Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

How Committees Work

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I have been attending meetings of one sort of committee or another for more than 40 years now, and for most of those years I've served in an officer role, such as chair, vice chair, treasurer, secretary, or special projects leader. These committees' interests have included less formal things like sporting clubs, social clubs, professional associations, and school parent/teacher associations, to more formal homeowners associations and charitable foundations, and to quite rigorous US and international standards committees and consortia.

I've never had any formal training in how to get the most out of a meeting; it's all been "on the job" training. Fortunately, for the important work-related forums, I had some great mentors, and my experience in working with them has held me in good stead in my other committee work. You can read all the advice books you like, but there is no substitute for experiencing it firsthand, and having a mentor with whom you can ask questions and share your thoughts and goals.

To reach your goals in any sort of committee, you need confidence, some good and trusted allies, and better than fair communication skills, a combination that many (perhaps most) participants lack.

Original Charter and Bylaws

If you are thinking of joining a committee, find out how and why it was formed. Just what was the mission of the original founders? In formal settings, one should expect to find some sort of charter document or Articles of Incorporation that spell out some of the basics, such as the mission, the slate of officers, how officers are elected, membership requirements, and so on. A copy of this document should be made available to all prospective and new members, without exception or hardship.

Although there might be only one document, it is common to have a compact charter with a separate set of bylaws that contain more details of day-to-day operation about things like meeting rules, quorum, voting, dues, and so on. [There might even be a Rules of Operation manual separate from the bylaws.]

Locate the charter and bylaws, read them, and understand them. Ask questions if something isn't clear. Most dictators aren't benevolent, so if you run into a committee chair who shies away from questions about the founding and operating documents, beware, as he is probably trying to run things his way rather than the way the official rules were written.

All or almost all of the things in the charter and bylaws can be amended, and you should know the process for doing so. Just because a group was chartered with a set of certain goals doesn't necessarily mean it has to stick with those forever.

If a group achieves its goal, it is okay to shut it down. Beware the chair that is always looking for "the next big thing" for his committee in order to keep himself visible or in a job.

Officer Positions and Responsibilities

Well-run committees typically have at least the following leadership positions:

  1. Chair – prepares meeting agendas, runs meetings, and generally is the face of the group to the outside world.
  2. Vice chair – typically manages documents and other administration, and serves as backup to the chair.
  3. Secretary – For the most part this means, "meeting secretary", in which case he records the minutes of each meeting and distributes them to the members. Some committees have a separate position of "correspondence secretary" to handle incoming and outgoing letters/email.
  4. Treasurer – the person who collects fees, banks money, pays bills, issues checks for awards, and does pretty much anything financial.
  5. Parliamentarian – for most committees, most business is non-controversial, but if things get emotional and tempers flare or the stakes are high, it is important to have a calm person who has an intimate knowledge of the charter and bylaws, as well as general rules for running meetings. This is the role of the Parliamentarian. Note, however, during a meeting, it is not the Parliamentarian's job to tell you as a member how to achieve a certain goal. (Certainly, you can and should talk to her off-line outside of meetings.)

A good chair and secretary combination is essential for the long-term success of a committee.

A formal committee might be incorporated, possibly as a non-profit corporation. In this case, not only will it need the positions above to run day-to-day operations, it will also need corporate officers, such as a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. And while these could be occupied by some of the same people as the operational positions, this might not be required or desirable.

Taking in Money

One of the ways membership is often defined is by charging a fee. Also, many groups are created to raise money for things like charitable uses, religious purposes, and political causes. In these cases, you need some way to manage the income and expenses. This typically involves the following:

  1. Having some sort of a paper or electronic ledger in which to record all transactions.
  2. Having a checking (and possibly a savings) bank account, and having at least two people who can sign checks and other financial documents. (For large amounts of money, you might need investment accounts as well, especially if you don't spend all the money you raise each year.)
  3. Considering having a rule that requires at least two signatures to authorize payments over a certain amount.
  4. For non-trivial operations, having an independent audit of the financial records each year.
  5. Possibly filing a federal and/or state tax return.
  6. Generation of financial summaries for each meeting as well as at the end of the financial year.
  7. Possible need for an operating budget.
  8. Possible need to handle payments/donations by credit card.
  9. Need to issue receipts.

Organizations raising money from their membership or others need to know the tax rules of their country, state, and city. For example, here in the US, donations to a non-profit organization might be tax-deductible, but not if the organization's purpose is to promote a political party. Becoming registered as an organization to which donations are tax-deductible can be attractive, but it will require more paperwork, scrutiny, reporting, and regulation. It might even require that the group's tax return be made public (although the list of individual donors might not need to be disclosed).

Legal Issues

For the most part, this is only of concern to groups planning on collecting more than a little money. In such cases, it may be desirable for the officers to be covered by officer liability insurance.

Meetings

Many organizations have two kinds of meetings: board and general membership. In general, it is not efficient to have all members involved in making all decisions. As a result, groups usually have an executive committee or board, of five or six members, for example. They might meet monthly or quarterly to deal with operational business. Basically, the general membership delegates to them operating decisions. All members should be permitted to attend board meetings; however, for sensitive topics (such as discussing ejecting a member), the board might "go into executive session", which means that non-board members are asked to leave the room.

In this model, once a year, the group holds an annual general meeting at which the "big picture" information is presented, officer vacancies are filled, bylaw changes are considered, and policy decisions are made.

Parliamentary Procedure

In the US, unless it is specified otherwise by a committee's bylaws/rules, the rules for conducting a meeting are determined by Roberts Rules of Order. Other countries may have their own formal or de facto set of rules or guidelines. Find out the situation in your country, get a copy of such rules, and learn at least the basic ones. A Parliamentarian should bring a copy to each meeting, so she can be consulted when procedural rules are questioned.

So what sort of things might come up in a meeting that could need adjudication? Examples include the following:

  1. Are there a sufficient number of members present to conduct business? That is, is a quorum present?
  2. Is everyone present actually entitled to be there?
  3. Was sufficient notice posted for the agenda, supporting documents, and meeting place/time?
  4. Is it possible to undo a motion at the same meeting at which it was voted on and it passed?
  5. What are the rules for amending a motion already on the floor?
  6. How can you raise a point of order if you think the rules are being circumvented?
  7. Can the chair's decision be overridden?

Decision Making

There are two main ways of making a decision: voting or by consensus. Either way, the process of how this is done needs to be documented. Note that consensus does not require unanimity, and relies heavily on the chair's assessment.

When it comes to voting, it is worth considering the following:

  1. Who is eligible to vote?
  2. Does the chair get to vote?
  3. Will the vote be by voice, by a show of hands, or by a roll call (by asking each voting member present for her position, which is then recorded in the minutes)? Can a member request that a particular vote be done by roll call?
  4. Are abstentions permitted?
  5. For No and Abstain positions, are reasons required?
  6. When not using the roll-call method, may a member request that her own vote be recorded explicitly in the minutes?

Meeting Agendas

A meeting without a written agenda circulated in advance indicates a lack of organization, an attempt to keep members in the dark, or both.

The agenda should list the main issues to be covered at the meeting to which it pertains, and any supporting documents needed for discussion of those issues. However, the agenda as distributed is not a law unto itself; specifically, whoever prepared the agenda does not have the right to dictate what the final agenda will be. All he gets is the right to propose an agenda. One of the first items on the agenda must be the adoption of the final agenda, and that's when items can be added, removed, or amended by the members present, according to committee rules.

It is common practice to issue a copy of any agenda revised at a meeting with the minutes of that meeting.

Certain agenda items can involve the review of non-trivial amounts of information, such as financial statements, bids and estimates by vendors, comparisons of competing services, applications for funds, and so on. In order for members to have a chance to read and digest such information, it should be distributed in advance. Formal committees often have something like a "two-week rule", which requires that any such document that is to be discussed at a meeting must be circulated at least two weeks prior to the meeting.

One of the worst things that can happen at a meeting is to be presented with a proposal and asked to vote on it without any prior distribution of the information needed to make that decision. Speak up if you object. Silence if often taken as assent.

[One issue that has arisen in recent times is the manner of document distribution and not just the time allotted. Is email distribution allowed and is it sufficient under the rules?]

Meeting Minutes

One of the hardest and most thankless jobs in a committee is that of recording secretary. A good one is worth keeping, so treat them right!

In these days of laptop computers, it is common for a secretary to write minutes electronically, in which case, the best approach is to create a template of the minutes in advance based on the draft agenda that has been circulated.

For the most part, it is best not to record verbatim just who said what, but rather, to capture the pros and cons of various positions. Of course, if a member specifically asks to have a verbatim copy of her own words recorded, then it is okay to do so.

Draft minutes should be distributed to the membership in a reasonable time, say within 30 days. And they must be distributed in advance of the next meeting of the organization. One of the first orders of business at a meeting must be the approval (possibly with corrections) of the minutes of the previous meeting. Until that is done, the official record of that previous meeting has not been completed, and it is very bad practice to have another meeting when the official outcome of the previous one has not yet been agreed upon.

Meeting Action items

It is common for members to take on, or for the chair to assign, action items during a meeting. When it comes to delivering on action items, in my experience, there are two main kinds of people: those who take care of their actions in the week or so after a meeting ends, and those who take care of them in the week before the following meeting. [As such, the amount of time separating those two weeks is generally irrelevant.]

Action items should be marked clearly as such in the minutes, and highlighting them with the word "Action" in bold in front of them is a good idea. Apart from recording new action items, place all open action items still pending from previous meetings near the front of each agenda, so they can be reviewed.

A lot of people "talk the talk", but don't "walk-the-walk". That is, once assigned an action item, they drag their feet and might even fail to deliver anything at all. Basically, they are there for the glory, but not the work needed to make things happen. If members are very tardy in fulfilling their assignments, consider adding to the action item the date on which the action item was assigned, so everyone will see how tardy that person is. A little bit of public embarrassment can go a long way, and a wise chair will avoid assigning action items to members with a tardy track record, or will reassign such items if sufficient progress isn't made in a certain amount of time.

For members to see their action items and to have a chance to act on them in a timely manner, the draft minutes need to be distributed reasonably soon after the end of the meeting. Also, one of the last items on the agenda should be to read out the action items assigned and their owners.

Possible Complications and Abuses

Some groups meet on a very regular basis. Assuming they record minutes, beware any group that doesn't allow sufficient time for minutes to be produced and circulated before they have to be approved at the following meeting.

Meeting announcements, agendas and supporting documents, and draft/final minutes should all be distributed or made available to all members. Now, although many people these days have email or can access an internet webpage, people who don't would be disenfranchised if that were the only means of communication to members. Unless the committee rules require electronic access, be prepared to make hard copies of some documents for some members some of the time, and allow extra time for their distribution.

For the most part, meetings of committees and any subcommittees must be held at times and in locations that are convenient and readily accessible to the membership at large. So while it might be convenient for the retired members of a subcommittee to meet during a weekday, that will not suit most working members. Be sensitive to other members' constraints and avoid the appearance of restricting participation.

There are many people with good ideas, and there are many people who can speak eloquently. However, there are far fewer people who can do both. Certainly, a member planning to speak on any topic should prepare in advance; then once he has the floor, a good chair will help him articulate his position. And there is no place in a meeting for criticism unless it is constructive. If you are easily intimidated, you'll be far less likely to speak at any meeting let alone have things go your way.

I happen to work on a number of international committees in which all business is conducted in English, yet that is not the first language of many participants. In such cases, without being condescending, I speak more slowly and use a simpler vocabulary, and as a chair, I encourage and support those members needing help to express themselves. This can also be a concern in non-international committees. For example, I've seen immigrant parents with minimal English-language skills be so intimidated at parent/teacher association meetings that they don't speak at all, or worse still, they stop participating.

Conclusion

John Cleese (from the comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus) produced and acted in a number of successful business training films, including Meetings, Bloody Meetings and More Bloody Meetings. Some of these are floating around on the internet. I highly recommend them.

I'm a great believer that for most committees the real business happens between meetings. You start with an idea, you run it by another member, and once the idea gels, you get support from several other members. That way, when it is discussed at a meeting, you have already worked out the kinks in your idea and you have others supporting you. That is, you use a meeting to ratify ideas raised previously and discussed off-line until there is a solid basis of support. If you have a great idea, but you keep it to yourself, and you bring it to a meeting, you have no right to expect others to embrace your idea at that meeting until they have had sufficient time to consider (as in, sleep on) it.

Know your rights and exercise them; happy meeting!

Living in Utopia

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In the 1960s, a number of planned communities were developed independently in different parts of the US. They were touted as Cities of the Future. One of the very first such developments was Reston, a city in Northern Virginia, 22 miles (40 kms) west of the White House in Washington DC. I discovered Reston late in 1980, and have lived there since January 1981.

Reston was the brainchild of one Robert E. Simon [RESton]. He cashed in his family's real estate holdings—which included Carnegie Hall in NYC—and bought the farmland on which Reston was built. Reston is largely an upscale community located in Fairfax County, one of the top socioeconomic areas in the country. Reston's population is about 60,000.

According to Wikipedia, utopia is, "the name of a fictional island, possessing a seemingly perfect socio-politico-legal system". So, is Reston a utopia? I'll give my take on that later.

Housing Types

Reston has three different styles of housing:

  1. Single-family homes: Typically these have a full basement, a ground level, and an upstairs, although a few older places are ranch-style; that is, they have no upstairs. These homes usually have a 2-car garage, an open front yard, and a fenced back yard. They vary considerably in size as do their parcels of land. While some are made with brick, many are timber-framed with siding.
  2. Town houses: These are built in clusters by a single developer. Although each unit has its own walls, adjacent units' walls literally touch. Many have a full basement, a ground level, and an upstairs, while others have two levels only. Most have patios, decks, and/or balconies. A few have 1- or 2-car garages. While some are made with brick, many are timber-framed with siding. Owners own their own land and collectively own the common areas.
  3. Condominiums (or condos): These are built in clusters by a single developer. Adjacent units share common walls, floors, and roofs. Most have one level only and are in buildings of up to five floors; however, some penthouse units occupy two levels. Most have small patios or balconies. Very few have garages. Almost all are made with brick. Owners own their own condo and collectively own the land and common areas; they also jointly own the shared walls, floors, and roofs. When rented out, a condo is often called an apartment.

Government and Services

Strictly speaking, Reston is not a city or even a township, as it is not incorporated. Instead, it is administered by a homeowners association, Reston Association (RA). As such, Reston has no mayor. Instead, it is run by a paid administrative group headed by a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and overseen by an unpaid board of directors.

