The productivity trap

This post was written 6 years ago.
Sat, 08 Nov 2014
About two months ago, on a warm summer's evening - this summer, that never wanted to end, but now has - I was sitting on the floor by the Arnolfini with some attendees and speakers of this year's JavaScript workshop. Next to gender stereotypes I remember us at some point discussing productivity and how it seems to be so utterly important these days. I heard myself saying: "I have become more productive since I have given up trying to be productive". It was something I had only realised quite recently. People are different, and it seems to me, some are genuinely capable of working steadily most of the time, being efficient and productive. But I have to admit that for me that is difficult, and I am starting to think whether it would even be a desirable world where everybody can do that.

I remember, about five years ago, reading somebody's blog post about how GTD just didn't work for them. At the time I hadn't known about the book, and when I read it a year or so later, it seemed such a revelation. I really did spend two days where I dealt with all the lose ends, I organised all documents worth keeping in stand-up folders and hanging files. I felt so good afterwards. And I had a brief spell of dealing with things immediately, finding the next actions etc. But it didn't last, and I am pretty sure I am not the only one.

There must be thousands of blog posts now where people share their stories of how they managed to become more productive. There's usually a list of tips. And a lot of them are really valuable, like turning off distractions, especially online distractions. But what is a bit questionable in my eyes, is when "time off" is just seen as an opportunity to recharge the batteries. When it is just a means to an end, and the end is to become ever more productive. And I have seen this viewpoint being expressed several times.

Against productivity


Then today, I saw two tweets that were posted in quick succession by two different people. One was pointing to a post on Medium wirtten by Quinn Norton which I could relate to very much. It is called "Against productivity". I could quote endlessly from it. One thought I've had myself is that this demand for productivity started with the industrial revolution. It is not entirely a recent thing. It is just that it has come to a head now. It might be time to stop and think, is this really how we want to live.

And then there is this about the American dream: "I began to think no iteration was quite as vile as this one. Despite all the greed and hatred of the past iterations, no version of the dream had been so mechanical — so dehumanizing — as this dream of productivity."

And the other tweet? It linked to an infographic of "Take back your mornings" - take back your mornings to be more productive. What else?

Productivity paradox


The tricky thing is that on the other hand we are probably happiest when we are productive. When we create something, when we finish a difficult task, when we have done something that makes a difference to others, or even just to ourselves.

I often get restless because I do a lot of "unproductive thinking". I have this habit of "philsophising" all the time. And I most certainly overthink things. It is not always totally useless, sometimes I might be able to see some connections that others don't, and I might get some useful ideas. But on the whole, it often seems a bit too much. And of course it keeps me from being efficient!

So for me, I think the real challenge is to not get too distracted (and the online world really can be a bit of a problem, here) to keep myself from working on some things, that I then do finish and can feel okay about. Also, to not get disheartened by what I am thinking.. although that's not entirely avoidable and maybe shouldn't be. - Act on the good ideas that pop into my head. And ironically you can become distracted from putting good ideas into practice, because you are asked to do so many other thing. Be productive, be busy! And then you forget what it is worth getting busy with!

No "Getting things done" != Getting no Things Done


At least for me, there will always be a tension between the things that I'd like to accomplish and what I do in reality. But I do feel a lot less bad by now, about "wasting" some time by just thinking about things, about life in general, about how the human mind works, about how society works (haha those are the high-brow ones, I am not telling you about what else I think ), without seeing an immediate benefit of it. Perhaps that is something that we have to learn again. That when there's no immediate outcome that doesn't mean that nothing positive has happened in the meantime. And it would be good to accept that; in ourselves, and in other people, too.

People have always got things done, and got some amazing things done, before both the "positive thinking" and the "productivity" industry.

This post was written 6 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

Giving up Depression

This post was written 6 years ago.
Sun, 02 Nov 2014
This is a uniquely stupid title, you might think. You cannot just 'give up depression', obviously, it's an illness. And I have to agree with you. In fact, I am not sure if I will keep the title. But maybe I should, just for the sense of unease it gives me.

It makes me feel uneasy, because I find it difficult to let go of depression - or perhaps, rather the idea that depression plays a huge role in my life and will always continue to do so. It might be a weird case of Stockholm Syndrome. It has been a companion for so long — and when it wasn't there, the fear of it —, what might a life without it even look like?

The thing that for me personally has come out of the Geek Mental Help Week is that I gradually realised how well (although not necessarily always happy) I have been recently. This was not, because I read other people's articles and thought "They are so much worse off than me". It was rather all the stuff I scribbled down and didn't publish in the end. At the same time, when I was failing to get my article together, the old panic — and I get this panic a lot — resurfaced again. I was scared that I might have actually triggered a bout of depression by focusing so much on it, and it would turn into a prolonged period of depression, and eventually major depression.

(The next bit is a record of some experiences from my 20ies, skip if not interested in that)

I had a few of those in my teens and twenties. For example, a very dark month during my time as an ERASMUS student in Pisa, which was otherwise the happiest year during my studies. One day, I sat on the lawn in front of the leaning tower, and was struck by how my life had become just as wonky as that tower. The German term for crazy - "verrückt" - literally means "shifted". I thought how apt that word was. My reality had shifted, it was as if I was living in a different dimension, and I could not find my way back to what felt normal and familiar. I also remember bumping into some people in the canteen during lunchtime, and finding I could just not coordinate anymore the necessary parts and processes to properly say "Hello". The muscles, my voice, my motivation - I could just not get them to play together in a proper fashion.

Or that time when I joined an acting group. I'd been meant to play a leading role, but decided against it when dates of some of the performances clashed with an excursion I wanted to do at university. Instead I became 'assistant to the director'. Except I was not much help at all, had no initiative, and was more of a burden than assistance, despite spending loads of time at the rehearsals. Instead I smoked like a chimney. I often felt almost paralysed and started calling this state my 'strait-jacket'. When I helped at the performances, I remember being almost completely mute and at some point I thought: At least, if somebody else is feeling insecure and not good about themselves, it might make them feel better when they see me. Sort of, "if you are no good, you can still serve as a bad example". That was really the only use I could find for myself!

But I did not get professional help during those two (and previous) episodes, I somehow came out again. In Italy, one day I suddenly started feeling this rage, not directed at anyone in particular, just rage. And then I gradually got better. In the second case, I had a meltdown where I ended up crying in the director's arms. Again, very gradually came out of it. And then I was an actor in the next play, and had the time of my life! Just neglected my thesis a bit, mmh.

The first time that I got help was after I'd fallen in love with a PhD student at the place where I did my Master's thesis, and it didn't work out. I had shared a 'transcendental kiss' with him once (it really was that, and for him too, I know that!), but mostly tried to 'act cool', while at the same time I started to believe it was my destiny to be with this man. I accumulated all kinds of 'evidence' for this, too. And we did get quite close to.. okay, let's leave that. And then, well, he went off to South America, but came back a year later for his viva. I knew he had to come back, and I waited for him, and I waited for him to realise that he loved me. So much arrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhh. If I could tell my twenty-something-old self just one thing, if I could tell any girl just one thing: DO NOT WAIT FOR A MAN (unless I mean there are valid reasons, like you are already together and waiting for him to come out of hospital or something). DO YOUR OWN THING.*

I didn't very much do my own thing at all. I spent a whole year after leaving university, hanging around. Among the few things I got myself to do was once working for the post-office, and once writing an article for the local pages of a Munich newspaper (I thought I could become a science journalist eventually; but I only managed to write one article about genetically modified tomatoes). I met the PhD guy again, when he invited everyone (including me) to a pub after his viva, on which occasion he uttered the unforgettable words: "I don't love you. I could never love you". (He could be quite dramatic, just as me). That was when this whole world that I had built up in my head, collapsed. And a month later, I collapsed, too. One night, I could not sleep at all, and it felt like I had pins and needles all over my body, while my mind was completely numb. The next day I went to my parents' house. It was my mum's birthday. When she walked across the lawn to greet me, I cried and just pointed to my head. - I stayed at my parents' house for some weeks. I got to see a doctor and was prescribed Amitriptyline, and when that stopped working after a while, Fluoxetine. I got therapy, too, and eventually started crawling back out of the hole..

