The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks

I’m a big fan of David Mitchell – I devoured Cloud Atlas – although, perhaps oddly, I’ve not read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which I suppose is a precursor to this book, so maybe I should have. But, it it’s not necessary to have done so.

Mitchell’s way with prose is second-to-none. He can create a world in a paragraph and destroy all your remaining hopes and dreams in another. He’s also really mastered the multiple-narrator trick. Each sounds distinct in a way that isn’t cloying, but natural.

Holly Sykes, the principal protagonist of this book is, well – she’s one of the best characters I’ve read in ages. She’s inspirational, she’s tough, she’s smart. She’s only the narrator in 2 sections, but features prominently in all.

Here’s an odd thing – with the exception of the epilogue (more in a moment), the narrators are universally dislikable. The other characters get to shine when someone else is narrating them, but the narrators themselves do not. When we first meet Holly she’s a bratty teenager – not horrible, but not exactly nice or good. But, tellingly, you already see the signs of worthiness that the latter narrators will expose. But Hugo, Ed, Crispin & Marinus are all quite unlikable as narrators, though each gets varying degrees of remediation in the eyes of other narrators.

The primary sci-fi element running through the book is forgettable, oddly. Indeed, my least favourite section is the primary dénouement, which is straight-up super-hero-immortal vs super-villain-immortal and not terribly well thought through, I thought. I found its own internal rules inconsistent, which is a cardinal sin for sci-fi/fantasy. But, the book is so good this is easily pardoned. And Holly. Holly’s so damn great to read that she makes this section worth it.

Finally. The epilogue: A post-internet, near-future (30-years-from-now) post-apocalyptic world that is so horrifyingly plausible that it left me fairly shattered after reading. Honestly, the first 500-odd pages are worth it just to read this – but DO read the first 3 sections at least to give this the real weight it deserves.

Lastly, there’s a nice (I’m assuming) hat-tip in the book to Vancouver’s own Douglas Coupland.

Coca-cola Cooler

The restaurant-drink conundrum

I’m working on myself. My fitness, my health, my size. I’m running, I’m cycling & walking more. I’m watching what I eat. Part of this, and a hard one for me, is eliminating pop. Well, Coke – I don’t drink any other kind of pop.

For the last, let’s say, 6 years or so, I’ve drunk roughly a can of pop (or larger) every work day. That’s a LOT of Coke. It goes a long way to explain why I’m as large as I am. But, coming back from my bike trip, I resolved to no longer drink an afternoon coke, as what has been my habit. And, funny enough, it was hard. I “snuck” a pop for the first 2 weeks a couple of days. But – none since the start of September (aside – that has produced a 5-pound drop in 2 & a bit weeks … so … yeah).

But here’s where I’m failing – eating out, lunchtimes. I don’t just want water forever – boring! But I don’t like other pop, I don’t like iced tea (unless it’s “real” unsweetened ice tea, but it never is). I don’t like most juice that isn’t fresh-squeezed.

But I want to drink something flavourful, interesting when I’m out. Sushi places are great because I really enjoy green tea. But what else is there? What do you drink when you’re out for lunch, say, and don’t want more coffee, alcohol isn’t an option & you’re not drinking pop. Do restaurants (particularly quick-stop or fast-food places) even offer an alternative?

Crossing the gap

Cycling the Kettle Valley Rail Trail

In mid-August, we strapped the bikes on the back of the car, the kids in their seats and drove out to Kelowna. There, we picked my parents up from the airport, then headed south down highway 33 to Idabel Lake. They dropped Leah and I off, and took the car & the kids to a house they’d rented near Oliver. It was just us, our bikes & 5 days.

Despite the “circuit” being from Midway to Penticton, we had decided that we’d like to start at the top of the climb, and so skipped the Midway-Idabel stretch. This turned out to have been a particularly good decision for 2 reasons:

  1. Leah was recovering from pneumonia, and still has nothing like full lung capacity: indeed, on our very first climb, she was breathing hard & needed to use her puffer. Fortunately, that turned out to be the hardest climb of the trip.
  2. We ran into a group of 4 riders who had ridden that stretch, and told horror stories of how difficult it had been: steep, technically challenging and in a bad state, maintenance-wise .

