Category Archives: happiness

Free from Freelance

For my Happiness Anniversary, this year, I got myself a brand new job.

Ok, it was two days late and a job isn’t really a gift. But it’s the thought that counts.

We’ll see how things go, but the position (Learning Technology Advisor) is right in line with things I already enjoy doing. Such as enabling technological appropriation in learning contexts. And holding thoughtful group discussions on interesting issues. And trying out new tools. And discussing learning objects and learning objectives. All things I’d probably do, regardless of my employment status.

So the work itself is likely to be very satisfying.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a fulltime dayjob. Years. Not that I haven’t been employed fulltime during that period. I did cumulate quite a few hours of work, most years. But they were part of different jobs, contracts, contexts. Which means that very significant a part of my “bandwidth” had to do with professional development. It also meant that my status tended to fluctuate. Teaching part-time was a large part of it, but a major distinction between part-time workers and fulltime ones relates to identity, status, recognition. For instance, sharing an office with a few colleagues is quite different from having your own.

I start my new job Tuesday, so I’ll know more by then (such as the office situation). But I’m already getting different interactions with people, such as this one teacher who says that we now have good reasons to be even better friends.

What’s funny is that the onset of my 2008 Happiness Phase coincided with my shift to freelancing. Had been doing several different things before that, mostly revolving around teaching and learning. But, from that point on, I allowed myself to take on contracts as a freelancer. I was no longer a Ph.D. candidate trying to squeeze in some work opportunity in view of an academic job. I was in control of my professional life, despite all the difficulties associated with freelancing.

It was a nice run. Ebbs and flows. Had the opportunity to try out many different things, sometimes within the same period of time. Landed a part-time position at a startup/community organization where the fit wasn’t great. Struggled to find a balance between acting as my own self and looking for new opportunities at every occasion. Had slow periods which made me question things. Coped with health issues in ways which would have been impossible while working fulltime. Invested time and money in all sorts of things to improve my life as a self-employed individual…

Overall, I learnt a lot. Much of it will be useful in fulltime work.

Though the job is fulltime, it’s based on a renewable contract. When, during the job interview, the HR advisor asked me for my thoughts on this situation, my whole freelance experience was behind me. No, it’s not an issue. I’ll manage even if it’s not renewed. But I’m starting a new life.

Something else about this new life connects to 2008. It’s in a Cegep.

Cegeps are Quebec public colleges for both vocational and pre-university education. I care deeply enough about the Cegep system to defend it. More than once. It’s occasionally under attack by politicians who try to stir things up. But it’s a part of post-secondary education in Quebec which makes it unique. Having taught in diverse places, I find that it makes a significant improvement in university life here. It also enables the kinds of training and learning that  people really need, as “adulteens” (very young adults who are also “teen-aged”). In the past week, even before settling down in my new position, I got to see some impressive things happening in Cegeps. I sincerely think that cegeps are an example to follow, not an anomaly. Similar systems exist elsewhere (from “gymnasium” and “international baccalaureate” to “prep schools” and “community colleges”). But Quebec’s Cegep network is its own very specific thing, fully adapted to its own cultural and social context.

Surely, I’ll have a lot more to say about Cegeps as I work in one.

The connection to 2008 is much more personal. At the time, I was going through a difficult transition in my life. Questioning all sorts of things. Growing dissatisfied with the model for university careers (especially tenure-track professorships and what they entail). Thinking of “what I could do with my life”…

…when it suddenly hit me: I could work in a Cegep.

Can still remember the overwhelming feeling of comfort I experienced when that thought hit me. It was so obvious! So fitting! Sure, there’d be some difficulties, but nothing impossible. I was ready, then, to embark in a Cegep career.

It’s not what happened, right away. I came back to Quebec from Texas and applied to a few things in Cegeps. Was getting other contracts, including teaching contracts at Concordia (where I started teaching in 2006). Never abandoned the idea of working in a Cegep but “life had other plans”, at the time.

I did do several things which got me closer to the Cegep system. Including participations in every MoodleDay event at Dawson. And workshops with Cegep institutions. I even participated in a living lab on educational innovation with the very organization which just hired me (lab summary in French). Without really noticing it, I was preparing myself to join the Cegep World.

