Minding the Borderlands

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

Re-Engaging My Chinese Learning

Editor’s note: A couple of days ago I wrote a journal entry about my Chinese studies and why and how I was going to be re-engaging my learning. It seemed like a fitting topic to clean up and share. For all those language hackers out there, check out my on-going project HackingLanguage, where I’m writing about language hacks and building cool tools for my fellow language hackers.

It seems like I’m regularly relaunching my Chinese studies. Chinese is a hard nut to crack. It’s definitely not a language for the feint at heart nor a language that is easily hacked.

To be honest, Chinese is a language that regularly kicks my ass, and even after studying for quite some time, there seems to still be so much more to learn and master.

Chinese learning just takes time and energy. As a self-learner and overly-committed guy, it’s not surprising that sometimes my dedication to studying Chinese lags behind and I have to rededicate myself to my Chinese studies.

Here I go again.

My Journey as a Digital Nomad

Who we are depends on many factors, but one of the key parts in my mind is how you define yourself. In a constantly changing world, self-definitions are important part of one’s journey from who we are and were to who we become and will be.

We take on roles, work on jobs, and develop skills, but ultimately we define ourself as we want others to see us and how we wish see ourselves.

Over the past couple years, I’ve been extremely privileged to re-define myself multiple times. These new titles, labels, skills, and responsibilities are part of my “baggage.”

Over my recent journeys, one identification in particular has stuck to me: digital nomad.

In short, a “digital nomad” is someone who uses an internet connection to do various types of work remotely, like from home, coffee shops, hotels or whoever you can be connected AND also conduct one’s life a nomadic or traveling way.

Here’s how I become a digital nomad.

A Digital Nomad in Isla Mujeres: Diving and Whale Sharks

Isla Mujeres is a place that’s easy to miss when planning a trip to the Yucatan peninsula. But, after a recent excursion on the island, I’d argue that it’s a place not to be missed for various kinds of travelers like divers, snorkels, relaxed-pace travelers or digital nomads like myself.

For as much as I travel, I generally don’t spend that much time planning, but instead read some quick overviews, figure out a travel route, and then just go-for-it. I can figure it out along the way better anyways. For my second trip to Yucatan Peninsula (the first being nearly 9 year ago!), I headed to a small island across the bay from Cancun in southern Mexico: Isla Mujeres, which is Spanish for “Island of Women.”

After landing in Cancun airport around noon, I decided to skip staying in Cancun and headed directly to the Isla Mujeres. This proved to be a fortuitous choice.

The Kickass Time Ratio: My Equation for Calculating Efficient Time Usage

I track my time pretty obsessively. It’s part of my toolkit of productivity techniques and applications.

It also helps me to calculate my “kickass time” ratio according to my “badass time equation for efficient time usage.”

There are some great tools for time tracking. My favorites are Toggl for manual tracking and RescueTime for passive, computer-usage tracking. I’m an active user of both these services as well as other simpler time trackers. I’m also building a more focused time and activity tracker for language learners.

Both of these services allow me to create a clear portrait of my “spent” time during the past week, month and year. But the data I get from each method is different and, as such, it has allowed me to create a simple equation for determining how productive or efficient my time usage was during a particular period.

You could call it a way to calculate how productive you were during a week but I prefer to call it the kickass time ratio. To summarize, I take my manually tracked time and divide it by passively record, computer time to then determine a time usage ratio or the kickass time ratio. The higher ratio means I was more kickass that past week; a lower ratio means I was less kickass or just plain sucked.

Here’s what I record and how and my “badass” equation to determine my weekly time-spent-kickass-ness.

Tioman Island Travel and Diving: Tech Travel Advice

To summarize: 10 dives in 5 days over 6 days in Tioman. Beautiful weather, clear visibility and an ocean of wonders.

Like some of great places I’ve arrived at when traveling, Tioman Island started as a few day reservation, which then extended into a much longer stay. I had reserved for 3 nights but ended up staying over a week.

I’m currently in Malaysia, where I’ve spent a nice travel and work time in Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Johor Bahru and most recently I’ve settled in Singapore for the next month or so (perhaps longer).

Tioman Island is something special, located in the southern part of Malaysia, along the Eastern coast. It’s primarily Malay and situated over some of the nice coral diving in the area. Tioman may not quite be heaven but it’s so far from it either.

Here are some thoughts for the tech and general traveler about getting there, where to stay, where you might dive and some tips for staying connected on this jungle island.

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.