Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Inbox Zen: Inbox Zero, a Year Later

It’s been a bit over a year since I moved towards a life strategy of “inbox zero,” meaning cleaned out my inbox of thousands of messages and end each day with zero messages in my email inbox. I no longer let my email messages hang around as undefined and stress-producing “stuff.”

Instead, I process by email by: either responding immediately, deleting or storing a message appropriately or moving task emails into my task management for dealing with it at the right time.

While it might sound somewhat trivial, converting to a work-style of “inbox zero” has been one of my most beneficial life changes this past year. I have less stress, more focused thinking and generally more productive.

I’m less convinced about the technological tools and apps for better email handling, like Mailbox, since I think good email management comes through persistent habits rather than some technological panacea.

Obviously the first and most painful step to converting your email management to “inbox zero” is the big cleanup. If you get a lot of emails and aren’t particularly diligent about managing them, then I’m sure your inbox is rather out of control. My advice is to move all messages over a month old into a new folder, then slowly try to go through all of the messages from the last month. Be ruthless.

Once you’ve cleaned up your inbox, it’s just a question of be disciplined. I no longer just read my email. I process my emails a couple times a day. For me “processing” emails is a bit different than reading and responding. Processing means I tag emails that need responding later, deleting crap and then consider what I need to do next. If it’s time to respond or work on something, then deal with those emails and tasks in my TODO list.

For a digital nomad like myself, optimizing my email workflow has been one of the largest de-stresses over the last year. Email can be a huge demotivator, and one can be easily tempted to responding to email, instead of actually getting stuff done. Email has a place but it’s our job to define what place it takes in our work life.

Obviously Inbox Zero only aims to improve one side of the equation: email reception. Unfortunately, it’s all to easy to just “send an email.” In my opinion, we actually acerbate the collective email problem by emailing more and with little forethought.

Personally, cleaning up my inbox not only clarified my ability to thinking; it has made me productive and creative.

Now I just need to figure out how to convince people to email only when it’s truly relevant to the receiver and when the message and follow required are clear.

Then, I’ll have reached not just Inbox Zero but Inbox Zen.

Romanization and Memorable New Words: Reflections on Hacking My Initial Studies of Korean

I’ve been teaching myself Korean for a bit more than a month. Among the other languages I’ve attempted to learn recently, Korean definitely ranks up there in terms of difficulty. It’s not quite as hard as Chinese, but the grammar is more noticeable and its alphabet is special.

While one day I may want to pursue high-level mastery, my initial Korean studies, like Burmese, focused on “hacking” the language, i.e. I wanted to acquire enough vocabulary, pronunciation proficiency and speaking structures to survive the most common speaking situations I’ll encounter. I don’t yet have any travel plans to Korea, but I hope to visit South Korea sometime in the late spring or summer.

Ideally, to learn any foreign language you need to master a number of aspects including speaking, listening, reading, and writing as well as acquiring lots of vocabulary, speaking structures and grammar.

For me, I think vocabulary is key. Learn enough words and phrases and you can get through a lot. This includes vocabulary as comprehensive input (hearing and understanding) and understood expressions (speaking to be understood). Unfortunately Korean’s vocabulary is unrelated to nearly all other languages, so initially there is a lot of “noise” before you get to some guessable meaning.

Adding to the difficulty of a comparatively alien vocabulary (at least in relation to other European languages), Korean also has its own alphabet. It’s confusing for an early learner, and makes it cumbersome to review and type in the mobile, computer age.

Fortunately, in spite of its geographical size (South Korea is the 106th largest country in the world and slightly smaller than Iceland), a lot of people are learning Korean, which means great and free resources for nearly all type of learning whether academic or self-study.

Here are three short reflections on: 1. Finding My Preferred Learning Resource (TTMIK), 2. Using Romanization to overcome challenges with Korean Alphabet (Hangul), and 3. How I Built Stronger Memories using Visual Mems and Puns (Memrise).

Hopefully it can help other learners of Korean and people generally interested in foreign language learning.

Johor Bahru: Gateway to Singapore, Stopover Into Malaysia

After work-travel stays in Kuala Lumpor and Malacca, it was time to head south toward Singapore. Before setting foot in the “Garden City,” I spent a few days in Johor Bahru.

Johor Bahru (AKA JB) peers over the bay at its larger, richer and more successful city-state neighbor. While history has tied these two places together, JB has much growth to do in view of its causeway partner.

I had a friend I could visit in JB, so even though one night might be enough, I spent some extra time here.

