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Thinking about joining HackLab.to

I’ve been taking month-long sprints of focusing on other interests, but now I’m getting ready to scale consulting back even further – enough to consider signing up for a coworking space like HackLab or ING Direct.

Here are some options:

  • A. Work on the kitchen table. Convenient, and I’ve survived the quiet before. It’s nice to be able to nap or go for a walk. W- occasionally works from home, so I can spend time with him. I can “bump into” ideas and people online, and build up more of a visible reputation.
  • B. Work in the basement or in the spare room. I can set up things the way I want them. I can practise drawing on large sheets of paper.
  • C. Work out of cafes. I can meet people without inviting them to the house or cleaning up. May be crowded, noisy, and expensive. Difficult to leave things or set up.
  • D. Work at a no-commitment co-working space once in a while. (Probably Network Orange, with their meeting rooms and lovely colour printer.) Flexible, although a bit further away.
  • E. Work at a co-working space with a monthly fee, and use the sunk costs to encourage me to go more often.
    • E1: HackLab ($50/month, no meeting room): hardware and software geeks, 3D printers, wearable computing
    • E2: Network Orange ($20 pass, $100 40 hours)
    • E3: MaRS ($25 day pass; $75/mo 1 day a week + 3 hours meeting room): Technology/entrepreneurship incubated companies
    • E4: Centre for Social Innovation ($125 for 20 hours + 3 hours meeting room) + $125 setup fee: social organizations
    • E5: Foundery ($25 pass; $190 10 day access, 90 minutes Boardroom): ?
    • E6: Co:Work ($20 pass; $175 part-time, 8-person meeting room): ?

Other things to consider:

  • I don’t plan to be at the coworking space most evenings. If I don’t have an event, I prefer to spend evenings at home. I’ll probably be there mid-morning to late afternoon or early evening.
  • I prefer to go when I can bike there. Free exercise is a plus, and I don’t have to buy TTC tokens. It takes me 30-45 minutes to get downtown.
  • Hacklab has a kitchen, not just a kitchenette, and people like cooking/sharing.
  • I know many people at Hacklab, so talking to people might be easier. I can learn more about co-working there, such as getting used to asking questions and being asked questions. (Also, dealing with the distractions of other people working on cool stuff.)
  • MaRS and CSI are a little more spread-out than Hacklab is because of the space, so it’s less distracting. I don’t know what the Hacklab dynamics will be when Hacklab moves to the new building in June, but it will probably be all right.
  • There’s a bit of a hum from the servers in Hacklab, but I can probably work around that with off-one-ear headphones, and the new building might fix it too.

So let’s say I’m going to go to Hacklab for at least 9 months if my membership application is approved. How would I want to grow in order for me to consider it a successful investment? Who would that future Sacha be like?

  • I know more about other geeks in Toronto thanks to ambient conversations and helping each other out.
  • I’m better at asking people for help when I get stuck, and at setting myself tougher challenges knowing that people can help
  • I’ve dug into some of the more difficult things that are easier to learn with other people who can help me. For example: web development, mobile development, electronics
  • I’ve gotten better at sketching ideas, asking other people for feedback, and fleshing out the ones that get people interested
  • I’ve improved serendipity (test different laptop cues to talk? talk to people about what they’re working on?)
  • I go to HackLab 1-2 times a week, and sometimes more often if the weather is great.
  • I’m good at managing my focus (do not disturb / yes, talk to me)
  • I’m good at talking to new people and hanging out with the regulars

Initial investment $~500 before I re-evaluate. I think I can make it work wonderfully. I’ll probably learn much more than I can anticipate now. The upside potential of connections and learning is better than the upside potential of staying home. The downside potential (time and opportunity cost; distractability) doesn’t look like a big deal.

I wonder how I can track the benefits and potential disadvantages. If I track my focus tasks each day that I go and I record serendipitous conversations and the giving/receiving of help, I think that might give me an interesting picture. I can use the same focus tasks idea to track my productivity at home, and I can track if I’m proactively “bumping” into other people online (either asking for or giving help) or how I’m interacting with people.

Okay then! Experiment on.

An embarrassing failure is the result of a series of unfortunate decisions, and that’s a good thing

Failures can be caused by all sorts of factors, but an embarrassing failure exposes the unfortunate decisions along the way. This is a wonderful thing. While it’s easy to shrug off other kinds of failures as bad luck or bad timing, embarrassment is a clue that there are many things you can improve. It is that ever so human emotion when you know you haven’t been your best – and it points to what better looks like.

