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The (appropriately) quantified self

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A year after we moved to northern California I acquired a pair of shiny new titanium hip joints. There would be no more running for me. But I’m a lucky guy who gets to to bike and hike more than ever amidst spectacular scenery that no-one could fully explore in a lifetime.

Although the osteoarthritis was more advanced on the right side, we opted for bilateral replacement because the left side wasn’t far behind. Things hadn’t felt symmetrical in the years leading up to the surgery, and that didn’t change. There’s always a sense that something’s different about the right side.

We’re pretty sure it’s not the hardware. X-rays show that the implants remain firmly seated, and there’s no measurable asymmetry. Something about the software has changed, but there’s been no way to pin down what’s different about the muscles, tendons, and ligaments on that side, whether there’s a correction to be made, and if so, how.

Last month, poking around on my iPhone, I noticed that I’d never opened the Health app. That’s beause I’ve always been ambivalent about the quantified self movement. In college, when I left competive gymnastics and took up running, I avoided tracking time and distance. Even then, before the advent of fancy tech, I knew I was capable of obsessive data-gathering and analysis, and didn’t want to go there. It was enough to just run, enjoy the scenery, and feel the afterglow.

When I launched the Health app, I was surprised to see that it had been counting my steps since I became an iPhone user 18 months ago. Really? I don’t recall opting into that feature.

Still, it was (of course!) fascinating to see the data and trends. And one metric in particular grabbed my attention: Walking Asymmetry.

Walking asymmetry is the percent of time that your steps with one foot are faster or slower than the other foot.

An even or symmetrical walk is often an important physical therapy goal when recovering from injury.

Here’s my chart for the past year.

I first saw this in mid-December when the trend was at its peak. What caused it? Well, it’s been rainy here (thankfully!), so I’ve been riding less, maybe that was a factor?

Since then I haven’t biked more, though, and I’ve walked the usual mile or two most days, with longer hikes on weekends. Yet the data suggest that I’ve reversed the trend.

What’s going on here?

Maybe this form of biofeedback worked. Once aware of the asymmetry I subconsciously corrected it. But that doesn’t explain the November/December trend.

Maybe the metric is bogus. A phone in your pocket doesn’t seem like a great way to measure walking asymmetry. I’ve also noticed that my step count and distances vary, on days when I’m riding, in ways that are hard to explain.

I’d like to try some real gait analysis using wearable tech. I suspect that data recorded from a couple of bike rides, mountain hikes, and neighborhood walks could help me understand the forces at play, and that realtime feedback could help me balance those forces.

I wouldn’t want to wear it all the time, though. It’d be a diagnostic and therapeutic tool, not a lifestyle.

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13 days ago
Toronto, ON
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Climbing to the Next Level

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In 2014, I moved to Toronto, and I needed something to fill up my time on the weekend. I started taking walks. Lots of them, one or two every weekend. I even started tweeting about them and adding pictures.

Then on February 15, 2015, this website was launched as a clunky Blogger site. It was a place to rant about the days on Rob Ford’s Toronto, but I also added a page to it to track and organize some of the walks I had taken with a half-decent Twitter thread. It was a start.

Something happened in the latter half of 2017. I took a walk along Etobicoke’s shoreline, and noticed how public access along it was very fragmented. I wondered how it compared to other parts of Toronto, like downtown, the Port Lands and Scarborough.

So I started doing something new. I mapped it out (manually), and input the data into some spreadsheets to do some analysis. I was able to demonstrate, through hard numbers, that Etobicoke’s shoreline was vastly more fragmented, and with more of it in private exclusion, compared to other parts of the city.

Blogger was not really up to the task of handling all of this new information; it wasn’t capable of embedding the pictures, maps and spreadsheets like I wanted to, or if it was, it was going to be very difficult for me to figure out how to code it. I needed a proper web platform with ease of use upfront.

