Never stop learning

So like I said in a previous post I’m setting some new goals particularly when it comes to personal and professional development of my brain organ thing. I find myself with a lot of little moments that I don’t use so I thought I’d cram every moment with a bit of learning.

If I’m not learning I feel like I’m stagnating and in my industry that’s bad and for the soul also if you don’t use it (your brain that is) its like any other muscle –  you lose it.

With that in mind I got inspired to learn languages… two types. The Programming Variety and the Talking Variety… and here are the apps I’m using to do just that.

Duolingo

I’ve been a Capoeirista for many years but I’ve always struggled with the music and have never had the chance to immerse myself in Brazilian culture and language since a trip there ten years ago. Then along came the awesome Duolingo app from the same man who created those annoying Captchas that you have to fill in to prove your human.

I could wax lyrical about why the app is so cool, apart from the fact that its free and makes the learning of a language fun, but I’ll let Luis von Ahn do it in his TED talk.

I hope that one day I can make an educational app that is this useful to humanity and so well polished too!

You’ll find your better half calling the app Puolingo as you sit there on the toilet talking to yourself translating Portuguese (or some other language) while squeezing one out.

With the ability to train against a computer, compete with your friends and set daily goals you’ll be using this like a fitness app and then you’ll realise you can understand a whole new language. Though it fails in one area – giving you the confidence to go out there and use the words you learn – this is something that only comes with practice the language with native speakers.

Treehouse

Ryan Carson’s latest venture has been around for over a while now and is going strong training millions of people how to code and learning new design and business skills through a slick video based platform with game elements and incorporating a workspace text editor to encourage you to practice keep powering through the courses.

You can study on tracks and/or pick’n’mix your way through a library of courses on PHP, WordPress,  Adobe’s design apps, UX, Javascript, iOS development and the list goes on. And because it’s Ryan Carson there are of course videos from web conferences and loads of perks and career tips to help you along the way. Choose your learning goals and get prompted everyday. Help in the forums and earn kudos for being a sharing and caring type. Earn points and badges for every step of your journey.

 

Code Academy

Wanna really learn to code but still do it for free? Code Academy has been slowly adding more and more programming tracks to it roster and as a non-profit designed to encourage code literacy its perfect for anyone who wants to learn the basic concepts behind many of the most popular web programming languages today.

The philosophy is learning by doing projects and in some ways its better than Treehouse because its structured to take you through a full project that produces a result whereas you need to seek out projects in the library at Treehouse to test your skills. It doesn’t have video lecture based learning but it more than makes up for it with an active forum and lots of practical usable lessons.

 Khan Academy

Perhaps you need to get back to basics and learn maths to help you get your head around certain concepts or maybe you just want a refresher because lets face it who remembers their advanced algebra unless you’re using it everyday.

Khan academy was designed to help youngsters learn maths but its has a wealth of other video based learning materials and a serious points and badging system designed and refined multiple times to encourage you to continue learning through rewards and acknowledgements of accomplishments.

It has been simplified to guide you through tracks and is tailored to your level from beginner to rocket science. Great if you’re learning with your kid or just by yourself.

Boldly go…

You have to embrace your inner beginner when you’re learning so go and make some mistakes. Its the only way to get good. Most important though is to use the knowledge you’re gaining practically, otherwise you  won’t retain it and it becomes a patent waste of time.

The difference between those who are successful and those who aren’t isn’t knowledge or connections… is being able to apply knowledge in practical ways and using connections to enable more of that. Most of all though you should choose to learn something that you enjoy doing it otherwise you won’t want to keep learning, practicing and challenging yourself.

