Ninmah Meets World Rotating Header Image

The hearts of #quilttalk

While unpacking a box last weekend I came across a note listing the blocks in my heart quilt and the names and nicks of the women who made them. What a delight! Now I can personally thank the following people (I’m only listing nicks, not real names, for privacy’s sake):

  • Demary for the hearts and flowers block;
  • luburo for the 9 patch & heart block;
  • leeal for the red harlequin block;
  • babalooo for the pink four-piece heart;
  • cherlyQ for the 4 hearts block;
  • allie for the green patches block;
  • debbi2quilts for the block with the red background;
  • Qtree for the green block set in a square;
  • quiltleonfish for one all-green heart;
  • dihardqltr for one green heart AND the floral and solid stripe;
  • Bzy1 for the light blue heart block;
  • Sissy2 for the heart block with button detail;
  • heart for the shades of pink block; and
  • janna4 for the green/brown block AND the light and dark blue block.

The other blocks are either made by me, or in three cases, made by someone whose nick I didn’t record.

Thank you all!

what I did with silk

A couple of months ago, I decided I wanted a new duvet cover. A silk one. A blue silk dupioni one, to be specific. Then I priced them out. Holy cow! Not only could I not find anything in blue, everything I did find was $300-$600 (and up) for a king-size duvet cover with four pillowcases. I thought, “Shoot, I could make one myself for less than that!”

Because, you know, I like to do things the easy way.

The first challenge was finding silk dupioni yardage that would price out cheaper than buying a finished cover. Enter my new buddy, Silk Baron! I can’t say enough wonderful things about Silk Baron. Their prices are significantly lower than anything else I found (and trust me, I looked), their service is prompt, their silk is of excellent quality, and the colors! More blues than you can shake a stick at. I ordered ten swatches. I think they have other colors, too, that are not blue. (I was a woman on a mission.)

The second challenge was narrowing my choices down to two swatches. I wanted a reversible cover, two shades of blue. Tough choice, but in the end I selected Vineyard Haven and Curacao. Silk Baron (who are so hip they even have a Facebook page) got my yardage here in record time. Yay!

I used Brett Bara’s excellent instructions on Design Sponge to sew the duvet cover. Her tips for sewing French seams were especially helpful, because dupioni frays like you would not believe. Every seam had to be finished or it would have fretted itself to pieces in a week, I’m sure of it. I made two pillow cases from each color, too.

photo of the finished bedding

Doesn't it look lovely?

In the photo, the top color is Vineyard Haven, and the lighter blue is Curacao. You can see the second duvet (covered in a white Ikea cover) underneath the one covered in the silk. I love how it turned out. It’s like waking up in the Caribbean every day. Marvelous!


Back in February, my dear friend Fred Lakin gave me a delightful “job warming gift” to celebrate my new post at The Grove: he registered the domain in my name. Wasn’t that sweet? Then I was so busy settling in that I didn’t get it set up… until this week.

Since I’m barely managing to keep one blog alive, I didn’t think it would be wise to try to manage two. Instead, I created a Posterous account to collect bits and pieces about using digital tools in visual practice. Then I pointed to my Posterous page.

You did what now?
Posterous is a neat little tool that makes it really easy to collect information from different places and gather it all together. Images, short posts, long posts, videos, things I make, things other people made that I like — I can fling all of it at Posterous, in lots of different ways, and it all gets posted. It’s sort of like a patchwork blog.

I can write an email and send it to a certain address at Posterous, and it becomes a post on my page because it came from my email address. I can upload images and other media from my Posterous dashboard. I can post from my phone, from Twitter, or by clicking a button in my web browser to create a post that links to the page I’m looking at. It just doesn’t get any easier than that!

And this is related to your new domain how?
My new domain was empty except for a placeholder page that Fred put there for me. Rather than set up a new blog or website, ’cause who has that kind of time, I went into the settings on my hosting service and pointed the domain at my Posterous page. (Actually, first I tried to do this from the Posterous side, but since I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing it went into a kind of infinite loop where they were forwarding to each other forever. Bummer.)

Now when you go to, it really loads, although it looks like you’re on But if you check the permalink for any post, you’ll see it’s really Posterous.

