Saturday, February 28, 2009

pic of the day - cornucopia

Today my husband and I took a little trip to a pet shop in a nearby village. It is so jampacked with stock, that you can barely move inside. It really is a cornucopia of delights for the pet owner... at pretty good prices, too! Anyone who has seen the series Open All Hours would find themselves drawing comparisons to Arkwright's emporium.

Pushing the quaintness quotient even higher is the owner's pet rabbit which has the run of the store and greets customers as they arrive. He was doing a fair imitation of a doorstopper today.

Friday, February 27, 2009

One step behind

Almost two weeks ago, I finally went for an MRI scan on my injured shoulder, but I was advised that it would be a month or so before the orthopaedic specialist got the results of my scan. So here we are, closing in on 4 months since I hurt myself and we still don't even have a diagnosis, let alone a course of treatment.

The situation in my shoulder continues to deteriorate, and my GP - powerless to do anything else - has continued to up my painkillers until I find myself on the swallowing end of stuff some of my classmates at drama school would have given a body part to get their hands on.

The thing that troubles me is that, by the time my consultant gets to see the results and decide on a course of treatment, he will be making this decision based upon information that is a month old.

I can't help drawing a parallel with my dentist. Let's say I have decay in one of my teeth. Let's say, too, that this decay is spreading rapidly. Imagine if my dentist x-rayed my tooth and then, a month later, looked at the x-ray and prepared a filling for the hole in the x-ray, rather than the hole in my tooth at that point.


How do things work in your organisation? Is there so much red tape involved in getting a learning solution off the ground that, by the time you implement it, the need it addresses has changed or disappeared?

Talk about a waste of resources!

pic of the day - chüngel

This evening, I hosted a games evening for the ladies in our church. As well as the better known games like Rummikub and Balderdash, I set out our Chüngel board. Apparently the word chüngel is Swiss German for 'rabbit' - any explanation I gave as to why would be pure guesswork on my part.

We first came across this game when attending a staff Christmas do at John's boss's home in Cape Town more than 17 years ago. We enjoyed it so much, we vowed to buy one at the very first opportunity. Opportunities proved scarce as stockists of traditional toys and games in the UK told us we had dreamed the game up. One guy had the nerve to tell us that, if he hadn't heard of the game, it didn't exist!

We eventually wound up ordering one from Switzerland, where they are handmade. I'm not going to tell you how much it cost, but it was a lot. We decided it was an heirloom in the making and, if you should come and stay over with us at some point, you will be press-ganged into a game. I defy you not to have rather loud fun. My best friend astonished everyone by shrieking and banging her mallet as she played (she's not usually so much like me).

LPoD - Whitehead on living educational theory

I found this paper by Jack Whitehead some time ago and tagged it half-heartedly in Diigo. I was in the Slough of Despond at the time and only just had the presence of mind to realise that this was an important paper.

Today, I've been reading it through again and am so pleased that I tagged it to come back to. Whitehead argues:

that a living educational theory of professional practice can be constructed from practitioner's enquiries of the kind, 'How do I improve my practice?'
And that question comes up time and again throughout the paper: how do I improve my practice here? As responsible learning professionals, this is a question we should be asking ourselves time and again. And it is in the ongoing, iterative search for the answer to that question that, as Whitehead puts it "a living educational theory will be produced"

Let's consider that this paper was written in 1988. Is it fair to say that his prediction has been realised in Connectivism?

One of the issues which is hamstringing me in my research paper is that of validity. In several spaces (including this one) I have asked for pointers to rigorous research being conducted into the theory of Connectivism. Thus far I have heard not a squeak. Does this mean that no-one is researching the theory? If this is the case, how do I address it in the conext of an Academic paper?

I think Whitehead might again have come to my rescue in his response to questions 4-6 in his paper, although I confess I am still trying to get my head around what he's saying (bear of little brain, you understand), but this section gives me hope that this paper will serve as counsel for the defence of my first person narrative inquiry methodology:
Questions of validity are fundamentally important in all research which is concerned with the generation and testing of theory. Researchers need to know what to use as the unit of appraisal and the standards of judgement in order to test a claim to educational knowledge. I suggest that the unit of appraisal is the individual's claim to know his or her educational development. Within this unit of appraisal I use methodological, logical, ethical and aesthetic standards to judge the validity of the claim to knowledge (Whitehead and Foster 1984).

Whilst most researchers may find it strange to take a unit of appraisal as their claim to know their educational development I think the unit is clearly comprehensible. My commitment to this unit owes a great deal to the work of Michael Polanyi. As I read Personal Knowledge (Polanyi 1958), and reflected on my positivist approach to research (Whitehead 1972), Polanyi's work fulfilled its purpose of, "stripping away the crippling mutilations which centuries of objectivist thought have imposed on the minds of men".
Because what I delight to call my research tends to be a bit airy fairy, and boasts all the depth and profundity of a pondskater, I think the only crippling mutilations I suffer at the hands of objectivist thought are the external hindrances of what will pass for academic rigour. Trying to put together a paper about the web 2.0 social media and their influence on my professional practice is a bit tricky when the whole concept is embodied in an aggregated cloud of communal thought and experience - singularly difficult to reference using the Harvard method.

Andy Roberts and his dead skunk

Andy Roberts and his partner, Linda Hartley are two people with whom I am connected in several spaces. Distributed across some of these spaces, we had a conversation about a song. It was a song I knew when I was on the peripheries of a Bluegrass band years ago. I had never encountered anyone else who knew it, but I mentioned it to Andy and he not only knew the song, he could tell me a bit about its history. Perhaps I served to nudge him, because here he is, singing it at a folk club, accompanying himself on his Chinese lute (to be honest, it needs a banjo, but the lute makes a viable substitute).

The reason I post this here is because of the example of a distributed conversation. Somewhere between Twitter and Facebook, Andy, Linda and I have had a conversation which has had this outcome.

Cool, huh?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

LPOD - writing as inquiry

Today, I came across this doctoral thesis which explores writing as first person inquiry for a research project. I won't draw out individual points, because there is much in it that I find useful an interesting - especially the first chapter: Writing as an emergent process of inquiry. Helpfully for me, it is written in the form of a first person narrative, so I can cite it as part of my rationale for adopting first person narrative inquiry for my dissertation.

pic of the day - wild killer sheep

Whenever we're driving through the countryside, my husband will remark on the wild killer sheep, or the wild killer cattle on the hillsides. Today, I went out for coffee with our pastor's wife to a little place on a farm not far outside of our town. This was the view that met us. She offered to take my picture sitting on a hayrick, but I declined.

As we were leaving, she asked me if I wanted to take another picture, which was just as well, because I then realised I had left my camera in the loo at the coffee shop (as you do), and was able to nip back and retrieve it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Christian Payne is a young man who doesn't live very far from me, although we've never met. He Twitters under the name Documentally. According to this site, he's the most followed Twitterer in our county. I am one of his many followers.

Christian contributes a vast amount of material to the aggregation of personal perspectives that constitute the cloud, but one of the things I admire most about him is the enormous love he has for his grandmother, something which comes out loud and clear in his tweets.

During the Obama inauguration, he and his gran were watching together and he was twittering some of her remarks. Many of his followers expressed the view that she should have her own account. Trouble is, she doesn't use a computer herself. So she and Christian hit upon a plan. He would be her fingers during his frequent visits to her. And Granumentally was born.

