This video accompanies a blog post of the same title. The content is basically the same – if you prefer videos, watch this video. If you prefer blog posts, go read the blog post. If you’re a superfan, try both and spot the differences. You weirdo.
This blog post is also available as a video. Would you prefer to watch/listen to me tell you about how I’ve learned to enjoy doing what I’m bad at?
There are a great number of things that I’m bad at. One thing I’m bad at (but that I’m trying to get better at) is being more-accepting of the fact that there are things that I am bad at.
I’m pretty bad in a pub quiz. I’m bad at operating my pizza oven without destroying cookware. I’m especially bad at learning languages. I’m appallingly bad at surfing. Every time my work periodically leans in that direction I remember how bad I am at React. And I’ve repeatedly shown that I’m bad at keeping on top of blogging, to the extent that I’ve periodically declared bankruptcy on my drafts folder.
So yeah, pretty bad at things.
But hang on: that assessment isn’t entirely true.
As a young kid, I was a smart cookie. I benefited from being an only child and getting lots of attention from a pair of clever parents, but I was also pretty bright and a quick learner with an interest in just about anything I tried. This made me appear naturally talented at a great many things, and – pushed-on by the praise of teachers, peers, and others – I discovered that I could “coast” pretty easily.
But a flair for things will only carry you so far, and a problem with not having to work hard at your education means that you don’t learn how to learn. I got bitten by this when I was in higher education, when I found that I actually had to work at getting new information to stick in my head (of course, being older makes learning harder too, as became especially obvious to me during my most-recent qualification)!
A side-effect of these formative experiences is that I grew into an adult who strongly differentiated between two distinct classes of activities:
- Things I was good at, either because of talent or because I’d thoroughly studied them already. I experienced people’s admiration and respect when I practised these things, and it took little effort to stay “on top” of these fields, and
- Things I was bad at, because I didn’t have a natural aptitude and hadn’t yet put the time in to learning them. We don’t often give adults external reinforcement for “trying hard”, and I’d become somewhat addicted to being seen as awesome… so I shied away from things I was “bad at”.
The net result: I missed out on opportunities to learn new things, simply because I didn’t want to be seen as going through the “amateur” phase. In hindsight, that’s really disappointing! And this “I’m bad at (new) things” attitude definitely fed into the imposter syndrome I felt when I first started at Automattic.
Leaving the Bodleian after 8½ years might have helped stimulate a change in me. I’d carved out a role for myself defined by the fields I knew best; advancing my career would require that I could learn new things. But beyond that, I benefited from my new employer whose “creed culture” strongly promotes continuous learning (I’ve vlogged about this before), and from my coach who’s been great at encouraging me towards a growth mindset.
But perhaps the biggest stimulus to remind me to keep actively learning, even (especially?) when it’s hard, might have been the pandemic. Going slightly crazy with cabin fever during the second lockdown, I decided to try and teach myself how to play the piano. Turns out I wasn’t alone, as I’ve mentioned before: the pandemic did strange things to us all.
I have no real experience of music; I didn’t even get to play recorder in primary school. And I’ve certainly got no talent for it (I can hear well enough to tell how awful my singing is, but that’s more a curse than a blessing). Also, every single beginners’ book and video course I looked at starts from the assumption that you’re going to want to “feel” your way into it, and that just didn’t sit well with the way my brain works.
I wanted a theoretical background before I even sat down at a keyboard, so I took a free online course in music theory. Then I started working through a “beginners’ piano” book we got for the kids. Then I graduated to “first 50 Disney songs”, because I know how virtually all of them sound well enough that I’d be able to hear where I was going wrong. Since then, I’ve started gradually making my way through a transcription of Einaudi’s Islands. Feeling like I’d got a good handle on what I was supposed to be doing, I then took inspiration from a book JTA gave me and started trying to improvise.
Most days, I get no more than about 10 minutes on the piano. But little by little, day by day, that’s enough to learn. Nowadays even my inner
critic perfectionist can tolerate hearing myself play. And while I know that I’ll probably never be as good as, say, the average 8-year-old on YouTube, I’m content in my limited capacity.
If I’m trying to cultivate my wonder syndrome, I need to stay alert for “things I’m bad at” that I could conceivably be better at if I were just brave enough to try to learn. I’m now proudly an “embarrassingly amateur” pianist, which I’m at-long-last growing to see as better than a being non-pianist.
Off the back of that experience, I’m going to try to spend more time doing things that I’m bad at. And I’d encourage you to do the same.
This is my fourth week in the course, and I opted to revisit a video I made during my second week and try to do it again with more engagement, more focus, more punch, and more emotion. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. Interestingly, it somewhat mirrors my Howdymattic video from when I first started at Automattic, but I pivoted my “origin story” a little bit and twisted it to fit one of my favourite parts of the Automattic Creed.
