July 2014

It’s okay to clear the garden and start again

July 1, 2014 - Categories: gardening

Around this time each year, with the heat of summer sending the lettuce to seed and sending us indoors, I usually fall out of love with gardening. I don’t feel like cooking, so the herbs go unharvested. The lettuce, spinach, and other greens bolt, going bitter and sending up more flowers than I can pinch off.

Having neglected to harvest as much as I could have, I tell myself I’ll just let them go to seed so that I can collect and replant those seeds. But then the garden becomes dry, overgrown, and scraggly, and slugs and other pests decimate the leaves. Only the tomatoes keep me interested throughout the season. If I’m lucky, I remember the rest of the garden in time to plant lettuce and peas for the fall.

This year, I’m trying something different. Seeds are inexpensive and plentiful. Instead of waiting for my lettuce to go to seed, I’ll simply pull them up and start new plants. This keeps the garden feeling more orderly, and gives me more sprouting to enjoy and look forward to. Maybe I’ll even walk to the florist at the corner and buy more seedlings to take advantage of the warmth and sun. Maybe beets or zucchini? I’m clearing a few squares at a time so that I can stagger the planting and keep things manageable. Perhaps the rest of the lettuce and the peas will have fully developed their seeds by the time I get around to pulling them up. I think this will be better than waiting for the whole box to finish. At least I’ll always have something on the go.

Someday, when I’m more of a gardener–perhaps when I have heirloom variants that are hard to find and easy to enjoy–I’ll look into saving seeds again. In the meantime, I’m still working on developing that summer-long habit of gardening, and I enjoy the exciting days of sprouting.

Where else in my life am I letting things go to seed unnecessarily? What else would benefit from pulling things up and starting fresh? Sewing, perhaps. I have a lot of scraps and patterns I haven’t looked at or used. Writing, too – lots of snippets and outlines that I haven’t fleshed out. Sometimes it’s good to clear things out and start again (perhaps with a smaller goal, perhaps with more deliberate attention). That way, the remnants of past decisions don’t weigh down enthusiasm.

How about your garden? How about your life?

Learning to design Help and Support communities: Adobe deep dive

July 2, 2014 - Categories: design

Design seems like magic, but it’s probably a skill that I can develop. If I just focus on coding, the things I build can end up looking like an accumulation of little ideas designed by committee. If I learn more about design and develop my own opinions, I can make recommendations that simplify the experience and make it more coherent. For example, on one of my consulting engagements, I could probably take the initiative in redesigning the help and support community for a better user experience. I have to work with the technical limitations of the platform, but as a coder, I have a little more latitude than most people do. By looking at how other people have structured their support experiences, maybe I can pick up ideas that I can try.

It’s interesting to see how much variety there is even within one company. Adobe uses the Jive platform for its support communities, and the different products have slightly different configurations. Here’s the overall product page that leads to the community page:

Adobe

Adobe

http://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop.html

Adobe starts with graphical icons for tutorials that have time estimates clearly indicated.

2014-07-02 13_37_08-Community_ Photoshop General Discussion _ Adobe Community

https://forums.adobe.com/community/photoshop

The “Ask the Community” page leads to a page with a lot of things going on, but there’s an “Ask a Question” widget in the top left with a quick way for people to ask questions. With the emphasis on points and the leaderboard of top participants, it seems that this community focuses on user-to-user support. That’s probably why the Unanswered Questions and Trending Questions widgets are so prominent. Still, the page feels a little cluttered to me. I’d probably prefer to set it up with fewer calls to action. Ask a Question would still be in the top left, but I would probably organize the resources by skill level. I like the way some of the frequently asked questions are highlighted, but they feel somewhat random and not well-formatted.

Different products have different community pages. The Illustrator one is slightly more neatly organized:

2014-07-02 13_43_51-Community_ Illustrator _ Adobe Community

https://forums.adobe.com/community/illustrator

I like the announcement box for Illustrator CC 2014 and the Getting Started box in a prominent place. This page feels more oriented towards new users. It still has trending and unanswered questions, but they’re below the fold.

2014-07-02 13_46_28-Community_ Premiere Pro _ Adobe Community

https://forums.adobe.com/community/premiere

The Premier Pro community focuses on sub-forums. Based on the forum activity, it looks like the Forums widget does a decent job of directing people to the appropriate place to ask, although the main community still gets many questions. This community is less newbie-focused (no tutorial link). The Recent Discussions widget seems to be a better choice than having both Unanswered Questions and Trending Questions, since the other widgets are visually similar and often have duplicate content.

2014-07-02 13_50_10-Community_ After Effects _ Adobe Community

https://forums.adobe.com/community/aftereffects_general_discussion

The After Effects community has a welcome message and a Getting Started box, which I think are good ideas. They’ve decided to highlight some discussions as Sticky Threads, too. Unlike the other communities, this community doesn’t include messages about translating pages or earning points. I wonder how de-emphasizing points affects user-to-user support…

2014-07-02 13_54_57-Community_ Lightroom for Beginners _ Adobe Community

https://forums.adobe.com/community/lightroom/lightroom_for_beginners

The Lightroom for Beginners community uses graphics (that responsively resize, even!) to make frequently-asked questions more visually interesting.

2014-07-02 13_57_21-Community_ Acrobat _ Adobe Community

https://forums.adobe.com/community/acrobat

The Acrobat community directs people to the appropriate sub-forum.

2014-07-02 13_59_54-Welcome _ Adobe Community

https://forums.adobe.com/welcome

The overall welcome page for the site is static and graphical.

I think the key points I’ll pick up from Adobe’s support communities are:

Know any well-designed community support sites that offer both tutorials and Q&A? I’d love to take a closer look at them! Up next: Probably Apple, who use Jive as well.

 

 

 

Reflecting on relationships for a good life

July 3, 2014 - Categories: friends, reflection

Following up on my reflections on Aristotle, I’ve been thinking: what kinds of relationships can help me build a good life, and how can I help others in turn?

Aristotle distinguishes among relationships for utility, pleasure, or virtue. I have friends whose company and conversation are agreeable. There are a few whom I would go out of my way to help. I’d like there to be more of the last category. Getting to know acquaintances more will probably turn up a few, and I’ll likely bump into more with time and familiarity.

I get along the best with people who are positive, self-efficacious, and temperate. I’m biased towards people who are confident and articulate. This probably means I’m missing out on appreciating otherwise awesome people. I feel a little odd and uncharitable that I don’t feel that kind of appreciation about lots of people – I can wish them well and be nice to them, but there’s something missing there. C’est la vie, I suppose. Something to work on from my end, or perhaps to accept. Anyway, Aristotle says it’s quite rare to have good friends.

It would be interesting to have a lunch or dinner club of maybe six to eight people, meeting once a month or so. What kind of conversation would help us grow? Maybe something like “Here’s what I’ve learned so far about life; here are the things I’m figuring out; I need help with this; I can help with that; let’s make a difference in this; what did you think about that?” Different perspectives on the same things, similar perspectives in different situations… Many things are improved by conversation.

What would I bring to something like that, and to the individual friendships that comprise it? The basics might be location, food, organization. I tend to be cheerful, rational, and research-oriented. I’m getting better at sharing what I think, and at structuring and doing small experiments to learn. It might be interesting to connect with other people who like taking a step back, thinking about stuff, and then stepping back in and doing things.

