Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Keeping the main thing the main thing

Today is my wedding anniversary. Mr Namasi and I have ben married for 26 years - that's more than half my life. And I'm struck by how much there is in common between our marriage and our worklives - it's mainly about priorities and choices.

We chose to view our wedding as the first day of our marriage. The marriage was - and remains - the main thing. And has been a work in progress since its 'launch' 26 years ago today.

On our respective Facebook pages, we are receiving the usual barrage of congratulatory messages, some of which imply that the success of our marriage is due to the 'fact' that we never argue.


We argue a lot. I mean can you really believe that someone who writes this opinionated blog is going to have an argument-free marriage? My husband is a strong-willed man. But, as Kate Reynolds (Téa Leoni) says in The Family Man, "I choose us."

So let's just unpick this for a moment:
  • We got married on a shoe string budget. Neither of our parents had any money, so we paid for it ourselves.
  • The ceremony was brief and to the point. It took minutes.
  • It was held in my mother-in-law's granny flat above to my brother- and sister-in-law's house.
  • I made the lunch (coq au vin) that followed, which was held downstairs.
  • I made my own outfit out of fabric I bought from the designer I worked for (at staff discount) and it was something I could use again afterwards.
  • My MIL made the cake.
  • My SIL made the dessert (kiwi fruit pavlova) and took the photos. 
  • Bride and groom walked into the 'venue' together. We had no retinue (no bridesmaids or best men). 
  • We had no alcohol, due to the presence of one alcoholic and one recovering alcoholic. 
  • Just family and very close friends were in attendance - fewer than 30 people in all. 
  • To be honest, there are things I would do differently if I were to do it over again - it was one of the most stressful days of my life, because I took too much on myself.

By the end of the ceremony we were just as married as anyone who has spent £15000 (because that's apparently the current UK average according to figures cited on Radio 4 the other day) on the ceremony. Our 4-day honeymoon in a small-town hotel a couple of hours' drive from the city was lovely, too, in spite of the fact that we both got food poisoning on our last day!

Many of our friends and family have had magnificent productions on their wedding day. And I confess to occasional twinges of envy. But we started our married life without the massive debts that can result from the lavish event. We were stone broke, but we were stone broke together and everything we have today, we have acquired together.

Something else that I've noticed is that planning the wedding can become so much the focus of the relationship that, once the wedding is over, some couples can feel quite bereft. Everything happened so much faster for us, that we didn't have time to develop that level of attachment to the occasion. We had been planning to get married in December 1988. But we realised at one point in April that we had no reason to wait - there wasn't going to be additional budget or resource freed up during that time. So we gave ourselves six weeks to bring the whole thing together and got on with it.

So, much like a lot of projects, we had very little time. We had next to no money. We weren't in a position to produce anything shiny. We didn't have a big team of professionals, or an outsourced vendor. We faced a lot of opposition and naysayers who told us that it couldn't and/or shouldn't be done. We were a pair of amateurs who had never done this before, and were too naïve to realise how utterly ill-suited we were to the task at hand (or each other, come to that). We had a few (unpaid) helpers, some willing, some decidedly not so.

We have had better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness and health. We have had disasters, catastrophes, we have had slow-burning, insidious challenges. But we stubbornly resolve every time to release a patch, an update.

The project had a rather inauspicious start by average standards. But it is enduring, because the team is committed. :)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

'Over dependence' on technology

When the news is filled as it currently is with news of a data compromise at eBay, it is quite common to hear people say things like "this is what happens when we are over-dependent on technology."

They say the same things when the link to an online learning resource won't work, or people lose their connection to a webinar. Isn't it terrible? We're so dependent on technology, and everything grinds to a halt when it lets us down.

But let's just stop a moment before we all get hysterical about technology being to blame for all that goes wrong in the world. Our lives are filled with technology that we don't even refer to by that name any more. Your cooker is technology. Your pen is technology. Your car is technology. Your old manual typewriter (supposing you have one) is technology. They've just been around so long that you don't think of them as such any more.

