Generic musing

A much classier category than “uncategorized”

Nov 162015

On several projects lately, I don’t know what I’m doing. Or at least what I’m doing next.

A way to cope is to ask someone who seems to know more. I’m lucky in having smart colleagues at work who will not only share what they know, but will work with me to reshape that knowledge so I have a better understanding.

I’m lucky professionally as well, because I have people I can and do consult with on issues apart from my everyday job.

Directing the right question

CC-licensed image from PublicDomainPictures

Sometimes, though, I’m not quite ready to do that asking. Usually that’s because of the particular type of don’t-know I’m experiencing.  Either I don’t know what (as in what to ask, or what’s the difficulty, or what’s the domain), or I don’t know how (to take the next step, to choose the right option, to switch points of view).

To that end, in a nod to the Working Out Loud concept, I’ve been making what I think of as Talk To Myself notes. (The TTM nickname just came to me, and I like it enough that it’ll become a tag in Evernote.)

The idea is that for a specific project or domain, I write down what it is I can’t figure out or what I want to know.

This is hardly an earthshaking idea, but it’s a concrete one. The effort to form a question, even if I’m not good at forming one for the topic at hand, gets me to run through what I do know, and I think primes me to think more expansively.

Here are some examples:

Sibelius First

I’ve written about this music-composition software here and here. I got it so I could scan choral sheet music and produce audio files — especially for the tenor, since that’s what I sing.

I think I’m at the “relatively good apprentice” level with Sibelius. I can handle basic tasks pretty well, and I’ve developed some good-enough workarounds.

Noting things down

CC-licensed image by FNeumann

One side effect is that I’m more aware of things I don’t know how to do but want to. So onto the TTM note go thoughts like these:

  • How can I add a blank page on the end of a score so I can add text there — like block lyrics, or background notes, or even a pronunciation guide for Gaelic?
  • Can I export the melody for just a portion of the piece (say, bars 12 – 24 for the tenors)?
  • Is there an easy way to change the instrument for a given line? So far I only know how to add a new staff for a new instrument, then copy the notes from an existing instrument, then delete the staff they were copied from. That seems… kludgy.

Forums in WordPress

As a follow-up to my Building Job Aids workshop last month, I wanted to learn how to create a private online community for interested workshop grads — a place where they might share how they apply what they learned, and maybe even do some show-and-tell in a safe space. At DevLearn I heard Tracy Parish talk about how she did something similar, and I got some ideas from her.

This is one of those don’t-quite-know-what situations for me. Through trial and error, I’ve installed plugins to enable forums (threaded discussions) but I still feel I lack understanding.

Talk To Myself in this case means repeating questions till they make sense, at least to me.

  • Do I have to have open registration?
  • If I do, can I keep out the obvious spambots?
  • What should be recording the registration (if anything)? Do I need some kind of sign-up form, and if so, where does the signing-up go?
  • At a broader level, what’s the flow from inviting someone to that person’s reading and posting in a forum?

At work, a practice database

So many core corporate systems have no way for people to safely learn and practice how to use those systems. A rich, low-risk environment like Amtrak’s training trains will support and encourage learning in a thousand different ways.

We have such an environment for a key system at work–but it hasn’t been used much, and the documentation I can find is sketchy. So I’m making Talk To Myself notes here, too. This is a tougher area because it involves a lot of database security and management.

Borrowing from advice I received from a graphic artist, I’m framing these questions in terms of what I want to accomplish rather than how I think I should go about getting that accomplishment. For example, I don’t know the steps or the stakeholders or the timeframes needed to copy data from another environment into this practice one. I don’t know how (or if) it’s possible to search for certain types of data in the practice database.

I’m pretty sure I need a conversation with one of my IT contacts — but that conversation with her will go much better because I’ve spent time Talking To Myself… and taking notes.


Oct 072015

I spent last week at DevLearn 2015, the eLearning Guild’s conference focusing on learning technology.

DevLearn-featuredAmong my goals for attending: conducting a workshop on building job aids, finding ideas for supporting learning and improving performance, learning more about topics I don’t know much about, connecting with peers, and spending time with people energized about things that energize me.

On one level, any half-decent professional conference is a kind of pep rally. It’s easy to levitate on the excitement. It’s great to hear engaging speakers and hash over their ideas afterward, especially with them. And at least for me, the company of smart people who are accomplishing impressive things helps me feel as though I can accomplish them, too.

You can read virtual reams of ideas of how to prepare for a conference. DevLearn makes that pretty easy. The link above will lead you to descriptions of the pre-conference workshops, the co-located Adobe Summit, some 125 concurrent sessions… heck, just browse along the menu bar of the main page.