& so we set off from Idabel lake, with our destination for Day 1 being Chute Lake, some 74km away.

Idabel Lake – Myra Canyon

Setting OffThis first part of the trail was gorgeous, easy riding. The trail was pretty smooth, with only a few muddy sections or a few super-rocky sections. Really a great into, riding  through pine forests & around lakes, emerging with fantastic views down towards Kelowna as we neared Myra-Bellevue Provincial park. It was also blissfully quiet – we didn’t see a single other rider the whole time – only 1 man in a fishing boat & some horses.

Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park

Creeper on a TrestleThis is the raison d’être of the trip: the trestle-bridges of the park. It certainly is gorgeous – and will only get more so as the region recovers more from the 2006 fire that destroyed most of the original bridges. The restoration is impressive, and it is well worth the trip to ride or walk this stretch: it’s about 12km in length, and you’ll cross 18 trestle bridges and go through 2 tunnels in that stretch. For better or for worse, this part of the trail is crowded. There are several tour groups running daily trips out from Kelowna, and so yes it’s busy. But it also lives up to all the hype – and can easily be walked or biked at really any level of experience.

Myra-Chute Lake

Chute Lake ResortThis part kind of sucked. For the most part, this stretch follows an old forestry services road that is in serious need of maintenance. If you’re not on a fat-tired bike with suspension, it’s not a lot of fun. You also end up going through a bunch not scrubland without a view. On the flipside, you also get some spectacular views of Kelowna and one last trestle bridge that is truly stunning. But boy were we glad when we finally reached Chute Lake Resort. Which is almost worth a post itself. It’s a charmingly kitschy old hunting lodge, with a very limited menu, but it has cold beer & dank showers, and what more do you want after a long, hot ride? Fun side fact: with a wood/clapboard construction, you can hear everything going on in every other room. Through the gaps in the floorboards of our room, I could see the dining room below. But, a fun place.

Chute Lake – Penticton

Looking SouthThis stretch contains both the roughest stretch of the trail, from Chute Lake to ‘the little tunnel’, and the most stunning, from the tunnel to Penticton. Again, a fat-tired suspension bike strongly recommended due to thick, loose sand and lots of rocks along this stretch. But then you go through the tunnel and it becomes perhaps the most amazing, beautiful trail I’ve ever ridden, through down along the lake through vineyards and orchards right into the Penticton lakefront. This was the stretch that one of my tires finally blew out, somewhere just after the Adra Tunnel. It was also relentlessly hot, as there’s virtually no cover. On the flip-side, this section is 58km, almost entirely downhill.

Penticton – Okanagan Falls

Bridge into Okanagan FallsWe spent an extra in Penticton, staying at a lovely B&B right on the lake, and spent the day lazing down the Penticton channel in inner tubes, and eating dinner at a newly opened Brewery there, Bad Tattoo Brewing (brief review: excellent pizza, their darker beers are their better beers, all good). We then rode on to Oliver, taking the KVR route along Skaha Lake through Okanagan Falls. Signage here was an issue, as getting from Penticton on to the KVR along Skaha was not at all signed – it ends up you ride through a trailer-park campsite with a sign saying “no public access” – just ignore that and keep the lake on your left. The Skaha lake trail is very sandy – I had to walk my bike a fair bit, although Leah, with fatter tires, was fine, but really, really lovely. I could imagine really enjoying spending more time either in OK Falls or Kaleden. The bridge into Okanagan Falls, pictured above, contains a gate midway through, through which kids were jumping into the lake then climbing back out. Well worth a stop, I would think.