One obvious possibility was to add Cegep courses to my part-time teaching load or eventually becoming fulltime as a Cegep teacher. Cegep teaching has clear advantages over university teaching. Simply put, Cegep teachers are allowed to care about learning. University professors who care about pedagogical issues bump into lots of hurdles. Since I care a whole lot about teaching (and I can still do actual research without a tenured position), it sounded like the right place for me. Friends and acquaintances who work in Cegeps kept telling me things which made the fit even more obvious. Though grades do matter in Cegeps, the obsession with grades is much less of an issue in Cegeps than in universities. I care enough about this that I co-organized a public conversation on grades, back in November 2013. Of course, the Cegep population is quite different (and often younger) than the university population. Having taught in the US where people enter university or college directly from high school, I didn’t think it’d be an issue.

But teaching Cegep students directly wasn’t the only option. Having accumulated some expertise on post-secondary learning through 15 years of teaching experience, I was starting to think about being a learning advisor of some sort. This is finally happening, officially.

I’ve often acted as an informal advisor for people. Even during my M.Sc., I would discuss a Ph.D. student’s research in pretty much the way an advisor would. Not the advisor who focuses on logistics and rules and citation impact. But the person who challenges you to rethink a research question or brings you to think of your whole project in a completely new way. Since then, I’ve done the same thing numerous times without ever having an official title to go with it. I’d occasionally get a bit of (informal) credit for it, but I wasn’t aiming for that. I just enjoy helping people in this way.

I also became something of a mentor to some people. For instance, in  view of a pilot project at Concordia, I was able to mentor two teaching assistants who were holding classes in parallel with me. The mentoring included tips and tricks about classroom management along with deeper things on the meaning of university learning. It was still a limited scope, but it was in line with things I wanted to do.

What was even more fitting, given my new position, is that I became the “go-to person” for several things having to do with technology in learning and teaching. This all started in 2007 when, through the Spirit of Inquiry conference, I started collaborating with Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services. Created workshops, did screencasts, experimented with some solutions, answered informal questions… Without being employed directly by CTLS, I think it’s fair to say (as several people have been saying) that I was playing a key role in terms of learning technology at Concordia.

There’s a pattern, here. From diverse activities as a freelancer, I now get to merge things to be Learning Technology Advisor at Vitrine technologie-éducation.

Good times!

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

FRESCH Comeback: EuroTrip 1

Last Wednesday, I came back to Montreal after a five-week trip to Spain (ES), France (FR), and Switzerland (CH). Got plenty of things to say about this trip, but I thought I’d get started with a few general comments.

Typically, my blogposts in English tend not to be about personal stuff. In this case, though my trip was a personal endeavour, it does have some impacts on things I do professionally or otherwise. In fact, there’s a level at which these things add up as an overall personal/professional development, especially since it’s been something of an important point in a fairly long transition period for me. Writing about this trip serves a dual purpose, for me, as it helps me to make sense of what this trip means in the longterm while getting me back into writing, which I haven’t done much during said trip.

Again, there are many things I’d like to say about my trip. For instance, I have a whole post planned out about my use of WiFi during this trip and I’d also like to say some things about my taking pictures in all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons. But this is more of an overview. As a teaser for these two potential posts: WiFi was both important and tricky for me; I may not be visual but I did take more than 2500 pictures in 35 days. ;-)

I’ve been drawing two main conclusions from my trip. Both are quite positive, but they come from something of a surprise flirting with disappointment. In other words, I got a lot from my stay in Europe and I’m really glad I went. But the outcome, while quite positive, didn’t match my expectations. Which has a lot to do with the role of expectations during this transition period in my life.

So, a tiny bit of context. As a kid and teenager, I used to go to Europe on a fairly regular basis. Fairly short trips, mostly to two very specific locations in Switzerland: my grandmother’s place in Montreux, VD (Territet, actually), and a house my father owned in Chalais, VS. We’d spend time in all sorts of other places, including Paris and Milan. But we mostly focused on Montreux and Chalais. These places felt like home, to me.

As most of these trips to Chalais and Montreux were separated by a few years, I grew accustomed to missing Europe. Nostalgia for all sorts of things European has been a fairly strong drive in my life, at the time. I’ve also been nostalgic of just about any place where I’ve lived in North America and Africa. But my nostalgia for Switzerland and other parts of Europe had a special place in my life.

