Beth Buzz - What is Beth Agnew up to now?

A news blog to keep you up to date on the activities of Beth Agnew.
Multiple projects, always a new idea, never a dull moment! Follow @Professorsan on Twitter.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Wise Words

Quote from Seneca: “We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Activism in the Connected Age

In my other blog, Mind Over Matter, I have recently written about the Connected Age, the age in which we are now living. Not only are we all connected to each other, via the Interwebs, social media, family ties, etc., but we are connected to the Earth, our environment, and to the history and future of our planet.

Communication connects us, and indeed one might say that this is the heyday of communication technology. In the 1960s we were awed at the power of satellites to connect us, and prior to that the Trans-Atlantic Cable, and even the telegraph and mail. Now, with the flick of a finger on an iPhone or iPad, a couple of quick thumb movements, or even a voice command we can be in touch with anyone anywhere.

This near-instant connection should be making us realize how intertwined we all are as well. What affects one inevitably affects another. In any system, adjustment to one part of the system affects all other parts of the system. We are seeing that now with global warming and climate change. Many parts of our Earth system are being affected by the adjustments to air quality and the ozone layer.

More profoundly, however, is how those environmental changes affect the family of Man. With connection comes responsibility: to each other and to our shared environment. Just as we cannot stand idly by while the Earth writhes in pain around us, neither can we do nothing when our fellow human beings are suffering.

There are causes of injustice at home as well as abroad that need our attention. There are diseases of acute nature destroying families elsewhere in the world because of something as simple as the desperate need for clean drinking water.

From s/he to whom much is given, much is required, the adage goes.

If you are blessed with even a little prosperity, some knowledge, some sharable skills, or the means to encourage others to engage in making the world a better place, don't hold back. Among your Tweets and status statements, share news of what you have done lately to improve something or someone. If you haven't got that kind of news, make some.

Let's use our connections to leverage our power to engage in that alchemy spoken of a few posts ago. Let's show each other how easy it is to make something or someone else better. "Be actively engaged in a good cause" no matter what it is or where you are located.

We are all connected, and what benefits one will ultimately benefit all.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Doing the Right Thing

Every now and then, God/the Universe sends someone into your life to help you make some changes. You may have to learn something. You may have to extend yourself outside your comfort zone on their behalf. You may have to gather up your courage and step forward to say "Something must be done!" And then you may have to look yourself in the mirror and realize that if something must be done, you're the one to do it.

I try to be grateful for the learning opportunities I am sent. I am grateful for this one. During the course of getting to know "Ed Martin", I have been very blessed. He is a brilliant man with a great deal of creativity and humor -- on a good day. But his good days are few and far between. His oppression by police in Canada has rendered him immobile for the most part.

On the rare occasions that Ed can forget the brutality with which he has been treated, he is a delightful person to be around. He is a good conversationalist, a knowledgeable computer expert, a trained scientist, and formerly a very productive individual. His potential to add to society was great -- until he came into contact with the justice system in Canada.

For Ed, there has been no justice. He has tried to get help over the past 20 years, but each effort ends in greater harm to him. He has effectively been isolated and marginalized. Even attempting to contact the authorities that could help him now could result in his death. The threat to his life is very real. Just mentioning his name in justice circles brings the police to his door to "remind" him that he needs to shut up or "You won't be breathing anymore".

This is not what should happen in Canada!

Recently, we have seen brutal actions by police publicized, and politicians outraged. Ed's situation also needs to be brought to the attention of those who can take action on his behalf. The usual channels have not worked and indeed have caused him more grief.

He is at the point now where he cannot do anything himself; he is that disabled and unable to even participate in trying to deal with the situation. He needs help.

So I'm harnessing the power of connections and social media to bring this issue to light. At least we can offer Ed some moral support and maybe come up with some creative ideas to help him get the justice he has been seeking, and so desperately needs.

It may be hard to do the right thing sometimes, but it needs to be done.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Blaise Pascal and the Case for Climate Change

In recent news, no less a person than Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin mused about whether humankind was to blame for climate change. When world leaders are not convinced, it makes others doubt as well.

There has indeed been a division among scientists about the causes and possible effects of global warming. Although the balance seems to be leaning toward those who do believe that humankind's footprint on the planet is entirely too large, many remain unconvinced.

This may be a good time to remind everyone of Pascal's Wager.
From Wikipedia: "Pascal's Wager (or Pascal's Gambit) is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal that, even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose. The possibilities defined by Pascal's Wager can be thought of as a decision under uncertainty..."
The intent is to offer a position that can be held without the normal proofs afforded by reason. While there are many "proofs" for and against climate change as a result of human activity, there is no definitive view. Even the experts disagree.

Therefore, the question of human activity as a cause of global warming is a classic Pascal's Wager situation.

Instead of contemplating belief in God, let's contemplate the consequences of belief in Humankind-as-cause of global warming:
  • If it is, and we do not stop our destructive behaviour, we are in for serious trouble.
  • If it is and we DO stop, we may be able to slow, halt, or even reverse the catastrophe.
  • If it isn't, and we do not stop our destructive behaviour, we will undoubtedly experience other consequences of that recklessness.
  • If it isn't, and we DO stop, we aren't hurting anything, and in fact are minimizing our impact on the environment, which is in keeping with a more natural way of life, so that has to be good.
Ergo, whether or NOT humankind is the cause of global warming, it makes great good sense to stop the activities that are harmful to climate, wildlife, and the environment. Period.

Of course, those of us with logical minds can see that. The befuddled will continue to argue what doesn't need to be argued.

And if all we look at is the converse -- we just keep trashing the planet no matter what the effects -- one would have to be an imbecile to think that was a good thing to do.

Proving that humankind is the cause of climate change is irrelevant and unnecessary. So scientists, you can stop arguing now. In fact, everyone can stop arguing.