If I found such people, though, would I share what I’ve been thinking about? I’m biased towards writing online instead, since the asynchronicity lets me think at my own pace. Online, I can reach more people and receive more insights. When I’m in conversation, I tend to listen to what’s going on in people’s lives instead of talking through what I’m trying to figure out. I prefer groups because of variety and lack of obligation (I don’t have to carry as much of the conversation), but I also tend to step back even further into the background – I guide the conversation with questions instead of adding my own tidbits. So there’s probably work to do there too. I wonder what a well-running potluck club would look like…

Hey, wouldn’t you know it… There’s actually a book called The Philosopher’s Table: How to Start Your Philosophy Dinner Club. Requesting it from the library.

Anyway, how would I need to develop in order to bring more to and get more from conversation? It might be interesting to ask about my friends’ lives, and share more from my life (more like “Here are some odd things I’ve been learning; maybe they’ll be useful to you” rather than “me me me me”). I can practise that even without major changes. I can also invite people to things and check with them more often to see if they have plans. Maybe people might even be up for trying a few months of this dinner club thing.

Developing opinions

July 4, 2014 - Categories: decision, learning, reflection

How do I develop opinions? What is good to develop opinions about? How can I improve this process?

I’ve been working on teaching myself design. Good designs and bad designs both take effort to implement, so I might as well focus on good designs. I can read all the usability guidelines I want, but I need an aesthetic sense in order to bring things together into a coherent whole. Hence the need for opinions.

Lots of other areas benefit from opinions, too. Opinions can speed up decisions, save time and money, and help me appreciate subtleties. I’d like to form useful opinions while still being open to changing my mind in the face of good arguments or new evidence.

I don’t have a lot of strong opinions. I tend to take things as they are, see the value in multiple viewpoints, and not get too attached to things. I can identify and let go of decisions that don’t matter that much to me. In university, I nearly flunked my classes in literature. Art and music are still pretty opaque for me, although I do have a fondness for representational art and self-referential or otherwise punny music. Even when watching movies, I rely on IMDB reviews and TVTropes pages to shape my appreciation of what I’m watching.

W-, on the other hand, has a surprising breadth of well-informed opinions about things like kitchen knives, bicycle frames, and other areas. He has had quite a head start, though, so I don’t feel too bad.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do. I want to set some parameters on my opinion-forming, however.

Okay. It seems that there are four stages in my opinion development:

  1. Anything goes. No opinion on these things yet.
  2. Do some quick research and pick a recommendation.
  3. Go deeper. Compare several approaches. Critically think about them. Pick one approach or synthesize several.
  4. Go a little further from the crowd. Come up with my own hypotheses and test them.

1. Anything goes: There are a lot of things I don’t particularly care about. I’m willing to take other people’s recommendations on them or follow my general principles. For example, I don’t have a strong opinion about most of the ingredients we buy from the grocery store, so I usually pick the lowest unit price and then move up from there as needed. Decisions that have low costs (time, money, attention, risk, etc.) generally stay in this category, although I occasionally invest time in thinking about things based on the frequency of the decision.

2. Quick research: I read a lot, and I’m comfortable digging through whatever research I can find online. Many of my decisions are in this category. I do a quick search to see what other people are saying or bring up points from books I’ve read, and we use those ideas when choosing an approach. W- knows a lot about comparison shopping, and I tend to be the one with notes for communication, personal finance, and education. Sometimes I turn these into blog posts as well, especially if I can follow up with the results of applying that opinion.

3. Going deeper: Sometimes research doesn’t turn up a clear answer, or I have to do the work in putting things together myself. I often request several books on the same topic from the library, reading them all over a couple of weeks so that I can see their overlaps and disagreements. Since it’s easy to forget key points and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve made sense of something, writing and drawing help me a lot.

4. On my own: Some things are so uncommon, I can’t easily find relevant research. For example, I’m not the only one who’s done some kind of a semi-retirement experiment at an early age, but I don’t think I’ll find any books or online communities that already have reflections on all the questions I have. For topics where I’m on my own, I have to break things down into smaller questions that I might be able to research or test. Then I can write about what I’m learning, come up with ways to experiment, and share my reflections.

In terms of process, I tend to form most of my opinions by reading, writing, and trying things out. I rarely talk to other people in order to get their opinions about something, aside from the occasional people-related question where I’m curious about the approaches they’ve used. I don’t debate my opinions since I’m hardly ever interested in arguing with people. There’s no changing other people’s minds, anyway; only presenting approaches and helping them change their mind if they want. Ditto for me – people might disagree with something I write about, but I’m more likely to acknowledge a difference in opinion than to change my mind unless I really want to.

So, what do I want to get better at forming opinions about?

I’ve already mentioned design as one of the areas I plan to focus on. Philosophy is another: forming opinions about how I want to live and what I will do. Developing opinions on exercise will involve trying things out and paying close attention to how I feel.

I could probably work on my opinions about business, too. Reflection might turn up more opportunities that are in line with my current interests.

In terms of tech, I can become more opinionated about good programming practices, patterns, and frameworks.

Some consumer things are probably worth developing more opinions about because of their cost or frequency in my life. It may be good to develop an opinion about bicycling.

Cooking is a good area for opinions, since it’s all a matter of taste anyway. I can learn more techniques, get better at those techniques, and try different recipes. It might be good to develop opinions about gardening (particular cultivars? gardening practices?), although I’d probably need to develop the skills and infrastructure to start plants from seed first. Maybe start with salad green types? That’ll have a faster growth cycle, and I can also test things by buying different kinds of greens from the market.

Do I want to continue with my current process? Are there ways I can improve it?

One easy step for improving my opinion-building process is to capture more of it as blog posts. If I write about opinions as I’m forming them, I benefit from the explanation and the review. Other people might be able to share tips, questions, or ideas. There are lots of little opinions and opinions-in-progress that I haven’t shared on my blog yet. It could just be a matter of making blogging even more a part of my thinking process.

I can experiment with talking to more people while I’m forming opinions. I should probably be careful with that, though, since advice is a funny thing.

It might be interesting to be more explicit about the assumptions and hypotheses related to my opinions.

Hmm… Is this something you’ve thought about? How have you improved your opinion-forming processes?

Weekly review: Week ending July 4, 2014

July 6, 2014 - Categories: review, weekly

A week of learning about philosophy and spending time with people! =) Next week: Probably more events, hanging out, thinking.

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

Learning life skills from philosophers

July 7, 2014 - Categories: reflection

Ancient Greeks hired philosophers to help their sons develop various skills, such as rhetoric and politics. I might not have that same kind of tutor now, but through books, conversations, and contemplation, maybe I can teach myself a little. It’s like having an imaginary board of advisors with different perspectives that I can draw on, a technique that Napoleon Hill describes in depth in “Think and Grow Rich”.

It might help to ask myself; What are the life skills I want to learn, and which philosophers might be able to help me along those journeys? Let me take a look at some of the things I’ve already learned so that I can sketch out the next steps in that trajectory.

Equanimity: From Epictetus, I learned to focus only on what I can control: not what happens to me, but how I perceive and respond to that. I’ve also been learning about detachment from things I don’t control. Why fear death? And if one doesn’t fear death, why should one fear anything lesser? I’d already found it easy to take responsibility for my own happiness and outlook, but learning from Epictetus gave me a clearer way to see all those little decisions I make about how I see the world.

Self-improvement: From Aristotle, I’m learning to allow myself to use my leisure time to improve as a person. I occasionally worry that I should be spending this time building businesses and developing marketable skills, but I’m willing to experiment with Aristotle’s assertion that philosophy is a worthwhile use of leisure time. I’m also learning that virtue is a muscle that you can exercise. As you get better at finding good activities that you enjoy more than activities that get in the way of your long-term happiness, and as you get better at wanting what’s good for you instead of what’s bad for you, virtue will become more natural. For example, I’m working on enjoying exercise and hanging out, and I’ll work on appreciating art someday.