When your cooker stops working, you don't curse your over-dependence on gas/electricity to provide food for your family. When your car breaks down, you don't make a blanket statement about how we should have stuck with horses.

Did you once use overhead projectors? Did the bulb sometimes go when you were right in the middle of a class/workshop/presentation? Should we have reverted back to the days before OHPs were invented? Nah, you just came up with an alternative and moved on. Because you're resourceful like that.

The thing that has happened at eBay is serious. It could be more serious than they're letting on. But the dust will probably settle and people will go back to business as usual.

Mistakes and challenges have always been a part of life and always will be. The technologies that we curse when things go wrong were developed in the first place to address some other problem. Before we had online learning, distance learning had to involve large quantities of printed materials being sent hither and yon, which was costly on so many levels. Before we had distance learning, people had to travel somewhere to participate in a learning event, which was ditto, and disruptive to boot.

So the next time you lose connection to your online learning event (which might happen to me within the next half an hour as I try to log in to a webinar with a splendiferous thunderstorm doing its thang overhead), take a breath and try again. The world hasn't come to an end, and it's probably no more of an inconvenience than when the assignment you submitted by mail didn't reach its destination by deadline date, or your car broke down on the way to a residential course.

And, just to keep your sense of humour intact, the next time the water is cut off to your home while they work on the pipes somewhere in your neighbourhood, say out loud to yourself, "This is what happens when we become too dependent on running water!" Because taps (faucets) are technology too.

Monday, May 19, 2014

In the run up to the UK elections

This week is election week in the UK. As a mixed nationality family, it took us a while and a few false starts to figure out who was allowed to vote in which election. This is what we have established:

My husband and sons, who are Swedish (and therefore EU) nationals are entitled to vote in local elections and European elections. So they have a say in who their local councillors are and who their MEPs are. But they may not vote in a national election. So they have no say in who their MP is.

I, as a South African (and therefore a Commonwealth) national, am allowed to vote in all elections: local, national and European (even though I'm a non-European).

It's kind of weird, really, because my husband and sons are allowed to live and work in the UK (or anywhere else in the EU) without having to apply for permits or visas or any of that malarkey. I am only allowed to live in the UK (or anywhere else in the EU) if I have a residence permit. But I get more of a voice than they do. Go figure.

If you've been wondering who in your family may and may not vote, I hope our experience is of some help to you. It was only after my husband had voted in at least one national election that we found out he wasn't entitled to do so. How his name was included on the electoral roll is anybody's guess. Our story was even included in our local newspaper a few years back, because of the mix ups, contradictions and misinformation we had experienced in our quest for a definitive position on our voting rights.

During our 15 years in the UK, we have encountered a few instances of racism* (see below). But these have been the exception. However, our subjective experience is that, in the run up to this election, there is more of it about. There seems to be a great deal of anger just below the surface, and we have found ourselves on the receiving end of more of it than usual. I find it unsettling, as I'm sure you understand.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of the election, and the aftermath. Will it settle back down to life as usual, or will the tensions continue? For the first time in fifteen years, I'm actually nervous about going to the polls alone, in case of unpleasantness.

In spite of my enthusiastic involvement as a student, I don't think I was designed for politics. The anger and unpleasantness unsettles me.

*People outside the UK might be surprised to learn that the term 'racism' is used in these instances. I was too, the first time I encountered it, so just to provide some context: A teenaged neighbour had physically and verbally abused me on my own doorstep, and I had dialled the police to find out what I should do about it, if anything. I was asked if I wanted to lay a charge of racist abuse against her, and I was totally non-plussed. "But we're the same race!" I protested. But the police officer explained that that didn't matter. The term 'racism' in the UK is used more broadly than appears to be the case elsewhere, and can apply to abuse based on cultural or heritage differences, too.

