Wednesday, March 15, 2017

So You Want To Produce a Podcast? Part Five: Write Down all the Things

I'm guessing some people have noticed it's been awhile since my previous post. You may be asking what I've been doing between posts. If guessed editing a podcast for a deadline, you'd be correct. If you also guessed writing up a transcript and show notes for the same show, you'd be correct again.

Wait, both at the same time? Why on Earth would you do something like that? I'm happy to tell you.

There's a lot of information you can include with podcast episodes. Some publish the title of the show, date of the show and a brief description of the contents. Others provide a lot of detail about the episode, including a list of resources and references relevant to the episode. If you want to be comprehensive, you provide a full transcript for the show.

Let's take a step back... why provide a full transcript? As an advocate of Accessibility, I believe in making the show usable by as many people possible. For most normative users, listening to the show is sufficient, but what if you can't listen to the show? Closed captioning for podcasts is a limited technology and typically used with videocasts as opposed to audio-only podcasts. Therefore, I provide a full transcript for each "The Testing Show" episode.

Transcribing a podcast is slow, time-consuming work. What about speech recognition software? Yes, I've tried quite a few. In most cases, I get a partial response mixed with a lot of stalling and correcting large areas of text. I've experimented with using Soundflower to direct WAV audio to a text file. When it's just my voice, speaking slowly, I get a good hit rate of spoken words to transcribed text. The more speakers on a recording, the lower that hit rate. With how much time I spend editing and fixing errors that appear in the transcript, the less I experience any real time savings. Therefore, I kick it old school and manually transcribe the shows.

"Dude, you can totally farm that work out to other people". I've done exactly that on more than a few occasions. When I am far ahead of the deadline and I feel the conversation is clear and concise, I am willing to have other people (read: pay) do the transcription. To have that be effective, I need to complete audio editing at least a week before the deadline. Sometimes, that's easy to do. Other times, not so much. Real life finds ways to take away from podcast production time, especially since I don't do this full-time. If I can't guarantee a long enough lead time to have a service do the transcription, I do it myself. If you do decide to have a service do your transcription, I give high marks to "The Daily Transcriber".

Waveform editor on the left of me.
Text editor on the right.
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you ;).

Along with a transcript, I also provide what I refer to as a "grammatical audio edit" for each show. What's a grammatical audio edit? It's where I go through each statement from each speaker and remove elements that would not flow well in a written paragraph. That includes verbal tics (those "um", "ah", "like", "you know"), repeated sequences, tangents, semantic bleaching, etc. Realize, I cannot magically fix the way people speak. At a certain point, I have to let them say what they will say in their style. Any transcript will, of course, reflect this. I do a word for word scrubbing of the recorded audio. Since I'm editing by the second, simultaneously transcribing as I'm editing is a reasonable approach. I listen to a section of dialogue, edit and sequence the conversation with a reasonable cadence, and while I'm doing that, I type out (or use Apple's "dictation" option, which can be activated with the "fn fn" sequence) to write out the words recorded.

To this end, it's important that you have already done a rough edit of the podcast. You should know which sections you are going to keep and which ones you are going to "leave on the cutting room floor" and have silenced out those sections, and then run "Truncate Silence" to squeeze everything together. This way, you know the sections you are editing and transcribing will be in the finished podcast. You can always add a section back later if you change your mind, but removing a section you've already done a full edit and transcription for is frustrating. Minimize this if you can.

GEEK TRICK: If you use Audacity, you can use the Transcription tool. It slows down or speeds up the audio to a level that you determine. It has its own playback button that then plays the audio at the designated speed. It also lowers or raises the pitch of the audio, which can be an annoyance. Still, making sense of a fast passage, or listening at the pace that you type, this feature is helpful. The Transcription tool can also, in fast playback mode, check levels between speakers.

Audacity's Transcription Tool. Slow Down or Speed Up audio.

"Dude, that's overkill". It certainly might be. If you don't want to provide a full transcript, you don't have to. Clear and interesting show notes and a catchy embedded description with the show will do a lot to help get the point across about each episode. Some cool examples of embedded show notes for episodes are the "Back 2 Work" and "CodeNewbie" podcasts, in that they include almost all of the details of the show and resource links. Some shows include timestamps along with their show note links ("Greater Than Code" and "Ruby Rogues" are both good examples of this).

Something I would also encourage if you want to go the route of detailed show notes is to develop the notes while the show is happening. That's hard if you are the only person recording the show or you a doing a one on one interview. It's easier if you have a panel of speakers. As the show runner, I try my best to keep track of what people are talking about. If I hear a comment about a talk, a video, an article, or something that I think might be helpful to reference, I jot down a quick note in my schedule sheet so I know generally where to look for it and reference it.

GEEK TRICK: Here's my basic method for transcribing and writing show notes.

1. Create a header. In that header, make a list of everyone speaking on the show. Confirm name spelling and pronunciation, etc. This way, it's easier to know who you are listening to and how to tag each line of speech.

2. Create a Macro to replace your regular contributors, and add new names as you choose. For this, I put an initial and a colon for each full name, such as "ML: " (yes, preserve the space ;) ). When I'm finished editing, I run the macro and it goes a find and replace for all of the "ML: " tags and replaces them with "MICHAEL LARSEN: ". Same for all of the other names I've gathered. One run and done.

3. I use "Insert Endnote" option each time I come across something I want to provide as a show note reference/resource. This creates a running list of resources at the end of the document. If I have the link to the reference, I include it while I am in edit mode. If I don't or I'm offline at the time (often since I do a lot of the editing and transcribing while I'm sitting on a commuter train) I make the list with as much detail as I can, then fill in the link later after I've had a chance to look it up.

Every show should start with a descriptive paragraph copy. It should be fun, interesting and hopefully engaging. As I stated in the first post of this series, sometimes I find this to be the most difficult part.

Some final details that I do are to add metadata tags to the podcast. At this point in time, I keep it very basic. I list the name of the show, the title of the show, the episode number, the year published, and that it is designated as a podcast. Also, to preserve the audio, I export the final podcast as Ogg Vorbis format and then convert it to MP3 using Max (which I like because it makes it simple to tag with metadata and to add cover art). From there, I upload it to the shared folder that we all use, I alert the folks at QualiTest that we have an episode ready to publish, and they handle updating their website and posting to iTunes, Libsyn and their RSS Feed.

Next time, let's talk about ways to encourage people to download, listen to and share your podcast.

Friday, March 3, 2017

So You Want To Produce a Podcast? Part Four: Connecting the Train Cars

You've sat down, set up your system, made a Skpye Call or an in-person recording and now you have recorded audio. Excellent! Now what?