In the process of acting as her amanuensis, Christian learned all sorts of amazing things about his gran, such as the fact that she was a partisan who smuggled messages under the seat her bicycle right under the noses of the German soldiers. Hear their touching story as part of this podcast from CBC radio (Canada)'s Nora Young.

pic of the day - world's most dangerous cake recipe

A friend of mine recently emailed me something known as the most dangerous cake recipe in the world. I thought I'd see if it works. It does, but I recommend using self-raising flour, even though the recipe doesn't say so. I didn't and my cake was the worse for it.

4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 egg
3 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons chocolate chips (optional)
a small splash of vanilla extract
1 large coffee mug

Add dry ingredients to mug, and mix well. Add the egg and mix thoroughly. Pour in the milk and oil and mix well. Add the chocolate chips (if using) and vanilla extract, and mix again.

Put your mug in the microwave and cook for 3 minutes at 1000 watts (high). The cake will rise over the top of the mug, but don't be alarmed! Allow to cool a little, and tip out onto a plate if desired.

EAT! (this can serve 2 if you want to feel slightly more virtuous).

And why is this most dangerous cake recipe in the world? Because now we are all only 5 minutes away from chocolate cake at any time of the day or night!
Let me know how yours turns out ;o)

LPOD - giving v sharing

Today's learning point arises out of a recording of a conference, but I'm blowed if I know which conference! I can't even remember who Twittered the link (I did try to find it again, honest). It seems to have been attended largely by secondary school teachers.

Update 26/02/09: Alec Couros advises that the presentation formed part of his graduate course and points to this post for further info.

Anyhoo, I picked up this link to a presentation by Stephen Downes.

He made a point that resonated completely with me, even though I had never formulated the thought quite so coherently.

He explained that communities share knowledge, they don't give it away. He explored the difference between the two. Giving something away free of charge as a philanthropic or charitable act implies a position of superiority to the giver over the recipient, whereas sharing takes place between equals. So giving is a downward/vertical action, whereas sharing is a horizontal action.

I like this.

In much the same way - as an attendee (delightfully known as 'plugusin') pointed out - to convince someone of something implies a downward action, an intimation of the superiority of one position over another.

As Harold Jarche put it during a recent Skype conversation, much of the time, when I make contraversial statements, I am looking for engagement. Nothing annoys me more than people muttering to themselves about how wrong you are. For goodness' sake, speak up. Your view carries weight, too. Let's discuss this in open forum and come to a conclusion... together. That's the whole point of social media... isn't it?

When enforcement is more dangerous than infraction

A while back, I was driving my son to athletics (track) training. It was dark. I was on a dual carriageway, where the standard national speed limit is 70mph. However, one particular stretch of the road has a restriction of 50mph. Because I know the road well, I wasn't paying that much attention to the signs, and I hit that stretch doing 57mph.

Now I fully acknowledge that not paying attention to the signs is not a defence. I fully acknowledge that I was in contravention of the law.

My view is that you don't go around breaking the law just because you don't agree with it. If it is the law, you abide by it, but if you disagree with it, you agitate for change, using the legal avenues at your disposal.

So I am willing to pay the fine that I incurred. Indeed I have already paid it - no argument.

The bit I am not happy about is that, as I was driving along this rather tricky section of road (hence the reduced speed limit), I was suddenly blinded by the flash of the gatsometer. I nearly had a flipping heart attack. For a nanosecond, I thought a motorbike was coming towards me on the wrong side of the road, and I swerved reflexively. Fortunately I didn't prang the car, but it was a near thing, and it was several minutes before I was able to shake off the retinal burn. During those minutes of impaired vision and increased heart rate, I was probably a far greater risk to other traffic than when I was driving at 57mph in a 50mph zone.

This is not the first time I have seen enforcement that constitutes a hazard.

I'm not sure what they should do instead. Perhaps if they introduced some rumble-strips in that section to serve to slow you down, rather than blinding drivers who travel too fast.

There are so many parallels here for learning, but I'll focus on just one.

When we're providing a learning resource that is intended to enhance performance or increase productivity, we need to be careful not to focus so narrowly on the learning event as to forget to explore what the fallout of said event may be. Does the learning intervention in fact help or hinder performance/productivity?

I would argue that taking people away from their desks, placing them in an environment that has much in common with a vacuum in which they do whatever it is your design dictates they will do, and then sending them back to the real world is often counter-productive.

The learning needs to enter the flow of the working environment, where it can be contextualised and relevant.

The gatsometer is an effective answer to the question "How can we catch the people who drive too fast?" This, I would argue, is the wrong question. The right question is "How can we get people to drive more slowly - and therefore more safely - along this stretch?"

In exactly the same way, we who design and deliver workplace learning solutions need to ensure that we are starting with the right question:

  • How can we improve X?
  • How can we increase Y?
  • How can we encourage Z?
One of the things I have something of a reputation for among my clients is pushing back and... well, challenging may be too strong a word, but only slightly. Words like 'bossy' and 'stroppy' have been used... usually good-humouredly, fortunately. But the thing is that subject matter experts and stakeholders can get very caught up in what they would like learners to know, to the extent that they lose sight of the core question. The subject is very dear to them and they may be inclined to be a bit precious about it. I see it as the role of the learning designer to maintain the focus on the original question.

I can think of a good few learning resources which qualify as a hindrance. Some even as a hazard. I confess that some of them have been resources that I designed! But I will continue to make every effort not to design any gatsometer learning events in the future!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ten things f2f trainers often forget

Having visited the learning designer yesterday, I decided to look at the realm of the classroom based trainer today. I was a classroom based trainer myself for 17 years, and I have sat through innumerable f2f sessions delivered facilitated by other trainers. In no particular order:

  1. People have had to leave their day jobs to attend. Make sure it's worth their while.
  2. Shock. Horror. A delegate might not want to be there. One of the worst things as a trainer is having to deal with people who have been 'sent' to your workshop. Good grief, we're dealing with adults, here. When I have been faced with such a person, I have had a private chat with them, offering them the option to taste-and-see until the first break, after which they were free to leave. In one case, I actually asked the delegate to leave. Let's face it, if they're determined not to, they're not going to learn anything, and they will simply sabotage everyone else's learning experience. I would far rather explain myself to one manager than waste x number of person days!
  3. Shock. Horror. A delegate might only have come for a day away from the office. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who sign up for absolutely every workshop/course/whatever, because it gets them out of the office. These enthusiasts can be a help sometimes, but they can also be a hindrance if they set out to demonstrate to everyone else present exactly why they don't need to be there in the first place.
  4. Some people may only need part of the workshop. Why not offer them the opportunity to do something else until you're ready to cover the bits they need? Similarly, some parts of the material may not be of interest/use to anyone at all. Why not establish this from the outset and spend more time on relevant material? If you're proactive, you can use pre-workshop online tasks, wikis or discussion forums to establish this.
  5. The collective knowledge of the delegates is in all likelihood greater than your own. Don't miss opportunities to give them their due. When you're covering material that some people in the group already know, you could enlist their aid as small group discussion facilitators, or in helping others complete a task.
  6. Your workshop is not the be all and end all of the learning experience. Give the learners resources they can take away with them: a quick reference card, URLs of helpful resources, the names of articles and books that might be of interest. Teach them to use online help facilities and forums. They might also like to stay in touch with each other after the session to provide mutual support. You could get them to exchange email addresses, or set up a closed discussion forum?
  7. You're allowed to say "I don't know". If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. I have lost count of the number of times a trainer has 'blagged it' and talked complete piffle. This doesn't help the learners or you. Increasingly, there is almost certainly a device in the room with Internet browsing capability. Use it then and there to find the answer. This not only relieves the learners of the perceived burden of remembering everything, it encourages them to use existing resources.
  8. You don't have to have a PowerPoint presentation... and if you do, bullet points are not compulsory. If you absolutely have to have a PowerPoint and it absolutely has to include bullet points, do NOT read them to your learners. Either they can read it for themselves - in which case, reading it to them is an insult to their intelligence - or they can't read at all - in which case you shouldn't be using text at all. You are a living, breathing human being, not some voice over for a slideshow!
  9. Even adults like to play. Serious does not necessarily mean humourless. There is no need to have everyone sitting in their desks facing forward for the entire workshop. This is not a Victorian school room. Get them out of their desks and moving around. Give them post it notes, coloured pens, string, ice-cream sticks... whatever. Give them the chance to be creative, to experiment, to explore, to laugh. In one workshop I ran about mindmapping, I had people lying flat on their bellies (in their suits) creating A0 mindmaps of their lives with coloured felt tip pens (but you have to gauge your audience).
  10. Low tech is okay. Not everything has to be accomplished by means of 2.0 technologies. Heck, I used to explain absolute references in spreadsheets by doing a little dance! The low tech items I mentioned above generate movement and get the blood pumping oxygen to the brain far better than spending the entire day on their butts, eyes forward.
Any other suggestions?

