A little note on the retarded thing

Something I’ve noticed in the last couple of decades is that a significant number of my colleagues at different workplaces play pretty free and loose with the terms retarded and retard as blanket derisive adjectives for something or someone that they find to be profoundly stupid.

The number of people I’ve encountered at all levels of organizations who fling the terms around without batting an eye is pretty remarkable. And of course, folks like Jon Stewart have their own fun with it as well.

Whenever somebody drops the r-bomb around me, I look at them to see whether there’s any hint of self-consciousness and I have yet to see it.

So here’s the reveal: I have a 36-year-old brother-in-law with Down’s Syndrome. He’s gone his entire life suffering the indignities of the term retard, mostly from people who weren’t really fit to serve him coffee. My brother-in-law is technically classified as “mentally retarded”. His intellectual skills are impaired by his genetics. Like many people with intellectual disabilities, he goes about his life pretty much like anyone else. He has a job, he volunteers his time at the local library, he likes hockey and baseball and wrestling, and can play piano. Not bad for a retard, I guess.

But I just know that every time he’s within earshot somebody who’s complaining that something’s retarded, it stings.

What I wonder about is why this group of people, a particularly vulnerable group, have been denied the common courtesy that many other marginalized or disenfranchised groups have been granted.

Some folks will pull up the “literal meaning” of retarded as an excuse. As long as they feel that they’re using the term in its proper English context, then that’s fine. But most of the time the term is used as a double-entendre. I’d wager that if you tried to replace the word “slow” with the word “retarded” in a normal conversation, you’d be hard pressed not to get at least one snicker, sideglance, or raised eyebrow from your audience.

So, by extension, I wince every time I hear it. I think about all the people like my brother-in-law for whom these words carry such hurtful connotations, and I wonder whether it’s worth lecturing the people who say it. I’ve decided to start with this passive lecture. If you’ve stumbled here because you work with me, now you’ve been lectured.

Just sayin’.

— addendum —

So based on my first comment from a work colleague, I feel like my lecture has been taken as a pointed statement. I’m not out to make people feel bad, but if I do make people ask why this particular word is ok when other disparaging epithets are not, then I guess I’m accomplishing my task.

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Two’s a Charm

Okay, in the spirit of equal treatment, I have to use this space to announce that my five-year-old daughter Clare is now performing as Gretl in the Sound of Music in Toronto.

My daughter Clare's Bio for The Sound of Music
My daughter Clare's Bio for The Sound of Music

Clare had originally auditioned with her older sister in June of 2008, but at only four years of age, decided that she wasn’t ready to be in a show, and dropped out. Always certain that one day she would be ready, when a spot opened up, she auditioned again and now in the show as one of the 3 girls who play Gretl.

This is the point where our family life gets truly nutty. Our calendar for taking kids to shows, dance lessons, etc. is quite an entertaining read. No kidding.

Clare’s doing really well. She had her first show Labour Day weekend and has been doing an average of 3 shows a week. They recently announced that The Sound of Music will be closing January 3rd, which is too bad because it would be nice for her to have a longer run.

Clare splits her time between the two ‘families’ of kids in the cast, so she’s on stage with her sister Hannah sometimes, and others she’s with the other cast. She seems to have fun with both.

Watching your kids perform in a giant theatre is weird. One of the most striking things for me this time out was hearing Clare call Burke Moses “Daddy” on stage.  I can honestly say I’ve never heard any of my four children address anyone else that way…it’s odd.

Another interesting thing about all this is that Clare’s only five (almost six). I don’t really remember much about when I was 5 going on 6, but I wonder how much of this she’ll remember when she’s older. Since the internet never forgets anything, I guess she’ll be able to tell me in twenty years or so.

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Axure State Toggle Widget

I’m an AxureRP user from waaay back.

Some time ago I created a prototype for a website that consisted of a multi-stage contest. The contest would run in 3 stages:

  1. Promotion/Entry (people upload content for judging)
  2. Voting/Judging
  3. Post-contest (display winners, etc)

The content for each of these stages would also be customized for signed-in and signed-out users.

It’s easy to do this kind of thing in Axure (of course it is) but I find that presenting such a prototype is always a challenge because there’s no trigger to display the different content over time.