Okanagan Falls – Oliver

End of the RoadThis stretch is true “wine country”, and there’s little need to follow the official KVR trail – what little of it exists & is signed, particularly if you want to ride from winery to winery tasting things. The only downside is a 15km stretch alongside the highway – one with a nice, wide shoulder to ride in, but after been so far from traffic for so long, a bit of a let-down. This stretch also is quite hilly if you want to ride up to the wineries. Trust me – you want to ride to the wineries. We stayed our last night at 6 Road B&B just south of Oliver – again, spectacular, nestled into a working Orchard, and conveniently only a few-minute ride up to Tinhorn Creek Winery and Miradoro restaurant, where we ate dinner our last night out.

Final Notes:

  • Don’t ride this trail without a fat-tired bike. Tires & suspension are much  more important than gears – I barely changed gears the whole trip outside of the climbs around Oliver, as it really is mostly a 2% grade.
  • Take more water. We had 2 water bottles + a spare each, and it wasn’t enough. It gets damn hot in the Okanagan, and you’re exposed most of the time.
  • I regret not having a GoPro to take some video of the route – my makeshift camera-on-a-gorilla-pod didn’t cut it.
  • I bought a handleband to hold my phone for this trip, which was awesome. I totally recommend it. I’d also recommend extra battery packs for long rides, which I didn’t have.
  • I wish we’d had another day to ride further south down to Osoyoos and explore that last stretch.
  • Definitely add this to your bucket list. Apart from our first 74-km day, I could imagine Liam doing this trip without too much trouble, so consider it kid-friendly, if you’re willing to take it slower.
Photo by David James Swanson

Jack White at Deer Lake

I finally saw Jack White last night! Fourth time’s the charm (I failed 2 times during the White Stripes era, once since – a mixture of weather problems and my own incompetence).

Note 1: I did not take the photo this post. That photo is by David James Swanson, whom I understand to be the “Tour Photographer”, and, if I heard the announcement right, both he and Jack White are totally cool with us using his photos. great!

I went with Iva & Leah. Not really Leah’s thing, but Iva was excited, and Leah’s a good sport & I think still enjoyed herself.

This is the sort of live show that I live for: Full of improvisation, different treatments on well-trodden songs, mistakes, and, above all, a showcase of musicianship that only occasionally veered into wankery.

The best: I’m guessing that Jack White & the band make up (or alter) the set-list on the fly. Before each song, there’s this hurried conversation between Jack and one or more band members – whomever has to bring in the song with him, while the others catch up. When they start to improvise mid-song, bringing in snippets of other songs, this requires more conversation. Watching the drummer & bassist intently watching & listening to that musical lead was a highlight.

The mediocre: This band is not quite tight enough for this to work. At least once, the band got confused as to where the song was going, and there were some audible mis-cues.

The bad: With Jack White, I’m beginning to think “less is more”..the songs where he lets his band really stretch out worked the best. His solo & lead guitar work definitely veered into wanking showmanship too often, Ball & Biscuit being the song that really stands out in my mind as Jack White wanking off musically, rather than working the song. But letting his bandmates run – even a gorgeous theramin solo! was truly remarkable.

The inexplicable: Why was the sound so bad? I’ve been to several shows at Deer Lake now, and this was by far the worst. Everything was off. Why was the side-of-stage-piano mic better levelled than the lead? What was wrong with the acoustic guitar pickup? Why was there a distinct right-to-left echo going on? Why the muddy? I was wondering if perhaps they were aiming for some “old school” muddy, mono-mix blues sound…but it didn’t work.

The acceptable: That was a short set…just under 2 hours. I partially blame the rules for playing at Deer Lake…hard to have a long show when you’ve got to finish at 10pm. But boy did they pack a lot into that short set.

The everything-is-alright-in-the-world: Singing the guitar riff to Seven Nation Army with 100s of other humans with the band backing you and Jack White singing over it was a beautiful collective-joy moment, and a great send-off for the night.

So yeah, A good night

Shady Grove

Thinking about Payments

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how awkward, broken and balkanized payments are of late – I went as far as to build a few prototypes of slightly different takes…but time & money were a concern and left them alone. But a few recent things made me revisit this:

  • A few articles about the new, smaller credit-card skimmers now appearing.
  • A frustrating experience waiting for an available debit machine to pay at a restaurant
  • A frustrating experience waiting for a debit machine to dial backup lines and failing multiple times.
  • Experience setting up a Stripe account, a Square account & a Beanstream account for clients & friends.

