Friday, November 30, 2018

The Zolas, Fitbit Implants & Manhole Covers

Weekly Update 2018-48: Pop-rock from Vancouver's The Zolas, an innovation in Fitbit technology and the wild, wild world of manhole covers.

A manhole cover in Portland Oregon...
not that the rose or the rain weren't already a dead giveaway.

Music: The Zolas
Formed in Vancouver in 2009, The Zolas brought their alternative pop-rock sound to the Danforth Music Hall last Thursday. I honestly didn't know any of their songs before seeing them, and I still thought they did a great job filling such a big stage.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that Bunz continues to be my favourite thing, ever. Last week I entered a contest to win concert tickets and won! So I got to see one of my favourite bands Yukon Blonde at Danforth Music Hall with one of my favourite concert buddies: my dad. The Zolas (mentioned above) deserve a shoutout for opening the show, as well as collaborating with Yukon Blonde on a cover of The Traveling Wilburys' Handle With Care.

I really can't believe how much I turned my luck around - we almost got THE monthly top score on the escape room my sister chose for her birthday. In any case we were among the 4.8% of people who have successfully escaped from that room, which if true, is HUGE. As promised, we rewarded ourselves with Korean BBQ afterward. It's been so long since I've had it, and I ended up doing a lot of the cooking because it's so much fun.

Another excellent day out with Kaylin while she was visiting Toronto for the weekend, she suggested we hike around Evergreen Brickworks which was an excellent idea. In addition to the numerous amazing selfies (I don't know why we ALWAYS look so good in photos together), we got a great tour of the facility all to ourselves and some great weather for exploring outside. Look how cute we are:

I had a nice chat this morning with Alec Levin from UX Research Collective about his processes and the way he got into his profession. It really made me wish we had a UX researcher at my day job who could help out with the fact-finding.

This Thursday marks the final BrainStation class of the semester - I can't believe how fast it's all gone by. I am honestly so proud of my students and so excited to see their final projects.

My friends Laura and Eric are taking their band on tour to Montreal this weekend, and entrusting me with the care of their super-cute dog Theo. I went to visit him yesterday and this afternoon so he could get a bit used to me before we get nice and friendly on the weekend. Theo is used to sleeping in bed with his humans, so if we're going to cuddle, he'll have to get to know me a bit first.

I started to wonder about what I'd do with all the time spent in my friends' place this weekend, so I realized I could use it to get some good chunks of work done. I've got a Meal Prep kit being delivered on Friday, Sasha visiting on Saturday, some postcards to write, some Bunz trades to make, and some Theo to love. It'll be a full weekend of awesomeness, I think.

Random: Fitbit Implants
I did a lot of walking the other day, only to greet myself at the end of it with a sense of dismay: I hadn't had my phone on me while walking, so none of the steps counted. I know their health benefits are not discounted, but at the same time I feel cheated out of something...maybe a couple Scene points from the Carrot app and a visual sense of accomplishment.

The answer to this problem for most people is their Fitbit, which you put on in the morning like a watch and never worry about not counting steps. Sounds simple enough, except I absolutely detest wearing anything on my wrists and love to push up my sleeves while I work. And now I have another device to charge? No way, that's not gonna fly either. What alternative is there for people like me?

May I introduce, the random thought of 2018-48: the Fitbit Implant. You get a tiny Fitbit device implanted into your tooth like a filling (or maybe while you're having a cavity filled - 2 for 1!), and you never have to worry about taking it out. It charges itself from the power of your chewing and transmits information right to your phone. Yes, I know it's genius. Patent pending.

Inspiration: Manhole Covers
If you're anything like me, you look mostly at the ground as you walk down the street. I just find there is the most interesting stuff to see on the ground, it really tells a story about a city (hopefully a good one). The ground is nice to look at when you're minding your own business as you walk. One of the truly overlooked and underrated things to see are manhole covers. When I'm not swerving on my bike to avoid them or the eroded, uneven pavement around them, I do admire their patterns and typography. Plus, it's a design to last through the ages: they may wear down a little over time but mostly retain their design and rough-hewn metal texture.


Manhole covers are also intriguing because they separate us, the aboveground, from...well, the upside down, as Stranger Things would put it. It's a welcome barrier in my life, separating me from the icky stuff that lives beneath the surface.

Since manhole covers tend to steam in the winter months, this clever ad comes to my mind when I cross over a steamy one. I think it came out in 2006, and I'm still thinking about it 12 years later. I don't drink Folgers Coffee but this is very memorable.

