Category Archives: kaizen

Stepping sideways into Alternate Universe Sacha

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My parents were having problems with their company’s recent web hosting migration. No e-mail was getting forwarded to the e-mail accounts that they had set up previously, and the two blogs that were separate from the main site didn’t get transferred either. My mom asked me to help restore the blogs. They needed someone to sort out the email and other system administration issues, so I suggested that she find a local system administrator who can also take care of upgrading WordPress and other sites as needed.

I don’t particularly enjoy system administration. I feel terrible when I make a mistake on my own server, and I don’t want to be on the hook for anyone else’s. I’ve done some system administration work as part of web development, since I was usually the person with the most Linux experience in my teams. Setting up is easy, but maintenance could be fiddly, and keeping up with security updates can be no fun. (I’m looking at you, Rails.) Add to that the time zone differences and the inability to just lean over and fix things, and, well…

So I was feeling conflicted and unfilial about wanting to help my mom but not wanting to commit to being the company sysadmin. The problem needed to be fixed, though, and they probably wouldn’t find a good system administrator in time.

As an experiment, I tried imagining an alternate universe in which I would be comfortable making those changes and being The IT Guy (or Gal, in this case). If I lived near my parents, I would help them, of course. I do that for friends and family here. If I had the routines for managing many sites, then it would be easy to maintain another site and another company. I can imagine that for Alternate Universe Sacha, this kind of work might even be easy and enjoyable.

Having imagined this Alternate Universe Sacha, I tried “stepping sideways” into that role. Sure, I was half a world away, but I could mentally move the house to my hometown. Time zone differences and distance can make it difficult to communicate because it’s hard to tell how busy someone is and when you get the information you need, but it actually worked out well because I worked on it in the evening while people were at work back home. If I stopped worrying about the possibilities of messing things up worse and instead took the same methodical approach that I would use if I had a lot of experience in this (and I guess I do, compared to many people), then it would actually be pretty straightforward. Besides, I reassured myself, everything will turn out all right. Even if I messed things up, family’s still family. For gaining experience, it’s hard to find a more forgiving client.

It turned out to be straightforward, although it did involve a lot of clicking around. E-mail works again, and the blogs are both back up. Not only that, I now have an alternate universe Sacha whom I can think of myself as if I need to do more system administration work. I’m using that idea to make it easier for me set up proper maintenance for my personal sites as well. If I was an experienced and constantly improving system administrator who enjoyed doing this, how would I do this? It’s no substitute for actual experience–I’ll still miss things people learned the hard way–but it helps me reach that point of learning what I need to learn the hard way.

I wonder what alternate universe selves I might play with in the future. Do you use any?

Learning how to deal with mild panic

Another mild panic attack in fitness class yesterday, jolts of worry and tears that I wiped away as sweat. I knew it was just my lizard brain in overdrive. I couldn’t stop it by reasoning it away as irrational. All I could do was breathe and keep on going, dampening my emotions by spacing out while going through the motions of the exercise. W- checked on me frequently, cheering me up from time to time, and I finished the class.

It’s not so bad, actually. It would be better to not have to deal with panic at all, but since it happens, it’s better that I know what it’s like in a safe(ish) controlled environment and I can start figuring out what to do about it. Part of the reason that I’m susceptible to panic attacks is probably because I’m using willpower instead of motivation to get through the fitness class, and that can get quickly sapped in a stressful environment with negative self-talk. I don’t intrinsically enjoy this form of exercise, although I like spending time with W-. Also, It turns out that I’m pretty good at imagining how something will hurt, like the time I freaked out over a leapfrogging exercise a month after I’d sprained my ankle, and that sends me into a whirl even as I’m reassuring myself that pain is both unlikely and temporary. The good thing is that I seem to get panic attacks only in fitness class these days, and not all the time either.

What would better look like? I’m good at knowing I’m having an unreasonable panic attack. Wouldn’t be interesting if I could label it and put it on a shelf for the time being, procrastinating the analysis for a quieter and more composed time? I’m good at plodding through the class anyway, even though I’m embarrassed at the thought of quietly sniffling in class. If I can let go of that embarrassment, I can use that energy for other things. I don’t get panic attacks all the time. I can get better at understanding the contributing and mitigating factors, and tweaking things to fit me (a mental soundtrack? a mantra or prepared objections to drown out negative self-talk?). Eventually finding another kind of exercise that suits me better will help in the long run so that I can build confidence along with strength, but I still have to hack stressful situations.