I’m currently doing a course, through work, delivered by BetterOn Video. The aim of the course is to improve my video presentation skills, in particular my engagement with the camera and the audience.
I made this video based on the week 2 prompt “make a video 60-90 seconds long about something you’re an expert on”. The idea came from a talk I used to give at the University of Oxford.
I’m currently doing a course, through work, delivered by BetterOn Video. The aim of the course is to improve my video presentation skills, in particular my engagement with the camera and the audience.
I made this video based on the week 2 prompt “make a video 60-90 seconds long about something you’re passionate about”. The idea came from a blog post I wrote back in 2014.
I’m not sure my sister understands that a masters degree is not a doctorate. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to use this.
In these challenging times, and especially because my work and social circles have me communicate regularly with people in many different countries and with many different backgrounds, I’m especially grateful for the following:
- My partner, her husband, and I each have jobs that we can do remotely and so we’re not out-of-work during the crisis.
- Our employers are understanding of our need to reduce and adjust our hours to fit around our new lifestyle now that schools and nurseries are (broadly) closed.
- Our kids are healthy and not at significant risk of serious illness.
- We’ve got the means, time, and experience to provide an adequate homeschooling environment for them in the immediate term.
- (Even though we’d hoped to have moved house by now and haven’t, perhaps at least in part because of COVID-19,) we have a place to live that mostly meets our needs.
- We have easy access to a number of supermarkets with different demographics, and even where we’ve been impacted by them we’ve always been able to work-around the where panic-buying-induced shortages have reasonably quickly.
- We’re well-off enough that we were able to buy or order everything we’d need to prepare for lockdown without financial risk.
- Having three adults gives us more hands on deck than most people get for childcare, self-care, etc. (we’re “parenting on easy mode”).
- We live in a country in which the government (eventually) imposed the requisite amount of lockdown necessary to limit the spread of the virus.
- We’ve “only” got the catastrophes of COVID-19 and Brexit to deal with, which is a bearable amount of crisis, unlike my colleague in Zagreb for example.
Whenever you find the current crisis getting you down, stop and think about the things that aren’t-so-bad or are even good. Stopping and expressing your gratitude for them in whatever form works for you is good for your happiness and mental health.
A fun and lightweight 10-minute (very basic, but highly-accessible) primer into the mechanisms by which new viruses appear to emerge via spillover infection and viral evolution. I was pleased by the accuracy of the animations including efforts to show relative scale of microorganisms and the (correct) illustration of RNA as the genetic material of a coronavirus (many illustrators draw all viruses as carrying a double-stranded DNA payload).
I last handed in a dissertation almost 16 years ago; that one marked the cumulation of my academic work at Aberystwyth University, then the “University of Wales, Aberystwyth”. Since then I’ve studied programming, pentesting and psychology (the P-subject Triathalon?)… before returning to university to undertake a masters degree in information security and forensics.
Today, I handed in that dissertation. Thanks to digital hand-ins, I’m able to “hand it in” and then change my mind, make changes, and hand-in a replacement version right up until the deadline on Wednesday (I’m already on my second version!), so I’ve still got a few evenings left for last-minute proofreads and tweaks. That said, I’m mostly happy with where it is right now.
Writing a dissertation was harder this time around. Things that made it harder included:
- Writing a masters-level dissertation rather than a bachelors-level one, naturally.
- Opting for a research dissertation rather than an engineering one: I had the choice, and I knew that I’d do better in engineering, but I did research anyway because I thought that the challenge would be good for me.
- Being older! It’s harder to cram information into a late-thirty-something brain than into a young-twenty-something one.
- Work: going through the recruitment process for and starting at Automattic ate a lot of my time, especially as I was used to working part-time at the Bodleian and I’d been turning a little of what would otherwise have been my “freelance work time” into “study time” (last time around I was working part-time for SmartData, of course).
- Life: the kids, our (hopefully) upcoming house move and other commitments are pretty good at getting in the way. Ruth and JTA have been amazing at carving out blocks of time for me to study, especially these last few weekends, which may have made all the difference.
It feels like less of a bang than last time around, but still sufficient that I’ll breathe a big sigh of relief. I’ve a huge backlog of things to get on with that I’ve been putting-off until this monster gets finished, but I’m not thinking about them quite yet.
I need a moment to get my bearings again and get used to the fact that once again – and for the first time in several years – I’ll soon be not-a-student. Fun fact, I’ve spent very-slightly-more than half of my adult life as a registered student: apparently I’m a sucker it, for all that I complain… in fact, I’m already wondering what I can study next (suggestions welcome!), although I’ve promised myself that I’ll take a couple of years off before I get into anything serious.
(This is, of course, assuming I pass my masters degree, otherwise I might still be a student for a little longer while I “fix” my dissertation!)
