Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What's in Your Top Drawer?

We have this drawer in our kitchen we call "the top drawer". It's a catch-all for scraps of paper with phone numbers on them, membership cards to places we probably won't go to again, keys, coins, bills we may or may not pay, and things that we think we are going to need, or perhaps not.

There was a time when we decided that having a "top drawer" was not really a good idea. We made a point to have a set place elsewhere in the house for the stuff that otherwise would have been stored in the top drawer. It worked for a while, but the top drawer refused to go away.

Actually, right now we have a second "top drawer" in the kitchen. I don't know how this happened, but it has. This second "top drawer" is supposed to be for cutlery, which is great because trying to find a tea spoon can often be a bit of a challenge (As an aside, I think that tea spoons end up in the same place as the second sock in the pair - a place not of this world, evidently).

Growing up, I remember that we had a sort of narrow, vertical basket near the phone where we kept stuff, such as the family calendar, paper and pens. Speaking with some friends the other day, I found out that the "top drawer" is not an original idea. Many families have a version of "the top drawer", such as "next to the phone" and "next to the microwave".

My son tried to tame the top drawer by building a divider system with sections for keys, cards, coins, and papers. The divider system actually worked and our top drawer remained organized for quite some time. But becoming a black hole for shirt buttons, business cards and the odd AA battery is the nature of the beast. So the top drawer inevitably reverts to its natural state of confusion, until someone decides to sort through its contents and set things straight.

I'm sure that professional home organizers detest the idea of a "top drawer", but having one is very useful. It's true that at times it gets a bit unwieldy, especially when people try to stuff things in there that don't fit. However, it is great to have a place to put those things that otherwise would disappear in the whirlwind of our busy home. Invariably, things often get lost even while inside the top drawer, but that's sort of expected, so it's okay.

Where's your "top drawer" or a "next to the..." place, and what's in it?

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Gravity of Technical Writing

A few days ago I found myself sitting in a cinema, wearing ridiculous 3D glasses over my regular specs, getting ready to see Gravity.

I'd heard that the film is excellent, but I wasn't prepared for the amazing special effects, breathtaking scenery, and riveting story.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock were very believable in their roles, and the 3D effects mercilessly drew me in to each scene.

I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but something odd came to mind as I was sitting there, gripping the arm-rests of my chair, trying to catch my breath: internationally recognized symbols in space station documentation is really handy. The character could not read the text, but had no trouble deciphering the diagrams.

As the credits rolled and the cinema slowly emptied, I suddenly realized that I really need a break. Anyone who can watch a movie as heart-stopping as Gravity and think of nothing else but Technical Writing issues probably spends too much time at work.

=====================

One further thought: In Star Trek, during a battle, shields could go down, warp drive could go off-line, weapons could be disabled, there could be a major hull breach on decks 6 through 9, and they could lose life support. 

The one thing that never, ever, ever goes down is the system that generates artificial gravity. The warp core could be venting plasma and the ship could be about to blow, but you never see stuff floating around. 

Therefore, I strongly suggest that they get the engineer who designed the gravity system to also design the rest of the ship.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Everyone Needs One of These

Using the power of Flipboard, one of my favorite apps, I have started publishing my own digital magazine called "Everyone Needs One of These".

"Everyone Needs One of These" showcases new, innovative, weird, and interesting products.

As of writing this blog post, I have published six articles, including:

  • An "Invisible Girlfriend" service (one for your Facebook profile)
  • A champagne vending machine (one for your wine cellar)
  • A Sony "smart wig", complete with laser pointer (one for your head)
  • A DIY Batmobile for sale (one for your cave)
  • The AUUG iPhone Grip that turns your body into a musical instrument (one for your hand)
  • The Full Metal Jacket Jeep Wrangler (one for your garage)
Download Flipboard from the iStore, Google Play, Windows Store, and Blackberry World and subscribe to "Everyone Needs One of These".

You can also view the magazine on the web from any browser, here: https://flipboard.com/section/everyone-needs-one-of-these-bpAkyT

"Everyone Needs One of These" will be updated daily.


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Friday, November 15, 2013

25 Computer Terms to Substitute for Real Words

Be geeky - substitute these 25 computer terms for what you really want to say.

