Weekly Reads: Battlestar Galactica Edition

I spent much of my spare time during the past week watching Battlestar Galactica (the new version). It was my first exposure to the show — new or old — but from what I hear, I might have had my geek cred revoked if I didn’t. Midway through the second season, I can’t say that I’m necessarily hooked, but I do find it a fascinating show to watch.

For one, it’s deep. Want an action show? Sure, you’ll get bits of that here and there. But it’s a show that is not so much about blowing things up as it is demonstrating all that goes into making a society. From culture and religion to politics and control, from love and desire to hatred and jealousy, from morally right to lawfully right, it’s a show that dares to look at the unvarnished side of humanity — all the while, showing that it is our imperfections that make us what we are.

What’s most phenomenal is that it does it all as a cohesive story, with a flowing plotline. It’s not so much a TV show with independent episodes, as a space drama that just happens to be broken up into 1-hour blocks. Seeing the connections, understanding the relations, and discovering the patterns are part of what is so engaging about the show. So, I’ll keep watching.

Besides, I now understand the namesake for Fathom-Lord Karathress in World of Warcraft’s Serpentshrine Cavern. Although I dare say that FLK was a touch more of a pushover than Starbuck 😉

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments containing multiple links are flagged for moderation, so if your note doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

You’ll probably notice a theme in this week’s set of links. There’s a good reason for that. This week, it seemed as though a lot of what I read was really connecting with other reads. Maybe it’s something in the blogging water, or maybe it’s just a connection that my subconscious was wanting me to make. Either way, rather than listing everything I found, this week I’ve tried to pick a select few links that I think show the common thread most clearly.

The Number One Dream Killer: Doing What Works (from Zen Habits). The subtitle kind of gives away the “punch line” for this one. In this post, guest author Jonathan Mead argues that what really kills our dreams isn’t that we do what doesn’t work… it’s that we do what does work. Why I pulled it out is that this is an article about comfort zones — and, more specifically, about how staying with “what you know” (and with “what works”) doesn’t really get you anywhere. The take-away message is that if you want to actually live your dreams, you’re going to have to step out of what you know works, and take a chance on something that may not.

Succeeding by Helping Others Succeed (from Steve Pavlina). A lot of times, we know what “works” for us, and it’s really easy to focus only on that. In this back-to-basics article, Steve Pavlina points out that success isn’t just about us as individuals. If you really have something that works, what good are you doing if you just keep it to yourself? Instead, Pavlina suggests looking for ways to help others succeed — and then takes that as a jumping off point for launching yourself into a whole new direction — for both your life, and your career.

Top 10 Tools for Landing a Better Job (from Lifehacker). And what do you do when you’ve established your new direction, and now just need to get there? For most of us, there are two options: you can either do it on your own as an entrepreneur, or you can do it with others who are already doing it. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of getting that dream job, this list from Lifehacker is a good place to start. While the tips may seem a bit obvious, it never hurts to review even the basics. Current economic climate or not, the little things do still count.

20 Steps to Better Wireframing (from ThinkVitamin). This ThinkVitamin article is targetted to designers and developers who find themselves tasked with the creation of wireframes — those basic outlines which help determine the future form of an application, website, etc. Now, such a topic may not seem to fit the “storyline” I’ve established above, but stick with me on this one :-) First, for some people (like me!) being able to create and design tools that people actually use is part of how we succeed by helping others succeed. The things mentioned in this article provide a good starting point for that career path. That’s the most obvious connection. But when you take the steps out of the designer context, you’ll realize that it’s applicable not only to developing outlines for websites, but also for outlining the life you want to live. Drawing on your experiences, being clear on your objective, and not letting yourself get lazy are good advice for life design, too.

Weekly Reads: IxD Edition

Normally, I try to have something witty or at least interesting to say as a prologue to my weekly collection of links, but so far, I’m coming up empty.

As I indicated last week, I also don’t have my laptop at the moment (the repairs were to take 5-7 days, so you’d better believe I’m counting down!) so the list of links this week is also a bit shorter than usual.

On the plus side, I guess that’s a good thing in some ways, since it means I haven’t been bored at work :-). I’ve been busy researching and learning about Interaction Design.

The team I’m on at work is going to be working on implementing best practices, and it looks like I’ll be particularly responsible for the design, usability and accessibility aspects of things. With that in mind, if you have any IxD links to pass on, please do so — I’d love to add them to my reading pile.

