Yoga Beta for Climbers

As a companion to Finding Yourself on the Wall, sometimes what you need while climbing isn’t real beta or advice of what to do, but mental reinforcement. This beta can sound kind of like the mantras that someone might give you in the midst of a yoga class—yoga beta.

  • Do what feels right
  • Don’t forget to breathe
  • Don’t look, just feel
  • You are stronger than you think
  • Just let go 


Finding Myself on the Wall

How climbing teaches me to manage my fear and love myself.

Sometimes I find myself on the wall doing something I never thought possible: holding onto something that doesn’t seem to have a place to hold, or reaching something that looks out of reach. Other times it’s like I’m waking up to find myself trapped in what seems to be an inescapable spot: no holds above me, or nowhere to put my feet to push myself higher. In these cases, the problem is clear. The solution isn’t.

In climbing, the problem can be on the wall, or it can be with my confidence, or my fear. Being able to consistently test solutions, push through challenges, and conquer the problem is what makes climbing a perfect mental and physical outlet for me.

For me, climbing is all about managing fear and trusting myself. I have to manage my natural instincts of being afraid of heights and of falling. I also have to learn to trust my abilities and skills while respecting myself and my boundaries in order to avoid getting hurt or endangering myself or others.

In addition, the different types of climbing require different levels of this fear management and self-trust. I first learned top-rope climbing, but as I got better I got more comfortable. Then I learned bouldering, and got more comfortable there, so I learned how to lead climb. Throughout this process, I’ve built my physical strength and climbing technique, but also self confidence and my ability to manage fear.

  • Top-roping is the most comfortable form of climbing for me. I can see the rope, and I can sometimes see the anchor keeping the rope secure. I can feel the taut lack of slack in my rope, and lean back from the wall to test it. I can rest at any time as well, so there is time to slow down and take breaks. All of this physical security reinforces a psychological sense of security, which can help me do more challenging moves and climb higher than I might otherwise feel comfortable climbing.
  • Bouldering requires me to stomach my fear and muster my self-confidence to take me to the top of a wall, or over the top of a wall, without a rope. Bouldering routes are typically anywhere from 10-20 feet high in a gym, and in some incredible outdoor routes, 40 or more feet high. Without the physical security of a rope or an anchor, I have to know my physical and psychological strengths and limits before I start. This forces me to scope out the route before I start climbing, and prepare myself to jump or fall to the ground if I feel uncomfortable. Bouldering forces me to get used to this discomfort and either overcome it or recognize when it is valid and to listen to it.
  • Lead climbing takes the height of top-roping and combines it with the mental aspects of bouldering. No longer do I have the visible anchor or a taut rope to help me feel safe—it’s just me and the wall. I’m conquering the problem while also taking all the necessary steps to keep myself safe: clip properly, climb safely around the rope, and rest when I can. There’s little to no room for fear.

Each type of climbing removes an element of physical security and further challenges my psychological security as I progress. In this way, I’ve been forced to progressively confront and challenge my limits at the same time that I learn to respect and recognize them.

The dangers of climbing are real. It’s an extreme sport. Though it doesn’t always feel dangerous in a gym, any time that you are high up in the air relying on humans and equipment, something can fail and you can die. It’s also easy to get injured due to bad technique: over-gripping holds, inadequately engaging muscles, straining hand muscles and tendons on hard-to-grip holds. If anything, these risks force me to prioritize muscle recovery and rest days, allowing me to recognize that just as physical self care is important, so too is psychological self care.

Despite these risks, climbing lets me get more in-tune with myself than anything else that I’ve tried. It’s a wall of problems, but each one is recognizable and each one is solvable, and I can try them again and again. I can learn by watching someone else solve it, but I can’t solve it the same way because we have different skill sets, physical strength, and body types. I still have solve the problem myself in my own way.

Climbing with other people has also been key to my mental strength. Climbing partners are vital to my safety, but also to my confidence level. They can encourage me to try new routes, and give me beta when I start to falter on a route. Beta, typically defined as information about a route, can also involve encouragement. Everything from the tactical “there’s a foothold by your right knee” to the encouraging “you can reach it!” to the calming “don’t look, just feel” is great beta that has helped me succeed. (I’ve named that last type Yoga Beta). Even so, sometimes the best beta is silence so that I can focus on the problem.

Climbing as a method for teaching myself that I can succeed and iterating my way through problem-solving helps me overcome my fear of failure. I’m learning to trust myself to get through each move, and find something to (physically, psychologically) support myself along the way. I have to trust myself, and the rock, every step of the way.

