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Into Union Station

Into Union Station

Originally uploaded by Steven Vance

On a snowy day. The snow was coming down slow and wet. I was riding my bicycle west on Lake Street out of the loop on a Friday afternoon at about 4:45 (rush hour!). I’ve always wanted to capture the trains at this interlocking but I don’t like going out of my way.

Well, this was on my way! I hope off the bike and sat my little point and shoot camera on the ledge here. In less than 10 minutes, at least five trains passed by. At one point, there were three trains crossing Canal Street.

Check out my gallery, Trains in Snow. A gallery is a set of other people’s photos.


A crowd at the first swap meet and bike expo

Judging by how many bikes were parked outside, how many people were walking around the shopping area, and how many people were watching the presentations in another room, the first Bike Winter Swap Meet and Urban Bicycle Expo will be successful (it hasn’t ended as I write this).

My question is, though: How should we measure success? We think we have the ability to see a situation, concept, or event and say, "That’s successful." But the word means a goal has been accomplished. So what’s the goal here?

When I put together the June 2009 meeting for the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council (photos), I set an attendance threshold as a goal (my goal was 100 attendees, if I remember my final report, about 40 non-staff Chicagoans showed up).

I don’t remember the other two goals (the final report is at my office computer), but I think one had to do with receiving feedback from the attendees indicating they learned something at the meeting (I received about 26 surveys).

Howard, an organizer, said on ChiFG, "Visitor turnout exceeded our expectations– the name tags were actually what we used to get a visitor count (and to encourage entry donations)– we had well over 300 visitors and when you count the vendors, presenters, and volunteers we had around 450 people in attendance; at times you could barely get through the crowd in the swap areas; from about noon on the presentation room was packed."

Wrapping PDF inside Flash, the ultimate in inaccessibility

Portable Document Format (PDF) files are often inaccessible. The text you see when the file is displayed is stored as a raster image instead of as machine-readable text. You can’t copy and paste the text, a screen reader can’t audibly speak the text, and you can’t search the text. While a PDF is probably a good way to share a text document when you want to ensure formatting and images remain unmodified by file conversion or different versions of software (I’m thinking about Microsoft Word documents), at least the text document is inherently accessible and will always remain so.

Now there’s a trend online to share PDF files within Adobe Flash viewers. They’re websites like DocStoc, SlideShare and Scribd. Flash is inaccessible – blind and visually impaired people can’t interact with it. It’s really that simple. If you want to share textual information, don’t use Flash, and don’t wrap a PDF in Flash – let people download it and use their preferred viewer, whether it be Apple’s Preview, Adobe Acrobat, or Nitro, Cute or Foxit. Try avoiding PDF altogether; if you can’t read my tips below.

Look at this screenshot of a PDF document inside a DocStoc Flash viewer. The screenshot shows the entire web page – imagine your screen is this tall. Notice how much of the screen space is dedicated to viewing the PDF. Then pay attention to how much space the many ads occupy. Not only is the text inaccessible, you have a poor document viewing experience.
PDF wrapped in Flash

If you’re going to stick with PDF, make sure you use Adobe Acrobat Professional so that you can run an Accessibility Check and make changes to the document. Professional also comes with an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) function that reads images and converts them to text. When people scan documents, they don’t run the OCR function and the scan is only useful for well-sighted people.

Adding the UIC address book to your Mac

An email I sent out to all of my classmates:

Hi MUPP students,

I have a tip that will give you a major productivity gain when you have to email classmates and you don’t know their addresses. I can only give you directions for Mac OS X, though, so if you use Windows… well, just get a Mac.

This productivity gain will allow the Apple Address Book and Apple Mail applications to search the UIC address book for emails of classmates and faculty as you type the first few letters of someone’s name.

Let’s say you forgot *my* email address and you can’t find your syllabus. You can access the UIC address book online, or you can tell your Mac to look in the UIC electronic directory. Type in “steven vance” and you see the results in the attached screenshot.