There’s a common thread through many of these experiences which were:

  • overly dependent on potentially unknown third-parties & intermediaries
  • Handing control to an unknown person
  • slowness
  • physical machines that aren’t mine.
  • trust issues.

And so, here’s my point about payments, and where we should aim to move to (at least in the connected, western world – where my experience is. Call it my “manifesto for modern payments“, to be grandiose:

  1. Physical cards are dangerous. All hardware is on a slower upgrade cycle than software. This means that security breaches are slower to be resolved. Also, a physical card must be read by a physical device, which opens it to tampering. Physical payment mechanisms (apart from cash), should be avoided.
  2. Payment should be on my terms. The act of waiting for a machine, paying while the server hovers over you, and then handing it back is awkward and slow: It slows table turn over at restaurants, you’re touching something 100s of others have, it creates tension if around money availability, it doesn’t always work. Also, why always only pay at the end of a meal? Why not upfront? Or During? Or, even, a few hours later to make sure my decision to eat those funky-smelling oysters didn’t cause a hospital visit? Or to prevent dine-and-dashers because they’ve already “registered”
  3. I should choose who I want to pay with. Every different store uses a different merchant provider, with different hardware. None are identical. All, in my experience, are poorly designed, UI-wise (part of this is simply the numerous minor variants, which is detrimental to all the others by their “nearness”, which can lead to muscle-memory errors). We should reverse this relationship to merchant providers. I should pay via my merchant provider of choice. Paypal is already nearly an example of this – I create a Paypal account as a customer, hook it up to my personal banking info, and use it where I can. Where the problem lies is that the merchant ALSO needs a Paypal account. & this needs to change. WHO I pay with should be my choice, who you get paid by should be yours. Like your bank vs my bank.
  4. I should be able to automate this. For many things, payments are standard, predictable: I’m going to get a coffee every day. My lunch at the same restaurant is going to be similar. There should be a way for how I pay to learn what I pay, and offer to automate that as I go. So next time, I don’t even need to pull out my phone to pay. It just happens in the background – perhaps when I order, or when I leave, or batched, later on. An invisible transaction, but trackable through reporting.
  5. I should be able to geo-fence/technology-fence rules & limits. I use 1 card online. Another at “questionable” places, another is my “normal” card. But if I had a system that knew an online payment from an offline one, knew that I shop here regularly, or this place is new, that could ask for an immediate confirmation when I’m somewhere new, or suddenly travelled 2000 km in 10 minutes, or whatnot – that adds security. And this fencing should be simple, and again, personalized.

There’s likely others. I’ve spent a fair bit of time toiling away on items 1,3 & 4. Item 3 occurred to me only after I got nervous when a local convenience store got a new debit machine from a company I didn’t recognize, with a merchant provider listed in a language I didn’t read, and the payment took 3 (load) dial-attempts before it connected. & likely I haven’t thought this all through. But – here’s the thing. With current technology & connectivity, all of this is already possible. I should be able to have this right now. So where is it? Let’s build it.

Free Compliments

I can’t take a compliment

Tonight, Steve complimented me on twitter:

And I replied:

Which is true – he really is a super-great guy. But here’s the thing. When someone pays me a compliment, I have 2 conflicting immediate reactions:

  1. I joke it away, denying it, essentially.
  2. I respond immediately with a compliment of my own.

Both of these things feel like their diminishing the original sentiment. If I joke it away, perhaps with self-deprecation, then I’m not really letting that nice vibe linger in any way. I’m just swatting it away because I’m uncomfortable.

But if I just respond with one of my own, does that lessen both? Particularly if I don’t really mean it? or mean it as much? (This is sort of like automatically saying “I love you too” when someone says they love you – without considering your truth of that emotion there).

So – and let’s be clear. Steve is a swell guy. But I maybe, instead of responding immediately, should I have just said “thank you?” – which does two things itself:

  1. makes me uncomfortable, because apparently at some level I just don’t believe that this could be true.
  2. Makes me feel like I “owe” Steve a compliment at a later date.

