March 2013

Building my visual vocabulary: Breaking down other people’s sketchnotes into component parts

March 1, 2013 - Categories: drawing

I want to draw more expressively. Some easy ways to improve my visual vocabulary are to look at how other people draw things and practise drawing with those styles. I started by redrawing the images onto index cards, but it was a hassle to keep the index cards sorted. Besides, I wasn’t looking forward to the error-prone process of scanning all the index cards in and making them available on my phone or computer. I didn’t want to fuss about with splitting my screen and trying to draw in a small section, or browsing through pages on my tablet while redrawing things on my tablet PC. I wanted a quick and easy way to build a visual glossary in preparation for drawing things myself.

Skitch turned out to be a great way to quickly capture small sections from other people’s sketchnotes and add them to Evernote. Ctrl-% captures a screenshot. That requires too much hand gymnastics and popped up a dialog, so I used AutoHotkey to map my F5 function key to ^`%{Space}. This meant that I could hit a single key to capture the screenshot and send the previous one to Evernote, so I could keep one hand on the mouse and one hand on the keyboard. It was relaxing work, and so easy that I got a little carried away. I captured some 800 images before I sat down and started classifying them.

I wanted to label each image with a keyword that I could use to find it. Another Autohotkey shortcut mapping F6 to !nv{Enter}{Esc}{Tab}^a made it much easier to move the note to my Visual Library notebook and select the next note for editing. I settled into the rhythm of typing in keywords and pressing F6, and after a couple of hours, I’d classified all the images I’d captured so far. I spent a little time merging similar concepts for easier review, ending up with 575 entries in my visual library.

Some things I learned along the way:

There are still plenty of other sketchnotes to harvest drawings from, so I can alternate harvesting images with practising drawing them.

Links: Skitch, Evernote, Autohotkey, the Sketchnote Index

Weekly review: Week ending March 1, 2013

March 2, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Lots of cooking this week! I spent the weekend making nine different banchan recipes, and it really paid off in terms of yummy beef bulgogi lunches with varied appetizers. Yay!

I did a lot of writing, too. I like doing that. And drawing. =) And I got to talk to lots of interesting people! Life is good.

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

Emacs Chat with Avdi Grimm (Org-mode, Ruby, etc.)

March 4, 2013 - Categories: emacs, Emacs Chat, podcast

Update 2013-03-16: Get the MP3 or Ogg Vorbis files, or listen to them on archive.org!

Thanks to Matthew Darling’s comment on my post about code coaching, I came across Avdi Grimm’s work with pair programming – and was delighted to find that he uses Emacs too. =) Check out my Skype chat with Avdi about Org-mode literate programming, Ruby, and how he got started with Emacs.

Emacs Chat with Avdi Grimm from Sacha Chua on Vimeo. If you liked this, you might also like my chat with John Wiegley. Do you use Emacs? Want to share your story and the nifty things you think other people should know about? Comment below or get in touch with me!

Monthly review: February 2013

March 5, 2013 - Categories: monthly

Last month, I wrote:

In February, I’d like to do a lot more coding and a lot more drawing.
We’ll see how it works out!

As it turned out, I did very little coding (aside from consulting), a decent amount of drawing, and a whole lot of writing. Which is good, because writing makes me happy too.

I’ve signed up for Hacklab, a coworking space in downtown Toronto. It still takes me some convincing to get myself out of the house, onto the subway/streetcar, and to Hacklab, but it’s nice hanging out with other geeks. It will be even better when I work up the courage to go biking again, I think. Many people have been biking recently. I have bike envy.

Lots of review and looking ahead now that I’ve reached the 1-year mark of my experiment. There’s something worth digging into here. Things aren’t quite lined up right, and it’s good to have the space to explore it.

Haven’t been to krav maga in a while. The classes are a bit intense. I might join W- for the yoga classes instead.

March: Some graphic recording, a keynote for the Emacs conference on March 30, and more writing and drawing and thinking. More biking too, I hope. And more planning and experimenting…

Got Emacs questions? Let’s try Emacs tutoring / pair programming!

March 6, 2013 - Categories: emacs

Getting started with Emacs? Need help tweaking your Emacs configuration? Curious about the tools and packages out there? Want to learn more about Emacs Lisp? Working on some open source Emacs code? Just want to talk Emacs with someone?

We can connect on Skype or Google Hangout, or I can ssh into your system if you’ve got that set up. Pay-what-you-can-and-what-you-think-it’s-worth. =) (It’s an experiment!) Student / in between jobs? Reach out anyway!

Comment below, contact me, or e-mail me at sacha@sachachua.com with the subject “Emacs pair programming”. I’m generally available M-W-F and I’m in Toronto, so Eastern Standard Time (EST). Tell me when you’re available (and what timezone you’re in), what you’re curious about, and other things it would be nice to know about you. Let’s see what we can do! =)

Visual book review: To Sell is Human (Daniel Pink)

March 7, 2013 - Categories: visual-book-notes

Lots of people sell, even if they don’t know it yet. Selling – convincing someone – is a normal activity. In his 2012 book To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink shares a few practical tips on how to sell more effectively through attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. Good read with research-backed tips and illustrative case studies.

Click on the image for a larger version.

20130301 Book - To Sell is Human

Feel free to share this under the Creative Commons Attribution License! Links are appreciated. =)

 

Amazon affiliate link: I earn a tiny fraction if you buy something from Amazon’s site after clicking on the link, even if it has nothing to do with the book. =)

If you have a library near you, you can check it out there too. (I totally love the Toronto Public Library!)

Taking advantage of a bad cold

March 8, 2013 - Categories: kaizen, life

Optimist Kitteh is Optimistic!

