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Dec 27, 2010

Life in the slow lane

There's an arrogance that some develop when spoiled too long by state-of-the-art communications infrastructure. I see this sometimes in discussions with web designers or software developers who refuse to consider the situation of those with little or no access to broadband. I remember as a young man being able to read faster than the 300 to 1200 baud text scrolling down down my CRT, and I was never a speed reader. Download graphics? Sure, if you've got a free afternoon. Movies? In your dreams. Well, dreams do come true, though often they have a darker side. I'm sure that many of my translating colleagues have received some short job to translate with enormous uncompressed graphics that destabilize the file structure and give translation tools fits. The sort of crap that makes many of us spend more energy as technotweakers than as translators. All this is facilitated by widespread firehouse bandwidth, which also raises customer expectations for a rapid return. Please remember, people, that rapids are often full of sharp rocks and other risky elements, and though you may come out fast, you may come out in more pieces than you went in.

So when I moved to the Schloss a few weeks ago and faced a few tricky decisions on how to configure my new infrastructure for communications, I decided to "go slow" for a few weeks and see what life is like. There's no DSL offered here, so blowing off Deutsche Telekom for good, a dream I have had for a decade, has finally been possible. I spent a week on Vodafone's UMTS and found it good for all my data and voice communication needs, then I applied the brakes and used my FONIC stick, which in this area only gives me EDGE service, which is like GPRS. (FONIC is an O2 subsidiary - I'm told they advertise widely and humorously on TV, but since I haven't looked at a working television since my last visit to the US four years ago I wouldn't know). EDGE really sucks in some cases. I remember trying for nearly two hours last July to send a small file (2 MB or so), before giving up in frustration and going up into the third story of the inn, where a weak UMTS signal was available and the file could be transmitted in less than a minute.

But perhaps I'm stricken with a bit of nostalgia for my old farm in Oregon now that I've finally made it back to more livable, rural settings. The bandwidth in county lands outside Scio was very bad for a long time, which was very good for web page design for medical company clients whose physician customers often had 2400 baud modems with which to crawl the World Wide Web. "Optimization" was a very relevant concept with regard to communications. Another reason for the present experiment is that I have encountered difficulties too often with mobile communications while traveling, and I wanted to explore the possible scope of these and prepare solutions before they are needed. The low bandwidth also gave me an opportunity to test my online project management and communications environment, which was never consciously optimized for such situations, but which seems to work well nonetheless. Given that an iPhone and iPad interface is soon to be available (or perhaps already is - I don't use that stuff, so it's only of peripheral interest) I suppose I should not be surprised. Working a lot with a remote memoQ Server under these circumstances is not something I would recommend unless you remember to create an offline version of the databases for synchronization. I did that on my old laptop, but not on the new one, so I was stuck. Fortunately, the job I had to do was only a short page, so I could live with the delays to confirm segments.

Even at 96% signal strength, EDGE is utterly inadequate for viewing video clips of more than a few seconds length. Thus I missed out on Jon Stewart's successful satirical advocacy that brought needed relief to 9/11 responders and various links that friends wanted to share. Professionally, this had little meaning, though I was bummed out that I couldn't listen to the music videos linked on patenttranslator's blog while reading his posts.

Should the need arise, I can activate and use my Vodafone stick in minutes and get high quality UMTS. I discovered recently that there are now solutions available with UMTS and mobile SIM cards, which offer WLAN access and VoIP telephony, much like the little portable WLAN routers that various colleagues have purchased and rave about. So when this old tortoise is ready to stop crawling down the road, he can climb into an affordable hotrod and tear up the asphalt.



The image of the tortoise on the road from Arria Belli is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. That's not really French Guinea, it's a road in Zehdenick in Brandenburg, Germany on Christmas Eve. Thus the promise of blooming landscapes made by Helmut Kohl has been kept thanks to Global Warming.

