Archives mensuelles : février 2014


In my job, every couple of weeks or so, I get unsolicited pitches from freelance journalists asking if I’d be interested in commissioning certain stories. I often am. These emails generally include social media and website links for people to show off their published work. I was really blown away in the week by someone’s personal story portfolio on a site called Jux. I haven’t really explored the platform much myself, but the presentation is breath-taking, and I bet it’s just superb on an ipad.

It’s actually amazing now that regular folk can set-up their own content platforms that look so much better than the biggest names in the news media. The web is opening incredible possibilities now, and at some point I hope to explore more. It’s like the old media is a black and white newspaper, while your free personal site is a glossy magazine. Maybe being based on an old-school institutional platform is going to become less and less important, and the new key differentiate-r will be the quality of the content.

We should write more

Just got a spam email…the saddest thing about getting a spam message from a contact’s hacked email account is not that there are strangers out there trying to exploit your naivety. But rather, that it would have been so wonderful to get a genuine personal email from that old friend, even asking for help returning from a far off land, and you feel a touch of sorrow that it wasn’t really them getting back in touch.

The sugar in tea rule

About ten years ago, I made an observation. Some people enjoyed tea without sugar, some with one spoon of sugar, others with two spoons, and others with more. I was a one spoon person, something that I found came with a price when I was Greyhounding around the USA with a friend. We had limited supplies and it wasn’t easy for me and my friend to arrange our morning cup of tea. Tea is quite simple, but when you go from needing hot water, milk, and a tea bag, to needing hot water, milk, a tea bag and sugar, you’ve made your job quite a bit more difficult.

But for me, drinking tea without sugar was a horrible experience. Of course the odd time that anyone mistakenly put two sugars in my tea, it was a horrible experience as well. But then I realised that for non-sugar-in-tea people, having a teaspoon of sugar in their tea was a horrible experience for them. Likewise, two-sugar people found one-sugar tea horrible too.

So, I thought – wouldn’t it be useful in life to be a no-sugar person? Given things seem to be relative and just a question of habit, why not become a no-sugar person and get the double-win of having a less complicated life (not needing the extra ingredient) and also reducing a teaspoon of sugar (i.e. calories), from the several cups tea drunk every day, for most days in my life.

Over the period of a year in my final year as an undergraduate I went through months of ‘half a spoon’, to ‘a quarter spoon’, and finally ‘no sugar, please.’

It seems to me that these two lessons have a wider application in life – that given many things are relative, if we can just get used to good habits, then good habits become a natural part of our lifestyle. And also secondly, if you do something regular (e.g. several times a day) and can fine tune this regular activity to make it as healthy/useful/productive as possible, then it adds up to a big gain over a year/decade/life-time. Hence perhaps the points raised in my previous post about the importance of the morning programme.

The morning routine

This week I was chatting with a friend of mine who works in finance and who takes the same work-bus as me in the morning. We got into a conversation about sport and I mentioned that I tried to do some sport every morning before coming into work. He said ‘I used to be good at doing exercise, but I struggle to find the time.’ I said that I was able to make the time by getting out of bed just after six o’clock. He replied that he gets out of bed just after five o’clock. But when I asked what he does before catching a bus in the morning, he said that he basically just had a cup of coffee.

Recently a friend posted something on Facebook: « You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine. » For me, getting a morning routine hard-wired into the day makes for a great start, and a good way to fix some basic things into the weekly programme. By putting quite a few things into the morning routine, I can take the stress off weekends and evenings and just allow certain things to just happen naturally.

At the moment, I’m waking up at 610. We don’t have curtains, so in the summer that means waking up with the sun, but at the moment, it’s just a bit before sunrise. I’ll check whatsapp and then head out for some sport. When I was training for the marathon, this was almost always running, but now I’m putting the emphasis on working out with weights, and a more varied set of aerobic exercises on alternate days (running, cross-trainer, cycling). I have a small breakfast (2 Weetabix, 1 piece of fruit and a cup of tea) either before or after the exercise. If I’m working out in the gym, I’ll go down with my tea. While cycling or cross-training I can read my Kindle (Bible reading (3 chapters) + another book); I just find you need to increase the font size. Other exercise is done to podcasts.

