Why walking helps us think

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

Any work that requires a problem solved or a touch of creativity is more often than not solved when I am on my feet. At one job, I used to slyly punch the clock, or in this case give a thumb print, and then go for a long one hour run where I would solve (or attempt to) the problems of the day. I tried to involve colleagues in this habit, under the guise of coming up with new product ideas, but for some reason running 10k first thing in the morning was not attractive to many. At another company, since were in the R&D department we had the luxury of a late start to our work day (9AM). This meant that I had a few hours to be mired in all kinds of problems, and the lunch hour to repeatedly walk around the block trying to solve them.

Sitting at a desk typing at a computer for an extended length of time is like death to me. It’s a place for production, more than anything else.

Why walking helps us think

Just make

From a book called Art and Fear, but I’m sure I have read it quoted in a number of other books and articles:

The ceramics teacher announced he was dividing his class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would begraded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right graded solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an A.

Well, come grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This story, for better or worse, encapsulates my approach to many different things. Making something (a prototype, a MVP, or a “1st version”) creates the opportunity for learning that sitting around a table debating does not. It won’t be perfect but it will teach you something and give you an artefact which you can use when you continue talking to users. You’ll also get some feedback, some insight on how building your product can be better and you’ll do a better job the second, third, and forth (etc.) time around.

Making is far more fun than planning.

Monster mash

I’m sure these came to me from weChat or Line, or perhaps something I saw at Eslite book store, but this is how I spent my morning today – at least that period sandwiched between getting the kids out the door and preparing for a noon time meeting. I created many others but I’m most partial to the color of these.

I think it’s always wise to take a break from the monotony of whatever you do, and create something new; especially if that something new utilizes a nascent skill. At the very least it’s more enjoyable way to procrastinate, than say cleaning the house.

Enabling Empathy

Through her talk, Indi Young explains how we must ask and listen more as a means to get past our assumptions. Absorbing eclectic ideas, understanding varied work patterns and incorporating different ways of thinking will help broader ideas sprout. She categorizes Empathy into Emotional and Cognitive Empathy, giving us examples of both.

I’m hoping to take Indi’s advanced training series but thus far the ~$800US cost is prohibitive; at least in the context that the skills may not be directly applicable to what I will do in this part of the world.

A blog is like exhaling

A somewhat meta discussion about blogs, back in 2006, which feels like a long time ago:

One of the most delicious things about the profoundly parasitical world of blogs is that you don’t have to have anything much to say. Or you just have to have a little tiny thing to say. You just might want to say hello. I’m here. And by the way. On the other hand. Nevertheless. Did you see this? Whatever. A blog is sort of like an exhale. What you hope is that whatever you’re saying is true for about as long as you’re saying it. Even if it’s not much.

I often don’t have much to say, or lack the ability to state what I would like to say, which might partially explain why I have kept this project alive for over 20 years; blogs exist for people like me.

What I am up to now

Following in the foot steps of Peter, and others, I’ve created a what I am up to now page which is linked to on the right (if you are on a PC) or on the about page.

I think Peter described it as “Think of what you’d tell a friend you hadn’t seen in a year”, but for me if that was the case I would limit it to a few sentences. So in addition, I think of it as an experiment to both keep myself honest by publicly declaring what I plan to do month by month, at least in a general big picture sense, and inspired by Hello Code’s business stats, being far more open about the activities I choose to do. Being open, or sharing what I do is something I’ve always had problems with – it reached a point that at one time my wife couldn’t even describe what I did all day (to be honest I had a hard time describing it too). Hopefully this page will over time help with this.

Camren and Barrack

This likely one of my favourite videos I have of Camren. His language skills developed later than what we might have expected which produced some pretty cute (and sometimes difficult) moments during the first couple of years.

Farmers market in winter

I find the Charlottetown Farmers Market far more enjoyable in winter, as the crowds are smaller, and the line up shorter. I still believe that it should be 3x the size it is now but perhaps that might in some way make it less personable.

My Saturdays used to be about a long run – an hour or more on my feet. Now I spend an equivalent amount of time at the market sitting, drinking cheap coffee, and eating delicious sweets. I need to learn to combine these 2 activities – what better way to end a long run than with blueberry sweets.

Smartphones need a warning label

“Like 99% of the value that people actually get out of Facebook, if you put distraction aside, probably requires 20 minutes on Sunday.”

