Archive for Writing (other)

Using Dropbox on the iPhone

Travel is always fraught with unexpected challenges and my experience is that a small oversight can cartwheel into a major breakdown when in a different country trying to use unfamiliar technologies. Take for example, the train in France.

I reserved my train passage on the TGV from Paris to Antibes with little difficulty, and it was only at the last step—literally—that everything suddenly went very, very wrong.

I had become comfortable with the manual doors on the Paris Metro, but the doors on the TGV were a new adventure. And while I’m on the subject of the Paris Metro, the iPhone app for it is called, “Le Metro Parisien”, and it’s one of the best apps around (if you’re comfortable with directions in French), particularly because it works as well offline as on. You simply enter your start and finish station and it walks you through the steps to get there.

When the train stopped at Antibes—a whistle mere stop—I pressed the button to open the door and nothing happened. In my halting French, I asked several old French ladies on the train trying to open the door, but we couldn’t open it. Two minutes later, then train departed Antibes with me still on it bound for Nice.

In Nice, I was able to catch a train back to Antibes, but I’d missed my pickup. This is when another small problem became a large one. I’m missed my pickup in Antibes by this time, so I opened Dropbox on my iPhone to check the hotel information and, to my horror, the confirmation files weren’t viewable.

I was using Dropbox on my iPhone to read PDF versions of bookings and other travel information. I’d never checked, but files only open in Dropbox offline, if they’re been viewed online. I hadn’t bothered to get roaming wifi or a European phone account, so I found I couldn’t even read my hotel information. Fortunately, I could boot  up my laptop in the train station and read the files there offline. It’s always good to have multiple failsafes and lots of redundancy.

I told myself not to panic—even when I thought I’d have to book into another hotel for my first night in Antibes—and in the end, panic wouldn’t have helped. The entire ordeal lasted no more than 1 1/2 hours, including the little trip to Nice and back.

Braving Paris—by Bicycle (Part I)

Ever since George Gershwin penned his rhapsody to Paris, An American in Paris, with its car horns and street chaos vividly set to music, we’ve believed that Paris would not be the place for a non-Parisian to drive, much less cycle. Fast forward to the 21st century with the environment and the economy spinning out of control, and cycling here looks much more attractive. Gone is the traffic chaos—wrong. It’s still there, perhaps more so, but now there are many more advantages to the drawbacks for experienced urban cyclists.

Cycling in Paris – Are You Ready?

If you find Vancouver cycling harrowing, this article is not for you. This article is for the intrepid cyclist who’d like to experience the City of Lights using the lightest for of transport—the bicycle. Here, I’ll describe how to use Velib’, the city-wide bicycle service that is easy to use (with a few tips I learned) and very, very cheap.

Velib’ introduced a municipal service a few years ago that has become popular with Parisians. You’ll see the distinctive solid-built cyclists used by everyone—business men, shoppers, students, lovers, and intrepid tourists like me.

Velib’s Usability Challenges

Setting up a pass at the Velib’ stop near my hotel turned out to be very difficult, and it wasn’t a language difficulty. After several attempts to understand its lexicon, I finally asked a very helpful Parisian who, not understanding it himself, called Velib’ headquarters and we finally got it working. There are several design flaws that make it hard to use. This is what I found:

  • Velib’ is designed for local users who buy year-long passes. One can buy a one-day or six-day pass, but it’s very difficult—even locals can’t figure it out.
  • The self-serve kiosk by the bikes has input on one side and a screen with directions on the other. This means you have to jump around to follow its logic.
  • The other language options don’t carry through, so even when I started in English, the machine seems to forget my language choice and part way through, revert to French. In the end, I gave up on English and used the French. At least it’s consistent.
  • The procedure times out too quickly. After keying my way through five screens, I’m presented with a policy screen to read (in French), which times out before I through it. I have to start again.
  • Occasionally, it just doesn’t work for any apparent reason. I learned a lot about patience with this machine.

Taking a Bicycle

My suggestion is that you buy your pass on their web site. It’s easy to use. You can buy a six-day or one-day pass and it provides you with the code you’ll need to sign out a bicycle. Armed with a code, the kiosk is very easy to use (really):

  1. Enter the code it provided.
  2. Enter the four-character passcode you set up on the web site.
  3. Accept responsibility for the bicycle. Press V which stands of valider, not voila! as I’d imagined.
  4. Enter the number of the bicycle you want (I always start by checking a bicycle’s tires and brakes and memorizing the number of the one I prefer. In Velib’ parlance, a broken bicycle is identified by turning the seat backwards).
  5. Press the button at the stand of the selected bicycle and pull it back—hard. Sometimes they’re sticky.
  6. Allez! Remember, your first half hour is free so off you go.

