Friday, December 23, 2011

Is touch-typing relevant in the 'i' universe?

You know, at one time there must’ve been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I'll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? Other People’s Money (1991)

How do you know when a skill is becoming obsolete?

How many of you can touch-type? I don’t mean pecking around the keyboard whether fast or slow; I mean always keeping your index fingers hovered over the ‘home keys’, not looking at the keyboard and cracking out 60 to 90 words per minute using *the correct fingers*.

Touch typing emerged the the late 1880s as a classic before our time technology skill. The need for speed, it seems, led to the development of the QWERTY keyboard which laid out keys in a way that didn’t cause ‘finger jams’ in common English words and the development of a way of typing that increased speed, decreased movement and enabled the typist to say “look! No eyes!”. Classic ergonomic efficiency.

We’ve kept the QWERTY keyboard but most people I ask *say* they can touch-type but really they hunt and peck with one two or five fingers or get confused if they need to use anything other than their thumbs. Has the need for speed and efficiency really diminished over time?

At a recent meeting of middle-aged mothers (AKA bookgroup) we were tut-tutting the demise of proper touch-typing lessons. Why don’t schools teach touch typing? With a stick wrapping the knuckles of poor typists until they reach 60 words per minute? Oh, we had all tried the touch-typing computer programs. I even bought a Spongebob Squarepants version to entice my kids. But we all felt there was no substitution for sitting in front of an IBM Golfball typewriter with a dour lady calling out letters and covering our hands with a cloth.

I am a touch typist who suffered under the stick of a strict typing teacher. I proudly type FAST and earnt extra cash at uni typing up other people’s assignments. Over the past few weeks I consciously considered how much touch-typing I still did. I typed at work (emails, mostly, and the occasional report), home (again emails, mostly), on my phone (texting). The vast majority of my typing was short bursts on my phone or iPad with texting or facebook or quick email messages.

And then it hit me. I was consciously looking for opportunities to use my skill because most devices make in near impossible to touch-type.

Touch-typing is fine if in front of a computer like I am now but on a phone, tablet computer or anything with a non-tactile keyboard or too small to use anything but thumbs then touch-typing seems completely irrelevant. Thumb typing becomes a very important skill – especially being able to type an ‘m’ on a touch screen without deleting several previous letters (or is this only me?) – and a lot of the touch screens I use really only have room for 2-3 fingers at a time.

My 11yo son claims to have learnt touch-typing at school. It’s not touch-typing. I’m not sure what it is, but it is fast. Fast enough to punch out a message and turn off the computer/ipad/phone/video game before his mother can walk from one side of the room to the other to check what he is up to.

So is touch typing a critical skill that is not taught *properly* to our children, or is it an obsolete skill to be abandoned in favour of ergonomic thumb typing? Before you answer, spend some time examining your own typing world and that of your children. I certainly couldn’t find too many devices with the room for all 10 phalanges.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesday: William Shakespeare

Is Mr Shakespeare is right? Do we enjoy our holidays all the more because they are a contrast to our regular day-to-day life? This quote suggests that if we spent all year lazing around, taking long walks and enjoying relaxed, quality time with our family and friends, we'd soon bore of that.

Or would we?  I'd like to give it a try. will be taking a short break while I lap up some of the holiday spirit. I have a huge pile of books to read, a long list of movies to watch and I'm hoping there will be some of that elusive Melbourne warm weather to relish.

What are your plans for the holiday season?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesday - Lao-Tzu

At this time of year, I often find myself reflecting on the concept of  'enough'.

My children and I have spent the greater part of this week cleaning out their bedrooms.  We've sorted through books, toys, games and clothing removing anything outgrown, worn-out or just not used.

It was interesting to me how much of the clothing and shoes was out-grown well before it wore out, even items that had been passed through two children.  It has all been bagged up and will be given to a local op shop.

Before our time, in the Victorian era, children had very limited wardrobes.  Even children of wealthy families would only own a couple of outfits. Pinafores would be worn over the top to prevent external staining, and a layer of undergarments protected the clothing from sweat. Shoes were an extremely expensive item and many poorer children went barefoot.

When children in developed countries nowadays often own so many clothing items that they outgrow rather than outwear them, I do wonder whether this is progress?

Friday, December 9, 2011

The ancient gift of shortbread

In my experience, there is one present that is never put to the back of a cupboard, exchanged or re-gifted, and that is the gift of some home-made shortbread. Very few people can resist its sinful buttery crumble.

Shortbread it thought to have its origins before our time in medieval Scotland with a twice-baked biscuit bread made from left-over bread dough. This item was dusted with sugar and spices and hardened into a sweet biscuit. Over time butter was substituted for the yeast. This created the crumbly (short) texture we know and love!

Butter and sugar however, were expensive items and shortbread was only eaten in most households as a luxury on very special occasions such as Christmas, Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) or weddings.

Nowadays, in our kitchen, we use an ancient Scottish secret family recipe (i.e. I copied it out of my Mum's recipe folder). Details can be found here.

The basis for all shortbread is three ingredients: flour, butter and sugar (usually in the ratio of 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour). However, there are a number of different variations as you can see from this page in Lady Hackett's Household Guide (1940):

Plus a variety of flavourings can be added. According to an article by Camis Davis at, "Queen Victoria liked hers seasoned with salt; classic shortbread from the town of Goosnargh in Lancashire is flavored with coriander and caraway; shortbread from Pitcaithly, in Scotland, is made with orange peel and almonds; the Scottish baking company Walkers, founded in 1898, has a ginger version of it."

The shape is traditionally a round, often made by pressing the dough into a carved circular mold.  This creates triangular wedges which can be snapped apart.

