Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ode to the Kindle

My brothers and sister-in-law visited recently. Seeing them was fantastic enough, but they also brought the best presents ever. I've gotten used to the fact that since my son was born, the presents he gets are more exciting than the ones I get. But not this time!

My youngest brother brought me a copy of The Blythes Are Quoted, L.M Montgomery's ninth "Anne book." I've loved the Anne of Avonlea series since I was a girl, had noted the publication of the book with much interest, and written it off as something that I would get to read when I finally make it back to the US some day. Observant kid brother had noticed a Facebook conversation I had about it with some friends, and brought it along. Clever fella. Haven't started reading it yet, because I need to finish the novel I'm already reading, first, and I want to savour the Montgomery (cue joke about savouring Montgomery, when everyone knows they only make sweets).

My other younger brother and his wife, brought me, among other things, a Kindle.

I had wanted one because I have accumulated a great deal of electronic reading material in connection with my never-ending thesis, and when I start reading on my computer, my eyes get tired relatively quickly, plus I am more likely to be distracted and give in to all the many charms that lurk in the computer. So I had figured an ebook reader would allow me to single-task with greater concentration. It was a utilitarian desire.

The surprise is just how much I love it. It's the perfect combination of my love of tech and my love of books. The cover makes it look and feel like a leather-bound book or journal. This is a big part of the charm, because I still feel like I'm reading a real book. The other cool thing (and anyone who is familiar with ebook readers already knows this, but I hadn't seen one in real life before) is that the screen really looks pretty much like a page, rather than an electronic screen. I had read that e-ink technology did this, but I hadn't realized how good it was until I actually saw it. My biggest objection to the whole idea of e-books had been that you couldn't snuggle up in an armchair with them, the way you would a real book. But this is totally possible. And as I said, the cover is critical to the illusion.

Now you can't flip pages back and forth, and it's black and white, so colour illustrations are no good, but the novels and non-fiction I read are mostly text, anyway, so that's not a problem for me.

I'm still getting to know the gadget. But there are other little things that thrill me about it, too. The cover has a built in light. You pull out this little strip, and a light on it's end comes on. The light is powered by the Kindle itself, presumably from the metal anchor points where the device slots on to the cover. When you're done reading, or don't need the light, the strip slides back in, leaving you with what looks like any nice leatherbound journal.

The biggest delight, the one that gives me a little girlish thrill every time I see it is that when you switch it off, an image displays itself on the screen. Most are pictures of authors, but there are some nice line drawings, too. And even when the reader is off, the image remains displayed. No blank screen. It gives me back that feeling of magic that cool new technology used to provide. Like the first time I saw computers communicating via infrared, or my brother controlled my computer in Lahore from all the way over in Michigan. I have yet to cycle through all the images, so that's another delight. I don't know what the next image will be, and they're all images I've enjoyed, so far.

So, from ebook skeptic to convert, in the space of three days. I'm not giving up my print library, though. That would still be heresy.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Skill development

My 3-1/2-year-old son has recently started drawing lower-case letters in outline. By recently, I mean I just saw them for the first time yesterday. You know outline letters, the kind where you can then later colour in the letter. In fact that's what he calls them. Colouring letters. He's been doing upper-case ones for a while, and I was pretty impressed with that.

When I saw the lower-case letters today, it got me thinking. I distinctly remember learning to write bubble letters in 7th grade or even later (I remember the school where I learned them from some classmate who was really good at art). So what is it that is so different that my son has learned this, without really being taught, at age 3?

For one, his dad draws well. So that's probably a major contributing factor. But I'm skeptical about the degree of connection between heredity and specific skills. So I thought some more about PakameristanicanJr's drawing and penmanship. And it seems to me that he is really good at imitating. So, for example, as a huge fan of Disney/Pixar's Cars, he has been looking at the Cars logo for a long time. But until recently, he couldn't draw it. Then he asked his dad and me to draw it for him, several times over the course of a couple of weeks, I guess. Not every day, but it must have been a half dozen times. And now he draws it himself. So there's something about watching how we draw it that seems to help him do it himself.