How to turn the pep-rally buzz into personal motivation, though, especially when the event’s over and you’re schlepping through the airport on your way home?

Revisiting the past

One thing I did on the plane was to dig out the program guide – the day-by-day schedule. My first task was to note down the session number, title, and presenter for each event I attended.

A session description from the DevLearn app

A session description from the DevLearn app

For one thing, that’d make it much easier to retrieve further information on the handy DevLearn app. And recording these things in Evernote meant I could tag, search, and include links.

As I worked through the schedule, I recognized my backup sessions as well.

A conference is a nonstop series of choices.  I try always to have a Plan B session in case the Plan A one I choose doesn’t turn out to be what I was looking for. Even so, a wealth of options and the realities of distance mean that you can’t take in everything you’d like.

I knew that with DevLearn’s mobile app, I’d have a source for materials shared by the presenters. I now had two lists: one for the sessions I’d attended, and a second one for those I didn’t see but wanted to know more about.

Mapping the future

This note-taking and note-revising triggered other thoughts: people I wanted to ask certain questions of, notions I didn’t want to lose, and topics I want to explore further. A third list emerged.

Finally, I had a lot of notes from my workshop on job aids: things that went well, things I’d like to change, even an idea for a virtual follow-up, a way for the participants to keep in touch on the subject of job aids. One idea I may try to make that happen came from Tracy Parish’s session on using WordPress to deliver blended learning.

Reflecting in the present

This may have been among the best two hours I’ve spent on a plane, with the possible exception of the one time I got upgraded. I ended up with four separate notes (in Evernote, of course), along with the first draft of my last blog post. The topic wasn’t earth-shaking, but few of mine are. Writing the post was a renewal of good practice for me: being more conscious about what I do, what I’d like to do, and the gap between those things.

I got far more out of my time in Las Vegas than I expected. I’ve thought a lot about how to sustain those benefits. Making these notes was a good start, and so has been the process of writing a couple of blog posts.

I’m re-examining what I do, what I enjoy doing, and what I want to be doing in my career and my life over the next few years. In the short term, I have the session material to download, and some two dozen people (not counting presenters) whom I want to keep in better contact with.

Dress for success

I do have a day job to return to, with a fast-approaching deadline. I know from experience, though, that the material-reviewing and emails to contacts won’t happen without intention on my part.

The best professional contacts, I think, are free exchanges, and almost always they include something of the personal. At DevLearn, keynoter Adam Savage talked about his fondness for costumes and how it led to jumping off a building, into a dumpster, dressed like Neo from The Matrix.

That’s a bit more colorful than my choice for a workplace Halloween celebration. My immediate team – or those who were pumped up for the holiday – had the idea of being Game of Thrones characters.

That didn’t really appeal to me, but the good interaction I have with them did, and so I managed to play along while letting my personality come through:

dave as george r r martin 2014

And now, DevLearn’s over. Winter, as they say, is coming (except in the casino, where they don’t allow weather). Still, that means spring is coming as well, and summer after it.

As the next few months roll along, I want to be rolling down a conscious path. DevLearn’s helped me map out a route.

Aug 112015

In a previous post, I talked about deciding to learn Avid’s Sibelius First, which is software for composing music. My goal wasn’t composition, but I’d read that I could scan sheet music and produce an audio file. I’d joined a choir and wanted to hear the tenor parts for the songs we sing.

This post is about challenges I ran into and reflections I’ve had about how I went about learning.

piano-523050_640Cha cheòl do dhuin’ a bhròn uil’ aithris.
(It’s no music to a man to recite all his woe.)

From a glance at the product site, I thought my choral problems were over. “Choose the note input method that’s most comfortable for you–play a MIDI instrument, transcribe audio, or scan sheet music.” I downloaded the software and launched into my own 30-day trial.

There’s more than one meaning for “trial.”

What I bumped into was my own misapprehension. After fiddling around with the menus and discovering that the reference manual is 437 pages long (not counting glossary, shortcuts, and index), I found that I couldn’t scan handwritten music (like the first piece I wanted to try), only printed music.

I also discovered that while I knew a few things about music (I can play guitar and on a piano can pick out melodies on the treble clef), the details of Sibelius First were a bit like the details of relational databases or organic chemistry: the individual words mostly made sense, but the combinations and contexts often left me stranded.

Chan e na léughar a ni foghliumte ach na chuimhn-ichear.
(It’s not what’s read but what’s remembers that makes one learned.)

Sibelius First comes with three tutorials whose printed guide is 87 pages long. Here’s what you find under “Start Here.”


shield-69096_640However much you may dislike manuals, you must read the whole of this introduction in order to get started with the program.