LPOD - early symptoms of Alzheimer's

Apparently the early symptoms of Alzheimer's are as follows:

  • Memory loss, in particular short-term memory
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks such as getting dressed or preparing a meal
  • Language problems, such as forgetting simple words or an increasing tendency toward malapropism
  • Disorientation such as getting lost in familiar places, or forgetting where you are and how you got there, possibly confusing night and day
  • Poor/decreased judgement, such as wearing the wrong sort of clothing for the weather
  • Problems keeping track of things, such as being unable to follow a conversation or keep up paying bills
  • Misplacing things, such as putting things in inappropriate places (e.g. spectacles in the fridge)
  • Changes in mood/behaviour, showing more or less emotion than was previously the case, and experiencing inexplicable mood swings
  • Personality changes, such as seeming different from your 'usual self' in small, often indefinable ways - perhaps becoming irritable, suspicious, anxious, apathetic, etc.
  • Loss of initiative, perhaps sitting for hours in front of the telly and shwoing no interest in normal hobbies and pastimes
Many of these symptoms can also be attributed to other, temporary causes, including stress, medication and hormonal fluctuation.

pic of the day - drugs!

It's been some time since I injured my shoulder - more than 3 months, I think, maybe even 4 months. I am still awaiting a diagnosis and have been on the receiving end of demonstrations of just how overstretched and inefficient the NHS and its procedures have become.

In desperation, I went back to my GP who has taken ownership of the situation. I finally feel as if there is someone fighting my corner for me.

In the meantime he has had upped my pain medication. He assures me that these are not addictive, but there are inevitable side effects - one of the most significant being drowsiness.

I am also being sent for additional blood tests which will, among other things, identify whether it will be necessary to conduct further screening for Alzheimer's. It is, of course, entirely possible that my symptoms can be attributed to some other cause, but from the fact that the tests are necessary at all, I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Yesterday's LPOD and pic of the day

To my surprise, I gather that my learning point of the day and pic of the day posts are being well received by some of my less 'vocal' readers. And so I apologise that there were no contributions yesterday. The reason for this will become clear when you see today's pic of the day....

Monday, February 23, 2009

Reinventing the has-been

As a sort of continuation to this post.

There is a series on the BBC at the moment (which I can't bring myself to watch) in which pop idols of yesteryear are tracked down and given an extreme makeover to see whether they can still wow an audience.

The first outfit they tracked down was a duo I had never heard of (but then I wasn't in the UK in the '80s, when they were in their heyday). This pair had both inevitably aged. And why is this a bad thing?

In this teaser for the series, the male half of the duo just about broke my heart. Not because he was overweight or middle-aged (I see overweight and middle-aged every time I look in the mirror!) but because his face looked positively Mickey Rourke-esque. As if he had spent the past 20 years engaging in heavy drinking and then trying to improve things with a facelift that had exactly the opposite effect... and this was before the extreme makeover began! I confess I have no idea how successful or otherwise the makeover was.

So what has this got to do with learning?

Simply this. When a thing is past its prime and has had its day, repackaging, rebranding and relaunching it is not going to make it what it was in its prime. It just makes it ridiculous. The audience demands have changed.

Chalk and talk has had its day. Using a medium like Second Life to deliver a chalk and talk session is not a move forward. Let's not try to nip and tuck the old bird into something hip and modern. Let's not make her ridiculous. Let's just be gracious about this and let her fade gently into obscurity, dreaming of a bygone era and muttering to herself.

And instead, look for ways to use the newer media to deliver meaningful learning appropriate for today's audience.

And let's recognise that it, too, will have its day and then be supplanted by something else. That's just how it is.

'Knowing Knowledge' ahead of its time?

On Wednesday last week, I ordered a copy of George Siemens's book Knowing Knowledge. I read it online when it was first published, but (for various reasons I won't bore you with) decided I needed a hard copy after all.

Yesterday, I received an email telling me:

Shipped on Sun, 22 Feb 2009 via Flat Rate
All items in your order have been dispatched.
Nothing so strange about that.

Except that the book arrived on Saturday morning.

So it's official - George's theory is light years ahead of its time!

This collaboration thing

A conversation has been developing around the subject of collaboration skills in the AACE community. I was thinking about this today as I heard an interview with Clive James and Pete Atkin. They collaborated on many songs, some of which one writer rather dramatically calls

the soundtrack to a private adolescent intellectual awakening, burned into memory and carried into adult life like a secret tattoo on the inside of the back of my brain
They were discussing the song 'The magic wasn't there,' made famous by the inimitable Julie Covington who was a friend of theirs in their student days, when they began writing together. The interviewer asked them "Why did you sit down together and decide to write songs?" and, talking over one another in that comfortable way that old friends have they talked about skills they both had, the creativity they inspired in one another and then one of them (I think it was James) said "A lot had to do with conversation," explaining how their collaboration was born out of a conversation about popular music and show tunes.

So there it was: conversation. At the heart of successful collaboration. And it got me to thinking; what characteristics does a successful collaborator need to have?

So, in no particular order:
  • Vision. You have to know what you're working towards, even if it is a voyage of discovery. There must be some idea of how you will know when you have reached your destination.
  • Passion. You have to believe that the thing you're collaborating on matters. Unless the project lights a spark in your eyes, you are unlikely to carry your weight.
  • Contribution. This is a brass tacks point. Each person must have something to bring to the table.
  • Confidence. Each person has to believe in the value of the thing that they bring to the table.
  • Humility and a thick skin. You are bound to encounter some criticism of your ideas or some disagreement with your suggestions. You have to be able to put the success of the project ahead of your own sensitivity.
  • Respect. You have to believe that everybody else has something of value to offer, too. You also have to accept that people work in different ways, and to be prepared to allow your collaborators the space to work in their way.
  • Discipline. You have to make the time to work on the project, to read through everyone's submissions, amendments, suggestions, etc.
  • Patient perseverance. There will be times when everything seems to grind to a halt. You will need to be able to hang in there, even when you feel like just throwing in the towel.
Any others?

