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Tips for making the most of the Toronto Public Library

| library, tips, toronto

The Toronto Public Library saves me thousands of dollars of book costs and opens up an amazing trove of knowledge. Here are some of my tips for making the most of this wonderful library system. What are yours?

You can borrow more than just books. The library has a wide collection of magazines, audiobooks, and videos. Check out the DVD shelves of your library for recent releases, or browse the periodicals to see what catches your eye.

You can request items online and have them delivered to any branch. You have access to all the circulating books in the system. With a library card, you can request items and have them delivered to a branch. The library will hold the items for a week. If you don’t pick up the items within the week, they will return to circulation. (Watch out for the new $1/item fines.)

Check out electronic resources, too. The library offers e-books, downloadable audiobooks, online journals, databases, and other resources.

Avoid overdue fines by returning items even after hours. When a library branch is closed, you can return items through the book drop slot. These items will be counted as returned on the last day that the library was open. For example, if a book was due on Saturday, but you put it in the book drop slot on Sunday while the library was closed, you won’t pay any overdue fines. If Monday is a public holiday, you can even return it then.

This is one of the reasons why I check out most of my books or renew them on Saturdays, so that I have Sunday as a grace period.

Renew strategically. If there are no other holds on an item, you can renew it, over the phone, or in person. It’s easier to renew items online than over the phone. Even if you can’t renew an item because of an existing hold, try again closer to your due date. Holds may be filled by other people’s returns, allowing you to renew your copy.

Books can be renewed for 3-week periods, and videos can be renewed for one week at a time. I believe the renewal period starts from the day that you renew the item, so don’t renew things too early or you’ll waste the extra time on your account. I usually renew my items on Saturdays (see above). I wrote a Perl script that checks items due in the next week and renews whichever items it can.

Associate other people’s cards with yours in order to pick up books for them, or to borrow on their account. Ask a librarian for a consent form and present both cards. My husband borrows items from the library too, so we pick up books for each other if needed. This has come in quite handy when I’m on a book-reading sprint, too, as I sometimes exceed the limit of 50 checked-out items.

Ask about passes to get free admission to city attractions. Some libraries distribute passes for museums and other attractions. There can be quite a line-up for popular places, so ask the librarians when the passes are released and plan accordingly.

You can find materials in many languages. Learning a new language, or pining for movies and books in your native tongue? Check out the library’s collections for books, videos, and other items in different languages.

Ask librarians for recommendations. Librarians are happy to answer questions and point you to more resources. There’s also a Q&A service that you can get to on the website. Talk to your librarians, and you’ll learn a lot.

Check out events at different libraries. Many libraries have regular events: book clubs, group exercise, even yoga sessions. These events tend to be free or inexpensive. Find out if any of these match your interests, and have fun!

Check out tech resources. The library offers computers, printers, photocopiers, and scanners. Check out the free WiFi, too.

Book meetings. The library has many meeting rooms that people can rent for reasonable fees.

Support your local library. You can get tons of value from the resources at your library. Give some of it back.  =)

Do you use your library a lot? What are your favourite tips?

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Visual metaphors: Balance

| drawing, tips

I’m working on improving my visual vocabulary by collecting metaphors. This turns out to be an interesting challenge. I’ll add more text to this blog post later, but in the meantime, here are some of my notes about one word. Click on the image to view a larger version.

visual-metaphors-balance

One! And there are so many other concepts to play around with… =)

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Six ways I’m learning how to get better at drawing sketchnotes

Posted: - Modified: | drawing, kaizen, learning, tips

getting-better-at-drawing

Joel wanted to know if I could share any tips on kickstarting and continuing sketching practice, so I thought about my process for getting better at drawing. Here it is!

Collect inspiration: With the growing popularity of sketchnotes and visual communication, there are plenty of great examples on the Net. I like checking out Sketchnote Army and Ogilvy Notes for inspiration. I often search for sketchnotes using Google Blog Search or Google Image search. I use Evernote to clip the ones I like so that I can search for them using text.