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments on this site are moderated, especially if they contain links, so if it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

Do You Believe in Free Will (from PsyBlog). Ah, free will. Basis for world religions around the world, and debates amongst philosophers for the ages.  But a new study shows that believing in free will can also have some interesting relations to behavioural patterns: a disbelief in free will decreases helping behaviours and increases aggression.

What Are You Good At? (from Seth Godin). What’s the difference between process and content? In this insightful piece, Seth Godin examines the value of having domain knowledge (skills, abilities, “head knowledge”, etc.) and its relation to the emotional intelligence that gives the ability to visualize, make connections, etc. I love this piece, because it really speaks to me. I don’t know if this is true of all scanners, but I find I more naturally identify with process than content anyway.

Why You Should Celebrate Your Mistakes (from Zen Habits). One of my favorite sayings is “there are no mistakes, just opportunities to learn.” Leo Babauta explores this understanding, by discussing how without mistakes we would never have opportunity to learn. Here’s a snippet: “So if you value learning, if you value growing and improving, then you should value mistakes. They are amazing things that make a world of brilliance possible.” Good stuff.

Bonus Material

Discovering Ricotta (from the New York Times). I’m really getting into this whole eating “real food” thing. While I have yet to make my own cheese, I think my first attempt may be with ricotta. I enjoy the store-bought stuff well enough (heresy!), so I’m eager to try some of the real thing. And it sure seems easy enough.

When Best Practices Aren’t Best

After my big ole rant about “doing things right” the other day, I was swiftly stopped in my tracks by a comment made by Chris Brogan on his blog

Guess what? We’re all doing it wrong. Because we’re all doing it our own way, and it’s not always going to match the way you think it works best. And just like pretty much all of life, we’ll get there somehow. Thanks for sharing your opinion. Glad you got that off your chest.

What?

Hm…

Yeah, okay. I see where he’s coming from, and I see completely where I can be completely guilty of pushing my ideas of “right” onto others. It’s part of my perfectionism — something I know I struggle with, and which can have some seriously detrimental effects.

Is There Such a Thing As Best?

Part of me, though, still can’t shake the belief that there has to be some way of understanding what works best. Even if it’s not my idea, or yours — aren’t there best practices for a reason?

Let’s take an example I encounter every day at work. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a post-secondary institution, developing courseware for students. As part of my job, I interact quite frequently with Learning Designers (also called Instructional Designers) who are dedicated to making sure that the activities we prepare for students will actually help them learn something.

So, for example, if an instructor wanted to teach vocabulary by building a word search, a learning designer might suggest a crossword instead. The reason is fairly intuitive: a word search only focuses on the students’ ability to match letters from the word list to the jumble. A crossword, on the other hand, would focus on the meaning of the word (and its correct spelling).

Learning designers also work on best practices for things like learning styles — not everyone learns best by reading, some learn better by hearing, or by doing, or whatever. There is a tonne of research to support this, and it seems to imply that there are such things as “best” practices.

In my rant, I talked about things like accessibility and usability as being “best practices” for web design and development. This also makes sense intuitively, as it seems apparent that in order to reach the widest audience, we ought not automatically exclude those who (for example) use a screen-reader to browse the web.

Where Do Right Ideas Come From?

So we seem to be back at the point of contradiction that stopped me in my tracks. But then it occurred to me… let’s look again at what Brogan had to say.

And just like pretty much all of life, we’ll get there somehow.

Yep, we will certainly get “there” no matter the approach we take. In a purely literal sense, we’ll all end up dead 😉 But I think what he was getting at is that it doesn’t matter if your blog posts are too long or too short — ultimately, people will read them (or not) based on whether or not they want to read them.

The question is, is this true in all cases?

I think in a lot of cases, people come up with ideas of how to do things the “right way” based on personal experience, speculation and best-guesses. Or, they do things the “right way” because that’s the way they’ve always done it, because it seemed to work, or because that’s what they’ve heard.

In many of those cases, yes, all paths will lead to the same ultimate end. You’ll have a program that works, a blog that people read, a network of friends, or whatever. But I think at the same time, you have to discern between the end result, and the end goal.

Is the End Point Really the Same?