In a practical sense, JB is last stop before you enter Singapore. If you are heading overload from anywhere in Peninsular Malaysia, you’ll inevitable spend a least a couple hours or perhaps longer in JB. If you are taking a long-distance bus, you’ll likely land in Larkin Terminal, which is a few kilometers from JB center. From JB, there are buses either to Sentral and/or over into Singapore.

In my case, I had a travel friend in JB, so I stayed a couple nights in order to have dinner with him.

Where to Stay? You’ll inevitably spend most of your time around JB Sentral and City Plaza, so it seems that most accommodation is located here. Unfortunately the center is a bit divided by a highway making walkability a challenge initially. Several hotels and guesthouses are located around CIQ and others around City Plaza (the main central mall), but in a practical sense, they are only 10-15 minutes walk or a 5 minute taxi.

I initially stayed at CIQ Hotel, since it was one of the cheapest and had decent reviews. I later stayed at Cirius JB hotel, which was slightly more expensive but the rooms were nicer and much closer to the mall and night market.

Tourist spots? There isn’t much to see here. There is the night market which had mostly made-in-china quality goods. Most of the old stuff is good. There is an old palace that is worth taking a look at.

Where to Go Out? I was surprised by the nightlife in JB. I had pretty low-expectations, but my friend drove me around to several spots before we selected a pub with a wide selection of beers on draft. There were also quite a few clubs that looked interesting. For a Thursday night, there seemed to be quite a few good options.

Moreover, we were able to end the evening of drinks with a local Malaysia burger.

Tips for the Traveling Worker: JB is a pretty good place for the tech traveler. It’s significantly cheaper than Singapore (maybe 2-3X cheaper). Internet was hit or miss at times in the evenings, but the speed was fast and reliable in coffeeshops in City Plaza.

Specifically, I spent afternoons and evenings working out of both Starbucks and Coffee bean, and the internet was fast and reliable.

General Impressions: While guidebooks mention JB being worth a visit, I’d disagree. There isn’t much to visit here. Food is cheaper and there are a few places to go out to at night, but there aren’t really any tourist places.

In my case, I needed a break, so JB was a cheap stopover to hang out in the different coffee shops and get some work done. There were lots of tasty things to try like Mamak food.

As I said, it’s not the top of my list of a short stay in Malaysia, but if you got some time and need a rest, then JB might be a nice place to explore where modern Malaysia is going.

Malacca, Malaysia: Halfway Between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore

After a couple of wonderful days in KL, I headed south towards Singapore. My first stopover was in Malacca, a famous historical city currently under transformation.

Malacca is one of the oldest and most important cities in Malaysia’s history. It passed hands many times between local and foreign rules and between competing colonial overlords. It was exchanged between the Portuguese, Dutch and British over its storied history and was ruled by different local leaders as well. One of its most important roles was as a “governing” trading port through the straits, so much of its origins and significance lies as a port and marine authority.

While much of the city appears more modern than colonial, you can still the colonial roots in the old town, especially in the ruins of the St. Paul Church and the remains of the old Portuguese city gates. The center of the city is criss-crossed by canals and river ways that , while not exquisite, add a nice charm when you walk around.

Where to Stay? In Malacca, there are a lot of moderately priced hotels and guesthouses. On the whole, it appears to be both cheaper and better quality than KL, but I’m sure there are plenty of holes in the wall. Just make sure you stay near the old town and I’m sure you’ll be fine.

I stayed at Mio Hotel, which was a bit of a walk from the center, but extremely well-equipped with a great breakfast, tidy room and speedy internet. So basically all that I needed.

Tourist spots? Compared to Kuala Lumpur, Malacca makes for a much nicer experience with history and different ethnic groups in Malaysia. There isn’t a ton of major sites to see, but I found the Chinese Baba community museums to be pleasant and interesting to check out. Otherwise, walks around old town, St. Paul’s hill and the Chinese cemetery were all pleasant enough.

Where to Go Out? There didn’t appear to be much of a nightlife in Malacca, but that might have been my experience or the time of my travel. There were lots of places to eat at and plenty of tasty things to try.

Tips for the Traveling Worker: Malacca was a great stopover place for any moderately paced tech traveler. It’s a mere 2-3 hours from KL and another 2-3 hours to JB (Johor Bahru), across from Singapore. If you aren’t in a rush, it’s definitely worth visiting. If you want to get away from the big cities and get some work down and have plenty of nice things to eat, I’d recommend 2-4 days here.

I was able to relax, eat and explore while also getting plenty of digital nomad work done.

Photo Credits: Photo is my own.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Some Travel Advice for the Tech Traveler

I landed in Kuala Lumpur (KL) from Chengdu, China, where I’d been “resting” for the past month or so. I’d gotten quite a few things accomplished over the last couple weeks, so it was time to get back on the road to work and explore.