Sofar Sounds: So far from DIY

I attended my first Sofar Sounds show on Friday night. It was a great night, attending a show with a friend and making a few new friends with those that we were sharing a couch with. Sofar Sounds hosts shows in secret locations, from people’s houses, apartments, or even offices, that their community offers up.

As someone who went to a lot of DIY shows in college, the show was a bit surreal. The Sofar show had all the trappings of a DIY show: a crowd of people who care about music, who’ve all traveled there to see a show, a show organized by someone they know or another friend knows. Except in this case, the someone they know is instead a company that they’ve paid money to, and they don’t know the artists or the promoters or even the location until the day of the show.

The DIY shows I’ve been to were characterized by familiar faces, familiar locations, but also hardworking dedicated musicians and music lovers doing the promotion, organization, and crowd-wrangling. Shows in living rooms, basements, kitchens, and garages. Realizing years later that you should’ve worn earplugs. A network of people that once you break into, you can start going to even more shows in more and more places over the years as people move in or away.

The crux of it being, of course, breaking into the network. How do you find a community of like-minded people who have the resources to host and promote house shows, and are doing just that? Sofar Sounds takes people who have the resources to host house shows and connects them with bands and a predefined, curated audience. Sofar shows are like the Lyft of DIY shows, and the commercialization feels somewhat awkward. Sofar Sounds takes the DIY show model and tries to “solve” it with a business model.

Emma Silvers covers that business model in depth in her article A New Guest at Your House Show: The Middleman for KQED Arts. No longer do the musicians and music lovers have to do the promotion, organization, and crowd-wrangling on their own. Instead, they operate as volunteer “ambassadors” for Sofar Sounds, but don’t get paid and still have to do crowd-wrangling. The musicians, on the other hand, might not get paid anything at all. The audience is largely formed of strangers, selected based on applications for tickets by Sofar Sounds.

Perhaps because of all this, the community at the Sofar show felt constructed. Our “ambassador” made me feel like I was alternately at a sporting event or at a team-building exercise with his efforts to pump up the crowd and get us to bond with each other at the same time. Thankfully no one tried to fist bump me. We were all united in our love of music and our willingness to obey the rules about when we were supposed to leave or when we were supposed to talk. Overall, it felt distinctly constructed, rather than a true community of repeated faces like the DIY experimental/punk scene I’d known before.

At the show, I met some people that I enjoyed talking to and would want to see again. Therein lies another problem with the constructed community—it’s building a network behind Sofar Sounds, not behind the bands themselves. I may never see the people I met at the show again, because the network and the community of people attending the show is so far removed from those promoting and organizing it.

Nevertheless, the DIY network has limited reach, and Sofar might help bands break out of that network. If your DIY shows are always performed for your friends and your family, how do you attract new people? Building an organic community takes time, dedication, commitment, but doesn’t exactly pay you quickly. Sofar might act as a kind of shortcut to getting your music in front of new people that might not otherwise stumble into your community. Even if it also doesn’t pay you quickly, and even if they hear your one show and you never see them again.

What does this business model mean for local bars that host music? How many of the artists actually make money from the $15 cover that we’re willing to commit to this ~experience~? Perhaps next time I’ll spend my money at Hotel Utah Saloon or another local venue without the secrecy or the middleman. Maybe the next Sofar show should take you by surprise by happening at an existing venue, with local bands that get a full cut of the ticket cost. Of course, then we’re back at venues full of people that ostensibly don’t care about the music but rather the night they’re trying to have despite it.

As another alternate to Sofar Sounds, Group Muse also operates on the more commercialized house show model, but hearkens back to an even earlier method of hosting house shows—the era of chamber music. Capitalizing on the goodwill of hosts, the shows happen in the same sorts of venues as Sofar Sounds shows, and feature classical chamber music instead of more mainstream singer songwriter type music. However, musicians are paid by the audience, so the platform operates more realistically as a platform rather than a true middleman.

I’ve similarly been to one Group Muse event, and found it a great exposure to a type of music I wouldn’t have sought out otherwise. And that seems to be the real fun behind the secret show atmosphere. Someone has brought you to a place, you have already paid, and you have pretty low expectations of what you might be listening to. The openness that makes any sort of house show a success is already there. So overall, I can’t really complain too much.

The music industry has been disrupted a lot by technological advances, but artists continue to not get paid enough for what they do for us. So go to secret shows. Find house shows, find DIY shows, go to Sofar shows, go to Group Muses, and check out the acts playing at your local bar. Go out, dance hard, and pay up. It’s worth it.