This, too, is part of life, and I can embrace it and make it mine.

Things I learned from sketchnoting the FITC design conference

FITC hired me to sketchnote the FITC Toronto 2013 conference/festival, which finished yesterday. Since the conference focused on art, design, and technology, visual notes made perfect sense. =)

20130423 FITC Toronto 2013 - 07 - Trying to Understand the Nature of Reality

Workflow: Because I do digital sketchnotes using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on a Lenovo X220 tablet PC, I could sit anywhere in the audience, sketch during the presentation, and publish and tweet the finished, highlighted sketchnotes 5-10 minutes after the event ends. This was very convenient, because it meant that I didn’t need any special room setup (so I could go to whichever session seemed the most appropriate) and we could tap into the buzz on social media while the session was top-of-mind. It also meant that the speakers could see (and share!) the summaries right away, as they typically monitored Twitter for feedback.

I spent about five minutes before each session setting up the image: copying the speaker’s picture, spelling the title and the speaker’s name carefully, and so on. I used the colours from the track indicators, although that ended up with this shade of pink for most of the sketches. I drew using my base colour, moving things around as needed. I added highlights on a lower layer in order to make it easier to focus on key points. I didn’t use placeholder filenames this time. I simply switched back to laptop mode and typed in the talk information. Then I used WinSCP to copy the .PNG over to the NextGEN gallery directory I’d previously created, and I rescanned the directory using the web interface. This worked out much better than uploading the files through the web interface because scp-ing it preserved the filenames and allowed me to not worry about timeouts. After the system generated thumbnails for the newly-uploaded image, I copied the talk information into the image description, and I used that in the tweet as well. I used AutoHotkey to expand !f into http://j.mp/fitcto13sketches so that I didn’t have to worry about mistyping the URL. (Although it turns out that I should probably choose shorter custom URLs…)

What would make this even better?

I can advertise the sketchnotes in the real world. A foam-core board on an easel would be a great way to point people to the URL for the sketchnotes. I could either hand-draw an image or print a poster. (Might even pull off a custom poster for a multi-day event!) That way, even people who aren’t monitoring Twitter or checking the blog could come across the sketches. It would probably be good to set up the publishing arrangements beforehand and include it in the program too, again to increase the value that people get from the sketchnotes.

I can try out reverse video. The room was kept very dark during talks to help people see the slides, so the light from laptops stood out. I created an inverse version of my grid, but I wasn’t sure how well I could deal with inverting the drawing colours too while keeping it printable. Maybe developing a set of colours that work well inverted? Might be something to consider for next time. Ex: Lynne Cazaly’s sketchnote of Frank Trindade’s talk

I can increase thumbnail size. In a week or two, once clicks have gone down or once I’ve gotten a proper development environment set up again, I’m thinking of tinkering with the theme on Experivis so that I have three columns of thumbnails that span the whole page. I might also experiment with embedding Flickr galleries, because Flickr might be a decent content-delivery network that takes the load off my server.

I can revise the images to remove information. If I write less, I can draw more. Revising old images is a way to prototype that look without having to think about getting to the right balance in real-time.

I like drawing conferences. I’m going to specialize in digital sketchnoting and book reviews with the occasional illustration or presentation design. No analog for me, as there are plenty of other people who can handle that and I don’t like doing post-processing as much! Winking smile

See http://j.mp/fitcto13sketches for the sketchnotes. Enjoy!

Practice Perfect: Calling your shots

Practice Perfect is a book packed with tips for deliberate practice. One of the ideas I’ve been trying from the book is the practice of calling your shots by telling people what you are trying to do. For example, I recently helped some colleagues revise their presentation proposals for an upcoming conference. In addition to posting my versions of their abstracts, I also wrote about the specific things I was trying to do, such as highlighting contrasting ideas and writing with potential attendees in mind. By telling people what I wanted to do, I made it easier for people to understand the differences, and they could come up with even more effective ways to say things.

Calling your shots is an excellent way to help other people learn. It builds your understanding of your own skills as well. It can also lead to interesting discussions, and you might learn a few things along the way.

