Learning curve dip

Friday 27th November 2015

I've had two recent experiences of learning new skills and they're both doing my head in. I've hired a race instructor to teach me how to drive my car on track, and I've hired a poker coach to improve my game.


L plates

I've had a driving licence for over twenty years, but I only felt I learned to drive in August when I went out for a day with Mike Cooper, a driving tutor. I drove a 160-mile circuit of Oxon, Berks and Bucks while Mike sat in the passenger seat, explaining how to improve my car control, situational awareness and improve my fuel efficiency. We then had a second day on a race track at Castle Combe, where Mike expanded the lesson to driving at speed.

Mike used to be a physics teacher, and his driving training is grounded in physics. We spent most of the days talking about the forces involved in driving such as weight transfer during braking and cornering.

Ever since then I've felt like I'm learning to drive again, and it's a really strange feeling. Like most people I used to drive mainly on autopilot, and sometimes I'd get to my destination without remembering any of the journey there.

After spending a couple of days in the car with Mike I initially struggled to have the radio on because I found it distracting. It was really frustrating that I couldn't drive without concentrating any more.


Poker coaching

My second experience of learning again has been hiring a poker coach, who'd rather remain nameless. He's won $100,000 over the last few years playing online, which seems like pretty good qualifications!

I'd previously read a few books on poker, and I was pretty happy with my skill, enjoying the game and I thought that a coach would just fine-tune my game. It turns out I was doing it all wrong though, and he suggested changes to pretty much every part of the way I played. 

My game completely disintegrated and I started losing money, even playing against opponents that I could easily beat before. I was extremely frustrated at my play, and it took a good two or three months for this to recover.


Learning curve dips

Both of these experiences have shown me a phenomenon that I've just noticed in myself - a learning curve dip.

When I start learning a new skill, my understanding goes up quickly and I have a lot of fun, but then as I learn more my skill actually drops and I enter a phase that I find very frustrating.

If I've got the patience to keep going, eventually I come out of the other end and my skill level goes up again beyond the level that I go to during the fun phase, and after that it's satisfying.

Here's a graph of what I mean:

I think what happens is that I only understand the skill at a very basic level by the end of the fun phase, and as I learn more I realise how much more there is to learn, which makes me feel like a novice again. The initial fun phase could be called beginner's luck.

One thing that I've come to understand is that if I haven't experienced the frustrating phase, I haven't got a good understanding of the subject! Looking back at skills I've learned this year, I'd say that I've quit during the frustrating phase of most of them.

This might also be what is commonly called Second Album Syndrome, where a band produces a great first album, released at the top of the fun phase, and then as they progress they release a second album which isn't as good as the first.

I couldn't find a lot of information about this on the web, so maybe it's just me? Do you find the same thing? Leave a comment below.




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Lostwithiel then and now

Friday 20th November 2015

This is something I've been working on for a while, but it's really hard to get perfect. We have access to a whole bunch of old photos of Lostwithiel, so I thought it would be interesting to see how the view has changed over the years.

There's something quite eerie about finding the exact same spot that someone stood in a century ago to take a picture.

Interactive version

Here's an interactive version that lets you fade between the old and new images - although it's a bit fiddly on a  mobile.



Bodmin Hill




Duke Street



Fore Street



North Street



Pascal's / Watts Trading



Quay St and the river


Wedding on Melville Terrace, 1916

According to Barry West who kindly supplied these photographs, the couple marrying are Frederick George Thompson and Helen Johns. He says "One of the children at the front below the groom is Doris Evelyn Nicholls of St Austell and Lostwithiel throughout her life. The little girl in Brown is Winnifred Johns. "



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Making halloumi

Friday 13th November 2015

Years ago I got excited by cheese-making, but it went the way of all my hobbies once I realised that I needed a way of closely monitoring the temperature and humidity.

Then last week I saw that milk was on special offer in our local supermarket and thought I'd have a go at making halloumi at home. It doesn't need any special conditions because it's kept in the fridge in brine, so it's a lot easier. 


  • 2 litres of full fat milk
  • 2 tsp rennet (I used Langdales)
  • 50g sea salt (I made my own)
  • A 30cm square of cheese cloth, or a clean tea towel


Heat the milk in a saucepan to 32°C, then add the rennet. Stir to mix it completely and then cover the pan and leave it for an hour or two.

The rennet acts on the milk proteins to turn the liquid into a strange semi-solid congealed mass - this is the curd. Cut the curd into cubes about 3cm across, and use the knife at an angle to cut across it a few times. Leave it for half an hour, after which time the whey should have started to separate out. 

Put the pan on a very gentle heat and bring it up to 38°C. All the instructions I've read say to do this over half an hour, but that's very hard. It took me about 10 minutes to get up to temperature. Stir it very gently, and you'll see that the curds break up into small lumps in the greeny-coloured whey.