The question that remains in my mind is whether this is a universal thing. Do all, or most, kids learn like this, by paying attention to how grown ups are doing something? I don't remember learning things that way, but upon reflection, it seems to be a difference in attentiveness. When I watch/ed someone carefully as they were doing something, I can/could imitate. But I rarely bothered to do so for things that require manual skills. It's just interesting how carefully he attends to the visual, something that I rarely do.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell

I hold my honey and I store my bread

In little jars and cabinets of my will.

I label clearly, and each latch and lid I bid,

Be firm till I return from hell.

I am very hungry. I am incomplete.

And none can tell when I may dine again.

No man can give me any word but Wait,

The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;

Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt

Drag out to their last dregs and I resume

On such legs as are left me, in such heart

As I can manage, remember to go home,

My taste will not have turned insensitive

To honey and bread old purity could love.

Gwendolyn Brooks 1945

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Social Change Creeps In?

Weekday mornings, my son and I grab a cab to his school. Grabbing a cab in Abu Dhabi is probably even more common than grabbing one in NYC, because you don't have a convenient bus or subway system. Plus, taxis are (relatively) cheap. So I've interacted with a lot of Abu Dhabi cabbies. If you bother to chat with them, they may or may not welcome the opportunity.

The demographics are mixed, although Pathans still predominate (can I use that word like that? augh I hate that I don't have room for my dictionary near my computer...ok, yes I can), there are a fair number of South Indians and Filipinos, and the occasional Arab driver. The Pakistanis are almost always Pathan, many of whom speak very little Urdu.

Today's driver, though, was from Bahawalpur. So we exchanged the usual pleasure at recognizing a humwatan, and chatted a bit on the way back home. 

All of the above is by way of preface. The man asked me whether I was in Abu Dhabi because I work here (we had agreed a minute before that this was no place to live, that Pakistan was an infinitely nicer place, but that one had to earn one's daily bread, etc., etc.), and I told him no, my husband has a job here. To which he responded "Ye ghar ki duty bhi naukri hoti hai, balke zyaada sakht naukri" ("oh house duty is also a job, in fact a much harder job"). I laughed, said wouldn't it be great if more people understood that, and was getting ready to get out of the cab but he was telling me about his wife and how hard it is for her to take care of their two sons on her own in Pakistan, so I listened.

The conversation got me thinking. It's not the kind of opinion I expect from a middle-class Pakistani male. But perhaps that's unrealistic of me. There are probably lots of men out there who realize that the homemaker's role is a really tough one. The real change would be if they were to take on some of that role, which only happens in a small minority of the homes I've seen.

So maybe there's nothing of note in this conversation after all. Other than it being seen as polite to acknowledge that stay-at-home-moms are not living the easy life.

"I raise my hands to frame the light,
Raise my voice in the middle of the night,
I close my eyes when I start to sing,
It's a way of, way of praying"
               - Carrie Newcomer, The Yes of Yes

Monday, March 08, 2010

This is a communications company

So today my husband got our cable bill. Post only comes to PO boxes in Abu Dhabi; no home mail delivery.

Inside, there was a flyer about how the company (which is the same company that provides phone lines, cell phone connections, and internet service) was going to be sending bills by e-mail from now on.

They also included on their flyer the web address for where you could access your billing info. I am attaching a scanned copy of the paper. Read the second sentence carefully.


Friday, February 26, 2010


First, something that I read, and loved, because it put in academic terms many things that I have always felt about the phenomenon of Wifework: What marriage really means for women. Of course the author, Susan Maushart is Australian/American, so there are real cultural differences in our experiences, but she really sums up the parts that get under my skin really well. Been meaning to mention her work for a while. I'll revisit this at some later point.