You are then very strongly advised to work through at least the first three of the five tutorial products before embarking on any serious work of your own with Sibelius First. Sibelius First is easy to learn and mostly self-explanatory, but if you don’t work through these projects you will run a risk of never discovering some basic features, particularly if you are used to notation programs that work in different ways. By the time you have completed the projects — which will take you only a few hours — you will be able to input, edit, play back and print out straightforward music, and you’ll know how to get going on more complicated music too.

Actually, I stuck with the tutorial long enough to read the “7 main elements” of Project 1. They include opening a score, editing and inputting notes, selections (I think they mean “selecting”) and copying music, and “Flexi-time™ input.” Not a word about scanning.

I had no interest in opening a score, and doubted whether Sibelius could open a PDF of a printed score I had. I had some specific goals in mind, and the admonitory tone of the warning didn’t seem to offer much hope of reaching those goals without submitting to a period of initiation.

I don’t want to beat up on Sibelius. This is the crux of off-the-shelf software training: it homogenizes learners to such an extent that it abandons almost all context that’s meaningful to them.

So I refined my context: how do I scan music? It was at about this point I began printing selected chapters of that 437-page manual. Tracking down mentions of scanning, I came across “PhotoScore,” which seemed to be a kind of add-on needed to scan. Where was it? Why didn’t I see it?

I was better able to tackle these questions, in part I think because their scope was more limited. At worst, I’d have to discovered I was wrong — but I wasn’t. It’s been a while and I may have the sequence wrong, but I think I did the download wrong.

I assumed it was one big download with all the necessary parts. In retrospect, I had to go back to the download page two or three more times to pick up various packages I didn’t realize I needed.

music-429711_640This began a series of two-steps-forward, one-step-back incidents, such as:

  • Discovering I had to start PhotoScore from outside Sibelius.
  • Scanning my first page and not understanding the results.
  • Scanning a complete piece and figuring out how to edit
  • Moving the edited piece from PhotoScore to Sibelius
  • Discovering that I couldn’t hear any audio because I hadn’t downloaded the audio portion of Sibelius

It’s been close to six months now. I’ve produced audio files for at least 10 pieces, including eight that include separate parts for all four choir voices, along with nice clean scores in PDF. I even bought a numeric keypad to attach to my laptop (see footnote below for technical explanation). Most important, I’m more than satisfied with my investment of time and money.

And what about learning?

Beiridh am beag tric air a mhòr ainmig.
(The frequent little will overtake the infrequent large.)

Especially early on, I’d work trying to transcribe a piece.  I’d stop when I felt stumped, roam around in the manual, but very often would make guesses about what might work. Some of those guesses became more educated in time. So I was doing the typically messy learning by doing (and, yes, learning by failing).

Ironically, I continue to have very little interest in finishing the Sibelius tutorials. Some of that is just my annoyance at the tone of the warning; some is the sense that I may have taught myself a good portion of what I might have learned, and I’m several pieces of music to the good.

On the other hand, now that I’m more familiar with what *I* can produce, I might be more open to picking up something unexpected.

Which leads to another reflection: for me, in this circumstance, good enough is good enough. I’m not trying to make a living as a music composer or arranger; I’m just trying to learn my choir parts. I think there’s a message in that for those hoping to turn people in the workplace into All Learning, All the Time: most people don’t want to do anything all the time.

At the same time, my definition of “good enough” is changing; my standards have become higher. When I see in sheet music something tricky like a pick-up bar (one at the start of a piece that doesn’t have, say, the four beats that 4/4 time calls for), I want to get the Sibelius transcription to show it and the audio file to play it as written.

I’ve even managed to do things like take music written on two staffs, like this, and scan it…

chi mi 2 staff sample

…and then have Sibelius expand it so that each voice is on its own staff, like this:

chi mi 4 staff sample

That latter version takes more space, since the lyrics appear separately for each voice. Choir members like that; they can more easily focus on their own line, especially when not every voice is singing the same word for the same length.

That’s another lovely song, and one you might have heard. Here are the Rankins singing it:

And here are the lyrics in Gaelic and English.

I’ve become more curious about musical things; I understand more about notation, and I want to figure out how to get Sibelius (and thus the audio files) to do things like multiple repetitions of a chorus — especially because in a Gaelic song like Horo Gun Togainn air Hùgan Fhathast (link to a BBC audio file), with a three-line chorus interwoven with two-line verses.

My choir takes the summer off, and I’ve been working on a professional project (if you’re going to DevLearn at the end of September, I’ll see you there), but I need to reacquaint myself with Sibelius. I’ve got melodies to learn and tenor lines to master.

