Being Grateful Is Good For You

Being grateful—for what others do, for good fortune, for what you have—is good for you. It makes you happier, helps you sleep better, and boosts your immune system. Being grateful is a good way to live and when you thank someone else for what they have done for you, I believe it fosters relationships, builds community, and encourages others to do the same.

I learned about the concepts behind journaling gratitude at my first KalamazooX when Elizabeth Naramore1 discussed her own gratitude journal. Around the same time, a Facebook friend started recording five things a day for which they were grateful. Looking back, this was the period when I started to acknowledge that I had unaddressed problems with depression, anxiety, and self-worth. Being grateful seemed like an easy place to start, so I gave it a try.

At different times, I recorded my gratitude using Facebook, Twitter, a physical journal, and my blog. Eventually, it started feeling stale or false; I was being thankful for inanimate or generic things like coffee, friends, or sunshine. Don't get me wrong, these are all fantastic things, but stating gratitude for coffee felt like my goal had become writing about gratitude than actually feeling grateful.

"…people are not so keen on just handing out personal information like their home address without at least knowing why."

Sometime before a visit to Boston, I had read about a man who set out to send one "thank you" note a day for a year. The idea of writing to people and thanking them directly was appealing. While in Boston, we visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and there I bought a box of postcards that I thought would suit this purpose. It took another two years and a move to Texas before I actually got started.

It has now been three weeks since I started; I have sent 20 cards, and have another four ready to go this week. Writing them is cathartic for me and I get a little excited to mail each one. I keep a list of the people I intend to write to and make sure to keep track of those to whom I have already written. Each day, I send one card, write one or two more, and send a message or two over the Internet to get addresses. However, it turns out that some people are not so keen on just handing out personal information like their home address without at least knowing why. This seemed odd to me at first and I felt untrusted. In addition, I felt a deep reluctance to explain why. It seemed I felt the value of this project was lost if the postcard was not a surprise. Of course, that is ridiculous; not only do people have every right to know why I would want their address, but if the surprise of receiving the card itself were the value, what would be the point of writing anything on the card?

So, I write this blog entry, in part, to provide an explanation for people when they ask why I need their address. That said, I also write it as encouragement to others who might be considering the start of their own gratitude project. Being grateful is powerful on its own, yet the responses I have received to messages I have sent have been wonderful, humbling, and kind. People are amazing, so tell them; the more you thank others for their impact on your life, the more you will be surprised by your impact on theirs.

  1. IIRC 

My Maps from Google

Google provides some extremely useful online tools that many of us have come to rely on. From Sheets, Slides, and Docs, to Gmail, Maps, and Keep, the advertising giant tends to cover all the angles. The most recent Google tool that I have started using is an improvement over an old service called My Places that started out as a part of Google Maps. It is called My Maps and provides users with the means to build custom annotated maps. Any maps you create can then be embedded into websites or shared via email and social media1.

When first visiting the site, you are offered an option to either create a new map or open an existing map. Any places you had in My Places are already transferred to My Maps and available to open if you wish.

Initial view after creating a map
Initial view after creating a map

Creating a new map presents you with a familiar Google Maps-style view but with additional overlays for editing the map. These are together at the top-left in two distinct groups. The first is the map structure where you can view and edit the name of the map and its layers, as well as add new layers and adjust the appearance of the base map layer. When I tried this, there were nine different base maps available; from left to right, top to bottom these are Map, Satellite, Terrain, Light Political, Mono City, Simple Atlas, Light Landmass, Dark Landmass, and Whitewater.

Map structure with "Base map" menu opened
Map structure with "Base map" menu opened

To edit the map name, map description, or layer name, just click the text.

Dialog for editing the map title and description
Dialog for editing the map title and description

Below the description are options to add a new layer and to share the map. There is also a drop down that provides options to open or create a map, delete, export, embed, and print the current map. Below that, each layer is shown. The layer drop down can be used to rename or delete the layer as well as view a data table of items on that layer. The data table allows you to add additional information about various things that have been added to the map (two columns for name and description are provided by default, but more can be added).

The My Maps toolbox
The My Maps toolbox

Next to the map structure is the toolbox. The toolbox contains a search bar, allowing you to find the area of the map on which to base your customizations. Below the search bar are buttons to undo, redo, select and manipulate, add places, draw lines, add directions, and measure distances and areas. Using these tools, you can build up map layers. When building the Stonehenge map for my blog post on our trip there, I was able to not only search for add mark existing places, but also add custom places. Each item added goes into the selected map layer, which is indicated by a colored bar on the left edge of the layer in the map structure. Clicking a layer changes the layer being edited.

Adding and editing a layer, showing the layer selection bar on the left edge
Adding and editing a layer, showing the layer selection bar on the left edge

The appearance of each item in a layer can be modified, either as a group or individually, by manipulating the styles option at the top of the layer and clicking the paint can icon on an individual item. By editing the layer style, you can also choose which column in the data table for that layer provides text for the items in that layer, and style items based on data in the data table (useful for representing data on the map). There is a lot of scope in this area, so I recommend playing around with it and seeing what works for your specific use case.

Editing the appearance of items on a layer is easy
Editing the appearance of items on a layer is easy

Once you are happy with the map you have created, you can share it, export it to KML (for use in Google Earth and other apps that support KML), and embed into websites. The main share options are familiar to anyone who has shared a document from Sheets, Slides, or Docs, allowing you to share a link to the map as well as control who can edit and view it. If you want to embed the map in a website, an embed code is provided via the map menu, however, as the site will tell you, you need to make the map public before you can embed.

Assigning permissions is consistent with other Google apps
Assigning permissions is consistent with other Google apps

All in all, I found My Maps a pleasant discovery and really nice to use. The styling options and ability to add additional data allow for some impressive customization. I am certainly going to use this application more in the future. How about you? Leave a comment and let me know your experiences with this new addition to Google's collection of online applications, or perhaps add details of alternatives that are out there.

  1. Those planning to use Google My Maps for commercial use should review Google permissions and license terms before proceeding 

Unsplash: Completely free images for whatever you want

I recently made the decision to have a featured image for each of my blog entries. The intention was to make things more consistent and easier on the eye. Sometimes, the image to use was immediately obvious and I would get it from my personal photos, at other times, it was not so easy.

Thankfully, my good friend and exceptional designer, Terrance Robb came to the rescue by introducing me to Unsplash. Unsplash is a service that posts ten stock images every ten days. These are high resolution images licensed under Creative Commons Zero, and as such, are completely free to use as you see fit.

Unsplash | Free Stock Photos

Why use Unsplash? Well, when someone puts professional, copyrighted images on the Internet without the permission of the owner, it directly impacts that owner's ability to make money from that work.  I like Unsplash because it encourages people to do the right thing with regards to copyright. Rather than resort to stealing copyrighted images with a right-click, Save As…1, Unsplash provides a free source of images for those who cannot afford professional alternatives. Not only that, but the licensing terms are completely unambiguous. There is no hunting for the appropriate attribution information or license information, you know exactly what your getting with these images.

So, next time you need inspiration or want an image for your presentation or blog and don't have the budget to pay for a professional stock (or custom) photo, don't steal; check out Unsplash.

  1. come on, you know you have done it 

Humble beginnings

I saw friends do it, I saw professionals do it and I wondered, "Why don't I do it?"

Ever since I started taking part in Stack Overflow, I have been frustrated to find that sometimes, there is so much more to write than just a question, an answer or an occasional witty comment (or perhaps, more correctly, occasionally witty). Things the likes of Jon Skeet, Eric Lippert, Jeff Atwood and many other Stack Overflow participants blog about all the time, things born from hours and days spent making mistakes solving problems at home or at work, things NSFF (Not Suitable For Facebook – I like my friends just enough not to geek out in front of them like that).

But wait, there's more1

Not only did I have blog envy, but this year I started attending the Ann Arbor .NET Developers group meetings. Through AADND, not only have I met some fascinating people, but I have also learned about some fascinating things. From the .NET Micro Framework to the Windows Workflow Foundation (did you know version 4 was a complete rewrite? me neither), my mind was awash with ideas, projects and procrastination and while I tinkered with and tweeted about these things, deep down, I harboured a desire to do more and to say more. I could not contain it any longer, so here we are.

I intend to blog about anything and everything from my songwriting and recording to my DIY disasters improvisations, but mostly, I expect I will blog about programming. I hope that I'll provide some useful insight or perhaps just useful instruction so others don't have to repeat my mistakes, but most importantly, I hope that I'll learn a few things along the way.

So far in life I've been a software engineer, a strawberry picker, an ostrich farmer, a barman, a sarcastic git, a singer, a runner, a cook, an ex-pat and a gamer (sometimes several at once). I'm often amazed at the things I don't know and I'm always somewhat abstract. I saw friends do it, I saw professionals do it and I wondered, "Why don't I do it?" So I did.

Thanks for stopping by.

1it would be a short blog if there weren't