Second, my thesis reading is totally overwhelming me. Everything I read points me to at least five (if I'm lucky.. more likely fifty) further references that look interesting or relevant or life-changing. And of course I don't have the time to read it all. And of course I don't have access to a decent library, so a lot of books that I could skim and recognize as "not really relevant even though they sound like they should be" remain tantalizingly out of reach, even as they stick out their tongues and wag their fingers at my focus on the texts I *am* reading. It has become very clear to me that this is one of my major obstacles in completing writing tasks. The allure of more things that could be read leads me to collect far more material than I can possibly read, which means I put it off, which means I don't get started on writing till far too late. So now that I've identified this problem in so many words, I need to seek some suggestions as to how I can circumvent the problem: I want my reading to be thorough; that's something I'm not willing to sacrifice. So how do I identify "thorough enough," given that "complete" is never an option where reading and learning go?

Ok, back to reading about qualitative research methods, so I can decide what to go with sometime in the next week. :)

"I raise my hands to frame the light,
Raise my voice in the middle of the night,
I close my eyes when I start to sing,
It's a way of, way of praying"
               - Carrie Newcomer, The Yes of Yes

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Can We or Can't We?

Last night, H and I had dinner at one of his colleagues.' This is an unusual occurrence for us, socializing with people from his workplace, especially since we've moved to Abu Dhabi. The conversation ranged from politics to parenting to comparisons of Abu Dhabi and Pakistan, to any number of things.

The politics part I won't really get into today, other than to comment that I discovered something about myself: I used to get very frustrated when I heard people blame all or most of Pakistan's woes on "the foreign hand." Now I am amusedly exasperated. Something to discuss in more detail another day, perhaps.

The conversation on parenting is what I want to focus on. We were agreeing that too many children in Pakistan were given far too free a hand by their parents, in terms of how much money they had to spend, in particular. We talked about how a lot of drug money had flooded into the country in the 80s and how foreign remittances from expat workers created "money for free." Too many kids had fathers who were working abroad, usually in the Gulf, and sending most of their salary home. These kids never saw how hard their fathers worked, and they worked hard. At jobs that their kids would consider beneath their dignity, for long hours, in pretty nasty living conditions. All their families saw was a sudden influx of wealth. We're not talking extra pin-money here. Family incomes increased exponentially.

The point of this conversation about the Dubai-chalo (Let's go to Dubai) phenomenon was that if kids don't see any of the effort that goes into earning money, they have little respect for money. And this was where things got really interesting, from my perspective. Our host made the remark, only half-jokingly, that it was mothers who would be answerable to God for their failure to raise their children appropriately, the implication being that their moms should teach them that their dads are working hard. And our hostess added, well, of course the mothers would be responsible for the upbringing, but the fathers would be answerable as to whether their children had been brought up on halal  or haraam kamaai ('legitimate or ill-gotten earnings', but the phrase is laden with a whole constellation of connotations in Urdu).

I can't honestly say that I know enough about the Quranic view of parenting to be able to comment on whether their opinions are correct from a dogmatic point of view. I would be willing to speculate that there are probably scholars who would espouse these views. But I'm left wondering how much we can and should control our children's attitudes, in the way that our hosts seemed to think that parents should. I suppose the expat workers' wives could try to get their kids to empathize with their fathers' experiences, but I wonder how many of the mothers were able to empathize themselves. They would have little to no exposure to the reality themselves, except for what their husbands told them in the month or three they were home every two or three years. Could those moms be held responsible for their kids attitudes? Can *any* parents be held responsible for their kids' attitudes?


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Small victories

For the first time in I don't know how long, I actually have no ironing pending. I have a load of laundry drying on the rack so there will be more tomorrow, but that's just the nature of housework. The cool thing is...there isn't any more TODAY. And laundry is actually under control. There's a load to do tomorrow, but that's ok, too. There isn't room for another load on the rack.

Housework and I don't get along. A former student, also my husband's niece, sent me a postcard recently, because she said that she thought of me the minute she saw it:

Once I had stopped laughing, it got me thinking. That statement is a patently irrational position. And it's perfectly reasonable that it reminded her of me. And that makes me uncomfortable. Because I don't like being irrational. Housework, unpleasant as it is, simply IS. And it regenerates itself every day.

What I've realized over the past several months is that I have used my anger about gender inequities as an excuse not to do that part of the housework that even *I* think I should be doing. I've also realized that getting angry because my husband isn't doing it doesn't clean the house. This is obvious to most women, apparently. And doing the work puts me in a much better position to argue the injustice of it. heheh.

Another time, I will have to write about my husband's chief line of defense in these arguments: "Fine get angry, but don't make that DOR (division of responsibilities, for those of you who are equally corporate clueless as I was) that I suggested!" and why that ticks me off, even though getting down to making it might actually be very much in my interest.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Further Along The Road Less Cluttered

Amongst the many facets of my life that I am attempting to unclutter (why is that word so much better than 'declutter'?), the thousands (4987, to be precise) of PDF files that I have accumulated over the course of literature reviews for masters courses, teaching preparation for multiple subjects, and materials development for teacher education were really weighing on me. Every time I thought of going through and trying to rename them, my heart would sink. And I knew I had to identify them, because I have two cartons of paper that can't be thrown out until I know for sure which of those articles I have electronic copies of. Also the slight matter of actually needing to write up a literature review for my thesis proposal...

So after renaming about 200 of them, I decided this was for the birds. Laziness, as I believe Benjamin Franklin said, is the mother of invention. Or some serious web-searching. And what do you think I found? It turns out that Zotero is not just a convenient way to keep your bibliography. If you import your existing, lazily-left-with-the-long-string-of-numbers-from-the-online-database-as-a-title into your Zotero collection, Zotero will give you the option of retrieving the metadata for the PDF and automatically creating an entry in your reference collection. It took my poor overworked Inspiron's 1GB of RAM about 12 hours to do the import of the ~4GB of PDF files, but now the majority of those files are in the process of getting automagically identified and indexed in a format that I will be able to directly pull into a bibliography.

There are still a bunch of files that it can't identify itself, and I'll have to go through and search for the references. Some of the documents don't contain OCR'ed text, and some of them don't have readily identified DOIs, but if it takes care of 80% of them, I'll be a happy woman.

Note to self: When downloading PDF files, download them directly into the Zotero collection, so that this nightmare need never be repeated.

It never ceases to amaze me how stupid I can be. And that apparently there are enough other people out there who are equally stupid that someone comes up with a free software solution for our stupidity. :)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Inbox Zero, YAY

After months without internet access, I had a huge (for me) backlog of email in my inbox. Today, I managed to go through and get it down to zero. Yay for GTD and Yay for getting down to the business of actually uncluttering my life instead of just reading about it.

I got permission from my university to work on my thesis from Abu Dhabi, so five years after I was supposed to, I've actually started working with an advisor on drafting my research question for real. Yay for moving forward on long-overdue personal projects.

(I'm in a celebratory kind of mood. It doesn't show, does it?)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to import Nokia (or any .csv) contacts into Thunderbird 3 on Windows XP

There may be a more elegant way to do this; I'm simply documenting the method that I ultimately found successful, in the hope that someone, somewhere may be saved some time.

I was working with a Nokia 3110c. I have no idea whether that matters, but I would expect that the same method would work for any Nokia that you could connect to the Nokia PC suite.

Software required (you may be able to use other versions of the software, but I don't know):
1) Nokia PC Suite  ver.
2) OpenOffice Calc 3.1.1 (You could equally well use Excel or any program that allows you to look at CSV (comma separated values) files.
3) Thunderbird 3.0.1

