Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Symbols and Marks

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

We live in a world of symbols. Everywhere we go, we're surrounding by signs containing pictures. Now, many of us know that the symbol © means copyright, and that a faucet (tap, that is) marked red dispenses hot water while one marked blue gives cold water. Road signs indicate we should turn left or that a railroad crossing is ahead. Green traffic lights tell us to "go"; red lights tell us to maybe perhaps think about slowing down sometime soon; and yellow lights indicate "please ignore me; I'm just a holdover from the old days when drivers were responsible!"

According to Wiktionary, a symbol is "A character or glyph representing an idea, concept or object." Now who's to say which symbols represent what ideas, concepts, or objects? Of course, the mapping of symbols to meanings is simply a convention. In some cases, the symbol directly represents the object (as in a T-junction-ahead road sign) while in other cases there appears to be no such connection (think 8-sided Stop sign).

Of course, five different groups of reasonable people could easily come up with five different conventions for the same set of ideas or concepts. One obvious example of this is the diversity of writing systems. As to how one might write the English vowel sounds in other writing systems varies considerably, but no one approach is right; they are all just different conventions. Even the symbols used to represent the digits 0–9 are conventions and vary from one counting system to the next.

Many common signs truly are international. One such set is that containing a picture of a common object painted in black, on a white background, and inside a red circle with a red slash through it, which indicates that the indicated object or action is forbidden. Examples include, No Smoking Here, No Cameras Allowed, and No U-Turns Allowed. Now another common sign indicates No Parking, and although I know it as having an uppercase P in the center, I learned a valuable lesson about normal when I started travelling to Latin America. There, I kept seeing all these "forbidding" signs with an uppercase E. In that part of the world, the Spanish reflexive verb estacionarse means "to park". Hence the E instead of P. Another sign I see all over the world is WC (an abbreviation for water closet), to indicate a toilet.

In this essay, I'll discuss the non-alphanumeric symbol keys common to most typewriter and computer keyboards, I'll look at some symbols not available on a keyboard but needed in word processing, and I'll mention a few fields of learning having extensive sets of symbols. As usual, I'll be working in a USA-English context.

The QWERTY Keyboard

These days, the most common keyboard layout used in the English-speaking world is QWERTY, whose name comes from the first six letters in the top left corner, read left-to-right. [A far less common layout is Dvorak.] Let's look at the symbol keys on my PC's keyboard, going left-to-right and top-to-bottom, all of which have formal names, as shown:

  • Tilde ~ — Not commonly used in general writing, although it can mean approximately. Used by certain programming languages.
  • Grave Accent ` — Not common everyday use. Used by certain programming languages.
  • Exclamation Mark ! — Also known as an exclamation point or bang. A common punctuation character, as in, "I did not have s*x with that woman!" [Prior to the introduction of domain addresses, email addresses contained bangs.] Used by certain programming languages.
  • Commercial At @ — In days of yore, this was used when writing detailed receipts, as in "Three French Hens @ $4.25 each, Four Calling Birds @ $3.75 each, …". Nowadays, it's an integral part of any email address. However, almost every time I try to type it on a non-English keyboard, I have to figure out which three keys to press! [If you are truly desperate for something to do, following the link and read the section "Names in other languages".]
  • Number Sign # — Also known as pound sign (US), hash (British Commonwealth), and octothorpe. For example, "I hugged a stranger on the #5 bus today." Unless you have had too much alcohol to drink, it really doesn't look like the musical sharp sign. On UK keyboards, this key usually has the pounds sterling symbol £; however, that is not why the US calls it a pound sign. Used by certain programming languages.
  • Dollar Sign $ — Used primarily with dollar or peso currencies, and by certain programming languages.
  • Percent Sign % — Indicates a percentage, as in, "2.5% of serial killers have programmed in the language C". Used by certain programming languages.
  • Circumflex Accent ^ — Not common everyday use. Used by certain programming languages.
  • Ampersand & — An abbreviated form of the word and, as in "The Duke & Duchess of Huckleberry are invited to a Royal Beheading at the Tower on Saturday; BYO". Used by certain programming languages.
  • Asterisk * — Sometimes used to add emphasis to a word in email, as in, "You should **not** do that!", used as a replacement for some letters in offensive words, as in, "He's a R*p*bl*c*n", and used as a crude form of a bullet starting an item in a list. Used by certain programming languages to indicate multiplication. [Not to be confused with Asterix, "a French comic book series about ancient Gauls".]
  • Left and Right Parenthesis () — Common punctuation characters, used in pairs to indicate an aside, and in arithmetic to group operations, as in (50 + 33) / (22 – 15). Used heavily by numerous programming languages.
  • Low Line _ — Also known as an underscore. Used to underline words and phrases in the days of typewriters, as in, "The tooth fairy is not real", before bold, italic, and other highlighting facilities were available.
  • Hyphen-Minus - — Its name says it all although when typeset, minus signs are often wider. See this link as well.
  • Plus Sign + — Used to mean the obvious plus or as well as. (See example immediately below.)
  • Equals Sign = — The mathematical symbol for equality, as in, "Obama + 4-more-years = Wonderful". Used heavily by numerous programming languages.
  • Left and Right Square Bracket [] — Punctuation characters, used in pairs to indicate supplementary information. [Reviewer John is still working hard to educate me on the "correct" use of () and [].] Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Left and Right Curly Bracket {} — Sometimes called braces (US) or squiggly brackets (UK). Not common in everyday use, but used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Vertical Line | — Also known as a vertical bar. Not common in everyday use, but used a lot in mathematics and computer science.
  • Reverse Solidus \ — Better known as a backslash. Used in various internet contexts, and by certain programming languages.
  • Colon : — A common punctuation character that introduces a list, as in, "The Model T Ford comes in any color you like: black, black, or black!" Also can introduce an appositive. (Yes, really, I read it in Wikipedia!) Formats times (as in 10:30 am). Used by certain programming languages. Not to be confused with a cucumber, which is a long, green vegetable, parts of which when eaten may well pass through your (other) colon.
  • Semicolon ; — A punctuation character that most writers use incorrectly or not at all. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Quotation Mark " — Also known as a double quote. A common punctuation character used in pairs to show dialog or verbatim quotations, as in, "I have it on good authority that she is not better than she ought to be!" Down Under, we called them inverted commas. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Apostrophe ' — A common punctuation character often used to indicate the possessive case, as in "The President's shortsratings were sagging". When used as one of a pair, also known as a single quote. Allows one quotation inside another. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Less-Than Sign < — Its name says it all. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Greater-Than Sign > — Say no more! Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Comma , — A common punctuation character that most writers (including moi) use in the wrong places. Always keep a box of them handy when writing, and sprinkle them liberally into your text, so the copy editors have something to do. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Full Stop . — Called that throughout much of the British Commonwealth, but in God's own country it's called a period. Used heavily by certain programming languages where it is sometimes called a dot.
  • Question Mark ? — A common punctuation character that ends a question, as in, "Did you know that the Pope was a homosapien?" And who in the world dreamed up the alias eroteme?
  • Solidus / — Say what? It's a slash, damn it! In the absence of a true division symbol (÷), it's sometimes used to mean division. Also used in fractions, in various internet contexts, and by numerous programming languages. A little-known Roman emperor who had the nasty habit of leaning on people. (Yes, I made up that last one!)
    [As astute reviewer John pointed out this may be confusing or misleading, if not incorrect. Here is my response: The Unicode Standard (see below) formally calls this keyboard character Solidus, and that character is used in everyday word processing and in writing computer programs in the manner that I mentioned. However, from a strict typesetting perspective, a slash (/) is different from the Fraction Slash (⁄) and the Division Slash (∕) symbols for which Unicode provides different representations, and which are not on keyboards. By the way, Unicode considers Solidus to be the same as virgule and the shilling mark, even though other conventions may disagree. If you click on the hyperlink at the beginning of this bullet, you'll see far more information about the use of slash-like characters than you probably care to know.]

I've noticed that some Western-European keyboards have a Currency Sign ¤ key. This is used as a generic currency symbol, typically when the actual one is not available. Also, Spanish keyboards have an Inverted Exclamation Mark ¡ (to start an exclamation), and an Inverted Question Mark ¿ (to start a question). What will they think of next?

The World of Wordprocessing

In my December 2011 essay, "Making Good-Looking Documents — Some tips on how to take advantage of a word processing program", I introduced some useful characters that are not ordinarily available on a keyboard. Some of these, and more, are discussed below:


If you use email or instant messaging, the chances are high that you'll have seen and possibly used one or more emoticons (short for emotional icon). You know, those smiley faces, frowns, and other facial expressions. Now, some of these have been immortalized as standard symbols (see more here).

Other Fields having Symbols

The worlds of Mathematics and Logic have a large number of symbols. Another set is proofreaders' marks. Then topographic and cadastral map makers use marks to indicate contours, elevations, latitude and longitude, borders, rivers, roads, railways, bridges, dams, churches, ruins, parks, and so on. Your basic house plan uses symbols to indicate doors, windows, stovetop, sink, stairs, light fixtures, and power outlets, among other things. In my November 2012 essay, "English – Part 2: Pronunciation", I introduced some marks used to indicate pronunciation in English. And the list of fields goes on and on, including religion, the occult, astronomy, alchemy, chemistry, electrical, engineering, music, and hazard and safety.

The Unicode Standard

As personal computers became fixtures in everyday business and personal lives, a consortium was formed to define a set of glyphs that encompassed all the written symbols that are significant in modern business and communication, as well as in academia, including ancient Greek, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The result was Unicode, which initially had a capacity of 65,535 unique values, and included lots of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean glyphs. Since then, that system has been extended to handle more than 1,000,000.