Depending on what you plan to do with the show and how you did the recording, that answer can range from "absolutely nothing, I'm done" to "a beautifully orchestrated and conceptual program that flows from beginning to end." All right, that last part will definitely be subjective, but it points to a fact. The audio we have recorded is going to need some editing. There are many choices out there, ranging from simple WAV file editors all the way up to professional Digital Audio Workstations (DAW). I'm going to suggest a middle ground; it's flexible, doesn't cost anything, and has a lot of useful tools already included. Welcome to Audacity.

Hey, wait... don't go. Granted, it's been around a long time, and I'll admit it's not the sexiest of tools you could be using, and it has limitations as a real-time DAW (which can be overcome with some system tweaking, but that's out of scope for this post). Still, as a multi-track waveform management tool, Audacity has a lot going for it, and once you get used to working with it, it's remarkably fast, or at least, fast as audio editing tools go.

CAVEAT: There are a lot of wild and crazy things you could do with audio editing. There is an effects toolbox in the software that would make any gearhead musician of the 90's envious, and many of the tools require some advanced knowledge of audio editing to be useful, but I'm not going to cover those this go around. What I will talk about are the tools that a new podcaster would want to master quickly and become comfortable with.

First things first. I am a fan of independent tracks, as many as you can effectively manage. As I mentioned in my first post, if possible, I would like to get local source recordings from everyone participating in the podcast. Skype Call Recorder lets you save the call as a .MOV file, and when imported into Audacity, it will appear as one stereo track. One side will be the local speaker, and the other side will be the other caller(s). Even if you can only get one recording, I recommend this approach, and doing the following:

1. Import the MOV file into Audacity, and confirm your stereo track does have the separation between local and remote callers.
2. Split the stereo track into two mono tracks.
3. Select Sync-Lock tracks. This way, any edit you make that inserts or subtracts time from the one track will be reflected in the other track.
4. Look for what should be silent spots. In between people talking, there should be a thin flat bar. If you have that flat thin bar, great, it means there are little to no artifacts. Unfortunately, what you are more likely to see are little bumps here and there. Fortunately, they are easy to clean up. Just select the section of the track, highlight the area you wish to silence (you can also use the keyboard arrow keys to widen or narrow the selected area), and then press Command-L. Any audio that was in that region is now silenced.

By doing this, it is possible to clean up a lot of audio artifacts. Do make sure to look at them, though and ensure that they are just random audio captures and not your guest stepping away from the microphone but still speaking about something important. Granted, that's usually handled at the time of recording, and as the producer, you need to be alert to that. If you receive a recording where you weren't there, then you don't have that option, and really have to make sure you have listened to those in between spaces.

Before we get too deep into the editing of the main podcast audio, I want to step back and talk about the "atmosphere" you set for your show. Most podcasts have little elements that help set the mood for the show, in the form of intros and outros, messages, and what will likely be frequently mentioned items to each podcast. You may choose to do this differently each time, or create a standard set of "audio beds" that can be reused. For the Testing Show, I do exactly that. I have what I call an "Assembly Line" project. It contains my show's opener (theme music and opening words) as well as the show's closer (again, theme music and parting words). These sections, for most episodes, are exactly the same. Therefore, it makes sense to have them together and synchronized. It's possible that these could be mixed down into a single track, but that removes the ability to change the volume levels or make modifications. Unless I know something will always be used in the same way every time, I prefer not mixing them down into a single track. It's easier to move a volume control or mute something one week than have to recreate it.

GEEK TRICK: When you start getting multiple tracks on the same screen, it can be a pain to see what's in need of editing and adjusting, and what's already where it should be. Each track view can be collapsed so that just a sliver of the track view is visible. For me, anytime I collapse a track, that's a key that I don't need to worry about that area, at least for now. It's where it needs to be, both timing-wise and sequence-wise. It saves real estate, and frankly, you want as much visible real estate as possible when doing waveform editing.

A typical edit flow, showing tracks that are situated and ready versus what I am actively examining/editing.

In the first post in this series, I mentioned that I would silence audio first. Rather than delete sections outright, I'd highlight them and Silence Audio. I do this because it lets me do a rough shaping of the show quickly, and then I can handle removing all of the silence in one step. To do this, select "Truncate Silence" from the Effect Menu:
One of my favorite tools, it saves a lot of time.
The dialog box that appears will give you the option to set an audio level that Audacity will consider anything quieter than to be considered "silence". It will also give you a limit that it will consider anything beneath that value to be acceptable, and only look for silence longer than the value entered. In my experience, natural conversation flow allows anywhere from a half a second to a second for transitioning between speakers, so my default value is half a second (if it feels rushed, I can always generate silence to create extra space). The utility then takes any silence sections more than half a second and cuts out those sections. That will leave you with a continuous stream of audio where the longest silence is half a second.

GEEK TRICK: This comes from music, and specifically, it's looking for the "musicality" of speech patterns. Everyone talks a little differently. Some are faster, some are slower. Some speak in quick bursts and then pause to reflect. Others will be fairly steady but keep talking without noticeable breaks. Nevertheless, most people tend to stick to a pattern when they speak. Most people generally pause about 0.2 seconds for where a comma would appear, 0.3 seconds for a period, and 0.5 seconds for a new paragraph (or to catch their breath). A friend of mine who used to work in radio production taught me this technique of "breathless read through", which isn't really breathless, but rather silencing breaths, but allowing for the time it would take for the breath to occur. In short, speech, like music, needs "rest notes" and different values of rest notes are appropriate. Try it out and see if it makes for a more natural sound.

No matter how well you try to edit between a speaker's thoughts, you run the risk of cutting them off mid vocalizing. Left as is, they are noticeable clicks. They are distracting, so you want to smooth those out. Two utilities make that easy; Fade Out and Fade In. Simply highlight the end or beginning of the waveform, making sure to highlight right to the end or start of the section you want to perform the fade (these are in reality very short segments) and then apply the fade-out to the end of the previous word, and apply the fade-in to the start of the following word. This will take a little practice to get to sound natural, and sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to get a seamless transition, but most of the time it is effective.

After highlighting an area to silence, you can shorten the space to flow with the conversation.

Select the ending of a waveform segment, and then choose Fade Out from the Effect menu.

Same goes for fading into a new waveform, but choose Fade In for that.

This technique is often jokingly referred to as the "Pauper's Cross Fade".

GEEK TRICK: Use the running label track or as many as you need to remind you of things you have done that you feel may warrant follow-up or additional processing. Also, using multiple comment tracks can help you sync up sections later.

