Near misses

Last night, while driving in a relatively unfamiliar area in the northern suburbs of St. Paul, I nearly died. Well, OK, I’m not sure I was that close to dying, but a fraction of a second was the difference between today being another ordinary day and being one spent in ICU or the morgue.

I was heading west on Ramsey County 96, about to make a left turn onto the southbound I-35W onramp. Highway 96 is a 4-lane divided highway at this point, and with some construction in the area, the interchange has recently been made into a 4-way stop. As I approached the intersection I stopped, observing a semi slowing to a stop in the oncoming right-hand lane. I arrived at the intersection first, so I began my left turn. Just as I was entering the intersection, an SUV blew through in the oncoming left-hand lane, oblivious to the stop sign, obscured by the semi. I slammed hard on my brakes (and almost as hard on the horn). They honked at me too, apparently blaming me for observing the stop sign they were unaware existed. I escaped unscathed, though I’m not sure how close we came to a collision. 4 or 5 feet, probably. Not a razor-thin margin, but with the SUV traveling at least 50 MPH, it was still too close for comfort. (And I don’t mean this.)

We all encounter varying degrees of “near misses” every day. Only rarely are they so clear and obvious that we are shaken by them, and even then, things quickly return to normal. We are a resilient species. We have to be, to survive. But there’s a downside to that resilience. It’s easy to forget just how precious our days are, and how soon they will be gone.

My near miss last night has me thinking more about what’s really important, and wanting to spend my time only on those important things as much as possible. That doesn’t mean working crazy hours or having life-changing experiences every moment. But it does mean spending less time worrying about things that don’t really matter, and making choices that make each day better instead of worse.

Don’t worry, and don’t regret. Take chances. Go after opportunities. Make things happen.

I’m still here. For now. And if you’re reading this, you are too. Let’s do this. Don’t stop. Except at stop signs.

My year of running

Like most geeks, I was never athletic growing up. Aside from one feeble season playing left field for the school baseball team in 8th grade, and the twice-weekly exercise in mild psychological torture known as P.E. in high school, my childhood was fairly sedentary, and my adult life hasn’t been much better.

The only things that have kept me reasonably fit were a naturally slim physique and two to three miles of walking per day as part of my daily commute.

And then I started freelancing. My daily commute no longer involved a 9-block walk to the train station, but rather a 40-foot walk from my bedroom to my home office. Unsurprisingly, this took a toll. Whereas I had been a scrawny 120 pounds in high school, and a solid 160 pounds most of my adult life (thanks, college!), I eventually found myself peaking at 174 pounds in the spring of 2011. That may not sound like a lot, but for a small-boned, 5-foot-8 guy, it was.

I was 37. A few years earlier, when he was also 37, my brother-in-law started running. It transformed him. The difference was astounding, and has been lasting. And so, as the years went on and my own 37th birthday approached, I always felt, just somehow knew, that the necessary pieces would fall into place for me to become a runner at 37 too.

I’m sure planting that seed played a part, but I’m still not entirely sure what it was that compelled me to finally get into it one year ago today, on June 1, 2011, but it all came together, 2 1/2 months after my 37th birthday.


Whatever the factors were that caused me on that Wednesday morning to finally put on the running shoes I had bought a few months earlier but never worn, it is perfectly clear to me what made me put them on again that Friday, and then on Sunday, and every other day for the next 9 weeks: the Couch-to-5K running program.

The program takes many forms, but the key to it is that it allows you to build up gradually. Don’t expect to run 3 miles on the first day. I think the biggest reason why it’s so hard for many people, myself included, to get started running when they’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle is that they think they just have to go out and run. But they get tired quickly, and either stop and give up, or push through it and hurt themselves. Either way, it doesn’t last.

With Couch-to-5K, over a period of 9 weeks, for 30-40 minutes at a time, 3 times a week, you gradually build up by alternating walking and running. On the first day of week one, you do a 5-minute warmup walk, then alternate running for 60 seconds and walking for 90 seconds, for a total of 20 minutes, and follow with a 5-minute cooldown walk. By day three of week nine, you are running for a solid 30 minutes.