Dec 23, 2010

Life 3.0 and the holidays

The past year has been an interesting one; crises come in many forms, and the financial and economic ones, no matter how great their impacts may seem, are really the trivial ones. As we break bread with friends and family in the coming days, let's remember the purpose behind the business. If there isn't one, and it's an end unto itself, that's a problem to be addressed sooner or later. Alex Eames, whose humorous, on-target advice was such a help to me a decade ago when I started translating commercially in a serious way, expressed the importance of priorities with some eloquence, both directly and indirectly, in the updated version of his classic guide for creating a viable business as a freelance translator. If you are struggling financially or personally, there may be something there to guide you to a better path. Alex deals with the conceptual and personal side of the business as well as Jost Zetzsche does the technical (though I think he too has a great store of wisdom in non-technical matters). For many of us today, both sides are important to get right and harmonized, and I am personally grateful to both men for sharing their knowledge and advice with us.

Jost, by the way, did a brief review of my project management environment (the Online Translation Manager from LSP.net) in his latest Toolkit newsletter (#181 I think it is, but he hasn't updated the "current" link on his site). As usual, he showed great insight into the essentials of the software and where it may or may not fit in a freelancer's business. I think there are a few key issues that were missed, which I will deal with in a later article, but these are not obvious considerations until one has been broadsided by a serious business disaster and needs to ensure that processes and data are really, really secure in all circumstances. Nonetheless, I agree with everything said more or less, and as usual the rest of the newsletter's content offers me a lot of useful information to run my business in better ways and avoid potholes in the information highway. Jost has been promoting the Toolkit newsletter as a possible gift to colleagues or translators who work for you; he should have done this years ago I think, because this is actually a good idea. He's a good educator at many levels.


The past year has been one of considerable change for me as well, not all of it voluntary, though when viewed from a Nietzschean perpective all for the good. My headquarters are now in a former HQ used by Napoleon on his way to get his butt kicked in Russia in 1812: an old Amtshaus built during the reign of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Here I can train my dogs in peace, hunt and raise whatever pheasants, quail and ducks I need for various purposes. There are excellent facilities for keeping fowl here, and the keeper died six months ago, leaving the facilities abandoned, so perhaps I can make arrangements that will enable me to make a contribution to the attempts to support the gray partridge population in Brandenburg. Since leaving Oregon eleven years ago, I've missed my chickens, too, so 2011 will probably see a few of those scratching around my garden. But no bloody Araucanas. They are much too devious.

I'll also be spending a lot of time in the coming year rehabilitating my dog Ajax after he was subjected to about 5 months of ill treatment by a breeder and trainer in Lower Saxony.

This individual had expressed an interest in buying the dog from me after seeing him at a trial last April, but he's not for sale. In the summer after hearing about some distracting issues at home, the fellow contacted me again with an offer to put the "final touches" on the dog's training and take him through his hunting trials in the fall. Given that he has done this with more than 1000 dogs in the past with usually good results in two countries, I reluctantly agreed, because it had been emphasized to me time and again in a most penetrating way by some traditionalists that I lacked the experience to get the full potential from such a fine dog. The end result of my stupidity was a dog who is now afraid of his own shadow and who is 5 kilos below the trim weight he had when I delivered him in July. He was caked with shit from his filthy kennel when I finally managed to pick him up three months after he was expected. As for the testing, well... a dog raised on love in your home knows that there is more to life than confinement and isolation, ear pulling and other rough handling, and that life with a tail between your legs is no life at all. Prisoners with any spirit left seek to escape such conditions, and he did so, running away from the SOB on a number of occasions. He disappeared for a long while in the first few minutes of the most important test for a breeding hunting dog of this type in Germany and failed of course. Good for him. We'll work together over the next year to see what can be salvaged, but we'll do it at the dog's pace with respect for his right to exist.

I'm sure there's a parable there somewhere for the situation of some colleagues trapped in abusive relations with themselves and their customers. Another time. Go read No Peanuts for now.

After rescuing Ajax, I had the pleasure of spending a few days visiting colleague Alison Riddell, riding horseback for the first time in 19 years (well, on a saddle at least - a bit of bareback on my Arabian in Oregon or my donkey doesn't count), and hunting with her boyfriend in the Alsace.