I need to be in the shower by 730, and then out the door by 745-755, after a short prayer with my usually-sleeping wife. It’s a 5 minute walk to the metro, two stops on the train, and then a bus to work that leaves at 820 to arrive at 900. Taking the bus is something I find a key part of organising my mornings: I can just switch off and concentrate. On the walk to the metro I listen to podcasts. Then, when I’m waiting for the train, I’ll take out my phone to surf. I’ll quickly check Facebook and Emails (though only to browse quickly as I prefer emailing on a laptop at work). Then I’ll open the BBC News app to read some news stories/headlines, and then open Feedly to clear my RSS feeds. i can finish with these main two phone tasks in the train, or waiting for the bus, or on the bus.

The next step is to pull out my Kindle. The first priority is to read my three Bible chapters, which I’ll generally follow by a short prayer. Then I’ll do other reading. I’m reading the Qu’ran at the moment, though I tend not to segway between the two religious books without something in between. The morning is often a time to exchange whatsapp messages.

The result is that every time I arrive at the office in the morning I’ve done some exercise, eaten, washed, caught up on the news, cleared my blog inbox, advanced in my reading and podcast listening, and read some of the Bible and prayed. This all helps to advance a number of core life objectives, and make sure that important things aren’t being neglected.

I don’t think such things are for everyone, but I’m very much a morning person, and I feel I can thrive where things are very regular like this (bus always leaving at the same time, etc).

A permanent home

I had thought moving to Dubai would provide some stability for my family. Sadly, no sooner had the several months of travel and paperwork brought my wife and daughters here,..and my bosses announced that my department would be closing at the end of 2014. Already I’m selling kitchen appliances and beds I bought 12 months ago, as we downsize to a 1 bedroom flat. I guess this is all part of Yao’s travels, but you find yourself constantly buying stuff that you’ll have to re-buy again in a couple of years somewhere else. Yesterday we were buying things for making cakes (sieve, mixer, measuring jug) that we already have back in Cote d’Ivoire. It would be nice to buying a bed that we know we’ll be sleeping on in a couple of decades time, and having a house full of basic stuff that we then don’t need to buy for many years to come. But such permanence isn’t part of my life for the moment. I hoped it would be when I arrived in Dubai – and I think that’s the reason I bought a iMac at the time (desktop Apple computer) rather than a laptop. Sadly, that now looks like one of the worst decisions I made in 2013.

Managing the inbox

I saw a colleague’s work email inbox the other day, and was astonished to find that he had 2,000+ unread emails. For me that’s almost an automatic heart-attack. But everyone has different strategies. For me, I like to keep as few emails in my inbox as possible – this extends to my private inbox, my blog roll (Feedly), my work RSS feeds, my iTunes podcast list. If I have nothing unread/un-listened then I feel on top of things.

Of course it’s probably a bad strategy. I probably spend too much time managing the inbox rather than achieving the big things. But somehow it makes me feel in control, and I prefer to only keep things in front of me that can’t immediately be batted into touch. My inbox is my to-do list.


For someone who used to spend much of his working life producing reports for the wireless, I listen to almost zero radio nowadays, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, I’m totally hooked on podcasting (which can just be a glorified word for listening to radio programmes in a more flexibile way). Podcasting is something that doesn’t get the buzz it once got, and particularly in the African context I almost never see people discuss it, even though radio is such a successful medium on the continent. I’m really not sure what’s behind this – is it because iTunes is less popular (difficulty of credit card payments/popularity of Android/PCs)? Podcasting will probably always be something of a niche market for people who crave quality speech radio content and self-education.

