Friday, March 27, 2009

Adobe's Unhelpful Help

I had a lesson yesterday with one of my favorite students. She's a designer and artist and I can talk to her about Adobe geek stuff. We spent about the first half hour of her lesson talking about things like serif and sans serif fonts and which works better in various situations. I know someone is a kindred soul when they are aware of the fact that, as a general rule of thumb, you shouldn't use more than two fonts in a piece of work (and sometimes only one is better).

I had been encouraging her to learn to use Adobe's page layout software, InDesign, rather than do layout in its drawing application, Illustrator. She already bought all of Adobe's publication suite so she might as well get more out of it. The main thing holding her back had been a lack of motivation because most of her projects contained few pages and learning InDesign wasn't worth the effort if she could easily do it in Illustrator, which she knows very well and can work quickly and comfortably in.

Recently a new project came up which required a 16-page layout and it was too daunting to do in Illustrator so she bit the bullet and dug in. This was essentially what I made myself do awhile back, though I did it of my own volition because I'm just that big of a dork. There are two ways to learn InDesign. One is to use Adobe's help system to guide you through the rough spots and slowly learn the program. The other is to buy some sort of classroom in a book and teach yourself. The way I learned is no longer an option because I learned from printed manuals that Adobe sent me back in the days when such things were included as part of the outrageous price you paid for their software.

I try not to finish my student's sentences, but when she said "Adobe's Help is...", I had to blurt out "awful". I've tried it for a variety of programs since getting CS4 and have found it dismal in offering up the information I need. The main problem is that its online help relies on a search spitting out a link to the proper information. Sometimes you land in the middle of the information you need with no lead to how you're supposed to start. Sometimes you end up in the middle of nowhere. On rare occasions, you may get the information you want, but it's all rather scatter shot.

While I don't think Adobe or any company ought to send out some huge manual with every piece of software, I think they should link to a downloadable manual on the first page that loads up on your web browser when you choose the "help" item from the menu. In fact, I think they should make sure that such a link stands out on the page rather than tucking it off to the side with other files (and only showing you the link after you conduct a search).

After poking around a bit, I sent my student off a message about where to find the downloadable manual and how to easily link to training videos (from inside the manual), but I think it's too late. My guess is that she's finished this project and now she has no incentive to learn the software any better and, indeed, is probably too turned off by the hassle of seeking help to even try.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Not Getting On Each Other's Nerves

A few weeks ago, one of my students told me that she had a fight with her husband and went off on an extended bike ride to cool off. I asked her what the argument was about and she described a situation to which I could very much relate. She said she wanted to talk about something she was interested in with her husband after he came home from work, but he was tired and not in the mood. She persisted and he got angry, then she got angry.

Like me, this particular student works freelance from home, though unlike me, she actually makes a full-time living from it. Her husband, like mine, works outside the home and puts in some pretty long hours. One of the things you find occurring when you're home all day and your partner is out working in a box somewhere is that he comes home overstimulated and tired, wanting nothing more than to zone out and be left alone while you want to talk about whatever has been floating around in your head all day. There's a big difference in your energy levels and how much stimulation your nervous system has had or needs.

When I first quit my full-time job (about 3 years ago now) and had no or few private students each day, this was a bigger issue because I was sitting at home most of the day and only talked to my sister or my friends very early in the day (due to time zone differences) and spent the rest of the day in relative isolation. When the CH got home, I was ready to pounce on him with a conversation and he was in desperate need of a decompression session. He spends all day talking to people so this is no small surprise, and spends the half hour before he gets to our door on a crowded train or station being bombarded with noise and buffeted around by other people who don't look where they're going and expect you to move to accommodate them.

In short order, we worked out a system whereby he came home and I left him in peace for about 15-30 minutes until he was ready to talk. Generally, I just wait until he starts talking to me of his own initiative. I imagine that this arrangement would not have been worked out so quickly if we hadn't been married for so long or didn't have experience identifying and working out solutions to such things. It also helps that we're both confident about our feelings for each other and don't take the need for a certain arrangement which excludes the other personally. Of course, the exclusion isn't a physical one. I don't have to leave the room or anything. I just have to leave him to recover from the stress of the day and the commute for a short time before engaging him in conversation.