The peak in this longing for Europe came after my only extended stay on the continent. In 1994–1995, I spent 15 months in Lausanne, working as a graduate assistant in Speech Research (doing analysis for a speech synthesis system created at a lab at Université de Lausanne). This Lausanne stint was a high point in my life and there was a clear “before/after” effect. It marked a high plateau in about nine years of happiness. It also marked the end of an era. What I felt, fairly quickly after coming back from Lausanne, wasn’t unhappiness. But it was as if I had forgotten how to be happy. That period lasted for about twelve years.

What started it was a combination of things. One was a kind of “Paradise Lost” notion, as I had a tendency to negatively compare my post-Lausanne life to what I had left behind. Silly, perhaps. But it was then difficult for me to take life for what it is.

Another factor was something I’ve associated with a “midlife crisis”, even though the timing was off by quite a few years. I was only 24, then, but I felt a number of things which are normally associated with “midlife”. Not a desire for sports cars (I don’t drive) or younger women (!). But something about a sense of accomplishment, a kind of disappointment about the “point” at which I was, in my life. Again, it sounds silly in retrospect. It hit me before I turned 25: I might have been what I wanted to be,  but I hadn’t done what I felt I should do. Again, my Lausanne life was serving as a point of comparison, as I was taking something of a “demotion” in several ways.

Another dimension which might have prepared me for this weird phase was the social and economical “climate” in Montreal, at the time. When I came back from Switzerland, the sense was that Québec had been affected by all sorts of financial and social issues for a number of years. It’s not even that the situation was worse than it had ever been. It was mostly a «marasme», a sense of longterm but relatively low-level moroseness. People I knew frequently discussed financial issues, something which seemed to be avoided by most people I had met in Switzerland. To this day, I’d say that money tends to be a taboo topic in Switzerland, which has both disadvantages and benefits. For several reasons, avoiding money-related discussions had been mostly beneficial to me personally. Coming back to Québec where money sounded like the main topic on people’s minds was difficult. Yet again, comparison between my European experience and my life in Montreal was skewed.

More on this later, as “tables have turned”, so to speak.

So, in the late 1990s, I was longing for Europe. Well, less Europe itself as the life I had there. Many things have happened since, including a short trip to Europe in 2000, but this lingering feeling remained with me until this most recent trip.

In the meantime, I was moving around quite a bit. And I do mean “moving”, as in going to live in different places, losing most any sense of geographic stability. Apart for an extended stay in Mali (a few years after a shorter trip there), all of these moves were in North America: IN, NB, MA, TX, and Qc. Some of these stays were quite short (at one point, I moved twice in the same week) and I regularly came back to Montreal. The overall notion was one of “living in boxes”, never really settling down.

Since April 2008, however, I’ve been living in Montreal. Continuously! Quite a change of pace. One way to put it is that it helped me grow back some roots. The impact this has had on my personal and professional development can hardly be overstated.

Which leads me to this transition period which provides the context for my EuroTrip. If I had something of a “midlife crisis” at age 24, I feel like I’m having the opposite at age 40. All sorts of things are either going quite well or improving significantly, in my life. And I’ve been feeling like this was a turning point in my life, one which gives quite a bit of room for decisions I’ve been making. And, really, I feel like I’m making the right decisions in my life.

These decisions were helped by personal life but also a bunch of things happening in what I consider my professional life. In terms of professional development, I feel like 2012 has already been a pivotal year, for me. There are personal dimensions to all this but the main transition has occurred through professional coaching, a learning circle, work projects, and a training workshop.

So, in most ways, my trip to Europe (my first in twelve years) was supposed to be a turning point.

And it was. Just not in the way I expected.

This is where the “FrEsCH” pun comes in. I went to Europe to “recharge my batteries”, to get a fresh perspective on things. It didn’t really happen there, though the process did start there. And it’s still going on. But I’m drawing some lessons from the experience.

The two main conclusions from my trip are part of it.

The best times I’ve had in Europe were with friends and/or family.

I spent most of my trip staying with family or friends. It’s one of my favourite ways to travel but, contrary to what some people seem to think, my main incentive isn’t financial. Sure, I would have a very different trip if I had spent money for lodging throughout. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have stayed nearly as long in Europe.

It’s not like the difference between camping and staying in hotels. It’s the difference between visiting people and visiting places. I did visit Barcelona, for instance, staying at a guest house. But that part of my trip was the least pleasurable. The lack of true human contact was a big part of this. The other legs of my trip were spent with people. These made my trip worthwhile.