What’s completely ridiculous is that when I compliment someone, I’m never (ok, rarely – I will admit I have done this on occasion) “fishing” for a return compliment. I try very hard to be genuine in my praise of others – I don’t do it often, and I want it to be meaningful when I do (see, above, why a knee-jerk response is not so good).

What is the proper etiquette to receive a compliment? In a way that makes both the complimenter & complimentee feel good? I think perhaps I should try just letting it linger a while. Acknowledge, thank the person, move on. Maybe blush & bat my eyelids shyly?

Who knows. This human interaction. It’s hard I tell ya!

Kellan Standing Tall

Raising an Emotionally-aware child

Kellan is most definitely in the throws of The Terrible Threes. I don’t know where this “terrible twos” business came from – because, for both my kids, age two was pretty wonderful. And speaking to other parents, two-year-olds are ok, but three-year-olds are hideous monsters who should all be locked up.

With Liam, I think Leah and I both thought that we were amazing parents because we never had any troubles – I’m not sure he ever had a time-out – maybe one or two, tops. And he was kind, and soft-spoken, and had great concentration. And hey, that’s totally because we’re awesome, right? No. It turns out, like we always thought, that Liam was an exceptional child. Kellan, whom I love dearly, is more like a textbook child. Those monthly “your child at this age” newsletters? yeah, he hits every one of those notes, both good and bad.

And right now, I have to say, is really hard. I’m sure that somewhere in the law is a rule that says murder most foul is completely justified after the 437,000th “why?” of the day, right? And along with the “why”s, there is a lot of yelling, shrieking, crying, laughing, running, babbling, talking, throwing, hitting, hugging, jumping, etc, etc, etc.

And these emotional outbursts are what are troubling me, and I’m not sure what is best to do.

  • I don’t want to teach my child to bottle up his emotions and not share what he’s feeling, BUT
  • I don’t want my child to scream and yell every time he’s angry AND
  • I don’t want my child to sob inconsolably every time he doesn’t get his way BUT
  • I do want my child to express his feelings AND
  • I do want to provide a safe, nurturing space for him to feel this feelings.

So. I do things like say “boys who yell don’t get what they want” and “I can’t understand you when you’re crying like that. Can you tell me with words what you want?” and “are you feeling sad/frustrated/angry/scared/etc?” and so on. And on one hand, I feel like this is good – because I’m trying to teach him to find other avenues to express his emotions, and give him the vocabulary to do this with. But on the other hand, every time I ask him to stop crying or yelling or whatever, or tell him that he doesn’t need to be scared, I worry that I’m just teaching him to be a stereotypical male who bottles up his emotions. And that if I say “dont’ X”, I’m invalidating his experience of feeling X, which, I really don’t want to do because it’s OK that he is feeling X – I just want to teach him to express that feeling more “appropriately”. And I quote that word because, really? more appropriately? Who am I to say what’s a more appropriate way? Because am I ever one of those males who doesn’t express emotion well. I’ve worked SO hard as an adult to be much more in tune with what I’m feeling, and how to express it because I didn’t know how as a child. And I want better for my kids. But…hard.

So, yeah – there’s no resolution to this post – mostly just a voicing of my concerns – putting out into the world what I’m feeling as a way of exploring it. Or, as Kellan might say “WHY is this hard? WHY don’t I know? WHY?”

Beer!

Improving Untappd’s rating system

I really like Untappd. It’s a great app, has lots of uses, and, for me, adds to my beer-consumption experience. The team behind it has done a great job, and I hope it keeps growing.

But there’s one part of the app that I dislike – which is odd, because it’s a core feature. & that’s the rating (& recommendation) system. I find it nearly useless. Currently, if you’re not familiar, it has a 5-bottlecap (Star) rating system. Which is common. But, looking at how I rate things, things fall into 4 zones for me (so out of 10 possible data-points (0, 0.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 5), I only really have 4 – which indicates a problem to me):

  • 0-1.5: I didn’t like it at all
  • 2-3: ok, not worth trying if you haven’t had it yourself.
  • 3-4: decent, forgettable
  • 4-5: excellent, will try to have it again.

