Parsing Sentences for Easy Reading

For the past year, I’ve had the pleasure to work on and off for a Toronto-based consultancy that focuses on accessibility. In addition to doing training, accessibilty audits, and development, they provide video captioning and description services, which is where I fit in.

Unlike those mysterious beings that close caption live television, I caption videos – generally university lectures. It’s interesting work, and was a lovely part-time job while I was finishing up my Masters. I’ve kept up with it because I enjoy it… and extra pocket money is always enjoyable. What I did not realize when I started, however, was that it would also have a lasting (positive) impact on my work as an IA/tech writer.

You know how sometimes, you’re reading, and a line break hits in the wrong spot, and it’s weird? Bad sentence parsing. I usually only notice if it’s two or three lines of text, like a PowerPoint title, or subtitles on a video. Poor sentence parsing makes it harder for readers to read smoothly: in captioning in particular, you want people to be able to read quickly and glean all the information they’re reading without becoming confused by a subject-object split. As a person whose focus is on expressing concepts clearly, this has been something of a revelation. While I’m not a designer, I necessarily do some design in my work, particularly since I’ve started freelancing. Parsing is something that I increasingly think about, and I think it’s making my visual work easier to understand.

Take, for example, the post-it note that I have had stuck to my monitor, reminding me to write this post:
Post it note reads Parsing Sentences for Easy ReadingThat’s pretty solid. I’m happy with that parsing. I might easily have written this, though:

Parsing Sentences for
Easy Reading

Hopefully you see that this is a less smooth reading experience. Let’s take another example, this time borrowed from a fantastic Girl Geeks Toronto event that I went to last night (recap post to follow). The title of the event was “Designing for Digital: Processes and Planning for Powerful Solutions.” Here are two ways we could write that on the title slide of our presentation deck:

Designing for
Digital: Processes
and Planning
for Powerful Solutions
Designing for Digital:
Processes and Planning
for Powerful Solutions

I think the second one is easier to parse, and easier to read. With presentation software and design software, where you create text boxes and write in them, it’s easy to rely on the automatic text wrapping. I have started to fight that urge, and to think about how best to manage my line breaks. I’m not advocating for manually line breaking everything, but for titles or short, punchy sentences, it’s something to think about. If reading it aloud sounds wonky, try moving the line break. Your readers will thank you, even if they don’t realize it.

Edited to add:

Another excellent example care of Paul, from a Zipcar ad in the New York subway:

Turn offs in job ads

I’ve been reading a lot of job ads lately: some of the have been delightful; some of them have made me want to pull my hair out.  A few of them have sent up red flags of “You don’t want to work for this company.”

Here are a few of those things:

  • Key criteria involves caring about when I eat / use the washroom / make tea. If a job requires set hours (e.g. you are a receptionist that needs to be at the reception desk, you’re answering calls in a call centre, or you’re the on-call person for when the servers blow up), it makes sense to give people a heads up (and to care about these things). Since I’m not looking for that kind of work, this just gives me the sense that this employer is likely rigid, and potentially micro-managey.  Sometimes people need to go look at things that aren’t their computer screen; sometimes a brief walk can help think through a roadblock. If I’m worried that my performance will be evaluated based on how much time I spend typing, I’m not going to apply.
  • Using tons of organizational jargon.  If this job is open to external applicants, I’m not sure why you assume we’re already familiar with the myriad of intranets, products, and technologies you utilise, especially if they’re specific to your organisation. Similarly, acronym abuse. I’m not a big fan of acronyms: I find them confusing, cumbersome, and unintuitive, especially when the thing isn’t defined at its first mention. I recognize that they have a place, and I use them from time to time, but the abuse of acronyms drives me bananas.
  •  – Reporting to the Manager, Planning & Support, the candidate will liaise with OCIO, ETS and Line of Business TS teams to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the Technology Senior Executive Team (TSET)
    – Supporting the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Technology Solutions Executive Team (TSET), the candidate will work with the OCIO, Enterprise Technology Solutions (ETS) and Line of Business Technology Solutions (TS) teams to accurately report operational metrics and trends across the Bank on a regular basis.

    Does TSET stand for “Technology Senior Executive Team” or “Technology Solutions Executive Team”? Do I need to care either way? Also: why can’t they just write it all out? This whole posting would be so much less confusing if people just wrote it out such that a person who doesn’t already work for (in this case) TD Canada Trust can understand without needing to draw a flowchart.

  • Being stealthy about remuneration. I understand that negotiation is a key component in the salary discussion, but giving me a vague range can help me to know if I want to apply for a position. Some really interesting companies are looking for interns, and I’m happy to keep my options open. I’m not happy to work for free, though. It would avoid wasting everyone’s time if this was stated up front.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s the three things that have been consistently ruffling my feathers over the last week or two. I do plan to write a similar list of things I love to see in job postings over the next few days.

A girl, (happily) thrust into STEM

I’ve been reading many of articles lately about women in science and women in technology, and how society continues to encourage girls to go into the humanities, rather than the sciences, and I must confess that I’m baffled, because my experience was the exact opposite.

Looking down a micrsocope at zooplankton

Counting zooplankton during a Limnology field study. Some hours later someone pointed out that my beanie looked like men’s underwear. It was a good weekend. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Moleski.

While I will admit that I was in an “enriched” program at the public high school I attended, and can only speak to the experience of myself and my fellow “enriched” students, the emphasis throughout my education was on math and science. Ken Robinson has written and spoken about how schools kill creativity, and I think that that was definitely the case for us. When I attended CEGEP, Quebec’s fantastic but bizarre college program, I went into the ‘sciences’ because I liked science, but mostly because it had been emphasized to me over and over (and over and over and over) that going into the sciences would leave the most doors open to me: a science CEGEP degree feeds into every Unviersity undergraduate degree (BSc, BA, BEng, etc.); a social science or liberal arts CEGEP diploma feeds only into Arts or Fine Arts degrees.

On top of maximizing future opportunity, going into the sciences was far more prestigious than going into anything else, regardless of how hard it was to get into the Honours Liberal Arts program, for instance. When I was in school — and I recognize that a lot of this probably had to do with the program I was in — the emphasis for everyone who was “smart” (as measured by their presence in the enriched classes) was to go into scientific fields. We were taught by the best teachers at our high school (those who could teach advanced math, chemistry, and physics), and were surrounded by intelligent, studious, competitive peers. Going into a non-science was perceived as resorting to a fallback plan: not that your interests didn’t align with the subject matter, but that your grades had been insufficient. We were all pushed to become scientists, regardless of gender, to become people who would make important discoveries, solve mysterious proofs, cure cancer, revolutionize neurosurgery, whatever.

I’m sure my experience isn’t reflective of everyone who went to my high school, let alone of twenty-something women in general. Things turned out well for me, but the “cult of science” was strong among my peers and (especially) their parents. Today, many of the forty-odd students in my cohort are working in scientific fields, while a bunch more have realized their interests lie elsewhere. The gender distribution is pretty even, which is pleasing, though the subjects the women have gone into have tended more into biology / biochemistry / medicine, than physics or engineering.

Getting women into the TEM of STEM fields is clearly still a challenge, and one that we can combat by providing young people with opportunities to become interested in those subject areas. The stuff that Girls Learning Code are doing in Toronto, or that Raspberry Pi is hoping to facilitate, are great steps towards getting young women into technology and engineering. I hope that my experience is less weird than the media may lead us to believe… and I hope that the education system becomes more about helping young people find what they love, and supporting them to do that, whatever it is, and less about imposing values.

On Self-Directed Learning and Learning to Code

When I was doing my undergrad some years ago, I initially enrolled as a Chemistry major. As I’ve alluded to before, I realized early on that it wasn’t for me, but I soldiered on for a year and took some of the Chemistry major’s required classes that looked like they might be useful. One of those classes ended up being “Intro to Computing”, which should really have been called “Intro to Object-Oriented Programming” or “Intro to Java”. For a semester I slogged through lectures and assignments, spent hours trying to figure out why my stuff wouldn’t compile, and cursed my version of Eclipse (which tended to crash just before I hit command+S). In the end, the class went ‘okay’, but certainly didn’t help my GPA (it didn’t hurt as badly as the F I got in Ordinary Differential Equations in the same semester, but that is another story), and I didn’t really feel like it was something that I would/could use in general day-to-day life.

