Monday, June 29, 2009

Circling the cat

Finally dug out from last week's nonstop rush translation jobs, tried out Circle the Cat for a little recreation. Yes, it's highly addictive, but with a little luck and a little strategy it's also more doable than people seem to be reporting. All you have to do is make sure the cat never has more than one exit less than one circle away; sometimes this means going just a bit wide rather than trying to trap the cat all at once. Try it for yourself and let me know if you need help! ;)

Just to show it's possible:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Listen while you tweet

Last week, Samantha Stone wrote "don't forget to take time out from tweeting to listen". I'd like to expand on this just a bit, because after some pondering, the realization has dawned that it is actually possible to listen quite actively even in an apparently one-way environment like Twitter, and in doing so to enrich the lives of others.

Let's face it, most of us who spend nearly 24/7 in front of a computer screen are not necessarily renowned or sought out in the realverse because of our scintillating social skills, but even in a limited-bandwidth format like Twitter, we can all go a long way to improve how we communicate with others. After all, it is called social media.

In real life, one of the most important skills we can learn is listening. Coaches, mediators and other communicators often refer to three levels of listening, sometimes called internal, focused and global listening. In Level I, you may hear what someone is saying, but you're still tuned in to your own thought stream, while in Level II, you lean forward attentively and start to become aware of what the other person is thinking. In Level III, you are fully absorbed in the other person's story, like a good book or movie, to the exclusion of your own senses – you actually feel what they are feeling. Try it and you'll be surprised by how hard it can be to tune yourself out and others in, but you'll also be amazed by how much more you are appreciated by those around you. These days, listening to someone even on Level II is a memorable gift you can give to those you still occasionally meet who have real lives, such as your family, friends and colleagues.

In your fascinating online life, if you can't see the other person's body language or even hear their voice, you're probably not about to get sucked into a dream vortex while staring at TweetDeck, but by your own tweets you can certainly show others how interested you are in what they're saying.

So let's apply some of the principles of listening to the way we tweet (with) others. By analogy, Level I tweets are self-absorbed updates like "I make $5k/month on Twitter and so can you:" that usually result in a quick unfollow. Level II tweets show at least a passing interest in starting a conversation, perhaps in the form of a question "Anybody else #tried those #new #marshmallow #bagels?". A Level III tweet, though, should warm your tweet-ee's heart and is almost guaranteed to evoke a response: "Wow, I can almost smell those blueberry pancakes! Do you serve them on every cruise?"

Now let's break down a good Level III tweet and see what's involved:
  1. A response to what the other person is tweeting
  2. An open, outwardly-directed question encouraging further dialog
  3. A tone of respect or appreciation
Now you might say that No. 3 is optional, but although I'll admit it's a bit of a lost art these days, it is possible to disagree with someone and still respect them. If you're not showing respect or appreciation for your, uh, tweet-ee as a person, chances are you're engaged in a diatribe and not a dialog, and that really is tweeting yourself poorly.

I'm as much a culprit here as the next hapless tweeb, so I'm writing this to myself too: when's the last time you wrote a tweet that shows you're listening?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Glued-up paper airplane for tots

A while ago I mentioned a nonfolded paper airplane that could be made really quickly, and I've since turned out a fair number of them myself. But when one of the boys got tired of this one and asked for a "real airplane with wings", we had to take it to the next step.
This is real simple and every bit as fast to make as the paper loop plane, and the great part about it is that the wide surfaces of the triangular fuselage mean you don't have to make any special glue tabs to attach the wings and tail.

Start by cutting three strips about ¾" wide off the short end of your paper. As for the loop plane, fold the first strip lengthwise in half, then fold the long edges in to meet the first fold and glue it together to make a triangular tube for the fuselage:

Cut one of the other two strips in half, and glue one of these halves to the remaining long piece to make the reinforced main wing:

Fold the remaining small strip in half to make the V-tail:

Now glue the wing to the fuselage about 1/3 to halfway back, and glue the V-tail on the end like this:

The wings will droop a bit, especially before the glue is completely dry, and they'll bend up in flight under the weight of the plane if left this way. Add some camber to the wings to correct the droop, and add a bit of dihedral by bending up slightly where they meet the fuselage:

You can go ahead and start flying as soon as you've finished, although you may need to tweak it a bit as the glue dries. Don't throw it, just give it a gentle shove pointing slightly downwards. If the nose pulls up and it stalls, bend the trailing edges of the V-tail slightly down, and if it pulls to one side, try just bending down the side of the V opposite the turn. If it continues to stall no matter what you do, roll up a small strip of paper and shove it in the nose (of the plane) for some extra weight:

This is a really good flier and can be trimmed just like a real airplane. The V-tail or "ruddervator" is also used on real planes and works very well, as long as you think about the up/down and right/left consequences of any changes you make in its "control surfaces". You can also get better flying performance if you make the main wings and fuselage from the long side of your paper, but at the risk of lower strength. You can counter this some by making the fuselage double-thickness, and the extra weight will also make it fly smoother and faster. Different parts of the wings and tail will affect the flight of the plane at different speeds, so don't make too many changes at once between flights.

Monday, June 8, 2009

10 reasons why Danes should convert to Mormonism ;)

  1. Adherents: Danes about 6 million, Mormons about 13 million
  2. Latitude: Danes 56, Mormons 40
  3. Hours of sunshine per year: Danes 1496, Mormons 2300[1]
  4. Annual precipitation: Danes 712 mm, mostly as freezing rain; Mormons 419 mm, mostly as 1500 mm fresh powder[2]
  5. Tax: Mormons voluntary tithe, 10%; Danes compulsory income tax, total easily over 65%, plus 25% VAT, plus 180% tax on cars[3]
  6. Largest church: Aahrhus Cathedral, seats 1200; Mormon Tabernacle seats 8000[4]
  7. Celebrities: Danes H.C. Andersen; Mormons Gladys Knight, Christina Aguilera, Alice Cooper, Tom Hanks, Jewel, the Osmonds, Orson Scott Card...[5]
  8. Fertility rate: Mormons about 93, Danes about 59[6]
  9. Closest ski area to capital: Danes Isaberg, 3 hours[7], vertical drop 300', 10 runs. Mormons, Solitude Mountain, 20 minutes, vertical drop 2047', 64 runs
  10. The poor, meek and downtrodden among Mormons believe they will rule in Heaven, while the poor, meek and downtrodden Danes believe they are in the middle class.
Note: I have no past or present affiliation with Mormonism or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[1]Phoenix, AZ gets about 4000 hours of sunshine a year
[2]Far more snow falls in the mountains
[3]This 180% "registration fee" is also paid on the VAT
[4]This number includes the world-famous choir of 360
[5]Celebrities reported to have present or past Mormon ties
[6]Births per 1000 women. Over 30% of 19-year-old men in Denmark have subfertile sperm counts
[7]Not including the ¾-hour ferry ride to Sweden. No part of Denmark is higher than 600'.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Who says you can't teach your spouse anything?

Sure, I've heard the stories before, don't try and teach your husband or wife anything. Too many emotions in play, territory at stake, past grievances etc. etc.

Still, I thought I'd try teaching my wife a little navigation on our first sailing trip together, and it worked amazingly well. One afternoon we had quite a tricky harbor approach with confusing marks and some nasty bars, but I sent her to the wheel and indicated the lights and buoys as we worked our way in.

On our way back out a few days later, she again took the wheel, and when I tried to point out the marks in some of the more difficult spots, I found that the navigation lesson had already taken. Without so much as lifting her gaze from the channel ahead, she coolly said, "I brought this [fine] boat in and I can [jolly] well bring it back out again!"

Isn't it wonderful to work with a fast learner?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Email stroke recovery

After spending an entire day recovering about 6 months' worth of supposedly archived emails, I'd like to see a change in the way my mail browser works.

The funny thing is, the whole reason my messages went missing is because I was trying to find a better way to keep track of everything. Tired of a mile-high inbox, I had decided to try the GTD approach. This entailed creating an archive folder and automating things with tags and filters, which worked well until a huge number of messages were somehow deleted or trashed in the filter.

Fortunately, I have a 500GB USB hard disk for nightly backups, plus a 1TB NAS to back up the backups, and even more fortunately, the NAS went offline for reasons unknown at about the time the messages were deleted. Vista is still refusing to map the NAS, so I had to log on to it through my web browser and download the outdated backup file, with the result that I'm only missing about a week's worth of received messages.