Optional: AutoHotKey v. 1.0.48

Part 1: Exporting contacts from Nokia 3110c
  1. Open up Nokia PC Suite and go to the Contacts manager. Follow the on screen instructions to connect your phone with the application. It's fairly straightforward to do so.
  2. Select all the contacts you want to export (Note: I save my contacts to phone. If you have them saved to SIM, you may need to copy them to your phone first.). If you want to export all of them, Ctrl-A works as Select All. If you want to export some of them, use Ctrl-click to select all of the ones you want.
  3. Go to the File menu, and select Export.
  4. Pick a convenient location to save the file. You will need to open it again fairly soon.
  5. Give your file a name (nokiacontacts or some such), making sure that the Save as type: box has Comma Separated Values (*.csv) selected.
  6. Press the green check mark.
  7. Exit Nokia PC Suite
Part 2: Formatting contacts file for import into Thunderbird
  1. Open up Thunderbird.
  2. Click on the Address Book button or simply Ctrl-Shift-B
  3. Go to the Tools menu in the Address Book window and select Export.
  4. Choose a location and filename.
  5. Make sure, once again, that the Save as type: box says Comma Separated. The default on mine is LDIF.
  6. Click on OK.
  7. Boot up Calc/Excel/whatever program you will use to edit your CSV file. (The instructions that follow are specific to Calc. Some of the steps may be different if you are using other software.)
  8. Open the .csv file you created in Part 1 from your Nokia phone contacts.
  9. The Text Import dialog box should open up. The first option you can change is Character Set. Change this from Unicode to Western Europe (Windows-1252/WinLatin 1). I'm not 100% certain you have to do this step, but I think it might be critical.
  10. Check that the Separated by: option has the Comma box checked off.
  11. Press OK.
  12. You should get a spreadsheet with the first column "Title" preceded by some gobbledygook characters. Delete the gobbledygook. Save the file, selecting Keep Current Format.
  13. Also open up the .csv file you exported from Thunderbird. You'll notice that the Character set reads Western Europe (Windows-1252/WinLatin 1). Leave it that way. 
  14. If you compare the two files, you'll notice that the fields are not exactly the same. So go ahead and plan which field from the phone contacts should map to a given field in the Thunderbird addressbook. Depending on how detailed the info is that you keep in your phone, this may take some time. I advise that you actually change the names of the columns in the nokiacontacts.csv to match the Thunderbird fields.
  15. Delete all the columns in nokiacontacts.csv that you won't be mapping to Thunderbird. If you don't have an equivalent field in Thunderbird, you can transfer it to a Custom field. There are 4 available.
  16. THIS STEP IS REALLY IMPORTANT: You may or may not notice that Thunderbird has a First Name field, a Last Name field, and a Display Name field. You HAVE to put something in the Display Name column if you want names to show up when you look at your contacts in Thunderbird. Otherwise, the names will be there, but will not show up unless you open the contact up for editing. You have some options for what to do about the Display Name field. The next few steps are what I chose to do.
  17. Make a copy of the First Name (DupFirstName) and Last Name (DupLastName) columns in the nokiacontacts.csv file.
  18. Select a contact's DupFirst and DupLast names. So if First Name is Mohammed and Last Name is Ahmed, select Mohammed and Ahmed from the DupFirstName and DupLastName columns. Now merge those two cells (Alt-O-E). Calc will ask if the contents should be moved into the first cell. Tell it Yes.
  19. Either go through and do this for each contact or follow OPTIONAL PART 2a.
  20. Save nokiacontacts.csv, making sure to Keep the Current Format.
OPTIONAL PART 2a. Automating the Display Name Merge I have 521 phone contacts. I was not looking forward to repeating Step17 521 times. So I wrote a little AutoHotKey script to do the merging for me. Here's the script. You will need AutoHotKey to make it work.
    1. Open up Notepad or any text editor.
    2. Enter the following script, which simply automates Step 18, telling the software to select the cell to the right, press Alt-O-E, then Alt-Y, then Enter. And repeat this 520 times.
loop, 520
;YOU SHOULD REPLACE the 520 in the above line with the number of contacts you need merged.
{Send +{Right}!oe
SetKeyDelay, 15
Send !y{Enter}
3. Save the text file as merge.ahk
4. Install AutoHotKey. I got it a long time ago and don't have the URL handy, sorry. Might add it later.
5. Double click on the icon for merge.ahk
6. Return to nokiacontacts.csv. Select the first DupFirstName entry. Hit Windows-M and let AutoHotKey complete the merge for you.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This script assumes that you have DupFirstName and DupLastName in adjacent columns. Also, it may be a kludgy script. I've never used AutoHotKey before, and I have no programming experience.
7. Go back to the Part2 instructions.
Part 3: Importing contacts file into Thunderbird
  1. Open up Thunderbird
  2. Press Alt-T-M or go to the Tools menu and select Import.
  3. At the Import dialog box, select Address Books and click on Next.
  4. In Select the Type of File, choose Text File (LDIF, .csv, etc.)
  5. Select your nokiacontacts.csv file. The dialog box will read LDIF at the bottom. You will need to change that to All files or Comma Separated in order to see your .csv file.
  6. You should now see an Import Address Book dialog box. The column on the left shows the Thunderbird Address Book fields, and the column on the right shows the nokiacontacts.csv fields.
  7. You have to move the Thunderbird fields up and down to match the appropriate nokiacontacts.csv fields. TIP: Start by matching up with the first field from nokiacontacts.csv, and work your way down, otheriwise you will have to keep realigning fields. So align First Name with First Name, then Last Name with Last Name, etc. Thunderbird remembers the order you last used, so if you've never imported an addressbook before, and you put your nokiacontacts.csv columns in the same order as the thunderbird.csv file, you may not have much realigning to do. I've messed around with it too much to know for sure.
  8. Make sure you have all the appropriate Address Book fields checked. Every time you click on the field, you toggle the checkbox.
  9. Press OK.
  10. Enjoy the fact that you have now done in 15 minutes what it took me a few hours to figure out.
At some later point, I will try to figure out whether I can actually merge address books. Will update the post then.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

