Category Archives: communication

House culture

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:

  • All those lectures about how you should be careful about what you let people know about you. Sure, most people are good, but it only takes one person to really screw up your day/life/whatever. And it gets worse on the Internet.
  • I skew towards happiness, rarely feel angry or sad, and am learning to apply philosophical principles to minimize weaknesses and negative emotions. There are a few things that make me anxious, but I tend to be more comfortable working on those things myself.
  • I’m not used to asking specific people for help. I can often piece things together from the Internet or research, and I’m more comfortable with writing rather than talking as a way of thinking things through. I feel like putting blog posts out there and being open to follow-up conversations (either online or in person) is a little less of an imposition compared to asking specific people about their opinions.

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.

Mental hacks for slower speech

When I’m excited, I say about 200 words per minute. The recommended rate for persuasive speech is in the range of 140-160wpm, although studies differ on whether faster speech is more persuasive or if slower speech is. (Apparently, it depends on the context and whether people are inclined to agree with you…) It’s good to be flexible, though. I’m getting used to speaking slower. In the videos I’ve been making, I experiment with a lower voice, a slower pace, a more relaxed approach. When I record, I imagine the people I know who speak at the rate I want to use. I “hear” them say things, and then I mimic that.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people because of Google Helpouts and other online conversations. I help them with topics that they’re not familiar. Sometimes there are network or technical issues. I’ve been learning to slow down and to check often for understanding.

I think the biggest difference came from software feedback, though. I did the voiceovers for a series of videos. My natural rate was too fast, even when I tried reading at a slower rate. I adjusted the tempo in Audacity and found that I still sounded comfortable at 90% of my usual speed. The sound quality wasn’t amazing, but it was interesting to listen to myself at a slower rate and still recognize that as me.

It’s funny how there are all sorts of mental hacks that can help me play with this. I find it fascinating when a person’s normal pace is faster than the average pace I’ve been nudging myself towards. I’m not used to being the slower conversationalist, but it’s kinda cool.

I still like speed. I do some bandwidth-negotiation in conversations. I ramp up if other people look like they can take it. But it’s nice to know that I don’t have to rule out podcasting or things like that. I can slow down when it counts, so that what I’m saying sounds easier to try, seems less intimidating. It’s the auditory version of sketchnoting, I guess. Sketchnotes help me make complex topics, so it makes sense to do the same when speaking.

Hmm, maybe I can transcribe my recent videos and recalculate my words per minute…

Planning an e-mail-based course for Emacs Lisp

I’ve been working on an Emacs Lisp beginner’s course, something focused on helping people become more comfortable configuring Emacs. The web-based guide is taking shape quite nicely, but it’s still a lot of scrolling, and it can still feel overwhelming for newbies. I think it might make sense to offer it as an e-mail course. That way, I can spread the lessons out, help people with their questions, and improve things based on people’s feedback.

2014-05-12 How can I take Learn How to Read Emacs Lisp to the next level #emacs #packaging #writing #teaching

2014-05-12 How can I take Learn How to Read Emacs Lisp to the next level #emacs #packaging #writing #teaching

I can improve the guide by adding more structure, examples, exercises, and so on. I’ve requested several books on e-learning and course design, and I’m looking forward to learning more over the years. And I can also improve it by testing it with people… =)

2014-05-14 Planning an e-mail-based course for Emacs Lisp #emacs #teaching

2014-05-14 Planning an e-mail-based course for Emacs Lisp #emacs #teaching

I floated the idea on Twitter and lots of people e-mailed me to join. Instead of setting up an autoresponder, I decided that I would do things by hand as much as I could. That way, I can personalize the messages based on people’s interests and configuration, and I can enjoy more of the back-and-forth conversation.

After getting annoyed with the SSL hassles of setting up Gnus on Windows, I decided to just use my Linux-based virtual machine for handling mail. That was pretty straightforward, although for some reason, my IMAP view of Gmail doesn’t have all of the messages under a label. It just means that I have to manually re-check the messages to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

I used an Org file to keep notes on each person, including TODOs under each of them. I sent everyone a checklist to see which section we should start with. A few people are starting at the beginning, and others will get the e-mails once I’ve updated those sections. Text registers (C-x r s) were really helpful since I was pasting different things into different e-mails. I’m still figuring out the workflow for this, and I’m sure I’ll automate pieces of it as more people move through the course.

I’ve sent the first section to some people already, including the Org version in the e-mail body and as an attachment, and linking to the web-based version. The Org version is a little more cluttered than the text export, but the text export uses box quotes, so I figured the Org version was the best to start with.