Sometimes you will have to amplify or quiet someone's recording. I have experimented with a number of approaches with this over the years, and I have decided that using the Leveling effect, while helpful, messes with the source audio too much. The transitions between speakers will be noticeably more "hissy". With separate tracks for each speaker, this isn't an issue. Increasing or decreasing the track volume is sufficient. However, if your guests are all on the same track or channel, that's not an option. My preferred method in these cases is to use "Normalization", in which I set a peak threshold (usually +/- 3dB) and then select a section of a waveform and apply the Normalization to it. That will either increase or decrease the volume of that section, but it will do so with a minimum of added noise. Again, this is one of those areas where your ears are your friend, so listen and get a feel for what you personally like to hear. Caveat: this will no work on clipped audio. Unlike analog recording where running a little hot can make a warm sound on tape, in digital recording, you have space, and then you clip. If you clip, you will get distorted audio. Normalization or lowering the volume will not help. In short, if you hear someone speaking loud and hot, and you suspect they may be clipping the recording, ask them to move back from the microphone and repeat what they said.

OK, so there it is. Not too big a set of tools to learn, is it? You will note that I have covered these areas as individual steps, and as manual active editing. Can you automate steps? You can, but I've found that there are only a few things that make it worthwhile, and they need to be steps you would perform in sequence for a section or whole file. In Audacity, these sequences are called "Chains" and you can create and edit them by selecting "Edit Chains" from the File menu. I have found that there are a lot of unpredictables with audio. Thus, I encourage active listening rather than relying on the machine to process the audio directly. One you get a handle on the things you know you will do a lot, and that you know will be effective with minimal chance of backfiring, go nuts!

Next time, I will talk about packaging your podcast, including tagging, formatting, art for episodes, show notes, transcripts and all the fun meta-data you may or may not want to keep track of with each episode.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

So You Want To Produce a Podcast? Part Three: A Space to Create

You have decided on a topic. You have decided on who will participate in creating your podcast. By yourself or with others, the next step is the same. You need a space to create, record and produce. They take many forms, and mine is not the be all and end all. In fact, it's very much in a state of flux at the moment, but that's perfect. It means I can show you bare bones techniques as well as hint at future enhancements.

Making the most of a loft bed's space.

Monitor, microphone, laptop, and always something to drink nearby.
Yes, that is Neville Longbottom's wand. Why do you ask ;)?

A motley assortment of pillows, blankets, towels, and a fold-out sleep pad.
Sound deadening?
Now you're catching on ;). 

For starters, here's a look at my "creative space". I have a small bedroom/office that's what we lovingly refer to as "the island of misfit toys room" in that it has an odd shape due to being over a stairwell. It's a small room, and space comes at a premium, so recently I invested in a simple loft bed with an under-the-bed desk. This particular version comes courtesy of Ikea (their Sv√§ta Loft Bed and Desk). The bed is helpful for being a crash point during late nights or early mornings when I either need to be up very late or very early and don't want to disturb the rest of the house. The bed also offers another interesting benefit; the pillows, blankets, and towels on top of it are actively used when I record a show. Curious? I was hoping you might be :).

If you own a MacBookPro, you may be surprised to learn that it has a good quality built in microphone. You could record with it, but you'd need to be extra careful to isolate the laptop, and then invest in a separate wireless keyboard and mouse so as to not disturb it or make any sudden movements. For short work, such as recording intro and outro messages, or very short spoken clips, this is doable. I do it on occasion when I'm outside of my home setup and I don't want to drag everything with me. Likewise, at times like that, I use the microphone and voice recorder app on my iPhone, but that's way down there on my personal preference. To get the best sound, I prefer a dedicated microphone. More to the point, I prefer a microphone that I can move or reposition as I see fit. To that end I use a combination of the following:

Depending on the room that you are in, you may have a lot of natural reverb, or you may have carpet and drapes that help to muffle ambient sounds. I like to go a couple of steps further in that I take several pillows and a fold out sleeping pad to make a much more "acoustically dead" space for when I speak. I also take a large towel and I put it over my hands when I use the keyboard and mouse. It doesn't muffle all sound, but it quiets those movements down a lot. Remember, the fewer artifacts that you record, the less tinkering you will have to do later with silencing or trying to even out the sound recording.

A few strategically placed pillows, a sleeping pad and a towel, and we are off to the races!

Another very important piece of equipment to have, at least to me, is a good full ear set of studio monitors (or you can be normal and just call them headphones ;) ). I've been using the same pair for many years (Audio-Technica ATH-M40fs Studiophones), and I hope they never break. They cup the ear and they are great at preventing sound leakage. That's important when you get up close to a microphone, as you don't want other people's conversations to be invading your recording. I also like this particular model because it has a long cord, so if I need to get up to move something, I don't have to take them off mid recording.

Blue Snowball ice, Ringer Shock Mount, Audio-Technica Studiophones and a pop filter, all mounted to a Rode Swing Arm.

GEEK TRICK: There are two enhancements that are on the horizon for me. First is that, while the pillows and pad are effective and cheap options, they take up a fair amount of space and are not very customizable. To that end, a project I have in the works is to make a set of hanging "gobos", or pieces of sound deadening material that I can position exactly where I need them to provide optimum sound isolation. The second is to get something larger than my iPhone that I can use when doing on-air fact checks or reference checks. The keyboard works, as does the mouse, but again, noisy. What is much less so? An iPad or Android tablet. Plenty of room to see what I need to direct questions or comments, but very little noise to pick up on the microphone.

So there you have it. In case you have ever wondered what my current recording space looks like, at the moment, it looks like this. I hope to soon show some improvements and enhancements, but for a new podcaster, this method is effective, inexpensive, and takes up little space. Plus, you get to sleep on it later :). Three cheers for multitasking!

Do you like the approach? Do you think it's silly? Can you suggest improvements? If so, I'd love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave comments below. Next time, we'll talk about what you do after you've recorded your masterpiece.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

So You Want to Produce A Podcast? Part Two: Topic and Control

For each of the areas in my introductory "5000-foot view" post, I will take some time and dig deeper into them and provide a little closer look at each region. Warning, this may get messy as we continue.

All successful podcasts tend to hang on a central theme. That theme can vary wildly and cover a  lot of different areas, but there should be some anchor point that you as a show producer can draw on. Some of my favorite "wide net" podcasts are "Stuff You Missed in History Class" and "Stuff You Should Know" both from Their format allows them to cover a huge array of topics, and with that, there's the high probability that such a broad range will not hook every listener. By contrast, a focus on a very specific niche area, like Joe Colantonio's "Test Talks" Test Automation Podcast) or Ruby Rogues, means that you are likely to be hitting areas that you are familiar with and comfortable with, but also run the risk of hearing things you have heard before. In my opinion, the more niche the show, the less likely one or two people will be able to do it justice. Unless you are a genuine super-nerd on the area in question, and you can go into great depth on the topics you are covering, it's much harder to produce solid shows with only one or two people talking. Guest contributors make this kind of a podcast essential. By contrast, covering something broad or that changes week to week means that you can riff on it and provide your own thoughts and opinions and keep things fresh.

