Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Beck, Documentarians & Isaac Asimov

Weekly Update 2019-07: Genre-hopping superstar musician Beck, the joy of documenting the human condition and Isaac Asimov's non-fiction writing.

Music: Beck
I have a complicated emotions about the life choices of a lot of musicians I like, and I try to be upfront with myself about the duality of human nature through this subject. Multiple award-winning singer/songwriter Beck is one such example, writing several decades-worth of some of my favourite music with intricate lyrics, simple-yet-inescapable melodies and collaborating with other huge names in the music industry.

At the same time, he's a self-professed scientologist. With everything I know about scientology, its soul-sucking tendencies and reliance on celebrity spokespeople to keep its popularity, I am ashamed that someone as obviously intelligent and talented as Beck would choose to associate himself with a cult. But it's great music. I'm especially excited that Cage The Elephant are going on tour with Beck, Spoon and Sunflower Bean this summer.

What I really like about Beck is that he constantly reinvents himself like Prince or David Bowie. He's covered a wide variety of sub-genres, and I appreciate his take on lots of different styles.

Check out the first album I heard from Beck, back in my elementary school days: 2005's Guero. It's a sort of Tex-Mex Spaghetti Western feeling.

I accepted a second BrainStation one-night workshop at the last minute, and then later found out that it would be an online webcam class - a little nerve-wracking to realize I'd be addressing a bunch of faceless, voiceless chat names for 90 minutes of User Interface basics. But it was pretty cool, and BrainStation even has a cute little room for these workshops so I can present with a cool designy-looking backdrop and good acoustics and such. Plus the fourth floor of campus has Perrier - I had never been up there before!

Also speaking of BrainStation, I'm almost finished marking all the first assignments of this semester. Yep, we're almost halfway through already. Between you and me, I'd actually have finished marking on Sunday but some students asked for an extension. I'm cool because I gave it to them (with a warning that I'll be holding them to a higher standard for marking).

As per last week's update, I had an amazing experience at ElleHacks and wanted to shoutout Vena for sponsoring such a great initiative. So I took Friday afternoon to whip up a work-appropriate blog post on my experience and Vena's women-supporting initiatives. I'm hoping we can start our Medium presence at the company and share my post this week - though that may be a little ambitious.

On Saturday, I'm going with some friends to Blue Mountain - I don't think I've ever been there before. I'm definitely not a skiier, but I'm excited to be out in the wilderness. Hopefully the weather will give us a break.

Random Thought: A Documentarian Lifestyle
I've professed on numerous occasions on this blog that I am slightly obsessed with user behaviours and motivations. I'm detail-oriented (often to the point of my demise) which suits me quite well for my role in user experience design. No decision is made without an understanding and examination of the way it will be used, everything is logged.

I've been thinking about the connection between this love of user behaviour and my other great love: documentary film and television. It combines my talent for being a couch potato with my love to learn things and examine weird sides of life. I try to visit Bloor Cinema every now and again to take in a good doc, and most of my binge Netflixing is documentary series like Explained and Chef's Table.

This love of documentation has blossomed into the creation space in my brain, especially in my recent need to capture photos of things I do. I don't really share them on social media too often, I prefer to keep them for myself to look back on. And I actually do look back on them sometimes.

A post shared by Chloe Silver (@chloesil) on
This isn't a candid Shani photo - those aren't for the online world.

Facebook certainly contains some of these photos, but what about my mother? Lately I have been thinking about how I don't have nearly as many photos of her because she doesn't use social media. She also hates having her photo taken, so sometimes I take photos of her when she's not looking. Those are the best. No one sees them but me (and probably her, since I know she will read this and ask me for them). It also makes me laugh because the roles have definitely become reversed: my dad used to take photos of me all the time as a child when I didn't want my photo taken. But I'm happy to see those photos now.

The documentation we capture is our personal legacy; it is how we will be remembered. So it is in life, it's actually the same way at Vena. Documentation is something many engineering departments struggle with, but it's really important work for the people who pick up the work you leave behind when you leave your current position. As relating to user behaviour, I think we have this vain notion of wanting to be remembered after we're gone. We have to leave something behind to be remembered (out of sight, out of mind), so why not some well-written, captured or filmed documentation?