Reston covers an area about 4x4 miles square. In that area are four lakes, all of which provide for resident and public activities such as boating and fishing. All developments are connected by an extensive system of paths that meander through the heavily forested area. There are numerous outdoor pools, an indoor pool, and many tennis courts. There are also parks, a nature center, and quite a few picnic and BBQ areas. All these things are maintained by RA, and although usage fees are charged for some activities, most things are covered by the $540/year fee that each property owner must pay RA.

All townhouse and condo clusters, and some groups of single-family homes, were built by a number of developers. One of the requirements of developing a cluster is to put in place a mini-government for that cluster. For example, my cluster, called Walden, consists of 52 townhouses. The Walden Cluster Association is a Virginia non-profit corporation having 52 members; that is, the townhouse owners. As such, the corporation has a set of Articles of Incorporation, officers, and bylaws. The cluster association is administered by an unpaid board of 6 directors who meet quarterly and serve 3-year terms, typically with two terms expiring each year. Directors are elected at the annual meeting of members. Here are the kinds of things a cluster association does:

  • Maintain the common grounds and shared facilities. In my cluster, these include a playground, a dock on the lake, tree work, landscaping, lawn mowing, and mailboxes
  • Reston does not provide garbage collection; instead, each cluster (or private house) arranges for that with one of a number of contractors
  • The roads within a cluster are privately owned by that cluster, whose association must maintain them
  • Having a private road means maintenance of private street lighting
  • Fairfax County plows county roads only. All other roads in Reston are private, so each cluster (or private house) arranges for snow plowing with one of a number of contractors

Of course, all of these things cost money, so a cluster association needs to have a budget and a way to raise money. It does so by levying an assessment fee on each owner. In my case, that's $265/quarter. Special assessments are possible, but better-run groups maintain sinking funds for big-ticket items such as road replacement. Condo associations typically charge much larger fees, as they cover more things, such as building insurance, maintenance of common entranceways, and perhaps even external appearance items (such as window replacement and painting) even for private areas. I know of a condo cluster that charges $350/month, which also includes gas used for cooking and hot water. (In that cluster, individual properties do not have their own gas meters; each is billed based on its floor area.)

Neighborhoods vs. Downtown

The initial model divided the city into neighborhoods, each anchored with a shopping center and support facilities. Several have senior citizens' housing facilities nearby with tunnels under roads to allow safe crossing. A bus service connects the neighborhoods, and the surrounding county.

Some 20 years after the city was created, a downtown area was built (called "Reston Town Center"), with some very expensive shopping areas, a large hotel and conference center, an outdoor ice-skating rink, a fountain, and multistory parking stations. The ground level of each high-rise building houses retail stores while upper floors house commercial office space.

Rules and Regulations

As is often the case in planned communities, thou shalt not do anything that might reduce the value of neighbors' homes or negatively impact their ability to enjoy living there. For example:

  • Each development has its own set of approved brick/paint colors, window styles, outdoor light fittings, and so on. If an owner wishes to change the external appearance of his property, he must notify his two immediate neighbors as well as his cluster association, and he must apply to the Design Review Board, which holds a public hearing/review.
  • Outdoor clotheslines are not permitted. (I'm reminded of a Chinese family that moved into my cluster and, soon after, had lots of laundry drying on their deck with some of it hanging on the side rails, just as I'd seen in Hong Kong. There was great concern among neighbors as to who would tell them that was not permitted!)
  • Motor homes, boats, and other recreational vehicles may not be stored permanently in one's yard or parked out front. Unless they are housed in a garage on the property, they must be stored (at an annual cost) in a yard in the forest, run by RA.
  • Residents may not perform any non-trivial maintenance of their vehicles in front of their houses.
  • There are four lakes, and boating and fishing are permitted; however, swimming is not. [That said, in a contradiction, the city's annual triathlon holds the swimming leg in one of these lakes.] Boats are limited to manual, wind, and electric propulsion only, with the power of any electric motor being severely limited. Boat lengths are limited to no more than about 15 feet.

From Reston's inception, all land had to be purchased from the city's developer, and that land had to be developed within a certain amount of time; otherwise, it had to be sold back to the developer. That is, land speculation was not permitted.

As a tongue-in-cheek statement, I've often characterized Reston as allowing one to breathe in on certain days and breathe out on others! However, if people don't like such rules, they should not move there. And to those residents who complain, it's not as if the rules were changed after they moved there. To be sure, living in a planned community can require compromises "for the good of the whole", so potential residents need to see if the pros outweigh the cons.

Transportation

For the most part, residents drive themselves or car-pool. However, many use bus services, primarily to the nearest subway station. A new subway line terminating in Reston is scheduled to open sometime in 2013, which might ease some congestion. [It should also help maintain and even enhance property values in the city.]

One of the few toll roads in the greater Washington DC area passes right through Reston. In recent years, the tolls have increased each year to help pay for the new subway. That said, the toll road does allow ease of access to/from Reston. An adjacent set of lanes provides easy (and free) access to Washington Dulles International airport (IAD).

A 45-mile bike path passes through Reston; however, outside that Reston itself is not particularly bike-friendly.

So Who Lives There?

As I mentioned earlier, Reston is an up-scale area, catering for the middle- and upper-class. For example, one could easily spend a million dollars on a house there. That said an experiment was tried in various neighborhoods to have subsidized housing for marginalized families and individuals. My understanding is that caused a lot of problems, but some such neighborhoods fared better than did others.

Quite a few families have both parents working, and given that high school gets out early afternoon, that has led to a lot of "latch-key" kids being home (or out) on their own or with friends, sometimes getting into trouble.

Conclusion

So, is Reston a utopia? Not quite, but it has been very successful and it's an interesting experiment that is still evolving. During my 31 years there, there has been a steady, but static, stream of crimes and vandalism, including several drug-related murders and a serial rapist attacking women on the paths. There are also homeless people, a 70-bed residential shelter, and very active programs to help with food shortages.

Like many wealthy communities, people in Reston accumulate lots of stuff and have access to nice facilities, but many of them are so tied up in their daily commutes and overly busy lives that they don't make time to use their stuff or the facilities. In my case, I work from home most of the time and my schedule is flexible. I can take my canoe out on the lake, walk in the forest, or take a picnic to a park on any nice day that it suits. It's never crowded anywhere during the workweek, but it would be nice if more residents took advantage of the facilities for which they are already paying. C'est la vie.

Travel – Packing and Preparing

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

With more than 1,500,000 air miles (2.5 million kms) under my belt (see "Travel - Fly Me to the Moon", from May 2010), and quite a few driving trips as well, I have a lot of experience at preparing for travel, and in this essay I'm going to share some of my tips with you. However, remember that I am far from normal!

Many years ago, I remember reading some advice about packing. It went something like this: Put on your bed all the stuff you are thinking of taking on your trip and divide it into three piles. Pile 1 contains the "absolutely essential" things; Pile 2 contains the "nice to have stuff"; and Pile 3 has those things that maybe, just maybe, you might have occasion to use. Now, when you have done that, take Piles 2 and 3 and put those things back in your cupboards! Personally, I find that to be good advice. With my packing, I try to be a minimalist, and I've gotten pretty good at it to the point that I rarely get back home from a trip and find that I didn't actually use something I packed, except hopefully the first aid kit.

Luggage

  • Unless you are seriously physically impaired or a small child, don't take more pieces of luggage than you can manage yourself at one time without any assistance for at least 400 yards.
  • Buy only cases with wheels. There are two main kinds: those with two wheels that have a (sometimes adjustable-length) rigid handle you use to pull, and those with four wheels that have a flexible strap you use to pull. Whichever you get, make sure that the wheel assembly is well made and preferably recessed to protect it from damage. (That said, note that wheels don't work at all well on cobblestones, which are prevalent in many European streets, so be ready to carry your luggage at least some of the time.)
  • Lots of luggage is cheap and nasty, and after only one bout of typical airline baggage handling, can show serious signs of wear. Don't buy a $20 case for a $2,000 vacation!
  • Luggage will get cut, scratched, and marked, so don't get hung up about its appearance. And don't spend more than is necessary. Besides, having expensive/designer luggage marks you as a potential target for thieves and scam artists.
  • In these days of security checks, your luggage may be opened by security without your being present, even if it is locked. Besides, locks only keep honest people out, so don't get hung up on locking your luggage. I never lock mine.
  • Invest in some decent labels that cannot be removed easily. Print the information clearly. Most ID tags that come with luggage are pretty crappy.
  • Put your home address and contact information inside the luggage as well, preferably written in felt pen, so it can't be erased easily.
  • Many bags and cases look alike. By using a secure strap with a distinctive color or design, you can more easily identify your bag on a baggage carousel.
  • Don't put anything really valuable or critical to your trip in your checked luggage.
  • Limit your carry-on luggage to a computer bag or attaché case, a purse, a garment bag, and a fanny pack/bum bag. Yes, waiting for your luggage on arrival can take time, but trying to carry everything onboard a plane might mean you have to use the space under the seat in front of you for storage, and for those of us with long legs and/or on long flights, that's a definite no-no.
  • Once at my destination, for personal activities I find a small daypack to be useful, to carry around a water bottle, some snack food, maps, guidebooks, and a first aid kit. If you don't take it aboard as carry-on luggage, fold it flat and put it inside your checked luggage.
  • I'm a big fan of hands-free travel, so whenever possible, I take a backpack and I wear a fanny pack; that's it. That way, I can keep both hands free to push and shove my way onto public transport along with the locals, and to hold on to the bus/train straps if I'm forced to stand.

Clothing

  • Let's start with the most important item, shoes! My guess is that by far the weakest part of any traveler's wardrobe is his or her footwear. Specifically, people plan on doing a lot of walking in shoes that were not designed for that purpose. While I'm no spendthrift, I spend at least $120 for a pair of good walking shoes, which I buy at a high-end store that supplies hikers. [In fact, I practically live in those kinds of shoes any time I'm out of the house and not attending formal meetings.]
  • Get practical! This means that while you might not go down your local street in your gardening clothes or without your hair done just right, almost everyone you will meet while traveling will be strangers who you will never see again. You certainly do not need a different outfit every day! In any event, dress to please yourself. But above all, be comfortable. It never ceases to amaze me how many people dress in business suits and such for an international flight during which they will sleep in their clothes! As for me, I like things loose, and I always undo my shoelaces while in flight, as my feet swell with the pressure difference.
  • My favorite all-purposes clothing item is lightweight khaki trousers that dry quickly when wet, have zippered pockets, and whose legs can be removed by unzipping them and without taking my shoes off. For short trips I take only one pair; for longer trips I take two.
  • My next favorite piece is a lightweight Gore-Tex coat with lots of pockets, some zippered some not. Buy one that supports a zip-in/zip-out liner jacket.
  • Wear clothes in layers, so you can add or remove a layer at a time.
  • Socks are important, and I often wear special polypropylene wicking socks underneath other socks, that wick the perspiration from my feet.
  • I always carry a baseball cap in one coat pocket and a woolen cap and gloves in another.

Personal Stuff

  • A sheet of aluminum foil: It's light and takes up next-to-no space, yet you can use it for a 100 purposes from wrapping up leftover food, making a drinking cup, to storing pills/tablets. But you have to remember to take it with you everywhere; otherwise, you won't have it when you need it!
  • Some of those clear plastic zip-up bags, in various sizes
  • An alarm: you can't always rely on a hotel's wake-up call system and, besides, who will wake you if you fall asleep with jetlag on a long bus or train ride?
  • A small flashlight. [My friend John tells me that Mag lights are great. They are fairly small, built tough, waterproof, take only two AA batteries, and last a very long time. They also have an extra light bulb hidden inside the unit.]
  • Some compact travel games and/or a deck of playing cards
  • A pair of sunglasses (or clip-ons) and a spare pair of eyeglasses. And maybe even your prescription
  • Insect repellent
  • Sun screen and lip balm
  • A hand towel
  • Medication, headache tablets, a basic first-aid kit, blister pads and stuff to deal with foot problems when doing a lot of walking
  • A strong, plastic knife, fork, and spoon (or spork): I sometimes take a plastic bowl and cup as well, although leftover containers from take-away food places work just as well.
  • Swiss Army knife
  • A compact pillow for the plane flight and/or the hotel. I can sleep on gravel if I have a good pillow!
  • Some simple groceries: I often take some packets of ketchup, pepper, salt, sugar, instant coffee, and tea bags, which are things that are difficult to buy in small amounts while traveling.
  • Reading materials
  • A small roll of toilet paper or a pack of tissues. Not all public toilets will have paper, and €10 bills are not meant for that purpose!
  • For longer trips, some washing powder: many hotels have clothes lines in their rooms; hotel laundry services are usually quite expensive, so find a coin-operated laundry instead
  • Writing materials to send letters and postcards

Documentation

  • Passport and visa(s)
  • Health/vaccination card
  • Travel tickets and itinerary, accommodation and car rental vouchers, reservation confirmation slips
  • A domestic/international driver's license, as appropriate
  • Business cards: It's handy to give them to interesting people you meet, and you can write your personal contact information on the back. If you don't have a business card, consider making some on your home computer and printing them on card stock.
  • My airline Frequent Flyer Club gives me "reward coupons" that I can hand out to gate agents, flight attendants, and such who give me extra good service
  • Contact names, addresses, and telephone numbers
  • Travel/guide books
  • Foreign language guides
  • Maps
  • Membership card for automobile club service
  • Membership card for hosting organizations and host lists
  • A map of your own country to show people who ask where you are from

Money and Valuables

  • Some cash in your home currency sufficient for when you get back from an international trip and need a taxi or a cup of coffee, for example
  • A primary and a backup credit card (along with their PINs): Some PINs contain letters, yet many cash machines around the world have only digits on their keypads, so if yours have letters, make sure you know the corresponding digits. Twice in the past two years, I've had my primary card cancelled for suspected fraudulent use while I was traveling, hence the recommendation to have a backup card.
  • Check with your credit card company to see if they put a surcharge on purchases made outside your home country (mine charge an extra 3%)
  • Cash machines are readily available in the developed world, so best to get local currency once there as you need it. However, some machines insist on giving you very large-valued bills, which can be hard to change.
  • Buying foreign currency in your home country is very likely to be more expensive than buying it at your destination.
  • Travelers checks are pretty much a thing of the past
  • Consider having a money/passport pouch to wear under your clothing
  • If traveling with companions, don't have one person carry all the cash; spread it around, so it doesn't all get lost or stolen at the same time
  • I usually take a set of my country's coins (including some special-issue ones) to show people or to give as souvenirs
  • Leave all but your "essential" jewelry at home

