Bluey

Bluey is the most delightful children’s show I’ve watched, by far. Over the past few months my wife and I caught up on nearly every episode, including Season 2 on Disney+. I must caveat this by adding that I have two small children. I don’t generally sit around and watch kid’s shows on my own. With that said, I’ve watched a lot of shows and movies intended for a younger audience. Sometimes I like the shows, and sometimes they leave me confounded. Bluey is in a special category. It’s a show that I enjoy, and my kids also love. In fact, judging by my random outbursts of laughter, I might like it more. 

The writing is perfect. The show creators have a great sense of humor and they add a realistic element to what it’s like to be a parent. Each episode is just 7-8 minutes long, and most of the stories revolve around time together as a family. In that short time the audience can connect with the parents and children, and understand their unique struggles. It’s pretty special because it helps me remember children are just smaller versions of adults, they’re not a separate species – even if it feels that way sometimes. 

We’re not all fully patient or checked in, or completely wanting to do what our kids ask at every moment. That doesn’t mean we don’t care though, we try, and we want to be there for our kids. Bluey presents that in a realistic way, and encourages parents they’re not alone. It also reminds us of the value of play. My wife and I have taken lessons from the show and tried to apply them in our own lives.

Puffin Rock is another great show that we’ve enjoyed. It’s written in a way that kids will like, but also adds the odd reference that only a parent will pick up on. This isn’t subliminal messaging, or even anything inappropriate, it’s just slight bits of context that you learn with age. 

There a host of shows out there that are nowhere close to this mark. Several kid’s favorite shows feel like time fillers, with no extra effort placed on making them special. 

Great shows offer inspiration in how great content can bridge the gap between generations. Pixar is a master at this. I loved their movies as a young child, and have a deeper appreciation for them as a parent. In recent years almost all of their movies will bring me to tears by the end. Stories like this are special, and it inspires me to create things that offer that inspiration and education for others.

Zoom Fatigue

I’ve used video conference calls a lot. In fact, on some days I’ll spend up to six hours on back-to-back calls. In 2015, I joined a remote team that made use of Zoom and Google Hangouts (later Meet) for communication. Since my work has been 100% remote in the last six years, I’ve had a lot of hours on video calls. The previous year in the pandemic was little different from the years before, with one notable exception. I’m used to flying out and seeing my teammates throughout the year at conferences, client onsite, or company meetups. 

Having that face-to-face time together helped to bridge the gap between long periods of online only communication. There’s something special about eating dinner, having fun, and sitting in a room in physical space. I’m hoping that things can change soon, and that I’ll soon be able to connect with my colleagues on location. However, other than that one, albeit major factor, my life has changed little. 

Zoom fatigue is real, and I feel it. Staring at a screen for hours on end, and seeing the faces of others staring back at you is not a natural feeling. When I go to hangout with friends in real life, I don’t look into their eyes for an hour at a time, making direct contact. That’d be creepy, and I’m pretty sure I’d lose all my friends. And yet, this is exactly how video calls work. You look at a screen, stare straight into it, and your colleagues stare straight back at you. It gets tiring and drains energy as time goes on. 

I’ve found a few ways to resolve it, and while everyone is different, these little methods help me throughout the week.

First, I turn off my camera. I disable it and join the call with audio only. As an introvert, this helps to lower the temperature of the call, and allows me to pace, look down from the screen, or even go on a walk in nature for an hour. Video calls aren’t natural to the human conscious, so trying to re-enact a meeting in a 1-1 ratio doesn’t really work, at least with current technology. Besides turning off the camera, I also try to minimize whatever screen I’m on; I don’t need to always see the faces of my colleagues, I can hear them just fine. 

In situations where it’s not practical to disable the camera, I try a second technique. At work I have a 28 inch monitor. It’s huge, and having a browser up with a dozen faces staring back at me can feel intimidating. Or a single person can loom larger than real life. Often I’ll shrink the window to make the size of others on the call more realistic. I wouldn’t sit in a room with my face two feet away from someone else. Again, that’s creepy. Making the screen smaller tricks my brain a bit, and it feels like they are further away. If I had to guess, having someone’s face right up against yours triggers the fight-or-flight mechanisms in the brain.

Remote work is here to stay, perhaps not in the same way as we’ve seen it in the last year, but it will continue to iterate and become part of our society. It’s important that we adjust and reduce the strain that technology can bring. Video calls, screen sharing, audio calls, and all the other communication tools that come with it are amazing. I couldn’t do my work without them. I enjoy being able to get on calls and see my teammates and friends; it makes a vast difference. However, limiting the artificial tension that arises from a video call can help us all to feel a little less tired at the end of the day. 