(NOTE: This is my first official post of a new series “The Traveling Entrepreneur,” which I plan to try and maintain as I travel and work around the world.)

I’d been to a number of a places in Southeast Asia over the last several months like Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand, so when the ticket prices dropped by $100 or so, I didn’t hesitate much: my first visit to Malaysia.

In the end, I spent about 4 or 5 days in Kuala Lumpur. It’s probably a city that could be toured in 2-3 days or even a working-travel base for several weeks. I wasn’t quite ready to set, so I mostly visited the sites, enjoyed the food, and explored the night life before adventuring further south.

_Where to Stay? In Kuala Lumpur, I stayed in Chinatown, which is centrally located. It seems like Sentral is also a good location for exploring the city. In my opinion, both these places (Chinatown and Sentral) are good places for a tourist or brief visit. Both allow easy access to various public transportation to and from the airport as well as various transport around town or two site outside city. I wouldn’t recommend these area, if I was to stay longer on a future visit.

Tourist spots? I wouldn’t rank Kuala Lumpur high on the best-of-travel list, but it had a number of nice spots. is In terms of tourist highlights, here were my favorites:

  • Chinatown
  • Batu Caves
  • Twin Towers
  • Malls
  • Eating

Central KL is easily explored on foot, though during the afternoons it can be pretty hot, so make sure to head into a nearby mall to cool off with some shopping, snacks, etc. I didn’t get a chance to head to any of the mall, but I’d love to check out one of them on history or Islam next time I’m in town.

Where to Go Out? I didn’t go out much while in KL, but it seems like the main area is a couple blocks from the Twin Towers where you find a series of clubs and bars on one main street. Just tell your taxi driver to take you to “Beach Club” and you can easily find a place to fit your mood for the evening.

Tips for the Traveling Worker: Like Thailand, the internet speeds were decent in KL. Some places were better than others, but overall the speed was good enough for most of my needs. Just be careful when booking your hotel that you choose a place that the various reviewers didn’t denigrate with poor internet or wifi.

That’s about it folks. KL is a nice city. While I wouldn’t recommend it to the first time visitor to Asia or Southeast Asia, it’s definitely a nice spot for getting away, eating some good stuff and exploring a new mix of people and cultures.

Photo Credits: Photo is my own.

Introducing the Traveling Entrepreneur

I spend a lot of time traveling. There are various reasons for this. The work-travel mix has come to define my life and lifestyle.

Travel helps me understand the world and people around me. It helps me understand business opportunities and changing realities. It also helps me learn foreign languages, one of my personal passions and hobbies.

Over the last couple years, I’ve been able to craft a delocalized business such that I am essentially able to work from anywhere with an internet connection. For example, I’m writing this with iced coffee in hand from the warm weather shores of Malaysia.

There are a lot of terms you can throw at this type of lifestyle: traveling freelancer, location independent living, or digital nomad. For me, I personally define this adventure as a “traveling entrepreneur,” i.e decoupling my life from a single place and working digitally across various timezones, languages and horizons.

I could write a lot about how to manage this type of life and business, which hope to write about in the coming months.

With my moniker defined, I’m going to try an experiment: while I travel, I will be attempting to write short pieces about the merits, wonders and challenges of working and visiting the different countries and places I am currently in.

Welcome to the storied reality of a traveling entrepreneur.

Cover Photo Credit: Personal image available here.

4 Languages in 4 Months: What Have I Learned About Foreign Language Learning?

Over the past four months, I’ve studied four new foreign languages. In November it was Vietnamese, in December it was Burmese, in January it was Thai, and for the past month of February and early March, I have been studying Korean.

Over these four months, I’ve learned a ton of vocabulary, interacted with people in new places and words, and discovered a lot new ideas about language in general, language learning and even myself through this process.

I suppose my only regret was that I never did this kind of personal experiment before.

Excluding Korean and Korea, which I haven’t gotten to yet, I started studying the language shortly before arriving for a 2-4 weeks “stay” in each of these countries. I got to travel to the place so my need and opportunity to use the language was high. As such, I also got a huge exposure to the native sounds of the language as well as a bunch of cultural interaction through the people, food and various situations I encountered as a traveler.

So, what have I learned about foreign language learning and myself?

To summarize, I learned:

  1. Fluency is not the only Goal, First Learn To Just Speak
  2. A Few Native Words Do Make a Difference
  3. Free Resources and Amazing Technologies, indeed, make the world your oyster for the language learner
  4. The Reward is in the Encounter: There is No Real Excuse Not to Learn before You Travel Somewhere New

How I Learned Travel Burmese: A Story From a World Still Slightly Apart

Burmese is a language that can be “hacked” or learned quite quickly in comparison to other languages. Here’s my story on how I learned survival Burmese and how it colored my recent travels in Burma.

