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My Language-Learning Toolbox

Duolingo owlIn the last year or two, I've rekindled an interest in learning languages. I follow a lot of industry blogs from all over the world, and it's nice to give Google Translate a break sometimes. In the process, I've discovered an amazing variety of resources that weren't around when I was taking classes in school. It's worth a try if you're interested, and you should be—the science says that learning another language is good for your health.

Discovering the Language-Learning Community
One of my early discoveries was Kris Broholm's Actual Fluency podcast, where he interviews people in the language-learning community. Lesson one: there is such a thing. Kris's early interviews were a big help in getting up to speed on the tools and techniques people use to learn a language (unrelated to taking a class in school in any country). His resources page is the first of several worth exploring.

Books for the Shelf Shelves
Learning something new is always a good excuse to add to the library, and as I get farther into this project, the language section is growing rapidly. The used- and donated-book sale at the public library was a huge opportunity to find imports that would have been much more expensive otherwise. Although Amazon's good for finding good foreign language books in used book stores abroad (salut, Asterix!).

I have dictionaries, grammar books, readers, and random books in the languages we're learning (it's become a family thing), but I've also found some good how-to-learn titles, such as Benny Lewis's Fluent in 3 Months and Gabriel Wyner's Fluent Forever. Fi3M is light, but quick and encouraging. FF is more practical; the meat of it is a spaced-repetition based strategy with detailed instructions and available templates for using Anki. Be sure to check out the web sites (FF, Fi3M) for more resources, as everyone playing in this space tends to share their own lists and have a blog. Find someone with a language book or course, and you'll probably find a helpful newsletter, too.

Helpful Software Tools
The usual suspects for software are Anki, MemRise and Duolingo. Try ’em all. Duolingo is fantastic for getting a quick (and free) taste of a new language. Anki is the least pretty, but it’s the one that lets you make your own flashcards for spaced repetition, which is what Gabriel recommends in Fluent Forever (other flashcard apps don’t do spaced repetition). The thing that convinced me is that what Gabriel says is in complete agreement with what I’ve read about learning in Make in Stick, a great book on the neuroscience of learning.

Media, Educational and Native
I like the computer-based tools, but I've found value in the old-school listen-and-repeat audio courses, probably best exemplified by Pimsleur. Our public library has many of their courses, so I've been able to go through them as I exercise. I like their conversational approach and the help with pronunciation, but it should be just one component of the plan.

The big step is finding native media in your target language. I’m using podcasts from foreign news media, live streams of TV networks, and (of course) foreign movies. Find something you like; I once had a Thai roommate who was addicted to an American sitcom that his English class had used. Programming designed for non-native speakers is a nice intermediate step. iTunes, YouTube, Netflix and Roku really change the world when it comes to international and foreign-language programming. All it takes is a little searching.

Opportunities with Real People
Everyone recommends talking with real people as soon as possible. In the physical world, you can find language and cultural exchange programs in major cities, including some non-profits that exist specifically to share a language and culture. Alliance Française and Goethe Institut are two that I've found. In national capitals you might find programs sponsored by foreign embassies. Elsewhere, look for meetups. In our area, the most popular languages have multiple groups with events at every level.

You can interact with real people online, too. italki seems to be the marketplace of choice for finding tutors, and it also lets you set up a language exchange (partners coach each other on their native languages). The writers I mentioned at the top have more recommendations on language exchanges and everything else, so if that sounds appealing, see what they have to say first.

[Expanding on something I wrote to a friend who was planning a trip to Italy.]

Je parle français, et je travaille à améliorer ma facilité. Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch, och jag lär mig svenska. Hey, this is fun!

Summer Reading (Summer Not)

As the kids go back to school and we ease back into more normal schedules, it's time to take a look back at some of what came off the reading pile in recent months. No novels this year, but if you're interested in learning something, I have a few suggestions.

Big data coverBig data, bigger questions
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier's Big Data (2013) is an approachable introduction to the trendy topic for readers who need the introduction, but it also gets into important topics for people already in the space. After their very readable sections on the what, why, and how, the professor (Mayer-Schönberger) and the journalist (Cukier) move into the implications of following the big data path, including the risks to privacy and individual freedom. Even if the beginning of the book is a review for you, stick with it until the end. The last third of the book covers issues you—we—need to be thinking about.