So I did a migration 3.5 years ago, making it into something different entirely. In addition to my walks, I made a space for analysis and information about the subject matter of my walks: shorelines, watersheds, neighbourhoods, corridors.

Up until this point, it’s all been from hand-drawn digital maps I did myself, either through my own observations and/or cross-referencing other sources. It was painstaking work, but I was happy with the result.

But I knew it could be better.

These days, the most powerful maps come from a Geographic Information System (GIS), which contain multiple layers of large datasets of points, lines, and shapes and the metadata attached to them. Naturally, I was attracted to this, with the detail and the wealth of open-source data that governments offer these days, which would enable me to refine my maps. But it felt like a huge leap.

So I enrolled in and recently completed an introductory course at [X] University to secure myself some of the fundamentals. It was an eye-opener; not only was I going to make detailed maps, but I could complete a higher level of analysis. I can now draw on more sources of information, crunch out new data, and visualize it way more efficiently than I could ever achieve with hand-drawn maps and spreadsheet data entry.

How many people are a five-minute walk from publicly accessible shoreline? What proportion of ravine lands are in private ownership? Which segments of railways and highways pose the greatest barrier based in an index of population and walking distance? These are questions that I could tackle in GIS.

So I find myself at the cusp of a similar spot I was in 3 years ago, looking at my current mapping data and thinking “how did I settle for this?”

With that, you can expect changes in 2022. I started recompiling my existing data into more detailed GIS shapefiles (though I had a bit of a setback). This will unlock new projects and new analysis. It’s exciting to be on this path towards the next level of analyzing local metroscapes. And perhaps, finding a new way to spread pride in them. Thanks to everyone who’s stuck with me over these few years.

Keep trekkin’ on.

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29 days ago
Toronto, ON
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Triple Tap to Capture

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Have you ever triple tapped the back of your iPhone? No?

I wish I could remember who on Twitter pointed out this Accessibility feature, but I wanted to highlight it here and how I use this gesture because it's such a fun shortcut for automation nerds.

Watch this.

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At any time, from any app, whenever I need to remember something, I can tap the back of my phone three times. An input dialog will appear, wait for me to type in what I need to do, and file away those items into OmniFocus for later. I never have to leave the app I'm currently using or even launch OmniFocus at all.

Here's how.

Settings.app → Accessibility → Touch → Back Tap

Back Tap gesture options screenshot

From here, iOS lets you assign actions to two different gestures: double tap or triple tap. You tap the back of your phone with a finger in quick succession, just like you would double click a mouse button.

Options include helpful system commands like

  • Open Camera
  • Lock Screen
  • Lock Rotation
  • Take a Screenshot
  • Turn on the Flashlight

as well as enabling iOS's many Accessibilty affordances and, for our purposes, running a Shortcut.

Back Tap command options screenshot

(I'll go ahead and add here that I only use the triple tap option because I found double tapping is too easily accidentally triggered during my normal day-to-day phone usage.)

If you have a Shortcut that you use frequently or want immediate access to, these tap gestures are a fantastic way to launch it.

As for my task capturing Shortcut, it's pretty simple.

  1. It prompts for input
  2. Splits what you enter into individual lines
  3. And creates a new OmniFocus task from each one

Screenshot of Capture Shortcut steps

You can download the Shortcut here.

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30 days ago
Toronto, ON
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What Is TextExpander?

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What Is TextExpander?

If you haven’t started using TextExpander yet, you should. The world’s most productive people use text expansion software; it saves them time and gives them a competitive edge. 

That writer who can finish a blog post in one morning? They might be shaving 30 minutes off their process by typing less.

That small business that replies to customers within an hour? They might be using fill-in-the-blank templates.

Whether you’re a business or a busy person, TextExpander can help you become more efficient and improve your communication.  

In this article, we’ll explain what TextExpander is, show you examples of how to use it, and share tips for getting started.

What is TextExpander?