I've not had it as badly anymore since then. I just know I never want to go back there. That's why I sometimes get a panic when low moods persist for a bit. Perhaps it is the panics that keep me from getting it.

Depression versus Crisis


There's one thing I am not quite sure about. Because, you see, up till now, I was thinking: I keep having bouts of depression.

I just started describing what happens then, but find there's no point in going on too much about it. Because in a way I probably feel a bit ashamed about what triggers these bouts, when there are people who have real problems, like losing somebody they love. What is a kind of confidence crisis, where I suddenly believe I am an inadequate person, against that? And yet, they do happen. They follow a certain pattern, and I get distraught, I cry, I have negative thoughts. When my husband comes home, he helps me - challenges the thoughts and otherwise is there while I 'go through' the crisis. As for the negative thoughts, reading David Burn's book (which I believe is the best book you can read about cognitive distortions) has helped a great deal, but there are moments when all the insights I've gained are flushed away in one big wave of all-too-familiar thoughts and emotions.

The question is, what is meant by the term 'depression'? Robert Sapolsky says in his lecture on depression: "Right off the bat, we have a semantic problem". He then goes on to make a distinction between 'everyday depression' (that we all experience every now and then), 'reactive depression' (somebody reacts badly to something, is impaired for a few weeks, then gets out) and 'major depression' (somebody reacts badly to an event, slides into low mood, and weeks, months later has still not got out).

Elsewhere I have read that depression can last any amount of time, sometimes just half an hour, and there was no distinction made between different types. So, I will just make a distinction here for myself: Depression which is also a biomedical condition, versus a crisis with depressive symptoms. Or, in short: Depression versus Crisis.

Because, you see I do keep getting these crises, and they follow a certain pattern. And they are problematic in some ways, in what they prevent me from doing, and in keeping me 'locked down' in an unhelpful thinking pattern. But can I call them depressions? - And might there not be a way to challenge them, and make them become less frequent? Also, there is actually a part of me that can come across as quite confident. What if I managed to focus more on that?

And then there is this: Like, I am convinced, a lot of other people, I am so bogged down in things, and feel the pressure of all the things I am supposed to do, that often it can be difficult, to just feel happy or even just okay for a while, when in reality, there would be enough reason to do so.

On Halloween night, just after I had submitted my — I think now, pretty strange — post for Geek Mental Help Week, I kept feeling so calm. And suddenly there was another, very powerful, feeling that I had not known before. I can't quite describe it. It was beautiful. Like some sort of veil had been lifted from me. And I just felt well.

Since then I think: What if I could indeed give depression up? What if it was - by now (and for now) - my choice?

Coping strategies


So, this is a brief summary of the things that helped me, and keep helping me:

Acceptance

There are various different aspects to this:
  • Accept that your current experience is what it is.
  • Accept yourself fully
  • Even accept your inner critic (before you tell it politely, but firmly, to shut up: "I know you mean well, I have heard you, now please go." - ha, I only just remembered this; I don't really do this. But I will do now!)
  • Accept that other people behave in ways that irritate you, or that you might find hurtful. Try not to immediately criticise them, but understand that there are reasons for them acting like that that you might not know of.
I could go on. By far the most important thing though, is to accept yourself, and develop self-compassion. You cannot be kind to others, if you are not first kind to yourself. This is such a simple rule, and yet it took me so long to come across it, and still longer to make any real progress with it.

Find out what makes you feel good, do more of it

I once saw a tweet that said something like this: "Three most important factors for good mood: Good sleep, exercise, meditation". Recently, I have managed to have a better sleeping pattern (although it's pretty much down the drain tonight). And I started to go running. The latter is probably the external factor that has helped by far the most in my case.

Likewise, the advice could be: Find out what doesn't make you feel good, do less of it. But I am not good at that at all so far! I want to try and do that though. For example, not spend so much time on the computer when I am not working.. And have boundaries between different aspects of my life. When I am with the children, I want to be with my children, not start writing emails from my phone. When I cook, I stick with the cooking, and don't go to the computer inbetween to check emails and Twitter.. As I said, I have not been very good with this so far, but then I was maybe never as aware of all this as I am now.

Mindfulness and CBT

Probably, the single most helpful thing for me has been Mindfulness and meditation. Be present with whatever you are experiencing (see 'Acceptance' above). Recognise that your emotions, and your thoughts, are just passing events. This is a very short but ultimately of course insufficient summary. You have to really experience it, to feel the benefits of this approach.

I have not specifically had any CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy) recently, but would count the David Burns book mentioned above as such. And it really did help, too, and still helps when I remember doing it, to discover how certain thoughts and beliefs you have, are distorted.

I just realised that what is missing from this list, is what many others have put first: "Talk about it". It is missing from my list, because I have already for a long time been able to talk about it. But, of course, it is helpful. Although there is caveats to this. You might feel, you can't keep going on about it all the time, you don't want to become a burden. Also, talking might not always help as much as you'd have hoped. Still, if you never talked to anybody about it, if you just cannot 'sort it out' by yourself anymore it is important to do that, rather than suffer in silence.

See also "Resources" below.

Can I help others?


I'd hope so.

And I'd hope that writing this all down, in whatever convoluted ways, might help someone besides me, too. I also hope that the Geek Mental Help Week, well - helped. What I can see coming out of it: People feeling less alone, and seeing mental illness as less of a weakness (as some successful and well-known figures in the web industry talked about theirs). Also: Pointing out how helpful talking can be. How helpful psychotherapy can be.

For me, there is a wider, almost political dimension to this: If we don't just 'medicate the problem away' and recognise that it is not just a medical condition, as the so often quoted broken leg is, we might be better able to change the conditions that make us depressed in the first place. - What I mean: If it was just this illness that comes out of the blue, and you just take some drugs and it goes away again; then nobody might start to question why so many people suffer from it, and ask themselves if there's something we can change.

If we manage to accept that we don't always have to be productive, if we collectively managed to move away a bit from the maniacal pace at which the tech industry is moving. If we recognized that there is no point trying to learn all the new things, putting yourself under that pressure. If instead we managed to fully accept ourselves, with all our 'shortcomings', that would mean that we'd have more time to think, to properly see things, and, as was said in one of the contributions to Geek Mental Help, to properly see each other. And we might not be so easily manipulated by corporate interests.

Or you could put it this way, perhaps: To fully accept yourself is a revolutionary act. - I am sure somebody must have said that before me!

Should I stay or should I go?


Just to finish off on a personal note. I do have some (not insubstantial) doubts about all this. This whole post, my opinions expressed in it. My ah so brillant 'advice'. Do I have the authority to write any of this? Do I have the authority to give advice? Even to wonder if I could be out of the 'field of vision' of depression for a while?

Especially, within the tech community, what authority do I have? The thing is, for a long time I really didn't know if I even belonged. I felt so unsure that any of what I was doing was any good.

I am not as unequivocally commercial as most people in that community. You need to be 'commercial' if you want to properly earn money. And I don't need to (or feel the need to) earn as much money as others, as my husband is the main breadwinner. This might at first sight, be a big advantage I have. But my situation comes with its own set of problems. Foremost, in my case, really bad confidence. And I probably do manage to do less (although on the other hand, possibly more than some people think!) than somebody who works full time. Less in volume, that's clear anyway. But less in terms of skills? Well, that's an interesting question, and one I don't really have an answer to at the moment.

Then, I also have certain ideas of where I want to be heading. I want to become good at programming and be able to make applications. To "hack".