What else would I like to learn?

Getting along with people: I like this quote I came across in Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness:

“Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things. … The kind that makes for happiness is the kind that likes to observe people and finds pleasure in their individual traits, that wishes to afford scope for the interests and pleasures of those with whom it is brought into contact without desiring to acquire power over them or to secure their enthusiastic admiration. The person whose attitude towards others is genuinely of this kind will be a source of happiness and a recipient of reciprocal kindness. … To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness.

… The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”

I like a few people spontaneously, and others with some effort. If I can identify the things that are getting in the way of my appreciation of other people, use Epictetus’ teachings to detach myself from those hidden fears and anxieties, and use Aristotle’s exercises to eventually prefer things that are good for me, I think I’ll be able to appreciate people more. =)

Developing a better appreciation of people is probably a good next step to focus on. It seems kinda weird to think of it as a skill to improve, but we take all sorts of things for granted (and our corresponding mediocrity as a given) when they’re really skills one can learn.

Learning from things I like: Smashing Magazine’s responsiveness

July 8, 2014 - Categories: design

I’m teaching myself design by looking at things I like and trying to figure out why I like them. Smashing Magazine is not only a good blog for design inspiration, but it’s also (naturally!) a great example of techniques.

One of the things I like about Smashing Magazine is how the site adapts to different screen sizes. For example, if you view it on a mobile device or in a small window, you’ll see a simple header and the story.

2014-07-07 12_45_42-Smashing Magazine — For Professional Web Designers and Developers

The menu icon links to the footer menu, which is used only with narrow screens:

2014-07-07 13_08_53-Coding Archives _ Smashing Magazine

If you have a little more space, the header will include the top-leel site sections (books, e-books, workshops, job board) and the left sidebar will include categories. The search also moves from being hidden behind an icon to having its own space.

2014-07-07 12_45_26-Smashing Magazine — For Professional Web Designers and Developers

Even more space? The left sidebar gets collapsed into a small horizontal menu, and a right sidebar appears with an e-mail subscription form and some highlights from other sections. I wonder why the left sidebar is collapsed into the menu, but I guess it would be weird to have the category list jump from the left sidebar to the right sidebar and then back again, and they probably wanted the e-mail subscription form to be above the fold (so it wouldn’t make sense to add it to the left sidebar). The search box is moved to the top of the right sidebar, too, so it looks more like a background element.

2014-07-07 12_45_09-Smashing Magazine — For Professional Web Designers and Developers

Incidentally, here’s a little thing that happens when the window is just a little bit narrower – the WordPress menu item gets abbreviated to WP.

2014-07-07 13_05_24-Coding Archives _ Smashing Magazine

 

 

And here’s what the site looks like when I maximize the window. There’s the header, the left sidebar, and the right sidebar.

2014-07-07 12_44_45-

I also like Smashing Magazine’s use of colours – the cool blue matches well with the warm red, for some reason that I can’t quite explain at the moment. I also like how they use different grays to make things recede into the background.

When I redesigned my site, I wanted to do something like the responsiveness of Smashing Magazine, so I learned more about using media queries. Here’s how my site behaves at different sizes. (Or at least, how it should!) On a small screen, the key links are just hand-drawn icons, and there’s no sidebar:

2014-07-07 12_50_57-sacha chua __ living an awesome life - learn - share - scale

Slightly wider? I can add some text to the links, and I can add a couple of optional links like Random.

2014-07-07 12_51_17-sacha chua __ living an awesome life - learn - share - scale

On a normal-sized screen, I add a sidebar on the right side.

2014-07-07 12_51_32-

On a wide screen, I move the post meta information to the left margin.

2014-07-07 12_51_54-sacha chua __ living an awesome life - learn - share - scale

Made my first laser cut thing!

July 9, 2014 - Categories: geek

I have access to a laser cutter and a 3D printer through Hacklab.to, but I had never actually tried to use either. I’d been mostly treating Hacklab as a way to hang out with interesting people. Still, since the tools are there, why not learn how to use them?

I looked through the supply closet to get a sense of what other people had been doing with the laser cutter, and what materials would be easy to work with. Acrylic and wood were popular. There were lots of whimsical cut-outs (hearts, scalloped edges, etc.), but I’d also heard stories about how useful the laser cutter was in creating boxes, cases, and other parts.

I browsed through photos of all sorts of laser-cut objects online (boxes? stencils? earrings?), but nothing jumped out as something I wanted to copy. I decided to start from scratch by drawing something in Inkscape. We’d been talking about some ways to make it easier for newcomers to figure out what they can do during open houses. They can start with a brief tour of the projects at Hacklab, and then settle in to work on a project or chat with other people. I figured a welcome sign might be handy. I found a stencil-type font that cut the shapes so that the inner spaces would stay attached. I also learned that Inkscape has a Lindenmayer system (L-system) evaluator, which is useful for making certain kinds of fractals. For fun, I decided to make a Koch snowflake as the frame. Eric Boyd helped me convert the design to G-code and run the machine. It was fascinating watching the paper burn in these intricate shapes.

We cut the welcome sign out of paper as a prototype. (We can always cut it out of cardboard or something fancier if we need to.) Here’s what it looked like:

2014-07-04 15.30.07

I’d like to get the hang of designing things for the laser cutter. It’s a little interesting pairing that with our general slant towards decluttering and minimizing stuff. Maybe as I learn more about the possibilities, I’ll find things that make me go “Ooh, that would be nice,” or even come across gaps that nudge me to make stuff up.

What’s next? Maybe a name tag that I can add a magnet to? A scarf buckle? Bookmarks? I don’t really wear earrings or necklaces any more, but a conversation piece might be handy when meeting people – so maybe a brooch. Various containers for things around the house? Hmm… I drew this, and I might be able to turn it into a bookmark after some tweaking:

cat

Learning to design Help and Support communities: Apple deep dive

July 10, 2014 - Categories: design

I’m looking at how people design help/Q&A communities to support a wide range of users. After looking at Adobe’s examples, I’d like to focus on another company well-known for design savvy: Apple.

2014-07-02 14_10_47-Official Apple SupportApple uses a two-screen automatically advancing carousel on its front page. I find that curious because the carousel doesn’t pause when you hover over it, although I guess that with only two slides, you can always wait until the icon you want slides back into place. If Apple did that in order to keep the Apple Support Communities and Contact Us links above the fold, I wonder why they didn’t move those links up higher and then keep a static list of icons underneath it instead. Anyway…

2014-07-02 14_15_15-Welcome _ Apple Support Communities

The main overview page has a big, simple Ask a Question widget that dynamically searches as you type. Underneath it, there are icons to the featured communities.

2014-07-02 14_16_48-Welcome _ Apple Support Communities

Clicking on an icon shows icons for subcommunities.

2014-07-02 14_17_21-Community_ Using iPad _ Apple Support Communities

All the communities I’ve checked out seem to follow these lines. Big group icon, group title, ask a question box right underneath the group title. There’s a manual slider with a custom category filter that loads the discussion list using AJAX, avoiding a page refresh.

2014-07-02 14_20_04-Community_ Boot Camp _ Apple Support Communities

Some of the communities have a Top Participants widget along the bottom.