TextExpander is an app that lets you summon up content with a couple of keystrokes.

The content is anything you save—words, phrases, paragraphs, images—and assign an abbreviation for.

For example:

;em for your email address
;ph for your phone number
;home for your home address

The combination of content + abbreviation is called a snippet.

A shorthand typing tool

In the image below, you can see a list of snippet abbreviations (right side) and snippet labels (left side). We can tell from the labels that the abbreviation thru expands the word “through” and that snp expands the word “snippet”. 

(Snippet labels don’t necessarily reflect a snippet’s exact content. For example, the snippet //tecom, which expands https://textexpander.com, is labeled “TE.com home page”.)

An autocorrection tool

See, above, how “explanaiton” expands to “explanation”? With this snippet in your library, whenever you type explanaiton by mistake, TextExpander will process the typo as an abbreviation and expand it to “explanation”. Same with ;hte, which expands to “the”. Clever, isn’t it?

Types of TextExpander snippets

Snippets can be more than simple text. You create snippets for your favorite emojis, snippets with formatted text and images, customizable snippets, and more.

Emoji snippets

Snippets with formatted text and images

Fill-in snippets

Fill-in snippets are like “saved replies”, but customizable. They can come with fill-in-the-blank form fields, like in the screenshot above, or a pop-up menu for choosing from a list of content options, like in the image below:

These are just a few examples of the types of snippets you can create. To discover more possibilities, check out this blog post.

Why you need TextExpander

TextExpander helps you communicate quickly and effortlessly: you can write a complete email in seconds with just a couple of keystrokes.

If you’re in customer support, TextExpander is one of the best tools you can use to improve your response time.

Save time

Even if your job doesn’t require you to send speedy replies, typing shorthand will save you tons of time. You can save 30+ hours a month with TextExpander.

Pull up information with a few keystrokes

Text expansion software functions as a second brain, storing useful information and expanding it whenever (and wherever) you need it.

With TextExpander, you can turn project-specific information—names, codes, URLs—into snippets ahead of time to quickly reference and add them to your documents. You can do the same with templates and checklists.

When information is easily accessible, you’re more likely to use it. And when the information you need appears where you are typing, you’re more likely to stay focused instead of going down some rabbit hole on the internet.

Leverage the wisdom of teams

Each team member has different skills and access to different types of information. In one team, one tech-savvy person might be great at writing troubleshooting emails. Another might create the best responses to customer complaints. Finally, there might be one who is the expert in one particular product.

Through the magic of shared snippets, the content created by each individual can add to a collection of team wisdom, ensuring everyone has access to the best replies.

Communicate consistently well

Sending the best messages isn’t just for customer support teams. You may be warm, respectful, and empathetic, but do your rushed messages to clients and coworkers reflect that? 

TextExpander helps you communicate well no matter what’s going on around you. You can even use TextExpander to ensure your language is inclusive and that you correctly spell people’s names:

Four essential types of TextExpander snippets

Now that you’ve learned what TextExpander is and what it can do, here’s essential content you need to turn into snippets:

Personal details snippets

Save your personal details as snippets.

  • Your first name (unless you have a two-letter name, that is)
  • Your last name
  • Your full name
  • Your email address
  • Your home address
  • Your personal website or blog URL

Professional/company info snippets

Create snippets for basic work info.

  • Your professional email signature
  • Your professional bio
  • Your LinkedIn profile URL
  • Your Calendly page URL
  • Your company name
  • Your company’s “About” info
  • Your employee identification number
  • Your company website URL
  • Your product description

Snippets for most-used phrases

Create snippets for stuff you always say.

  • Greetings
  • Sign-offs
  • Frequent comments
  • Common queries
  • Emojis

Snippets for checklists and templates

Save frequently-used information as snippets.

  • Checklists
  • Responses to FAQs
  • Cold email templates

Tips for getting started with TextExpander

Ready to stop typing everything? Here are tips for getting started with text expansion software.