Stay sharp friends

 

Tae Scotland the brave

I’m unable to vote in one of the most crucial decisions in the history of the British Isles. The vote for Scottish independence. Many people ask me how I’d vote if I could and my answer is always the same…
Yes.
“Why?!” You cry (for you are obviously English or see me as a petty nationalist or possibly someone who is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome)
Surely you are more rational than that? Surely you know the facts: The currency is a grey area. What about a flight of businesses and investors? How will the books be balanced? What about the army and Trident? What about EU memberships? What of the cost of a new passport authority and diplomatic service? These are pretty fundamental issues however they are mere trifles compared to what actually lies in store.
Jobs will be lost, some businesses may flee, there may even be a run on the banks but there are ways to mitigate those risks. Introducing temporary capital controls to prevent large scale speculation on the pound and an outpouring of cash from Scotland is one measure – its what the East Asian tigers did to recover from the financial crash in 1997. Those that didn’t implement the controls, Thailand and Malaysia didn’t have a great time for a few years.
The hard work will come when Scots, having won their independence realise it is on them to create a better country free from the baggage and bullshit of the UK and the English. I am half English half Singaporean originally born in Somerset, but my heart and home is Scotland. Some of my best friends are Scottish and still live in Scotland. Many of them are probably no voters I haven’t asked because its a personal decision. What I love about my adopted country apart from the rugged beauty of its landscapes and people is that Scotland and the Scottish accepted me for who I am and recognised me as Scottish when I said I was from Scotland. I was suckled and educated there during my most formative years and have a deep yearning to return and settle there again if I can just travel a little more and escape the quantum singularity of London.
Contrary to what the main parties allied in the no campaign would have you believe it is not merely a decision about economics. The Scottish people are not technocrats, making decisions based on cold rational analysis though god knows its not unusual for them to do so. We all make decisions especially in the political arena based on emotions, whether or not this is right or wrong or even if we don’s know we are doing it. Alex Salmond and the SNP have understood this clearly from the beginning which is why he’s been able to gloss over the details and indeed will be able to continue to do so for a while at least if he wins.
The majority of the voting public will have weighed up the arguments, and more importantly who put them forward. They will see through the fear mongering of the better together campaign and the blatant last minute attempt to hide the fact that they complacently believed the Scottish people to be so cowed or well governed that they wouldn’t dare leave the union. I don’t want to make a predictions but I have a sneaking feeling that the yays will thrash the naes because the fear of the unknown will not outweigh the amazing sense that this decision will create one of the most exciting times for this generations of Scots.
This decision could lead to the kind of collective effort to create an ideal nation the likes of which has never really been attempted on this scale without a bloody revolution. With a stroke of the pen each Scot will leave a legacy, whichever way this goes, that shows that people can decide their own destiny and they knows what is best for themselves. People all over Europe and the world will be looking at the out come of this decision. In the Basque country people who fought an armed struggle for the same kind of rights the Scots got through peaceful means and the Catalans a people who’ve been denied any referendum on independence, the residents of Chiapas in Mexico and the unstable states of the Warsaw Pact countries among others.
The Scots won’t have anyone to blame but themselves if things go tits up after independence but that’s okay, they are some of the most inventive resilient and stoic people that I know. They meet things with a wicked sense of humour and they make the best of any situation.
Perhaps I’m being romantic and stupid but perhaps its hope. Hope that a nation of people whom I feel so close to is for able to engage in politics with a sense of anticipation, hope that one can actually make a difference and a take a stand in what one believes in. Perhaps it is that one feeling that keeps humanity moving forward against all odds. Ever enduring hope is influencing me and other pro-independence souls to continue down the less trodden path.
I asked a girl in London, a Scottish girl, if she was voting. She said she couldn’t because of the rules but that she would vote yes. I asked her why: “I’m not voting for Salmond, hell be out in a few years, I would vote for me and for the country and to be in control of our future.”
Its not about nationalism, the SNP are not the BNP and sit further to the left than Labour. Scotland joined the union when it was bankrupted by the Panama expedition and it received enormous benefits from the empire with Glasgow becoming second city of the empire but the empire is no more and the reasons for being part of the union now are murky at best. There is a sense Scotland could become more like the Scandanavian countries like Norway and Sweden… Scotland has the resources, the people and the skills - it only needs the will.
One thing is for sure – if independence comes I want to help build a nation that I would want my children to live in, to be part of a generation of outstanding, optimistic and hopeful people working towards a common goal of a better nation that works for its people by empowering them to take part in that process.
I leave you with two quotes from Rousseau a man concerned with the idea that every generation should have the right to vote not only on who governs them but also on the type of government they are entitled to…
“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.”
“Since men cannot create new forces, but merely combine and control those which already exist, the only way in which they can preserve themselves is by uniting their separate powers in a combination strong enough to overcome any resistance, uniting them so that their powers are directed by a single motive and act in concert.”
Which way would you vote for knowing what you do?
Which reasons make you feel better? 
Ten reasons to vote yes
Ten reasons to vote no