Electronics and Electrics

  • Laptop or netbook computer: these are useful for handling email; browsing the internet; playing music; using an internet phone system (such as Skype); viewing, sorting/renaming, and backing up digital photos; and even viewing video.
  • A headset for computer/internet phone use (my netbook has built-in speakers, a microphone and a webcam, but my laptop has only speakers)
  • Spare high-capacity memory sticks to hold backups of computer files and digital photos
  • Digital camera, spare memory card, and charger
  • Digital video camera, spare tapes or disks, and charger
  • International power adaptor: I have several that take "anything in" and have "anything out", which includes support for plugs and sockets for US, Australia/NZ, Continental Europe, and the British Isles, all in one unit. Sometimes, it is convenient to be charging more than one device at a time; however, an international adaptor has only one socket. As such, I take a 3-way plug and I put that into the adaptor, allowing me to charge up to three things at once.
  • I use a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) for my calendar, contacts, notes, and diaries. I could also use it for email and web browsing. It has a charger. A mobile phone might suffice for most of these activities, but international phone roaming charges may bankrupt you!
  • If you can avoid it, don't take any appliances that draw a lot of current, such as hair dryers or curling tongs
  • Men, for the most part, you can probably find support for an electric shaver, but you might want to take a hand razor and small soap stick instead, if not as well

Camping

  • Tent with poles, pegs and waterproofing sealant if not waterproofed ahead of time (rarely works once you are there and it rains and leaks; a patch of duct tape works best then)
  • A small roll of duct tape or some wrapped around the outside of your thermos or water bottle
  • Bedding: pillow, sleeping bag, mattress, air pump
  • Stove
  • Lantern and spare mantles
  • Gas bottles
  • Waterproof matches
  • Cooking pots, pans, utensils, sharp knives, and cutting board
  • Crockery and cutlery
  • Axe and shovel
  • Bucket and quart/gallon plastic jug
  • Ice chest and ice
  • Folding chairs and possibly a table
  • Garbage bags
  • Ropes and octopus straps
  • Tarpaulin
  • Thermos for hot/cold drinks and/or food
  • Basic set of tools
  • A whistle
  • Groceries, including cooking support such as oil and spices

Traveling with Kids

  • Take along activities to keep them happy especially when they have to wait 8 hours at an airport for a delayed flight. The two best things I found was a deck of UNO cards and some sort of music player on which you can record their favorite books
  • Some airlines and train services still give out play kits to young travelers, so ask. And with the more sophisticated airline video systems available now even in Economy Class, kids have a much wider range of things to watch
  • Don't expect your kids (or many adults, for that matter) to want to spend 4 hours in an art museum! Plan some kid-friendly activities and keep an eye out for playgrounds
  • Take a spiral-bound book and work with your child/children to make a diary of the trip. Not only can you write in it each day, you can have the people you meet write in it, in their native language. You can glue in post cards, stickers, and stamps, receipts, brochures, and tickets, for example.

Things to do Before You Leave Home

  • For not-necessarily-exotic destinations, at least 8 weeks in advance check if any vaccinations or (anti-malaria or other) tablets are required
  • Arrange for garden and/or indoor plant support
  • Arrange for pet support
  • Arrange transportation to/from your home airport/train station
  • Suspend postal deliveries or arrange for someone to collect your mail
  • Suspend newspaper deliveries and have someone collect any free community newspapers that get thrown in your yard
  • Consider leaving one or more lights on inside, or have them be triggered by a timer
  • Consider recording a new answer phone message (see below)
  • Switch off appliances, computers, and such
  • Switch off the water supply to the washing machine or perhaps the whole house
  • Adjust the heating/air conditioning levels
  • Tell your immediate neighbors, so they can "keep an eye" on your place
  • If appropriate, disable automatic downloading of email to your home computer, so you can get it on a different computer while traveling (this is necessary if you use something like MS Outlook, but not if you get your mail via a web browser)
  • If you have a mobile phone and want to be able to make and/or receive calls while abroad, you'll need to see if you need SIM cards, and what the call charges will be. Alternatively, you might want to look at renting a mobile in the destination country
  • On most personal trips, I keep an electronic diary. Before the start of each trip, I clone the general outline from the previous diary and get that setup with headings for each day of the new trip, so it's "ready to go".
  • Check with your credit card company to see if they would like to know where and when you will be going, so charges made in those countries at those times will not be considered suspicious and cause them to suspend or cancel your card while you are away
  • If you have just bought a new still or video camera before your trip, spend serious time getting to know how to use it properly before you go. If you don't you run a high risk of capturing all those wonderful moments abroad, yet find they are pretty crappy once you get back home and look carefully at them. This is especially so with video where people move the camera way too fast, and with stills when they pay no attention to where the sun and other glare is while they take pictures.

Make sure you leave your house in a "safe" state, but without advertising to the casual passerby that you are actually away. For example, this suggests that you might not want to change your answer phone message to say that you are away, or at least not say just how long you will be gone.

Conclusion

Now, who has the most to gain by having a good trip? You do. And who has the most to lose by having a bad trip? You do. So who should make the most effort to plan for a successful trip? Obviously, it's you, not your partner and not your travel agent or friend who recommended the trip.

Above all, have a Plan B, even for Plan B. When things don't go right or as planned, be ready to move to a backup plan before you let yourself get upset. And if you find there was something you should have brought along but didn't, write it down and update your travel-planning list when you get home.

Bon voyage!

Making Good-Looking Documents

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[When I first posted this essay, important formatting information was lost. As a result, in a few places I've inserted pictures of the original Word document formatting instead of the actual formatted text. Unfortunately, a few of these don't look very good, but that's the result of posting to this blog site, not on the feature itself.]

These days, everyone's an author, whether it is writing casual emails, letters to friends, papers for school, or proposals for work. Very few people have access to a secretary who, in days gone by, would take one's draft and type it up neatly correcting spelling and grammar mistakes and generally making it look professional along the way.

I have long maintained that form is just as important as content, perhaps even more. The best-written text can be ignored if it is presented poorly. Now while a so-called good-looking document might not be worth reading, people will be more likely actually to read it, at least for a page or two because it is good looking.

In this essay, I'll point out a number of things one can do to make a document more attractive and, therefore, more likely to be read. I have been writing for wide circulation and publication for more than 25 years, and I am completely self-taught in both writing and layout. I can say with complete certainly that I've learned a few things not to do!

Although I now happen to use Microsoft Word (2010 edition) for all my word processing, this essay is not about learning that application or indeed any specific tool. Rather, it's about things that one should be able to do in any modern word processor.

The good news is that popular word processors provide a number of standard document templates and default settings, so one doesn't have to configure everything. These include margins, font type and size, paragraph format, and line spacing, all of which can be overridden, as you need and get more advanced.

One very important thing to understand is that the better looking a document is, the less you will notice its layout. You'll simply find the document easy to read and pleasant to follow without necessarily being able to say why. On the other hand, if the document contains many typefaces and font sizes, bold, italic, and underlined text, all mixed in together you will remember how truly bad it looked possibly to the extent that you were never inspired to read it, or that you remember the form but not the content. [Remember, nothing is a complete waste, it can always serve as a bad example!]

Don't use your Word Processor as a Typewriter!

If you find yourself using your word processor as a typewriter, STOP! A word processor is configurable and can do many things for you if only you'd let it. So stop trying to help it by applying manual formatting. Specifically,

  • Don't add extra spaces to the start of a paragraph to get that line indented. Instead, configure paragraphs to have the indenting you want, so that if you change your mind later, all paragraphs can be adjusted automatically by reconfiguring that property.
  • Don't use blank lines to try and get better spacing and/or page breaks. Instead, configure paragraphs to avoid widows and orphans (see below).
  • Don't use one or more tabs to arrange things in tabular form; instead, define a table and use that.

Page Width, Number of Columns, and Justification

Right now, stop reading this essay, and go and look at samples of the following kinds of publication: a newspaper, a novel, a glossy magazine, and a textbook. Compare the sizes of their pages, the number of columns per page, and whether the right-hand edge of text lines up with the right margin (that is, lines are right-justified) or not (that is, the lines are set ragged-right). Now using that information, look at the following columns:

Avoiding Bad Line Breaks

Lines in the same paragraph are broken by the word processor at the space between consecutive words or after a real or artificially added hyphen. However, there are certain inter-word spaces where one should not break a line. For example, in the text "10 people", "year 2001", and "5th birthday", ordinarily, it is bad style to allow a line break to occur at any of the inter-word spaces. To ensure such a break doesn't happen, one must use a non-breaking space instead of a regular space.

Occasionally, one uses some text that contains one or more hyphens, neither of which one wants to be a candidate for a line break. For example, every legal US resident gets assigned a Social Security Number of the form 123-45-6789. Ordinarily, one would want to read this number as a whole item, all on the same line. To ensure this, one must use a non-breaking hyphen instead of a regular hyphen.

It is quite common to end a paragraph with a word that contains three or fewer letters. In such cases, it is also a good idea to precede such a word with a non-breaking space, to avoid that short final word's being on a line on its own (that is, being an orphan).

Avoiding Bad Page Breaks

According to Wikipedia, "In typesetting, widows and orphans are words or short lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left dangling at the top or bottom of a column, separated from the rest of the paragraph."

Personally, I think that orphans are more distracting than are widows. In any event, both should be avoided as much as possible. Check your word processor's widow and orphan controls.

In general, word processors treat text as a set of paragraphs, with headings and subheadings also being paragraphs, but set a bit differently. In this section, I have used the heading "Avoiding Bad Page Breaks". It would be bad form to have a page break occur between that heading and the following paragraph. Of course, as one edits a document over time, the addition and removal of text often causes page breaks to occur in different places. Rather than hoping to notice bad page breaks and "fix" them manually, one should be able to format the heading using some sort of "keep with next paragraph" property, so a page break will never occur immediately after it.

All Those Fonts and Typefaces

Let a new user loose on a word processor and pretty soon, he'll probably have discovered the myriad of fonts, typefaces, and point sizes, and tried to use many of them in the same document. This definitely is one instance in which less is more. Have too many visual distractions and the reader will be looking at the form only!

In my early days of computer-generated text processing, my printers had only a fixed-width typewriter font, which made for less-than-interesting documents. [At the very beginning, I actually worked on a popular computer system whose character set did not even have lowercase letters!] The advent of laser printers really opened up the use of proportional fonts and character sets with large numbers of symbols, including Greek letters, subscripts, superscripts, common fractions, and so on.

Getting the Reader's Attention

There are a number of ways of emphasizing text; they include the following:

  • Centering it across the column or page –

This is useful for titles and subtitles
and for setting poems and wedding invitations.

  • Setting it in bold – Do this sparingly; too much of it is equivalent to shouting.
  • Setting it in italic – This is used effectively for one or two words at a time, foreign words or phrases, or quotations.
  • Setting it with underline – This really is a holdover from typewriter days when there was no alternative. Don't use it unless required by a style guideline.
  • Setting it in bold and italic with underline – Okay, that would get my attention and you an F on your paper I am grading.
  • Using a different typeface – This is most often used to distinguish between different levels of headings and regular text. [I use this approach a great deal to distinguish computer-programming keywords from their English counterparts.]
  • Using a different point size – This is most often used to distinguish between different levels of headings and regular text.
  • Indenting the left (and possibly the right) margin of paragraphs borrowed from some other source (such as a poem or quotation).

 

If you would not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
Or do things worth the writing.

Benjamin Franklin

  • Adding shading to a word, sentence, or paragraph.
  • Adding some ruled lines or
  • Using small caps – All lowercase letters are converted to uppercase, but are set in a slightly smaller point size than uppercase letters. For example, "Hello There" in small caps becomes
  • Using drop caps – Ordinarily, this is only used to start the first word of the first paragraph in a section; for example:

  • Setting it in a different colored foreground and/or background – Of course, while the use of colors on-screen can be effective, printing the resulting document on a black and white printer may limit its usefulness.
  • Make the text blink – I can imagine this being used as a temporary placeholder.
  • Use any number of other visual effects your word processor might provide.

Using the Right Form of Dash

Although standard keyboards usually provide only one kind of hyphen-minus key, other dash-like characters are useful and generally available. For example:

  • The humble "-" – Use this for a hyphen. It can also be used as a minus sign, although a better alternative might be available if you want a minus sign to have the same width as a plus sign. [We already mentioned the non-breaking hyphen earlier.]
  • An em dash – This dash has the width of the letter M in the current typeface/font. Use an em dash to insert an aside into a sentence, as in "He met Mary—a woman he'd dated many years earlier—on his way home from work." Some writers put a space either side of an em dash; I don't. Typically, a pair of em dashes is interchangeable with a pair of parentheses.
  • An en dash – This dash has the width of the letter N in the current typeface/font. Use an en dash to separate the endpoints of a range, as in, "numbers 1–5" and "Monday–Friday". [Using an ordinary (that is, a breaking) hyphen might cause an unwanted line break before the end value of the range.]

By the way, if you find yourself adding artificial hyphenation manually, you are using your Word Processor as a Typewriter.

Setting Margins

Large documents have pages that are usually printed on both sides and bound, either along a vertical edge or along the top edge. This requires that care be taken setting the page margins, so that left-sided (verso) and right-sided (recto) pages accommodate the bound edge.

Headers and Footers

Although adding these is easy, all too often they are missing from documents. Note that the contents of verso and recto pages might vary, and that the first page of a chapter/section might differ from both verso and recto. For example, the first line(s) of a chapter will ordinarily have the chapter number and name set in some special manner, in which case, it would be distracting (not to mention redundant) to also have that same information on that page's header immediately above that line.

Then there is the question of page numbering and number position. In single-sided documents, page numbers are often right justified or centered at the bottom. In two-sided documents, page numbers are often justified at the outer margin or centered at the bottom, or justified at the outer margin at the top.

The inner margin of the footer is a good place to put a Copyright notice.

Adding Asides

Occasionally, it is useful to supplement the main text with information that might be useful, but which is not essential. Such additional text should be presented in such a way that it is obviously not as important as the main body. The most common ways of doing this involve putting the extra text in the following places:

  • Inside parentheses or square brackets, right in the body of the main text
  • Inside a footnote
  • Inside an endnote

The latter two approaches allow longer asides without distracting the reader. And when reading such documents in their native electronic form, one can usually jump to the accompanying note by clicking on the note marker in the main text. [Some people, including me, dislike endnotes in printed documents, as they can be hard to find.]

Lists

A good word processor should support both numbered and bulleted lists, as well as lists nested within a list, at least up to three levels deep. Note that the more sophisticated systems will let you replace the bullet with any number of alternate symbols.

If you find yourself formatting lists manually, you are using your Word Processor as a Typewriter.