Conversations with others have revealed that they have a similar grouping. Dave might have something more detailed, but he’s an outlier I suspect. And, watching over the past while, it feels like virtually every beer falls into a 3.5-4.5 category over time. Which thus makes ratings kind of useless.

Related to this: I have no idea how/why Untappd recommends the other beers it does (edit: in the “recommendations by style” that appears after a checkin). The rating I give a beer doesn’t seem to affect this at all – I assume there is a secret sauce beyond “beer is of a similar type”, but I don’t know. What I *do* know is that I don’t find the recommendations currently useful to me. When I’ve tried related beers based on either extremely high or extremely low ratings, there’s no consistency in the response. Aside on this: I wish I could “regionalize” the recommended beers, because it’s really hard to get most of the recommended beers I see here in BC.

So here’s my modest proposal for improving a rating system here. It has 2 parts. The big change is that beer ratings should be relative to each other.  So when I untap my beer, it’ll ask me “Is Brassneck Brewing’s Passive Aggressive IPA better or worse than Driftwood Brewing’s Fat Tug IPA?” & I’ll say yea or nay. This, combined with 100s of others answering similar questions will start to build an overall score for a beer. Likely a percentile score. But it will also build a large web of relative ratings of one beer to another.

This sort of natural-language question is great for humans. I can remember how much I enjoyed beerA, and can think about that relative to my current beerB. But I have a hard time giving an absolute rating to a beer. In part because my tastes change over time, where as a relative rating will more accurately reflect my changing tastes. Imagine if you drink the same beer 3-6 months later. Untappd could ask how I enjoyed it relative to the last time, which provides useful information.

With 1000s of users providing relative ratings, a particular scoring set will emerge, with much more granular ratings, resulting in fun stats like :95% of drinkers liked this beer. In the recommendation section, it can then use other relative ratings to suggest other beers to try. If I like my beer LESS than the comparison beer, show me other beers that are liked more than the comparison beer. Or vice versa. Because a negative rating should indicate I want something different than what I’m drinking, whereas a positive one should indicate that I want more of the same? or similarly rated?

I realize I’m way overthinking what’s a fun, app & pastime. But ratings of things are a hard nut to crack, and universally applicable anywhere anyone rates anything. And in a system where the subjects are inherently comparable (apples to apples), relative ratings and enjoyment-percentiles seems to be a good, human-and-machine-usable dataset.

Fireworks

Creating Focus

(n.b.: this was originally posted at Medium, due to a server issue here)

I, perhaps like a lot of creatives, need to create “the right space” to get things done. I’m easily distracted when I’m not focussed. When I’m easily distracted, I’m not terribly productive.

I suppose I should point out that you might not call me a creative?—?I’m a developer, a programmer, an engineer if you so choose?—?although, to me, writing code has always been an amazingly free, creative process.

I try hard to work a short week (my aim is to actually work 30-40 hrs every week, which, as any entrepreneur or small-business-owner will tell you, is an ambitious goal. I fail more often than I succeed. But that’s my aim). Because of this, I cannot afford to waste my productive time. But inherently, I’m a procrastinator?—?I like to put things off, I like to tool around.

I’ve been running a consultancy for 11 years, so I feel like I’m starting to figure this all out now. While these may not work for you (you’re not me, after all), I thought I’d share some of the things I do when I’m having a hard time concentrating.

First: why do I need to create focus? Because I want to exist, permanently, in the zone. I want the outside world to fade away, leaving only what’s in my head. I need to easily remember the comment I logged on line 1823 of one file, while editing code in several others. If I’m tracing a bug, I need to hold every step in memory. When I write code, I often don’t commit it to screen until the entire function/object/whatnot is already written in my head. I wrote papers in university the same way: Wander around for days with a slowly forming paper, then, in 1 sitting, write out the paper and hand it in (I have a comparative French Literature degree so there were a lot of papers).