Inspiration: Isaac Asimov's Nonfiction Writing
I have been a big fan of Isaac Asimov's science fiction since I discovered the 1999 movie Bicentennial Man was based on his 1976 novellette of the same name and later 1993 novel The Positronic Man. Yes, I have fond memories of cutting printer paper into fringes and taping them to my cheeks for a grade ten book report presentation...though there is gladly no photo evidence of such an event.

He certainly crafted a specific look. I love a good bolo tie.

I never realized how much Asimov contributed to the non-fiction literary world, until I read this interesting resurfacing of his 1983 take on the world of 2019 (hey, that's this year!). Read it here. Some excerpts:
The jobs that will disappear will tend to be just those routine clerical and assembly-line jobs that are simple enough, repetitive enough, and stultifying enough to destroy the finely balanced minds of those human beings unfortunate enough to have been forced to spend years doing them in order to earn a living, and yet complicated enough to rest above the capacity of any machine that is neither a computer nor computerized.
It is these that computers and robots for which they are perfectly designed will take over.
The jobs that will appear will, inevitably, involve the design, the manufacture, the installation, the maintenance and repair of computers and robots, and an understanding of whole new industries that these “intelligent” machines will make possible.
This means that a vast change in the nature of education must take place, and entire populations must be made “computer-literate” and must be taught to deal with a “high-tech” world.
I think Asimov may have predicted my feels weird to be seen. I do believe that the best science fiction comes from a place of truth and logical thinking, a depiction of what our all-too-soon future could be with the advents and diparagements of technology in modern society. Science fiction, while made-up, is a lens through which we look at our current lives and the way real, true science might shape our futures.

For that reason, I think Asimov is probably a fantastic non-fiction writer and I look forward to exploring that side of his work. After all, I could use a mentor in the world of non-fiction writing. By the way, is it spooky that Asimov died almost exactly a year before I was born?

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Garden, Self-Referential TV & ElleHacks

Weekly Update 2019-06: Jazzy piano keys and punk-influenced drums from The Garden, Netflix's trend of crossover content and the enriching experience of mentoring in UX Design at ElleHacks 2019.

Music: The Garden
The Garden is an experimental pop/rock duo of two twin brothers from Orange County, California. They've got an intriguing mish-mash of jazzy piano keys against punk-influenced drum and bass, then some synth or sad, melancholic vocals just to keep you guessing. The weather in Toronto seems to be doing the same thing, so it fits.

What a week to catch a cold. Through my lame sickness, I took a bunch of cold meds and powered through a User Interface Workshop at Brainstation last Tuesday. It was nice to try my hand at teaching the other side of design, and I even decided to post about it on Facebook which garnered a lot of social attention (good for my ego). One of the students turned out to be an OCAD Professor which was very cool.

On the weekend I made a pilgrimage to York University after a few years. Vena sponsored a female and non-binary focused hackathon called ElleHacks, and I had the time of my life as a UX Design mentor to the high school/university-aged participants. More on that in the inspiration section below.

In between days at the hackathon, I did my best to help my sister in a Puzzle Competition. Yep, F.G. Bradley's was hosting a puzzle competition at their Fairview Mall location. A dozen teams of four competed to be the first to complete a 500-piece puzzle of tropical fish. We didn't win but we had fun! If the three of us were half as good as Larissa, we might have had a better chance.

Working it out...

A friend had recommended the 2018 Fantasy/Science Fiction film Sorry To Bother You, and when I saw that U of T's Centre for Ethics was hosting a free screening, I knew it was finally time to see it. The film is pretty weird, but somehow charming in its alarming, fantastical nature of dealing with racism, classism, art, telemarketing, and much more. Plus, Tessa Thompson's character's earrings increase in magnificence throughout the movie.

I really need a break this week, so I'm keeping it light. Chelsea is coming over for dinner tomorrow, and Larissa is hosting a Murder Mystery Party on Saturday. Nice and fun, easy activities!

