Monday, January 23, 2017

There is Life on Other Planets

I have long been convinced that we are not alone in the universe. Perhaps my love of science fiction fuels my dreams of visiting far-flung societies. Or perhaps it's my suppressed adventurous spirit that makes me wonder what exactly is out there, in the deep black, beyond our current reach. Maybe it's because I hope another civilization did better than us.

Right now, there could be another world where the population is preparing for an annual festival, with colored streamers, music, and fancy dress. Or maybe there's a raging war on a once prosperous world where tragedy and turmoil are ripping society apart. Maybe a teenage alien is sitting by her window, staring up at the moons, wondering if we exist.

Or just maybe aliens from outer-space are planning to invade Earth and eat us all, but wouldn't it be worth it, just to know? Okay, maybe not the being eaten part...

According to
All in all, Hubble reveals an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe or so, but this number is likely to increase to about 200 billion as telescope technology in space improves.
Given that the universe contains billions of galaxies, on the balance of probabilities alone, there is a good argument that sentient life exists on other planets. Is it really probable that Earth is the only planet out of all those planets to support sentient life?

The answer to this question might come sooner, rather than later. We are making great progress with space exploration, propulsion systems, communications, and telescope technology, which bring us ever closer to finding life out there.

Conspiracy theorists maintain that the US government already has evidence that we have been visited by aliens of the extraterrestrial kind. The conspiracies maintain that this information is kept top secret because, if revealed, the government worries that it would cause widespread panic and the fall of religion.

Why should religion fall? Does the notion of "aliens" conflict with Creation? Does "life on other planets" contradict the words of the Bible? Well, I don't profess to be a scholar, but I think not. I think that it can be easily and neatly reconciled by understanding the Bible in the context of "the universe", rather than in the narrower context of "the world". And is "discovering new peoples" on another planet really any different to discovering the previously unknown societies of the American Indians, Australian Aborigines or the Incas?

So, if the idea of aliens is indeed compatible with religion, isn't it important for clergy to get ahead of the issue and declare now (well before the "discovery") that the notion of extraterrestrial life is compatible with religion?

If left too late, it will look like religion is just making things up.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016 Stole My Money

מלל של הפוסט הזה למטה בעברית.  .Text of this post appears below in Hebrew

I have written a bunch of blog posts about business and customer service - two of my favorite subjects. I try to give the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes businesses are just disorganized. Sometimes the staff is just poorly trained. But in this case, outright stole my money.

I've had the same laptop bag since about 2005. Cool, right? But the zips are coming apart and, despite my sentimental attachment, it needs to be replaced. Retail stores charge an absolute fortune for laptop bags, so I went to to see where I could get the best price on a new backpack. - the company that eventually stole my money - advertised a bag that suited my needs for a price that I could afford. Considering that my current bag is falling apart, it was even worth it to pay for door-to-door delivery just so I could get it sooner.

I entered my credit card details, the payment went through, and I received two emails. One was a receipt and the other was a confirmation of my order. Then I waited.

When the bag eventually didn't arrive, I called - the company that stole my money - and they told me that it would arrive the following week. When it didn't, I called back. Their claim of 24/7 service was misleading. I reached an answering service. I gave them my details and the answering service said that somebody (from the real company, you know,, which stole my money) would call me back. They didn't, so I did. Several times. Each time I rang, the automated phone system put me through to "sales" instead of "customer service". I know this because the same person who answered the phone each time said that she is in "sales" and that someone in "service" will get back to me.

"But this is getting ridiculous. I want to speak with someone now."
"Someone will call you back."
"When? This is very important to me."
"Today. We'll make it a priority."

I didn't get a call, nor did they reply to my emails in which I implored them to either send me the bag or admit that they don't have the item I ordered and refund my money.

So I decided to send one final email. I wrote (in Hebrew):

On 7 November I purchased from you a Campus brand laptop bag for 130 NIS, including door-to-door delivery. 
I called and emailed and called again, but you still haven't responded. So I am sending you this one final email asking you to either refund my 130 NIS or send me the backpack that I ordered. 
If you don't respond to this email by Monday, 19 December, I will be forced to publish an article describing how is dishonest, has non-existent customer service, and should be avoided at all costs.
[Copy of this blog post in Hebrew and English was included in the email.]
This article will be published on my blog (which has been running since 2007), on my online magazine (which has 6,250 viewers), on Twitter and on Facebook. I want to warn all of my friends in Israel to never go near your online store. Oh, and as for Zap, I'll leave a very truthful report of how stole my money. 
Nothing would please me more than for you to do the right thing. I don't want to publish this article, but I will if I have to. 
It is up to you. You have until the end of business, Monday 19 December 2016 to either refund my money or send me the backpack.
The fact that you are reading this blog post means that I didn't receive a response from because they stole my money.