You name it, and that symbol is likely to be in Unicode, although I don't believe written Klingon made it despite attempts to include it. And despite its common use, a raised-middle finger doesn't seem to have made it either. Well to H**l with them if they can't take a joke! ;)

A list of Unicode characters is available here. However, a more manageable approach (complete with visual examples) is available here.


The web site www.symbols.com claims to be "The World's Largest Online Encyclopedia of Western Signs and Ideograms." As of this writing, this site "contains more than 1,600 articles about 2,500 Western signs, arranged into 54 groups according to their graphic characteristics." If you find yourself stuck indoors on a rainy day, take a look at some of these.

The mark is well known. Having been raised in Australia (which is part of the British Commonwealth) I called this a tick, until, that is, I moved to the US, where I now call it a check or check mark. If you follow the link, you will learn that this mark has different meanings in different places including meaning NO!

If you have too much time on your hands, take a look at your word processor to see if it supports a Dingbats font. If so, take a look at the symbols available via that.

By the way, if you really want to end your sentence in style, do so with an interrobang.

I'll leave you with the following sign, which can be found on the mirror of my guest bathroom:

Electronic Mail Etiquette

© 1995, 2011, Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I got my first email account last century, in 1988, which in internet time is a very long time ago. This was in the days before domain names—you know, those things like RexJaeschke.com, WhiteHouse.org, and number10.gov.uk—and email addresses were often quite long and contained multiple ! characters (called bangs). Since then, I have relied heavily on email for both personal and business use. In fact, today, it's my primary means of communication (that is, apart from talking to myself and my imaginary friends). The main reasons for this are that I communicate across (sometimes many) time zones, I often transmit text that is to be reviewed without requiring live discussion, I distribute travel diaries and personal essays, and I enjoy writing and reading good writing.

As I live by email, it is easy to assume that most other people do too, when—believe it or not—there are people who only use it on weekends—or Heaven Forbid!—on a monthly or even less-frequent basis. [To the latter, as politely as possible, "I suggest that you check your email as often as you check your postal mailbox. Otherwise, don't bother giving out your email address."]

In this essay, I share with you a few of my pet peeves and observations about people who use email. I also include an email-related paper I wrote some years ago, but which is still relevant today.

A Good Subject is Worth a Hundred Words

Apparently, many people aren't able to come up with an accurate, succinct phrase to describe the purpose of their message. Let's call this the message subject.

Now and again I receive mail with an empty subject line or for which the sender's mailer has added their language's equivalent of the text "no subject". As one of the first things one sees when creating a new message is the subject line, I have never understood how people can miss this. That said, these mails usually come from dear friends who are not especially computer-literate, so I give them credit for trying. I've also made suggestions to them over time as to how they might reduce the chance of their mail to me ending up in my spam folder and being at risk of being deleted without being read.

Every so often, I get mail from someone I know, but for which the subject suggests one thing, yet the message actually contains nothing whatsoever about that topic. What they have done presumably, is gone to their trash can of deleted messages, found one I sent them back when Adam was a boy [as in Adam and Eve], and "replied" to that, thereby incorporating not only my return address, but also that old subject line, which they don't bother changing. Perhaps they are lazy. More likely, they haven't set up an address book with my address in it, or their address book is so poorly organized that they can't find me. [Hmm, now how did I file Rex's name: Rex Jaeschke; Jaeschke, Rex; MyVeryBestFriend; WhatsHisFace, or The Devil Incarnate?]

Many of us who live by email place messages we've received into folders, which we often sort in subject order. This allows us to see all the messages about that particular subject. Of course, that only works when the message really is about that subject.

There are Good Reasons for Having a CC List

In days of old, when knights were bold, before word processing was invented, people actually wrote letters on typewriters (and some still do, including some well-known authors). In the case of business correspondence, they often noted—using CC—after their signature that a carbon copy of the letter was to be sent to one or more named people. Given the utility of this, it is no wonder that the exact same approach can be used in email. In fact, CC has become a verb.

To be sure, one can overdo the CC thing. Do all 27 people in your department really need to see this poorly written and entirely unnecessary observation that you made at this morning's staff meeting? [In fact, does anyone need to see it—ever?]

Say you are working on a project with another person, and you know that a third person is also interested in that project. You address mail to Person 1, and you CC Person 2. This suggests to both that the main recipient of the message—and most importantly, the one who is expected to reply, if a reply is needed—is Person 1, and that Person 2 likely is interested in the subject, but is somewhat peripheral to the activity. When Person 1 sends a reply, she should note whether anyone was shown on the CC list of the original posting, and if there were and they should receive her reply, she should chose Reply-All instead of simply Reply. Unfortunately, I get way too many replies from people who can't seem to understand that. As such, when they send their reply to me only, I then have to forward it along to the CC list I had expected them to CC. Sacré bleu!

There are Good Reasons for Having a BCC List

Just as letters might contain a CC, they can also contain a blind carbon copy (BCC). So, while any recipient will see the name of the primary receiver and all the CC'd people, none will see if there were any BCC'd recipients. And any recipient who does not see their name as primary or on the CC'd list knows they were BCC'd, but they don't know who else might have been as well. [Like CC, BCC is now a verb.]

Always assume that any message you receive was BCC'd by the sender to your local newspaper editor, your worst enemy, your parish priest, your wife and your mistress!

Even if you don't use BCC directly, you probably forward a copy of mail you've sent earlier, to others at a later time, which is simply a delayed BCC.

People with Lives Don't Need Extra Mail

It's an old joke that "If I didn't have bad luck, I'd have no luck at all!" Sadly, the email equivalent might well be, "If I didn't get spam or unnecessary CCs/BCCs, I'd get no mail at all!" I hope you don't suffer from that situation. As for me, I'd be quite happy to get fewer messages, especially those informing me I've won a lottery without even having bought a ticket, and those promising to enlarge certain of my body parts.

Regarding spam, I must say that my mail program's spam filter does an excellent job of putting true spam into a separate spam folder. Unfortunately, when I'm using mail on my laptop, the spam folder has often scrolled off the (smaller) screen such that I don't see that it has anything in it. As a result, some legitimate and important mail that was inadvertently filed there by my mail program, sits there for hours if not days before I discover it.

If You Want Me to Read It, Make it Readable

One can argue that if it doesn't fit on a displayable screen, it doesn't exist. That is, don't put really important stuff later on because many readers don't get that far or pay less attention as they go. Instead, summarize the purpose of your mail in the opening paragraph, so the reader knows what it's all about and whether or not they should spend their precious time reading further.

Beware reading something that so annoys you that you just have to respond immediately, and without censorship. By all means write a reply, but sleep on it a night or two before you send it. Hurried and/or emotional replies quite often are so poorly organized that they have the opposite effect to that the author desired.

Spelling and Grammar Do Count

Pretty much any mail program these days has some sort of spelling checker, and some might also check grammar. If you have such a facility, please use it. If you are too lazy to use correct spelling and capitalization, then I expect you are also too lazy to manage well the project you are proposing to me in your email. I "see" you as you present yourself!

Resist the Temptation to Share

The Forward button on mail programs should charge your bank account each time you press it. At least that way, a lot less mail would probably get forwarded.

The worst example I have of forwarded mail is that of truly stupid jokes. And the really sad aspect of this is that these are often the only communications I ever get from some people. That is, they never have anything sensible to say or share. Clearly they have no life!

Group Mailings of Personal Stuff

At the end of each year, I write a 4-page review of that year, which I circulate to numerous friends around the world. However, although it is tempting to send it to all of them in one big receiver or CC list, that is way too impersonal. Instead, I take the extra time to send it to each person individually, which also allows me to add something personal as well. I can respond to their news if they have done likewise with their own report.

It is my general policy to delete, possibly without even reading, impersonal "Dear Friend" mailings, even if they do come from friends or acquaintances.

My one exception to this rule is my travel diaries. I do distribute these to all recipients in one big (anonymous) list; that is, each recipient gets exactly the same message. In this case, no personalized message is necessary. However, I address the mail to myself and add all the other names using BCC, not CC, an important distinction. As such, none of the recipients knows about the others and if any of them replies, it comes to me only, not to all recipients like it would if I'd put them on a CC list. That is, in this case, Reply-All acts just like Reply.

Whether you send customized individual messages or you send group mailings, understand a potential problem of assuming these people actually want to receive your message at all. The only way for them to get off your list is for them to ask you to remove them, and that might be embarrassing to either or both of you. In my case, each year, I go through my mailing lists and weed out the ones for people from whom I have had no meaningful communications in the previous year or two.

Identifying Yourself

More than a few email senders have email addresses that do not contain anything resembling their real names. (What are they hiding? Are they insecure?) Most mailers have a way to add your real name as well, and if you do that, when mail from you arrives in my in-box, I can tell straightaway who it's from.


Like doing any other task well, being a good email citizen requires a dose of knowledge, some forethought, and more than a little discipline. In this on-line age, your main—and possibly only—communication with many people might be your writing, so make the effort to create a positive picture. And, for Heaven's sake, please think twice before you press Send or Forward. Now I did ask nicely.


Electronic Mail – The New Form of (Mis)Communication

[In 1995, I took an entry-level university course in English Composition. It had an accelerated schedule taking four weekends instead of 16 weeks. The final project for each student involved researching and writing a paper on a topic of their choice. Mine was on email. Although this paper is dated, it still makes sense in today's context when you include instant messaging and text messaging as well. I've dusted it off and I now present it here.]

The decline in the art of writing began in earnest with the introduction of the telephone. After all, writing a letter takes time and who has that anymore? And as the need for writing has decreased, so too has the emphasis to teach it. It's no wonder then that today the level of business English in the United States is 6th grade!