Ten things learning designers forget

I like collaborating with other learning designers on a project, because that way we increase our chances of covering one another's blind spots. I've been thinking lately about the blind spots we may have. Sadly, these are often the result of little, if any contact with the target audience. Most of our interactions tend to be with the subject matter experts, the stakeholders and he-who-signs-the-cheque. As a consequence, we may overlook some factors that could and should impact on our design (note; this is not meant to be a definitive list!):

  1. Users may already know a fair amount about the subject. They might not need the basics. Forcing them into a learning tunnel is not going to serve their best interests. There needs to be a way for them to circumvent the basics.
  2. On the other hand, self-taught people often have gaps at the basic level, even when they have some fairly advanced skills/knowledge. It should be possible for them to cherry pick the bits they've missed out on.
  3. A user might not go through the whole resource in one sitting. This means return visits. So it must be possible for users to return to the materials without being subjected to the prior knowledge assessment, or the 'why we're doing this' section, or the video of the MD's rah-rah speech. No matter how inspiring that speech, it will get old after the third go round.
  4. People may not want to use your resource. Astonishing as it is for us learning geeks, some people don't see why they should have to have any training. "I've been doing this job since you were a twinkle in your Daddy's eye!" Your resource (perish the thought) may just be a hoop they have to jump through or a box they have to tick in order to demonstrate compliance to the satisfaction of some or other regulatory body, or to qualify for a promotion, or to keep the job they have already. For the unwinnable soul, there needs to be a way to get through this as quickly as possible.
  5. If you're putting together a resource which addresses basic skills like hygiene or some such, bear in mind that people who require basic level training are not necessarily stupid. Ignorance and stupidity are not the same thing. It is important that the materials are not pitched as if you're talking to an eejit.
  6. Similarly, if your learners are not native English speakers, be careful of talking down to them. This is similar to the battles experienced by those teaching adult literacy - there is precious little material that tackles topics of interest to adults while using the vocabulary of an early reader.
  7. Learners may disagree with the content of the material, or they may have a better idea. There needs to be a space for them to say so.
  8. A user may return to your resource in search of just one piece of information, "I know It's in there - I just can't remember where." It should be possible for them to be able to zoom in on that one piece of information and then get back to the day job.
  9. People may prefer to talk to people. If possible, there should be a way for them to do so. A list of acknowledged experts in each field. A discussion forum. User profiles. That sort of thing.
  10. Some people may be interested to learn more than your resource contains on a specific point. It's a good idea to include links to additional resources.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

LPOD - xylitol is poisonous for dogs

Fortunately, we haven't learned this the hard way, but it seems that the artifical sweetener used in sugar-free gum is highly toxic for dogs. I read about this in a rather badly produced newsletter from some or other doggy bunch, and raised my eyebrows. But I have checked several websites on the subject and it seems that it may well be true.

This blog seems to be fairly credible, and, while it is not as sensationalist in its prognosis as some of the sites I encountered, it does sound a sober warning:

Dogs that eat significant amounts can develop a sudden drop in blood sugar, which can cause weakness, lethargy, loss of coordination, collapse and seizures.
It goes on to say:
Recent studies also suggest that there is a strong link between xylitol ingestion and the development of liver failure in dogs.
No doubt it is also toxic for cats, but cats are not the scavengers that dogs are - and they tend not to eat some of the unspeakable things that dogs consider a legitimate source of nutrition. Unless there is something meaty to be retrieved, a cat is unlikely to be found with its head in the wastepaper basket. And of course, those of us who chew gum after a meal or after coffee, are likely to dispose of it in the wastepaper basket - perhaps wrapped in a tissue or till slip - where it is likely to be found by a nosy dog.

Of course, we are all supposed to teach our dogs not to eat anything we haven't given them permission to eat, but, until they've learned that lesson, it might be a good idea to dispose of gum some other way.

pic of the day - hockey time

He's hoping to get back to being able to play every week, but, until that happens, my husband treasures his occasional forays back out onto the ice.

belated pic of the day - sunshine!

Yep, folks! Feast your eyes - that's sunshine streaming through my lounge window. Sorry about the late posting - I took the picture without a memory card in the camera and struggled to find a download cable!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

LPOD - biltong and jerky

Ever since I was a kid, watching American movies, I had heard about jerky or jerked beef. When I asked my parents what it was, they said it was what Americans called biltong. I guess that was a fair enough answer to give to a kid.

Then I went to the US and tasted jerky and, I'm sorry, but it isn't biltong. No offence to any American readers, but I found it vile.

We can get both jerky and biltong in the UK, albeit not readily, but I only buy jerky for the dog. Largely because of its convenient flat strips.

Some of our South African friends who have emigrated to the USA have explained biltong to their new friends as being 'like jerky - only nicer.'

So today I decided to look into what the difference is between the two.

Both are dried, spiced meats, but...

Jerky is prepared by cutting meat into thin strips and soaking it in a sweet, spicy marinade (this is what gives it its sweetish taste). Thereafter, it is cured by drying near a smoky fire.

Biltong is made in much larger pieces, following the grain of the muscle, which are spiced (a key ingredient being ground coriander seeds) and then dried. Sometimes they strips are soaked in a vinegar solution before spicing. Saltpetre can sometimes be used in the spicing.

Both are available in an increasing range of flavours as makers experiment with different recipes.

Both owe their origins to a need to preserve meat. Jerky traces its origins back to native Americans and Incas. Biltong has more recent origins in the Afrikaner voortrekkers who struck out to find a place where they could live free of the oppression of the English.

The name jerky derives from the Quechua term Charqui, which means "to burn (meat)". The name biltong derives from the Dutch 'bil' (rump) and 'tong' (strip, or tongue).

The most common meat used for both is beef, although both have been made from a wide variety of meats. Jerky has been made from as wide ranging sources as wild game, venison, elk, caribou, kangaroo and moose, even turkey, ostrich, salmon, alligator, tuna and horse meat have been used. Kudu and ostrich biltong are both very common, but I have tasted hippopotamus biltong (bleagh) and heard of it being made from all sorts of other meats, including elephant. Dried fish are also available in South Africa, but they tend not to be called biltong.

Nowadays large industrial steel cabinets/ovens exist for the production of both.

Lessons we don't teach

This evening our elder son is at a birthday party. The birthday boy invited him to sleep over so, instead of fetching him at the agreed time, we dropped off an overnight bag. When he texted us to tell us that he had been invited to sleep over and we hit on the idea of packing a bag for him, our younger son volunteered to do the packing. I found him standing staring tearfully into his brother's wardrobe.

"What's up?"

"I can't believe I complain about my clothes! There's nothing in here! HE HAS NO CLOTHES!"

Now this is not entirely true. Our elder son does have clothes, but he has struggled to find a job since we moved and his allowance isn't enough to secure a plentiful supply. We buy the things our boys need to wear to school, but their casual clothes are officially their own problem. Of course, every now and again, we take them somewhere and augment their wardrobes, but we deliberately keep the leash fairly short, because (a) we want them to appreciate what they have and take care of them and (b) we want them to earn their own money and appreciate the amount of work each new pair of Nike trainers represents.

The thing is our elder son never complains. He just gets on with it. He makes do with what he has. Unlike his brother, he won't throw a strop and refuse to go out because a particular pair of jeans is in the wash.

Our younger son was so convicted by the evidence of his own eyes, that he has spent the entire evening - of his own volition - washing and ironing every item of his brother's clothes that he can find. Now we didn't teach him that... not in so many words, anyway. But people don't only learn what they are explicitly taught. They learn all sorts of stuff along the way. What a neat formal/informal study!