A Berlin-based art collective by the name of Raubdruckerin has been using manhole covers (and other textured architectural forms) as stencils for screenprinting designs onto some very unique shirts and bags. They explain on their website that they clean up the paint afterwards and don't leave anything behind on public property.

Last time I went to New York, my parents and I found Vernakular, a really cool vendor in Chelsea Market - selling photographs of manhole covers (from all over the world) as floormats. I am proud to say my father has good taste and bought one for their home (Manhattan) and one for me (Portland). It's a super cool statement piece and doesn't show dirt (added bonus).

I love that Portland's version looks wet - because it was probably raining that day! You can see what I think is the photographer's shadow at the bottom.

While I do love the above designs, they really can't hold a candle to some of the designs in Japan, and really all over the world. Instagram's World of Manholes is an homage to these wondrous things, and deserves a follow for sure.

Manholes can be seen as a necessary device in our society, perhaps some of us don't think about them at all. But they weren't always just "there", someone had to design them. If so, why not design them beautifully? These manhole cover designs represent the beautification and reinvigoration of something mundane, and it makes me happy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Melody's Echo Chamber, The Power of Red & A Map A Day

Weekly Update 2018-47: The power of pain in the music of Melody's Echo Chamber, the power of a red pen in marking student papers and A Map A Day - maps of all kinds right in your Instagram feed.

Music: Melody's Echo Chamber
Melody's Echo Chamber is the main project of French musician Melody Prochet, who has collaborated quite a bit with Kevin Parker and Tame Impala. It's really no wonder I find her music so hypnotic and catchy, she has learned from the best in neo-psychedelic music. I do love her earlier work, but a terrible accident in 2017 caused her a broken vertebrae in her neck and spine as well as a brain aneurysm. Tragic as these events were, Prochet managed to channel them directly into her music. Her 2018 album Bon Voyage is a tragically beautiful piece that I just can't stop listening to.

Many a drum was smacked this past week. My first practice with the band on Tuesday went ... well, pretty poorly, only one solo practice the day beforehand could not get me into the place I needed to be. But it definitely pushed me to (gladly!) stay late at work practicing on Friday and yesterday. I am honestly so blessed to have access to this kit, I cannot explain my happiness. I did notice my shoulders and shins were hurting a bit over the weekend, so I think I need to reassess my posture a bit.

This weekend marked my friend Niki's birthday, and to celebrate she forced 9 of her closest friends to trap themselves in a tiny room with her and figure out how to escape together. Luckily we made it out without getting into fistfights, which was awesome.

I also checked out the 114th Annual Santa Claus Parade with Niki and Matt, both of whom had never seen this parade before! I suppose after three years of it I am something of an expert, so I took them on the tour of the staging area. I was super stoked to hang out with Mr. Peanut again, and he even gave me a Peanut Pencil!

I don't know why I like this costume so much, I just do.

In addition to more practice this week, I'd like to look up some YouTube videos on posture and even some technique. I really believe you can learn anything from YouTube these days, so it would be nice to create a learning plan for after the Holiday Party. I want to be able to
  • listen to songs and pick apart the rhythms faster (I can do it now but it takes a long time for most songs)
  • pick rhythms up in my muscles faster (usually I have to start more slowly and work up to full speed)
  • more easily improvise, use the toms and cymbals effectively
  • become more dextrous in my rolls and flams and paradiddles and such
I am looking very forward to a phone call with Alec Levin, cofounder of Toronto's very own UX Research Collective. I have had the opportunity to work closely with a UX Researcher on a couple of projects and it is amazing to see what they can do. I love to watch their methods and processes and the way it ties into the rest of the process as the backbone of the solution. Of course I must conduct UX Research in my own job, but I never get to spend as much time as I'd like on that stage before I have to move onto the next. Companies that believe in splitting out and dedicating the roles in this way are the future of the design landscape in my mind.

Random Thought: The Power of Red
In our 21st century politically-correct world, everyone has reason to be upset about something or other. Just the other day I learned about a school in the U.K. that has banned the use of red-coloured ink for marking papers. I'm sure all of us have had the experience of receiving back a marked assignment, only to be welcomed with a slew of red ink to let us know where we've fallen short of the curriculum. According to the article linked above, teachers have been requested to use green or purple instead because they are softer, more calming colours.

As asinine as it may sound to some of us, I actually found this social phenomenon to be interesting on a number of levels. First off, I wonder if any user testing was completed to back up this hypothesis. All of us, this writer/designer included, require constructive critique to improve ourselves, and red has been the colour of choice for many years to reflect our errors to us.