What’ll be on
I’m planning to collect stuff related to digital visual facilitation over there, and keep posting actual blog posts over here. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, thanks, Fred!

heart quilt finished!

I finished a project! A big one, too. I began this heart quilt in February 2010, and I finished it in February of this year. Then I waited a while before taking pictures and posting about it. You don’t want to rush these things.

heart quilt

The Hearts of #Quilttalk

The quilt’s history is a lot older than that, though. The blocks are more than a decade old. Back then, I was part of an online quilting guild (yes, way back in 1998). These hip mamas met on an IRC channel called #quilttalk. Remember IRC? Yeah. A cursory web search reveals that #quiltchat is now the channel of choice, but back in the day, it was #quilttalk.

The blocks in this quilt were made by the #quilttalk quilters. Once in a while, we’d hold a swap, where you make six identical blocks and mail five of them to the swap hostess. She sends back five different blocks from other quilters, and they each get one of yours. Multiply that by the number of sets you’re crazy enough to make, and you can get a whole quilt’s worth. So some of the blocks are mine, and some are swapped. I held on to the blocks for years while I didn’t quilt, and then for a few years after I picked up the hobby again, wondering how on earth to set them — they are so different from one another! The guidelines for swaps vary; this one specified the finished block size and that the block had to contain a heart, but that was it.

detail of border, heart quilt

border detail

Normally I don’t go in for pink, but I thought it might pull together the different colors in the blocks if I set them with pink sashing (that’s the strips between the blocks) and borders. I like the effect. This is the first full-size quilt that I’ve kept for myself instead of giving away, and I really like cozying up under it. It’s riddled with flaws but I like it anyway.

One of my favorite features is the pieced stripe along the back. When I trimmed the borders, I had a couple of inches left over, and I had to piece the back of the quilt (sew two large lengths of fabric together longways) so I set the pieced strip in between them. It’s off-center on the back and gives the reverse side a little whimsy. It’s very satisfying to have it finished!

detail of heart quilt

a terrible photo of the pieced stripe on the back

It’s called The Hearts of #Quilttalk in honor of my friends from so long ago. I quilted it on my little tiny Bernina Bernette, and it was very frustrating trying to squeeze the rolled-up quilt under the short little arm. Luckily, I’m saving up for a solution to that problem right now!

iPad as a touchscreen interface for your computer

Yesterday, I did something really wild. My usual computer setup is my laptop with a larger external monitor as a second screen. Yesterday, I added a third monitor to my setup: my iPad. I dragged some application windows onto each of the three monitors. Whoa. I also set them up to mirror each other. Then I controlled my computer by tapping and dragging directly on the screen of the iPad. It was seriously mind-blowing.

The magic is enabled by a $10 app called AirDisplay that runs on the iPad, along with its free desktop companion that runs on the Mac (or PC). I found out about it from a post on Practical Practice, a blog by Tim Tyson, where you’ll find very clear and detailed instructions for setting this up yourself if you want to. Essentially, the app on your iPad talks to the application on your computer, provided both machines are on the same wifi network (or a private network that originates from the computer). You can use a projector instead of an external monitor to turn your iPad into an interactive whiteboard, and you can connect several iPads and use them in turn, like in a classroom setting.

So far, I’ve only experimented enough to have first impressions: I used SketchbookPro instead of trying Ink2Go as Dr. Tyson recommends, and I found it a little difficult but promising. I used the wifi hookup and haven’t yet tried the private network. I’d like to try that, and maybe Ink2Go, and I’d like to test it over WebEx to see how it might look in a virtual meeting setting. (Any volunteers to attend and give me some feedback?) If it’s workable, it means that you could visually record a web meeting even without owning a graphics tablet, if you have an iPad. And no wires!

More on this later, after more experimentation. Meanwhile, take a look at Dr. Tyson’s post for more details on how he did it and what he used it for.

cleaning chart images in Photoshop

I get asked a lot how to clean up chart pictures in Photoshop, so this post is probably way overdue. I learned this process from David Sibbet and I’m just passing it along. There are lots of other ways to do this; this is just one method, and it happens to use Photoshop. Some of the other ways are faster, and some maybe give better results, but they mostly involve esoteric software that nobody owns. Click any image for a larger view.

