September 22, 2017

Back in London

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So after four and a half years in Kuala Lumpur, we have returned to London. My first impression? It is cold here. It has been quite a shock to go from the tropics to a Northern European climate. Plus, it is summer! Winter is coming, and I am not looking forward to it.

Other than that London seems vaguely the same. It is still incredibly expensive. The media continues to be full of stories of either impending disaster or glorious future success – depending on the proprietor’s political leanings. When we left it was Austerity, now it is Brexit. The trains are still broken on an alarmingly regular basis for what seem like nonsense reasons. Companies say nice things and are polite in public, but obviously couldn’t care less when time to get things done. People are everywhere, everything seems crowded, everyone is super busy.

Forgotten when I left, but quickly remembered on return: terrorism motivated attacks are common enough to be largely ignored by the local populace. Seriously, I have never seen a Londoner concerned about the London terrorist incidents that dominate the international news when they occur. If you ever see a news item claiming that Londoners are feeling scared, worried or “under siege” then they are talking nonsense.

There have been a few small changes too. Contactless payments are ubiquitous. I tried to pay for my lunch with cash soon after arriving and got a very dirty look from the cashier as they made an exaggerated gesture to open the till. It is as if I was an old man counting out pennies, which I suppose I was from a customer throughput point of view. There is also a huge increase in the number of “gentleman’s barbers”. Male grooming is definitely more overt. Hipsters abound!

Overall, I can not claim to be happy to be back. That is despite finding a job very quickly in an interesting fintech AI startup. It has also been good to catch up with old friends. I will probably be required by work to stay in town over the coming months. However, I sincerely hope this will be my last ever London winter.


June 15, 2017

Japan Trip

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We are just back from a fortnight’s holiday in Japan, visiting Kyoto and Tokyo. It was definitely a worthwhile vacation, and an interesting country, although Tokyo is extremely large and crowded. Some thoughts:

  • Tokyo and Japanese culture did not seem that strange. Perhaps because it has become globalised and so commonly seen. Tokyo just seemed like a city big enough that normally small sub-cultures could grow enough to become noticed and make a mark on the city.
  • I love the idea of underground automatic bicycle parking
  • There are ubiquitous (never vandalised) vending machines – so you can always get a drink (sometimes even beer!)
  • Keiren races are well attended, but rarely watched (the crowd spent most of the time gambling).
  • As an Australian/British person, having someone beckon you upstairs for a restaurant feels so very wrong and likely to be a scam, but apparently is nothing special in Japan

My best photos from the trip are in a short slideshow available here.


April 14, 2017

Funding Circle Results

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Another year, another annual report on my Funding Circle investments. Events since last time have greatly changed the UK small business environment (see Brexit) and Funding Circle have also modified their rules. As a result, it is likely this will be my last report. Before explaining why, let’s see how the investments performed.

Here are the returns for the last UK tax year:

Gross: 8.3%
After Fees: 7.3%
After Bad Debt & Recoveries: 7.0%

Pretty good again – 7% much better than a bank, and about half the 2016 return on the UK stockmarket. Apart from a problem one year with bad debt, the returns have been consistently decent and worthwhile.

So why could this be the end? It is becoming increasing hard to find suitable loans. This started with the issues raised in the last report, when the site removed the loan auction system and replaced it with a fixed return system. This means that loans fill up much faster – especially the less risky or smaller ones. Thus when I check the site there are substantially less loans available. For a while this was balanced by large real estate loans that tended to take a few days to fill, but now Funding Circle has decided to reduce their number as well. Perhaps this change is due to Brexit risks? I’m not sure, but it would certainly make sense to me. The risks of lending to UK business have certainly increased in the sense the future is more uncertain. Do I really want to lend to that small manufacturer for 60 months? I have found myself more hesitant to lend – my required standards have increased.

Over the last year the money left unlent in my Funding Circle account has steadily increased. Since such funds accrue no interest, as soon as they reach a significant level, they are moved out to my bank account. Then it starts to build up again. I just can not find enough loans to join. By the end of the tax year the account was a third lower than at the beginning. Again, it is already starting to rise after just a week and there is a very good chance I will have a negligible amount left in Funding Circle in another 12 months.


February 22, 2017

Spanish Lessons

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Recently I was going through some old books deciding if they should be given away before my next transcontinental move in a few months. At the bottom of an old storage box lay my university calculus textbook. “Oh no, I can’t get rid of this, it might be useful!” Then I remembered I had not even opened it in over 20 years. Then I remembered I barely opened the book when I was studying calculus 25 years ago (maybe that is why I nearly failed). So instead of putting it back in the box, I looked up similar textbooks online. There are many calculus textbooks online, and a few are free. I decided that I no longer need a large physical maths book and can just use electronic copies instead.

The conclusion from this episode is there is good stuff on the Internet. Hence when it seemed possible I might end up in a Spanish speaking country (it turns out I won’t), I turned again to the Internet to help me learn Spanish. No textbooks for me, just online resources. About 7 months later and 10 minutes per day, nearly every day, and I have a vocabulary of around 1000 Spanish words. Not bad, but not that good. Small children have vocabularies around the 5000 word mark. Although I’m already beginning to reach the limits of the original websites – time to find some new ones. Before I do, here is what I have learnt about learning Spanish online.