Tables

It is true that a picture can be worth a 1,000 words, and so too can a table. The main things to consider when creating a table are, as follows:

  • Set column headings in some emphasized way (bold, italic, larger point size, for example). If there are multiple heading lines, set them differently, and maybe make the first line span all the columns. It can also be useful to shade headings in grey or some other color.
  • If the final row is a summary or totals row, set it in a special way, perhaps like that for headers.
  • For very long tables, request that headings be repeated at the top of each continued page.
  • If the cells in any row contain more than a few lines of text, consider whether individual rows can be broken across page breaks or whether all the lines in row must be on the same page.
  • Take care when choosing the alignment of the table, column headings, and cell contents.

If you find yourself formatting tables manually, you are using your Word Processor as a Typewriter.

Adding Temporary Notes

Larger documents may be written over days, weeks, or even months, in which case, the author might like to leave placeholders about details yet to be determined or items to be done. See if your word processor provides a comment-tracking facility such that you can display or hide comments, or move through the set of comments mechanically without having to scan the text a page at a time looking for them.

More Advanced Options

There are many other things one might consider when formatting a document. And while they can require some investment of time to learn, they add a more sophisticated look to one's documents. These include the following:

  • Links – these allow the on-line reader to jump to web pages, to places within the same document (via bookmarks, a special case of which is a forward reference), and to other documents.
  • Tracked changes – this facility allows the changes to a previous edition to be tracked, so a reader can see both the old and new versions allowing her to proof the changes.
  • Automatically numbering of figures and examples
  • Adding pictures or photos and optionally having text flow around them
  • Adding front matter pages before the first chapter/section, with such pages having Roman page numbers
  • Providing a Table of Contents
  • Adding a cross-reference index

Conclusion

Never distribute a document (or an email, for that matter) without running it through a spelling checker, and if possible, a grammar checker. Assuming you have such tools, not using them is just downright lazy! I guarantee you that your credibility will suffer if the document contains obvious spelling and grammatical errors. [It truly is stunning how many native English speakers don't know when to use there vs. their and its vs. it's, for example. A good checker will detect such misuses. However, I doubt any checker is infallible; I override mine on a regular basis.]

A final word of warning: If you get too anal about document layout, you will spend much more time critiquing a document's layout than you do reading its content. And while that might be appropriate when proofing a highbrow literary article, it's inappropriate for documents having a short shelf life, such as newspapers and personal communications.

Happy publishing!

A Little Foreign Language Goes a Long Way

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

 

[Readers of this essay may wish to read my essay from July 2010, "What is Normal - Part 2. Writing Systems".]

In the past 30-odd years, I've flown more than 1.5 million miles (2.5 million kms), and that, along with my hosting activities back home, has provided me with a lot of occasions to be with people whose first language is not my own. Those of you who've met me know that I am a gregarious person. However, in order to socialize, one must be able to communicate, and that can be challenging, even intimidating.

I remember well the first time I really felt inadequate in the foreign-language department. [Most notably, it was not during the 7-week trip I took through Asia and Europe to get to the US initially. Everything then was so new and novel that I didn't notice that my foreign language skills were non-existent.] It was in 1985, and I was returning to the US from a vacation in Australia, when I stopped over in Tahiti, French Polynesia. Each morning, I shared breakfast with a number of other tourists, none of whom spoke English. Now when one makes eye contact with someone at close quarters, if one cannot speak to the other person in a common language, one's only option is a smile (and possibly a nod, assuming a nod has no negative implications in that person's culture). But what to do for Act 2? As it happened, I not only made eye contact, I shared a table with these people, which made for a quiet meal after I'd used up my 10 words of French and they their 10 words of English. Right there and then I decided that I really needed to do something about it. Despite the pervasive use of English around the world, I had no good reason to assume that other people could or should speak that language. At the very least, I should try to meet them on their home turf whenever practicable even if that meant learning just a handful of words and phrases. A little effort can get a lot of respect.

A second situation involved a trip to Germany where I stayed with a friend who spoke English. However, one afternoon, I spent time with her mother who had no English at all. I quickly used up my minimal German, but we pressed on and she helped me prepare food for a Chinese meal I cooked that evening. We had a task to do and we managed to communicate non-verbally. We also spoke in our own languages, not because the other would understand, but the tone one uses and where one puts the stress can communicate meaning.

In 1992, I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to give a series of lectures. My wife and 8-year-old son, Scott, came with me. Scott is also gregarious, so when people made eye contact with him, he always said, "Hello". On this occasion, our translator and guide had prepared a small card for him to carry that said in Russian, "Hello, my name is Scott and I am an American". Then when someone smiled at him or greeted him in Russian, he'd take out his card, smile, and show it to them. One day, the other person responded in English, but my son was expecting to hear Russian, so he didn't really listen, and was quite surprised when I explained what had happened. [During that same trip, several weeks later in Finland, he learned to communicate with others via music.]

As I stated in "Travel: Home Stays" in January 2010, I am a traveler, not a tourist, so I like to get off the beaten path. But even if one is a tourist, to take full advantage of one's travel experience one really needs to interact with the locals even if it's just to ask the price of something, to buy a coffee, or to find a public toilet. I urge you to take the plunge. Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Do You Speak English?

On many occasions while traveling, I've asked someone, "Do you speak English?", and often they've replied, "A little!" More often than not, their "little" really is quite a lot.

Although English is my first language, I really didn't get to study it formally until I was in my late 20's, when I started learning Spanish. It occurred to me very quickly that if I was to get a handle on Spanish grammar, I should probably understand the grammar of my first language. As a result, my formal English training took place in the US, whereas I'd first learned the language in Australia.

Sprechen Sie Englisch?

Growing up with parents and relatives who occasionally spoke an older variant of German, I got to learn a handful of words and phrases. However, the speaking of German was not promoted in my house even though it was the first language of my parents. [Although they were born in Australia, they spoke German at home and learned English in school at age 5.] A few of my oldest cousins had a decent grasp of the spoken language.

My first foray into learning German was the purchase of a Berlitz cassette course in 1980. It was rather dry and monotonous to work at on my own, and although I learned quite a bit, I never did finish the first 90-minute introductory tape. [Recently, when having a major purge of my stuff, I came across this course, still in its nice carry bag. I was delighted to find a good home for it with a friend. As he still owns a cassette player, I'd have to say that he's an old friend.]

Some 10 years later, I signed up for a 10-week course at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Each Saturday, I sat in class for 3 hours listening, learning, and speaking. The first week, the instructor arrived and spoke for 90 minutes, in German only! It was a shock to all of us attending, as we had not known it was to be a complete immersion class. The books we got were also in German only. I soon went out and bought an introductory German book in English, which saved me from complete failure. Each week for the first few weeks, fewer and fewer students showed up. I'm sure it wasn't nearly as romantic as they had imagined.

After that, I worked a great deal on my own with books learning more grammar and vocabulary. And as I traveled, I tried it all. However, my main problem was that I had no comprehension skills.

More than a few languages are Germanic, so some knowledge of that language has helped me read information as I've traveled.

After a month in Europe recently, with two weeks of that in Germany, I had four weeks of private German tutoring. It certainly was intimidating. I am told with great authority that, "It gets better/easier as you go along". In any event, I'm certain that I don't work that hard for money!

¿Habla Usted inglés?

Years ago, I had been considering taking a formal German class, but as it happened, I got sidetracked into Spanish instead. In any event, some proficiency of Spanish seemed more useful here in the US, and as far as I could tell, Spanish was a lot easier to learn than was German. [While German has three genders, Spanish has only two, which is still one too many! And whereas there mostly is no pattern to the gender of nouns in German, there is in Spanish. Thank Heaven for small mercies!]

My formal Spanish training was also done at Georgetown University. The first course involved 30 hours over 10 weeks. Thankfully, it was not an immersion course. I did well and I liked it; however, I put in a lot of work. Afterwards, I set out with my backpack and my present-tense-only Spanish to Latin America where I probably insulted or confused a lot of people with my efforts to communicate. A year or so later, I followed up with a second course although that was far less enjoyable partly due to the need to spend time recording and listening to one's own voice.

The Romance languages (of which Spanish is one) have many common words and constructs, which gives me a boost when dealing with Italian-, French-, and Portuguese-speaking people.

Anata wa eigo o hanashimasu ka

After my first trip to Japan, I learned that I had been completely unprepared for the communications barrier. So, before my next trip, I set about learning some basic Japanese (as well as buying a bilingual map of Tokyo).

My goals were simple: I didn't need to be able to read or write (which would take a lifetime commitment, especially as there are three writing systems to learn) just to be able to speak and understand simple statements and questions. I did not attend any formal class; I simply studied using a small 120-page phrasebook. The good news came with the revelation that Japanese has the same five vowels as English with sounds approximating those in Spanish. Ok, no problemo!

One of the first things I learned how to say was, "I do not speak Japanese", in Japanese. This, of course, confused many listeners; after all, I had just spoken to them correctly in Japanese! Now no matter how little I can speak in any language, I do try to speak correctly and therein is a real problem. If one sounds like one knows what one is doing, listeners assume that one really does!

Although I ignored reading and writing, I did learn to read the kanji digits 1–10. Prices in local markets and street food stalls are often in an interesting combination of kanji and Arabic digits. For example, a price of 400 yen is often written as 四00, with a kanji 4 followed by two Arabic zeros. So while I could figure out how much I was paying, I had no idea what I was buying!

In general, I found that once people believed me when I said I really didn't speak Japanese, they actually did understand the little I had. And my being able to remember the little prayer one says before a meal (i·ta·da·ki·masu) won me a lot of points. [There's also one to say after a meal, go·chi·so·sa·ma, but I rarely remember to say that one.]

During one trip, I was riding on a train and I wanted some information about my stop. Opposite me sat several Japanese teenage schoolgirls. When I asked them in what I considered was correct Japanese, they looked at each other and giggled out loud. Now as most Japanese since WWII have learned some level of English in school I switched to English in the hopes of a better result. Unfortunately, they giggled even more. Frankly, I suspect they would have giggled if I'd just held up my finger.

Now if you can get passed the reading and writing (as in, ignoring it), you might be pleasantly surprised as how simple the grammar is compared to Western European languages. Verbs are always used in the infinite form; there is no conjugation. YEAH! There are no articles (I think perhaps because German used up the whole world's supply) or plurals. To turn a statement into a question, one simple adds a suffix. In fact, speaking Japanese is as easy as using chopsticks; well, maybe not quite.

By the way, the title of this section is written in Romaji, the method of writing Japanese using Latin (Roman) letters.

Speaking in Numerous Tongues

I know quite a few people who are fluent in at least three languages, and a few who can get by in four, five, and even six. And I met one woman who managed seven, including Latin. Whereas in the US knowing a second language can command premium pay, someone selling international ferry tickets in Tallinn, Estonia, for example, might need to speak English, Russian, Finnish, and Swedish, just to apply for the job, and that's without much if any extra pay.

One Language at a Time, Please!

While some people can casually switch from one language to another when talking in a group, as for me, I can only handle one foreign language at a time. Any attempt to speak in a third language while I'm immersed in a second usually results in my talking in that second language instead.

I'm reminded of an incident during my first time in Costa Rica. There I was, immersed in Spanish when I came across two young women waiting at what looked like a bus stop in a small village near the Caribbean coast. I started speaking to one in Spanish and she replied in Spanish. It was immediately clear to both of us that neither of us were native Spanish speakers. It turned out she was German, and she spoke a bit of Spanish and quite a bit of English. So, English would have been the best language in which to communicate; however, her friend spoke only German. In order to allow the friend to join the conversation, I said, in Spanish, that I spoke some German. Then there was a big pause while I tried to think of some, but I couldn't even remember how to introduce myself and say my name. Basically, I told the first woman in Spanish that I really could speak some German, but right now, I couldn't really think of any as I was "in Spanish mode".

Literacy and Fluency

It is important to mention that it has never been my intention to be either literate or fluent in any language other than English. Yes, I can read various bits of other languages, and that is useful, but I really don't care to nor need to read much other than signs, notices, and menus. And I rarely need to write in another language.

Variations on a Theme

Of course, not all flavors of any given language are created equal. An American might travel to Australia and find she doesn't understand many local terms and has trouble with lazy word endings and run-on speech. A group of Germans, Austrians, and Swiss might all speak German, yet each brings to the conversation a whole other vocabulary and set of pronunciations. Likewise for French speakers from Canada, Belgium, France, and Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast).

Basic Words and Phrases to Know in any language

So just how many words and phrases must one know to "get by" in another language? Of course, the more the better, but one should start with the obvious ones, as follows: hello, my name is …, yes, no, please, thank you, thanks very much, how much does this cost?, and the numbers zero to 20. Add to that the verbs to eat, to drink, to go, to be, and to pay, and a few adjectives like much and very, and one has a good start.

Faux Pas and Misunderstandings

I can hardly end without admitting to some of my mistakes. Here are a few.

I was in Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, where I had two weeks of private Spanish tutoring. Each night, I ate at the same restaurant where I was served by the same waitress. She tolerated my poor Spanish and I tipped her well. Ordinarily, I don't eat big meals, but one night, I had room for dessert, so I asked her if she had any cake. She looked blankly at me, but didn't try to figure out what I was saying. After a number of attempts, I got annoyed. I was thinking to myself, "Darn it woman, don't you understand Spanish?" Several days later, I was clear across the country riding a bus when it occurred to me what I'd been asking for. I had the right word but the wrong language. Cake in French is gateaux, which is what I had asked for, but it came across as gato, which in Spanish means cat. So, it was no surprise I didn't get my dessert!

It was Todo Santo (All Saints Day), a big event on the Catholic calendar, and there I was as a lunch guest at a family in rural Mexico. From time to time, different people tried to get me involved in their conversation by asking me questions. I started talking about what I thought was His Holiness the Pope, but it soon became obvious that no one was following. As it turned out, I was using the feminine la papa, which means potato, when I should have been using the masculine el papa, the Pope. Potato, Pope; hey what's the big deal, right? [It occurred to me later that perhaps The Devil made me do it!]

When traveling with a 2-year-old, one tends to choose restaurants where one can get seated and served quickly. As such, on our swing through Belgium, my family and I ate at a number of Pizza Huts. Not only was their menu standard and much like their restaurants back home, but it had pictures. After I'd struggled to order from the menu in French, I handed the menu to the waiter only to notice that on the back page there was an abbreviated version in English. C'est la vie!

Conclusion

Back in the 1800's, the American writer, Mark Twain, went to Heidelberg, Germany, to study German. Afterwards, he wrote an essay called, "Die Schreckliche Deutsche Sprache" ("The Awful German Language"), in which he put the worst possible spin on that language, but in an entertaining way. Some years ago, I bought a copy of that book with alternate pages in English and German. I highly recommend it to anyone who has worked at learning a European language.

