A Tale of Tenuous Links

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Being an ESL teacher in Vietnam can be hard work. It’s very easy to lose sight of what’s important (i.e. having an actual life) by choosing to accept offers of work for every day of the week, thus one becomes what I like to call ‘a lesson grabber’. About 5 weeks ago, when the kids of Vietnam finished school for the summer, I took a much needed week-long holiday with Gareth to the currently deserted beach town of Mui Ne. I was about to fall apart mentally and physically after spending almost 12 months working without any kind of a weekend and having only two weeks off for a holiday in February, which was spent mostly on a not-so-relaxing scooter travelling across 1400km of southern Vietnamese roads.

I Love Books Me!

I am British and we Brits just love to spend our holidays with a book by a pool or the beach, so me being me, I took along my Kindle and the five  following paperbacks:

  • Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer – an insightful and funny exploration into the art and science of memory.

  • La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales – a delightful non-fiction love story of a woman and the Italian language. I’d read it before and it was so rich, full of history and passionate energy that I wanted to read it again.

  • A Very Short Introduction to 18th Century Britain by Paul Langford – I am a little bit obsessed with that century in British and European history and I want to write a historical fiction about the era, so when I saw this book in a Vietnamese bookshop I just had to buy it.

  • A Noble Radiance by Donna Leon – The only fiction book I took on the holiday. Continuing with her Commissario Brunetti series of detective novels, Leon sets her stories in Venice and carries me their whenever I read her.

  • The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell – A study of the moment when an idea, trend or social behaviour tips and becomes an epidemic.

I love my Kindle. It’s brilliant for the travelling reader, especially one who lives in a country with limited English language options in bookshops, although, having said that, in the year I have lived in Ho Chi Minh City the offerings have improved a lot, especially at the bookshop chain PNC. (N.B. La Bella Lingua and A Noble Radiance were sent over to me by my mum, the rest I purchased here in Vietnam). For Christmas my mum gave me the perfect present; a £30 Amazon gift card, and I was able to download about 6 new books onto my Kindle. It just so happened that I barely even turned on my Kindle while I was in Mui Ne. There’s just something about holding a real live book in my hands. Not even a lightweight, 2GB storing, one month battery life promising, wifi capable, snazzy gadget can beat that.

I managed to only finish Moonwalking with Einstein while I was in Mui Ne but I would have read it much faster except for the fact that I was also reading A Noble Radiance at the same time to give my brain a rest on the old non-fiction front. When I finished ‘Moonwalking’ I immediately picked up The Tipping Point from the pile of ‘to read’, and I was engrossed.

Obsessed

I read The Tipping Point constantly, by the pool, in cafes, in my room, at breakfast. As we sat in our hotel’s reception, waiting for our bus to sadly send us back to Saigon, I pulled the book out of my bag, unfolded the corner of the page I was up to and dug in. During a moment of reflection, or maybe it was when I wanted to continue with the running commentary I give to Gareth about all of my books, I looked up and recognised the girl sat on the couch opposite, also waiting for the bus. I’d seen her the night before in a bar called Joe’s Cafe. She’d been by herself, intensely smoking a cigarette and focused on her computer while Gareth and I were sat on the table next her with an older Australian couple who both seemed to enjoy analysing the root of our respective country’s immigration issues. As Gareth and I carefully attempted to steer the conversation before it hit the rocks of racist discourse, I couldn’t help but be a little bit fascinated by this young woman, not much older than myself, alone.

‘Where are you guys going?’

– Oh my god she’s talking to us!

We answered her question and then gave her the up-to-date essay of our lives.

‘Oh, you’re reading The Tipping Point.’

– Wow, she even likes the books I read.

Like a dog with a bone I told her that I love these kinds of books, that I’d read Gladwell’s Outliers too, and that she should read The Social Animal by David Brooks.

‘Oh, ok, I’ll look for that one.’

– Awkward momentary silence.

I asked her how long she’s been in Vietnam and how long she’s staying. I didn’t want to lose her attention but I could only think of these typical arbitrary questions that all tourists ask one another.

‘I’ve been here for a week and I’m staying in Saigon for another 3 weeks.’

I asked her what she does.

