Sketching Webvisions 2014

At a conference last fall I discovered sketch notes.  The idea of sketch notes is that by using both sides of your brain - artistic and analytic -- you will take more engaging notes and remember the information better.  As an experiment, I decided to test this idea at Webvisions, a web technology and design conference.

I enjoy doodling, although I don't do it as much as I used to in college or high school.  I have also found that sketching is a good way of drawing out ideas when collaborating on group projects (pun intended).  Although drawing works for creating ideas, I wondered whether my notes would be more useful if I tried sketching them.  Here's what I discovered.

My tools were my old iPad, an app called Paper by 53, and a cheap stylus.  On the first day I just started drawing. That night I read half of The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking by Mike Rohde. The book is half inspiration and half "how to."

Here are the benefits I got from sketching notes:
  • Having to draw what I saw made me more observant of the speakers and the slides.
  • I also had fun drawing the presenters, but more about that later.
  • There's a challenge in trying to capture the spoken ideas using visual shorthand.
  • In trying to frame the ideas, I'm testing what I understand of the talk.
  • Drawing my notes was a ice breaker with other people at the conference, which was nice.
  • Drawing kept my hands moving, helping me focus even if my brain or body was tired.
Not all of the presentations were conducive to drawing. Here are some problems I had:
  • It's tough to draw quickly enough when the speaker has a long list of references. In that case I tried to focus on the less-detailed concepts of the talk.
  • It was redundant and difficult to sketch when a presenter showed video clips.
  • Same with presentations that were already visually packed. I tried to choose a key aspect of the talk and sketch only that.
  • I'm not a trained artist, so I had mixed emotions about sharing my cartoons of the speakers.
  • It's hard to plan the layout of the page when the presenter doesn't provide an outline of the talk at the beginning.  A couple times the composition of the notes got weird.
This page shows the right level of "cartoony" for the presenter picture.
I like the Roomba path cartoon.
People asked if drawing the notes distracted me from the presentation, but listening and drawing don't seem to conflict.  Most of the time the slides were timed so I could look at them, then return to sketching / taking notes.  As mentioned, the only times I had difficulty were when there was a video, or a long list of items. In those cases, I could switch over to the iPad's browser, find the reference, and email it to myself for later. But the sketch notes were mainly to (a) help me process the ideas and (b) make the notes interesting for whoever read them later.

I had some problems drawing the presenters. In The Sketchnote Handbook, Rohde suggests drawing the speakers ahead of the talk, using a photo you might find on the Internet. I didn't take his advice, and chose to draw them from live, as they walked and moved around the stage. It would've been hard enough from a still photo, but sketching as they moved through life was distracting.  Even worse, I wasn't cartoony enough. I often added too many details, which doesn't help with the notes of the presentation, and might even offend some people (I hope not!).

So, what are the results of the experiment?  Sketching the notes provided a way to quickly process and confirm what I learned in the sessions. During one talk, I realized I had barely any notes -- it was because the presentation had touched on so few concrete examples.

Also, drawing kept me focused. Even through three long days of presentations, my mind never wandered from the topics in the rooms.  And finally, hopefully, the notes are interesting to other people and will be shared.

Bottom line, there are plenty of visual note-taking methods.  Using The Sketchnote Handbook method was fun, and kept me focused.  You can see all of my Webvisions 2014 notes here on Google+.


10 Totally Extreme Beers - Part 2

6) Ninkasi

Beer has been around for a long time. A 6,000-year-old Sumerian tablet shows people drinking beer from a communal bowl through reed straws.  Sumerians knew that mixing water with bread would create a fermented brew.  Forty-five centuries ago, however, most of the brewers were holy women, priestesses. No wonder, then, that an important goddess for the Sumerians was Ninkasi.  

Ninkasi is the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer and alcohol, and is also credited with benefiting mankind. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, she lulled the wild man Enkidu with seven pitchers of beer and he settled down and became a civilized human.

The Hymn of Ninkasi is some of the earliest human writing, but it also happens to be a recipe for beer:

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort, Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine (You the sweet wort to the vessel) Ninkasi, (...)(You the sweet wort to the vessel) The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound, You place appropriately on a large collector vat. Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound, You place appropriately on a large collector vat. When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat, It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates. 
In 1989 the Anchor Steam Brewing Company attempted to recreate the ancient Sumerian recipe. Owner Fritz Maytag initiated his Sumerian Beer Project and the result was Ninkasi, a beer made according to the 4,000+-year-old recipe.   The result was "a sweet-sour brew flavored with dates and no hops," which doesn't exactly fit the modern idea of beer. Recently, however, sour beers have become more popular among the zithrophiles, so perhaps the Sumerian brew will become popular once again.

7) Guinness

Guinness may be one of the world's most common and recognizable breweries, but its iconic stout is what makes it so extreme.  From the very beginning, in 1759, when young Arthur Guinness signed a £45 per year lease for the St. James's Gate Brewery in Dublin for the next 9,000 years, he was planning for the future.

Guinness worked hard to protect his product and his brand. Whether it was taking a pickaxe in hand to protect his water supply from the Dublin Corporation, or registering the Guinness Harp trademark as soon as Ireland passed the Trade Marks Registration Act of 1875, he was the definition of an activist brewer.

When Guinness first started, beer wasn't the most popular Irish alcoholic drink. More often, people turned to whiskey, gin and poteen. But by the early 1800's, there were over 200 breweries in Ireland.  Much of the porter was imported from England, but Guinness brewed a version that was stronger than normal, calling it a stout porter, which eventually became stout beer.