Talking occupied much of that time with friends and family. All sorts of discussions about all sorts of topics. Many of these were relatively deep without getting heavy. Some of those discussions were actually quite long but short interactions were also quite interesting and pleasurable. Some of these discussions had to do with my plans or my life, but I also heard all sorts of things about all sorts of lives. I wasn’t doing any kind of fieldwork so it’s not really as an ethnographer that I enjoyed those. Part of what brought me to ethnography is an interest for these kinds of discussions and it still titillated my anthropological sense.

What’s funny is that I didn’t really expected this outcome. I thought that I’d mostly enjoy smells, sounds, sceneries, and tastes that I could only experience in Europe. Ended up enjoying contacts I could conceivably have anywhere. But context is key, as Sarine knows so well. Some of the people I saw in Europe I had also seen in North America. But it’s in Europe that I was able to really spend time with them.

A lot of this has to do with the “rhythm of life” in Europe. But that’ll be a topic for another post. For now, I want to introduce the other conclusion of my trip…

I don’t need to be in Europe to be happy.

Yep. Obvious, simple, even silly. But it seems like it took me all this time to realize this. I’m not even done, exploring the implications of this naïve realization.

At a certain level, this realization came as a sort of disappointment. A kind of “that’s it?” moment. Even more negative, what I had enjoyed so much during past trips to Europe (tastes, sights, sounds, smells…) had become much less special. I was almost blasé during important sections of my trip. I wasn’t getting the moments of intense joy for which I was anxiously waiting, over the years. But I got something else. The sense that my life in North America was fitting in a deeper way than I had assumed.

Part of this was facilitated by a sense of «marasme» I frequently noticed during my trip. Several of the people with whom I was talking, over there, gave me a similar impression to what I had in Québec in the late 1990s. A kind of slow-burning dread. Things aren’t tragic for those people I met. But there are enough people affected by social and financial issues that it sounds like it’s hard for people to be really enthusiastic. It’s not even about the future, about which some people are legitimately concerned. It’s about a stagnant pond of a present. Even with Swiss friends and relatives whom I knew to be reluctant in discussing money issues, money was addressed explicitly on several occasions and sounded like a background noise in other conversations.

Meanwhile, I get the sense here in Montreal that things are going on. Sure, there are multiple reasons to be preoccupied here as well as elsewhere. I wouldn’t even say that people here are particularly hopeful. It’s just that the tone of most conversations is more “neutral” than morose. Given my almost-pathological sense of empathy, a morose ambiance tends to affect me deeply. I don’t need euphoria, but I do need to refresh my own enthusiasm for life.

Happiness Anniversary

HappyTweet

A year ago today, I found out that I was, in fact, happy.

Continue reading

Curmudgeon Phase

Just a placeholder but I do want to write something longer about attitudes toward “people with attitude.”

I get the impression that, at least in intellectual circles in the United States or other Anglo contexts, there’s a common (to my mind mis-)conception that curmudgeony people are somehow “smarter” than anyone else. Not only do I think this would be an inaccurate characterization, but I think it’s embedded in broader issues about anti-intellectualism, social change, and philosophy.

Sure, some of the best-known curmudgeons have had some interesting ideas to share. But I see no connection between a miserly attitude and any form of insight. I even think that some people are adopting the attitude to position themselves as “intelligent people,” regardless of how intelligent they are (in quality as well as in “perceived measure”). To go even further, I think that the negative attitude in question is often but a phase in a longer process of intellectual discovery and that “enlightened” people often have a much more serene attitude.

In other words, I sometimes get the feeling that some people use an opinionated tone to fake being smart.

There. I’ve said it.

Now, I don’t mean to say that curmudgeons aren’t intelligent. My concept of intelligence doesn’t even work that way (I think there are different forms of intelligence, that intelligence can’t necessarily be measured, etc.). But I do think that some of the actual impostors (not those relating to the impostor syndrome) are using what they perceive as a “status symbol of intellectual prowess” to bolster their self-confidence in contexts which give a lot of prestige to so-called “smart people.”

As dismissive as it ends up sounding, I almost take the “curmudgeon phase” as the wit-focused equivalent to the awkward period of physical changes during puberty. It even reminds me of an exceedingly pointed mockery, by a member of Montreal’s intelligentsia, that a well-known Montreal journalist was “living beyond his intellectual means.” Though the mockery is very nasty, I happen to think that it encapsulated something of the journalist’s attitude which is worth considering. That journalist isn’t really that cranky (especially when compared with “professional curmudgeons” in the United States) but he clearly has “an attitude.” And I really don’t perceive that attitude as a sign of intellectual superiority. (Not that I have a clear notion of what “intellectual superiority” should entail but, hopefully, ya catch my drift.)