Immersed in The Drowned Man

I went out  to go to a show many have been raving about by a theatrical company renowned for their innovative live performances. The Drowned Man by Punchdrunk and The National Theatre is one of those works or art that you will remember for your whole life. Its like seeing Star Wars as a child or the IMAX version of Avatar more recently.

The experience is life changing, a big statement I know, but this was my first Punchdrunk performance so I have nothing to compare it against. After being reminded to buy tickets when a friend checked in at the venue I dragged one of my friends along and lost myself in the pure performance of the show.

I’ve seen amazing theatre before, actors performing The Tempest by the separation wall in the West Bank while a bunch of screaming children and adults from the refugee camp watched the show, incomprehensible to them, unfold against the spectacle of Israeli observation posts and the looming presence of the wall. Nederlands Dans Theater performing some really magical routines to the haunting minimalism of Philip Glass’s Glassworks. The Spiegeltent’s regular assortment of Cabaret stars performing under the the stars in a park in Edinburgh and Cirque du Soleils amazing death defying stunts from the front row at the Royal Albert Hall but what I saw last friday makes all that pale in comparison. Though they can’t really be compared.

Walking into the show reminded me of Alienwars and Terminator 3D. You are with a random sample of people, given a mask and led to an elevator where a waiting tour guide informs you “you should carve your own path” but you cannot talk. You’re then told some cursory character details and around you can see the character synopsis of the actors on clip boards. A disembodied voice, the director, informs you that filming is ongoing and that you will be part of an experiment thats never been tried before.

At this point if I were reviewing a film I would say spoiler alert but, since the show has ended after its year run and because its so massive, one spoiler laden review would never ruin it for anyone.

Part of our contingent were shown out of the elevator before the doors closed and we were separated my friend and I looked at each other through our masks already adopting the silence of the statues we looked like. Once out of the elevator we walked into a room filled with immovable cardboard boxes that was our path into the set. Our entrance was onto to a floor that looked like a set from universal studios complete with what looked like the Bateman motel. Our attention was immediately drawn by a man looking like he was being abused by a security guard. A group of statues following and watching their every move. When the actors ran the statues ran after them we didn’t follow. We looked around not knowing where to go in this massive studio space and wandered into a trailer park. Suddenly out of nowhere the character of Faye and her father, his character was one I barely saw after this scene, walked into one of the motel rooms. The girl was crying complaining she hated the place. The ambient sound in the studio was loud and a constantly ticking sound track that seemed to work with whatever scene you were viewing and was ever present inside and outside of the rooms.

We entered the motel room and witnessed Faye being comforted and encouraged by her father for the upcoming audition. There were about ten statues witnessing this scene in the room and more peering through the windows. Some of them followed Faye’s father as he left my friend and I remained like awkward voyeurs as she dressed herself and did her make-up for the coming audition quickly following her out of the room to witness further interaction with other cast members.

It should be noted I had been forewarned that it was a good idea to follow one of the characters for a full cycle. I had also been told that somewhere in this labyrinthine set here was a bar which, if you were lucky enough to discover it, would serve you drink at some indeterminate intermission.