The Goal
The idea here is to take those dark, uneven photos of charts taken right after they’ve been drawn…

the original photo... bleh!

… and turn them into clean, bright images that look good on the computer and reproduce cleanly in print. (Okay, this one isn’t the best example, but it’ll do to illustrate the process.)

the finished image, much cleaner

The Process
1. Crop the image.
Open your image in Photoshop and crop it so that you have all the white edges and as little other stuff as possible:

the cropped image

2. Straighten the edges.
As you can see, the image is all distorted, not nice and straight the way you drew it. You’ll fix this by distorting the corners. Before you can do that, though, you have to put the image on a new layer so that Photoshop can deal with it. The quickest way to do that is to select the whole image (Command-A), cut it (Command-X; it will disappear, don’t panic), and paste it (Command-V). It will automatically be on a new layer. I like to “Save As” a Photoshop document at this point, but then I’m paranoid. YMMV.

Now we can work with the edges. With nothing selected in the image, go to this menu selection: Edit > Transform > Distort. Now you should have little open boxes at the corners and in the middle of the edges of your image. If you can pull the canvas out so there’s some empty space around the image, this will be easier. Just grab a corner triangle and pull it out and up or down until the edges of the image are nice and straight. Do this gently — it’s called “Distort” for a reason — so that the lettering is pretty straight overall. It will look blurry or fuzzy as you do this. Don’t worry about it.

dragging the top corner straight

dragging the bottom corner straight

When it’s where you want, hit ENTER to freeze it and make the handles go away. The temporary blur goes away too. Save the file.

Tip: If you find that your Photoshop menus are all grayed out and you can’t use any tools or anything, check to make sure you aren’t still editing the edges. You can hit ENTER to keep your changes or ESCAPE to discard them and get out of the distort mode.

3. Even out the background.
We’re going to use Levels to make the background as even as possible. Essentially, we’re going to tell Photoshop which part should be considered white. This will give different results depending on what your original photo looks like, so you’ll need to experiment to get the best result with any given picture. First, open the Levels dialog box (Command-L). This box will be your friend throughout this process. Yay Levels! We’re going to use the white point eyedropper to show Photoshop where the background is white. Click on the right-most eyedropper:

white point eyedropper

Then click inside your chart image somewhere where it’s white — no marker, no chalk, just white paper. It may not look white right now, but pick a spot that’s as free of marks and shadows as possible. Where you click will have drastic effects on your chart, so make sure Preview is checked in the Levels box. Always. Then click around until you find a good spot. If you get your image hopelessly weird-looking, don’t panic. Just hit “cancel” and try again.

still pretty yellow

Hmm, definitely not. Let’s try again.

looking for the white point

When you have it where you want it, or where it’s the best you can do, click OK.

Tip: If you have stitched together several images to make up a larger chart, the Levels box will only affect (a) the layer you’re on and (b) anything you might have selected. Either do each layer separately, or merge them before using the dropper (if they’re wildly different in tone, do each one separately).

4. Tediously fix the edge shadows.
This is the worst part, or maybe the second-worst. Step 6 is a pain, too. Anyway. To fix the shadowy edges, use the rectangle marquee (selection) tool to select one half of your image, then open the Levels box again. This time, instead of the eyedropper, you’re going to use the right-hand triangle slider under the graph to gently edge out the dark shadows.

the lightening slider

Grab it and slide it a tiny bit to the left, watching the whole time (preview! Remember preview?) to make sure you’re not losing detail you want to keep. Some of the fading of your colors will be restored later, but keep an eye on the blues and greens especially so that you don’t lose them. Just nudge the slider a tiny bit at a time. When some of the shadows start to fade (look toward the center of your image, not at the edges), click OK.

Now select a smaller portion of that same section, leaving out the part you have lightened, so that the marquee starts at the image edge but doesn’t go all the way to the center. Focus on the areas that are still shadowy. The amount you select will depend on how light you got it last time.

selecting a part to edit

Repeat the whole sequence:

  • Open the Levels box, move the slider to the left, keep an eye on the colors, click OK.
  • Select a smaller section of the part you just worked on, and repeat.
  • Keep doing this in smaller and smaller sections until you get to the edge and the image has lightened considerably. On this half, anyway. Then do the other half. Gah!

