Seven Distractions

January 21, 2018

I wonder who came up with the term “one those days”.

Because I’ve been having one of those days for a couple of days now. My computer suddenly seems to have amnesia about who I am (thanks to an errant operating system upgrade).

How are things at your end? Do you need a distraction? Let me offer you seven (videos embedded below):

There you go. Enjoy a distraction or two, and with any luck, when we talk next week, my computer will remember who I am.

 

Walking Back from the Outrage and Addiction

January 13, 2018

This week, I’d like to point you to an article by software developer Joel Spolsky, Birdcage liners. Spolsky discusses how he has given up reading Twitter and Facebook because they were making him angry.

Does that sound familiar? Ever come away from social media feeling worse than when you got there? Me, too.

What’s interesting to me is his software designer’s take on the problem. Spolsky essentially says that outrage and addiction to the services are baked into their very design.

Twitter, by limiting the number of characters in a tweet, strip communication of nuance, emotion, and sentiment. Says Spolsky:

The outrage and indignation, of course, are what makes it work. That’s what keeps you coming back. Oooh shade. Oooh flamewar. We rubberneckers can’t keep our eyes off of it. I don’t know what the original idea of Twitter was, but it succeeded because of natural selection. In a world where the tech industry was cranking out millions of dumb little social applications, this one happens to limit messages to 140 characters and that happens to create, unintentionally, a subtlety-free indignation machine, which is addictive as heck, so this is the one that survives and thrives and becomes a huge new engine of polarization and anger. It’s not a coincidence that we got a president who came to power through bumper-sticker slogans, outrageous false statements chosen to make people’s blood boil, and of course Twitter. This is all a part of a contagious disease that is spreading like crazy because we as a society have not figured out how to fight back yet.

I can so relate to this. If you search my Twitter feed (I’m @einspruch), you’ll find at least one or two instances where I’ve piped in something like, “Just tuning in. What’s the outrage du jour?” I’m sure I meant that ironically, but I think it is symptomatic of the hell hole of garbage that Twitter can be, and the lure of instant, daily outrage.

And the Book of Face (here’s my page)? Spolsky:

Whereas Twitter sort of stumbled upon addictiveness through the weird 140-character limit, Facebook mixed a new, super-potent active ingredient into their feed called Machine Learning. They basically said, “look, we are not going to show everybody every post,” and they used the new Midas-style power of machine learning and set it in the direction of getting people even more hyper-addicted to the feed. The only thing the ML algorithm was told to care about was addiction, or, as they called it, engagement. They had a big ol’ growth team that was trying different experiments and a raw algorithm that was deciding what to show everybody and the only thing it cared about was getting you to come back constantly. 

And:

Rather than providing a constant stream of satisfying news and engagement with friends, Facebook’s algorithm had learned to give me a bunch of junk I didn’t need to hear, and only gave me intermittent rewards through the occasional useful nugget of information about friends. Once in a blue moon I would hear about a friend’s accomplishment or I would find out that someone I like is going to be in town. The rest of the time I would just get the kind of garbage newspaper clippings circulated by someone who had too much coffee and is misattributing the kick from the caffeine to something they just read online and now MUST share IMMEDIATELY with EVERYONE because this news story about something that happened to a baby bear is SOOOOO important to THE ENTIRE WORLD.”

I encourage you to read the whole article.

These are very powerful tools that have, quite literally, changed the world. The connections that can be fostered and maintained are incredible. I’ve had brief connections with some of my heroes on Twitter, and meaningful engagements with lots of folks on FB. There’s no question that there’s value there.

But Spolsky’s words fit in with what I’ve seen in my own life, and in those around me. More than once I’ve said to people near me, “If you’re using Facebook and coming away feeling worse, you’re doing it wrong.”

As for the addictive quality, I’ve seen that in myself, too. “Oh! Look! That stupid red circle has a number in it! Better check if someone has liked a post!”

I’ve been on social media for a decade now. I have fed the Facebook content machine, and tweeted everything from humour and indignation. But my inclination these days is to try to keep a tight lid on my engagement with both of them. I wrote last week about how I close off social media when I’m writing or trying to do anything productive. I reckon I’m better off writing a few hundred words more than engaging in the outrage du jour.

My natural inclination in the past months is to go on there less and less. I don’t think I need to go cold turkey the way Spolsky has, but I find that, for me, less is better.

How about you?