Taking a step back to examine red in a general sense; it's certainly strong and provides a great contrast against the black text on white paper that was the design choice of many of my grade-school assignments, arguably moreso than green or purple could be. Red is the colour of error (especially in UI design) and demands our attention. For this reason, it is used sparingly and only when danger must be communicated to the user about future actions.

Lots of red, and rightly so. You don't want to remove Period 1 English by accident!

The learning and growth that comes from heightened embarrassment of our mistakes can be seen as a good thing. Continuing the classroom analogy: if you've ever taken a risk by raising your hand in class, and subsequently been laughed at for providing the wrong answer, heaven knows you'll never forget the right answer for the rest of your life.

In the same way, I feel that the strength of the colour red can be seen as an effective tool in minimizing future errors (both in user interface and in returned assignments). Maybe it's the way we feel about red in our society, the colour of mistakes, of failure, of wrong. But what's so bad about being wrong? All of these instances are an opportunity to learn and grow, and better yet to pass our learning onto others. I personally feel that red is a good visual representation of that growth.

Since I am lucky enough to be in an educator position for the foreseeable future, I can choose to continue using red in the hopes that it will serve my students well. 

Inspiration: A Map A Day
Who doesn't love a good map? I sure do. Maps are such interesting, useful, endlessly unique visual tools that allow us to find our way around a new place, concept or really anything. So many things can be mapped. There's no way I am alone in this thinking, especially considering the Instagram account A Map A Day. Exactly what it sounds like, the instagram account is dedicated to sharing a new installment of a map every day. These can range from geographical maps to word clouds to pretty much anything.

I love this map above of un[person]ned bicycles being pushed until they fall over. It makes such a lovely pattern.

Anyone can make a map to reflect the things they see in our world. This one really tickles me - supposedly every American city can fit into this construct.

I've always wondered how timezones fit in with actual borderlines - this one is so lovely and interesting, it could easily be wallpaper (though probably not in a bedroom).

For more awesome maps right to your Instagram feed literally every day, follow @amapaday.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Arbes, Usability Heuristics & Monopoly for Millennials

Weekly Update 2018-46: Amazingly challenging drum beats from Arbes, the importance of usability heuristics in design and a board game that tries and fails to create a proper satirization of a demographic.

Is this actually a thing? Yes, yes it is.

Music: Arbes
Melbourne, Australia based three-piece Arbes is a wonder of a psych/dream pop masterpiece. I literally spent 30 straight minutes learning the drum beat to their song Key Largo on Sunday, and I've been practicing it on my knees ever since. I love the drummer Anita Agathangelou's quick, sharp drum beats against Sam Pannifex's surf-rock guitar riffs and lead singer Jess Zanoni's angelic bringing it all together. It's music so powerful and bright that it can make any day feel like summer. Take a listen:

You already know I love Key Largo, but literally every song is great.

Finally I was able to convince my handyman to come down and fix up some things in my apartment. Especially the fact that I haven't had a proper towel rack in my bathroom pretty much since moving in three years ago, it's already improved my quality of life!

I caught wind about a City of Toronto-led Community Stewardship Program for community members to take part in improving our surrounding greenspace and reversing some of the damage done to our ravine systems. There is even a specific team being assembled for the Nordheimer Ravine, pretty close to my home and a beautiful little trailway. The project won't begin until Spring 2019, but I thought I'd include a link here in case anyone is interested. I've already signed up, I'm pretty jazzed to have a Spring activity to look forward to for the winter.

It felt SO SO GOOD to bike into work this afternoon and bang on the drum kit for a couple of hours. I made it all the way through Rolling in the Deep without too many errors, but you'd be surprised how advanced Sweet Child O' Mine is for someone who hasn't touched a kit in quite some time. I've managed to get the base and snare combinations down but adding cymbals is going to be a hurdle. The song requires three more cymbals than the kit at my work even has (and it already has one more than your average kit). I also played around with a tight, fun little drum riff on Key Largo by Arbes - I had to start off at 0.5 speed, then 0.75 before I could actually make it work at full speed. It's very tight!!

I am in literal heaven.
You can see how huge and echoey this room is, though. Not suitable during work hours.

This week will involve more drumming (of course) in the format of our first company band practice! I'm interested to see how we will all play together and if we can even do justice to any of the songs. I'm sure we'll be a bit rough to start at least.

On Saturday my friend is having an escape room birthday party. My goal is to ATTEMPT to solve the room, but I am 0/2 for escape rooms so I'm not holding my breath. At least there will be dinner afterwards to soften the blow if we fail.