That first day is key, and it was magic. I could actually do it! It felt like a workout, but it was manageable. And it left me so energized and excited about the program that I couldn’t wait to get out and do it again!

I did have some setbacks in those first few weeks. One of the big problems I’ve always had when I ran was shin splints. I got them a lot in these first few weeks, eventually getting to the point where I was afraid I had a stress fracture. I didn’t, but I needed to lay off the running for a week. So, during that week I biked and walked instead. I also worked on changing my running stride, lifting my legs more so my thighs were doing the work instead of my lower legs. This made a big difference, as did altering my walking stride during the warm-up in a way that loosened up my ankles.

As I mentioned before, the Couch-to-5K program takes many forms. The page I linked to above was how it originally appeared online, and for a long time the best way to follow it was to use a prerecorded podcast.

And then the iPhone came along. Couch-to-5K is trademarked, and now has an official app (which, honestly, I haven’t tried, because it just looks kind of amateurish in the screenshots), but a year ago when I started running they hadn’t cracked down on the trademark and a number of competing apps, using the exact Couch-to-5K nine-week schedule, were available. The developers of these competing apps have since been forced to rename them and to make (somewhat arbitrary, and, I think, less effective) changes to the program schedule itself. Still, it’s worth acknowledging the apps that made this happen for me, even if they’re slightly different now.

At first I used an app by Felt Tip Software that is now called Run 5K. This one drew me in immediately because I was already aware of its developer as the creator of Sound Studio, one of my favorite sound editing apps for the Mac. I used Felt Tip’s 5K app for a few weeks, until I discovered one I liked even better, Bluefin Software’s app now known as Ease into 5K. Like Felt Tip’s app, it guides you through the program (speaking over your music to tell you when to run or walk), and lets you keep a journal of your progress. But what I really loved about it that Felt Tip’s software lacked (at least at the time) was that it had GPS integration to both map your run and track your distance and speed. I still use this app’s “big brother,” Bridge to 10K regularly to time my runs and to work on extending my distance beyond 5K.

One year later

It is now a year since I first started running with the Couch-to-5K program. SLP started the next day, and although we don’t run together — I enjoy running as a solitary activity, and she runs too fast for me to keep up with — we do continue to encourage and inspire each other. We’ve both lost a bunch of weight: I’m currently hovering in the 145-150 range, and although I’ll leave it to her to choose whether to divulge a number, it’s safe to say that we’re both easily in the best shape of our adult lives. And we feel great. Getting in shape has a subtle but real impact on your daily life in countless little ways that add up to a big difference in your attitude and outlook.

It’s been fun to watch my running times get faster as I’ve progressed, too. In those first early runs that were long enough to even count, late last summer, I was averaging around 11 minutes per mile. (It’s probably worth noting, too, that prior to last summer I had only ever run a mile once in my life, for the Presidential Fitness Test in high school, and I did it in 11:30 then.)

By the winter (when we were running on the indoor track at the Midtown YWCA), I was regularly running 9:25 miles, and I even clocked my fastest-ever mile at 7:54.

In September we ran our first (and, to date, only, but that will change soon) real 5K race. I finished in 31:34. Since then I’ve recorded a personal best 5K of 27:32.

I haven’t logged every run, and I haven’t kept a tally of my overall miles, but if you were to estimate 3 miles per run, 3 times per week, for 52 weeks, that works out to a total of 468 miles. That kind of distance requires a good pair of shoes, which are the only specialized gear I have ever bothered with. (Well, almost… more on that in a minute.) You don’t need super-expensive running shoes, but you do need decent running shoes. I typically wear Converse All-Stars, and they are not for running. There is no way I could have accomplished what I’ve done with that kind of footwear. So for running I wear a pair of New Balance 623’s. They’re nothing fancy, but they’ve held up great and have made running (relatively) easy. And, most importantly, they’ve kept me from injuring my feet and legs.