When I saw him heading into his brother's room with a massive pile of stuff, I said "What a sweet brother!"

His reply?

"Yeah, he is."

My heart is full to bursting!

Friday, February 20, 2009

LPOD - glycogen

So there I was having my feet done, and I explained to the technician about my pic of the day and learning point of the day features. "What can you teach me that I can share?" I asked.

Without so much as a pause for breath, she began to explain the characteristics of glycogen - a key ingredient in the product she was using on my feet. She explained how it was made from sugar cane, was a completely natural substance (and before I could say, "So's the venom of a black mamba"), she explained how it occurs naturally in the human body. How it exfoliates, softens and rejuvenates skin - hence its popularity in anti-aging products.

She said a lot more, but my brain wasn't really in gear. Hey, my feet were being massaged and there was soothing music on... I was floating away somewhere!

But I did check it out when I got home and discovered:

  • The uterus stores glycogen during pregnancy to nourish the embryo
  • Glycogen is the storage form of glucose in animals and humans which is analogous to the starch in plants
  • Glycogen is synthesized and stored mainly in the liver and the muscles
  • Structurally, glycogen is very similar to amylopectin (another substance hot in the anti-aging product market)
Will that do for today?

pic of the day - pedicure

I don't have very pretty feet (to my deep regret), but I do like to take good care of them. Since I injured my shoulder (coming up for 4 months ago, now), just the simple act of putting on socks is sheer agony, so my Sunday night foot pamper ritual has gone out the window. Today I decided enough was enough and I betook myself to my local salon for a deluxe pedicure. Just check out the hot bootie thing on my right foot - I reckon that might just be next season's must have footwear item!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

LPOD - glass teeth!

My learning point today arose out of the belated research into the kind of filling my dentist recently used in two of my teeth. My dentist pays me the respect of assuming (a) that I care about what he is doing in/to my mouth and (b) that I will understand what he is talking about. He encourages me to google things.

So I do.

The fillings he recently gave me are a semi-permanent solution which will probably have to be replaced by crowns in about 4-5 years.

They are called glass ionomers and are made, believe it or not, of a "mixture of acrylic acids and fine glass powders". One of the major benefits is the additional protection they offer by releasing a small amount of fluoride. Another is that less of the tooth needs to be drilled away than is the case with amalgam fillings.

The reason that they are only semi-permanent is that they take a bit of a battering when used on chewing surfaces. They mimic tooth colour, but they are less translucent than enamel. In very rare cases, there can be an allergic reaction to them.

I'll spare you a picture of my teeth to go with this post!

There are days...

... when I am particularly homesick!

Recently a young friend of ours got married. She is the director of a programme called Won Life, which we visited on our last trip to South Africa. They do some pretty amazing work among people with HIV/AIDS.

Today, I got to see the photos online.

She was walked down the aisle by her grandfather, because her Dad conducted the service. He married us, too - nearly 21 years ago!

The song item was sung by one of South Africa's foremost singers.

My husband's sister and brother-in-law were in attendance as were my best friend and her husband, and several of our close friends from Cape Town. The magnificent photos were taken by one of Cape Town's top wedding photographers who happens to attend the same church as all these much loved and missed aforementioned people.

It was with mixed feelings that we looked at their smiling faces in the photos.

There are days...

pic of the day - cruga

As often as I can think of an excuse to do so, I pop into this unprepossessing looking place. As you can tell if you know your flags, it stocks South African and Zimbabwean goods. It started life as a biltong and droeëwors (DREW-uh VORCE) factory and grew organically in response to customer demand into the haven that it is today. I go there even when I don't need anything. It's the one place in the UK where everyone sounds like me, everyone is forthright, and everyone 'gets' me. What's not to like?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

LPOD - body language

Today's learning point is more of a thinking point.

I attended an online session of the AACE group today. The presenter was Teemu Arina who was challenging us to consider new ways of engaging learners online. But the point I want to bring out actually arose from the back channel.

Sidelight: it's quite often the case that the most interesting conversations arise out of tangential exchanges on the back channel, which is why I don't understand why anyone would object to its existence - after all, the presentation is recorded and you can always come back to it. The back channel is immediate and spontaneous as people don't tend to have the time to editorialise their thoughts before the conversation moves on. Of course, it is also recorded, but when you're reading this stream of out-of-context text, it loses a lot of its punch.


The discussion was round body language. There were those present in the session who felt that f2f presentation would always have the advantage over online presentations because of the advantage offered by body language. One attendee made the very valid point that body language can also be a distinct disadvantage. This challenged several people's thinking and divided the responses. One person flatly disagreed, saying that 'body language is truth', to which I responded 'Whose truth?'

Let's think about this for a moment. In many parts of Africa, it is considered very rude to look into the eyes of a person you don't know well. In the western world, you would consider someone who didn't make eye contact rude, or perhaps shifty.

In some parts of the world, we nod to say yes and shake our heads to say no. In other parts it's the reverse. I forget whether it's Indians or Pakistanis (maybe both) who waggle their heads from side to side in the vertical plane, and I have no idea whether that means yes or no.

Some cultures poke themselves in the chest with thumb or forefinger to indicate 'me' or 'I'. Others point at their faces. There are enormous cultural variations in the way we say 'come here' or in the way we insult one another.

Some body language - both deliberately communicative and subliminal - can be very culture specific and can be confusing to people from other cultures.

There are also issues of personal body language habit. A person with a tic can, through no fault of their own, prove quite a distraction from their own presentation. I have a habit of twirling my hair around my fingers. I have done it all my life and it drives my mother scatty. No doubt it drives a few other people scatty, too - especially when I use my right hand, which results in the clanking of my millionty five bangles (mind you, I usually remove those for a f2f workshop). If you were sitting in on an online presentation I delivered, you would be spared that irritation.

While I can see why people like to see the body language of the presenter, but I would argue that it is not always an advantage, and it certainly doesn't always foster improved understanding!

And I would urge caution before calling it 'truth'.

McDonalds - an economic cockroach?

Before I start, let me say that I am well aware that Mythbusters (what a great show!) has proven that it will be fruitflies, not cockroaches that survive a nuclear holocaust, but the idiom persists.

On the way to the mall today, my sons and I noticed that the premises of the erstwhile knick-knack shop had been taken over by a modestly priced dress exchange-type place (although they had confusingly not changed the signage). Everywhere we go in town, we see boarded up shops and pubs.

Later, as we were sitting on the mezzanine floor of our local shopping centre, eating junk food (see today's pic of the day), I noticed that one of the stores below us was empty. It had been the premises of the last bastion of the B income group in our little mall - everything else is distinctly aimed at the C and D income bands.

My elder son made a remark that will stay with me for a while. He joked that, when the economic crisis was over, McDonalds would be the only survivor - a bit like Taco Bell in the movie Demolition Man (don't diss - I like that movie!). He decided (and he also saw that episode of Mythbusters) that they would prove to be the economic equivalent of the cockroach.

It doesn't bear thinking about!

pic of the day - junk food

I'm not really a fast food fan, but every now and again, we go and grab a burger. When we do, it has to be Burger King, because they flame grill their patties and we like our barbecues! No McDonalds' fried patties for us, thanks. We just can't handle that much grease!