Fast forward five or six years… a friend sent me a postcard at my parents’ house, and because writing post cards that your friends’ parents might read can be awkward, he wrote it in ROT-13, helpfully starting with “Dear Allison” and signing his name at the end. Decoding it by hand (since I hadn’t thought to google and find was kind of a pain, and I wanted to impress my friend, so I broke out my old java textbook and wrote myself a (very) simple decoder. All the punctuation was wonky (because I couldn’t really think of how to deal with it), but it did a reasonably good job, and I was super proud (as was my friend). Looking back at the code, I’m still mightily impressed at past Allison’s skills!

I’d always been interested in programming, and enjoyed playing around with computer, but I’d never really understood how people learn these things, how one comes up with ideas to tinker with, and how to get started. Since the original ill-fated adventure with Java, I’d pretty much written off programming as something other people did. Once I had a reason to use it, and discovered how satisfying it was to solve a problem with something I’d made, my tune changed. Since then, I’ve learned Python by hacking in Starbucks next to Paul (while he learned it next to me), and since moving to Toronto last year, I’ve taken a bunch of Ladies Learning Code workshops and expanded my skill set. I’ve also discovered I really like programming.

That said, I still find self-directed learning tricky: I try to think up ‘stuff’ to do that’s manageable at my skill level, and I get stuck. Programming Challenges always seemed too hard or obscure or mysterious for me (though now that I’m a relatively adept Python programmer the Python Challenge seems much more accessible). I’m super lucky to live with a programmer who also has a teaching background, who can suggest ‘stuff’ for me to tinker with, and ways to expand what I’m doing as I learn more. When we were learning Python together, he was writing code to do complicated load testing stuff, while I was making a text-based lemonade stand game; now that I’m trying to sink my teeth into PHP, he’s proposed a race-across-Canada game, with a variety of parameters for me to start with, and a bunch of ideas for ways I can add complexity as I get more comfortable. A lot of coders seem to be self-taught, and maybe they’re just more creative than I am, or maybe they decide to learn something because they need it, rather than learning because they want to know stuff… I don’t know, but I’m glad to have some direction in my self-directed learning, and I hope as I become more adept I’ll be able to help others with theirs.

Wishbone, Carmen Sandiego, and why I know things

Last summer, my manfriend and I challenged each other to read the BBC’s Top 100 books list, The Big Read. The list is from 2003, but we’d seen the meme that was all over Facebook and decided to see who could get to one hundred first. I think we’re currently tied, but I’m reading Little Women in the hopes of sneakily overtaking him this summer. What I noticed looking over the list, though, was how many of the books I ‘knew’ – books whose plot lines and characters I could describe with reasonable precision and could speak about intelligently in conversation, despite never having read them.

To my embarrassment, it wasn’t the bunch of English Lit classes during my undergrad, general mad knowledges, or familial propensity to pick up random facts that could be of use should one find oneself playing Trivial Pursuit that resulted in my comfort with the material, but the fact that I watched Wishbone as a young person. I’ve since realized that PBS cleaned a lot of the stories up for a young audience – Sherlock isn’t a drug addict in the Wishbone version, for instance, but the general gist of the storyline has remained deeply embedded in my psyche years later.

In a similar vein, despite having spent a semester as a History and Geography major, and holding a B.Sc. that was roughly 25% Geography cases, most of my geographic and historical fun facts come from Where in the World and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego. My familiarity with Yuri Gagarin is owed 100% to it being the last level of the Where in Time game I played – the only PC game I ever finished, I think… Any American History related to the Civil War? Wishbone. Marco Polo and the Silk Road? Carmen. Don’t even get me started on Miss Frizzle and the Magic School bus!

As tools for teaching – and for disseminating both information and knowledge, these TV shows and video games were extremely effective. Recently, my friend Justin directed me to the games that the Wellcome Collection has put out to accompany their exhibits. My European History prof alluded to the Opium Wars, but as a tool for teaching a lesser-known historical event, High Tea is both fun, informative, and compelling. As a tool for teaching history, commerce, economics, and forecasting, it is excellent, and could be a great departure point for interesting conversations for groups of all ages.

I think there’s something to be learned here: topics become more accessible when they are stimulating and interactive. Lots of cool people are studying gamification as ways to make people more environmentally friendly… or to make dull repetitive jobs less dull, but maybe there are other features we can take away to enhance communication at all levels, be it a boring government website, or a dynamic presentation in a classroom.