By far my most fascinating language moment occurred many years ago, during my first trip to Japan. There I was standing in Tokyo Central Station having just arrived from Narita Airport. I was looking at the black-line subway map (which, like most such maps was neither to scale nor with correct direction) thinking to myself, "How the heck am I going to figure out which line to get on, how to buy a ticket, and to know when to get off?" [This was in the days before multi-lingual computer information screens that are (fortunately) now prevalent around the world.] As I was pondering my predicament, a voice from behind me asked in German, "Kann ich Sie helfen? (Can I help you?)" I turned, smiled, and answered, "Ja (Yes)". As I looked to be a Western European, he used the only mainstream language he knew from that region, and it worked. So, there was an Albanian talking German to an Australian in Japan!

When you are in your own normal world, don't forget how intimidating it was when you were trying to communicate in someone else's language. Specifically, when you meet beginning speakers of your language, speak more slowly and use a simpler vocabulary without being condescending. And when you are in their normal world, be polite, by trying to use their words, pronunciations, and customs.

And watch out, those darn foreigners appear to have words for everything!

Starting Your Own Business

© 2010–2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

 

[If you have not already done so, I strongly suggest that before reading this essay, you read, "Talk is Cheap. Write it Down" (February 2011), and then, "Planning for Success" (May 2011).]

I started my own computer consulting business in July 1984, and it's been successful ever since. As far back as I can remember, I've wanted to be self-employed, and once I got permanent residency here in the US, I put my plan into action. I started my business, bought a townhouse, and my son was born, all within a couple of months. There's nothing like a little pressure to get the adrenaline flowing!

In recent years, I've been mentoring students at an alternative high school. For one or more of a number of reasons, the students there don't quite fit into mainstream schools, which is why they are at that school. The good news is that they all want to be at that school. More than a few of them think of themselves as mavericks, and they dream about running their own business. Whenever I get a chance to talk to them about that possibility, I cover many of the points in this essay.

Following the main sections below, are short notes in list form. I leave it as a reader exercise to research each one in the context of the business being planned.

The Dream vs. the Reality

Yes, you can get all the rewards, but you get to take all the risks and responsibilities as well. There really is no such thing as a free lunch! So, while the idea of driving around in a souped-up convertible company car and flying Business Class might seem wonderful, sooner or later you have to have a defensible plan to make a profit (well at least to not lose money). Assuming that you want to enjoy your work, will people actually pay you to do what you enjoy?

Goals – What is it you really want to do?

To be sure, I didn't have a detailed written plan when I went into business. However, I put in a lot of time and effort thinking about it in the year before. I planned to be a computer consultant, but I recognized early on that I really needed to distinguish myself from the thousands of other people having that same title on their business cards. The big question was, "Why would someone engage me over someone else? Just what was my angle?" In truth, I was prepared to do whatever it took to pay the rent, and I certainly had a lot of skills. What I really needed was a specialty I could claim that would make me attractive. After identifying a short list of candidate topics, I selected one and rode that wave to the top.

Right from the start, I had two very important rules:

  1. Never ever ever hire anyone – From my short, but very hectic, corporate career I learned that I simply didn't like to manage people. I can work with people, but that's a whole different scenario.
  2. Take as much time off as I could afford – You can't buy time. So rather than work fulltime and retire at 65 (hopefully) with some money, but not necessarily with great health and any urge to travel, I wanted more than the usual time off as I went. [I came to the US from a culture that provided everyone with 4–6 weeks of vacation per year, and where people worked a 37.5-hour week with flexible working hours.]

I have never regretted either rule, and, in fact, I've re-endorsed them both many times over. If I got a contract that was more than I could handle, I gave it to a larger player and subcontracted back a manageable part. And with regard to time off, I started with three months off in my first year, spread out over the year. [Except for three years in recent times—when I deliberately took on fulltime projects—I've taken off between three and six months each year.]

As far as I can remember, I've never heard an American say that they wanted to remain a 1-person company forever. The all-American goal seems to be that one is only a 1-person company until one figures out how to be a mega-corporation. But the evidence is well documented: Most small businesses fail in their first five years, and the kind of person who can run a small business is not at all like the one needed to run a medium-sized or large one.

A couple of years after I started my business, I took a break during which I analyzed my success. That's when I moved from being a brute-force success to a smart success. That is, by figuring out what made my business successful, I got smarter about planning. Either I could make more money for the same effort, or I could work less time for the same money. And I did some of each.

Many people have a narrow focus; they see only one path to their goal(s). They often place a lot of constraints on themselves. Are they able to travel out of town overnight? Are they willing and able to work long hours, weekends, or public holidays? Are they really prepared to "do whatever it takes within reason"? In my case, I figured that it would be hard enough to get potential customers to my door, so I didn't want to turn any away unnecessarily. As a result, I was prepared to be—and I remain today—very flexible.

Although I started out actually designing software systems and writing the programs to implement them, to help start my business, I began writing for publication with first one, and then a second magazine. Not only did this generate some cash flow, I got to keep all the rights to the intellectual property, I had a reason to learn and keep up with evolving technologies, and I had something to add to my resume. I was also getting directly to those who might want my services, and I could give potential clients copies of my published work. That led to my developing seminars using my published materials (some of which became books) and to the lucrative training business. With seminars, instead of charging per hour of work, you charge per person attending. The next step was starting the first of two publications, which led to editing and publishing. Now it's very rare that a client will hire one to learn on the job, so I had to find a way to do that myself. My solution was to get involved in national and international standards groups for my profession.

Twenty-seven years later, my business card still says "Computer Consultant", but my focus has evolved considerably, primarily because of my flexibility and the fact that about every three months I review my situation. Where am I now and where do I want to be in six, 12, or 24 months?

In reality, my consulting led to learning about topics on which I got paid to write. For topics I researched for writing, those skills could be sold as a consultant, as could those I learned when teaching seminars in a variety of environments. And my standards involvement overlapped and reinforced all the other parts of my business.

In truth, how could I know with certainty 27 years ago where I wanted to end up? Most of the technologies I work on now didn't exist back then.

And while having goals is important, so too are having non-goals. In my case, I had no interest in building an empire. Now that doesn't mean that I couldn't run one; it just means that that doing so is not one of my goals.

Selling Services vs. Building/Selling Products

It takes time and expense to provide a service. To provide the same service to more clients, you need to extend your hours and/or hire others to help you.

It also takes time and expense to build a product, and unless you are in a lucrative custom-made situation, you'll need to hire others to help you. (They need not necessarily be employees, however; they could be subcontractors.) Then there are the inventory-related issues of storage, insurance, cost, shipping, and tracking, and excess and out-dated inventory, along with sales tax collection.

In my case, I figured out a way to reuse some of my deliverables, namely, my intellectual property. I got paid to write it for publication. I re-used it as seminar materials, and I published it in book form. None of these activities required help or a physical inventory, which is worth keeping in mind as many economies move from manufacturing to service-based models.

Business Organization

There are a number of options for your business classification, including sole proprietorship, partnership, and various kinds of corporation. Each has its pros and cons. In my case, I decided to trade under my own name and to make that name my brand. After all, I was selling myself, not a product.

I've never been swayed by the argument that for a 1-person business like mine incorporating provides more legal protection. In these litigious United States, a determined plaintiff is just as likely to come after the individual owner(s) as he is to come after the company.

Are You in Business or Just Pretending?

If you don't have a business card, you won't convince me that you are in business, and you might not convince anyone else either.

Your business name should be important to you as a brand and you will want to promote it. As such, chose it carefully, protect it legally, and register it as an internet domain. Then put your website at that domain (of course, you'll have a website!), as in www.YourBusinessName.com, with your email address as YourName@YourBusinessName.com.

If you claim to be in business, then why not look like you are in business!

Conclusion    

Each of us comes to a business with a set of skills and we'd like to think that we're at or near the top of the heap in our particular field. And maybe we are. However, to run any business successfully, especially one that has employees, you should be prepared to be a little bit of each of the following: a lawyer, a salesman, an accountant, a bookkeeper, a tax expert, an office manager, a negotiator, a promoter, a crisis manager, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a marriage counselor, a motivator, and a sage. And when you've finished all those tasks, you might even get time to do the things you liked and were really good at to begin with!

From a book of quotes I once read, comes the following: "No matter what your circumstance you should always believe that you work for yourself". It is highly unlikely that anyone cares about you as much as you should care about yourself. And, frankly, why should they?

 

A Summary of Things to Consider

  1. The Dream vs. the Reality
    1. You get all the rewards
    2. You get to take all the risks and responsibilities
    3. Will people actually pay you to do what you enjoy?
  2. Goals – What is it you really want to do?
    1. Consulting, writing, speaking, making a product (multiple paths to some goals)
    2. General guidelines are good, but don't be too rigid
    3. What are your constraints?
      1. Are you able to travel overnight away from home
      2. Parenting duties
      3. Hours on working days
      4. Availability on weekends and public holidays
  3. Services vs. Product
    1. Services:
      1. Time and expenses
      2. More services requires more people
    2. Product:
      1. Manufacture requires more people (employees vs. subcontractors)
      2. Inventory (storage, insurance, cost, shipping, tracking), excess, out-dated
      3. Sales tax
  4. Business Considerations
    1. Organization
      1. Sole proprietorship
      2. Partnership
      3. Subchapter S corporation
      4. Other corporation
      5. Non-profit
      6. Woman/Minority-owned or small business certification
    2. Who is your backup person?
    3. State/county business license (maybe need from multiple states)
    4. Insurance
      1. Liability
      2. Errors and Omissions
      3. Disability
      4. Medical/Hospital/Dental
    5. Taxes
      1. Both employer and employee social security contributions
      2. State income (quarterly estimated)
      3. Federal income (quarterly estimated)
      4. State sales tax
  5. Business Presence
    1. Website
    2. Email address
    3. Business cards
    4. Stationery (real and/or for Fax cover pages)
  6. Marketing and Promotion
    1. Advertising (print, web, direct mail, cold calls, …)
    2. Joining trade groups, associations
    3. Speaking at events, free mini-seminars
    4. Writing articles in target-audience publications
    5. Giving away time/products and getting publicity
    6. Going after government contracts
  7. Setting up an Office
    1. Space – in-home office vs. professional office space (Do you really have the discipline to work at home?)
    2. Telephone
    3. Fax
    4. Hi-speed internet connection with reliable up-time
    5. Computer
      1. Desktop, laptop, both?
      2. Wifi capability
    6. Printer (color vs. black and white)
    7. Computer file backup (frequency, on-site vs. off-site copies)
    8. Shredder
    9. Fire safe (documents and on-site backup media)
  8. Billing, Payments, and Cash Flow
    1. Accepting payment by cash, check, credit card, electronic transfer
    2. Issuing invoices
    3. Issuing receipts
    4. Sales tax collection
    5. How many days to pay?
    6. Penalty for late payment
    7. Travel time (local vs. out-of-area)
    8. Need cash flow to cover 30–90-day net payments
  9. Record Keeping
    1. Financial software
      1. Banking
      2. Invoices
      3. Accounts receivable
      4. Accounts payable
      5. Tax preparation
      6. Expense tracking
    2. Contact list/lead manager
    3. Electronic calendar with alarms
  10. Rates
    1. Charging by the hour, day, or job
    2. Are expenses included?
    3. Things to factor in
      1. No paid vacation
      2. No paid public holidays
      3. No paid sick leave
      4. No employer-provided health insurance
      5. No employer-provided contributions to a retirement plan
      6. Administration, banking, record keeping, backup, marketing and so on all take non-billable time
    4. What does your competition charge?
    5. Are you a generalist or a specialist?
    6. Pro-bono vs. full rate; should you ever discount your time?
  11. Professional Services
    1. Legal
    2. Accounting
    3. Payroll
    4. Taxes
    5. Safe-deposit box at a bank
  12. Agreements and Contracts
    1. Written vs. unwritten expectations
    2. Explicit vs. implicit guarantees
  13. Keeping Current: Clients don't hire contractors to learn
    1. Books and videos
    2. Training (in-person and self-paced)
    3. Certification/endorsement

What is Normal - Part 4: Dates and Times

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

“What is the time now?” and “What is today’s date?” seem like straightforward questions. However, you might be surprised at the answers as you move from one “normal” context to another.

I remember well one of my first trips to Japan where I bought a ticket to ride on some public transportation in Tokyo. (This was well before the days when ticket machines “understood” a variety of languages including English.) I looked at the ticket to see if I could understand anything, and I noticed what looked like a date, but then again not! I don’t remember the exact details, but it was something like “20-IX-03”. In fact, it was that day’s date, using modern Japanese style. Specifically, it was the 20th day of September (the 9th month) in the 3rd year of the current emperor’s reign (Heisei, the name of Emperor Akihito’s reign). Being a computer nerd, I immediately saw the problem in dealing with such dates; without also knowing the emperor on which the date was based, the date was ambiguous. Now, I was quite willing to have the Japanese use Arabic numbers for days and years, and to use an era system for years, but the use of Roman numerals for months seemed odd. Is that normal? As they say, “Whatever floats your boat!”

In this installment, we’ll look at some interesting aspects of calendars, dates, and times. However, before we set out on that adventure, let me give you something to think about in the meantime. How often do leap years occur? If you think, “Dah! Every 4 years, of course!” you’d be right most of the time, but not always. We’ll revisit this question later. Oh, and by the way, not all minutes are created equal; some have more than 60 seconds.

Calendars

Well now, what could be simpler than a plain old calendar? What indeed.

A solar calendar—like the one I use in Virginia—is based on the cycle of the sun, which involves the 365-and-a-bit days it takes the earth to go around the sun.

The Julian date system is simple; each day has a number 1 more than the previous day, starting at January 1, 4713 BC at noon in Greenwich, England (otherwise known as Julian Date Zero [JD0]). Fractions of days are supported, as are negative values, which indicate days prior to JD0. Whoa, who uses that system? Apparently, astronomers do, but you know how spaced-out they are!

Now one must not confuse Julian dates with the Julian calendar system, the latter being put into service by Julius Caesar (the guy who invented Caesar salads, I think) way back in 45 BC, when he retired the old Roman calendar, whose warranty had expired many years earlier. Under the Julian calendar, days were numbered from 1–365 in non-leap years and 1–366 in leap years. This allows day n in one year to be much like that same day in any other year, which makes it convenient for agricultural activities like planting and harvesting. Unfortunately, anyone wearing a Julian calendar watch quickly noted that this calendar system gains about three days every four centuries. [Don’t you just hate that when that happens? People arrived late for castle sieges, and some even missed short wars completely!]

If you look closely, the Julian system still manifests itself. Desktop paper calendars and diaries are still sold with the Julian day number shown for each day. Sometimes each day page also shows the number of days left until the end of the year (365-or-366 minus the day’s Julian number).

