2011-12-30

Theft of time

I consider theft of time as the second worst kind of theft after theft of life as both are irreversible. Everyone is aware of theft of life, and presumably every human society has severe penalties against those who have stolen someone else's life or have attempted to do so. But many people seem to be unaware of theft of time, and many societies are even tolerant of those who steal someone else's time.

Japanese society is extremely intolerant of this theft and people who commit this moral sin, while Israeli society is unfortunately quite tolerant of them. Theft of time can take a number of forms, including being late for meetings, not starting parties, lessons, conferences and other social events on time, or even cutting into line (thus stealing the time of those waiting before you).

I used to think naively that honking impatiently at every driver who does not start immediately after the traffic light turns green is a protest against theft of time, but I have seen that the same people who do not want to miss even a single second steal other people's time in other forms, including those mentioned above, so apparently this is not a protest against theft of time but something else I cannot decipher. Israelis tend to complain a lot about many things, whether personal or social - in this respect I have become a "good" Israeli ;-) - but when it comes to theft of time, few of them complain.

Although a single person can neither educate nor change a whole society, I believe that the first step toward a better society starts when each citizen starts to speak up against what he or she thinks is utterly wrong. So I have started to make more conscious efforts to speak up against thieves of time around me even if I am not their victim. On those days when I commute to my workplace, my workday both starts and ends with a lot of frustration at my waiting time stolen by those who cut into line for the bus, including religious and even haredi people. But I refuse to be like one of them. The more of them I see and suffer from, the more determined I become instead to wage a personal war against thieves of time in my adopted country, hoping that it will be more aware and less tolerant of what I consider the second worst kind of theft.

2011-12-16

Bad practices and better alternatives to them in humanities computing

Generally speaking, researchers in the humanities tend to be less computer-savvy than their colleagues in the natural and social sciences. There still remain even those who speak of their low level of computer literacy as if they were proud of it. However, not only is there no contradiction between high level of computer literacy and being an excellent scholar but also is high level of computer literacy becoming an important prerequisite for excelling in research. Unfortunately, however, many researchers in the humanities, including linguists, still follow bad practices or are stuck with them, mostly for lack of knowledge of better alternatives to them. Every time I see these scholars, I cannot help feeling sorry that they are waisting their precious time and are often unaware of this very fact. The following is a random list of what I consider most common bad (i.e., inefficient) practices in (humanities) computing and possible better (i.e., more efficient) alternatives to them.

  • Bad practice 1: To use a word processor as it it were a typewriter.
    • What is wrong: The problem must be self-evident. We are already in the 21st century and not in the stone age. ;-)
    • Better alternative: Learn at least how to use "styles", autimatically prepare and update tables of contents and indices. And if you are still stuck with such bloatware as Word, consider migrating to a better open source alternative such as LibreOffice Writer.
  • Bad practice 2: To use a word processor for every possible kind of computing involving text documents.
    • What is wrong: A word processor combines manipulation of texts and their physical rendition, but for processing textual data the latter is not only unnecessary but also slows processing. Read, e.g., Word Processors: Stupid and Inefficient for futher details.
    • Better alternative: Use a text editor for processing textual data when their physical rendition is irrelevant. My recommendations are firstly EditPad Pro (Windows; commercial) and secondly EditPad Lite (Windows; free); both of them support RTL scripts and bidirectional algorithm.
  • Bad practice 3: To use a word processor or a spreadsheet program as a database program.
    • What is wrong: Neither a word processor nor a spreadsheet program is meant to be a database program, and they are limited and unbearing slow in data retrieval.
    • Better alternative 1: Again, use a text editor that supports regular expressions if you are dealing with non-structured textual data. My recommendations are the same as the above. Use also a grep tool. My recommendations are firstly PowerGREP (Windows; commercial) and secondly AstroGrep (Windows; free).
    • Better alternative 2: Use a CSV editor if you are dealing with tabular textual data. My recommendations are CSV Easy (Windows; commercial) and uniCSVed (Windows; free).
    • Better alternative 3: Use a database management system if you are dealing with more complex data. My recommendation for managing linguistic data is Fieldworks Language Explorer.
  • Bad practice 4: To send documents in proprietary formats, most notoriously in Word format, indiscriminately to everyone without his or her prior concent.
    • What is wrong: Not everyone uses (or wants to use) (mostly commercial) tools for proprietary formats.
    • Better alternative: Use one of the open document formats as described in my flowchart.