Let's all just be kinder to our planet, whether we're responsible for these warming changes or not. It's the smart thing to do.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


This is a book I just finished: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It's the familiar story of a young man who is seeking his treasure, and travels to a distant place only to learn through his travels that he was looking in the wrong place, for the wrong treasure. I don't think it will spoil the story for you by quoting a bit of it:

"That's why alchemy exists," the boy said. "So that everyone will search for his treasure, find it, and then want to be better than he was in his former life...That's what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too."

And a few moments after that in his conversation with the Sun, the sun says to him, "Love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World... It is we who nourish the Soul of the World, and the world we live in will be either better or worse, depending on whether we become better or worse. And that's where the power of love comes in. Because when we love, we always strive to become better than we are."


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Why I'm So Shocked #G20

If you've been following any of my activities, you'll have noticed the past two weeks that I've been tweeting and commenting a great deal about the actions of the police during the G20 Summit here in Toronto.

I've seen many of the videos shot by the media and citizen journalists. I've read most of the tweets by others regarding #g20 and #torontopolice. I've watched television news, programs like The Agenda with Steve Paikin, and specials about what happened in Toronto the weekend of June 26 and 27, 2010.

I am still trying to make sense of it.

And I simply cannot get past the shock of seeing peaceful people manhandled by thugs in police uniforms. This is the antithesis of the police force I thought we had. It is the opposite of what should happen in peace-loving and peace-keeping Canada.

It is a betrayal of our national identity.

Up until this weekend, I have been 100% supportive of police, even in the face of knowing about some injustices that have been done to people I know. I wrote those off as aberrations, mistakes made by well-meaning but perhaps ill-advised or uninformed police. Individuals do make mistakes, and it's unfortunate when it happens.

But to see a swarm of riot-gear clad police rush seated ... SEATED!... protestors just as these people sang the final notes to our national anthem, shocked me to my core. I was dumbfounded to think that any on-scene commander could give such a stupid order.

Since then, I have been appalled repeatedly at the multiple instances of police brutality -- there's no other word for it -- and abuse of peaceful citizens. Media handcuffed and beaten. Young and old tackled and forced to the ground, smashed with riot shields and beaten with batons. People kidnapped -- grabbed and shoved into a van. Groups of peaceful people kettled and detained.

The police and the organizers of the G20 forgot that this was Canada. Once known as the World's Peacekeeper, Canada is also known as the nation of the polite and the nice. We're the apologizers, who say "I'm sorry" when someone steps on our toes. This, concurrently, with the well-deserved and rightfully-earned reputation as having some of the most-capable and best-trained soldiers on the planet. I know, I served with many of them.

Thanks, Toronto Police, for showing that in the face of polite, nice, peaceful people, you are willing to show them the error of their ways.

Our police acted like this was some other country where full-scale riots and terrorist tactics were routine. It seems as though they expected hundreds of Canadians to rampage, riot, loot, and destroy.

Apart from a few Black Bloc numbskulls, and the odd looter who was corrected by a passerby, none of that happened. What we DID have during the G20 were scores of calm, peaceful, ordered, and even musical and joyous assemblies intended to draw the attention of whoever was watching to worthy human rights causes.

What those watching saw instead were Canadian police brutalizing our peaceful citizens.

It made me ashamed to be a police supporter. Ashamed of this great city of Toronto. And almost ashamed to be Canadian.

Even though I am shocked at police actions, and still trying to come to terms with it in my mind, still trying to separate the truth from the emotion and rhetoric, and still trying to believe that the police were somehow justified at least in part, I remain proud to be a Canadian precisely because I believe that out of this tragedy will come some good.

I am proud that other moral and concerned Canadians have risen up to tell the police and our politicians that we are collectively angry at these violations of civil rights, we will not stand for it in this country, and we demand a public inquiry.

I am proud that Canada is a place where we can still openly disagree with our leaders. And I am proud that Canadians can recognize injustice when they see it, and are passionate about correcting it.

It will take time for me, for all of us, to get past what happened during the G20 because it was just so shocking to see on our own streets. But get past it we will, and it is my hope that wrongs will be righted, and flawed systems changed.

This country still belongs to Canadians, not to thugs and brutes. We'll make sure it stays that way.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Queen Rocks!

I've always liked Queen Elizabeth. I remember as a child seeing her -- I was about 6 I guess, when she came to Canada and visited a special school around the corner from where we lived on Millwood Road. My mom took my sister Keitha and me to stand along the street and watch as the Queen's motorcade passed by after her visit.

At 84, Queen Elizabeth is still something to see. Keitha had the chance to be involved in a 3D demo for the queen, and the royal pair graciously agreed to pose for a photograph with the cast and crew of the film. Oh, and the Mcguintys are in there, too.

That's Keitha, 3 heads to the left of Prince Philip.

Now, what's really cool is Her Majesty. Packed in that trusty handbag she always carries was her very own customized pair of 3D glasses! Note the sparkly Q on the side. How many monarchs do YOU know who travel with their own 3D glasses? Way to go Queen Elizabeth!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Google Chrome Web Browser

Friday, July 02, 2010

Great Headset Buy for Gaming or Audio

Thursday, July 01, 2010

7 Rules for Keeping your Business Communication Transparent and Authentic


Concurrent with the globalization of social media, and perhaps concurrent with the growth of the Web itself, are new demands for transparency and authenticity in business communication. Recent examples highlight how this change in thought and expectation are expressing themselves in a wireless world. British Petroleum (BP) has suffered over the accident on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform that caused 11 deaths and a massive oil spill along the USA's Gulf coast. Toronto police took criticism from all fronts about their actions during Toronto's hosting of the G20 summit. These are just two public relations nightmares that have occurred because these organizations'  business communication did not convince the public that they were being transparent and authentic.

