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Is Investing in Yourself Really The Best Investment You Can Make?

Ah, investing in yourself. Your sorry ass will finally be worth something.

The mantra goes something like this. Investing in yourself is worthwhile, see, because it inevitably leads to more money, greater career prospects, and better investing skillz. Charlie Munger said so, therefore it’s gotta be true.

There are many different ways someone can invest in themselves. The most popular is probably taking a course. There are essentially two ways to go this. You can either go back for formal education or learn something for far less money. Coursera and other online-only educators have courses on damn near everything, starting at the low price of $0.

There are other ways to invest in yourself, too. I’m a big fan of books, especially business biographies. I’ve learned something from just about every book I’ve read, although not all of those lessons have directly translated into profit. Hell, you can even argue going out and meeting new people is important, since connections will help you get ahead.

Self-help is a huge industry today, and will continue to be in the future. We collectively have a lot of disposable income and the desire to improve ourselves.

But has the whole concept gone too far? Maybe it has.

The dark side of investing in yourself
I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again. Having a book collection is just intellectual masturbation from people who are trying to look smart. My favorite person to make fun of is one who buys five books for every one they read.

I’ve gotten much smarter about buying books, choosing to use alternative methods 99% of the time. The only reason why I browse bookstores is to take pictures of books I’ll just get from the library later. No, this hasn’t gotten me kicked out of every book store in the country, although I did get the stink eye once. Actually, probably more than once. I’m not very self-aware.

We criticize people when they waste money on credit card debt or having too much car, but I’ve yet to hear someone say a book collection is stupid. It’s because books are an investment, silly.

There are a million other examples. Spend $500 on office clothes? Turns out it’s not a waste of money. It’s an investment in my career, stupid.

Gym membership that never gets used? Again, not a waste. It’s an investment in my rockin’ bod. Ignore the muffin top, please.

We’ve gotten to the point where half of our purchases are justified because they can, in theory at least, lead to some sort of long-term improvement in our lives. Yet we keep on struggling, not really getting ahead. Results? We don’t need no stinking results.

How to measure it
There are two parts to an investment. There’s the original principal, and then the return. When you’re investing capital passively, it’s easy to measure the rate of return. You made 5% or 10% or whatever.

It’s a lot harder to measure investing in yourself. Say you’re a blooger like me, and you invest in some marketing courses. You spend $1,000 and create an additional $250 per month in income. That’s a great return, right?

Well, maybe not. What if you have to work an additional 10 hours per month to create that $250 extra income? That’s still decent–especially if you don’t make $25 per hour in your day job–but it makes things murkier.

And then there’s the original investment in the first place. Was the $1,000 worth it when the same information might exist somewhere else for free?

This is what self-help gurus count on. Nobody wants to admit they pissed away money on a book, course, or even a gym membership. So they tell themselves it was worth it. Collectively, we do a terrible job of measuring if such expenditures are offering a decent return on investment. I don’t think that changes soon, either.

Should you do it?
If you do it right, investing in yourself can be some of the best dollars you’ll ever spend.

A few days ago, I used the example of someone who spends $30,000 on an education that pays them $20,000 more a year for life. That’s a great investment, even after calculating the time involved and any interest on the loan.

But most of the time measuring returns aren’t quite that easy, especially for people who are spending the cash on personal growth. Often, someone will read the required book or take the course and then abandon the subject completely. Or they’ll read it, shrug, and move on with life.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend money on this stuff. Just take a long, hard look at it before forking out your dollars.

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Why the financial independence community is wrong

I have to start with a massive disclaimer in huge flashing neon letters. I am part of the financial independence community.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, we ‘FIers’ are interested in the concept of building up enough investment capital to allow us to live from the investment returns and make working for a living entirely optional from a surprisingly young age (e.g. 30). Most people achieve this by saving a massive proportion of their income from a professional job.

To learn more about the FI community, follow a few of the personal finance links in my sidebar and the rest of the article. All of the sites I’ve linked to are full of useful resources.

It’s a really intriguing idea and, indeed is probably where I was heading before finalising my own strategy for job-freedom.