Some non-cranks seem to share the curmudgeons’ association of wits with ‘tude. At least, something similar may have been at stake when Douglas N. Adams, whom I’d have a hard time perceiving as a curmudgeon, wrote neurotic elevators and other technological annoyances into his Guide. Now, neurosis and ill-temper aren’t connected by necessity. But the notion that sentient technology would likely have a very negative attitude toward life (as well as toward the Universe and even toward Everything) seems to me to relate to the idea that it isn’t really possible to be both exceedingly intelligent and unbelievably happy. Slartibartfast‘s distinctions between happiness and truth contributes to my impression. And it seems quite likely that DNA wasn’t that serene a person, despite all the happiness to which he has contributed.

Ok, I guess that’ll have to do for now. It’s actually a relief to be writing this. As I’m becoming much more serene, I want to let go of this negativity which I’ve been encountering in some self-important circles.

 

“If you’re so smart, why ain’t you happy?” does sound less dismissive than the “if you’re so rich, why ain’t you smart?” that I’d like to level at some ultra-competitive materialists.

Crazy App Idea: Happy Meter

I keep getting ideas for apps I’d like to see on Apple’s App Store for iPod touch and iPhone. This one may sound a bit weird but I think it could be fun. An app where you can record your mood and optionally broadcast it to friends. It could become rather sophisticated, actually. And I think it can have interesting consequences.

The idea mostly comes from Philippe Lemay, a psychologist friend of mine and fellow PDA fan. Haven’t talked to him in a while but I was just thinking about something he did, a number of years ago (in the mid-1990s). As part of an academic project, Philippe helped develop a PDA-based research program whereby subjects would record different things about their state of mind at intervals during the day. Apart from the neatness of the data gathering technique, this whole concept stayed with me. As a non-psychologist, I personally get the strong impression that recording your moods frequently during the day can actually be a very useful thing to do in terms of mental health.

And I really like the PDA angle. Since I think of the App Store as transforming Apple’s touch devices into full-fledged PDAs, the connection is rather strong between Philippe’s work at that time and the current state of App Store development.

Since that project of Philippe’s, a number of things have been going on which might help refine the “happy meter” concept.

One is that “lifecasting” became rather big, especially among certain groups of Netizens (typically younger people, but also many members of geek culture). Though the lifecasting concept applies mostly to video streams, there are connections with many other trends in online culture. The connection with vidcasting specifically (and podcasting generally) is rather obvious. But there are other connections. For instance, with mo-, photo-, or microblogging. Or even with all the “mood” apps on Facebook.

Speaking of Facebook as a platform, I think it meshes especially well with touch devices.

So, “happy meter” could be part of a broader app which does other things: updating Facebook status, posting tweets, broadcasting location, sending personal blogposts, listing scores in a Brain Age type game, etc.

Yet I think the “happy meter” could be useful on its own, as a way to track your own mood. “Turns out, my mood was improving pretty quickly on that day.” “Sounds like I didn’t let things affect me too much despite all sorts of things I was going through.”

As a mood-tracker, the “happy meter” should be extremely efficient. Because it’s easy, I’m thinking of sliders. One main slider for general mood and different sliders for different moods and emotions. It would also be possible to extend the “entry form” on occasion, when the user wants to record more data about their mental state.

Of course, everything would be save automatically and “sent to the cloud” on occasion. There could be a way to selectively broadcast some slider values. The app could conceivably send reminders to the user to update their mood at regular intervals. It could even serve as a “break reminder” feature. Though there are limitations on OSX iPhone in terms of interapplication communication, it’d be even neater if the app were able to record other things happening on the touch device at the same time, such as music which is playing or some apps which have been used.

Now, very obviously, there are lots of privacy issues involved. But what social networking services have taught us is that users can have pretty sophisticated notions of privacy management, if they’re given the chance. For instance, adept Facebook users may seem to indiscrimately post just about everything about themselves but are often very clear about what they want to “let out,” in context. So, clearly, every type of broadcasting should be controlled by the user. No opt-out here.

I know this all sounds crazy. And it all might be a very bad idea. But the thing about letting my mind wander is that it helps me remain happy.

Bread and Satisfaction

It’s not humble to say so but, man, is my bread good!