Now Alison has got that work/life balance thing pretty much right, but it's hard not to living at the top of a mountain in wine country with a stable of friendly equines.

The coming year will see a lot more changes in my life and in my business, perhaps in some of the topics covered in this blog. A Canadian colleague of mine whose insights I have always appreciated but whom I lost track of for a while after the purges of thoughtful moderators and colleagues at PrAdZ remarked that there really isn't an adequate forum for dialog anywhere. I'm not sure I agree with that; there are many places for collegial exchange, but the dispersion of bodies and talent in our profession does complicate things. Just be grateful we don't always rely on letters, ships and other life-threatening means of travel to enjoy a bit of professional company any more.

If anyone has some topics or questions they might like to see explored, I welcome a comment here or a private e-mail to that effect. I can't guarantee I can write competently on those subjects, but maybe I can whisper the suggestion in other, better ears.

Dec 8, 2010

Good group purchase deal on memoQ translator pro edition

If you've been thinking about getting a memoQ license for use as a translator or project preparation as an LSP, here's a good deal: 40% off until December 13th or until the last units reserved for the ProZ group buy are sold. This is a hot deal. With the latest enhancements in version 4.5 like the LiveDocs corpora reference features, or the recently introduced qTerm for high-end terminology management on memoQ servers, this tool is increasingly becoming the choice of discerning translation providers and consumers who want usability and good results, not arcane, buggy BS.

With collaboration features like Trados-compatible biligual DOC exports and RTF table views of any content and XLIFF (all exportable and re-importable after translation or review), as well as the ability to read project formats from other environments (such as Trados TTX or Star Transit PXF) memoQ is probably the most widely compatible translation environment tool on today's market.

Dec 2, 2010

Cover your assets!

The last two days have demonstrated the importance of disaster recovery planning once again. The fun started when I was rousted early after working until about 4 am and greeted with the news that someone's computer "wouldn't boot". This same computer had experienced various "issues" for nearly a year, giving more than fair warning of its impending catastrophic failure. The trouble had started about the same time as the same person had lost about 6 months worth of invoicing information on a hard drive that was not backed up. Live and learn. Really?

This time there was a bit of a silver lining. Most of the critical business data - project archives and billing - was online with LSP.net's Online Translation Manager. But that didn't offer much comfort in dealing with a current urgent project for which no reliable equipment was available. Upgrading and reconfiguring other equipment for emergency use has taken up most of the last two days. I had other plans, but I was volunteered for the job. Oh well.

In the course of messing with mail configurations in Outlook (to get the other person up and working on one of my old computers) I managed to wipe out all records of the last two week's mail. This was a bit of a surprise, but apparently this was possible, because my new Outlook 2010 configuration had left the mail on the server and the old equipment (with other settings) deleted it. I was a little annoyed at losing a few good e-mail jokes, but everything relevant to ongoing projects for clients is archived in OTM. So my bases were mostly covered. Then I thought to contact my hosting provider and learned that nearly all the data could be restored from a backup (good to know!). So in the end little harm was done by the mail misadventure.

The clearest lesson here for me is that it really is time to return to my old "paranoid" practice of having as much redundancy in equipment and software as I can afford. The five or six working computers I used to maintain may be more than is called for, but at least one backup machine with all my critical applications configured is clearly mandatory. I was actually almost there with my netbook, but I hadn't bothered to install my second MS Office license on it, so the I/O functions of memoQ and other important tools were limited. I'll be fixing that tonight.

How many of you can keep working smoothly if your main workstation suddenly experiences smoking death? (I had this once - my Macintosh 512K caught fire while I was down the hall chatting with my secretary. We smelled burning plastic....) Are all your important tools configured exactly as you need them on a backup computer? Backing up your data is not enough! The processes are just as important.

It's easy to come up with other priorities, especially easy if you have the misfortune to work subprime translation markets and money is therefore tight. But disaster planning and preparation for your business is not an option. It's a necessity.