I look for inspiration elsewhere, too. Shop displays sometimes have interesting colour combinations, and paintings and photos are also great for colour and composition. Cartoons and comics give me visual metaphors and humour. I pick up ideas from books and presentations, looking for good things to share and interesting ways to share them.

image

Compile a notebook: I use Microsoft OneNote to collect parts of the different images that inspire me: title treatments, visual metaphors, colour combinations, techniques, and so on. I like using OneNote for this because the keyboard shortcut (Win+S) is an easy way to capture part of the screen, and because OneNote makes it easy to organize elements on pages within sections of a notebook. Text labels make it easy for me to search the notebook for the keywords I’ve added to each of the images. Organizing the elements like this means that I can quickly find a specific element or browse around for quick inspiration.

Build a library: Background templates, reference photos, and reusable elements (parts of  past drawings, for example) help me work more quickly. I can paste them in from my OneNote notebook, image searches, or my photos and files. I can also use Add Image to add a file as a new layer. I can then adjust the opacity, scale and rotate things a little, and trace the image or use it as the basis for a different drawing. I sometimes use a light grid as the background when I draw, as my lines and text tend to skew upwards if I don’t. I’m planning to collect stick figure and cartoon poses so that I can draw people with more detail and flair.

Because Autodesk Sketchbook Pro is a raster program, I lose some detail when I scale images up and down. Still, the library is great to use for guides or templates, and it’ll grow in usefulness as I draw and save more.

Colour combinations are good to save, too. I like seeing how other people use colour to highlight their work, and I’m gradually getting the hang of it. Autodesk makes it easy to save the colours I like, and there are some colours I find myself returning to often.

I’m also working on creating my own brushes for certain effects. For example, I liked the way some sketchnotes used dotted lines to connect ideas, so I experimented with Autodesk to see if I could make my own. My brush is somewhat translucent instead of fully opaque, but it will do for now. =)

Experiment: There’s so much to experiment with and learn. I’m trying out different ways of hand-lettering, playing around with the letter forms and what feel they evoke. I’m experimenting with colour, line widths, layouts, whitespace, and flourishes. I’m playing around with different ways to learn and summarize information.

I’m a long way off from settling into one style. Who knows, I may end up experimenting with this throughout my life. This is a good thing.

Learn how to use your tools: I also invest time into learning and experimenting with tools. Over the past few days, I’ve been going through the trial versions of Autodesk Sketchbook Designer, Adobe Illustrator, and Manga Studio EX. In terms of pen-friendly computing, I still prefer Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, although I wish I had some of the capabilities I saw in the other tools! I like reading the documentation and watching other people’s videos because I often learn how to work more effectively.

Practice deliberately: And of course, there’s practice. The more I draw, the more comfortable I’ll be at drawing, and (probably) the better I’ll be, too. It’s not just about drawing new things. Deliberate practice – going over and over small things – helps a lot, too. For example, I often fill a page with freehand circles. Then I add eyes, nose, and mouth to each of the faces, playing around with different expressions or trying to get the same expression each time. I also draw lines, as I find those hard to do (my hands are a little shaky). Tracing helps me learn more about drawing, too.

Those are six ways I’m working on learning how to draw better. How are you learning?

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Five things I’ve learned from five awesome years at IBM

Posted: - Modified: | career, ibm, learning, tips, work

I was going to write stories from my five years at IBM (one year as a graduate student, four as an IBM consultant) while they were still fresh in my memory. Then I realized I was on page 8 of a single-spaced document and I was still covering the first year. Instead of writing my way through it, I’ll share the five key things I learned during my adventure with IBM.

Happiness, meaning, and career growth are your responsibilities.

Don’t count on people to tell you why your work is meaningful or to arrange your career so that you’re happy. Do that yourself. Make your own vision and set yourself up for your own happiness and success. There will always be plenty of reasons to feel stressed or unhappy about work. Why not focus on what you could do to improve things instead?

As the financial crisis unfolded in 2008, the mood was decidedly down. Clients were tightening their budgets. Layoffs meant seeing friends scrambling for work despite their talents and skills.

I figured things would happen however they happened. I could either be demoralized by it, or I could focus on the things I could control. I learned more about consulting and development, and I had a wonderful year. (Okay, after I got through my disappointment about great people getting laid off…)

Work sustainably.

Fatigue and sleep deprivation lead to mistakes and lower productivity, and the personal sacrifices are too high. Work at a sustainable pace. If your work requires intense sprints, make sure you don’t forget to rest.