Beginnings, Systems, and Habits, Not Resolutions

January 7, 2018

Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.
—  attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

You can’t go wrong starting with a Goethe quote, can you? (Except, it appears not to be from him.)

Still, the sentiment holds. Welcome to 2018, a year in which I can promise you that all kinds of stuff will happen that will be outside your control, and which you’ll care about a lot, or you won’t, but there won’t be much you can do about it.

Good, we got that out of the way.

Let’s talk about things we *can* control. Let’s talk about beginnings.

I mentioned last time that I’m one of those whose not a big fan of new year’s resolutions (wait, we’re already a week into the new year, am I still allowed to talk about them, or do I have to wait until next December?). Instead, I’m a fan of systems and habits that help you achieve what you want to achieve. Want to lose weight or save more or write more words or whatever, think about systems and habits that will lead you to that. What would setting the alarm 15 minutes earlier every day help you do? What would parking further away, closing your Apple Watch rings, or setting up an automated debit nudge you toward?

Also, it’s important you don’t fall in love with the search for the perfect tool. If you’re doing the equivalent of being the writer trying out a hundred word processors instead of writing, then you’re doing it wrong. People (*cough* like me *cough*) who like tech, especially, fall prey to this. Get on with reinforcing the habit or strengthening the system or doing the work.

Here’s an example from my world: shutting down social media. When I’m writing and trying to be otherwise productive, I close down the Book of Face and the fiery hellhole of Twitter, and ignore (or turn off) their notifications. Some people have success by limiting the social media apps to one device (like a phone or an iPad), but for me, shutting them down works. Also, I relegate Wastebook to its own browser (I’m mainly a Safari user, so FB lives in Chrome, which I think also limits its ability to track non-FB activity, but I won’t swear to that in court.) So, what’s my system and habit? Shut ‘er down.

Finally, you have my permission (not, though, like you need it) to screw up, so long as you do better the next day. Did you eat the donut? Miss your word count? Watch Jane the Virgin instead of going to the gym? Not to worry. Tomorrow (or later today) is another day.

So, over to  you. What system or habit can you put in place to ring in the new year and help you say next December, “Well, that was worth doing.”?

Here There Be Gratitudes

December 30, 2017

Billie and I have a tradition. Every new year’s eve, we look back and list our gratitudes for the past year. Sometimes we’ll also look forward and do goals, but it is the gratitudes I enjoy more. It is a way to shape the year gone by with a positive spin, and focus on the things that brought learning, meaning, and value.

Here are some (not all) of mine for 2017 (I’ve omitted the more private ones).

This year, I’m grateful for:

  • You, for being part of this email thing. I’ve received so many lovely and encouraging responses, and every one makes me want to keep going, Which I will.
  • New music, which brought new joys. (Want a weird one? check out Festivalzeit (Apple Music) by Losamol Mundart. Did I mention I have a penchant for German pop and rock? This one is a bit more rappy, but catchy.)
  • Books, which also brought new joys. (I wrote about this last week.)
  • The various activists who made their voices heard, whether for marriage equality in Oz, a better deal for animals everywhere, or standing strong against dumpster fires.
  • Tamsin and Cheryl for being my first readers, and their great feedback and encouragement. If you enjoy what I bring out next year, you’ll have them, in part, to thank.
  • The self-publishing community, for being so generous with their information and support.
  • Vego bars, for being chocolate and vegan.
  • Podcasts and audiobooks for bringing me so much entertainment and information.
  • The artists who inspire me, like Aaron Sorkin and William Gibson.
  • Apple, for releasing the iPhone X and giving me a bit of delight back in the phone experience.
  • Every drop of rain that fell on our place. Every blade of grass that grows.
  • The animals who share our lives, for their inspiration and showing us there are other ways to be. Also, some of them are really characters and crack me up.
  • And always, always Billie and Tamsin, for sharing my life. I look forward to 2018 with you.

I invite you to join me in this tradition of gratitudes. What are some of yours?

Fellow human, I wish you blessings of the new year, and I’ll see you in 2018.

Scratching the Reading Itch, or Some of the Books I Liked in 2017

December 23, 2017

First of all, happy holiday of your choice, fellow human. We’re a celebrate-Solstice-then-act-like-sloths-for-a-couple-of-days kind of family. Which means that, practically speaking, any craziness of the season is behind us. As I write, Billie and Tamsin are enjoying future cool thing recommendation Jane the Virgin (no link, but it’s on Netflix), while I grab some quiet time at the computer.