In the face of citizen journalism, rabidly competitive mainstream media, public watchdog groups, whistleblowers, every business and organization MUST be seen to be acting transparently and in accordance with the values they purport to hold. Consider, too, a better informed public who have multiple sources of information from Youtube to Twitter for getting up to the minute and unique perspectives on current events. The cognitive dissonance between what a company says and what it does disturbs customers, clients, partners, suppliers, and the public. It disturbs them to the point of costing you credibility and even revenue. 

No business can afford to make major miss-steps in this area. And if you DO make a mistake, act quickly to correct the false impression, even if you have to admit your mistake publicly. Far better, in the view of those who are watching -- and believe it, everyone is watching -- to take heat for telling the truth about a problem in the first place. At least then you'll be seen as honest, if wrong-headed at times. Mistakes can be recovered from; deceiving the public and losing credibility may be something that your organization can never live down.

7 New Rules for Business Communication

These 7 rules will help you make your communications more believable and effective.


1. Never forget you are on the world stage.

Tweets and Youtube videos posted to the Web are seen around the world in minutes. Whatever your organization does can be viewed and commented upon almost instantly. And it will be. Guaranteed. If anyone has an axe to grind with your company or organization, or is just vigilant about watching what you're doing, they will be alert for any opportunity to broadly publicize their opinion about it. Not only must you do the right thing, your organization must be seen to do the right thing. Don't do or say anything that you wouldn't want to see posted online before the day is over.

2. Ensure someone in your organization is responsible and accountable for all your communications.

This means much more than having a PR person designated to write press releases, arrange press conferences, and keep track of social media. It means having a communication expert -- one who understands the intricacies and dynamics of public communication and social media, and who has the skill to communicate the nuances of a situation effectively and quickly to those who are watching. Pay that person well and make them fully accountable for your company's persona no matter where it shows up. This is an active role, not a passive one. In addition to handling problems that occur, your Chief Content Officer needs to be able to go toe-to-toe with the CEO, President, Owner, Commander, or Board of Directors when necessary to ensure the authenticity of messages being communicated, and that everything is visible.

3. Remember who you are.

Your company, group, or organization has a persona just as real and valid as that of any individual. It is a composite of your values, your mission, your core competencies, and your people. It is clothed in your technology and animated by your communications. Whenever you deviate from the image others have of your company, or when that persona appears to act contrary to what others expect, you risk losing your audience and consequently your customers. Everything your organization does must be consistent with its persona, even if it is sometimes painful to achieve that.

4. Let individuals do the talking.

Even more important than your organization's persona are the individual voices that are telling your corporate story. Who are the individuals speaking for your company? They should be people who best represent the organization, and are the most knowledgeable about your products and services. Remember that it is much easier to connect with people individually than with a group.

5. Build trust and rapport with dialogue.

The old saying that it takes a long time to gain trust but only a moment to lose it is never more true than on the Web. Trust is built from consistency between words and actions. Trust comes from being genuine and honest. If your company or organization resonates with someone, initial trust follows quickly and continues to deepen as long as you remain consistent with your messages. As you communicate your principles, your intentions, your actions, and your successes, you will gain the trust of those who can contribute to your company as customers or partners. Trust comes from the beginning of rapport -- finding the common ground you share with your audience, and then inviting them to see what else you have to offer. Next, check back with them to find out what they thought of that experience. Building trust and rapport requires listening to your market, and responding to them when they communicate with you. Good two-way communication solidifies relationships.

6. Connect, engage, and inform.

Connecting with others is easy, there are hundreds of technical tools that facilitate connections worldwide. Engaging, however, means catching someone's interest and offering them something of value so that they stay engaged. Information that solves a problem, answers a question, or helps someone perform a task is the most valuable kind of information you can provide. The more you inform your followers, the more loyalty you will enjoy. Engaging people with your business makes them start to care, and you want them to care enough that they tell you first if anything starts to go wrong.

7. Stay meaningful.

What you say, and how you say it, has to be meaningful for your audience. No one has time anymore for the irrelevant, so stick to the core messages. Meaningful communications with your market and others who pay attention to what you do will reap rewards in continued connection and rapport, as well as more business.

The final thing to remember is that everyone is an observer and everyone is connected 24/7 thanks to the worldwide Web. Time and space mean nothing, and even language is no longer a barrier. To do business in such a climate, you absolutely must overhaul your communications so that they work in a connected world. Adaptation is the key trait for survival of the fittest in the 21st century.


Posted via email from writingwiz's posterous

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Didn't Take Long...

It didn't take long for writers to start using the Gulf Oil Spill as a metaphor. Here's an excerpt from Rob Cottingham's post on Read Write Web:

"Anyone building or managing an online community has a responsibility to keep the oil slick of aggression out of the conversational coastal wetlands."

Using something that is in the news or currently top of mind for your readers is a risk. On one hand, it can deliver a punch that immediately evokes emotion. Your phrase taps into the knowledge the reader has about the situation, and a cascade of information and emotion is packed into a very small space. That's great for keeping your writing concise. You can accomplish a lot with just a few words.

The drawback, however, is that over time your metaphor, and consequently your writing, becomes stale and outdated. When people no longer recognize your phrase, or they have to struggle to remember exactly what about your phrase is vaguely familiar, you've lost them for at least a few moments. The farther your writing is distanced in time from the event to which it refers, the weaker it becomes.

Don't let that stop you, though, if leveraging terms that are in the news provides the kick your writing needs. Just remember that if your piece is to have longevity, it's best to consider different word choices.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Good Start

No, I'm not talking about 1,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean. I'm talking about this story that showed up in Yahoo! News today:
McKinney man out to change world, $1 at a time

I applaud him, and think more people should be doing things like this. However, $1 doesn't really go very far these days. It doesn't even buy a pack of gum, a cup of coffee, or a discount burger. It DOES buy air to put in your tires, but only if you have the right coins.