Consider the example of the students who are learning vocabulary via the word search or the crossword. What is the end result? In either case, the students will have an activity which reinforces that particular terms are important. Some students will still pass, others will still fail — and ultimately, the activity will get the students to the end. Same with the web example. The design will still reach people in the end, and the development will still work for getting the information across.

However, a good activity can make it easier on the students. Maybe they can just do the crossword, rather than having to also create flashcards from the list of terms in the word search. A good web design/development will make it easier for the wider audience to hear the message. They won’t need to call someone to find the phone number on your webpage; they would be able to do it themselves.

In many cases, the end point is the same, yes. But what isn’t necessarily the same is the efficiency. All paths may lead to the same outcome, but one may be substantially faster, less painful, more rewarding, etc.

Of course, this isn’t always true. Sometimes (especially when you’re doing things based on anecdotal ideas of “best”), there really isn’t all that much difference between the paths you can take. Sometimes, taking the “not-best” path has some interesting results in-and-of itself — the journey can be just as illuminating as anything.

The key, of course, is to determine what the goal is. Is the goal just to get to the end point, no matter how you get there? Is it to do it quickly and efficiently so you can go home sooner? Is it to make it easier on customers so you make more sales?

When we focus more on the why, the how becomes more clear. In some cases, it may be best to follow “best practices”. In other cases, it may just be a waste of time and effort. Knowing (and foreseeing) the difference is the challenge.

Weekly Reads: Free Time Edition

If you’ve been following the posts the past week or so, you will no doubt have noticed that I’ve republished a number of articles from the old Sententia in commemoration of the Chinese New Year. There will be two more articles yet to come in the series, which I suppose is good, because as of yesterday my computer is in for repairs, and so I’ll be somewhat out of commission.

However, never fear; I’ve got a fair number of posts queued up, and I do still have internet access (though somewhat more limited) at home, so the posts should be able to keep on rolling. Comment moderation, etc. will be a bit slower, but I’ll try to keep up on that as well.

Now, the real question is… what will I do with all the extra time I’ll have, not being able to spend my evenings online? It’s way too cold to be spending much time outside… I do have some books I’ll continue reading, but I’m open to other ideas, too! Feel free to leave a comment if you have some suggestions for me…

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments on this site are moderated, especially if they contain links, so if it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months (from Tim Ferriss). I really enjoy language learning, and seem to also have an aptitude for it. Ferriss’ article focuses on applying Pareto’s principle (AKA the 80/20 principle) to language learning, a technique I found very valuable when I studied Latin in University. Students of Latin, check out Anne Mahoney’s list of 1000 Essential Latin Words. The first 250 words make up 50% of the vocabulary you’ll need to know; if you spend some time familiarizing yourself with the list, you’ll find it that much easier to comprehend texts without running to your dictionary every other second. (Then again, I still prefer the natural language method for learning languages, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Wrapping Your Head Around the Project (from LiveDev). I run into this situation often at work: I get really into a project, work on it all day, but am not able to wrap it up before it’s time to go home. So I leave it for the next day — at which point, I just can’t seem to get back into it. Glen talks about this problem — and offers some techniques for getting past it — in this interesting article from LifeDev.

Guided Meditation as a Tool for Speaking with Spirit Guides (from Erin Pavlina). I can remember two times in my life that I’ve participated in a guided meditation, although until reading this article by renowned medium Erin Pavlina, I never really considered it as meditation. Regardless of your aims in mediation — maybe you want to listen to your inner voice, speak with spirit guides, talk to your future self, or something completely different — Pavlina gives some really practical tips to get you on your way.

Communication Concepts

So You Want To Be An Interaction Designer (from Cooper) and So You Want to Be an Interaction Designer 2006 (from AdaptivePath). How had I not heard of Interaction Design (commonly abbreviated IxD) before this week? There is just so much in these two articles that resonates with me and calls to something within me. Is this another fleeting passion of my scanner-ness? Who cares, it sounds fascinating, and I think I’m going to spend some time checking it out. Any Interaction Designers have some favorite introductory books they’d like to recommend?

Six Ways to Get People to Say “Yes” (from CopyBlogger). No, it’s not about Jedi-mind-tricks, although the effect can be almost the same. Whether you’re in marketing and sales or not, there’s huge value in learning the fine art of persuasion. The key is to show people what’s in it for them — and in this article, Dean Rieck gives six great tips on how to do just that.

