The Interior of Brazil

It’s amazing how the simple things can make such a big difference. Much as getting used to cold showers is probably good for me, it was really nice having a warm shower for a change. Along those lines, here are a few of the things that I’m getting used to in Central American and the interior of Brazil, in no particular order:

  • Being warm all of the time. Definitely liking that.
  • Cold showers. Takes some getting used to, but not bad when combined with being warm.
  • Terrible beds
  • “Exotics” birds everywhere
  • Rice and beans
  • Dust. So. Much. Dust.
  • Terrible internet connectivity
  • Warm friendly people, if you can figure out what they’re saying

The Weirdness of Travel Pricing

I’m planning a trip to Belo Horizonte in Brazil. It turns out that flying through Panama is both the cheapest way to get there, and reasonably quick. I was a little reluctant to fly Copa Airlines at first, but a friend convinced me that they’re actually really nice. That same friend pointed out that if I get a long layover, I can check out Panama and he might be able to join me for the weekend. Check out Panama on the way to Brazil? Don’t mind if I do!

With that booked, I then start looking at hotels. It’s only one night, so why not splurge a bit? I hear the Trump is “an experience” and it’s only around $250 for one night. Here’s when the weirdness starts:

  • Go to the hotel’s site directly: $219 US + taxes
  • Tripadvisor, Bookings.com, Hotels.com, and most other sites: $238 CAN incl
  • Otel.com: $197.89 CAD (no idea if this includes taxes or not)
  • Go to Kayak, search for the same thing, get an offer from Otel.com for $180.91 incl

For those keeping track, I saved $60 or 25% because I happened to remember that I got a lower price when messing around in the Kayak app yesterday.

Remember: the price is how much they can convince you to pay for something.

Travel Apps

Holy paradox of choice batman! I’m going to be travelling a lot in the next few months. A friend showed me an app that keeps track of your itinerary and all of your bookings – kinda handy really. So I thought I’d check out the options. Turns out there’s a lot of them! At least 5 popular ones, and probably a lot more too. Here’s a quick rundown of the ones I’ve looked at briefly.

TripIt

By far the most popular, but also seems to have a very clumsy interface on iOS and the web. I struggled with it for a bit, and then moved on. One nice feature: it will automatically pull in anything from your inbox so you don’t have to forward things to it. It’s also good if you want to fiddle with absolutely everything. But if you want something that’s simple, this is not it.

Kayak

Kayak is more of a travel website that happens to keep track of your itinerary for you. That said, it does a really good job of it. It’s a balance of having a lot of features and being simple, so kinda in the middle of TripIt and TripCase. You can forward things to it, or add items manually. You can also book things in the app. One of the things I like is that it will show you the email or document associated with a reservation, which is handy.

TripCase

Meant for the business traveller, TripCase is simple and to the point. It does one thing and it does it well: keep track of all of your bookings. You can forward things to it, or apparently if you book through a Sabre linked travel agency then things will just show up (I haven’t tried this last part). The nice part is that you can really keep track of everything – not just flights and hotels, but meetings, activities, attractions, etc. Apparently it doesn’t share to social media very well, but I don’t normally do that directly from this kind of app so I don’t really care. What I don’t like is that you can’t attach the original booking document unless you booked it through one of their partners. Otherwise, I really like the simplicity of this app.

WorldMate

I almost didn’t install this app after hearing that it didn’t allow manual entry of trips. Turns out that’s a complete lie. It allows manual additions, and so far it actually seems like the nicest app of the bunch. A very clean interface, and includes lots of details. I don’t like that you can’t edit an item that was imported automatically, you have to delete and re-add it manually. It also doesn’t show you the original email. I love that it flags warnings of things like missing accommodations or short layovers. The only other downside is that the basic version is, well, basic. To get alerts and flight status, you have to pay the $10 for the “gold” version. That said, seems well worth it if you’re a frequent traveller. Also: social media integration is built in, another perk over TripCase.