The Apple communities focus exclusively on Q&A – they don’t link to tutorials or other resources to help people get better at using things. IF you click on the Content link, you can find tips, but they’re hidden and tend to fall off the recent content list. The Content link lists content for all the communities, not the particular community you’re interested in – the Apple discussions theme doesn’t include a link to the content for your particular community.

The discussion-focused approach is interesting, but probably a little too severe. Providing links to tutorials and frequently asked questions can help people who are getting started and don’t know what they don’t know. This information is available elsewhere (ex: http://www.apple.com/support/mac/), so that could explain why it’s not duplicated in the support site. Anyway, Apple’s support communities are clean and stripped down to the essentials.

 

House culture

July 11, 2014 - Categories: connecting

I happened across this First Annual Festival of House Culture while browsing through my Facebook news feed. As it was in the neighbourhood and one of the events promised to be a philosophy salon, I figured it would be a good excuse to try something new. I shared it with a couple of friends who are also into that sort of thing.

It was an enjoyable get-together: two musical performances and a free-flowing conversation that covered friendship, culture, community and connection. I signed up for the mailing list so that I can find out about monthly events. Apparently, there’s a series called the Piano Salon. I met a number of people that I’m looking forward to bumping into again. It felt like my kind of thing (versus, say, going to clubs or sports or movies).

I’ve been thinking about some of the things we chatted about. Here are some thoughts:

What is house culture, anyway? I think of it as opposed to going-out culture and homebody culture. Going-out culture involves spending for things like movies, dinners, and shows, although sometimes you can find free events or organize a picnic. Homebody life is more like relaxing at home by yourself or with a few other people. House culture might range from having a few friends over for brunch to having a mini-concert that includes friends-of-friends or even strangers.

I think it’s interesting to be at home (or someone’s home) instead of a commercial or public space. There’s something about being surrounded by someone’s regular life. Hanging out at home is more convivial and less commercial, too. I don’t have as many get-togethers as I probably should. I remember that I always get stressed out right before the actual party. (“Why do I keep doing this to myself? What if people take offense at not being invited? What if no one comes? What if lots of people come and there aren’t enough seats? What if I get introvert overload? Gah, the house isn’t clean yet!”) Also, W- is even more of an introvert than I am, so I don’t want to impose on him or cut into his weekend recharging time. I should remember that I actually do enjoy the conversations, that friends will forgive the occasional dust-bunny, that W- is okay with disappearing off to gym class or into the basement to work, and that everything is going to be okay. I’m up for meeting friends-of-friends, but I don’t think I’m comfortable with opening the house to complete strangers yet. Anyway, I can build up slowly. Also, people are awesome and they can help me learn.

Here are some tips for organizing a house concert/salon. We’re probably not quite at that point yet (music? seating? layout?), but maybe someday.

How does one make friends? We talked a little bit about what intimacy is, and how shared vulnerability can build trust. I’m not particularly good at being vulnerable around other people. This is likely due to a combination of:

I’m more curious about the Aristotelian idea of friendship between good people: a mutual admiration and help sort of thing, maybe? So for me, getting better at making friends might be more along the lines of learning what’s interesting and admirable about people (there’s always something) and using that curiosity to get over the friction I feel when it comes to planning get-togethers or going to events.

Weekly review: Week ending July 11, 2014

July 13, 2014 - Categories: review, weekly

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

What are people looking for when they talk about their challenges?

July 14, 2014 - Categories: communication, connecting

Sometimes I hear from people who are having a hard time finding a job or clients for their business, working on establish healthier habits, or sorting out their finances. The Internet tells me that people who are struggling generally don’t need more advice, since they’ve been told by everyone else around them to apply to jobs, go to events, exercise, lose weight, stop eating junk food, stop buying coffee, etc. In fact, we should probably stop asking how things are going and stop trying to solve people’s problems for them. Ditch the clichés, too. Sympathy, encouragement, support, and maybe even a little distraction are apparently the way to go.

It got me thinking about different purposes for conversation, and how to match someone’s purpose better. Mismatches can lead to frustration on both sides, like when you’re really looking for advice and different perspectives and someone fobs you off with “You can do it!”, or when you’re feeling like this situation will never end and someone passes on a piece of trite advice that you’d already tried on day 1, or when someone just wants to talk and you jump in with a problem-solving mindset.

It feels a little weird to explicitly talk about what people are looking for in a conversation, but what if clarifying that up front can lead to a more effective exchange? You could minimize those mismatches or even direct people onward if you’re not in the right space for a conversation. For example, although people have told me that they appreciate how positive I am (which is good for when people need encouragement), I catch myself becoming impatient if people just want to vent without taking action. I’m much better with breaking down big challenges, finding alternative approaches, and celebrating small steps forward (even if they’re minuscule). I read extensively, so I can tell people some common approaches to different life challenges, but I don’t have a lot of personal experiences because my life has been pretty straightforward.

There are so many different kinds of conversations, so I’ll keep the scope of this reflection manageable by focusing only on the conversations where someone has started by describing a problem. What are some of the things people look for, and how do I want to respond?

Advice (rarely): “You should…” is a common response when people share what they’re going through. People rarely need additional information, but oddly enough, they get spades of it (even unsolicited). It’s not like it’s difficult to search the Internet or find books about different life challenges… and yet it’s so tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that just a little more knowledge will help people solve their problems.

I’ve been curbing the impulse to give advice by reminding myself that people are generally smart and usually try everything before asking for help. Instead of “You should…”, I often phrase things as “You’ve probably …. How did that go?” If they hadn’t done it yet, I ask what’s been getting in their way. I rarely have experience with the particular situation they’re in, but barriers tend to be common, so I can share how I’ve dealt with those – not in a “You should” way, but rather “Here’s what I tried and what worked for me.”

Acknowledgement: Sometimes people just want someone to see them and know what they’re going through. This is the “Oh, you poor dear; let’s have some ice cream and you can tell me all about it” sort of thing, I think. Active listening techniques (restating, etc.) can help here. I’m not particularly good at this yet, but I might get better at this by focusing on the interestingness of people.

Distraction: Sometimes you just want to have fun and take your mind off stuff. Like acknowledgement, but this time you’re having ice cream and watching your favourite movies or something like that. I’m not particularly good at this yet, but I can get better at this by asking people what they want to do.

Encouragement and celebration: “I’m in a sucky situation, but I’m working on it. I’m making slow progress, but I’m making progress!” “Woohoo! You can do it!” is sort of how this conversation goes. It’s like acknowledgement, but people are moving forward instead of getting stuck. I like cheering people on, and I might be able to do even better by helping people track their progress so that they can see how they’re doing over time.

Thinking out loud: I often find myself understanding things better when I explain them either to myself (through blogging) or to other people. Conversation is great for making sense of and making peace with things. People can ask questions to probe your reasoning and direct your thinking, helping you deepen your understanding.

Active listening and thoughtful questions can help. For my part, I can see it as a way to learn from other people’s lives and thought processes, so there’s a lot of benefit in doing this too. Learning about therapy might help here.

Poking holes (rarely): “I’m going to …” “That might not work because of …. Have you thought about …? What about …?” It’s mind-boggling how many people have this as their default reaction, actually – probably second to advice. My parents used to struggle with this a lot, because my dad would come up with wild ideas and my mom would immediately have her “How would we make this actually work?” hat on. I hardly ever do this with other people, although I do this myself to test scenarios: come up with ideas, then put on the “What could go wrong?” hat and poke holes, then update the plans to address those holes.