For most of its life, Guiness has been a family-run brewery, which made it distinctive in other ways. In the 1920's workers had medical and dental benefits, a pension, and a paid vacation day in the country (not to mention two free beers per day).  One out of 30 Dubliners worked for Guinness in the early 20th century.  Being family-run also had drawbacks.  Before 1939, any Guinness brewer who wished to marry a Catholic was asked to resign. According to Thomas Molloy, writing in the Irish Independent, "It had no qualms about selling drink to Catholics but it did everything it could to avoid employing them until the 1960s."  Other social strife affected the beer: In the 1980s, as the IRA's bombing campaign spread to London and the rest of Britain, Guinness considered scrapping the harp as its logo.

And the beer has had an effect on popular culture: The Guinness Book of Records was created as a marketing giveaway to settle pub bets.

One interested physical aspect of Guinness stout is that the bubbles appear to sink, rather than rise.  This is because the bubbles touching the walls of a glass are slowed in their travel upwards, while bubbles in the center rise more quickly.  The rising bubbles create a current by the entrainment of the surrounding fluid. As beer rises in the center, it pushes the beer containing the outer bubbles downward. This effect occurs in any liquid, but it is most noticeable in dark nitrogen stout, with the lighter bubbles against a dark background.

8) Japanese hydrogen beer

The Asaka Beer corporation brews "Suiso" brand beer, in which the carbon dioxide normally used to add fizz has been replaced by the more environmentally friendly hydrogen gas. Two side effects of the hydrogen gas have made the beer extremely popular at karaoke sing-along bars and discotheques.

First, because hydrogen molecules are lighter than air, sound waves are transmitted more rapidly, so individuals whose lungs are filled with the nontoxic gas can speak with an uncharacteristically high voice. Exploiting this quirk of physics, chic urbanites can now sing soprano parts on karaoke sing-along machines after consuming a big gulp of Suiso beer.

Second, the flammable nature of hydrogen has also become a selling point, though it should be noted that Asaka has not acknowledged that this was a deliberate marketing ploy. The beer has inspired a new fashion of blowing flames from one's mouth using a cigarette as an ignition source.

"Mr Otoma drank fifteen bottles of hydrogen beer in order to maximise the size of the flames he could belch during the contest. He catapulted balls of fire across the room that Gojira would be proud of, but this was not enough to win him first prize since the judgement is made on the quality of the flames and that of the singing, and after fifteen bottles of lager he was badly out of tune."
Although Snopes.com debunked hydrogen beer as a hoax, the allure of explosive alcoholic beverages (that allow out to perform extreme karaoke, no less) lives on. One can dream, can't we?

Less explosive, but in a similar vein, Sapporo Brewing is working on a beer that will reduce greenhouse gasses and decompose garbage.
[Sapporo] is now on the verge of helping Japanese researchers create cleaner fuel cells, reduce greenhouse gases and eliminate waste...by using micro-organisms to decompose food and agricultural waste. Sapporo Breweries of Japan’s Frontier Laboratories of Value Creation in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, has been carrying out studies on hydrogen production since 2002.
Perhaps this will lead to an actual extreme hydrogen beer?

9) Quechua Chicha

Traditionally beer is made of malted barley.   Soaking the grain in water, and then stopping the germination by drying it develops the enzymes required to modify the grain's starches into sugars.  That sugar is consumed by the yeast during fermentation.  

Not all beer, however, uses barley.  Chicha is a kind of beer made from corn throughout Central and South America.  The Peruvian chicha made by the Quechua indians goes through a special process for developing the sugars in the corn.  The traditional method involves chewing the maize and spitting it into communal pot.  Since so much needs to be chewed for a batch, the work is shared among the people in the tribe.  Natural enzymes in the mouth, such as ptyalin, aid in converting the starch in the corn into fermentable sugars. This mash is then boiled and let to naturally ferment. 

The archaeobrewers at Dogfish Head made a version of this:
"Mr. Calagione hoped to make about 10 kegs of chicha, which would be available only in his Rehoboth Beach pub, Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats. The salivated corn output for the evening was 7 pounds, significantly less than the 20 Mr. Calagione had planned. He had a sore in his mouth. He was also forced to reconsider the commercial possibilities of chicha."
But, a modern beer drinker had a suggestion: “You want chicha, you should go to Queens, or any Peruvian or Chilean restaurant."  I imagine those restaurants don't follow the traditional path of a communal spit pot.

Perhaps the Dogfish Head experiment failed because it was made by men.  Traditionally, only women prepared the beer.  If men got involved it risked offending the Apus (mountain gods) and Mamasara, the corn goddess. 

10) Tesguino 

Tesgüino is a corn beer made by the Tarahumara Indians of Sierra Madre in Mexico. According to Wikipedia, the average Tarahumara spends at least 100 days per year directly concerned with tesgüino and much of this time under its influence or aftereffects. Tesguino is consumed in large quantities during ceremonial occasions, but it is also supposed to provide endurance and agility for ultra running skills.
When it comes to going ultra-distances, nothing could beat the Tarahumara – not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner. Very few outsiders had ever seen the Tarahumara in action, but amazing stories of their superhuman toughness and tranquillity have drifted out of the canyons for centuries. One explorer spent 10 hours crossing a mountain by mule; a Tarahumara runner made the same trip in 90 minutes.
Part of their skills come from living in the Copper Canyon mountains, and running regularly over treacherous courses, but perhaps the tesguino also provides energy and something else that gives their feet wings.

It is also said that natives of present-day Mexico, such as the Tapajos, Cubeos, Arapium and Panoans all mixed the bones of their relatives into the beer. Sometimes they cremated the bodies, then added the ashes to the beer. The bone ash acted as as finings or clarifiers in the beer, drawing particular matter out of the brew. It also kept the spirits of the dead within the tribe.  The charcoal gives it the smoky taste and the calcium in the bones help clarify the beer.  What clarifies life more than a hint of death?