Strategies for Escaping the Echo Chamber

After the 2016 U.S. election ended, we all got a rude awakening to just how bad the echo chambers and filter bubbles have gotten. Our social networks are streams of one-sided news stories. News outlets are increasingly biased. Viral fake news spreads like wildfire and the implications are scary.

In light of recent events, I decided to make a conscious effort to escape from the echo chambers and redesign my consumption of news to try to get a better sense for what is a reflection of true reality and what is not.

filter-bubbles-and-truth

In case you find yourself in the same situation and would like to try to escape your echo chamber, here are some of my strategies:

1. De-newsed Facebook: One by one, I removed every single news source I encountered from Facebook using the “Hide” feature in the upper right hand corner of shared posts. This means I removed news sources I considered biased as well as those I consider legit. I will no longer allow Facebook to decide what news I see and what news I do not see. I just don’t want to see any news on Facebook. Period. On the bright side, Facebook has returned to a state where I actually do see pictures of friends, rants about “new math” and cute cat photos – which is a nice haven from what it had become. This removed my largest echo chamber source of news.

In case you don’t know how to turn off feeds from sites in Facebook, here’s what that looks like:

hide-in-facebook

2. One reliable news source: I read a single reliable news source each morning (for me that is the New York Times. In particular, I read using the “Today’s Paper” app, which delivers the paper in a very similar fashion to the printed version, without ads. This is important because if you just visit a news site, you still fall victim to following only the stories you’re likely to click on instead of seeing a list of all the stories of the day. While the NY Times might not be your choice for most unbiased news, I figure this is balanced by living in conservative Utah. Don’t judge. Also see #3.

3. Highly-biased contrast bumpers: After reading my daily dose of news, I  go to Blue Feed Red Feed, a project from the Washington Post. This provides the most extreme liberal and conservative “viral” posts on a variety of topics. While seeing some of these stories makes me a bit ill, I find it better than seeing delivery from friends and family on Facebook (with additional commentary from them that makes me even more ill). What I’m starting to find is that often both “sides” often tell an incomplete story, the part of the story that makes them look good or the other side look bad. One day last week, the blue feed had stories like “Trump has only lobbyists in his cabinet” and the red feed provided stories like “Trump fires all lobbyists from his cabinet.” Reality was somewhere between those two stories – Trump did seem to have developed a cabinet with a lot of lobbyists AND he then fired most of them.

“Truth” is somewhere in between the bumpers of the most liberal stories and the most conservative stories. But knowing what the bumpers are on these extremes helps me rationally evaluate the stories I see throughout the day and also helps me with #4.

4. Avoidance of clear click-bait: Armed with the most atrociously viral clickbait of the day (from step #3) I can more clearly avoid stories I see on Twitter and banner links to stories that are the viral nonsense of the day. Clicking on this stuff means the world will just produce more of it. Making these sites profitable to advertisers is how they stay in business. If I had not read some of the viral headlines on Blue Feed Red Feed, I would be more susceptible to clicking on stories that are obviously designed to goad one side or the other.

5. No TV News: TV news is designed to be entertainment. So if you’re watching TV News, I’d really consider stopping all together. You don’t realize how bad it is until you remove yourself for a while. When I am forced to watch it in airports, I find it hard to believe that it provides any real value other than making us all terrified of each other (see #6).

6. Actually talk to people who are not like you: I am making a more active effort (see Lean in to the Discomfort) to try to talk to other people who are not “just like me” more: At the gym, in the grocery store, and while out on walks. I am trying to seek out those who are from other generations, other educational backgrounds, other religions, etc. and engage in conversation. We have got to put down our echo-chamber-filled devices and apps and get to know the people in our physical proximity again.

Those are my strategies, what are yours? And if you don’t think you’re in an echo chamber … well, how do you know you’re not?

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Lean in to the Discomfort

When you walk in to a room full of people, choose someone who seems the most different from you (on the surface) or the person that seems the “scariest” to start a conversation with. Start there. Lean in to the Discomfort of having that awkward first conversation. In all likelihood, you DO have something in common with the person – seek to find it. If you always start with the conversation that you perceive to be the most difficult one to have, you will, over time, reduce your own fear of talking to strangers.

