Archive of October 2017

The Chef

This past weekend, we took a bus to Wrocław, Poland and stayed near the old town square. We arrived late on Friday, and on our walk through town, I was immediately struck by the night life of the city. I realized later that we were near the university, which explained all the young people. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an active local night life in the historical center of town.

For dinner on Saturday, we trekked out to a more remote part of town where we had made reservations at a restaurant. The restaurant was nestled in a strip of shops at the foot of a six-or-so-story apartment complex, among a dozen or so similar complexes. As we entered, the setup was very intimate: three tall large tables designed to seat at most six people each, sharing the space with a small open kitchen.

After getting some drinks, the chef came over and sat across from us at the table for a chat. He explained that he’d opened this restaurant after feeling frustrated at larger restaurants with the politics of designing menus for customers to order from. Here there were no menus, and instead he simply wanted to know what kinds of things we like and what kinds of things we don’t like. As we hesitantly started to describe our tastes, he took notes on a small piece of paper and interjected with follow-up questions. At one point he said, “That’s great, that inspires me!”

Soon he was off behind the counter to the kitchen, where he and two other chefs prepped several small plates of food, all based on the conversation and his notes.

After dinner we talked with him some more. A small “kiddie” table next to the kitchen had become occupied by a young girl while we’d eaten—it turned out she was his daughter. He’d cooked in restaurants in London and in the center of Wrocław for years, but it was clear as he told his story how much joy he’d found in this venture. He opened for dinner Tuesday through Friday, and held lunch and dinner on the weekends. The tables were chosen to be modular because he also sometimes held cooking classes in the same space.

It’s rare to see such a tight integration between a craftsman, his craft, his team, his life, and his customers. What a treat.

Color schemes

The latest chapter of Programming Design Systems by Rune Madsen is out:

By focusing on the hue, saturation, and lightness of colors – and how these dimensions interact – designers can learn how changes in code are reflected visually, and compose interesting color combinations from this knowledge.

NCTM and High School Math

Dan Meyer:

NCTM proposes a high school course of study premised on:

  • modeling, which students most often experience as pseudocontextual word problems,
  • proof, which students most often experience by filling in blanks in a two-column template,
  • technology, which students most often experience as a medium for mealy, auto-graded exercises,
  • to say nothing of joy and wonder, which most students typically experience as boredom and dread.

This is a multi-decade project! One that will require the best of teachers, teacher educators, coaches, administrators, edtech companies, assessment consortia, policymakers, publishers, and parents. It will require new models of curriculum, assessment, and professional development, all supporting modeling and proof and eliciting joy and wonder from students. It will require a constant articulation and re-articulation of values to people who aren’t NCTM members. That is, changes to the K-8 curriculum required articulation to high school teachers. Changes to the high school curriculum will require articulation to college and university educators! Does anybody even know any college or university educators?

Honestly, this last line is what kills me: “Does anybody even know any college or university educators?”

In retrospect, my personal experience of being a student feels extremely herky jerky. I’m not sure it ever really felt like my entire education was designed to go together. Instead, every year felt like a new challenge in forming my own complete picture from the new puzzle pieces I was being given. (And, given my interest in teaching, new opportunities to observe wildly different approaches to good teaching.)

I find myself torn though. Having spent some time now as a teacher myself, and knowing more than a few, I do think there can be an exasperating feeling of not having colleagues, especially across the spectrum. Of course there should be more opportunities for teachers to gather and swap stories across subject area, geographic region, age range, and level.

We also need a quality standard of some kind for students, if we’re to work toward the ideals of equal opportunity.

And yet, for me, I only felt that my own path through school was stronger for all the disjointedness that I had to navigate myself. I’m probably just articulating my own level of privilege here, but part of me has a hard time letting go of the idea that every child and every student ultimately deserves their own rich and unique path through life.

Does a shared sense of the bare minimum help us get there? I don’t think we have any choice but to hope that’s the case, and support long-term multifaceted endeavors like these to raise the overall bar. But I still hope, perhaps even longer term, that this will simply look like the first step.

Web Publications for the Open Web Platform

From the W3C:

We dream of a world where books, and indeed all kinds of publications, are first-class citizens of the web. From novels to textbooks, from journal articles to corporate memos, from newsletters to manga, publications are everywhere. But we face challenges in presenting them on the web with the fidelity and ease of use that they deserve.

Many good ideas and considerations in here, especially addressing challenges like offline availability and citations.

On both those fronts, I still find myself wondering about inline interactive examples. How will these be bundled? How will they work offline? How can one reference a particular state of an interactive example?

Still, I’m hopeful that work like this will continue.

A Survey of My Tools in 2017

I hate reading posts—especially “interview”-style posts—about people’s “setup.” We get it: you’re a geek/nerd/poser with money to burn on gadgets and stuff and you like talking about them with your friends. These kind of posts strike me as the twenty-teens equivalent of 1990s-style conspicuous consumption.