Regardless of the topic areas that you choose to cover, you will have to do your homework for any given show. If you invite a guest on the podcast, it's always a good idea to do some research on what they've done in the past, what their level of expertise is, how they acquired it, and get them to open up and share their journey to where they are today. Even if you are not appearing "on mic", if you have thoughts or ideas, or questions you would like to get covered, make sure the participants know about them. If you have the time to do so, compile a list of questions you'd like to ask your guest and send them to them in advance. You don't have to go by a set script, but by giving them heads up on the areas that you are interested in, they can answer back and either give you more areas to consider and broaden your questions or let you know ahead of time where there might be better resources for those questions. Either way, it helps you tailor what you ask your guests or, barring that, what you choose to ask yourself as you discuss those areas.

As a show producer, if you are appearing on air, one of your jobs is to be the show runner. With "The Testing Show", I usually defer to Matt Heusser when he's on to be the moderator of the discussions, but I take the lead to manage the topics and "watch the clock". This is an important part of topic and voice, and that's to make sure that all participants keep focused. That's not to say that a good conversation should be abruptly stopped, but as show runner, I need to make sure that I'm not going to have to be heavy handed about editing, so I tend to remind people of our timing.

Many podcasts are free-form, and they go as long as they feel like going. Some people do this better than others. One of my long time favorite podcasts is "Back to Work" with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin. Suffice it to say, every episode is long, an hour plus, sometimes as much as two hours. There is a lot of banter in their shows like two old pals just talking about whatever comes to mind. They use a lot of inside jokes, and it takes awhile to get to the topics, but they do so, and they make it engaging. Other shows I have heard don't do this quite as well. It's important to decide on your tempo, and how you want to achieve it. The Testing Show has settled on a general format, and we reached this format after discussions with our sponsor, QualiTest. We decided that the average show length would be 30 minutes. Sometimes they are shorter, sometimes a little longer, but generally, we aim for that sweet spot of 30 minutes. We also tend to have a "news segment" at the start of each show, which allows us the opportunity to be open and casual discussing a current-ish topic. We post new episodes every two weeks. That makes what we think is topical sometimes seem like old news by the time it appears. With that in mind, we aim to cover news items that have broader messages and takeaways. That leaves us with twenty minutes to talk about the main topic. The advantage of a set times show is that we can keep the message tight and focused. The disadvantage, at times, is that it can sound shallow or not go into the depth that some listeners would want. We take these on a case by case basis, and if a topic is really deserving, or covers enough unique ground to warrant it, we will do a two-part episode. Generally, though, I prefer to keep the shows as standalone entities, so I try my best to help make sure that heavy editing is not required. Sometimes I succeed. Often, I don't, but that's its own post ;).

GEEK TRICK: I encourage anyone producing a show to keep a production schedule on hand. This is key as you go through recording episodes. Based on the queue of recordings, and your posting schedule, when will this current recording appear? We have had experiences where we have been very lean with guests. A recording we make might get turned around and uploaded to the feed within a week (definitely stressful, but the content is fresh and current). At other times, we have a backlog of recordings to work through. We have had shows recorded that didn't get posted as episodes until two months later. As a show producer looking at this schedule and being aware of the post dates for any potential recording can help you decide if it makes sense to record a show on a given date or wait until later. Sometimes, a guest has a really tight schedule and you will only get them for that time period. If that's the case, you may need to shuffle your backlog a little, so that that special guest can appear in your episode stream sooner rather than later. Additionally, when guests or panelists are talking about upcoming events, it really helps to have a clear window as to when the show will air. It makes no sense to talk about an appearance or an event that will have already happened. One exception to this is if the materials for presentations are going to be made public by the time the podcast appears. You can then make a note of their location in the show's transcription and show notes.

Another thing a producer should consider is if they will be willing to "correct" items "in post" (meaning as they are editing, they notice something that's either incorrect/outdated, or could use clarification). Personally, my preferred method is to use the show transcript and notes for this purpose, but occasionally, something will stick out. To avoid confusion, or add clarity, it will make sense to drop a comment into the show mid-stream. I recently did this with regards to a discussion that we were having about Socialtext current CI system. Though I wasn't on that show, there had been enough changes that I felt it warranted to drop a small voice recording in and clarify what we are doing currently.

It may take awhile for your show to "find its voice". It's tempting to think that you will go live immediately with your first recording as your first episode. I strongly encourage you to record a "Pilot" podcast first, to see if you like the format, and to see what you will have to do to produce the show you want to produce. We did this with "The Testing Show" and decided that the first recording was just too rough to go live with. We still have it, and at some point, we may post it as an example of "first steps" to show what we started with, and how we made changes over the subsequent episodes. I have heard several people make the recommendation to record five episodes, and then record episode six and label that one as the first episode, discarding the previous five. If you are a one or two-person podcast with the same people each time, that makes sense. If you are asking for guests to appear on your show, it's not cool to take up their time and then not post their contributions. Since we decided from the outset to be a guest driven show, we went live with episode two.

Are there any other questions or things you wonder about when it comes to developing the voice of your podcast, and how to "run the show" once it's recording time? If so, please leave questions below, and I will be happy to answer them, expand on them in this post, or write new posts to talk about them.

Monday, February 27, 2017

So You Want To Produce a Podcast? Part One: The 5,000 Foot View

I need to thank Saron Yitbarek. She posted a tweet that had me laughing last night, as she was talking about how she needed to edit a podcast, but that she was procrastinating the editing, and she wanted to write a blog post about podcasting instead.

Please forgive me misspelling #TheTestingShow in my reply. I was a little tired. Still, her Tweet has been rattling around in my head all day. What if someone who listens to The Testing Show wanted to start their own podcast. What would I tell them? How should they start? What should they do? How do you actually produce a show? Could I put this all into one post?

I decided the answer to that was "probably not", but I could do a series of posts about what I do as a quick and dirty tutorial about my approach as to how I edit and produce The Testing Show, so if you will indulge me, that is exactly what I am going to do.

First, you need a show, and to have a show, you need a topic. It helps if the topic is something you are nerdy about, has a direct connection to your professional life, or is otherwise something you would climb a mountain of people to do and, thus, talk about it with a passion. Hyperbole much? Maybe, but seriously, if you dig the topic in question, you will be motivated to make many installments, and that tends to encourage the commitment to keep making episodes.