I’d definitely still count myself as part of ‘the movement’:

I live below my means.
I employ a passive, asset allocation-based investment strategy.
I believe that money is ‘for’ freedom, not stuff.
My financial philosophy is built around books like Your Money Or Your Life, The Millionaire Next Door and The Richest Man In Babylon.
I believe that Mr Money Mustache, Jacob Lund-Fisker, Jim Collins, Ermine, The FIREstarter, Monevator and many more like them have added a massive amount of value to my life. Without them, my wife and I would never have banked the nest egg that is one of the main reasons I am able to sit here on a Tuesday morning writing about them rather than being in a pointless meeting.
Having never discovered the FIRE movement, I would know nothing about being a private investor and would currently be suffering from a 1% per annum portfolio management charge inflicted by a financial adviser who sold me a shit actively managed product.
However…

The false dichotomy
…there’s a chance that some people are taking home the wrong message from the FI blogs:

You are either completely financially independent or you are not free. It is binary. Life has 2 stages: indentured servitude working full-time for The Man followed by paradise on Earth and complete freedom. There is no intermediate stage.

Now, it’s abundantly clear to me that none of the authors listed above are saying this. Most of them have stated as much. Some examples:

The FIREstarter went as far as to pretty much describe my current strategy and lifestyle in a blog post 2 years ago.
When Jacob Lund-Fisker originally retired extremely early he had a little side income from copy editing which coincidentally covered his expenses. He explicitly stated in that post that just doing the copy editing without having sufficient assets to live from passive income is a viable alternative that would allow for almost as much free time as full being fully FI.
Jim Collins has always written that the quest for FI was ‘never about retirement’ for him – just the ability to do whatever he wanted (which, for much of the time, was working in some capacity). Jim was also the inspiration for my definition of “Fuck You” money as enough cash to not worry about working for a while (rather than enough capital to keep you forever).
Although everybody who writes an FI blog puts a lot of effort into pointing out that achieving FI doesn’t magically switch off your ability to be productive, I occasionally see things like the graph in this post (from Retirement Investing Today – another blog I absolutely love) which adds some weight to the ‘it’s either complete FI or taking it from The Man’ perception. Note the ‘…you’re stuck working for the man’ wording below the FI line on the graph.

The thing is, I have a graph like that too. I’m nowhere near the FI line but I’m categorically not stuck working for The Man.

Miraculous
Please indulge me for a few minutes whilst I describe my process of falling in love with the FI movement. Perhaps you’ll recognise some of the feelings I describe here.

When I found the FIRE community, it almost felt like a miracle. I was already familiar with the concept of investing for income but had never taken it to its logical conclusion: investing enough to never need to work again while you’re still really young. Brilliant.

I was very disillusioned with the thought of sacrificing 5 out of every 7 days until I was so old that I wanted to sleep all the time anyway. I hated conforming to arbitrary rules and regulations just because somebody else had decided that I had to.

We already lived more frugally than our DINKY friends and were starting to build up savings.

Put all this together and you can see why I sunk my teeth all the way into the idea of building a big enough stash to never have to work again.

But there was a small problem. In order to make the numbers work, my wife and I would both have to work full-time for about 10 years. We were already quite stressed. In fact my wife had down-shifted to 60% of full-time hours as her job is physically and emotionally demanding and was taking its toll on her health.

We would also have to keep our spending really low. Now we were already sensible – old cars, planning meals, renting a cheap place etc. But to get to a 65%+ savings rate without any major career moves, we would have to maintain quite a limiting budget.

I was nearly 30 and my wife’s a couple of years older so starting a family loomed quite large on the horizon. Would we be able to tolerate the inevitable drop in income for the next 5-7 years until the kids were at school and still achieve FI quickly?

Looking back at our brief flirtation with the idea of working our arses off for 10 years to become independently wealthy, I can see that perhaps I had fallen into the trap of exchanging one type of freedom for another. We would have been pushing ourselves into an unpleasant box for the sake of reaching an arbitrary numerical target.

A better alternative?
I’m an extremely analytical person. I’m an engineer and, for some crazy reason, I like boring stuff like graphs, calculus and optimisation. I also can’t ever seem to turn my brain off (a double-edged sword, believe me!)

So I spent countless hours doing calculations in my head. I tried to work out new tax efficiency strategies. I worked on our supermarket shopping. I tried to get rid of one car. Whichever way I cut it though, becoming FI in less than 10 years would cause us to have to sacrifice other things which we valued.

However, when I started thinking about the income side of the equation, I (eventually) had a light bulb moment.

Getting better at earning
I had already spent many years failing my way to being able to profitably run a small computer support business in my spare time. The rate at which I had last billed out my computer support expertise was double my hourly rate as an employed design engineer.