As for any other specialized gear, like I said, I don’t bother. I don’t have special running shorts or shirts. You just need to be comfortable, and don’t feel like you have to look a certain way to prove anything to anyone. The one exception I have made, for a very specific reason, is that I wear two pairs of underwear when I run. I was finding that as my run times increased, I started to get chafing on my upper/inner thighs. No fun. Initially I started coating my thighs with baby powder, but eventually I realized all I really needed to do was double up my underwear. I wear boxer briefs, so I suppose this recommendation is only valid in that context, but, as they say, it worked for me!

Last July and August I managed to combine running with one of my other major interests: music. I wanted a long-form piece to accompany my 5K runs, and as much as I wanted it to, LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33 just didn’t do it for me. So I composed my own: The Long Run. It’s 40:37 of electronica with an energized beat, with gradually shifting moods and atmospheres that I find serves as a great mental landscape to accompany the physical scenery of the run.

Update: If you’d like to hear — yes, hear — more — yes, a lot more — on this topic from SLP and me, be sure to check out this week’s episode of our podcast, The Undisciplined Room, where this is pretty much all we talk about for the better part of an hour.

On instruction vs. understanding

I’ve assembled a lot of IKEA furniture in my life, and along the way I’ve learned a few things, such as:

  • Every piece of IKEA furniture comes with an identical Allen wrench, which you will only ever use to assemble that piece of furniture, and which will forever after gather dust in a drawer in your basement with all of the other identical Allen wrenches you’ve acquired at IKEA.
  • A lot of stuff that looks like wood is actually a woodgrain pattern printed on plastic-coated paper, wrapped around a block of glued-together sawdust.
  • Every piece of IKEA furniture will take two hours to assemble, no matter how large or small, or how many separate pieces it contains.
  • Assembly might take slightly less time if you possess a Ph.D in archaeology with a special emphasis in either Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphics.
  • You will almost always realize 2/3 of the way through the process that you are doing it backwards.
  • It never gets any easier.

Those universal hieroglyphic assembly instructions are, along with the ubiquitous Allen wrench and product names featuring umlauts or o’s with slashes through them, the most easily mocked symbol of IKEA. The pictures are often inscrutable, and the overall impression overwhelming. More than once I have felt compelled simply to curl up in the corner of the room and weep silently.

But written assembly instructions (from other companies, of course) are often far, far worse. If I can’t make sense of a diagram showing exactly how the parts fit together, how am I possibly supposed to understand written instructions along the lines of “insert the ball socket assembly into the reverse threaded wall mount bracket and affix with the supplied 8mm Torx screws and self-locking bushings”? (OK, I just made that up, but it sounds real, doesn’t it? Wait, what are you doing over there in the corner?)

And therein lies the problem: there is a great mental chasm between instructions and understanding. It doesn’t matter what form the instructions take: written, visual, verbal, semaphore. Whether you approach them in an unthinking, just-get-it-done, “paint by numbers” fashion, or you attempt to read and absorb them all before beginning, instructions can only communicate so much.

Recently I attempted to assemble and install a curtain wire system from IKEA, for the purpose of hanging posters from bulldog clips at the new Room 34 studio. The instructions supplied with the curtain wire were some of the most panic-inducing I’ve ever seen from IKEA, and that’s saying something.

The first two times I tried to put this thing together, I just gave up. Then I decided not even to bother with the instructions. Instead, I closely examined the various parts, until I came to my own understanding of how they fit together, and how it all attached to the wall. From that point, I was able to refer back to the instructions in a new way, as a reminder of my own thought processes, rather than as a bizarre alien communication from some distant Hömwørld.

I’ve been in IKEA’s shoes, though. Not literally. I don’t think they sell shoes, although I have seen fuzzy slippers there in a big wire bin for 99 cents a pair. But I have had to prepare instructions myself, and to lead training sessions where I attempt to communicate to my clients how to use web applications I have developed for them. It’s a challenge.

