Wading into the Brambles

October 23, 2014

I’ve been debating doing NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve participated on and off for years, though I’ve never finished. At this point, it’s been a long time since I’ve written fiction (or told any sort of story, fictional or not), and I miss it. It’s a little weird to say that, since a) there’s technically nothing stopping me from doing it now, and b) I was never all that amazing at it. (I’m trying really hard not to just completely bag on my writing ability, since people seemed to generally respond favorably to what they read, and bear in mind Ira Glass’s quote on creative work, but it’s hard. Even with the stories I was moderately pleased with, there was SO MUCH room for improvement.)

I do miss it, though. It’s weird — I’ve felt blocked to the point of frustration for years now, and unable to bring myself to get past it, even though I know the answer is simply to keep it up until I get through the brambles. I’ve been thinking about it a lot for a while now — the dearth of creative outlets and making in my life, and it really struck home a little while ago. I was having a conversation with someone who is a maker and doer (and just generally awesome person), and we were talking about hanging out sometime, and they said they looked forward to hearing/seeing what I make. I was instantly filled with embarrassment, because I felt like I had nothing to offer to that conversation. I love creative people — it’s what I’m attracted to, both in friends and otherwise — and when given this opportunity to make a more solid connection with someone I already liked and wanted to get to know better, I felt like I had nothing to contribute.

Note, it wasn’t anxiety, it was embarrassment. I was embarrassed — I felt like I was a poser who’d been called out on their facade. I realize that isn’t really fair to myself or entirely accurate — there’s room for people who celebrate art and creativity, who are supportive and the first to cheer others on, and that doesn’t somehow make them a sham. But feelings aren’t rational, and it doesn’t feel like enough to validate the role creativity has on my personal identity.

So, it’s time to wade into the brambles again. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember what telling a story feels like on my tongue, the heft and shape of a narrative in my fingers. It’s time to correct that. I’m debating doing NaNoWriMo this year, and it almost doesn’t matter if I finish, as long as I actually begin.

The Happy List

October 22, 2014

If you haven’t gone through the archive of A Show with Ze Frank, I highly recommend it. The topics range all over the place, and the tone can vacillate from serious to silly from one episode to the next. There are a lot of times where I feel like he’s struck a chord, and says or shares something that deeply connects with me and my own experiences.

I could keep rambling about that (and maybe I will, sometime), but I actually wanted to share a particular video that I think poses a good question, about what makes us happy. Go ahead and take a minute to watch it, I’ll wait.

I love this concept, and is one I’ve thought about a lot in the past, the notion of the little moments or vignettes of experience that allow you a moment of happy contentment. It’s part of what I try to get at when I talk about the notion of “Festina Lente”. Being present in the moment, not rushed. Attentive. (It’s also one of the things I enjoy about Amélie — savoring the little moments, cultivating alternative pleasures.)

There are a lot of moments I appreciate, but here are a few:

  • Walking through dry leaves in the fall.
  • The smell of the woods and the fields after a good summer storm.
  • Biting into the first apple of the season.
  • Watching snow and ice melt into the brook on the first warm day of spring.
  • Watching traffic lights sway in the evening winds in the summer.
  • Watching a full moon rise over fresh snow.
  • Cooking and sharing a large meal with people I love. (There are reasons I try to celebrate both Canadian Thanksgiving and American Thanksgiving!)
  • Feeling the cool air on my face from the comfort of a warm bed.
  • Cupping a warm beverage in my hand after being out in the cold, feeling the heat seep into my fingers.

How about you? What are the moments that make you happy when you catch yourself being present for?

Environment to Thrive

July 23, 2014

I mentioned briefly in Reunions and Goals that I’ve been spending some time thinking about what environments I thrive in. It can be a useful exercise — it helps you identify what is working and what isn’t, and hopefully find ways to improve your environment.

“Environment” can mean a number of things, so to be clear, I’m talking mostly about two factors: living environment (the weather and culture in which you live), and working environment (the culture where you work and what you do there).

Let’s dive into the living environment first: I’m an introvert who grew up in the woods of Vermont. I like having green space around me, and the ability to choose my own pace. I’ve lived in cities before, and the ones I’ve done best in were ones that were welcoming, radically inclusive, and not in quite so much of a rush all the time. I pick up on the tension and urgency of the people around me pretty easily, and it leaves me stressed out more than I’d like. I like my seasons to have punctuation: to be seasons and not just a slight variation in the same weather year-round. I’m pretty ambivalent about winter and summer, but spring and autumn are important to me — in particular Autumn. There’s something about the shift in the air, the leaves changing, the sense of culmination. It’s a period of creativity and productivity for me (spring is a period of reflection and renewal), and something I value a lot.