If you’re the one asking for help, it can be difficult to see what people have changed and why. It’s much easier to learn when people point out what’s different and share the reasons. Next time you ask for help and get a simple answer, try digging into the differences to help you understand things better. You can also call your own shots while learning something. When you write down or talk about what you plan to do, you’ll be more prepared to correct things if the results aren’t what you expected, and other people may be able to offer suggestions as well.

Give it a try!

Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better (Amazon affiliate link)

Things I’m learning about sharing other people’s knowledge, or why you should show me what you’ve been meaning to teach others

Many conferences don’t record sessions or share videos promptly, so I was delighted to find that the Emacs Conference 2013 was not only going to be recorded but also livestreamed. Jon (the venue contact) even brought a small camera for recording close-ups. Since the zero-budget conference didn’t have a professional videographer, I volunteered to process the videos and get them out there. I also took sketchnotes and shared them during the conference itself.

It’s important to me that people who weren’t able to make it to the conference can still learn from it. So much knowledge evaporates into nothingness if not shared. Besides, it  would be wonderful for people to get a sense of the people in the Emacs community, and that’s something that’s hard to pick up from just slides or transcripts. I had selfish reasons, too. I wanted to be able to go back and remember what being around a hundred Emacs geeks is like. (It was awesome!)

It took me 8.5 hours spread over a week to process and upload the videos from the conference. It was an excellent use of that time, and people have been super-appreciative. I’m planning to transcribe John Wiegley’s talk on Emacs Lisp development because it was full of great tips. I may transcribe the other talks (or coordinate with other people?) if that’s something people would find really, really useful too.

There’s a lot of good stuff in people’s heads, and most people are really bad at getting things out there where other people can learn from them. There’s the fear of writing or public speaking, of being wrong, of not being an expert, of embarrassing yourself. I write a ton, and I’m comfortable giving presentations. (Both skills are really useful introvert hacks.) It’s easy for me to share what I know, and I’m learning even more each day. So that’s good – but it might be even more interesting to pick other people’s brains and help them get their thoughts out there. I suspect that even if I spend the rest of my life sharing just what other people know, that would still be a great way to make life better.

I’m getting the hang of amplifying the good ideas that people have, helping them reach more people. Sketchnotes, videos, transcription, writing, podcasts and video chats, screencasts, blogging, visual book reviews… I get to indulge my curiosity, help other people learn, get conversations going.

This is good. This means I don’t have to stress out about being original or being an expert. I can be a conduit for other people’s ideas and lessons, while inevitably creating something of my own along the way. I’m sometimes divided on this. Shouldn’t I use my 5-year experiment time to pursue my own ideas instead of just channeling other people’s thoughts? But I learn so much by helping people share, and I get to see the interconnections among so many different things. And then ideas bubble up – things I haven’t read or heard, things that I do differently that I notice only when people ask – and these ideas demand to be created and shared. The choice isn’t one or the other. By helping people share what they know, I can get even better at making new things. =)

Anyway, on to lessons learned:

What worked well?

  • Sketchnoting and sharing during the conference itself: Great way to help people in person and online. Because there were lots of abstract topics to cover and I was helping with technical issues as well, my live notes were pretty text-heavy. I edited the sketchnotes after the event in order to add highlights and extra information. Tech-wise, I used WinSCP to upload the images in the background, and then used NextGen Gallery’s rescan folder feature to pull them in. This meant that I didn’t have to fuss with web server errors.
  • Using multiple tools for recording my presentation: I remembered to set up recording audio on my phone, recording video on my tablet, and recording my screen using Camtasia Studio. The audio recording worked, and both video recording and screenrecording failed. (Sigh.) But at least there’s audio of the keynote! I might recreate the presentations if people think that’s valuable.
  • Copying the conference videos before leaving the venue: Soooooo much faster than downloading them over the Internet
  • Volunteering to handle the videos: Because otherwise it could take forever (or it might not have happened). Besides, I really like Emacs, and helping out with this is a good way to build the community.
  • Setting aside time to follow up: It was great to have the space to work on this here and there instead of getting caught up in other work.
  • Splicing in secondary video: Jon took close-up videos of many of the presentations, which I added using Camtasia. This was great because the screen was difficult or impossible to read over the livestream.
  • Separating rendering from publishing: In the beginning, I used Camtasia Studio’s YouTube support to publish videos directly to the Internet. This broke after the first few videos, so I used to save the videos from the error dialog and then upload them myself. When I switched to producing the MP4s directly, then uploading them to YouTube using my browser, uploading was around five times faster. Uploading videos through my browser also allowed me to process the next video instead of tying up Camtasia Studio during the publishing process.