2011-12-09

Total loss of memory after drinking

I am used to drinking (and often getting drunk), but such a thing has never happened in my entire life so far. A few weeks ago I drank with someone at my apartment. When I drink alone, I do so to enjoy the taste of wine and seldom pass the limit. But when I drink with others, especially with those who know how to drink, I often pass the limit easily (and do stupid things afterward). This morning I saw him at a nearby supermarket, so naturally I said hello to him. Since he did not react, I went closer to him and said hello to him again. Then I received a totally unexpected reply from him - he cursed me, or so he seemed (I was listening to my favorite klezmer music then, so I did not hear his actual words, but it was clear from his facial expression that he cursed me).

This unexpected curse of his seems to be a clue to what I did and/or said to him after I drank with him and got totally drunk. I simply do not remember what I did and/or said then, including how I returned home. On the following morning I found some blood on my face and wondered what had happened to me. Having heard him curse me, I am now quite sure that this blood was caused by him after I did and/or said something unpardonable to him. But the problem is that I have no memory about it, that is, between the time I left my apartment to accompany him until I got up on the following morning. I did some stupid, but mostly pardonable, things enough times after I got drunk, but even then I did remember, at least vaguely, what I had done (and felt ashamed and guilty afterward). But this time I simply remembered nothing, which is very scary, to say the least! I also wonder whether he was aware that I was totally drunk then, though this would not justify for him what I had done and/or said to him (but again I do not remember anything).

This totally unexpected "greeting" of his has also made me think about another fundamental difference between Japanese and Israeli societies - to what social misconducts the two societies can be tolerant or intolerant. Now I realize that they are tolerant and intolerant to mutually exclusive things. Japanese society is tolerant to drunkards and their misconducts, while Israeli society is not. But on the other hand, the latter is tolerant to those who are not punctual, while the former is not. This incident as well as recent reflections on the cultural differences between the two societies has made me realize quite surprisingly that in spite of the fact that I had a very hard time in Japan and consider myself as a kind of sociocultural refugee in Israel, I am after all far closer in my behaviors to Japanese society than to Israeli society in many areas, if not in the areas of verbal communication and sense of humor.

2011-12-02

Basic universal etiquette?

I used to believe that there must be some basic universal etiquette common to all human beings regardless of the societies into which they happen to have been born. But this belief has been crumbling down slowly but steadily as I see enough people here in Israel who do not seem to share this etiquette. When I see those behaviors that must be considered uncultured in many other societies I know, I cannot help wondering what kind of education these people here have received from their parents and school teachers and whether this is a norm rather than an exception in native Israeli culture.

There are a number of social settings in which I believe you should not eat foods or chew gum. Unfortunately, I have to repeat the same request to stop doing so every year to the same group of people in a certain social setting that affects me personally. What surprises and bothers me every time anew is their common reaction to my request: they react as if they did not understand what was wrong with their behaviors. This lack of what I consider basic etiquette is found among both secular and religious people here. To be worse, it is not uncommon even among otherwise respectable people. I almost had a heart attack this week when I saw such a person daring to chew gum in a rather formal social setting from the beginning until the end!

Another example is that unfortunately, there seem to be quite a few people who do not know how to distinguish between what is public from what is private, doing what for me is not permissible in public. Lack of this etiquette manifests itself in various forms, including speaking very loudly (or screaming) in public, discarding garbage in public space (not in garbage cans), knitting a yarmulke during lectures, writing personal notes in books in public libraries, not returning books after reading to the original location in public libraries, not erasing your notes on the blackboard after teaching, not flushing water in public toilets after using, etc. These are for me signs of egocentric childishness.

I have given up every hope of understanding these people and explaining to them why these behaviors of theirs are not acceptable. Instead, I am trying to pay no attention to them and their behaviors as long as they do not affect me personally, and make sure to have enough physical distance from them. I would only like to hope that they do not consitute the majority here, though there are many of them in absolute terms.