Eureka! This was the side hustle to bring in the extra income to make the FI plan work. Time to start resurrecting that business.

But wait, even better… I was experienced enough to become a freelancer in my professional field! If I put those two things together, I could eventually be pulling in 6 figures (Sterling) and be FI in less than 10 years. All it would take is some really hard work.

But suffice it to say that after a couple of years of 60 hour weeks, I was very tired. I went for a routine eye examination and the ophthalmologist told me that I was overdoing it with screen time and needed to rest my eyes more.

Neither the business nor the freelance career was the silver bullet to reach FI quickly because I really wasn’t enjoying life then, whilst I was young enough to enjoy it.

I felt somewhat dejected. I’d put work into boosting my productivity and we didn’t spend a lot. But this had just left us quite cash rich (and nowhere near FI). I was about to throw in the towel and accept that I would be working more than 40 hours a week until I was in my late 40s or early 50s until… wait… the solution had been staring me in the face all along.

I had stupidly never put together the concepts of having a high-earning professional skill, being good at building small, efficient, flexible side-businesses and being sat on (by normal people’s standards) a mountain of cash.

But there it was – the solution.

We didn’t need a lot to be happy
We had plenty of padding
We lived way below our means
We were good at earning income efficiently and in flexible ways
I love the technical bits of engineering
My wife likes being a vet so long as she doesn’t have to do too much of it or be on-call at night
So why had I accepted the limiting belief that we needed to be FI to escape the grind?

We were already free if only we chose to be!

Pareto Financial Independence
I describe our current financial/work situation as being Pareto Financially Independent. I haven’t knowingly plagiarised this term but do let me know if I’ve just subconsciously adopted your terminology!

The Pareto Principle (commonly known as The 80:20 Rule) states that many observed phenomena display a common property: 80% of the effects can be explained by 20% of the causes. The exact numbers are irrelevant, but the concept is that a small amount of the total causes can usually explain most of the effects.

You can leverage the Pareto Principle, for example, to be happy with spending 2 hours writing a report, safe in the knowledge that it’s probably 80% as good as one which it would take you 10 hours to produce. The extra effort to achieve perfection is, although not completely wasted, much less effective at producing corresponding improvements in the output.

In my opinion, our current financial/work/business situation offers us 80% of the benefits of being completely FI:

We are stable. We can tolerate our income switching off for a long time
We can choose to only work with people we respect on projects which are interesting
We can choose to spend a lot of time on non-income-producing projects
I can avoid most office politics. My wife can ditch her job and look for something else to do at her leisure if the politics get too bad at her place of work.
We can take extended periods of time away from work
Neither of us have to work anything like 40 hours per week if we don’t want to
We can say ‘No!’
The question I had to ask myself when considering this approach was

What more would being completely financially independent give us that we don’t already have?

I’m certainly not saying that being completely FI wouldn’t give us any more benefits – it would. If somebody wants to throw me a few hundred grand so I never have to work again, feel free! However, to get the extra benefits in 10 years would cost so much that I don’t feel it would be worth it.

I also feel that our approach has some advantages over the ‘hit the number and then abandon the career’ approach.

Throwing out your assets
I don’t know about you, but at the moment, the best asset I have which I can combine with my labour to bring in very big chunks of cash is my professional skill. I have spent literally half of my life learning about computer architectures and electronics and all that effort has put me in a position where people will gladly pay me very well to solve problems for them. To completely replace this asset with something that could generate as much cash flow would take many times my FI number.

If I stopped doing any professional work completely for, say, 5 years, I wouldn’t be going completely back to zero, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to command a weekly pay rate in the thousands of pounds any more. It would take some time to get my skills up to date and rebuild my network. Dipping in and out of my engineering career would be almost impossible.

For this reason, even during the brief phase when I was contemplating going all out for full FI, I had at the back of my mind that I would never abandon my skills completely.

I wanted a hedge against investment returns not living up to expectations and a way of paying for some luxuries (like extended periods of travel). Also, as I mentioned previously, I enjoy the work.

I thought I could just aim to do a project every year or so after FI which would earn a bit of extra cash and still leave me with the option to ramp up the income production if I felt like it. But running the numbers, it was clear that just doing that would probably almost cover our minimal expenses anyway.

So why bother about being independently wealthy first?