We take a less traditional approach to the shape - creating Christmas-themed shapes such as angels, bells, trees and stars. However, call us old-fashioned, when it comes to flavourings we stick to making the unadulterated version.

Bagged up with the addition of a ribbon and gift tag, they made the perfect small item for my daughter to give to her school friends.

How much do you love shortbread?

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesday: Theodore Geisel

Following on from the theme of Wisdom on Wednesday last week, I think this Dr Seuss quote sums up many of our feelings at this time of the year!

In our household, the calendar seems to go: August - September - December. October and November may as well not exist as they flash past in an instant.

And then, when December arrives we suddenly realise that all the things that we had planned to do before December haven't been done!

I often wonder if this a universal feeling or one particular to the Southern hemisphere where everything (schools, dancing studios, sporting clubs etc) operates on a calendar year? Plus, here in Australia lots of families take holidays during January, so there is an impetus in the workplace to get things done before Christmas.

Does everything rush to the end of the calendar year in your part of the world?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesday: EB White

(Quote from The Second Tree from the Corner (1954) by E.B.White)

My daughter reminded me this morning that tomorrow (1 December) is the start of Advent, at least as far as the opening of countdown calendars for Christmas is concerned. I think, strictly speaking, that the various religious definitions of Advent are quite different, and it usually commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.

Anyway, in some respects this morning's declaration caught me by surprise: "What? Already?" and in other ways I've had a lot of warning.  Shops have had Christmas goods on the shelves since early October, decorations have been hanging in public spaces for weeks, Christmas catalogues were in mailboxes at the start of November and I've even heard the carols muzak in stores.

I wonder if this extended warm-up to Christmas (the 'wrapping' referred to by E.B.White?) takes some of the gloss off the Festive Season itself. By the time the 25th of December comes around we've already eaten more than our fair share of fruit mince pies.

Before our time, Christmas wasn't anticipated quite so early in the year. 

What do you think is a reasonable lead-up time for Christmas? Should there be declared limit? e.g NO tinsel before 1 December?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Blending in by standing out

Back before our time towards the end of the 19th Century, military uniforms were traditionally brightly coloured. (Think bright red jackets worn by horsemen charging across green fields with their muskets at the ready.)

These distinctive forms of uniform had a number of strategic purposes: it allowed generals (or whoever was in charge) to see at a glance where their own troops were, it stopped soldiers from unintentionally slaying one of their own, and in certain cases where a particular regiment had a fearsome reputation, the mere sight of their distinctive colours could be enough to send terror through the enemy, forcing a retreat. (See an interesting history of military camouflage clothing, here.)

However time marched on, military technology improved, and with the development of weapons with longer ranges and greater accuracy (e.g. rifles, machine guns, grenades, missiles) it was not advantageous to signpost to the enemy exactly where you were.

So, what we now think of as regular army dress (khaki and camouflage) was developed as a way of disguising personnel in the field. The mottled colouration of garments is designed to blend with the natural background and it is available in a variety of colourways to blend with different environments.

However one instance where it would have the opposite effect is if you were to wear full camouflage gear and walk through a busy urban area. In fact, far from blending in, it would probably rouse a great deal of suspicion.

It is one of the ironies of the present day that one of the best ways to blend in, in almost any circumstance, is to don a garment which was originally designed to make you stand out - the high-visibility fluoro vest.

Fluorescent clothing was originally a military development (during World War II) designed to protect soldiers from unintentional friendly fire. Now, high-visibility clothing is worn by everyone from post delivery workers to road crew, cyclists to removalists.  If you want to look like you have an 'official' reason to be somewhere, put on a fluoro vest and you can walk around unaccosted.

In an article in The Guardian in 2005, Jon Ronson examined this phenomenon:
"So maybe ubiquity is to blame. Or perhaps, as dazzling as high-visibility clothing is, even more compelling is the public's desire not to notice those people who scurry around at our feet, fixing holes, mending tracks, cleaning up after us. We trust them and we don't want to think about them. This is how Bryan Ferry's son Otis and the other fox hunting aficionados got into the House of Commons to disrupt a debate last year. They put on fluorescent jackets and told the first policeman they met that they were "going to inspect the electrics". The policeman shrugged and waved them on.
The surveillance specialist Peter Jenkins - who teaches private investigators how to follow people without being spotted - is a fan of the fluorescent jacket, too. He says that if you're observing a target in a rural environment, use hedges and ditches and trees. But if you want to be invisible in a city, just put on a fluorescent jacket and sit in the passenger seat of a transit van, or queue up at a telephone box. (Remember to turn off your mobile phone first.)"
I drove past a neighbour's house a few days ago where two guys wearing high-vis tops were filling an unmarked truck with furniture and effects from the house. They (the neighbours) may have actually been being robbed, but the wearing of the high-vis clothing reassured me that a legitimate house move was taking place.

But was this a fair assumption?

According to an item on the BBC website, thieves just this month targeted homes in an English housing estate while clean-up from a flood was occurring:
"Walsall Council leader Mike Bird said thieves had been spotted wearing high-visibility vests to blend in with council workers helping with the clear up."
We rarely give a second glance to 'fluoro-collar workers'. Add an ID on a lanyard round their necks and we'd never question their legitimacy. 

But the flip side of this, is that we also don't notice those workers. They are, in fact, rendered invisible by their visibility and we don't necessarily see them as individuals doing a valued job.

UK photographer, Stephen Gill explored this concept in his 2005 book and exhibition, Invisible which contained photographs of all those people who, by the wearing of high-visibility clothing were rendered invisible to the general public. He was inspired by his own experience as a photographer. He had discovered that by wearing a fluoro vest he drew very little attention to himself when carrying a camera, far less than if he wasn't wearing one.

Do you notice the 'fluoro-collar' workers? Is it time for a new form of high-visibility?