Today I met a very brave woman. She was walking in the park with two friends and their dogs. She was an elderly woman and suffering enormous pain from arthritis and a bad back. There wasn't anything about her outward appearance that attracted attention. Well, maybe the fact that she and one friend were each holding the end of a short piece of knotted rope. She was holding very tightly onto her end, as if afraid to let it go.

As she and her attached friend moved away, I asked the third woman if the lady used the rope in some therapeutic way to cope with her bad back.

It turns out that the lady suffers from agoraphobia, but is determined to beat it. So she ties her wrist to her friend's and they take a short walk through the park every day. Each day she walks a little further.

I have never suffered from agoraphobia, but I am both claustrophobic and bathophobic (so submarines are pretty much out of the question) - and I am not much good with heights, either. I know how utterly debilitating it is to suffer from an irrational fear, and I absolutely tip my hat to this frail, arthritic old lady, determined not to become a prisoner to her own fears.

The time may have come...

Twice since the beginning of the year, South African Airways crews have been found to be smuggling large quantities of drugs. Normally this would just up the amount of teasing I come in for.

But today I heard from a cousin who also lives in the UK that, in 2007, no fewer than 6000 Chinese nationals entered the UK on genuine South African passports for which they apparently paid £5K apiece.

When I consider the lengths I have to go to to renew the passport that has been my legal right since my birth, my bile rises. I must take at least one day off work. I must pay to travel down to London. I must stand in long queues. I must provide my thumbprint and a range of other proofs that I am who I say I am and that, as such, I am entitled to a passport... which then takes 4-6 months to arrive.

Once I have this passport in my hot little hands, I have the privilege of being on the high alert list with the officials at UK Customs and Immigration. Oh yes. We're right up there with Bolivia, Nigeria and central Asia, it seems.

Perhaps the time has come to finally shrug and get a UK passport. This means taking an exam to prove that I understand the concept of Britishness. An exam, by the way, that I have tried out on British friends and colleagues, all of whom failed it!

I know I will never really be British. After 10 years in the UK, I could never regard myself as such, and British people will never regard me as such. There are those among them who never miss an opportunity to say so. For this reason, I always thought it would be somewhat hypocritical to get a British passport. I am now rapidly approaching the 'what the heck' stage.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

pic of the day - guilty pleasure

This is my regular Tuesday night date with Gil Grissom (William Peterson) of the original CSI. Such a pity it's gone all soap-opera-esque since Sarah did a bunk! I watch all the flavours of CSI - even repeat episodes. I do stop short of organising my life around the TV schedule, but the rest of the family knows that only under exceptional circumstances will they get to watch what they want during the first UK screening of any episode!

I confess that I do find the Sunglasses of Justice of Horatio Caine in the Miami version somewhat tedious, but I still watch.

At last I can reveal...

I am so excited! Yesterday was my husband's birthday. I was so pleased with myself regarding the gift I got him, that I was hopping from foot to foot for days beforehand.

So what did I get him?

I bought four tickets to see Jeff Dunham (or Jeffaffah Dun-HAM for those in the know) live in London in April. We're going as a family, which is a significant aspect of the gift - my husband loves doing things with his boys and is delighted that each passing year opens new possibilities of things we can do together. Up until comparitively recently, we could never have entertained the idea of taking our kids with us to something like this.

I am crazy about Jeff Dunham's work. And let me tell you, I never expected to become a fan of a ventriloquist in my middle years! But this material is not kids' stuff - not because it's particularly profane, it's just a different level of humour. I am especially crazy about Peanut, who you can see in this clip, which has got to be one of my all time favourites. I love the fact that Peanut demonstrates an awareness of the relationship between them - there's a neat tension between his expression of 'independent', unflattering views of Jeff, and an acknowledgement of his dependence of Jeff as his manipulator/vocaliser.

You may have noticed that Peanut wears only one shoe. There's one clip where Jeff comments on this and asks him if he lost one, to which Peanut replies "Nope. Found one!"

LPOD - history of the Internet

Thanks to Clive Shepherd (via Twitter) I came across this today - an animation of the history of the Internet. Much of it was stuff I knew already, but there were several bits and bobs that I didn't know.

Quite nicely done, I thought.

Big question: making it up as I go along

This month's big question from LCB is around the economy.

What is the impact of the economy on you and your organization? What are you doing as a result?
You will notice that we are more than halfway through the month and I am only just getting around to answering. This is due to the nature of the response!

You see, I am my organisation! Up until September last year, I was one of 28K people working for a blue chip corporate. Then I found myself peremptorily unemployed. I have been advised by more than one person who is in a position to know about these things, that I had a strong case for constructive dismissal. But that's not really how I roll. I preferred to look on the situation as being a case of divine intervention. I had been thinking about striking out on my own for a while, but I just couldn't pluck up the courage to jump ship. I guess I needed a push, and I got one.

Had I been working within the blue chip corporate, when this question came up, I wouldn't have been able to answer it, since I never got to see more than my little patch. it was a bit like being in a glass bottomed boat: I only got to see the patch of sea in my immediate environs.

Looking at the timing of the start of my solo venture, just as the economy went into freefall on a scale that made a blip on Everyman's radar, I can adopt one of two stances.

On the down side, L&D is always (foolishly, to my mind) the first thing to go, so organisations cut back on the learning provision to their staff. This means there is less work to be had, so the outlook might seem bleak.

On the up side. As the L&D budget gets cut, so - often - does the L&D headcount. Many companies choose to outsource instead. This is where I come in. Those companies with foresight look at ways in which they can encourage their staff to minimise the impact of the crunch on the bottom line. Sometimes they bring in people like me to help them. So the outlook might seem quite rosy.

I am not an economist. In fact, if there is such a condition as dysfinancia - I have it. I can't trot out models and forecasts and all that malarkey. I have to stick with things like ethos and values and all that intangible stuff.

One thing I have promised myself: no matter how tough it gets, I am not going to start being stingy with my advice and suggestions. I am not suddenly going to start charging people for sharing the benefit of my experience. I am not going to stop contributing to discussion forums where my perspective may be of help to people desperately trying to develop learning solutions on tighter budgets (or even no budget at all, in some cases).

And another thing (I am going to take a deep breath and say this 'out loud', because I have been through a rough patch in which my confidence has ebbed):

I am damned good at what I do!

I understand learning. I understand learners. I am unafraid to ask the difficult questions. I am unafraid to push back and say why a thing should be done differently (or not at all). I am ever ready to champion the cause of the learner and his/her perspective.

Hopefully, all these things will count in my favour. Hopefully, so will things like the fact that, when a client recently approached me for a quote for Articulate training, I told them that if I were making the call on behalf of their (non-profit) organisation, I would opt for the wealth of free resources available from Articulate themselves instead of spending money. And, if I were to spend money, I would opt for the training they provide, since they do so at a price I can't hope to compete with.

Hopefully my integrity will become a hallmark of my brand.

Hopefully I will weather this storm, because I have no desire to find that my principles have a price tag, after all!

Better than that, I hope to be able to help a few others weather it too.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Unemployment rises further

Unemployment has been creeping steadily upward in the UK. We are approaching the 2million mark.

Today, BMW laid off 850 people in the Mini plant in the UK. Every day we hear yet another story of people being laid off.. and the blue-collar workers often seem to be the hardest hit. We live in a pretty blue-collar area and one can almost see the change in people's demeanour. Every new story is like another physical blow. Today's was particularly tough because the workers were given only 1 hour's notice. The announcement was made an hour before the end of a shift and it got pretty ugly.