The two language learning websites that seem the most popular are Memrise and Duolingo. I have been using both and they are very similar, with some slight differences. Both break down the learning into 5 minute chunks of lessons or reviews. Both teach using small sentences at most. Both offer some minor gamification and attempts at community-building.

The short learning times are great for me. I am usually quite busy, so 5 minutes at a time is just right. If there is more time available, then just do more lessons or tests. The sites remind you to continue daily and keep a record of how many days in a row this has been achieved and what should be reviewed next. For me, this is the biggest benefit of using websites to learn a foreign language. Previous attempts have foundered on not regularly studying, but both these sites help you with reminders and a small time commitment. It has worked for me!

Beyond that there are some issues. The core mechanic of Memrise is memorising lists of words and sentences. There is little information about how these fit together or if slight variations are also acceptable. For instance, there are three words for “that” in Spanish depending on word gender (or lack thereof): eso, ese, esa. However, if you type that in as the answer to “translate ‘that’”, you will be marked wrong! Clearly the correct answer is “ese, esa, eso”. This is not an isolated example. Although the constant repetition does mean the specifics are learned quickly. Duolingo does a little better, as it allows a range of correct answers. It also asks for translations of sentences not previously provided in lessons – rote memorisation is not enough. Although I find learning with Duolingo to be slower since reviews occur less often and there is a tendency to dump huge amounts of verbs (with their conjugations) over a short period, diluting the likelihood of longterm remembrance of any particular verb.

The biggest problem is shared by both sites. Neither teach Spanish grammar well. On Duolingo it is almost an afterthought, with small notes on grammar at the end of certain lessons. Still, much better than Memrise, which just doesn’t mention grammar issues at all (just memorise it!). At the 1000 word vocabulary range, learning some grammar is now one of the two main roadblocks to progressing (remembering verb conjugations being the other). Issues like how to use direct and indirect pronouns in various circumstances can be quite confusing, but there is little information on these sites other than a list of the possible pronouns. The rest the student has to work out from examples. Another instance, both sites have taught the verbs acabar and terminar as meaning “to finish”, yet both mark me wrong sometimes if I use acabar with no indication why this is incorrect. I had to search on the Internet to find the issue. Yes, both mean “to finish”, but if the subject initiated the event to be finished then terminar should be used, otherwise they are interchangeable.

To help with these quite important grammar points I have found Study Spanish and SpanishDict to be invaluable. Now I am overwhelmed, but finally learning some grammar (for the first time in any language). Also I think it is time to try reading and listening to real Spanish speaking people. The voices on the websites tend differentiate their words clearly and use very particular language. Unsurprisingly, my experiences online show this is not the case with real-world Spanish (just like real-world English). Anyone recommend and decent online resources for this next stage?


February 14, 2017

Social Media

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I have to admit to being a little confused about social media like Facebook, Twitter and the rest. As a small business owner, it is commonly advised that I MUST be active on various social media platforms – and to a certain extent that is true. However, I’ll becoming a little disillusioned and not sure there is much value in putting in more than the minimum effort.

Firstly, it should be said that I have found social media a good method of contact. Some people just prefer to communicate through these platforms, so it is definitely useful for me to have a presence, just in case such a message is sent. For that reason I’m happy to maintain accounts on the larger social media sites. Although, it should be noted that the vast majority of people contact me through either email or Steam forums. Interaction with fans through social media is minimal.

Discovery is the main reason I use social media. As a small gamedev in an extremely crowded market, my main problem is letting people know about my game. I need to get out the word and reaching as many people as possible. In this regard I have found both Facebook and Twitter quite useless. Of course some people are hugely successful on social media, but that is the same on other marketing channels (like YouTube let’s plays and websites reviews). A few do well, the majority do not. Most people do not seem to get their message very far.

The problem seems to be that the people I want to reach are not the sort of people likely to follow me. A person can realistically only follow a couple of hundred social media accounts before some of the messages are dropped (based on me being able to just about follow 100 and see everything). So most people will quickly fill their timelines with existing or popular favourites and have little space for extras.

So far that is fine, and to be expected. What causes the disillusionment is looking at my followers. Many have many hundreds of accounts they follow, some have thousands. It seems impossible to comprehend that they can actually see what is being said by all of them. The majority must be muted or ignored. It seems most accounts are just broadcasting to other accounts that are not listening. Each week I get several new followers, but most stop following after a few days… unless I follow them back. There appears to be a strong gift exchange culture with reciprocal following. Now I have started noticing a bunch of firms exploiting this – automatically following and unfollowing to maximise subscriber gain. Again this just lessens the value of each follower.

Just following my friends and a few groups on Facebook produces enough content to mean I miss many posts, which I find disappointing. I read every tweet in my timeline – if I follow you, I read what you publish. To me that seems to be the point of the system, but apparently not to a large number of people. Instead it is about greater number of followers or friend’s even if the result is effectively zero actual communication.

Am I missing something?