Sometime in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII had way too much time on his hands (as Popes often did back then), and he put into effect the—da da—Gregorian calendar. [Did he name it for his best friend Bob? No, it was all self, self, self! Poor Bob had to wait some 410 years until Microsoft named a product after him.] Anyway, at the stroke of midnight at the meridian that passed through the Vatican’s main outhouse, Wednesday, September 2, 1582 gave way to Thursday, September 14, 1582, and 12 days went missing. [Despite rumors at the time, they were not the 12 days of Christmas!] Today, much of the world uses the Gregorian calendar.

The era calendar used in Japan is a bit like a very simplified Julian date system, but not altogether quite, if you get my meaning.

It should be no surprise then that a lunar calendar involves the cycle of the moon. The Islamic calendar is lunar. Certain religious celebrations are based on the lunar cycle. For example, “Easter is a moveable feast, meaning it is not fixed in relation to the civil calendar. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the northern hemisphere's vernal equinox.” But then, you already knew that, right? As a result, Easter can fall as early as March 22 and as late as April 25.

Now while Pope Gregory may have had time on his hands, others had even more spare time, and they invented lunisolar calendars, which—yes, you guessed it—had aspects tied to both the sun and the moon. [Actually, I think these were April Fool’s pranks that simply got out of hand, much like the German language.] In fact, strictly speaking, the date of Easter is a combination of solar and lunar considerations. The Hebrew and Hindi calendars are lunisolar.

For a list of calendars used around the world, click here.

Dates

I grew up thinking that month and day names began with uppercase letters, and that each had a long form and a 3-letter abbreviation. However, that is not the case in many other cultures.

Now as to how one might write a date is wide open. In an earlier essay, I mentioned how an Australian was traveling around the US and sent me email saying she was coming to my area on 6/5. My challenge was to figure out if she meant June 5 (US format) or May 6 (Aussie format). Yes, some cultures write dd/mm/yy while others write mm/dd/yy. These days, much of my business and personal correspondence goes to an international audience. As such, I write dates as yyyy-mm-dd, using the century and leading zeros, if necessary, to be completely unambiguous. [The ordering of parts in this format is understood pretty much universally although in some cultures the dash is replaced by a slash or period.] In another essay, I commented on the proliferation of the US date 9/11 (the day the World Trade Center in NYC was destroyed) in countries that would otherwise write that date as 11/9. There are always exceptions to the rule, I guess.

Seasons

In Part 1 of this series I wrote, “On what date does summer begin? In the US summer begins with the Summer Solstice, on June 20th or 21st, when the sun is furthest north. For countries in the southern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice is on December 20th or 21st. However, in some places equinoxes and solstices are considered to be in the middle of the respective season or at least some weeks after that season’s start, but never actually at their start. For example, in Australia, summer starts on December 1 and ends the last day of February.” [That’s what happened when you drink too much beer for breakfast!]

Time

Fortunately, there seems to be general agreement around the world that there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day. The differences then in writing a specific time come down to whether one uses a 12- or 24-hour time format, the hour/minute/second separator, and the set of symbols used to represent the corresponding values 1–12 or 0–23. [Although the Arabic number system is widely used around the world, it isn’t the only number system.]

I’ve lived my whole life using a 12-hour system, as in AM (ante meridiem, Latin for “before noon”) and PM (post meridiem, Latin for “after noon”). However, I have spent many months traveling in countries that use a 24-hour system. Once I got a digital watch (and now a pocket computer) that supported both systems, I changed it accordingly when I traveled. I did this partly so my watch would match transportation schedule signs at airports and train stations; I also did it to try and “get with the program”. Basically, if the locals could master such a system then why couldn’t I? After all, this was the normal way of doing things in their environment. After some years of doing this I freely admit to still getting confused by times after lunch; for example, distinguishing between 17:00 and 7 pm.

So, how does one write the 12-hour suffix? Take your pick from a.m./p.m., am/pm, AM/PM, and A.M./P.M. As to whether one puts a space between the time and the suffix is a personal choice; I use a space followed by am/pm, but remember I’m not normal. And what about the separator between the hour and minute value? Most commonly used are the colon (:) and the period (.), although some French-speaking cultures separate them with “ h “.

Although I’m a 12-hour person, that system has the anomaly that times like 12:05 are earlier than 1:05 when everyone knows that 1 comes before 12. In reality, the 12 acts as zero!

Several times I’ve visited US Government Department offices, I’ve seen analog wall clocks with 24 hours around the face (fortunately in Arabic numerals rather than Roman). That takes some getting used to; for example, what at a glance appears to be 6 o’clock is really 12 noon! There also are analog timepieces with two concentric circles; one numbered 1–11 with each number paired with an inner ring of 13–23, with 12 paired with an inner 0 or 24. And even the use of Roman numerals can cause some grief; apart from the “usual” way of writing them, alternate versions use IIII instead of IV, and VIIII instead of IX.

When I fly, there usually is a duty-free catalog by my seat. Whenever I flip through one and come across a very expensive watch, I’m amused by the fact that it can keep such accurate time, yet one can only read it to the nearest 5 minutes!

Now if you asked a good lawyer, “How many hours are there in a day?” you might get the answer, “How many do you want there to be?” And, indeed, politicians (who often have been trained as lawyers) can “stop the clock” or “extend the day”. For example, some years ago, I visited the State House in Carson City, the capital city of Nevada, and sat in on a legislative session. Afterwards, I was reading some information about the legislature. Members meet every two years and can meet up to 120 days, but they only get paid for 60 days. By law, they must conclude their business before the start of the 121st day. On a number of occasions, as midnight on the 120th day approached, it was clear that more time was needed, so the members passed a bill that extended the day by several hours, having 13 o’clock pm, then 14 o’clock pm, and so on. I have heard of other situations where the chamber clock was stopped, so, technically, the official time stood still while business was finished.

Time Zones

Back in the days of travel by foot or horse, one could not go large distances in short times, so one couldn’t see the impact of the earth’s rotation in relation to movement on the earth’s surface. Fast-forward to railways, and passengers needed to make connections; timetables came into being. It was no longer acceptable for each town to have its own idea of the time; some synchronization was needed. And once planes and cars arrived, it was possible to travel long distances much more quickly. And so the idea of time zones came about with the earth being divided into 24 1-hour vertical zones (called lunes), nowadays starting at the meridian running through Greenwich, England, whose zone is known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). [In military parlance, time zones have designated letters with GMT being “Z/Zulu” time.]

Within most countries, there is only one time zone, and in most cases, the difference between adjacent time zones is one hour. I just happen to be from a country that is abnormal. Australia has three time zones; however, the central zone (in which my hometown is located) is 30 minutes behind the eastern zone, and 90 minutes ahead of the western zone. Other countries/areas that have half-hour differences include Afghanistan, Burma, India, Iran, Newfoundland (Canada), and Venezuela. Nepal has a 15-/45-minute difference from its neighbors. I now live in the US, which spans six time zones: Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, Alaska, and Hawaii, going east-to-west. Only Russia spans more time zones (10), and, in some cases, its neighboring zones differ by two hours instead of one. (Given the width of China, one might expect it to have multiple time zones as well, but it has only one.)

Summertime/Daylight Saving Time

The idea of moving clocks forward to increase the number of working daylight hours is not new. However, it is more prevalent in areas outside the tropics as tropical places already have more daylight hours even in winter. In fact, in the tropics, one doesn’t talk about seasons as summer through winter; one talks about rainy and dry seasons. This difference manifests itself in Australia. For example, Queensland and the Northern Territory (states that are in adjacent time zones) are in the tropics, and don’t have summer time. On the other hand, South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria (among others) are much further south, and they do have summer time. In summer, you get the interesting situation in which South Australia is 30 minutes behind both New South Wales and Victoria, to its east, yet 30 minutes ahead of Queensland, which is also to the east. And Queensland is an hour behind its neighbor to the south.

And let’s not forget what my dear old mom used to say, “That daylight savings business is silly and, besides, all that extra sunlight has caused my curtains to fade!”

Back in the Good-Old Days

Back when I was in history class in primary school, I learned that the modern western calendar was based on the birth of Jesus Christ, and that dates before that were written with the suffix BC or B.C. (English for “before Christ”), while dates afterwards had the suffix AD or A.D. (anno domini, Latin for “in the year of our Lord”) or no suffix at all. [Contrary to a vicious rumor started by members of the People’s Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People’s Front?) AD does not stand for after death.] Historically, BC was written as a suffix (as in 23 BC) and AD as a prefix (as in AD 1066); however, it is now commonplace to both written as suffixes.

Apparently, not all the world is Christian—Thank God for that!—and in these politically correct times, we need a lay approach to dates from the pre- and post-whatshisname eras. So, AD became CE, which stands for Common Era or Current Era (or if you insist, Heaven forbid, Christian Era). And BC became BCE, which stands for Before the Common Era or Before the Current Era (or Before the Christian Era).

Now there is no year 0 in this system, but, when written on a time line, there is a single point that designates the change from midnight Year 1 BC to 00:01 Year 1 AD, which I am sure you are happy to know. However, the lack of a year 0 led to a huge problem that during the recent millennium change resulted in people arguing for days over when the new millennium actually began. Wikipedia (which you all know contains lies!) claims that, “most experts agree that a new century begins in a year with the last digits being "01" (1801, 1901, 2001); new millennia likewise began in 1001 and 2001. A common misconception is that centuries and millennia begin when the trailing digits are zeroes (1800, 1900, 2000, etc.); moreover, this convention was widely used to celebrate the new millennium in the year 2000.” So, those of you who celebrated in 2000 had it all wrong, but then you could do it all over again in 2001 to make up for it. Oh, by the way, at an archeological dig in the Middle East, scientists recently found documentation of a previously unknown Y1K problem. It caused absolute havoc at Cash Machines at the “Scribes and Pharisees Savings and Loan Association”, which had failed to recalibrate its abaci.

Leap Seconds

Has your life become a drag? Well if you have been paying very close attention you may have noticed that, lately, the earth isn’t rotating as fast as it used to. In reality, a day is a small fraction of a second more than 24 hours. This proved too much for some lawyers (who, apparently, bill by the millisecond), so over drinks at a bar the concept of a leap second was born. Yes dear reader, from time to time, when your back is turned, and without any warning whatsoever, an extra second is added to some unsuspecting minute, giving that minute 61 seconds. Now you might well ask, “Who is doing this?” and “How often are they doing it?” “Is it a ploy by my boss to get me to work longer without extra pay?” The simple answers are, “Bruce”, “zero, once, or twice a year”, and “Yes”.

Now for those of you having atomic clocks in your basement, this is very important to know, because you should be making leap-second adjustments from time to time (get it?). For a detailed list of when adjustments have been made in the past, click here. The adjustments are always made at 23:59:60 on June 30 and/or December 31. It doesn’t happen every year, and in some years, it happens at both times. As the earth slows down, leap seconds will need to be added on a more frequent basis. Unfortunately, unless your timepiece isn’t connected to the internet, you’ll have to adjust it manually; just push the “add leap-second button”.

Now the really good news is that the lawyers drinking at the bar that night were quite visionary. They not only allowed for the addition of an extra second, they also allowed for one’s removal. So, if the earth should ever get struck by the Mother of all Comets at a very low angle from the west, and the planet starts spinning faster, we’ll all die horribly. But we’ll die—rest-assured—that our atomic clocks will still be keeping the correct time for the cockroaches and other primitive forms of life [shame on you for thinking “used-car salesmen”] that survive the catastrophe!

GMT vs. UTC

Just when you thought GMT had been around long enough to be trusted, someone had to go and invent something else, namely, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). GMT wasn’t good enough for him; oh no, he had a much better idea.

The good news is that unless you are intimately involved with very high-precision timepieces (e.g., atomic clocks) or highly synchronized computer networks that manipulate the world’s financial systems, you needn’t worry about UTC, which by the way was responsible for all this leap-second nonsense. [By that way, it’s actually quite surprising just how much money you can siphon off from the financial network in that extra second!]

Conclusion

Do you use the terms this week or next week? To understand what they mean, one needs to know what day it is today and the day of the week on which the week starts. In the latter case, there are multiple customs: many people start their week on Sunday, while others believe that Monday is the first day.

Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “When was that made?” Yet at the end of the credits, the copyright date is written using Roman Numerals, which, for films produced before 2000, makes it hard for most mere mortals to fathom. The general thinking about this is that is a deliberate obfuscation mechanism to hide the actual date, so you don’t automatically think, “This is an old [as in lame or not up-to-date] movie”.

As to the time now and today’s date, I’m sitting here in Szczecin, Poland, where it’s 15:05 and, according to the trusty Gregorian calendar next to me, it’s Piątek (Pt), Lipiec 1, 2011 [3:05 pm on Friday (Fri), July 01, 2011; that is]. According to the Um-al-Qura calendar, the date is AlJumaa, Rajab 29, 1432, whereas the Hijri/Lunar calendar says it’s a day later at AlJumaa, Rajab 30, 1432. On the other hand, the Saka era calendar says it is Sukravara, Asadha 10, 1933.

Now back to the earlier question, “How often do leap years occur?” Using the Gregorian calendar system, a leap year is one that is a multiple of 4, but not also a multiple of 100, unless it’s a multiple of 400. [Hmm, that sounds like it’s related to the Julian date system, which gained about three days every four centuries.] So, while 1600 and 2000, for example, were leap years, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not. As such, the next leap year after 1896 was 1904, a gap of 8 years. Now go and challenge your friends and neighbors with that, if you have time, that is.

Teaching English as a Second Language

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

For some years now, countries in the Western world have seen a huge increase in legal (and illegal) immigration. And the US is no exception. Many of these immigrants have little formal education, yet to be integrated in any reasonable form, they need to grasp the fundamentals of the host country's language. Here in the US English-language classes are offered cheaply or free of charge by many church and community organizations. In general, such classes have been labeled as teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). However, given that many immigrants never formally learned their first language, or speak more than one language, in recent years such training has become known as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

One national organization whose mission it is to teach English in the US is ProLiteracy. I learned of this group through its local affiliate the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, which advertises its student and teacher-training classes in local newspapers. Having time on my hands, I decided to get more information about being a tutor for individual students. Two training courses were on offer: teaching English to someone who was illiterate in his or her own language; and teaching reading and writing to someone who already spoke and understood English. I was most interested in the second group. However, training sessions for trainers of that group were less frequent and the next one scheduled was months away. So, I decided to take the plunge with the first group before I found excuses to do nothing.