The first time I heard this, I huffed and puffed in indignation. Then I did a little research and discovered that the majority of the people affected were from an agency. They were not employees and therefore not entitled to a redundancy package. In effect, BMW did nothing illegal.

Sadly, in these uncertain times, more and more companies are going the route of engaging agency personnel, rather than committing themselves to employees... and all that that entails.

I understand that BMW needs to think of their bottom line. But I am saddened that there seems to be no middle ground. That the bottom line is pursued at the cost of many people's livelihoods. Where are these peremptorily unemployed people going to turn?

For us in the field of L&D, there is no distinction. When we provide learning solutions and performance support, we do so for everyone equally, because productivity levels need to be consistent across all contributors.

Just imagine this scenario:

Company X, like so many others, is facing a dry patch. But they understand how economies work. They know that the tide will turn. They know that all their staff members have families to feed. They know that people are being laid off left and right, and that any workers they lay off will have little chance of finding other employment.

So they sit down with their staff. They lay their cards on the table. They discuss ways that they can all weather the storm. Together.

Staff members are challenged to use this period to hone their skills. To broaden their skillsets. To examine their process and systems to see where they can be improved and optimised. Those who want to take early retirement are permitted to do so. But no-one is laid off. Everyone is in the same boat and everyone busts a gut to row in the same direction.

When the storm passes - as all storms eventually do - imagine the loyalty of the workforce to a company that demonstrated that, when it said "Our people are our greatest asset," it meant it! Imagine the buy-in of a team of people who have helped to bring the company through. Imagine the bonds that have been forged between people who have had to bear one another's burdens is a way they hadn't been called on to do in generations. Imagine the increased skill sets. The honed processes.


Imagine the readiness to take full advantage of the newly buoying economy, while other companies are frantically recruiting and up-skilling.

Or am I just dreaming one of my idealist, Utopian dreams again?

LPOD - Articulate, temp folders and caches

Something I have learnt the hard way about Articulate is its stubborn adherence to older versions of Engage interactions and Quizmaker quizzes when you amend and republish a module. I learnt long ago to empty my browser cache before republishing an amended module.

What I have had to learn to do today is to track down all the temp folders on my computer, and empty those, too. For some reason, one single temp folder has not been enough for my computer. It has created several of the blighters at various levels of the folder structure.

I have also had to empty the caches in all my web browsers, not just Firefox, because I use other browsers for testing, and, blow me down if Articulate doesn't hang on to all that stuff, too.

I never knew an application with such stickiness!

pic of the day - wheelchair

Today was our first session at obedience school. Since my sons are on half-term, they opted to come along with me to learn what they could. My elder son (face smudged deliberately) gave up his chair to an older person, which impressed the facilitator so much that she offered him the only other seat available.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

pic of the day - groan!

With the problem with my shoulder now reaching about the 4 month mark, and the pain showing no signs of abating, my ironing pile is getting out of hand. This isn't even all of it! We all have our chores around the house, and ironing is one of mine. We have reached the 'emergency ironing only' stage, which is done by the person with the emergency!

LPOD - vitamin B

Today I was advised that vitamin B complex is very helpful to those of us of the female gender in that stage of our lives when we are subject to hot flushes. I have not yet tried this therapy, and may have some trouble doing so, because the use of vitamin supplements is increasingly regulated in the UK. My mother-in-law, who recommended the approach to me, used to nip down to her local pharmacy and buy the serum and then take it to the GP who would inject it for her. If she had had the stomach for it, she could have injected it herself. In the UK, we are probably far too protected from ourselves for this to be an option, but perhaps I can pick up some vitamin B in tablet form.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

LPOD - knitting needles

I discovered today that a 6mm knitting needle is the equivalent of a UK size 4.

After my dog kindly rendered some assistance with my knitting a while back, I went to a local haberdashery to replace the knitting needles (her knitting technique left toothmarks on the ones I had) and discovered that the sizing system was different from the South African one (shows how long ago I last bought new needles!). I took a guess which turned out to be wrong and wound up getting the wrong size. Today, I went back with one of the damaged ones, and had it sized up in English money, rather than the metric system I know.

I then found this handy chart showing the conversions for all sizes.

Sadly, the delay meant John's scarf wasn't ready for Valentine's day, but he should have it for Monday.

pic of the day - love me, love my dog

I toyed with the idea of a picture of something traditionally Valentine-y today, but decided that love takes many forms. I hope I'm not breaking any rules by getting my son to take the photo for me, but if I am... tough!

I've never really been a dog person. I like dogs in theory. I admire them. I like other people's dogs. But I am a cat person. My husband is not a cat person. Yet he loves our cats. Iwas never quite sure how that worked until we got Jessie. I suspect I am still not really a dog person, but I am a Jessie person. And Jessie is a Karyn dog. She loves (if that's what dogs do) everyone in the family, but she loves me best.

I've never been anyone's favourite before, and it's an interesting experience!

Friday, February 13, 2009

LPOD - a few extra Earths!

I've been working on some material for World Wildlife Fund, and I've been learning a lot about this planet of ours.

Today's learning point is something I discovered a few weeks ago, but which made a fresh impression on me as I reviewed the resource today. It's something I feel is important enough to share here, even though I didn't strictly learn it for the first time today.

I suspect we all know that we are using more natural resources than the Earth can replenish and releasing far more CO2 than can be reabsorbed by ecosystems.


Did you know that if everyone on the planet lived like the average European, we would need three planet Earths to live on?


If everyone lived like the average American, we would need five planet Earths to live on!

Scary thought, huh? I'm not aware of any spares lying around.

pic of the day - I'm a winner!

You could have knocked me over with a feather when a recent email arrived from TrainingZone magazine telling me I had won a prize at their stand during Learning Technologies 09. I hadn't even known I had been entered into a competition! For a moment, I even thought it might be a hoax.

But sure enough, my prize arrived today: a Kensington SlimBlade presenter media mouse and a copy of Tony Buzan's iMindMap software.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

LPOD - Ecuador

Today I attended a presentation about a proposed school trip to Ecuador for my younger son. I had always known that the country owed its name to the fact that it straddles the equator.

But today I learned that, in this one small country, it is possible to see glaciers-and-volcanoes; hot-and-humid forests, and dry-and-dusty zones.

The country contains a volcano called Chimborazo, the summit of which is the furthest point from the centre of the earth (due to the equatorial bulge of the planet). It also boasts the world's highest active volcano, Cotopaxi.

I had seen pictures of some of their crafts before, but those we saw tonight made me wish I was going along, for the markets, if nothing else!

pic of the day - adventureworks

My younger son is hoping to join a field trip to Ecuador next year. It is being organised through Adventureworks, who sent one of their staff members to do a preso to the parents. It's snowing again, so very few pitched. But it looks like a wonderful opportunity, and very well organised.

Women in technology: Randice-Lisa Altschul

Those who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I'm not a great one for women-only awards. Nevertheless I have agreed to participate in this pledge. Suw Charman-Anderson has pledged that if 1,000 other people blog about a woman in technology, she will blog about Ada Lovelace on 24 March. I agreed because (a) I think Ada Lovelace is a noteworthy person in the history of technology and (b) because there are more noteworthy women in the history of technology than many people appreciate, and I am more than happy to cast a spotlight on one of them.

The woman I have chosen is Randice Lisa Altschul, who patented the disposable mobile phone in 1999. She is attributed with the quote "We've printed a phone." The phone is about three times as thick as a credit card and (and this is cool) made from recycled paper.