A lot of my above-mentioned "crises" revolve around that: Does it make any sense what I am doing? Would it not be better to give it all up? Just take any job, so I can earn some money in addition to my husband's (It could even be things like database entry, online editor; something to do with the web or technology, just not as ambitious?)

Basically: Am I doing the right thing?

And again, this seems so self-indulgent. What kind of problem is this?? Compared to people who have to flee their home country? Who experienced physical and emotional abuse? - But then, everybody has to deal with their own life, and if that is what you find difficult at the moment, it just is.

I am just starting this experiment. I have left my "regular freelancer" role at an agency, and started something new, where I work together with somebody who is my mentor. I don't want to write about the ins and outs of this at the moment. It does look like we both benefit from it, which is what I'd always wanted from a mentor relationship. That is a good start. The rest we will see.

The important thing for me will be: I will give myself permission to just learn and code, without asking myself if it makes sense, and if I will be good enough. Just for three months. No looking at the outcome. Just throw myself into it. It is an experiment. I hope to write about it soon, and it will hopefully be positive.

Then there's CodeHub :) Don't let me get started on that!



Resources


- Robert Sapolsky video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc "It's a biochemical disorder with a genetic component with early experience influences where somebody can't appreciate sunsets."

- The Mindful Way through Depression
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/112588.The_Mindful_Way_through_Depression

 
- Feeling Good by David Burns
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46674.Feeling_Good

 
Self-Compassion / Self-Acceptance
- Self-Acceptance project: http://live.soundstrue.com/selfacceptance/
- Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38215.Lovingkindness



* There is a passage in the book "La mort heureuse" (A Happy Death) by Camus, where the protagonist says to a woman called Catherine: 'Ne renonce jamais, Catherine. Tu as tant de choses en toi et la plus noble de toutes, le sens du bonheur. N'attends pas la vie d'un homme, c'est pour cela que tant de femmes se trompent. Mais attends-la de toi-même!' (I wrote this from memory, there might be mistakes in it. I think I had an English and a French version of this book for some reason, I did not read the book in French, but have always remembered this one sentence). — 'Never give up, Catherine. You've got so many things in you, and the noblest of all, the sense for happiness. That's where so many women go wrong. Don't expect life from a man. Expect it from yourself!' - And yes, it's kind of ironic that a man had to tell me that.

This post was written 6 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

Geek Mental Help Week - About 'Social Pain'

This post was written 6 years ago.
Wed, 29 Oct 2014

In case you've been directed here from the GeekMentalHelp site, please note: I have in the meantime written a second post, about depression. In that article, I mention some resources and strategies that helped me.

This week's "Geek Mental Help Week" has had quite a strange, and profound, effect on me. I have to admit this, even though I had previously decided I would try and not pay much attention to it at all; because I somewhat agree with a post on that very site, stating that campaigns to raise awareness can be a double-edged sword and it can be a bit overwhelming. - But as I'd expected, I kept being drawn to the site, and I am now glad I read the articles on there. What made the biggest impression on me were the posts that people wrote about their experiences with mental illness. There is such an openness and honesty. And I feel I want to be there as a 'listener', a witness to the trauma people went through, which in some cases was very grave.

And then I'd also started to pen an article for it. For two weeks I collected a lot of thoughts, quotes, resources. Next, I ordered them and started to string the whole thing into a narrative. I sat the whole of Sunday in front of my computer. I had tried to write this 'witty' article about all I knew about depression. But I made a mistake. I thought I could take myself out of it, write about my experiences objectively, from a bird's eye's view. It didn't work, and I felt very disillusioned and frustrated.

Instead I am publishing the below for Geek Mental Help Week. I wrote it about a year ago, and while I put it on my blog, I never tweeted about it.

Perhaps this is my way of saying "Here I am, and this is what I've struggled with and sometimes still do. If it is similar for you, you are not the only one."

I think for me, and many others, the web has always been about connecting, too. You can reach out to others in a way that was not previously possible. For me, this week has been about exactly that in the end. The likes of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, can easily make us forget that we can communicate in 'long form', too, and how liberating and comforting that can be.

I also felt reminded of a post I had read during the summer holidays, Everyone I know is broken-hearted by Josh Ellis. I found the last three paragraphs quite moving. "I don't believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark." Perhaps initiatives like this can be a step towards that.

Here is my post from a year ago:
(- I felt tempted to edit this and move things around, it might be a bit clunky; but after this week's difficulties with writing I am just leaving it as I wrote it back then)

About loneliness and becoming an apprentice bodhisattva

(from 24 November 2013)

Quite recently, I started re-reading parts of a book by Kamalamani. The book is called "Meditating with Character" but is about much more than meditation! Yesterday I hit on a few pages that I felt the strong urge to photograph and tweet, just because I find them so relevant to the current state of (world) affairs. I am posting them here instead.

Then today I saw a link to an article called "Life of solitude: A loneliness crisis is looming". This article is very strongly related to the message about connectedness in what I read yesterday. Furthermore, it is about a topic that is very close to my heart: Loneliness, and in a wider context, something I would call "social pain".

Social pain is something I have been thinking about quite a lot in recent years. Partly, because of the role it has played in my own life. But also because I increasingly realise how much it (or fear of it) shapes the way we live, the structure of groups, organisations and so on. And last but not least, because of its seeming prevalence in today's 'connected' age.

I think the main insight for me is that social pain can be just as excruciating - and actually has a strong physical component - as what we call physical pain. I have sometimes had this thought: The pain of pushing two children into this world without pain relief, and smashing both bones in my lower leg (on a separate occasion!), have not come near the social pain I have felt in my life. But then that comparison is flawed. Because that physical pain was limited to brief periods of time, of course. So really you would have to ask, would living with constant pain be preferable to social isolation? That isn't a good comparison either, as constant pain in itself has great potential to make you depressed. A recurring pain, cancer with chance of survival, loss of a limb? - It is difficult to answer. I do think anyhow that social isolation ranks pretty high on the list of undesirable and painful things.

As Brené Brown puts it, "We are hard-wired for connectedness". In other ages, we were born into structures that provided that connection (but had of course all sorts of other problems we don't have these days). Now, it is not so clear cut. Often we have to create our communities ourselves, and in many cases we might feel a stronger connection with people in those groups than those we were born into. But we have to find or create them first, and the way there can be full of anxiety and provide some pain in itself. Yet I believe it is always worth to persist in this.

I have below written down something about my own experiences of isolation and rejection. I did not do this to get your sympathy. It is rather to illustrate what effects an experience like that can have. Perhaps mostly, to say: Look after your children. And I could add: Look after yourself and each other, because we really are all interconnected.

As far as I am concerned, I am actually genuinely happy with where I am now, so in a way, I can now see what happened to me as a necessary step to this point. - And then of course I am grateful for all the good things that have happened, and the people I've met. And for the plasticity of the brain.. - Still, I would never wish upon my children the isolation I felt. I could not bear knowing them in a situation like that. (I think my mother was simply not aware of it. Moreover she has had more trauma in her past than I've ever had.)

Now I just feel I want to move on from all that, and instead become an apprentice bodhisattva as described in the pages below.

So, I leave you with this excerpt from Kamalamani's book, and below that, the thing I wrote about my early years (but really, don't feel compelled to read that!)

From Kamalamani's book "Meditating with Character" - Chapter 4 - Why embodiment matters




My story (part of it, by far not all)


One line that struck me in the article about loneliness was: "Inside every lonely adult is a kid eating lunch by herself on a bench." I am not a lonely adult anymore, but I was that kid. When I was 5 my family moved to Paris, and I was sent to a nursery there for a year. It's a commonly accepted notion that children pick up a new language quite naturally at that age, but I didn't. I can't really explain the reasons, I guess I was just quite shy. I was also - probably still am - quite sensitive and an introvert.