Second, you need to decide how you want to present your show. Do you want to be a first person podcast, where you do all the talking? Don't dismiss this, as several of my favorite podcasts are exactly this. Dan Carlin's shows Hardcore History and Common Sense, Stephen West's Philosophize This, most of the podcasts on, and a new one that I am currently enjoying called The Ends, all of these shows have a single speaker/narrator and work well in this format. Upside: you can produce shows anytime you want to. Downside: it's all on you, and that means you have to provide all of the research, commentary, and thoughts. An interview or panel show add the elements of additional speakers and commentary. Upside: you get a variety of viewpoints. Downside: your ability to schedule everyone to record can be a logistical challenge, and the more people you want on the call, the greater the challenge. For The Testing Show, we have a rotating recurring cast. The general rule is that three of us together meet the minimum requirements to record a podcast on a topic, or two of us and a guest also meet that requirement. In a pinch, if we are remote or at an event, we will do a one on one interview with someone, but we strive to get three people into the conversation so there's some give and take.

Third, how do you want to capture your audio? For the time being, I will leave video out of the mix. I will also leave in person recording out (though the Voice Recorder apps on iPhone and Android are actually quite good, and I have used them in live settings to great effect). We're talking just an audio recording done with remote participants. If you'd like an inexpensive, but quite reliable, recording method, I recommend using Skype and the ecamm Skype Call Recorder. There are numerous recording options, but for now, focus on the voice-only option. The calls are saved as .mov files, and each file can be imported into your audio editor of choice.

Fourth, you need an audio editor. Which one you use is up to you. For the past seven years, I've used Audacity. It's got a lot going for it, and once you get a handle on how to use it, it can be very fast to work with. Truth be told, there's a lot of features that will feel like overkill, and if you want to record a podcast, 90% of the features will remain untouched, but I promise, the 10% that you do use you will use all the time, and they will become second nature to you (and as soon as they do, don't be surprised to find out that the number of "essential features" starts to creep up ;) ). Whatever you use, make sure that you can import the file types you save. Yes, I'm using a Mac, so I'm using Mac vernacular here. Once I've imported the Skype call as a .mov file, I am presented with a stereo track that has two channels. The first is the channel with just my dialog or the dialog of the person that recorded the call. The second channel is the dialog of everyone else on the call. If you want to go very clean and are willing to spend the time to do it, you can have everyone record their own version of the call, send you their .mov files, and you can import them all together.

GEEK TRICK: If you want to go this route, and you want to be a little cheap on the sync-up options, record a "beep series" at the start of the recording, and occasionally, during silences, insert the beep series again, as a standalone audio spot. Also, run the beep series at the end of the recording. Why? This series of beeps will be a visual cue when you import the audio files to help you line everything up. One you do that, split all of the stereo tracks into mono, then mute the secondary tracks that have multiple voices together. If you do this, you will get multiple first person recordings, made local to their systems, and the odds of removing drop outs and clicks/audio artifacts are much higher.

If you can't get a native recording from everyone, or if you are the only one able to do the recording (common if you ask a guest to be on the show; it's rude to ask them to shell out for software they may never use again), then you can import a single .mov file, split it into two mono tracks, and sync-lock the tracks together. This way you can select sections in each track to mute, and if you cut out sections of audio from one track, you will also be cutting the same time period in the other track.

GEEK TRICK: One of the easiest ways to do a fast condensing of a recording is to use the "Truncate Silence" feature. You enter in a minimal time limit that you want to search for (usually anything longer than a second), and you truncate all of that down to individual silences of one-half second. Why? This is a typical time space in average conversations. By reducing all silences to anything less than a second, you can take out several minutes from a podcast recording easily, with very little chance of cutting off something important. Along with this, if you listen to tracks and decide you want to cut sections, I suggest selecting the section and muting it first (meaning silence everything in that selected space, which on the Mac is Command-L, and Ctrl-L on the PC). By doing this, you can do a rough cut of your show, chop out the bits you know you're not going to use, then run Truncate Silence to squeeze everything together.

Another consideration; this is important when you decide to publish... do you want to have show notes? Do you want to have a Transcript? Do you want to have both? The Testing Show provides both show notes and a full transcript of the audio. I have tried a number of methods for this, and truth be told, I keep returning to this approach. Fire up whatever word processor you want to use in one window, and your editor in another. As you do your fine editing, type out your transcript in time with the second by second audio scrubbing you are doing. If you are not providing a full transcript, this will be overkill. If you are not doing what I refer to as "grammatical audio editing" (that's removing the "um's", ah's", like's", "you know's", and other vocal tics we all use when we speak) then again, this is overkill. If, however, you decide to provide both a grammatical audio edit and a full transcript, you might as well do them both simultaneously. You may incur a 15-20% overhead by doing both at the same time, but that's not bad, really.

GEEK TRICK: If you come across a comment that you think might need referencing in the show notes, either highlight it or insert an end-note and type a reminder text about that entry. Later, when you review the end notes, fill in the actual reference values or URL's to resource links. If you are online and can do it right then and there, all the better. Seriously, do this, and you will have produced 75% of your show notes. As to the pithy commentary to add as your "selling paragraph", that's an everyday struggle, but you will get better the more you do it. Seriously, though, I think I spend more time trying to get the introductory paragraph together at times as compiling all of the reference materials, and yes, I frequently feel like I'm an idiot as I review the text I've written, but over time, you just learn to roll with it. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it falls flat. So it goes.

Finally, you may want to spice up your podcast with music, inserted comments (bumpers) and some intro and outro comments. You may decide to do this differently each time, or you may want to standardize what I call "audio beds" that include these. For The Testing Show, our intro and outro music is provided by my band, Ensign Red. If you can make your own music, that will provide you with the ability to customize it as you need for your intros and outros or other uses. If you are not musically inclined, there are numerous sources of Creative Commons free use music samples that you can download and use. If you'd like to take the plunge, start with and see what sounds interesting to you. It's good protocol to give credit to the artists whose music you choose to use in your podcast. Mention them in your show notes and in the podcast itself. It encourages discovery of their music and thus, makes them more willing to keep creating Creative Commons content.

So there you have it, a whirlwind look at creating a podcast. Have I left a lot of stuff out? Most certainly. Would you like to know more? I'm happy to share what I know and how I do it, partly because I know the challenges of getting started and how large a mountain that is. Also, I have a slightly selfish ulterior motive. My hope is that, by sharing these posts, and giving people a peek into my world of producing these shows, someone might comment back and say "you know, you could do this sequence of steps so much more efficiently if you just [fill in the blank]." Hey, it happens with code review all the time, so why not with podcast production review as well :)? 

Oh, and Saron, if you do publish that blog post, please let me know. I'd love to read it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Aedificamus: Temptation Bundling and Topping Out

I've been taking part in an interesting experiment over the past year and a half, give or take a few weeks. If you are reading this post, you've already seen the "Aedificamus" in the title. That means this is a post about health, fitness, and my often fumbling and stumbling approach to it.

One of the things that I have found interesting is how easy it is to find escapes from things I need to do. I have the best of intentions. I have set and calendared the things that I know I need to do. Yet, there is always a diversion, a distraction, some way I can wiggle out of what I planned to do. Then, I get down on myself for missing the mark or not doing what I know I should be doing. I think this stems from the fact that I overestimate both my energy reserves and my willingness to do things, especially if those things result in me being sore the next day. So what is an earnest person to do?