Maple syrup and dark patterns

We’ve all run across them, and in more recent years a word is used to cover things in our life that just feel – wrong. I’m speaking about dark patterns. Things that force us, as humans interacting with the design, to use it in a way that feels unnatural and goes against the grain. You know it when you see it, it just feels wrong somehow, even if you can’t quite place words on it.

Whether it’s a used car salesperson trying to force me to pay more at the last minute with an upsell that I neither want nor need, or something less obvious, these patterns sit all around us and are pervasive in our everyday life. 

Software is all too guilty of this, and I run across it in my everyday work. The biggest offender is canceling a subscription. If you’ve signed up for a newsletter, news subscription, monthly shipped product, or even the New York Times, you’ve come across this. It drives me nuts. I will raise hell to get out of anything that obfuscates my ability to leave. The moment I feel stuck with something, I want out, even if it was a wonderful service. 

Earlier this year I had a bit of a scare where I thought I was losing my hair. I developed a bald spot at the back of my head. Completely bald, no hair, nothing. At 33 years old, it was the time for these sorts of things to happen. Instead of accepting my fate, I ordered a hair product online from an ad. The design of the website, the box, the subscription service; everything seemed perfect and good to go. I tried the product for a month and saw results. And only time will tell if I’m right. I realized that the hair loss was not a result of balding, but a case of alopecia; likely brought on by stress. Alright, glorious news.

I went to cancel the service and found that I couldn’t. Whether through malice or ineptitude, there was no way to use the website to cancel; the software ran me through a series of loops leading from one part to another, with no way out. I tried, the software would not allow me to cancel. Then, in a twist of irony, I didn’t feel comfortable complaining on their social media account. Would I want to admit hair loss? That’s embarrassing. Hopelessness washed over me, and I got mad; furious, in fact. Several months later I can still feel the emotions running through me at feeling misused.

I emailed customer service, got a standard reply that I was “holding it wrong”, I needed to go to the website. After another response or two, they agreed to cancel my service. I shouldn’t have had to do that though, there should have been a mechanism to do that from the site. It felt intentional; especially at a scary time that caused a lot of stress in my life. 

This pattern exists in software the world over. It’s not just software, it’s everywhere. It doesn’t have to be this way. I find delight in things that let me escape, and come back if I want; that’s freedom, and I love an easy exit path. This hair care product could have been that; there’s a chance that my hoped for alopecia is wrong, and I’ll go bald again; would I care to try the product after that previous experience? Doubtful. 

And so we come to maple syrup. I remember a time, back in the nineties, when the big syrup bottle my mom served our family for months at a time. We’d buy syrup and pull it out for pancakes and such. I’m guessing – and here I go into speculation territory, but again, the results are the same for the end customer – that a marketing executive somewhere, or a product designer, decided that the company could move more inventory if they made the opening to the lid wider. It pours out; fast. And so, we come to a situation where – when I go to the store and buy a big thick maple syrup bottle – I dread bringing it home. It’s frustrating.

I have two little children, and they like maple syrup waffles; an entirely reasonable activity. In their eagerness to enjoy the food, they often tip the bottle back; it’s heavy after all, and syrup flows out, flooding their waffles. My children don’t like this. They don’t want that much syrup; waffles shouldn’t float in liquid. And so, again, we run into a situation where they feel helplessness; they can’t serve themselves as a result, I have to help. 

I try to remedy the situation by cutting a tiny hole in the seal, instead of pulling it off; that doesn’t work well though. The hole should just be smaller. My kids feel bad for wasting the syrup, and the vast majority of it goes into the trash; they don’t like to consume straight sugar. I’ve fielded apologies from them, when it was not their fault. The moment an alternative comes available, I’ll switch. 

Dark patterns are a short-term fix; they don’t bring happiness and don’t bring love from the humans that experience them. I’ll push back and fight against any perceivable manipulation by products I use, and will go out of my way to pick something better. This is an opportunity for those who create things, the designers out there, to stand out with honest products that improve our lives. 

Perhaps someone has designed a product to solve this. A lid that screws on, with a smaller opening, would earn its money back in a few months. I’d be down for buying one, even if it cost $5. We easily spend that much on wasted syrup every year. Keep an eye out for dark patterns and call them out when you see them; together we have a chance to make the world a better place. 