I’m feeling under the weather. Instead of fighting it, I can embrace this feeling of fuzziness and figure out how I can make the most of it. I spent most of Thursday in bed, except for a chicken soup lunch and a congee dinner (the latter thanks to W-, who is totally wonderful). Friday was just as relaxed: chicken soup for breakfast, congee for lunch; playing video games, writing letters, and drawing.

I spent some time thinking about what gets affected when I have a bad cold, and how I can work around those. Here’s what happens:

Physical:

Mental:

Emotional:

I’m going to have many more colds in my life. This is a state like any other state. Each moment is a potential gift. If I can figure out how to make the most of it, that’s another small fraction of my life that I can turn to good use. =)

Weekly review: Week ending March 8, 2013

March 10, 2013 - Categories: weekly

I had a bad cold this week, but I think I’m on the mend thanks to lots of chicken soup. Next week, I’m going to focus on drawing.

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

Managing uncertainty

March 11, 2013 - Categories: planning

I’ve been doing a lot more introspection lately. I think it’s a spill-over from stuffing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality into my brain, and in the process, discovering LessWrong’s treasure trove of rationality materials. I’ve been slowing down to observe when I’m confused and then dissecting it, because I think it’s useful to be able to see and articulate what’s going on. (“Articulate” is an interesting word for this, actually; to express it, but also something about forming joints and rotating them…)

I am dealing with a lot more uncertainty than I’m used to. Which is good and proper and precisely on track, because one of the goals of this 5-year experiment is to get better at handling uncertainty. So I’m where I wanted to be last year: learning how to make decisions with less information, sketching out the probabilities and planning the scenarios. I used to get really stressed out by uncertainty and lack of control, and I’ve been getting a lot better at planning ahead and being nimble.

Things I am not certain about:

What would being even better at dealing with uncertainty look like?

Sketchnotes: Building my visual vocabulary

March 12, 2013 - Categories: drawing

Okay, I’ve figured more stuff out in terms of expanding my visual vocabulary! =) Here’s my current workflow.

Goals:

I get a lot of exposure to other people’s sketchnotes in the process of adding material to http://sketchnoteindex.com/, which now indexes 89 artists. I’m slowly working through them in order, clipping rectangular regions that have images that I’d like to file or draw. I started by using the Evernote Clipper, but Greenshot (free and open source) is much better for what I want to do. Greenshot lets me automatically save the results to files in a specified directory, and it adds the title of the page to the file. This is awesome. The next step is to add keywords to each of those files and then move them into another directory. I might import them into Evernote for additional searching, too. The end result is a library of images that I can use to spark my imagination when drawing.

I’ve also been drawing my way through the Bikablo® series of books from Neuland. I’m more than halfway through Bikablo Emotions. The books are pricey, but I thought it was a good investment in a) drawing better, and b) learning how to organize things. It’s a lot of fun sketching the images. If I keep drawing them, I might have more ideas when drawing quickly. I’m starting to get the hang of drawing certain postures that show up a lot. This is good.

Here’s a sample:

image

I’m looking forward to finishing that and the Bikablo v2 book, filing the individual sketches, and then going through my visual library of other people’s sketchnote elements to draw even more of those… Lots of things to draw!

Learn Emacs Lisp by reading Emacs Lisp

March 13, 2013 - Categories: emacs

Learning Emacs Lisp can help you really tweak your Emacs environment to fit you, saving time, smoothening out frustrations, and making things easier. Reading code is an essential part of learning how to code. By reading other people’s code, you’ll not only discover interesting syntax and library features, but you’ll also start absorbing the idioms – the ways of doing things. (This is why it’s important to read good, well-formatted code.)

Where to find code

You can use C-h k (describe-key) to explore the code behind keystrokes, menu items, and mouse actions. If the source code is installed, you should see a hyperlink in the information window that appears. It’s a good idea to install the Emacs Lisp source code for Emacs.

If you know the name of the function you’re interested in, C-h f (describe-function) will link to the source code and describe the function.

You can find lots of other Emacs code snippets on http://emacswiki.org and in blog posts on http://planet.emacsen.org . gnu.emacs.sources and other Emacs-related newsgroups or mailing lists are useful, too.

How to understand code

At first glance, Emacs Lisp looks like a mess of parentheses and strange incantations. setq? defun? cdar?

This is true at second glance, too.

Read through the Emacs Lisp intro manual either online or in Emacs (C-h i m Emacs Lisp Intro). You’ll probably understand very little the first few times through. This is okay. All you need to do is get a vague idea of what things are called so that you can look them up when you need to.

Now read your code again. Slightly of it should make sense.

Skim the Emacs Lisp manual, too. This is a reference, so you’ll understand even less of it as an Emacs Lisp newbie, but it’s good for picking up terms.

You don’t need to understand all of Emacs Lisp in order to take advantage of other people’s configuration snippets. You’ll learn things along the way.

Make liberal use of C-h f to describe functions and C-h v (describe-variable) to investigate. You can jump to function definitions with find-function, which is worth binding to a keystroke. For example, to map F8 to find-function temporarily, use M-x global-set-key RET F8 find-function.

How to step through code

Edebug is an interactive debugger for Emacs so that you can step through the code instead of guessing what the code will do. (Edebug documentation) Use M-x edebug-defun to prepare the function you’re interested in, then run the function. Press SPC to step through the code, e to evaluate expressions (you can use this to find the values of numbers), h to continue until the specified point, b to set a breakpont, g to execute until a breakpoint, and q to stop debugging.

Super awesome.

How to make code your own

You can copy code to the *scratch* buffer or another file, tweak it a little, evaluate or edebug the code, and see what changed. If you like your changes, you can:

  • rename the function and add it to your configuration file,
  • use advice to modify the existing function, or
  • redefine the function (keeping the name as-is) and adding it to your configuration file. (This can lead to weird behaviour, so do this carefully!)

