Monthly Archives: April 2007

Oh, so THAT’S how it works!

Color me clueless: I’m slowly figuring out the dashboard.  Apologies all around to WordPress, as their graphics control tools are, if anything, far superior to those of Blogger.  Pilot error.  (In other words, blame it on the human, not the software.)

Body image: I spend considerable time yesterday on the kibbutz talking to Katya, a small, pig-shaped dog of indeterminate breed.  Despite the obvious disadvantages (no tail and no neck), Katya is adorable.  I feed her slices of rubbery processed cheese (what is referred to here as yellow cheese) and watch her dance with joy.  It’s like putting a coin into a carnival game and watching the clown dance.  I feed her a small piece of something, and if she likes it, she shifts her weight back and forth as she chews enthusiastically.  Empirical results so far:

  • yellow cheese: dance
  • pita: dance
  • pita with humus: no dance
  • pecans: no dance

Clearly, more research is needed. 

Remembering Yudit

Yudit CohenIt’s the first annual haskara (memorial) since my mother-in-law passed away.  We spend the day on the kibbutz, visiting with family and just being together.  The graveside memorial was midday, with the hot air heavy on our heads.  We shuffle our feet and wait until everyone has gathered.  It doesn’t seem to be the time for small talk.  Gill and his siblings all say a few words.  A poem is read.  Some music is played.  Slowly, everyone files past, putting a stone on the grave or adding flowers to the already overflowing vases.

There are quite a few little kids, reminding us of the continuum of life.

We all miss Yudit.  I’m glad I had the chance to get to know her. 

Simplicity vs. Control

It’s that age-old usability choice: keep the features limited and ensure a simple interface, or add functionality and demand more skill from users.  One of the most interesting places to watch this principle in action is the world of free blog hosts.

Everyone wants to have a blog, post pictures, or launch a website, yet most people have no more knowledge of HTML than they do of the internal combustion engines that power their cars.  Therefore, smart hosting sites have to provide a simplified WYSIWYG environment.  You can click buttons, drag and drop graphics, highlight and change text.  It is easy but limited.  The trade-off of this convenience is the lack of control over features. 

Google’s success with is partly due to the simplicity of the environment.  But if you don’t like the default spacing or the way the GUI handles lists, you are stuck.  Basically, ya gets what ya gets is a more sophisticated environment, and I’ve been surprised by the elegance of some of the features, but it has not been without a few glitches.  Here’s what I have learned:

  • The import function of an existing blog is amazing.  Not only did it work, but it honored my hardcoded fixes on some entries that were still being poorly displayed in Blogger, and showed them as I intended.
  • The choice of presentations (designs) is impressive, but some have hidden snags, such as no bullets for unordered lists.  (As I was warned, it is easy to waste endless time searching for the perfect design!)
  • Surprisingly, working with graphics is less flexible than in Blogger.  I can’t just import something and let the site size it for me.
  • If I want any control over the .css (Cascading Style Sheet—a file that provides global style decisions, such as type faces and link colors, for a group of HTML files), you need to pay for an upgrade.  I guess I can live without that.

There will be lots more to discover along the way, I’m sure. 

For me, direct publishing (because, after all, that is what the Web is really about), means that I face new challenges in my profession.  Once, to get something published, you needed to convince someone (usually a publishing house!) that it was worthy of publishing.  Then, it had to go through some sort of edit process.  There were professionals involved (writers, editors, layout and design specialists).  But now, any chowderhead and push a few buttons and instantly launch anything, with no filter, no editing, and no validation.  Depending on my mood or the day’s coffee and chocolate ration, I find this either exciting and democratic, or terrifying and deplorable. 

Much of the writing you can find in blogs and MySpace sites is illiterate, unorganized, and puerile.  It seems to go hand-in-hand with the mentality of today’s reality-TV world, where people shamelessly exhibit their ignorance and bad behavior to gain their 15 minutes of fame.  It seems that it is now socially acceptable to be completely uneducated in your mother-tongue language.  Hordes of grammar-challenged hacks, most of whom can’t punctuate their way out of a wet paper bag, display their cluelessness for the world to see. 