2014-05-16 A plan for delivering the Emacs Lisp course #emacs #teaching

2014-05-16 A plan for delivering the Emacs Lisp course #emacs #teaching

Want to be part of this? E-mail me at [email protected]

Small talk tweaks

… though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.

Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

After three successive weekends (three!) with parties, I want to think about small talk and how I can tweak it. Small talk is unavoidable, but there are things you can do to nudge it one way or another. I like having conversations that move me or other people forward, even if it’s just by a little bit.

So, what do I want to do with small talk?

  • Help other people feel comfortable enough to open up about some memorable interest or quirk
  • Find topics of common interest for further conversation
  • Find a way to help or a reason to follow up

We could do the ritualistic weather/profession/how-do-you-know-the-host conversations, or we could change the level of the conversation so that it goes beyond the repetitive gestures that only skim the surface. I could chat as a way of passing time (possibly bumping into interesting thoughts along the way), or I can more deliberately check for things I’m interested in while staying open to the serendipity of random connections. What do I want to be able to frequently do through conversation?

  • Identify possible meetup or global community members – reassure them that this is a thing and that lots of people are interested in it; point people to resources (Emacs, QS, visual thinking)
  • Talk shop with other geeks to find out about tech and business things worth looking into
  • Other geeks (non-tech): learn more about different fields
  • Non-geeks: See if there’s anything I can help with easily (books? ideas?)

I could either dig into people’s interests or be memorable enough so that people look me up afterwards. Many people open up about their interests only when they feel comfortable. What makes people feel more comfortable? It helps to establish a sense of similarity and shared understanding.

People have different strategies for establishing similarity. I know a few people who use the “You look really familiar…” approach (even if the other person doesn’t) because rattling off schools, companies, associations, and interests tends to reveal something in common.

I like building on stuff I’ve overheard or asking questions about common context. That’s one of the reasons why I like events with presentations more than events that are focused only on networking – the presentation gives us something to start talking about.

In terms of helping people get to know me and find topics of shared interest, I use short disclosures with high information value.

Consulting: “I’m a consultant” has low information value: it’s vague and it wouldn’t establish much similarity even if the other person was also a consultant. I rarely use it unless I’m tired, I want to shift the focus back on the other person quickly, or I sense they’re also going through the motions. (Or I want to see at what point their eyes glaze over…)

Emacs: “I’m working on some Emacs projects” has high information value when talking to tech geeks, almost like a secret handshake that lets us shift the conversation. (I talk faster, go into more detail, and use more jargon when talking to fellow geeks, so it’s almost like the 56kbps modem handshake.) I’m female, I don’t wear geeky T-shirts, and I don’t work for a technical company or in a technical position, so it helps to verbally establish geek cred quickly without making a big deal out of it.

Data analysis: For geeks of other fields, Emacs is low-information, but Quantified Self and data analysis seems to be a good way to establish that similarity quickly. It works well with people who are interested in science, tech, engineering, math, or even continuous improvement. Litter box analysis is surprisingly engaging as a cocktail party topic, or at least it’s easy to for people to ask follow-up questions about if they want to.

Sketchnoting: People (including most of the ones who don’t identify as geeks) tend to be curious about my sketchnoting, since it’s visual, easy to understand, and uncommon. That said, I need to get better at handling the usual follow-ups. People tend to say things like “You draw so well” or “I could never do something like that.” I want to nip that in the bud and get people to realize that they can do this too. Pointing out that I draw stick figures like a 5-year-old doesn’t seem to do the trick (“Ah, but you know what to leave out” and “But you’re doing this while listening – that’s hard”). Maybe a little humour, poking fun at the idea of going to an art school that specializes in stick figures or learning how to not fall asleep in presentations? About one in fifty people I talk to recognizes this as something they do on their own or that they want to do, and it’s good to link them up with the global community. For most people, though, I feel slightly more comfortable focusing on ideas they want t olearn more about and sending them sketchnotes if there’s a fit.

Semi-retirement: This experiment with semi-retirement can be a good conversational hook for prompting curiosity. It usually follows this sequence: semi-retired -> “aren’t you a little young? what do you mean?” -> tracked, saved up, experimenting. It tends to be too detached from people’s lives, though – many people don’t think they can pull it off, even experienced freelancers who are doing most of it already.