Black code coverI thought the next book on the pile would be a change of subject, taking a deeper look into the freaky world of cyberwar and cyber criminals, but the beginning of Black Code (2013) was a smooth transition into even more implications of what we're doing with data and the online world. Ronald Deibert directs the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, and he's found more than a few things to be concerned about online.

Writing before secrets started flowing from the NSA and elsewhere, Deibert links data mining, pervasive surveillance, and cyber crime/war (those last two, it turns out, are indistinguishable at the tactical level). If you use electronic communications for anything at all sensitive, you need to read this one. Even if you've read every bit of news out of the Snowden leak, you'll learn more from Deibert's global take on the same themes.

Analyzing the working of wetware
Thinking fast and slowI might have to mark up my copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) to change the name to Reading, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's book on how we have two competing systems for processing information—one reflexive and the other thoughful—was too good to read in the short time allowed by the public library. Now that I have my own copy, I'm taking my time with this one. It turns out that psychology didn't stop learning after my college psych class, and some of the observations have practical applications.

Not a summer book, but worth mentioning is Nassim Taleb's Antifragile (2012), which hides some thought-provoking nuggets in its pounds (kilos) of pages. Antifragile is the follow-up to The Black Swan (2007), and its point is either to illustrate how to deal with the dark birds or to send the reader running to a philosophy refresher course. Taleb never entirely escapes his roots as a trader, but he will make you think about your relationship with uncertainty and how to benefit from outcomes that most would consider negative.

On a lighter note
Ctrl alt delete coverI'm winding down with Mitch Joel's Ctrl Alt Delete (2013), an update on the intersection of business and trends in social media. For someone who reads a lot of blogs and other online discussions, it has a lot of review, but he puts pieces together in ways that should inspire new ideas for your business. Especially for those of us who have been working around social media for a long time, some of the observations are helpful for undoing our comfort level with what we already know. As it turns out, it's not 2007 any more, and how people interact with media and a company's marketing efforts is still changing.

This post has become a bit of a tradition. If you like this, you might enjoy these posts from previous years, too: 2012, 2011, 2010

Be Careful with that Email

Intuit scam emailI'm noticing a big increase in fraudulent emails, and they look more convincing than ever. October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month (via Coretta Jackson), so let's talk about email safety. If you already know this stuff, maybe this is the time to talk to friends and family about it. Parents, this is you, too.

When was the last time you got one of these?

Within the last hour? I don't even count how many of these I get every day. But you already know that none of those is what it claims to be.

Fish in a barrel
The most common online scams target the most gullible people. Hey, fraud is a business, and when you're sending out millions of offers, you need to screen your leads well. According to a new study from Microsoft Research (PDF), that explains why so many emails are so obviously fraudulent: they're targeting people who are too gullible to notice the scam.

An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the Internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine and follow up on the auto-complete suggestions… It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or fiends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers ideal targets.

—Cormac Herley, Microsoft Research (emphasis added)

So when you quietly delete that obviously scammy email, you validate the scammer's optimization method. But delete it, anyway.

Going after smarter targets
While the mass-market scammers are going for the easy marks, a different style of criminal is getting more aggressive about smarter targets. They're getting trickier, personalizing attacks on strategically selected targets and masquerading as services you probably use. You won't fall for the secret treasure of Idi Amin, but how about this private message reminder from LinkedIn? The email looks right—or almost right—so you click the link to go to your LinkedIn inbox… and end up installing botnet software on your computer. Ooops.

Your company won't believe it's won the European lottery, so these attackers mimic legitimate business services:

The image at the top of this post is one of two fakes I got on Friday, sent to separate addresses. It presents as approval for some payment system at Intuit, but by now, you know that Intuit had nothing to do with that message.

