Bring me Grid Writer

Recently, Google announced an interesting new messaging application – Google Wave. Rather than being oriented around messages, it’s oriented around real-time conversations, and as a result, is able to behave like applications that have traditionally been considered completely separate: email, IM, collaborative document editing. If they can pull this off in a way that people will find intuitive, it will change the way those applications are provided in future.

An idea that I’ve had for a some time is that there could be a similar opportunity to converge traditionally separate office productivity applications. For want of a term, I’m going to call this converged application a Grid Writer.

There are three main office productivity applications, and these appear in any office software suite: the word processor, the spreadsheet, and the presentation program. They come from different traditions and the documents that you create with them have different fundamental properties.

  • Word Processor. This software tool has evolved out of the typewriter. I first used WordStar, but it’s now disappeared from the scene. Some other notable programs in the history of the word processor are Word Perfect, Apple Pages, and Microsoft Word. I see the basic unit of the word processor document as the paragraph.
  • Spreadsheet. This software tool has evolved out of the ledger book. The first spreadsheet was Visicalc, and other spreadsheet programs are Lotus 1-2-3, Apple Numbers, and Microsoft Excel. I see the basic unit of the spreadsheet document as the cell.
  • Presentation program. This software tool has evolved out of the slide show. The first presentation program was VCN ExecuVision, although my first experience of this type of software was HyperCard, but I was aware of Harvard Graphics being around at that time. Other presentation programs include Apple Keynote and Microsoft Powerpoint. I see the basic unit of the presentation program as the slide.

Whether these applications can be converged is essentially the question of whether the basic units of those applications can be converged (paragraph, cell and slide). In today’s software, it is common for a type of convergence to be supported where elements from the one application are embedded in another, however what I’m interested in is more of the Google Wave type of convergence where a single application displays the characteristics of all the traditional applications.

Of the basic units, I think the cell is the most flexible, so it ought to form the basis for the grid writer. Each cell has a unique reference, can contain either a value or a formula, and they have a visual relationship to neighboring cells. If a value could be a paragraph, then it might support a word processor paradigm. If a cell could contain other cells, and visual relationships could encompass transitions and animations, then it might support a presentation program paradigm.

Desktop publishing packages (and even some word processors) chunk text into frames, which have the visual relationship aspects of cells. Also, the concept here is not dissimilar to the approach taken in many webpages today, where tables, and tables containing other tables, are commonly used (although commonly derided) in layout. However, I wonder how well a cell-based approach could be done if it was designed in from the start, rather than used as a kludge.

Okay, Internets, I’ve now described the concept of the grid writer. I’d like someone to build it for me, so I can use it!

What Toastmasters Doesn’t Teach You

Last week I gave my final speech, number ten, in the competent communicator set at my local Toastmasters Club. Following a formula that I’ve found works well, I ripped off a previous blog post and turned it into my CC#10 speech. If you want to read/see it, here are the links:

It’s been good to go to Toastmasters meetings, as it provides excellent practice in developing and presenting a talk. However, I found there were some skills that are required to put together a good speech that aren’t covered in the manuals provided or in the evaluations offered at meetings. Essentially these are the skills related to getting yourself to the point where you can deliver the speech, rather than those related to the actual delivery.

Specifically, Toastmasters doesn’t teach you how to research a speech, prepare a written form of the speech to learn, and then learn the speech off by heart. If anyone else in Toastmasters land is struggling with these (or is just interested), then here’s what I learned that worked pretty well (but no guarantees it will work well for anyone else):

  • Research. I found that the manuals provided guidance on how to select a good topic, but then what? I found that a mind-mapping approach, using the XMind software in conjunction with web searches, worked well in fleshing out the topic, and capturing the topics, sub-topics, and sub-sub-topics in a useful hierarchical fashion. You could easily see where the interesting aspects of the topic were leading, and if there were aspects that you hadn’t yet got much material on. Once the mind-map was sufficiently large (this will be a subjective thing), I knew there was enough material for a speech and I could stop.
  • Preparing a written form. I don’t say “writing the speech”, since I was unable to find enough time to memorise a fully-written speech, hence it was pointless writing one. What I would produce was essentially an outline of the eventual speech, and I would allow myself the freedom to ad-lib a bit when delivering it. To fill a 5-7 minute speech I knew that my outline should have, at the top level, an introduction, three sub-topics, then a conclusion, and each point at the top level should have 2-3 points at the level below.
  • Learning it off by heart. I found it hard to memorise all the words in a fully-written speech, but I also found it hard to remember all of my outline in the heat of the moment when delivering the speech. So, I took an approach that I was shown in a Think on Your Feet course, and created a visual representation of the outline. Each point below the top level would be turned into a simple drawing, or icon. It turns out that my brain finds this much easier to remember. And you don’t need to be able to hold the whole thing in your head during the speech; you just need to remember “what next”, which is just one thing at a time.

One of the consequences of following the above approach is that the speech ends up being highly structured, which is considered a Good Thing at Toastmasters meetings. One of the complications, though, is that it doesn’t help you with remembering particular gestures or when to advance slides. So, it’s not a complete technique.

If you’ve read this far, I hope this helps you.

Cash back

I recently bought a new laser printer from Officeworks. It’s from Brother, and I picked it up for $99. Actually, it was $139 with a $40 “cash back” (and I’m still waiting for the cash back, to be completely honest).

Cash backs are a weaselly way of providing a discount. We all know that they are offered with the understanding that not all customers will be bothered to, or will remember about, getting their cash back. If they were genuine about the discount, they’d simply reduce the retail price.

In order to claim this one, I had to:

  1. Keep the receipt from Officeworks
  2. Make a photocopy of it
  3. Do a web search for “brother cash back” (no details were provided in store, on the receipt, or with the product on how to claim the cash back)
  4. Visit the right website
  5. Locate the serial number for the product (detailed instructions are provided on the website)
  6. Complete a claim form online, including specifying receipt number, serial number, and bank account details
  7. Get back a unique code, that had to be written on the back of the photocopied receipt, along with my name and address
  8. Post the photocopied receipt to the address specified (also requires a stamp)
  9. Wait

Not exactly trivial. At several points I wondered if it was worth bothering, but I obviously persevered. A straight-out discount would have been preferable.

Although, now I’m reconsidering. The practice of cash backs is a bit like a tax on the slack. The motivated get the discount, while the slack do not. If everyone was motivated enough to jump through the hoops the manufacturer has created, the amount they could provide in the cash back would be less. So, in a real sense, the difficulty of the cash back process results in a higher cash back amount for those willing to endure it.

I may end up quite happy once the payment has been received. However, The Age published an article today alerting readers to problems with HP’s cash back schemes. So, I wait, and hope that Brother’s process is less difficult than HP’s.