Long time no write

Just realised it’s been over 6 months since the last time I posted here.

Nothing special happened in the meantime, except that my elder son has been accepted to a master program in Carnegie Mellon and I am taking him there in early August. I am very happy and proud.

Yesterday I’ve been to Camaraderie  [re]Launch Party. Camaraderie is a coworking space that used to be in the east part of the Toronto downtown. Now they have moved to a nice place on Roncesvalles, just a few minutes’ walk from Dundas West subway station. Here’s their website: http://camaraderie.ca. They have a nice collection of books on business on premises (together with a coffee-maker and other things vital for business), and, since I am moving into a smaller apartment, I decided to donate my collection of business books to them. However my hoarding instinct cannot tolerate me parting with the books, so maybe I should give each of them one final reading and review them here. Stay with me for updates on great books such as The Whuffie Factor by Tara Hunt.


My article for Blog Idol contest: My Microsoft Outlook Connector suddenly stopped working

Our dependency on technology becomes rather alarming.

If a global disaster strikes and you live in the country in an 18-century house, you will be able to get some firewood in the forest, bring water in a bucket from the river, catch a rabbit with a snare made of your suspenders, and roast that rabbit in your fireplace, or, at worst, on a barbecue in your backyard. And you will be able to have a proper outhouse of the system our great-grandfathers used.

If a global disaster strikes and you live in the city, on the 18th floor of an apartment building, you are helpless. There is no water source, no way of using the washroom and no way to cook food (most certainly your cooker uses gas or electricity).

What I wanted to say is, today my Microsoft Outlook Connector suddenly stopped working.

I have a Hotmail account. It is about 12 years old. It is the second e-mail address I got in my life. For many years it suited all my needs.

When I had to switch to Outlook Express, it took me about 1 minute to hitch it on to Hotmail, and everything worked perfectly.

About a year ago I started using full-scale Outlook, just because some illogical behaviour of Windows prevented me from doing something I needed, otherwise. It took me about 1 minute to hitch it on to Hotmail, and everything worked perfectly. Outlook has some extremely strange bugs but I eventually got used to them.

Then Microsoft decided that this is not good enough.

(Read more at BlogIdol website…)

Musings on education (and some boasting)

I never mentioned here that I finally completed both of my certificates from University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies: “Enterprise Risk Management” and “Financial Analysis and Investment Management”. It took about 3 years of intermittent study. (To achieve a certificate, one has to take 5 or 6 courses, core and elective, within 3 years; but I was clever and saw that the tracks for the two certifications overlap, so to get both I only had to take 8 courses instead of 11 if I chose wisely, which I did. Unfortunately, the track for ERM has been changed since then and this shortcut is no longer possible.) At the same time I was taking a 4-courses certificate program in Technical and Business Writing from York University / Glendon which I also completed. (It’s actually 6 courses but they honoured my degree and credited me 2 computer science courses that one also has to take to achieve the certificate.)

Each course was a semester long and took 3 hours once a week, plus home assignments. The time I invested in all three certificates is roughly equivalent to 36 credits which is roughly equivalent to one year of full-time studies. SCS courses are non-credit courses, though, for some reason, and that’s a shame because if they were, I probably might take some more to eventually turn them into another degree. (The one I hold now is in Math and Computer Science from Moscow State University and it’s been a while since I got it.)

Why did I do that? Wasted so much time (add the commuting) and money, especially considering that I am not going to work as a financial consultant? For several reasons.

1. I sometimes get texts on financial matters for translation. It is crucial to understand the subject matter in this case (as in all the other cases, of course).
2. It is good to have something that gets you out of home if you work from one.
3. I got a lot of information on accounting and corporate finance that may or may not be useful for me in my SR&ED work.
4. It is good to learn something new that gets you out of the old rut. Besides, I noticed that learning something unrelated triggers your imagination. I get a lot of business ideas while attending some totally unrelated events.
5. Learning new things is good for you, it is like a fitness program for your brain. My grandfather learned to play the piano when he retired. (He lived to be 99 and was lucid almost to the end.)
6. I always felt a slight awe towards risk management people, but now I know that risk management is really nothing special; it’s basically glorified Probability 101 plus some common sense. (Well, common sense is a rare thing, and it is definitely worth to spread some even through university education.)
6. I met some great people as classmates and teachers. I’ll list some: Donna Zathy, who managed to make accounting exciting; Saman Kiriwattuduwa whose 2 courses were the last I had to take, of the entire certificate thing, and also the hardest; Hussein Amad who read us Enterprise Risk Management proper and provided plenty of other related and interesting material to read, besides the textbook. By the way, the name of Hussein Amad may seem familiar: you saw him on the UofT SCS ads on TTC where he looks like a real star.