What does it do, exactly? I don't know, but nothing good. It probably has something to do with stealing a password or installing malware on my computer. We'll never know. <Delete>

Think before you act
Email-borne attacks are serious business. It's not some bored kid messing with your computer; it's hacktivists, criminal organizations, and even governments. As you're going through the daily slog in the inbox, take a few, simple precautions:

  1. If an offer is too good to be true, it's not true.
  2. If a need is unusually urgent, confirm that it's real before you commit resources.
  3. You don't win contests you haven't entered.
  4. Be careful about links in email, even from companies you trust. Look at the URL the link wants to send you to, before you click on it.
  5. Even better, type in the main URL of the trusted site, and use their navigation to find your inbox, or account, or password reset, or whatever you think needs attention.
  6. Be extra alert about attachments, especially ones you haven't requested.
  7. Don't open compressed (.zip) or executable files from unknown sources.
Finally, if there's any doubt about something you get in email, stop and think before you do anything. Type the main keywords and "scam" into Google, and see if the results tell you something important. Look it up on Snopes, which has been investigating rumors and scams for years. Email can wait for a little due diligence, but it's hard to unfall for the trap once you start clicking on things. You have so much investigative power as close as the nearest web browser, why not use it?

You're good with all this? Haven't been tricked in a long time? Excellent. Go share your wisdom with someone this month. Keep your family and friends from becoming victims.

The Summer Reading Post

It seems that I'm late posting this year's "what I read this summer" post. That's to be expected, since I'm behind on the reading pile, too. But summer is giving us an encore this week, so here's my chance to share some of the interesting things I've read with you.

Kill decisionAttack of the killer drones
I read mostly nonfiction these days, but I did take a summer diversion with two books by Daniel Suarez, who's making a run for the techno-thriller trophy. The first was Freedom™, which is more part two than sequel to Daemon (recommended in the 2010 list). If you liked Daemon and haven't read Freedom™ yet, you need to find out how the story ends.

Suarez's new book, Kill Decision, takes the same approach of combining current technology with a dose of near-future science fiction, but this time the threat is from autonomous swarms of killer drones. This one's weaker as a novel, but it raises serious issues: Black-hat PR in social media. The use, abuse, and proliferation of armed UAVs, persistent surveillance, and open-source intelligence. The attribution challenge of cyber warfare. By pushing these themes (and others) to an extreme, Suarez creates an opening to think about where the limits are, and where they should be.

If the dawn of the drone age interests you, you can balance the fictional portrayal with Wired for War, P.W. Singer's 2009 book on UAVs and ground-bound robot warriors. You'll wonder what war even is, when one side is far enough from the action to avoid harm. From there, pick up Rachel Maddow's Drift (2012), which—despite the author's well-known leanings—is a generally conservative take on the vanishing checks (in the U.S.) on executive power to make war.

What I like about Suarez is that his novels tie into real-world issues in a way that gets you thinking. These other books prove that the topics Suarez raises are real, even if the specifics include some science fiction.

Drunkards walkRandom difficulty
How improbable is an enjoyable read in statistics and probability? Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (2008) demonstrates how much of what we interpret as cause and effect may be the result of the expected variation in random processes. Baseball stars and hedge-fund winners look a lot like coin tosses, if you look forward into the future instead of backwards into the hindsight.

The Drunkard's Walk gives the best explanation of Bayesian reasoning I've yet encountered, even while using the cancer-screening example that must be required. You also get a chapter on the Monty Hall problem, which is a bit of a mind-bender even after the light comes on. We're really not used to problems that break the rules of the discipline.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's first book, Fooled by Randomness (2001), covers much of the same territory—people misinterpret randomness habitually—but it returns too often to the financial markets for its lessons and examples. Taleb's forthcoming Antifragile, on the other hand, looks like a must-read this fall. Systems that actually benefit from chaos and black swans? Time for some solid-surface counterintuitive.

Everything is obviousHow's that prediction working out?
Flipping the empirical method around, Duncan Watts tears into our habit of backfitting our analysis to fit past events and calling it common sense in Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer) (2011). In so many different ways, the world is too complex to predict—oh, and randomness is a problem that we don't handle well.

The answer is to respect the unknown, build flexibility into our plans, and get better at reacting quickly instead of trying to predict the future. These are themes I keep running into, and they make a lot of sense. Or is that just my confirmation bias speaking?

The queue is winning
I started Rohit Bhargava's Likeonomics: The Unexpected Truth Behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, and Inspiring Action (2012) this summer, and while I got surprisingly useful ideas from the first couple of chapters, events got in the way. I'll get back to you when I finish that one.

