Howto make a DIY Teleprompter

Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded”

oooh. Another one about hacking… Let’s tackle this set of values in reverse order.

In Paul Graham’s essay “What you can’t say“, he asks

Who thinks they’re not open-minded? Our hypothetical prim miss from the suburbs thinks she’s open-minded. Hasn’t she been taught to be? Ask anyone, and they’ll say the same thing: they’re pretty open-minded, though they draw the line at things that are really wrong. (Some tribes may avoid “wrong” as judgemental, and may instead use a more neutral sounding euphemism like “negative” or “destructive”.)

Based on that statement, can one ever plausibly claim to be open minded at all? 

Some people certainly seem to seek out challenging experiences and challenging viewpoints to try and gain a better understanding and learn from those experiences. Those experiences may reinforce pre-existing views, but will help them understand their pre-existing views with more clarity.

To me,  being open minded means working out where your nerves & boundaries are – exploring them, challenging them and trying to understand your values better.

Most of my life, I’ve lived in very accepting community, but when I was younger, I spent some time with an area of society where racial tensions were high, and racial slurs were social currency. It was too much. The people were good people, who I genuinely believe just want good things for themselves and their families, but I had to remove myself as I felt it rubbing off on me.

However, I came away from it a stronger person, because I understood more about my values of respect and equality – and where my limits were – something I might have otherwise been unclear about.

Recently, I spent 3 weeks living and working remotely from Sofia in Bulgaria. Whenever I visit new places – with their own ways, customs, traditions – I try to approach as non-judgementally as possible, or at least, defer judgement. It’s not “wrong”, it’s not “right” – it’s how they do things, and that’s different.

This is because there’s a good chance you’re wrong about something. You probably don’t know what it is, but whilst doing something one way may seem alien and new to you, it may well be the best thing there in that situation. You don’t know. Until you have all the information, all the background, know all the parties and reasons, it’s best to defer a value judgement and just try to understand as much as possible. One of my favourite stories about someone realising how wrong they are is this story of a train in Japan, told by an American (kindly introduced to me by David Day).

(Interestingly, trying to stay open minded is what I found hardest about in the US – much more difficult than Kyrgyzstan.)

Open-mindedness often becomes noticeable when you travel, because you often put yourself in places where you don’t know any of the details, but there are places much closer to home where you might be quick to write people off because you can’t understand how they can hold views that you disagree with so much. If you took the time to understand why they held those views, you might find you still disagree with them – but can agree to disagree…. or one of you might change your mind!

Being creative is hard… and easy. Sure I can take photographs but I think I prefer to approach the word “creative” as in “creative approach to problem solving”.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

- Steve Jobs

When I flew to Bulgaria a few weeks ago, my luggage was lost. For over 7 days I tried and tried to get someone to help, but with generally unhelpful airline contractors, nothing seemed to be happening until I was told that my bag had been in Sofia for 5 days already.

Howto make a DIY Teleprompter
Howto make a DIY Teleprompter

Still nothing happened so I made a video challenge to the CEO. The next day, my luggage arrived (yay!), and I got a call from one of the senior airline exec board members who wanted to talk about what could be done(wow!). Whether anything ultimately happens or not, that 2 minute video had more of an impact than the hours of calls and emails before.

I’ve blogged previously about other creative things, and I think – following on from the Steve Jobs quote – the trick is just be happy to take inspiration (copy!) an approach that seems to have worked elsewhere and (if appropriate), tweak it slightly and apply it to a different context. It may not work, and if it does, I can certainly sympathise with the quote – you’ll probably feel a bit of a fraud – when really you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.

I want to take “Adventurous” away from the outdoor adventure context: I like outdoor adventures, I’ve done them – it’s kind of devalued for me, and if I attempted to say “I value adventure because solo-hiking in Swedish backwoods” you might say “yes”, but I’ve set my personal bar for what seems adventurous quite high in that regard, and I’d prefer to consider the areas of life where I’m just beginning my adventures (and I don’t mean trying new adventure sports).

Living and working in a foreign country is surprisingly easy, and surprisingly hard. The difficult things – (in my case at least) were not the work (chatting with familiar UK clients on the VoIP phone!) but the basics you take for granted.