Don’t waste your 30s
If I had one wish, it would be to be able to climb into a time machine, visit my 18 year old self and explain the concept of financial independence. Seriously though, if a wise 30 year old Mr Money Mustache could have reached me when I was in my early 20s, we’d probably be FI (or nearly there at least) already. I found this concept quite late. There’s nothing I can do about that.

The thing is, I know I’m not the only one.

There are many people out there in the FI community who also found the concept when they had already locked in a lot of big lifestyle decisions, such as having kids and becoming single income families to allow one parent to stay at home. I’m not for a moment suggesting that either of these choices preclude these people from reaching FI relatively young, merely that aiming to achieve it in 10 years might not be the best approach if they consider all of the costs and benefits involved.

So if you’re older than 25, have kids, have a good savings cushion and are a well-paid professional, I would strongly suggest that you at least think about changing course and doing something similar to what we have opted for to free up a large chunk of your time almost immediately. I can’t even imagine what it would be like trying to contend with 2 kids under the age of 3 whilst both of us held down full-time, stressful professional jobs.

Add to this this the fact that your kids are only little once. I’d imagine that a lot of time with them now is going to be more valuable than being constantly available for them when they’re grumpy teenagers who don’t want to know you.

Remember this
Here’s the takeaway: if you’re smart and talented enough to command a high salary and you’re willing to think outside the box (aren’t we all already thinking outside the box even considering early FI?) then a bit of learning and experimentation can lead you to being able to work extremely part-time very soon. This could easily allow you to live a balanced life with plenty of time for rest and hobbies and still retire wealthy before you’re 60.

I would imagine that for 80% of you, that approach will get you the majority of what you want in terms of freedom, autonomy and a low-stress life in a lot less than 10 years (and with the necessity for less bullshit along the way).

As for the other 20% – well we don’t pay any attention to them anyway. Thanks Mr Pareto! 🙂

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Charlie Munger and Personal Finances

Charlie Munger, the guy best known as Warren Buffett’s right hand man, really doesn’t get enough credit for the success of Berkshire Hathaway.

Before Munger came along, Buffett was content to toil in the world of micro-cap stocks, finding obscure cigar butt opportunities. These were terrible companies selling at prices so low they were worth more dead than alive. Buffett would buy, get one last “puff” out of the cigar butt, and book his profit.

I’ve wrote about the concept before, over here. It’s a profitable endeavor for those of you who like making money in unglamorous ways. Go ahead, try and impress your friends at dinner parties about how you bought some trash company nobody has ever heard of. I’ve tried.

Just kidding. I don’t get invited to dinner parties. Something about my odor.

Although net-net investing is basically a way to print money, Buffett started moving away from the concept for a number of different reasons. As he got bigger, it was harder to cigar butts that would really make a difference. It required a lot of work, constantly scanning for undervalued securities. And each sale created taxable events, which is detrimental to long-term returns.

By thinking bigger, Charlie Munger was able to convince Buffett the better course of action was to buy that great company and hold it for a very long time. It took Buffett a few years to figure it out, but he eventually did. And the rest, as they say, is a terrible cliche.

Applying Munger to personal finances
I touched on trying to apply this to your personal finances a few months ago, when EQ Bank first came out with a too good to be true promo rate of 3% on savings. It attracted a bunch of money before ratcheting down the rate. And then it decreased the rate again. These days, it pays closer to 2%. That’s still pretty good, but it was obvious to most people that the original rate was too good to be true.

Let’s look at another example, something I came across recently about the amount of money we spend on credit cards. I can’t remember the source, but the argument went something like this.

The average person who goes to McDonald’s spends $4.50 when they use cash. They spend $7 per transaction when they use credit cards. Therefore, we can argue that credit cards are wealth killers. Look at how much extra people are spending! They spend 55% more on credit cards! ZOMG! No wonder we’re all in so much debt!

But there’s a simple solution to that stat that explains a lot. We’ve been conditioned to use our credit cards for larger purchases. Most of us have a few bucks on us, just enough to pay for an apple pie or McFlurry when we go out for something small. But the guy buying dinner for six people who’s going to drop $50 is less likely to have that much cash. He skews the average up.

We’ve all been to a business that has a sign telling you to keep the credit card in your wallet unless you’re spending at least $5. Those signs are far less numerous than they used to be, but they still exist. We’ve been shamed to not bother with credit cards unless the transaction size was bigger for years.

This isn’t rocket science. It just takes a little different way of looking at the world.