That said I followed Faye for one hour and was still none the wiser as to what her story was nor what the wider story was about by the end of the first performance. The performance unfolds three times and the other characters were beckoning to be followed. I wanted to see the story unfold in different locales from a different points of view. This highly parallel piece of theatre allows the audience to experience the story in the most voyeuristic way you could imagine.

When characters write notes to each other we, living statues, gather like vultures to devour these incidental props and moments. Picking up discarded business cards or peering over actors shoulders. I met a group of Spaniards there for their second viewing.

One mischievous girl said that in the first hour they rummaged through all of the sets looking through drawers and cupboards reading bit and pieces of information. Every prop has significance and nothing that was in the building was there without reason or thought invested into it to help make the story richer. Some areas would smell heavily, the scent of whisky near the bar or the rather sterile, fresh smell of a dentists consultation room.

After two more surreal cycles of the play it in which I encountered desert and a forest and numerous members of the cast with a crescendo it ends. Somehow performers manage to corral the hundreds of audience members spread over three floors to the final location to witness the final scenes together… or maybe that same scene happened every hour and I just hadn’t witnessed it.

I was left craving more. I was curious about all the things I hadn’t seen and having seen some audience members pulled out of the crowd for one-on-one experiences with the actors I was strangely envious… What was being revealed? Was it important to the story? Was it some form of kinky intermission (there have been tales)? Why that audience member? What was the significance of all the one-on-ones?

It was unforgettable and now that I know that one viewing is not enough I shall treat the next Punchdrunk production like a well loved book and trace its lines again and again and again.

An education

No man was ever wise by chance – Seneca

I reckon in terms of my educational background I’m pretty average for my time and birthplace. I went to a conventional primary school and won a scholarship to a public school (for any Americans out there that means the UK private/independent system). The schooling prepared me for a classical education at university in the humanities (liberal arts) and I spent nigh on 21 years in this type of education. I look back at my early life with fondness and long for all that time I had… What a luxury it was to be able to while away the hours doing anything I pleased or nothing at all and be able to live on almost nothing but also want for nothing. I’m not one of those people who likes to waste time and yet for some reason I’m able to procrastinate to the nth degree. I’m also one of those annoying people who others look at and think “oh he’s got a natural talent for stuff”. While it may seem easy for people like me I have these internal feelings of ‘imposter complex‘…  feelings like I’m never good enough at what I do. My so called natural talents have led me to a be a bit of a jack of all trades master of none and as I’ve found with many people like me who are well educated and supposedly ‘talented’ it leads to a sort of torpor and level of indecision about where you want to go. Fortunately I get bored quickly so even when I don’t know what to do I never stand still… when I finished my degree in Classical Studies I quickly made the decision to go into the digital realm and went on to do a Masters in Digital Design and media. After all what can you do with ancient literature and history? It helped that I had an interest in computing, I had originally applied to Edinburgh’s Computer Science course. It also helped that my final undergraduate dissertation was on computer generated 3D archaeological reconstructions. I’ve traveled to 27 countries and intend to beat Pope Jean Paul II record of I think somewhere near 130. I’ve lived in Australia, Malaysia,  Borneo, Scotland and England I used my time to do so many extra curricular activities like being the treasurer and trips organiser for the Photo Society at Edinburgh and the photographer twice for the Palestinian literary festival, I teach capoeira a Brazilian martial art. I never wanted to specialise and I never wanted to work for anyone else so I started my own business, Second Variety and proceeded to work for myself straight out of university four four years. I wanted to know everything I could and I still do. The ability to pick things up quickly is more a willingness to try and fail and boy have I had some stonking failures but I’ve also had some great successes. What I’ve realised though is that far from being a generalist I’ve developed a huge knowledge that can be applied to the few specific areas I work in. I also deal mainly with digital media in my new job as a UX designer but the great thing about the job is it requires you to meet new and interesting people and solve very different problems through design. Now I find myself longing for the feeling of achievement and the travelling bug so I’ve set myself some new goals:

Cycle from London to Singapore – I’m a cycle commuter but I’ve always dreamed of going long haul and since I’m half Singaporean the destination makes sense!