Comparison

App Pros Cons
TripIt

Flexible, add anything

Scans your inbox automatically
Flight alerts with subscription

Clumsy interface
Kayak

Book travel and keep itinerary in same place

Shows original email or document for items

Keeps lots of detail on each item

Not quite as polished as other options
Trip tracker secondary to booking travel
TripCase Simple usable interface
Links to Sabre-backed agencies?
Keep track of everything! Activities, restaurants, you name it.
Share / foliow trips with colleagues and friends through email
Not as much detail in the flight items
Doesn’t show original document
Social sharing to LinkedIn but not Twitter and FB
No iPad app
WorldMate Beautiful interface on both iPhone and iPad
Shows lots of details on flight items
Flight alerts with paid version
Social sharing to Twitter, FB, LinkedIn
Shows warnings on things that are missing
Handy tools like world clock and weather
$10 for the Gold version
Doesn’t show original documents
Can’t edit imported items
Doesn’t show gate status?

Summary

So which app is the right one? I’m still sorting that out for myself. I really like WorldMate, but I like the ability to keep track of everything in TripCase. TripIt is out – the whole point for me is to make things simpler. Otherwise, I could do better with Google Drive. Kayak is probably fantastic if you use their service or are a casual traveller looking for something basic. For business travellers, it’s down to TripCase or WorldMate. I’m going to try them both and let you know how it goes.

Update

According to Twitter, TripCase does support flight alerts, though I have yet to see any of them so far. That said, TripCase is showing gate information for the sample flight I put in, while WorldMate isn’t. This is quite the runoff between TripCase and WorldMate. I really like TripCase’s iOS interface, but WorldMate’s flight alerts are an important tool and I really like the full screen iPad app.

Switching Language Gears

There’s been a bit of a change of plans. I’m now learning Portuguese instead of Spanish. As mentioned previously, I found that a combination of Pimsleur and Duolingo was working pretty well. With the switch to Portuguese, I needed to re-evaluate. I can share with you what’s worked and what hasn’t as a result.

Immersion

They say that the best way to learn is to be completely immersed in a language. I can attest to learning a lot more in an immersive environment, and finding it very difficult to learn while not. I think that there’s three reasons for this:

  1. Context. Our brains are very context sensitive. If I’m used to speaking to a person and or in a particular place in a particular language, that cues my brain to use that language.
  2. Multi-modal learning. Listening, speaking, reading, writing, and images are all different modes in which your brain operates. Optimal learning happens with a mix of all of them.
  3. Motivation: there’s nothing like needing to speak a language to get dinner to motivate you to figure it out.
  4. Opportunity: the more opportunities you have to actually use the language instead of just doing drills, the more you have a chance to work the “mental muscle” (well, pathways but the analogy holds) that drive the language.

Immersion hits all of those, but it’s not the only way to manage it. There’s lots of language resources around, the tricky part is blending them so that you get all of those elements in the right proportion that works for you.

Not having any native speakers has made this necessary for me, though I’m hoping to address that soon. In the short term, here’s what I’ve worked out for me:

  1. Context: as sad as this may be, my car is actually a big context. I use Pimsleur on the drive to and from my office and it’s just right. I could probably do better with context, but that’s the best I have right now.
  2. Multi-modal: this has been a big win. The combination of Pimsleur and online tools has proven to be great. More on this later.
  3. Motivation: got that in spades. I’m going to be doing business with Portuguese-speakers and there have been a bunch of meetings in which I really wished I spoke Portuguese already!
  4. Opportunity: this is another part that multiple tools helps with.

Multiple Tools

An analogy that my friend Sean came up with: when you work out, you don’t just do one exercise, or even one type of exercise. Why would you do only one thing to learn a language?

The combination of Pimsleur and Duolingo is really good, but there’s more. I use Google Translate all of the time to try out combinations and see what’s going on. For a while, I didn’t do the reading exercises from Pimsleur, thinking I would pick up the knowledge elsewhere. While getting other input was good, I could have also done the readings.