I wonder at times if this may be a bigger problem for couples in Japan than those back home because having a larger house makes it easier to find a place to "escape" to areas where conversation can be avoided without necessarily making it clear why you're doing so. In fact, I wonder if people may develop patterns to adjust to their need for isolation without even being aware of why they're doing it in a larger home. In our apartment, the only rooms sufficiently isolated from one another that one can't hear a conversation or be spoken to are the bedroom and the bathroom.

Since I now have more students and freelance work compared to when I first quit, this is far less of an issue than before. I spend several hours talking to people so I don't really need to pounce when the CH gets home. However, one thing I take away from this experience (and my student's situation simply reminded me of this) is that there's usually an easy fix for the problems that arise from people living together if both parties communicate and surrender their neuroses and willfulness and just address the issue at hand.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Paper Thin

I once read that the children of alcoholics often grow up to be very sensitive because part of surviving the dysfunctional environment of their homes involves anticipating moods and reacting to them in a manner which diminishes their suffering. If this is so, it would also explain why so many children of alcoholics are also prone to addiction themselves. Increased sensitivity means increased emotional pain and addiction often is a means of emotionally anesthetizing yourself.

My father is an alcoholic and my mother probably has had some sort of undiagnosed depressive disorder for most of her life. Growing up with both of them, I recall moments of difficulty and tension and trying not to get on the wrong side of either of them for fear of bringing on more misery. I'm guessing that part of the reason I worked so hard at school was to keep them happy with me and show that I was "good" and therefore not deserving of the verbal wrath that sometimes came my way.

I've forgiven both of my parents for the damage they did to me as a result of how damaged they are. Neither of them has changed much, though my father has gotten a bit better and my mother worse as the years have gone by. I realize that they are in pain, too, and that they never meant to mess up their kids by their actions. They were just doing what they could to cope, and sometimes that involved random spreading of their misery to available targets without even knowing what or why they were doing it.

Unfortunately, growing up in the way I did coupled with perhaps some genetic predispositions has left me thin-skinned. I tend to be hyper-aware of the environment around me and the actions of people toward me. This is almost certainly a lingering response pattern to how I grew up. I'm still looking to anticipate how the people around me are going to behave so that I can alter my actions such that I will endure the least possible emotional pain.

Fortunately for me, my husband is a calm, placid, emotionally stable person who extremely rarely has any sort of negative response to anything I do or say. I can still read him like a book from his tone of voice or small changes in body language, but what I tend to read are things like 'he's about to ask me if I'd mind making coffee' or 'he's tired or out of sorts' right now, but hasn't even realized it himself yet. Those who wonder why I get effusive about how wonderful my husband is may understand a bit better now. He's emotionally a warm, comforting blanket to someone who grew up being emotionally (though fortunately not physically) beaten up.

The main problem for me with being so thin-skinned and overly attentive to how I'm regarded is that I live in Tokyo and I'm not Japanese. Living in an environment which is over-stimulating at best and around people who are constantly reacting to you because you are different can be very hard. Part of the process I continue to go through in Japan is to build a psychological wall between myself and people who I encounter. Every time I leave the apartment, I have to consciously decide to try hard not to pay attention to them and how they are reacting to me. This wall is necessary not only to protect myself, but to stop me from building up anger toward them for stolen glances, gawking, pointing, and commenting rudely in Japanese about the gaijin while laboring under the incorrect assumption that I don't know what they're saying or doing.

It took me a long time before I even decided to put this wall up. While I knew I was sensitive, my initial response to people who behave in ways that cause me pain was to be angry at them and react with angry looks or by saying or doing something to try and get them to stop. Essentially, I was trying to "fight back", but the truth is that you can't control other people in this way and it's completely energy-draining to even try in a city as big as Tokyo and when you stick out like a sore thumb in a culture which has serious issues with anyone who is obviously different. It was exhausting and ineffective.

One of the things that I realized some time ago was that this need to put up a wall between me and the Japanese around me was fueling my lack of desire to learn to speak or read Japanese better. Not understanding completely actually made my life easier because it shut me off from pain. It's much easier to build a wall when the voices around you are just noise and not actual communication. It also gave me an excuse to put a buffer between myself and any potential cross-cultural issues because someone else always did the communicating for me. When I worked in a Japanese office, my Australian boss, who spoke Japanese quite well (despite his protestations to the contrary at times), was my protection from all sorts of problems. At home, my husband did the talking when it was necessary. I used both of them as protection from possible pain and stress, and it has worked really well from that angle.

For years, I've successfully lived in a bit of a cocoon to keep my paper thin skin protected to some extent from the pain I might suffer from those around me. While it might seem that a person in my shoes might come to regret this insulation, isolation, and willful effort not to fully engage in the environment around her, I don't regret it one bit. It's what I needed to survive, and I don't know what sort of emotional state I'd be in if I hadn't had my various "buffers". The difference between people like me and people who have a thicker skin is that I am living in the equivalent of a cultural downpour with painful hailstones bashing into me and they are experiencing a light sprinkling of rain. They didn't ask for, earn, or build their ability to not experience everything with the volume turned up to 10 anymore than I asked to be the way I am. That's just the way it is, and they can't know what it's like until they have lived a few decades in my shoes.

The good thing about realizing why you live your life the way you do is that it gives you the ability to choose another path of coping. About a year ago, I started to dabble in Japanese study again because I know at least some of the reasons why I tried to shun improvement for so long. There are other reasons, and there are even some pretty good excuses (like I actually rarely need to speak it, oddly enough), but the bottom line is that I was setting the terms for how I dealt with life in Japan so that I could have a filter against pain. I'm changing the type of filter I use, and hoping that I end up all the better for it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Information Aggregators and Intellectual Property

There are many types of blogs out there and I read a fair variety of them. One type is an "information aggregate" which collects news and information from sites of interest to its readers and presents it in smaller bites with a link back to the original posts or articles.

Virtually all of the Gawker Media sites are such places which collect news gathered by others or form content based on user input and then offer up samples or opinions based on that news. Very little of its content tends to be original pieces researched, written or extrapolated from its writers' personal experiences, though at least some of it is. One of the best and most useful sites on the web, Lifehacker, is a part of Gawker's suite of sites. Lifehacker's editors and writers keep an eye on what is new and useful and distill that information for us so we don't have to follow things like when Google changes gmail or find useful articles that help us live a greener, cheaper life.

While I believe that a lot of information aggregate sites perform very useful services to readers and drive traffic to the sites which they cull information from, I have concerns about what they represent and the trends that spawn as a result of their form of presenting content. At their best, such sites provide such a small thumbnail of the content of the sites they poach from that interested readers have no choice but to visit the site the information originated from to get more information. At their worst, they steal so much that there is no need to click through to the parent article and give the people who worked hard to create the original content their readership.

The point at which a site which recruits editors to spend their days gleaning "news" from other sources treads over the line from promoting those sites to stealing their intellectual property can be a tricky one. How much parroting of content can one do before they've reduced the chances that the reader will feel the need to move on to the original source? Additionally, there are issues of profiting from the work of others at play. If the New York Times writes an article and parts of that article are featured on an aggregate site, does that site have the right to profit from what it has gleaned from the New York Times when the Times never agreed to allow any part of their article on that site?

This very issue is currently being dealt with on the Apartment Therapy web site as the New York Times has asked them to remove all posts related to Times articles. Like Gawker, Apartment Therapy is host to a suite of sites and derives most of its content from users and searching for articles and other posts related to their core content (interior design and home life). Unlike Gawker Media's sites, they tend to show more of the original source articles and write less involved editorials or opinion pieces to accompany the information they reproduce.

The comments section about the article linked in the previous paragraph is full of people talking about both sides (including myself). Personally, this entire situation is a kissing cousin of an issue which has aggrieved me for quite some time and that is bloggers who create nothing unique, but ride on the coattails of those who do. In the case of aggregators, they do this for profit. In their defense, many of them are performing a valuable service and are helping out the sites who they showcase. Without a doubt, any site featured on sites like Gawker's are going to see a huge (almost certainly welcome) upsurge in traffic.

In the case of individual bloggers, most of them do it for ego-driven reasons. They want attention and they either have nothing in their lives which they feel is worth writing about, or they are too paranoid about privacy to expose their lives for the sake of receiving the desired attention. They mine other people's sites for content to piggyback off of, more often than not doing so by picking up on an issue someone else has spoken about and pontificating on why they are wrong.

The bottom line is that much of the blogging world is like a parasite to true journalists. However, I must hasten to point out that sometimes the blogging world is represented by people who are actually amateur journalists themselves. For the sake of clarity, I will say that I call anyone a "journalist" who writes uniquely about something rather than using someone else's work in whole or in part or as a springboard for a counterpoint piece. (And, incidentally, I'd be more impressed with people who wrote counterpoint pieces if they spent more time making their own points rather than reading something else and then and only then finding something to say.)

The parasitical nature of a lot of blogging doesn't have to be a harmful one. Sometimes the "parasite" assists the host, as it were. However, by and large, I think that is not the case. Those who create unique content invest a huge amount of time or money (or both) in their work and the fruits of their labor are regarded as an information larder for anyone to raid because of claims of "fair use". The problem is that the liberal sampling of professional journalistic sources by bloggers and aggregators undermines the need of readers to seek out the sites which created that information on a regular basis. In essence, if I know I can rely on a site like Apartment Therapy to point out any lifestyle article in the New York Times which concerns topics like design, home organization or cooking, I have little incentive to visit the Times site regularly and skin through their entire list of articles. This in turn reduces the chances that I'll become a regular reader. Apartment Therapy could be siphoning off readership by being too reliable a source of information on articles of interest.

Additionally, while I think aggregators and even private bloggers sometimes do a great job of finding far flung sites and bringing them to the attention of readers, many of them rely far too much on external sources rather than developing their own content. Aggregators do this because it is far cheaper to hire editors to scour the web than writers to create unique pieces. Bloggers do it because their lives are tedious and its hard to find something interesting in their own experience to write about on a regular basis.

While aggregators claim that they want to help the sites they point to, the real reason they showcase the web sites of others is that the more new posts you put up, the more page views you get and the more ad revenue you generate. Using more unique but high quality content is less profitable than semi-regurgitation of the existing content created by external sources.

The bottom line is that those who use the content of others to fuel their blogs are serving to remove the profit from and incentive to create unique content from the sources they mine. At the end of the line if such a trend continues is a diminishing pool of original writers, journalists, and reporters as it becomes increasingly more difficult to make money from your hard work. While aggregators and content poachers are likely indifferent to the harm they do as long as they gain more profit by their efforts, they are essentially contributing to the demise of the sources from which they derive most of their content.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Not Wanting a Long Life

Recently, I asked a few students an interesting question off of one of the Facebook Memes that's going around. This question was, "would you want to know the day you're going to die." To be fair, this is hardly a question that originated with the banal interactions we have with one another on Facebook. In fact, it's a philosophical question that I recall talking over with my friends during late nights back in college and high school.

Most people say they don't want to know because then they'd have to think about it for the rest of their lives. The main benefit of knowing only comes from knowing you have a relatively short time left because then you can modify your lifestyle to maximize enjoyment of that time. Since no one wants to know they have little time left, most of us would rather forgo that possible benefit for the larger comfort of uncertainty.

This issue has come up in the past with students because of the plethora of fortune tellers around Tokyo. A lot of my students have gone to them from time to time and one of the things they are sometimes told is how long they will live. One of my students said she was told she'd live to be 70-something, but she felt that was too long because life was too hard. Recently another student told me that she didn't want to live past 60 because she didn't want to live with diminished physical capacity.

In a country where people enjoy the longest life spans in the world, I find their responses curious. It's especially odd in some ways because so many people in Japan who I've spoken to about what happens after you die believe that we face oblivion. They clearly are not thinking that there is some comfort in an after life. I also find it interesting that men don't seem to have the same reaction to the question as women. Maybe women in Japan see a long and lonely road ahead as they outlive their husbands, or perhaps their lot in life is such that they don't feel particularly satisfied with the circumstances of their lives. Or, and I think this may hold a more relevant clue, women are so responsible for taking care of their husbands (even in equitable relationships) that they see a future full of the burdens of old age without any of the restful benefits of retirement. One thing I will note is that the students who don't want to live a very long life do not have children. I wonder if having kids changes the way in which people view a longer life because they know someone will be responsible for looking after them.

Unfortunately, the number of people I teach is too small to reach any conclusions, but it is an interesting question to ponder. I can say that it always makes me a little sad when someone tells me they don't want to live that long, though I honestly can't say I want to live to be a gnarled shadow of myself unless my husband makes it there with me.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Million for Clothes

One of my students works for an international fashion designer. If you're into clothes (and I'm not, but I figure some people must be), you would certainly recognize her company's name. Recently, she and I were discussing how to motivate employees as part of a lesson and I asked her what sort of incentives the company gave her to do her best.

My student said that everyone gets a "clothing allowance" of about a million yen ($10,204) which will be reduced if they don't do particularly well for a long time. Note that amounts of money always sound more impressive in their yen figures than when you convert them to dollars. One can easily be a "millionaire" if you measure in yen.

On the surface, this sounds like a really good deal. She gets free designer clothes in an amount of money few of us could spend, but it's not so great when you scratch beneath the surface. The primary problem is that the company keeps employees' salaries lower because of this allowance. She said she'd rather have the million yen than the clothes. Also, these are designer clothes so the money isn't going to buy as much as run of the mill clothing. Finally, and this is the worst part, she has to pay taxes on the allowance. That means that she pays 10% or 100,000 yen ($1,200) out of her reduced salary for this allowance. This benefit ends up costing her and she has nothing to show for it but piles of clothes that she may not especially want.

I know that companies all over the world use these sorts of "bonuses" to make their compensation more attractive, from free meals at McDonald's to employee discounts on big ticket items, but given that she's forking over a lot of money in taxes, this seems more egregious. When a "bonus" ends up costing you 25-30% of one months salary, it seems like no bonus at all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Blogging is Hard, New Computers Are Easier

The title of this post is actually misleading. Blogging is easy. I can write almost as easily as I can breath, but having the energy to blog in three places and divide my time and attention among other new pursuits (*cough*Facebook*cough*) has made it difficult to do what I used to do with my personal blog. That's not an excuse as I don't actually feel obliged to blog, but I do this for myself as well as for others who are interested. This is supposed to be me catching random threads from my life, holding them up and scrutinizing them and then immortalizing them in my blog posts so that I can look back on them when I'm even older and more addled and see who I was. Well, they'll be around provided Blogger doesn't knuckle under the weight of a millions of inane thoughts being stored for posterity in its digital coffers.

The last several days have been particularly busy because Apple finally released a new model Mac Mini (after 14 months, thank you so very much Apple for your attention to the machine that launched thousands of PC switchers). Since my old Mini is a month or so shy of its fourth birthday and my husband has been chomping at the bit to get a new media PC hooked up to our television, we bought one as soon as possible.

For those who don't live in Japan, I'll say that you have few options when it comes to pricing on Apple products. I've heard that this is much the same in the United States. We had the choice of paying 89,800 yen ($912) for the high end model at either the Apple Store or paying the same price at any of a number of electronics shops. Note that the same model costs $799 in the United States so we're forking over $113 more for the privilege of buying it in Japan. That's not quite enough of a difference to have someone buy it in the U.S. and airmail it over, but it's enough to make me feel ripped off.

Since the price was the same everywhere, we bought it at Yodobashi Camera because they give you "points" for purchases. That means we got about $45 worth of store credit for buying it from them whereas we'd get nothing but the smug satisfaction of walking out of an Apple Store with an Apple Store shopping bag if we bought it there. We used the money for the exciting purchase of rechargeable batteries. Still, free batteries (and a little more credit leftover) is better than an Apple Store shopping bag, though there may be some fanatical types out there who may feel otherwise (I'm looking at you, Joseph).

For the first day or so, I had to use my old keyboard and the new and old Minis look exactly the same so it didn't feel very new except for the increased speed and less yellowed-looking white top. I haven't had much of a chance to take advantage of the speed though since I've spent the two days since getting it loaded with software and fighting with getting Windows installed on a dual boot. I gave up on that eventually, but am reconsidering now, though I will say the issue was not related to my lack of ability to do it as I've done it before on my husband's MacBook. When a spiffy flat aluminum keyboard arrived from Amazon, it finally started to seem like a real new computer.