Perhaps as a byproduct of my age and the realization that time is not infinite, I’ve often thought about what value I get from certain activities. I still waste too much time on task avoidance, but with the exception of checking Twitter for Island related news, I spend far less time than ever before one (anti-)social media. My guilty pleasure is looking at puppy videos on Instagram in the evening, which has the positive effect of ending the day with a smile or laugh.

There’s a rarefied number of activities to invest time in that are really important and return a lot of value—the amount of value [in these activities] is way higher than, say, the little bit of value you get by seeing a funny Tweet or writing a comment on a friend’s Facebook post. Spreading your time and attention over these low value things takes your time and attention away from the things that are disproportionately higher value.

If you want to maximize the amount of value you feel in your life, the mathematics are clear: You want to put as much of your time and effort as possible into the small number of things to give you these huge rewards. When you think about it that way, fear of missing out looks like, just mathematically speaking, a really bad strategy.

I’ve ordered his book Digital Minimalism to gain more insights into the techno-exhaustion that plagues our always-on, digitally caffeinated culture.

Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes. See also Cal Newport: Why you should quit social media

Somehow, we must find again our sense of individual values, lost in this century of enormous technological advance. This very freedom that mechanical aids are giving us has welded us into unmanageable megalopolises, where people are anonymous numbers and where communication with our fellow man seems a minus quantity. We must restore the warmth and spirit we had in the smaller community. I hope that in our leisure time we will once again know our neighbor — and, if everyone knows his neighbor and learns to live with him, the entire world will be at peace.
Henry Dreyfuss, Designing for People [Dreyfuss 1955, p. 261]

Preventing the iPhone screen from dimming

I’ve rewritten the audio player for the iPhone app that I developed 4 times before settling on the current implementation. Playing audio with Swift has many working examples to choose from and at the most basic level is easy even for me to implement. But streaming and caching audio was a bit outside of my range of capabilities at the time, so I used an open source library to fill the requirements.

Unfortunately, the framework I am relying upon does not allow for repeating audio if the screen of the device goes to sleep. A rather serious limitation as far as the user is concerned.

I’ve been sitting on this bug for over a month and today I, after doing all the possible household chores imaginable, decided to sit down and once again to try and attempt a fix. Unfortunately no easy fix was forthcoming, except this rather inelegant hack:

UIApplication.shared.isIdleTimerDisabled = true

This essentially prevents the screen from dimming and going to sleep. That solves the problem, and would be fine if this was an alarm clock app., but not fine when you are trying the escape the glow of a device in the bedroom.

This method also breaks down if the app for some reason is placed in the background, which will require a whole other set of digging for answers.

Office Ergonomics in 2019

Carrie Jones has written a well thought out article on her hopes for a shift from reactive to proactive ergonomic strategies in the workspace.

How many who work in an office environment, receive training on the hazards of prolonged sitting or on the optimal placement of the monitor when they start at a new job? How many are shown the features of the chair they were provided with and how to adjust it and why? My guess is not many. If any. More typically, one has to wait until they are experiencing symptoms (i.e. until after they’re injured) and even then it can be somewhat like pulling teeth. Some companies will require that an employee provide a ‘doctor’s note’ before they can obtain an ergonomic consult. Do companies require a doctor’s note in order to be fit for their fall arrest equipment or be trained on how to safely use a forklift?

I think we all experience the side effects from poorly thought out workspaces – in the spirit of fairness and efficiency we are all stuck with the same height desks, cheep chairs, and etc. Outside of smaller start-ups, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company give much thought to office ergonomics. This is something we all should focus more of our attention on, especially more aged workers such as myself, who require more time to heal from long or short term stresses to the body.

Looking forward to Office Ergonomics in 2019

Web Complexity

Every time I attend a developers meetup in Charlottetown I am inspired by their efforts to manipulate machines and wrought by headaches at how complex creating simple websites seems to have become; at least compared to the days when I got started. These meetups often give you the opportunity to view source, the key means by which most of us used to use to learn. It reminds me again of the essay by Frank Chimero, Everything Easy Is Hard Again:

Illegibility comes from complexity without clarity. I believe that the legibility of the source is one of the most important properties of the web. It’s the main thing that keeps the door open to independent, unmediated contributions to the network. If you can write markup, you don’t need Medium or Twitter or Instagram (though they’re nice to have). And the best way to help someone write markup is to make sure they can read markup.

I’m not insinuating that the developers at these events write inelegant code, but that all the complexity they are knee deep in used to be the purview of people writing code to manipulate data, not display mark-up.