Enjoy!

Other reading:

EmacsWiki: Learn Emacs Lisp

Thanks to bl3u for the nudge to write about this!

Less Wrong meetup notes: Goal factoring, fight-or-flight, and comfort zones

March 14, 2013 - Categories: meetup, reflection

This week, I attended my first Less Wrong meetup in Toronto – a meandering conversation about applied rationality over coffee in a Tim Hortons café tucked into Dundas Square just east of Yonge. Here are my rough notes:

image

Goal factoring is a process of mapping your goals and the underlying needs that they address so that you can identify complementary or conflicting goals and alternative approaches that will also address your needs. Start by listing your goals, then organize them in relation to each other, and examine them to see which needs they meet. You can learn more about your implicit needs by looking at your evaluations of alternatives.

Fight, flight, or freeze: We talked about the fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, or the body’s response to stress. We also talked about the sympathetic nervous system (which stresses out when f/f/f kicks in), and the parasympathetic nervous system, which deals with non-urgent things. One of the effects of stress is that the blood flow to some parts of your brain is restricted in favour of the blood flow to other parts of your brain, which is why it’s easy to make stupid decisions when you’re stressed out.

Comfort zone expansion: We also discussed the process of growing your comfort zone gradually by imagining scenarios, using de-stressing techniques, and working with a safe space.

In order to practise applying rationality techniques to real life, we agreed to spend the next week studying our fight/flight/freeze reactions and to share our observations with the group next week. I’ll reflect on this a little more later – I want to post these brief notes first before I forget! =)

Passion and uncertainty

March 15, 2013 - Categories: life, passion

image

Sometimes people ask me for tips on finding their passion. I never really had a good answer for them. I stumbled across my first passions so early that I don’t remember falling in love with them. Reading and programming were just there, intertwined with my childhood. Those inevitably led to other interests that grew into passions such as writing. Now I have the beginnings of a passion for drawing, or at least I think it might be. It’s less comfortable than any of my previous transitions. It’s not as smooth. I feel more uncertain. But I’ve learned to trust that anything I learn will combine in interesting ways later on, so I keep moving forward.

When people wish for passion, I think what they’re really wishing for is certainty: the knowledge that this, here, is exactly what you are meant to do, that intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world values. The certainty that this is the best way to spend this moment in time, and the ease of not having to make yourself do something or fight distractions. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi described the experience of flow – losing yourself in a moment of immersion.

I used to tell people to ignore the myths of a sudden calling. Passion doesn’t strike out of the blue. You find a spark of interest and you nurture it. Hard work and experience gets you past the first few ruts. You hit the part of the learning curve where you start learning faster and faster… and then you hit the plateau of mediocrity. If you have the grit to keep pushing, you might find that there’s a new height that you can reach, a new joy to discover. Or you might find that you’ve reached the end of your interest. It’s okay. Give yourself permission to move on. But if you keep going, you’ll find yourself deeper and deeper. Simple tasks become easier and more fun. Difficult tasks become engaging. Passion requires commitment in order to grow. Work at it, and you might get to that aha! moment where you feel certain that this is something you were meant to do.

Here’s what my experiment has been leading me to ask: What happens if you let go of that need for certainty? What if you do this work not to arrive at the peak of success or skill, but because the path towards it might be interesting? What if it’s okay to live a life without a passion that other people will clearly recognize, appreciate, and validate? What if your passion is life itself and what you can learn along the way? What if you can accept never being an expert and embrace always being a beginner?

This is all very meta and not something particularly useful for people who are looking for career tips. I feel a little like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I think it will be fun.

It’s tough to give up the mythology of passion. I still cling to the need to feel confident and secure in something, to know (and be told!) that I’m good. But if I keep practising this kind of practice, I think that might lead me down interesting paths ten years down the line.

So yeah. Don’t worry about not knowing your passion. It’s not as important as people think it is. You don’t really need to package up your interests into a neat word or phrase that will make people go ooh and aah. You don’t need to be an expert in order to live a meaningful life. Live your life, work on getting better at living it step by step, and you might find that you’ll pick up all sorts of expertise along the way. (Although since I’m 29, I’m not sure if I can really say this from experience, so it would be interesting to see someone with more data either backing this up or refuting it. =) )

Weekly review: Week ending March 15, 2013

March 16, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Still lots of sniffles, but at least I got to bike a few times this week! =) This week involved a lot of illustration, from drawing comics to designing hand-drawn presentations to making a poster. Fun! I’m starting to get the hang of this.

Oh, and I got my UK visa, so all systems are go for my trip to the Emacs Conference on March 30. (Emacs!) Well, almost all systems – I still have to make my talk!

Next week: even more drawing!

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

The Sketchnote Challenge: Those Algorithms That Govern Our Lives (Kevin Slavin)

March 17, 2013 - Categories: kaizen, sketchnotes

Eva-Lotta Lamm and a great panel of sketchnote artists are running a challenge to sketch a particular talk. I managed to squeeze in a sketchnote just before today’s deadline.

20130317 Those Algorithms That Govern Our Lives - Kevin Slavin

What do I like about this sketchnote?

I captured enough to help me remember, and I had time for little doodles too. The light blue images and dark blue text look calmer than the red-black combination I used in some of my other sketchnotes. The brush size worked out fine in terms of the proportion.

I didn’t switch pen sizes or vary the size much because I wasn’t sure what was going to be important. Instead, I used simple borders to emphasize key points.

I’ve been experimenting with using a light shade to add more depth to my images. It usually takes me five minutes to go through an image. I didn’t do it here because the size and detail of the images felt right already.

Drawing with plenty of whitespace around each element allowed me to easily reposition things when I needed to rebalance the columns and reorganize the information. I’m sometimes tempted to go for more creative, overlapping layouts, but I do like the flexibility of being able to change my mind. I usually publish things shortly after drawing, so I didn’t spend a lot of time tweaking this image.

