My episode of the Pathways by Candourly podcast launched while I was on vacation! Drew and I spent over an hour chatting about my work, my transition from journalism to web publishing, travel, and everything in between. Listen here, and to the other fascinating Pathways episodes, all about what brought people to their current jobs.
Thanks to the CampJS team for inviting me to give a talk at November's event! I'd never been to a camp before (they are low-key, multi-day events where people come together to code, learn, socialise and work on personal projects).
My talk on why developers should write (documentation, blog posts, books) managed to convince a few people to publish articles on SitePoint. Next time I'll mention earlier on that good publishers will pay you for your work. In a time when so many companies are trying to make "exposure" a currency, it's worth highlighting the companies that pay cash.
I was interviewed by Parsely CEO Sachin Kamdar to talk about how SitePoint uses on-site search data to improve our content: create better evergreen pieces, predict what will be a hit in the future, and maintain older articles that are still relevant to our audience.
Read the full interview at Computerworld.
I didn't set a reading goal for 2015, but I'm pretty pleased with the result: 16 books finished, most in the last three months of the year. Here's a tally, with a brief review for each one.
Two caveats: I'm using Goodreads to track which books I read this year, but only started using it in earnest around September. This list might omit books I read in early 2015 but forgot to add. It also doesn't include books I haven't finished yet, or don't plan on finishing.
One more: you'll notice there aren't any business books on this list, and that most are fiction. I went hard on entrepreneurship books in 2014, but found that I get a lot more value out of articles, blog posts and podcasts in that genre. More on that later.
My full reading list is on Goodreads. Add me if you have an account — I love to find new book recommendations based on what others have liked.
In chronological order:
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed.
Read in January 2015
I was an avid fan of the Dear Sugar column (home of the "Write like a motherfucker" line) and couldn't wait for this book, especially when the author was revealed as Cheryl Strayed. I read most of this book in an afternoon, drinking red wine in a courtyard. It's a soothing read, and I would have loved it even more when I was in college.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Read in March 2015
Didn't everyone read this in March 2015? It sure seems like it. This was a great read, and the length factor is mitigated by the fact that the setting changes so frequently. It feels like a mini-series, not like a novel.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo
Read in April 2015
Another trendy read — I'll just stop noting that for now. I really disliked this book, as I rarely do. The writing is fine, the translation probably could be improved, but the premise (you have too much stuff! You don't need most of it!) doesn't need a whole book. The medium is the message, I guess. Thankfully I bought this as an ebook, so I don't have to worry about the clutter created by the hardcover version (beautiful as it is). I'm probably not the target audience for this, having moved continents with one suitcase five years ago. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
Read in May 2015
This was fantastic. It's a look at marriage from within one, as it breaks apart then slowly comes back together. It will make you reflect on your own relationship, and your own choices, in a whole new way.
Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life, by Bea Johnson
Read in May 2015
Do you sense a theme here? Just like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, this book was meant to have me question my life choices and simplify. Instead, I became concerned about the vast amount of waste others must be producing if the lifestyle described in this book is viewed as extreme. I should just stop reading this kind of book.
Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
Read in October 2015
Yes, that is a rather long gap between books. I'm sure I read some other books in the interim, but I don't remember them.
This one, though, this was great. It starts as three stories that eventually merge into one. I love Barbara Kingsolver's settings — often rural, always small towns, the kind of place I can see myself in one day.
Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver
Read in October 2015
Another great book by Kingsolver, again set in Appalachia, this time with the harsh financial realities of farming in America. It made me question my approach to talking with climate-change skeptics, and, really, anyone whose opinion on a topic seems incredibly naive.
The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver
Read in October 2015
I took a vacation in October and spent most of it reading Kingsolver novels. Pure pleasure. This is probably her second-most recommended novel (after The Poisonwood Bible, which I've read many times), both for the quality of the writing and for the charm of the characters. It made me long for small-town America, with its dirty motels and cheap diners, in a way I hadn't in a long time.
Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver
Read in October 2015
Yes, one more. Last one. This was even better than The Bean Trees. It's a sequel of sorts, but focuses on a completely different issue: Native American adoption and the laws and customs surrounding it. Once again, this book gave me renewed compassion for people with strong, different opinions. It's heart-wrenching to agree with every character in a dispute.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Read in October 2015
After I'd binge-read through my suitcase full of Kingsolver novels, I picked something up at the English bookshop in Ubud. That place was amazing: heaps of cheap paperback editions of English-language novels, and one shelf of amazing books on textiles and sewing. No room for those in the carry-on, unfortunately.