Another example
My favorite example of this is the stat that college grads make more than high school grads. Everybody attributes this to college itself. More education is a good thing, see? We’ve got the stats to prove it.

I’m the first to admit that many people have used college as a way to make more money. Somebody interested in health care will make more as a trained nurse than an untrained bedpan emptier. An educated teacher will make more than a PTA mom who decides she wants to be a substitute.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The world is filled with people who took what I like to call bullshit degrees who are doing just fine. I have a buddy with a history degree who’s making six figures a year in a blue collar field. George H.W. Bush majored in economics. And so on.

And the world is filled with guys like me who didn’t go to college who are making just as much money as college graduates.

So is it really college that sets high earners apart from lower ones? I don’t think so. I think it has to do with the qualities college grads have. The average person who goes to college is smart, ambitious, and hard-working. Those are the qualities that set him up for success. College is just a way to get there.

Conclusion

I’m a big fan of thinking about the world in non-linear ways. It’s one of the easiest ways to get ahead. Rather than accepting things at face value, think about why things are and most importantly, the motivation of the person explaining things to you. Once you get good at the skill, it’ll permeate into other parts of your life.

It’s not enough to assume things are true. You must understand why they are the way they are, while realizing the official explanation might just be poppycock designed to advance an agenda.

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Learning a New Language Tips

How to a New Language as an Adult

For the past few weeks I’ve been learning how to speak German. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time — having previously lived and worked in Germany, I have always felt a strong connection to the country and its people. Now that I have moved to one of Germany’s neighboring countries and work on projects involving the DLR German Aerospace Centre — it feels like a natural next step for me to speak the language too 🙂

I’m enrolled at the Goethe Institute, an international language school with centres located across the globe. The course that I’m taking is the A1.1 class – the very beginning of the beginners course! Having studied German in school, I have some background in the language, however I think that starting with the basics (der, die und das anyone?) is the best way for me to really understand my new language.

I already speak English, Hindi and Punjabi, and have been noticing some interesting correlations between the four languages as I learn. With A1.1 set to be completed by the end of this April, I aim to get started with A1.2 soon and eventually, I’ll be making my way into the realm of level B German!

However, learning a new language in your 20s is not the easiest of hobbies to have. So here are some tips that I feel have helped me and will hopefully help some of you along the way:

5 Tips for Learning a New Language

1) Patience – be patient with yourself. Give yourself time to first passively learn the language and then actively. This first stage will mean that you understand more than you can speak. And that is perfectly okay.

2) Keep an open-mind – Yes, this language is different to yours. And no, you cannot make up verb endings (I wish). Getting frustrated is not the best way to learn, so keep an open-mind and embrace the change. You might find you prefer your new language in the end!

3) Have snacks – this is in my opinion, one of the most important. I learn German after work once a week, for 3 hours. If you’re doing the same, then going straight from your full-time day job to learning verb conjugations at night will mean that you may have less concentration. Staying mentally connected is vital in order to get your head around your new language so bring a snack and stay hydrated throughout your lessons.

4) Do Your Homework – Remember that just attending class is not all it takes to learn another language. Whatever you learnt needs to be reinforced. The homework (oder Hausaufgaben auf Deutsch) you are set is there to take what you were previously taught, and to apply it by yourself. This way, things will start to stick and you will remember more and more, until you are fluent.

5) Speak more – it’s great to learn how to write and read a new language, but outside of class try to speak it as much as you can. Whether it’s with a friend, relative, or even using YouTube – speaking your new language out loud and making those mistakes now, will help you to correct yourself and practice speaking. Soon, I’ll be taking a few trips to Deutschland, which is another great way to practice a new language, by speaking it with native speakers.

When it comes to “How to learn a new language by yourself at home?”, I have found the solution. It is something that makes logical sense, but also something that is enjoyable all at the same time. We learned our primary language in a way that is now duplicatable for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and more languages we wish to learn. And what is even more incredible about this, is that you can also do it all from the comforts of home.

How to learn a new language by yourself at home

Discover a brand new way to get to
language fluency with utilization of your TV.
This is about learning with your TV. Which means you are going to be learning from context rather than just going over words again and again. There is no other learning system that works as quickly as what we are showing you here. See it here!