What would I like to improve?

I’ve been experimenting with different colour schemes. The first colour I drew the images in was too light, so I used GIMP to change the curve to something darker. Depending on what I want people to focus on, I’ve been trying out light text / dark images vs dark text / light images. It would be great to find a quick way of experimenting with the same image. Experimenting would be easier if I drew text and images on separate layers, but the presentation was information-dense, so I didn’t feel comfortable switching back and forth. I’ve tweaked my standard colour palette to include a darker blue like the one I used for the images here. That way, I can keep the light blue for shading, and I don’t have to adjust the colours after drawing. Next: Tweak my colour palette, and find a way to experiment more easily.

The presentation was only 30 minutes long. It turns out that the usual size I draw things at results in a one-page-per-hour sort of density, so I used only half the page. (Hooray for consistency!) It might be good to develop a dot grid that’s calibrated for half-hour talks so that I’m encouraged to draw at a larger size while preserving my usual landscape aspect ratio. Still, these columns worked out fine. Next: Try a different-sized dot grid for short talks, or get used to drawing larger.

It was pretty fast-paced, too. I don’t feel like I’ve fully captured the overall logic of the presentation. It would be nice to make this understandable for someone who hasn’t seen the presentation yet, which I think I can do with a little post-work (adding headings, explaining things in sentences instead of keywords). It feels a little disjointed at the moment, and I think I missed potentially interesting points like the one about the monoculture. The individual components are enough to remind me of what I want to remember about the talk, though. Next: Add more time for post-processing so that I can draw anything I missed the first time around.

Check out the other submissions! First set, second set: Kevin Mears (second set) has a good printout image. I like Andy Fisher’s (second set) puppeteer image, the cute robot, and the whitespace balance of the page.

Hacking my way around networking

March 18, 2013 - Categories: connecting

I like some events but not others. I like events with interesting presentations, particularly if they’re short; I take notes. I don’t like parties that mostly have strangers. I don’t like events that are all about networking. Dinners are a bit of a gamble. I don’t like loud music or low light. I like nametags and wish more people would add keywords to them.

I’ll volunteer to prepare a presentation if asked, although I’ll get stressed out about it the day before and the day of the event, and I’ll wonder why I let myself get talked into these things. I prefer to go to an event as a speaker or organizer or volunteer instead of as an attendee. Public speaking is actually easier than one-on-one conversations: you can prepare for it, and it efficiently gives lots of other people reasons to start conversations with you instead of the other way around.

I don’t like being out of the house for three evenings in a row. If I need to, I duck into the bathroom for some quiet time, or I leave an event early. I drink water; if I feel the need to contribute to the venue’s proceeds, I order tea or a meal. I get wiped out after intense social events like conferences and late-night events.

I prefer to have an excuse to e-mail people instead of just sending a generic event follow-up. My notes are usually a good excuse to reach out. Sketchnotes are a great excuse to connect with speakers, actually – ask them to autograph the sketchnote or post a link to Twitter with their Twitter handle in it, and speakers are almost always amazed and delighted. =)

My blog has helped keep many conversations going. I keep my ears open for how I can help. I need to get better at asking people for advice or otherwise engaging them in my life.

I like Skype chats more than coffee chats. Global reach, no timing awkwardness, no commuting, and the occasional cat. (Usually Luke, who purrs so loud that other people can hear him halfway around the world!) What’s not to like?

I could probably spend the rest of my life with a combination of:

and still get a decent mix of conversations and opportunities. I don’t have to worry about missing out on too much. Yes, I might meet people who are totally awesome at some event or another, but I could also bump into fascinating people commenting on my blog posts. (Hi!)

Hmm. This might work. If I focus on the stuff that fits me well, I think I’ll actually have a lot of fun. Yes, there’s something to be said for occasionally wandering outside your comfort zone (although if you’re hearing that from someone else, watch out for vested interests). It also helps to know where that comfort zone is and think about how you can get even better within it. =)

Identifying my reactions to stress

March 18, 2013 - Categories: reflection

One of the topics we discussed at last week’s Less Wrong Toronto meetup was the fight-or-flight response and reactions to stress in general. In addition to fight-or-flight, researchers have also identified a tend-and-befriend approach that focuses on social support. To follow up on that, I want to reflect on how I experience and respond to stress so that I can recognize it faster and counteract it or work with it more effectively.

What does stress feel like, and how do I respond?

A quick list of symptoms that are my usual ways to experience stress:

A few quick ways I modulate my stress levels:

General categories of stress and how I respond to them:

When I feel spread too thin: When I’m stressed because I’m trying to do too many things, my mind flits around. I move quickly. I often overlook or forget things, or get distracted in the middle of something. I  feel a little frayed at the edges. Shallow breath and slouching get in the way of good thinking, so I try to consciously counteract that. I get less sleep because I stay up late and then wake up to an alarm. Sometimes I have nightmares about forgetting something important or being late for a presentation, but I’ve learned to accept those nightmares as useful rehearsals.

When I catch myself forgetting things or worrying about juggling responsibilities, I make a list of my commitments and what I need to do. This helps me worry less. I prioritize my appointments and tasks, cutting back as much as needed and sometimes saying no. If there are some things I just have to do, I sometimes spend time thinking about the worst-case scenario and how things will still be okay. I also think about a couple of likely scenarios that could go wrong to see if I can take any precautions. I recover from stress faster if I pick one thing to focus on and make significant progress on it than if I spin my wheels.