Computer Term Real Meaning
1 Low disk space Slow down! You're giving me too much information.
2 Battery is running low I'm going to bed.
3 This device can perform faster I'm lazy and I know it.
4 Pairing devicesI'm getting married.
5 File type mismatchI'm getting divorced.
6 This program has stopped respondingI'm no longer listening to you.
7 Unexpected catastrophic failureOh crap.
8 Driver requiredCan someone please take me to the mall?
9 Windows needs to restartI need a vacation.
10 Illegal operationI just did something naughty.
11 Printer offlineMy pen ran out of ink.
12 Save as draftI'll finish it tomorrow.
13 LoadingI'm getting dressed, just hold on a minute.
14 Defragmenting drive CI'm tidying up the house.
15 UndoForget what I just said.
16 RedoSay that again.
17 3 minutes remainingI'll be finished when I'm finished.
18 Touch device not detectedGet your hands off me.
19 Not enough memory to perform operationI've already forgotten the first part of your instructions.
20 Insert mediaI'm hungry.
21 Syntax errorI haven't a clue what you're saying.
22 Bad command or file nameI won't do it until you say "please".
23 Error 404 file not foundI've moved and didn't leave a forwarding address.
24 Performing system dumpI'm going to the bathroom.
25 This program has encountered a problem
and needs to close. We are sorry for the inconvenience.
I can't deal with this. Go away.


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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

5 Business Tips You Can Learn from Hospitals

Over the past few days I have spent way too much time in hospitals. However, on the up-side, I discovered that hospitals are an interesting source of business advice.

Although hospitals are not usually profit-generating organizations, a lot of the activities they undertake are analogous to those in profit-centric companies. For example, there are many departments, all of which have to work together towards the same ultimate goal: make the patient well. In a traditional businesses, you may also have many departments working towards the same ultimate goal: selling more stuff. To achieve their aims, both hospitals and businesses require communication, systems, and sometimes even creativity.

Here are five business tips you can learn from hospitals.

1. Share information
It surprises me that in this era of fast networks, databases and cheap storage that the different departments in the hospital don't necessarily share information. We had to tell and re-tell to every doctor we met the background story as to why we came to the hospital. This would have been okay if they were just fact-checking, but their questions and follow-up questions revealed that they really didn't know this information beforehand. Why didn't someone enter it into a central database as part of our file for each doctor to read? This would have saved time and reduced our frustration level.

Business Tip: Make information available across your business units so that everyone is always on the same page.

2. Patients are people, too
This one probably requires several text-heavy pages, but I'll try to boil it down to a single paragraph. Patients are people, not numbers. People don't appreciate being shuffled from one department to another for seemingly meaningless reasons. People don't respond well to gate-keepers who treat them like they are on a mission to disturb the staff from doing their jobs. People have lives and families, so they don't like their time being wasted (if the appointment is for 1 pm, the appointment should take place at (at least approximately) 1 pm, not 3 pm). Lastly, dismissive answers won't make people trust you.

Business Tip: Smile at your customers and treat them with respect. Customers won't feel comfortable doing business with you if they feel they don't matter.

3. Dress for the occasion
Doctors wield an incredible amount of power, making decisions that affect their patients' lives. It is difficult to put your faith in experts who dress like they are about to go on a safari or are about to lounge by the pool.

Business Tip: Dressing appropriately instills confidence in your customers that you know your business. Proper presentation can encourage a perception that you are the best, that you are an expert.

4. Your customers are not experts
Let's face it, many people who end up at the hospital (especially under emergency conditions) might very well be bewildered, confused, and disoriented. It's a traumatic experience. Now throw really long, foreign-sounding technical words at patients and expect them to comprehend their meaning and implications. Doctors need to take the time to explain the situation and to encourage the patients to ask questions. This will increase understanding and trust.

Business Tip: Take the time to talk to your customers. Explain what they need to know in easily understood language. Avoid using jargon. This builds trust and loyalty, resulting in repeat business.

5. Be positive
Hospitals can be a depressing place. Patients are often worried and they focus on the negative aspects of their experience - it's unexpected, disruptive, painful, and there is so much uncertainty. It's really nice when hospitals invest in creating positive experiences - colorful decor, outside areas, play equipment for kids, convenient parking.

Business Tip: Aim to make shopping in your store, or doing business with your company a positive experience. Try to say "do" instead of "don't" and "yes" instead of "no". For instance, instead of displaying a "No checks allowed" sign, put up a more positive sounding "We accept cash and credit card payments" sign.
http://www.someecards.com/

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Out-Outlooking Outlook

Email is either the best invention ever, or the bane of your existence. Either way, this technology invented in the 1960s is a necessary tool.

How do you deal with all of the messages that find their way to your inbox? Google "Rethinking Email" for 7,940,000 articles on the subject. 651,000,000 Google results will tell you how to deal with "too much email". Or, if you want to use the modern term, search for "inbox zero" to find 45,200,000 suggestions for getting your inbox down to nothing.