This was the first thriller I've read, and it was good. Not enough to hook me on the genre, but I did find powering through it on the nighttime flight home. I haven't seen the movie and don't think I will.
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Read in November 2015
This book destroyed me, to the point where I couldn't look at it without starting to cry. In fact, I quickly passed it on to the first person who showed any interest at all in reading it (sorry Adam). The reviews will tell you all you need to know, but my main reason for loving it was that I'd never really looked at male friendship before. I mostly read (fiction) books by female authors, most of my close friends are women, and I've (obviously) never been privy to the details of friendship within groups of men. It's a topic we should probably talk about more, as a society (there's no Sex and the City for guys, is there?).
The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara
Read in November 2015
"Quand j'aime une fois j'aime pour toujours" and all — I've taken to binge-reading through an author's catalogue, can you tell?
This was good, not as gripping as A Little Life, but the structure was fascinating. It's written as a memoir, with a foreword that announces something crucial: every narrator in this book is unreliable, as is the "editor". It's a fascinating plot device, and it kept me guessing at the "real" events at every page.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
Read in November 2015
I expected to sob my way through this book, but found it mostly numbing — that's deliberate, I'm sure. I loved the backwards-and-forwards narration, and the fact that the author/narrator/subject is an older woman, one of the groups we most seldom hear from. She reminds me so much of my aunt Thérèse, in all the good and bad ways: intransigent, loving, elegant, demanding, intelligent. If I loved this book, it's because it brought my great-aunt back to me for a few days.
Holding the Man, by Timothy Conigrave
Read in November 2015
This book follows a couple from high school through to the 90s AIDS crisis. It's deeply Australian, deeply touching, and did more to personalise AIDS than years of documentaries and articles. Top-notch.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Read in December 2015
This was recommended by friends on Instagram after I asked for a non-depressing novel. I'm not sure they really understood what I was looking for, but at least this one didn't leave me sad for days afterwards. Set in a post-pandemic world, it's the closest I've come to reading a disaster novel, and I kind of loved it. The questions raised by this alternate reality (why didn't they... surely they could have...) stayed on my mind for days, and were revived once my partner also finished the book. Maybe I should branch out into some science-fiction next year.
What's Stopping You: Why Smart People Don't Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can, by Robert Kelsey
Read in December 2015
The first 60% of this book was a revelation: I have a high fear of failure, and not everyone in the world is like this. I soon started to classify my friends and colleagues into two camps: those who are motivated by achievement, and those who avoid failure at all (or most) costs. It explains so much!
The rest of the book was fine, but not nearly as interesting. There's some fairly standard entrepreneurial advice, and a few chapters cribbed from How to Win Friends and Influence People. Worth reading just for that new world view.
I am not an early-morning person, especially in winter, especially in Melbourne winter. When the sun doesn't rise until past 7:30am, and our flimsy wall heater just isn't cutting it, I'm overcome by waves of nausea, crazy-high amounts of stress, and a desire to stay buried under the covers.
Once I'm out of bed, I'm fine — the anxiety goes away with that first cup of coffee, and I can think about the day ahead without getting overwhelmed. I envy those who wake up smiling every day.
When my early-morning stress is overwhelming, the easiest distraction is inches away from my bed. I pull out my phone, avoid anything that could possibly bring on more stress (email, Twitter, Google Analytics) and crawl back to that first love of social media addicts: Facebook. Man, I love aimlessly scrolling through photos of my friends' kids, pets and holidays. Instant de-stressor. Unfortunately, it's also the quickest way to stall my morning.
So I've removed it from my phone. Thankfully, Fb Messenger (the default way of communicating in my social group, though I wish we'd go back to email!) works even when Facebook is un-installed. There's a great big Internet full of distractions out there, but somehow removing that one app makes it much harder to start my day with completely useless distraction.
Uninstalling Facebook was the best thing I could have done for my weird morning stress. Highly recommended.
It started out as a joke: "Hey, maybe we should publish more lists." Then it became a cliché: "Of course, lists always do well." And now it's an obsession of mine: what is BuzzFeed doing? How can I do more of it? They have a hundred times more people than we do — what can we learn from their research?