Getting around Paris

As I stated earlier, cycling in Paris is not for the faint of heart, but take heart, it is very doable. Here are some tips that I learned to stay safe.

  • The first time you take a bicycle, make navigation and cycling your first priority. Save sightseeing until you get more comfortable. For me, it took a couple of days.
  • Follow the rules of the road. Don’t run red lights and so forth. In Paris, you don’t know what direction traffic comes from (scooters out of alleyways, trucks parked on the bike path—it’s madness.
  • Some one-way streets (but not all) allow cyclist to cycle against the traffic (watch for sauf cyclists – except cyclists) on the one-way signs.
  • Parisians tend to follow the spirit of the law, rather than us who follow the letter of the law. This is why you’ll sometimes see motorcyclists on sidewalks and trucks parked on the cycle routes. Other than going a half block up a one-way street that doesn’t permit cyclists to do so, I was pretty strict with the laws.
  • Part of the chaos of Paris streets comes from motor cycles and scooters. They fly around you and force their way in at any opportunity. As a cyclist, you need to be almost as aggressive if you want to get anywhere. This doesn’t contradict my previous obey-all-laws commandment. Paris drivers are a lot more aggressive—it’s expected. If you’re too timid, you’ll be out of flow with the traffic and Paris traffic is all about flow—that’s what the spirit of the law is about.

The bells on the Velib’ bicycles are a joke—nobody could possibly hear you. Be prepared to call out in French. Here’s my cycling vocabulary:

  • Pardon – please make room for me or sorry for what I just did.
  • Attendez! – Wait! I’m coming through
  • Attention! – Watch out!
  • Merci – Thanks

Next post…Velib’ in Paris II

Securing your iPhone (and self) on the road

A few days ago, I was enjoying un petit-déjeuner in a café at Place Stravinsky (Beaubourg beside The Pompidou Centre), when a group of six 12-year-old Roma (gypsy) girls tried to steal my iPhone. It’s a common trick they use, which usually catches the tourists—like me—off guard.

The girls all came together in a rush into the cafe holding documents for us to read. At first I thought they were soliciting for some charity and I said “no”—three times. What I didn’t notice with the girl at my table—who was very agressive—was that she’d moved the paper over my iPhone I’d just placed on the table. While I was looking her in the eyes, she snatched my phone from under the paper. After they’d left, I looked down and couldn’t remember if my phone had been on the table or still in my jacket. Fortunately, I noticed quickly enough and, with the help of two waiters, we caught two of the girls and called the police. Eventually, we all went for a ride across town to L’hotel de Police.

I have my iPhone back in my hands and have taken extra caution to ensure that, if it falls into the wrong hands, the data is protected:

iPhone settingsWhen my iPhone was snatched, the security was turned off. I’d turned it off while taking photos in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. I don’t want to say how much valuable information was on my iPhone, but it was pretty much tantamount to stealing my wallet. I’ve now turned on the Passcode Lock and I manually lock the phone even while I’m holding it. Otherwise, it’s buried deep in my pocket unless I specifically need it for something.

I have two apps that are good even if I hadn’t used the OS settings to lock it.

The first is called Find iPhone, which allows me to find (on a map), lock, and even wipe all data remotely using a web browswer. It is native to the iPhone interface, but you need an iCloud account set up to work it properly.

My iPhone foundHad I not acted more quickly, I could have used a computer to log in, find my iPhone on a map, and hopefully send the police to retrieve it. At right is a screen shot of my iPhone found using a web interface. It remains to be seen whether police could do anything with this information as it only points to the building in which there are at least 25 apartments.

I also downloaded the highly recommended paid app, My Folder, which I thought would be more useful, but I think it’s designed for deceitful couples intent on hiding information from each other. Even the icon is designed to look like a private folder to lure your jealous partner into opening it—upon which it takes a photo of the intruder and sends its coordinates.

My Folder doubles the functions of Find iPhone in other respects so I don’t think this one’s necessary—at least not for me.

Now, I’m much more careful with my phone and I also have a money belt. It’s not that Paris is unsafe or that I’m paranoid; it’s just that I’ve realized how disadvantaged I’d be trying to manage without these key items so far from home.

Yesterday, while enjoying the view of the Eiffel Tower from the Grande Palais (a popular tourist hang out), a dark eyed woman offered me a gold ring she “found” at my feet. I didn’t accept it at first, but when I did, she immediately began asking me for money “un peu pour manger” she begged. I turned the tables on her by asking a passing couple if they were the owners of the ring and they, knowing better, turned on her. Wahoo, I’m getting street wise in Paris.