From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to burn myself out working 80-hour weeks. Although the occasional business trip involved longer hours, for the most part, I kept to the time I budgeted for work. This forced me to focus when I was at work, and to find ways to work more effectively. It also meant I gave feedback on estimates early, so that we could avoid having projects run behind schedule because of unrealistic planning. Result: less stress and more happiness.

Ask for help.

One of the best things about working with a large company is being able to work with people who are great at what they do. Sometimes you have to find creative ways to compensate or thank people for the time they invest in helping you. A thank-you note that includes their manager is an excellent way to start.

I was working on a client project when I ran into a problem that I didn’t know how to solve. It involved Microsoft SQL Server 2000, something I had never administered before. I tried searching the Internet for tips, but I knew I was missing things I didn’t even know to look for. After some delay, we eventually found an expert who could review my work, we brought him into the project, and he billed much less time than it would have taken me to learn things from scratch.

Practise relentless improvement.

Always look for small ways you can work more effectively. Invest time into learning your tools. If you can improve by 0.25% every day, you’ll double your productivity in less than a year.

Working with other people in an IBM location is an excellent way to learn by watching how other people do things. Attending community conference calls is another way to do that, too. Experiment with techniques yourself, and share what you learn.

Look for scalable ways to make a difference. Intrapreneurship is worth it.

Find yourself doing something repetitive? Solving problems other people might run into? Save yourself time, and save other people time as well. If you write about what you’re doing – or better yet, build a tool that does it for you – then you can share that with other people and create lots of value.

I started playing around with intrapreneurship through blogging and presentations. I was learning a lot, so I took notes and proposed presentations to conferences. Many of my proposals got accepted. This is how I got to go to the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange as a presenter in my first year as an IBM employee. Presenting helped me share what I’d learned with dozens of people at the same time, and uploading the presentations helped me share with hundreds and even thousands over the years.

I like building tools, too. I wrote something to make it easier for me to export data from Lotus Connections communities. This grew into the Community Toolkit that many people use to create newsletters or measure activity in their communities. I wrote a script for doing mail merge in Lotus Notes, and that became popular as well. This resulted in a steady stream of thank-you notes from people across IBM (and even outside the company), which came in really handy during annual performance reviews.

What have you been learning at work?

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My CSS theming setup

| development, drupal, geek, tips, work

“Why is your window transparent?” a coworker asked me when she noticed my screen. I told her about how I do my CSS theming, and she pulled another coworker over and made me repeat the explanation. Since that seems like something other people might find handy, here it is.

Sass: Syntactically Awesome Sytlesheets

I rarely do CSS/front-end theming work, but when I do, I try to make it as fun and easy as back-end development. I use Sass (Syntactically Awesome Stylesheets) so that I can use nested selectors, variables, and mixins. This makes my code cleaner and easier to write. You’ll need Ruby in order to install Sass, but the tool will give you CSS that you can use on any web platform.

Browser-based tools

I prefer doing the initial tweaking in Google Chrome, because I like the way that the developer tools make it easy to modify the stylesheet. The Chrome CSS Reloader extension is handy, too. Most of the time, I make my CSS changes in the text editor, then use the CSS Reloader to reload the stylesheet without refreshing the page. This makes it easy to manually toggle the display of some elements while allowing me to refresh style rules. If I want to figure out the values for a few simple changes, I’ll sometimes make the changes directly in Chrome (you can use arrow keys to adjust values), then copy the values to my Sass source file.

Colors, sizes, and spaces

A second monitor is totally awesome and well worth it.

Designs rarely specify all the colours, sizes, and spacing needed. To quickly get the color of a pixel, I use WhatColor. This shows the hex code for colors, and allows me to quickly copy the code with the F12 shortcut key. If you want to change the shortcut key, the source is available as an AutoHotkey script.

To make it easier to match sizes and spaces, I use WinWarden to make my browser window 20% translucent. Then I carefully position it over my design reference until the important features match. Magnifixer makes it easier to line things up because it can magnify a fixed portion of the screen. By focusing Magnifixer on the part I’m working on, I can tweak CSS without straining my eyes.

When I know I’m going to be making a lot of changes, I use AutoHotkey to map a shortcut so that I can refresh the CSS with one keystroke instead of several. When I happen to have my USB foot pedal handy, I rig it up to refresh my stylesheet.

Regression testing

Sometimes my CSS changes modify other rules. Instead of laboriously checking each page after changes, I’ve figured out how to use Selenium WebDriver to write a Java program that loads the pages in Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, capturing screenshots and numbering them according to the pages in my design reference. This means that I can run the program in the background or start it before taking a break, and then flip through all the screenshots when I get back.

Cross-browser testing

What’s CSS theming without the requirement of browser compatibility? Someday, when I need to deal with more browsers, I might look into Selenium RC. In the meantime, I develop in Chrome, my Selenium-based program makes it easier to test in Firefox and IE, and it’s easy enough to try the URLs in Safari as well. Virtual machines handle the rest of the requirements. 

So that’s how I’ve been doing CSS theming on this project. What are your favourite tips?

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Tip: Use visibility to motivate new habits

Posted: - Modified: | kaizen, life, tips

The urge to check things off can be a great way to start a new habit. On our recent trip to the Philippines, we found out that packing our vitamin supplements into pill organizers made it much easier to remember to take them daily. I get this compulsion to tick things off in order, to open each box on the right day, to see the chain of empty boxes grow.

It’s a well-known trick, this idea of making habits visible. Jerry Seinfeld says don’t break that chain, and that works wonders. It’s part anticipation and part loss aversion. People use it to pick up all sorts of habits. Mel Chua uses it to get the hang of flossing her teeth, for example. Visible progress is wonderful.

We’re back home now, but I’m going to keep using the pill organizers to keep track of supplements. Let’s see what else might benefit from this idea…

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Transcript: Blogging (Part 15): Tools to help you get started

Posted: - Modified: | blogging, tips, writing

Hat-tip to Holly Tse for organizing this interview!

Holly Tse: We probably have under three minutes left. We’ve got one more question here from Carla, and it seems like the most appropriate question to end this. She’s asking, “What recommendations would you give on which blogging tools to get started easily?”

Sacha Chua: Whichever you find easiest. For most people, that’s either wordpress.com or blogger.com, or something like that. WordPress.com or blogger.com. The tools don’t really matter as much as the attitude and the ideas you bring to it. Some tools make it easier to post than others. Things like Tumblr or Posterous are also gaining in popularity. But what you really want to do is get into the habit of thinking, “What do I want to share? What do I want to learn?” Then you almost can’t help finding tools that fit the way that you work. That’s the main thing.

HT: WordPress or Blogger, but really, whatever works. Whatever works for you.

SC: I think the much more important thing there is the habit of saying, “Well, what do I want to learn? What can I share? What’s different about today? What do I want to remember?” That’s probably the best tool recommendation I can make – that mental tool of asking yourself those questions. Then writing–even if it’s boring, even if you feel awkward and gangly like a high school student trying to figure out what to put in an essay–write for yourself, and you’ll gradually figure things out.

HT: Yes. Very good. It’s not just about the technology. It’s about why you are blogging.

SC: It’s almost never about the technology. If there’s anything I can do to help you get started with that, get in touch with me. I’m @sachac on Twitter. You can follow the link from there to get to my blog if you want to, and you can leave comments on that too.

HT: Thank you very much for joining us this evening. I want to say to everyone who is listening to us or catching the audio replay (which is available for 48 hours after the broadcast), Sacha’s so enthusiastic about blogging, she convinced me to start blogging again, so… Yay! Congratulations Sacha!

SC: And this is where you repeat your blog URL so that everyone can check it out.

HT: Yes, so it’s hollytse.com – I have to spell it out, I have one of those names too – hollytse.com.

SC: I look forward to finding out about all these wonderful blogs… The blogs that you, dear listeners, are going to start or continue… I’d love to learn from you and your experiences too. We’re all figuring things out. No one’s a real expert, and we’re all going to learn from each other’s stories.

HT: Okay, great! Thank you so much! I hope everyone has a good evening and we’ll connect in the blogspace.

SC: Have fun!

HT: Thank you. Good night!

Tada! You can find this 15-part series at Discovering Yourself through Blogging, including a text and PDF version.

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