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The Web We’re Losing

Noted Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, once imprisoned for his “web activities” back in 2008, laments of the Web’s gradual descent towards a centralized flow of information and ideas. In a piece written for The Guardian Derakhshan points the finger squarely at popular social networks –Facebook, Instagram, et al– who he feels are killing the web by reeling us in to their close-walled ecosystems, places where people are increasingly spending more of their time online. Derakhshan writes:

We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication – nodes and networks and links – toward one that is linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.
I miss when people took time to be exposed to opinions other than their own, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters.

Here in Toronto the Star, our largest daily newspaper, recently closed down comments and decided to push conversations among readers to Twitter (this disappointing trend is happening elsewhere too). When did moderating readers’ comments become a liability? Perhaps this is symbolic of the end of the Web as an interactive medium. By all means consume but please resist the urge to participate and share your voice.

Vibrant discussion threads — news.ycombinator.com is a great example — are a telling barometer of strong user engagement, whereas analysis of click-throughs and page views, based on the widespread use of click bots, tell us little about audience participation.

Consider for a moment a future version of the Web resembling Maciej Ceglowski’s computer game analogy:

The Web as Minecraft —an open world with simple pieces that obey simple rules. The graphics are kind of clunky, but that’s not the point, and nobody cares.
In this vision, you are meant to be an active participant, you’re supposed to create stuff, and you’ll have the most fun when you collaborate with others. The rules of the game are simple and don’t constrain you much. People create astonishing stuff in Minecraft.

. . .

It’s somewhat disheartening to think of the modern Web in terms of a series of closed networks or tiered pay-to-play information silos (I’m looking at you Facebook) rather than the vast open hyperlinked network that Tim Berners-Lee had originally set forth.

Update: January 3.2016
It would be hypocritical of me to publish this post with comments disabled, so I’ve turned them back on. Let’s hope the absurd comment spam doesn’t come back.

Slack: Aesthetics Over Utility?

Our office recently started using Slack. It’s the fastest growing workplace software ever and Inc.’s 2015 company of the year, amassing 1.7 million users in just 20 months after its launch, making it one of the fastest-growing startups in the world.

Slack is essentially a chat application with iOS, Android, and browser-based versions available. PC Magazine calls it a great tool for nonessential communication and private backchannel discussion. Nonessential communication?
By the sounds of it small-ish teams may benefit the most from using Slack as a direct messaging app like Skype or MSN Messenger before it, offsetting rampant email use which can hamper productivity. Larger groups and online communities on the other hand may struggle with Slack’s lack of more advanced project management capabilities.

A colleague affectionately touted Slack as an email alternative, calling it an “email killer” bolstering the ongoing argument that email has become a nuisance of modern office life and a crutch for traditional face-to-face interactions with co-workers. Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Email is a creature of convenience we rely on far too much to communicate with one another. Let me repeat that: walking over to a co-worker’s desk to discuss a project is still the best way to get something done. But at the same time, let’s be honest, given the rise of mobile workplaces comprised of teams working remotely who may not always be in the same physical space, tools like Slack (and webmail) become rather useful.

But email can suck the productivity out of the best of us if you find yourself sifting through swaths of CC’d messages, pointless app notifications, and meeting requests with your morning coffee. Curiously though, is it really much different scanning though reams of discussion threads inside a dedicated chat app? Popular email apps like MS Outlook and Gmail already offer conversation mode features, so is it really necessary to run a separate chat app like Slack?

Skepticism aside, I was still interested in trying Slack to see what all the fuss was about given my experience with Basecamp and JIRA for project collaboration.

But as I quickly discovered after just a couple weeks, Slack is full of quirky and often frustrating conventions that, I’m afraid to say, have made me feel slightly more busy, contrary to company’s utopian tagline: “Be less busy”.

Take for instance Slack’s insistence discussion topics, called channel names, contain no special characters (e.g. !@#$%&>.) and be 21 characters or less. If I can’t, for example, type the full name of a project or the client’s URL address (our team work on numerous web sites for various media properties) then I’m stuck with a lot of vaguely titled channels to sort through.
When I asked @SlackHQ why, they said it was for aesthetic reasons, which is odd considering the channels are neatly displayed in a ridiculously narrow column on the left-hand side of the screen while discussion threads extend off indefinitely. As you can see from this screen the desktop UI suffers from a bad case of interface sprawl. To quote Maciej Cegłowski, I’m an adult human being sitting at a large display, with a mouse and keyboard. I deserve better.

Productivity-Thwarting Email Notifications
The way Slack handles notifications is also a bit bewildering, granted I am a new user unfamiliar with the Slack way of doing things.
“Something happened in Slack while you were away…click this link to blah blah blah…” Oh fantastic. How do I turn off these stupid alerts! Isn’t Slack supposed to help me cut-down on the number of emails I get? Perhaps I should have watched the training videos. Who has time to watch software training videos? If I need to watch videos or search through support docs to work the app perhaps the UI needs an audit and some testing with first-time users in mind.

A Head-Scratching Scenario
A colleague of mine posts a direct message to me on Slack, but as luck would have it I am not logged in to the application which means I receive yet another email. (Again, isn’t Slack supposed to help me cut these attention-eroding email notifications down to a minimum?) The email contains a link to the message. After logging back in to Slack I am taken to my colleague’s message, a rather sparse looking screen that doesn’t seem to resemble the normal discussion threads. As I read through my colleague’s message I naturally decide I’d like to respond, but it appears my only options are copy link or add an emoji reaction. Wait a minute. Where is the reply pane? What project [channel] does this message fall under? After a brief moment I realize the email notification I received earlier has linked to a message archive screen rather than the discussion thread itself where my colleague had originally posted the message. What the heck is the purpose of this screen?! Clickbait to get me to stay in the app longer?
Strangely there are no links provided to the corresponding discussion thread —just those ridiculous emoji reactions— so I have to manually track down the correct channel and scroll through a long thread to find the original post where I am able to type a response.

