Category Archives: communication

Notes from helping with physics

J-‘s final exams were last week. We’d been helping her review physics, since she was okay with her other subjects. She solved many of the review questions on her own, and then asked us for help with the ones she didn’t know how to do. I was surprised to discover that I remembered enough of kinematics and other topics to be helpful (and to enjoy helping). Yay! =)

We walked her through solving the problems that stumped her. Lots of math and science problem solving is about pattern recognition: seeing how the problem you’re working on is similar to other things you’ve already done (possibly with help), and adapting your experience to the current situation. Having someone sketch out a map and provide quick feedback can make studying a much more productive and less frustrating experience.

Here are some notes on the sub-skills involved:

2015-06-15b Notes from helping with physics -- index card #physics #math #tutoring #j- #family #science #teaching #school

2015-06-15b Notes from helping with physics – index card #physics #math #tutoring #j- #family #science #teaching #school

Algebra’s a big one. I’m not sure how you can develop fluency in that aside from practice and different ways of exploring it. Practising this seems pretty low on the priority list once homework’s finished and even lower priority during vacations. On the other hand, it’s hard to cram understanding when the pressure’s on. I think either John Mighton’s The End of Ignorance or The Myth of Ability had some tips on helping people develop a more intuitive understanding of algebra.

On a related note, there’s also the challenge of translating a word problem into the appropriate math, especially when multiple parts or equations are involved. Maybe we can think out loud more often, modeling the real-world applications of this skill.

There are the usual small mistakes related to doublechecking one’s work or getting the units straight, but she’ll get the hang of that.

J- will be taking more physics, chemistry, and biology next term, so it might be good to do a bit of this review during the summer. In general, I get the impression that she’s doing pretty well, especially compared with the rest of her class.

What kind of tribe do I want to build around Quantified Self in Toronto?

Attendance at the Quantified Self Toronto meetup has been low lately, and it’s a good time to think about revitalizing or even redesigning the community.

2015-05-11f Thinking about Quantified Self Toronto turnover -- index card #quantified #meetup

2015-05-11f Thinking about Quantified Self Toronto turnover – index card #quantified #meetup

The way it is now works okay for newcomers. I imagine the experience for newcomers is mostly like: Wow, I’m not alone! I’m not weird! There are other people who track stuff! (I know, I get that feeling each time I go too. =) ) If they work up the courage to share what they’ve been learning, they often pick up plenty of tips and ideas, and they can connect with other people tracking similar things.

From regulars, it’s great to hear updates or find out about other things they’re tracking.

The talks do tend to be a little repetitive. Often it’s about people sharing data collected using apps or devices with predefined visualizations, and the occasional self-promotional bit. Sometimes we get new analyses or unconventional experiments, and those are the kinds of talks I enjoy the most.

The repetition is understandable – good, even. I think that’s mostly because each person has to go through an individual journey. Even if two people present the same topic and have similar conclusions, it’s good to recognize each of their experiences.

Still, it might be interesting to think about how we can increase the value for regulars and long-time trackers…

Mmm. If I could selfishly redesign this community to be even better-suited to my interests, what would it be like?

I go to Quantified Self Toronto meetups because I like the kind of people who use data to make better decisions about their lives. I particularly like it when someone’s curious about something off the beaten track, whether they’re collecting data on paper or they’ve built their own tools. Experimental manipulation is also interesting for me. I also like having the occasional nudge to design, conduct, and report on my little experiments. I’ve talked about a lot of odd things over the years (like cat litter box use, and more recently, sewing), and I like resonating with people in an unexpected way.

