Books read – June 2018

In the past month I finished what was probably the longest book I've ever read – A Little Life at just over 800 pages. I'm pretty proud of that achievement as it didn't even take me that long all things considered. My self-imposed break from social media also made things easier.

Lately I also realised how much I enjoy commuting to work by bus instead of taking the car since it gives me plenty of time to read and chill. Random I know.

A Little Life

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A Little Life is one of the deepest reading experiences I've had to date. I'll be honest in saying that it's not a book I would've necessarily picked up, especially due to its size. I used to think that 500-page books are quite chunky already so this seemed daunting but I'm glad I stuck with it. A Little Life is best described as an emotional rollercoaster that will tug at your heart strings on several occasions before finally unleashing the flood gates.

It's the story of 4 childhood friends with very diverse backgrounds and upbringings. You follow their journey from high school to late adulthood, discovering intricate stories and secrets along the way. By the end of it I felt as if I actually knew the characters and watched their lives unfold from distance similar to The Truman Show.
I was a little disappointed by the end of the story as it was overly (and perhaps gratuitiously) dramatic and felt a bit rushed to wrap up the book.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

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This is definitely of the funniest books I've come across. Christopher Moore tells the story of Christ through the lens of his best friend: Biff. Among other things he invented sarcasm and makes brilliant use of it throughout their journey in search of Joshua's purpose in life.

The inseparable duo meets a variety of people and cultures along the way which sometimes challenges the readers religious preconceptions. Pick this one up if you're looking for a few laughs and an entertaining story.

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

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What's the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

That's the main question you'll have to ask yourself before you set your goals according to this book. It's full of helpful little tips but looking back, I think it could have been much shorter and do the point instead of putting a different spin on the same concept for a few chapters.

The authors recommend to narrow your focus drastically and unapologetically ignore any distractions that could prevent you from reaching your goals. To do so you should start small and build a long term vision incrementally. For example, think about what you could do today to help you achieve what you want? What about this week? This month? You get the idea.

One piece of advice in particular stood out to me: at work, block out time slots in your calendar to focus on your ONE thing every day and stick to it.

Weekend getaway to the Far North of New Zealand

This year the Queen's Birthday weekend didn't sneak up on me for once and I was able to plan a little 4-day getaway. I initially wanted to go to Australia for a few days since my girlfriend hadn't been there before but in the end we decided it would be more fun to rent an RV and explore the Far North. Cape Reinga to be specific, which is located at the northern end of the North Island of New Zealand.
Neither of us had been to that part of the country yet, so it seemed like a good choice.

We picked up our surprisingly spacious RV on Friday morning and drove up to the beautiful Bay of Islands (while stopping for a walk in Whangarei) where we spent the night. By the time we got there it started raining heavily as the weather forecast had predicted.

The next morning we visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds which was simply amazing. Despite the bad weather our tour guide showed us around and taught us a lot about this historic place. The museum was also a great experience and I would definitely recommend going for a visit as it's well worth it. We stayed for about 3 hours, had a short lunch break and headed further up north.

As we made our way to Awanui, the rain became so bad that we thought about abandoning our trip right then and there to return to Auckland. In fact, fields and roads were flooded which made driving quite dangerous. We kept driving though and fortunately it got better once we arrived in Awanui.

On Sunday we had one goal in mind: reach Cape Reinga. We woke up to beautiful sunshine and were really happy we didn't cancel our trip. We were advised to fill up on gas before taking the road all the way up north which we did (had to get coffee as well!) and off we went!


We arrived at Cape Reinga around 11am and made our our way to the lighthouse. It was a short, enjoyable walk with a breathtaking view.
As I mentioned earlier this is the northern end of New Zealand where the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea collide which I think is really cool to see.

Once we took a bunch of pictures and admired the view, we drove back down. Before returning to Awanui for the night I insisted on stopping at Ninety Mile Beach as I had to see this massive beach for myself.

By the time we got back to Awanui we were too tired to go anywhere so we spent the night at our previous camping spot.
The following day we returned home and skipped Waipoua as it would've been too much of a detour. We finally arrived in Auckland early afternoon without having to deal with too much traffic on the way. What a fun little trip that was!