So! focus! to the point?—?here’s some of my tricks to fine the zone when it’s elusive. The first step is preparing to concentrate. Do any or all of these. I find it often takes me all 3.

  1. Find the perfect song. I play music when I’m producing. I pause it when I’m not. I can judge how much concentration-time I got in a day by how many minutes of music I listened to. But to start, I need to start it right. This used to be done with my own library, but these days I use Rdio. It doesn’t matter what this is. Depending on mood, this’ll be any number of genres. I know it when I hear it. I’ll admit that I’ll spend easily 15 minutes doing this. But the payoff is worth it. Because that one song is all it takes. You want a song that transports you, that lifts you, that effects that important chemical change within you. Do NOT work while listening to this one song. But work as soon as it’s done. This is your Ready! Set! song. The ending of the song is your Go!
  2. Meditate. Seriously. I cannot stress how great this is. Close your door, close your eyes, put your headphones on (no sound), and focus on your breathing for a few minutes. Whatever you can to not exactly empty your mind, but to quiet or direct your mind. Of note, I’ll purposefully not think of what I’m about to do, but rather an end goal of the task during this. But the important part for me is to create a singular thought?—?really no matter what that thought is.
  3. Walk. I will often leave the office, circle the block, come back. It takes 5 minutes. But I leave anxious, troubled, over-excited, etc and return ready.Walk with purpose. I don’t amble on this walk, I stride, with purpose. Don’t talk to someone. Don’t hang out by the water cooler on the way in or out. This isn’t a social opportunity. In may ways, this is an isolatingopportunity.

Now I’m ready to work?—?but often still not sure that I’m ready to focus. Particularly if I’m working on something I’m not too thrilled about, so I do a couple of warm ups.

  1. Pick a Quick Task & Do It. My rule is that this needs to be something I can complete in under 30 minutes. I will often set a timer to ensure?—?at 30 minutes I have to stop no matter what. This can be anything that you can accomplish solo: read & respond to a particular message. Write those comments you’ve been putting off. Explain a query. Review performance stats. Pick the smallest, easiest bug off the top of the list and squash it. Read commits. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even need to be related to what you’re about to spend serious time on?—?you just want something to be a quick win that required some amount of focus. these are your warm-up pitches.
  2. Write out a sentence describing your success. “I rewrote a query that shaved 75% off of execution”. “I created a user object extension to describe customers” whatever. I personally like to write these in the past tense. I tend to use Notes.app on my iPhone to do this, but it doesn’t matter, really. But project your success. My only rule is that this is what I’m going to accomplish when I do start work. So the ambitiousness of the statement needs to relate to the time available to me. Don’t write “I rewrote facebook” if you’ve only got 3 hours.
  3. Tell your team how long you’re ‘going under’ for. If you work alone, likely not as relevant. But tell your co-workers, wife, kids, etc, that you need X time to not be disturbed.
  4. Go Silent. Turn of notifications. Turn of distractions. I: close Twitter. Close Messages. Close Skype. Close Adium. Turn my phone to airplane mode. Turn of notifications. Close all “fun” browser tabs. If I could, I’d close Slack, but that’s the deal I’ve made?—?that’s my emergency beacon.

Get to it!

It took me a while to compile the series of things I do over and over again to create focus, but these do the trick. I don’t always do all of this. But even on the worst days, I find that stepping through these really helps me find that focus that I need to do my best work. Many days, all it takes is choosing a song and finding my first task, and then blam, suddenly its fours later and I’ve got a shit-tonne done. Other days it takes all steps, & several iterations. But what’s awesome is that at most, I’ve “lost” 30-45 minutes, but created so much opportunity for creation.

Working | Playing

Rethinking “Workaholism”

Recently, Lauren wrote a really great piece on “The Balance Matrix” – a struggle many of us share, and something I’ve been working hard on my whole professional life. Reading it made me start to re-examine some of my childhood experience.