What would make this even better in terms of sharing knowledge from conferences?

  • Doing a livestream tech check and having guidance for speakers: The keynote wasn’t livestreamed because we had technical issues, and many of the presentations were unreadable because of the glare from a white background. Coordinating with the venue to do a technology check beforehand might help us avoid these issues in the future, and it’ll also tell us what we need to work around when we prepare our presentations.
  • Asking the venue organizer which files had the livestream video: The livestream videos were confusingly named with a .ps extension, but Alex found them by using the file command.
  • Bringing a personal video camera and a tripod: That might make travel a little more difficult, but it’s good to have more video backups, and the quality might be better too.
  • Editing the videos using a proper video editing tool instead of Camtasia Studio and Windows Movie Maker: Might be more reliable, as Camtasia occasionally crashed.
  • More hard disk space: I can move processed videos to secondary storage knowing that I have YouTube or Vimeo as a backup.
  • Bringing a large USB drive to conferences: Great for efficiently transferring files between computers. (Good old-fashioned sneakernet!)
  • Making sure Camtasia Studio doesn’t crash next time I want to record my presentation: This probably had something to do with not having audio sources. If I can reliably reproduce this and figure out how not to reproduce it, that should be good.
  • Learning how to cut: Editing to pick out highlights or make things flow more smoothly can help me save other people time and make information more accessible to people who can’t sit down and listen to something for an hour. I’ve done a little audio editing to remove ums and ahs before, but it might be interesting to do more radical cuts. I don’t particularly enjoy doing this yet because I vastly prefer visual/verbal learning over auditory learning (and used to regularly fall asleep in class, although I managed to graduate somehow!), but maybe that’s just a matter of practice, familiarity, and material. We’ll see. After I learn how to cut, maybe I can learn how to make audio and video even more engaging with music and effects. Someday!

I love it when evolving skills and interests come together coherently and become a platform for going from strength to strength. I started blogging almost eleven years ago as a way to learn more effectively, and now I see how I can scale that up even further. I wonder what this will look like in a decade.

Here are a few ways you can help me get even better at sharing what you and other people know:

  • Ask me questions. =)
  • Teach me what I should ask you so that I can learn a lot from you.
  • Suggest ways I can organize or share things even more effectively.
  • Tell me where I’m on the right track, and what “even better” might look like.

This is fun!

Related:

Understanding my procrastination

This week’s Less Wrong Toronto rationality challenge was about procrastination: observing how, why, and when you procrastinate, and what you can do about it.

The word “procrastination” comes from the Latin roots pro (“for”) and cras (“tomorrow”). The more I think about that, the more it seems that putting things off is actually a very useful skill, despite its negative connotations. There is only so much time in the day and so many years in a life. Figuring out what makes sense to do right now, what might make sense to do later, and what doesn’t make sense to do at all–that can be really helpful. To describe how we decide what to do later, we use the word “planning.” We reserve “procrastination” for when we put things off to our detriment, when we do low-value tasks instead of high-value tasks.

The Wikipedia article on procrastination describes procrastination as “replacing high-priority actions with tasks of lower priority” (emphasis mine), but I’ve been working on not letting perceived urgency mess up my true priorities. Thinking of it in terms of value instead of priority helps me not get caught up in false urgency.

Because the procrastinating mind can be good at rationalization (“I know I should write that blog post, but dinner needs to be cooked and the blog post isn’t that important anyway”), it can be difficult to recognize procrastination unless you’re obviously avoiding something. It’s easier to look at various decisions to put off actions, figure out the reasoning behind them, and look for patterns.

I put off many ideas by adding them to my Someday/Maybe list or scheduling them for the future. I’m working on getting better at finishing projects, so I try not to get too distracted from today’s to-do list unless it’s really important. Stashing other ideas in my Someday/Maybe list means that if I get blocked on all my current tasks, I can easily find something else that I might want to work on. Structured procrastination for the win! (Procrastination explanation: Low value compared to current tasks.)