When I feel afraid: One time, I was in fitness class and the exercise was to leapfrog over our partner. Since I had sprained my ankle a few weeks back, the memory of pain was still strong, and I didn’t feel up to high-impact exercises. I’d modified the other exercises to be less stressful, but there isn’t really a way to downscale jumping over someone and landing. I couldn’t help but imagine the pain from my ankles giving way. I caught myself starting to hyperventilate, and I tried not to cry. The instructor noticed my hesitation and urged me forward.

I knew that I was having a possibly unreasonable reaction to the exercise, so after a few false starts, I eventually managed to do the first one. I figured that if I landed badly and hurt myself, it would be a temporary problem, but letting the memory of a minor accident stop me from doing things that are good for me would be more of a long-term problem. It was really hard to push myself to do the first one, and it got a little bit easier with each one I did. Fortunately, after a few rounds, W- (who was my partner for the exercise) noticed my discomfort and bent lower, making it easier. Each time I went over, I reminded myself that I had just finished another round without getting injured, so my lizard brain should probably worry less.

Other times, I’m fine with leaving an irrational fear in place. For example, I really don’t like things that are poisonous. This makes beaches rather stressful for me: jellyfish, sea urchins, fish, shells… I could probably work on getting over that, but it’s been fine so far.

When I doubt myself: Sometimes I worry that I’m not going to be able to make something as awesome as I want to, particularly when I’ve made a professional commitment to do so. Other times, I wonder whether I’m going down the right path, or I feel the impostor syndrome kicking in.

I usually stick with what I’m doing, knowing that the feeling of mediocrity is part of the experience of learning. Sometimes I alternate that with a high-satisfaction activity like coding. Reviewing positive feedback from other people also helps me get over this hump.

When I don’t have enough control: I’ve gotten stressed out in situations where I didn’t have a clear escape or where I’m not sure what’s going on. For example, long road trips where I couldn’t just leave, international flights with talkative seatmates, awkward street conversations with people who try to chat you up… My flight response kicks in big time. If I really can’t get out of there, I tend to mentally withdraw.

When I feel angry: I rarely get angry. I feel something a little like anger or annoyance when people make ageist or sexist remarks, even self-deprecating ones (“I’m too old for this!”). I also feel a pull to act when I perceive people as unreasonable or unfair to others, or when I run into systems that are getting in my way. When I do, I tend to feel it as an intense focus on disassembling or fixing something, like a bug in the software of life that can be debugged and corrected. I usually respond with a quick remark pointing out the behaviour. If I think I can influence it through action, I may sit down and plan my approach.

When I feel embarrassed: Did I make a technical mistake that sent lots of e-mail to people? Did I accidentally delete lots of data? Sure-fire ways to feel terrible and time-stressed. The important thing here is to not make things worse, which is why I try to slow down and double-check what I’m going to do in order to fix things. Then I work on figuring out how to not end up in the same kind of situation again. (Ex: phone)

What does not being stressed feel like?

When I feel relaxed, I:

I feel like this most of the time, which is nice. =) In terms of detecting and responding to stress, I’m working on improving by:

Stress is part of life. It can be a useful part of life if you can figure out how to hack it. =)

Deliberate performance

March 19, 2013 - Categories: decision

In “Deliberate performance: accelerating expertise in natural settings”, Peter J. Fadde and Gary A. Klein suggest the following conditions for improving performance even during regular work:

and the following types of exercises:

They give a great example of how to deliberately practise public speaking, which is well worth reading. It reminds me of how I get a lot of value out of the presentations I sit in, even if they cover familiar content; I look at the style, I reorganize the content, I doodle new visuals. There are so many opportunities to practise.

What else do I want to get better at, and how am I working on it?

Decision-making is one of those super-useful skills. I write many decisions down, and I occasionally post my decision analyses. From time to time, I revisit the decisions to see if my assumptions were correct. I experiment with different alternatives and with different methods for making decisions. I’m learning a little from my past decisions. I’d really love to learn from other people’s decisions, which is why I enjoy reading blogs like Lean Decisions.

Learning is another useful meta-skill. I can estimate how much time I need in order to learn something, and how much I can retain from different study methods. I can experiment with different ways to learn and review information. I can extrapolate based on past “tests”. I can explain how I’m doing.

Drawing is one of the skills that might be good to practise, too. I can estimate how much space and time I need to represent various topics clearly. I can experiment with different ways to draw and organize information. I can extrapolate based on other people’s drawings and my own. I can explain what makes something work and what makes something less understandable.

Development is fun and useful. I’m used to estimating how much time I need to code something, and I’m reasonably good at doing so. I could estimate how many lines it would take or what the logical structure would be like. I can experiment with different platforms and programs. I can increase my repetition by reading other people’s code and talking to other people about their projects, so that I can extrapolate from those experiences. I can explain what I’m doing, how I’m trying to debug something, or what caused a bug.

I’ve mentioned friendship, too. I can estimate the time and resources for different activities, the effect on me, and the perceived effects on others. I can experiment. I might be able to extrapolate from past experiences and from stories (maybe time to read more fiction). I can try to explain what works and what’s felt a bit weird.

With Emacs Org, it’s easy to verify my time estimates for tasks, and I can build in reminders to review my decisions too.

To round off this post, I want to share this quote from the article: “The purpose of deliberate performance experimentation, then, is to generate more surprises and more opportunities for reflection-in-action.” Sometimes when people find out how much I think about things, they wonder if that gets rid of the surprise. I find that thinking leads to more surprises, not fewer. I want to build more surprises and more reflection into my life. =)

Links:

Quantified Awesome feedback

March 20, 2013 - Categories: quantified

I just realized that my feedback form on Quantified Awesome didn’t let people fill in their e-mail addresses, and people didn’t think of adding it to their message… d’oh! So I’ll just respond to questions here and hope that people who checked out Quantified Awesome happen to also have subscribed to my blog.