GMaaces. uggests you prioritize:

Here is how I try to out-Outlook Outlook 2010.
  1. All incoming email goes to the Inbox (no automatic filtering).
  2. In a PST file called "Projects" I have a sub-folder for each project I'm working on.
  3. I use "Quick Steps" that mark the email as "Read" before moving it to the relevant sub-folder (this is for emails I receive for ongoing projects, not for one-offs, which would be too much).
I only move the emails to the relevant folders once I have dealt with them. If something still needs to be done, I leave it in my inbox. This way my inbox doubles as my "to-do" list, which is a back-up for our main project management system (which is not a Microsoft tool).

I don't use Categories, Flags, Reminders, or Tasks - it just seems like too much effort. I sometimes create a Calendar entry if there is something that I must absolutely do on or by a certain date, but that is rare because our team's project management system takes care of that for us.

I don't usually peruse the sub-folders for emails when I need to refer to them. Instead, I use Outlook's excellent instant search feature. I prefer to input the search parameters manually. I suppose I type fast enough that entering subject:"project X" from:Bob hasattachment:yes in the search box doesn't slow me down. Here is a healthy list of Outlook search terms you might find handy.

But, you know what, there is still too much email administration. I want to spend time getting on with my work, not futzing around with sorting emails. In fact, I'm so impressed with Outlook's instant search that I'm reconsidering the whole idea of organizing my email into project-specific folders. Why not just dump all read emails into one PST file called "Read Mail" and use instant search to find what I'm looking for? That's sort of what I do, anyway, right?

According to this Lifehacker article:
We've long recommended filing away email into folders for better organization, but a study by IBM Research finds that just using the search function can be much faster than navigating through folders to find old messages...In the end, though, finding those emails by digging through folders took 58 seconds, on average, while merely searching for them took 17 seconds.
Should I store all my read mail in a big, disorganized pile in its own PST (not the Inbox)?
How do you manage your email?

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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Everybody Needs a Doomsday Device

Let me make this clear, it is best not to keep personal stuff on a work computer. But sometimes it is unavoidable and there might be a time when you need to get rid of it all, fast.

If so, you need my Doomsday Device, a batch file that will quickly delete all personal information from your computer.

WARNING: The Doomsday Device is irreversible. Deleted files and directories cannot be retrieved.

Okay, files and directories can be retrieved, but not in the conventional way, unless you have backups, which will also need to be deleted.

Here's the Doomsday Device code. Copy and paste it into a text file, change the paths, as necessary, and save it in an easily accessible location as Doomsday.bat. See below the code for an explanation of how it works.
@echo off
COLOR 0A
echo DOOMSDAY DEVICE!
echo.
echo.DELETE ALL PERSONAL DATA FROM THIS COMPUTER.
echo.
echo.
@echo off
:getConfirmation
set /p confirmDeploy=Are you sure you want to deploy the Doomsday Device? [Y/N]:
if /i "%confirmDeploy%"=="Y" goto:rundoomsday
if /i "%confirmDeploy%"=="N" goto:canceldoomsday
:canceldoomsday
echo.
ECHO WHEW! DOOMSDAY DEVICE CANCELLED.
echo.
GOTO:end

:rundoomsday
echo.
ECHO DEPLOYING DOOMSDAY DEVICE...
echo.
echo.
ECHO **** First uninstall Dropbox and Google Drive from Control Panel...
appwiz.cpl 
echo.
echo.
Pause

echo.
del /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Documents\Outlook Files\General.pst"  
RMDIR /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Dropbox"
RMDIR /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Google Drive"
RMDIR /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Downloads"
RMDIR /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Personal"

REM The following clears Chrome history/cache
ECHO **** Clearing Chrome cache
taskkill /F /IM "chrome.exe">nul 2>&1
ping -n 10 127.0.0.1

@echo off
set ChromeDir=C:\Users\%USERNAME%\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\User Data\
ping -n 5 127.0.0.1
set ChromeDir=C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\User Data\

del /q /s /f "%ChromeDir%"  rd /s /q "%ChromeDir%"

ECHO **** Clearing Chrome cache DONE
echo.
ECHO DOOMSDAY DEVICE HAS DELETED ALL PERSONAL DATA.
echo.
GOTO:end

:end
echo.
ECHO DOOMSDAY DEVICE HAS POWERED DOWN.
echo.
pause
Here's a break-down of how the code works.

This section sets the font color to an appropriately ominous green. The title "DOOMSDAY DEVICE!" displays and a line of text appears explaining what the Doomsday Device does.
@echo off
COLOR 0A
echo DOOMSDAY DEVICE!
echo.
echo.DELETE ALL PERSONAL DATA FROM THIS COMPUTER.
echo.
echo.
@echo off
@echo off
This next bit asks you to confirm that you actually want to continue running the Doomsday Device (it would be a big "oops" if this wasn't part of the code and you accidentally ran the Doomsday Device and deleted all your stuff).
:getConfirmation
set /p confirmDeploy=Are you sure you want to deploy the Doomsday Device? [Y/N]:
if /i "%confirmDeploy%"=="Y" goto:rundoomsday
if /i "%confirmDeploy%"=="N" goto:canceldoomsday
The following code cancels the Doomsday Device if you type n, and displays text to confirm that the Doomsday Device has been deactivated.
:canceldoomsday
echo.
ECHO WHEW! DOOMSDAY DEVICE CANCELLED.
echo.
GOTO:end
If you typed y to continue, text indicating that the Doomsday Device has deployed appears on the screen. Instructions to uninstall programs via Control Panel display. In my case, this is Dropbox and Google Drive. The appwiz.cpl command opens Control Panel for you, making it more convenient (and quicker) to uninstall those programs. The pause command waits for your input before continuing.
:rundoomsday
echo.
ECHO DEPLOYING DOOMSDAY DEVICE...
echo.
echo.
ECHO **** First uninstall Dropbox and Google Drive from Control Panel...
appwiz.cpl 
echo.
echo.
Pause
From this point on, everything is automatic - there is no turning back!
The del command deletes an Outlook PST file I called "General".
The RMDIR commands delete a bunch of directories on my C drive.
You will need to change the files and directories to suit your situation. Copy the format in the code below to add as many files and directories to this list as you like (one line per item).
echo.
del /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Documents\Outlook Files\General.pst"  
RMDIR /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Dropbox"
RMDIR /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Google Drive"
RMDIR /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Downloads"
RMDIR /s /q "C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\Personal"
The program progresses automatically to the next set of code, which deletes the Chrome history and cache (there is even a comment in the code telling you this). taskkill shuts down Chrome. The ping command is just there to cause a delay to give the Windows Task Manager time to shut down Chrome completely.
REM The following clears Chrome history/cache
ECHO **** Clearing Chrome cache
taskkill /F /IM "chrome.exe">nul 2>&1
ping -n 10 127.0.0.1
Next, the Doomsday Device goes to the Chrome directory and deletes the Chrome history and cache. Text displays confirming that the command was carried out.
@echo off
set ChromeDir=C:\Users\%USERNAME%\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\User Data\
ping -n 5 127.0.0.1
set ChromeDir=C:\Users\Yossi.Karp\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\User Data\
del /q /s /f "%ChromeDir%"  rd /s /q "%ChromeDir%"
ECHO **** Clearing Chrome cache DONE
The next bit of code displays text that the Doomsday Device has done its job. The pause command waits for your input before closing the Doomsday Device window.
echo.
ECHO DOOMSDAY DEVICE HAS DELETED ALL PERSONAL DATA.
echo.
GOTO:end
:end
echo.
ECHO DOOMSDAY DEVICE HAS POWERED DOWN.
echo.
pause
I hope that you only have to use the Doomsday Device under your own terms - but either way, you are now prepared.

Thanks to DK for his help ironing out some of the bugs in my initial code.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Make it Snappy

You might have noticed that my blog posts are much shorter than they used to be. I received feedback that, despite the riveting content, people don't have the time or inclination to read long blog posts. We live in an age of fast communication. Not everything has to be 140 characters, but the general rule is to give over the information quickly so the reader can move on to the next thing.

Which is why I love shortoftheweek.com. This website provides plenty of free, quality, content. The videos can be as short as only a few minutes. The longest film I've seen on this site is about 20 minutes.
SHORT OF THE WEEK HAS BEEN SERVING UP EPIC BITE-SIZED FILMS TO MILLIONS OF FILMMAKERS AND FANS SINCE 2007. WE SEEK TO DISCOVER AND PROMOTE THE GREATEST AND MOST INNOVATIVE STORYTELLERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD.
Each film is categorized for easy searching, and is preceded by a sometimes lengthy introduction, which I never read before watching the film. I don't like spoilers.

Animation, action, sci-fi, comedy, CGI, documentaries, romance - there is something for everyone.

Here are three of the films I really enjoyed watching over the past few days. Not surprisingly, the last two are Australian films - go Aussies!