Choosing a Good Chart (from The Extreme Presentation(tm) Method). If you’re at all involved with data visualization — maybe you have to generate reports for your management at work, for example — you may be used to just choosing charts more or less at random. “Pie Chart? Nah, did that last time. Let’s do a bar chart this time!” But did you know there’s a rhyme and reason to why (and when) you should use different chart types? Check out this easy reference guide whenever you need a quick reminder of what’s what.

Bonus Material

6 Words That Make Your Resume Suck (from SquawkFox). Layoffs are really starting to hit a lot of people hard. If you want to get a jump on the competition, check out this fantastic piece from SquawkFox. Often we’re told to put specifics on our resumes, but its in the examples that this article really shines. Even if you’re confident of your job security, it never hurts to keep your resume up-to-date; it saves a lot of time if you put in updates as they happen, rather than doing one major overhaul every several years!

Company Man – Jim Lahey reveals his recipe for no-knead pizza dough (from TastingTable). Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread cause a firestorm of breadbaking when it showed up in the New York Times a couple of years ago — and it’s what got me into my love of baking. Now, Lahey’s back with a recipe for no-knead pizza dough. I haven’t tried his recipe yet (I love my current kneaded version, from Bertinet’s fabulous book Dough — if you enjoy baking and/or eating fresh bread, this book is a real winner) but if its anything like the original No-Knead Bread, it will be a winner.

Weekly Reads: Holiday Edition

Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid …

I mean… er… *Ahem*.

It’s officially less than one week until Christmas. Have you finished your shopping and have everything wrapped and ready to go, or are you a last-minute shopper who will find yourself trying desperately to get the last few things on your list in the next few days? Personally, I finished my shopping pretty early, although my to-do list does see me heading out of town to visit family for a bit this week.

Depending on how things go, posting may be a bit sparse, but it’s probably for the best that way anyway — after all, I’m sure there are people who would rather you spend time with them than with your computer!

Regardless of how you spend the holidays — even if you don’t celebrate Christmas and are working straight through — I hope you’ll take advantage of the festive season, and spend some extra time with those special to you.

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments on this site are moderated, especially if they contain links, so if it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

Stop Being a Loser and Pay Money to Save Money (from I Will Teach You To Be Rich). A very thought provoking article from Ramit Sethi. Very often, we think of frugality as being whether or not you save money in the moment. But as Sethi points out, there is value in also considering future money saved. For example, taking a basic computing course may have an initial cost, but you can very quickly regain the cost because of increased skill level and productivity.

Alchemy: Wealth can’t be created. Only money can. (from Minyanville) If you’re interested in economics — and these days, I think most of us have at least a nominal interest — you’ll undoubtedly find something to consider in this article. Just considering how wealth and money are related (but are not the same) gave me reason to stop and think about how I relate the two in my everyday life.

10 Useful Techniques to Improve Your User Interface Designs (from Smashing Magazine). I spend a lot of time designing and developing websites and web-based user-interfaces. I think a lot of developers and designers (myself included, at times) worry more about making a website look good, rather than making it useable and accessible. Are there things other than these ten that you find make websites more (or less) useable?

Made Me Laugh

In the Snow They Melted (audio by InsideOut). When this song first showed up on my last.fm playlist, I just about stopped listening a few seconds in, but was I ever glad I didn’t. If you’re at all into any music from the past 20+ years, you should hopefully at least get a giggle. Even if you don’t appreciate the comedy, you have to give the artists kudos for their creativity!

If Programming Languages Were Religions (from Aegisub). Geeks with interest in either programming or religions will appreciate this humor piece. My favorite part? “COBOL would be Ancient Paganism – There was once a time when it ruled over a vast region and was important, but nowadays it’s almost dead, for the good of us all.” (Can you tell I was scarred by COBOL as an undergrad?)

Bonus Material

If you’re a Mac user, you won’t want to miss out on Mac Heist’s annual giving tree. They’re giving away licenses for six great apps over the next week or so. The first two are Synergy (an iTunes extender for more convenient control over your music-listening) and Enigmo 2 (a fantastic puzzle game that you have to try, to “get”). I’ve spent a bit of time playing with both apps, and… okay, to be fair, I’ve spent more than a bit of time playing Enigmo 2, it’s quite addictive … but they’re both worth at least a look. And don’t forget to check back for the rest of the apps as they’re made available.