Line a colander with the cheese cloth and put it over a clean saucepan. Gently pour the curds into the cloth, making sure that you're saving the whey in the pan below. Once the whey has all drained off, you need to compress the remaining curds.

You could do this by simply putting a small plate on top of the curds and then resting some heavy cook books on top, or I bought a cheap cheese mould from eBay (I love eBay) which has holes that allow the whey to drain out. Leave it to press and drain overnight. 

The next day, the curd will be a hard mass, which you need to cut into blocks about 5cm wide so the brine can cure it. 

Heat the whey in a saucepan to 85°C and put the cheese into pan. Keep a close eye on the temperature, don't let it get too hot, and wait until the cheese floats to the surface. Some instructions said this will take about half an hour, but it was more like 15 minutes for me. Take the cheese out and leave it to cool.

Finally you need to make up the brine to cure the cheese in. Add 500ml of whey to 500ml boiling water, and stir in 50g of salt. Cool the liquid to room temperature. 

Sterilise a large clean jar and place the cheese into it. Top up with the brine almost to the brim, and place a small piece of cling film on top of the surface of the liquid to stop the cheese drying out when it floats. 

Leave it for a week, and then enjoy!




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Silent Sunday

Friday 6th November 2015

Maybe I'm a bit of a masochist, but I like experimenting on myself. Continuing on the alliterative theme from Mobile-free Monday, I wanted to see if I could be completely silent for a whole day. This was never going to happen on a weekday at work, so Sunday seemed like a good day to try it.

Here's what happened.



We're driving back from a party when midnight strikes. I suddenly feel like I want shout - why didn't I do this a few minutes ago?


12:15 am 

Messed it up already by speaking to the dog - "do you need to go to the toilet before we go to bed?" Does that even count? It's going to be very hard to control the dog without speaking.


8:00 am 

I set a reminder on my phone telling me not to speak, which is what wakes me up.

I guess the easy thing to do would be just communicate by text all day, or get a Stephen hawking style robot voice app. That's probably cheating. 


9:00 am 

Go for a long dog walk on Bodmin moor with a very understanding friend. She tries to be silent too and lasts all of ten seconds. I have a whistle to communicate with the dog, but feel a bit bad blowing it at my friend when I want to attract her attention from a distance.

It's very hard to communicate without speaking, I wish I'd played charades more.

My friend tells me off for laughing, but there's no way I could stop doing that for a day. At some points on the walk she starts communicating using gestures too, angling her hands over her head as a sign for a house.

We need better gestures for question words - instead of why, when, how etc I'm reduced to looking bemused. If I was doing this for any longer I'd definitely learn sign language. 



I'm trying to not use writing to communicate, but it's really hard. If you were illiterate then a day (or vow) of silence would really cut you off from the world. Monks apparently had their own sign language.

I'm concentrating really hard on a computer-related task, then turn to Kat and accidentally start a sentence! This is surprisingly hard. 


1:15 pm

I wave at Kat from across the kitchen to see if she wants a cup of tea. She suggests that I use the whistle, but is that cheating? I'm not sure. I'm quite enjoying my silence, it frees me from having to communicate with people. I like to have a day without communicating at all, but that would be very hard indeed.


1:30 pm

The hardest time to remember not to talk is when I'm concentrating. I finish watching a YouTube movie about a scientist who died from snakebite and then say out loud "what a silly man". Kat is taking great delight in telling me to shush.


3:00 pm 

It's such a beautiful day that we're walking the dog again. I'm really enjoying the contemplation of being quiet. Is Kat deliberately misunderstanding all my gestures, or am I unintelligible? A bit of both. Try miming "Here is my secret stash of sticks if you're looking for some to throw for the dog in future."

I realise how much of my normal speech is just silly puns and jokes, both of which are very hard to do with gestures.

Luckily I haven't yet had to interact with any strangers alone. Kat handles the ticket woman at the castle, and I'm doing a smile-and-nod-politely to the other walkers we've seen out.  


4:30 pm

We bump into a few friends in town, but Kat kindly tells them that I'm not talking today.

On my own I would have transgressed all sorts of English social niceties.


4:45 pm

Accidentally spoke again. I swear it's computers that put me off.


5:45 pm

Watching a Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times. Now there's a man who can do silence well.


9:00 pm

Pub quiz, this is the home straight. I've got a pen and paper, all I have to do is avoid saying hello to our team mates as they arrive (failed on the first one) and shouting out the answers.

Several people start conversations with me in the pub and I look awkward. Luckily Kat explains that I'm not speaking, and it makes me smile that none of them seem surprised!

11 pm

It's been a really interesting day. Being silent (or trying to) has been very relaxing and a good experience. Give it a go!



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