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Sunday, October 27, 2013

My Phone Has a Nicotine Addiction

In March 2012 I wrote about my brand new Samsung Galaxy Note. How happy we were together - surfing, texting, Skyping, even making phone calls.

Then, in July 2012 I raved about how the Galaxy Note has changed my online life - email, Flipboard, contacts, camera, and books.

In May 2013 I went on about how simple it was to upgrade from Gingerbread to Jelly Bean, and how everything works really well.

Oh, those halcyon days. Sunny afternoons, just me and my phone prancing through the tall grass, swinging on an old tire from a tree atop a picturesque hill, downloading apps and slicing fruit like a ninja.

Are those days gone? Are they merely memories of a bygone era? My phone is now one year and 7 months old (that's about 82 in smart-phone years). It has, I am sad to say, developed a smoking problem. Last Wednesday I plugged in my phone to recharge and smoke puffed out of the connector. There was a burning smell.

The Galaxy Note will undergo exploratory surgery today. Perhaps they will be able to fix the problem on the spot. Alas, if it is the board, I'm afraid that my good old friend is done for. Let's hope a new USB connector and a nicotine patch will be all that's needed.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Passionate Affair

The top trait of successful business owners is passion. Take a look at these wildly famous (and by now a bit clichéd) tech over-achievers:

Steve Jobs was passionate about design. Tens or hundreds of articles have been written about Jobs'  obsession with color, form, and usability.

Bill Gates was passionate about putting a computer on every desk. This incredible desire for computing ubiquity drove him to build a multi-billion dollar business.

Jeff Bezos is passionate about building the world's largest online store. His laser-focus on customer experience brings millions of people through Amazon's virtual storefront every day.

Similar things can be said about Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison, among many others.

If you are not an evangelist for your own product (or service, or self) then how do you expect others to be? If you visit a customer (or client, or interviewer) and you don't project excitement about your product, how can you expect them to get excited by it?

If your product requires a change in the way customers do things, you will only succeed if you can project how absolutely and sincerely convinced you are that your solution is the best.

So if you want to make it big, you'd better make it a passionate affair.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Death of Windows XP and What to Do About It

In April 2014, Microsoft will cease support for Windows XP. This means that all computers running that ancient operating system will be sitting ducks for hackers who find and exploit security holes.

Our home computer runs Windows XP. The entire whirring contraption should have been replaced about 4 years ago, but we're holding on. Now that Microsoft is giving up support for XP, I have been mulling my options.

I could buy a copy of Windows 7 from eBay, assuming my desktop machine can handle it. (I'm guessing that Windows 8.1 is out of the question.) But why buy an OS when you can get one for free? 

Ubuntu, a distribution of Linux, is built for the novice Linux user. It relies heavily on its well designed graphical user interface, and not so much on the command-line. That's great for those who are used to point-and-click Windows.

I installed Ubuntu as a secondary operating system on my ageing PC (dual boot). Setting it up was easy and it took me only a short time to find my way around the major sections of the operating system. True, I have used Linux a little, so some of the Linux-y concepts were familiar to me.

Surprisingly, Ubuntu is a decent option in a post-XP world. I just have to figure out how to get the Internet connection to run at the same speed as it does on XP. And I will also need to find Linux equivalents to those Windows programs that we use often, such as Corel Video Studio Pro X4.

Or I could grab on tight, stick with XP, and hope my computer dies of natural causes before an anonymous teenager in a dingy basement in Belarus zaps it out of its misery.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

You Will Be Fired in 2028

According to this article in TechCrunch Gartner Research says that millions of jobs will be replaced by Smart Machines within 15 years. Larry Dignan reporting in ZDNet cites the same report and says:
These machines will learn, adapt and automate decision-making on many levels. Humans will train and program these machines and then hand over their paycheck.
Automated and interconnected cars will replace private vehicles, public transport, and taxis. Advances in computerized translations will put translation and localization companies out of business. Online and/or digital books -and the Internet itself - are already rendering the neighborhood library irrelevant. Journalists are being replaced by smart-phone wielding bystanders.Welcome to Technological Unemployment.

But we've seen this movie before, and we know the answer: adapt.

They say that, in business, no employee is irreplaceable. Take a good look at your job. Within the next 15 years you might be handing it over to a machine.

But take heart. With the destruction of one industry, another is born. If you are ready, you will be able to embrace the change. If not, get ready to pay a call to your local unemployment office. Maybe the Unemploymentizer2000 will be able to find you a job.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hunting

I feel it is my manly duty to kill a beast.

When in the company of men, there are certain subjects that can be discussed: sports, work, power tools, and hunting.