Instead, I propose we each earmark $20.00 to send out into the world to do some real good. I have had my "Magic 20" in my wallet for many years now. I give it away from time to time, and then I replace it. I tuck it away in a pocket of my wallet where I'm not tempted to spend it.

Twenty bucks is a good sum to give someone. It can buy:
  • A complete meal, and a healthy one at that!
  • Enough gas to get you somewhere
  • A shirt or pair of socks
  • A book that can change your life
  • Enough groceries for a couple of days if you shop smart
  • A movie -- a brief respite of entertainment to help you forget your troubles
Twenty dollars is a chunk of money, albeit a small one, that makes a difference. $1 is nice, but it's merely a gesture. $20 is a broader gesture that affirms to the recipient that you really want to help. It also reminds you that you've got the resources to give $20 away without it hurting you.

And you know what? If that happens to be your LAST $20, and it DOES hurt you to give it away, I can promise you that it's like priming the pump -- much more will come back to you in ways you never imagined. Maybe not instantly, but definitely when you need it.

I know, because it happened to me.

Many years ago, when my children were small and I was a poverty-stricken single parent trying to go to school, work, and take care of my children at the same time, I once gave my last $20 to someone. Someone who needed it more than I did at the time.

Since then, sums of money have "magically" turned up in my life when I least expected it, but usually when I really NEEDED it. Often a lot more than $20.

My children have seen me give away $20 on a number of occasions. In return, I have seen them become generous men who give away money, goods, and their time to others as well. That's one heck of a payoff for a small investment of $20!

One time when I gave away my $20 bill, it was at a gas station. The woman in the car in front of me had put $5 of gas in her car because she was broke and just needed to get home. Then she realized she didn't even have that much. I handed her the $20 and she said, "I'll be right back with your change." "No," I said, "Just keep it, and pass it on when you can."

When you give someone $20, it's significant. $100 is overkill, but twenty is a nice little figure that really works. Never underestimate the power of handing someone $20, no strings attached other than "pass it on when you can". I like to think that one small moment of connection between two people bears fruit in ways we cannot imagine. Think of a stone dropped into a calm pond, and the many ripples that spread outward from that one small act.

$1 is nice, and as a gesture it works. The story about Doc Compton says that it's brought tears to people's eyes when they're handed the dollar.

But think of how much more impact you'd have with $20. Take that $100 you want to give away, and bless the lives of FIVE people with a sum of money that each of them can actually use.

Or just take one $20 bill and set it aside for a time when you see a need you can fill. For even more fun, resolve to get that Magic 20 out of your hands today, as soon as possible, whether you see a need or not. We often don't see the hidden needs that people have.

Dr. Wayne Dyer has pointed out that when you do an act of kindness, research has shown that the recipient gets a "feel good" boost, but you get one as well. Not only that, but the research also shows that anyone observing that act of kindness (or being told about it afterward) gets a burst of endorphins too!

$20 is a very small price to pay to affect someone's life. Get a $20 bill right now, and PASS IT ON.

You will never regret it. And you will have done something that really DOES make a difference.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Made for More than This

Just saw an ad for The Peregrine, "30 user-programmable actions. By simply touching your fingertips with your thumb you can control your game faster than ever before." It's designed for improved gaming.

Sure, I want one for that use. But immediately I though of applications in the assistive technology area. They are already talking about it for spacecraft controls, lol.

And it doesn't take much of a mental leap to think of other applications for this sort of technology. I just think it's very cool to have this in my lifetime. Well, and a whole bunch more, of course. But this is nifty.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bad Software Should be Penalized

I have just spent the last hour trying various workarounds and chasing technical support forum posts only to find out that the software I have does not work on 64-bit Vista.

First, Microsoft should be ashamed of Vista -- and I know they are, hence Windows 7.
Second, this other company, which at the moment shall remain nameless even though they don't deserve the protection, should be heavily penalized MONETARILY by some governing body for having released software that purposefully will not run on existing operating systems. "Not designed to run on Vista 64-bit." !!!!!

Come on, kids. This isn't 1980, when personal computers were new and shiny, and we hardly knew what to do with them. Software now should install flawlessly, and not need the user to outsmart the developers. ESPECIALLY something that was released long after Vista was on the market and its source code available to its developer network. And a lackadaisical technical support program which requires the user to pay for a solution to a bad software install is even more objectionable!

Solution: Hire yourselves a technical communicator who won't let you get away with that kind of user contempt. And listen to them when they tell you the product doesn't work. Then dang well FIX IT before you release it.

Now you know why Open Source software is becoming so popular.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

EVERYONE is on Facebook, why aren't you?

This semester I'm teaching a course entitled Communicating with Social Technologies. Yes folks, it's a course about Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and so on. You know I'm a pop culture diva, so this falls in line with my, ahem, research interests.

I mean, if the Muppets can be on Facebook, why can't you?

Monday, January 18, 2010

How parents mess up their kids...

We're not talking balloon-boy level exploitation here, but just goofy little cultural things that make kids realize not everyone does things the same way. Usually, however, it's an embarrassing incident that reveals to them that their family is just weird.

What my parents did to us:
My parents used to get a craving for Chinese food every now and then, and considering that the kids were pretty little, they thought we wouldn't like to eat anything exotic. Dad had a solution. When he went to pick up the order, he'd get the Chinese food place to include some French fries. French fries not being the restaurant's specialty, and long before the days of fast food, these particular French fries were limp, greasy and barely edible. Certainly not on a par with what we have now come to recognize as French fries. Anyway, we kids ate them and found that if you had enough ketchup, they were fine. Growing up, every time we had Chinese food we also got these Chinese French fries. :-)

It seemed quite normal to me until I went to university. I got a rude awakening on the French fry front when out for the first time with a bunch of friends and we went to a Chinese restaurant. I naturally asked about French fries, and was thoroughly ridiculed. I'm sure they thought I was nuts. No, not nuts. Just twisted by family culture, lol.