Culturally, I like the weird. Artists, musicians, counter-culture folks, Cacophanists, Burners. I like diners and dives, street art, and people who don’t take themselves too seriously. I like places where there’s camaraderie and community, where what you do or how much you make doesn’t define who you are. I like to be where there is activity and a sense of getting things done, but where watches aren’t wound too tight.

Then there’s the working environment: what makes me feel productive, how do I like to work? I’ve found that I feel most productive and most valuable when I’m in an autonomous role where I can contribute to a larger whole, and help the people, the project, and the organization shine. I like to fill niches and gaps in processes and workflows so others can achieve what they need with a minimum of drama or frustration. I like to help others feel supported and respected, and like to feel supported and respected in return. I don’t want the limelight — if I was suddenly given the option of becoming a CEO, or becoming a COO (or other C-level position that isn’t the public face of the company), I’d choose the latter. I’d rather have the recognition and respect of my peers than to be called out publicly. I like having enough personal space to get my work done and to breathe, but also enough social opportunities to feel connected with my co-workers.

What this breaks down into for a work environment is a place where there is a level of trust within the organization that everyone is doing their part and contributing as best they can, where the goal is to do good work and to do the right thing, and is less about the politics of ego. There should be room to take initiative, and not too much pigeon-holing into a specific role and job description. Intelligence and talent should be highly valued, but not at the cost of kindness. Every job will have days where you’re there because it’s your job and not because you are invested in the work, but the best environments are where that’s the exception, not the rule. The goal is a work place where you neither feel like an imposter, nor the smartest person in the room, where everyone is striving to do their best work and to be better than themselves.

Obviously, the working and living environments are intertwined: without one, the other will feel off or lackluster. Finding a good work-life balance is hard, and goes well beyond whether or not you’re there 30 hours a week or 70 hours a week. It matters more (to me, at least) whether there is enough separation that work does not overwhelm life (and vice versa), but still enough connection where each is complementary to the other.

I’m not there yet: I really enjoy where I’m working, and feel like the work environment is damn close to where I want it to be. I’m less thrilled with my living situation: the Bay is too crowded, too tense and full of people stressed and rushing about, too expensive, too driven by class and money. That’s not to say there aren’t some amazing people and communities in the area, and a lot of the things I look for — I am saying I’ve not been won over yet or found those connections. I really should invest some more energy into giving it a fair shot. The lack of seasons still bothers me, though, and I can’t imagine settling here for the long term. Maybe that’ll change. In the meantime, it’s at least a worthwhile experience, and an opportunity to identify what’s important to me.

User Experience(d)

July 20, 2014

Last week, I was at a family reunion filled with fabulous, intelligent, talented people whom I’m glad to call family. One thing I noticed: as people pulled out laptops and iPads and smartphones, or discussed some of the current technological hurdles they’re facing in their day to day lives, there was still a lot of frustration and implied distrust of the hardware or software being used. It really hammered home to me that there’s still a long distance left between usable and intuitive. They were adding complexity and hurdles that didn’t need to be there, because they were used to a previous mental model that was more complex.

I work with software and computers every day, and have for years. Even a lot of my hobbies end up taking place on computers. It’s easy to take for granted the human-computer interactions I do on a daily basis, because I do them regularly, and generally even if it’s a new piece of software or hardware, it still behaves similarly enough to other software that I can get the hang of it pretty quickly. The thing is, even with the pervasiveness of technology these days, I am an anomaly, not the norm. Many people — highly skilled, capable people — simply don’t have that background and context for understanding, nor the time or interest to gain it. As far as I see it, this is a lot of what user experience design is all about: finding that line between simplicity and complexity, where people have enough detail to understand what is happening (at least a high level), but is still simple enough that they don’t have to invest cognitive energy to grasp how to use it.

Aiming for clarity is hard on its own, but what I was noticing is that it faces an additional hurdle: overcoming the complexities or mental models of previous designs. It seemed like a big problem in particular for older generations was that they’d fallen out of sync with what experiences were designed to be now, and were burdened with the expectation of complexity or failure from experiences in the past. It’s easy to say “oh, well they just need to retrain themselves,” but that implies they have the cognitive energy, time, and interest to do so.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep working on improving the user experience, but it is something to bear in mind when developing software or hardware. I have a few ideas on how to accommodate this, some of which may be more palatable than others:

  • Evolving UX: Going with more iterative, minor changes rather than a large shift. This already happens some (depending on the software), and sometimes it’s unavoidable that multiple changes will need to go in at once.
  • Documentation: Creating effective documentation can be invaluable for keeping older users up to speed on what’s happening. Three things I’d want to make sure to consider: keeping docs up to date to the current version of the software; keeping legacy docs for older versions; mapping the old user experience to the new user experience in change logs and within the docs themselves.
  • Usability Studies of Existing Users: Doing usability research has definitely become more prevalent, which is a good thing, but I feel like tends to focus on how to attract new users, and doesn’t really give a lot of attention to existing users (I suspect at least partially under the presumption that once a user is committed to your product, they are less likely to take the additional effort to switch). It would be really interesting to make sure to include existing long-time users when doing usability studies. If considering retention of existing users isn’t on your radar, maybe you should reconsider.