This works within 3-4 episodes. From there you will notice serious improvement in your listening comprehension and vocabulary. It is suggested that you pick an enjoyable series with in the 1000 or more titles to choose from. These allow you to really grow, and for your brain to kick in.

how to learn a new language by yourself at home
After a full season of at least 8 episodes your confidence and comprehension will be vastly improving. Get ready to be astonished by your brain as your brain become rewired to quickly acquire new words, phrases, slang and grammar. All coming from the natural context of the TV shows and movies that you will have access to see. The more you watch, the more you will be able to learn.

Get started here already! Be able to learn Spanish, French, and Russian. Note: German, Italian and Portuguese are coming soon.

How to learn a new language by yourself at home is not scary, its said to be easy actually:
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I hope that I can inspire anyone who has been thinking about learning a new language to take the first step towards doing it. It really is worth it. With every new German word, grammar rule or sentence that I learn, a previously-foreign world is opening up to me and becoming familiar. I am learning faster than I expected and even find myself even sprinkling the occasional Deutsch words into English sentences — sort of inventing my own version of Denglish 🙂

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Wonderful Women’s Day Initiatives

It’s Women’s Day this Sunday 8th March and the social-sphere has been honouring women of greatness in the week leading up to the big day. I’ve noticed my newsfeed full of a number of different organisations and individuals creatively communicating their favourite women in technology, science, business, as well as a plethora of other fields of work.

I like any excuse to celebrate innovative people — whether it be a man or a woman — however, with the notable gender gap still a work-in-progress, I do think that there are not enough female role models in positions of power that are readily available for girls to look up to. Yes, they exist. So, let’s get to know them, and aspire for greatness too!

I’ve selected five of my favourite recent homages to women. These are initiatives (and one person) that I personally like and that I find approach gender equality as a celebration of not only women in particular, but as a celebration of being yourself and to do it well.

1) The Canadian Space Agency’s Humans of CSA – This is a novel take on the infamous Brandon Stanton’s ‘Humans of New York’ project. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) shares insights of women working in a variety of roles and shine a spotlight onto not only what they do for a living but also on who they are as a person outside of the workplace. I particularly liked the feature on Marie-Claude Guérard (right) and her quote:

“When I was young, my ambition was to become a boss…Now that I am a boss, what motivates me is working with people who are always ready to outdo themselves. That inspires me. My greatest satisfaction is when we succeed at something together.”

2) LeanIn.org’s #LeanInTogether – Launched on 5th May, #LeanInTogether takes the conversation on equality from women, to men, as we lean in together. This particular initiative by the Lean In organisation is focused on the important role that men play in reaching gender equality. When men support women at work and at home, we all benefit. Women around the world are sharing posts of their husbands, fathers, brothers and more as they celebrate the men in their lives who are leaning in. I particularly like Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram post (below) of her husband and son.

3) Emma Watson’s Q&A – The English Rose is already a notable face for gender equality as a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women and founder of the inspiring HeForShe campaign. For Emma Watson, every day is women’s day. This Sunday 8th March she will be answering questions on gender equality in a live Facebook Q&A session to honour the worldwide Women’s Day celebrations.

4) Mindy Kaling – Okay, so technically this isn’t an initiative, but I couldn’t do a post on Women’s Day without including the funny woman herself. A confident, hard-working, quirky, Indian woman from the US, Mindy Kaling writes, produces and stars in her own television show, The Mindy Project (obviously one of my favourites). Pretty impressive. Screenshot_2015-03-05-07-46-30 (2)Mindy is also a great advocate of gender equality and owning who you are as an individual. I like her quote on making your own future, shared by another wonderful company also bridging the gender gap, Goldieblox.

5) Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls – This is a year-round online community that encourages women to be the best versions of themselves. Whether that means volunteering, working hard for that promotion, founding your own start-up or developing your own voice in the world – Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls is a space to inspire and empower. Founded by funny-woman and another wonderful feminist, Amy Poehler, she often answers ‘Ask Amy’ questions (one of my favourites is here) where she talks from the heart and gives advice to young women on life, love, careers and more. With the motto ‘Change the World By Being Yourself’, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls is a wonderful place for both women and men to learn and grow into who they want to become.

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Science blogging

All, Creating Communication, science communication, Space
I recently interviewed EJR-Quartz colleague Daniel Scuka to discuss the field of science blogging. Daniel works as Senior Editor for Spacecraft Operations at ESOC, ESA’s Space Operations Centre in Germany. He had a wealth of information and advice to share on the best ways to blog, why it is a wonderful method of communication and also mentioned the challenges he has faced when blogging for science.