Random Thought:
There is a seemingly never-ending slew of new television, even from Netflix alone (my streaming platform of choice). I tend to get emotionally invested in shows and sometimes feel a bit of loss when I get to the end of a series. Netflix's own Series of Unfortunate Events was certainly one such example for me, with its gorgeously complex world-building and larger-than-life characters.

This show and many others of original Netflix content have been following a trend lately of breaking the fourth wall in favour of jokes about Netflix itself. Sometimes they reference the user experience of Netflix with its lack of commercials or bingeability, other times they will boldly promote another Netflix show right inside the script of the storyline. Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a big example of this, that I have noted being promoted through a handful of Netflix's more established shows. I find it rather amusing, though while I do love the original Seinfeld I don't feel that Jerry's new show has kept up with the social changes of 2019.

Regardless, I am all for this tactic. I appreciate the meta-humour of promoting a television show within another, unrelated show, the possibility for two different show settings to be held within the same fictional universe, the opportunity for crossover a la Bob's Burgers/Archer or even Netflix's own Riverdale/Sabrina, and the resulting lessened feeling of loss after finishing a show. Who better to suggest something new to watch than a character from the show I just finished? It's a very interesting marketing ploy. I'm just not going to give Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, sorry Jerry.

Inspiration: ElleHacks
This past weekend marked the third annual ElleHacks competition, and I was lucky enough to attend! ElleHacks is the largest hackathon created for women and non-binary individuals of all experience levels, it is an event lead entirely by students with a background in STEM fields, proposed to challenge participants from different technical and creative disciplines to collaborate, learn, compete and show off their skills to solve real life problems in an inclusive and safe space.

Vena Solutions was cool enough to sponsor the Hackathon this year, sending a handful of my coworkers and me to York University's beautiful Bergeron Building (the very same location where I participated and won a hackathon in 2015) to mentor young thought leaders through a fast-paced 52 hours of ideating, designing and developing apps, websites and hardware to help solve some of the world's wicked problems such as homelessness and elderly care.

I met some amazing young people who will surely change our tomorrows and take part in solving some of our bigger world problems. Many of the students were in high school, which I thought was wonderful. I am so happy to see STEM being brought sooner and sooner to school curricula, as well as these opportunities outside the school walls. Not to mention the fact that all three of the hackathons I have attended were extremely male-driven (just like the tech community) so of course it is great to see a hackathon that provides a space for women and non-binary people.

Kudos especially to Vena for seizing this opportunity to take part in such a worthy cause. The other sponsor companies were all large banks with tech-focused labs like BMO, RBC and TD, along with the usual Rogers, IBM and surprisingly some simply lovely women from the Canadian Armed Forces. Vena was, to my knowledge, the smallest company to make a representation (and probably least recognizable name) but we made ourselves well-known by providing as much mentorship as we could.

Personally I was quite unsure of how I might contribute as a UX Design mentor, knowing first-hand that design can often be overlooked in the race of the "competition" aspect - function is generally prized over form in these cases. But, having won a hackathon using nothing but a slide deck and InVision prototype, I knew there was definitely something I could offer. So I volunteered for Friday night (to network with the participants and mentor in a design-thinking capacity for idea generation) as well as Sunday (to help prepare pitches, making finishing touches and hotfixes, and provide support in the final stretch).

I was particularly inspired by a lovely group of three girls in high school who ideated and built a website to help new university students find clubs and teams that would provide them a sense of community through a period of transition. The idea was awesome and the fact that none of them had written a line of code before was particularly mind-blowing to me! We took a selfie together after the showed me their final pitch.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. I especially treasured the way I was able to perform a mini retrospective with each team as I walked around the "science fair" at the end to view all the final projects. I chatted with each team about their backgrounds, expectations from the hackathon and what they had learned and liked best about the weekend. This part really touched me; to see how many new friendships had been made, mentorships built, skills earned, it was almost too much.