כתבתי מספר פוסטים על עסקים ועל שירות לקוחות - שני הנושאים החביבים עלי. אני מנסה לדון לכף זכות, לפעמים עסקים לא מאורגנים, לפעמים הצוות לא מאומן היטב. אך במקרה הזה פשוט גנבו את כספי.

היה לי את אותו תיק מחשב מאז 2005. מגניב, נכון? אבל הרוכסנים מתחילים להפרד, למרות הקשר הריגשי שלי, התיק צריך להיות מוחלף. חנויות גובות מחיר מופרז עבור תיקי מחשב, אז נכנסתי ל לראות איפה אוכל למצוא את המחיר הטוב ביותר עבור תיק חדש. - החברה שבסופו של דבר גנבה את כספי - פרסמו תיק שהתאים לצרכי ובמחיר שיכולתי להרשות לעצמי. בהתחשב בכך שהתיק שלי מתפרק, היה כדאי לי לשלם יותר עבור משלוח של דלת לדלת רק כדי לקבל את התיק כמה שיותר מוקדם.

הכנסתי את פרטי האשראי שלי, התשלום עבר, וקיבלתי שני מיילים. אחד מהם היה קבלה, והשני היה אישור הזמנה. אז חיכיתי.

כאשר התיק בסופו של דבר לא הגיע, התקשרתי ל - החברה שגנבה את כספי - ואמרו לי שזה יגיע תוך שבוע. כשזה לא הגיע, התקשרתי שוב. טענתם, שיש להם שירות 24\7 התברר כמטעה ולא נכון. הגעתי לשירות מענה. נתתי את פרטיי, והמענה קולי אמר שמישהו (מהחברה האמיתית, אתם יודעים,, שגנבו את כספי) יתקשרו אלי בחזרה. הם לא התקשרו, אז אני כן. כמה וכמה פעמים. כל פעם שהתקשרתי, מערכת הטלפון האוטומטית העביר אותי למחלקת "מכירות" במקום למחלקת "שירות לקוחות". אני יודע זאת משום שאותו אדם שענה לטלפון כל פעם, טען שהוא מה"מכירות" ושמישהו מה"שירות לקוחות" יחזור אלי.

"אבל זה כבר נהיה מגוחך. אני רוצה לדבר עם מישהו עכשיו."
"מישהו יתקשר אליך בחזרה."
"מתי? זה מאוד חשוב לי."
"היום. נשים את זה בסדר העדפיות שלנו."

לא קיבלתי שיחת טלפון, ואף לא השיבו לי להודעות הדוא"ל ששלחתי, בהם אני מפציר בהם לשלוח לי את התיק, או להודות שאין להם את הפריט במלאי ולהחזיר לי את כספי.

אז החלטתי לשלוח דוא"ל אחד סופי:

ב -7 בנובמבר רכשתי ממך תיק מחשב נייד מהמותג קמפוס עבור 130 ש"ח, כולל משלוח מדלת לדלת.
התקשרתי, שלחתי דוא"ל והתקשרתי שוב, אבל אתה עדיין לא הגבת. אז אני שולח לך את האימייל הסופי הזה ומבקש ממך להחזיר את לי כספי על סך 130 ש"ח, או לשלוח לי את התרמיל שהזמנתי.
אם אינך משיב לדוא"ל זה עד יום שני, 19 בדצמבר אני אאלץ לפרסם מאמר המתאר כיצד הוא לא ישר, יש "שירות לקוחות" שאינו קיים, ולהימנע בכל מחיר מקנייה ממנו.
[העתק של הפוסט הזה בעברית ובאנגלית נכלל במייל.] 
מאמר זה יפורסם בבלוג שלי (אשר כבר פועל מאז 2007), על המגזין המקוון שלי (שבו יש 6,250 צופים), בטוויטר ובפייסבוק. אני רוצה להזהיר את כל החברים שלי בישראל שלא יתקרבו אל החנות המקוונת שלך. אה, ובאשר לזאפ, אשאיר דו"ח דובר אמת על איך גנב את הכסף שלי.
שום דבר לא ישמח אותי יותר מאשר שאתה תעשה את הדבר הנכון. אני לא רוצה לפרסם את המאמר הזה, אבל אני אעשה זאת אם אני צריך.
זה תלוי בך. יש לכם זמן עד סוף יום העסקים, יום שני 19 בדצמבר 2016 או להחזיר את הכסף שלי או לשלוח לי את התרמיל.

