The First 20 Hours

Fascinating talk by Josh Kaufman, author of The First 20 Hours, at TEDxCSU.

Josh looks at how long it takes to learn something to a reasonable level of skill. There’s a perceived wisdom that it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something, and as Josh says, you see this all over the place – books, blogs, articles etc.

I don’t have ten thousand hours… I’m never going to be able to learn anything new, ever again

Ten thousand hours equates to a full-time job for FIVE YEARS.

Turns out that the 10,000 hour rule applies to expert level, world-class, high-performing people at the very top of their very specific fields. This turned into 10,000 hours to get good at something, to 10,000 hours to learn something.

Who’s got ten thousand hours? Not me.

So, how long does it take to get reasonably good at something?

According to Josh’s research,  it takes about twenty hours. But you’ve got to be canny about it. You can’t just throw 20 hours at something and expect it to stick.

Josh breaks down his approach into 4 basic steps:

1. Deconstruct the skill.
Decide *exactly* what it is you want to do when you’re done. What are the parts of the skills you need to do what you need to do. Find the most important thing to practice first – such as a few key chords on the guitar (or in Josh’s case, the ukulele) which will give you enough to play a lot of songs. Learn the most common 2,000 words in a language, and you’ll be able to get by.

2. Learn just enough to self-correct.
Make mistakes, identify where the error is and correct it yourself using books, DVDs, online sources etc. But don’t spend all your time reading the books first.

3. Remove barriers to learning.
Get rid of distractions which stop you from sitting down and doing the work. Turn off the TV, internet and so on. Make space and time to practice.

4. Practice for at least 20 hours.
Twenty hours is 45 minutes a day, for about a month. That’s do-able, right?

So, twenty hours. What are you going to learn? Me, I’m going to pick up the guitar that I got for christmas last year, the one which has sat in its bag right next to me for six months. The one which I’m scared of picking up in case I’m terrible. It’ll take years to get good, right?

Apparently not.

Let’s see where we can get to in twenty hours. Josh talks about a band called Axis of Awesome, who have a song in which they reckon that you can play pretty much any pop song from the last five decades with just four chords (G, D, Em, C). He plays it in the video above, but here’s the original.

Four chords? I’ll take that. I figure that once I can knock out a few songs on the guitar, I can go get the ukulele I’ve secretly always wanted…

I’ll report back on progress!


A while back I installed the Swiftkey keyboard on my phone. It’s briliant, with a pretty intuitive autocorrect. As you’re tapping words in, suggestions ping up above the keyboard allowing you to select words more quickly.

You get some nice stats too. Apparently I’m 32% more efficient at typing due to Swiftkey and saved 144,002 keystrokes in the time I’ve been using it. It’s pretty customisable too, with different themes and functionality. A couple of weeks ago I realised that you could swipe words – rather than tapping away at individual letters, you just swipe around the letters in the word and Swiftkey works out what word you’re looking for and away you go. They call it Swiftkey Flow and I’m a complete convert.

The fun thing is the auto-suggest though. Before you’ve even started typing, Swiftkey presents you with three words – based on stuff you’ve typed previously, or from what its ‘prediction engine’.

I fired it up and started tapping the middle suggested word:

I am a beautiful person who is the best #Bond movie and the bottom of the brass tube had two little spikes the best of luck with the latest version of the most important thing is that the information contained in this email address and password for the first time I’d been and gone to the House of Lords and famous high quality cover at competitive prices.

Brilliant. Sounds just like some of the spam comments I get on here!

Seriously though, Swiftkey is ace, and the autocomplete is really useful when you’re using it properly – it’s pretty good at suggesting stuff based on what you’ve typed before.

When I’m faced with the keyboard on the iPad (when I can wrest it from Kate or the kids) it feels really weird having to type properly! If you’ve got an Android phone, give it a go.

F is for…


© 2011 Peter Verrant, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

It all started, as all the best stories do, many years ago. Some of my Minnesotan chums were talking about this show they all loved called Firefly. We got to chatting, and I made vague comments about maybe checking it out, or adding it to my rental list or something.

This went on for a little while, until one day there was a weird reply to one of my blogposts where we were discussing it and whether I needed to see it before I went to see the movie Serenity for the umpteenth time. It went something like

Oh, just watch it, you’ve got the DVD

or words to that effect.
I was mystified – I’d just said that I might get it at some point, so clearly didn’t have a copy.

All became clear a day or two later when a parcel arrived from My lovely Minnesota posse had finally tired of me putting off getting this thing and had clubbed together to buy me the box set.