Although I like sports, I don't actively follow a league. I could talk about work, but those conversations usually end up with the other guy complaining about his job. There isn't much to say about my circular saw, so that leaves me with hunting.

The best story I have about killing animals is when I murdered a steak on the barbecue. When the meat is indistinguishable from the coals, you know you have a problem.

I should go to the forest and kill a lion, a bear, a dear, a rabbit, or maybe catch a butterfly, just so I can have a story to tell the guys. But since my prowess in the jungle is limited to having read the magnificent stories of Tarzan of the Apes, I'll have to satisfy myself with shooting spit-balls at stray tabbies. I could then tell the men about the time I fought that big cat.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

School Discipline - Solved

I sent today's Dilbert cartoon to a couple of fellow Technical Writers together with this question: Who wants to be the first to try this?

Dilbert cartoon of 4 June 2013
One response was "Who said we haven't?"

A second colleague rejoined:
I have actually heard of a student who tried something like this at university:
She submitted an essay to Professor X with the first page looking very professional and proper, but the following pages covered repeatedly with the sentence “Professor X is an idiot. Professor X is an idiot. Professor X is an idiot….”
She got an “A”.
(I’m assuming that she also must have won a bet.)
My reply:
At school, if you talked during Mincha [afternoon prayers], the standard punishment was to write out the entire “Ashrei” prayer (could be multiple times, depending on the severity of the transgression).
I once had to write “Ashrei” seven times. I wrote it out the first time, then I got bored so I just wrote Hebrew gobbledygook for the next six pages. I didn't get away with it.
Then this retort:
One feller in junior high was given a punishment to “copy” out the chapter in Tanach [Old Testament] we happened to be studying. When he submitted a photocopy the next day the teacher was unimpressed.

I will say that punishments of this nature were uncommon at that school due to an urban legend that might have actually been true.
It was said that an enterprising student who was too young to get a summer job decided to spend the summer writing out commonly given punishments with the intent of selling them to classmates throughout the following year.

Well… his advertising campaign was so successful that when the faculty got wind of it, they waited till the first day of school to announce that the standard punishment would from then on be changed from writer’s cramp to grade deduction.

I’m sure that the student learned a very valuable lesson…
This got me thinking about how school punishments have evolved over time. According to this website, the following punishments were common in US country schools in the early 19th Century:
Image: socipoll.com
Corporal punishment was not unheard of nor were other extreme penalties such as detention, suspension and even expulsion. Lesser punishments, more common at that time than now, included such things as a rap on the hands or knuckles with a steel edged ruler; standing in a corner with face to the wall; wearing a dunce cap, facing the room, and sitting upon a high stool beside the teacher's desk; standing for long periods with arms held straight out in front; standing with an arm outstretched, palm up, while holding a heavy book on that hand for a long period; or being banished to the girls' cloakroom (if the culprit were a boy).
This list of legalized physical and mental abuse almost certainly contributed to forming the character of the next generation.

In the later 1800s, punishments were tamer and less physical:
When a child could not conduct himself in routine affairs without disturbing the school, or wasted his own time, his liberties must be restricted until the rules were learned. Punishment should always be in proportion to the transgression. The certainty of punishment rather than the severity would deter evil doers. Corporal punishment and suspension should be used only as a last resort.
Do not think that this softening of school discipline had any great impact on the braveness of men. To prove that graduates of late 19th Century schools were no less full of character than their parents, they engaged in a few minor skirmishes that we now call World War I and World War II.

Clearly, the shift from corporal punishments to softer punishments was a trend that eventually lead to a 2009, CfBT Education Trust document  entitled "Beyond Punishment: Re-framing Behaviour in Schools" (PDF). The authors of this paper refer to "discipline" as "restorative practice". The upshot is:
"...[that there exists a] need for a radical re-think of  how we view childhood and adolescence and a shift away from the demonisation and criminalisation of our young people...[and that] there is a need for reflection on the nature of the relationship between school and community and a search for a meaningful construct for this relationship."
No more whacking students with a cane, humiliating them with the Dunce cap, or banishing boys to the girls' cloakroom. No more detentions, writing lines, suspensions, expulsions, or verbal abuse. All of these tried and true methods have been duly replaced with touchy-feely policies of "reflection" and "relationship building". How very new-age - but is this progress?