For example, last Thursday, I’d scheduled a 3pm call to talk about sketchnotes. I had noticed some power problems with my phone and had drained my battery several days in a row. I usually managed to squeak by with my backup battery, but I had misplaced it on Wednesday night, so I didn’t get to charge it. I tucked a USB cable into my backpack so that I could charge my phone off my computer – or at least I thought I did, as I couldn’t find that when I searched my bag right after settling in. I switched to low-power mode and that seemed to slow things down, so I figured that 70% charge would probably be enough to get me to the afternoon. After a meeting, I checked on my phone… and found it practically dead. I bought an overpriced USB cable from a nearby electronics store and plugged it into the computer. The cellphone was discharging faster than it could charge, though, even though I wasn’t using it. And then it was time for the call.

After a few attempts, I had to admit defeat and reschedule. Fortunately, the person I was going to talk to was very understanding, and we managed to sort things out over Twitter. Even with that resolution and my subsequent return to regular work, I was stressed. I could still feel that rush of adrenalin after trying to scramble some kind of a solution. Although I knew I could still do well, I also knew that stress messed with my brain and made me more likely to overlook other important things.

I also knew that this lingering stress was unnecessary. We’d rescheduled. The worst-case scenario would probably have been being perceived as a flaky unprofessional person, but that was temporary, bounded, and not part of who I was. I could do something to make it better. (Locus of control – useful thing to know about!)

So I made a list of many things I could have done to make it better, and that helped me clear my mind a little. I got back to work, focusing on some analytics that I knew would give me the pleasure of a few small wins. I was tired enough to leave my scarf behind and then to not be sure about whether I locked my cabinet (needing two extra trips up the elevator to retrieve one and confirm the other) – but at least I remembered before going on the subway. Glass half full.

I still went to fitness class, where W- met me with a bag of clothes and my shoes. It was a struggle to get through that class as well – oh no, more moments of suckiness! – but I got through it anyway. It’s important to learn how to do things even though you don’t feel like it.

Anyway, back to the good things about embarrassing failures: there are lots of things that I can fix, and I can prioritize them based on effort and benefit. Phone-wise, I found out how to use Titanium Backup to uninstall a large number of applications at once. My battery life has improved. I’ve ordered an extended battery, which should allow my backup battery to be a backup again. Routine-wise, I’ve created checklists in Evernote. Checklists are wonderful. Life-wise, I think it’s time to make myself a little more space – sometimes these are symptoms of trying to pack in a little too much.

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This is good. I’m learning to not beat myself up, and to celebrate the ways I can improve things and move forward.

Another step forward, perhaps, would be to be able to do this before embarrassing failure highlights the need – like the way defensive drivers (and cyclists, and walkers…) constantly scan for opportunities to go wrong and plan what to do. To balance that building of a strong safety net (several safety nets, in fact) with the ability to let go and fly – that will be a wonderful thing to learn.

Figuring out my guidelines for time

It’s tempting to estimate the value of the time I spend on various activities and to try to optimize this, especially if I start thinking about how many times I’ll repeat a routine or make the same decision.

Here’s a quick checklist I can use so that I can avoid going down the rabbit-hole of over-analysis (or at least, mostly avoid it):

  • Is it stressful, error-prone, or getting in the way of work/relationship/life priorities? Eliminate, automate, or delegate.
  • Will building a system help me learn something new or make something more effective? It’s good practice even for myself. Must remember that I can’t always systematize something.
  • Does it have long-term value? Can I swap in a more effective activity?
  • Am I feeling the time pressure from higher-value activities? This hardly ever happens at the moment, because I’m pretty good at rationalizing the value I get from my chores, accepting that I can’t work at 100% intensity all the time, and deliberately choosing a time abundance mindset instead of a time scarcity mindset. I’m writing this checklist because this situation will come up someday, though.
  • Am I really going to get that value out of that? Buying and selling time usually involves a short-term horizon, and people tend to over-estimate the value they think they’ll get from having additional time now. There may be the opportunity to earn $X/hour, but am I really going to use that hour I’ve “bought” to earn $X or increase my skills by Y, and can I get that time in a more effective way?

This will help me remember the long game, where compounding interest can do something fascinating, and where it makes sense to avoid golden handcuffs of fixed or habitual costs – while investing in the things that do make a difference.

Decision: No Illustrator CS6 for now

I wanted to like Adobe Illustrator CS6. I really did. I’ve been looking for a vector drawing tool that could fit into my sketchnoting workflow. Illustrator CS6 handled my tablet PC’s pen input more smoothly than Inkscape did, creating neat curves while still letting me work with the tight circles I use for lettering. Vector-based drawing meant that I could resize and move things around easily. I liked using the Navigator to keep a bird’s eye view of the image while zooming in on details. I was excited by the possibilities of building my own symbol libraries so that I could drop in visual elements quickly.