Moral of the story: the best way to get over the immersion hurdle is to use a bunch of tools at the same time. Try a bunch of things out, see which ones work for you, and stick with those. In my case, it’s still Pimsleur and Duolingo.

Pimsleur and Duolingo, again

With Pimsleur, I feel like I’m talking with people, which is highly motivating. The pace is also just right for me, and it lets me make mistakes and nothing is judging except for myself. That’s really important. It gets me to learn and try new things, without worrying about screwing up.

Duolingo fills in the gaps. Pimsleur teaches very broad concepts, but can’t do anything visually and so you end up missing some of the grammar nuances. Duolingo hits those very squarely, and it’s easy to work into 5 minute breaks in the day. It can be frustrating sometimes, but working ahead of it with Pimsleur makes it seem less like guessing.

Rosetta Stone

When I first switched to Portuguese, I thought Rosetta Stone would be the answer. They use the immersion technique, and it should cover everything listed above. Slam dunk right? Not quite.

Before I get started, keep in mind that just because it didn’t work out for me doesn’t mean that it won’t necessarily work for you. Rosetta Stone is a well polished product with a lot going for it. I didn’t drop it because it’s bad, but because I have better options. If I were learning Arabic, I would probably go for it because I haven’t found anything better in Arabic.

So what went wrong? The short version is that it was too slow in some ways and too fast in others. I’m a very quick learning and expect to be challenged. When that doesn’t happen I get bored.

The immersion technique they use is great in theory, but the implementation of it lacks the ability to describe detail or nuance. It might be possible to get to that eventually, but when trying to build a critical knowledge base, it just feels pedantic. It seemed like really simple things were explained very slowly (e.g. that metal is “metal”. Really, I could have guessed that without being shown it 5 times in a row), while getting any real practice at forming sentences or using the words learning never really happened.

It’s possible that with hobby learners, kids, or people with a different learning style that Rosetta Stone would work better. I don’t think I’ve lost a month – I learned a few things from Rosetta Stone – but in the end I’ve gone back to Pimsleur and Duolingo.

I’m also looking for people with whom to practice Portuguese. Message me if you’d like to chat!

Frozen

I saw Frozen last night, and all I can say is wow – and this has nothing to do with the singing! Yes, the musicals were great and the movie is a lot of fun. That’s not what impressed me. I’d expected the movie to be the usual Disney – fun, well animated, and catchy. I also expected the usual patriarchal BS that normally comes from a Disney movie. The princess is helpless and has to be saved. Said princess also has to find “the one” – the prince that makes for the happily ever after.

Frozen started that way, but about halfway through spin the whole concept on its head. I don’t want to throw in too many spoilers in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet. Suffice it to say that the princesses of this story are far from helpless. I suppose having it set in Scandinavia helps (I’m pretty sure it’s Norway, based on the the Northern Lights, fjords, the accent of the shopkeeper, and references to Sauna, but it could also be Finland or Sweden) as they have some of the most progressive cultures when it comes to women and well a lot of things, but that sure didn’t stop Disney from butchering Pocahontas.

Thank you Disney for stepping into the 21st century. More like this will be very much appreciated. Indeed, there is still more that you can do. If you keep on going with this direction, I’ll be very happy to once again make time for Disney movies. For a start, I’m looking forward to showing Frozen to my niece!

Man of Steel

I just watched the “Man of Steel” reboot of Superman. I was hoping for something at least semi-intelligent – as I’d expect from the Superman franchise. That was a big mistake. The movie is visually gorgeous and the story has its moments, but anyone who actually thinks about the story being told will have serious reservations. I am one of those people, and so I’m going to rant about this for a bit.

Spoiler alert – after this point I talk about the actual plot of the movie. You might want to stop here if you haven’t yet seen it but want to.

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Best title for a customer facing engineer?

Serious question: what’s the best title to use for an engineer that will be the contact point for a customer on a big project? Bonus points for something that is easily understood internationally.

I normally avoid titles, but in this case it’s kinda important.