העובדה שאתם קוראים פוסט זה בבלוג, אומר שאני לא קיבלתי תשובה מ משום שהם גנבו את הכסף שלי.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Constantly Satisfying Your Natural Curiosity

This is Part 2 of a 2-part blog.

In my last post, I waxed lyrical about the virtues of Technical Writers, compared to technology journalists and engineers. I said that a writer embedded in a company has the opportunity to take part in the development of amazing new technologies, end-to-end. That is truly cool. But there is another level that tests a technical writer's mettle and turns good writers into great writers.

I recently had the opportunity to work in a number of companies as a consulting writer and I came to an interesting realization. In-house writers have the luxury of learning their company's technology over time. In-house writers have the opportunity to create relationships with engineers, managers, and SMEs of all sorts. A short-term consulting writer has none of that. For example, I was sent to update a user guide in a company that wrote database software for System Administrators. I had just over half a day to learn the software, interview the SME, and write the updates to the document. It sounds sort of impossible, but in fact, it was exhilarating. I was firing on all cylinders. I was tuned in like never before. It was a tough assignment because the technology was, at first, unfamiliar, But I used all of my experience, knowledge, and curiosity to make it work. The document was a success.

The short deadline at the database company was a more extreme example, but anyone who has done technical writing consulting will understand the euphoric feeling of doing a great job under such conditions.

I used to think that consultant writers were those who couldn't find a "real job". How very, very wrong I was. There is a special skill set required to provide quality documentation under tight constraints, one that is far less pronounced in the in-house writer's world. Consultant writers need to be fast and accurate, tech-savvy in a multitude of fields, and excellent communicators.

While it's true that a consultant writer might not have the opportunity to take part in the entire development cycle of an amazing new technology, they are often exposed to a wide variety of technologies, keeping them on their toes while constantly satisfying their natural curiosity.

One cannot say whether in-house writers (who have a comprehensive and holistic approach) are better writers than consultants (who are, by definition, fast learners and great communicators). But if I was a hiring manager for a writing position, I would place a high value on a consultant writer's experience.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Living Life on the Cutting Edge

This is Part 1 of a 2-part blog.

Tech journalists get to play with all the new toys as they come to market or, if they go to the right bars, much before they come to market. How cool is it that as a tech journalist, you are invited to all the big events where brand new, ground-breaking technologies are announced? Tech journalists even get free stuff - for review, of course. What could beat that?

Technical writing.

As writers, we embed ourselves in companies that make the cool gadgets and amazing software. Game-changing ideas take form before our eyes. We are in the picture from kickoff through delivery.

You might think that the engineers get all the fun, after all, they are the ones creating the innovations, actually putting the thing together that will change the world. But you'd be wrong. Engineers do have an awesome job as they bring the concept to release, but when was the last time an engineer was an integral part of the entire process? Product development usually involves many engineers with different skills working on its different parts before the product is market ready.

Conversely, Technical Writers play a part in development at every stage, from requirements and specifications documentation to GUI and UX to installation and user guides to maintenance documents, upgrade guides, release notes, training materials, and so on. The really lucky writers are also involved in sales, marketing, and business development documentation.

There is no other position in a company that can potentially give one person a more comprehensive, hands-on role in bringing brand new tech to the world.

So if you love living on the cutting edge, if you are thrilled by the innovative process, if being at the forefront of technology is your thing, there's no better vantage point than the Technical Writer's desk.

Here's Part 2 - it will knock your socks off!

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dr. Strange: Review

I saw the movie "Dr. Strange" in full 3D glory. Here's what I thought of it:

1. Benedict Cumberbatch should not speak in an American accent in any movie. Sorry, but he's a quintessential Brit and doesn't wear an American accent well. Fine effort, though, but no cigar.

2. Benedict Cumberbatch is a brilliant actor. Despite the accent issue, he is a convincing Dr. Strange. He has perfect comic timing and pulls off the character with flair.

3. The movie is dizzying to the point that at some parts of the story I couldn't tell if my uncomfortable cinema chair was firmly planted in the ground or not. There were scenes that turned the world upside down and inside out. It was quite reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio's "Inception".

4. The story was formulaic, but fun. It was what audiences have come to expect from a "genesis" story of a comic book hero. I could have predicted the ending half way through the film, but I was so overwhelmed by the relentless special effects, I didn't have time.

5. The special effects were relentless. The actors likely spent a large portion of their time in front of a green screen, rather than on a real set. The CGI department worked overtime - after all, the movie was about magic.