Since good writing is no longer valued, technical communicators must push their expertise of information architecture, usability, and design.  After all, our clients all think that anyone can write.

As Geeky as I Wanna Be

Oh, gee.  Porting a blog to a new host is a great way to waste a whole day.  The thrill of tweaking code!  The frustration of debugging!  And all this for no monetary cost at all.  (I say nothing of the cost in time, stress, and marital strain…)

But the truth is, you can’t learn this stuff without climbing in there, rolling up your sleeves, and actually mucking around in the code.  So go, start a blog, hack a .css, and live a little. 

Just remember to come up for air once in a while and talk to your spouse.

We’re back!

Gill and I have a smooth trip back.  We have oodles of time to buy more cheese and chocolate at the airport supermarket, and to drink our last Swiss beer.  After an uneventful flight, we land in the middle of the night and get home around 5:00.  Gill, tough guy that he is, sleeps for two hours and then goes to work.  I plod through the day like a zombie.

I just spent a few hours uploading pictures to a new Flickr account.  You can view them here.  If you’re not used to Flickr, here are a few hints to get you started:

  • Click any picture for a full view.  I scaled all of these down before uploading, so nothing is bigger than 640 x 480 pixels.  (Truth is, neither of us are such great photographers to make high-res pics worthwhile!)
  • In the upper-right corner, there is a link to view all the pictures as a slideshow.  However, then you won’t see the name or description.  (No loss.)
  • You can’t add comments, so don’t bother.

If you have strong objections to going off-blog to see pics, let me know.  I still plan to post pictures in the blog, but Flickr is a much better way of dealing with large volumes of images.

It’s Yom haAtzma’ut!  So why am I sitting inside, slaving away at the computer?  Time to grab the guy and head out for a walk.

I’ve moved!

It took an excellent presentation by Sandra Wendland at the STC TransAlpine conference to shake me out of my lazy complacency and finally leave Blogger.  Bookmark the new site and keep reading.  I’ve transfered existing posts and am in the process of assigning topic categories to make it easier to search.  I’ll probably be futzing around with the look-and-feel for a while, so please be patient.

Zurich, part 4

Warm, is it? My carefully planned wardrobe neatly packed into one carryon bag has a flaw. It doesn’t take into consideration the freak warm spell. So much for the hat and gloves (though the silk scarf was handy on the one cool day, a trick I picked up from my sister Denise).

Courtyard view from hotel window

Wednesday’s tiyul: We get a leisurely start, leaving the hotel around 9:30 after the breakfast of sorts. All white flour, fatty cheese… no salads and not much fruit visible. (This is not surprising from a country that considers a sandwich white bread with some meat and cheese in it—no lettuce, tomato, etc.) In fact, it is a very strange contradiction between seemingly slim and healthy people who all smoke and maintain terrible diets. Several people said things to the effect that salads and vegetables are things for people who “don’t each meat,” as if everyone else is somehow except from the need for fiber and vitamins.

Zurich is a sparkling city. There is no question that it is gorgeous, but it is so clean and orderly that it is almost slightly antiseptic. Even the odd bits of graffiti fail to make an impact on the highly sanitized feel. Everyone is calm, quiet, and polite. They wait for you to get off the tram before they try to get on. They are helpful and friendly without being warm. You have to look long and hard to find any litter, and everyone seems to comply with laws and rules. Drivers stop at crosswalks. The trains are quiet—no blaring music, no loud conversations, no screaming kids, no intrusive cellphone conversations. Even the dogs are quiet and polite.

Riding the trams

Swiss recycling

More things that make me go “Huh?”: The tap water is icy cold and tasty. The bottled water is room-temperature and nasty. And despite staying in a three-star hotel that is costing us over $140 a night, the toilet paper is rough and crude.

But back to our tiyul. We eventually found the station with the train that goes up to the top of the mountain behind the city. From the station, we hiked up to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, ornamented with odd alpaca sculptures. The grounds are dominated by two massive communication towers; one allows free access up to an observation platform, which I diligently climbed, only to discover that the overcast weather blotted out any view of the city spread out below.