Obviously, it’s impossible to please all of the people, and maybe more of this is already in progress than I’m aware of, but it does feel like we’ve got a distance left to go on learning to effectively clear out the cobwebs of past experiences.

Sympathies for my MS Friends.

July 19, 2014

Until about 7-8 months ago, I worked as a vendor for Microsoft (v-). It wasn’t a bad gig — the pay wasn’t amazing, but provided a nice opportunity to work on some interesting projects, and since I was a v-, had a certain amount of job stability (a- contractors are required to take off 100 days every year, which causes a lot of disruption in projects, but at this point has been established long enough that we’d work through it. Vendors did not have this restriction).

Apparently, Microsoft is planning to implement a required 6 month hiatus for vendors as well. I honestly don’t know if the upper management who made this decision is quite aware of just how much of the work is done by vendors. Optimistically, there is some grand plan as part of the upcoming restructuring (laying off 18,000 full time employees, plus apparently who knows how much external staff), which will allow the company to shift their culture and make this work. I’ve been known to occasionally be an idealist, but I’m not sure I can be optimistic enough to believe that.

My sincere sympathies for everyone getting laid off, and for my v- friends who will now need to navigate this new landscape.

Reunions and Goals

July 18, 2014

It’s always fun to have a little time to reset. I’ve spent the past week at Squam Lake, enjoying the swimming, the people, and the house. It’s been a family reunion of families directly related to the property, and so it’s been wonderful to see all of my cousins, many of whom I haven’t seen in years. It did mean I missed Hack Week back at work, but sometimes that’s just the way things happen. It sounds like they’ve been having an awesome time as well.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what’s important to me, and what sort of environment I tend to thrive in. I’ve got a pretty good handle on it overall, but it’s still nice to pause and reflect every so often to see if things have shifted. When I turned 30, I took some time to figure out a two year, five year, and ten year plan. I managed to hit my two year goal largely on time, and I’m feeling pretty good about hitting my five year goal as well. The ten year is still too far out to tell, but I do feel like it’s still obtainable, so that’s good.

My ten year goal is a hammock. More specifically, sipping iced tea or lemonade in a hammock, while reading a book, nestled in a rambling garden outside a house. A significant other is doing what they want to be doing (maybe reading, or playing a game, or gardening, or painting, or whatever they enjoy doing), while the children play.

It may seem weird to think of a specific vision as a goal, but consider it for a moment: to achieve that, I need to be financially stable enough to afford a house and have the time to enjoy it. I need to be in a romantically stable relationship with someone who is interested in similar goals and lifestyle. I need to be emotionally stable enough to enjoy all of these things.

So if that’s where I want to be when I’m 40, how do I get there? Well, my five year goal is my litmus: if I’m starting to have a good handle on the financial, emotional, and romantic areas at the halfway point, I’m likely in good shape to achieve what I’m hoping for (and if not, it’s also a good point to do any course corrections). So, the five year goal is to have had solid progression in my career (in responsibility, pay, and flexibility), to have my personal life together, and to be in a solid relationship that, if not married and having kids, is at least on that path.

My two year goal was to have progressed in my career, where I’d be working for a company I respect and value, with a steady improvement of pay and advancement, and where I could see myself working for another several years. I managed to hit that right around on target (give or take ~6 months).

So… yeah, goals. It’s weird. When I was younger, my goals were things like “become a published author”, “have a gallery show”, “write a graphic novel”, or “design and produce a game.” Those are all still things I want to accomplish, but they didn’t really click as a goal, because while the goals were concrete, the paths were tenuous. My goal now is just an idea, a vision, but the path is clear, and I may end up achieving some of my other aspirations along the way.

Write the Docs 2014 (Day 2)

May 6, 2014

[Note: Giant conference notes info-dump behind the link. These are raw notes, I've not really cleaned them up at all, but wanted to share in case others find it useful.]
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Write the Docs 2014 (Day 1)

May 5, 2014

[Note: Giant conference notes info-dump behind the link. These are raw notes, I've not really cleaned them up at all, but wanted to share in case others find it useful.]
(more…)

Video

Dance Because You Can

April 9, 2014

This style of dancing seems to really fit this sort of music, and also stuff from the electro swing scene. For example:

Video

Tom Waits to Start Your Day

April 9, 2014

“Nirvana” by Charles Bukowski, performed by Tom Waits.

(For those who are curious, this is off the Tom Waits album, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. Good stuff.)