My parents were (are now really, despite being at least nominally semi-retired) workaholics – they worked, really, all the time. They got up early, went to work, came home, ate food, went back to work. I went to bed and still they’d work. They worked on weekends. They travelled for work. They worked when they travelled. Both my parents are phenomenally successful, and leaders in their respective fields – but boy did they ever work hard to get there.

At the back of our house was a sort of solarium, the sun room we called it. My dad, mostly, worked there. We had a glass-topped table and he would sit at, idly nibbling at the eraser of a yellow HB pencil or a gently pinching his lower lip between his thumb & fingers. He’d be hunched – either forwards, leaning over the table, or back, his right leg cross over his left. In either case, most of the time there’d be several piles of printed documents – journals, study results, his own data – spread over the table. To one side would be his dictaphone. But his focus was always on a lined yellow pad of paper. He’d furiously write away on that, turn a page. He never seemed to go back – he’d just write. I suspect he was constantly writing in his head prior. When he was satisfied, he’d dictate what he wanted to say and someone in the dictation pool at the hospital would later type it up. In more recent times, of course, much of  this would be replaced by his laptop. But not the yellow-lined pad of paper, nor the alternately leaning hunch.

My mother, by contrast, always hid herself away to work. Once my sister moved out, she took over her room and that became her office where she would while away the night, busy writing, researching, thinking, quietly muttering to herself. As a teenager, many a night would I carefully sneak home in the dead of night only to discover that my mum was still up working. Some of that may have been parental worry about her wayward young son, but she’d be up that late nights I was home too.

What’s curious is that although my father worked in a public spot, his work was much more mysterious to me than Mum’s – she would think out loud, talk about her work with us all – I suspect as much to help formulate her own thoughts as to share – while Dad was simply quietly efficient, back there in the sun room.

I swore, as I got older, that I would never be like them. I hated that they always worked, and I thought it a terrible life that I wanted nothing to do with. I loved the idea of indolent evenings spent with my family playing, sharing, living.

But a fun thing happened on the way to the coliseum….

I discovered that I have incredible work ethic – like my parents. I discovered that I too prefer to work in long, straight, deeply-focussed bouts – like my parents. I discovered that I too have immense ambition and drive to succeed – like my parents. I discovered that I too love what I do, and it’s not really work when you love it that much – like my parents.

But I still, even when I want to – try really hard to not bring work home, to not work evenings, to stop and truly experience my own children’s youth. And so I don’t work at home in the evenings. Liam, now in grade 3, is starting to have regular homework – somewhere between 30 & 60 minutes worth 3 days a week. And you know what? it’s a struggle to get him to do it. My sister, who shares many work traits with myself and my parents, doesn’t work at home either. And you know what? it’s a struggle for her to get her kids to do their homework. But, despite all my slacker tendencies at school (sat at the back, never took notes, etc), I always did my homework. It’s just what we did at home – we did our work.

And so, now, I look back at my parents long work hours and don’t just see workaholics chained to their desks. I see amazing parents who not only wanted to succeed, but wanted their children to succeed and modelled how to manage time, how to prioritize work – and most importantly, how to work. I see parents who showed their children how to have a career you love and children you love and work hard at both.

I don’t want to struggle to convince Liam to do his homework and whether he needs to do it – homework’s one of those stupid things that you have to do. But how fair is it, in his eyes, that he has to come home from a long, hard day at school and then do more work when both his parents are sitting on the couch, relaxing? He has no model to indicate that working at home is a normal part of life. And while yeah, I wish schools didn’t give homework and I doubt the utility of it, it happens. And so now, as we embark on this 8+year journey of nightly homework, I think back to how well my parents modelled getting stuff done at home and begin to think they weren’t, perhaps, just insane workaholics.

Perhaps, just maybe, they were teaching me something. And I could teach my children that too. And so, when my kids have homework, maybe I should have homework too. I’m a small business owner. There’s no shortage of things to do. I don’t want to spend my evening doing them, but then, Liam doesn’t want to spend his evening doing homework either. So maybe we should treat this as something of a team sport. We’re all in this together.

Looking for a place to happen