It did not take long for the French children to move from initial strong interest in the newcomer, to finding it really odd that I could not understand them. They also bullied me on occasion - stepping on my toes, putting sand in my mouth *. But I also remember a girl who held my hand and was friendly to me, and how immensely comforting that was. Still, the overwhelming feeling of those days was that of isolation. An extreme isolation. I could not put a name to it then of course, but it was definitely painful. I ended up developing a survival strategy. That strategy consisted in completely retreating into myself, to "live in my head". I also completely stopped talking for the hours I was in the nursery. (I did not have the right language to talk with!)

When people have psychological problems, often it is partly because of survival strategies that are not helpful anymore. Those strategies have started to get in the way of a healthier behaviour and attitude. It took me an incredibly long time to realise that in a situation where I ended up feeling excluded, it was often me who took the first step towards that exclusion. It was my old survival strategy of shutting everything and everybody out that made me appear "weird". The shutting out happened as a reaction to the slightest sign of rejection or sometimes just apparent lack of interest. - The thing is I had never learned very well to read my "peers'" attitude towards me, because I was so isolated and did not interact with them very much. I did have my siblings, but those were people I already new!

Back in Germany, I was able to develop friendships, but often had difficulties with groups of people - to become integrated in a group. Then in my teenage years, a further difficulty presented itself. My beloved mum, at roughly the age I am now, was struggling with mental health. As one consequence, she often seemed to despise me. Any criticism was never put into words, but rather delivered as a turning away from me, of not paying attention and not talking. That way it was difficult to understand what was actually wrong with me. But from some strong reactions (silent disapproving glares in my direction mainly), I gathered: I must not appear clever. I must not praise myself, not say anything that could even be construed as self-praise. I must not be selfish and self-absorbed (the latter is pretty difficult, I can tell you, if you keep trying to find out what the heck is wrong with you!). Oh, and I must not talk so much! That was also difficult to achieve, because I was still very quiet at school, but then bursting to tell things at home. In fact, any kind of enthusiasm seemed to be kind of repulsive. While as a result of this episode I pretty much lost the ability to feel pride in the things I do, I am glad to say I never lost the ability to be enthusiastic **.

Possible 'costs' of all this: Many periods of depression from teenage years on, some prolonged and heavy. Various antidepressants over the course of a year - that is now 15 years ago, thankfully, and I've not needed them since, though often craved to go back. Two to three years of therapy - some in Germany, some here. The final year of therapy was really helpful by the way. Low confidence. For a long time, the belief that I was actually a bad and selfish person. - To be fair, the self-absorption is still pretty pronounced, although I might get better at that, too. It sometimes makes me sad to think how much better I could have used all that time and energy I lost. And yet, on the other side, I think it helps me to understand other people better, and that could be helpful in some way.


* Oddly, I quite liked the boy who put sand in my mouth before and after the event. When my parents were looking for a baby name, I suggested "Stéphane" because I still 'fancied' that boy. I did get a brother a bit later, and he was called Stefan.

** My mother is a lovely person, and I have far more to be grateful for than to complain about. She was very stressed and ill.

This post was written 6 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

New habits, and experiments

This post was written 7 years ago.
Wed, 23 Apr 2014
So, the Easter holidays are over. No school for two weeks, but I did bits of work from home till last Wednesday (not always easy!). Then I took proper time off. That is I had really planned to do some 'learning and side projects', but in the end I didn't. I enjoyed the long weekend, seeing friends who came to visit, a whole day out in Stourhead, and Easter Sunday with a big breakfast and egg-hunting.

But on Monday I got a bit nervous. I had not progressed with things as planned, and I had not written any code for days. Moreover I realised that I had done that thing again, where I start something with great enthusiasm, then Thing 2 comes along and grabs all my attention, and I start learning this new thing at great pace it seems.. (in this case, working through a Yii tutorial, then starting to work through a Mapping/GIS course; then looking into SVG..) And then after a while I realise that it is difficult to keep up with all the plans I had, and bringing any one of those projects to fruition. But then that isn't so bad, as long as I don't start piling more and more on top! I can just pick these things up again and carry on, especially if it is side projects without a deadline. It is more about the way I (or my subconscious) interprets those things.

In any case, on Monday I got into quite a tailspin (not only because of the above). I was going to write more about that below, but it is becoming too much now for this post. At the same time though, I started to see quite clearly again what it is I would like to do. And I want to write about that, and how it could tie in with other activities, especially CodeHub and OpenTechSchool.

Work, learn, teach, document

I currently work for a design and web agency for a couple of days per week; mostly doing PHP, sometimes Javascript, a little HTML/CSS and some server stuff, too. It is quite varied and can be challenging, but also rewarding when you work something tricky out. I will work on a website for one other client soon, but otherwise I want to focus on just that one job, so I can dedicate time to some other things:

One thing is learning, in a somewhat structured way. I am interested in the following questions
- What are the things any seasoned web developer should know?
- Is it possible — and sensible — to be good at frontend and backend development (including basic sysadmin)
- More than specific skills, I believe there is a certain approach to technical things that makes you a good developer; when faced with a task, you need to research, evaluate, learn new techniques, apply, analyse, etc. to get to a sensible solution; does this come with experience, or can part of that be taught?
- How can web development be improved by applying software development skills? Programming for the web is in fact software development, but it is not always being treated that way; and in simple cases it can be overkill, admittedly

bookshelf
To be fair, if you have a lot of experience you will most likely just aquire the necessary skills with time. On the other hand, I guess it depends on how varied the environments are where you work. You could end up doing mainly the same thing for a long time.. In any case I feel I would like to know more than I do, and also be more aware of what I know!

So, what I'd like to do is something like this. Pick little projects where I can learn, or learn more about, some aspect of web development, then do those and document what I have learned. And also: Create workshops!

I remember reading something by Vitaly Friedman (editor of SmashingMagazine), where he said that at some point he decided to take a certain time out, I think it was 9 months. In that time he learned a wealth of things, sure more than I could do in that time. I do anyway totally understand this decision. I also feel very attracted by models like the Hackerschool in New York, and Hackership in Berlin. I would very much like to do something like this. Three months seems unrealistic at this point, but who knows..

In any case, if nothing totally dramatic happens in my life, I should have some time to dedicate to learning, documenting - and organising 'learning events'. That is another thing. Organising that should actually not take that much time, especially because I have two people helping me with it. Still it occupies quite some space in my head, because I keep thinking what the best way to do things is. If we want to do events in the evenings, should they have a prescriped format? Would some topics work better than others? - I do think that possibly there should be some constraints of some sort, but perhaps that is something we can sort out as we go along. What is almost more disconcerting is the inner hurdles I keep facing occasionally, but maybe I should not go into that too much. It looks like tonight I might actually post some things, that's what counts.

So, I am looking for some kind of plan to put all this into practice. Flexible enough to leave some breathing space, but with enough structure to give me the idea that there actually is a plan and I am making progress of some sort.

The biggest danger is always demanding too much of yourself. Then becoming frustrated that nothing worked out and becoming so demoralised that you stop doing anything! I will try to forego this, by treating this all as an experiment. That's what it is, really.

Establishing a new habit

One reason I am somewhat hopeful that I might be able to change some things — and especially establish a writing habit! — is the totally unexpected successful installation of another habit that I'd not even have dreamed of!! For the past 10 days I have been going running for about 5 miles. Every day. My husband had told me to go on a "jogging lent" for 40 days. Apparently I need orders to establish a habit. Well sometimes perhaps.. But just seeing that I can do that has been great. And the running has been great, too. Also, I have been sleeping normally recently. Could I cut out the constant sleep deprivation and still write code? I very much hope so.

There are a whole lot of other things I wanted to write about, but I can do that another time, or it might even be better to leave them altogether actually. Yay, I have written a blog post. That hasn't happened for a while! More, more, more!