Five In-The-Cloud Tools for the Successful Corporate Blogger

In preparation for my new life as an itinerant corporate web writer, blogging my way through Europe, I need to ensure that I have all my cloud resources in place before I leave. Fortunately, I have a plethora of tools that help me keep track of information, track my time and expenses, stay on top of writing trends, and so forth.

Here are my top-five cloud tools:

Dropbox Store your files where you can retrieve them from anywhere. You can also invite others to share specified folders and work on files with no need to upload or download files. A must for anyone on the move.
Evernote This is similar to Dropbox except that instead of saving entire files, it allows you to save key pieces of information. I use Evernote because it syncs effortlessly with Awesome Note on my iPhone so I can check travel arrangements or simply drop in thoughts for later.
Mint.com Aggregate all your finance information into one place. This doesn’t allow you to conduct transactions; it’s designed to help you if you have multiple accounts or credit cards so you can get an overview of all transactions. I use this on a daily basis to check that all is well.
CMOS The Chicago Manual of Style online is a great resource for writers. It provides all the information you’ll need for grammar, word usage, styles, citations, and more.
Visual Thesaurus I use this excellent resource to help me brainstorm words visually. Enter a word and it shows homonyms, synonyms, antonyms…the works as a branched infographic that you can click through until you find just the right word.

 

3 Steps to Planning Your Corporate Blog

In my first post on this subject, I described how I re-organized my life to become a world traipsing corporate blogger. It’s forward looking as I haven’t flown the coop yet, but soon I will be in France writing for my clients back here in Vancouver. How is this possible? Research, planning, communication.

I need to get up to speed on disability claims and liability in an area where I know little. How am I going to do it? Here is what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Get connected – there are lots of online resources I can draw from. For example, LinkedIn has great groups on the very subject I’m suddenly interested in—legal blogging. I’ve joined a few groups and I’m reading the content and making notes about what I find.
  2. Get organized – this is no place to be disorganized. I’ve used my standard timetracking software to track my time and plan ahead. I use Excel, but you can try Billing Boss, because it also allows you to invoice your clients.
  3. Set up subject matter alerts – there are a few questions here, but what you need are some keywords that you can use to create some effective news alerts in Google. When you know the best words (I’ll blog about that soon), go to Google News and enter them. At the bottom of the results screen, click Create an email alert for [your keywords] and follow the prompts.

Lest this blog get to be too dry, here’s an inspiring quote for all concerned: “Cherish your visions and your dreams as they are the children of your soul; the blueprints of your ultimate achievements.”
— Napoleon Hill

My New Book: “How I blogged my way through Europe”

Currently, only my friends know that I’m going to be working in Europe this winter. “How?” they ask. “Savings”, I say. Well, savings and ruthless cunning.

I took the summer off to quiet down and think about my future. I did little other than teach my technical writing courses at BCIT and study jazz clarinet. Under the placid surface, though, I was trying to figure out how I could work in Europe. This went back and forth for a while and it looked like I’d just have to go there first and start talking to people and perhaps plan on a miracle.

I was also talking with people in Vancouver about various types of work and I’ve been finding a bit of a perfect storm in which my technical writing and marketing copy writing meet as a powerful sales tool. Did you know there’s a large market for corporate bloggers with technical writing skills and a handle on social networking tools?

I’m now attracting companies that need to make their blogs and web sites look like, well, like someone’s home there. That’s where I come in. I write. And I research a lot about industries I never imagined I’d have to know anything about. The coolest part is I can do this writing from home. And, I reasoned, if I can do it from home, why not from the south of France?

And that’s just what I’m doing in a few short weeks. Living in France and blogging about companies in Vancouver. So you ask, “how did you do it?” C’est si simple, n’est-çe pas?

Oh, and savings helps too. I’ve been stowing away funds in my ING account and have amassed a small fortune.  Since signing up four years ago, I’ve earned $423.72 in interest alone?

If you haven’t switched to a no-fee, high interest bank yet, why not?

Redundancy—A serious and critical crime since 1066

Here’s a little tip from my technical editing and grammar class about why there’s so much accepted redundancy in English:

“It all goes back to that fateful Battle in Hastings in 1066. After the Anglo-Saxons lost, Norman rule was established in England and with it, a second language. In order to rule the country (and be understood), court officials, lawmakers, and judges had to repeat themselves in both official languages (sound familiar?). Commoners, anxious to put on airs and sound official, incorporated these redundancies into everyday language, bringing about some of the phrases we have today:

  • Null (Anglo) and Void (Norman)
  • Just (Anglo) and Proper (Norman)

This writing habit is now so widespread that writers often think they need to use the and/or construct to accommodate both words, when the best solution is to simply remove the offending redundant word or phrase.”