GDPR and cluttered inboxes

If like me you have an email address, you might have received a bunch of emails about companies you may have forgotten about telling you proudly how they updated their Privacy Policy.

Some of the ones I read felt like they were almost asking for a high-five at the end. Cool, so it seems like everyone is finally starting to take the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) seriously and may even be afraid of the consequences if they're not compliant with the law.

The GDPR basically gives people more control and ownership of the data they provide. Companies like Facebook won't be able to sell personal information to third parties anymore unless you consent that your data may be used specifically for that purpose.

That's really great news if you're a European citizen. However even if you're not you're likely to have your data treated the same way by GDPR compliant business regardless of your location which is nice.

Now, I get that companies must update their privacy policies to make them easier to read and understand but they don't actually have to tell you about it. As a customer (and EU citizen) the basic expectation is that businesses which handle my information are compliant.

That being said, during the barrage of emails announcing updates to privacy policies, the companies that really stood out to me are the ones who remained low-key about it.

For those it's just business as usual.
I trust that they respect my privacy, my rights and also my inbox at a time when others don't.

My recent social media diet

Over the past weeks I realised just how much I use my phone on a daily basis and decided to do something about it.
Whenever I had some free time alone such as on the bus or while waiting in line, I would almost instantly reach for my phone and look at social media apps. I was impatient and looking for some sweet distraction that all those endless timelines and newsfeeds would provide. Whether it was Facebook, Twitter or Reddit I would check them multiple times a day just to make sure I didn't miss anything interesting.

At some point I would even religiously read through the "Here's what happened while you were away" feed of Twitter. You know, just in case.

It's only when I started to actively observe this behaviour that it became apparent:

  • During my bus commute I used to do nothing but read books (and sometimes sleep) but now I was glued to my phone.

  • During any meal (when I was alone) I would be glued to my phone.

  • Whenever I was anywhere waiting on something or someone, I would be glued to my phone.

  • Even when I was talking to my parents via Skype I would often browse on my phone at the same time.

As you can see my phone became my escape from boredom and as a result my attention was scattered all over the place.

I noticed it the most, when I was done browsing through various feeds. I didn't feel happy or productive. Instead, I felt like I just wasted time that I could've used to do other things. More meaningful things.

I've been trying a few different methods to change how I use my phone. For starters, I curated every single app that's currently on my phone. This meant deleting all social media apps that weren't direct messaging apps. For example I still use Messenger to stay in touch with friends even though I stopped using Facebook.

After that I also re-arranged my home screen. I copied a little trick from Francois Chartrand and keep the first screen of my phone completely blank. Not a single app whatsoever. That way I don't randomly open apps on my phone out of boredom anymore. Instead I try to only open apps to get things done. Having that little moment of friction when I first unlock my phone certainly helps.

In addition all of my notifications have been silenced ages ago, except for instant messaging. I only see updates if I choose to instead of them getting pushed to my screen constantly.

These days the only things I check on my phone are emails and messages, which are means short, intentional and focused interactions. As a result I don't reach for my phone nearly as much as I used to. And when I do it's for a much shorter period of time.

At times it feels almost as if I lost interest in it which is probably a good thing.

My impressions of Semi Permanent 2017

In their own words "Semi Permanent is the Mecca for creatives, entrepreneurs and future thinkers."

It’s a two-day conference with diverse speakers that range from start-ups to some of the world's top companies. In the past the topics would focus on creativity, art and design but in recent years there has been an increase in talks about business, strategy and technology.

The conference has been around for 14 years and has chapters all over the globe, so it's pretty cool to have it come to Auckland every year.

Usually when I describe it to people, I affectionately like to call it "a poor man's Webstock". This has much more to do with the affordable price tag than the quality of speakers though. Semi Permanent offers much better value for money in that regard.

Below I picked some of my favourite speakers and my key takeaways for each.

Lucy McRae

Lucy is a science-fiction artist, Body Architect and creator of the Swallowable Perfume. She's responsible for a variety of projects that explore how the human body will evolve in the future.

She started off her talk by mentioning that she recently wrote her own funeral speech which gave her a unique perspective on life and how she wanted to be remembered.

Lucy also advised not to let labels define you. That's essentially how she got her job at Phillips by the way. The recruiter asked her what she did and initially she couldn't really answer that question as she wasn't a designer, developer, product manager or similar. She spent a week thinking about it and came back convincingly as a Body Architect–she was hired on the spot.