For me it works like a dream. I’ve been listening a lot as I’ve been doing marathon training, and hopefully I’ll continue. My main listening times are during the commute to work and while doing exercise. Do I miss out on much by not listening to the radio? Not too much I think. I do miss hearing well-crafted radio news packages, which are a little appreciated art form. But perhaps being of a slightly elitist bent, I find the talkshow / chatty styles that seem to predominate now as less useful at getting you lots of quality information you can use. Too much chaff with the wheat.

Here are some of the broad brush strokes of my podcast listening. Looking down the list I think it’s a quite well rounded mix, and a good illustration of the strengthens of podcasting. You can cater for all your niche private interests, with high quality content automatically downloaded from sources all over the world.

BBC Radio Four – I get a selection of BBC documentaries, and some firm favourites; Start the Week (weekly intellectual discussion show), In Our Time (academic discussion on an intellectual theme e.g. The Medici, the Atom, Quantum physics), From Our Own Correspondent (colour from BBC reporters, and also good for keeping up to date on the news), More or Less (helps understand modern stats and excellent for good-to-know stuff) and Front Row Weekly (summary of the best bits of the weekly high-brow arts and culture show).

This all helps to keep me feel reasonably in touch with what’s going on in the UK, particularly culturally. Otherwise, my fear would be that in the future I return to the UK totally out of touch. I may not be able to go to the theatre, but at least I can know what’s on in the West End.

Sermons – I catch a few sermons – from St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London and from Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill. Podcasting has been a real asset for the modern church and you can now listen to the very best teaching anywhere in the world. This was particularly helpful in West Africa where church teaching was often tailored for people from a different background.

Photography – I’ve been listening to This Week in Photo for a couple of years now. It’s a good weekly update on the latest photo gear and developments. I feel guilty now about being one of those people who spend more time listening to talks about photography than taking pictures, but – at my most optimistic – I think it gives me regular info which is building a foundation for the day that I take photography more seriously.

Development – I subscribe to Owen Barder’s occasional longer development podcasts (Development Drums) and the shorter Wonkcast from the Centre for Global Development.

Finally, there’s a long-tail of podcasts on odd interests, or that aren’t always so regular. For the last few months I get the 15 minute weekly Writing Excuses podcast to help teach me more about fiction writing, the Longform podcast on longform journalism, an Advanced French podcast, the Accidental Creative self-help podcast, and plenty more.

Screen time

Computers have of course revolutionised the modern world. But it’s also difficult to escape the screen – so much of what we do now is computer-based. So after a day of work, what do I want to do in the evenings? Write blog posts, check social media, read news articles, practice photography, edit video, even start writing creative fiction…everything involves being at my laptop. And for my wife, it’s just me carrying on working. Even reading now involves a Kindle. It’s hard to know how to escape, But so many of my personal goals involves more time behind a computer screen. What to do?

Freelance dreams

Last week I met up with a young British journalist who was in Dubai after just giving up a good editorial job for the freelance life. She was looking for advice on working in the region, and where to be based. I have to say that it did give me a new enthusiasm for my options in the future, and in particular a more concrete sense of how I could perhaps live in Abidjan and cover the West African region as a freelance reporter. Such a life would have enviable freedom in terms of reporting on what I wanted, in the form I’d want (e.g. photos / video) and with time to follow my nose/curiosity, and do other stuff in the working week. Abidjan has good connections to the region, and hopefully within the next few years low-cost airlines will have arrived. With my Ivorian passport, there’d be no visa trouble, and unless things change dramatically, West Africa is one of the most unreported regions in the world, so there’d be little in the way of competition.

My beef with the freelance life is that I tend to stress about income. But my dream is that in 5-10 years’ time the mortgage will be paid off, I’ll have a pension secured, live in my own house, and ideally have some guaranteed income (e.g. from renting out a house or two). That way, I’ll be a bit more secure and can get a little income security and a lot of adventure. I could also run businesses, private projects, farms, blogging, teaching, write books, etc. One can but dream.