This blog, thanks to WordPress gobbly-gook, and my own laziness suffers from code complexity, as do far too many local websites I’ve seen created by the multitude of marketing agencies here on PEI. You would have to have an almost religious conviction to abandon the ease of WordPress, all its repugnant plugins and themes, to create simple lightweight websites.

My good friend Chientai and I used to be believers, but I left the faith to focus completely on user experience. He now has a mountain farm and promotes permaculture.

I have a number of web projects on the horizon and I hope I have the time and patience to develop it with code readability in mind – it shouldn’t be that difficult to create a simple, responsive layout with nicely set text.

Escaping Evernote: Managing Bills

One of my use cases for Evernote is the capturing of bill paid receipts, most of which consist of a simple on screen confirmation without a paper trail, digital or otherwise. It’s only purpose is to safeguard against the possibility of error on the bill collector’s side – I still get payment due notices from my daughters CrossFit classes long after the bill has been paid. Credit card records don’t include the bill paid confirmation number.

Peter Rukavina details how he emancipated himself from using Evernote to manage his household and office bills. It’s a bit technical in nature, but if your workflow is anything like his it might be a good way to help you escape from the sinking ship that Evernote has become.

Evernote’s Customer Hostile Upgrade Scheme

Do you think Evernote would like me to upgrade? You have 2 choices here, upgrade or stop syncing. Stop syncing is framed as a negative and if selected won’t result in the user being able to continue to create notes. You are held hostage until you pay.

I wrote or meant to write about how I’ve let certain long term cloud accounts lapse because they no longer filled any pressing need. Evernote was one of them and up until this morning I experienced no real need to keep paying for either of the 2 premium tiers.

My understanding of the premium tiers was such:

  • It provided me with online storage thereby allowing my to access documents across devices, and have an alternative backup to my desktop backup scheme.
  • Text recognition
  • Downloadable notebooks which are useful for storing travel data

In the past if this wasn’t useful to you, you could just keep using the free account with no syncing to other devices. Well no longer.

This morning I was attempting to see pdf’s from a lecture I am watching, Kentaro Toyama’s excellent simplified introduction to affinity diagrams, when Evernote informed me I could no longer use the web clipper because I used up my online storage. No problem, I’ll just create a note manually and it can sync next month. Unfortunately Evernote would have none of that and refuses to let me add a note even if disconnected from the Internet.

I must have missed the email notifying that Evernote has gone completely subscription based. Even worse as you can see from the screenshot, they are absolutely hostile in their approach, ostensively blocking access to your notes until you pay the fee.

I’ll be sending them a complaint and will search for a more customer friendly provider.

Mini-guns are for noobs

Camren has been talking about Fortnite since the first day of school and sold the download of the game as a way to strike up a conversation with new friends. I suggested talking about the weather, and resisted until this past Christmas when we as a group bought him an Xbox, and the necessary upgrades to Fortnite, as a gift.

But being “a pain” and the “strictest father in the world” means that before he can waste away a few hours playing video games on this non-storm storm day at home, he first had to make his bed, clean his room, do his laundry, make his breakfast, and read for an hour. Fortnite is at least a good carrot.

A Stronger Alliance Between The Humanities and Math

Despite the fact that there always seems to be a moment of crisis for something, the strength of this article, other than providing an excellent viewpoint, is the reading list at the end.

If democracy depends on informed citizens, democracy is in trouble. This is a moment of crisis for many institutions, including higher education, especially in disciplines such as English, philosophy, and history, which promise to prepare students as citizens. To prepare students for a world where information is filtered by computers, we will need a stronger alliance between the humanities and math. This alliance has two reciprocal parts: cultural criticism of the mathematical models shaping our world, and mathematical inquiry about culture.

Traditional humanistic skills remain important, of course: we still need to scrutinize assumptions and evaluate arguments. But the challenges that confront 21st-century citizens are not always arguments that come one by one to be evaluated. Information is more likely to come in cascades, guided both by networks of friends and by statistical models that anticipate our preferences. Evaluating sources one by one won’t necessarily tell us whether these computational and social systems are giving us a biased picture. Instead, we need to think about samples and models—in other words, about math. Mathematics may once have seemed a specialized scientific tool. But in the 21st century, culture and politics are increasingly pervaded by the automated form of statistical inference called “machine learning.” Students who don’t understand it will struggle to understand everyday life.

Why An Age Of Machine Learning Needs The Humanities

Reading articles such often makes me wonder what life will be like for the children chronically absent from school (6600 in Newfoundland and Labrador) and those who suffer from PEI’s shocking literacy rates. It’s not even about participating in a global economy anymore, it’s about understanding the world around them.