Start with basic snippets

Create essential snippets (home address, phone number etc.) first. Get used to the software and identify an abbreviation system that works for you.

Use pre-made snippets

Subscribe to community snippet groups to get access to pre-made snippets. Popular ones include emoji snippets and snippets for the autocorrection of frequently misspelled words.

Choose good abbreviations

Duplicate the first letter (e.g., ddate, ssig) or use a punctuation mark as the first character (e.g. ;date, ‘sig) to make your abbreviation unique. Use abbreviations that you’ll remember (for example, “;em” for email).

Make a habit of creating snippets

Make a habit of turning content you repeatedly type into snippets. For example, you can set a rule that, whenever you type something twice, you’ll turn it into a snippet. Or that you’ll create snippets as part of the prep work for every new project.

Make time to build your snippet library

Set aside some time each week to build your snippet library. When it comes to creating snippets, a little—even five minutes!—goes a long way.

Keep an eye on the metrics

TextExpander tells you how many snippets you expanded and how many hours you saved each month. Make sure to check these metrics so you can stay motivated to continue building your library.

TextExpander makes you more effective

TextExpander helps you create personalized messages at lightning speed, ensures the messages you send are always impeccable, and frees you from having to type the same things over and over again.

Above all, TextExpander helps you get back the 30+ hours you waste each month with unnecessary typing.

Try the best text expansion software free for 30 days

Ready to discover a world where you can type as fast as you can think and always say the right things*? Sign up for a 30-day FREE trial.

*Right things must be saved as snippets in your library.

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38 days ago
Toronto, ON
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Voronoi Map of Federally Recognized Tribes

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Where is the closest federally recognized tribe? By dividing the United States into Voronoi cells, we can see the landscape of sovereign tribal nations which is so often invisible.

This is not a territory map. For that, we recommend visiting Native Land.

This map doesn’t include many tribes which lack federal recognition. There are 62 state-recognized tribes, mostly in the East, which don’t have the same self-governing rights as federally recognized tribes. There are also hundreds more that are entirely unrecognized by the US government, or have not sought recognition, or have had their recognition revoked.

Notice the distribution patterns in this map. Notice the clustered refugee tribes of Oklahoma and their homelands to the East. It speaks to the history of colonization – the removals and relocations, the dividing of peoples, and the shifting policies of the US government.

Map by Anders Sundell. As always, the Decolonial Atlas’ original media can be reused under the Decolonial Media License 0.1.

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58 days ago
Toronto, ON
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Guardian Cities: Los Angeles and the ‘Great American Streetcar Scandal’

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guardian cities los angeles traffic

The last train on the last line of greater Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric streetcar network made its last run on 9 April 1961. You can see the final days of this once-robust public transport system for yourself in the short film Ride the Last of the Big Red Cars.

This footage of the remaining “red cars” (as the Pacific Electric’s fleet was commonly known) strikes an elegiac tone, especially to modern Angelenos. They have little more than history books and the rose-tinted memories of old-timers from which to reconstruct the heyday of urban rail in Los Angeles, a city which spent decades after the disappearance of the red cars saddled with the reputation as a car-dependent, smog-choked, freeway-bound yet traffic-paralysed dystopia – and not without cause.

The Pacific Electric, along with the “yellow cars” of the Los Angeles Railway, made up the young southern California metropolis’ rail transit system throughout the first half of the 20th century. At the peak of their combined coverage and accessibility, they made Los Angeles’ public transportation the best in the country, if not the world. Why, then, did they vanish from the cityscape by the mid-1960s, their tracks yanked from the streets and their rolling stock tossed on the heap (or sent to Argentina)? What forces could have replaced the proud red and yellow cars with a fleet of plain old buses, the likes of which so many Angelenos still disdain today? It looks, to some, like the work of a conspiracy.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

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59 days ago
Toronto, ON
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