But it keeps crashing on me, which is frustrating. Even though I’ve rigged up some AutoHotkey macros to make it easier to save (triggered by a foot pedal, no less!), I don’t want to deal with that kind of mental friction and re-work. So, no Illustrator CS6 yet, and by extension, probably no Creative Cloud subscription. It’s like the way I ended up ditching Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on my Android tablet – it mostly works, except for when it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it frustrates me.

I tried CorelDraw, too, but the eraser tool there doesn’t work the way I want it to. Artrage Studio Pro has a sticker library that might give me the ability to clip frequently-used images, but it’s not as responsive as Autodesk Sketchbook Pro is, so it’s a little frustrating too. Oh, well. I guess I’ll stick with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for another year, and maybe use Inkscape to trace my drawings if I need to resize them.

I trust things a little more if I have backup plans. For example, I’ve messed up with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on my tablet PC. One time, I accidentally moved my layer instead of zooming it. Fortunately, I’ve gotten into the habit of using Camtasia Studio to record my screen during the drawing process, so it was easy to go back in time and reconstruct the missing parts. Still annoying, but at least that was more my fault than the program’s.

It’s a little frustrating investing time into learning something that didn’t pan out, but knowing that these tools aren’t a good fit for what I want to do is valuable information as well. I’ll keep an eye out for other things!

Decision review: Art class (includes sketches)

As part of my resolution to spend more on learning, I went for one-on-one art classes in a nearby studio (Pamela Dodds’).

My first exercise was to draw shoes with lots of soft lines. The teacher said to focus on drawing each line in relation to each other instead of thinking about the whole shape. That makes it easier to defamiliarize yourself and draw what you see, instead of this preconceived notion of a shoe. I ended up making this shoe a little shorter than it actually was, but it was recognizably a shoe, hooray!

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My homework was to draw more shoes.

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Since I’m curious about translating abstract concepts to concrete images and vice versa, my teacher also suggested that I draw different kinds of shoes and the ideas associated with them.

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The second class focused on negative space and chairs. On the left, you can see the chair I drew in class. On the right, here’s a chair that Leia (one of our cats) often likes sleeping in.

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The third class was about lines, angles, and proportions. I started by drawing the scissors, then drawing the detergent bottle, and then finally by drawing the overlapping shapes of the coffee mugs.

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At home, I practised by drawing the salt-and-pepper shakers, and by drawing the mouse.

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My last session was one about faces and proportions (see above). Both of these were drawn from (rather odd-looking) mannequins. I like the profile likeness, although it was a little difficult getting the hang of the chin.

I’ve read many art education books such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and Drawing by Seeing, so that sped up the teaching and gave us a shorthand for discussions. For me, the art classes were more of a meditative space where I could deliberately practise techniques, with feedback from a teacher who could warn me when I was getting too close to the paper (and thus shifting my viewpoint) or who could figure out where I was a little bit off in terms of proportions.

It’s a very different style of drawing compared to sketchnotes. I’m usually just focused on getting the gist of an idea across in a very simple, iconic form. In terms of getting better at sketchnoting, I’ll focus on broading my visual vocabulary by sketching different terms of concepts instead of focusing on drawing more realistic images. Still, it was fun discovering that even though I hadn’t been practising much “proper” drawing, I was getting better at seeing things!

Decision review: Good decision to experiment with art class, although I’ll keep looking around for other classes and I’ll keep practising on my own.

Decision review: Logitech H800 wireless headset

imageThis is my Logitech H800 wireless headset. I bought it so that I could try dictating to my computer using Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5. The wireless headset that came in the NaturallySpeaking box never quite fit on my ear. It was always falling off. The Logitech H800 fits me well, and the voice recognition software has no problems with it.

The headset turned out to be pretty handy for other things as well. Bluetooth support meant that I could pair the headset with my phone. I started listening to classical music when working on my computer. I listened to podcasts while I tidied up the kitchen, watered the garden, or went for a long walk.

The headset charges using a micro-USB cable, and can be charged while in use. This is great, because I always forgot to charge my previous headset in time for me to use it. We use micro-USBs for so many other devices, so we always have cables handy. The downside? Between listening to music over Bluetooth and using my phone’s GPS to track exercise, I need to remember to charge my phone at every opportunity I get.

The Logitech H800 headset comes with a mini receiver that’s small enough to stay plugged into a laptop all the time. Unfortunately, it’s not a Logitech unifying receiver. Now I have two of those slim-profile Logitech receivers plugged into my laptop (mouse and headset). That leaves one USB port for flash drives, charging, and other things I want to plug in. I haven’t gotten into the habit of carrying around a powered USB hub, but I’m close to it!

Decision: Better than I expected, although FutureShop sold the headset for quite a bit more than the Amazon US price. I picked it up at FutureShop because I wanted to test the fit before getting it, and it worked out fine.