Training the Trainers

The training involved three half-day sessions on consecutive Saturdays, and about 40 people took part. There were five instructors. Until we were trained, we wouldn't be assigned a student, so we had no idea what language they spoke or if they were illiterate in their native language (that is, whether they could read, write, and do basic arithmetic). The challenge then was the following: Imagine teaching an adult to read and write English when their native language is written right-to-left, does not use the Latin alphabet used by English, they have no English at all, and you have no language in common. In order to make it realistic (not to mention to put the Fear of God in all of us would-be tutors) part of our training was conducted in Urdu, a language spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

We spent quite some time learning the names of six objects, which included tomato, eggplant, and padlock. We also learned the words for the concepts of here, there, and over there. As we could not fall back on English to ask questions and nor could the instructor use that language, it really was like a game of charades. And progress was slow. Come the second week, most of us couldn't remember many of the words we'd learned the previous week, yet if we were to tutor, we'd expect our students to learn lots of new words each week. It was a humbling experience to say the least.

Getting a Student

I was assigned a man about 30 years old; let's call him Juan. Juan had a wife and baby and worked long hours at two jobs to make payments on a house mortgage. He came from a formerly war-torn Central American country, he was orphaned at a young age, he had no more than two years of formal schooling, and he was functionally illiterate in his native language, Spanish.

As I had some basic Spanish, we would at least have some common ground; however, I fell into the trap of using that too much, as is common with tutors. During training, numerous tutors had expressed concern that they didn't speak any language other than English. They were told, repeatedly, that not only was this not an obstacle, it could even be an asset. The sooner the student could get "up and running" in English the better, and letting them fall back to a language they already knew really wasn't helping them. [This is also the main argument of opponents to bi-lingual education in some US states.]

Each student accepted for tutoring was evaluated by a professional who determined which of three different programs (and associated books and materials) that student and his/her tutor would use. In my student's case, the plan suggested four weeks of conversation and concept building before embarking on reading and writing. Students and tutors each bought the recommended set of materials with financial assistance being available for those students who could not afford to pay.

Location and Frequency of Tutoring

In my case, a neighboring town had a large Hispanic immigrant community, and the town had a non-profit support organization to help them integrate. This group nominated my student for the program and it provided rooms for class and one-on-one teaching. We used that for some weeks. The public libraries also made available meeting rooms.

It was recommended that we not tutor in our homes, although I never did get a satisfactory explanation why that was the case. In any event, after Juan and I got to know each other, I invited him to my house an afternoon each weekend, and his wife and baby came too and sat in another room during our lessons. Then they joined us when we had afternoon tea. But how to have him find my house? "Easy", you say; "Just give him the address and some directions." Remember, he reads almost no English and he has no background in reading a map in any language. Everything is visual and learned by experience. So we solved the problem by having him meet me at the initial tutoring site and then follow me home noting all the turns we had to make, yet not being able to write anything down either in English or in Spanish! We did this a couple of times, after which he had it mastered. Note that Juan had a cell phone, but he had great difficulty understanding messages I might leave; it was hard enough communicating by phone when we spoke live!

We started out meeting twice a week, mid-week and on the weekend; however, with Juan working two jobs, very quickly it was clear that he was way too tired to concentrate after a very long work day, so we cut back to once a week, on weekends.

Starting to Read

After a few weeks of conversation, it was time to break out the introductory reader.

The sentences were relatively simple and were accompanied by pictures of the subject nouns; for example:

This is a man.
This is a girl.
This is a cup.
This is a dog.

The idea is to introduce a pattern and to substitute different nouns thereby building vocabulary using pretty much the same sentence. However, progress was painfully slow. Each lesson, we had to start back at the beginning, which meant that after some weeks we had made no real progress. And then I had my "Aha!" moment. Juan had no concept of a pattern. In essence, he didn't have any idea of how to learn! In retrospect, this should have been obvious given his major lack of formal education. No one read to him as a kid and he didn't have the luxury of watching Sesame Street on TV every afternoon.

As I was going through this exercise, I noticed a few things. We really couldn't talk about grammar, parts of speech, punctuation, or even capital letters, yet each letter had an upper- and a lowercase version, and when it started a sentence, you had to use the uppercase version. But then why did other words in the middle of a sentence sometimes start with an uppercase letter? It didn't help that Juan didn't ask questions. [As a seminar leader in my professional life, I've always take silence as indicating, "Everything is okay", and I tell that to my students at the start of the course. I also tell them that, "There is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers!"]

I was very frustrated as I'm sure was Juan. We'd been at it for quite some weeks with very little to show for it.

Starting to Write

Fortunately, Juan had a pretty good handle on numbers and counting, although he constantly had trouble differentiating the words (but not the values) thirteen and thirty, fourteen and forty, fifteen and fifty, and so on. So while we started on letters, we also practiced writing numbers.

What do you think would be the easiest number-writing task one could do? From my humble perspective, I figured it would be writing a line full of the digit 1. We used ruled-paper intended for learning writing, and I wrote three digit 1's at the start of a line, and asked Juan to fill in the line with more of the same. The first two he wrote were fine; they were almost identical to mine and they stood straight and tall. However, as he went on, each one leaned further and further to the right until those near the end of the line was practically falling over; I kid you not! Instead of copying the first few each time, he was copying the one he'd written previously, so they got progressively more slant on them. When I pointed this out to Juan, we both laughed.

Unfortunately, it was no laughing matter when things hadn't improved after several weeks. When it came to writing other digits and the letters, there is a recommended way one is supposed to teach, by starting the pencil at a specific point and continuing from there. However, that proved way too difficult for Juan who for the digit 8 preferred to draw one circle on top of the other. And that was just fine with me; at least he could read, write, and understand the result, as would other people. It was right then I realized we'd be having a modified version of the course, adjusted from time to time to cater for the individual student. [I don't know if that was a good decision or not, but both Juan and I needed to see some progress.]

Support Materials I developed

In order to provide reinforcement on the numbers and letters we covered, I used Microsoft Word to make lots of tables, which in the case of numbers, showed both the value and the spelling. I used a colored printer to teach about colors. I also used Word to help with check writing (see below).

[If you'd like to have a copy of the materials I developed, send me email.]

My Student's Main Goal

While being able to read and write in general would be wonderful, Juan had one specific goal, to be able to write checks to pay his monthly bills. That sounds simple enough, right. Wrong! Let's look at the elements on a blank check, at least as used in the US:

  • Date: Does one write July 3, 2011; 3 July 2011; or 7/3/2011? As all are valid for the US and all would be understood, it really was a matter of picking one format and sticking with that. And as Juan was only just learning to write, the all-numeric form was easiest and most reliable. [Note that in some parts of the US postdating checks is illegal!]
  • Payee: This seems simple enough, copy the "pay to" name from the statement. But if you can't read, how do you locate the "pay to" name? And even when you can tell from the familiar Visa credit card logo on the letterhead, for example, that you need to pay Visa, that doesn't help you figure out you need to make the check payable to Chase Bank's "Chase Card Services", for example.
  • Amount in numerical form: This seems simple enough, copy the "pay to" amount from the statement. Again, you have to be able to read the statement to find this among the many numbers in various columns.
  • Amount in text: Let's use a check for $123.45 as an example. In the US, the corresponding text needs to be, "one hundred [and] twenty three [and] 45/100 [dollars]", where […] indicate optional words. In the case of [dollars] that word is usually preprinted on the check. When one knows about fractions, 45/100 makes perfect sense, but fractions were a topic way beyond my student. After trying several times on different occasions to explain this, I decided to say that was just the way it needed to be with the number to the right of the slash—calling it the denominator would be even more confusing—must always be 100. [Note to Microsoft Word users: Word supports fields, dozens of special control sequences that can be used for all sorts of things from adding cross-references, index entries, and, yes, check amounts in text. For example, if you insert a field (you'll need to figure out the right menu to do this depending on your version of Word), a pair of curly braces ({…}) will appear. If you enter "=123.45 \* DOLLARTEXT" in between those braces and right-click on the field to toggle it to text, you get the text version of 123.45 as accepted by banks in the US. For those of you using versions of Word sold in other countries, I'd be most interested to hear from you if this works for European amounts written as 123,45, for example.]
  • Signature: Fortunately, Juan could sign his name using something that was not quite so easy to forge as printed letters.
  • Memo: This is intended for the check writer to make a note of the purpose of the check. For example, over time, one might write a number of checks to a school's Parent-Teacher Association, using the memo field to say that one was for the fee for a field trip while another was for the next month's lunches at the cafeteria. However, in other cases, this field is mandatory. For example, many bills require one to put here the number of the account being paid. But if you can't read, how do you figure out if such information is required?

Student Evaluation

Every few months, the Literacy Council sent me a blank form on which I was to report our activities for that quarter. And each time, I reported that we had made little progress and that my student's main goal remained the same, to be able to write checks to pay his bills.

The Handoff

After about eight months, my business situation changed; I took on a new contract that would occupy me fulltime and then some for an extended period. [Contrary to my longtime work rule of having at least three months off each year, this opportunity was too good to miss.] It would also involve travel out of town once a month. As such, I saw no way I could continue to invest the effort needed. And, frankly, what I had learned most was what not to do, and I figured it was better for Juan to have a different tutor. My frustration level was also extremely high; I too needed a change.

Conclusion

I very quickly reminded myself why I had avoided previously teaching real beginners in just about any topic. I simply didn't have the patience, or indeed sufficient training. In hindsight, I should have waited for the other training course. And now that I've written this essay, that idea is back on my radar.

One amusing byproduct of the whole exercise was getting to hear Juan speaking certain words with a distinctly Australian accent, although he never did master "G'day mate!"

A Walk along the River

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

When I turned 50, I decided to take on a challenge that was neither too easy nor too difficult, yet would give me some significant sense of accomplishment. Based on a documentary I saw on public TV, the first candidate was to hike the Hadrian's Wall Path, along the border of Scotland and England. And while that path isn't so long (84 miles/134 km), the weather that far north is unpredictable, the terrain is quite hilly, and there appears to be little support for getting into towns to stay overnight. [I didn't want to carry sleeping and cooking gear.] While visiting that path's website (http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrianswall/), I followed a link to the website for the Thames Path (http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ThamesPath/), a path I had discovered in 1999 when my son and I walked the five miles from Runnymede to Windsor. That path had also been turned into a National Trail, and as it ran alongside a river—and rivers tend to run downhill—I thought, "How hard can that be?"

An Overview

In May and June of 2005, I hiked the Thames Path (184 miles/294 km) along the Thames River in England, end-to-end in 21 days (15 days walking and 6 days resting). I started at the "official" source in a farmer's field, and ended at the Thames Barrier, downstream of Greenwich. I followed the official guidebook, which broke up the walk into 15 segments with each one covering about 12 miles. Here's my day-by-day itinerary:

  • Walking Day 1: The Source to Cricklade (12.25 miles/19.7 km)
  • Walking Day 2: Cricklade to Lechlade (10.75 miles/17 km)
  • Walking Day 3: Lechlade to Newbridge (16.25 miles/26 km)
  • Walking Day 4: Newbridge to Oxford (14 miles/22.5 km) 
  • Rest Day 1: Tour Oxford and stay with host family 1
  • Rest Day 2: Tour Oxford and stay with host family 1 and 2
  • Rest Day 3: Tour Blenheim Palace in Woodstock and stay with host family 2 
  • Walking Day 5: Oxford to Culham (12 miles/ 19.3 km)
  • Walking Day 6: Culham to Wallingford (13 miles/22.3 km)
  • Walking Day 7: Wallingford to Tilehurst (13.25 miles/21.6 km) 
  • Rest Day 4: Rest day and stay with host family 3 
  • Walking Day 8: Tilehurst to Henley (11.5 miles/18.8 km)
  • Walking Day 9: Henley to Marlow (9.5 miles/15 km) 
  • Rest Day 5: Rest day and stay with host family 4 
  • Walking Day 10: Marlow to Windsor (14.25 miles/23 km)
  • Walking Day 11: Windsor to Chertsey (12.25 miles/19.4 km)
  • Walking Day 12: Chertsey to Kingston (11 miles/17.7 km) 
  • Rest Day 6: Rest day at a hotel in London 
  • Walking Day 13: Kingston to Putney Bridge (13 miles/21.2 km)
  • Walking Day 14: Putney Bridge to Tower Bridge (10 miles/16.9 km)
  • Walking Day 15: Tower Bridge to Thames Barrier (10 miles/16.1 km)

At the end of Walking Day 12, I was on the outskirts of London, at which time, I took a train into the city and checked into a budget hotel for four nights. For each of the final three days of walking, I rode the Underground to where I'd finished the day before and walked from there carrying only a small daypack instead of that and my backpack (which I refer to below as my full pack), which I carries on all other days.

Getting Prepared Physically

I had never hiked with a full pack before and I am not a fan of exercise, so I thought, perhaps, I should have a trial run before I committed to the whole walk. Some years ago, the Washington and Old Dominion train line ran 45 miles from the northern Virginia countryside towards Washington DC. Although that line had been removed, a sealed path had been put in its place for hiking, biking, rollerblading, and horse riding. My plan was to hike it in three consecutive days, each of 15 miles, carrying a daypack.

After a restless night and a rain shower the next morning that delayed our start, my son and I set out on the first leg. Although we completed the planned section, we were too fatigued to enjoy it. It was pretty much "one foot in front of the other!" Although the rain stayed away all day, the Heavens opened when we were a few hundred yards from our pickup point, and we got seriously wet. The next day, we hardly got out of bed. The third day, I hiked 10 more miles on my own. Several weeks later, we hiked five more miles, and months later, we covered another seven and a half. To this day, I still have seven and a half miles to go. But, you know what; you can have too much practice. Sometimes you just have to do it for real!

Getting Prepared Mentally

I can honestly say that I did nothing special in this regard. While I had no doubt the task would be challenging, I had no reason to believe that I couldn't meet it. After all, the whole point was to push myself within reasonable limits.

What to Take?

I bought a new backpack with internal frame and was happy that the salesperson fussed a long while over getting me strapped into it "just right". Here's the gear I carried or wore on any given day:

  • 2 pairs of hiking trousers with zip-off legs and lots of pockets
  • 3 light-weight hiking shirts
  • 3 sets of underwear
  • Lots of hiking socks and wicking socks to wear under them
  • A pair of hiking boots
  • A pair of superlight-weight slippers for indoors
  • A zip-up inner jacket with long sleeves and lots of pockets
  • A GORE-TEX® weather-proof outer jacket with hood and lots of pockets
  • A woolen cap and a baseball cap, each of which I could wear under my jacket hood
  • A pair of thick gloves
  • A basic first-aid kit
  • A light-weight digital video camera, charger, power adaptor, spare battery, and spare tapes
  • A compact digital still camera, charger, spare battery, and spare memory card
  • A microcassette tape recorder and spare tapes
  • A PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) pocket computer and charger
  • Emergency rations of dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, and candy
  • 2 half-liters of energy drink (I never was a plain water drinker)

I'd bought a pair of aluminum walking poles, but after several test runs, I decided not to take them.

