Friday, August 28, 2009

Seeking Happiness - Engaging in Life

I have been thinking about my father when he was in his 50s like me, wondering how much I resemble him and whether my struggles with abandoned dreams and self doubt parallel his. Then I read a friend’s blog about her craptacular year so I was in a receptive mood for an essay by Tim Kreider about humanity’s elusive search for happiness.

He questions what we are really looking for. “Maybe we mistakenly think we want ‘happiness,’ which we tend to picture in very vague, soft-focus terms, when what we really crave is the harder-edged intensity of experience.” Certainly some of my clearest memories are not of “happy” moments. I wasn’t happy as I confronted complications following major surgery, but I was certainly fully alive.

And I’m fully alive when I’m on holidays in a foreign country. Everything is new and unfamiliar; I can’t take anything for granted. Whether it’s sitting quietly watching pelicans flying low over the toppling waves in Nicaragua or getting lost in the sun-baked, cobblestone passages of Albaicin (Granada, Spain), the scene is carved in my memory because I was present in the moment. Happiness – in retrospect.

As Tim Kreider says, “Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that chasing it is such a fool’s errand, is that happiness isn’t a goal in itself but is only an aftereffect. It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to — by which I don’t mean ethically correctly so much as just consciously, fully engaged in the business of living. In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomena familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the ‘real’ stars, those cataclysms taking place in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What Font Are You?

Just for fun, take this quiz to see what font best represents your personality. According to the quiz results, I'm Times New Roman - "a class act" - but, unfortunately, I hate Times New Roman and never use it. Maybe it's time to change my personality to match my font.

With thanks to Presentation Zen for the link.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Some of my travel photographs are excellent examples of effective advertising.

For example, the store in Nicaragua that has a picture of a machete, accompanied by the words - "cutting prices."

Surely humour is effective when asking dog owners in Prague to clean up after their animals.
And I'm tempted to drink sherry if it means that I too will lead a life of beauty, luxury and leisure.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Show Me the Numbers: Designing Effective Tables and Graphs

“The primary objective of visual design is to present content to your readers in a manner that highlights what’s important, arranges it for clarity, and leads them through it in the sequence that tells the story best.”

The two primary goals of tables and graphs are to present quantitative, numerical information and to point out patterns, trends and exceptions. In his book Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten (Analytics Press, 2004), Stephen Few points out that “very few of us have been trained to design tables and graphs effectively” so they tend to be hard to read and don’t provide sufficient information to help readers understand and make business decisions based on the numerical information.

Few insists that writers and designers must not only pass on the information but also help readers to interpret it: “The right numbers have an important story to tell. They have to rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice.” Show Me the Numbers is packed with information and examples to help us do just that.

Visual Perception
Few points out that tables and graphs are forms of visual communication so it’s important to understand how the human eye perceives and processes visual information.

Line length is easy to compare so bar graphs are very effective.

Pie charts are an extremely poor way to present quantitative information as our eye is unable to judge how much bigger one shape is than another.

There is a limit to how many different characteristics we can perceive and retain in short-term memory. Few recommends limiting the number of distinctions to four (e.g. points on a graph as circles, squares, triangles and asterisks) and only using one distinguishing feature at a time (e.g. don’t use various colours of triangles and circles).

Don’t use three-dimensional shapes. They are hard to quantify and provide meaningless visual content making it harder for the reader to process the data.

Our eyes are drawn to contrasts, and we automatically assume that differences are meaningful. Colour, hue and intensity are effective ways to draw the readers’ attention to a particular piece of information.

Objects that are close together or have similar characteristics will be perceived as a group. You can also visually group objects by putting a border (using line or colour) around them.

Don’t centre columns of information if it will create a ragged left edge as it is hard for the eye to scan.

Don’t use vertical labels as they’re very hard to read – put them on a 45 degree angle if you need to save space.