Actually, that’s one of the reasons I love Toronto: there is a good chance that the people you see on billboards are someone you know, and not just synthetic faces from TV.

Employers should not think they are God’s gift to people

Got a message through LinkedIn today.
“Hello Tania,
I just saw your profile on Linkedin. We specialize in SR&ED. Please send me your resume should we have a need for a Technical Writer. Your enthusiasm jumps off the page.”

This is really priceless. The author of the message did not even bother to say what kind of company they are, what are they looking for, what kind of a position they have, etc. (Yes, I could have looked them up, perfectly well, on LinkedIn or wherever, but if someone wants something from someone else and is trying to make the acquaintance, they should introduce themselves, just to be polite.)

They did not bother to ask me whether I am looking for anything right now, whether I WANT to work for them or not. They just condescended to put me on the list and keep me on file – and it looks like they were 150% sure that I would rush, head over heels, to send them my resume (losing my slippers on the way, as we say in Russian). I don’t think it is THAT bad in the job market that people would react to such “compelling” invitations; at least, in the job market for SR&ED writers. I see SR&ED job posts daily on Twitter. Am I missing something?

P.S. And the moral of that is: if I ever start looking for another position, I probably would not consider working for the company in question. See how much you can achieve for your company’s image with a short 2-line note?

Travelling rant

Schiphol airport in Amsterdam is one of the most badly designed I’ve ever seen. The security check is located right before each boarding gate. As a result, all the passengers for the flight arrive there at once and have to stand in a very long queue zigzagging between metal rails. Presumably, in the intervals between flights the security gate stands unused. This is instead of having a unified security check for all flights at the entrance of a big area, like in all the other airports, so the queues are small or none at all and the equipment utilization is uniform.

I had to stand in this security check queue for almost an hour, breathing into the neck of the person in front of me and feeling the coughs of the person behind, directed right at my head. Now I am down with a severe cold. It might be that the cold Amsterdam wind from the canals is to blame, but I suspect the person in the airport. Curse you, the Schiphol architect.

Bonus: a picture of morning rush hour in Leiden.

Some functionality Amazon is missing

Just something that occurred to me recently while I was looking for this book to buy it online. (I needed it for my translation work on “The Children’s Book” that is full of references to British mythology; the book was recommended by ASB herself.) I found the book at amazon.com for $70, and decided I cannot afford it. Then I entered it into my wishlist but that did not help a lot. Finally a good and kind soul checked amazon.co.uk for me and, hoorray, there it was, for $20, including shipping.

This simple story made me believe there are two important pieces of functionality that Amazon is missing.

1. There should be an option for the people to contribute small amounts towards somebody’s wishlist. Right now, if I am not mistaken, if I want to buy someone a gift from their wishlist I can only splurge for the entire book, which can be tricky if the book in question is expensive. It is much easier for 5-10 people to contribute smaller amounts. This would be especially convenient for groups of friends, relatives etc. who want to give an expensive item (think rare editions, anniversary gifts etc.)

2. There should be an option for searching “other Amazons” if the book is not at amazon.com. Right now you have to do it manually: go to amazon.ca, amazon.co.uk and so on which is a) non-intuitive and b) tedious. It would never occur to me to look at amazon.co.uk if it were not for that friend’s kindness.

What do you think of diversity?

This post started as my comment to Greg Wilson’s post. Greg posted a link to O’Reilly’s call for diversity. I think that the very concept of increasing diversity artificially is flawed. Here’s the comment I made in Greg’s blog:

Greg, as a woman who’s been in IT for about 20 years I must say that the “improving diversity” thing looks like BS to me and insults the very people whom it is supposed to help. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Here’s my train of reasoning. Either someone deserves to be a speaker at a conference (by the pure merit of their research and speaking skills), or they don’t. If they do, then invite them because they are worth it, not because they are minorities. On the other hand, if they don’t deserve it but still get invited, this implies the poor things can’t do better anyway, so let’s condescend to them.

Moreover, if e.g. a woman got to be a speaker, there will always be suspicion that she got in by being a minority and not because of her actual achievements. All in all, it seems to me that this policy does more harm than good.

Personally I’d rather have a honest and truthful judgment than condescending attitude. It was not condescending and sweet meaningless compliments that helped me or any of these women to get where we are today. As Lois M. Bujold puts it very aptly in one of her books,”…if you desire a man to tell you comfortable lies about your prowess, and so fetter any hope of true excellence, I’m sure you may find one anywhere. Not all prisons are made of iron bars. Some are made of feather beds. Royesse.