‘I’m a programmer but I used to be an economist. I love to travel so I did a programming course and ditched the job. Now I can work anywhere, all I need is my computer.’

I said that I suddenly thought I recognised her from Joe’s Cafe the night before, sat working on her computer, was I right?

‘Yeah, that was probably me.’

I asked her if she’d read the 4 Hour Work Week.

‘Of course I have.’

Like a wet nosed, tail wagging puppy, I spent the following 20 minutes talking to her about how wonderful The 4 Hour Week Week is and about my blog post ‘What Gives You Life?’ and finding out about her new found freed life. I was right to be fascinated the night before.

Unfortunately she wasn’t booked onto the same bus as us. I really wanted to speak to her again so Gareth did his best to keep an eye out for her over the following 3 weeks whenever he was in District 1 having a beer with his mates because she’d mentioned that that was the area where she was going to be staying. I never saw her again. Maybe I should Facebook stalk her…

Fast forward four weeks and I was sat on my arse at home trying so hard to be inspired to write. By this point I’d drafted a post about Mui Ne and how great it is but I just didn’t have the heart to post it. It’s there anyway and it’s fairly timeless so I can post it at any point in the next year or so. I remembered that I follow a wonderful blog called Live to Write, Write to Live written by a group of women writers in North America who offer loads of free inspirational advice to all levels of writers. So, I went through my email and searched for every post of theirs I’d received. I was drawn to one in particular, simply called Resources for Writers by Dianne Mackinnon. In this post Dianne champions the free online classes available to writers who want to develop their skills without parting from their cash. This was where I was introduced to the new online craze of a MOOC.

MOOCs

MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses ran by a number of not-for-profit organisations and many Universities, including Harvard and MIT. I clicked through to most of the links that Dianne kindly provided and my world absolutely changed forever.

Coursera, edX and Udacity all offer free college courses to anyone anywhere with a computer and an internet connection.  I wasn’t too sure about Udacity at first because it seemed to only offer courses in Science and Maths, and I was looking for a more creative based one. I scrolled down their Course Catalog anyway: Introduction to Computer Science, Introduction to Physics, Introduction to Statistics, Introduction to Psychology, Algorithms, Web Development, Introduction to AI, Functional Hardware Verification, Applied Cryptography. I thought I’d need to do a course just to understand what half of the courses meant.

Then I remembered her. She had been an economist but then did a course herself and now she was a career Programmer. With my background as an analyst using analytical software on a daily basis it dawned on me that maybe I could learn about programming too and maybe even eventually make a career out of it myself. After mooching through the MOOCs on offer, I opened an account with Udacity with just my name and my email address. Nothing more. That simple. Out of sheer curiosity I signed up to the Introduction to Computer Science, a course that promised to teach me how to make my very own search engine.

Working through the introduction about programming using Python language I wanted to learn more. I was challenged by the maths side of it but I’m pretty certain I could already feel the synapses growing and neurons connecting, and the inner geek was close to excitedly wetting itself.

I’m coming near the end of my first week of Introduction to Computer Science and I have signed up to a couple of others; a Statistics course and an Introduction to Programming course teaching about programming in Java. The courses are video based and taught by enthusiastic university professors with quizzes and homework interspersed throughout, and can be completed at your own pace.

I love teaching English as a second language but in my opinion it’s not the most consistently paid job across the world. If I am going to be a traveller I need to be honest with myself about how I am going to fund the lifestyle and about maintaining an income to the extent that I can also save and eventually have enough money to start a family. And if nothing else, learning to programme would at least be another string to my bow.

Project: The Pursuit of APPiness…

Right, so to build up my computer science knowledge, and above all my passion, I want to do something that combines it with all of my other interests and passions, which are mainly travelling, writing and education. And now I am going to give you a heads up on my next little project.

I love anything that is free, I’m sure you do too, so I am going to scour the world wide web to find the best free travel related apps I can get my hands on. As I do so I would be so greatful if you, my most excellent reader, would help me out by telling me below what free apps you currently use on you global journeys and/or what kind of apps you would like to have that would enrich your experiences and assist you on the ground.

Thank you lovelies in advance, and I am very much looking forward to telling you all what I find.