Variety: If I don’t know how someone identifies, it’s fun to answer the “What do you do?” question (which tries to pigeonhole someone into a neatly understandable job title) with a sense of variety: “I do a lot of different things! This week, I …”

Going forward

For the next few events, I think I’ll experiment with doing the tech/non-tech/non-geek identification earlier, or going into that with an opening based on variety. I could name an example each for tech, non-tech, and non-geek, and see which one they dig into. As for digging into people’s interests, maybe an open-ended survey-type question would be an interesting way to help people open up while still collecting data in case people haven’t thought about how to make themselves easier to get to know. Hmm…

Small talk might be small, but if I have thousands of conversations over the years, I might as well keep learning from it. How have you tweaked how you do small talk?

Static friction and socializing

When it comes to socializing, I have a high coefficient of static friction. I tend to stay in place. If I let too long go between get-togethers, I fall out of the habit of hosting them, the identity of someone who brings people together. I rarely ever want to go out. I drag my feet. I look for excuses to stay at home. I resist when invited, and only manage to make myself go because of social expectations.

When I’m there, though, sometimes it’s all right. Sometimes it’s awkward. But sometimes it’s fun and almost frictionless, and the time speeds by.

I should remember those times so that it’s easier to push myself to go out. The risks are small, anyway.

What makes some get-togethers feel okay? I like board games and card games. They create new situations for us to interact in and result in new in-jokes. They give my hands something to fiddle with. At the same time, there’s still space for conversation between rounds and during breaks. I find background conversations too distracting when I’m trying to work on something, so I prefer to work at home. Pair-hacking might be interesting, though. I like talking through complex things much more than conversations just about catching up. I like having a sense of accomplishment or learning.

The weather’s warming up, so maybe I’ll have a get-together sometime. Gotta ramp up to it again. Maybe I’ll check out Gamfternoon at HackLab.to. Maybe I’ll try going to more HackLab open houses. Maybe I’ll invite people over for a casual get-together. Daylight Savings Time kicked in, so I guess introvert hibernation mode is winding down… We’ll see!

What you’re really there to learn in computer science

You know that feeling of struggling to learn something that everyone else seems to have an easy time with? The one that makes you think, “Maybe this isn’t a good fit for me.” Or worse, “Maybe I’m not smart enough.”

That one.

Embrace it. Learn how to deal with it. This is the real hard work in a degree in computer science or IT or whatever. The rest is just implementation.

You see, there will always be more to learn. There will always be challenges to pick apart and overcome. If you’re not running into them, you’re not pushing yourself enough. There will always be those moments when you think, “How on earth do I even begin to learn how to solve this?”

You aren’t learning a computer language or a platform or a system of abstract concepts. You are learning a way of thinking. You are learning how to break down a big challenge into smaller pieces. You are learning how to try different approaches to understand and solve each small part. You are learning to set aside your worries and fears so that you can focus. You are learning how to adapt, even as changes come quicker and quicker. You are learning how to organize your thoughts. It just so happens that you’re organizing them in a way a computer can understand.

What can help you build your confidence? Start by building a small base of things you know well. Celebrate that. Expand through practice and curiosity. Ask for the help you need. If you don’t get it, fight on anyway. All learning feels weird in the beginning. It only becomes natural through repetition.

If you’re taking a course, learn what you have to learn, but leave yourself room to learn what you want to learn at your own pace. You don’t have to learn everything the first time around. If you know it takes you several tries to understand something, start before you take something up in class. That way, you’ll have better questions. Continue afterwards, too. Computer science lessons build on each other, like the way mathematics lessons do. They assume you understand the previous material. Practice and questions pay off.

There will always be people who have learned what you want to learn, or who will pick up things faster than you can. Most of these people are awesome. They know that your questions can help them learn even more, and they’re happy to pay it forward because people helped them too. Pay them back by writing about what you’ve learned and sharing that with them and others. Other people who are also learning will find your questions and answers useful, too. This is true whether you’re learning in class or on the Internet, so go ahead and share your journey.

There will always be some people who haven’t quite figured out their own insecurities – people who want to establish their position by putting you down. You can learn how to recognize what they’re doing. That makes it easier to ignore them. Don’t mind them if they try to make you feel bad for asking stupid questions. It just means they’re missing out on opportunities to learn how to ask and learn how to learn. Don’t partner with them. Look for people who help others up, not tear them down.

It is not easy to wrap your mind around new topics or break down a complex unknown. If you can get good enough at it, you may come to enjoy that excitement when a problem looks like it’s solvable. You’ll learn how to tell if you’re going in roughly the right direction. You’ll be able to celebrate even the tiniest progress. If you can do that, you’ll do fine.

Besides, the real world is little like the classroom. Even if you never get the hang of the artificial projects you do for education, you may find that you like working with technology. Don’t count yourself out just yet!

Sometimes I hear from students who find computer science intimidating. I hope this makes the big picture a little easier to see.