Data as a Gift: Implications for Product Design

The idea of data as a gift, and the act of sharing data as an exchange of a gift, has data ethics and privacy implications for product and service design.

Recent work by Kadija Ferryman and Nick Seaver on data as a gift in the last year addressed this concept more broadly and brought it to my attention. Ferryman, in her piece Reframing Data as a Gift, took the angle of data sharing in the context of health data and open data policies. Seaver, in his piece Return of the Gift, approached it from the angle of the gift economy and big data. Both make great points that are relevant in the context of data collection and ethics, especially as it relates to data security and privacy more generally.

Ferryman introduces the concept brilliantly:

What happens when we think about data as a gift? Well, first, we move away from thinking about data in the usual way, as a thing, as a repository of information and begin to think of it as an action. Second, we see that there is an obligation to give back, or reciprocate when data is given. And third, we can imagine that giving a lot of data has the potential to create tension.

When you frame the information that we “voluntarily” share with services as a gift, the dynamics of the exchange shift. We can’t truly share data with digital services—that implies that we retain ultimate ownership over the data. You can take back something after you share it with them. But you can’t do that with your personal data. Because you can’t take back your data after you share it, you can more accurately conceptualize the exchange of data with digital services as a gift. Something you give, and which cannot be returned to you (at least not in its original form).

Data as a gift creates an expectation or obligation for a return, Seaver makes clear. Problem is, when we’re sharing data on the internet, we don’t always know exactly what we’re giving and what we’re getting.

The gift exchange might be based on the expectation that your data is used to provide the service to you. And the more data, the better the service (you might expect). For this reason, it seems easier to share specific types of data with specific services. For example, it’s easier for me to answer questions about my communication or sexual preferences with a company if I think I’m going to get a boyfriend out of the exchange, and sharing that data might make it more likely.

But what happens if a company stops seeing (or doesn’t ever see) an exchange of data as a gift exchange, and starts using the data you gift it for whatever it wants in order to make a profit? By violating the terms of the gift exchange, the company violates the implicit social contract you made with the company when you gifted your data. This is where privacy comes in. Gifting information for one purpose and having it used for other unexpected purposes feels like a violation of privacy. Because it is.

A violation of the gift exchange of data is a privacy violation, but it feels like the norm now. It’s common in terms of services to be informed that after you gift your data to a service, it is no longer yours and the company can do with it what it wants.

Products and services are designed so that you can’t pay for them even if you want to. You must share certain amounts of data, and if you don’t, the product doesn’t work. As Andrew Lewis put it, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” We didn’t end up there because we are that dedicated to free things on the Internet. We were lured into gifting our data in exchange for specific, limited services, and the companies realized later that the data was the profitable part of the exchange.

Nick Seaver refers to this as “The obligation to give one’s data in exchange for the use of “free” services,” and it is indeed an obligation. To avoid gifting your data to services that you might not want to enter into that type of exchange, you have very few ways to interact with the modern Internet. You’d likely also have to have a lot of money, in order to enter into a paid transaction rather than a gift exchange with a company in return for services.

For those of us working in product or service development, we can use this perspective and consider the social contract of the exchange of data gifts.

  • Consider whether the service you offer is on par with the amount of data you ask people to gift to you.
    • Do I really need to share my Facebook likes with Tinder to get a superior match?
  • Consider whether the service you offer can deliver on the obligations and expectations created by the gift exchange.
    • Is your service rewarding enough and trustworthy enough to where I’ll save my credit card information?
  • Consider whether you can design your service to allow people to choose the data that they want to gift to you.
    • What is the minimum-possible data gift that a person could exchange with your service, and still feel as though their gift was reciprocated?
  • Consider the type of gift exchange that you design if you force people to gift you a specific type or amount of data.
    • Is that an expectation or obligation that you want to create?

When you view each piece of information that a person shares with you as a gift, it’s harder to misuse that information.


Note: Thanks to Clive Thompson for bringing Kadija Ferryman’s piece to my attention, and Nick Seaver for sharing his piece Return of the Gift with me on Twitter. 

Feature Names Matter

When someone starts using your software, they need to build an understanding of how it works and how the pieces interact. The UI text you write and the feature names you choose can build or break a mental model.

From a marketing perspective, the importance of the name is clear. You want something catchy, marketable, searchable, memorable, all these things. But most importantly, a feature name must help a user build a mental model of what your feature does.