This post has become a bit of a tradition. If you like this, you might enjoy these posts from previous years, too: 2011, 2010

A Metaphor Is a Mixed Drink

CocktailsIt's Friday, and I've been writing long posts lately, so here's a simple idea: A metaphor is a mixed drink. In business, we use a lot of metaphors, some better than others.

Some are easy for beginners. They're simple and sweet, and they lose their appeal over time.

Some are difficult at first, but surprisingly good when you figure them out.

Some are old, traditional, and still on point. The classics.

Some are just outdated.

Some pack a lot of ingredients into a simple effect. All that work for so little result.

Some are gimmicky and less clever than they think. Sparkly!

Some appear simple but are capable of important subtleties.

Some look better than they are.

Some think they're metaphors but are actually similes.

The next time you're stuck in a meeting and the metaphors start to fly, you can amuse yourself by figuring out which drink a metaphor would be. It's more stealthy than shouting "bingo" after one too many clichés.

Happy weekend.

Photo by Kurman Communications, Inc.


My wife is on a mailing list for daily quotes, which are sometimes almost suitable for framing. I particularly enjoyed this combination:

The only really valuable thing is intuition.
—Albert Einstein

Never use intuition.
—Omar Bradley

Apply a little conversational algebra, and we end up with this:

Never use the only really valuable thing.
—Albert Bradley (or was it Omar Einstein?)
That explains so much.

An Easy Request for Listening Vendors

Is your company in the listening business? Monitoring, measuring, analyzing social media? Using your own technology (not third party tools)? I have a simple request for you. It involves very little effort on your part, and there's free marketing in it for you.


I'm in the process of turning my database of listening companies, which I've compiled over the last five years, into an online reference for everybody. Since the killer part of my earlier research projects was writing descriptions of every company, I'm letting you write your own, this time.

If you're on my vendor mailing list, you should already have an invitation. If you don't have it, or you're not on the mailing list, send me an email. The directory goes live next week. It's up to you to fill in the blank on your page.

Tick tock…

Not Actually Hiding

Fall colorsI didn't mean to take three months off from blogging. I just put it off, one day at a time. Next thing you know, the leaves are changing colors, and it's cool enough to play outside on a sunny day. Now I'm back, although I never really went away.

Let me 'splain.

No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
—"Inigo Montoya" in The Princess Bride

This summer, I started a job, which ended along with the summer. No hard feelings, it just wasn't the fit we hoped for. Now I'm putting more energy into a startup idea I've been kicking around, something that's different from almost everything I've seen. I won't be doing any more syndicated reports, but I am available for consulting projects, and I still cover industry news at Social Media Analysis (see? no summer break there, and we've had investment and acquisition activity to keep up with).

I'm still behind on my reading (some things don't change).

Staring at the draft folder
Blogging returns. There's more to the Omniscience framework, some of the ideas it's led to, and—who knows?—maybe some social media stuff. Defrag is just around the corner, and we're making progress on doing AnalyticsCamp in more cities. I need to write about some of the social media management and metrics books on my pile, too.

Mostly, I'd like to get inertia back on my side on the writing front.

In other words
Nothing much. What's new with you?

Photo by lokidude99.

I have a pile of books on social media, measurement, and management that I'd like to get to. It sits next to another pile of books, and that's become a bit of a problem. While the social media books look potentially useful, my other exploration keeps adding books to the second pile. It's amazing stuff, so I thought I'd share them with you.

Complexity coverWell, that's random
Sometime last year, I decided I needed to start learning about complexity science. I knew that complexity and uncertainty were unavoidable, so I wanted to learn more about how to work through them. I thought that the emerging discipline might be helpful, and Melanie Mitchell's Complexity: A Guided Tour (2009) was the introduction that suggested I was on the right path.

You might not think you're interested in complexity (if you've heard of chaos theory, this is the next generation). It's still fairly obscure, and even its definition isn't completely settled. Because it's inherently interdisciplinary, you'll probably find parts you don't care about. If you're interested in social networks, though, guess what.

Linked coverConnect this
If you're up for a challenge, read two books by Albert-László Barabási, back to back. Start with Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means (2003), which fills in the background on ideas you know, such as social networks, network analysis, and power-law distributions (the math behind the long tail). Eight years after its initial publication, it's still an excellent source for anyone who has ever used the term social graph. You're using this stuff, so you may as well understand it.