Organizing the Information
The first step in designing a table or graph is to identify its purpose and the most important information. Then you can use arrange the data to help the reader find the most relevant information as quickly and easily as possible (e.g. don’t use alphabetical order if 80% of your sales are in the United States).

Use logical sequences that will be familiar to your readers (e.g. position time sequences from left to right and rank items from top to bottom).

Start your scale at zero; it’s very misleading if you only illustrate part of a scale. Use ticks on quantitative scales to help readers measure the item.

Use white space to delineate rows and columns. A ratio of 1:1 works well.

Use the same font throughout and make sure it is easy to read.

Use text to provide the necessary background information. The title should clearly define the purpose and content of the chart. Provide a date and a source.

The most important part of the table or graph is the numbers. Subtract unnecessary information (too much data or too much explanation) and de-emphasize the non-data ink (e.g. grid lines should be lighter than the data and in soft, neutral colours).

Group related information – both related columns and related graphs. You may be able to integrate different sets of data by using both sides of a graph to record different categories and consistent formatting and a common vertical axis can integrate a series of graphs.

If you need to break up your data into several tables, do it logically. Number your tables if it’s important for readers to review them in a certain sequence.

I would highly recommend purchasing this book if you design a lot of tables and graphs. There is so much useful information with excellent examples.

You may also want to take a look at 2845 ways to spin the risk, which is an interesting look at how we can shape our message through the words used or the graphics selected.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

“the grace of living in a just relationship with the other-than-human world”

There was a chill in the air and deer in the field when I arrived at Beaver Creek. Ripe berries, goldenrod and blazingstar were splashes of bright colour on a green and yellow background.

I thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes” (ee cummings)

Beaver Creek aug9 09

Note: The title is a quote from Grass, Sky, Song: promise and peril in the world of grassland birds by Trevor Herriot

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Thinking in French . . . or Spanish . . . or English

When I started dreaming in French, I knew that I was finally absorbing the language on a subconscious as well as a conscious level. But I never thought that the people who speak different languages think differently. So I was fascinated to read an article by Lera Boroditsky explaining how language shapes the way we think.

The Kuuk Thaayorre (an Aboriginal community in northern Australia) use cardinal directions to refer to space , for example, “There’s an ant on your southeast leg.” “The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."

Many languages have masculine and feminine words, and researchers have discovered that this shapes the way people think about those objects. "In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering."

The author concludes by saying, “Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”

My thanks to Voices en Espanol for leading me to this article.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Open Government

Do you trust the federal government to make good decisions? Are you happy with the directions being taken by provincial or local politicians? I’m not, and I’m not alone. According to the Conference Board of Canada (October 2008), nearly 45% of eligible Canadians don’t bother to vote and only 41% of Canadians have a high level of trust in Parliament (compared to 70% in Norway and 22% in Japan). There has to be a better way to run this country or this city than by placing blind trust in a small group of politicians and public employees.

As a result, I’ve been observing with considerable interest the development of open government projects in both Canada and the United States. “Techies” and “computer geeks” appear to be taking the lead in increasing transparency and public involvement.

What is Open Government?
Programmers have witnessed the development of open source software. Volunteers have been instrumental in developing Mozilla and LibraryThing and a huge range of other software programs, and they’re making them freely available for people to use.

Now, they’re urging governments to make their data openly available (while still respecting privacy and security) so that volunteers can work with the data and develop software programs that will benefit the public. American cities have taken the lead in this area, but Vancouver, Toronto, Nanaimo and Calgary are joining in (The Rise of the Open City: The Current State of Affairs).

David Eaves provides a useful overview of the evolution of the open city concept, and he points out that 911 is a prime example of public involvement in local government. We don’t have civic employees stationed on every block to report on accidents or fires or other emergencies. We rely on citizens to phone them in.