Hi Sacha,  I looked at the statistics that you are collecting here (at quantifiedawesome.com).  One one hand it seems very beneficial for personal development/goal tracking and other uses.  On the other hand the feeling that someone else might read my stats and know in so much detail how I live gives my shudders.  Is there a way to keep one’s privacy while collecting useful personal stats?

My data is the only one that’s public. Theoretically, I have access to the database, but I won’t post anything. Also, there’s no SSL, so someone could potentially sniff your password and look around. But it’s probably okay. If you really want to keep things private, I suppose you could track using pen and paper or a spreadsheet on your computer.

Your blog is crazy interesting to me.  I’m curious about your quantification approach.  Any inspiration from Nicholas Felton at feltron.com?
Oh and crop your clothes photos more closely.  Don’t need to see the hanger and wall but more detailed shot of the clothes would be nice.
Best
Pat

I checked out his annual report some time ago. It’s pretty, and people often point me to it. The data visualizations are neat, but I’m even more curious about his ongoing data collection and analysis processes. =) Clothes photos: That’s possible, but I can’t be bothered at the moment. Winking smile Minimal effort wins out.

Listening to the clues about what’s working well: writing

March 21, 2013 - Categories: life, writing

I write down things I’m puzzling out, and I write down hints of things I might be good at. It’s useful to do both. Writing about my challenges helps me understand them better, and I often hear from people who identify with me, learn from me, and even share their own tips. Writing about my little successes seems a little more self-serving and egotistic, but it helps me pay attention to clues life gives me, celebrate the small stuff, and remember the good things. I’m looking for ways to make the most of this five-year experiment, so I’m on the lookout for strengths that I can build on.

At the last Visual Thinkers Toronto meetup, someone told me that how I share on my blog is working. People in the Emacs IRC channel tell me that they enjoy reading my posts. I often find myself sending people links to posts, sometimes posts that are years old.

So this writing thing… Hmm. Might be something there. What are some of the things I do in a way that might be different from others? If I can name those characteristics, I can then improve or at least retain them. =)

Imagining the future:

Writing gives me an excuse to be curious. I write about useful and interesting topics in a positive, straightforward, well-reasoned, and creative way.

On occasion, I sit down and develop a topic much further, taking a comprehensive look at something instead of the scattershot approach of spur-of-the-moment blog posts. I review and summarize things I write about a lot, compiling them into blog posts and books.

Lots of conversations grow out of my writing, and my writing grows out of conversations. It’s an excellent way to hack around introversion, because people talk to me.

Even tough situations in life – deaths and other inevitable losses – become fodder for writing, as I try to understand and grow.

Because I write a lot, people can filter the topics to focus on what they’re most interested in, but still stumble across my other interests from time to time. I remember how to find things and can send people links quickly. I maintain an index to help people find things again, and I periodically browse random posts to jog my memory.

I keep my life simple so that I have the freedom to write about what interests me (no corporate shush policy) and to spend time pursuing what makes me curious. It might not be a glamorous life, but it’s a fun one. I save people time and open up new possibilities. I constrain my lifestyle to my budget, so people’s purchases or donations are icing on the cake – money that I use to learn even more, to connect with more people, to experiment with other ideas and tools, and to make strategic differences in other people’s lives. That way, I can always be surprised and happy when people give me some of their time (both in terms of attention and in terms of money, because money is time after all).

I manage to escape the nastiness that the Internet can sometimes have, or I survive it.

I live an awesome and well-documented life, and I make it easier for thousands of people to build on what I’m learning.

People want to avoid boasting, so it’s easy to downplay ourselves and brush off people who are giving us clues about what we might be good at. Knowing that tendency in myself, I’m learning to say “Thank you!” and examine these things with the same curiosity I want to bring to the rest of life. I ask the universe, “Why is that? And how wonderful can it be?” I can also ask myself.

 

Emacs chat: Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson

March 22, 2013 - Categories: emacs, Emacs Chat, podcast

I got to chat with Thomas about Emacs and picking up configuration snippets from EmacsWiki. He’s so lucky – he gets to work with lots of other Emacs geeks! =)

Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson – Emacs chat from Sacha Chua on Vimeo.

More about Thomas on kjeldahlnilsson.net

Just want the audio? Get it from archive.org

Weekly review: Week ending March 22, 2013

March 23, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Lots and lots of drawing this week. =) Sketchnoted a conference, made a print, had lots of fun.

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

Debugging my brain: typos (write-os?) in my sketchnotes

March 24, 2013 - Categories: drawing, kaizen

Embarrassing mistakes are excellent ways to find and deal with bugs in your life. A couple of months ago, I wrote about phone problems, and I’m happy to report that the extended battery is working out well for me. On to the next bug!

I occasionally make small errors while sketchnoting. I get some URLs wrong, swap pictures around, or drop or switch letters. In about 200 sketchnotes, I’ve had embarrassing errors turn up in three of them – one I caught myself, and two that clients caught. Those numbers tell me that it’s not actually as bad a problem as I thought it was. Plenty of other people’s sketchnotes have spelling or grammar mistakes. Still, it would still be nice to figure out how I can reduce the risk further.

Here are some likely causes of error and what I can do about them:

I like having another person doublecheck my sketchnotes before they go out, although it does add a bit more time. Alternatively, I could figure out how to improve my editing workflow so that making changes to published sketchnotes is easy. So far, the ones I’ve needed to tweak were in Dropbox and therefore easy to update, but I might need to update blog posts too someday.

Continuous improvement!

Emacs Chat: Carsten Dominik

March 25, 2013 - Categories: emacs, Emacs Chat, podcast

In which Carsten shares how he got started with Emacs, the joys of Calc, and other cool things. =)

Carsten Dominik from Sacha Chua on Vimeo.

