The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, February 26, 2010

RSI Day Part 1: Cross-eyed

With International RSI Awareness Day falling over the weekend (the last day of February), I've been thinking about what to write in my annual RSI nag. Every year, I try to write a blog post and/or shamelessly email everyone I know to remind them about the basics when it comes to avoiding RSI, but I do get a bit bored of repeating (ha!) the same old stuff about posture, work station set-up and the importance of regular breaks (check my archives under Feb 2008 for a good overview).

Then I realised that over the past few days I've been getting rotten headaches from working at my computer and I thought I'd broaden my topic out into general computer-related health issues - seeing as they're all linked anyway. As someone who's got a great work station set-up (screen at the right height and distance, good lighting, etc.) and who takes regular breaks, I really shouldn't be getting headaches from looking at my screen and for most of the time, I don't. When I sat back and thought about it though, I realised it makes a huge difference what I'm looking at on my screen.

Up until Wednesday of this week, I'd been mostly working on an editing job. I'd been printing out the pages of manuscript to read and make notes on away from my computer - not a very efficient technique, but a really useful one when too much computer time has such a bad effect on your health - then I'd been dictating my comments and feedback into a Word document. Generally, I like to work in Word as much as I can, partly because it's the application in which my voice recognition software is most effective, but also because it's generally easy to look at. You've got lots of white space on the screen, you can have reasonably large print and you can use nice fonts, bolding, underlining, etc. for variety. In short, it tends to be easy on the eye.

For the past couple of days though I've gone back to a corpus research job. I don't know if you've ever seen corpus software, but generally it involves scrolling through screens and screens of lines of text. That text is in a horrible, old-fashioned Courier or Times New Roman font with your key search word highlighted down the middle of the screen. Research generally involves searching for a word, then sorting the lines of text to the left or the right and scrolling up and down to try and spot patterns emerging. It's perhaps not surprising then that you soon find yourself going rather cross-eyed and with a stinking headache. [Please don't try to read the below or you really will give yourself a headache!!]

I know the advice is that you should look away from the screen regularly and focus on something in the middle distance so that the muscles in your eyes don't get stuck in one position rather in the same way that keeping your hand clamped on the mouse in the same position is bad for you. But you still can't get away from the fact of having to look at those ugly lines for hours on end. I wonder whether the folks who design software for professional use should put a bit more attention into the way their screens look? Do other people using specialist software applications suffer in the same way? I've certainly seen some of the spreadsheets that my accountant boyfriend spends his day staring at and they don't look great either. Perhaps we need some of the designers who make (good) websites look attractive and user-friendly to be put to use in some of the less sexy areas of software design?

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 12, 2010

A guilty pleasure

I've always been interested in design and presentation. One of my favourite subjects at school was graphic design and had I not gone down the language route, it might have been my alternative career. But it's a love that frequently conflicts with my strongly-held beliefs around waste, packaging and consumerism generally. As much as I'll argue passionately against rampant consumerism, over-consumption and wasteful packaging - I'm also a complete sucker for a bit of well-designed presentation. I can get quite stupidly excited about piles of coloured t-shirts in Gap, I hold my hands up to buying stuff I know I don't need from some of my favourite Scandinavian design brands (Ordning & Reda, Bookbinders, Marimekko, Iittala) and I can't walk past a Muji without buying something!

Today I got a bit of guilty pleasure from a rather unexpected source. I get an organic vegbox delivered once a fortnight. Usually the (recycled and reusable) box is full of mostly loose vegetables, still covered in mud - which in itself looks great. Today though, I had a "choose your own contents" box which not only didn't contain any broccoli or carrots (my recent pet hates!) but also had some rather lovely extra packaging. (For those not au fait with veg boxes, you usually get a selection of veg that's in season and no choice in the matter, but my supplier, Riverford, also give the option of making up your own box if you spend over a certain amount). I'm guessing that because it was put together in a slightly different way, almost all the individual vegetables came in their own beautifully-illustrated, brown paper bags (recycled I'm sure!).

At first, I felt torn between enjoying the presentation but feeling slightly let down by the extra packaging. Thankfully though, the brown bags make excellent liners for my organic waste box - much better than pages from the Guardian that don't really fit properly, get folded up and soggy! Little pleasures ...

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The joys of freelancing ... #1 Slow food

I love food and cooking, and one of the joys of working from home is that I don't have to just whip something up in half an hour when I get home in the evening. It's such a pleasure to be able to take a break mid-afternoon to get something started; to put something in to marinate or to start it bubbling away gently on the stove. Today it's been rather cold and snowy outside, so I decided something really comforting would be appropriate and I put a small lamb joint in to slow-roast with some herbs and spices (garlic, cumin and thyme). It's been in for over an hour so far and the whole house is smelling wonderful - I wish I could blog smells!

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Mental gymnastics

Despite my recent attempts to cut my workload, I seem to find myself juggling work on four different projects at the same time at the moment! Actually, it's not as bad as it sounds as a couple of them are very small bits of work and the others can be divided up into smallish chunks. That suits me quite well when I'm trying to keep down to just three or four working hours a day - I can manage a chunk of day and don't get quite as tempted to just plough on as I might do with work on a longer term project.

The tricky bit though is switching from job to job and remembering what you're meant to be doing, especially as each of the four are at quite different levels; pre-intermediate editing, upper intermediate reviewing, CAE corpus research and IELTS consultation! As I say, although I try and work on only one project in any one day, inevitably, emails come in from various different sources which need to be read and replied to, then they trigger off different thoughts and ideas which end up as mental background noise.

Of course, back in the days when I was teaching, I'd happily go from a class of beginners to an advanced level Proficiency group with no more than a 10-minute break for a quick slurp of coffee and a fight with the photocopier in-between times and think nothing of it! Although, perhaps it's easier to make the switch when you've got real students sitting in front of you rather than doing it as an abstract exercise in front of a computer screen.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Global launch party

I've just got back from Oxford and after a rather long, cold, damp journey home which involved two missed trains that I ran for only to see them pulling away from the platform, lots of sitting around waiting for connections and a 45-minute trudge home in the rain, I don't have the energy to settle down to any work this afternoon, so I thought I'd update you on last night's "do" - the launch of Global at the Ashmolean Museum.

First things first, I was quite pleased with the outfit I finally settled on, which bizarrely turned out to match the coursebook colours rather well. Sadly, the few photos I took turned out rather blurry because of the lighting (and a borrowed camera that probably should have been a different setting!), but here's a self-portrait shot taken in my hotel room at about one o'clock this morning ...

The evening itself turned out to be really interesting. After some initial standing about like a bit of a lemon looking for someone I recognised, I ended up meeting lots of new people, some who I knew by name but had never actually met before and catching up with some old friends. It was really good to meet the rest of the Global team and to get a sense of the whole project and where my contributions fit into it. I've realised that putting together a whole new series of coursebooks is definitely a major undertaking and takes a large cast of contributors to create all the "components" now expected as standard. There's not just the actual student's book itself, but the teacher's book and its accompanying teacher's resource CD, a multifaceted eWorkbook with not only the expected practice activities - which I contributed to the pre-intermediate level - but videos, extra audio material, etc and that's before we even get onto the ongoing work involved in the website, its e-lessons, blogs .....

After an evening of listening to all the work everybody has put into it and the buzz and enthusiasm surrounding the launch of the finished product, you do get swept along on quite a wave. My only niggling thought though, which I didn't really formulate properly until my train journey home this morning, was whether all this stuff is ever actually going to get used. Back when I was a full-time teacher on General English courses, I used to struggle just to use all the material in the student's book. I was always getting distracted and sidetracked into discussions and ad-libbed activities, or I was itching to use my own material, usually in those days a badly photocopied article from a newspaper with some handwritten questions on the bottom that would act as a starting point for lessons that could head off in all kinds of different directions. And so, no matter how good the coursebook might be, I was always looking for sections I could skip, not extra material to fill up my time. Perhaps I was unusual (that's why I gave up the teaching in favour of full-time materials development!) and I know that many teachers don't have the inclination, the resources, or perhaps for importantly, the time to write their own stuff, so probably welcome a whole range of reliable, well-written supplementary materials to draw on, but for all the extra work and effort that goes in, I do still wonder how much of that extra material will ever really get a serious airing. I'd be interested to find out ...

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What (not) to wear ...?

I'm just thinking about getting ready for a trip to Oxford tomorrow for a launch party for the new Global coursebooks; checking train times and deciding what to wear - something smart but not too dressy, classy but not too 'middle-aged academic'!! People who go out to work and have business meetings every day might find this a bit funny, but when you work from home and most of your contact is via email, face-to-face meetings do take on an added significance. As a freelance colleague put it to me recently, it's our chance to remind the publishers we work for that we're real people and not just "service providers".

It's also an excuse to get away from my desk for a day (Hooray!! My RSI 's very bad at the mo) and will be a chance to catch up with 'colleagues' who I don't see very often. I'll post news of how it goes (and maybe photos) when I get back ...

Labels: , , ,