This interview with BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, over on Medium, was published while I was on an electronic hiatus. I'm so glad it popped up on my radar.
4am knock on the door.
I think I'm dreaming, then think it's morning and someone's trying to sell us something, then hear the cops outside. I get up and open the door.
He wants to know if we heard anything. There was an incident a little while ago. We both fell asleep early, didn't hear anything, what's going on?
A woman was hit by a car and left for dead. I heard someone speeding down our street hours ago, but it happens all the time, we live across the street from a park and I always think, someday, something's going to happen.
I can't sleep, I think of that poor woman, lying there in the street, someone finding her, someone else getting the bad news.
When I was little, I was surrounded by very religious people. I grew up in Quebec, where catholic tradition runs deep, but my home was firmly agnostic. We had a babysitter who was une pratiquante, went to church, had religious images in her house, all of that. One day, she told me that if I didn't start praying to baby Jesus, he was going to leave me to rot in the ground when I died, while everyone else got to go up to heaven.
I remember her squeezing my hand when an ambulance would go past, and crossing herself. I remember doing the same: it seemed appropriate, that's just what you did when someone else was hurting.
It's something to do, in those moments when you can't do anything. It's the active form of sending good thoughts.
I've been sick for a few months, but I'm on the mend now. One of my colleagues noticed that I hadn't been well, and he took me aside a few weeks ago to ask how I was.
"I'm fine, it's okay, I'll be better soon"
"Okay, but listen, I just want you to know: I'm praying for you."
And you know? I really appreciated that. I don't believe in prayer, but I do believe in telling people you wish them well.
All day, today, the street was busy. First it was the crime scene investigation, marking the ground, taking photos, cops walking around talking on cell phones. Then it was the clean-up crew: they brought in a fire truck and hosed down the street and the cars nearest the scene. I vaguely wished they'd hose down our car, too, it's pretty dusty, and immediately felt guilty for the thought.
Then the media showed up: three separate camera crews knocked on my door, three times I said I hadn't seen anything. Each crew brought a bit of news: she's still alive, but it's not looking good, the guy turned himself in, she was on the ground for a long time before someone saw her.
All day I wished there was something else I could do instead of looking out on the street and hoping she would be okay. I wished I could still squeeze my babysitter's hand and cross myself, or pray to someone who would listen.
Marika and I spent a week driving from beautiful Airlie Beach, Queensland, to equally beautiful Byron Bay, New South Wales.
I've been known to not really take vacations. Every trip I took while I worked at Flippa was, at least in part, a business trip (to a conference, to a meetup, working remotely). Even on true days off, I check email constantly.
This time, I gave up on my inbox by Tuesday. Earlier today, I noticed an especially good article (this one) by one of my colleagues and congratulated him for it... over Twitter. I'm not checking email until Monday morning.
I realised a few things during the trip:
- We all need space to work through challenges. In my case, I had to explain the problems I'm working on to a friend who doesn't work with me in order to see things in a new light. It's impossible to take that space when we're constantly on the clock.
- Les cimetières sont pleins de gens irremplaçables. Work will go on just as it had before while I take some time off for myself; if something happens and they truly need me, my phone number is in my email signature — they can call.
- The fear of missing out leads to, well, missing out. While my brain was still at the office, I spent too much time thinking through roadblocks and wondering what was happening, and not enough time admiring the view, swimming in the waves, and meeting new people.
My former guilt at taking time off is gone. Going away for awhile and focusing on other things was exactly what I needed.
What's your attitude towards vacation?
Two years ago, J. and I had just moved to Melbourne. I was still freelancing, scraping together rent money from multiple writing, translation, and video description contracts. In November of that year, I randomly met Leni and Dave at an event, and started working at Flippa shortly after. It was, in one word, luck.
This week is my last week at Flippa — as of Monday, I'll be working at SitePoint. That's pretty incredible to me: SitePoint is one of the web's most respected resources, a living legend, with a huge, vibrant, dedicated community, and I get to add my voice to the mix. Humbled.
The next few days will be a blur, I'm sure, as I pass on everything I've been doing to the rest of Flippa's fantastic team. And the weeks after that will be filled to the brim with new: new team, new content, new topics, new community.
I'm looking forward to it. Good things ahead.