As mentioned in this post's opening paragraphs, writing lines was indeed a common form of punishment. I once had a teacher who delivered a punishment so diabolical, it brought, and then mercilessly destroyed, all hope. A few of us came late to class. The teacher punished us with writing 20 lines. We had gotten off easy, so we thought. Here is what we had to write (only) 20 times:
Image: bartsblackboard.com
It is beneficial for both myself and my classmates that I arrive at class on time. If I do not arrive at class on time I will inevitably disturb the students and the teacher. Because I do not wish to be responsible for harming my classmates' education, or for disturbing my teacher in the middle of class, I have resolved to make every possible effort to come to class on time. I am deeply sorry for my initial transgression for which I apologize to my classmates and to my teacher.
Some brand writing lines a waste of time. Stuart Jeffries argues in The Guardian that writing lines is "cruel and unusual punishment". Accacia Jane disagrees. She says that:
Writing as a punishment gives "sentencing" a whole new meaning, but it's a method that has plenty of excellent possibilities...If nothing else, simple writing assignments keep a child out of trouble for as long as it takes to finish the job. They also are a decent way of practicing penmanship...
However, some schools have managed to lift the yolk of disciplining students from the shoulders of teachers - they have handed that burden to the kids. According to their website, Modern School in New Delhi employs a unique policy:
...discipline is not imposed, but understood. Of course, some students happen to misuse this freedom, but most of them come to realize the benefits of being disciplined.
All well and good, but those who are not in the "most of them" category (either those for whom it is not understood, or those for whom it is understood all too well) could easily end up as undisciplined, out-of-control young adults with violent criminal tendencies. Well, perhaps not quite, but the school does admit that this "free-range" policy isn't effective for every student.

But the possibility of wayward Modern School in New Delhi students is of lesser consequence when you take into account that a liberal discipline policy is clearly beneficial for teachers. Quincy Adams Kuehner writes in his 1913 book "The Evolution of the Modern Concept of School Discipline" that:
Probably more teachers leave the profession because of failure in discipline than for any other single reason.
Senthil Kumar, whose credentials are not apparent, says that discipline problems in the classroom are, in fact, the teacher's fault:
Often-times, disciplinary problems grow out of poor class-room [sic] procedures and the teacher's weak personality.
It took us from 1913 till now to come up with a solution, but thanks to the Modern School, what a relief! Having the kids become responsible for their own discipline takes the heat off the teachers (who are no good at it anyway) and so tremendously increases their job satisfaction. Remove the teacher from the discipline problem and all is solved!

Little Johnny setting his own punishment is the ultimate in experiential learning. In fact, it has benefits on both education and efficiency. Kids won't have to find excuses (lie) because they already know they transgressed and so will automatically self-impose a punishment. If that punishment happens to be an after-school detention, and they leave early, fail to show up, or misbehave during it, they will need to self-impose another punishment. Before you know it, kids will be calling their parents to the school to talk to them about their own misbehavior. Twelve-year-olds will be left no choice but to suspend and expel themselves from schools. They will teach themselves valuable lessons. All the while, teachers and admin staff will be blissfully ignorant of any disciplinary action, thus instantly solving Kuehner's number-one teacher job-satisfaction problem.

It is simply brilliant! Let the kids assume control of their own disciplinary policies - it's better for everyone, all round.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

Turning Gingerbread into Jelly Bean

The time had finally come. How could I possibly label myself a geek of any sort if I voluntarily stuck with my old Android Gingerbread 2.3 operating system? My Samsung Galaxy Note needed to be updated and besides, I needed a nice, juicy project. I was waiting for Google to announce Android 5 at Google I/O 2013. When no announcement was forthcoming, it was time to take the bull by the horns and turn Gingerbread into Jelly Bean.

I have never upgraded a phone's operating system before. I was mildly afraid of bricking my phone, although I knew that if anything bad happened, I could take it to "a guy I know" to sort it out. But to be truly geeky (and to save the cash), I knew that I had to embark on the Android OS upgrade adventure on my own.

The first thing I did was look on-line for some instructions on how to perform an upgrade. There were a number of different flavors of Jelly Bean 4.2.2 available, but I settled on the ibtimes.co.uk website, which provided all of the files and instructions to complete this task. I read through the cautionary text and verified that my phone was compatible.

I downloaded the files.
Image: mobotechie.com
I performed a backup.
I followed the instructions to perform the upgrade.

Expecting the process to take hours, I was surprised that it was all over in 30 minutes. That half hour included time spent Googling terms that were not defined in the instructions. For example, I didn't know what it meant to take a Nandroid Backup.