Chairs

I’ve written a bit about chairs on this site, their comfort level, ergonomics, positioning, and how I want to use them for work and life arrangements. In the past month I changed things up again, and want to process how that’s affected my time at work.

My small home office has three chairs right now. The first, and primary chair, is my Capisco Hag. It’s weird, and somewhat uncomfortable, but as I’ve written before, it serves a purpose and I’m happy with it. 

The second sitting implement is an old IKEA office chair. It’s fine, not bad, but not great either. I picked it up as a Wirecutter recommendation years ago; and for $200 it served me well. This chair sits in front of a small desk, and acts as a second creative space, where I can do my writing each day. Of note, while I recently extolled the virtues of said sacred space, I’ve used it but once or twice a week for a half hour each. It’s not getting the full value that I hoped for. I suspect this is due to the stage I’m at with my writing; where I’m doing a bit more read through than actual writing. Or, I just like writing on an iPad in a relaxed position more; not great, but comfy.

My third chair is a recliner. It’s something small we got for rocking our daughter to sleep when she was smaller, and through the shuffling of kid’s sleeping arrangements, I managed to sneak it away into my office. 

There’s a fourth position I use, which is standing at my desk; but since that’s not a chair, it only half way counts.

The challenge I’m dealing with now, through all the arrangement of these seating spaces, is how to account for comfort and creativity. Ergonomics have become more important to me as I age. I want to find situations where I’m comfortable, and not straining muscles and tendons. That’s good, and I’ll keep working at it. The Capisco chair, along with my standing desk, is a pretty ideal arrangement. I can situate myself so that shoulders, neck, wrists, back, and arms, are all at relatively healthy angles. It is not the most cushy situation though. After a few hours I get restless.

Now, as I ponder that previous sentence, I realize that’s not a bad thing. Being in a healthy working position, albeit not the most comfortable, reduces my body’s chance of suffering injury. When I start to feel discomfort, it’s another way of telling myself that I should get up, stretch, and move around. My eye doctor said the same thing, I need to find times in the day to get away from the screen and relax my eyes. Apparently I blink 1/3rd as often when staring at a screen, that’s not great.

The third chair has come in use more often of late. When I’m feeling antsy from sitting at the Capisco, instead of going for a break, or shifting to standing, I pull my laptop over to the recliner and kick my feet up. It’s comfortable, and gets me out of a situation where I don’t have to use so many active muscles. The downside of this, and really the downside of all sitting these days, is the stress I feel on my back. I haven’t investigated with a doctor or chiropractor yet, so I’m just going on a hunch, but there may be muscle misalignment in my core. That means any chair that’s not providing strong back support is likely to bring lower strain. 

Standing, or laying on a decent mattress, are the only positions that I can handle for hours on end without discomfort. So, with all that going on, I’m rethinking my seating situation and trying to figure out what will work best for the long haul. More standing seems to be better, and has the added benefit of putting me in a pretty good ergonomic position. That, however, took a long time to work up to, and still tends to tire me out a bit. Standing is just hard, for me at least. 

It’s hard to work through design challenges, or spend hours writing up technical requirements, all while standing and feeling the day wear on. On the other hand, sitting at the computer, even on the Capisco chair, brings on strain over time. So I have the trade off of fatigue versus strain. The reclining chair, while comfortable, brings that same strain to my lower back. It also restricts my computer use to a laptop-like-device with a trackpad and keyboard. No ergonomics related to a mouse and screen. This limits me to specific types of work. I need to be at a desk for much of my creative work; whether that’s using iPad, larger monitor, or a Wacom tablet. 

Incidentally, and I may write more on this; I’ve been experimenting with the world of manual input for design. I’ve been testing out iPad Pro with Apple Pencil, in contrast to a large Wacom tablet and a smaller one. My goal with each is to find a good ergonomic balance where my shoulders, eyes, and wrist are in alignment. Nothing has been perfect yet, but the desk and standing seems to be the best of any situation thus far. During the day, when I need such an input device, sitting in a reclining chair won’t cut it.

It’s good to think over these things, and try to improve and adjust. I don’t expect that I need a perfectly comfortable situation. That’d be laying down with a couch and propping an iPad up on a pillow; not great for productivity. I do, however, want to find something that keeps me healthy, feels generally good, and allows for a range of motion to use a number of devices for work. I’ll think on this more. My default baseline has been the Capisco being a good device for office space. To date I’ve not used a high quality chair, such as Steelcase or Aeron. I don’t know if they are just hyped up, or make a difference. I also have a friend who swears by a different type of chair altogether. The limiting factor for me is wanting to testing changes to my work environment for at least a week, perhaps longer. I’ll report back if anything changes. 