What I've done to my kids:

I used to watch the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show on television when I came home from school. I liked the show, especially Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and Fractured Fairytales. I don't quite know how it came about, but one of the episodes, I don't remember which, included the pairing of the gride and the broom. That stuck in my brain -- I like the symmetry of it. Gride and Broom. When my kids were little, instead of calling that thing you scoop up sweepings with a dust pan, I always called it a gride. They are adults now, and know that a dust pan is a dust pan, but maybe it's a gride too. :-)

I can't wait until my kids mention "gride and broom" to someone else and get razzed for it, as I did with the Chinese fries. Somehow I am sure that will amuse me.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Troubleshooting Part II

Sometimes there are things that aren't precisely technical which still may cause problems. Here's the story of one unusual bug and its solution.

When I worked at a software company they wanted to get golf shirts for the R&D department. So, I guess because they thought I had nothing else to do, i.e., I wasn't a programmer, I got tasked with sourcing the shirts and getting the order.

I had a measly budget but through some clever research and negotiating was able to order 60 very nice shirts with a custom logo. Everyone was pleased with the shirts, and we planned a department photo day where everyone would wear their shirts (original, I know) and get a photo taken.

However, all the people who had ordered Size L shirts were complaining. The sleeves were scratchy. When they wore the shirts, there was something on the sleeve cuffs that was scratchy to the skin and caused red abrasions.

I tested my own shirt and found the same thing. (I'm not in the habit of wearing golf shirts.) I called the supplier and he had no clue about the cause. He did offer to take all the Large shirts back and replace them, but it would take some time and we wouldn't have the shirts by picture day.

I did a little more research, on the web, and could find nothing about scratchy shirt cuffs. Then I had an idea. From quilting and working with other fabrics I thought that maybe there was something the fabric had been treated with that was causing the problem.

Usually washing will remove such a thing, but to ensure the navy and white colors didn't run together, the shirt had to be washed in cold water, which is not the best for dissolving fabric treatments. But it was worth a try, so I tested my own shirt by washing it and putting it in the dryer.

The shirt came out nice and clean but still with the scratchy cuffs. I didn't want to risk washing it in hot water and wrecking the shirt, for 2 reasons -- I would not have been able to return it if damaged (though under the circumstances I probably could have made the case that it was a defective product anyway), and the risk of it shrinking and thus becoming unwearable was also an issue.

But I had an idea. I set up the ironing board and put the sleeve between two sheets of paper towel. I then ironed the sleeve cuff to melt whatever was left in the fabric. (I would like to have put it under a microscope to see if there was something there, but I didn't have one handy. But it was a thought!)

Whatever came off the sleeve cuffs would be transferred to the paper towels and the sleeves should be fine. It worked! We had a simple solution -- just iron the two cuffs between paper towels on a hot enough setting and they were fine.

Next day I called the supplier and gave him the solution. He told me that a whole bunch of shirts had been returned for this same issue from various customers, and they had all come from the same factory in India.

Having the solution to the scratchy cuffs was going to save him thousands of dollars in returned goods from this shipment of shirts. I think he was so gobsmacked by the simplicity of the solution he forgot to thank me.

Even though we had a solution, however, I still didn't know how the shirts had come to have these scratchy cuffs, and in bulk, too. I was somewhat content to have fixed "the shirt bug" but was not completely satisfied until I knew the cause. As you know, if the cause is known, prevention is the next step, and always much better than repair. Ounce, pound, all that.

I was retelling this story in my tech comm class some months later, and one of my students had the answer. He had previously worked in his family's garment business. He had never heard of scratchy cuffs before, but he did know that for knit shirts like golf shirts, the banding on the cuffs is often made on large looms where they knit 1- or 2-inch wide strips in parallel, and the edges are joined with glue. That's why ironing worked -- it melted the glue.

This budget factory had not done the additional step of removing the glue from the finished bindings when they were separated. I thought this was worthy of sharing with my original supplier so called him to explain it. And he didn't care one bit. They had gone with a different factory somewhere else, even though it was more expensive, and just passed the cost along to the customer.

Just goes to show you, that if there's a bug, I can find it and figure out how to get around it. :-)

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Troubleshooting Part I

I am somewhat of a crank about usability and user problem solving. And because I deal with technology day in and day out, I pride myself on being able to deal with technical problems of one sort or another.

Here's a story about one of my trouble-shooting adventures. None of this is classified any longer, btw. It's 35 years later, and the technology long obsolete. My job doesn't even exist anymore.

When I was in the military and worked in telecommunications, we had a tape relay centre -- the communications centre of the very large base in Germany -- that used banks of typing reperforators to punch Murray code onto either chad or chadless tape. (Anyone else out there know Murray code? I can still read most of it.) I worked shifts 24/7 but our techs had cushier jobs and only worked one of 2 8-hour shifts -- either 8 to 4 or 4 to midnight, with no weekends.

The midnighters and weekenders were on their own as far as trying to deal with any technical issues. Usually we just swapped out the offending gear, left a tag on it with a description of the problem, and put it on the techs' bench for dealing with next day.

This particular time, I was on a cycle of a lot of midnights. We had a good crew, and even though we were often busy, there were times of the night when it was quiet enough that we could play cards and just chew the fat. So it was a pretty good time, all things considered. They gave me no sympathy though in this particular struggle with some machinery.

About halfway through the shift on a Friday night, so around 4 a.m., this one particular reperforator started to act up intermittently. It was skipping spots when punching the tape so we'd get garbled messages. I hauled it out of the cabinet, swapped in a spare, and left a detailed description of the problem on the ticket, along with a sample of the garbled tape.

Monday night, I went on duty to find a note from the tech that said he couldn't find anything wrong with the machine, so he swapped it back in. By virtue of working 12-hour mids and weekend shifts, we got 3 days off so the next time I went in to work it was Friday midnight again. Sure enough, half way through the shift, the same machine started to act up again. They're numbered so it was easy to tell. Again, I swapped it out, politely asked the techs to look at it again, and carried on.

Monday night shift, same thing. Big NFF (No Fault Found) on the tag, machine swapped back in, get a clue lady. You know, the old "women aren't technical" accusation. I complained to my team, who advised me to shrug it off -- always good advice. Drat if the next Friday night didn't the same thing happen! This time I got my entire team to look at the machine and verify it was garbling messages. It's always good to have witnesses. The senior NCO signed off on the ticket and we swapped out the machine as usual.

Monday night, a curt message from the tech Sr. NCO: "What are you people on???? Quit wasting our techs' time with machines that are perfectly fine. Next time, I'll charge you." (meaning a disciplinary charge) True, there had always been a bit of a rivalry between operators and technicians, and my team in particular was notorious for playing jokes on people. (This is how one's reputation as a jokester can work against you. Who, ME??? Nah...) But they were tired of having to keep looking at this stupid machine.

Fourth Friday night in a row -- same machine broke down. We debated, should we report it or fix it ourselves permanently with a hammer? I voted for the hammer but was overruled. So we decided to call out the duty tech to come NOW and see the machine for himself. He rolled in about an hour later, not in a good mood, but unable to disobey an order from a superior. :-) He tested the machine, and sure enough, got garbled tape. HAH!! Okay, I see it, I know it's bad, I'll fix it Monday.

Monday night, there was no word at all. We sort of forgot about it, until we came in the NEXT Monday night and found a note -- "Machine permanently FUBAR (F***ed up beyond all repair). Overheats when online too long. Works perfectly after cooldown." After working all week, the thing would get overheated by 4 a.m.-ish on Saturday, start breaking up the code, and causing problems. After sitting for 2 days waiting for the tech to look at it, it had cooled down sufficiently to be back in good working order. Sheesh.

I was vindicated, but never did receive an apology from the techs who disbelieved me. None of us had seen such behaviour from a machine before, but it wasn't to be the last. "Overheating" as a cause was tucked away in my mental inventory in case I ever ran into such a problem again.

It's a really good feeling, though, to be able to solve technical mysteries.

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Book Discovery -- The User Illusion

I found this book through tracking down a quotation:
The universe began when nothing saw itself in the mirror.
Yoiks!! Think about that one for a while and your brain will hurt. Tor Nørretranders writes about consciousness in a scientific and philosophical way. I like the marriage of those two disciplines. Thinking about these concepts takes you into the territory of physics as well as the realm of logic, and even the psychology of the human mind.

As you can imagine, with my interest in technical communication, when I found the original quote was from a book entitled The User Illusion, I had to follow that up. In a way, it is related to how we think about systems from a user's point of view.

Go buy the book, but beforehand read the full book review, which concludes with this quote from Nørretranders:
We have to face the fact we are far more than we believe ourselves to be; that we have far more resources than we perceive; that we leave our mark on more of the world than we notice.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Thoughts to Live By

Some of these have been co-opted by Courage Wolf, but they are not original. I have been saying most of them for years.
  1. Life getting tough is a sign that God is afraid of your progress.
  2. Seize the day, by the throat.
  3. Fall down seven times, stand up eight.
  4. Don't start fights, finish them instead.
  5. Reach the finish line -- then keep going.
  6. Pain is temporary -- scars are sexy.
  7. If you never give up, you never lose.
  8. Stand up. Fight. Repeat.
  9. Don't make a scene, make a mess.
  10. If you fall on your face, laugh at the ground.
  11. If you're going through hell, don't stop, just keep going.
  12. Better to burn out than rust out.
  13. If life's a bitch -- make it your bitch.
  14. It's better to take a lot of standing eight counts, than get knocked out.
  15. Stare into the abyss -- and when it stares back, make it blink first.
  16. Can't believe in yourself? Then believe in me, who believes in you.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Today's Note from the Universe

I get these every day. It's nice to have "the universe" telling me how wonderful I am. It's nicer to have other people do that too, but in the absence of such, this works too. Here's the Christmas Eve version:

If it's not yet obvious to you, the real reason for this, and all seasons, is you, Beth.

A more perfect child of the Universe has never lived. Until now, only celebrations cloaked in myth and mystery could hint at your divine heritage and sacred destiny. You are life's prayer of becoming and its answer: the first light at the dawn of eternity, drawn from the ether, so that I might know my own depth, discover new heights, and revel in seas of blessed emotion.

A pioneer into illusion, an adventurer into the unknown, and a lifter of veils. Courageous, heroic, and exalted by legions in the unseen.

To give beyond reason, to care beyond hope, to love without limit; to reach, to stretch, and dream, in spite of your fears.

These are the hallmarks of divinity - traits of the immortal - your badges of honor. May you wear them with a pride as great as the immeasurable pride we feel for you.

Your light has illuminated darkened paths, your gaze has lifted broken spirits, and already your life has changed the course of history.

This is the time of year we celebrate Beth Agnew.
Bowing before Greatness,

The Universe

p.s. Supercoolhappylovething, you are, Beth.

Living every day as best I can to make that all true. Merry Christmas to all (dare I say Merry Bethmas?), and I wish you every blessing in the New Year. May all your dreams come true!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Well, that's one way of looking at it

There's nothing like an end of year wrap-up of major stories. This one is courtesy of our friends over at The Onion which is one of the more clever sites reporting on issues that you never knew we had.