Want just the audio? Get it from archive.org: MP3, Ogg Vorbis (gosh, archive.org has been automatically converting to Ogg all this time? That’ll simplify my post-production… )

Emacs: Use function keys for custom keyboard shortcuts

March 27, 2013 - Categories: emacs

Quick tip since it was an aha! moment for some people on the #emacs IRC channel.

You can define keyboard shortcuts that are sequences of keys. This is how Emacs can have keyboard shortcuts like C-c C-c. The function keys are great for this, because (a) they often don’t have assigned functions (or have ones that you don’t mind losing), and (b) you don’t have to press two or more keys to start your shortcut sequence, like you would do with C-c.

I like using F8 or F9 because I’m right-handed and my keyboard groups function keys together. On my keyboard, there’s a slight gap separating F5-F8 and F9-F12, which means it’s easy to distinguish F8 from F9 by feel if I happen to land on the edge.

Define those keyboard shortcuts as sequences so that you can add more shortcuts easily without having to rejig your muscle memory.

(global-set-key (kbd "<f9> <f9>") 'org-agenda-list)
(global-set-key (kbd "<f9> <f8>") (lambda () (interactive) (org-capture nil "r")))

If you want to rebind something that was previously bound to a non-prefix map, you can unbind it first:

(global-unset-key (kbd "<f9>"))

Quantified Self Toronto: Where the Time Went

March 27, 2013 - Categories: quantified

Update 2013-6-6: Added a link to the video!

Carlos Rizo convinced me to quickly throw together a presentation for today’s Quantified Self Toronto meetup. Here are my slides!

Where the Time Went – Quantified Self Lunch and Learn (March 27, 2013 – Toronto) from Sacha Chua
Here’s the video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_htVMW3CSA

Check out quantifiedawesome.com for my data, dashboard, and source code, and read through my Quantified Self blog posts for more geekery.

Getting ready for the Emacs Conference

March 29, 2013 - Categories: emacs, life, travel

I’m in London for Emacs Conference 2013 (squee!!), which is tomorrow. John Wiegley and I are starting the day off with a whirlwind tour of Emacs’ past, present, and future. The program looks excellent, and I can’t wait to learn from all these wonderful people. Let’s find out what sketchnotes of an extremely geeky conference look like! =D

I’d worked on this presentation about 9 hours before leaving for London. I wrote most of the presentation code on the airplane (functions to go forward and backward, and to process the current slide).

I finished the rest of the content this morning, then headed out with Alex and his wife Tina. Today I got to experience a slice of regular life over here: a walk through the market, a grocery trip, a yummy home-cooked meal. Alex and Tina have been fantastic hosts! =)

After dinner, I worked a little more on the presentation. I made slides and a PDF just in case my Org presentation doesn’t work out, and helped with nametags and the list of people attending.

I’m looking forward to the conference. I think this will be an excellent adventure! I’ll post my presentation afterwards, so subscribe to my blog or follow the #emacsconf hashtag. If you’re attending tomorrow, come and say hi! I’ll be the short Asian girl bouncing around and possibly hyperventilating at all the awesomeness. I’ll also be drawing sketchnotes on a tablet PC, assuming I don’t give up and stick everything into org-capture instead. =)

After Emacs Conf 2013; ideas for Sunday and Monday

March 31, 2013 - Categories: emacs, travel

Emacs Conf 2013 was a blast! It was super awesome meeting so many Emacs geeks in person, and the talks were fascinating. I’ve posted my sketchnotes and will be revising them to make them easier to read. Some of the other speakers have shared their presentations, so I’ll update that page with links as I come across them. I’m working on pulling together the videos (thanks to jamief for the livestream recording, which I linked on the sketchnotes page). Our keynote wasn’t recorded on video, but I’ve uploaded the audio (also linked on the sketchnotes page).

I’m flying out from London on Tuesday, April 2. The weather forecast for Sunday and Monday looks great and this is the first time I’ve been in a city with a (temporarily) high concentration of Emacs geeks. This is also only the second time I’ve been in London, and the first with an appreciable amount of free time. So I need to decide what to do, otherwise I’ll spend all the time working on Emacs-related follow-ups on the couch.

Possibilities/things to do:

Okay. I think the plan is to hang out and enjoy a nice relaxed day over here, meeting up with John Wiegley or other Emacs people if they reach out to the mailing list or through e-mail, and maybe wandering up to Camden Town if not. I’ll snag some postcards and write. Tomorrow, I’ll go to the Museum of London with my trusty notebook and pen, and collect interesting thoughts. I’ll block out some time every week to do Emacs followup, so I can spread it out over time. Should be good!

Quantified Self time-tracking: Choosing your buckets

March 31, 2013 - Categories: quantified

This post missed its publishing schedule. I’m posting it today so that it doesn’t get lost.

Kate asked me how I chose the categories I use for tracking my time, and if I had any tips for someone who’s starting out.

I track my time at a medium level of detail – not so high-level that I can’t ask interesting questions, but not so low-level that it’s hard to summarize. To select an activity category (the non-bolded text in the table below), I type in parts of it. For example, “un subway” becomes “Unpaid work – Subway” and “quantified” becomes “Business – Quantified Awesome.” If something is ambiguous, the system shows me all the matches and lets me pick one. I can make some activity categories inactive so that they don’t get matched by the search. If the text doesn’t match anything, I’m shown the category creation screen, and the timestamped record is automatically created once I create the category for it. For “Other”-type activities and other activities that I’ve added a note field to, I can add a pipe character followed by a note (ex: “disc other | Yada yada yada”) for more details.

Here’s the general structure. I based the top-level categories on the OECD time studies so that I can compare my numbers with averages from other developed countries. The top-level categories I use are:

The second-level group (Business – Build, Business – Connect, etc.) are the ones I recently created for reporting purposes. They look useful, so I might figure out how to build them into my database for more reporting goodness.