It's easy for the negatives to take over. Stuff like the TechCrunch Disrupt, ah, occurrence and the ensuing Twitter wars. Stuff like George Zimmerman getting the benefit of the doubt. And more personal stuff, too: family being far away, big questions looming near.
Today I'm balancing that out with reading about building successful communities, and single thirtysomething New Yorkers getting involved in foster care, or cool apps that indulge my quantified-self nerdery.
What are you doing to balance out the bad?
I'm generally a bit of a lurker. I've been a member of online communities for years, spending hours a week on each one reading other people's comments, absorbing their knowledge, and selfishly not commenting. My instinct is that whatever I'll try to add to the conversation has already been covered, one comment is a drop in the bucket, and, really, who has the time to construct intelligent, pertinent comments all the time? There's so much else to do!
All this was fine until I started running a decent content blog (no, I don't mean this one -- I mean the Flippa Blog). Then, comments became part of my tracked metrics, and a boatload of comments overnight could make my day.
Even as social media grows in importance (and yes, I'm still a huge fan of Google Plus for conversations!), commenting is a big part of online community building. That's why I've set myself a new challenge: comment on every article I finish.
That's had three excellent side effects:
- I'm much more selective about what I read, since I know I'll have to take the time to comment at the end,
- I read much more closely, since I'll eventually have to find something to comment on,
- Surprisingly, I'm a little bit more detached from my comments: this is an exercise in "good enough", not in crafting the perfect comment every time.
What's your philosophy when it comes to blog comments? Do you systematically leave them on every post? Do you only leave them when you disagree with the post?
I loved journalism school, but for someone with anxious tendencies (such as myself), it wasn't the most relaxing of times. We were taught to always second-guess ourselves -- in other words, we were asked to be in a perpetual state of fear. One professor often said that we should be trembling with apprehension as we handed in our articles: you can never check your work quite thoroughly enough. You just do your best by the deadline, and hold your breath until your next assignment.
I now work in a field where fearlessness is prized, perhaps even more than in reporting. Doubt is the enemy. Self-confidence, even self-righteousness, is something to aspire to. I get it: often times all signs point to you being wrong, until suddenly you're right.
This is why the recent articles on failure seem to have resonated so strongly with entrepreneurs and businesspeople of all stripe. If you're always fearless and never second-guess yourself, you'll be wrong at some point. It's comforting to know that happens to others, too.
I still shake a little bit with fear when I hit "publish" on a blog post. I get positively nauseous when sending a newsletter to 103,000 people, if only for a second. That's a good thing.
Today I took a risk on a racy headline. The response has been amazing: Twitter high-fives, private messages on the "gutsy move", and quite a few shares. Nice traffic, too. Getting over the nausea, the knot in my stomach, is paying off.
No one can look away from a train wreck, and I certainly couldn't tear myself away from this trainwreck of a Twitter exchange. It ended pretty well, actually, considering. So far, no one has been fired or sued, and I'm sure it's been great for brand awareness... Is any publicity really good publicity?
I work in marketing, but one of my first loves is customer service. No, really. When I was in college, I worked at Montreal's biggest yarn shop. The owners both seemed to have a true dislike for their customers, but I loved talking to people, finding out what they needed, helping them plan their next project, and working through their latest knitting mistake.
When I started with Flippa, one of my tasks was handling Premium Support for our high-end listings, and helping out our support guys when they needed a hand. Though we deal with hundreds of support requests every day, and not everyone was, shall we say, polite to us, I still loved helping out people.
I forget where I read it, but there's a great blog post out there encouraging everyone who runs a business to try and make someone's day, every day. That's still my mission when I respond to people on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and on various forums and blogs. Everyone deserves to have their day made, once in awhile, and it's sometimes as easy as sending a few credits their way, or helping them fix their listing after office hours, or just sending some words of encouragement.
So when I see a brand interacting this way with their customers online, especially on Twitter, I can't help but dread what's coming. This guy was complaining about the company's pricing (which is something we encounter often enough at Flippa), and, in responding, the company completely forgot that this guy was a real person, with friends and family and a budget. Sending two complimentary tickets his way might have bought them a customer for life. Berating him online and standing up for their brand, as Econsultancy put it, might have spread their name across the Internet, but it sure left a bad taste in my mouth -- and I bet I'm not alone.