The mental model helps the user understand why they might use this feature, and what for. One of the riskiest part of shipping something new is adoption. If people don’t know what it does or how it works, they won’t use it. A crucial element to that understanding is what you call the new thing and how you describe it in the product. If I can’t guess based on the name what it does, I might not click on it at all and explore it.

Let’s look at some feature names…

  • Google+ vs GoogleDocs. One of these is pretty opaque, and the other is pretty clear. I might think that Google Docs is google FOR docs, but as soon as I click into it, I’ll see what it is and understand that it’s for writing docs. I might never click into Google+ because I have no idea what it is based on the name.
  • Dropbox vs Box. There’s a reason both of these companies are named practically the same thing. Because you put things in boxes that you want to share and store. It’s a super evocative mental model, so it gets a bit overused, perhaps.
  • Slack vs HipChat. HipChat is a bit more descriptive, but you know automatically that it’s a chat app. Slack turns a verb into a noun, and hopes that you start using it and understand that you slack off while using it… kind of.

It’s harder to come up with examples in software of things that truly failed, because they aren’t very well known. But the example that brought this to life for me is from a card game I learned how to play recently. Red7 uses the concept of a “canvas” and a “palette” to tie the metaphor of color across the game. But combining those concepts with the established mental model that you have in a card game with a discard pile and a hand of cards took quite a bit of work. In reality, the clever metaphor broke down and impeded what could have been quick understanding by burdening an existing card game mental model with a mental model of painting ephemera. It was marketable, but not intuitive because it didn’t help people build a mental model to understand how the game works.

The simplest way to pick a good feature name is to test them out. Do some word association exercises with your team, but also with people that don’t work on your team and don’t even work in software. Diverse teams matter a lot in this exercise. This can help identify names that build mental models, break them, or are irrevocably associated with irrelevant mental models.

Another way to pick good feature names is to rely on scenarios when building features. That way, you’re less likely to conceptualize a feature based on its architecture, or your internal team structures, and more likely to think of it from a problem-solving perspective. If you know exactly what the feature is doing, and for whom, it’s easier to pick a useful name.



Tips for live tweeting an event

If you use Twitter and are attending an event that you want to share with your twitter followers, you can live tweet it as it’s happening. While you can live tweet basically any event, these tips focus mainly on talks that you might attend as part of a conference, a meetup, a sponsored speaker series, or another presentation.

I’ve live tweeted several conferences (two as part of a job, such as #SUMIT14), talks, and series of talks as @smorewithface.

First, the basics on live tweeting an event, then some pro tips and best practices to follow before and during the event.

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2015 Resolutions, 2016 Music, and 2017

In 2015 I made some resolutions. I haven’t followed up on them since. In 2016 I made no resolutions, but I listened to a lot of music.

How the 2015 resolutions fared in 2015 and 2016

I did okay.

1. Stay off Twitter more, read fewer articles on the web, and create more.

I’ve continued to use Twitter over the past couple years. My use of it waxes and wanes depending on the news. I periodically delete it from my phone to get a break. My Pocket queue and a change in my commute mean that I’ve certainly shifted my web-based reading habits. I read 73 books in 2016 (that I bothered to add to Goodreads, so let’s round to 75). I’ve taken a few vacations without my laptop, and have spent a bit more time working with my hands—whether at the gym, climbing, or making things like jewelry.

2. Learn JavaScript

I still have not learned JavaScript. I gave up on it. Part of this is because semicolons are rude, and part of this is because I joined a company where Python is the primary backend language. I realized Python would be easier to learn and my interests shifted more toward data analysis (and maybe some digital mapping?) and further from interactive web content, so I worked on learning Python instead. I ran into the same issue learning Python as I did JS though… it requires a lot of time, and a lot of practice. Side projects are hard to maintain, especially when they’re similar to your day job. I still have some tabs open about learning Python, and I took more Python tutorials, so I have at least reading-level knowledge of both languages.

3. Read something huge, and write something huge.

Still haven’t read Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Still haven’t written up a magnum opus on the reification of geographical and political and linguistic borders on the web. I’m hoping to break it apart and start publishing bits and pieces here this year. We’ll see.

Goals for 2017

I’m meeting with friends this weekend to work through some. I’m setting some in terms of reading material, to better improve my knowledge of key (also depressing) moments in history. I can’t be a history nerd without being fascinated by dictators, oppression, and systemic discrimination. So I’m branching out to different geographical dictators and oppression in history this year. Beyond that, we’ll see what goals I end up with.