Finding vegetarian food on a menu like this is pretty straightforward - transliterate each option into Google translate til you get something good. No problem!
Finding vegetarian food on a menu like this is pretty straightforward – transliterate each option into Google translate til you get something good. No problem!

For example, imagine that going to the supermarket becomes an experience where there is a possibility, it could be an adventure.

Imagine you just want to buy some food – you find what you want and head to the checkout. You mutter a greeting to the cashier who starts to scan your stuff. He asks you (in Bulgarian) if you want a bag (and you understand because of body language). You say “да” (“da”/yes) and instinctively nod. He asks you again. Again you say  “да” and instinctively nod. He asks you again. Again you say  “да” and instinctively nod.

This is the moment that you realise that Bulgaria is one of the few countries in the world which has reverse head nods and shakes. Shaking your head indicates an affirmative, whilst nodding indicates a negative.

So now you’ve thoroughly confused him and realised how, you yet lack the language skills to explain why or how this happened, to effectively apologise for the faff or. Eventually, you’ll get the bag, the food, pay and leave the shop. You’ll let out a big breath, and your heartrate will drop. Drama over.

Encounters with shop assistants were often the most adventurous moments of my day – the very poorly pronounced Russian that I can speak might be understood by the shop assistant, but you can bet that any non-trivial response in Bulgarian, will be completely lost on me.

As I’ve blogged before, communication challenges are the scariest (yet often most rewarding) parts of any story,

I think really most best thing about being abroad is the unexpected adventures in the mundane things. The large adventures you’re (hopefully) prepared for.

It’s the moment when your taxi driver, holding his phone to his right ear, lets go of the wheel with his left hand so he can reach across his unseatbelted body and change up to 4th gear so you can do 130kph in a 80kph limit, that make you think, “this is interesting – what actually is my risk appetite with regards to road safety”? Is he even not legally required to wear a seatbelt? Do I know anything about Bulgarian roads law? So long as nothing goes wrong, should I even care?

In my case, we arrived at the airport before I had a chance to answer those questions, and so I gave him £8 (20BGN), and mulled it over on the flight home. Since I had had a very small number of taxi rides, I decided to defer judgement. The drivers creative approach to driver might make a lot more sense if I’d be able to communicate and understand the reasons, but with only a short time, and limited understanding, I decided to keep an open mind and continue to form my opinions when I return next. :)

It was a fun trip. :)

An incredible mess of cables... or the best the engineers could do given the circumstances? You don't know til you've unraveled it.  (Kosovo 2013)
An incredible mess of cables… or the best the engineers could do given the circumstances? You don’t know til you’ve unraveled it. (Kosovo 2013)
Pokebook public stream

Create Fun and A Little Weirdness

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Create Fun and A Little Weirdness”?

This is an unusual value, but I like it a lot. It kind of has the effect of celebrating diversity and, in an organisational context, highlights that it’s an organisation of real people.

One of the things I like most about this, is the message it sends out – everyone is a bit special an unique – and you should celebrate that and have fun!

Pokebook public stream
Pokebook public stream

Back in the day, my friend Ben Webb and I came up with a social network(before YO!) that simply allowed people to poke each other. There were no other features. We even came up with a slidedeck pitching it for business users.

A hundred or so people signed up, and with the API, a few people built API apps.

We were about to roll out version “2.0” (for the third time), with a new feature which allowed users to upload profile picture, so you poked them by clicking it – a feature we were going to call “poke-her-face“. But by that point we figured we had sunk enough time into a joke…

One of the great things about Ben is that he completely ‘gets’ this value, and good natured pranks are something he does well. :)

Most of my forays into music are a little weird. A rapidly produced rap song to celebrate a young people’s hackday (Thanks Maria, Kerodean!), the worlds first (and only?) hike-hop video - satisfying that unfilled niche of hip-hop songs about hiking (thanks Dan, Bethesda!), and then there’s the love song to Nano, the unix text editor

I guess it business contexts, it’s often easy to confuse seriousness with being solemness. John Cleese nails it when he says that you can laugh about serious things things (“the future of our children’s education”) without detracting from the seriousness of what’s being said:

It’s not even that being slightly weird and creating fun is hard… or disruptive. One of the easier ways to create fun in a relatively consequence-free way is simply by giving internal documents entertaining names – one might title a strategy document “The One Plan to Rule Them All“, or reply to an email asking “Does anyone else think this a good idea?” with a Star Trek, Captain Picard “Make it so” gif (or currently, my favourite thing is using OpenArena voiceover soundfiles!)