I’m gonna write a bit about my tools anyway, and I’m fine if you want to lump me and this post in the same category as all the others. Please, and I mean this sincerely, stop wasting your time reading yet another one of these posts and go do something good for yourself instead.

Single-purpose devices

I tend to be a late adopter of new hardware and an early adopter of new software. A few months ago I bought a dedicated ebook reader for the first time. I’ve been interested in ebook readers since I was a kid. As much as I’ve been wanting to try one out, I have a strong aversion to getting locked into a single ebook store platform.

But I moved to Germany and didn’t want to be carting my whole library with me around the world. I shipped my books to my folks, bit the bullet, and bought a Kindle.

I also found a nice way around my aversion to feeling trapped in a deeper relationship with Amazon by getting myself a library card. Both the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library have a great selection of ebooks (and audio books!) available on a platform called Overdrive. For me, this has been miraculous. I haven’t made use of any public library since school, and even though this is all happening over the air, checking out books from New York genuinely gives me a little jolt of feeling connected to the reading public of my adopted home base.

Most importantly, I have actually been reading more books this way. Until this change, my habit has been to visit the bookstore, buy some books, maybe flip through and read a chapter here or there. But mostly, books have wound up on my shelf unread. Sure, I have a handful that I read cover to cover and constantly refer back to. But with this digital library setup, I can check things out and if I don’t read them, I don’t read them. And if I get into them, I try to finish them before they’re due. All as a public service to me as a New York City taxpayer. Support your local library kids!

At any rate, the beauty of having a single-purpose device for reading has me wondering about the possibilities for other single-purpose devices, especially for writing. More on that another time. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about “smart” devices like light bulbs and blinds and refrigerators and stuff—none of that interests me so far, either as a consumer or as a designer.

Software Essentials

Whenever I try to really stop and think about all the different things I use on a regular basis, the variety and depth of software really amazes me. On the other hand, I also find myself feeling a bit underwhelmed by a lot of the software on offer these days. Software is such a broad category that I’m gonna break this down a bit further.

Writing and Editing Prose

Recently I’ve been trying to use MarsEdit for writing. I’ve had a license for a long time, but never really used it. Similar to my thoughts on single-purpose devices, I’m finding it nice to have a piece of software that I use just for this purpose. It has a nice feature-set and I do prefer writing in Markdown with a live-updating preview,1 so it works well for me.

In the past, I’ve mostly used BBEdit for writing that’s meant to be published to my websites. I also go back and forth on using something like Simple Note or Apple’s Notes app to jot down early stages of something on my mind. When I’m writing either for work or something that I’ll need notes and feedback on, I tend to go for Google Docs.

This is a space where I feel there’s something lacking a bit these days. I played around with Abstract at my office recently, a tool which offers Github-like functionality for interaction designers who use Sketch. It made me realize that I’d still really like something like Github for writing. But I don’t want to use a web app, and I don’t want to pay a monthly fee. So this is probably more of a pipe dream for now. I would gladly pay a one-time fee for an app that did this well, especially if it costs something that I wouldn’t feel embarrassed about asking my friends who I’d like to have as editors on a piece purchase for themselves as well.

Coding

I’m using BBEdit for personal stuff and am using Atom at work. Atom is growing on me, although mostly I just like having the highlighting for what’s been changed since my last git commit. I’ve never felt 100% dedicated to any text editor for programming. I still like BBEdit because it mostly leaves me alone, and the tab interface that’s been adopted on most modern text editors is really annoying to me.2

Github itself has features that we use at work which I haven’t personally used before but am loving: primarily its code review system. I’m not sure all of these features were in place a few years ago and I think Github has done a wonderful job with them. More tools need these kind of collaborative workflow considerations baked in.

For the uninitiated, git (the technology Github is built around) provides a way to create something called a “branch” off a set of files, which essentially acts as a set of proposed changes to those files. (Think “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word.) When you’re done making a set of changes, on Github you can make something called a “pull request” which is essentially a formal request to accept those changes into the main set of files. The workflow feature that Github has added allows you to nominate one or more reviewers when you make a pull request. A reviewer can leave comments on your changes and ultimately can mark them as approved or needing improvements.

Anyone who’s ever worked with some kind of editorial workflow will likely recognize how powerful a robust set of features around making changes, leaving comments, and approving changes could be. Github has done this better than anything else I’ve seen. On a related note, I really miss Editorially. They were really onto something.

Reading

As mentioned above, I’ve been trying to spend more time reading books and less time reading on the web. Mostly this has translated to cutting back on reading the news.

The vast majority of my time spent reading takes place on my phone, and most of that still takes place in Reeder. It’s my favorite feed reader, and feeds are still my preferred way to stay on top of things.