It is interesting to note that what one technology pushed far into the background, another technology now demands; to communicate effectively by electronic mail (email), one must be able to write well. And given the rapid growth in the use of email, there are large numbers of adults communicating using, at best, 6th-grade English, providing a lot of opportunities for miscommunication. So much so, that a whole syllabary has been invented to help writers and readers of email understand the real tone and meaning of an electronically transmitted message. These symbols are called emoticons, a contraction for emotional icons. Emoticons "are symbols created by arranging characters into a meaningful picture. Often they must be read sideways to be understood. For example, here is the most common type of emoticon, the smiley face or smiley :-), which can be seen best by tilting your head to the left 90 degrees" (Rose 12).

For a detailed description and discussion of emoticons, click here.

Another device used in email is the acronym. While this device certainly can save typing, it has become an integral part of the language of cyberspeak. The following table contains a sampling:






Basis in fact


On the other hand


By the way


Pain in the a*s


Frequently asked question(s)


Point of view


Face to face


Real life


For what it's worth


Rolling on the floor, laughing


For your information


Real soon now


In my humble opinion


Read the f**king manual


In my not-so-humble opinion


S**t out of luck


In my opinion


Thanks in advance


In other words


Tongue in cheek


No basis in fact


What the f**k!


No f**king way


What the heck!


In terms of interaction, writing is a passive activity. It usually involves thought and planning, and we tend to pay more attention to grammar and correctness. We can also produce and review several drafts if we wish. On the other hand, speaking is interactive and, depending on the number of speakers involved, may be one- or many-sided. The agenda is fluid, we are much more susceptible to emotional impact, and we pay far less attention to grammar and correctness. And in cases where we can see the speaker, we often glean a significant part of the message from non-verbal clues such as facial expressions and gestures.

Email is a hybrid form of communication, having aspects of both writing and speaking. At best, email is semi-interactive. Some electronic forums require participants to be "on-line" simultaneously. Their dialogue is interactive, however, they cannot interrupt each other; their interactions are electronically synchronized. Like speaking, emotions can easily have a significant impact when writing, to the point when a considerable amount of the dialogue is accusatory or disrespectful in nature. This is known as flaming. Flaming "is where people impulsively react to a message and send uncensored, emotionally laden and often derogatory messages—a practice that is almost nonexistent in paper writing" (Kelley quoted in Safire 14). Responses are often spontaneous, impulsive, and incautious.

Since the exchange is solely via the written word, emoticons and acronyms are needed to communicate emphasis and tone. For example, writing words in capital letters is the equivalent to shouting them. Hawisher and Moran wrote, "In writing to a screen, writers may at times lose the sense of an audience, become self-absorbed, and lose the constraints and inhibitions that the imagined audience provides. What would be censored in face-to-face confrontation or in a paper-mail letter may not be censored on email" (631).

A considerable amount of email is composed "off-line". In theory, this provides the respondent an opportunity to read a message carefully before replying. However, the ease and speed with which we can originate and respond to email is an important factor. Hawisher and Moran suggest that "While it is possible to reread a message many times the medium itself does not encourage much rereading and reflection before responding.

Further, if the original response is put off, the original email message may be superseded by a new one, In general, originators of email seem to demand a rapid response. "Communicating on-line involves a minor but real personal risk, and a response—any response—is generally interpreted as a success while silence means failure" (Feenberg 23–24).

There is conjecture that the electronic medium makes screen-text more difficult to read than print-text. Printed matter uses typographic aids and is organized side-by-side in pages. On the other hand, most email consists of loosely formatted text in one typeface, written on a continuous scroll. According to Hawisher and Moran, "Our own experience suggests too that readers of email messages have difficulty in sorting out the salient from the less salient elements of a message" (630). How best to organize an email message? Put the important bits at the front? At the very end? Try to pick a title that adequately describes all main points? These important questions have yet to be answered.

Email writing style can vary widely, even depending on the sender's profession. For example, some scientific users dispense with uppercase letters completely; changing case slows down typing. They simply view email as a communications tool and use it in a clinical way, much as they would a calculator. People from other professions often use a more friendly protocol involving polite introductions and elaborate signatures containing cute pictures.

In Shea's "Core Rules of Netiquette", she emphasizes the importance of good writing: "Networks let you reach out to people. And none of them can see you. You won't be judged by the color of your skin, eyes, or hair, your weight, your age, or your clothing. You will, however, be judged by the quality of your writing ... So spelling and grammar count."

Email is but one part of the electronic communication revolution. Another part is multimedia, which involves the use of film, video, animation, and sound. The current craze in this area is the obtaining of information from the World Wide Web (The Web), a set of repositories of information providing everything from a visual tour of the Whitehouse to ordering from a clothing catalog. "Considering the sorry state of literacy, there's real danger in even a partial abandonment of narrative forms and rigorous modes of though associated with logical arguments, where A leads to B.

Multimedia's forte is not reason, but hot emotional impact—the same ingredients that make TV news compelling yet less filling. Will the level of discourse in this country, already fuzzied up by television, sink to that of videogames? Or will the proliferation of information and new techniques to impart it initiate a new Renaissance?" (Levy 25).

Email and its electronic siblings are ushering in a new age of communication, around the block, across the country, and throughout the world. Like all technologies, the impact, both positive and negative, will be up to the individual users. At least they are getting more people to communicate and more often as well. And without communication, there can be little progress, in any civilized sense. :-)

List of Cited Works

Feenberg, Andrew. The Written World. Mindweave: Communications, Computers, and Distance Education. New York: Permagon, 1989.

Hawisher, Gail E. and Charles Moran. "Electronic Mail and The Writing Instructor." College English Oct. 1993:55.

Levy, Steven. "TechnoMania." Newsweek. Feb. 27. 1995.

Rose, Donald. Minding Your CyberManners on the Internet. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 1994.

Safire, William. "Safire on Language." The New York Times Magazine. 19 Jun. 1994.

Shea, Virginia. Netiquette. San Francisco: Albion Books, 1994.

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.]


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.


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


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!

Talk is Cheap. Write it Down

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

How many times have you heard people say something like, "I'd really like to travel more", "I've always dreamed of being a writer, actor, …", or "I'd like to learn to play an instrument, learn a language, paint, …, but I really don't have the time". Maybe you've heard yourself say it, or at least you've thought it.

In this essay, I'll explore what I perceive to be the four stages of turning a dream into reality and why many people don't have what it takes to go beyond the first one or two stages.

Interestingly, this essay is an instance of what it preaches. I've been thinking about this topic for a long while, and I've been talking about it and promoting it for a couple of years. Now, I've decided to follow my own advice and to write it down.

For the past two years, I've been mentoring high school seniors at a non-traditional school. Their ages have ranged from 18 to 22. One recurring event in which I participate is a Careers Day at which I talk about being self-employed. [A future essay will address that topic.] One of the things I ask students to take away from my presentation is the subject of this essay. By following my own suggestions, not only am I producing something that future students can access readily, and read and digest beyond our meeting, I also get to test and refine the process along the way.

Stage 1: Dreaming the Dream

While talk certainly is cheap, daydreaming is free! Daydreaming really has no boundaries except those of your imagination. And if you are lacking in imagination, you are likely to be lacking in stimulation. Of course, there is no way to know what others daydream about, but I suspect that even the most outwardly conservative people can and do have vivid imaginations. The safest thing about daydreaming is that you can't embarrass yourself.

One thing that keeps us dreaming about a particular topic is what I call the Romantic Factor. We see or hear of something that interests us and we fall in love with the idea of doing it ourselves. Note carefully that I said, "… fall in love with the idea", which is not the same as actually doing something. For example, more than a few teachers of writing have said that most people who claim to want to be published are more in love with the idea of being published than they are with actually being published.

Let me provide a tangible example of a high Romantic Factor, speaking a foreign language. Perhaps you've seen some movies, read books, or spoken to people about travel abroad to a country whose language you don't speak. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to go there and bargain in the local markets, order food and drink at an off-the-beaten-track restaurant, shop in a supermarket, and walk the backstreets and chat to the locals about everyday life? [My view is that it definitely is wonderful even though my foreign language skills are basic.]

Here's another case, which involves the perceived glamor of being self-employed. Wouldn't it be great to be your own boss? You could work whatever hours you liked, take long vacations, lease a luxury car for business purposes, travel on business in style, and rub shoulders with the movers and shakers.

Dreaming is fine, but only up to a point. I'm sure than more than a few of us have dreamed about winning the lottery. However, that turns out not to be a good thing on which to base one's financial planning. [I once had a tenant who got so far behind in his rent that I evicted him. He left almost all of his belongings behind (including $125 in loose change scattered around the apartment). As I was cleaning out his kitchen drawers, I found dozens and dozens of lottery tickets, which he'd apparently bought in the hopes of solving his financial problems. Not only did he not win the lottery, he'd spent a lot of money trying.]

Sooner or later, for all but your admitted fantasies [for suggestions, see Austin Powers' list of "10 things to do before I die"] you should try to figure out if the dream can be made real, and if so, how. And if it really isn't going to happen, you can put more effort into other endeavors. If you don't get beyond the dreaming stage, you won't make any progress at all towards your supposed goal. That is not to say that dreaming about seemingly unreachable goals is wasted time. A little fantasy can help relieve the drudgery of everyday life, and it can challenge you to strive for higher goals.