I can't wait for the next one.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Grimes, Music Epochs & UXD Reactions

Weekly Update 2019-05: Grimes keeps on surprising us with multi-genre music, the many music epochs of my early life and conveying user experience gripes with a simple internet meme.

Music: Grimes
What can be said about Grimes that hasn't already been said? She is a music genius of her time. Claire Boucher, native of Vancouver and graduate of Montreal's McGill University, makes music that mixes elements of several genres including dream pop, R&B, electronic music and hip hop. She was described by Tastemakers Magazine as an "alien love-child of Aphex Twin and ABBA", which I think is a very special and apt compliment for a young woman from Canada putting out music and doing her own thing.

She wrote her own Spotify bio! No one ever does that. Also, shoutout to the line break tag. "<br>"

I urge you to check out her whole discography, though I started with 2012's Visions.

DesignTO has come to an end - I completed and filled out the feedback form, and attached my Google Map too. I'm curious to see if the view numbers go up from that, and then from my upcoming culminating blog post on my week. I suppose it may sound silly to say: I feel like I lived my best self while I planned and attended these events. I met lots of cool artists, designers and interested passersby, I trekked to four different neighbourhoods during a season in which I'd otherwise be wrapped up in a blanket burrito at home (currently reporting from said location), and I found some amazing inspiration.

I'm feeling really prepped for my User Interface Design workshop tomorrow. I realized the activity portion of the class is exactly the same as the one I teach in Week 6 (the Visual Design lesson), which I taught only 8 weeks ago. Plus I found my name and photo on the website. If you scroll down the page, they also promise snacks!

I remember having this photo taken four months ago and then never seeing it again. Here it is!


I'm gonna knock the socks off this BrainStation UI Design workshop tomorrow night, and then eat a bunch of snacks. Wednesday I am taking a personal day to have three doctor appointments in one day (all rudimentary), one of which is my long awaited physiotherapy appointment. Seriously, I'm about two years overdue for this appointment. I've been doing a lot of back exercises and I want to know if I've been improving. Plus, Karen has the magic touch to be able to crack my back the way I need it done.

This weekend, Vena is sponsoring Ellehacks, a women and non-binary hackathon taking place at York University. I'm pretty excited to head up there on Friday to mentor the participants in Design, especially since I know firsthand about the gender representation in tech in Toronto (or perhaps lack thereof).  And as an added bonus, I'm going to check out all the ways the campus has changed. I've been by on the subway, but never up beyond track level. I wonder if my wall decal is still hanging out at the Faculty of Graduate Studies?! I must go and see that.

And if that didn't make for a full enough weekend, I'm also attempting to help my sister in a puzzle competition at Fairview Mall. Yep, it exists. Every team of contestants goes home with a puzzle, so I figure we've already won.

In between all of that, I'll be staying a couple nights up with my parents, so I thought I would take a stroll down memory lane and MarieKondo-ify my sentimental papers. I want to try to find a solid system that rings true to me for identifying how much joy-spark something has to give me for me to keep it, because I have a lot of paper ephemera. Mostly I'm hoping to find my paper hexaflexagon (probably the coolest thing I made in university).

This one is from the internet - my version has six visual interpretations of death and dying to discover!

Random Thought: Music Epochs
Marshall McLuhan's famous quote "The medium is the message" rings true for me in various parts of life, but none so strong as through music. When I look through my old CD collection, or scroll through the library on my old iPod, or cruise through my older Spotify Playlists, I see this media as part of the flavour of the music it holds.


Dictionary result for epoch

  1. a period of time in history or a person's life, typically one marked by notable events or particular characteristics.

I guess my different phases of music tastes can be mentally and (and physically or digitally) bookended by the media in which I collected them. Let's take a stroll through the timeline...

My dad's computer
The beginning of time - 2004
I was raised on an assortment of Dad Rock that, quite literally, my dad had on his old Windows computer. He used to get his music from an online library shared with his friend in the United States. I would listen to the music using Winamp (with my dad's selected Jimi Hendrix theme of course). I made a few ripped mix CDs from some of this music, which I still own. They're awful and amazing at the same time.