Diagram showing 10% of the iceberg above the surface

90% of an iceberg is unseen beneath the surface of the water

About 90% of an iceberg is unseen beneath the surface of the water and likewise, the majority of who we are as a person is beneath what you can see or hear on the surface. Consider all the characteristics of a person that you can’t “see”:

  • what sports do they like
  • what do they do for a living
  • what is their family like
  • what do they do for fun
  • where do they live
  • what do they do when they hang out with friends
  • what are their favorite foods

Whether at a conference or having Thanksgiving Dinner with far-flung relatives, there is so much to learn from the people that surround us. But we have to actually engage them in conversations and interact. If we want our students to interact more to learn, we need to get better at modeling this willingness to have conversations with strangers or those who differ from us.

When I walk into a room and feel the first uncomfortable feelings of having to mingle or that I will be alone in a room full of people, I remember the phrase “Lean in to the Discomfort,” take a deep breath, and begin the first conversation.

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Steal Back Your Time and Accomplish Your Goals

I began a “sabbatical” from regular work-for-someone-else life about a month ago. I work from home. I have a startup. I want to accept just enough work to get by financially (but not more than that). I want to achieve that some kind of illusion of work-life balance. I want to exercise more. I have several passion projects that I’ve wanted to spend time on for a very very long time.

If you’ve ever had a period of time like this (or if you just work remotely), you know that finding some kind of structure to your hours, days, weeks, and projects can be daunting. If you’re not careful, you always feel guilty about what you’re doing. I spent two years working remotely for a European company, and found that tracking the hours I actually worked was helpful for bringing balance to the remote working life. But I hate bookkeeping and so I evolved a simple system of moving glass pebbles for each hour I worked during the week.

Now I’ve modified this system to include a breakdown of how I want to spend my hours, and specific goals I have. At the beginning of the week, I have a clean slate for hours/goals I want to accomplish (and it can vary from week to week):

fluid-work-full-slate

The full slate for last week included three exercise goals (hit daily step goal, meditation/yoga three times, strength training three times). Also in the work-life-balance category, I had a personal writing goal of 6 hours a week. You can see the bulk of my time for the week should be spent in working on the startup (roughly 3 hours a day) and accumulating some billable hours (roughly 4 hours a day).

As each day progresses, I simply move the right “pebbles” into the accomplishments for the day. This creates a nice feeling of accomplishment, and as I look back over the week, I can see the patterns to my days. Here are 4 days from last week.

fluid-work-4-days

When I’m not feeling very “work” productive, I simply focus on getting other goals I can accomplish until I feel more productive. On some days that means I can absolutely justify going for an hour-long walk outside in the sunshine, because I have a step goal to reach. Other days (like today) it means permission to spend an hour writing a blog post (personal writing). Sometimes, the pebbles validate my feeling of not being productive enough, and motivate me to do better. Other times, the pebbles show me that I’m spending too much time on a particular project and ignoring other places where I need to focus my attention.

I’ve tried using apps for doing something like this (HabitBull is a good one), but I find that an app is too easy to ignore. If I put the collection of pebbles for weekly hours and goals somewhere visible, it is a daily reminder of what I want to be doing with my time and helps me to meet those goals.

I think this same sort of strategy can be helpful for anyone who is trying to steal back their time to reach a goal, whether that be studying for a degree, trying to meet an exercise/diet goal, writing a book, or spending time with your family. We live in an age of distraction. You have to actively steal back your time from the Internet and digital distractions in your life to accomplish your goals.