How much information is too much; how much is too little? What is the right information to convey, and what can they do without? Is it better to provide a broad foundation of knowledge or a targeted “cheat sheet” of most commonly used tasks? How do I stop instructing people and help them to understand?

I don’t have the answers. I’m still exploring. In my own experience, it’s direct, hands-on activities that are directly applicable to solving real-world problems that best allow me to develop my own unique understanding of how a system works. But it can be incredibly difficult and time-consuming as an instructor to develop suitable training materials and create an environment where that type of learning can take place.

Beware the self-identified “expert”

Every field of human endeavor has its experts: those individuals who, through the right combination of talent, practice, and experience, acquire the highest levels of knowledge and skill within that field.

It is also one of the most basic observations about life and learning that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. As such, those who know the most are also (often) the most keenly aware of their own limitations, and are therefore the least likely to comfortably inhabit the identity of “expert.”

And yet, plenty of people proudly inflate their own status to that level, be they charlatans seeking unearned power and influence, or earnest practitioners of lesser abilities, who are simply benignly unaware of their own limitations (if such ignorance can truly be benign). It doesn’t help that we live in a world of “resumé inflation”, where everyone is an expert in everything, simply by virtue of putting those words on a piece of paper.

Of course there are also the occasional “true” experts who act as provocateurs — or simply have raging egos — who may be aware not only of their own limitations, but also of the even more extreme limitations of everyone else around them, and who leverage that knowledge for greater personal gain. But we have another word for these people. (Assholes.)

The challenge then is this: how do we identify those on whom we can most rely to share their “expertise”, if the true expert refuses the label and the self-identified expert is anything but?

I think the answer is simple: we find experts by the admiration of their peers.

Unless they’re all assholes too.

A note about the photo above: That’s Pete Prodoehl, a guy I don’t know much about but whose website I’ve long been aware of, and who does not appear to self-identify as an expert (except in the seemingly tongue-in-cheek way of this photo). But I found the photo on a post on a douchey motivational website for aspiring entrepreneurs, encouraging “expert” self-identification, while not bothering to identify, credit, or link to Pete’s website. Take all of this as you will.

Morning cup o’ links

Perhaps it would have been better to make a sausage analogy for these links, rather than a coffee-and-sausage one. But since one of the links is to a post written by Marco Arment, coffee seems appropriate. (Then again, a Google search reveals that I am far from the first person to use the phrase “morning cup o’ links” so maybe I should spend less time worrying about it being a non sequitir and instead worry that I am horribly unoriginal.)

Each morning I start the day by perusing the latest on Twitter and my RSS feeds, and I almost always find something interesting to read. But today was more interesting than most, and simply retweeting the links didn’t seem adequate. Also, some of these links may become topics for discussion on this week’s episode of The Undisciplined Room, so this is your homework.

First up, we have a post on The Verge discussing homeless hotspots at SXSW. This is a topic I’ve been reading about for the past few days, but this post was the first that made me think beyond my gut reaction that this was shameless exploitation.

Next, with a HT to Daring Fireball, and via Marco Arment, we have a look at Curator’s Code and why it’s a bad idea. The evidence has been mounting for me that Maria Popova’s 15 minutes of (borrowed) fame are almost over (especially when I’m reminded of her love of Ayn Rand and Malcolm Gladwell), and Marco helps solidify that thought.

Then we have type designer Mark Simonson (who designed the Proxima Nova font that I use in the Room 34 logo and branding materials) discussing font anachronisms in The Artist. As much as I enjoyed The Artist, issues with the fonts it used (especially straight quotes, and the fact that it used fonts in a lot of places where hand lettering would have been more appropriate) even distracted me, so I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone like Mark Simonson or Chank Diesel. (Full disclosure: I did development work on Chank’s mobile website.)

And finally… Chicago musician and multi-talent Joshua Wentz has just announced the release of the Side 2 EP by Absinthe and the Dirty Floors, one of the many musical projects with which he’s involved. He’s also made a video for each song on the EP, like this: