Two awards with one blow…

Two University of Queensland Awards (Gold on Black) - a Discipline Award for Excellence in Developing the Business Information systems Discipline on the left, and a Teaching & Learning Award for Excellence in Innovation on the right.
Two awards side by side.

So it’s awards season as the dust settles on the hellscape that was 2022, and I was quite happy to receive these two awards from the UQ Business School this afternoon – one in the Teaching & Learning category for Excellence in Innovation and another in the Discipline category for Excellence in Developing the Business Information systems Discipline. The former is for authenticity in innovative authentic assessment across a number of courses, and the second is for mentoring and pitching in to help folks rather more than required (I guess?) The latter is a new award to encourage our positive culture. Maybe I’ll need to do more walking tours of UQ with staff…

Also really pleased to see teaching-focussed friends and colleagues such as Dr Niki Macionis and Ann Wallin be recognised for their work and my absolute-legend BIS colleagues including Andrew Burton-Jones (PhD Supervision), Sabine Matook (Research Excellence), Stan Karanasios (Innovation in Large Courses), and Ida Asadi Someh (as part of the Master of Business Analytics program development team). And Carrie Finn received the prestigious cultural improvement award – apparently for chatting and having coffees. Maybe :). Though I don’t recall all the awards, I do know that the professional staff recipients include the very worth Kate Cupples and Laura Armistead. We do need to expand that category. Anyway – a nice bookend to 2022…

Adventures in Typewriting – in Australia

When the lockdown began here in Australia, I – like all of us – found myself with time on my hands. I learnt typing in school, in the old-fashioned way, and that was on big, heavy manual typewriters. They made a satisfying clunk noise when you typed, and frankly my Apple Magic keyboard wasn’t doing that for me. Even when I was writing my PhD I often lamented the lack of the rhythmic feedback as you typed.

I should point out that I learned on typewriters in the early 1980’s. By 1988 I had fully signed up to my XT computer, and I was an early adopter of computers (and the PhD is in Information Systems – so I am not a luddite and in fact my ’superpower’ is in the use of computers).

But that need for aural feedback is a strong thing. Mushy keyboards were not nice to type on. Let me describe the moment I found the mechanical keyboard scene as a revelation. But after acquiring my ‘end game’ keyboards – two IBM Model M keyboards – I turned my attention to typewriters.

I invented a new game – bidding on eBay to lose. That worked OK for a while – until I found to my dismay that I actually misjudged and bought a typewriter. My Olivetti Lettera 32. It is the typewriter I am writing on now and it has a nice, quick, light action and the typeface is clean, neat, and – with a new ribbon – black. It occasionally feels a little dinky, and it is missing a couple of features (a paper guide and a paper shield on the platen), and the carriage return is a little wonky. It came from the hoard of a 94 year old woman who moved into aged care, and I bought it from her niece out near Jimboomba (a small country town out near Beaudesert in Australia). I believe this model is from about 1974.

Now, when you are looking at typewriters in Australia there seems to be a premium to be paid. The Australia Tax is real. Typewriters in some sort of good condition cost a great deal more than they seem to overseas. The sellers are usually clueless. They really have no idea what a typewriter is other than that they think there is a ready supply of idiots prepared to buy them. They often advertise a rusty heap of junk for far more than it is worth.

For example, I purchased my Olivetti Lettera 32 for $117.50 ($2.50 less than my max bid). Admittedly, it is not ‘proper’ vintage and it is the model made in Mexico. But it is in good working order (the case too) and it has the cool Techno typeface. In comparison though there are other Letteras advertised for $300 or more. I do note that they don’t seem to sell quickly.

So yes, the Australia Tax is a thing.

A key issue is that the cost of shipping drives up the cost of these things. I have sourced these typewriters locally because even inter-state shipping costs a significant chunk of the cost of the typewriter. You can completely forget about international shipping on a 7 kilogram ‘portable’ typewriter!

I have gotten to the stage now where I have five typewriters. Four portable typewriters (three Remington Monarchs and the Lettera) and – gasp – an Olympia SG3 which is the same model typewriter that I had at High School. The ‘G’ stands for the German word ‘Grosse’, and that is a very fair description. These standard typewriters are BIG. I only think I have room for one or two of them in my life.

And of course that begs the question of whether a typewriter is of any practical use in the 21st century. Certainly, at least, that is the question that my wife has asked at least five times now, and each time with her eyebrows quizzically arched.

The answer to that is, of course, a definitive ‘no’.

Typewriters are obsolete. They are slow. They are unforgiving of mistakes. And, frankly, editing the analogue, typed, page of text is a right proper pain in the proverbial.

I cannot google a question that comes to me while writing, so fact checking my work is something that has to be left until later. I cannot quickly alt-tab to my Twitter feed with the Olivetti, my Olympia, or any of my three Remington Monarchs. But, I do wonder how it might compare to something like the Freewrite, which famously only allows you to backspace. No editing allowed. Rather like – ooh, I don’t know? – a typewriter. Both force you to keep moving forward – you can correct an error when you make it on the typewriter using whiteout tape, but you are not going to white-out an entire paragraph and re-type it. And you can definitely forget about good old cut-and-paste – except of course for the literal version of that.