Watching the Internets watch you

At the iSchool, we talk a lot about personal privacy and online tracking and the like. Classmates de have talked cheap nfl jerseys Happy bout exclusively using private browsing, obsessively clearing their history and cookies, or using ‘uncommon’ browsers that disallow all the tracking that goes on as one typically surfs the internets. I’ve not generally been so concerned: I’m alright with companies public like Google or Facebook collecting my data, labeling me as a 20-something techno-savvy university graduate who wholesale nfl jerseys likes tea and knitting and targeting my ads. I am interested in how people react to being tracked, however, so when Paul Reinheimer of directed me cheap mlb jerseys to Collusion, wholesale nba jerseys a super neat plugin for Firefox that helps you visualise who is tracking you, and how they share their data, I Women was instantly sucked in.

Playing around with wholesale nfl jerseys Collusion showed me just how ubiquitous is, and made me recognize that gossip websites like perez hilton or ‘women’s’ websites like are incredibly cheap nfl jerseys connected to ad networks. In contrast, Google is way less connected, sharing wholesale mlb jerseys less (but sucking an in more). In light of the hoopla surrounding the alleged dodgyness of Google’s ‘new’ privacy policy, in Collusion may prompt more productive discussions. From a more academic point of view, it would be interesting to see how seeing who is watching while you browse affects people’s behavior wholesale jerseys online. For ZWARTE anyone who’s interested in internet privacy, it’s a fun (and distracting) supplement to with normal cheap nba jerseys browsing.

It’s also cheap nfl jerseys fun to see how many weird connections you can make. To wit: Paul’s tweet.

On public transit in the Information Age

Since I started commuting to school/work after I graduated from high school lo ten years ago, I’ve spent countless hours waiting for busses, trains, and (more recently) streetcars, wondering if they were going to come.  When I was seventeen, I carried around a pile of bus schedules in my purse, and called AUTOBUS (the Montreal transport information system) regularly when I found myself schedule-less.  Today, paper schedules are relics of the past, and rather than calling a phone number and keying in the bus stop code, people can just look it up on their Smartphone.  Depending on the city you live in, your phone may actually know where the bus/train/streetcar is and live update the expected time.  The advent of Smartphones and of smart transportation systems harnessing user and transit network data could revolutionise how transit systems are designed and how users experience them.

I used to spend a lot of time freezing while waiting by the highway for buses that were coming in forty minutes, rather than in ten minutes as planned: commuters today (and going forward) shouldn’t need to do this.  Today’s commuter should be able to know where there bus is and how far out it is.  Intelligent transit systems can help users to make informed decisions about their movements. Auckland, New Zealand, has implemented ‘Real Time Boards’ in bus stops that report up-to-date information about bus’ locations; Vancouver B.C. uses intelligent transportation systems to keep passengers on some bus/Rapid-Transit lines informed. Smartphones and transit applications can help users to decide whether they’d rather wait twenty minutes for their bus, or go for the twenty minute walk home, but more importantly the data collected from users and from live tracking can enable a complete redesign of how we envisage transportation networks.

Originally, transit networks were designed around hubs and spokes: a passenger needed merely take the bus to the depot, where they could transfer to another route to get to their designation.  This made sense: passengers didn’t really need to know where they were going, they needed only find the hub and switch to the appropriate line.  The downside is that it can make for some incredibly indirect routes to nearby destinations.  In the neighbourhood I grew up in, for instance, a ten minute drive up a major street could take 1.5 hours on the bus because the depot was in the wrong direction, and no bus went directly.  Today, with Google Maps and Smartphones helping travellers with their way-finding, easily memorised routes become unnecessary: you don’t have to be able to memorize your trip, but instead can simply follow the directions on your phone, making routes that might have been quicker but too tricky for memorization feasible.  This also means that dispatchers could be empowered to make better decisions to alleviate congestion on popular routes, reroute buses to avoid traffic accidents, and generally make for a better transit experience for everyone, while users are kept in the loop via their mobile device.

Politicians, journalists, and we the public talk a lot these days about making transit better, about the importance of public transportation for alleviating traffic congestion, and for reducing pollution, but we rarely consider innovative ways to improve transportation.  New technologies provide an opportunity to transform the way that public transit works, for the better.