This was a very brief stint with the cheapest, crappiest music playing device you've hopefully never had the displeasure to use. I only had four songs (Two Backstreet Boys, One NSync, One Usher) and I listening to them constantly. It was my first foray into a portable music player.

2004 - 2008
I'm pretty embarrassed of my small collection of ripped CD-Rs ranging from things I picked off the Alt Rock shelf at the library to my first indie discoveries through the Wedge, to a series of regrettably terrible Mix CDs that were the most coveted giveaway each summer at overnight camp. It was a whole thing. This was also the era in which I would buy CDs at $20-30 a pop at Indigo and HMV.

iTunes/iPod Nano
2007 - 2011
I was very lucky to get my own computer around the time Facebook was starting to gain popularity, which I definitely used as a way to learn about new music. This music filled my iTunes library (those were the golden days of iTunes before it became bloatware). In 2007 I saved up enough money to buy a 3rd Generation iPod Nano and it became my workhorse for the next four years.

2011 - 2014
Quite a late adopter of my first smartphone compared to my peers, I got an iPhone 5 in 2011 and thus ended a long, storied relationship with my iPod Nano. I no longer needed to carry around an MP3 player and a phone, and it was wonderful. I continued to beef up my iTunes Playlists, though iTunes was taking longer and longer to open...

2014 - 2016
SoundCloud was an extremely formative time in my music listening youth...I look back on it fondly all those three years ago. I had been in an extreme rut concerning my love of electronic music. I was NOT into any mainstream EDM and couldn't find the words to describe the genre of what I did like. But then I found SoundCloud and was able to rekindle my joy for electronic music again. SoundCloud also showed me that I didn't really need iTunes as much as I thought. I had stopped keeping my library in order and barely ever even opened the program anymore. The SoundCloud app had its issues, but I lived with it. I was addicted and spent many an evening searching out the newest Disco House from Japan or Funk-Soul from Norway. Much of that era made it into this blog because those were my first years of strict weekly blog posts, recording my habits.

Insurance Measures (aka iTunes Library Corruption)
2016 - forever
Because music is so important to me, I have started taking measures to ensure I have backups in multiple places. Thank goodness I copied my iTunes playlists over to Spotify before my iTunes Library corrupted in 2016. That was a heavy blow, but I will be forever grateful to SoundCloud for softening as much as they did. When I heard rumours in 2017 that SoundCloud might be shutting down, I rushed to create a Spotify playlist with as many SoundCloud likes as I could find. That playlist is currently over 600 songs long, and I know all of them pretty much by heart.

2016 - present
With SoundCloud having freed me from my mental chain to iTunes, I was now a free agent in a world of Cloud-based music platforms. I landed on Spotify because it was the most popular, had the most performant interface, and honestly intrigued me with its lack of data (the complete opposite of iTunes). And it loaded super quickly. Nowadays I organize my playlists with extreme care, focusing moreso on classifying by feeling or emotion than anything else. This makes it really easy for me to access music that I love but that also fits every mood I need.

Even within this blog, the methods I provide for listening to the music in the first section pay homage to my medium of the moment. Here's a throwback to how I blogged about music in 2011:

I made this pie chart in Microsoft Excel. True story.

I suppose, rather than compare an image of my face from ten years ago, I'd rather focus on how my habits, technology usage and cultural consumption have changed. I wonder how I'll listen to music ten years from now...

Inspiration: UXD Reactions
For better or for worse, it seems like the best way to convey a concept today is with the use of a flashy meme.

Since their injection into mainstream culture, memes have been visual comparisons between our feelings or opinions on a subject with visual jokes or puns. I have a lot of gripes about user experience design and its mistreatment in products we use, and this Tumblr really encapsulates some of those gripes to a perfect tee.

Someone printed a CAPTCHA?!

I do my best to convey my work through complex methodologies and theoretical thinking processes, but sometimes it's best explained through a four-panel meme comic. Not only that, but these sorts of small slices of user experience are a welcome reminder that we must keep our users in mind to make true improvements. Check out more at UXD Reactions.