Sep 142014

an leabhar beag gormMy ancestors were all Scots–MacDougalls, MacLeods, MacLennans, MacFarlanes, MacIsaacs, Rankins, Macdonalds, and more than one who spelled my last name MacFhearghais–and so I’ve followed the run-up to next Thursday’s referendum asking “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

This is a question for the voters of Scotland, and I don’t pretend to have advice on how they should vote. In the social media streams I follow, though, I’ve seen many remarks to the effect that, despite excesses here and there, discussions in Scotland have had a high level of seriousness.

Just today, on the Facebook page for an artist I follow who’s an ardent advocate for Yes, a person planning to vote No was invited to a public discussion. He felt secure enough to ask with an emoticon wink, “Will I be safe?”

Ordinary individuals are exploring, considering, pondering, which is a good thing for any democracy.

What this post is about is not a Yes or No vote in the referendum, but the thoroughness of one organization firmly on the Yes side–Wings Over Scotland, a political website focused on the media.

What I mean by thoroughness is their approach to communicating with potential readers. I only happened to notice this because I came across a link to An Leabhar Beag Gorm, the Gaelic edition of their publication, The Wee Blue Book(I don’t know much Gaelic, but I knew all four words in the Gaelic title, so it caught my eye.)

wee blue bookAs Wings Over Scotland explains in their introduction to The Wee Blue Book, none of the 37 national or daily papers  available in Scotland supports independence.  “Newspapers have no duty to be fair or balanced, but… the press being so overwhelmingly skewed to one side is a problem for democracy.

“Our website…is biased, too. We support independence…”

To that end, they’ve collected a great deal of information and assembled it into the Wee Blue Book.

What’s impressive is how they’re offering it up. You can see on their August 11 post that the book is available:

And, as you’ve seen, in Gaelic.

But wait! There’s more!

Wings Over Scotland has a print-ready edition–and when they say “print,” they mean A6 paper, self-cover, CMYK, saddle-stitched, with a 3mm bleed, on 130gsm stock, so you can “just hand the PDF to a printing company.”

Finally, they have a “low-colour, ink-saver version” for home printing, with instructions, so if you want to run off a couple yourself, you can.

I’ve never met the Reverend Stuart Campbell, who runs the site, but I’m pretty sure he’s a lot smarter than the average social media guru whose self-promotions rain down on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Jun 092014

The other day a project manager was remarking on the early stages of large projects and the inevitable changes that occur as those projects unfold.

I’m no project manager, so I was doing internal translation. I see a big project’s requirements document as like the initial design for a kitchen remodeling: in the new inventory system, we want to have glass cabinets,  a wall-mounted oven, an island with its own sink, and on the south wall, bigger windows (for greater visibility into the supply chain)Only later in the process do you discover you won’t have the time, or the money, or both, to move Finance’s plumbing.

Financial flowYou’re facing some rethinking, but that doesn’t mean starting the project requirements from scratch.

If  right now you’re wondering why Finance has a sink, then my analogy failed. Or, you recognized adjustments that you’ve seen, or that you can imagine, even though the project you’re thinking of didn’t involve inventory, Finance, or a kitchen, then I think I made my point.

A larger point is that, when it comes to improving performance, what’s crucial about an analogy is not how clever it is, but how effective.

The goal of an analogy is to help someone make a connection or reach an understanding that he hadn’t yet made. You can’t guarantee that your analogy will do that, though you can road-test it and modify it so that it’s more likely to.

Cleverness carries a risk that you’re focusing on surface elements, or on outside references that don’t apply to the immediate situation. Shakespeare’s plays are as full of analogies as O’Hare airport is full of wheeled baggage, but many of those analogies rely on references that in the twenty-first century we don’t understand.

Sweet are the uses of adversity
which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

 — As You Like It

It might be clever to work Shakespeare in, but if this one’s your choice, you’ll likely connect only with committed theatergoers and unreconstructed literature majors.

I tried a different line once, as a lead-in to a course on vendor-managed inventory.

If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me…

 — Macbeth

It might not work for you, but I managed to avoid using a stock-art photo of a warehouse dock. More important, the inventory people saw the connection  to the topic.

That helped me escape the too-clever trap, although technically this wasn’t an analogy, just an indirect lead into the topic. Banquo was not in this scene struggling with inventory control–but he was interested in knowing what the future might hold, which is a true, on-the-job concern for warehouse managers.

So the real test might not be whether you’re using an analogy, a metaphor, or a simile — but whether the way you present something new makes the aha! more likely.

CC-licensed kitchen sink photo by Steev Hise