Friday, May 16, 2014

On learning to dismount the high horse

As you (probably) know, I am a South African expat, living in the UK. If you're an expat, too, you will know that a conversation about your accent is something that takes place pretty much on a daily basis. Shopkeepers, people with whom you strike up conversations on the train, people on the other end of the phone, fellow attendees at business meetings... everywhere and anywhere seems to be the right place and any time seems to be the right time for "Where are you from?"

Some people like to guess. South Africans ('saffas'), New Zealanders (kiwis) and Australians (ozzies) often get mistaken for each other. At one stage, I worked with an Australian. We had a lot in common and we got on really well. His family and mine spent social time together on the weekends. This clearly showed in the way we interacted with each other at work, and many people assumed we were a couple, because we got on so well together and 'had the same accent.'

These are three very competitive sporting nations and in general, it doesn't go down too well with a national from one to be mistaken for another. I was no exception. I bristled when I was asked if (and sometimes told that) I was an ozzie or a kiwi. A facetious "g'day mate" brought out the worst in me.

But then I realised something. I can't tell accents apart, either. Yes, I can tell my ozzies from my kiwis (it's in the As and the Is), but I can't tell a Pole from a Latvian - and we have many of both in our town. I can't tell a Pakistani from an Indian, and there are many of both of those all over the UK. I have no idea how offended a Polish person is when asked if they're Latvian, or vice versa. I have no idea whether a cricket fan from Pakistan bristles at being asked if s/he is enjoying an England/India game being televised at the time.

So I decided to get down off that high horse before I got a nosebleed. It really isn't a big deal. And at least the person is showing some interest and making conversation about something other than the weather.

But I'm still ridiculously pleased when someone gets it right. Just this morning, I popped into a little shop on the Charing Cross station and the man behind the counter identified me as a South African. I asked how he could tell, and he said (a) that he was a fan of cricket in general and Kepler Wessels in particular and (b) that with the South African embassy being just across the road, hordes of saffas visited his shop on a daily basis. The man himself was from India...or Pakistan...or Bangladesh...or maybe even Sri Lanka. I couldn't tell. Something I am readier to admit from ground level than I ever was from my perch on that horse I mentioned.

Now if I can just learn to stop bristling when people try to 'do the accent' which I have never heard anyone do successfully...

Monday, May 12, 2014

Referencing outdated research

I recently had to attend a speed awareness course (I know, I know - you're all paragons of driving virtue).

The delivery method for the course was chalk-and-talk with endless PowerPoint slides, almost all of which contained a list of bullet points. The instructors did their level best to make it interesting, and - to be fair - there was some solid content. But I can't help feeling that it might be time to explore some alternative delivery approaches. Perhaps this is a post for another day, but right now, I digress.

If you know anything about me, especially if you've read my recent post, you'll know how my brain imploded when one instructor tried to explain the psychology behind speeding in terms of the whole left brain/right brain thing. You'll be proud of me, though, because I didn't immediately challenge him to a duel. :)

I know I've only recently touched on this point, but it really set me to thinking. When all's said and done, this was a course about road safety. Imagine how their credibility would be damaged if they cited traffic ordinance that was as outdated as the left brain/right brain concept. Why do we put so much effort into one and not make the slightest effort about the other?

The company I work for provides (among other things) training in various safety-critical fields: working at height, working with high voltage, working in confined spaces, hazardous agents in the workplace, for example (and those are just the ones that pop into my head - there are hordes of others). Imagine if we trotted out outdated safety equipment, or cited outdated safety precautions. The results could be devastating!

The people who work in these areas make it their business to keep up to date with the latest information and legislation. They wouldn't dream of doing otherwise.

Why is it then, that there isn't the same level of commitment to keeping up with the research about how learning itself works? Why is it okay to trot out research that is decades old and out of date? To cite pop-psychology as if it were solid fact? To quote urban legends as 'evidence' that 'prove' the point you're trying to make?

Why isn't the learning world beating a path to Itiel Dror's door (for example)? Or Mo Costandi's? Or (while he was alive) John Geake's? In his presentations, Itiel often mentions how learning providers will feature a picture of a brain in their materials at various exhibitions. And when he asks how the product they're selling relates to the brain, the vendors are stumped. They know little about the brain, other than that learning happens there somehow or another.