City of contradictions

What happens when you put a PakAmeristanican in Abu Dhabi? Turns out,
not very much, at least for the first six months. Immigration tax, here,
is levied in lost hours and dead trees.

It never occurred to me that every culture has its own special brand of
(il)logic. And it should have, because I really should know that
cultures think differently. Certainly Pakistan and the United States do.
Why I expected that the UAE would fit one or the other mindset, I don't
know. Sheer intellectual laziness on my part, I guess.

Why do I call it a city of contradictions? Well, let's see: the
population of the UAE is something like 3/4 expatriates. But you always
remain, as far as I can tell, a resident alien. There is no possibility
of naturalization, unless you happen to be an expat woman who marries an
Emirati man. Then, of course, like all women naturally do, you give up
any identity you might previously have had, and take on your husband's,
immersing yourself in it entirely. ;)

Every house in Abu Dhabi is connected to a fibre-optic cable network,
but internet access is prohibitively expensive, and even when you get
online, the number of sites that are blocked by the state-owned telecom
company is simply phenomenal. You can't access flickr. You can't access
a lot of blogs. I've only had an internet connection for a month or so,
and I've already seen "This site is blocked" on countless occasions. And
really, my web-browsing activities are rated G, maybe PG-13
occasionally. Also, the only reason I have internet access is because I
went out and purchased a USB broadband modem, allowing me essentially,
to use a cellphone connection to connect. The cable internet connection,
which we applied for on the 14th of July, as the call center person
kindly reminds me every two weeks when I call again to request
follow-up, is STILL not active. Two months ago (four months after we
applied), people finally came and installed a cable modem and wireless
router, so the home network has been working since then, but they told
us that the link wouldn't actually be up for another week. Eight weeks
after that, some men from the telecom company put in the cable, and said
it would be three working days before the connection went live. That was
Saturday, twelve days ago. It still doesn't work.

Oh, and here's the punchline. The hold "music" for Etisalat (the telecom
company) is a series of marketing pitches. Yesterday, this is what I got
to hear: "If you are having trouble configuring your internet
connection, or accessing the internet, you can use Esupport, our
troubleshooting software. Best of all, it's free. For more information,
simply log on to www.etisalat.ae/esupport."

My three year old son couldn't figure out why I was laughing like a
madwoman while on hold.