The video and camera gear I used throughout the day was contained in a small shoulder bag. The charging equipment and used and spare media were in the backpack. A large fanny pack (bum bag for those of you Down-Under) around my waist held my passport, wallet, pocket computer, and change.

The Official Record

For most of my trips, I keep written diaries, but for this one, I decided on audio and video records instead. I bought a microcassette recorder that fit into an easily accessible outside jacket pocket. Any time I felt euphoric, depressed, crazy, or frustrated, I whipped out the recorder and spoke my mind, unedited. I finished up with five and a half hours of tape. The video was more staged; I rested a bit until my heart stopped thumping, then I thought about what I was going to say, and then I shot the film with narrative. [Have you ever noticed how few people speak while they are shooting video? Hmm, silent home movies; now there's an idea!] After editing, I had five 1-hour DVDs.

The Thames Source

There is considerable disagreement as to where the Thames River really starts. As I was using the official path guidebook, I decided to follow its interpretation. I arrived at the Kemble train station and walked to the river, which at that stage was a few inches deep and about 6 feet wide. I walked a mile upstream to an old Roman well that appeared to be the current source of the water. I then walked another mile along a dry bed to the spot where a small marker declared the site of the "original" spring. For some years, a statue of Old Father Thames used to stand there, but due to the isolation of the place and the danger of vandalism it was moved to a manned lock downriver.

The Weather

Although the first four days were clear, there was often not a lot of cover and a strong wind blew. I had one very wet and miserable day and another mildly so. The weather was mostly cool, but one day it got up to 86 degrees F (30 C), so I unzipped the legs from my pants, took off both jackets, and even put on sunburn cream. [That day, Big Ben's clock in London slowed and then stopped for only the 4th time in its history, apparently due to the "extreme" heat!]

More rain fell during the nights than the days, which was just fine with me. However, that meant that some sections of path were quite muddy.

Incidents and Accidents

After the first (and very) wet day, I developed some serious foot sores and blisters. This was directly due to my ignorance of not taping my toes and feet in advance of starting out. The resulting limping caused some hip problems. A case of painful shin "splints" in my left shin was still with me after 12 days. On the very last day, as I approached the Millennium Dome, I had a nasty fall when I failed to see a lot of small, near-spherical pebbles on a section of concrete path. I went from vertical to horizontal very quickly. As I lay there looking at the sky, I was sure I'd broken my neck or back. As it happened, the only injury was to both hands, which I had instinctively put down behind me as I fell, and which had been driven into the gravel. Fortunately, they were only bruised; the skin was not broken. Some teenagers nearby came to my "rescue" with a hand up and a bottle of water. Fortunately, this was before the days of YouTube; otherwise, they'd have had the whole thing on the internet in minutes.

Having had two major knee surgeries over the years, I was constantly trying to watch where and how I stepped to avoid twisting a knee.

Accommodation and Meals

The first five rest days were spent with four different Servas hosts each of whom I stayed with for two nights. The final rest day and nights were spent at a hotel in London. All other nights were spent in hotels or B&Bs en-route, the existence, and location of most, of which were adequately documented in the guidebook.

At the end of two different days, there were no places to stay near the path. In the first case, I walked some distance off the path to a quite small village. The first and second pubs I found didn't open until the evening. The third was open and the barman was happy to serve me a drink and snack, but that pub did not provide accommodation. However, I met a young woman waiting at a bus stop, and she lived right next door to that pub and her family ran a B&B. No one was home, but the barman kept calling there until someone answered, and I stayed there that night. In the second case, there were some hotels nearby, but they were outrageously expensive, and I finished up walking two miles off the path before finding a cheaper place.

Breakfast was included with each place I stayed, and when it was a typical "English" breakfast (as in two eggs, two sausages, two strips of bacon, four slices of toast, baked beans, etc.), I wrapped half in foil [the best thing to carry with you anywhere!] and ate it for lunch or supper. A few times, I stopped in pubs for a hot lunch, and pub fare usually sufficed for the evening meal as well.

Unexpected Difficulties

You would think that walking next to a river that runs downhill would be quite easy. However, in places, steep hills run right down to the water's edge and there is no place for a path near the river. As such, the path goes up, around, and about. In other places, sections of the path were undergoing maintenance, so there were detours. And in some places, private landowners refused to give right-of-way across their riverfront property. As a result, I walked more than a few miles uphill.

There are many, and such a wide variety of, gates to pass through and stiles to climb over. In a few places, some so-called kissing gates were too narrow for me to get though with a backpack on. In those cases, I had to take it off, drop it over the fence, go through the gate, and then put the pack back on. [I swear that the pack got heavier each time I lifted it!] In one instance, I wasn't able to put the pack over a high fence, and I had to backtrack and find a way around that section of the path.

Is there a Follow-Up Act?

Before I'd even started the Thames Path hike, I was already thinking about future walks. However, I quickly forgot all about those on my first really wet and sore-feet day. Then, not too long after completing the walk, I started to think about other possibilities. Hadrian's Wall has come back into consideration, as have some of the cliff top walks in Devon/Cornwall, England. And when in Normandy, France, a few years ago, I discovered the customs inspector paths along the coast. Every now and then, I think about the Appalachian Trial here in the US, but after a few milliseconds, I come to my senses about walking that (although I have walked short sections of it). The Heysen Trail in my native South Australia has also gotten onto my radar. Although it's 750 miles/1,200 kms long, my interest is in the southern-most 156 miles/250 kms that end at the sea.

Goals and Lessons

There are a lot of interesting and/or historic places along the Thames, and my initial plan was to stop off and visit and video them all. It was a noble goal indeed and it worked fine up to Oxford and its surrounds. However, once I get wet feet and I started limping, I became totally focused on completing the walk. So much so, for example, that I distinctly remember coming to the town of Windsor and its dominating castle and saying to myself, "Yep, that's Windsor Castle!", but walking right on through the town without stopping to go look at it any closer.

Of course, the main goal was the personal endurance as well as doing it solo. [My friend Astrid did accompany me for the first two days.] I had built-in flexibility in that I didn't have a fixed schedule. And not once during the walk did I think about quitting.

Regarding lessons, I guess the main one was to have better foot preparation.

Conclusion

I must say that the completion of the walk was quite anticlimactic, really! When I got to the Thames Barrier, the town band was not there to meet me, the mayor was not there to give me a key to the city, no-one gave me a certificate of completion, and the local shop didn't even have a T-shirt saying, "I Survived the Thames Path". I even found it hard to figure out how to get back to London.

In hindsight, would I do anything differently, such as perhaps preparing more? Nothing comes to mind. It really was one of those cases of having a basic defensible plan and then, "Just go do it".

Numerous people have asked me, "Whatever possessed you to do this walk?" In fact, I've asked myself that same question. Of course, the answer is, "Because it's there!" or perhaps, "Why not?" In any event, as Nietzsche said, "Was mich nich umbringt, macht mich stärker." That is, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

Just Me and MiniMe: Traveling with Technology

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Back in the good old days, business people used to travel with a briefcase, which contained some stationary, their business papers, and some sort of paper-based calendar and contact list. [In my case, when teaching seminars, I also hauled along several heavy boxes of overhead transparencies.]

When records were kept manually, one had all one's eggs in the same basket; there simply was no concept of having a backup copy. One day, I was riding a car-rental bus to a west-coast US airport terminal and my briefcase—complete with paper-based calendar and contact list—was standing up front with all the other passengers' hand luggage. At the stop prior to mine, a passenger got off and pulled his bag out of the pile causing mine to tip out the bus into the gutter. Either no one up front noticed or bothered; in any event, the bus drove off. Of course, when it came to my stop, my bag was nowhere to be found. I thought for sure that my all-important diary and contact list were lost forever. However, that same evening soon after I got home on the east coast, I got a phone call from an airline ticket agent. When getting off her employee bus that morning, she'd found my bag, thought that it looked lost, and phoned me using the number on the business card luggage label. She then arranged to put it in cargo on the next available flight at no charge, and her airline wasn't even the one I'd used. I thanked her profusely and once the bag arrived, I mailed her a substantial reward. [Had this happened after 9/11, I expect the bag would have been destroyed!]

In this essay, I'll look at how business (and personal) travel has evolved since then, at least for me. I should mention that I always travel dressed way down in loose hiking clothes and walking shoes, and I wear a large fanny pack (which, because of the offensive connotations that name has in certain cultures, is called a bum bag) tied around my waist.

The Debut of Portable Computers

I say portable because I'm referring to the time before laptops. So what does portable mean? After all, given sufficient manpower, I guess that my full-size refrigerator is portable!

In my case, it was the first commercially successful portable IBM PC-compatible computer, from Compaq. In truth, it was about the size and weight of a portable sewing machine. It had two small-capacity floppy-disk drives (one of which I replaced later with a 20MB hard drive). For several years, I hauled it on flights up and down the east coast on a regular basis. On larger planes, it just fit into the overhead compartment. On the smaller "puddle jumpers" I got to carry it out to the plane where it was checked, and from where I retrieved it on landing. And not only did I carry that, I still had to carry my oversize briefcase.

Laptop Computers

As with most new technologies, I was a late buyer of a laptop, waiting until the initial bugs had been ironed out, and the prices reduced before making the plunge.

Once I found a good program to manage my calendar and contacts list, I stopped using a paper version, which freed up a lot of space in my briefcase. Eventually, I was able to stop taking my briefcase altogether as I had on my laptop electronic versions of most things and could put papers and stationary in the laptop bag.

I am on my third laptop, all from Dell. The first was small and could actually fit on my lap. The second was big and clunky, and, technically, was called a portable desktop. The heat it generated actually came through most tabletops on which I placed it! My current one truly is large and heavy. No matter how many times I upgrade my eyeglass prescription I still don't seem to be able to read screens all that well, so I prefer them to be as large as possible. (My desktop screen is 27".) And with a 17" screen, my current laptop is heavy. In fact, the power adaptor alone weighs more than some really light machines! Often, progress simply is change!

The great news is that laptops are no longer significantly slower than are their desktop counterparts, nor do they have less storage. In fact, when I travel, I take a complete copy of all the data files from my desktop system with me, and can run my business very effectively while on the road.

Netbook Computers

For years, the emphasis was on making portable computers more and more powerful. And then a few companies decided to go in the opposite direction, towards a smaller, slower, and cheaper machine, now known as a netbook computer. In my case, it was from Asus and had a 10" screen, a 75%-of-full-size keyboard, plenty of memory and disk, and a built-in web camera and stereo microphone, all for under US$400. (Prices for capable netbooks start at $200.) I called it MiniMe, named for Austin Powers' miniature clone in his second and third movies.

I love my netbook; I can run my whole business on it (albeit more slowly than on my other computers), I can use it to play music, watch movies, and to phone via the internet. And it weighs next to nothing and fits into a very small carry bag. In fact, it's so small, that whenever I carry it during travel I fear I'm going to accidentally put it down and leave it behind.

As MiniMe's carry bag is just a bit bigger than MiniMe, there is little room for anything else; however, I manage to squeeze in the power adaptor, some cables, and a mouse (as I don't care for touch pads).

I pretty much restrict my use of MiniMe to vacation trips where I can use it for email, phone calls, and light editing. For my big fingers and poor typing skills, the keyboard is too small for lengthy editing tasks. And the screen is small.

Pocket Computers

As I wrote in, "Technology, Unplugged – Part 2", in December 2010, I take my Compaq Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) with me at all times.

While my PDA fits easily into my fanny pack, it does require a charger/cable, and if I want to synchronize it with my laptop or netbook, I need to take a data cable as well.

So, What's in my Laptop Bag?

When my laptop bag is fully loaded, it weighs a lot! Apart from my large laptop, here's what it contains:

  • Power convertor brick and cable
  • At least one international power adaptor plug set that handles sockets in the US, UK, Europe, and Australasia
  • A 3-way US power plug, so I can charge multiple devices at the same time
  • Smaller-than-full-size wireless mouse (being wireless, I can't use it in-flight, however)
  • Mouse pad (light-based mice don't work at all well on glass conference tables)
  • Several Ethernet and USB cables
  • An RJ11 phone cable (a hold-over from the old days; now that broad-band internet access is available pretty much everywhere I go, I no longer need to take international phone adaptors)
  • Spare batteries for the mouse and laser pointer
  • At least three memory sticks of varying capacities
  • A very strong security cable with which to lock the computer to a desk or some other fixture (like many meeting/conference attendees, very often, I leave my laptop unattended in a semi-public place during lunch breaks)
  • A folding headset for internet-based phone use (I had an expensive Bluetooth earpiece, but that died, so I'm back to cheap headsets)
  • Basic office supplies: business cards, ruler, business stationary, pads of paper, pens, pencil, pencil sharpener, laser pointer, US postage stamps
  • Earplugs (for those nights in hotels with noisy/inconsiderate neighbors)
  • Paper maps of the US and the world
  • Some headache tablets
  • Some emergency rations
  • US$20-worth of bills in each of four or five foreign currencies
  • A printed copy of my flight itinerary, hotel, and car rental details, and some reading material (all in an easily accessible side pocket)

Camera Gear

There is no room in my laptop or netbook bags for any camera gear. Occasionally, I travel with a small still digital camera, and that goes in my fanny pack. If I take my digital video camera, I also take my still camera, and they have their own small shoulder bag, which can also accommodate a paperback novel and some emergency rations, some business cards, and pencil and paper.

Music

For the occasional musical interlude, I have ripped a number of favorite CDs to disk on my laptop and netbook. [Recently, I won an iPod shuffle music player; however, I have yet to configure it.]

Telephone

I use Skype with Skype-Out via an internet connection. If I owned a mobile phone, it would need its own charger and data cable to sync with the laptop or netbook, but hopefully, it would replace my PDA.

Conclusion

In the early days of my teaching seminars and lugging my old Compaq around, I also hauled a projection system. Now that had to be checked in my luggage, packed properly so none of the glass parts would break. These days, all my clients have standard projection systems in their conference and training rooms.

As you might expect from my "lost briefcase" story earlier on, now that all my records are electronic, I am very conscientious about backup. As I've often said, "If it's worth doing, it's worth preserving!" So, apart from a copy of new/changed files on my laptop or netbook's hard disk, I put copies on at least two USB memory sticks and another stick that goes in my PDA and/or digital still camera. One backup stick goes in my fanny pack, and another goes in my checked luggage. Call it a case of "suspenders and belt", but it works for me.

On a few occasions, I've traveled without a computer or camera bag, and boy does it feel strange. I keep getting the horrible feeling that I've left something behind. However, it does make security checking much easier.

If the next time you go through an airport, you see a very tall guy with one arm longer than the other, it may well be me. Say G'day!