I've spent the afternoon watching the three episodes of Signé Chanel I could easily find online while stitching a few blackwork embroidery squares. Signé Chanel follows Rue Cambon's couturières in the weeks leading to a Chanel fashion show. It's incredible insight into the work that goes into a single item of clothing.
Three things struck me about the work:
- the ready shrug and smile with which the seamstresses accept each required new version. Need to make a new train for a dress, after you've spent over 20 hours on the previous version, stitching it by hand? Okay, let's get to work. One hour to un-pick a seam, remove a row of beading, and stitch it back together, again, by hand? Let's do it! Incredible.
- just one woman, a 75 year-old who raises horses on a farm outside of Paris, is responsible for a good part of the hand-woven trim. She's tried to teach a bunch of others, but no one gets it to her level of perfection, and so she's still the only trim-maker for Chanel.
- Lagerfeld, Chanel's designer, is so inspired by one wedding dress... that he gives the seamstress three more pieces to execute, on top of her regular work, before the show. "The dress was so good," he says, "I can't help wanting more". The reward for good work is more good work ahead. I love this.
When I was in journalism school, one of my professors had a habit of flunking the first person to hand in their work. What he was rejecting wasn't speed, he told us, but over-confidence. "I want you to tremble with fear every time you hand in a final draft. Every mistake you make costs me time in correcting it." Harsh. Wise.
This is probably why I enjoy needlecraft. Each tiny stitch has to be done perfectly, or else you undo it and start over. Online, it's both easy and impossible to delete a mistake: you get an instant do-over, but we all know that nothing is ever truly deleted. Even when you can edit anything with the press of a button, it's worth having a little shudder of fear before pressing "publish".
"I don't want my girls to be children who are perfect and then, when they start to feel like women, they remember how I thought of myself as ugly and so they will be ugly too. They will get older and their breasts will lose their shape and they will hate their bodies, because that's what women do. That's what mommy did. "
I've started telling my daughters I'm beautiful on Offbeat Families
"Last year, I visited Kabul and Herat. I was curious how people in a country with roughly four percent internet penetration and limited mobile data access interacted with Google search and products. Since radio is a popular form of mass communication in Afghanistan, it turns out that people call in to a local radio show called Percipal (Seek and Search) and ask their query to the host. The host, who has internet access, does a Google search and then reads the answer on air. The message I brought back to the US? Constraint breeds creativity."
From The Truth of the Digital Economy, Think Quarterly (The Open Issue) p.18
Several years ago, Jared and I went to his family's cabin for a fall weekend. This was in around 2008; there was no data reception up at the cabin, and our phones wouldn't have known what to do with one anyhow.
Somewhere around 1am, one of us (I forget which one) started singing Bohemian Rhapsody (there may have been alcohol involved), but couldn't remember the opening lyrics.
(Quick, without Googling: can you remember them?)
We were going nuts. Our options were to think it over all night, drive back to the nearest computer in Montreal (two hours south), or pick up the phone.
There was only one person who a) would still be up at 1am, b) would be sober enough at that time to answer the phone, and c) would know the opening lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody. I called my friend Erin, who promptly answered. All was well, and we could finally move on to more important topics.
What's my point? The convenience of having a miniature computer in our pockets, always connected to the rest of the world, means we're no longer struggling to remember random information. Memory isn't really a prized skill anymore. It's convenient, but sometimes I miss the effort of trying to remember something.
Too sore to go to the gym tonight, so I'm spending some quality time withA&L Daily
- Christopher Hitchens: an impossible act to follow, as written by his wife, Carol Blue.
- The Sugar Wars, on soda, obesity and politics.
- Life After TED. Is TED running out of ideas? Is TED founder Richard Saul Wurman's new conference project, WWW, doomed from the start?
- Roosevelt Avenue, a Corridor of Vice, touches on NY's controversial "stop-and-frisk" law.
- 100 novels everyone should read. Meh.
- The Marketplace in Your Brain, obviously relevant to my work. Interesting: we're perhaps less motivated by the thrill of winning than by the fear of losing.
- Pussy Riot: the Jailhouse Interview.
"I humbly hope that our attractiveness performs a subversive function. First of all, because without "us" in balaclavas, jumping all over Red Square with guitars, there is no "us" smiling sweetly in the courtroom. You can't get the latter without the former. Second, because this attractiveness destroys the idiotic stereotype, still extant in Russia, that a feminist is an ugly-ass frustrated harridan."