This week, I wanted to share with you some of the books I’ve enjoyed in 2017, in case you need some written or audiobook entertainment over the holiday period. Most of them were not published this year, but were the ones I’ve read or listened to all the way through. You can see the full list of what I read this year up on Goodreads (and while you’re there, give me a follow, if you’re interested.) (Links below are all Amazon.)

I previously recommended as cool things my favourite books of the year. In fiction, it was Max Barry’s Lexicon (along with his Jennifer Government), and in non-fiction John Cleese’s So, Anyway…. You can read my thoughts about them on my Cool Things page.

So, let’s look at some others.

I’ve become quite the fan of John Scalzi, and read four of his this year. My favourite this year was Lock In, followed by his most famous work, Old Man’s War (book one in a series). One of my overall Scalzi favourites was read in a previous year, Redshirts, which might or might not have been inspired by the red shirted characters on a certain popular TV space-based show. If you’ve not read any of him, and like sci-fi with humour, he’s worth a go.

From the speculative fiction department is N. K. Jemison, who is a multi-award-winning author, including the 2016 Hugo for The Fifth Season, and the 2017 Hugo for its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, which I enjoyed this year. Both books include some second-person writing, which is pretty rare, and works in a very interesting way. Also, Jemison is female and a woman of colour, which is a pleasant change in a world of writing dominated white dudes.

On the non-fiction side, most of the non-Cleese books I read were writerly ones. If that is of interest to you, then I commend to your reading the most excellent The War of Art, Write. Publish. Repeat., The Story Grid, and Take off Your Pants (a book about plotting, not anything more salacious).

I hope there’s something in the above for you to enjoy. Happy reading.

So, what was your favourite book to have read in 2017? Drop me a note. I’d love to hear.

A Rant About Words (And Banning Them)

December 17, 2017

Warning: I got my dander up. If you’re not up for a rant, feel free to skip this week.

You’ve likely heard about Seth Godin, super smart marketer and prolific blogger. He did a piece recently called Different people hear differently, which included this:

What you say is not nearly as important as what we hear.

Which means that the words matter, and so does the way we say them. And how we say them. And what we do after we say them.

And:

It takes two to be understood. Not just speaking clearly, but speaking in a way that you can be understood.

I came across this today, the same day that a certain dumpster fire’s administration issued the CDC a list of seven forbidden words. To wit:

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden terms at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or ­“evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.

Holy guacamole, this made me livid. For one, I agree with what Gruber said. For another, this sort of thing is the stuff of authoritarianism. It comes on top of the Environmental Protection Agency being forced to remove from its website resources for local governments relating to climate change.

All of this is unacceptable. Completely.

Now, my life is words. I put them together in ways people can understand and (I hope) enjoy to make my living. I believe, as Godin says, words matter—the ones we choose, how we say them, and who we say them to. How we choose to talk to our neighbours, our children, and our animals shapes the world we live in. Our words give us a chance to make things better, if we choose well.

I think that’s why the CDC thing plugged me in so much. That sort of anti-science, anti-reason, artificial restriction does not move us all forward as a society, expand our knowledge, or bring us together as people. It tries to perpetuate a close-minded point of view that would hold all of us back.

What we think of words changes over time. Remember George Carlin’s Seven words you can’t say on TV? (Needless to say, that link is NSFW.) (Also, embedded below.) When Carlin did that routine several decades ago, it was cutting edge stuff. These days, you hear most of them on TV all the time, certainly if you’re a streamer with Netflix and the like. Agree with that change or not, that change has happened.

Do I think all words are appropriate in all situations? Of course not. I didn’t swear in front of my grandma, and still wouldn’t. Learning when words are and are not appropriate in social settings is an important skill for our young’uns to learn.

But that’s all different. That’s about respect, appropriate usage in setting, and learning to get along with people.

The actions of the dumpster fire’s administration? That’s about repression.

Well, stuff that. I sincerely hope that at every public appearance from here on, all of the people behind this decision are faced with placards proclaiming those words loudly and boldly.

Because words matter. And so do actions.

(Separately: congrats Aussie legislators for finally doing what they should have done months and years ago, and passing marriage equality laws. About effing time.)