If I were to tilt Quantified Self Toronto to be something more personally useful for me, I might focus on:

  • Getting more people to the point of being able to explore and analyze their own data instead of relying on apps
    • Learning to notice when you’re confused, and thinking of ways to explore that uncertainty
    • Tracking on paper
    • Analyzing with spreadsheets and graphs
  • Connecting with other toolmakers so that we can bounce ideas around
  • Developing my own skills in data collection, analysis, and visualization
    • Android programming or scripting?
    • Electronics?
    • R?
  • Trying out other people’s experiments so that I can share my experiences and notes with them
  • Researching unconventional experiments/measurements using and similar blogs, and drawing inspiration from those

At the Quantified Self Conference I went to in 2012, I gravitated towards people who tracked their own questions or even built their own tools. I don’t expect the majority of Quantified Self Toronto to be creatively technical, but it might be interesting to attract and retain a core of people like that. What would make 2-3 hours worth it for them, and what would make it more worthwhile for me? Alternatively, what are other ways I could build that kind of tribe? I think education, inspiration, and shared experiments might be interesting to play with. Hmm… The same combination could help encourage newcomers to develop along those lines, too. Might be worth looking into.

What I’m learning about small talk

After RJ’s recent party, I realized that my perception of and approach to small talk had shifted quite a bit from what it was a few years ago. In the past, I used to feel annoyed with how small talk conversations tend to cover the same ground repeatedly (“So, what do you do?”) and how they didn’t often result in follow-up actions or connections. Now I see small talk as a way to explore and appreciate other people’s stories (especially since few people blog) and discover which aspects of myself might resonate with other people (and vice versa). It’s also a lot of fun to play with the mental models that other people build up, which is why I’ve been experimenting with introducing myself as a housewife and then letting the conversations bring out other weird aspects. ;)

2015-04-19f Small talk shifts -- index card #small-talk #growth

2015-04-19f Small talk shifts – index card #small-talk #growth

It’s also fun building up little chains of stories with the kinds of hooks that make people say, “Wait, what?” Some examples of things that are incongruous or that provoke curiosity: semi-retirement, step-parenting a 17-year-old, combining laser-cutting and sewing, disassembling a washer/dryer, wearing a vest with an unusual number of pockets.

Weirdness is useful. Ideally, this weirdness brings out disclosures of other people’s weirdness, or prompts them to connect me with someone else they know, or demystifies something and encourages them to explore it. As for me, I like finding out if someone is the kind of person I might want to get to know further – perhaps collaborate with or mentally model. I look for people with shared values, interesting experiments, and a sense of growth.

2015-04-19e Different worldviews -- index card #small-talk

2015-04-19e Different worldviews – index card #small-talk

Experiments are good because we learn from the divergences. That said, sometimes I can be too weird – when something I do or something I experiment with is just too far from someone’s worldview to relate to or understand. For example, sometimes I talk to people who just don’t get Stoicism, simple living, homebody-ness, tech customization (especially Emacs), quantified/experimental thinking, or blogging.

That’s cool. I don’t need other people to validate me and I don’t need to convert other people to my perspective, so it’s really more of an opportunity to explore.

When people ask questions about one of my experiments, I’ve been leaving it up to them to drive the conversation since I’m happy to answer questions. Sometimes these end up in unproductive loops. It occurred to me that it might be fun to take a more sociological/anthropological approach to this: to deliberately explore other people’s perspectives and dig into why they think the way they do, possibly from the position that I make perfect sense to myself and it’s other people who are odd and deserving of study. ;)

2015-04-19d On talking to non-Stoics about preferences and value judgments -- index card #stoicism

2015-04-19d On talking to non-Stoics about preferences and value judgments – index card #stoicism

Here’s a more detailed example. I talk about value judgments surprisingly often because people often press for information on whether I’d like to have kids, which I suppose is a standard small-talk question for women around this age. Harumph. They usually have strong opinions one way or the other. This is one of the things that I’m careful to not have strong value judgments around or be attached to specific outcomes for. Sometimes I use this as an opportunity to prod people to be more considerate about things by considering a wider range of scenarios. Sometimes I frame my response in terms of being happy either way. It’s pretty rare to find people for whom this position makes sense. Many people are quite boggled by it. But I talk about equanimity anyway in case that resonates with someone who’s been looking for that concept, and even if it doesn’t sink in, I can rest in the knowledge that it makes sense to me.