Altschul is not your typical techie. She is a toy inventor. The story goes that, one day in 1996, she was talking on her phone while driving along the highway (tsk tsk - not acceptable behaviour) and getting really frustrated that her phone signal kept fading in and out. She wanted to hurl the phone out of the window, which was what heralded her epiphany. Why not design a phone that you can use up and throw away?

She worked with an engineer to develop the super-thin circuitry that was required, but was unable to achieve this at an affordable price. She was therefore forced to file for bankruptcy. As a consequence, competing companies were able to take the realised concept to market before her. Nevertheless, she is credited with the original idea.

She attributes her mentality to her toy-design background:

''The greatest asset I have over everyone else in that business is my toy mentality. An engineer’s mentality is to make something last, to make it durable. A toy’s life span is about an hour; then the kid throws it away. You get it, you play with it, and — boom — it’s gone.''
There are some claims that the phone was named product of the year 2002 by Frost and Sullivan, but I have been unable to verify this.

Altschul is addressing the inventor gender gap, encouraging young women to explore ways to turn their ideas into reality.

A lesson in humility

I've always been pretty good with words.

As I have mentioned on this blog before, I have been playing Scrabble since I was about 8 years old. My mom taught me, because in those pre-TV days (South Africa only got TV in around 1975), the long evenings were lonely for a divorced woman - especially one with children to consider. She also taught me how to do cryptic crossword puzzles.

So, over the years, I have grown accustomed to being considered something of a clever-clogs when it comes to word games. Not that I am stellar, or anything, just somebody not to be taken lightly. I have played several word games on Facebook, and usually feature in the top 3 among my friends. In particular, there is a game called Word Challenge where I had been enjoying top spot for some time with a score of 22,503. My closest rival was my good friend Frank with 21,554.

Then, at the recent Learning Technologies conference, I met Ben Chai. He sent me a Facebook friend request and so began a series of the worst hidings I have ever had in my life!

It's true, my injured right shoulder has meant that I have avoided playing any of the mouse-controlled games for a while (for some reason this is the most painful thing to do - I can shovel snow, but I can't make sustained use of a mouse), so I am a tad rusty. Nevertheless, being ludicrously competitive, I have accepted all his challenges, in spite of the fact that they have me moaning in pain. I tell myself that I could do better if only my shoulder were not an impediment. But I have to accept that, even at my best, there is no way I can match Ben.

Scramble is my weakest game, so the fact that Ben's scores there are double mine is hardly surprising. I'm not great at WordTwist, but I have at least been giving him something approaching a run for his money, there. He trounced me at Pathwords, which I'm pretty good at, but the biggest humiliation has been Word Challenge. How on earth does anyone muster a score of 64,402?

I know when I'm out of my league!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Learning point of the day - outsourcing health

Closely related to my pic of the day, my learning point today was that in order to address the backlog it faces in many areas, the NHS is outsourcing a proportion of its MRI service to a contractor. I had heard fragments about the outsourcing of administrative functions in the past, but was quite surprised to learn about this. Bear in mind that the scans are conducted by radiographers. They then have to be assessed by radiologists. The contractor is not permitted to use UK-based radiologists for this purpose (well, this would hardly clear the backlog, I suppose), so these are being sent to mainland Europe and South Africa.

I have many frustrations with the whole process, but they are not pertinent to my learning point, so I'll leave it right there before that soapbox forces itself under my feet!

pic of the day - mobile MRI

After three months of agony, I spent an hour on Monday refusing to take no for an answer and working my way up the NHS food chain until I finally got to speak to someone who could make me an appointment to have an MRI scan done today. Note: this is the first scan/x-ray/anything that has been done on my shoulder!

The staff members in the mobile unit were sympathetic, gentle and professional, but the receptionist in the hospital outside which it was parked today handed me a slip of paper advising me that "it may be 3-4 weeks before your consultant reviews the result of your scan... if he/she finds something that requires urgent attention, you will get an appointment soon after that." Apparently the scans will be sent to South Africa to be assessed by a radiologist. Sheesh. If only I'd known - I could have given them the names of several!

I think my poor liver flinched at the realisation that it was going to face another 4 weeks of the barrage of painkillers I'm currently throwing down my neck!

So where was yesterday's learning point?

I learnt a lot of things yesterday. Little things. Big things. But none of them seemed suitable for including here. I have made it an unwritten rule that I will not share any learning that only has personal relevance.

I also learned a lot about the internal workings of one of my clients, but I don't have their permission to share that, so I thought it prudent not to.

Mostly what I learned about yesterday was pain. On a scale of 1-10, I was up at about 9/9.5 for much of the day. As I said on my Facebook status, the last time I was in that much pain, a nice man gave me an epidural... and I got a baby out of the deal! However, I didn't think it would be much use to you to hear that I discovered that Lamaze breathing doesn't help with neurological pain in the shoulder.

I hope to get the learning point of the day back on track today. I have enjoyed writing those, and I have found that I pay more attention to things as I keep my eyes peeled for something to share with you. Hawthorne would be proud!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

pic of the day - instruments of torture

I went to the dentist today. I'm not frightened of the dentist, but I get panicked by all the implements in my mouth and the sense that I can't breathe properly. I have to keep asking them to stop so that I can regain my equilibrium. I also have a ludicrously sensitive mouth and wind up having enough shots to down an elephant. My dentist is a nice guy and very patient with my panic issues, but it hurt just the same :o(

When the solution becomes a problem

Due to the snow we've had over the past week or so, there have been a great many school closures in the UK, including our county.

On every hand, there are pointers telling us to visit this website to find out if our kids' schools are closed. How great that they have this facility. I'm assuming that the headteacher of each school is able to access the site directly to indicate closures. Great. So parents can go there instead of all frantically trying to ring the school and getting the engaged signal. Wonderful.

Except that, as soon as all the parents in the county tried to access it, it fell over! So the local radio station stepped into the breach and began announcing school closures. So good that they have a plan B.

Except that the radio was getting its information from the website, and the traffic on the server meant that the school representatives responsible for updating the website couldn't access it. So the information so kindly being supplied by the local radio station was not up to date.

We do know that the school bus service isn't running. This is a private service, paid for by parents. So we know that a good proportion of the students won't be there. Usually, under these circumstances, the schools are closed, but the problem with the server has made it impossible to find out.

For goodness' sake, when you build a solution, make sure that you have considered the logistics, and that it is actually going to be able to cope with the demands for the service it offers!

This is not the only example we see like this. The A&E (accident and emergency) services are in a similar position. When you hurt yourself, every signpost points to your local A&E. When you get there, you are likely to sit for 3 or 4, maybe even 7 hours waiting to be seen. While you wait, you can read the posters on the wall that tell you all the other places you could have gone - your pharmacy, your GP, the NHS helpline - all of which will no doubt have told you to come to A&E! Left hand, right hand.

When the millenium (foot)bridge was built in London, it had to be closed for repairs almost immediately because of the extent to which it swayed. The engineers announced that this was due to a phenomenon known as simultaneous footfall. When the designed the footbridge, they apparently didn't take into consideration the fact that people would be walking on it. Lots of them. All at the same time.

When we're designing solutions, let's consider the implementation aspect. The practicalities. The logistics. This is where it is very useful to have a friend on the inside (of the IT department). Unless the IT department knows what is envsiaged, they can do nothing to accommodate it. They also can't alert you to possible barriers to implementation.

It's also a good idea to include some load-testing in the battery of user tests you carry out on a solution before implementing it.