25 1/2 Things I Learned in 2017

There’s a guy named Tim Whitwell who’s a consultant with Fluxx who does a list of 52 Things I Learned each year. Here’s 2017 and here’s 2016. A couple of gems from this year:

  • 2. Traders in Shenzhen electronics markets now rely on smartphone translation apps to communicate — not just with foreigners, but with people speaking other Chinese dialects. [Mark Pesce]
  • 29. Amazon Echo can be useful for people suffering from Alzheimers’: “I can ask Alexa anything and I get the answer instantly. And I can ask it what day it is twenty times a day and I will still get the same correct answer.” [Rick Phelps]
  • 34. An American TV viewer who watches Netflix rather than normal ad-funded television could avoid 160 hours of ads every year. That’s equivalent to a month of eight hour working days. [Dan Calladine]
  • 41. Men travelling first class tend to weigh more than those in economy, while for women the reverse is true. [Lucy Hooker]
  • 52. Ten out of twelve British water companies sometimes still use divining rods to search for leaks. [Sally Le Page]

This got me thinking. What have I learned in 2017? (Mine are more personal that Whitwell’s, and not all were necessarily learned this year, but may have been reinforced.)

  1. If you are overzealous enjoying archery for the first time in many, many years, you can both have fun *and* pull a muscle that helps you end up spending a week in bed.
  2. Small, consistent efforts accumulate over time.
  3. Being married 30 years is a delight.
  4. Sometimes the process can be flawed, even painful, but the right outcome can still result. (I’m looking at you, marriage equality in Australia).
  5. It can take a long time, but sometimes bad behaviour gets its just desserts. And sometimes, those in power will ignore it for their own ends. The latter is is odious as it has ever been.
  6. Sometime people you admire do things you don’t admire, and it matters. (Al Franken, anyone?) (See also What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?, which I’ve considered writing about but don’t think I have anything to add.)
  7. Going to live rock/pop concerts has the capacity to make you feel both young and old at the same time.
  8. It is never easy to share your life with someone and then have to bury them. This applies, of course, to animals as well as people.
  9. If you detach yourself from the brain suck of social media, you tend to feel better.
  10. It is OK to leave old, familiar podcasts behind if they no longer fit your head space. This applies to people, too.
  11. Having a 22-year-old daughter is a delight.
  12. Comparison-itis is debilitating. So don’t. Just don’t.
  13. Making time for things that matter helps you make time again for things that matter.
  14. Don Miguel Ruiz’s second agreement continues to be valuable (along with the other three, of course).
  15. I once again am looking forward to new Doctor Who episodes. I didn’t think that would happen.
  16. It is, in fact, possible that a dumpster fire will end up in charge. Despite this, good people will continue to do good. (This may or may not be about the person you might think it is about.)
  17. An almost ten-year-old computer can still make a positive contribution to one’s life, if just.
  18. There is no need to rush into being part of the Internet of Things. Other people can work out the kinks, especially those that have to do with security.
  19. Good password hygiene is more important than ever. (I use 1Password to help with this.)
  20. Lorde and Sia can both still sing like rockets.
  21. It is still fun to read stuff you’d normally think, “That’s not for me.” (No, I didn’t cry reading The Time Traveller’s Wife. Why do you ask? *Wipes eyes*)
  22. Libraries are still awesome, even in the digital age.
  23. If something blows your mind, there will be others who share the feeling.
  24. Putting out a weekly email is trickier than I thought, and more enjoyable than I expected. Also, sometimes “weekly” is “weekly-ish”.
  25. It is still true that when people are kind, things are better. So being kind to others is still worthwhile.
    25 1/2. Kindness toward animals (especially by not eating them) is as rewarding as anything on the planet. (OK, I learned that a long time ago. That’s why it’s 1/2. Still worth including.)

I’m sure I’ll think of more as soon as I post this, but for now, that seems like enough lessons.

So, what has 2017 taught you? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear.

Mind Blown: Order of Adjectives

November 24, 2017

Some things we just know.

We grow up with them, and they become part of how we operate. Sometimes you know they are there (like washing hands before eating), and sometimes we don’t.

Today, I share with you something you do as a native English speaker that you didn’t know you did, but for which there is, indeed, a rule. When I read about it, I had a small *mind blown* moment, and had to share it with you.

I learned about it reading this Guardian article, which was triggered by this tweet, which was a photo of a paragraph from the book The Elements of Eloquence (Amazon).

How do the following feel?

  • Old silly fool
  • My Greek Fat Big Wedding
  • Canvas walking brown boots

They feel *wrong*, don’t they?

That’s because (and here it is:) adjectives in English follow a set pattern. As author Mark Forsyth puts it in The Elements of Eloquence:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.”

Mind blown.