NN/G: Children’s UX

What would we do without Normon Neilson Group’s broad strokes.

New research with users aged 3–12 shows that children have gained substantial proficiency in using websites and apps since our last studies, though many designs are still not optimized for younger users. Designing for children requires distinct usability approaches, including targeting content narrowly for children of different ages.

As anecdotal evidence might dictate, kids with ever increasing times spent with screen based devices are becoming more proficient in their use and more particular in their preferred interaction models:

Little kids, big expectations. Because children spend more time with devices than 8 years ago, they have more opportunities to get a sense of how things can and should work online. Children expected to be able to tap on and interact with characters and pictures in interfaces, both on touchscreens and desktop displays. (Speaking of touchscreens, several kids tried tapping on nontouchscreen laptop displays and were disappointed when they got no response). Kids expected some sites to play sound or have animation. One pair of 8-year-old girls spent several minutes trying to get a page to play sound and animate, so they could enjoy a game more.

Despite these higher expectations around interactivity, children did not have the same degree of disappointment that adults did when an app or site didn’t work quite as they expected. Yes, children did get frustrated when designs weren’t as fast as they liked, but they also were used to a lot of games simply not working, so they shrugged it off as a bug or something beyond their control. Still, given the option, they’d choose to browse or play something else if a site wasn’t working well.

A willingness to work around difficulties. There’s a myth that children “just know” how to fix a problem or get a website or app to work correctly. That’s not generally true (except for a few especially tech-savvy users). However, as kids get experienced with devices, they do become comfortable trying a different approach before giving up entirely. They would refresh the page, close and reopen the browser or app, or use the Back button and try again. Though they weren’t skilled troubleshooters (they weren’t good at problem solving or understanding the root of the issue, and they struggled to interpret error messages), they were very willing to try a few quick solutions. This willingness to experiment is something that users who have grown up with digital devices are more likely to have than users who have entered the digital world later in life. If after a few tries kids still couldn’t get something to work, they’d just close the tab, the browser, or tap the device’s Home button and pick something else do to.

It’s a great report full of useful (and reusable) bits of data.

Children’s UX: Usability Issues in Designing for Young People

Whats wrong with being super anyway?

When I was in college in Toronto my then mentor and teacher would often preach about the difficulties of life as a musician. One of his key concepts at the time was to not rely on any one income stream – or pieces of the pie (as in chart) as he called it – and to be sure to diversify your investment in any one of these areas. The logic being that if performance fees dried up you could then focus on your teaching business, or sub in the classroom, or perhaps like me, work more hours selling product. It’s a philosophy that works well at the micro or macro level for most freelancers or “solopreneurs”, and especially so for the seasonal life on PEI. How many people do you know on PEI who have a seasonal side-hustle to make up for the low salaries that are found here?

My main focus these past 6 months outside of slowing down and trying to fit into the cogs of life here, has been trying to build out a company for my wife and I that at the very least would help smooth out the rough edges of the high cost of living. Of course, building something you like can at times be fun, though to be honest many parts of following the training-to-be-a-CEO-for-dummies routine are boring at best. Unfortunately, our schedule to launch and subsequent riches has been stretched to the point that it’s time to include something else to the mix.

The next piece of my pie is focusing some of my time and energy on another business that has been on hiatus for the past 6+ months. For the lack of a better descriptor, and I’m searching for a better one, it’s a consultancy, focusing on experience design. What that means in common terms is that I hope to help SME’s fill in the gaps in their product design strategy by providing guidance on how to built things that work for their customers – coaching, qualitative research and heuristic analysis being the focus at first. Obviously I have a way to go in describing what I hope to do in a way that the average non-tech industry folks can understand. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and particularly enjoy coaching, but I know nothing of the market here so I will be taking my time to build out a local portfolio and gain some insight into the local mindset. As such I hope to focus on Startups first. Ultimately, I hope to include my wife in this (if anyone can “motivate” a group of kids during a test session it’s her), and perhaps another, as we fill a niche by focusing only on children’s products.

But my dream of being the Mr. Dressup of usability has already hit a snag. The name that I have been using, Super Lucky Elephant, and that has already been registered etc., after some informal in-person polling has been universally dismissed as being a bad idea. The following are a selection of the responses:

  • “the colours of your brand make me feel hungry” (not for design I presume)
  • “it sounds like a sushi restaurant”
  • “it’s too Asian sounding”
  • “you might not be taken seriously”
  • “it might make a good name for a diaper brand”

For some reason taking the super, out of super lucky elephant changes peoples opinion towards the positive. Somehow not being “super” changes everything.