“I think the driver thinks I’m fluent in Burmese,” I said to my fellow horse cart companions as we ambled through Inwa aka Ava, the ancient Burmese capital near Mandalay.

It was a sunny day and we’d arrived around mid-day after a stop over at the Snake Pagoda en route. The day before, my British and Italian travel buddies had seen me manage a few previous Burmese exchanges at a restaurant and with various hawkers along the U Pain bridge, so it wasn’t such a surprise to them.

On this day, I managed to impress myself. When I first met our horse cart driver, I’d said a few things in Burmese like how much? and that it was hot today. Subsequently, once we had paid and started forward, I managed to comment on a few more things and successfully answered his question about whether we’d eaten or not and about stopping at a restaurant along the way.

I guess for him these few minutes of my Burmese were enough, and he proceeded to point out several features and places to me in Burmese. Deadpan, he thought I spoke fluent Burmese.

I can’t claim to have caught all the meaning, but based on the context, I had a pretty good idea of what he was talking about. Most importantly he at least thought I understood.

At that point in my trip, I’d spent about 8 days in Myanmar. In the lead up to my trip, I’d spent about 2 weeks preparing and around 10 hours in total of self-study on the Burmese language.

While I can’t claim to have become fluent in that time, I can claim to have successfully “hacked” Burmese. By “hacked” I mean that I was able to quickly jumpstart my learning of this foreign language in order to get through basic language exchanges and conversations. That was my goal. That was what I achieved.

Here’s how I prepared, what I learned and some anecdotal stories during my trip speaking Burmese.

Hacking Burmese: Learning Burmese Essentials Fast

I decided to learn as much Burmese as I could in the two weeks leading up to my upcoming trip to Myanmar / Burma. I’d like to share some of my tips, resources and even my time log stats so far.

As a language, Burmese presents several unique challenges. Yet it’s not an impossible language to get the basics in a few days or, in my case, over about 2 weeks of self-study, which included a large chunk of time actually creating my learning material.

While I cannot claim to have become fluent in Burmese in such a short amount of time, I think Burmese presents a good example of a foreign language that is hackable.

Burmese: Notes About the Language

I’m learning Burmese. Here are my initial notes about the language.

About the Burmese Language

  • Native speakers: 33 million (2007). Second language: 10 million.
  • Language family: Sino-Tibetan
  • Burmese is a tonal, pitch-register, and syllable-timed language, largely monosyllabic and analytic language, with a subject–object–verb word order.
  • The phonology of Burmese includes a three-way contrast (voiced, voiceless and aspirate, e.g. g-k-kh) at five points of articulation, it has six pairs of plain and breathed continuants (e.g. l-hl), and distinguishes four types of syllable by means of a combination of pitch and voice quality (high vs low, creaky vs plain).
  • Notable features of Burmese syntax are that the verb is always final in the sentence, that all subordinate clauses precede the main clause, that relative clauses precede their head noun, that markers corresponding to English prepositions follow the noun, and that the counting system uses classifiers.
  • Burmese was the fourth of the Sino-Tibetan languages to develop a writing system, after Chinese, Tibetan, and Tangut.
  • The standard dialect of Burmese (the Mandalay-Yangon dialect continuum) comes from the Irrawaddy River valley
  • Burmese is a diglossic language with two distinguishable registers (or diglossic varieties), used in various settings: Literay High form and Spoken low form
  • Burmese vocabulary is primarily monosyllabic and of Tibeto-Burman stock
  • Historically, Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, has been of profound influence to the Burmese language, especially in enriching the Burmese vocabulary.
  • Pali loanwords are often related to religion, government, arts, and science.
  • Linguist L. F. Taylor concluded that “conversational rhythm and euphonic intonation possess importance” not found in related tonal languages and that “its tonal system is now in an advanced state of decay.”
  • The Burmese alphabet consists of 33 letters and 12 vowels, and is written from left to right.
  • It requires no spaces between words, although modern writing usually contains spaces after each clause to enhance readability.
  • The development of the script followed that of the language, which is generally divided into Old Burmese, Middle Burmese and modern Burmese. Old Burmese dates from the 11th to the 16th century (Pagan and Ava dynasties); Middle Burmese from the 16th to the 18th century (Toungoo to early Konbaung dynasties); modern Burmese from the mid-18th century to the present.
  • Special pronouns for speaking to Buddhist monks
  • Reduplication is prevalent in Burmese and is used to intensify or weaken adjectives’ meanings.

Sources

  • Wikipedia
  • TODO