I put off various types of tasks to certain days. For example, I balance my business books and handle other paperwork every Friday. If I need to get an invoice out quickly, I’ll do that any day of the week, but having one day set aside for paperwork and all those other little things makes it easy to keep the rest of my week clear. I put off worrying, too. I allow myself a chunk of time for planning and questioning, then focus in moving in roughly that direction the rest of the week. Mornings are great for code, afternoons for calls, and evenings for writing. On either Saturday or Sunday, we do our household chores and lots of cooking. Roughly sketching out our days like this helps me batch process tasks. (Procrastination explanation: Reducing impulsiveness / interruptions.)

I put off actions depending on my energy level. When focused and excited, I code or write. When I’m more contemplative, I like drawing or reading books. When I feel uncreative, that’s the perfect time to handle paperwork or do chores. When I’m optimistic, I flesh out my vision. When I’m pessimistic, I dig into my backup plans. (Procrastination explanation: Low value or expectancy; I expect to not code well if I’m preoccupied with something else.)

I absentmindedly put off putting things away. Not all the time, but enough times that this gets in my way. I have some workarounds. For example, I switched to using a belt bag because that was an excellent if unfashionable way to not lose track of my phone and my keys. I’m still working on slowing down, having one place to put things, and minimizing stress. W- has this saying, “One hand, put away” – put things away while you’re holding them instead of going back and forth. Working on it. =) (Procrastination explanation: impulsiveness.)

I put off going to the gym with W-, reasoning that I’m pretty tired from biking upwind and uphill. I should build upper-body strength and other things not covered by biking, though. One way for me to deal with this is by bargaining with myself: if I’m not going to the gym, I have to do kettle bells or similar exercises instead of spending the time writing. Or maybe I’ll train speech recognition on my computer so that I can increase the value of that activity… (Procrastination explanation: Low value because I don’t particularly like that form of exercise; low expectancy because of salient bad experiences, even though I’ve also had very positive ones.)

I put off shopping, especially when they are so many choices. I do this because I feel overwhelmed. I deal with it by limiting my choices based on predetermined criteria and focusing on items that meet my price thresholds. For example, I buy only flat/low-heeled shoes and machine-washable clothes. I eventually buy things when sales, thrift stores, or other buying opportunities intersect with my criteria. (Procrastination explanation: Low expectancy because of the feeling of being overwhelmed; low value because I have lots of things that still work for me.)

I put off learning skills if I think the costs associated with learning outweigh the benefits I get from doing so. For example, although driving is widely acknowledged as a useful skill, I haven’t gotten around to learning it because becoming a confident driver requires several big lifestyle changes: expenses related to cars, fuel, parking, and maintenance; I would need to shift my work to somewhere that requires a car-based commute instead of one that can be reached with public transit or biking; and I would need to get used to the thought of controlling this big, heavy, potentially lethal machine. The money I save by not driving can pay for quite a few cabs during the times that I do need to get around (say, accompanying a friend post-surgery). So far, clear costs (money! no free exercise from biking!) outweigh vague benefits (possibly being able to drive W- if he needs help, being able to navigate more cities). I’ll get to it when it makes sense. Or slightly before it makes sense. (Procrastination explanation: Low value.)

I put off putting some things off. Sometimes I feel myself getting annoyed for something I have to do. I could go round and round, internally whining about it, but sometimes it’s more productive to put off the annoyance, get things done, and then channel that annoyance into making sure that I don’t have to do similar things in the future. This actually works out quite well. (Procrastination explanation: Well, this is actually a useful thing…)

There are a lot of other things I procrastinate, but since I want to actually publish this blog post at some point, this is probably enough of a sample.

I use a lot of pre-commitment to deal with procrastination. I’m also halfway decent at recognizing when procrastinating something takes more energy and emotion than just doing the thing I’m procrastinating. I’m good at discovering (or even inventing) meaning for my tasks to make them more palatable. I need to work on being more conscious, though. All these techniques are useful only when I detect that I’m procrastinating. If I want to stop absentmindedly putting something down somewhere instead of putting it away, then I need to make putting things away automatic, and I need to get better at checking impulses.

There aren’t any big ominous tasks hanging over my head that I need to un-procrastinate, but I want to get better at catching unconscious procrastination. (Which was not quite the focus of the Less Wrong blog post on beating procrastination, but I lump it together with deliberate procrastination…) I’ll be focusing on being more mindful over the next month or so. It’s difficult to track how well I’m doing with this, so I track failure instead by recording “foggy” moments. I’ll probably never get rid of it, but I can develop more automatic behaviours to catch the common cases. One of the nice things about being married is that W- can help me catch things. =) Onward!