This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

Thoughts on CodeHub and Open Tech School in Bristol

This post was written 7 years ago.
Mon, 13 Jan 2014
This was really meant to be an email, but it got so long I am just posting it here. I set up CodeHub Bristol last year together with Gicela Morales. I mentioned it at Skillswap, and that got us a few - lovely - members, but we did not publicise it further so far. We felt quite comfortable in our little group. (This is a post about our first meeting) But we had really intended it to be a bigger platform. So these are some thoughts on how to expand it.

What

Really what I would like to do already exists elsewhere and isn't called CodeHub, but Open Tech School: http://opentechschool.org I think it would be great to have something like that in Bristol. So, basically, we would organise workshops. But still keep the current exisiting CodeHub as a 'learners group' associated with OTS.

As an initial focus, I would probably not so much want to organise workshops for beginners, but everything that helps people who already develop for the web become more professional, and better able to work in a team.

Workshops would probably be in the evenings (7pm to 10pm?) or Saturdays. CodeHub is during a work day; currently every second Tuesday of a month, from 10am to 2pm.

Where

We have been meeting at the Big Chill in Small Street. They have been brilliant there, we can have a big room upstairs with wifi, coffee and tea. It would in principle be possible to have the room in the evenings as well, don't know what time it gets loud though!

Intentions (dumped into Evernote one night)

  • There's social benefit to it, and learning/knowledge benefit
  • there's also the benefit of teaching something to advance own knowledge as well -> give people platform to try speaking to people
  • "safe" place where people don't need to fear they appear stupid
  • Provide space to exchange knowledge, best practices, opinions; also simply to network
  • Help a beginner become intermediate; a "home-alone-worker" a team worker

Some people said "just put it out there and see what happens" but I rather want to plan it carefully, and want to start with a distinct intention and concept; it might still develop into something different from what I envisioned, that's absolutely fine.

I like this from the OTS website:
"Encouraging people to coach, whatever their skill or experience level, lets them see how rewarding and valuable teaching others is."
 

Possible topics


Next steps

So the next steps would be:
  • Clarify questions about format of workshop
  • Contact people who might be willing to do a workshop
  • Talk to people at Big Chill to clarify possible times (will go there 21 Jan)
  • Put it out there (Blog, Twitter, Underscore!)
  • Set dates for workshops, find coaches/speakers, open for registration

Questions

I have been wondering most about

More on Format
Different options:
  • OTS style: Take one of their workshops or create one along those lines; look for coaches; then allow registration of 4 times as many attendants as coaches
  • Have one speaker; they provide workshop, possibly also to a bigger group; basically they can choose the way they want to present it
  • Could also have workshops where one builds on the other; have a certain sequence; but probably not very practical

So, I have been thinking about this a lot recently. There is a lot I haven't written down, some more 'philosophical' thoughts about learning and teaching in general. Also the way web development is done these days. I think it has got too complicated, and a lot of the complication is due to a) accomodate design decisions and b) provide maximum level of functionality/power to editors or website owners, that might often not be needed in the end. Just one example WYSIWIG editors. But, let's not go into all this :) And, how would I want to change that with a series of workshops?? I will be glad if this will get off the ground at all for the moment!
This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

SouthvilleJS JavaScript Workshop

This post was written 7 years ago.
Wed, 11 Sep 2013
Last weekend (7 and 8 September 2013) I attended a workshop run by a JavaScript user group in Bristol called SouthvilleJS - in fact, it was mainly organised by Andrew McGregor, who is one of the organisers of SouthvilleJS. It was the first workshop of its kind as well as being really well organised, and incredibly good value for money (£30 early bird, £40 regular). The ticket price basically just went towards the costs for running this event and I don't think anybody made any money out of it. This is especially amazing considering the line-up and the quality of the sessions.

The location by the harbourside was great, and the lack of internet was not really a problem, with phone tethering and MiFi as options these days. There was also a good mix of people, at different levels of JavaScript skills, and from different backgrounds; next to front-end developers, people from software engineering who were keen to learn more about web technologies. Many of the presenters also stayed on after they had spoken and followed the other sessions. I had not been sure at first whether to attend this event because I am not really a candidate for the user group as I neither live in Southville, nor am I that proficient in JavaScript (when are you a Javascript user?) But I am glad Gicela and Nigel convinced me to take part. Also it turned out that there were a lot more people outside that category, in fact, the workshop might not have run otherwise, I guess!

So here an overview of the presentations:

Node and the Express framework

Jack Franklin kicked off the workshop with a session on Node and the Express web app framework, which is available as a node package. He started with using node's REPL, showing that you can run normal JavaScript and execute files in it. This included a script to set up a server and make content available through it; you wouldn't normally write that yourself, though, as it would be part of a library. One of the nice things about writing JavaScript server side is that you can use all the latest JavaScript functions and don't need to worry about different browser implementations. We also installed a sample Express app, looked at the structure including the package.JSON file to install dependencies, and wrote some code to set up some pages in it. You can find lots of information about JavaScript on Jack's blog JavaScript playground. He has also recently published a book on jQuery.

Modular JS

Next up was Nico Burns. He explained the benefits of writing modular code and the different methods available (AMD, CommonJS, EC Harmony). The presentation made perfect sense to me, and I could see the benefits of this approach especially in large projects. But when it came to restructuring some code that we were given, and make it modular, I struggled a bit. Luckily in the sample code we got, there was a folder with a solution included, and by transforming the original script into multiple files that depended on each other as in the solution, I could understand the structure and how you got there.

Socket.io

Mark Withers introduced socket.io. Web Sockets are one of the new HTML5 APIs, and not fully implemented in all browsers (for IE only from version 10). They enable a persistent connection between client and server as opposed to the HTTP request/response model. This is important for real-time interaction, for example in multiplayer gaming. Using a library like socket.io, you can achieve such a connection across browsers, as it falls back on technologies other than Web Sockets in browsers where those are not available. The practical example involved writing a script that sets up a server (using the Express framework from before), and binds two sockets to two different ports of that server. Next was a client-side script that enables the client to connect to one of the sockets and communicate through it, while receiving the web page through the other socket. In the example, the server sent a message to the client which was then appended as a list element on the page, among other things. The sample code is available on Mark Withers's github.

XMPP-FTW

Socket.io was actually used in the next project, too. Lloyd Watkin presented his library XMPP-FTW, which he wrote to make it easier for developers to enable interaction with XMPP (Extensible Message and Presence Protocol) through a browser. XMPP is an open standard for real-time communication and mostly used in Instant Messaging services, but also in applications like Google Talk (recently replaced by Hangouts) and Facebook chat. An interesting aspect of XMPP is that you can have different 'resources' - which would normally represent different devices - and can set one as priority. Somebody sending a message to your account can either specifiy the resource they want you to receive a message on, or - if they don't specify it - it will go to the one you have set as priority. We got to try out XMPP by connecting to an XMPP system set up by Lloyd on his laptop. We each got an account on that system. Then we wrote some code to connect, and sent little messages to each other, logging them to the recipient's console. We also sent messages to a public messaging wall. Not everybody (including me) did get the code for that right so easily, but we got there in the end! You can find Lloyd's slides online, and here is XMPP-FTW and the pub-sub demo.

Refactoring (and testing)

I won't write much about the last session of the first day, which basically consisted of watching Jack Franklin expertly refactor some jQuery code and explain it as he went along, including the use of unit tests with QUnit, running through PhantomJS. Great stuff. There are posts on his blog on both refactoring and using QUnit.

And after that it was off to "Pub.js" as the agenda stated, but not for me. I think it was better that way, my brain was at that point already quite frazzled without any drinks!