Sometimes you’ll have “problem areas” that are smaller than the slices you’ve been working on. It’s okay to make smaller or weird-shaped selections to work on those parts:

working on a problem area

Just be careful not to go overboard, especially where your selection divides a shaded area. Notice the difference in value on the left and right sides of this selection line:

don't lighten too much!

Be careful to avoid that if you can. When the whole image is as evenly lightened as you can make it, you’re ready to go on. For pity’s sake, save that file! We don’t want to do all that again.

5. Bring back that color!
This part is easy, fun, and full of instant gratification. Yay! Make sure nothing is selected in your image (Command-D will drop all selections) and open Our Friend the Levels Box again. This time, use the input box on the left:

use this box to make your colors brighter

Make sure “Preview” is checked, and type 75 into the box. Sometimes you might need 80. Try 75 to start. Magic! The colors get brighter! Alas, the smudges get darker, too, but we’ll deal with that in the next tedious step. For now, enjoy the brightened colors and pat yourself on the back! Oh, and save the file.

6. Erase the smudges.
I like to listen to music or podcasts while I do this. Books on tape maybe. First, make sure your computer monitor is clean or you will make yourself nuts trying to erase stuff that isn’t there. (Explains something about me, doesn’t it?) Then zoom in until you can see a small portion of your chart really, really well:

zoomed way in

Then use your eraser tool to get rid of all the little smudges and junk that is making your nice white background look like you stepped on it:

smudges to erase

This can take ages, especially if you like to use chalk when you record. Consider using Tombow brush markers instead. They look just as good and they don’t give you nearly as much smudging in the photos.

Go over the chart section by section, using bigger or smaller erasers as needed. You can erase other marks now, too, like tape or clips or people’s hands or stuff you just wish you hadn’t drawn in the first place. Jam out to your favorite tunes. Save often. Eventually you’ll be done. Ta-da!

the finished image, much cleaner

Problems with This Image
If you look at the final version here, you’ll see that the number “4” looks teal while the number “1” is green. In the actual chart, they’re all green. What I should have done was to make my marquee selections in quarters of the image, or by top half and bottom half as well as left and right halves. Then I could have controlled better how much color was lost in the lower half of the image. Live and learn. A lot of the blue chalk highlighting was lost, too.

Making It Easier Before You Begin
The way you photograph your charts has a lot to do with the amount of work you’ll have to do later. Unfortunately, we don’t often work in the best-lit situations. Hotel meeting rooms in particular are notorious for poor and uneven lighting. When you take the pictures, take one with your flash and one without so that you have some choice later. (Some cameras have a setting to do this automatically with a single shutter click.) If the light’s really bad, like spot lighting that casts pools of light and dark on your charts, consider turning the lights off and then using your flash for a more evenly lit photo. If you can, take the charts down and hang them somewhere where there’s better, brighter, or more even light.

If the light’s poor and there’s not much you can do about it, take closer photos of your charts in sections and stitch them together in Photoshop afterward. You’ll get clearer images with better detail and less variations in the lighting. Then go through all these cleanup steps after the stitching so that you get results that are as even as possible. If the photos are very different in tone to start with, I usually stitch them together but leave them on different layers, and then work on one layer at a time to get them all to a similar point of being clean, before merging them for the erasing-smudges step.

Feel free to post comments with whatever methods or software you like. As I said, there are lots of ways to do this!

The chart image used here was a work product of the Horizon.ANZ Advisory Board, used in the production of the New Media Consortium‘s 2010 Horizon Report: Australia-New Zealand edition. Chart by Rachel Smith (Creative Commons BY).

omg omg omg Xobni and Gmail!

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the private, very secret alpha of Xobni for Gmail. I used to use Xobni for Outlook, but ever since I switched to Gmail I have been sadly Xobni-less. (Never heard of Xobni? Learn more about it, and about my fortunately unfounded fears that the company would be bought by Microsoft, then come on back.)