Writing as Practice

My brain shifted over the past year as I’ve taken to daily writing. Before, I’d sit down to put words on the page, and find that my brain shut the process down before it began. We each have two different parts of our brain that fight with each other during the writing process: the creative brain, and the critical brain. Writing into the Dark, by Dean Wesley-Smith, talks about this; emphasizing the importance of shutting the critical brain out of the entire process. 

When I sit down to write I think of my time as practice. I’m not creating a perfect thing, intended for the world to enjoy and sing my praises. Instead, my goal is to get thoughts onto the page and try to share an idea in a way that benefits me, and hopefully helps others. 

If I continue on this path of writing at least six days per week, I’m hoping that my brain will continue to adapt for a practice creation mindset. Writing in fiction feels like a different game for me at the moment, and non-fiction is still taking some time to get used to with this method of creativity.

The change has been profound. Where before I’d stare at a page and try to figure out what to say, try to perfect it and create just the right combination of thoughts in my head, now I just start typing and my brain figures it out as I go along. When I keep typing, keep pressing ahead on the keyboard, my critical brain doesn’t have time to cause any problems; it’s just my creative brain flowing and putting all that together. 

This is something I’ve also experienced in my design work. Sometimes I need to just put my work onto the page, and stop stalling for more information, details, context, etc. Practicing in this way is rather freeing, and helps to bring anticipation to my work. Knowing that I’ll sit down each day, write out a thousand words, and then move on, removes a lot of weight from the process.

So for writing, I pull up a full screen on my device and start hammering away. I’m fortunate enough to have a device that’s mostly dedicated to this, using Ulysses on my iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard, but in the past I’d just clear out my laptop’s desktop, and open up a full-screen window. It also helps to write in a space separate from my other work. Writing in the same spot as my work desk is a creativity drain. For that reason I bought a cheap desk, put it beside my main desk, and move over to that area during the 20-30 minutes of writing time each day. 

I’ve had opportunity to chat with friends about this process, and share how I work; it’s helped to inspire a few, and also cements my thinking. Learning about others over the past year, through books, podcasts, and online discussions, has helped with understanding the different methods of writing. The most important thing for me is to find what works, and adjust as needed. Most styles of fiction writing are along a scale, where writers lean more towards the planning method, or just diving in and figuring it out along the way. On the one hand, we call the planning type of person a plotter / outliner. They want to bring some organization, thought, research, and forethought to their work ahead of writing the manuscript. On the other hand, we have discovery writers, sometimes referred to as pantsers. They move forward with stories, focused on specific aspects such as dialogue, character, or plot, and type page after page until a story forms. Others take this further and write out the complete story in one go, with minor revisions along the way.

Most writers fall somewhere on that spectrum. Similar to how few people are 100% extroverted, or 100% introverted, few writers are 100% on either side of the discovery / plotter scale.

My novels have been on the discovery end of things, where I’ve figured out the story as I go along. That is a lot of fun for me and helps keep the story fresh and interesting as I add to it each day. It’s not for everyone, and some writers prefer the planning, but that daily excitement and motivation drives me forward.

With that said, I may adjust a bit as I continue to write. I want to get to where I feel that I have a basic grasp of the mechanics of storytelling, and can use that to propel my discovery style into an interesting and cohesive adventure. For me, it’s about telling the stories I wish someone else wrote. The other part of this, along with the fun of learning new stories as I go, is the realization that I can continue to learn the craft of writing for years to come. There is no planned end date where I expect to arrive, and believe that I know all there is about fiction, and that’s a good thing. Pushing the boundaries of my work is important, as it gives a reason to continue to learn and be curious. 

The natural progression of writing is that I may expand beyond fiction to other areas and bring my experience with me. That might mean other types of books as time goes on, and I’m excited to see what happens there. 

Now, to be completely candid, I don’t write fiction every day. Sometimes I feel too tired, or worn out, and don’t want to add to my stories. I give myself a pass on those days though, and bring the true meaning of practice sessions to my writing time.. This blog post is an example of that other writing. I want to just share ideas, but not hold to a specific expectation on every single day; this allows some level of variety. 

When I started reading in more earnest as an adult, I developed the habit of setting down books before finishing them. If the book no longer interested me, I wouldn’t force myself to finish. As a result, I read far more books, to completion. Even though I expect to finish the books I start, that experience is something I’ve considered for writing as well. We’ll see how this continues to unfold.