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Demo with a Magnifying Glass for MacBooks

If you own a Mac and do software demonstrations or do presentations for people, you might want to learn this nifty trick for enabling a magnifying glass that can follow your cursor. It’s incredibly useful when you need to magnify just a small section of the screen for a brief moment (magnify the URL, the icon you’re clicking on, the code you’re examining).

magnifying-glass-demo-mac

Here are the steps to locating and turning on the magnifying glass that follows your cursor in macOS Sierra:

Find the Zoom preferences window:

  • Go to System Preferences
  • Select Accessibility
  • Select the “Zoom” section

finding-zoom

To make a magnifying glass:

  • Select the box next to “Use keyboard shortcuts to zoom”
  • Select the box “Zoom follows keyboard focus”
  • Change “Zoom Style” to “Picture-in-picture”

select-zoom-preferences

To change the size of the magnifying box:

  • To the right of “Zoom Style” click on the “Options” button.
  • Click on the “Adjust Size and Location” button.
  • Drag the edges of the example magnifying box that appears until the box is the size you want. Then click OK in the center.

change-size-of-magnifying-glass

To change the magnification power:

  • To the right of “Zoom Style” click on the “Options” button.
  • Drag the slider next to “Magnification” to the desired power.

change-magnification

To use the magnifying glass

  • Press Cmd-Opt-8 to turn it on (it will follow your cursor).
  • Press Cmd-Opt-8 to turn it off.

Maybe you prefer your tutorials in video form, in which case, here you go!

 

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10 Tips for Writing a Good Bug Ticket

I have spent a great deal of time in the last two years writing software tickets for new features and bugging issues that (inevitably) arise. Many of the engineers tell me that my tickets are very clear and easy to understand. I like my engineers (I even baked bug cookies for one who visited me in Utah) so I thought I would pass along my tips to be used by more people.

bug picture

Tips for writing a good bug ticket:

1. Find a way to reproduce the bug. If you can’t reproduce it, the engineer isn’t likely to be able to do it either.

2. Write numbered steps for reproducing the bug and/or make a video showing how to reproduce. Poke at the edges to try to get the bug down to the minimum possible way to reproduce. If you have to write 8 steps to reproduce the bug, see if you really need all 8 steps. For example, maybe reproducing only takes the last three steps – if so, simplify the ticket.

There are many free apps that let you make a screencapture video and share them with a link. I use SnagIt + Screencast. Just find the right one for you.

3. If the bug involves anything visual, include a screenshot. If possible, directly include the image in the bug (rather than a link to the screenshot). It is faster if everyone that has to view the ticket can just SEE the image directly.

4. Try to include some way to test the fix in the wild, like a URL to an example of where the bug is occurring.

5. Avoid words like “it” and “that”… be clear what you are referring to.

No: When it does that…
Yes: When the mouse stops working …
Yes: When the Submit button is pressed and the feedback screen appears …

6. Avoid words like “they”, them”, and “their” … be clear who you are referring to.

No: When they press it, that turns black and their cursor disappears.
Yes: When the user presses the OK button, the dialog box turns black and the cursor in the dialog box disappears.

7. Use the same language as the platform. If “score” is used in the platform, do not use “grade” on the ticket. The engineer who works on your ticket may be seeing the feature for the first time or be unfamiliar with the alternate terminology.

8. If your engineers are foreign, be particularly mindful to use plain english in your tickets. Tickets with complicated wording may get run through a language translator and simple English will translate best.

9. As soon as a sentence starts to read like an if-then-else statment, it is probably best to just rewrite using if-then-else language. When you rewrite, do so with the simplest if-then-else conditions possible.

No: When you are adding a new image and you give it a name, sometimes the name is already in use. We should make it so that you are warned if the name is already in use, and then you can decide whether or not to keep the name.

Yes: If the name for a new image is already in use in the database, then warn the author and have them decide [Use existing] or [Rename].

10. If you are bugging something for a software system that is not your product, you should also include additional information about the computer system or digital product where the bug was detected. In particular, share the type of computer/device, the operating system and version, the browser and version.

Example:
My system is a Macbook Pro running OS X Yosemite 10.10.4, I am using Chrome Version 43.0.2357.132 (64-bit).

If you want to save yourself some trouble with back and forth questions with the engineer, do the following tests and include the results on the ticket:

Did it work in another browser?
Did it work after you quit and restarted the browser?
Did it work after you cleared the cache?

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