Within those major groups, I have one or two levels of record categories that I really use to track time. The higher groups are just for reporting. I create more activity types as needed.

Business
Business – Build
Business – Android
Business – Book review
Business – Business development
Business – Coding
Business – Delegation
Business – Drawing
Business – Learn
Business – Marketing
Business – Other
Business – Paperwork
Business – Plan
Business – Quantified Awesome
Business – Research
Business – Sales
Business – Connect
Business – Connect
Business – Correspondence
Business – Presentation
Business – Pro bono
Business – Earn
Business – Consulting – E1 – Conf
Business – Consulting – E1 – General
Business – Consulting – R1
Business – E-book
Business – Illustration – I1
Business – Illustration – I2 – UPV
Business – Illustration – I3 – M
Business – Illustration – I4 – SR
Business – Illustration – I5 – MT / G
Business – Sketchnoting
Discretionary
Discretionary – Other
Discretionary – Other
Discretionary – Play
Discretionary – Harry Potter (… because I forgot I already had “Discretionary – Play – LEGO Harry Potter”)
Discretionary – Play – Final Fantasy
Discretionary – Play – Katamari Forever
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Batman
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Harry Potter
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Heroica
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Indiana Jones
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Lord of the Rings
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Pirates
Discretionary – Play – LEGO Star Wars
Discretionary – Play – Nethack
Discretionary – Play – Other
Discretionary – Read – Nonfiction
Discretionary – Relax
Discretionary – Productive
Discretionary – Emacs
Discretionary – Gardening
Discretionary – Latin
Discretionary – Read – Blogs
Discretionary – Read – Fiction
Discretionary – Sewing
Discretionary – Tracking
Discretionary – Travel
Discretionary – Writing
Discretionary – Social
Discretionary – Family
Discretionary – Social
Personal
Personal – Exercise
Personal – Bike
Personal – Exercise
Personal – Scoot
Personal – Walk – Home
Personal – Walk – Other
Personal – Walk – Subway
Personal – Walk – Work
Personal – Life
Personal – Eat – Breakfast (… sometimes I track meals separately, but usually they’re just part of Personal – Routines)
Personal – Eat – Dinner
Personal – Eat – Lunch
Personal – Plan
Personal – Planning (… because I forgot I already have Personal – Plan)
Personal – Routines
Sleep
Sleep
Sleep
Unpaid work
Unpaid work – Commute
Unpaid work – Subway
Unpaid work – Wait
Unpaid work – Errands
Unpaid work – Errands
Unpaid work – Groceries
Unpaid work – Home
Unpaid work – Clean the kitchen
Unpaid work – Cook
Unpaid work – Laundry
Unpaid work – Tidy up
Unpaid work – Other
Unpaid work – Other
Unpaid work – Other travel
Work
Work
Work – C
Work – Lunch
Work – O
Work – Other
Work – T

I track business projects as their own categories so that I can bill for my time or figure out if something was worth doing. I track games separately so that I can figure out what I spend more time on.

I usually create a tracking record at the beginning of the activity so that quantifiedawesome.com can timestamp it. If I forget, I can say things like “-15m relax” to note that I started relaxing 15 minutes ago, or say things like “13:30 writ” to note that I started writing at 1:30 PM. If I’m seriously late, I can specify the date like this: “3/24 19:05 social”, or use the batch entry form. When I record an entry, the system shows me the edit form, so if I was wrong (I thought I was going to start Personal – Routines, but really, I went back to sleep), I can change the category using a dropdown and save it. I can also adjust start and end times, and the previous or next record is automatically adjusted too.

I track my time based on the primary activity so that I don’t double-count the time. For example, if I’m taking the subway, I file it as “Unpaid work – Subway” instead of “Discretionary – Read – Nonfiction” even if I read a book during the trip.

I have to build some kind of split/merge/refactor activity category tool someday, but so far, this is fine. And more reports! Reports are fun.

Tips and lessons learned:

If you’re starting out, a simple thing that lets you capture some text with a timestamp will work just fine. Jot down a few keywords that explain what you’re doing – enough to remember. Do this for a few days to a week in order to get a sense of what categories you may want to file things under.

Once you’ve figured out what general categories you want, use a button-based tracker like Tap Log or a list-based tracker like Time Recording (both Android). They’re great for selecting something from a defined list or structure. The downside is that it takes a liiittle more time to add a new category.

When you have lots of categories, going back to text input makes a lot more sense. No scrolling, no clicking around, and you can add new things fairly quickly. The substring search I put into quantifiedawesome.com works really well for me because I know which shortcuts map to which categories, and the structure is better than freeform text because reporting is easier.

Reporting is a lot more fun if you’re comfortable with spreadsheet pivot tables and other nifty features. I should do a screencast of how I use Excel to slice and dice my data. =)

Next step for me: Time estimates

I’ve started recording time estimates for more detailed tasks/activities so that I can a) figure out if I routinely overestimate or underestimate certain things, and b) get finer-grained time data. I know that it takes me roughly an hour from the time I get up to the time I get out of the house with my usual morning routine and maybe half an hour for the rush version, but it would be great to break that down into components and perhaps experiment with it. I’m also curious about how much time it takes me to get to places so that I can adjust Google Maps estimates for walking, biking, or public transit.

I write predictions down in Evernote (“Predict home by 7:05”). Evernote automatically timestamps the creation date, and I update the note with the actual time and any other notes I want to include (“home at 7:03; bike”). When I have several estimates and measurements, I’ll make a spreadsheet. When the spreadsheet structure settles down, I might build the functionality into Quantified Awesome. Successive prototyping helps me figure out how the data feels before I spend time building a structure for it. =)

So that’s how I track my time! See Where the Time Went for a recent presentation sharing my results.