Coffeescript

On Sunday morning, we all turned up again at the boathouse and enjoyed the view onto the Floating Harbour. And then we did Coffeescript. It is a programming language that compiles into Javascript and is much more concise to write. It can be installed as a node package. I quite enjoyed this session, although it will probably be a while before I use Coffeescript, just because I want to get to know Javascript better first. Coffeescript has a lot going for it though, as you can read on this document by Adam Butler who led the session. Adam talked us through the syntax, and the benefits of Coffeescript over JS. We then got some time to try writing something ourselves. Coffeescript works seamlessly with any Javascript libraries, and I tried a little example ivolving jQuery. One of the best ways to learn Coffescript is "backwards" it seems, by using the js2coffee tool. All in all, it was quite rewarding getting some things written in Coffeescript to work, though I did not finish the whole thing. Indepent of Coffeescript, the Dash docsets mentioned by Adam (which you can use with zeal on Linux) were a great discovery.

Angular

There was also one session about a Javascript MVC framework, Angular, presented by Maff Rigby. There is a vast number of frameworks around to build single-page apps, and one conclusion at the end of the session was that the choice you make depends on what specific needs you have for a certain app, but also personal preference. There is not one that is best - they all have different things that they are particularly good at.

Also, there are "opinionated" frameworks that are quite prescriptive in the way you have to structure an app, and those that leave you more freedom. As I understood it, Angular is not very prescriptive. Maff has created a website monitoring app called getTestr with Angular and was showing us how to get started with building an app. At least some of the approach seemed familiar from PHP-based MVC frameworks. I had some stupid difficulties getting things to work though. I say stupid, because they were so obvious in hindsight, and I feel a bit sorry that I bothered both my neighbour and Maff with it. - There was a lot of typing things off the screen in this workshop, and I fell behind with this quite a few times. But I do think it is good practice typing the code yourself. Still I was glad that the speakers also provided the finished examples. (Here you can download Matt's code and presentation).


Leap Motion


 
Playing with Leap Motion More Playing with Leap Motion

In the last session (read a great explanation of what we did on Dave's own website) we got to play with a Leap Motion device. Similar to the Xbox Kinect, it detects shapes and motion through optical sensors. Dave Taylor, who presented this session, had brought a number of these devices and people could work with them in groups of two or three. You can see a schematic and artful representation of your hand on the screen, and the software can also recognize a hand and fingers as well as certain gestures like swipe, circle or a keytap. (It can not always track individual fingers, and they seem to appear and disappear a lot of the time.) One interesting thing is that it also calculates the centre of a sphere that would fit in the palm of your hand.

We could see all the data that the Leap generated in real-time by accessing a file in the browser that displayed the data as JSON. It was quite interesting to see when a gesture was recognized, or seeing the number of hands and fingers change, also finding out the range where the Leap was able to "see". We then got to play a game of Space Invaders where you could move the ship by moving your arm and use your finger to trigger shots. (I love Space Invaders - I really do think it was the first ever computer game I played, on my cousin's Atari.. yes, I'm that old..). We also got to play a multiplayer version (Web Sockets, again!). We then looked at a JavaScript wrapper with the functionality for controlling the ship through movements. We started manipulating the code by making it stop on a certain condition (like a certain gesture). In the process, I learned a useful trick: You can introduce a breakpoint by putting the word "debugger" into a function call. The plan had been to write a better controller class, but it seemed everybody was more keen to play around, and I think we were at that point also lacking a bit in concentration! It was anyway a great session.

Space Invaders

So, that was it. It was an intense and enjoyable two days, and going through the sessions again (I actually looked at the code of all of them where I had it!), I find it has been really useful to me. I wonder what will actually come out of it. I have in any case at least one project where I want to try things out, but I am sure it will benefit my work in general.

Thanks to everyone who made this event possible, especially Andrew McGregor and the speakers!

This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

Uncomfortable comfort zones

This post was written 7 years ago.
Fri, 23 Aug 2013

A rant and two mini book reviews

This is going to be more of a diary entry than any thought-through blog post. But I feel a massive urge to write, about so many things. And yet seem to be suffering from some kind of mental congestion. Where I read so much, fiction, non-fiction, books about web dev, but seem very little able to then communicate any of it, or use it in a creative way. Anyway that is what it feels like. But while that doesn't feel great, it's more and more the reading itself that I find unsettling. Not the books I've been reading, but the papers.

Thoughts that come at night

Journalists can give you the creeps (think "phone-hacking"), corporate data-hunger can give you the creeps, but governments (not only one, but a string of them!) starting to behave in the same and possibly worse ways… I can't even find a word for that. It becomes all the more perplexing, because we are all just so comfortable. What do I have to complain about? Maybe nothing yet, personally, but it does already affect others personally, and by the looks of it, will affect more and more people until there might be hardly anybody left who isn't affected.

I say "by the looks of it". Is it the media exaggerating, manipulating? One's own mind painting things more bleakly than they actually are? Do we know all the relevant facts? If there are things that resonate with what you know about the Stasi, Fascism, Nazism, is that a red herring? At least here the press can still report, right? What about all the despotic regimes, the atrocities you hear about. Are they not worthier of your outrage? But this is no excuse, and the reporting is already not totally free anymore.

And then, in some ways I do actually feel personally affected, because a government that orders the "symbolic" destruction of hard-drives to flex there muscle has for me lost every credibility and trustworthiness and I don't feel at all they represent the people they are meant to serve. I feel outrage about how it will affect many people on a subconscious level and that again most likely includes me. And quite a few journalists. You can say what you want, this is an intimidating act, it has zero to do with assuring security, but all with creating a shock effect.

Can we do anything to stop a gradual erosion of our freedom? Can I do anything? I have to say I don't know. I have never felt a very political person. But a lot of people will say that of themselves, and that is exactly why it is difficult. We have just been so comfortable and we are conditioned to worry so much more about status, about the things we have and we think we need. Maybe it is just what humans are like anyway. And we, in the Western world, just happen to have come to this point in our history where things start to go awry. Or maybe they have for a long time already. That's the thing, where do you draw the line? What does freedom actually mean?

Man Machines

Here is something I really wanted to write about. Two books I have read recently, quite different books, but both, in a wider sense, about how the mind works. Both, in my view, with some implications for individuals and society. I wonder whether I will be able to write much about the first one, as I finished reading it a few weeks ago.

It is called "The Emotion Machine", written by Marvin Minsky in 2006. It is kind of a sequel to "Society of mind" from 1986, about which I have written in another blog post. And like last time, I stumbled across it in my parents' house. So, let me see what I can retrieve.. Ha, this is actually a topic in the book! How do we retrieve memories. Anyway, these are a few things that bubble up. Some of this might be a bit inaccurate, but it is about ideas (that is how the mind works…):

  • The mind is organised in layers, each of which employs different "resources" (in the 1986 book those where called "agents"). High-level resources draw on subsets of other resources which themselves draw on others. There can be conflicts between different resources. If one system uses different subsets from another, we can do things in parallel (like walking and talking at the same time). But most things we have do to serially to do them well.
  • The self as a constant unchangeable agent is an illusion. There is no such thing as a self that makes decisions. It is always several parts of our mind working together.
  • Moreover, we cannot directly command the mind at our will. We cannot tell it to ignore certain needs. That would be detrimental in fact, for if we could decide to put off eating or sleeping forever that would do us harm. But not only that, things might demand our attention even if we would like to ignore them, and depending on what state of mind we are in different resources get precedence.
  • To decide what behaviour wil eventually be deployed, there are different layers of our mind exerting their influence. "Censors" are at work that stem from previous experiences, and they can stop things even reaching our consciousness. Minsky references Freud here. What is sometimes experienced in meditation as state of total peace (enlightenment?) is possibly the temporary absence of censors.
  • In our language we have a lot of "suitcase" words, that can mean slightly different things in different contexts. For example "to give" can mean physically giving something to somebody else, transfer ownership, lend… This can also make it difficult to give accurate definitions of things. How do you define "consciousness"? But far from this being a weakness of our language, it is actually a strength. You can make more connections between things if there isn't one exclusive definition.
  • When you see a familiar object, there is massive input from regions of your brain that store memories, not just from the visual cortex. So what you have learned in the past about that type of object probably contributes more to the picture than what you actually see.