On the other hand, my favourite kinds of conversations are with people who have deliberately cultivated their own differences from the mainstream and who can reflect on those experiments. Then our conversations become a high-bandwidth sort of brainstorming and swapping of notes. =) We might be doing different experiments, but we can understand and learn from each other’s perspectives.

So, small talk. It’s an opportunity to discover interesting things about people (captured in quick notes after the party, because who knows), play with sharing aspects of myself and messing up people’s mental models, and learn more about things I do differently. Even when I’m talking to people who find it difficult to understand external perspectives or whose conversational skills are somewhat impaired by alcohol, I can pick up useful information about other people and myself. As I meet more interesting people and as those people grow through their own experiences, I trust that small talk will become even more fun. =)

Experimenting with spending more time at Hacklab

This week I experimented with making Hacklab my default location. I biked there on Monday and Tuesday because the weather was good, and I took the subway on Friday because I wasn’t sure about the forecast for rain.

On Monday, I laser-cut pieces for the simple tops that I’ve been sewing. I’ve been skipping the pleat, since it doesn’t make any difference to the fit of the garment and skipping it makes the top easier and faster to sew. The pattern fits the laser cutter if I cut it on a fold, and I can cut registration marks on a sheet of paper to make aligning that fold easier. I cut the pieces for one top out of the peach broadcloth that I’d salvaged from my box cushion prototype. (Waste not, want not!) I cut the pieces for another top from a black gingham check that I wanted to experiment with, since it’s supposed to be one of this season’s trendy patterns. I was delighted to find that the laser-cut pieces actually matched up – not just in terms of the notches (which I can take credit for), but even in terms of the pattern. (Probably more coincidence than skill.)

I didn’t pay attention to the direction of the gingham check because I assumed the stripes were the same visual weight. It turns out one direction is a bit heavier than the other, so now my shirt has horizontal stripes when it looks like most of the commercial gingham shirts I’ve seen had dominant stripes (if any) running vertically… Ah well! I cut bias strips and wrappers for another experiment out of my excess yardage, so I don’t think I have quite enough left to make a new shirt. I’ll finish and wear what I have. If I decide it’s worth doing another gingham thing, I might be able to get half a yard and do another one.

On Tuesday, I came early so that I could get some bread dough rising while I went for a massage. (Knead and be kneaded?) That worked out well, and we had some lovely crusty bread for the open house dinner. Eric and I also checked out this community garden in the neighbourhood. Our chances of getting a plot are probably pretty low (long waiting lists), but apparently they have a small herb area that could use more volunteers, so we might give that a try. Alternatively, Alex says it’s okay for us to set out planters in the back, and he even has an automated watering system. It would be great to grow lots of basil and other herbs for cooking.

Today I went to Hacklab to talk to a friend. Since I was in the area anyway, I also took the opportunity to pick up some bamboo fabric from Designer Fabrics so that I can look into making a pair of yoga pants.

I wanted to laser-cut the bias strips for the gingham check. I thought about using the 10″ square continuous method, but I settled for making long bias strips instead so that I could fit an extra square in there for another project I’m working on. While I was sorting that out, Alex came in with a MIDI keyboard, a laptop, and a projector. He proceeded to set it up to project the keyboard training program onto the keyboard itself, which was really nifty. We had fun playing around with different pieces.

Mmm. I like this. Going to Hacklab nudges me a little more towards making stuff and talking to people, I think. Let me see what next week is like. On the flipside, it means less time at home and less time preparing meals, but if I leave Hacklab earlier and I plan what to cook, I can probably still have that in place by the time everyone’s ready for dinner.

On another note, Designer Fabrics didn’t have any polyurethane laminate (PUL – waterproof, breathable, washable in hot water; often used for diapers, but good for general waterproofing and even making food-safe lunch bags and other containers). Fabricland has some, but it’s a bit pricy at $33/m. It seems people tend to order that online, so I might give online shopping a try.