If anybody’s curious (and I shan’t blame you if you’re not), here’s my abstract… assuming I don’t go back and change it yet again in the next couple of days (it’s still a little clunky especially in the final sentence):
Multifactor authentication (MFA), such as the use of a mobile phone in addition to a username and password when logging in to a website, is one of the strongest security enhancements an individual can add to their online accounts. Compared to alternative enhancements like refraining from the reuse of passwords it’s been shown to be easy and effective. However: MFA is optional for most consumer-facing Web services supporting MFA, and elective user adoption is well under 10%.
How can user adoption be increased? Delivering security awareness training to users has been shown to help, but the gold standard would be a mechanism to encourage uptake that can be delivered at the point at which the user first creates an account on a system. This would provide strong protection to an account for its entire life.
Using realistic account signup scenarios delivered to participants’ own computers, an experiment was performed into the use of language surrounding the invitation to adopt MFA. During the scenarios, participants were exposed to statements designed to either instil fear of hackers or to praise them for setting up an account and considering MFA. The effect on uptake rates is compared. A follow-up questionnaire asks questions to understand user security behaviours including password and MFA choices and explain their thought processes when considering each.
No significant difference is found between the use of “fear” and “praise” statements. However, secondary information revealed during the experiment and survey provides recommendations for service providers to offer MFA after, rather than at, the point of account signup, and for security educators to focus their energies on dispelling user preconceptions about the convenience, privacy implications, and necessity of MFA.
I keep my life pretty busy and don’t get as much “outside” as I’d like, but when I do I like to get out on an occasional geohashing expedition (like these ones). I (somewhat badly) explained geohashing in the vlog attached to my expedition 2018-08-07 51 -1, but the short version is this: an xkcd comic proposed an formula to use a stock market index to generate a pair of random coordinates, impossible to predict in advance, for each date. Those coordinates are (broadly) repeated for each degree of latitude and longitude throughout the planet, and your challenge is to get to them and discover what’s there. So it’s like geocaching, except you don’t get to find anything at the end and there’s no guarantee that the destination is even remotely accessible. I love it.
Most geohashers used to use a MediaWiki-powered website to coordinate their efforts and share their stories, until a different application on the server where it resided got hacked and the wiki got taken down as a precaution. That was last September, and the community became somewhat “lost” this winter as a result. It didn’t stop us ‘hashing, of course: the algorithm’s open-source and so are many of its implementations, so I was able to sink into a disgusting hole in November, for example. But we’d lost the digital “village square” of our community.
So I emailed Davean, who does techy things for xkcd, and said that I’d like to take over the Geohashing wiki but that I’d first like (a) his or Randall’s blessing to do so, and ideally (b) a backup of the pages of the site as it last-stood. Apparently I thought that my new job plus finishing my dissertation plus trying to move house plus all of the usual things I fill my time with wasn’t enough and I needed a mini side-project, because when I finally got the go-ahead at the end of last month I (re)launched geohashing.site. Take a look, if you like. If you’ve never been Geohashing before, there’s never been a more-obscure time to start!
Luckily, it’s not been a significant time-sink for me: members of the geohashing community quickly stepped up to help me modernise content, fix bots, update hyperlinks and the like. I took the opportunity to fix a few things that had always bugged me about the old site, like the mobile-unfriendly interface and the inability to upload GPX files, and laid the groundwork to make bigger changes down the road (like changing the way that inline maps are displayed, a popular community request).
So yeah: Geohashing’s back, not that it ever went away, and I got to be part of the mission to make it so. I feel like I am, as geohashers say… out standing in my field.
Last week I tweeted a cow-based academic publishing analogy in response to the prompt in the title, and the replies and quote-tweets extended the metaphor so gloriously, so creatively, so bleakly and hilariously at the same time, that I’ve pulled my favourites together below.
Here’s the original tweet:
Cows make milk. They milk themselves.
Other cows check the milk (for free).
Cows – get this – PAY THE FARMER to take the milk away.
— Ned Potter (@ned_potter) January 16, 2020
Speaking as a goat, I approve of open access.
When I took a diversion from my various computer science related qualifications to study psychotherapy for a while, I was amazed to discover how fortunate we computer scientists are that so much of our literature is published open access. It probably comes from the culture of the discipline, whose forefathers were publishing their work as open-source software or on the Internet long before academic journals reached the online space. But even here, there’s journal drama and all the kinds of problems that Ned (and the people who replied to his tweet) joke about.
Our eldest, 4, started school this year and this week saw her first parents’ evening. This provided an opportunity for we, her parents, to “come out” to her teacher about our slightly-unconventional relationship structure. And everything was fine, which is nice.
I’m sure the first few months of every child’s school life are a time that’s interesting and full of change, but it’s been particularly fascinating to see the ways in which our young academic’s language has adapted to fit in with and be understood by her peers.