Looking down on the park

Gill on alpaca bench

From there, we walked through the hiking trails, got mildly lost, and eventually came out near another station on the train route. The forests, a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, is so green that it almost hurts our eyes. There are small streams running through, labeled bike routes, and even the occasional drinking fountain. It is extremely quiet and we only see a few other people during this hour.

Peaceful groves


Watering spot

Waiting at the small station, I struck up a conversation with a young American guy living in Switzerland. He helps translate between us and the kiosk worker, so we can get coffee and a cheese sandwich (which turns out to be so horribly salty that we can barely eat it). Finally, the train arrives, and by midday, we are back in downtown Zurich, walking along the Bahnhofstrasse, purported to be one of the most expensive bits of real estate in the world.

Using my list of non-smoking restaurants, we find a little place that lets us sit inside in peace and even has a few veggie options. From there, we stroll a bit more, ending up down at the lake (Lake Zurich), where we discover that our day pass gives us free access to the ferries that ply the lake. So we end up getting on and riding the ferry for the 90 minute full loop of stops along both east and west shores. I chat with an older woman who is holding her tiny, caramel-colored poodle (named Phyllis) on her lap. She points out sights of interest along the shore and tells me about the changes in the area.

Phyllis on Lake Zurich with her human

It is already about 18:00 when we get back and we both need to relax a bit before heading out in search of dinner. My early start the next day means keeping things simple and close, so we end up at a small Chinese place in the neighborhood, where we eat and skip out quickly when someone lights up.

Thursday, 19 April: I wake up well before the 6:00 call and layer up for a morning run. The desk clerk suggests heading up the street towards the church, and it is a great recommendation, as I wind in and out of quite, leafy residential streets, well away from the noise and traffic of the main drags. It is cool but clear, and it is obvious that the day will heat up.

Not knowing how long it will take to get to the Zurich Financial Services building on the western shore of Lake Zurich, I head out around 7:40. Two tram rides and a short walk later, and I am there. The building is spectacular, with ornate doodads, lavish applications of gold leaf, and massive stained glass windows flanking marble staircases. I feel underdressed. A uniformed doorman escorts me to the waiting area.
The TAC conference is tiny this year; they expect about 25 people, and I was thinking there would be about 100 or more. The program starts with two multi-cultural talks, and there are enough breaks throughout the day to network and reconnect with colleagues.

By 17:30, I’m on my way back to the hotel. Gill and I head out and find another restaurant on my list, but it is jam packed and they don’t take reservations. Right around the corner, we stumble on a tiny Korean place, part counter restaurant, and part grocery store. The place is non-smoking, and we have a very colorful and interesting meal.

Gill has a chance to fill me in on his day’s adventures, which included traveling to see some the famous Rhine Falls, the largest waterfall in Europe.

Stay tuned for more pictures…

Zurich, part 3

Here we are: We’re here! The four hour flight is uneventful, other than sitting next to a young man with truly appalling breath. We are also blessed with a mildly obnoxious child in the seat in front of us, who kept asking his grandfather questions every 30 seconds and rarely stopped kicking and jiggling. But four hours is four hours, and for someone who regularly copes with 10- and 12-hour flights, it was a cake walk. Gill was smart enough to head for the wiskey tasting area in the duty free shop, and was more than a little tipsy by the time we got on the plane. He ate his meal, watched part of a movie, and then slept like a baby.

We navigated the airport (complete with cow and yodeling sound effects in the terminal shuttle) and had to wait only about 15 minutes for the van that took us directly to the hotel. We drove through a very balmy evening with pink-streaked skies. The only other passenger was a young American woman who lives in the south of France and works for a company that makes yachts. The driver kept chatting away on his cellphone (no diborit, mind you), in what sounded like a Slavic language (but wasn’t Russian).