In my own case, for years I had two significant things on my dream list: learning to play a musical instrument, and improving one or more of my foreign languages or learning a new language. After years of dreaming about playing a number of instruments, composing, writing lyrics, and producing, several years ago I admitted to myself that it was never going to happen. As I saw it, the main obstacle was simple: I wanted to be better than just okay at any musical pursuit, but I didn't have the discipline or want to give up the time it would take to practice to get to the level I wanted. It seemed to me that with music I'd have to put in a lot of effort before I could reap much reward whereas with a foreign language, every hour I spent on it could be useful immediately. [I expect to get comments on this especially from musicians who might respond that one can play quite a bit on a guitar, for example, after learning just a few chords. If they argue well enough, maybe I'll be convinced to put some form of music-related activity back on my dream list!]

In summary then, daydreaming is free, it's easy, it's temporary, and it carries little or no risk. It also requires absolutely no commitment, and therein is its limitation.

Stage 2: Talking the Talk

When talking, you generally get to choose your audience, the two main types of which involve friends and strangers. In the first case, there is little risk. In many instances, you are "preaching to the choir"; you and your audience mostly agree on the issue at hand, and your words need not be polished or even thought through. Many of your lines are throwaway. On the other hand, with strangers there can be a lot of risk. First impressions can often be lasting impressions, and unpolished words or half-baked opinions can and will count against you especially if you have to get along with the same people in the future.

Regarding commitment to what you say, consider the case in which your words are being recorded and could be played back by anyone at any time in the future (such as when you are running for public office). In such circumstances, you very likely will take much more care with what you say and how you say it.

If you have an idea about which you want constructive feedback, then choose your audience accordingly. For example, ask questions of others who are in the business of interest or might otherwise be qualified to comment. Speaking only with those who agree with you is unlikely to allow you to develop your idea fully. Also, start out with just one other person, and as your idea gathers support and you gain confidence, increase your audience. Be sure to acknowledge others' contributions and note that conceding points can enhance your credibility. The more flexible you are the easier and quicker you'll be able to move your idea along. Be ready to modify your idea as you get constructive feedback, and don't insist that your exact original idea be retained at all costs.

In summary, talking takes at least a little bit of effort, it can be easy or hard, it's as permanent as the listeners' memory, and it can carry little-to-lots of risk. It requires at least some short-term commitment, but you can do it with a different audience each time. And talking about a topic can help you determine whether you are serious about it.

Oh, by the way, when talking never miss a good opportunity to shut up! [Author makes note to follow this advice!]

Stage 3: Writing it Down

Of those ideas that make it through Stage 2, the vast majority doesn't make it through Stage 3. This stage pretty much weeds out the pretenders because it requires much more discipline than most people have. (Yes, dear reader, you may well fall in that category.)

It is most important to understand that what you write down in this stage is intended initially for an audience of one, you! The idea here is first to write down enough information to allow you to decide whether the idea really is viable and makes sense, and if so, then to write down sufficient detail on how to implement it. (These two activities might be iterative.) If you can't specify in writing what it is you intend to do and how you intend to do it, how can you reasonably expect to be able to implement completely and efficiently anything other than the simplest task?

While Stages 1 and 2 involve transient actions, Stage 3 is all about permanence, and this is your chance to eliminate the Romantic Factor I mentioned earlier. When we dream or talk about an idea we often dwell primarily—if not only—on the positive aspects. People are very good at putting from their minds the downsides of things. The challenge in this stage is to write down all your thoughts, both positive and negative. That way, when you next start to think about the topic in question, you have the cumulative knowledge you've written as a starting point. There is absolutely no point in omitting anything from the written log that might be relevant. If you find yourself doing that, you are being dishonest with yourself and you very likely will be headed for unpleasant surprises if not failure.

Let's revisit the perceived glamor of being self-employed mentioned in Stage 2. You could work whatever hours you liked and take long vacations: Ok, so who will cover for you when you are not on the job? Will you have a business partner? Will you have a key employee who you can trust to make decisions in your absence? If you have a key employee then you have employees, which implies a whole other set of issues with respect to payroll, benefits, and such. Who will sign the paychecks in your absence?

Ok, so you don't have a partner or any employees, then what happens if you get sick for an extended period? Who covers for you on projects that you are contractually committed to deliver by a certain date?

To write-off expenses such as a luxury car or traveling in style, first you have to make enough money to cover those expenses. And as far as rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers, how will you get introduced to that crowd and how will you sustain your membership?

It has been my experience that newly self-employed people who have not done their homework seriously underestimate the cost of doing business. (Such things include the need for and subsequent cost of business licenses and retirement/health taxes, insurance, and benefits). They simply are way too focused on the Romantic Factor and almost certainly haven't completed Stage 3.

Note that it is okay to share your written work with others, and indeed, there are advantages to doing so. Just chose your reviewers wisely and ask for, and be ready to receive, constructive criticism. For big decisions, you definitely should share your written plan with others, and in some cases, you'll have to if you want their support. Better to identify any flaws during a walkthrough than to find them during actual implementation. The good news is that the process of writing it down quite often exposes any weaknesses it contains.

In summary then, if dreaming is raw and talking is half-baked, writing down an idea gives it a chance to get it baked enough that it can actually be achieved. Because of the effort needed to complete this stage, those ideas that make it through have a high probability of success.

It is important to recognize that, together, Stages 2 and 3 might need to be repeated as you get more and/or better information.

Stage 4: Walking the Walk

Assuming that you now have a viable plan for success, there still can remain some serious obstacles. For example, implementation might require spending a non-trivial amount of money. Do you have it? If not, can you get it at a reasonable interest rate? Can you bring yourself to write out that large check? Implementation might require the support of a friend, parent, or partner. Now that you are "down to the wire" are they really on-board with the plan?

While a theoretical plan might look good, are all your assumptions realistic? Although you may be a great technical person for the task at hand, are you willing and able to handle the supporting administration needed to make it successful long term? That becomes especially relevant if you consider hiring employees.

Consider a phased approach if possible; that is, see if there is a way to "test the waters" before committing to the whole project. Note, however, that a danger of this is that you will under-commit to the test implementation such that it doesn't have what it needs to succeed. [In my own case, I went into business for myself, I bought a house, and my first child was born, all in the same couple of months. I certainly had some incentive to succeed.]

It is worth noting the following saying from US President Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent; Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb; Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."


It is possible that by the end of Stage 3, you have convinced yourself not to go down a certain path, and that's okay! It is far better to be going or not going in a particular direction by design rather than by accident. [In the words of "The Quiet Beatle" (George Harrison): "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."]

Now, go forth and turn one or more of your dreams into reality by "writing it down!"

[Thanks much to Shawn for his careful review.]

What is Normal? – Part 2: Writing Systems

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


In the first installment, I introduced the general topic and posed some questions to get you in the "What is Normal" mindset. In this part, I'll deal with writing systems. These days, as most of my travel is international the most obvious deviation from my normal routine is being surrounded by written communication in a foreign language, and sometimes with a writing system quite different from my own. [Should that be "different to my own"? British and American English vary.]

I started writing this article in a hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. [And I proofread it in a hotel in Helsinki, Finland, three months later.] Prior to that time, I had been to Sweden once, for three hours one winter's afternoon in Helsingborg after a short ferry ride from Elsinore, Denmark. I know absolutely no Swedish, and have had very little exposure to Swedish people or culture. [I do have some CDs by ABBA and I'm familiar with the Swedish Chef from The Muppets TV show. So that probably qualifies me to be an armchair expert on Sweden on the talk-show circuit.]

From the moment I stepped off the plane at the airport, I saw Swedish writing all around me. Fortunately, some important signs were in English, but as Swedish is a Germanic language—and I have some basic competency in that—I could also understand or figure out some basics. And the fact that quite a few signs used international symbols for things like toilets, money changing, train station, luggage lockers, and such made it all straight forward (unlike when I arrived in Israel [Hebrew] and Jordan [Arabic] last November).

I've been interested in natural languages for many years, and have made a stab at Spanish, German, and Japanese. And I've picked up some basic vocabulary in a few other languages as well. Then I got into formal computer languages, and that led me to formal grammars. Along the way, I worked on specifications for computing environments to support different linguistic and cultural customs. And some years after I started writing for publication, I even managed to get a decent grasp on my first language, English. So let's just say that I'm an occasionally enthusiastic self-taught amateur linguist.


To be literate one must be able to read, write, and comprehend what one has read or written. And in the general understanding, this is extended to include numeracy, the ability to understand numbers and basic arithmetic. So when you hear that a person is illiterate that typically means they lack these capabilities. However, they may well be able to speak and comprehend, and even have an extended vocabulary. In short, they aren't stupid! [Unfortunately, here in the US, we've had more than a few instances of professional athletes graduating from a 4-year university and still being illiterate. "How can that happen", you may well ask.]

Fluency has to do with one's command of a language. I've seen references to the idea that being fluent in a language means knowing the basic grammar and having a vocabulary of 2,000 root words. Over the years, I've done my share of learning word lists in several languages, and each time after having learned 10 new ones, I've felt pretty good, until I realized that that was just the tip of the iceberg. While I may know the words for bird and flower, for example, I'm quickly reminded that doesn't help me distinguish a crow from a sparrow, or a rose from a tulip. As a wag once said, "Those foreigners have different words for everything!"

When I started high school in 1965, only the students in the "A" stream (of which I was one) could take a foreign language, and we had to choose from Latin, Latin, or Latin. Yes my friends, Latin was the only choice, apparently because some Education Department bureaucrats had decided South Australia was most vulnerable to attack from the Romans! And boys like me who didn't care for Latin had to take Agricultural Science instead, while the girls' alternative was Drawing. Speaking of Latin, you may have heard of the famous quote attributed to Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered); well, the modern-day version is Veni, vidi, Visa (I came, I saw, I shopped).