Sunday marks the 114th annual Toronto Santa Claus Parade, which is of course a magical event all on its own. I get to add my own bit of awesomeness to it simply by living where I do - this will be my fourth instance of being able to watch the parade from my apartment window, as well as walking around all the floats in the staging area. Last year I happened to be standing in front of the community centre when all the costumed children came spilling out, it was a really magical moment.

Random Thought: Usability Heuristics
Designers have a responsibility to their users to provide all the tools necessary to complete a task. When we make too many assumptions about how the user will go about achieving their goal, we can cause undue frustration and even drive users away from our product forever.

I very rarely use the dictionary tool embedded in a right-click on every Mac, though it is occasionally useful. I was reading an article about Mozart in the Jungle recently and came across the word vérité. Of French origin (those accents are a dead giveaway), I wanted to know exactly what was meant when this word was applied to a film style. So I looked it up, and was provided with this definition:

This is decidedly not the definition of vérité as used in this context.

Basically it's the name of a female American singer, definitely not the definition of the word in a cinematic context. Why would this even be the default definition, a proper noun? In any case, Apple does not provide the user any way to find an alternate definition, resulting in the tool being utterly useless to me in this instance. This goes back to a simple yet very important usability heuristic that I happened to teach to my BrainStation UX Design class this past week.

Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

The system should provide an option here for me to declare that this is not the correct definition of my selected word. Embarrassingly for the system, the error in question from which I'd like to recover is not even my own error. This single negative interaction with the dictionary tool has soured me against using it for the foreseeable future, because I don't trust that it will provide me with the correct definitions of words. 

I used Google's definition tool instead, and it told me exactly what vérité is: (noun) a genre of film, television, and radio programs emphasizing realism and naturalism. Now we all know!

If you're interested, you can read a short article about all ten usability heuristics. Without these rules, interfaces would be much, much more difficult for users to understand without outside help.

Inspiration: Monopoly for Millennials
While I am something of a board game enthusiast, I have admittedly never been much of a Monopoly fan. It takes forever to play a game through (though apparently that's because the game's instructions are too confusing to understand how to play correctly - still an issue), it supports capitalist ideals (for better or worse) and it's a little bit out-of-touch with modern life (circa 1935 depression era).

Credit where credit is due: the franchise did release a refreshed version of the game for which I wrote a short review in 2015. The game uses credit cards and an electronic banking device used by the banker to digitally add and subtract money from players' accounts. A quote from 2015 me:
Other than the obvious problem that no one can possibly keep track of their worth without bothering the banker and interrupting the flow of the game (which already causes so much anger and fighting between friends), I used to play Monopoly as a way to learn about money and the value of a dollar. Kids these days are already finding it hard to grasp the worth of goods in our society, and now we're condoning this terrible behaviour by starting them young in their toys.
It's arguably not the most educational toy you could buy your child. And now, Monopoly has done it again. Feast your eyes on this:

There is a LOT going on here. Gotta love the rainbow gradients, that's very millennial. 

Well, I was happy to see that real money is back, but apparently the point of the game is to blow all your money on experiences and visiting your friends. No one pays rent or buys properties (perish the thought), it's actually marketed as a chilled out version of Monopoly to play in a party setting without the added stresses of attempting to afford property (literal and/or board game based).

I already strongly dislike the idea of marketing so blatantly to a demographic that hates labels, but this game doesn't even take the risk of properly satirizing the millennial experience. Not to mention, it's already been done. Ever heard of the board game Tokaido? The object of the game is to travel around rural Japan as a tourist and earning experience points. The last one to the finish is often the winner. I own it, and it's way better than this game.

Monopoly for Millennials feels like a missed opportunity at best, and a plain old boring board game at worst. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this happened, but I'm a little disappointed.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Small Black, Reducing Waste & Silly Sir Brewing Company

Weekly Update 2018-45: Moody synth tunes from Brooklyn's Small Black, sourcing smart donations to reduce waste and the tasty brews of Silly Sir Brewing Company.

Music: Small Black
First discovered on Cafe Radio back when I worked at Starbucks, Small Black has been on light rotation in my ears for about six or seven years. Starting from a name and working backwards, the band has been hard at work developing their synth-heavy electro-pop sound since their first release in 2010. I have really enjoyed the journey, noting the band's gradual honing in on their unique sound as they self-produced all of their releases. Their echoey vocals and layered synth beats make for a moody tone that pairs well with the dreariness of turning the clocks forward.

Check out Small Black on Spotify:

My professional life has really gone from zero to sixty in the past couple of months. Now being on the other side of the opportunity to teach two classes flying solo at BrainStation the past couple of weeks, I really feel like I am getting the hang of things. I have offered to take on a lead teaching role for all ten classes in the upcoming winter semester, which will definitely be a challenge to look forward to.