But I guess those limitations are the things that are actually features, not bugs. Typing on the typewriter forces you to concentrate on what you are writing. It is inherently distraction-free (except of course for the copious use of white-out tape). Eventually, your writing should be turned into an electronic version, but you could write the first draft and then use an OCR tool to scan it into text.

If you want to do serious writing with a typewriter, you will want to return to the old-fashioned discipline of the first, second and third drafts. Write it once, all the way through (or, if it is a long piece, in sections). And then mark that up with a pencil and then re-type (and re-write) a second draft. And possibly a third. You will by necessity become more disciplined and structured in your writing since you won’t be spending all that time hacking and pulling apart your writing as you go.

That may or may not be a good thing.

I think it is important that you don’t get too wedded to pages as you type them. Be prepared to start again, or put a line through whole paragraphs. Or simply use an *x* in those early drafts to remove the words that are not wanted.
I have simple white-out tape that I use to correct errors as I go, though you don’t want to be too precious really about that first messy draft. I have a stylus for use on a tablet with the rubber tip that I use to tamp down any wayward bits of tape. It is far easier than old fashioned liquid paper.

You probably want the draft that you are going to scan to be the cleanest draft, but you can also edit the final result and you will very likely want to review your OCR’d text when you scan it. It will never be 100% correct in my experience. Again – this is a feature, not a bug, as it forces you to engage with your text. Your focus keeps the relationship between you and your text, nothing else. I use ABBY FineReader OCR as part of DevonThink. Handily, that gives me a good, searchable, PDF at the end of the process. There are actually some interesting-looking tools that you can use as an app on your smartphone now too to perform OCR as you type it there and then, though I think it might be interesting to compare the accuracy of such tools.

Ultimately, whether the typewriter is of any use to you will depend on whether it frustrates you or not, and whether your writing improves as a result. Typing is unforgiving; I learnt on typewriters so I have latent skills in getting it right the first time (or at least, I seem able to type without a large number of errors creeping in). To make it easier on yourself, I suggest using the lightest typewriter you can find, and the most reliable. I would stick to a portable, as it’s easy to hide your mistakes in the cupboard. A standard typewriter has a heavier action and really requires a commitment of desk space!

So that re-typing pages is less of a chore for you, I suggest double-spacing your typing. That also allows you to more easily mark up your second draft. Have the white-out tape at your side – errors are OK but it might be a bit demotivating to see all those typos (though, again, this is a feature, not a bug). Remember, the only draft that you will get a real benefit where there are no typos is the draft that you are going to OCR into your computer. With that in mind, aim to have a dark, fresh ribbon in the typewriter. Otherwise, OCR might be quite a bit less accurate.

Overall, for me this has been a bit of a rediscovered hobby during lockdown, and I do not know that I would expect to do an awful lot of writing in this way. It is a good circuit-breaker from simply hacking away and copy-pasting together a document, and it is good to write without distraction. I could achieve that, though, with my laptop if I simply turned off the wi-fi. But these machines can be a Thing of Beauty in their own right, and it is nice to have them working away and giving you the feeling that you are banging, and clacking, and slamming words onto the paper productively. That is a feeling I have missed.

Though, to be fair, I am not at all convinced that my family feels the same way.

A Rostrum Speech: To be a little crazy is a good thing.

Crazy? Crazy. Crazy!

We are living in a bizarre world. These are crazy times – we have said it so often in the past three months – is it only three? And in crazy times, being normal is not enough. But being too crazy is just going to make things worse. No – to be a little crazy is a good thing.

Let’s put a little context on that.

Our new normal is not normal. If you had told me three months ago that the borders would be closed – that there would be no holidays overseas for a year, that I would live, work, and socialise in a virtual world, or that I could go to a nightclub so long as I didn’t dance – I’d have said you were crazy. And I’d have been right. None of this was normal!

Now, conventional wisdom, normal wisdom, says that ‘normal’ was ‘just how it always was, how it is, and how it will stay’. If you are normal, if you try to work normally – that’s not going to be enough. Being ‘normal’ comes with too many damned rules. You can do this but only when that happens. If you do that other thing, then you’ll get that outcome. And those rules don’t work any more, and they’re not going to work for some time into the future. It’s not good. Frankly, trying to be normal, and do things normally – it’s going to drive you crazy.

But that’s OK – unless you are driven a lot crazy. Too crazy and you’re in deep trouble. Too crazy is when you can’t operate, when you’re can’t make decisions, when you’re bound up in your own little world and worried about every consequence, every action, every thought – you’ll drive yourself to distraction. You’ll be too crazy and that’s just not good either.