Learn to speak fluent Portuguese – having already been a practicing Capoeirista for ten years I think its only sensible that I immerse myself in the Brazilian language and culture a little deeper.

Get more fluent in Italian – after all I did it for three years at school I should finish what I started.

Learn to speak Malay – its my mothers language and for some reason I never managed to learn it when I was kid

Build an app – I can do some front-end programming but I’m not a master, I know some PHP but I’m not a master, essentially I want to build something myself not necessarily to master it but to better understand how build something from end-to-end and hopefully to make something of utility for everyone else.

Write, shoot and edit a movie or two – why not movies are fun and I’ve been involved in other peoples projects its time to try a few of my own.

Along the way I’ll learn a lot of new things and I can combine some of them together and most of all I’ll have fun. What have I learned thats important over the last 30 years?

Never stop moving forward, learning or passing on what you have learned. Never doubt yourself or your abilities, you’re better than you think you are. Your only as good as the last thing you did, seriously this is important its stops you from resting on your laurels. Happiness is in the doing… so keep yourself busy!   What are you going to do this year? What goals have you set for yourself? Anyone wanna join me for the bike ride?

WeStore helped me in pinch

Possibly one of the best examples of customer service on a day when I was close to cracking after a recent break up with my girlfriend. WeStore helped me to make moving out of my old flat a quick and painless affair with complete peace of mind about where my stuff was going…

Me:

I ordered a pick up from WeStore but never received a confirmation I’m not sure if I had clicked confirm but I really need to get my stuff picked on Friday is there anyway I can expedite this

Ayman:

Hi there!
Let me help you with this
What is your name and the order number? This will allow me to check with our logistics dept

Me:

I wanted to get 8 boxes picked up (medium size)
I have to move out of my apartment I thought I confirmed the order yesterday for Friday pickup
Either way I didn’t click the confirm button or something went wrong
either way I’m in the middle of a break up and must leave the house is there anyway I can get on the Friday pickup list

I think I missed the confirm step I must have got to the last screen and then not hit the confirm button I have no order number

Ayman:

Sorry to hear that :S
What’s your name and order number first? I’ll check it before we do anything else

Me: (I had rung up the co-founder James by this point to ask for a pickup)

James just called me to say he would pick it up tomorrow so I’ve put the order in to formalise that apologies it must have been my error!

Ayman:

Haha well I’m glad it’s sorted!
Even if you requested collection for a different date James should be there tomorrow to pick up your boxes

Me:

awesome thanks

Ayman:

Requesting collection via the website is just important for you to do so that our warehouse is informed and they can be ready for your boxes

Me:

its all done I made sure to get the confirmation this time! ;)

Ayman:

Oh that’s great

Me:

At least some things in life can work even if other things break you guys have made my day

Ayman:

Don’t you worry – WeStore have you covered! Glad we can help in some small way

thanks

Have you had any customer experience stories like this? Ever been helped out in a time of need by a digital company with a heart?

Cloud storage – my minimal nirvana

So recently I’ve had to shift my life in a lurch towards total portability. … but first some background.

I’m 32 this year in July and until recently I had plans to move to Spain and start a new life with a girl I met and whom I had thought about spending the rest of my life with.

In an effort to begin this move, other than usual attempt to save more money I had been reading a lot of lifehacker articles about using the cloud to increase my efficiency and downsize my life.

I’m using dropbox for my photos and archiving if you haven’t signed up you really should because if you’re not already using some form of cloud storage you must’ve been living in a cave for the last 4 years.

This article about being minimalist in your choices or what to store and thinking about what you bring into your life when you buy is great. After reading that I  knew it was becoming horribly apparent that to quote a George Carlin comedy sketch: “I had too much stuff”.