If the Christmas season is stressing you out, or you're just overwhelmed by the fact that another year is about to come to a close, have a read through some of the material on It will have you smiling, laughing, perhaps even sharing.

We may need a little Christmas, but we need a little absurdity more.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fatal Similarity

FASHION OF THE DECADE - A rider holds up her yellow Livestrong bracelet during a rally July 26, 2006, in Newton, Iowa. Introduced by Nike in May 2004, the yellow silicone band sells for $1 to raise money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which raises awareness and funds for cancer research. While similar bracelets have been adopted by other charities, some hospitals allegedly have cut the Livestrong wristbands from patients' wrists because of their resemblance to yellow 'do not resuscitate' bands used by some medical facilities.

File under: It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thought for the Day

"The world is a dangerous place to live,
not because of all the people who are evil,
but because of the people
who don't do anything about it." - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Random thoughts:
  • I said to RJ: "I'm thinking that I should have more friends my age. Maybe I'll join the Legion." And he replied: "Foreign?"

  • I used to have a cat that would wait until I had just fallen asleep, then drop a marble down the hardwood staircase. Klunk, klunk, klunk. Woke me up every time. ... That's how I lost my marbles.

  • I often find it expedient to appoint myself as Karma's assistant. Let me help you get the Karma you deserve.

  • Klingons do not procrastinate. It is a "tactical delay".

  • A short while ago I reunited with some friends from college. Marie said, "Before I left, I made a prediction that Nancy would have a cell phone, with the bank on speed-dial, and Beth will have a Blackberry strapped to her hip." Haven't seen Marie in years, yet she was 2 for 2 correct. How well she knows us!

  • A friend who worked as an EMT in a remote northern community once told me that fur is great for stopping bleeding. I hope I never have to use that knowledge.

  • That same friend said he once attended to an accident victim whose down jacket had ripped open during the crash. The down feathers had scattered, blown about in the wind, and landed on the victim, sticking to him wherever he was covered in blood. As my friend loaded him into the ambulance, he thought it looked like his patient had been tarred and feathered. Weird. Just bled a lot but was not seriously injured.

  • Here's my opinion of Management's imposed offer for our new contract. You can dress it up, but...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance Day 2009

November 11, at 11:00 a.m., we take a few moments to reflect on the soldiers who have given their lives in service to their country. As you know, I served in the Canadian Armed Forces. My tour of duty included postings to Europe and the Middle East, as well as out west. My son Devon served in the Canadian Forces, and was deployed to Afghanistan with his unit while in 3 PPCLI. Because I was also married to a serving soldier, the military played a huge part in much of my adult life.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Remembrance Day is a hard one for me. I have friends in the US military who are in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Korea at the moment. I will always feel a connection to those in uniform; I am familiar with the pressures they are under, and I empathize with the problems doing one's duty can often bring about. I experienced some of them myself.

Most of all, I often think of what it really means to volunteer to serve in the Armed Forces. In Canada, we are not at war with anyone, but are involved in peacekeeping -- and increasingly, peaceMAKING -- activities abroad. While building much-needed roads and schools and hospitals, our soldiers risk attack from insurgents, death or injury from land mines and IEDs, and as the British recently experienced, even assault by those who could benefit most from military assistance.

We mourn the loss of each one of our servicemen and servicewomen.

What is rarely publicized are the peacetime deaths of military personnel who are lost in training accidents, vehicle accidents, airplane crashes, suicides, murders, and terminal illnesses. I have lost friends and comrades in all of these ways during my years of service.

For me, Remembrance Day is not only about remembering the sacrifices of all our military personnel in all of the wars, but also about remembering those in uniform who died doing their duty in whatever capacity they were assigned, and remembering all those who have served regardless of time or place.

Today, I remember Claire, Rod, Wayne, Dave S., Jane, Marty, Jerry, Les, Doug C., Alex, Andy, David W., Ron, John A., Derek, Myrna, Don, Laurent, Mike, Dennis, Bud, Greg P., Mick, David G., Pierre, Sybille, Art, Charlie, Marcel, Loretta, Donnie, Ken, Doug W., George L., Andre, Joe G., Geoff, Doug A., Gord K., Val, and others...

Je me souviens. I remember. Then. Now. Forever.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I attended Seneca's convocation ceremony today to celebrate our 2009 graduates, including our Tech Comm grad certificate students. It was great seeing them, and the computer studies students I teach in EAC397 and other courses as well. There is the usual pomp and circumstance one would expect from a college graduation ceremony. It's an energizing day.

One of the things we do at convocation is confer Honorary Degrees on notable personages who merit such recognition. This year's recipients were brothers Craig and Mark Kielburger. You may know about them from their work with Free the Children, a foundation that seeks to educate children and keep them from slavery and sweat shops. This foundation is based on the premise that every child deserves a happy, healthy and safe childhood.

The origins of this foundation came from then-12-year-old Craig`s outrage on reading about a young Pakistani boy named Iqbal Masih who was forced into bonded labour in a carpet factory at the age of four, became an international figurehead for the fight against child labor by 10 years of age, and was brutally murdered in 1995 when he was 12.

Research into child labour, then sharing his findings with schoolmates, family and friends led Craig and his older brother Mark into social activism and contact with many public figures as they fought for rights for children.

Craig`s address to our convocation ceremony was uplifting and meaningful. He spoke about the time that he and his brother worked alongside Mother Theresa in Calcutta some years ago. He shared some advice she had given them. She took their hands into her rough ones ``like sandpaper from her years of service`` and said to them, ``If you cannot do great things, do small things with great love.``

My sons RJ and Devon are about the same age as Craig Kielburger. They didn`t grow up in Thornhill, as he did; they grew up in Fernwood and on armed forces bases, and attended inner city schools. Their parents didn`t have the money to send them to Harvard or to Thailand and India. Their parents barely had the money to keep them housed and clothed most of the time.