This is a random list. There is much more to the book. And it gives a fascinating insight into how the brain might work. It is humbling and awe-inspiring at the same time. We are such intricate, ingenious machines! We are just not able to command them very well (or not at all?). Especially not always to our own benefit. Perhaps this is a result of my age, but I feel more and more that we are really a product, of our genetics plus all our experiences plus society plus the people we are close to plus individual circumstances and so on, rather than these largely unchangeable beings that have a personality. But of course you still move and live "as if", it is what we have learned to do, and it is our frame of reference. So while it is fascinating to follow Minsky along, in the end you cannot keep looking at things this way. Unless you worked at a "Thinking machines" lab I guess, then you would probably switch into this mode for several hours each day! In any case, we need to use the "I" as a model in our everyday lives.

One thing I took from this book for myself is that really, if we want to make any changes to our habits or ways of thinking, we have to do it in a very indirect way. This probably varies for different people, but my mind pretty much has "a mind of its own", I find it nearly impossible to order it to do anything. Any plan I make seems doomed to fail, unless there is an outside pressure, like I have an appointment with somebody. I also was reminded how powerful meditation can be, and I would so much like to do more of it again. But ironically, this is one of the things I find impossible to tell my mind to do. As is writing for that matter, and I cannot tell you what a massive relief it is to find myself writing now. Massive, massive, massive.

As I said, I feel there are implications for society, too. It might be difficult to put this into words. Basically, I guess at the level of society you find the same patterns repeated as in our mind. And in fact, Minsky's 1986 book was called "Society of Mind", it works in the other direction as well. Our mind is a society of resources that work together. Likewise, our society generates an Übermind which goes in the direction that the most powerful resources (or agents, I think that might be a better term actually) determine it to go. And sadly, you have a mixture of "bully-in-the-playground" and "old boys club" phenomena here, in our current society. The ones who shout the loudest and punch the hardest, get the attention. And decisions get made by the ruling classes, and a shocking number of times in secret it seems. It is an interesting question now, how we can make the more thoughtful and sensible parts of that Übermind be heard more. Giving them a voice should be engrained in the structure of our societies, and that is what constitutions and the law are meant to do. Yet it looks like the power of those agents that keep things in check, aber being eroded, and that is scary, I can't help saying that again.

Also, those in power employ certain tactics to manipulate the public. I just hope - and believe - that they, too, often get things wrong in that respect. Whatever psychological knowledge they might have, they will not be able to steer the collective of our minds, as much as they would like to.

Are you ready to be Wholehearted?

On to the second book. I actually stumbled over that, too! In a motorway service station, in the over-priced WHSmith shop, of all places. The book is called "Daring Greatly", subtitle "How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead". Quite a mouthful, and I have to confess that I normally have an aversion to titles like that and the books they normally adorn. But there are exceptions. And the exception here is that it is written by Brené Brown who has given one of my all-time favourite TED talks, and that upon brief inspection of the contents, I just really wanted to have this book.

I read the book in a single day. My most concise description of it would be: It is telling the truth. The truth that lies at the heart of our experience of being human. This is the other side of Minsky, this is the "illusion" that the mind creates, which is, for us, the truth we live in. It is telling this truth in very pragmatic terms, with only passing references to such things as mindfulness (her therapist tells her: "Less thinking. More feeling." Something I can fully subscribe to). Based on qualitative research. Not quantitative, thankfully! One of my pet peaves in TED talks, is the total straightness of curves and absence of standard deviations in the "statistics" they show there. So, what is this truth. In short: To be able to live life to the full, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be seen. We also need to be prepared for some (sometimes immense) discomfort and pain. And we need to build up something Brené Brown calls "shame resilience". As a good summary of her conclusions, just watch the TED talk.

It is not at all an easy feat. In fact, BB herself says that she has created a roadmap with her research, but is not necessarily a good traveller along that map. At the start of her journey, she states, she was "2 for 10" and is still not always able to embrace the hallmarks of "Wholeheartedness", a term she has coined for the ability to live life to the full and with authenticity.

In any case, the themes of this book are really important to me. Shame is something I have felt a lot, especially in my earlier life. And it has this tendency to self-perpetuate, and to operate in silent. So, kudos to Brené Brown for dragging it out in the open like that and give it a good "beating". I say, it is important to me, but it should be to everybody really, including a lot of people who are not even aware of how shame, fear of failure, illusions of scarcity, shape their lives. I wish this idea does in fact spread and enter the collective unconscious, without ever becoming too dogmatic, that is always the danger.

To conclude, one quote from the section on parenting. That chapter had a bit of an eye-opening effect with some thoughts I had not previously come across or forgotten. One thing worth noting is that your actions and the way you present yourself to the world, has a much greater influence than anything you say to your child. This is again something I believe to be absolutely true. And this. It seems an important message in our safety-obsessed times of helicopter-parenting:

"I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful, I now think about it as dangerous. Don't get me wrong — I still struggle and I still step in when I shouldn't, but I now think twice before I let my discomfort dictate my behaviours. Here's why: Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle. And let me tell you, next to love and belonging, I'm not sure I want anything more for my kids than a deep sense of hopefulness."




This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

CodeHub Bristol

This post was written 7 years ago.
Wed, 03 Jul 2013

I cannot exactly remember when the idea to set up CodeHub was born, although it probably happened in several steps. It definitely came out of some conversations I had with my friend Gicela. We thought it would be great for people in a similar situation to us, working from home and just for themselves, to get together and learn from and with each other. When Gicela came across the Hackerschool website, that served as an inspiration, although it is very different from our project in terms of scale and scope. - And so, two days ago (on Tuesday 2 July 2013), a group of five independent web developers met up at The Big Chill in Bristol for a morning of coffee, tea and code. I think we all agreed that it worked very well. It was good to be in this small group to start with, and it was a good group. We almost felt we don't even want it to grow!

But that would of course go against the orginal idea of a place giving developers who work on their own the chance to learn and collaborate with others. In any case, I doubt that we will get a sudden influx of hundreds of people. If we slowly grow that will be good. I could also imagine having a core team and then occasionally setting up bigger events.

So, if you wonder what this is all about, here is a brief outline of ideas we've had:

The format:

  • 30 mins of somebody giving a talk, or discussion about a certain topic
  • The rest of the time (3 to 3.5 hours) spent working on a project involving that day's topic OR other project of own choice
  • We will look for a project or projects that we can collaborate on
  • We would like to invite mentors to give a talk and possibly stay on to give practical help

That's it really. And it is generally quite flexible. For our first meetup (as good web programmers, we also had a 0th meeting that took place at the Mildbunch office, who kindly let us invade their space for a few hours), we thought we'd all get set up with Git and GitHub. If we want to work together, we need to share our code after all. So Rob who had the most experience with Git in our group, talked everybody through the process. Some of us had a bit of experience and already had GitHub accounts, but we still learned new things. And there was clearly a sense of achievement when ssh keys had been generated and copied, and test repositories were pushed to GitHub.

Another topic we all agreed we want to learn more about is JavaScript. This ranges from being able to write own Javascript code to using an MVC framework. I had a look last night at various resources, and have come to the conclusion that I want to learn Javascript properly (finally!) and then using a framework. I am curious how well I will succeed. But one thing is clear, the prospect of being able to share what I am learning with others, has lifted my motivation quite substantially.

There seem to be quite a few initiatives around the world that aim to teach people coding or other technical skills, which is great. I particularly liked this about the Core Values of Open Tech School. They are pretty much what I hope CodeHub to be about.

So, I am glad CodeHub got off to a good start and it will be interesting to see how it develops. We meet up once a month, but plan to be in touch online between meet-ups. Let's see what we can build!