2016 in Music

2016 was a music-filled year, after a multi-year hiatus of drifting away from it being as central in my life as it deserves. These songs stuck with me for various reasons. They helped me regain some hipster credibility, branch out into less-explored genres, and reminded me how important it is to support artists you care about.

Songs that stuck

This year I bought the CHVRCHES album, the Bon Iver album, the Frank Ocean album, and The Little Prince soundtrack. In addition to a bunch of one-off songs, because shuffle is how I roll.

I listened to Jason Derulo a lot, and listened to a four song playlist of Carly Rae Jepsen, Ariana Grande, Ingrid Michaelson, and Adele for longer than I’d like to admit.

Shows I saw

I saw the following artists play live:

  • Justice and Sebastian (he might still go by SebastiAn)
  • Broods and Two Door Cinema Club
  • Daughter
  • Still Flyin’, Annie Hart of Au Revoir Simone, and Slow Club
  • Tallest Man on Earth and The Head and the Heart
  • Cold War Kids

If I had to rank them, CHVRCHES would be first.

I started the new year by binging on SoundCloud recommendations from The Burning Ear and the related tracks that SoundCloud plays. A great way to fall into a rabbit hole of discovery, and a totally different experience from Spotify’s more carefully-constructed and curated experience of the Discover Weekly and other playlists.

Stats that were gathered for me, passively by

Last.FM tells me things about last year in music too.


My listening increased after I moved. CHVRCHES was a continual favorite. I listened to a lot of different types of music, but mostly stuck to indie. Hey Rosetta! – Trish’s Song is a great song to listen to if you’re trying to fall asleep.

2017 in Music

In 2017 I have tickets to see these artists in concert…

  • Less Than Jake
  • Mike Doughty and Wheatus
  • Jens Lekman
  • Radical Face
  • Matt Pond PA
  • Gibbz
  • Knox Hamilton and Colony House

And that’s just the first three months. City life suits me. Forging ahead into 2017 suits me. Here’s to more reading, more music, more learning, more blogging, and more self care in the year ahead.

Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu: Watching and Sharing on the Web

I like to share with my friends. I’ll send them links to articles in Pocket, book recommendations on Goodreads, and music recommendations in Spotify. I’ll also post SoundCloud songs on Facebook, quote articles on Twitter, and email other articles to friends. All of these sharing methods augment word-of-mouth, letting me seamlessly share my experiences with others within or outside of an application.

What’s missing is the ability to easily share recommendations in the apps we use to watch TV and movies online. The word-of-mouth augmentation that social media provides is pretty minimal when it comes to TV and movies.

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Physical technology and inherited meeting places

Digital technology is central in our social and personal lives. Laptops, smartphones, and the apps installed on them allow us to communicate more frequently & at greater distances than ever before. This capability is reshaping those communications. This centrality of the role of tech mirrors the importance that churches once had in peoples’ lives. The Internet Archive could be aiming to bring this back, in a more physical manner.

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The Politics of Crisis Communication

Some mentions in Zeynep Tufekci’s post The Politics of Empathy and the Politics of Technology got me thinking about crisis communications for incident response.

Facebook will have to decide which incidents are “serious and tragic” versus which ones are “ongoing crises” where Safety Check would not be useful. Iraq is not officially at war, but suicide bombings there are almost horrifically routine. Their new policy raises many important questions that should be carefully considered. Will Baghdad bombings be considered endemic? How many in a year to declare something endemic or chronic? Are we just acknowledging that people in the regions of the world suffering from chronic crises have no way to feel “safe”? Who gets to check in? “Useful” as defined as useful to whom? Would you not want a “Safety Check” everyday if your loved one were trapped in a region with a dangerous and fast-moving epidemic like Ebola?

When your platform takes the role of defining a crisis, that’s putting the media in social media.  By enabling Safety Check for “unnatural” disasters, it stops being a nifty feature and becomes an essential tool for communication during a crisis.

Activating Safety Check constantly would lessen its value as a signal. Right now, it functions as a forceful push, and you get a “notify” on your phone when a friend in the affected area checks in as safe. Getting hundreds of these notifications per day would reduce its efficacy. However, not getting the notification when you were worried about someone would also be a problem. This type of system requires decisions to be made about when to activate, and when to hold back.

Avoiding alert fatigue is key when it comes to crisis communications. Facebook is both defining the crisis and communicating about it.  It’s easy to send a message to millions of people when they log into your service on a daily (or even hourly) basis. It isn’t easy to do it well.