The expectation level was at maximum as I watched a gentle beam of light caress the lower-case "android" text, presented in a futuristic, Start-Trekky font. As the phone blinked on, I knew instantly that I had done more than update an operating system, I had breathed new life into my phone, much like Dr Who regenerating. I had given birth to a brand new device.
Image: best-tablet-converter.com/

There is actually more truth to that than you may realize (um, it's not what it sounds like). Firstly, the Samsung Touch-Wiz overlay to Android was gone. The downside to that was that all of the Samsung applications disappeared. I was a bit sorry to see the S-Memo application go, but I quickly downloaded Papyrus, which does the same thing, and may even be better. Aside from the Samsung applications, all my data and apps remained on my phone. I didn't lose a single thing. Painless.

The phone's interface is different in almost every way. I installed the SlimBean Jelly Bean interface. It is slick, really slick. I love the fact that now I have to re-learn how to do everything. I know, most people would shy away from making changes that require them to re-learn how to perform basic functions like activating GPS, setting silent mode and making a phone call. But I'm not like that. New is better (obviously) and the more different it is from the old way, the more I like it. And I like it a lot.
Image: http://droidfirmwares.com

SlimBean (and Jelly Bean, itself) gives you a million ways to do everything faster. There are quick ways to access apps from the lock screen. You can access apps from SlimPIE, a futuristic, semi-circular menu that you pull from any side of the screen. You can customize the pull-down drawer to contain links to a myriad of apps and functions. In fact, everything is customizable. The best feature is the voice search, which is accurate, even with my Australian accent (I love calling Home without pressing any buttons - although my kids are getting sick of me prank-calling them). I'm still discovering lots of new features, which I hope will prove to be an endless source of fun.

What I like most is that everything works - and it works well. The interface is super-smooth. My year-and-a-half-old first generation Galaxy Note has no trouble whatsoever with running this latest version of Android. I seriously feel like it's a brand new phone. I had so much fun joining the 21st Century, I don't think I'll wait so long before upgrading again.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sweating to Read

Lately, I have taken to listening to audio books while jogging. Thumping, pumping, energetic music helps to get the legs moving, but surprisingly, a good novel can do the same thing.

The first audio book I listened to was Kidnapped, written by Scottish novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson, and read by Mark Smith of Simpsonville, South Carolina (a Librivox recording). At first, the narrator's voice grated on my nerves. After all, the story is set in Scotland, yet it was read in an American accent. However, Mark's reading style is so easy, that I soon became swept up in the story and forgot about the accent.

I never studied English Literature, but I have an appreciation for good writing. Robert Louis Stevenson had an amazing talent for building up the story and creating suspense. His characters were so rich and full of life, I could almost see them standing before me.

I promised myself not to listen to the audio book unless I was jogging. And because the author's writing was so compelling, it was easy to motivate myself to get out onto the street and go for a run. I finished each running session at the end of a chapter, never wanting to leave the story before a natural break in the story-line.

I am now on my second Librivox recording. This time it's the 19th Century science fiction novel From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne. Although the plot is entertaining, it seems that the author was addicted to lists - almost every description in the first two chapters was in the context of a list.
Lofty pillars formed of cannon, superposed upon huge mortars as a base, supported the fine ironwork of the arches, a perfect piece of cast-iron lacework. Trophies of blunderbuses, matchlocks, arquebuses, carbines, all kinds of firearms, ancient and modern, were picturesquely interlaced against the walls. The gas lit up in full glare myriads of revolvers grouped in the form of lustres, while groups of pistols, and candelabra formed of muskets bound together, completed this magnificent display of brilliance. Models of cannon, bronze castings, sights covered with dents, plates battered by the shots of the Gun Club, assortments of rammers and sponges, chaplets of shells, wreaths of projectiles, garlands of howitzers-- in short, all the apparatus of the artillerist, enchanted the eye by this wonderful arrangement and induced a kind of belief that their real purpose was ornamental rather than deadly.

When the translators translated this novel from its original French, I think they missed quite a few words. The poor narrator (Alex Patterson - he doesn't say where he's from), is forced to read labyrinthine sentences riddled with tongue-twisting Latin and French phrases. Fortunatos omnibus nobis (translation).

Also, I think Mr. Verne might have missed a session or two of his writing course. He chose to write chapters 3, 4, and 5 completely devoid of interaction between characters, seemingly breaking a basic rule of balancing action, narrative and dialog. However, Jules Verne had an uncanny talent for raining an endless torrent of pseudo-science, mathematical calculations, and fictitious nuggets of wisdom upon his reader, while still keeping the story interesting.

I'm only on chapter 5 and, curiously, I'm hungry for more. I have about 67.5 km before I reach the end of this novel, so I'd best get sweating.

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