Virtuous cycle

Bartlomiej Owczarek weblog

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Automating MS Office for Mac: editing and pasting

I’m getting used to doing serious work on MS Office for Mac, and while it’s still not close to Windows experience, I believe the work is reasonably productive.

But there were few things which I was really missing:

  • F2 shortcut to edit cell / text field in Excel and Powerpoint
  • Keyboard shortcut to paste as unformatted text in Excel and Powerpoint

Solutions that I used don’t seem very elegant (basically making Applescript emulate clicks and key strokes), but at least it works for me and makes me more productive, so I share it below. (read more…)

3D map visualizations of data from presidential inauguration

Some impressive map overlays (phone calls data during Obama inauguration):

I find visualizing data to be such a cool topic – which can easily be seen from the number of posts related to statistics on Ogito blog, like this one.

But there is often a gap between aesthetics and usefulness of advanced visuals.

To be useful we typically require easy access to lots of context, to be able to draw any conclusions from the data, for example:

  • ability to drill down – investigate what contributes to the variable value
  • ability to compare variable level through time
  • ability to compare variable level in case of different objects (e.g. competitors, regions, etc.)

(Ogito statistics for cities — registration required to see the charts — use simple Google Charts and tables with links to underlying sets of objects, and this is already enough to get the basic understanding outlined above)

Sometimes complex visualizations add difficulty to perform these basic operations rather than reduce it.

Must be a better way to do business process documentation

The last project was all about process documentation. To be honest, these are not exactly my favorite kinds of projects, mostly because they can be easily associated with long hours of unthankful, tedious work.

Why tedious? Well, one reason is that process documentation tends to have large volume, while efforts required to produce it are mostly not automated.

I was wondering if there is any simple way to streamline this kind of jobs, aside from hiring more analysts or investing in a some BPM software package, which would probably be an overkill for most of the projects I did.

Making any amendments to the processes is especially pita, due to all the custom diagrams interlinked with detailed textual content.

(that is if you use diagrams + text – sometimes just slides are used, especially for high-level documents – I think text is much more flexible if you need to accommodate more information)

While in fact, amending the design based on remarks from business users is the core of process-related projects.

Process-related projects shouldn’t be such a chore – if you take away all the time wasted with Microsoft Office, these projects allow to get the best idea of how the business really works.

Looking back, projects involving deep understanding of processes provide most powerful references today.

The kind of customized process work that is done during relatively short strategy project shouldn’t be mistaken with implementing whole “process-driven” approaches in the company, for which elaborate business process management IT solutions exist.

The idea is to store process designs in central repository, where they can be easily versioned, accessed by large groups of employees (which can be assigned different access rights), monitored, and modified.

Truth is – maybe it’s because it’s Eastern Europe and we are backwards – I never saw any of these system in real world use at any of the clients. Perhaps they are more popular in production company than the financial sector. I remember one Russian client mentioning before the project started that they had one, and that deliverables (processes to a large extent) would eventually have to be integrated in it somehow, but it was the only time the topic emerged.

I think there are plenty of good reasons for such solutions to have difficulties in real life adoption.

Enabling new users (like external consultants) to access the system requires at least creating new logins, in worst case it might require to buy additional licenses. Hardly easier that just emailing process documents.

People are used to work with Word or Powerpoint documents, but might need time to master unfamiliar interface of the process application.

Even though usually it should be possible to export process information in format like PDF, it might not be possible to export in format that is editable, so ad-hoc participants can contribute remarks.

The reason are many and truly converting organization to be managed around a consistent BPM system must be a daunting task. And partial implementations often leave orphaned systems that are not used.

For now, I was rather thinking if there was any way to improve the way stand-alone process documentation is created, rather than an end-to-end system.
(read more…)

50% of ants are slackers?

Just read an article saying that after closer analysis, it turns out that half of supposedly labor-loving ant population may actually not do a thing:

Dr. Dornhaus found that fast ants took one to five minutes to perform a task – collecting a piece of food, fetching a sand-grain stone to build a wall, transporting a brood item – while slow ants took more than an hour, and sometimes two. And she discovered that about 50 percent of the other ants do not do any work at all. In fact, small colonies may sometimes rely on a single hyperactive overachiever.

Quite shocking and may undermine some “hard working like an ant” proverbs.


Ants just pretended to work and relied on their reputation for so long.

Or maybe: ants who appear not to do any work in fact realize some very important but unrecognizable to us function. Like social media experts.

Sometimes only writing a post forces me to identify why something I read seems significant.

Backup your Gmail before it’s too late

At last I got concerned about possibility of losing access to my primary Gmail account – and with it to all my mail – sufficient enough that I decided to make an effort and learn how to make an offline copy of my mailbox.

First I found this tutorial on how to setup a daily backup routine from the command line.

The solution is fancy enough, but I thought, why not simply use Apple’s Mail app to get all the mail on the desktop?

Here we go.

I was following instructions from here and here.

Synchronization seems to work all right, so aside from backup, now I can use Mail app to work on email offline.

Skills no guarantee of success, but important

Lifehacker’s list of skills important to succeed:

  1. Public speaking
  2. Writing
  3. Self-management
  4. Networking
  5. Critical thinking
  6. Decision-making
  7. Math
  8. Research
  9. Relaxation
  10. Basic accounting

I don’t really agree that skills are most critical factors for success (vision is), but surely many of these are important.

The ones I personally plan to work on in nearest future are relaxation and self-management.

From September I will have no choice but to master “basic accounting”, too.

Manage scary issues on the (consulting) project

I just followed Google Reader’s recommendation to Lost Garden. It’s a blog about game development. Some time ago I was interested in the topic, but I consider it frozen for a while, so I didn’t expect to find anything of immediate interest on this blog.

But this article proved I was wrong:

In every project, there are issues that that frighten the bejesus out of the team. They are so frightening that no one wants to talk about them publicly. The schedule might be impossible. There might be the lurking suspicion that Management does not believe in the project. More commonly, there is a major technical flaw that no one is handling.

The article relates to game development, but the issue is relevant for any other project. The urge to keep sensitive issues under the carpet is familiar enough.

Here are some steps I recall from the latest consulting project that helped in management of the “scary” stuff:

  • Carefully store and process remarks sent by the client (there is good chance that sensitive issues are among them): store all remarks in one document, color-code them to distinguish difficult ones, dedicate a meeting with a client for walking through the remarks to ensure that they are understood properly and agree the solution
  • When sensitive issue is identified, create dedicated approach to solve/mitigate it: brainstorm possible solutions, create issue tree to structure the thinking, identify constraints related to the issue (e.g. define most pessimistic scenario and start from there)
  • Dedicate resources to follow the agreed approach to resolve/mitigate the issue

Some issues may really seem scary, but it turned out that solving them (or at least addressing them and mitigating related risk as far as it was possible) raised client’s confidence in the overall direction and justified all the effort that went into sorting them out.

Ideal of personality

I came upon this, in an article by Andrew Sullivan:

The playwright Richard Foreman, cited by Carr, eulogised a culture he once felt at home in thus: “I come from a tradition of western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and ‘cathedral-like’ structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.

“[Now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self – evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available’.”

The article adds to the discussion about how the web is changing the way we think. With ever shorter attention spans, are we losing the ability to think deeply?

Distraction free writing

Article by Michal Szota (devoted to complaints about Apple’s Leopard) mentioned WriteRoom, word processor for Macs.

The main feature of this program is its ability to open full screen and hide all the elements except for the text itself.

I love the idea. I wanted something like this for some time already.

I think idea of removing distractions will be a big topic for the future.

Even now I would appreciate to have a magic key which would make all the clutter disappear and leave visible only the thing I am working on. Preferably, it would block alt-tab combination and require a password for coming out of the isolation.

First time with lobster

Yesterday for the first time (shame to admit) I had a lobster experience. Turns out overrated – lobster is not as difficult as it is usually pictured. I would say some fish are much worst. Perhaps it was prepared in the way that made eating it easier. Lobster, in any case, tastes more or less like a big shrimp.

I don’t write much lately, even though there are some interesting topics – the reason – I don’t feel like writing. As usual, I never manage to force myself into undesirable activity. Why not wait, anyway. The productivity advantage, while being motivated to work on something, is huge.

Google docs make a nice first impression

I only took a brief look at the word processor. The spreadsheets I left aside for now.

I won?t go into the topic whether the online office will replace desktop suites and when, and how do you manage to work on the airplane, and all the others. But from the brief tour that I took, and the first document I created, and the one invitation that I sent to collaborate it, the toy has Google?s charm to it.

The interface meets expectations of elegant simplicity, the ones that you usually have in case of Google.

It was fun to poke around and observe how they manage to pack the features into the browser environment. Table editing, for example. Inserting an image. And inviting collaborators, which feels like sending an email from gmail, through the similar auto-suggest box.

Google docs

I?m sure you hit the limits eventually, if you try to go too far with the tool. I would be surprised if it was already fit for complex reports or other heavy duty work.

But I look forward to having a practical opportunity to give it a real world test.

Stephen King: On writing

I don’t remember reading any of King’s novels – maybe once I tried one and didn’t finish, not sure – but I enjoy his “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”.

For the record, it’s the third book on writing for me. After the academic and the poet, now I could read this to-the-point piece by the renowned story teller. The book covers both the topic of writing and author’s biography, and both are fun to read.

But I will not be able to finish it before leaving.

Yet one more Chinese essential

In a shape of Wenlin software, with over 10,000 characters and ca. 200,000 words and phrases. Features I find most exciting, from what is visible in the demo, include finding all related characters, displaying order of strokes for the character, and even presenting the evolution that character went through.

But it’s quite pricey! 249$. And again no sales representative in Poland. I will wait and see after return from China.

First found at Joan Biesnecker’s. I was also surprised to find that Supermemo has apparently such a broad international following.

Previous posts: Supermemo for Chinese

Supermemo for Chinese

I need to use Supermemo for all the Chinese stuff, pinyin, radicals and characters, otherwise it would kill me soon. I had Supermemo 8 and it did fine for the last 10 years or so, but Chinese was too much for it. SM8 can handle just plain text Ascii components. Even Russian was a problem already for all its cyrillic fonts, leave aside Chinese writing.

I thought the newer version will do and I visited Empik and asked them to find me a Supermemo-powered language course. What kind of course? Any course will do. I knew they sell such courses and you can just throw away the course and keep Supermemo, and it will work as a standard stand-alone version. It took them 15 minutes to find it, German mini-conversations, on the bottom shelf. Supermemo seemed like some secret code, hidden away from the public.

German conversations went to the trashcan immediately and I ended up with “Multimedia Supermemo”. Even though name sounded nice, soon I found out that in fact it was not the best version. Not even much better than my previous one, and buggy too. You can compare different versions of Supermemo for yourself here.

In the end, I could type Chinese characters in the RTF component all right, but it seemed that only one such component got stored, no matter how many items I created. Multimedia Supermemo was a waste of money as a result, but not much of it, 20 PLN.

However, at least I knew then that Supermemo 2004 was the best of all Supermemos around and after short hesitation I bought it online here. 39$.

It requires a password to unlock it and register, and I do hope to obtain the password tomorrow, but in the meantime the application will work for some time even without it. It installed quickly, and I launched it. (read more…)

Writing well

One of the advantages of having a blog in English and suffering from an urge to be always correct is that, sooner or later, you feel compelled to do something positive about your writing skills. Even if you, like me, spend days and nights producing doubtlessly English content, when you start to write an article you find that a very different language competence is required.

As it is apparent to everyone reading this, I have not made so much progress as far as this competence is concerned, but at least I found some resources, namely two of them, which I can recommend. Both are quite dated. Fortunately time doesn?t matter much in this faculty.

Elements of Style, ?the little book? was originally written and published privately by William Strunk in 1918. Its age takes away little from its usefulness but allows to read the first edition free of charge, e.g. here. As Wikipedia notes, the value is not only in the rules it contains, but in the examples it provides to support them.

Donald Hall?s Writing Well is the second and the last position that the library of the Warsaw School of Economics is able to offer on the topic of style. I only started reading; this book is not so ?little?. Halls? description of a cliché helped me realized that most of what I read daily is composed exclusively of it:

?Little cinder blocks of crushed and reprocessed experience (…) familiar and seem to mean something, yet are meaningless (?) prevent true contact?

In contrast to Strunk, Hall takes a broader perspective to the act of writing. Of particular interest is the understanding of how good writing is distinguished by giving the reader impression that the author is truthful in what he communicates, as opposed to feeling of indecisiveness and dishonesty in bad writing. Technicalities aside, this point struck me as a key and in the same time probably the main difficulty in writing the way that people will find enjoyable to read.

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