I wasn’t being discriminating in my collecting but unlike the author of the article above I have a bit of a hoarding tendency so I calculated that I could afford to put some of my stuff in storage but only the most cherished stuff. With one rule to remember – if remains stored for a while and isn’t missed then I’ll donate it or sell it later.

The only catch was Big Yellow or SafeStore facilities can typically start at £80 per week, in London at least, for a small cupboard-like room! Thats £320 per month add that to the £700 rent and approximately £200 worth of bills and it becomes an eyewatering amount to fork out to store crap I’m not using. I had to make a decision ditch my stuff or find cheaper storage… trouble is the only places with cheaper storage are outside of London and not being a car driver I would have trouble getting at my stuff.

Enter WeStore a service co-founded by an ex-colleague of mine, Henry Villiers. WeStore’s business model is to charge for storage by the box on a  monthly subscription basis. They supply the packing materials and they’ll come pick it up any time and any place. Its all stored and managed by a large logistics firm Seko Logisitics. Basically it combines the user experience of shopping with the the ease of getting at your real world goods as Dropbox.

I currently have three boxes of stuff stored with them and am in the process of shipping off another eight boxes. Their team even agreed to pick up the boxes after a long work day at a super specific time though they were a little late it did allow me the freedom to go about my usual day. It costs me under £50 or so to store 11 of their medium sized boxes. I don’t think I’ll let it creep above that threshold unless I go off for another gap year. I have a feeling that my subscription to WeStore will last longer than any of my previous relationships… slightly sad I know but pretty much everyone can already say that about their bank accounts!

The aim, eventually, is to be able to live from one bag and to be able to move at a moments notice. I lost my way for a while but I know that I don’t need much to enjoy life and I’m taking inspiration from an old favourite, a master of user experience and life-hacking – Seneca.

It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.

 

The amazing world of UX design

For the last six years I’ve been working in one capacity or another as a User Experience designer. I just never knew it. Prior to starting my own digital business I had an inclination to work in 3D design and worked with applications like Maya and Blender attempting to recreate ancient archaeological sites for my Masters dissertation in Digital Media and Design.

Somehow somewhere along the line I drifted towards building websites and web design… it was a part of my masters course but little did I know I would be doing it for a living. In fact years before, in school, I had attempted with limited success to create an web based ‘app’ (calling it that is probably optimistic looking back) to help children learn to read.

Its only now that I’ve been working professionally in the field that I feel comfortable in this skin. All those crude early attempts to create something useful and usable were invaluable in developing my eye and my skills. Now as I attempt to delve further into my profession I’m keen to specialise where before I was a generalist in so many things.

In my business I wore many hats and called myself many things: Salesman, CEO, Project Manager, Designer, Front-End Coder, User Experience Consultant, Information Architect, Content Strategist and most loathsome of all Accountant.

Now I find myself in this exciting situation of being what my colleagues call Creative Producer… I’m not even sure what that means but I guess in the context of building websites and apps it means I produce creative solutions to solve both simple and complex problems.

Its fun first and foremost because I get to experiment and play. I feel like the things I help to build all serve a purpose but most of all its taught me patience. It takes time to create something beautiful and usable. Time is often something of a premium when it comes to dealing with demanding clients and even more demanding users!

This site is a sort of travelogue, playground and portal into the mind of one humble UX designer who thinks he has what it takes to make things better for himself or the lives of all he touches.

I will be candid and probably quite explicit, I don’t stand on the fence and I will welcome criticism both of my work and my writing. I will connect with the people who read this blog in anyway I can to learn more about the world, how to better it and myself and learn to care again about things that really matter to me.

This is my mission, its personal and its professional. Its inane and profound. Its serious and hopefully funny.

Its me

Jamie Archer – UX Designer and Capoeirista, Brother and Son, another voice in the wilderness.