Have I mentioned that I have *awesome* friends?

Fell in love immediately. The antics of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his motley crew aboard the Firefly-class ship Serenity. Jayne Cobb and his love of guns. Kaylee. Oh lordy. They were all wonderful.

And Fox cancelled it.


Fourteen episodes was all we’d got.

Then the sales of the box sets soared, and that lovely Mister Whedon managed to persuade the studios that he really could make a film for not that much really, and so Serenity happened.

The thing I love most about the show is the love that surrounds it. The actors clearly loved making it. Joss loved making it. The fans loved everything about it, and the Browncoat community is still going strong, all these years later. They even made a film of their own, Done The Impossible.

The actors turn up in different roles, in different places. But there’ll always be a bit of Firefly to go with them. Case in point, Nathan Fillion’s wonderful Castle, a series about a famous author who helps the police department solve murders. In season two, episode six (sorry, Castle geek), we get this lovely little scene:

Which you just know was Nathan’s idea.

There are Firefly references scattered throughout Castle – my favourite of which is that in the above clip, you can see the catalyser from the Firefly episode ‘Out of Gas’.

Joss Whedon, Tim Minear, Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, Summer Glau, Adam Baldwin and Sean Maher all reunited at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2012 for a 10th anniversary panel. Ten thousand people turned up to get into the panel.

There’s a lot of love out there in the ‘verse for our Big Damn Heroes. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you must. You can thank me later.

Oh, and the photo up there? They’re the littlest Big Damn Heroes of them all and the kids of some of my friends who bought me the DVDs, all those years ago.

Browncoats, forever.

Mysterious objects

On saturday I went to The Great Wetherby Racecourse Antiques Fair with some friends. It was the first time I’d been and had a brilliant time browsing amongst all the fabulous things.

We were mooching around one of the stalls when we happened across this rather splendid object.

Mysterious object

The stall-holder wandered over.
“No one knows what it is. I’ll do you a discount if you can tell me!”

It was marked up at £55.
We pondered over what it could be for some time. The glass prism rotated by means of the circular brass knobs, and was attached to a brass tube about an inch across. There were a couple of what appeared to be lens holders which could be swung into position in front of the prism, and the bottom of the brass tube had two little spikes, as if on a gun sight.

The circular bit you can see at the top right is a tiny little bubble spirit level, and underneath, the three legs had a circular groove cut into them.

It was clear then, that this thing sat atop something else, something circular, that had to be level. We pondered some more. Some kind of navigation device, perhaps? We retired for tea and a delicious sausage butty in the catering tent, before continuing our wandering around the fair.

Now, me, I like a challenge. I fired up Google on my phone, and tried various searches. “Brass tube prism” suggested a spectrograph, but on further research it wasn’t that. I tried a few more things – navigation, sun, prism, all to no avail.

We found ourselves back at the stall. The chap was quite amused to see that we were still so intrigued.

“Could I interest you at the right price?” he enquired, hopefully.

Sadly, he was mistaking our interest – we were fascinated by the thing itself, fascinated by the mystery of what it was. It was a lovely object, but I was well aware that I had no need for it, I had nowhere to put it, and (most importantly)I didn’t have £55 to spend on it!
Finally I noticed that it had a brass plate on the front:

Kelvin, Bottomley & Baird, Patent numbers 9514-1905, 20185-1908, No. 17360, Glasgow, London, Basingstoke

aha! Something to work from. Kelvin, Bottomley & Baird, according to Google, were scientific instrument makers from 1913 to 1941. It was the patent number which uncovered the mystery though!

It’s a Sir W Thompson patent azimuth mirror, used for navigation. Sir W. Thompson went on to become Lord Kelvin, the first UK scientist to be elevated to the House of Lords and famous for his work in thermodynamics.

An azimuth mirror is fitted on top of a ship’s compass, which is mounted on gimbals, hence the bubble spirit level, and is used to taking bearings. Full instructions are here, on the Harvard University website, if you can make head or tail of them! Fascinating stuff.

An Apple a day

glowing apple logo on the back of a Macbook Pro laptop
glowing apple logo on the back of a Macbook Pro laptop

Sadly not my shiny. Working on some cunning ideas for a new project in a coffee shop (naturally). I was going old-school with notebook[1] and pen[2] vs a MacBook Pro. I’d made my notes and shot this photo, tweaked and uploaded it by the time my co-conspirator had fired the machine up!

[1] ok, ok, it was a Moleskine. I’m a hipster at heart.
[2] a Staedtler Stick 430M, for those into such things.