Hotel Neufeld is small, and the rooms are tiny and very plain, but decent. Everything is clean and well-maintained, and the big surprise is the amount of clever storage space buit in, even in the bathroom (which fetures a typically Lilliputian shower cubicle). When my plug adapter doesn’t fit the skinny outlets, the desk manater whips out a box full of spares.

Tired, we don’t feel like going out and exploring much, so we stay close to the hotel and find a funky little place that must be run by Turkish expats. It is so balmy that we can sit outside (to escape the ever-present smoke) and sit our Efes (Turkish beer).

It is a cyclist’s city. They zip around on every kind of bike imaginable, but mostly old, simple clunkers. A guy in a business suit wizzes by, chatting on his cellphone. No one wears a helmet, and few people bother to lock their bikes. A small pug puppy goes by, tugging at its leash and barking at another dog.
It is 22:30, but for us that is 23:30, and since I woke up at 5:00, it is time to call it a day

Wednesday AM: A hard, lumpy matress couldn’t keep me up. We wake to cool, damp air and the sounds of birds. Our room overlooks a courtyard, and we stand at the window for a few minutes, watching a large tabby solemnly dig a hole in a flower bed. Finally, the thught of morning coffee drags us downstairs to the small restaurant attached to the hotel, and we see what is on offer. Much as I love traveling, there is no place in the world that makes a better breakfast than the Israeli breakfast, with the salads and fresh dairy products. Here, trays of meat snuggle up against containers of yogurt. We find enough to eat, but I am always amazed at the number of European countries where one starts the day with coldcuts.

Globalization vs. localization: Starbucks, globalization., localization. As I get the login key for the hotel’s wireless hotspot and log in to Blogger, I am amused to see that the entire interface has mysteriously been converted to German. Interesting! Clearly, it detects the login host and adjusts accordingly. But this means no spell-check, so you’ll just have to deal with my typos.

Lost in translation, yet again: The Swiss speak a version of German, but also French and Italian, depending on the region. In the south, I could get by with my paultry Italian vocabulary, but here in the north, it doesn’t help. I probably know a few words in German, but when I try to think, out comes Italian or French. Gill just asks in English and gets a fast answer. Go figure.

Zurich, part 2

The power of the online check-in: Gill and I try El Al’s online check-in, and it really works. Shlepping one carry-on bag each, we roll through everything at an amazing rate. I have to stuff some things from one bag to another, but no major problem. There is a guy behind me in line who nervously awaits the El Al check-in clerk’s verdict. “It’s the first time I’ve tried this,” he says, “and I’m waiting for something to go wrong.”

The only thing I forgot (so far) is my special card that lets you go through automatic passport control. Gill remembered his. It is usually a huge time saver, but with things ticking along so smoothly, it is no real surprise that I end up clearing passport control before him!

So with almost an hour to kill before the flight, we have time to relax, wander around, and enjoy the new terminal, which is really gorgeous. I’ve already flow in and out of it many times since it was completed, but I still appreciate the design. The fountain is not running right now, but the whole place is still light and airy and, at an hour like this when it isn’t jam packed, the place very nice.

Gill has gone off to explore the duty free shops. Onward, onward.

Zurich, part 1

We’re off: After a busy few days of trying to get all the loose ends tied up, I’m ready for a trip. We head to Zurich for TAC (the conference held by the TransAlpine chapter of Society for Technical Communication). The TransAlpine guys proudly refer to themselves as “the chocolate chapter,” and we are looking forward to sampling some great chocolate. And cheese. But not together…

I’ll try to keep blogging from the road, thanks to my gee-how-can-you-type-on-that-thing tiny little Fujitsu Lifebook, still so new that I haven’t figured out where all the ports are yet.

That’s “Madam Director” to you: Election results are in, and I am now about to officially start my three-year term on the board of directors of STC. First order of business: mandatory cow costumes at all board meetings.

Another tragedy: I’m horrified to hear about the shootings at Virginia Tech. My heart goes out to the families and friends of all the victims, and to all students and faculty traumatized by this terrible event. What is to blame for the “go postal” syndrome that we are seeing in the States? I’m sure that the pundits will be busy analyzing this for some time.