. . .

The more I use Slack the more I wish it was like Basecamp (sorry) —hell, even JIRA, which isn’t saying much —just more flexibility and user-friendliness and without those childish emoji reactions, which are probably better suited to my 9-year old son’s Xbox chat app.

Cold And Healthy

It’s cold outside. A typical frigid mid-January night here in Toronto. It was the kind of day your eyebrow hairs would start to feel like popsicles if you were caught outside for more than 10 minutes.

I missed hitting the gym again this evening because of a few ongoing client commitments. I imagine the January people will be infiltrating the squat racks —Thursday nights are notoriously crowded— so think I’ll stay home instead and get some work done. And now I find myself rolling out the night with a blog post, my first since October of last year, with a good cup of pesticide-free tea.

In the past I’d usually hit weights 3 or more times a week but struggled with constant muscle soreness and mediocre gains. Then about 2 years ago I discovered Mike Mentzer’s high intensity training approach (funny, this sounds like a paid advertisment; Mike Mentzer has long since passed away). After reading most of Mentzer’s books and embracing his philosophy I’ve been able to drastically reduce the amount of time I spend working out and, significantly, increase strength gains while shortening recovery time.

Mike Mentzer was probably one of the smartest professional bodybuilders alive because he rigorously espoused the concept of brief, infrequent, and intense weight training as an effective means to gaining strength. The Mentzer approach, or H.I.T. as it’s called today, focuses almost exclusively on high intensity anaerobic exercise with virtually no aerobic (cardiovascular) training. H.I.T. workouts are structured around using heavy weights in a very controlled manner; strict form, low reps and very few sets taken to momentary muscular failure.
By contrast, the fitness industry still preaches the volume-based approach: lower weight, higher rep, larger sets, longer workouts. This is the kind of training Schwarzenegger popularized in the 70’s and the kind of training that, in my opinion, invites injury and overtraining, unless of course you’re jacked on gear.

Strength training is not an endurance sport. If you’re in the gym for upwards of 90 minutes or longer it’s questionable whether your intensity is sufficient.

Getting a flatter stomach is probably the fitness holy grail for most people who think they need to do 30 or 40 minutes of cardio and hundreds of sit-ups several times a week to get rid of excess fat around their waist. No. Not at all necessary. Want a lean midsection? Stengthen your core with basic compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and rows with as much weight as you can handle; Do chin-ups and dips —exercises that require you to lift your entire bodyweight— instead of isolation movements like concentration curls and tricep kick-backs that work fewer muscles.
On your working-set for each exercise (that’s the set where you’re giving it all you’ve got) the last couple reps should feel almost impossible. Two workouts each week will more than suffice, coupled with a caloric food deficit (if you’re looking to lose weight) or high protein (if gaining lean muscle mass is your objective) and you’ll be strong in no time.

Building physical strength helps you mentally endure the daily stresses of work and perform with greater creativity and lateral thinking ability.

. . .

My home office is located in a rather cold and drafty area of our house that never seems to quite get warm despite my constant fidgeting with the thermostat controls. Guess I’ll put on an extra layer or two, though research into the benefits of being cold includes something called non-shivering thermogenesis. This is basically our body’s response to cold environments whereby heat-generating metabolic functions are increased which help us to burn more calories. This may explain why people from colder environments tend to be leaner than people who live in warmer climates. With that in mind perhaps it makes more sense to book your next spring break vacation to Anchorage or Prague rather than Cancun or Miami beach.

Knock on wood, I’ve been completely healthy and virus-free this winter and able to miraculously thwart the usual crop of ailments making their rounds (e.g. flu, common head cold, cough, dry skin, chapped lips).
Last winter was a different story though. I got a nasty head cold and suffered from a dry hacking cough that seemed to carry on for weeks.  But what am I doing differently this season? I’m not entirely sure, but there are a few things I’ve followed that I’m convinced have helped me to stay away from the doctor’s office and the medicine aisle of the pharmacy:

  • avoid all liquid and antibacterial hand soaps and sanitizers. I only wash my hands and body with natural soap (e.g.  Alaffia GOOD). Many liquid soaps contain endocrine disruptors that aren’t good for you.
  • avoid all vitamin supplements. Vitamins are complete nonsense unless you’re 80 yrs old or suffering from a severe nutrient deficiency. Strive to eat a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables instead of popping pills and powders.
  • minimize or avoid exposure to scented products. Fragrant products are typically loaded with phthalates and other unpronounceable ingredients. Use fragrance-free products whenever possible.
  • don’t eat margarine. And avoid all non-butter spreads; they’re loaded with a ton of crap. Just eat butter!
  • stay away from all foods containing soy lecithin. This sounds easy but it’s way harder than you think. Soy lecithin is found in so many products, particularly packaged snacks, and is considered a major food allergen.
  • drink lots of water. Hydrate and your body mind and soul will flourish.
  • stop eating sugar. Be ruthless with the amount of sugar in your diet. If possible stay away from eating anything with refined sugar. Try naturally occurring sugars (e.g. pure maple syrup, fruits/berries) if you need a sweet fix.
  • sleep in cool dark room. The darker your bedroom the better. This drives my spouse crazy because she likes to look outside when she falls asleep. But light pollution in the form of a bright room is scientifically known to supress melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our circadian sleep/wake cycles.

Disagree? Think otherwise? Tweet me.