The origin of the name comes from my favourite brand of Thai jasmine rice, which upon discovering that the .com name was available, I immediately registered. The name sounds nice in Chinese, and features 2 descriptors which is common in the Asian languages I am familiar with. At some point in time I knew I might have to change the name, but for now in Canada at least, I’m ok.

So for an hour yesterday I searched for a name with corresponding domain with no luck. I’ve thought of using the StartUp Name Generator but I would like something original.

Storm Chips

With the approach of yet another purported snow-apocalypse I keep hearing about the necessity of having storm chips on hand; there is even a beer and storm chips scale to rate the severity of the incoming storm. So in order to prepare, the kids and I went Asian Grocery to stock up. Obviously, I’m not quite yet in tune with the culture of my homeland, but the kids seem pleased.

Remembering San Mao

Taiwanese writer San Mao died 28 years ago this January. She was a role model for women of her time, casting off the social strictures of martial-law-era Taiwan, escaping abroad to travel, write, love and have the kind of exotic and tragic life that was the stuff of romance novels. I loved reading her short stories when I was learning Chinese and listened to an audio version of one of her short stories so often I had committed it to memory.

People’s Daily writes:

“She was born in Chongqing, moved to Taiwan, studied in Spain, and settled in the Sahara. All of her life she pursued freedom and touched the hearts of many with all of her words. Her love-story with Jose stirred people’s emotions. Her mother said that maybe her life was not perfect enough for her, but we now know that her life-long pursuit of her dreams has already become romantic legend. Today, in 1991, writer San Mao committed suicide.”

Remembering San Mao – the Bohemian Writer That Captured the Hearts of Millions of Chinese

To learn something new requires interviewing, not just chatting. Poor interviews produce inaccurate information that can take your business in the wrong direction. Interviewing is a skill that at times can be fundamentally different than what you do normally in conversation. Great interviewers leverage their natural style of interacting with people but make deliberate, specific choices about what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and when to say nothing. Doing this well is hard and takes years of practice.
Interviewing Users

The True Cost of 2 Day Shipping

One of the often cited key benefits of living in Taiwan is the convenience of many aspects of life there. Especially so when ordering anything online – 24hrs or less (more often less) shipping makes the hassle of fighting traffic pointless. Why bother driving to a box store when they will ship it to you at your home, or the nearest convenience store the very same day. The waste of such activity became more apparent when during the toilet paper crisis, large boxes full of nothing but rolls of toilet paper started clogging up the logistic infrastructure.

Moving to Charlottetown you get nothing near the same level of service, but habits die hard and I signed up for Amazon Prime and their free 2-day shipping. For PEI that generally translates to a week or more, depending on the mood of the Postal Union. I loath the likes of Walmart, and the arrangement of Charlottetown’s big box stores which are spaced far enough apart that you need to drive between each one. But when my house starts filling up with boxes, I’ve often wondered if sacrificing my sanity by listening to those poorly designed pay terminals might be better for us all in the long run. Apparently, not necessarily so:

Transportation experts are split over whether online shopping reduces or increases emissions. In theory, online shopping can be more environmentally friendly than a traditional brick-and-mortar store: Either way, a truck has to deliver the items, and in the case of online shopping, you don’t have to drive to the store as well.

“Our research shows that delivering a typical order to an Amazon customer is more environmentally friendly than that customer driving to a store,” said Melanie Janin, sustainability representative at Amazon, in an email.

But, and I don’t now if this applies to our experience since there seems to be little difference between shipping times, apparently the environmental cost of 2 Day shipping, which comes with Amazon Prime, is huge, when compared with other shipping methods, per this article on Grist.

Free two-day shipping — the hallmark of Amazon’s plan to squeeze out traditional retailers — burns through significantly more emissions than standard shipping or traditional in-store shopping.

When you wait three to five days for shipment, Jaller explains, Amazon has time to find the most efficient (and cheapest) way to deliver goods. Aviation is by far the most carbon-intensive transit option, and with more time the company can route your package by land, instead of by air…and group your package with other, similar deliveries.
“The concept of Amazon Prime pushes us towards more emissions…and makes the marginal cost of purchases very small, so you have motivation to buy more. And of course, that’s what Amazon wants.”

So seeing there is very little difference in the speeds of shipping methods to PEI, perhaps giving Amazon extra time might be a suitable alternative. Especially when you consider they are sending me a small bottle of brass cleaner across the country (the inspiration for this post) because it wasn’t ready as fast as the other items I ordered.