Being normal will not be good. Too crazy will not be good. But being a little crazy – that’s the sweet spot. You don’t want to be so strait-laced that stepping outside of the normal breaks you. You want to seem human, be human! You want to act a little crazy – so you can have fun and ‘break the norm’. Buy a 27-year old keyboard. Ride a bicycle upside down. The people you live with will appreciate you for you. The people you work with will see too that we’re all in this together and it’s OK if it’s driving you a bit crazy. We can all work together. It’s a stress relief – enjoy and embrace your crazy.

Today, nothing is normal – and being ‘normal’ isn’t enough. Of course – you can’t go too crazy. If you go too crazy you’ll be bouncing around and just not advance. No – the answer is to be a little crazy. To be a little crazy is a good thing.

Hidden Dangers

(The below is a speech that I wrote last night for my Rostrum speaking club – the topic was ‘Hidden Dangers)

Humans are fragile things. You hit them with a car – they die. You feed them teeny-tiny chunks of arsenic – they die.  You lock them in a room without oxygen – they die.  And of course, if you expose them to a new, never-before-seen virus – they die.  Their crumpled little shells crinkle, crack and creak until – poof – they turn to dust. 

Some dangers are obvious – for example, diving headlong into a vat of broken glass has clear consequences.  Other dangers are hidden away from our ever-alert, ever-nervous eyes.  For us humans, hidden dangers lurk everywhere – in what we breathe, what we eat, and what we touch. 

An apparent hidden danger is of course the coronavirus and the associated disease, Covid-19.  The normal rules of ‘keep away from danger’ don’t apply with a virus.  You can’t smell or taste it – so you don’t know to avoid breathing it in or eating it.  And you can’t see with your eyes if a surface is contaminated – so you could be touching it RIGHT NOW and not know it!

It does spread through the air – but fortunately that is not as easy to catch it as you might think. 

It appears so far to require direct contact with an infected person or respiratory droplets.  And it needs to be for a fairly prolonged period of time – about 15 minutes face to face contact – anywhere – for the 24 hours before the onset of symptoms in the infected person.  Or, about two hours of sharing a closed space (about two or more hours) is a problem (Yay for lectures!).  But the virus does not seem to spread through air conditioning – it only survives in the air for a short time.  So – if an infected person coughs with you in the direct path, and you breathe in the droplets in the air, then the hidden danger is revealed and you can get coronavirus.

To stop this, you can use a face mask – I guess, though that’s not foolproof, you need to replace the mask often, and is better if the infected person wears it.  Better – respect personal space, avoid close contact with coughing or sneezing people, and give yourself plenty of space to avoid droplets – say, 6 feet :).  Personal space is important!

As for getting Covid-19 from what we eat, that seems unlikely unless you are actually eating an infected animal.  Still you should probably avoid preparing food for other people if you think you have Covid-19.  And… maybe avoid the purchase of food from places that look a little… dodgy (though that’s good advice for all of the time). 

The hidden danger is that you can pick up the coronavirus from hard surfaces.  The virus can last on surfaces for a few hours, or several days. Current research says it depends on the type of surface, temperature, and humidity.  That benchtop could have had someone sneeze on it yesterday and you’d not know it!  Ick! 

An alcohol-based wet wipe – more than 70% ethanol, isopropanol, or 2-propanol – will kill the virus within about a minute.  So that’s good news – maybe instead of toilet paper, we should stock up on those?  If you have visions – as I did – of killing it with Glen20 – well, that won’t work.  At all. 

So, maybe carry around alcohol-based wet wipes for this purpose. 

If you have skin-on-skin contact – such as shaking hands or – cough – something more, intimate – then you probably can’t throw someone into a vat of hand sanitiser.  So, in such cases, maybe just avoid touching your eyes, or mouth.  Or you know, licking the desk in front of you…

The other clear and related advice is to wash your hands with soap.  For the full 20 seconds – Happy birthday sung twice is about right, as is, thankfully, the main chorus to Mambo No. 5:  ‘A little bit of Monica in my life, a little bit of Erica by my side… all the way through to Number 5 when those 7 girls make you their man.’

Ahem.  

So – the danger is real, but it is hidden.  Fortunately, although humans are fragile, they do tend to survive.  Humanity will continue.  For such fragile little shells, we are robust enough.  The hidden dangers – well, we can’t see them, but we can do things about them.  Covid-19 is not as dangerous as Ebola, where half the people that get it die!  But it’s not obvious that you are in risk of getting it, it’s not obvious if you have it, but it can be most unpleasant to have. 
We should all be vigilant as to what we breathe, eat and touch. 

Addendum

Covid-19 is not as dangerous as Ebola.  With Ebola, 50% of people who get it, die!  With Covid-19, that number’s about 1% – maybe more, maybe less.  Still, it’s more than the flu, which is 0.1%, and measles, which is 0.2%.  But the trouble is that the ‘reproduction number’ – the number of people that one infected person infects – is actually higher than Ebola.  Ebola is 1.9, Covid-19 is 2.8.  Unllike Ebola – which kills quite quickly – Covid-19 is merely uncomfortable and people spread it around until they realise they’re sick.   You tend not to do that with Ebola…