Crappy policy of LinkedIn

Today I wanted to invite someone to contact on LinkedIn and got the requirement to enter their e-mail address, followed by this warning:

“Your account has been restricted because a significant number of LinkedIn users whom you have invited to your network have indicated that they don’t know you. Use of LinkedIn is subject to the terms of our User Agreement, which you have violated. An example of the violation includes breach of Section 11, LinkedIn User DOs & DON’Ts.”

It says further that I can remove this restriction by acknowledging the policy, but if they “find me in violation” again, they may suspend my account altogether. I counted the “Don’t know” responses to my invitations and found there are exactly 10 of them. What the hell? I have had a LinkedIn account for, probably, 5 years or more, and I have over 500 contacts. In all these years, during my interactions with all these numbers of people just 10 of them said they did not know me. I would say I am a paragon of prudency and trustworthiness.

By the way, it is not true that these people did not know me: I always use only the business cards people give me (their own business cards, that is), and only after talking to them at a conference or something like that. In all these cases where the people said they did not know me, what they really meant was that they did not know me well enough and preferred not to connect. LinkedIn, however, does not distinguish between this case and the case when a complete stranger approaches you after telling LinkedIn he’s your friend. As God is my witness, I receive a lot of this crap, especially from recruiters, and this definitely must be stopped. I understand the need for such policy and I am all for it. But there is an obvious difference between approaching a complete stranger under false pretenses and trying to connect to someone you met at a conference and exchanged business cards with.

Also, I entered those e-mails when I sent out the invitations (since I had the business cards), so I don’t really see how the requirement to enter emails would prevent me from sending those invitations in the first place. Therefore, the policy is not only insulting but useless.

And the moral of that is… LinkedIn’s usability, that was always great, started, sadly, to leave much to be desired. I am not going to “remove the restriction” because the way they phrase it, it is an insulting lie. Agreeing to what they say basically equals admitting that I was trying to deceive people to get in contact with them, and agreeing to LinkedIn removing my account altogether on the slightest pretext. For example, if somebody else says “don’t know her” instead of “don’t know her well enough” (and the latter option just is not there when you accept or reject an invitation).

Daily worries

Just got news from British Centre for Literary Translation that they are not going to sponsor my trip to Netherlands because I live in Canada and not Russia, even though I work on the Russian translation of the book. (It does not seem fair, as Canada is much farther and my travel expenses will be even higher than if I traveled from Russia, but that’s international bureaucracy for you. My publisher certainly will not sponsor my trip, and the money I get for the entire book translation are hardly going to cover the cost of the trip.) Now I’ll write to Canadian Council of the Arts and the Ontario one too. I’ll get to Leiden anyway, it’s just that it would be nice for a change to get someone sponsor the process of global cultural exchange.

Hackers and translators

I read this essay by Paul Graham, and suddenly it occurred to me that most of what he says about hackers is applicable to translators as well. What we do is hack words, or with words, to achieve meaning.

Because hackers are makers rather than scientists, the right place to look for metaphors is not in the sciences, but among other kinds of makers. What else can painting teach us about hacking?

One thing we can learn, or at least confirm, from the example of painting is how to learn to hack. You learn to paint mostly by doing it. Ditto for hacking. Most hackers don’t learn to hack by taking college courses in programming. They learn to hack by writing programs of their own at age thirteen. Even in college classes, you learn to hack mostly by hacking.

Because painters leave a trail of work behind them, you can watch them learn by doing. If you look at the work of a painter in chronological order, you’ll find that each painting builds on things that have been learned in previous ones. When there’s something in a painting that works very well, you can usually find version 1 of it in a smaller form in some earlier painting.

I think most makers work this way. Writers and architects seem to as well. Maybe it would be good for hackers to act more like painters, and regularly start over from scratch, instead of continuing to work for years on one project, and trying to incorporate all their later ideas as revisions.

The fact that hackers learn to hack by doing it is another sign of how different hacking is from the sciences. Scientists don’t learn science by doing it, but by doing labs and problem sets. Scientists start out doing work that’s perfect, in the sense that they’re just trying to reproduce work someone else has already done for them. Eventually, they get to the point where they can do original work. Whereas hackers, from the start, are doing original work; it’s just very bad. So hackers start original, and get good, and scientists start good, and get original.

The other way makers learn is from examples. For a painter, a museum is a reference library of techniques. For hundreds of years it has been part of the traditional education of painters to copy the works of the great masters, because copying forces you to look closely at the way a painting is made.

Writers do this too. Benjamin Franklin learned to write by summarizing the points in the essays of Addison and Steele and then trying to reproduce them. Raymond Chandler did the same thing with detective stories.

Hackers, likewise, can learn to program by looking at good programs– not just at what they do, but the source code too.

The complete text of Paul Graham’s essay is here.