Two people have been instrumental in helping me think about this in a different way; SuperBetter author Jane McGonigal (if you have not seen her talk about "The Game that can Give You Ten Extra Years of Life", I highly recommend it) and Manoush Zomorodi of the "Note to Self" podcast. Both Jane and Manoush have explored the ways that technology, play, and the quirkiness of our brains can lead to interesting discoveries.

Jane specifically opened up the idea of incorporating gaming into my workout routines. Most of us look at gaming as a sedentary affair. True, there are fitness games and games that specialize in movement (I have several revisions of Dance Dance Revolution, as well as two high-quality Red Octane dance pads that get good use). However, the majority of games don't fit into a physical activity model. That doesn't mean that we can't tweak the way we play so that we can include activity.


I've incorporated a rebounder, or a small trampoline, into my time when I play casual games. This might sound strange, but it is surprisingly effective. As I stand on the rebounder, I am constantly shifting my weight. The bounce and the movement require my body to adapt, as well as to counterbalance. Additionally, the actual gameplay becomes more challenging. I have to play while in unbalanced motion. The net result is that I am able to do a process of "temptation bundling". The idea behind temptation bundling is we take something we should be doing but we may put off or otherwise shy away from and blend it with something we actively enjoy but may feel guilty giving our time to. The net result is, I get to play the various games I enjoy and at the same time give myself a vigorous workout.

During an episode of Note to Self called "Your Quantified Body, Your Quantified Self", Manoush shared stories from a number of listeners, as well as interviews with experts, on the promise of all of this collected data that we can record about ourselves through our various fitness trackers and devices, and what it ends up meaning to us. As I have used the LoseIt application, over time I have become familiar with a set of basic metrics. One of the key features of LoseIt is the "Challenges" space. People can compete individually or against others in teams to meet fitness and nutrition goals. What makes the metrics interesting is that they all "top out". Sure, you can do more, but the point accumulation stops.

Here's the gist of the point accumulations. Other than logging in every day and recording food and activity, you can quantify the following:

- Eat 75 calories of fresh fruit to earn 1 point. You top out at 3 points (225 total calories).

- Eat 25 calories of fresh vegetables to earn 1 point. You top out at 8 points (200 total calories).

- If you exercise (or earn a caloric adjustment from your fitness tracker) each time you burn half of your current bodyweight in calories, you earn 1 point. A 200 lb person would earn 1 point for every 100 calories burned. It would be a different value for other weights, but the same principle applies. Everyone tops out at 10 points (in my example, 1000 calories).

- If you record breakfast and lunch, and each meal has a caloric intake of 150 calories or better, you get 5 points for each meal. If you log dinner, you get 2 extra points, for a max of 12.

- If you weigh in once a week, you get 10 points. Any additional days you weigh in over the course of the week gets you 1 additional point for each day you weigh in, for a maximum of 16 points.

- You can earn points towards your weight loss goal, or while maintaining your weight. If you maintain your weight during the week, you can earn up to 40 points per week. If you lose weight based on your goal, you can earn up to 50 points per week.

Seems like a lot to wrap your head around, but think of puzzle pieces. Figure out how to get 225 calories of fresh fruit and 200 calories of vegetables, and I'm done with those needs for the day. If I burn 1000 calories in a given day, I've maxed out. If I've lost weight at the target level or maintained, I top out there, too. Topping out allows me to say "enough". If I top out, I'm good. I need not keep going for that day. Of course, I shouldn't reverse the process by doing something that will undermine my efforts, but I don't feel like I have to keep slogging. When I see that I 've topped out, I don't have to focus on that goal any longer, at least for that day.

Ultimately, success occurs when we are enjoying the process and when we can see that we have put in sufficient effort without overdoing it. Gaming may not be your thing, but maybe Netflix is. You may not have a rebounder, but you may have a treadmill, or a stationary bicycle, or something else you can do to be active while you do that thing you really like to do. I'd be curious to hear what your temptation bundles are. If you would like, please share them in the comments section below.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Aedificamus: The Value of Continuous Feedback

One thing I owe my readers is a full review of LoseIt. I keep saying I'm going to do one, but each time I try to get into it, I find the review keeps getting longer and more detailed. For those willing to wait for that, I'll plan to post it by the end of the week. The "tl; dr" version is "a great way to track calories and exercise, interact with others on your journey, and make fitness and weight loss somewhat fun and entertaining, or at least as fun and entertaining as it can be".

The piece I want to talk to for this posting is the community aspect, and how that community can be helpful if you let it be. With a couple of exceptions, my "friends" within the LoseIt app are people I do not know in real life. My sole interaction with them, at least so far, is via the LoseIt app. I know some might think that that's a very weak connection, and probably not really helpful beyond superficial cheerleading. I understand that reasoning, but I would have to soundly say to anyone who thinks that way, "you are wrong".

I had an interesting experience after I came back from Philmont in July 2016. Over the course of two and a half weeks, where I'd exercised a tremendous amount, burned a lot of calories, and kept a meticulous measure of my food, I should have come back leaner and lighter than ever. Instead, I came back close to twelve pounds heavier than when I had left. I was weirded out by that, and I felt a little ashamed. Maybe I hadn't kept as good a track as I intended. Maybe my calculations were wrong. Maybe I didn't work as hard as I thought. Regardless, I certainly didn't want to post a twelve-pound weight gain. What would my friends think?! Yes, even at this point, my primary feeling was of shame because I'd drifted so far off my course. My answer? I'd stop posting my weigh-ins for a bit, jut until I got back to my earlier number and then I could pick up like nothing happened. Surely it wouldn't take that long.

Days stretched into weeks, and weeks stretched into months, and then it dawned on me that I'd stopped weighing in entirely. I still posted, still logged my food, still cheered people on, but my weight hadn't moved on the charts for three months. Hmmm. Well, I better take a look. I mean, come on, how bad could it be?

I stepped on the scale and ended up reading a weight that was thirty pounds heavier than when I reached my lowest weight back in March of 2016. Thirty pounds!!! What the...?!! I knew full well what had happened, and why. I felt embarrassed to post a follow-up. It felt good to get that daily high five for being on track, even if the daily high five was coming from people I didn't really know. For certain, my embarrassment of having to post a reversal made me shy away from weighing in each day, and that shying away from weighing every day removed me from that immediate feedback loop. I ate much the same as I had been, and I figured I was moving about the same amount, but over the course of several months, the food intake crept up, the activity level crept down (injuries and minor aches helped that along, to be fair) and thus, I found myself in negative territory, giving up thirty pounds of gains.

