This past year was an incredible year with the dominant experience being my nomadic lifestyle. I thoroughly enjoyed the varied new experiences and friendships that pushed me to grow a lot and provided a wealth of great memories.
In the last decade I had often dreamed of a lifestyle that enabled me to travel extensively and this year well surpassed what I had dared to hope for. I lived for almost three months in Berlin and Croatia, as well as traveled to various other countries in Europe. I also managed to dodge the polar vortex that hit most of the United States this winter by enjoying myself in New Orleans and San Francisco while staying with friends.
While living abroad I was able to become friends with many locals and get a sense of their culture and way of approaching life. After having spent several months in two foreign cities that I knew no one upon arrival (nor the language to any solid degree), I feel much more confident about my ability to move to new places and integrate with the lifestyle there. However, I desire to see how the experience changes as I live in new cities, particularly when I am outside of Europe.
I was able to experience watching Germany win the World Cup while in Berlin and also participated in Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While these were fantastic to be part of, I equally enjoyed the occasions to experience another lifestyle in a personal manner, such as spending a weekend with my friend’s family in Slavonski Brod and having them show me their hometown.
My interest in languages and the act of language learning has continued to grow through my travels. I routinely talk with people I meet about the difficulties they face learning languages and how they approach the task, as well as compare strategies with language instructors. Additionally, I keep exploring the academic literature on the subject and the less formal tips that polyglots give for learning, trying out these various methods in my own language learning. I detailed my experiences with various methods in my post on learning German and continue to evolve my strategies as I learn new languages.
Through spending more time in Berlin this summer and speaking it regularly, my German is at a highly conversant level that I am quite satisfied with. I reached my goal with German, which was to be able to talk with someone I just met across a variety of conversation topics with only minor difficulties. Currently I am seeking to maintain and slowly improve my proficiency with the language while I am away from Germany, exploring various tactics in this regard.
During my stay in Croatia I made a point to spend the initial month intensely learning the language to see what strategies worked best for a fresh language. This was a frustrating experience to be starting from scratch in a language that is substantially different from anything I had learned before. The initial frustration paid off, as by the end of the month I was able hold basic conversations on a range of common topics that people discussed, as well as understand the general highlights of a conversation, though I was not properly conversant. Unfortunately since people had such a high proficiency in English it further disincentivized learning Croatia, but my knowledge enabled me to have a more enjoyable trip and helped out greatly in navigating daily life with ease.
In the recent months I have been refreshing and furthering my Spanish knowledge in preparation for an upcoming trip to Spain. I have been able to make terrific progress by listening to podcasts and other online materials, having lessons with online tutors, and attending local meetups where Spanish speakers gather in a cafe, all without being in a Spanish speaking country or taking any formal course.
Health and Habits
My personal systems and daily habits are an area that I continue to experiment with regularly. Throughout the year I have iterated on some existing habits, such as having nearly continuous daily journaling and also implementing a system of tracking how I spend my days using a physical calendar.
Health and fitness are an important part of my life and this year was a struggle to ensure I maintained positive habits while traveling. While some exceptions were made to my diet (particularly in the meat-heavy culture of Croatia), I overall was able to adjust to a healthy diet wherever I went and keep exercising regularly. Walking continues to be an important part of my life as both a stress reliever and a way to experience a city. This year I expanded how much I walked while abroad, averaging between 5 and 8 miles a day depending on where I lived.
It has also been a pleasure to continue having time to read for personal growth and enjoyment. This year I averaged over a book a week on a plethora of subjects, as well as follow a few podcasts on my walks. After spending most of my PhD years with little free time to read for pleasure, this continues to be a tremendous joy that I can experience wherever I am living.
While living and exploring different places around the world, I continued working as a researcher for the University of Michigan on the Zydeco project. This past year my work involved furthering the design and development of Zydeco, helping educators use the publicly available app, and applying for additional grant funding, while also exploring new directions and side projects.
While we did not receive the follow-up Zydeco grant we submitted in 2013, the reviewers provided helpful feedback and we revised and expanded our plans before submitting a new grant in October. Steven McGee is the primary investigator through The Learning Partnership and we expanded to work with three museums (the Field Museum in Chicago, the Nature Museum in Chicago, and the Michigan State Planetarium) and will be working with Chris Quintana at the University of Michigan and myself through Elastic Focus.
With the future research directions for Zydeco in mind, we redesigned Zydeco and also reimplemented most of the underlying code base to remove a lot of technical debt. The app should be ready for a re-release in early 2015, leaving us well positioned if we are able to receive additional funding. While we have been redesigning the software, we continue to have new teachers and researchers begin using the existing version of Zydeco in their own classes and projects. It is great to see people continuing to use the software that we all spent so much effort on and I hope we are able to make the project live on after the grant ends.
This past year we presented a demo of Zydeco at the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference working along with EvoRoom, an immersive, room-sized simulation of a rainforest that Michelle Lui designed. Michelle Lui presented a paper regarding a study we collaborated on that combined both of the systems. This was an interesting experience as we had to deal with the logistics of setting up the physical installation on site as well as attend it for most of the conference at certain intervals, akin to manning a conference booth. The presentations seemed to be well received and provided us with further helpful feedback to advance the research.
I continued exploring several side projects and learning opportunities this year. Most notably was the release of Colibri, an iOS app designed to rapidly build vocabulary in German that I developed with Peter Lewis. Due to some legal holdups, we have not begun marketing the app and it remains relatively unnoticed in the App Store at this time. However, I was able to use the app myself during my stay in Berlin this summer and learned over a thousand new words with the app – a very satisfying feeling to get such great use out of my something I built.
During my travels I was also able to participate in the second LinguaCamp BarCamp for language learners in Hannover, Germany and the WebCamp conference in Zagreb, Croatia. At WebCamp I led a sold out workshop on an Introduction to Usability Testing that was well received. Leading this workshop and also giving a talk on Introduction to Visualization with D3.js has revived my interest to start teaching again and I will be seeking out further opportunities to do so in the future.
During my stay in Croatia I became friends with a senior supervisor at Toptal and was considering working for them as a lead technical editor to develop a whole range of technical resources for software developers. This was a bit of a lateral move that I had never considered before and while applying for the job I wrote an iOS Hiring Guide for Toptal, though in the process of doing so I decided the job was not a good fit for my interests at the time.
I am looking forward to continue being a nomad and traveling further this next year. My immediate goal is to become conversant in Spanish while living in Spain, as well as finish implementing the Zydeco redesign and make that update available on the App Store.
Additionally, I want to try and write more in this coming year. I had hoped to get more blog posts finished this year, but due to various distractions many of my posts in progress became sidelined.
I am also excited to do some exploratory research with the remaining time on the current Zydeco grant. Though my path is not clear after my position ends this summer, I am looking forward to the various possibilities that the future holds.