For a while I was using Twitter, but it just got overwhelming. I stopped and really haven’t missed it.

For several years, I’ve been a devoted Instapaper user, but I have all but stopped using it as well. I’m not sure why this is, but I think I grew tired of having things pile up there. I’m still saving things there all the time, but I’ve realized that for short- to long-form writing I find on the web, I’m either going to read it right away or never come back to it. This is a dramatic shift in behavior for me, and I can neither explain it, nor offer an opinion on whether this has been for the better or worse. For now it just is.

I’ve also taken to subscribing to more email newsletters. I would rather not be reading inside my email client, but as these have become more popular there are some things that might otherwise have been blogs which I get in this way. I believe there’s a way I could set up my Feedbin account to receive these and read them in Reeder as well, but I’ve never taken the time to set it up.

Since I am reading more on an ebook reader, I’m interacting with the Kindle software quite frequently. I have mixed feelings which probably warrant more detail than I can fit in a piece like this. For now, a list:

  • The typeface is quite nice, although the typesetting is still lacking.
  • Using swipe gestures to turn pages is totally fine.
  • The display of in-book progress along the bottom is weird. Why not something more visual like a progress bar?
  • The navigational interface is relatively easy to figure out, but I find myself hunting around for the right icons to tap every time. Discoverable, but not learnable.
  • If you get one, pay to turn off the ads, and switch the home screen to your library without recommendations.

Related to the Kindle, I’m also using an app called Libby to check out and manage library books. It’s great to have this functionality in my pocket, and overall the app is pretty cute and full-featured. I simply find myself wishing for a less clunky implementation of the interface—the app can feel slow at times, and a bit pieced together.

Email and Messaging

This is probably the category of apps which I interact with the most, and as with anything I find myself spending significant amounts of time with, I generally find my relationship to these tools frustrating.

Why should this be? These tools, group chats and email chains aside, are about communication between myself and another person. In many ways, these are by far the most human-centered pieces of software that we all use regularly, but I find they often leave me feeling the cold touch of my devices despite whatever warmth or comfort I may receive from the human on the other end.

How do I deal with all of this? Well, for starters, I keep two email clients on my computer (Apple Mail and Spark), and four (yes, four) on the first screen of my phone (Apple Mail, Outlook, Spark, and Google Inbox). I regularly use Messages and Slack on my computer at work; and keep Messages, WhatsApp, Signal, and Slack in easy reach on my phone.

Reader, I wish I could tell you why I use so many things. I deeply long for the days when I could use Adium to chat with friends across AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo, ICQ, Google Talk, and iMessage, without having to worry about whatever service everyone was using. Those were good times. I am extremely grateful that email still largely works in this manner. Email has an extraordinarily resilient design.

I do not love any of these apps, and honestly don’t know if I could even recommend them to you. You probably use many of these yourself, although I imagine you use fewer email clients than I do—I imagine you can count them on one finger. If you’re interested, here’s roughly how I use them on my phone:

  • I tend to prefer the interface of Google Inbox for quickly triaging emails out of my inbox. For the moment, it’s the email client I use the most.
  • Apple Mail is where I prefer to read newsletters, because it does less weird shit to the formatting. I also generally prefer to write new emails here, which is a rare occurrence.
  • Spark is my go-to on my laptop, but it has fallen out of use on my phone lately. When I get bored of Inbox I will probably circulate it back in.
  • Outlook is the email client that I’d prefer to use the most, but for some reason I don’t.

At a basic level, I just don’t really have a clear idea what I’d like my relationship with email to be, which I’m sure is not uncommon.

With chatting, I know what I’d prefer: a unified interface for sending messages to people which abstracts away messaging platforms. I have no real complaints about any of the chat interfaces that I use, just that they all feel platform-first rather than person-first. Interface-wise, I’d probably say Slack and WeChat impress me the most, but WhatsApp, Messages, and Signal are all really good too. Honestly, there’s not a lot to fuck up, and chat is an excellent style of communicating with people.

To Be Continued?

There’s much more to be said about the software I find myself using on a regular basis these days, especially the abundant array of programming and design tools which seem to be multiplying like bunnies. Those will have to wait for next time.


  1. It would be nice to be able to set a custom Markdown parser though. For instance, so that I could preview with proper footnotes. 

  2. In my opinion the tabs don’t work because you can easily wind up with too many open, rendering them nearly useless. But I’ve recently been running into an issue which I find even more annoying: if I’m working on different branches of a codebase, either of which have a bunch of working files that are new, when I switch branches I have a bunch of open tabs that the editor thinks have been deleted. So I have to manually go through and close those tabs I’m no longer working on, but have to confirm that I don’t want to save them. This seems very prone to human error, and I don’t want to have to think about it anyway.