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.


Accomplishment:
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).

Goal:
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 future...it 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.


Accomplishment:
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.


Goal:
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.