If you are interested in joining us, please get in touch. Our next meeting will be on Tuesday, 6th of August at 10 am, again at the Big Chill. As mentioned before, we will also be looking for mentors. If you would like to try giving a talk about a certain topic, this is the chance to do it in front of a small group, rather than for example, at the Bristol Skillswap. That, I can testify, can be very frightening!



This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: codehub / bristol / learning /

Skillswap about Responsive Web Design

This post was written 7 years ago.
Wed, 15 May 2013

So it's now two days since the Skillswap about Responsive Web Design in Bristol. I am happy to have been one of three speakers and, having just listend to the audio, I think it was kind of okay - which hadn't been my initial impression, so I'm glad there was a recording. I just thought I'd add some thoughts, some of them regarding what I talked about.

I am always amazed how these talks, whether I'm a listener, or as this time a speaker, make my mind buzz. And that includes the chat afterwards in the Watershed bar where this time we had to be kicked out at closing time. It is hard to pin down what it is, but I guess it has to do with sharing an interest, being excited about the same things, talking a common language in a sense. I have not always been totally sure I did actually belong to that "crowd", but I have gradually come to realise that there is no point even asking that question. If you are interested, you go and listen, you belong there, and that's just it. (Which doesn't mean it might not occasionally be difficult, as an introvert, to talk to a bunch of other introverts)

Responsive Web Design and Content Strategy — a winning combination

I would say the event was really successful, but in a pretty unplanned way. There had been various health issues that prevented things from running smoothly. Pete Fairhurst, who was going to talk about how he made the Samaritans website responsive, had to pull out shortly before the talk because of illness. Keir Moffat who gave the second talk, on "Responsivability", had an upset stomach that made him feel pretty unwell, and I didn't even mention that I had just recovered from two days of headache and also having friends to stay (luckily I was feeling well on the day, despite zero sleep - but that's not unusual for me, in fact I often thrive on sleeplessness). What really saved the day was that, at crazily short notice, Bonny Colville-Hyde stepped in to do the third talk. It was about content, called "You can't polish a turd" and was an absolute hit. Bonny answered questions for longer than her actual talk was! (She also increased the number of women who have so far spoken at the Skillswap - New series by 100%, which I think is a welcome side effect.) I admired the relaxed and funny way Bonny delivered her talk, without slides, and I was also struck by how it hit a nerve like that. And it makes sense, if you think how important content is. Both a lack or excess (especially if it's bad quality), can hold up a website so much. And having the ability to make people rethink, and rewrite!, their content, — "you will not always be liked" —, amounts to having magical powers.

The content topic also fitted in quite well with the "Responsive website design" theme, as it becomes really important to get your priority content spot-on when you serve a site to mobile. So while I still find it a shame that I didn't get to hear Pete talk, this was sure a good alternative.

Having said that, I do not mean that Keir's talk, or even mine, went by without interest from the audience, and I enjoyed Keir's very much, even if I found it difficult to tell how mine must have come across. Keir coined the term "responsivability" for being responsible with your responsiveness, which is a very good point, as you can be very irresponsible with it! For example, don't throw lots and lots of code, especially Javascript at it, to make things work. He had a number of great tips and showed some live examples of sites he had built, all without use of any framework, as he said he wanted to learn from "bottom up" to get a real feel for how things worked. This approach has quite obviously served him well, as since building his first responsive website in August last year, he has picked things up very quickly and already built a number of sites. He was also going to do a live-coding session. He did not quite get round to that, but he created a git repo where you can trace the steps for making a sample site responsive.

Responsive web design as a process

To conclude, just a few "Addenda" to my talk. I felt afterwards that there were quite a few aspects of responsive web design that I did not mention, which was probably inevitable due to a lack of time. After all, there are whole "responsive days out". I should have added, for example, that in preparing my talk I had taken the opportunity to establish a process for how to create responsive websites. Moreover my approach is only one way of doing things. But I think exactly that is what every developer, and every agency should do really. Set some time aside to do one project as a way of trying out responsive design techniques. There should be some extra time and budget allocated to that, like for example you do with team-building.

Modular design and CSS

We didn't talk much about the design phase, but in the discussion it transpired that most people so far aren't receiving designs that are adapted to responsive, or if they do get them, they were full-blown separate designs for different devices, which in the end is not that helpful. One thing to mention here is Style Tiles by Samantha Warren as well as style guides.

I talked about using design patterns and writing modular CSS. One example from my own exmaple site which I built for my husband is Nicole O'Sullivan's media object. I used this for the media on the videos and podcast page. The same set of style declarations is used for different elements (video containers, podcast containers, and inside podcast container the image and title). The way I did it could sure be improved, but it was still - for me - a new way of looking at things and implementing design.

IE 9 != IE 8

Just a quick note about Internet Explorer. I mentioned it at several places in my talk, mostly in conjunction with "this is not supported by IE" or similar. What I meant here is of course Internet Explorer version 8 or below. I could also mention here that the fascinating ":nth-child" pseudo-element is not supported by those either, but there is an easy way to recreate this functionality with one line of jQuery.

I might blog some more about things I do on the Matin Durrani website as I go along, as it is a work in progress. I hope to use some more responsive techniques, and I also want to do something about preventing videos and podcasts from being loaded automatically (as they are now). But that's for another day.

For now, thanks to a great audience and speakers, and of course to Tom. It was a great experience being at this Skillswap.




This post was written 7 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

Using a Ubuntu 12.04 laptop as monitor for Raspberry Pi

This post was written 8 years ago.
Fri, 19 Apr 2013

This is not really that difficult once you know it, but I had to combine instructions from several posts and fiddle around a bit, so I thought I'd write down the different steps. This is assuming you have an external screen attached to the Raspberry Pi to do the configuration.

1. Find out the IP address of your laptop

To do this, you go to system settings. There you will have to turn the switch icon on the top right to "On". You will also need to connect your laptop with an ethernet cable to your Raspi to see the IP address.

2. Assign an IP address to the Raspberry Pi

Start your Raspberry Pi, log in and then do the following, using an IP address that is the same as your laptop's except for the last number:
$ sudo ifconfig eth0 10.42.0.2
You can check that the IP address has been assigned like this:
$ hostname -I
(If you do this before assigning an IP address you should just get a blank line)
Once you have done that, you can "ping" your laptop with the laptop's IP address. Stop this process with Ctrl+C once you've seen some responses:
$ ping 10.42.0.1
The IP address is only assigned for this session. There are some instructions here to assign the IP address at boot - but remember to replace the command.txt file by the original again before you try updating your OS through your home internet connection. It won't work otherwise (at least that's what I experienced!): http://pihw.wordpress.com/guides/direct-network-connection/

3. Install TightVNCServer on the Raspi and a VNC Viewer on your laptop

On the Raspberri Pi you install the Tight VNC Package :
$ sudo apt-get install tightvncserver
On the laptop, install a VNC viewer, for example
$ sudo apt-get install xtightvncviewer

4. Access Raspberry Pi through your computer via ssh and view interface through Xvnc

Now you can open a terminal on your laptop and ssh into your Raspberry Pi:
$ ssh pi@10.42.0.2

 
pi@10.42.0.2's password:
Then run TightVNC server from your terminal, and start a VNC server (the example below starts a session on VNC display zero (:0) with full HD resolution):
pi@raspberrypi ~ $ tightvncserver

 
$ vncserver :0 -geometry 1920x1080 -depth 24
In another terminal window on your laptop, start the VNC viewer with
$ xtightvncviewer 10.42.0.2:0
That's it. Most of the instructions in this post are taken from elinux.org, which also tells you how to creat a vncboot service in /etc/init.d. This is quite handy, as then you can just type the following to start the VNC server with your preset preferences:
$ sudo service vncboot start






This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)