I have to question the ethics of this. In other fields, professionals keep up with emerging research on pain of dire consequence: structural engineers, microbiologists, burn specialists, aerospace engineers, surgeons... and the world holds them to account. Why are we being allowed to get away with it?

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Cloud based email and distribution lists

The company I work for recently switched from an Outlook Exchange based email system to a cloud based system. This happened just before I joined the team, so the switch shouldn't really have affected me.
I have been using cloud based email on a personal basis for a while, now, so I didn't really expect to encounter any challenges. But distribution lists have got me (a bit) beat at the moment. I don't use those for my personal emails.
  • I have yet to figure out how to create a distribution list of my own - any help on this front would be welcomed.
  • The distribution lists from the Outlook system have either been carried over or recreated (I'm not sure which), so I can use those to send out group emails. Being fairly new to the company, I don't know who is included on the various distribution lists, and I have yet to find a way to expand an existing distribution list to find out who's on it. Once again, any help you can offer...
  • When I send out a meeting invitation to one of the distribution lists, the invitees are unable to respond. They receive an error message to the effect that the invitation has been sent to , whereas they're logged in as . So in fact, meeting invitations have to be sent to a list of individuals, rather than a named distribution list. If the distribution list is long and/or if you don't know who's on it, this can be problematic!
Have you had similar challenges? How have you resolved them?

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Keeping it valid

Centuries ago, people believed the world was flat. They don't (or most don't) believe that any more. So, if you were to chuck in a casual reference to the flat earth during a presentation you were doing to a client, or a roomful of attendees, you would immediately lose credibility. Clearly here is someone who does not have his/her finger on the pulse.

But the flat earth is an extreme example. There are other, more recent ones. In recent meetings, I have heard people make casual reference to the whole left brain/right brain thing as if it were indeed, still a thing. We used to think so. But now, thanks to the work of people like Prof John Geake (among others), we know that is simply not the case.

Similarly, I have heard people cite the example of how the Americans spent millions researching a pen that could write in the zero gravity of space, while the Russians just used a pencil. That illustration gets used to demonstrate why it is important not to overthink things, and that sometimes, the simplest approach is the best. While that may be sound advice, the story of the pen/pencil thing is bogus. The graphite in pencils is problematic in zero gravity, too.

Every single one of us has seen a Facebook share that tells us that a million shares will get this kid his heart transplant, or that Bill Gates will donate a dollar to X charity for every 'like' the photo gets. Truth is, no amount of sharing is going to get that kid a heart, and Bill Gates already donates millions to charity, but to the charities of his own choosing. And by sharing these things, a person reveals a level of naivete and - it has to be said - laziness.

It is always possible to check whether a story is true. There are several sites online where you can verify (or otherwise) the latest viral sharing trend. Hoaxslayer, Snopes, etc. It takes a matter of minutes.

It is also possible to check whether the earth is flat, whether global warming is real, whether fracking is harmful, whether nuclear energy is really clean, whether the Russians really did just use a pencil while the American spent millions developing the space pen. (Please note: I am not for a moment saying that all of these are myths. But you can check for yourself which are true and which are not.)

...and to see what the current thinking is on how the brain works, whether learning styles actually exist.

I am a learning professional. I try to keep abreast of current thinking and research in my field so that I don't discredit myself or my company by casually dropping an absolute clanger into a conversation with a client.

Whatever your field is, I genuinely believe you owe it to yourself to do the same.

Things that were once unequivocally true (the earth is flat; eating fat makes you fat) are being shown by emerging research to be not so very true after all (the earth is round-ish; processed carbs make you fat).

Information is everywhere, and it is impossible to keep on top of it all, but keep your eyes and ears open in the fields that interest you. And, in the field that pays your salary, make a conscious effort to keep up.

That's my advice.

Not that you asked for it.