6. The comic elements of the film were timed to perfection. In the midst of the turmoil, impossible fight scenes and special effects, the jokes were funny, welcome, and well delivered. Yes, even the requisite jokes about Dr. Strange's name were chuckle-worthy.

Summary: see the film, but only eat afterwards, if you can.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Naming Things

One of the most difficult aspects of the creative process is naming the thing.

What you call your creation can have a deep impact on how people perceive it and how (or if) they use it.

For example, this morning I saw a concrete truck with the brand name "Putzmeister" emblazoned on its side. Turns out that Putzmeister is a large US company. I might have gone for a different name, though.

More telling is the story of "poop juice", an ancient treatment for digestive issues (otherwise known as Fecal Transplant). The patient drinks a mixture of water and a healthy donor's poop. Apparently, it works. Doctors call it "yellow soup". Rolls off the tongue better than "poop juice", eh?

Today, when attention spans are shorter than ever, it's vital to develop catchy titles that draw readers in. My informal (and decidedly unempirical research) clearly shows that titles  with a number in them are favored by click-baiters - evidence that it works: "5 top reasons to drink soup" or "The 23 most influential people of 2016".

But there is one time when naming your creation is a far more critical undertaking than any other time. A newborn comes into this world clean and fresh and new. Don't give the child a name they will be embarrassed to use. For example, if your family name is Smith, give the kid an interesting first name. You don't want "Bob Smith" to check in to a motel in 30 years time with his wife and the reception clerk winks at him "yeah, right..."

So, my advice: be creative, be careful, and don't drink yellow soup.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Black Market Candy Pushers

According to Time4Learning, in 2012 there were approximately 1.77 million kids in America who are home-schooled. That's 3.54 million American parents who believe they are smart enough, dedicated enough, organized enough, and patient enough to teach their kids everything they need to know to get into college or do whatever comes next.

In a regular school the math teacher specializes in teaching math and the history teacher specializes in teaching history. As a parent who has committed to home-schooling your kids, you have to be an expert teacher for every subject through all age groups. There are resources out there to help you, but you need serious skills to pull it off.

But there are some serious flaws in the traditional schooling system. Home-schooling, by definition, is a non-traditional learning environment, and by contrast, regular schools create rules that stymie non-traditional education. The following example seems to be universal and cross-generational. It was true when I was in primary (elementary) school in Australia and is true half-way across the world in Israel, where my kids go to school. And this is it: students are forbidden to sell anything to other students at school.

When I was about 10 years old in the early 1980s, there was a "maze craze". I capitalized on the fad and spent my lunchtimes drawing complicated mazes which I would then sell in the schoolyard for 50c a piece. I was raking it in for a time until I was eventually caught and punished. My maze days were over.

One of my kids (I won't say which one!) is running a black-market candy operation out of his backpack. He worked out that if he buys certain types of candy in bulk from a particular store, he can then sell them to the kids at school for a tidy profit. He's found the perfect balance between what the stock costs him and the price his customers are willing to pay and still feel they are getting a good deal. Eventually, he'll get caught and his illegal candy pushing business will be shut down. I'll probably be called in to the school and have to sit there while the teacher berates my child for disobeying the rules. I'll have no choice but to nod my head solemnly and then, when it's all over, take my kid out for ice-cream.

I know I should be teaching him to obey the rules, but, for starters, he's generally a good kid. What he is, unfortunately, is an intelligent, thinking, entrepreneur. While it does have some merit, the no-selling rule wastes a golden opportunity to teach the kids something that no classroom could ever give them.

If it was up to me, I would permit student-run businesses under the following conditions (because this teaches about "government regulation!"):

  1. All student businesses must be registered with the school. To register, the student must write a business plan, including:
    • A description of the business
    • Who they are selling to (target market)
    • Who are their suppliers
    • Who is the competition
    • What is their competitive advantage or unique selling proposition
  2. The school has the right to refuse registration based on any number of criteria (safety issues, etc. but not based on competition - the kids will have to work that one out themselves)
  3. All student businesses must submit a basic financial statement (income/expenses) once every two weeks to the teacher in charge of running this program.
  4. Student businesses can only perform business transactions during designated times (say, recess and lunchtime)
  5. All business disputes will be adjudicated by the supervising teacher.
  6. Any student business that doesn't comply with the rules will be shut down.
  7. There will be sever penalties for illegal student businesses.
I'm sure that you can think of other rules that might be appropriate to put in place, but you get the idea.

Maybe there are flaws in this plan, too, but imagine how much kids will learn about markets, pricing, competition, bookkeeping, planning, marketing and creative thinking. Try teaching that in a classroom.

So the next time you visit the school yard, remember to bring your wallet - no credit, cash only.

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