It has been very hard not to tell people about it, because Xobni is one of those tools that I just love. Today the NDA was lifted and I’m free to blog from the rooftops — or whatever — about how awesome Xobni is. It’s really easy to set up, and then there it is in Gmail, just like it was in Outlook, organizing all my contacts and giving me instant information about them at the click of a mouse. Yay! When I click on an email from someone, the Xobni window opens on the right with a picture of them, their contact information, a graph of my contact frequency with them, information from their LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter profiles or streams, and a helpful list of all the emails we’ve exchanged. Way cool.

Even in the midst of all the Xobni love, there are a few things I would change. (And hey, it’s beta, so I’ll let them know and maybe they’ll change them.) My list of suggestions/observations:

  • In Gmail’s threaded view, it’s only possible to see the contact info for whoever happens to be the most recent on a thread. It would be nice to have some way to switch when you click another message in the thread.
  • The Xobni pane covers up some Gmail controls that I use (Expand All, Remove Highlighting, that sort of thing) and I don’t know how to get to them now.
  • I miss the list of attached documents when looking at a contact’s details.
  • I’d like a way to indicate which contacts are me. I’m always my top “top contact” and don’t really need to be :-)
  • Twitter and Facebook updates listed in the contact pane sometimes seem pretty old — not the most current ones.
  • If there are several photos available for a contact, I’d like to be able to pick the one Xobni uses.

Mostly I’m just so darn tickled to have Xobni back. And best of all, YOU can try it too! Xobni for Gmail is now in beta. Take a look!

Update: Hrm. Link fixed, now you really can try it!

a paintbrush for the iPad!

Just a quick little Friday note to share a neat tool that I’ve started using recently: the Nomad Brush for the iPad. My friend Keene saw it first and told me about it, and naturally I had to check it out. My initial review is that it’s very cool for painting and drawing. I still prefer my fingertip for visual recording, but the Nomad brush has a more natural feel than the Pogo Sketch stylus for doing softer, more painterly work. The bristles are very soft and flexible and it looks just like a real paintbrush. I have to be careful not to mix it with my regular ones!

Here’s a terrible picture of me making squiggly lines so that you can see the bristles fan out:

drawing (well, markmaking) with the Nomad Brush

Click the photo for a closer view of the bristles. Neat, eh?

new directions

I’m thrilled to announce that this month I began working at The Grove Consultants International (a.k.a. the mothership of visual practice as I know it)! It was one of those moments when a number of different things seem to converge suddenly and then wham! You’re facing in a new direction, seeing new roads in front of you and new experiences all around. As the Director of Digital Services, part of my job is to discover ways to integrate technology into visual practice. Of course, I’ll be doing plenty of visual facilitation and recording, too.

For those who aren’t familiar with The Grove, it is a San Francisco-based company headquartered in the lovely Presidio, offering products and services related to visual practice and team development. It’s also where I first learned about visual practice. Grove President David Sibbet facilitated the first NMC Board Retreat that I attended, after I’d been with NMC only a few months, and I was just blown away by the dynamic nature of the process. He generously shared his time one afternoon to tell me about visual practice, and I was hooked. I had lots of opportunities to develop those skills with NMC and I’m very excited to be moving into a space where I can continue to learn, practice, and grow in those areas.

As wonderful as it is to move toward new and exciting things, it’s always difficult to move away from those that are well-loved and familiar, and it’s with more than a little sadness that I say goodbye to the New Media Consortium — but not to all my friends and colleagues, thanks to the miracle of social networking. I’ve learned so much over the past six and a half years, and education continues to be a passion of mine. I am deeply touched to have been named the first Vice President Emeritus of NMC and I’m proud to have been part of such an outstanding organization.

a very welcoming sign

They have certainly made me feel very welcome at The Grove! This hand-lettered sign greeted me from the wall above my desk on my first day at work. I’ve admired the work that they do for a long time and I’m really honored to be joining such an excellent and talented team!

glad you asked!

I got a lovely email today from someone who found my visual notes. She had a few questions, and as I started to answer them, I thought, hey, this would make a good blog post, and maybe someone else has the same questions. Does it count as a frequently asked question if someone asks it at least more than once? If so, these are all FAQs, as I’ve been asked them all before. They are so well-posed that I present them to you here exactly as they were written, no editing required. The questioner’s name is omitted to protect her privacy. She prefaced her questions by saying she uses Brushes as her drawing app.