It’s probably better to assume people are not looking for this unless they explicitly ask for it. If people do want this, I like approaching it from a “Let’s make the plan better” perspective rather than the “You suck at planning” perspective.

Accountability: It can be easier to take action or change habits when you publicly commit to that, and having a friend follow up with you and keep you accountable can help a lot. I do okay with this, although I don’t actually enforce anything in case people miss their goals. (Perhaps I should start insisting on some kind of consequence – maybe ice cream.) Learning about coaching techniques might help here too.

Different perspectives: “I’m in this situation and I think you’ve been in something similar. How did you solve it?” is the gist of this conversation. Sometimes knowing that something is possible (because someone you can identify with succeeded at it!) is enough to give you the strength to get through the situation.

Requesting help: This is where you’re asking for help. Requesting specific favours do well, I think, because that makes it easier for other people to recognize situations in which they can help you. That’s why it’s good to describe your ideal client and ask friends to keep an eye out for people matching that description, describe your ideal contact and ask people to check their networks, etc.

I feel like my network is not as plugged-in as it could be in terms of business owners and potential clients for friends. I probably need to meet more people who need stuff! Hmm, actually, the input part works pretty well in terms of sketchnoting/graphic recording – I get the occasional request that I can forward to other people. In other areas, I can usually point people to other people who have experience in the kinds of things they want to do and the meetups to check out, so I guess that’s something. There’s room to work on this, though! Time to go to more events and connect with more people. Although come to think of it, that’s not actually the thing that worked for me in sketchnoting – maybe I’ll focus more on creating useful stuff, and go to a few events for serendipity.

Acknowledgement, distraction, encouragement, thinking out loud, poking holes, accountability, different perspectives, requesting help… What other purposes have you noticed when you talk to people about life’s challenges?

Monthly review: June 2014

July 15, 2014 - Categories: monthly, review

I wrote that in June, I’d like to:

E1: Yeah, big milestone! Now working on related changes. And testing things, of course; there’s always more to test.

Emacs Lisp beginner course: I haven’t created a full course, but I’ll probably convert the beginner course into a downloadable PDF, EPUB, and MOBI this month.

As planned, I took it easier this month. Here’s a subset of my time changes:

Activity Percent of time vs previous month
Family 5.10% +4.8h / week
Sleep 37.6% +4.4h / week
Learning 1.7% +2.7h / week
Reading fiction 1% +1.5h / week
Quantified Awesome 1.2% -1.8h / week
Business 17.1% -3.2h / week
Emacs 2.1% -6.7h / week

In July, I’d like to:

I’ve been rereading a lot about philosophy: Epictetus and Aristotle, mostly. This month, I’d like to dig into Emerson and Thoreau. Next week, probably what Bertrand Russell says about happiness and people. Hmm…

Blog posts

Designing Help and Support: Skype

July 16, 2014 - Categories: design

I’ve looked at Adobe and Apple, both of whom run their support communities on Jive. Here’s a look at Skype.

2014-07-02 14_35_54-English - Skype Community

Skype uses a typical forum layout (categories, forums, # of topics, # of replies, latest post) with extra widgets to highlight announcements, contributors, solutions, and blog posts.

2014-07-02 14_39_50-Windows (desktop client) - Skype Community

Forum pages list threads, number of views,  replies, and kudos. Sticky threads are labeled as “floated”. As with Apple, I’d probably link to relevant knowledgebase categories from here, to save people the navigation and to encourage them to explore.

2014-07-02 14_40_58-Welcome to the Skype Community - Skype Community

 

The forums include a link to this welcome post. It includes brief instructions and quick links.

2014-07-02 14_42_55-News and Announcements - Skype Community

The News and Announcements section is a list of blog posts with excerpts. The light blue line that separates each post practically disappears into the page background. I would probably make the author photos consistent-width, post titles more prominent (probably darker, larger, and flush left with the margin) so that they’re easier to scan, include a slightly longer excerpt, and maybe make the kudos icon less prominent. The bright green makes the kudos icon the most salient thing on the page.

By golly, I’m actually starting to develop opinions! =)

Quiet days

July 17, 2014 - Categories: experiment, reflection

I set aside Tuesdays and Thursdays for consulting. Fridays are for meetings and getting together with people. Saturdays are for spending time with my husband or having the rare party, and Sundays are for cooking and chores.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are discretionary time. I could spend those days working. My consulting clients would love to have more time, and there are all sorts of other things I could work on as well.

I’ve been making myself find good uses of that time on my own, though. Depending on the projects I’m focusing on, I might spend those days coding, drawing, reading, or writing. Lately, I’ve been working my way through a stack of philosophy books from the library. Histories give me overviews and show me the relationships between thinkers, while treatises give me the context for all these quotes that have been floating around.

Hmm. Maybe that’s what fascinates me about philosophy at the moment. I’ve picked up bits and pieces of wisdom through quotes and summaries. Now I want to learn more about the context of those sound bites and the thought processes behind them. I want to reflect on the maxims, choose the ones I want to apply to life, and learn how to observe and improve. At some point, I’ll probably feel that I can learn more from experience than from books, and then I’ll jump back into the fray. In the meantime, it’s amazing to be able to condense centuries of thought into afternoons of reading. Not that I fully understand everything, but there’s enough to spark awareness and recognition.

I’m not particularly interested in the big questions of metaphysics, epistemology, or logic. Ethics, maybe–small “e” ethics, not as much the Ethics of What Everyone Ought To Do. I want to get better at choosing what’s good for me and doing it. The ancient Greeks have a lot to say about that, and some of the later philosophers also do.

I’m not an entrepreneur, or at least not yet. I’m using this space and capital to improve myself (or at least theoretically improve myself) instead of building a business. I’m not even focused on learning a marketable skill that I can list on my résumé, although I’m sure my interests will turn towards that at some point. In the meantime, it feels good to lay the groundwork for more clarity and better decisions.

What’s the next step? Well, since I’m interested in applied philosophy, that probably means testing these ideas out in everyday life. On the personal side, there’s living simply and thoughtfully. On the social side, maybe practising more loving-kindness. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a pure philosopher, so I’ll likely use my time to learn, code, write, and draw. I wonder what I’ll be curious about after I build a good foundation in this area. Useful skills, perhaps? Design and aesthetics? Business? We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll give my mind enough space to unfold questions and learn from the notes that people have left for us.

Hacklab open houses and connecting through cooking

July 18, 2014 - Categories: connecting

I joined Hacklab (a small makerspace here in Toronto) early in 2013. I thought of it mostly as a way to meet people who are working on interesting projects, hang out, and learn together. It’s been working out well, and I’m gradually getting into helping the community more.

Hacklab hosts an open house every Tuesday evening. It’s a good opportunity for prospective members to check out the place and chat with people about their projects. We usually put together a vegan dinner donated by the person cooking it so that it’s free for the members and guests (although sometimes people pitch in for groceries). There’s no fixed schedule; people just volunteer to cook whenever they want. When I’m there, I often volunteer. I treat it as a vegan cooking lesson / soup kitchen / party. Sure, I’m teaching myself, but it’s still an excuse to try new recipes. I think the people there are worth supporting, and cooking is a much more efficient use of money than having people go out to dinner. Besides, other people often help with preparing the ingredients, and we can chat while doing so.

Here are some easy dishes that we can make with ingredients from nearby grocery stories:

I think I’ll make recipe cards with serving numbers and cost estimates. That will probably make it easier to come up with dinners on the fly, and it might encourage other people to cook too.

