c) You haven’t exactly eaten in five days, but when you see a stall selling Pad Thai, you are instantly transformed into a drooling mutant and scarf down three servings in one bite.

e) Strange new food makes you happy. You search out unrecognizable treats from street vendors, then skip off to find a boat ride, temple, or whatever might be around the corner before your companions are even conscious.

After deciding to part ways for a few days to explore your favorite parts of Thailand, you arrive at BKK airport at your designated meeting point only to find your companions are missing. Do you:

a) write a computer program which hijacks government satellites and tracks down your friends?

c) never actually make it to the airport as you are still lost in a national forest somewhere in central Thailand?

e) buy a tuk-tuk in a chance encounter with a newfound Thai friend and drive it to Hanoi to meet them?

You’ve been elected to choose lodgings in your next destination. Do you choose:

a) a room with ensuite bathroom, fast wifi, and at least 42 power outlets to charge your gadgets

c) the forest, as you are still lost and cannot find a hotel

e) a tin hut with local children, for the fee of a harmonica lesson


flying East

By , December 19, 2010 6:16 pm

Farewell England with your freezing / wet / windy climate and general lack of daylight, I’ve left you for a more exotic and more enticing alternative. I’ll probably reluctantly come back and pretend to beg for forgiveness in January, but right now I’m off to Singapore courtesy of the most excellent people at Quantas.  The parting shot from the British weather was a rather rubbish attempt at sleet which ended up looking like tiny polystyrene foam balls bouncing off the plane wings just before take off.

My general sense of smugness whilst settling in on the plane was furthered by Quantas’ choice of relaxation music: Tina May (I think), the Pat Metheny / Brad Mehldau duo, and Herbie Hancock’s take on the slow movement of  Ravel’s piano concerto.  Finally an airline that eschews musack for real quality!  (God, I’m such a snob.)

The Quantas experience continued to impress.  The seatbacks had very large touchscreens with a slick interface to a wide range of films, ‘Skycam’ offering a view out of the rear of the plane, and even phone calling, SMS, and webmail.

At the beginning of the flight, they explained that you could continue using the touch screens even after touchdown because “entertainment this good should be gate to gate”.  Nice!

They also provided a food menu card which included a very cool Journey Planner timeline showing what to expect for each hour of the flight, which is very useful when planning when to sleep:

After a short stay in Singapore I’ll be travelling to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and maybe even Cambodia for a bit, with two of the best travel companions anyone could ask for.  Internet access is going to be sketchy in places so bear with me if these blogs arrive with you a little late.

P.S. OK so I’m way behind with these.  It’s just turned into Christmas day here in Bangkok!  Many pictures and stories still to come …


measuring email inbox sizes

By , November 28, 2010 6:35 pm

Like many people, for a long time I have been drowning in email. I am perhaps bit unusual in that whilst my personal google inboxes are permanently overflowing, my work inboxes are generally very close to empty. This is because as a (bad) practitioner of GTD and sometime reader of Inbox Zero and similar sites, I do actually know how to get grips with email, and through professional pride apply the techniques fairly religiously when I’m working. In contrast, when it comes to dealing with personal mail, I’ll always favour procrastinating on some other interesting project instead. God forbid I should ever get my personal life in gear!

Well, this bad habit has been stressing me out for a LONG time now. I’m a long-term fan of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, and the other day stumbled across one of her older posts entitled Measure what you want to manage. I’d been wanting to graph the size of my inboxes over time, to get some grip on how bad my backlog actually is, and her post gave me the nudge to actually sort it out.

As usual, Ruby makes it almost ridiculously easy. There’s a beautiful written gem called gmail which uses IMAP to talk to your gmail account. So then it’s just a matter of writing a little program to append a line of gmail folder sizes to a CSV file every time it gets run:

#!/usr/bin/env ruby

require 'pathname'
require 'rubygems'

# sudo gem install gmail
# Note: this is an improved version of Daniel Parker's ruby-gmail
require 'gmail'

# sudo gem install fastercsv
require 'faster_csv'


CSV_FILE = Pathname(ENV['HOME']).join(
  "choose", "a", "path", "to", "gmail-counts.csv"

labels =, 'r').shift[2..-1], 'a') do |csv|
  Gmail.connect(USERNAME, PASSWORD) do |gmail|
    now =
    counts = [ now.to_i.to_s, now.strftime("%Y/%m/%d.%H:%M:%S") ]
    labels.each do |label|
      unread = label.gsub!(/ unread$/, '')
      folder = gmail.mailbox(label)
      count = unread ? folder.count(:unread) : folder.count
      puts "%s: %d (%d unread, %d read)" % \
        [ label, count, folder.count(:unread), folder.count(:read) ]
      counts << count
    csv << counts

Then create gmail-counts.csv in the folder referenced in the script, whose header line contains a list of the labels you want counted (append unread if you want the unread count rather than the total, and prefix “special” gmail folders with [Google Mail]/. Here’s an example of the header followed by a single line of folder counts:

epoch,datetime,INBOX,INBOX unread,[Google Mail]/Drafts,music

Then make sure the program is automatically run on a regular basis somehow. On Linux this is as simple as adding a new line into your crontab. My quietrun utility comes in handy for this:

0 6,12,18 * * * quietrun /path/to/script/count-gmail

Then you can use Google Docs or your favourite spreadsheet / charting application to plot some nice graphs. I used this script which is written in the Ploticus graphing language; here is the result:

sample graph of gmail inbox size over time


UPDATE 5 months later! (15th May 2011): I finally made it!


ideas in the shower

By , November 19, 2010 7:01 pm

Ever noticed how all your best ideas come in the shower? Well, this morning I had an idea in the shower … it was actually an idea about having ideas in the shower. I was thinking “I wonder how many good ideas I get here and then forget as soon as I walk out?”, and then the solution popped into my head – waterproof whiteboards!

After wasting a few more minutes under the showerhead concocting highly delusional visions of setting up ShowerBoards’R’Us® to patent, manufacture, and market this revolutionary concept, making zillions, and retiring earlier, I had breakfast, got to work, and promptly forgot about the idea … until later, when in an ironic twist which perhaps demonstrates its worthlessness, I remembered it again and did a bit more research.

So it turns out that it’s not a remotely original idea (hey I didn’t say that all ideas originating in the shower were good), and in fact it’s very well documented that the shower is conducive to fresh thinking. Mitch Ditkoff suggests 20 reasons why the best ideas come in the shower, although I have to say I can’t agree with #19 – “if you shower with a friend, and he/she happens to be in a brainstorming mode, lots of great ideas get sparked”. If I’m sharing a shower with someone, brainstorming is not going to be the top priority.

There are plenty more blogs on the same topic. Andy Hunt’s highly original book about the brain suggests that using involving multiple senses during problem solving activates more neural pathways, and quotes the example of one study which showed a 500% improvement for students using multi-sensory techniques. Clearly being in the shower activates different senses to sitting motionless staring at a monitor or book.

As a result, it’s not surprising to find that many people have already invented water-compatible solutions to this idea capturing problem. For instance, on the forum belonging to David Allen‘s Gettings Things Done (GTD) company, there is a whole thread which suggests ideas such as voice-activated dictaphones, scuba diving slates, waterproof notepads and zip-lock bags, even memory tricks such as mnemonics and visualization. One guy has even installed an entire office wall next to his shower, which is pretty hilarious. In fact there are so many waterproof notepads that I am going to have to buy one and spend a lot more time in the shower to have any chance of an early retirement…


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