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Weekly review: Week ending July 4, 2014

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

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (8.8h – 5%)
    • Earn (6.8h – 77% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
    • Build (1.6h – 18% of Business)
      • Do my first laser cut
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.5h)
        • File payroll return
    • Connect (0.3h – 3% of Business)
      • Help with Helpouts
  • Relationships (12.0h – 7%)
    • Check out Festival of House Culture
    • Send claim correction along with note to insurance company
  • Discretionary – Productive (28.1h – 16%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
    • Go for yoga in High Park
    • Harvest more greens; clear out a square
    • Writing (18.7h)
  • Discretionary – Play (8.9h – 5%)
  • Personal routines (29.4h – 17%)
  • Unpaid work (16.2h – 9%)
  • Sleep (64.6h – 38% – average of 9.2 per day)

Developing opinions

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • I want to still be able to enjoy simple things. I don’t want to refine my palate to the point of feeling that I need luxury goods, particularly if this involves artificial distinctions instead of true value. So it’s permissible to develop an opinion about different kinds of lettuce that I can easily grow or get from the supermarket, but I’m not likely to spend several hundred dollars on a brand-name purse.
  • I want to be flexible in my opinions. I should be able to acknowledge situations where the opinion is inapplicable and consider alternatives.
  • I don’t necessarily have to have an original opinion. It’s totally all right to follow other people’s opinions. As much as possible, though, I’d like to be able to articulate the reasons for my opinions (even if I’m choosing someone else’s position). In the beginning, I’ll probably lack the words and self-awareness, but I’ll get there if I keep explaining things to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflecting on relationships for a good life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to design Help and Support communities: Adobe deep dive

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

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

Adobe

Adobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://forums.adobe.com/welcome

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

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

  • A Welcome box makes a support community less intimidating.
  • Although having separate widgets for unanswered questions or trending content makes it easier for community managers and volunteers to find questions to respond to, that can lead to visual clutter. Recent discussions or recent content will do the job well enough.
  • Consistent formatting helps resource lists look more professional. Some of the resource lists had different font sizes or bullet types within the same box.
  • Images go a long way towards making a site look more polished.

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

 

 

 

It’s okay to clear the garden and start again

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

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

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

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

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

How about your garden? How about your life?

Reflections on Aristotle, ends, and leisure

What are the ends I pursue, and how do I pursue them?

I agree with Aristotle in that my ultimate end is happiness. For me, happiness is more along the lines of equanimity or tranquility: being able to appreciate the good parts and being confident that I can weather the tough parts. From stoicism, I understand that things aren’t good or bad in themselves; it’s more about my responses to those things. So for me, a good life is one where I can respond as I want to and as I should.

More specifically, what would that good life look like, and what are the goals I want to strive towards?

One easy goal to plan for is a good financial foundation. It’s easier to act freely when you’re not worried about food or shelter. I also work on keeping frugal, moderate tastes and a detachment from things. “It’s just stuff,” W- and I say as we drop things off for donation or resist buying more things.

I value learning, too. I like feeling concepts click together, learning how to build more complex things. I particularly like it when I can use what I’m learning to save time, especially when I help other people avoid repetitive, mechanical work.

I enjoy learning and working the most when I can create something distinctive that takes advantage of an unusual combination of skills or experiences. For example, I like the social business consulting that I do because it’s uncommon for people to be interested in large organizations, collaboration, workflow, change management, data visualization, programming, and design. I enjoy working on Emacs or on self-tracking because both lend themselves well to idiosyncratic questions and personal curiosities.

I’ve been self-consciously writing about leisure for what feels like too many days now. I’m trying to figure out how I want to spend my time, since that’s a decision I’m going to make repeatedly over decades. My answers will change over the years, too, but if I think about it a little, I might be able to make better decisions.

Most of the time, we think of relaxation and recreation as ways to recharge ourselves so that we can get back to work with more energy. Aristotle prizes the contemplative life, where you use your leisure time not just to amuse yourself, but to improve.

What does that mean to me, though? For example, I could spend some time learning languages, or developing my drawing skills, or picking up a new technology. There’s so much more to learn about all sorts of other subjects. An easy answer to the question “What shall I do with my time?” might be to volunteer, but I would also want to do that with deliberation. What will help me grow, and what’s just a nice-to-have?

Let’s say that I don’t know enough to choose those topics from the beginning. How can I get better at observing myself and learning from how I use my leisure time? What would make a difference when I look back over a long life?

One of the things that has helped me a lot and that I’d like to get very good at is the ability to notice (as the Less Wrong community phrases it) that I am confused, and to explore that confusion. Reading helps me notice the gaps and find words to describe things, and writing helps me start to untangle the knots. If I keep getting better at this, then when I’m much more experienced, I might be able to spot opportunities for growth, catch myself before I make mistakes, and also help friends think through their own lives.

Learning various skills (tech, DIY, cooking) helps improve my self-efficacy. I can make more things myself, and I can imagine more things too. Besides, it’s fun, and occasionally economically useful.

I’m still not as keen on conversation and friendship as I probably should be, at least according to Aristotle. I enjoy conversations with W- most of all. I like the mix of practicality, growth, and whimsical puns. On occasion, I enjoy conversations with other people, especially those I think well of and want to support. Other times, I talk to people for variety and social exercise. I’m comfortable with that because I’m not trying to be popular, entertaining, or entertained. I don’t mind taking my time with the slow collection of interesting people I can learn from and help.

I can use my leisure time to learn how to prefer things that are good for me. For example, I’m working on that exercise habit. I’m sure that once I’ve gotten into the swing of things, I’ll be able to enjoy it – I just have to stick it out until then. I have much to learn about music, art, design, and literature, too.

I think a good life is one where I have the space, awareness, and control to respond to life the way I want to, and that I’ve learned to want what’s good for me. I’d like to be able to say, looking back, that I’ve deliberated on how I wanted to live and that I’ve lived pretty darn close to what I decided. We’ll just have to see how it all works out!