I first became aware of these changes, I think, when I overheard her describing me to one of her school friends as her “dad”: previously she’d always referred to me as her “Uncle Dan”. I asked her about it afterwards and she explained that I was like a dad, and that her friend didn’t have an “Uncle Dan” so she used words that her friend would know. I’m not sure whether I was prouder about the fact that she’d independently come to think of me as being like a bonus father figure, or the fact that she demonstrated such astute audience management.
I don’t object to being assigned this (on-again, off-again, since then) nickname. My moniker of Uncle Dan came about as a combination of an effort to limit ambiguity (“wait… which dad?”) and an attempt not to tread on the toes of actual-father JTA: the kids themselves are welcome to call me pretty-much whatever they’re comfortable with. Indeed, they’d be carrying on a family tradition if they chose-for-themselves what to call me: Ruth and her brothers Robin and Owen address their father not by a paternal noun but by his first name, Tom, and this kids have followed suit by adopting “Grand-Tom” as their identifier for him.
Knowing that we were unusual, though, we’d taken the time to do some groundwork before our eldest started school. For example we shared a book about and spent a while talking about how families differ from one another: we figure that an understanding that families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes is a useful concept in general from a perspective of diversity and and acceptance. In fact, you can hear how this teaching pays-off in the language she uses to describe other aspects of the differences she sees in her friends and their families, too.
Still, it was a little bit of a surprise to find myself referred to as a “dad” after four years of “Uncle Dan”.
Nonetheless: in light of the fact that she’d clearly been talking about her family at school and might have caused her teacher some confusion, when all three of us “parents” turned up to parents’ evening we opted to introduce ourselves and our relationship. Which was all fine (as you’d hope: as I mentioned the other day, our unusual relationship structure is pretty boring, really), and the only awkwardness was in having to find an additional chair than the teacher had been expecting to use with which to sit at the table.
There’s sometimes a shortage of happy “we did a thing, and it went basically the same as it would for a family with monogamous parents” poly-family stories online, so I thought this one was worth sharing.
And better yet: apparently she’s doing admirably at school. So we all celebrated with an after-school trip to one of our favourite local soft play centres.
Some 702 intimate examinations were done on sedated or anaesthetised patients (table 3). In only 24% of these examinations had written consent been obtained, and a further 24% of examinations were conducted apparently without written or oral consent.
This 2003 study at an “English medical school” determined that vaginal/rectal examinations were routinely carried out on anaesthetised patients without their knowledge or consent. “I was told in the second year that the best way to learn to do [rectal examinations] was when the patient was under anaesthetic,” one fourth year student responded, to the survey, “That way they would never know.”
Well ain’t that a thing.
Thanks BBC Micro!
HackerRank has published its 2018 Developer Skills Report. The paper looks at a number things essential to understanding the developer landscape, and explores things like the perks coders demand from their workplaces, the technologies they prefer to use, and how they entered the software development industry in the first place.
While perusing the paper, something struck me as particularly interesting. One of the questions HackerRank asked its community was when they started coding. It then organized the data by age and country.
Almost immediately, you notice an interesting trend. Those in the 18 to 24 age group overwhelmingly started their programming journey in their late teens. 68.2 percent started coding between the ages of 16 to 20.
When you look at older generations, you notice another striking trend: a comparatively larger proportion started programming between the ages of five and ten. 12.2 percent of those aged between 35 and 44 started programming then.
It’s obvious why that is. That generation was lucky enough to be born at the start of the home computing revolution, when machines bearing the logos of Acorn and Commodore first entered the living rooms of ordinary people.
This survey parallels my own experience: that among developers, those of us who grew up using an 80s microcomputer at home were likely to have started programming a decade or so younger than those who grew up later, when the PC had come to dominate. I’ve written before about why I care about programming education, and I still think that we’re not doing enough to show young learners what’s “under the bonnet” of our computer systems. A computer isn’t just a machine you can use, it’s a tool you can adapt: unlike the other machines you use, which are typically built to a particular purpose, a computer is a general-purpose tool and it can be made to do an infinite number of different tasks! And even if programming professionally isn’t “for you” (and it shouldn’t be for everyone!), understanding broadly how a tool – a tool that we all come into contact with every single day – is adapted makes us hugely better-able to understand what they’re capable of and pushes us forwards. Imagine how many young inventors would be able to realise their for the “killer app” they’ve dreamed up (even if they remained unable to program if themselves) if they were able to understand the fundamental limtations and strengths of the platforms, the way to express their idea unambiguously in a way that a programmer could develop, and the way to assess its progress without falling into the “happy path” testing problem.
I’m not claiming that late-Gen X’s are better programmers than Millenials, by the way: absolutely not saying that! I’m saying that they were often lucky enough to be shaped by an experience that got them into programming earlier. And that I wish we could find a way to offer that opportunity to today’s children too.