To never need to be needed

I’m feeling a little under the weather at the moment. There will probably be a number of fuzzy days like this in the near future, but I get the feeling that this is not my normal state. If I reflect on who I was several years ago, I think that my normal state has been slowly, slowly moving towards the kind of foundation I described in “Starting from a small life“: self-care and close relationships. That’s there, most days, and so I’ve been starting to think of growing a little further outwards, becoming a bit more involved in the community. That’s why I’ve been thinking about what I can do to support friends. If I have energy and attention beyond what’s needed to improve our household’s quality of life to a reasonable point, I can look into helping and getting to know other people around me.

Fortunately, people around me tend to be geeks who don’t mind when I reach for awkwardly technical phrases like “explicitly negotiated communication protocols” (the phrase “talking about talking” doesn’t quite fit). I enjoy exploring questions, perspectives, and ideas. I tend to combine pessimistic planning with optimistic belief in people and a large dose of loving-kindness and acceptance. It’s not always easy – sometimes I catch myself wishing away the challenges that other people face – but I learn a lot.

Now that I’ve been reaching out to other people, more, I’ve started noticing this strange little quirk. I want to explore it in writing so that I can point to it and see it more clearly, and maybe I can learn from other people’s experiences along the way too.

2015-04-08e On keeping the bigger picture in mind -- index card #connecting #support #ego

2015-04-08e On keeping the bigger picture in mind – index card #connecting #support #ego

Sometimes, after I’ve shared a reflection, I find myself hoping for an equally thoughtful response: another disclosure, another follow-up question, another exploration. I understand why part of me feels that way. It’s part curiosity, part (still!) that slight orientation towards recognition, towards knowing what things are useful.

But I can also see a freer part of me that thinks and reflects and shares without needing reciprocal gifts, and this is the part that I want to encourage in myself. This is the part that is indifferent to being needed, that celebrates when people have found their own stillness for reflection or their own strength to stand.

Even writing about this is something I might distrust a little. I might be writing this mostly for my understanding and long-term memory (having learned the hard way that private notes tend to disappear), but receiving a comment or an e-mail or a blog conversation feels good because of that moment of resonance with someone else.

Still – loving-kindness and acceptance, especially towards myself. It’s okay if I want that moment of shared humanity, that resonant thrum of thoughts in sync. And it’s also okay if I make it a gift, to let the people I want to support choose how much support and when and in what way.

To never need to be needed, but to share life out of generosity – I think that’s one of the freedoms I want to cultivate. Hmm…

What can I do to support friends?

An analogy: I remember reading that in the job market, good talent is hard to find. The people who are amazing are often already working for companies that make an effort to keep them happy. If something makes them dissatisfied, they have networks of people who have been trying to recruit them for years. So, when the opportunity to connect with, help out, or hire an amazing person comes up, you should take advantage of it.

I think good people might be like that too. I suspect there are way more good people than are on my radar, like the way that someone may not be a good fit for what you’e looking for but amazing for something else. Still, there are people whom I find it easy to resonate with. They rarely need help, so it’s good to be able to help them when they need it.

There are some things I need to keep in mind. Supporting people shouldn’t get in the way of my self-care or equanimity, or interfere with more important relationships. (No sense setting yourself on fire to keep someone else warm, as some communities on Reddit say.) I can help, but I may need to remind myself that I can’t take responsibility for other people’s problems. At best, I can help them with scaffolding to make it easier for them to develop their own solutions. And it can’t be always an outgoing flow, getting people past the negative stuff; I should see a future where they’re on their feet, exploring things that inspire and engage me. They shouldn’t become dependent on me, and I shouldn’t become accustomed to being needed or encourage that. So, if I can help while keeping healthy boundaries, I think we can make this work.

Based on past experience, the dangers and tripwires I should watch out for include:

  • Supporting people to the point of feeling like it’s a duty or that I’m getting drained
  • Letting detrimental behaviours slide (for example: research says venting turns out to be bad for you, and I don’t like listening to it anyway)
  • Dealing with potential transference
  • Figuring out what’s needed: non-judgmental support versus feedback

But if I take responsibility for managing my self-care and I work out good communication protocols, it might work out.