I tried quietly setting a new goal, and I even made a post stating that I was trying a new plan of attack. Net result? New update and a definite highlight of reversal.

What also resulted? One of my friends gently calling me out and reminding me that I'd finally faced the elephant in the room and that I could move forward from here. 

How has reality looked since then? Like this:

That old familiar saw-tooth pattern is with me again. I'm down roughly 6 1/2 pounds in the past couple of weeks. I have up days and down days, sometimes in a row, but usually back and forth. It's maddening, but it's also helpful. If I have a particularly big drop in a day, it's an indication that I can put the brakes on a little. If I bounce up a touch, it's an indication that I need to be more active. If I bounce up a lot, I need to seriously think about what I ate the day before, and see how I make sure to not repeat it today. The key point is everyday feedback, both from my app via pictures and data points, and those daily cheers and well wishes from virtual friends contribute to success. The real takeaway is our online friends are our support system, and they want us to succeed. They will cheer us on, but they will not often call us on our BS. They will wait and watch patiently, to see what we ultimately do. In my case, it was obvious that my lack of weigh-ins was a sign that I'd lapsed. When I stepped up and admitted it, no one called me a failure or lazy or any of that. They just said "glad to see you are back on track. Good luck out there."

Fitness goals are often challenging. They take a lot of patience and focus. Quick feedback is helpful but more important is a willingness to accept that feedback and actually act on it. Get over the embarrassment of lapsing. It doesn't mean we lack discipline. It means we're human, like roughly eight billion others out there. Own that humanity, log the discrepancies and move on. Our friends want to celebrate our successes, not remind us of our failings. No, really, it's true. If we have a bad day, acknowledge it, deal with it, and do better the next day, and the next day, and the next. Ultimately, we will reach the goal we have set and probably much faster because we are allowing for regular feedback each day. Don't let temporary embarrassment derail your goals. Use the feedback each day to plan an even better tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Everything Old is New Again: Adventures in Khan Academy

One of the things I decided I wanted to do more of back in December (remember, I don't do New Year's Resolutions, I try to ingrain habits before January 1st whenever possible ;) ) was to look back at the areas of my knowledge that I once knew or learned, but that time and inattention have seriously atrophied. For me, one of those areas is Mathematics.

Granted, I use programs, spreadsheets, and calculators quite a bit. I can manipulate formulas and compare results as good as anyone, but how well do I really remember even the most rudimentary of skills? How do I find the area of a trapezoid? Can I do Greatest Common Factors and Least Common Multiples quickly in my head? How much Geometry do I really remember? How about Calculus? OK, to be fair, I made it through first-semester Calculus in college and was overjoyed to have received a good grade. I then stopped due to time and work constraints, so I only got so far.

Khan Academy has what I consider to be a neat collection of Mathematics courses and challenges that you can work through. They have Mathematics topics broken down by discipline, as well as by what grade (K-8 and High School) they represent. At the moment, I'm reviewing 6th Grade math (hey, you have to start somewhere, right ;)?). They have individual modules that you can practice, videos that talk about the concepts, and mastery challenges you can perform and record your progress. My current goal, alongside keeping up a streak as long as I can, is to get to 100% mastery on all math levels through high school. As you can see, I have plenty to do still:

As a kid, I used to consider Math to be the bane of my existence. Now? It's fun! What's more, I'm realizing how many things I learned one way, but are now being taught in a slightly different manner. It's been fun to see the differences and how some of the explanations are better than what I learned, and how I still reactively use the tools I was given several decades ago because, well, that's what I mastered and still consider "my way" of doing it. Perhaps more interesting is looking back and realizing that I either learned many of these things much later than the grade they correspond with or that I never learned them at all, at least not in this context.

Khan Academy does a great job at focusing on the basics, and I'd like to challenge my readers out there to pick an area they'd like to develop a better proficiency. Like me, you may discover that you'll be eating a few pieces of humble pie along the way, but you may also unlock a fun new pastime looking at something you may have long since stopped using, or at least actively thinking about.

If you'd like to follow along with me, my Khan profile is here :).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Water Flowing Underground

Well, it's the end of another eventful year. Much has happened. I've been involved in many interesting endeavors, and I've learned a lot about myself this year. This was a topsy-turvy year for many, both in the pop culture and political sense. It seems for many we are making decisions to look for ideas and think about things in ways that agree with our views of the world. That's both rational and long term bad for us. I won't be talking about politics with this post, other than to say that I believe local action and local involvement has to be where we all start because that's where we individually have the most control and effect.

The title this year of this post is "Water Flowing Underground", and yes, this is yet again a lyrical nod to the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime". Why did I choose this line for 2016? It felt like this was a year of digging. If I wanted to get to the water that would sustain me, I would have to work for it, and in many cases, work harder than I have before.

First, let's start with a little bit of "Aedificamus". This was a year I focused on being more quantified in my actions. I measured my food. I measured my exercise. I wore a fitness tracker each day. I set a goal and I came darn close to achieving it, and then part of me stopped paying attention. No, that's not really true. The truth is I grew weary of the level of activity and focus needed to hit the aggressive goal I had set for myself. What's more, I discovered that I was capable of being injured in ways that took far longer to be healed than I imagined possible. I developed golfer's elbow (which is odd because I don't play golf). Seriously, though, what that means is that I developed a repetitive stress injury on the inside of my elbow, at the joint where my humerus and ulna meet. It's made lifting weights and doing a number of exercises challenging. I have to be careful as to how I lift things and how I use my elbow. In addition, in the latter part of the year, I developed plantar fasciitis in my left foot. What that has meant is that my previous gung-ho approach to walking 10,000 plus steps each day is now determined by how my foot feels in any given day. The net result is that I gave up some of my progress on my weight loss. I'm still considerably less than I was at the start of this journey, but compared to this time last year, I'm actually up about ten pounds. Still, I am wearing the clothes I bought for the smaller framed me, and they still fit comfortably, but I have a reminder that I need to mend and I need to keep healthy, plus I need to figure out some adaptations to my training and eating so I can get back to making progress, even when my body doesn't want to cooperate.

Next, I made a conscious decision to scale back on several areas so that I could focus on a few key areas I've really wanted to develop. That meant taking a step back from freelance writing and yes, even contributing to this blog, so that I could help bring forth a new venture. That new venture that started this year is "The Testing Show", a podcast that I produce, edit, transcribe and publish each week through QualiTest and on iTunes. I knew going into this that I had a goal for the production quality and listening experience for this podcast. To that end, I think it's safe to say that I've spent more cumulative time on this show than any other initiative I've been involved with this year. As well as being a regular panelist on the show (along with Perze Ababa, Jess Ingrassellino, Matt Heusser and Justin Rohrman), I also edit every show and produce a transcript and show notes for each episode. In short, if you like the flow of the show, the accuracy of the transcript and the relevancy of the show notes, I get to take the credit for that. If you don't like them or find any of the above in need of improvement, I am also the one to talk to about that. Without going into details, I probably spend anywhere from six to eight hours producing each episode. That's because I want the listening experience to be clean, and I want the transcript to be as accurate as possible. Do I have to edit the shows so that every "um", "ah", "like", "you know", and circular verbal tic is removed? Probably not, but I value podcasts that go that distance. Shows like Freakonomics, Planet Money, and Hardcore History are my gold standards. I aspire to have our shows be that clean and that focused. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I miss the mark. Each time I learn something new and get just a little bit better.