What Are the Possible Benefits?
Opening up access to government databases could work in a similar way. The Saskatoon Public Library has a really outdated online search and reservation system – it would be awesome if a local techie could access the data and improve the system – for free. Wouldn’t it be great if local heritage information was available online so that when I was walking down the street and saw an interesting building, I could find out its history on my cell phone? Other cities have compiled community information so that you can find out about missing pets, traffic jams, robberies, and restaurants in your neighbourhood all from one handy website.

And, although we are living in an increasingly wired society, open government projects can also benefit citizens who aren’t using the internet by providing municipalities with better information or more effective tools.

What Are the Risks?
There are all sorts of risks in open government projects. How do you respect the privacy of public citizens? How do you overcome resistance from government employees who are nervous about sharing unedited information or who feel that they have lost their sense of purpose because they are being asked to share responsibility for serving the public interest.

However, my primary concern is that the open government projects all appear to be driven by computer geeks. This is a restricted group of people who are focussed on developing software applications but may not have spent sufficient time understanding the community and its problems and needs.

What is the Problem?
Open government projects can only be successful if they involve a wide range of people – from politicians and government employees to academics and researchers and computer experts to members of the general public. As Seth Godin says, “The difficult conversation about the problem is far more useful than the endless effort on solutions. . . . The more clarity you can get about what a successful solution looks like, the more likely you will be to have a delighted customer when you're done.”

Open Government in Saskatoon?
I have found David Eaves’ blog and O’Reilly Radar to be useful sources of information, and the GTEC blog provides interesting information about social media and open government projects at the federal level.

I would be interested in being directed to additional sources of information or in hearing from other people in Saskatoon or Saskatchewan who are interested in initiating open government projects.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Breaking out of the Mould

Charles de Lint and Iain Pears are long-standing authors who have written many books. But their most recent novels particularly interested me as they demonstrated how much these two men have developed and expanded their writing style.

Charles de Lint initially wrote enjoyable but simple fantasies and fairy tales. In contrast, his latest book – The Mystery of Grace – is a powerful story that dares to explore some troubling concepts.

Iain Pears’ first seven books were Italian art mysteries, relatively short and straightforward. In contrast, Stone’s Fall, published in 2009, is 900 pages spanning three generations, multiple locations and an amazingly convoluted plot. I found the book somewhat too long and complicated, but I was in awe at how Pears developed and maintained an incredibly complex plot interweaving a large set of characters.

The two books set me to thinking about how some authors develop a successful writing formula – Dick Francis, J.D. Robb, Janet Evanovich. I enjoy all these authors, and I welcome the fact that I know what to expect when I pick up one of their books. But I also delight in watching authors like Pears and de Lint evolve and expand their repertoire.

As human beings, we’re offered a choice as well – to settle into a comfortable routine or to dig a little deeper, try a little harder and take some risks. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Good Customer Service

My brother owns a software company and emphasizes the importance of providing good service in order to attract and retain customers. I was reminded of this when I was shopping this weekend.

Saskatoon is prospering and is developing specialty food and drink stores. Cava Secreta is the city’s first specialty wine store, and two delicatessens have opened downtown this month.

I visited Souleio on Friday. The store and restaurant are in a heritage building, and it’s a very attractive, high-ceilinged facility. But they serve food on disposable plates: neither attractive nor environmentally-friendly. But I was pleased to see that they had chocolate hazelnut cheesecake on display – just what I was looking for. But, when asked, the staff told me that they were only selling it as a whole cake – it was too much trouble to cut it and serve slices. I wasn’t impressed.

Sous Chef has just opened a second downtown location. It’s a small deli with a more limited selection, but their staff were friendly. They provided detailed cooking instructions, told a joke and listened politely as I recommended that they offer more vegetarian options. And the stuffed Portobello mushroom was delicious and significantly cheaper than the square of chocolate cake that I had purchased at Souleio.

I’ll be a regular visitor at Sous Chef – but I won’t be visiting Souleio very often.

P.S. The staff at Cava Secreta are friendly, helpful and enthusiastic. That’s another store I’m happy to patronize.