Here in Fairfax County, Virginia, to graduate high school in the public school system students are required to take one foreign language for three years, or two languages each for two years. Most schools offer Spanish, French, and German. The high school my son attended also offered Japanese, Russian, and Latin. And most American Liberal Arts 4-year colleges require students to take two semesters of a foreign language or to show proof of fluency to get an exemption.

In 1986, an excellent TV series called The Story of English was aired here in the US. It showed the evolution and distribution of the language as the British Empire expanded around the world. One aspect that I found most amusing was that in more than a few interviews subtitles were added so viewers had a chance of actually understanding what was being said. They may have been speaking in their normal form of English, but it certainly wasn't mine.

Let's move on now to how the written word is actually written.

Alphabet Soup

Simply stated, an alphabet is a set of letters each of which is represented by a distinct symbol. [For the purpose of sorting words alphabetically, the set of letters can have one or more orders; that is, collating sequences.] As I'm writing this in English, I'll use that language to start my discussion. English has 26 letters, which come in two flavors, lower- and uppercase. [Follow the lowercase link to see why they have these names. In Australia, I learned them as small and capital letters, respectively.] Not all alphabets have more than one case. And not all letters in one case have a corresponding letter in the other case (the lowercase ß in German being one such example). And to make it a bit more interesting there is an artificial third case, title case (or letter case). This comes into play when typesetting headings and titles in publications.

For most people using an alphabet, they think of it as the alphabet, not as an alphabet. However, numerous alphabets are in use. For example, the Greek alphabet has 24 letters and two cases. The Classical Latin alphabet had 23 letters (that from modern English without J, V, and W, and with U written as V) and two cases. [Nowadays, Latin alphabet is used for any alphabet derived directly from Latin, so the English, Swedish, and Spanish alphabets, for example, are Latin alphabets.] The modern Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters and two cases. [Initially, the EU had two official alphabets, Latin and Greek, and if you look at any Euro paper money, you will see the words "EURO" (Latin) and "ΕΥΡΩ" (Greek) printed on them. However, now that Bulgaria has been admitted, Cyrillic has been added as the third official alphabet.]

In English, each vowel and consonant has a different symbol; however, the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets have letters for consonants only. They use other devices to indicate vowel sounds.

Uppercase letters in English are used sparingly, such as at the start of the first word in a sentence, to start proper names, and to write acronyms. However, in German, every noun is written with a leading uppercase letter.

Some alphabets use what look like multiple letters to make a single letter. For example, Spanish has the letters ch and ll. And yes, they do occur in both cases, and if these letters start the first word of a sentence, only the first in each pair is capitalized. Spanish also has rr, but that is really two r's, not a single letter. In Dutch, ij is sometimes considered a single letter; I've certainly seen it as a separate key on a typewriter keyboard.

In the good old days, once we had mastered printing, we moved on to cursive writing. And we were told of the importance of penmanship. However, for many of us, as we grew older, our cursive needed no encryption to keep its meaning secret. Our handwriting bordered on the illegible. The interesting thing now is that with the proliferation of keyboards and keyboard-like interfaces, all electronic communication uses printed letters. As such, does the teaching of cursive still have a place in modern education?

Western European languages have mostly evolved from the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian) or the Germanic languages. As I have a basic grasp of Spanish and German, and a smattering of words in French, I manage to read quite a few signs as I travel through Europe and its former colonies. And having also studied Japanese for a while, I tend not to get bothered by seemingly strange or arbitrary rules. After all, perhaps English is the strange language!

Now what about all those dots, bars, and squiggles that we see written above or below various letters in European alphabets? Take French (please!). It has the same 26 letters as English. However, it adds diacritical marks to aid in pronunciation. These are the acute (´), grave (`), circumflex (ˆ), dieresis (¨), and the cedilla (¸). The main combinations are: à, â, ç, é, è, ê, ë, î, ï, ô, û, ù, ü, and ÿ. The English word facade comes from the French façade; the cedilla clearly tells the reader to pronounce the letter c as an s, but as English has no such marks, that hint has been lost. You simply have to know that is how it's pronounced.

Spanish also uses the acute accent mark on its vowels, as in á, é, í, ó, and ú. Once again, these are not new letters, but marks to tell you where to put the emphasis when pronouncing them. In the absence of these marks, the stress goes on the penultimate syllable. These marks can also be used to give the same-spelled word different meanings. For example, sábana means bed sheet while sabana means savannah. Spanish also uses the dieresis, but only on ü. On the other hand, the word señor (meaning a formal version of mister) is widely known by speakers of other languages; however, ñ is a letter in its own right, not an n with a diacritic. Once again, when it was taken into English, the tilde atop it was lost. However, when English took on the word canyon from the Spanish cañon the letter y was added to retain the original pronunciation.

And what about them there umlauts in German, as in ä, ö, and ü? There is some dispute about whether they are separate letters or simply diacritical marks. In any event, they certainly indicate the pronunciation. My family name is Jaeschke, which when written in German is Jäschke, with the a-umlaut having the e sound in egg. [When I went to register the internet domain name www.Jaeschke.com, a German with the a-umlaut version of the name already owned it, so I went with www.RexJaeschke.com instead. Currently, domain names and email addresses have to be written using the English alphabet, so the German ä gets written as ae.]

Occasionally, in English-language typesetting you will see the dieresis (¨) used with English words. This mark is placed over the second of a pair of adjacent vowels to indicate that those vowels should be pronounced as separate sounds rather than as a diphthong. The most common word having this is naïve. Another one is the word Noël, which means Christmas.

The Norwegians and Danes have 29 letters in their alphabets, with the 26 English ones followed by Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å. [Two uses of these letters in English publications come to mind: Æsop's Fables and encyclopædia.] However, the Swedes like to be different, so their set of 29 letters ends in Å/å, Ä/ä, and Ö/ö. Finnish looks like Swedish with the W/w missing, but its roots are completely different, so the visual similarity is misleading.

Diacritical marks turn out to be very useful, and I can see why people have difficulty in pronouncing many words in English, which has no equivalent visual pronunciation guide. One letter pattern in English that has numerous sounds is ough. There is ow in bough, uu in through, oo in though, au in thought, u in enough, and o in cough (and probably others).

Regarding pronunciation in English, look at the front of a good dictionary to see the list of pronunciation symbols and their sounds. For example, man is pronounced măn and plane is pronounced plān. (The ˘ is a breve and the ˉ is a macron.) There is a whole phonetic alphabet used to describe how letters in other alphabets are pronounced.

Even the sounds of the same letter in the same language can vary from one country to the next. The classic example in English is the letter z, which in the US is pronounced zee while the rest of the world says zed. Of course, with the American version of Sesame Street being exported around the world, that is changing. [By the way, Big Bird is not always yellow. For example, in The Netherlands, he is blue.] Also, the way in which small children are taught their letter values varies between countries. For example, I first learned the short sounds a, b, c, etc. rather than the long names aye, bee, cee, and so on. That is, "the a and the t make at in bat"; not the "aye and the bee make at in bat", which would obviously be quite unhelpful.

Each time I travel to a country that uses an alphabet that is somewhat new to me, I look at a local computer keyboard. At a glance, everything is the same, but on closer inspection, quite a lot is different. As many European keyboards have more than 26 letters and/or keys for diacritical marks, the layout is different and some keys serve more than two purposes. The key sequence I have the most trouble finding and using is that to generate the @ symbol when sending email. And what's that ¤ key for?

At one time, I studied a world atlas in Greek for several hours trying to see what I could figure out about that language. Having taken math and physics classes for some years, I knew most of the Greek letters, but still it was a challenge. Legend has it that Saint Cyril—for whom the Cyrillic alphabet was named—and his brother developed that alphabet from Greek and took it into Bulgaria from where it spread through the eastern Slavic countries on up to Russia. So if you look at the history of those areas you can see where certain influences were made, by the alphabets used in those areas. One unusual example of this is the Serbo-Croatian language. The eastern practitioners wrote it using the Cyrillic alphabet while the western ones wrote it using a Latin alphabet. As a result, you have two groups of people speaking the same language, but neither can read it in the other's written form.

I freely admit to having had almost no interest in history during my school years. [After all, as someone once said, "History is nothing but one damned thing after another."] However, having traveled to some of the places I learned about (the Tower of London, Runnymede, and the Waterloo Battlefield, for example) I started to relate to more and more of it. And now I actually like the subject, and I see its influence on language evolution and distribution.

One thing about other languages that can be confusing is their use of a letter that you have in your own language, but with the two having completely different sounds. One example is the Russian letter C, which is pronounced like the English S (except on Wednesdays between 10 and 11 am, and in leap years). And to make it interesting, the Russian P is like the English R. If you look in photos or films covering the Cold War, the Soviet missiles and space rockets always have the letters CCCP painted on the side. These stand for "Союз Советских Социалистических Республик", which—as I'm sure you all know—in English means, "Soyuz Sovyetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik". Now "Soyuz" is Russian for "Union", so CCCP in Russian became "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" (USSR) in English. [Speaking of the Cold War, there is a story about how the US spent $1 million to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in space. The Soviets simply took a pencil!]

Putting the Em·PHA·sis on the Correct Syl·LA·ble

In Part 1, I wrote, "… my Japanese friend Misato would say that not only doesn't she have any lowercase letters—poor Misa—she doesn't have any letters at all or even an alphabet!" So what does she have? As well as Kanji (which we'll discuss later) she has two syllabarieshiragana and katakana—which together, are referred to as kana.

Where an alphabet has symbols for letters, a syllabary has symbols for syllables. Typically, a syllabary symbol has a vowel sound proceeded by an optional consonant. Some examples in Japanese are ah, kah, sah, go, zo, do, kyu, shu, and ryu. [Note that Tokyo really has only two syllables, to·kyo, not the three that Westerners insist on using, to·ki·yo.] Hiragana and katakana each have 100+ symbols with almost complete overlap. And just about any word can be written in either. Having two systems seems redundant to me, and students of Japanese must learn them both. Loan words from foreign languages are always written in katakana. Hiragana is used to write particles, a curious language element that does not exist in English.

Speaking of loan words, Japanese words all end in a vowel sound or n. So loan words have to fit this model and the syllabic pattern. For example, hotel becomes ho·te·ru, taxi becomes ta·ku·shi, and cheese become chi·zu. [While bread is also an imported idea, it came via the Portuguese, so it finished up as pan, which not only fits the Japanese model, but also comes from the Latin panis.] Rather than invent new words whose meaning is equivalent to foreign words, Japanese takes them literally with slight tweaks to "make them fit". My favorite is a·i·su·ku·ri·mu, icecream. Although these extra vowels allow the words to fit the spelling model when written in Romaji, they are unvoiced, so when spoken, the words sound very much like their English counterparts.

More than 10 years ago, one of my textbooks was translated to Japanese. As my first and last names were of foreign origin, they had to be written in katakana. However, there is no direct way to do that without adding some extra vowels to fit the required syllabic pattern. Here is the cover of that book:

[The same book was also translated to Russian, in which case, my name was written as Рекс Жешке.]

When one starts learning a language, one is told to learn to read and write as well as to speak and listen. In general, that makes sense, but when I started looking at Japanese, the idea of learning 200 kana seemed way too much work. [And that's without learning any of the thousands of Kanji characters!]

Other languages use a syllabary, but the Japanese ones are the most widely used.

Early versions of telex and telegram services were limited to as few as 32 symbols, which for most westerners was sufficient for a single-case version of their alphabets. So, did the Japanese have access to these services?

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (Or is it?)

It turns out that alphabets and syllabaries are latecomers in the written language stakes. At the beginning of the written word, we had pictograms, which used symbols that resembled the physical object for which they stood. [Even today, the Chinese and Japanese symbol for entrance is a mouth.] Of course, we have since invented many words that have no obvious physical representation, although pain might be symbolized by a picture of a dentist! Ideograms were also developed and they are symbols representing an idea or concept.

The best known of these kinds of writing systems are the hieroglyphics from Ancient Egypt and the characters used in Chinese, and which were adapted by Japanese (Kanji).

When I was dabbling in Japanese, I did try to learn the Kanji for basic numbers, and I had some success. So even though I could tell how much I was paying when buying from street food stalls, I still had no idea what I was buying. And to make it interesting, many vendors used a combination of Arabic and Japanese digits. For example, 100 would be written with a Kanji 1 followed by two Arabic zeros.

Although I've asked numerous native speakers how they know how to pronounce what I affectionately call "chicken scratchings", I am still none the wiser. In fact, I think they simply have to remember each character. As to how they look up words in a dictionary is a complete mystery to me. And to make it a wee bit challenging, ideogram-based languages seem to have no concept of inter-word spacing, little or no punctuation, and no upper- or lowercase.

To survive in present-day Japan, a student must master the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, have a good grasp of the Kanji ideograms (some with multiple meanings or readings), and then be able to at least read and understand a good deal of English. Many advertising billboards and TV commercials use all four writing systems together! And as for how one enters these kinds of characters on a keyboard simply is fascinating.

Writing Direction

If you are old enough to remember typewriters, you'll recall that large arm on the right that you had to push to the left to return the carriage to the left side and down to start a new line. Of course, with computers this has come to be known as—surprise—a carriage return.

Standards for computer programming languages support the concept of one or more characters that cause a display cursor or printer to advance to the first position of the next line. Of course, for Westerners, that means, "go back to the left side and down". That is, their writing systems are written left-to-right, top-to-bottom. I have no idea why those languages are written that way, but I know of no superior property it provides, so it is no surprise that some writing systems (such as Hebrew and Arabic) go right-to-left, top-to-bottom, and others (such as Chinese and Japanese) go top-to-bottom, right-to-left. I am not aware of any that go bottom-to-top, although that could be perfectly normal, right?

Most writers of Western languages are right-handed, which allows them to read easily what they have written as they write. Not so for lefties, like my son. In many cases, this forces left-handers to hold the pen at a very strange angle. [Speaking of lefties, back in the good old days (the Middle Ages) many people believed that those who wrote with their left hand were possessed by the Devil, and so they were considered evil. The word sinister comes from the Latin word of the same name, and means left-handed. Dextrous comes from the Latin dexteritas, from dexter, which means on the right.]

A few years ago, I made my first visit to the new British Library in London where I discovered its treasure room. [Among other things, it contains the first folio of Shakespeare's complete works, some very ornate Korans, and the lyrics of a well-known Beatle's song scribbled on an airline napkin. I highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity.] Off in one corner was a room with computer terminals that provided access to a digitized version of one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Now Leonardo (or "Yo Leo", as his close friends addressed him) was never accused of being normal. In this notebook, he wrote left-handed, from right to left, and back to front. That is, you need to look at a mirror image of the writing to see it in its "normal" perspective.


We've barely scratched the surface of this topic. For example, we haven't talked about sorting order in word lists, punctuation, grammar, or even the spoken word, which is a completely new topic of its own. But, of course, we have to leave something for future installments.

I'll leave you with the following anecdote from my travels in South East Asia in July 1979. I was in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve, had just been released there. The Malaysians loved movies and the ticket price was cheap, so each showing was packed. However, Malaysia has four official languages: Bahasia Malay, Chinese, Indian, and English. Although the soundtrack was in English, that was not the first language of most patrons, so they read one of the three sets of subtitles that covered the bottom half of the screen. At the same time, they were talking loudly amongst themselves making it difficult for those few of us trying to listen. For them that was normal.

Where’s My Damn Gold Watch?

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

On December 12, 2009, I achieved a significant milestone: I completed 40 years in the workforce. That's 280 in dog years! How time flies when you are busy working to pay taxes!

Of course, as I'm still just a young whippersnapper you may well ask how I've clocked up so many years. Well, I was sent out to work in the coalmines of darkest South Australia (SA) at the age of six where I worked 20 hours a day. And when I got home to the hole in the ground in which all 14 of us lived my dad thrashed me to sleep with a broken beer bottle. And that was on a good night! [Thanks to the Monty Python gang for that inspiration.] Of course, I exaggerate; the shifts were only 18 hours and our hole was one of the more comfortable models. At least we didn't have to eat cold gravel every night; that only happened when we were bad.

All right. Ok, I'll start again. Being six months younger than students in my own class and then having completed two elementary school grades in one year, I started high school (Year 8) at the grand age of 11 years and 2 months. As a result, I completed Year 12 one week before my 16th birthday.

So, with all that experience and maturity under my belt what was I to do with my life? Well, I had two things going for me. I was a decent math and science student with good enough grades to get admitted to the South Australian Institute of Technology (SAIT), but only as a part-time/evening student. And I had enough ability to be offered a spot with the Under-17's team at a semiprofessional Australian Rules football club based in Adelaide. [This was in 1970, well before the national professional league (AFL) began, and when Adelaide—a city of around a million people—supported 10 semipro clubs. It still has nine of them, and two pro teams as well.]

The sport would keep me fit and give me something to do with my spare time, and it would even generate a little income, but that would be invested for a rainy day. And the studies would keep me busy two nights a week from February through early December; however, I'd have to have a job of some sort to pay the rent, pay for school tuition and books, and to buy polish for my football boots.

Hoe Hoe, Hoe Hoe, a Hoeing We Will Go!

At the time I finished high school, my father worked for Simarloo, an American fruit conglomerate owned by the Mariani family from Silicon Valley, California (back before electronics arrived there, when it was a valley full of fruit growers). While local growers in Australia were content with their 20–50 acres of citrus, stone fruits, or vines, not so those big-time Yanks. Simarloo put thousands of acres under irrigation. In fact, just before I started work there, they planted 10,000 almond trees.

Now classes at SAIT and training for the new football season—which ran from April to September—didn't start until March so I had 10 weeks to kill before moving to the state capital 150 miles away. As such, I signed up as a general laborer at Simarloo making AU$1/hour (which was comparable to US$1 at that time). There was plenty of overtime available, but it paid the regular rate. I distinctly remember earning $100 one week; yep, I worked 100 hours, which is probably one reason why I like to keep it around 25–30 now.

Each morning, someone drove me to some remote patch of young fruit trees that were 1–2 feet high, and left me there alone with a large water container and a freshly sharpened hand-held hoe. You know them there gardening implements for weeding, with the long wooden handle! At noon, someone drove me back to the main shed for lunch with the other worker bees. And in the afternoon, I'd do it all over again. My job was to walk up and down 250-yard rows removing weeds from anywhere within a foot of the base of each young tree. And as my water was left at the end of a row, I had 500 yards to go to the next drink, and it was high summer with average temperatures reaching at least 95 degrees F (35 C). Fortunately, it was dry heat. To this day, I have to say that I'm not much into gardening!

If I Had a Hammer

In March 1970, I packed my meager possessions and moved to Adelaide, the capital of the Aussie state of SA. My family had arranged for me to live with a widowed old-age pensioner within walking distance of my football club's stadium, but that was all the help I got. I also had the name of my "minder" at the football club and around AU$500 in my bank account.