We’ve been slowly improving the Hacklab kitchen. The addition of pots, a rice cooker, and lots of cutlery helped a lot. (It was difficult to cook and serve before those things!) Last week, I replaced the rather ineffective and hadn’t-been-washed-in-ages kitchen towels with two sets I’d made from some fabric we had at home. I’ll add the towels to our weekly laundry cycle, so things actually get washed. Storage is still an issue. The fridge is used mostly for drinks, so we try to not have any left-over ingredients or servings.

I’m not currently working on super-geeky projects that involve other members or the equipment that’s there. (It would be interesting to do more with the laser cutter, 3D printers, or the new mill!) But cooking gives me a way to help other people, so that’s something.

I think I like this approach of taking responsibility for making Hacklab a little bit better for people. You get as much out of a community as you put in, and these little domestic touches can help make a place feel more like home. (I’m going to keep nudging people to put their dishes in the dishwasher, though! ;) )

So why does this feel easy compared to, say, having people over for a party or potluck at home? The kitchen at home is better-equipped, and both groceries and left-overs are easier to deal with. Maybe it’s because I can decide whether or not to go to Hacklab on the day itself. I can leave whenever I want, too. There are usually lots of people at Hacklab and they’re good at keeping themselves occupied or talking to each other, so I don’t have to worry about any awkward moments or entertaining just one person. There are lots of things going on in the area, so people can always step out for a different meal or take a breather in case there aren’t any seats or in case things are overwhelming. Hmm, maybe if I invite people to catch up at these open houses instead of waiting until I work up to having parties at home… Not everyone all at once, maybe one or two invitations at a time. Hacklab’s a bit loud, but we could always go for a walk if needed. That might work. Who knows? They might meet interesting people there too.

Weekly review: Week ending July 18, 2014

July 20, 2014 - Categories: review, weekly

Lots and lots and lots of reading last week. Yay! Also, more talking to people. This week: meetings, another Emacs Chat episode, and more.

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

Planning my next little business

July 21, 2014 - Categories: business, entrepreneurship, experiment

I’ve been holding back from experimenting with new businesses. I’m not sure how the next few months are going to be like, and I don’t want to make commitments like sketchnote event bookings or additional freelance contracts. Besides, focusing on my own stuff has been an interesting experiment so far, and I want to continue it.

Still, from time to time, I get the itch to build systems and processes for creating value for other people. For example, when I talk to people who are struggling to find jobs or having a hard time building freelance businesses, I want to support and encourage them by helping them see opportunities. Talking about stuff can feel a bit empty, but actually doing stuff–and showing how to do it–is more helpful, especially since I seem to be more comfortable with sales, marketing, and business experimentation than many people are.

So, depending on how these next few months turn out, what are the kinds of businesses that I’d like to build?

Let me take a step back here and break that out into the specific characteristics I like. If I identify those characteristics, I might be able to recognize or imagine other businesses along those lines. What attracts me?

Writing fits these characteristics pretty well. If I can help friends through process coaching and things like that, I can learn more about things that other people might find useful too. It’s entirely possible to build good stuff around just this learn-share-scale cycle. Anything else (spin-off businesses? software? services) would be a bonus.

I have a little more uncertainty to deal with. I can see the timeline for it, so I’m okay with giving myself permission to take it easy for the next couple of months. After that, I’ll probably have a clearer idea of what the rest of this experiment with semi-retirement (and other follow-up experiments! =) ) could be like.

What would more focused writing or content creation look like? I might:

I think that would be an interesting life. =)

I still want to do something to help all these awesome people I come across who are having a hard time finding jobs or building businesses for themselves, though. It’s odd hearing about their struggles while at the same time watching the stock market keep going up – businesses seem to be doing okay, but it’s not trickling down? Maybe I’ll spend more time listening to people and asking what could help. Maybe I can spend some time connecting with business owners and seeing if I can understand their needs, too. Knowledge, ideas, and encouragement are easy, but there are probably even better ways to help. Hmm… That gives me a focus for networking at events. Looking forward to helping!

Learning from things I like: Books about applying advice to your life

July 22, 2014 - Categories: writing

I’m fascinated by books about applying advice to your life. “Stunt memoir” seems to be the phrase for it – or gimmick book, or schtick lit. (This post lists lots of examples.) Part self-help book and part memoir, these are usually broken up into one chapter per principle, applying research or time-tested ideas to everyday life. Book titles are often long multi-parters where the second part refers to the adventure or lists an incongruous combination of techniques. The authors illustrate principles with struggles, successes, and epiphanies, and then eventually make their peace with the advice. Oddly enough, chapters tend to fit rather neatly into the usual three-act story structure – the storyteller’s craft at work.

A year seems to be a common size for these experiments, often divided into one principle per month: long enough to test ideas and write a decent-sized book for print. I think that one principle a month looks manageable for readers, too: not so short that you won’t see changes, and not so long that you’d get bored or discouraged.

Here are some examples:

I imagine that writing such a book is good for self-improvement even if no one else ever buys or reads it, so any sales are a bonus. I wonder what the process of writing that kind of a book is like: how to organize notes into a narrative, how to push yourself beyond what’s easy.

There are lots of experiments I could run along those lines:

Still, I want to be careful about the kinds of things that have rubbed me and other people the wrong way A month is not that long, and sometimes these books feel a little… shallow? Like someone’s going through the Cliff Notes for a deep idea, trying out a few things, and then calling it a day. As if someone’s just going through a checklist, crossing off different techniques. There’s also that consciousness of privilege, and the self-absorption of memoirs. That said, I write about my reflections a lot on this blog, so… maybe? I tend to think of it more as “Ack, there’s so much I still have to figure out; if I post my notes, maybe someone will take pity on me and share their insights (or possibly recognize something that they might find useful in theirs)” rather than “Here, learn from my life.”

So… I don’t know. On one hand, I like the “I’m figuring this out too” approach compared to the didactic awesomer-than-thou feel of many self-help books. On the other hand, I’m not keen on the “My life is incomplete and unhappy; I must search outside for ways to make it better.”

What’s at the core of the things I like about these kinds of books?

Maybe less stunt-ish, then? I’m not thinking of these as radical changes to my life (“Oh, I only have to do this a month at a time, for a year”), but more like gradual improvement. I can always try things informally, and then stitch the essays together into a book. It might not be as impressive as spending one contiguous year focused on something, packaging this up for other people’s entertainment and perhaps inspiration, but we’ll see where it goes. =)

Becoming the sort of person I want to be

July 23, 2014 - Categories: analysis, issues, life

There are three major shifts that I’m struggling with:

Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth making these changes. Maybe I should just go with how I bend, building on strengths instead of fiddling with weaknesses. If I follow that principle, I might instead:

The first set of paths seems harder than the second, but will it work out for me better? Taking the easy way still leads to lots of interesting possibilities and less wasted energy. On the other hand, trying difficult things can expand my confidence and help me challenge artificial limits. Also, I tend to over-estimate how difficult things are, and I tend to be more adaptable than I expect. So if the first set of changes is better for me (based on the reasons given by philosophers and learned from other people’s lives), it might make sense to give those a good try–at least for a number of years.

Let me take a closer look at each of those shifts to see if I can puzzle out what I’m struggling with and how to transform that.

Becoming a person who can tolerate more pain in order to achieve certain goals, such as fitness

I still feel anxious at the prospect of combined pain and stress, like the way I seized up after spraining my ankle in a krav maga class. On the other hand, I feel okay with the slight discomfort of the gentle running program that W- is helping me with and the Hacker’s Diet exercise ladder I’m doing. I’ve dealt with some pain along the way to working on other things. Most things are not supposed to hurt a lot (otherwise you’re doing it wrong), but a little wobbliness is understandable.