A sad Daniel on his last day blogging for ATV. (Credit: @AndreasSchepers )
A sad Daniel on his last day blogging for ATV. (Credit: @AndreasSchepers )

Daniel has been writing on the dedicated blog for ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) series of missions since 2007. Responsible for delivering cargo and reboosting the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit, the last ATV re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on 15th February 2015.

So Daniel, what exactly is ATV used for?

First of all, the ATV vessels are used to deliver cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. An ATV docks for about five or six months, comprising the so-called attached phase. There’s dry cargo that is carried inside the cargo compartment, including food, clothing, supplies and equipment for experiments on board the ISS. It also supplies wet goods, which is fuel, air, oxygen, gases, nitrogen, water and as all of that gets delivered to the ISS, garbage and waste gets loaded onto the ATV. So, when it undocks it takes all of this off the Station and it burns up in the atmosphere.

ATV has a thruster system so it can reboost the Station which naturally steadily decays with each orbit. Furthermore, it can be used to provide debris avoidance manoeuvres when any space debris are predicted to come too close — then the ATV’s thrusters can be used to either raise or lower its orbit avoid whatever piece of debris is coming over. That’s ATV in a nutshell.

What’s so special about this particular ATV, ATV-5?

When ATV-5 was launched last July, it was the heaviest payload ever put in space by

ATV5 re-entry coincided with Valentines weekend. A lovely way to say goodbye don’t you think? (ESA)
ATV5 re-entry coincided with Valentines weekend. A lovely way to say goodbye don’t you think?
(ESA)

Europe (weighing in with a mass of 20,245 kilograms). It’s interesting that the last of the five ATV vessels ended up being the biggest and the baddest.

What are the challenges of communicating technical topics to a general audience?

Well, knowing who your audience is, is rather important and you absolutely have to accept the fact that you will never satisfy your entire audience all the time because the audience for this kind of information or for what ESA does with space is so diverse.

Secondly – there’s a whole range of requirements to be satisfied there in the sense of knowing who is actually the right person to provide that kind of information. Therefore, as the blog editor, you’ve got to make sure that when you’re getting information, you then turn around and publish it in the right way: don’t quote the junior engineer working on the ATV propulsion system about the value of why the ISS flies at all. Conversely, a high-level programme manager may not know the details of how the propulsion system works, so maintaining contact with those working-level engineers can be pretty valuable. I don’t think that this is unique to ESA and it’s not a bad thing either. If you do want to quote about the value of flying ATV or Europe participating in the ISS, go to the source.

The third challenge has been technical because when we started off our blog, it was literally sitting on a server underneath somebody’s desk. It crashed a lot and it took a long time to get the technology right. Now it’s finally properly hosted and properly

backed up. Now the only time it occasionally crashes is when it gets overwhelmed by NASA retweeting one of our posts such as this one – How many calories does it take to bring a calorie to the ISS?

Can you give any tips or advice on blogging for aspiring and practising science communicators out there?

1. Get your facts right. Be humble when it’s pointed out to you that you have got them wrong.

2. Understand your audience as best as you can and adapt how and what you write or publish to match your audience. Be dynamic, don’t just simply follow some kind of monolithic style that you think is the right style on Day 1, adapt your style over time because you’ll find that your audience is never monolithic.

3. Know your topic, know your domain. If you’re doing science communications, you’re talking about some specific domain. Find out who’s not providing some needed information and that’s where you’re really going to prove valuable.

One last question, what is your favourite ATV vessel?

I guess the first one and that’s because there was no way to test the ATVs in-flight prior to the actual ATV-1’s launch. Every single line of code, every single mission activity, every single button that was pressed at ATV-CC was monitored by NASA and Russia to ensure that ATV was safe and that the ATV Control Centre team – staffed by ESA and CNES, the French space agency – knew their stuff. I think in retrospect that it was the most impressive vessel in the series because it put the ATV design through everything it could do then and since then, they’ve all performed flawlessly and they’ve all done what they were meant to do. So ATV-1 was probably the most impressive and my favourite. Also, the ATV-1 mission was our first intro into blogging and our learning curve was certainly the steepest so that has given me lots of fond memories.

atvblog
A screenshot of the official ESA dedicated ATV blog updated by Daniel and other editors on the science and stories of ATV since 2007. (http://blogs.esa.int/atv/)

So there you have it! An insight into the world of science blogging from an expert who has spent almost a decade communicating the wonders of ATV in blog form. Blogs are definitely here to stay, it seems