I started night school with classes in chemistry and lab-related studies and my goal was to get a job in a science lab; however, as a 16-year-old in a strange city I found it hard going. After three weeks of looking at the job situation and spending money, but not earning any, I took a temporary job at D.B. Harrison and Son, a small factory that made wooden boxes for the wholesale fruit and vegetable trade. Each of these boxes had a lid, which was held in place by two small wooden stays nailed one on each end. My job was to nail those on by hand. I soaked the rather small stays in an old bathtub of cold water for some hours so they wouldn't split when nailed onto a box. I worked with two other drones and the son of the cantankerous owner. I earned AU$16 for a 40-hour week and paid $12/week for room, laundry, and meals including a cut lunch on weekdays. After a few weeks, I was given a $4/week raise. I worked there four months.

Extruders Beware!

I took a cut in pay to move to BG Plastics—a firm that specialized in plastics extrusion—making those nice little molded plastic packages in which brush and comb sets were packaged. The highlight came when the state fair was held and we made plastic spacesuit helmets for kids and sold them there. I took a turn working at the booth; however, almost all the buyers wanted them assembled. And as I was the fastest assembler they had, I got to work the fair for two whole weeks. That job lasted six weeks.

Oil be Loving You, Oo Oo Ooh

A fellow student knew I was looking for a lab job and as he was about to quit his he recommended me to his boss. I fronted up to Adelaide Margarine for an interview and got the job. That company was a subsidiary of Vegetable Oils Australia, which operated an oil refinery near Sydney as well as thousands of acres of olive groves around the country.

Although I was hired to run the quality control lab, I was really being trained in factory management. We made cooking margarine, most of which was packed in 50-pound boxes for commercial bakeries. The rest was in half-pound blocks for retail sale. Once every hour I'd do routine testing on the new batch of margarine that had been made. Other duties included testing the milk reconstituted from powder, testing the water, and placing Petri dishes in various parts of the factory to detect the presence of molds. It was routine chemistry with a little microbiology thrown in.

Although I was still only 17, once I proved to be a self-starter I got to help manage the ordering and shipping of the bulk vegetable oil from the city rail yard and I served as an emergency driver for the transportation department. Quite often, I got to drive one of the company cars (even though I didn't have one of my own), and I even managed to drive one up the back of a car that stalled at a traffic light. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) I also became proficient at driving a forklift.

Being a non-union employee, during several union strikes I also got to put on white coveralls and a hair net and cap to actually make the margarine. On one such occasion, I had to "supervise" the company President who had no clue as to how things worked out in factory.

At age 18, I had my first business trip—a week in Sydney to visit the refinery and the main labs. It was heady stuff to catch that Boeing 727 and to have a driver pick me up on arrival and again each day at my hotel to go to work.

For quite a while, I had a separate contract with the company to bottle vegetable oil at nights and on weekends. That was my first entrepreneurial fling and it went well.

Rex Learns about Chemical Aids

After 2½ years, I was ready to move on and I chose pure lab work rather than the applied world. I had also completed my first 3-year program at SAIT so I could command a better deal. I joined the South Australian Department of Chemistry where I caused a ripple with their pay grade system. No one had ever gotten that qualification before age 21. [Back then, full adult pay started at age 21.] So at 19 they agreed to pay me as though I was a year older.

The Department was small with fewer than a 100 people, and it had five divisions: Forensics (doing stuff for autopsies and all the state's blood alcohol testing), Agriculture (looking at mercury in fish and DDT in the state's food supply, among other things), Cereals (playing with cereal grains and cooking in their test bakery), Gas and Explosives (testing public gas supplies and issuing explosive permits), and Food and Drugs, of which I was a part. I was assigned to the Pesticide Residues lab as a Technical Officer Grade 1, complete with white coat, safety glasses, and a pocket protector containing pens and a spatula.

This was the age of 2-4-D, 2-4-5-T, Chloropicrin, and other nasty chemicals that were being sprayed onto all sorts of aspects of the human and animal food chain. And aerial sprays caused wild bird's eggs to have very thin shells. Pesticides collect in fatty tissue and professional hunters would go out, shoot foxes, and send us batches of fox fat to analyze the impact of sprays in rural areas. My principal job was to check the Adelaide metropolitan area supply of eggs, milk, and fresh fruit and vegetables to monitor their pesticide levels. Occasionally, I'd get one-time tasks. The most exciting things that came our way were the stomach contents of a farmer and his dog. Wishing to commit suicide by drinking a concentrated chemical—Hey, sign me up for that plan!—Farmer Brown forced a dose down Rover's throat to make sure it was quick acting. Once he saw that it was he took a solid swig himself. Forensics got the case and handed off the pesticide component to my group.

Once, I was on-loan to the main Food and Drug lab to test 240 bottles of red wine for artificial coloring. I took a 20 ml sample from each bottle, gassed it with CO2 to preserve the contents, and resealed it. After many weeks of negative tests, and checking and rechecking my control process, about three bottles from the end I found one that was over the limit. The Deputy Director of the Department was so excited when I told him that he had to come and repeat the test himself. Months later, after I had given away most of the bottles of wine to staff members an agriculture inspector came by and asked what happened to all that wine. Of course, I had to inform him that it had been "consumed" during the testing.

I had taken on the task of handling lab maintenance requests for the whole department and enjoyed getting out of the lab to work with the maintenance staff. The electricians and plumbers I used supported the state library, state natural history museum, and Government House as well. On one visit to find them at Government House I had the good fortune to meet and chat with the Governor, Sir Mark Oliphant, a noted Australian scientist who worked on the Manhattan project in the US during WWII. [In Australia, the head of government in each state is an elected politician called the Premier. The (largely ceremonial) head of state in each state is the Governor, appointed by the Queen and who represents the Crown.]

While I was taking classes in my second 3-year course at SAIT, I discovered computers and programming. Minicomputers were becoming affordable and labs were starting to install them to automate all kinds of things. And while I loved programming, the Department didn't have any computers. It was time to move in a different direction.

Along the Highways and Byways

The SA Government had an acute shortage of computer programmers so they had SAIT develop and teach a 3month training program to be run in the summer when the campus was otherwise empty. They announced an opportunity for state civil servants to take an aptitude test to see if they would qualify for selection to this program. In my case, I had already taken the test as part of an effort to see about transferring to another department. As for the other 500 applicants, they all had to cram into a very large hall and compete with each other and the clock. I was one of the "25 chosen ones" and in January 1976, we went off for 13 weeks to be full-time students on full pay and benefits to learn COBOL on CDC mainframes. Along the way, we also did a bit of FORTRAN.

Each student was assigned to a state government department and mine was the South Australian Department of Highways. After that, we served six months "on the job training" before moving to the ranks of Computer Systems Officer Grade 1. And for those of us already with a pay grade ahead of that level, we kept it. My team leader was a former high school teacher who delighted in teaching.

After a solid stint in coding standard validation, update, and reporting applications in COBOL, I literally attached myself to an engineering group that got me my own office—only the Grade 4 boss had one of those—and a project processing statistics from highway and bridge concrete crushing compression results. From there, I transferred myself to a Digital Mapping group that had its very own DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. There, I designed and implemented a system to digitize from topographic maps all the state-owned or maintained roads and their adjunct facilities like bridges, rail crossings, and quarries. That got me into real-time data acquisition. I then tied that system to a cadastral system of land use and valuation information allowing planning engineers to figure out where to run new highways through neighborhoods. That project involved a lot of plotting and graphics. Others in my group worked on a system that gathered traffic statistics by punching holes in paper tape when cars ran over those rubber hoses you see stretched across a highway, and they were on the fringes of the first work in SA on computerized traffic system controls.

The state government was a classic British Commonwealth operation; you waited for someone to retire or die to get ahead. And I was a young man in a hurry! Once again, it was time to move on.

Along the way, I dropped out of my science course, one class short of completion. Then I started a 3-year Computing Science degree as a halftime student—without any previously earned credits transferring—with time off with pay from the Department. By the time I left Australia in mid-1979, I'd completed one year of that program. And just like Bill Gates, I never did get to finish university, yet somehow he finished a few billion ahead of me; however, due to a drop in the price of Microsoft stock I've managed to narrow the gap.

Laboring in Chicago

After traipsing around Asia and Europe for seven weeks playing tourist, in August 1979 I entered the US via New York and rode the Eastern Airlines Shuttle to the Nation's capital. A week later, I was living in Chicago and consulting to the US Department of Labor, Region 5, which covered six mid-western states.

My main project was to design and implement a system to track all apprenticeships in that region. Each state office had a computer terminal and dial-up modem to access the minicomputer in Chicago. When I delivered the system, users moved from an antiquated error-prone batch system to an interactive system, the contents for which they controlled directly. And they could query it in real time. It was very successful and I was asked to demonstrate it for other regions.

My second project was to design and implement a system for the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Numerous public and private organizations and companies sent their lab instruments to OSHA for repair or calibration, and my system was used to track instruments from arrival to shipping.

Achtung Gesundheit!

After 13 months in Chicago, I started with Software AG of North America whose headquarters was in Reston, Virginia. The company developed and sold database management software. I was the first non-IBM mainframe person at HQ. Nominally, I was the technical support manager for a new product, the company's first foray into the world of minicomputers. In reality, I did whatever it took, developing installation procedures, writing training manuals, delivering training, and working with developers, sales, and marketing staff.

It was a stormy 2½ years involving quite a bit of travel, the company going public, and a lawsuit around my project. Along with that, I was thrown in at the deep end to manage staff and I had the unenviable task of hiring people for a project I knew was going to be cancelled! [To this day, I have no interest in hiring or managing anyone.]