On an additional physical level, I took on what was possibly the biggest trek of my life, as well as the biggest challenge to the way I live and work every day by going off the grid and hiking into the New Mexico wilderness in July of this year. As Scoutmaster of a Boy Scout Troop, we put together an expedition to spend sixteen days in the Southwest, twelve of them at Philmont Scout Ranch and the surrounding Carson National Forest. We hiked for ten days, covered about eighty miles on foot, climbed over a few mountain ridges, dealt with extremes of temperature, and learned how to orienteer for real in spaces where there were no trails. Most of all, I had to make the decision to turn leadership over to a group of 14-16-year-olds and put my trust and faith in them that they would make the right decisions for the ten days we were on the trek. I am very much of the mind that I often do things myself if I don't trust that they will be done the "right way". Well, the Philmont Way doesn't care what the adult leaders think outside of an advisory capacity. What the boys decide determines the outcome, and we agreed to that. Most of the time, it turned out OK. Occasionally, I had to be sneaky and offer suggestions or show where we needed to go, but I was admonished by my co-leader that I needed to keep such interventions to a minimum. We all made it through intact, some scrapes, some bruises, a little altitude sickness here and there, but overall, much better for the experience. What's more, I learned that I had it in me to hand over control to others, and I learned to accept that my way need not be the only way. It about drove me crazy at times, but I was happy for the experience nonetheless :).

On the conference side this year, I decided to focus on my own area this year. Philmont was going to take a lot of time this year, so I decided that I would not travel for conferences this year. I was happy that STPCon came to Millbrae, CA, and I was also happy that the organizers told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had BETTER submit some talk proposals, as they were literally less than five miles from my home. To that end, I presented talks on the Intersection of Accessibility and Inclusive Design and shared a workshop on How to Teach New Testers. Those topics were also worked on and developed more in the Bay Area Software Testers meetup, along with our quarterly Lean Beer discussions, which opened up new areas for me to dig this year.

On my everyday work side, we've been making changes to our core team. Some of our most seasoned veterans have moved on to other endeavors. I've celebrated four years at Socialtext, and I am now the fifth most senior person in our company. That seniority is measured in weeks and months in a few of those cases. This means my leaning on more knowledgeable people gave way to my having to dig even more and learn even more than I ever thought possible. I now feel like the one that people come to for answers, both in the testing sphere and, more frequently, in the programming sphere. While I can safely say I have a lot more to learn in that latter area, I do feel that I am working in an environment that will let me dig as deep as I want to with as much energy as I can muster, and I will be encouraged and helped along the way. That's one benefit of working for what is, in effect, a very small company, even though that company is an acquisition of a much larger one. We are left to run as a scrappy little team, and that scrappy little team encourages everyone to dig if they want to.

So what does 2017 look like? I'm hoping to get back out and participate in conferences again, whether it be as a participant or as a speaker. I'd like to attend some development conferences or some broader industry events, and see if I can help develop a broader message of testing and quality. I'm aiming to expand Weekend Testing Americas to do more events at different times other than just on Saturdays (that's what people have said they want to see, so we will certainly give it a try). All in all, I am optimistic, and if there are areas that I am less optimistic about, I am going to remind myself that if it is within my sphere of influence and control, I best do all I can to influence events and outcomes as much as I can so that I can be optimistic going forward. One thing is for sure, water's flowing underground. If I want to get to it, it's up to me to dig for it. Same as it ever was ;).

Friday, November 4, 2016

Adventures in Empathy - Simulating mild vision loss with the Cambridge Inclusive Design Toolkit

Last year, I spent a fair amount of my presentation time talking about ideas behind Inclusive Design, and how the both enhance and help contribute to performing Accessibility testing. One of the resources I suggested was the Inclusive Design Toolkit developed and used by the University of Cambridge. In addition to a wealth of information on their site, their methods go beyond software. Since they test numerous physical items, they do not rely on software tools only but have actual physical tools that you can use.

One of those is their Cambridge Simulator Gloves. These are rigid pieces of flexible plastic that can be adjusted to simulate a variety of physical issues with hands (e.g. rheumatism, arthritis). These are seriously cool pieces of kit, but they are pricey (£155 per pair, which is at this writing close to $200). Less expensive but also seriously cool are the Cambridge Simulation Glasses. These are considerably less expensive (£30 for a set of five glasses, which is less than $40 as of this writing), and therefore are easier for individuals looking to dabble in Inclusive Design to do so. The University of Cambridge is quick with orders and I received mine within a week of placing it. For shipments coming from the UK to the USA, really, that's pretty good.

Here's the single user Cambridge Simulation Glasses pack.

OK,  so what in the world is this?

The idea behind the simulation glasses is that you as an individual can experience progressive vision loss. Personally, I can already empathize because I have developed classic middle-aged person near-sightedness; I need readers to type this blog post, for example:
Not a fashion accessory, but also not a permanent fixture on my face (yet).
I do need them anytime I try to read or type anything.

If you are not already wearing prescription glasses, contacts, or need readers just yet, you may be wondering how you might be able to simulate mild vision loss. The simulation glasses do exactly that. Just put a pair on, and you will experience a little bit of fuzziness to your vision. If you want to intensify the effect, put on another pair of glasses over the top of the ones you are currently wearing. The kit comes with five pairs of glasses, and believe me, by the time you have put on all five, you will find it challenging trying to read much of anything.

If you wear glasses, you wear these over the tops of the ones you are wearing to give you a graduated simulation.

The loss of visual quality as you stack glasses.

The image above gives you an idea as to how fuzzy your vision gets with these, but it is even more jarring as you actually wear them. aAt the maximum level, you can really see how frustrating it is when you try to look at a screen or an object that has low contrast. Trying to determine what it is, much less how to use it, can be a real struggle. Again, there are software tools that simulate this, but there's something very interesting about being able to put on these graduated "fuzz" devices and try to do everyday tasks I take for granted.

For those who are interested in experiencing your apps, or your everyday products in a new way, and to develop a bit of empathy for your less visually normative friends (and those who live long enough will most likely get to join our ranks), then I do encourage getting these simulation glasses. They are worth the expense, and they do help reshape and reframe the way you see the world... or don't see it, in this case.