UIC address book

Here’s how to do it: (I am using Leopard, Mac OS X 10.5)

  1. Open Apple Address Book.
  2. Open the Address Book preferences by pressing Command (Apple) + Comma, or by clicking Address Book>Preferences.
  3. Click on the LDAP button in the Preferences window.
  4. Click on the + (plus) sign at the bottom of this LDAP pane.
  5. In the dropdown sheet, input the following information: Name = UIC Directory, Server =, Port = 389, Search Base = ou=people,dc=uic,dc=edu, Scope = One level, Authentication = None.
  6. Click Save. Close the Preferences window.
  7. Test out the new functionality by clicking on the Directories item in the Groups list of the Address Book application. In the Directories list, click on UIC Directory. Click in the search form and type, slowly, a classmate’s or professor’s name. The names of people who match the query will show in the result list.
  8. Apple Mail now also has this functionality to use when you address a new email.

If you have issues, let me know.

The information is the same for other colleges and universities that offer public LDAP access. The University of Chicago has instructions on this page.

Why you should outsource comment management

I outsource blog comment management on Steven can plan to Disqus.

Analyzing my own behavior about commenting on blogs, I recommend that you, too, outsource your comments to Disqus or IntenseDebate.

Here’s why: It makes commenting SO MUCH FASTER AND EASIER.

For people registered on Disqus, your login follows you from site to site and you don’t have to input your credentials (blog, email, name) each time. You maintain your profile on Disqus’s website. For people not registered, they can easily connect their Facebook or Twitter account on a per-comment basis. They can elect to use their OpenID provider. Using a profile maintenance service (like Facebook or Twitter) increases the commenter’s credibility, links back to their own web properties while at the same time making commenting SO MUCH FASTER AND EASIER.

Sorry, I haven’t tried IntenseDebate so I can’t compare the two for you, but I can say that the only issues present with Disqus are the rare downtimes. Their WordPress plugin, though, deals with this gracefully, going back to the original WordPress comments system when Disqus is down.

I think LiveJournal works well partly because of the community centered around leaving comments and the way users manage their comments: Most LiveJournal users lock their entries so only other registered users can leave comments.

Example Evernote journal entry for work

screenshot of Evernote and the example note I created

Tim asked on my previous post about Evernote for an example note that better demonstrates how I use Evernote to record what I do about work.

I created a new note adapting real tasks for the example (in order to maintain some privacy). Some tasks are made up, so please don’t comment about the tasks I wrote.

Click on the image to view a larger version and to read the text seen on the screenshot.

How I use Evernote for work

screenshot of Evernote and how I hit 1,000 notes

A majority of the notes (out of 1,000) are used in a work journal. Every day I write just about everything that happened that day while at work.

It’s hard to describe how incredibly useful it is to keep a work journal. It gives you the power to confidently answer all questions about what you did last week, yesterday, or an hour ago, and to defend yourself if a problem or discrepancy ever arises.

The journal is also a personal development tool and helps to keep you focused doing what you need to get done. It helps you be accountable for your own actions. It also helps you to know where you made mistakes and where you succeeded. It also helps you to write weekly reports.

Here’s how I format my daily work journal entries:
Title = Today’s date, fully written out. The Windows version takes the first line of your note for the title, so I make my first line of the note the date.
Second line = blank.
Third line = First thing I did that day. Notes contain times, people, phone numbers, quotes from sent and received emails, times of sent and received emails, email addresses, URLs, and details of completed tasks. I only use common abbreviations; I don’t abbreviate names. I want to be able to search for it. Like a web developer, I throw in extra keywords so that I can always find the note even if I don’t remember exactly which word I chose.

I write in the past tense. I know I completed these tasks because 1) they’re in the list, and 2) I wrote about them in the past tense.

After the day’s notes, I insert another blank line. On the next line I write “TODO” (to do). What follows is a list of things I need to do. I usually start this list at the beginning of the day and it contains things I need to do that day and the following days. Since I return to Evernote quite often to update the day’s journal entry, I’m always looking at the TODO list.

I write items here in the present or future tenses. I often start items with “Need to…” As I complete tasks in the TODO list, I cut the text and paste it at the bottom of the main note above. When I paste them, I convert present and future tense words to their past tense form so I know for sure I completed the task.

Since I look at my current note and notes in the recent past on a daily basis, I tend to put lots of ideas, random thoughts, and general note taking (non-journal or diary material) in the daily note. To separate these, I create categories within my notes and capitalize all the letters (like TODO, or IDEA, or PARK DISTRICT). I put them in all caps so I can easily spot them as category sections.

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