Taking the long view helps. I remind myself that pain has so far been temporary and that memory is thankfully fuzzy about stuff like that. Gradually, as my strength and tolerance improves, I should be able to take on more and more.

Becoming a person who can easily enjoy people’s company and appreciate what’s interesting about them

I’m okay with people. I like them as an abstract idea, and I get along with people online and in real life. I probably just have to get out more, ask more questions, share a little more of myself in conversation, and become more comfortable with having people over.

Becoming a person who can make longer-term commitments, trusting that things will work out

Seeing the difficulty that people have in transferring leadership roles and knowing my own inconstancy of interests, I hesitate to take on longer-term commitments or bigger roles. Maybe this is something I can learn, though. I’m surrounded by opportunities and role models, so it’s as good a time as any to pick this up. For some of the bigger decisions, I find it helpful to learn from other people who have dealt with similar things before.

What would be some triggers for switching strategy and following what’s more natural for me? If I’m not making any progress or if I notice myself being consistently unhappy, that might be a good sign that I need to reconsider my plans. In the meantime, I’m making very slow progress, but it does seem to get easier and less scary each time I try this.

Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization

July 24, 2014 - Categories: decision, productivity

“What tools should I buy?” “What platform do I start with?” “What’s the best option out there?” Geeks have a special case of analysis paralysis at the beginning of things. We try to optimize that first step, and instead end up never getting started.

Here’s what I’m learning: In the beginning, you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the sophisticated differences between tools. Don’t bother spending hours or days or weeks picking the perfect tool for you. Sure, you can do a little bit of research, but then pick one and learn with that first. If you run into the limits, that’s when you can think about upgrading.

Start with something simple and inexpensive (or even free). If you wear it out or if you run into things you just can’t do with it and that are worth the additional expense, then decide if you want to get something better. I do this with:

Don’t worry about what the “best” is until you figure out what your actual needs are.

There are situations in which the cheapest or the simplest might not be the best place to start. You can easily get frustrated if something is not well-designed, and some inferior tools like dull kitchen knives are dangerous. That’s a sign that you’ve run into your choice’s limits and can therefore upgrade without worry. Yes, it might waste a little money and time, but you’ll probably waste even more time if you procrastinate choosing (more research! more!) and waste more money if you always buy things that have more capacity than you ultimately need. You can tweak how you make that initial decision–maybe always consider the second-from-the-bottom or something like that–but the important part is getting out there and learning.

Emacs Chat: Harry R. Schwartz

July 24, 2014 - Categories: Emacs Chat

We talk about Emacs NYC, organizing your configuration, pair programming and more.

TRANSCRIPT HERE!

Learning from frugal lives of years past

July 25, 2014 - Categories: experiment, finance

I’ve been reading a lot about early frugal living. I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and I followed a link in a blog post to Ralph Borsodi’s This Ugly Civilization (1929) and thence to his Flight from the City (1933, during the Great Depression – particularly poignant bits in the chapter on security versus insecurity). Both authors provided detailed breakdowns of their expenses and descriptions of their methods, fleshing out philosophies of simple living. There’s much that I don’t agree with, but there are also many ideas that I recognize and can learn even more from. I’d probably get along with the authors, and their mental voices will be handy to keep in my mind. I found both of them somewhat more relatable than Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essays, but I’m sure Emerson will yield additional insights on re-reading.

Both Thoreau and Borsodi emphasized the freedom you get (or keep!) by minimizing your wants. Thoreau wrote, “… for my greatest skill has been to want but little.” Borsodi points out the artificiality of many desires as products of a factory-oriented culture that must have people buy the things that factories produce. By questioning your wants and becoming as self-sufficient as you can be, you free yourself from the restrictions many other people have. In a way, it’s a follow-up from what I’m learning from Epictetus. I like how the Greeks tend to be more about living in society instead of going away from it, though.

Homesteading is a big thing for both Thoreau and Borsodi. I’m not particularly curious about exploring homesteading at the moment. City bylaws ban keeping chickens, and I still struggle with garden productivity. The city is all I know so far. W- and J- both have reasons to be here. Besides, the Toronto Public Library system and a decent, reliable connection to Internet are doing amazing things for my learning at the moment. Perhaps someday, but not now. In the meantime, despite Borsodi’s disdain for the stock market, I like the fact that it’s doing well. The gains are much less than Virginia Woolf’s five hundred a year (about US$45,000 these days; mentioned in A Room of One’s Own), but I don’t need that much to live well, anyway. Still, I’m going to keep working on some skills for independent living (cooking, sewing, repairing, making, etc.), since I can do that wherever I am.

Onward!

Weekly review: Week ending July 25, 2014

July 27, 2014 - Categories: review, weekly

I’ve been going to more of these small get-togethers. I finally got around to hosting one here, too! I’m curious about this process of getting to know people better. I think I’m now more comfortable with conversation than I used to be, particularly if I preempt the “What do you do?” question by asking “What are you interested in?” This often leads to conversations about cooking, gardening, philosophy, and so on.

I used to feel slightly odd about small talk as something that didn’t really move forward–slight variations on a theme, again and again. Something is changing. Maybe I’m becoming more patient? Better at appreciating the little things? Worth reflecting on.

In other news, I made Japanese curry from scratch today, following this recipe. Mm! I’ve been making progress in terms of runinng and exercise too.

My consulting client needs some extra help over the next month or two, so I might nudge the balance a little more towards work. I want to keep writing, exercising, cooking, reading, and spending time with people, so I’ll probably try ~21 hours, but not ~40. Last week was about 25.5 hours and I felt like my brain was a bit fuzzy. Reading and writing feel like they expand my time; biking, too. Less time reading blogs, then. Time to tweak things…

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

On Aristotle and talking to people about troubles

July 28, 2014 - Categories: connecting

After reflecting on how I’d like to respond to people who want to talk about their challenges and how I want to discuss mine, I’ve been thinking a little bit more about the approaches that I favour and why.

Despite my faith in friends and availability of support groups or forums for pretty much any situation one can find yourself in, I tend to work through things independently. Sometimes I talk to W-. Even then, it’s often retrospective: “I worked through this-and-this dilemma. This is the decision I’ve come to because of these reasons, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in case I missed something.” I’d rather talk to people about the good stuff.

When it comes to other people talking to me about stuff they’re going through, I assume they’re smart and have tried things, so I ask questions about the obstacles they’ve run into. I like focusing on getting over barriers because this is one thing that other people can actually help with. You might get stuck on something because you don’t know where to start, don’t have the skills or experience for it, or because it intimidates you. Other people might be able to map out an easier way for you, directly help you (hooray for comparative advantage), or share how it’s really not that scary if you focus on doing X, Y, and Z.

While reading D.P. Chase’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I came across this passage on what to share with your friends when you’re going through challenges:

But [friends’] presence has probably a mixed effect: I mean, not only is the very seeing friends pleasant, especially to one in misfortune, and actual help towards lessening the grief is afforded (the natural tendency of a friend, if he is gifted with tact, being to comfort by look and word, because he is well acquainted with the sufferer’s temper and disposition and therefore knows what things give him pleasure and pain), but also the perceiving a friend to be grieved at his misfortunes causes the sufferer pain, because every one avoids being cause of pain to his friends. And for this reason they who are of a manly nature are cautious not to implicate their friends in their pain; and unless a man is exceedingly callous to the pain of others he cannot bear the pain which is thus caused to his friends: in short, he does not admit men to wail with him, not being given to wail at all: women, it is true, and men who resemble women, like to have others to groan with them, and love such as friends and sympathisers. But it is plain that it is our duty in all things to imitate the highest character.