But this got me to thinking, those messages aren't actually lost; they're just irretrievable, just like all those items buried in the sofa. They're still sitting in the sent messages folders of my contacts, or even embedded in replies in my own sent messages folder.

So what I'd like to do is to redefine my email archives to include the inboxes and sent folders of all my contacts, and have those sent and received emails shared and accessible to my mail browser. This would make 90% or more of all supposedly lost emails immediately retrievable. Just like a stroke victim relying on friends and relatives to recall significant information, my browser could call on this distributed archive and recombobulate my entire correspondence, preferably in the background while I waste my time on hardware problems instead.

Meanwhile, I have the consolation of knowing that my missing correspondence lives on, if only in spirit.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Translating in the wrong domain

As is so often the case, and one of the reasons I'm still in the business, today's German-to-English translation included a word that was new to me: Ölflexkabel. But luckily, the first hit on Google was an English translation from an online dictionary: oil flex cable. Bingo! Isn't the Internet great?

But wait a minute, that link has a .de domain name, meaning that the person who made that entry was not necessarily a native speaker of my target language. So first I click on "Images" to see what an Ölflexkabel looks like, and I get lots of pictures of electrical cables in various not-so-revealing poses. Then I search just for "Ölflex", and suddenly there's the best confirmation a terminologist could ask for, an English-language entry from Lapp USA, manufacturer of the "Olflex®" line of flexible, oil-resistant cables. A few more clicks bring me to which tells the whole story. Or at least the US English version of it; as it turns out Ölflex® is also a registered trademark in many countries.

This is pretty typical of the way I like to research terms – first I check a paper or online dictionary or database, but then I always try to get an independent target-language confirmation of the term, preferably published or posted in the target country. Google offers a quick and easy way to narrow down the domains you search; for example, just add "" (without the quotes) to your search and you'll only see hits for web pages with .com domains. Just that little extra work can save a lot of grief. Take my word for it. Or take your chances with someone else's word for it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Turning around in close quarters

With my office window overlooking a channel with 6-knot tidal currents and a fairly low bascule bridge, I get to see lots of interesting things. If the tide's going out and boats are waiting for the bridge to open, nearly everyone will race downstream with the current, perform some highly interesting maneuvers involving the entire width of the channel and generous application of emergency full ahead and reverse, especially with a following wind, and churn back upstream, kiting from side to side, until the bridge opens and they all charge for the gap like so many hamsters heading for a gas turbine intake.

Outta my way! No, outta my way!

Five minutes after this brilliant display of precision seamanship, a small bulk cargo ship will glide placidly through, engine barely ticking over, crew waving down at me in my second-story window while the bow is already passing the bridge 100 yards downstream. The channel dead-ends in a tiny harbor with two branches that are nowhere wider than the ship is long, but I know they didn't back 6 miles up the channel, so they must have somehow turned it around. So how come these little boats that could fit four end-to-end across the channel have so much more trouble turning around than this massive ship, which practically scrapes both sides of the channel and has more steel sail area than the entire fleet?

Room to spare

Next time you get in a tight spot and need to turn around, try this:
  1. Get a cup of coffee and have it close to the helm.
  2. Slow down to a near-complete stop, and throw the helm hard over to one side (to starboard if you have a right-hand prop, or to port for a left-hand prop). If you're not sure, check under the boat. If you're still not sure, install a bow thruster.
  3. Apply generous forward power only until the boat starts to turn, but not until you have on any appreciable forward motion.
  4. Don't touch the helm!
  5. Now give it plenty of reverse, again watching to make sure the boat doesn't start moving backwards or turning in the other direction.
  6. Repeat from step 3 until you're facing the way you want to be.
  7. If anything goes wrong, take a sip of coffee. It helps you to focus without panicking, and it makes people watching think you know what you're doing. Try it – it really works!
The trick is that prop wash makes the rudder work really well in forwards, kicking the stern around, while prop walk (a term that describes a couple of different forces) continues to pull it sideways in reverse before the boat actually starts backing.

I'm giving her all she's got, Captain!

So how did that big ship turn around so easily? Answer: they practiced this maneuver and others before heading out in such close quarters with so many people looking on!