First off, how do you manage to not run out of paper (the page) when taking notes?
Practice, mostly. The screen size is good for about an hour’s worth of a keynote or presentation-style talk. A lecture might take more space, because I’d want to take more detailed notes. A conversation takes less space, because there’s a lot more pausing and back-and-forth. Or, to look at it another way, since the space is the same (one screenful), it’s good for 1 hour of keynote, 45 minutes of lecture, and maybe 2 hours of conversation or meeting. Sometimes I don’t fill up the whole screen, and sometimes I do need to continue on to a second one.

I also break up my notes with larger headers and smaller images and detail text. If you compare my earlier work with some of my later work, you’ll see that it took me a few tries to get control of the sizing so that it’s consistent throughout the page. Sometimes I still don’t nail it ;-)

How do you manage to write the dot above the letter “i”? Every time I try to touch the screen with one finger, the menu shows up.
You’re not the first person with this question. It turns out I didn’t discover it because I don’t usually punctuate, I use all caps most of the time, and even when I use lower case, I don’t dot my i’s. You need to move your finger (or stylus) in a tiny circle, curve, or up-down motion to dot your i’s or make a period. It takes a little practice to break yourself of the tapping habit.

What zoom level do you prefer to take notes in?
I’m all over the map. The first thing I do is to make a sizing mark for my header — a little stroke at 100% zoom to show myself how tall to make the header letters. This varies depending on the number of words I want to write. Then I zoom in so that size is comfortable and I write the header. Then I zoom out to make sure I got it straight and didn’t switch sizes in the middle and so forth. Everything else kind of keys off that — topic headers are the next largest thing, but smaller than the page header, and detail text gets smaller in varying degrees. Sometimes I emphasize something by making it larger than the header. When I’m writing the smallest details I’m often zoomed in all the way. I move my screen a lot while I work. It’s one reason I hesitate to project from my iPad as I work — I’m afraid of making the audience seasick.

How do you color the background (the paper) and the inside of the letters? And do you do that after you’ve finished notetaking or while doing it?
I add a layer, drag it under the text layer, and use a wider brush to put the color where I want it. This way, I’m coloring under the outline of the letters so it looks neater. I usually have one layer for the lettering (the black text and outlines), one for the coloring of letters and objects, and another one at the bottom for the background colors. Sometimes there’s an upper layer with borders, and usually there’s one more layer with miscellaneous stuff that gets added at odd times. Layers are a great way to experiment with different coloring options, too.

I usually go back and forth between coloring and writing. Sometimes, there’s a rambly part of the talk or conversation that doesn’t need to be recorded, and that’s a good time to color. Other times, the speaker is so jazzed and spot-on that I end up doing all the coloring after the talk is over. Both methods work. I usually add the background coloring last.

Do you prefer using the stylus or your fingertip while taking notes (in Brushes)?
My fingertip, by a lot. I have a stylus, but I find that it gets in the way. Zooming, changing colors and brushes, and even writing and drawing come more naturally to me when I’m using my finger. This is very much a personal preference — I know people who are artistic geniuses with the stylus, but can’t do a thing with their fingertips.

Any other tips worth listening to before I try making better notes?
You’re assuming any of these tips are worth listening to :-) The best thing you can do is to practice and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Any time you can, whip out the iPad and take notes, even if you only end up filling part of the screen. Pixels are cheap :-)

If you’re not confident about your lettering, practice that. Just write alphabets or spelling lists or shopping lists or journal entries. I’ve changed my handwriting several times over the course of my life, just because I wanted to see different shapes in my letters. Takes a lot of practice to turn it into habit, but if you’re taking handwritten notes, it’s worth it.

Layers are really handy for experimenting, as I said; if you think something might not work, just pop up a new layer and try it on that. You can always merge it down if you like it, or trash it if you don’t.

To capture a lot of thoughts really quickly, just write enough of the word to remind you what it was and you can go finish it later. For instance, if the speaker is giving a list of five things, and she’s going really quickly, just write the first one or two words (or partial words) and leave space to fill in after she’s done with the list. It’s very unsatisfying to miss things because you’re still writing the first few words.

Thanks for asking, and good luck with your foray into visual practice!