I'll confess to growing pains with Safari and a crash when trying to update the system to use the newest version of Safari. I'm thinking Firefox is looking like an old friend that I'm not quite willing to abandon at this point, but I want to give Safari 4 a shot once I can install the security update that is necessary to install the beta. Right now, it's driving me crazy that opening a link from Google Reader opens in a new window instead of a new tab despite my setting preferences to open links in tabs. Why won't you listen to me Safari? Are you punishing me for ignoring you and using Firefox for all these years?

At any rate, buying the Mini has set us off on a bit of a spending spree. Part of the reason is simply necessity, but perhaps once the purse strings have been loosened, it's easy to keep dipping in for more. It's not really a big deal for us though since we have no debt and aren't going into debt for new purchases, but it does feel like wild abandon when we buy both a new computer and an iPod stereo dock (to be delivered today) in close proximity to one another. I'm sure the strange sense of being a slave to materialism will pass after a year or so of frugality. ;-)

(Note: And to Joseph, who raved about the new Apple keyboards months ago and has been carrying one around the office like a precious child for quite some time, you were right about how good it is. It is a superior keyboard.)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Peeping Taro

When you first arrive in Japan, you're hyper-aware of everything and note all sorts of curious differences. For instance, many people carry around paper shopping bags in addition to their regular complement of handbags, backpacks and briefcases. It looks like they've all been on shopping sprees but the truth is that they just carefully store and re-use the bags to carry random things. One of my students told me she did this for things which were on a one-way ride so she could toss the bag away when it reached its destination.

These little things often make up more of the framework of cultural differences than the big things. Most small differences are not arbitrary and are motivated by some less trivial factor if you scratch a bit and look under the surface. Personally, I think the omnipresent shopping bags are social camouflage for carrying boring, ugly, or possibly embarrassing things. They look like they've just been out shopping at a nice, semi-posh department store, but they're really carrying a bag full of old books to take to "Book Off" (a book exchange shop where you can get new books for 100 yen, about a dollar, and return old ones) or a wad of clothes to see them through a night at a love hotel with a paramour.

I've become so accustomed to a lot of these small things that they have little or no impact on me these days, which is rather a shame. Occasionally though, I'll be inconvenienced enough to notice or one of my students will tell me something that they notice. Recently, one of my students related a story of an experience she had at Costco which brought one of these small differences to mind and how transplanting an American way of doing something into Japan can have unexpected consequences.

This particular student mentioned that, in America, doors in public lavatories don't go all the way down to the floor while Japanese doors in public toilets nearly touch the ground. I had forgotten about this, but I think the U.S. ones have a large gap at the bottom. Costco branches in Japan appear to have adopted the American style, perhaps because they felt it was in keeping with all of the other Costco conventions (like selling food in quantities large enough for healthy Mormon broods to live off of until the apocalypse).

My student was using the facilities when she heard a mother and her little boy talking. Obviously, the boy was too young to stand outside alone or to use the men's room on his own. Suddenly, the little boy's head popped out from under her stall's door and he was looking at my student as she sat on the toilet. In a state of shock, embarrassment and anger, she rapped on the door and the little boy withdrew. She told me later that she was furious at the invasion of privacy and wanted to let the mother have it for not controlling her son or keeping a better eye on him in the lady's room, but the mother and son had disappeared by the time she left the stall. She told me she had been carrying around the tension from this unreleased frustration for a day.

I concluded, and she concurred, that the boy's mother was probably using an adjacent stall and he though he was catching his mother's attention rather than getting a head start on a career as a pervert. When asked if this ever happened to me, I told her that it had not. This might be because I was lucky, but I think that circumstances which are common in a culture, such as toilet doors with gaps, tend to develop behavioral conventions to deal with them in a manner which is appropriate or those circumstances are removed promptly. That is to say, if a situation where privacy can be invaded is everywhere, the vast majority will not take advantage or that avenue of invasion will be shut down.

Since doors with big gaps are not a part of Japanese culture, the situation unfolded rather unfortunately for my student. I think a mother in the U.S. would have taken the child into the stall with her or he would have knocked on the door or spoken through it rather than stick his head under the gap to check for his mother. This was a reminder, once again, of how incidental environmental factors shape behavior in unexpected ways and how transplanting a situation wholesale from one culture to another may have unpredictable results.