I guess the value also aligns well with this blog post that funny press releases and pranks aren’t just for April Fools day. 

Endorsed for high availability sarcasm
Endorsed for high availability sarcasm

My feeling is that we spend most of our working life at work. We’re all somewhat weird in our own way.

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of trying to compress our people into the a sort of average-centric predictable mush, we just celebrated our weirdness and created some smiles along the way?

I think it produces a harder working, more creative, happier environment. :)

Funny interview questions: how stupid are they?

Stupid interview questions? Worth ignoring?
Stupid interview questions? Worth ignoring?

I was recently debating with someone on Facebook about this article on the Top 10 Worst/Funny interview questions.

My answers to the questions were:

  1. Not sure, can I use google to find out find out the volume of a golf ball, and volume of a bus?
  2. Can I just ask Bing?
  3. Some kind of consideration of qualities usually associated with Mahatma Gandhi and how that relates to software development. Probably point out it’s not a battle, and that a gentle, peaceful approach with your colleagues is likely to achieve the best results.
  4. Some kind of dig at suggestion that one person can’t do it by themselves, but companies like Amazon have a corporate responsibility to support organisations that can help.
  5. Explain how you’d look at and analyse the nutritional information collectively for each outlet. Be aware employer is insurer and has keen interest in datamining and profiling.
  6. “Yes” + chat about something interesting you read on reddit /r/TodayIlearned yesterday.
  7. Explain how a scientific study works in very basic terms
  8. Talk about something you’re passionate about. DO NOT SING – unless you’re passionate about singing and are good. Explain how you collected your coathanger collection and lovingly take them to coathanger rallies for people to admire. They will find it interesting if you find it interesting.
  9. Say a number then talk about some kind of quirk – they’re not interested in the number (unless it’s a multiple choice question), but more interested in your explanation why. They probably want someone “a bit” weird.
  10. Simply have a good go. They’re looking at how you cope to the challenge – so just try.

I don’t think the questions that were being asked were particularly unfair – they’re testing things that you can’t prepare for. For instance, when, as a software engineer, your manager asks you to look at something urgently because a colleague is away, is your answer “No, I don’t know anything about golf balls or trains, I’ve no idea where to even start”, or is it “Urgh, I’m not sure, let me go and google a few things, I can’t promise anything, but I might be able to work it out.” – someone who will try, given a problem they have no idea how to solve, is a valuable problem solver.

My friend’s response, in my opinion, was just wrong – “I miss the time when official things meant going in for the serious talk… All this is, is telling is how much you can bullshit on the spot”.

To some degree they’re right – except that occasionally ‘bluffing it”, “having a go” at some moments, is the most useful skill you can have.

In my field, brutally ugly, ‘dangerous’ lashups involving cronjobbing crashing apache restarts, can save many many pounds of revenue for someone over a weekend, until the appropriate person is available to look at it.

In other fields, it might be like a lorry mechanic, breathing an extra days life into an alternator, before he can get back to the depot and have it replaced, or

Having robot staff who just follow instructions is good, and I expect there will have been many other questions about the candidates working style before these questions.

But robots are unable to work out what to do in situations they’ve not been trained for, the staff who can work out what to do in these situations, are clearly the most valuable.

Punk Rock and DIY Creativity :: Why John Robb is here

It’s funny, because I never thought really that punk rock would be something I’d feel apart of, but as John Robb explained in his talk at TEDxSalford, it’s very very different from the pop punk bands of my youth.

John Robb – Punk Rock and DIY Creativity

John blogs at LouderThanWar and tweets as JohnRobb77.