But wait, you say. What about “big bad wolf”? (Well, I didn’t think that. If you did, points to you.) “Bad” is an opinion. It should come first. The article covers that one as well, with a rule called “ablaut reduplication.” From the article:

“Other examples of the rule in action include chit-chat, singsong, flipflop and hip-hop. When you shift vowel sounds for effect this way, the vowels always follow a specific order: I, then A, then O. You’d think it was more complicated, that it depended on mood or context, but no, it’s that simple – bish bash bosh.”*

Once again, mind blown.

Like I said, just had to share that with you.

*Note: I edited the above quote to be “bish bash bosh,” following the rule given. At the time of writing, if you clicked to the article, they had it as “bosh bash bish,” which runs counter to the point the paragraph is making. I suspect a small error mistake.

What We Bring to It Matters

November 19, 2017

What we bring to it matters.

If there’s anything that can make one’s life better, it has to be that thought. Or more, choosing to act based on that thought.

I was talking to my mom today (hi Mom), and we discussing the fact that there are so many opportunities for unhappiness in life. Take your pick. Politics. One’s health. Someone else’s health. Divorce. The loved one with a mental health challenge. Drug addiction. Finances (always and ever money, eh?). Did I mention politics? The end of the world as we know it (although, isn’t the world as we know it always in an on-going process of ending?). The list of potential sadnesses is limitless.

But…

No matter what it is that we face, we have a choice of what we bring to it. Do we bring grousing or grace? Flexibility or righteousness? Acceptance or resistance? Optimism and hope or catastrophe and despair? What we bring to it matters.

We’ve all have heard those stories about how one’s attitude toward an illness can sometimes affect the likelihood of a better outcome. The can-do patient versus the woe-is-me one. And even if the two patients end up with exactly the same result, surely the better attitude makes a difference to the experience overall, for the human and those around them. (To be clear, I’m not saying that “thinking positive” will cure someone’s cancer. I’m saying that in a hard situation like that, bringing grit to it is different to bringing despair, even if both are valid responses.)

“What we bring to it matters” isn’t a digital concept—all or nothing. This is an analogue idea, one of gradations, continuities, and shading. To do this effectively, one has to leave the realm of Pollyanna, and work out awareness. That’s what tends to get me tripped up. If I’m raging or sad or whatever, being able to be aware of it is a good first step to changing what I bring to whatever is going on.

That Buddhist idea of of “X has arisen” is so useful. “Anger has arisen.” “Sadness has arisen.” “Irritation toward that bastard has arisen.” That’s instead of “I’m angry,” “I’m sad,” or “I’m irritated.” The former depersonalises. They help you not identify with the emotion directly. It is a great tool for shifting, to foster awareness so one can change what one brings to the situation.

So, do you raise others up? Fill up their buckets? Bring up the ambient vibe? Exude hope and positivity? Do you look at issues as problems that can be solved?

Or not.

Because, what we bring to it matters.

A lot.

Useful Rituals

November 10, 2017

I’ve been thinking about useful rituals, and trying to embrace some that make me better at what I do.

By “useful ritual” I mean anything that one does that is habitual, formalistic, not necessarily directly productive, and which provides a sense of direction, benefit, or improvement. For some people, this is a morning coffee (go caffeine!). For others, exercise or yoga or walking the pooches.

For example, author Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art (a most excellent book), talks about starting his writing day by invoking the muse: “The last thing I do before I sit down to work is say my prayer to the Muse. I say it out loud, in absolute earnest. Only then do I get down to business.” He uses a passage from Homer’s The Odyssey that goes like this:

O Divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus, sustain for me this song of the various-minded man who, after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy, was made to stray grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart, through all the sea-faring, ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home. Vain hope — for them. The fools! Their own witlessness cast them aside. To destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun, wherefore the Sun-god blotted out the day of their return. Make this tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse. . . .

That’s a bit highfalutin for my tastes (also, as a vegan, the “meat” bit is unpalatable). But I can see where Pressfield is going with it.

So, I’ve begun starting my writing day with, “OK, Muse. Lay it on me. Let’s get some words out.” Not quite Homer, but the intention is there, and that’s the point.

Another useful ritual I have: closing the three rings on my Apple Watch activity tracker.

And another: planting at least one thing in the garden every week.

The most important one for me right now? Writing every day, come heck or high water.

So think about useful rituals this week. Which do you already have? And is there one or two that you’re happy to add in to your daily life? I’d love to hear your thoughts.