Their father overcame an abusive childhood to excel in his profession and rise to the top rank in his specialty, throughout the years influencing many young soldiers and providing an example of leadership and personal triumph. He continues to demonstrate his personal courage day to day, and offers his time to counsel addicts in making positive life changes.

Their mother is known for little except encouraging and inspiring her students, often sharing a kind word and a smile with a beleaguered store clerk, coaching others to get jobs and sort out their lives, leading laughter sessions, and reaching out through her writing and other activities to those who need to be reminded that they are unique, capable, and so very precious.

It was not our branch of the Agnew family that produced David Agnew, formerly head of UNICEF and currently the President of Seneca College.

Still, my Agnews are doing okay. I am not in the least disappointed that neither of my sons has yet achieved the international recognition that Craig Keilburger has deserved. When I think of my sons, I notice their average day-to-day activities just diligently going to work, getting there on time, and giving full value to their employer. They are honest, loyal friends to those who know them. They are compassionate, honourable men who treat women with respect, all people with kindness, and animals with mercy. They each have a good sense of fair play, good sportsmanship, and generosity. They act and speak with integrity. They clearly know right from wrong, and operate on principles of justice, equality, and respect. They can be counted on when times get tough, and they don't take themselves too seriously.

All in all, RJ and Devon may not do the great things that some others do. But I know that the small things they do, they do with great love. I couldn't ask for more, and of that I am very proud indeed.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cracking ourselves up...

This is how my son RJ and I crack ourselves up from time to time. It usually starts with an innocent conversation...

So the other night we were just shooting the breeze during dinner. He said something about factoids, and I said I have so much interesting but largely useless knowledge in my head, that it is just full of factoids.

For example, I said, they did a study on sheep that found that because they spend all their lives in a flock, they don't ever like to be alone. And they found that if you have to separate a sheep from the flock, it gets very nervous, so one way to ease its fright is to put a large mirror beside it. That way, the sheep sees another sheep in the mirror and thinks it's not alone. I said, the same thing works for Alpacas (which I owned a few years ago). So if you have to transport a single alpaca, to a show, or when it's sold perhaps, if you put a large mirror in the truck or trailer, it calms down because it thinks it has company.

And what works even better is two mirrors so that the alpacas sees a multitude of alpacas on either side of him and feels he's in a herd again.

RJ said, you know, sheep can actually recognize each other by their faces. There was a Youtube video of where they put a Halloween mask on a sheep and all the other sheep in the flock ran away from it because they didn't know who it was.

I said, well, if sheep can recognize faces, wouldn't they look in the mirror and recognize their own face and think, Hey, that's me?

RJ said, Not in a Halloween mask.

And THAT is when we both started laughing.

See, now, don't you wish you could come to dinner at my house? :-)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Blast from the Past

Just came across this and thought I'd resurrect it and share it with you. It was posted to a forum in response to comments about the standards of writing we're seeing on web pages and in the popular media. I wrote it in March 2008:
I think it's very much a "you get what you pay for"
situation. Better pay = better writing. As long as
the market continues to accept poor quality
writing, purveyors will provide it at the lowest
possible cost.

We're already victims of the sleeper effect --
you see enough bad writing, you unconsciously
start to write that way yourself and your tolerance
for what is "bad" lowers, unless you maintain
constant vigilance. There are few gatekeepers
anymore. Those print editors who tormented
writers until the prose was perfect aren't around
anymore. Publishers who refused to sacrifice
quality for revenue have been eliminated by their
corporate masters in favor of increased sales.

The gap between the truly literate, meaning those
who have studied literature enough to know
what good writing looks like, and the illiterate is
widening. We're seeing this in our students whose
text messaging style permeates their academic essays.

I choose to believe that good writing and good
communication will always prevail, though fewer
will be able to recognize it.
The "sleeper effect" I'm talking about is the persistence and persuasiveness of something we see even when we give the source no credibility whatsoever. I've even found myself doing it -- typing "they're" instead of "their", and "your" or "it's" instead of the more correct "you're" and "its" in their proper context.

As a professional writer -- and a nit-picky one at that -- I know full well the difference in when to use "they're" versus "their", and so on. But because I've seen the wrong one used so very often, it has lodged in my brain, and unless I'm truly paying attention when I write, I'm just as likely to use the incorrect homonym.

Well, at least I haven't sunk to using "ur" yet...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Best Lecturer?

Finally some news to report! I have just been nominated for TVO's 2010 Best Lecturer Competition. Woot! This is fun and very rewarding because it means my students think my classes are at least somewhat interesting and worthy of sharing with the rest of the world.

I like to think that I make the crushingly boring topic of Technical Communication compelling, at least for our Tech Comm students. Of course, if you were a technical communicator, you'd see, as I do, the many exciting facets of this broad profession. Techwriters as a group are pretty interesting people. We have often had variegated careers and because the nature of our work requires the ability to grasp other topics quickly, most technical communicators are sharp, well-read, and able to discuss thoughtfully and cogently on a variety of subjects. Our profession is about relationships as well as business, information, technology and communication, so we cover the gamut of things that are important to people day to day.

The competition requires submission of video from one or more of my classes. It won't be the first time a camera has captured me doing what I do, and just about any class could make compelling viewing, even if you don't have a background in the subject matter. I don't say that out of ego, but as a practical reality -- if you don't have something that engages your students each class, how do you expect them to show up, pay attention, and learn anything? It's Teaching 101, really.

Mind you, there are some aspects of technical communication that are a LOT more fun than others. And coupled with my quirky sense of humour, you can imagine -- those of you who know me -- how some of those, usability, dealing with SMEs, overcoming communication challenges and just making life easier for the user are all fodder for my own particular take.

Get me talking about the Segway and you'll see!