Halloween being a rainy Wednesday last week, I took the opportunity to bike over to the (empty) supermarket for lasagna ingredients and scoped the cute costumes and decorations in my neighbourhood. Plus, I made a lasagna!

I also had an awesome idea to put a small space heater in my bathroom, set on a timer to start heating the bathroom a few minutes before I wake up. This has been a GAME CHANGER, it's so extremely lovely not to have to sit on a cold toilet seat (though that has admittedly been a good way to wake up)

After my first attendance in my company's band meeting today, I am going to motivate myself to go into the office on Sunday to practice a bit on the drum kit. I am going to try to prep myself ahead of time, getting some drum tabs ready and listening to some songs ahead of time. But mostly I'm really excited to finally get an opportunity to get behind a kit again. I think it's been about three years since I rented the electronic kit, and even longer since I was last at a real drum kit. Definitely not my first choice, but I will probably be practicing Guns'n'Roses' Sweet Child O'Mine, since that seems to be the only song for which the band had a consensus to perform at our holiday party in about a month.

I received something really cool in a Bunz trade - a smart plug. Basically it plugs into your electrical outlet, and then any appliance you plug into the device can be controlled remotely through a mobile app. I thought it would be helpful to be able to turn on my heating/air conditioner just before I arrive home, but I think I could find some really next-level uses for it on Reddit and the like. I know IFTTT probably has some interesting recipes for ways I could use it to improve my life in tiny ways.

I'm pretty excited to start using a green bin, of all things. Yep, this week I will be selecting a container to dedicate to my compostable food waste, and keeping it in the fridge. It's way too big a fridge for just one person, so I finally have the space to ensure my food scraps don't end up in landfill where they can't decompose properly. I know it's such a small thing, but I've honestly been looking forward to this for a long time! I have been noticing that a huge chunk of my personal garbage/waste is compostable materials, so it'll be cool to see how little garbage I produce when that's all out of the equation.

Random Thought: Reducing Waste
It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone reading this post that I love a good Bunz trade. Being able to get rid of an item you no longer need, while receiving an item you really do need (and note that this happens TWICE for each trade) is an awesome thing, but I would say one of my favourite parts is its power to reduce waste. When you want to get rid of an item, giving it to someone who can use it is infinitely better than throwing it away. Even donating to places like Value Village - a surprisingly large amount of items collected there end up in landfill anyway.

Since some of my items have been on Bunz with no interest for a while, I have started to look for creative ways to donate my items to people who can use them. All in one week, I found a shop near my home that was accepting donations of menstrual products to donate to communities in Northern Canada, and donated a bunch of leftover firewood sitting in my staircase to a community-run storytelling bonfire event (Fireside Tales). It felt SO GOOD to get rid of the items AND put them in the hands of people who needed/could use them. Double awesome.

So now I am motivated to make the effort in finding places to donate my unwanted items where they will actually be used and enjoyed. This is honestly easier said than done, but it feels like a whole new way of reducing waste and I think it's a really good use of effort and time, plus a way to give back to my community.

Inspiration: Silly Sir Brewing Company
Why even bother to keep a blog if not to humble brag about my super-talented friends? Sara and Matti have been hard at work achieving their dreams for as long as I have known them. These two entrepreneurial masterminds have, among other awesome things, begun their own boutique beer brand that is now widely available in LCBOs across Ontario. They brew at home, experimenting with ingredients and tweaking their methods to get the taste just right, in small and exclusive batches.

I had the immense pleasure to assist and experience Sara's homebrewing lecture/workshop on the weekend (held at the public library, no less - how cool), getting more of an inside look into the tools and methods they use to make their beer in their tiny 500 square-foot apartment.

It was also great to see how tightly-knit the Toronto brewing community is, with Silly Sir taking part in lots of community brew events and the like. Sara noted how much learning to brew is a collaborative task, with knowledge being passed from expert to apprentice and so on.

And did I mention how tasty their beers are? The words of the Silly Sir himself:
Inspired by our travels, our goal is to diversify the craft beer scene in Ontario by blending essential flavours from around the world into our creations. We’re really proud of our first release: Easy Tiger - a wheat beer cold-steeped with lemongrass. It took us 16 batches to uncover the perfect blend of malt, hops, yeast, and lemongrass that make it work so well.
Having tasted Easy Tiger for myself, I can say it is extremely tasty and refreshing. Plus the label design is super cute.

Here's Sara presenting a slide with Matti on it.

Check out Silly Sir's other beers on their website and find Easy Tiger in LCBO today!