So what does "AG" stand for? The parent company was German, and Aktiengesellschaft (AG) is a suffix indicating public trading and limited liability in Germany. Whenever I was asked its meaning, I usually said the (nonsense) title above, which means literally Attention and To your health.

Farming out the Cash

For some months in 1983, I worked on a contract with the US Department of Agriculture where I developed spreadsheets to manage federal grant money for agricultural research. I also worked on various database systems. PCs were becoming popular and lots of groups wanted to control their own computing destiny.

Becoming a Mainiac

Late in 1983, a major opportunity came my way when a company had need for a person experienced with DEC PDP-11s, real-time process-control, and FORTRAN. It was a great fit and I soon found myself in the wilds of Maine at Great Northern Paper Company's (GNP's) Millinocket papermaking factory. For each of three weeks a month, on Monday mornings I flew from Washington DC to Boston, Massachusetts, and then to Bangor, Maine. From there I drove more than an hour to the town nearest the north end of the Appalachian Trail. On the following Friday afternoon, I did the reverse process. It took six hours each way, and so began my extraordinary flying experience.

GNP generated a great deal of the power it used at its papermaking facilities at six hydroelectric dams and two steam plants. My project was to maintain, document, and later to enhance the software that ran on a network of minicomputers to monitor the steam plants and control the hydro plants. I got to hang out with a great bunch of engineers, electricians, and power dispatchers and I made some good friends.

By the way, rumor has it that if you spend one or two winters in Maine you are a Mainer. If you spend three or more, you are a Mainiac! I spent a lot more than that.

Doing It My Way

After five years in the US, in mid-1984, my application for permanent residency was approved and I got my green card. Very soon after, I started in business as an independent consultant. I continued to work on the GNP project for another 14 years, first as a subcontractor and then as the prime contractor. And I implemented the software changes for some major engineering additions to the power generation system.

Along the way, I started writing for publication and I spun off collections of articles into some seminars. As I wrote more, I started to plan each series, turning the resulting work into a seminar and then a textbook. And I continued this approach for some 15 years. Early on in that process, I started a quarterly publication and was its editor until it was sold three years later. Some years thereafter, I published and edited another quarterly. By then I had a very nice writing and publishing business on the side.

In December 1984, I attended my first meeting of a computer technology-related standards committee. It was a US committee, but before the end of my 15 years as member, international representative, then chair, it had spun off an international counterpart. That got me onto a regular schedule of national then international meetings, usually with some personal travel as well. And when I retired from that activity, I was hired by a software company as a consultant to help them build their own standards capability. 10 years later, I am still working with them in a number of forums relating to computer programming languages and office technology. Almost all my work is as project editor where I write and/or edit some or lots of a specification, and I help manage the maintenance process. For quite a few years, this meant attending 2- or 3-day international meetings every month, and on one project, 2-hour phone meetings every 1–2 weeks.

After a long break, I'm back to writing and teaching and recently I started a website with a partner to sell a lot of my previously published and unpublished intellectual property. (See www.ProgrammingClassroom.com.)

Throughout my 25+ years of being self-employed, I've had two very important rules: never ever hire anyone, and take as much time off as I can afford. And I am very happy to say that I have never reconsidered either of those and in fact, I have reinforced them many times. For 15 years, until 2006, I worked halftime and now after a few years of working more than full time on several interesting projects I'm back to part time. And I wouldn't have it any other way.


Now my boss is an understanding bloke so recently I had a chat with him about cutting back my hours or even retiring. Of course, he laughed aloud, but said nothing. So for the foreseeable future I guess I'm stuck with a good income, a part-time job, plenty of interesting work, a good amount of travel, a chance to work with some really good people, and no gold watch. Oh well, I guess someone has to do it, right? And as for retirement I guess that will happen when I die; however, I can't help thinking that maybe, just maybe, Hell might be a technical support job at a software company!

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s Off to Blog We Go

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Dear friends and colleagues, welcome to the first posting on my personal blog.

A World of Publishers and Writers

As A.J. Liebling wrote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Of the many millions of people having access to the internet, a significant percentage of them have decided that as they can easily create their own blog they too can be publishers and writers. Unfortunately, having something worth publishing does not appear to be a prerequisite.

I arrived in the US in August 1979. Very soon after, I recognized that for a product, idea, or person to be successful in the US [and maybe in most countries] packaging was paramount with substance being a distant second. If you can't get potential customers to look at your wares—typically via some flashy advertisement, scantily clad woman, or other promotional vehicle—the quality of those wares is unimportant. And, as best as I can tell blogging and social networking provide the masses with tools to promote themselves—and to do so shamelessly.

Without substance, you don't get many repeat customers for your products but with a potential customer base of 300 million one-time customers here in the US [and many more if you can sell to the world] you can still do a lot of business., For example, take the prestigious [and fictitious] legal firm of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe, which has been screwing over its clients since 1902! Of course, with substance as well as attractive packaging you literally can "write your own ticket".

Regarding setting up a blog, it is very easy; once I got the software installed, I had a reasonably decent mockup operational within 30 minutes. But what to do after you have played with all the dazzling features? The blogosphere is littered with "publications" having only a handful of entries, fewer than 5 followers (excluding family members, who are "required" to subscribe and to appear interested), and with very long delays between posts. Once the novelty has worn off, most bloggers simply run out of things to say, assuming that is they had anything to say to begin with.

So, does the world need yet another blog? And if so does it need one from me?

Why I Want to Blog

I enjoy writing [I really do], I like reading good and clever writing—George Bernard Shaw, W.S. Gilbert (of the team Gilbert and Sullivan), and Oscar Wilde come to mind immediately—and I've even been known to take an English grammar book on holiday! [That coupled with the fact that I have a copy of the US Constitution by my bed might make me rather odd but then I never was accused of being normal.]

Instead of writing about work-related topics, I've decided to push myself into other areas. However, that doesn't mean I intend to write about things I'm not familiar with. As many of you know, from about 1990 to 2005, I worked only halftime, and after some four years of working more than fulltime since then, once again I am back in part-time mode. As such, I have a very full life outside of my work and I'll draw topics from that.

With this blog, my goals are to do the following:

  1. About once a month, write and post a substantive essay.
  2. Share my perspectives with friends and colleagues in a manner not possible during phone calls, emails, or short in-person visits.
  3. Stimulate discussion and encourage lively interaction and constructive criticism from my readers. (Yes, dear reader, I mean you specifically.)
  4. Take responsibility for my words and set a reasonable example of writing.
  5. Set a respectful tone and discourage knee-jerk reactions. The world definitely does not need more flaming/ranting on blogs, in emails, or other public forums.
  6. Be informative, educational, and, hopefully, a little entertaining.
  7. Do my bit to improve the quality of the blogosphere. You can't improve the process if you don't participate, right?


I see no reason why any of my postings will need to be published in a hurry. To that end, it is very likely that I will write each one over a period of weeks or months so it can be fully baked before its public debut. I certainly plan to have at least two people—with whom I don't always agree—review each one before it is posted. That way, most—if not all—of my errors, missteps, and faux pas will have been detected and fixed.

A Few Rules

This is a personal project; at this time, I do not plan to announce this blog to the world, just to invited guests like you who might be interested readers and possible respondents. And while I'm open to suggestions for topics, style, and so forth, ultimately it's my blog. If you don't like the rules, you can always invent your own game just as I'm doing with this blog. After all, we can all be writers and publishers now!

  1. Although I encourage you to submit comments, they will be moderated. Specifically, they will only appear on my blog once I have reviewed and accepted them. The reason for this is to eliminate spam and other malicious postings. It is also to guard against knee-jerk and potentially offensive replies. If ever you should disagree so much with someone's writing or speech that you "just have to dash off a rebuttal that very instant", then it is highly likely you will embarrass yourself more than them once everyone reads what you wrote while so overcome with emotion. [Regarding emotion, I am a Vulcan.] In such cases, by all means write the response but sleep on it for at least a night if not two or three. Make sure your brain is in-gear before you press the "send" key.
  2. When you submit a comment, I expect you to be responsible for what you write. Specifically, you must use your real name and email address. I can assure you that the comment, "Rex, thou reeky, flap-mouthed clack-dish!!!", posted by someone calling themselves "Aphrodite" or "JuliusCeasar" will be rejected, whereas the same comment from a reader willing to put their real name behind their words will almost certainly make it through the process.
  3. As you write comments, remember that more than a few of my intended readers have never lived in the US, and that their native language is not English. I say this not to try to confine your or their responses in any way, but to remind you that "normal is relative". Not everyone drives on the right, writes a date "month/day/year", has Christmas in winter, or uses the term college to mean a 4-year university.
  4. In order to help me improve the quality of the blogosphere, if you have an English-language spelling checker please run it over your responses and add grammar checking if you can. It has often been said that, "You are how you dress." or "You are what you eat." I'd add to that, "You are how you write." Try to set a good first impression.
  5. Above all, have some fun and don't be intimidated, especially if English is not your first language. Enthusiasm and a willingness to engage in constructive conversation count for a great deal. And if you learn something in the process that's great.



Several years ago, I came across the following poem by the great American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin. It so impressed me that I memorized it, printed a copy, and taped that to the edge of my computer screen where I can see it every time I write.

"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."

According to some readers of my technical materials, I have been writing "things worth reading", and more than a few of the readers of my travel diaries have reported that I've been doing things "worth the writing." As such, I am encouraged to try to bring the same success to this blog. I look forward to hearing from you. And, as the dwarfs sang in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's Off to Write I Go."


[For some background on Rex's introduction to English and writing, see the link "Rex on English and Writing" off to the right, under "Useful Information".

Thanks much to John, Scott, and Tom for their help in getting this project launched.]