I’m truly impressed with my latest loaf. It ended up tasting pretty much like baguette, although I didn’t shape it as a stick.

As with beer, coffee, and food in general, I tend to make bread on whims. So it’s hard to trace back the “recipe.” Shouldn’t be too hard to reproduce it, though.

I started with the working version of a sourdough culture which was given to me by a friend and former student who works as a professional baker at a Breton bakery in the Eastern part of town. I dare say, this culture does wonders. I really hope I’ll be allowed to bring it to Texas because I’d hate to lose access to it.

Process is simple. I mix in a few tablespoons of sourdough starter with a cup and a half of filtered water. I whip this mixture to be quite frothy. I then mix in a cup of flour in the frothy mixture. I never forget to feed back the jar of starter with some flour and water.

After an hour or so, I prepare the actual bread, adding flour, salt, and occasionally oil and/or other ingredients. This time, I added two tablespoons of olive oil, a few teaspoons of sugar, and half a tablespoon of salt along with a cup and a half of flour. On several occasions, I merely added flour and forgot to add salt. The results were decent enough but not as intensely wonderful as this time.

I then knead the dough, adjusting the amount of flour. This time, I added a good three-quarter cup of flour to the dough. The resulting dough was on the thick side of things but I like to vary in this way. With this sourdough culture, and with only white flour, it’s quite easy to knead the dough and get a good consistency. Usually, I don’t worry too much about the dough being a bit sticky. I kind of play it by ear for the consistency.

After kneading the dough, I placed it in a really large bowl (greased with more olive oil). I expected this particular dough to rise more than it did but after a few hours, I decided to shape this dough. While kneading it in a significant amount of flour, I found this dough to be, erm, stringy. It didn’t ball up really easily. For some reason (probably the amount of oil I put in), it reminded me of pizza dough. So I did with this dough what I tend to do with pizza dough. I split it in smaller portions and put a part of this in the fridge. I kept about one third of the dough in the greased bowl for the second rise, overnight. It probably spent about eight hours in that stage.

When I woke up, I heated my oven to 450°F with the pizza stone on the rack and brewed some moka pot coffee. Once the oven was ready, I dropped the loaf directly from the bowl unto the pizza stone and sprayed the walls of the oven using a very powerful mister from the dollar-store. After about ten minutes, I sprayed a bit more water on the oven’s walls but I could notice that the bread looked pretty good already. I only gave it five more minutes and put it on a plate to cool off a bit.

The resulting bread really is a tasty creation. Complex in its simplicity. Simple in its complexity. A thing of beauty, if I may say so myself.

The crust is very crispy and very fragrant. This crust reminds me of bread I’ve had in Switzerland. While this bread was made only with white flour, it has the crust of those farmhouse breads which have some other flours in them.

The crumb structure is relatively dense but not at all heavy. Moist but well-baked. Elastic yet somewhat tough. Very fragrant. Reminds me of the almost-mythical bread from the Pagé bakery in Saint-Sauveur. At least, the one I remember from my childhood. Contrary to several loaves I’ve done recently, it’s not at all sour. I do like sour breads on occasion but it seems that the main fermentation for this loaf didn’t result in a sour bread. It’s kind of reassuring because I like the possibility of baking both “clean” and sour breads with the same culture. Probably because of the olive oil and sugar, it’s a bit brioche-like in crumb structure but it doesn’t taste sweet at all. It doesn’t taste salty either though the amount of salt in the dough was rather significant (especially when compared to my unsalted batches!).

All in all, this bread almost makes me weep. :-)

Lessons learnt?

  • Don’t forget the salt!
  • Olive oil and sugar can be your friends.
  • Smaller loaves are easy to bake.
  • Thick doughs are ok.
  • Proofing doesn’t need to be extreme to be effective.
  • Stringy dough after proofing is ok.
  • Even a long rise after proofing may produce a “clean” bread.
  • Bread=good. :-)

Most of these I knew already. But this is a kind of learning which, for me, requires reinforcement.

The thing which is kind of funny is that I’m quite convinced that some bread experts would criticize this bread for one reason or the other. Not fluffy enough. Too dense. Crumb structure should have bigger holes in it. Too yeasty. Too much sugar. Etc.

But I don’t care. I like it and that’s the only thing which counts.

It’s just sad that I wasn’t able to share it with someone. Next time.

Meanwhile, I’m a happy camper.