2015-03-28a Looking closely at helping friends -- index card #support #friendship

2015-03-28a Looking closely at helping friends – index card #support #friendship

I might even be able to use the Ben Franklin Effect in an unusual way. By helping people, I may grow to appreciate them more.

It’s good for me too. It means being able to respond to the pull of shared humanity, helping people past rough patches so that they can move on and learn more. Besides, my Evil Plans could benefit from strong bonds with good people, not that people are instrumental or that those evil plans are well-formed or anything. And it’s good to see people triumph.

So, what can I do to help people who are going through difficult times?

2015-03-20e Supporting friends in crises -- index card #support #friendship

2015-03-20e Supporting friends in crises – index card #support #friendship

  • Help them with basic needs: People often neglect their need for good food, rest, and social interaction. I can cook more and drop off frozen meals, or they can visit me and we can make a relaxing afternoon of it (especially if I can drag them out for a walk in the park too).
  • Give them hugs: Because people don’t get enough hugs, and brain chemistry can be a powerful thing.
  • Listen to them and play back what I hear: Lots of people aren’t as used to untangling thoughts on paper or on their computer, so it can help for them to talk through what’s on their mind. If I take notes, that makes it easier for them to reflect on things later.
  • Share reflections, experiences: Because sometimes it helps to hear about other approaches and considerations.
  • Sit with people or check in with them as they solve their own stuff: Good for people who know what they need to do, but who might appreciate an extra boost in motivation, enthusiasm, and progress-tracking.

2015-03-20f Sharing alternatives -- index card #support

2015-03-20f Sharing alternatives – index card #support

Hmm. I’ve given reflections and alternatives a lot of thought, so it may sometimes be helpful to share these processes, tools, and generative questions with other people in case they want them. Not solutions, but ways to come up with your own solutions. That might be handy.

2015-03-20g Dig your well before you're thirsty -- index card #support #relationships

2015-03-20g Dig your well before you’re thirsty – index card #support #relationships

Assuming most of my friends have gotten to where they are now with some form of self-care, and they’re geeky enough to take on the challenge of figuring out what they need and experimenting to find out what works well, I could probably just ask people what they need in terms of support, offering suggestions to get the ball rolling. It would be even better to get something like that in place before bigger challenges arise. (Me, I like hugs and sunshine, but I don’t like being pressed for details. I prefer to choose what to discuss and whom to discuss it with, and I tend to write instead of talk.)

A good way this could play out might be:

  • Help people take care of the basics so that they have a clear head for taking on their challenges
    • Cook extra and pack, then visit or receive guests
  • Establish protocol for calling attention to odd things in a non-judgmental way
  • Support the mindset that this is temporary, local, and impersonal; support self-compassionate approaches
  • Celebrate progress
  • Help people get back to the point of energy and joy

Do I have a kind approach for dealing with situations that need more from me than I can give? It’s a responsibility I should consider before offering support, because it could turn into an additional rejection. There have been situations when people wanted support but I wasn’t in the right place to give it, or the resonance wasn’t there.

  • I can fade out, which appears to be the common way to handle this
  • I can explain what I understand, which could lead to additional conflict/load/challenge but could also lead to clarification and change
  • I can discuss this protocol, which has some of the negative impact from the second approach but allows people to control how much they want to know

Hmm. I haven’t really tried the second or third approach before. They feel more truthful to me, although it will take some learning in order to do them well.

But if my goal is to be able to sustainably develop strong connections with good people who may (as all people do!) go through both tough and awesome times in their life, and since I will also go through both tough and awesome times in my life, I think that having this kind of communication about communication might be interesting.

At the end of the day, to have people you can trust implicitly, whom you know so well and are so used to thinking with that you can look at situations in your lives with many people’s eyes, and yet whom you can count on to not injure or sacrifice themselves because of something they think you think you want – who will push back if needed and find a better way, and who expect the same of you – I think that might be wonderful.