My Six Keys to Achieving Excellence

I just read Tony Schwartz’s recent blog on the Harvard Business Review describing the six keys to achieving excellence. I enjoyed it and was inspired. Then, I thought how my music training, apart from providing a lifetime of enjoyment playing music, has given me a first-hand experience achieving excellence. Sometimes, I forget that not all people have had that excellence, so they don’t know why things are tough or don’t they don’t get the results they want.

I’ve taken Mr. Schwartz’s six points and applied them to my experience in music to draw some inspiration in other areas of my life where I feel, er, less accomplished:

  1. Pursue what you love. This is a no brainer as nobody in their right mind would pursue music for any reason other than he or she loves it. A couple of years ago when I started questioning the wisdom of leaving a promising career as an orchestral musician for technical writing (what?), I had an epiphany that has helped me rejig my career back into something I can say I love.
    I was using my head to make big decisions (what shall to do with my life?) and my heart to make small ones (what should I have for lunch today?). I should have been doing the exact opposite.
    I realized I’d been directing my life to things that were rational and, um, boring instead of inspiring. On a daily basis, I was being capricious in a way that was essentially undermining my plans. I needed to start doing the exact reverse: plan my life from my heart and my daily affairs from my head. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” — “Practice!”
  2. Do the hardest work first. In music, the fastest way to do something is slowly. Orchestral musicians meticulously dissect a passage of music until they can play it with ease. Getting to the ease part can take a long time and a lot of patience, but things don’t necessarily come easy—even in music.
  3. Practice intensely, I think people imagine that playing music is relaxing. Well, it is but only after conquering the Himalayan peaks of practice. I don’t know whether musicians practice because they love music or they love music because they practice so much. I think I practiced my way into loving music. It became all consuming in the best possible way. Don’t do things by half measure.
  4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. There is nothing so humbling as bearing your soul before a more accomplished musician. I’ve always been suspicious of the self-taught musician. How can anyone grow surrounded only by there own opinions and habits? There’s no better way to acquire new abilities and to go beyond what you thought yourself capable of than by seeking out an expert to help you reach your goals.
  5. Take regular renewal breaks.When I studied at the Banff Centre for the Arts, we would play chamber music in the morning and then go skiing in the afternoon. By the next day we were indeed renewed. Besides, when you’re doing what you love (or loving what you do), you’re integrating new information all the time—even when you’re asleep.
  6. Ritualize practice. As a musician, I really liked playing scales. It was like a morning ritual. I had the most brutally difficult study book I’d found somewhere. It was called, “Vade Mecum” which I think means “Take along companion” and it was actually written for flute. It included every possible scale and arpeggio configuration in every register. Two hours of that and I felt like I could wrestle a bear!

Balkan Music: Re-Thinking Dissonance

This article was published in July on the Vancouver Observer website. In it, I explore the idea as dissonance as valuable in its own right (not all dissonances have to be resolved) through the medium of the rich and exotic world of Balkan music. Below, I’ve included a short excerpt, all the images, and a link to the complete article.

“In her book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, author and cultural historian Barbara Ehrenreich contrasts the “epidemic of melancholia” that pervades much of the modern world with the “phenomenon of communal, shared ecstatic ritual” that existed in our own culture even until the 17th century.

“Western tonal music is based on the dichotomy of dissonance and consonance where unstable dissonances seek their resolutions to consonant sonorities”, states Kalin Kirilov, the camp’s expert on Bulgarian harmony. “If you compare music to energy”, he continues, “the dissonances carry a more powerful charge in comparison to the consonances.”

Read the full article on the VO site. It’s been renamed The Balkan Music and Dance Workshops: re-thinking dissonance originally published 29 July, 2011.

Pedal power and the builders of musical instruments in Vancouver

Last December, I developed an interest in Vancouver’s hidden music makers—the builders of musical instruments. I wrote a double-barrelled story about natural fibre horn maker, David Gowman, and harpsichord maker, Craig Tomlinson.  Now, let me tell you about the Furnaphone, and why “anything’s a potential instrument.”

Drummer Dan keeps his carbon footprint small getting to his next gig.

Drummer Dan keeps his carbon footprint small getting to his next gig.

With Bike to Work Week, Velopoloosa, and the In the House Festival all converging this weekend, the stage is set to highlight another fascinating musical instrument maker, Daniel Lunn.

Daniel is making a name for himself as a drummer (and guitarist) around town, but for someone who plays an instrument that is legendary for its lack of portability, it’s his mode of transportation that caught my attention—by bicycle.

» Read more..