Barabási's newer book, Bursts: The Hidden Patterns Behind Everything We Do (2010), digs into patterns in human activity and how much of what we do can be predicted. I'm not quite sure what this one means, but I suspect it's important. Bursts coverPlus, where else are you going to find a book about predictions that uses the story of a 16th century peasant uprising in Transylvania to make its point? Yes, it's full of math and theory, but this is a fun one to read, too.

One point I'm going to take to heart is based on the discovery of power-law distributions in communications patterns. It only emerges when people are overwhelmed and start to prioritize, but university emails and Einstein's correspondence show the same pattern. What it means is that bloggers don't need to apologize for quiet periods when they're busy behind the scenes.

Black Swan coverCatching up, adding more
Walking people through the framework I'm working on turns out to be bad for clearing the reading backlog. The first person who saw it suggested Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan (2007), which was sort of like The Long Tail (2006): one of those concepts that's been discussed so much that you feel like you've read it, even if you haven't.

The basic idea, if you're not familiar with it, is that improbable, high-impact events will occur, and they can't be predicted. Rather than trying to predict them, then, we should structure our environments (not just business) to minimize our exposure to the bad ones and maximize our benefit from the good ones. I'm not ready to give up on attempts to analyze the future, but it's a good reminder to incorporate a healthy dose of uncertainty into the process.

Which leads us to scenarios
Long View coverThe second person I told about the Omniscience framework heard the bit about planning methodologies and pointed me toward GBN and Peter Schwartz's The Art of the Long View (1991). It turns out that I had read the important parts on scenario planning when the book was new, which was reassuring. At some point, though, I need a more detailed source on that topic. Plus, the 20-year-old predictions of trends that are now obvious give the book a distinctly vintage feel.

Fortunately, scenario planning was already part of the mix. So far, it's holding up.

About that framework
I know, I've mentioned the Omniscience framework too many times, and I need to show it to you already. I will. But while that's in draft, I thought you might like some of these. If you feel stuck in the social media bubble, they're are a good antidote.

Update: The post introducing the Omniscience framework is now up.

More summer reading lists: 2012, 2010

Attacking the backlog of social media management/measurement books in 3… 2… 1…

What I Read This Summer


School started today, and I'm getting ready for a rush of productivity: new projects, new clients, and new writing projects. But first, let me recommend a few books I read this summer. It's not exactly "what I did on summer vacation," but they might just kick-start some ideas that aren't part of your typical day.

I read Jeffrey Carr's Inside Cyber Warfare back in the spring, so when Richard Clarke's Cyber War started getting mainstream coverage, I knew I needed to read it. Carr made the point that we need better computer security on systems that do important things, but Clarke really bangs the drum and demands attention. Plus, his background guarantees that he gets attention when he wants it.

Clarke emphasizes the nightmare scenarios—power outages, train wrecks, and refinery explosions—so it's not bedtime reading, but if you stick with it through the scary parts, he makes some good points. If you've never thought about how quickly the lights can go out, this might be a wake-up call.

Over dinner at a conference (what do you mean, cyber attacks aren't dinner conversation?), Clarke's book drew a laugh and the comment that I was reading science fiction after starting with the science (Carr). But the real science fiction scare came from Daniel Suarez's Daemon, recommended by my old friend Dave Thomas. Daemon is the story of an AI (articial intelligence) from the world of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) that takes over the world. If you believe this is possible, you might change your mind about the Internet off switch. Or at least check your offline contingency plans.

And oh, look, there's a sequel. Who needs sleep?

Vinnie Mirchandani's The New Polymath celebrates innovation in, and especially at the intersections of, various technology specialties. It's loaded with examples, and if you're like me—interested in too many topics to pick just one—it provides affirmation that that's ok.

The only problem I had with this book is that Mirchandani makes a major point about And not Or thinking, and people might think I got that from his book. It's really just something that becomes obvious when you regularly share ideas that cross boundaries. The New Polymath is great for pointing out ideas from many fields and connecting them to meaningful outcomes; read it and you'll be challenged and inspired, whatever your usual niche.

The summer's been long and hot—and realistically, we have another month to go before fall weather arrives here—but these books started the gears moving. Now we'll see what happens as a result.

More summer reading lists: 2012, 2011

About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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