Through her projects, such as Future Day Spa or Make Your Maker she showed that art can help overcome someone's personal limitations. She believes that what it means to be human will be redefined in the future.

My favourite quotes:

“Design from a place of doubt.”

“Push your body.”

“Move out of your habits.”

“Are we doing what we want right now?”

Learn more about Lucy McRae.

Erik Klimczak

Erik is the Creative Director of Advanced Technologies and Data Design at Uber. He shared insights about the design process at Uber and emphasised the importance of truly getting to know your users by conducting field research on a global scale. Their design teams interview people all around the world to identify their specific needs and problems.

For example I learned that in India, Uber offers a service called MotoX where drivers pick you up on a motorbike, which is the most popular (and most practical) vehicle in the country.

He also mentioned how Uber is constantly creating new opportunities for people. It enables women in Saudi Arabia to travel independently or helps poor households generate additional income to make ends meet.

His talk was very visual and a prime example of telling stories with data. If you're into that sort of thing I highly recommend checking out deck.gl which is the framework the team uses to create interactive maps. Often they end up looking so good that Erik prints them out to make posters for the office.

There were also animations of Uber driving routes showing things like people getting dropped off randomly around their chosen destination because of inaccurate directions.

What really stood out to me though, was the huge amount of data Uber has at their disposal simply because of people using the app while driving. They can track pretty much everything as you can see in this video of a day in the life of Uber Los Angeles. Whether it's road conditions, traffic jams, potholes or even the driver's habits.

Yes, that's right. Uber can even tell whether or not you're an aggressive driver. In that regard, Erik noted that the human mind is unreliable as there is always a gap between what people say they do and what they actually do. I've found this to be especially true when conducting intercept interviews, where asking the right questions is key to get valuable answers from people.

Fortunately Uber uses and shares this data openly for the greater good. Cities can access the platform Uber Movement and improve their infrastructure based on accurate stats sourced from millions of cars on a daily basis.

Finally he talked about his experience in a self-driving Uber car which felt surreal. Their research showed that people need to be re-assured that the car knows what it's doing so a screen was added in the back of every car so that passengers can see what the vehicle's sensors are showing.

Also:

"Ask better questions."

"Learn from data."

"The impact on a single person leads to an impact on a whole city."

Learn more about Erik Klimczak

Instrument

This talk featured three directors of the design agency Instrument: Steve Denekas (Executive Creative Director), Kara Place (Executive Director) and John Brown (Technical Director).

To kick things off they showed us their recent reel which is simply amazing:

This talk was full of little gems and takeaways around the design process, team work, client relationships and innovation. I found Steve's part the most interesting and relevant so that's what I'm going to focus on.

"Good ideas come from bad ideas."

At Instrument they believe that ideas come from everywhere. Whether it's the newly hired intern or someone from the accounting team. Everyone can contribute their ideas and thoughts regardless of job titles.
This really resonated with me as I've found that in the past some of the best ideas or solutions came from developers.

"Find the truth and build it."

When it comes to the design process, Steve advised to "move quickly from talking to doing." Instead of wasting time in random meetings, start producing something tangible that you can talk about in a meaningful way. I believe in doing just enough research to start iterating on a solution and getting feedback as early as possible.

“Tell clients that you don’t know.”

The process has a beginning and an end, but it's the middle that's undetermined. Steve and the team are honest with clients when approaching a new problem.

In my experience the truth is that often we know the problem but we'll have to diverge and iterate to come up with a solution. This part often makes people uncomfortable and they like to see a solution upfront which achieves little more than setting false expectations.

I loved that he embraces the unknown of the process and communicates it clearly to clients.

Finally, the team talked about their recent project with Google where the brief was to showcase power of the Google Cloud in innovative ways.

This led them to try out all sorts of weird experiments with those apps. For example they managed to do animations within Google Sheets and found out that it has a frame rate of 20FPS. (Something that even Google engineers didn't know – why would they?)

Also:

“Make complex things simple.”

"Give people something to react to.”

“Don’t use Lorem Ipsum.”

“Love the problem.”

“Sweat the details.”

“Ask the right questions during discovery.”

Learn more about Instrument