So if you’re sad, it can help to have company in your sadness, but that might cause your friends to feel sad as well. Be strong, if you can.

It would seem, therefore, that we ought to call in friends readily on occasion of good fortune, because it is noble to be ready to do good to others: but on occasion of bad fortune, we should do so with reluctance; for we should as little as possible make others share in our ills; on which principle goes the saying, “I am unfortunate, let that suffice.” The most proper occasion for calling them in is when with small trouble or annoyance to themselves they can be of very great use to the person who needs them.

That’s probably going to be my approach to getting by with a little help from my friends: to figure out, perhaps, if there are small things people can do that could have a big impact, and to focus on those instead of on commiseration. As for when people approach me, or when I notice friends in difficult situations, I will try to keep this in mind:

But, on the contrary, it is fitting perhaps to go to one’s friends in their misfortunes unasked and with alacrity (because kindness is the friend’s office and specially towards those who are in need and who do not demand it as a right, this being more creditable and more pleasant to both); and on occasion of their good fortune to go readily, if we can forward it in any way (because men need their friends for this likewise), but to be backward in sharing it, any great eagerness to receive advantage not being creditable.

… to see the opportunity to be kind, where kindness might be cooking a good meal, giving a person a hug, or helping out in ways that take advantage of our different skills and experiences.

What’s in your handbook?

July 29, 2014 - Categories: reflection

Ancient philosophy was designed to be memorized, so that it could be “at hand” when we are confronted with tumultuous situations like the one Stockdale found himself in. … The students wrote these maxims down in their handbook, memorized them, repeated them to themselves, and carried them around–that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand.”

Philosophy for Life and other Dangerous Situations, Jules Evans (2013) – p116

Oh! Hence handbook – something small that you carry with you to guide your actions or remember principles when the craziness of life messes up your mind. This got me thinking about what might be the beginnings of my handbook: the little ideas that run through my life. Here are some.

Ask me again in five years and I’ll probably have added a few more. What’s in your handbook?

Teaching myself to prefer what’s good for me

July 30, 2014 - Categories: kaizen

One of the ideas I’m mulling over from this study of ancient Greek philosophy is this: Instead of using willpower to get through things you don’t like, you can learn to appreciate the things that are good for you or gradually move up through activities that you enjoy and that are a little better for you than what you were doing before.

I’ve been trying this idea in terms of exercise. Having decided that I would be the type of person who exercises, I’ve been keeping up this habit for a little over a month. I usually run with W-. He treats those sessions as recovery runs (he’s much fitter than I am and can run circles around me), and I treat them as “extra time with W- and an occasion for smugness.” I’m not yet at the point of experiencing the runner’s high, but I do feel somewhat pleased by this ability to keep up with the heart rate thresholds that should help me build up endurance. I’ve even gone for runs on my own, propelled by growing custom and the knowledge that I’m going to be able to celebrate whatever progress I’m making. Gradual progress through the Hacker’s Diet exercise ladder is fun, too.

In terms of food, I’m finally beginning to appreciate the sourness of yogurt, the peppery taste of radishes, and other things I’m still not particularly fond of but can deal with.

As for substitution, keeping a range of nonfiction books in the house means I’m less inclined to spend time playing video games. Latin and Japanese flashcards on my phone mean less time reading fiction. A file full of writing ideas means less time spent browsing the Web.

We change a little at a time. It’s good to pay attention to your changing tastes, and to influence them towards what’s good for you. Sometimes you can kick it off with a little bribery or willpower, if you use that temporary space to look for more things to appreciate. Sometimes you can encourage yourself by making better activities more convenient. Good to keep growing!

Stoic impressions: Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down

July 31, 2014 - Categories: philosophy

I’m with the Stoics rather than the Aristotelians on this one (or at least based on how I understand things): all you need for a good life is you. I’m not wise enough to know whether that’s true, but I think that it’s better for me to live as if that’s the case instead of thinking that happiness can be that much influenced by luck and external events. Challenge accepted!

I’m starting to understand what I’d like to aspire to be when I’ve infused whatever wisdom I can get from philosophy into my reflexive responses to life’s situations. I’m not trying to get through life completely unruffled and serene. Stuff happens. I get sad. I get excited. I get scared. I get delighted. I react to the world around me.

At the same time, I like this ability to step outside of these impressions. I can see myself even as I laugh or cry, working on separating the facts from what I think about them. I can enjoy the ups and downs and yet not get carried away by them. I can be happy that something I cooked turned out well and that people liked it; and I can know that in the grand scheme of things, it’s insignificant (but worth doing anyway). I can be scared about the possible downsides of something I’m going to try anyway; and I can know that in the grand scheme of things, it’s insignificant (but worth doing anyway). Something can happen, and I know that I could respond to it in many different ways.

Whatever life throws at me, I can choose to respond and not just react. Sure, the first few moments might be more instinctive–pain hurts, joy elates, sometimes I say the wrong thing–but what happens after that is up to me.

I’d like to avoid getting carried away by stuff, the way people get consumed by grudges or misled by temptations. I think that’s what the Stoics meant in their focus on ridding themselves of passions–not “passion” in the modern sense of “things I feel awesome about and enjoy doing,” but rather the kind of “passion” that takes over your reason and leads to suffering.

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I guess I’d like to be like a roly-poly toy, like the egg-shaped Weebles of the slogan “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” Then the Stoic idea of a passion might be wobbling so much and not quite being the shape that you need to be to bounce back, ending up so far off your center of mass that you stay down (or at least until other people help you get back up, because really, sometimes people do get wobbled more than they can handle, and that’s an opportunity for other people to help out).

So far, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. It’s been easy to return to normal from the little things I’ve come across so far. You know how some video games are designed to gradually help you learn different skills and others throw you in the deep end? So far my life has been like the former. When things come, they’re within my range and I have the support structure that makes them easier to deal with. So I guess that’s like I’m playing a game where you get just enough wobbling so that you can correct your mass distribution or egg-shaped profile in order to wobble back better.

Which is sort of Stoicism, I think. Stoicism helps with adjusting so that you can deal with bigger and bigger wobbles if you need to. Stoicism reminds you that you are not the wobble that pushes you. You don’t control the wobble, so why bother stressing out about it? You can get better at bouncing back. You can work on becoming the weebliest Weeble.

I sometimes hear from people who are playing a much harder game, where they have to deal with pretty darn big wobbles before they’ve been able to sort things out. I’m not sure I have that much to offer. Newbie tips aren’t as useful for people stuck playing life on the “hardcore” setting, I guess! I can say that I’m working on being a better roly-poly toy and that it seems to be working out so far, but I definitely haven’t wobbled as much as other people have. But maybe reflections from someone living an easier version of the game can help people think about little aspects of their own games, either from the actual thoughts or even just the process itself.

One of the thoughts that helps me is this: wobbling’s what makes Weebles Weebles. So as much as I’m sure people wish for care-free lives, I’m okay with there being some wobbling in mine. I might not actively seek out really wobbly situations, but if they’re there, they’re there, and they can help me be better. Eventually, perhaps, experience will let me bounce back quickly from minor disturbances (or even ignore them entirely); and more and more things will seem minor, too.

In the meantime, wobbling away!