Previously, I’d create prototype pages that acted as starting points for reviewing the prototype from a specific use case perspective, and these starter pages would set the appropriate variable values for the example workflow. This works fine when you’re in linear presentation mode, but causes problems when clients ask questions that would require you to start the experience over with different starting values: “Can I see this page in stage 2 of the contest?”.

In addition, at my workplace, we are using the HTML prototype as a guideline for developers, designers, and QA to do their magic. It’s a hassle for them to work through the linear steps to set variables when all they want is to get a sense of the changes on each individual page based on the contest stage (or whatever criteria accounts for the content change).

So anyhoo… I built a little widget that toggles any given page based on variables that specify the user logged in state and the contest stage.

After doing this, I find that I’ve been using it in a lot of projects because it’s so convenient to be able to tour all of the customized content variations on each page.

View the sample prototype.

Download the Axure RP (version 5.5) file

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Manifest Marta

It’s been four weeks of rehearsals now, wherein there have been many learnings and much excitement.

Hannah's Bio in the Sound of Music Programme
Hannah's Bio in the Sound of Music Programme

Hannah has amazing stamina that is perhaps only available in 8-year-olds, but she has been doing a rigourous schedule of 8-hours a day from Thursday to Sunday since early February, and she still has lots of energy left over for school, dance classes, and endless hours of practising her lines and songs.

As Marta, she doesn’t have a lot of lines to remember (Marta is the 2nd youngest of the Von Trapp children), but there’s a lot of singing to learn and get right. And I’m amazed that she isn’t sick of it yet.

Our whole family has been adjusting to the back-and-forth to rehearsal schedule. It’s about a 45-minute walk from our house to the Mirvish Productions building next to the Princess of Whales Theatre here in Toronto. As part of our attempt to teach Hannah about money, we got her to log all of the money she didn’t spend on transit tickets or taxis to get to rehearsal. This money is designated in a separate category for her discretionary spending. We’re all hoping it means we all get to go out for breakfast on her occasionally.

First performances

We now have the first month’s schedule of performances, and so have booked a whackload of tickets for March 17th at 1:30pm.

The rest of the schedule for March is:

Wednesday March 18 — matinée
Thursday March 19 — matinée
Saturday March 21 — matinée
Wednesday March 25 — matinée & evening
Saturday March 28 — matinée
Sunday March 29 — matinée

Only one evening performance means that at least we’ll ease into the late nights.

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First day of rehearsal

So we’ve been negotiating this new world of showbiz on behalf of our daughter, and it’s been surprisingly uncomplicated. Now that she’s officially going to be Marta in the Mirvish Production of The Sound of Music in Toronto, we’re slowly adjusting to the idea that this is really real.

First came a contract, in a couriered package with contract pages plus rider. There was a form to fill out for her pay (!) which necessitated a bank account for an 8-year-old. Said bank account was procured from RBC, the “Leo” account or some such thing…the only bank account they offer kids.

We wondered about the necessity of a GST number. She will not have enough income from this “self employment” to warrant it…this year at least.

Income tax? Does an 8-year old have to file income tax in Canada? Will have to find that one out.

Then there’s the bio & photo. Parent supplied…who knew? The bio was written collaboratively by my wife, my daughter, and myself, and copy edited and proofed by my work colleague Laura and my mother-in-law. We tried to make it cute but not too cute. It’s interesting when many of the other kids’ bios include television credits and the like. We had to focus on the living room shows and ballet school performances instead.

I write this from Vancouver, where I am attending the IxDA’s annual conference, Interaction ’09. I have had a misadventure (another post) but I did manage to get myself up early enough to call and wish my young performer a happy first rehearsal.

It’s going to be a long haul for a little while: 4 8-hour rehearsals a week for 5 weeks. Good thing she has boundless energy.

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ShowBiz

Interesting events recently for my family. My eldest daughter (she’s 8-years old) became a cast member of the Toronto Production of The Sound of Music. She’ll be playing ‘Marta’, the second-youngest Von Trapp child 4 performances a week starting in March.

Sound of Music Poster
Sound of Music Poster

We are not a showbiz family. We have no experience with professional theatre and so it’s a great adventure for all of us.

So far, we’re still in kind of ‘holy crap’ mode. You never want to get your hopes up too high, and you keep your attitude light so that you don’t set yourself and your kids up for disappointment in a process that is so fraught with peril.

Since we’re new to this whole thing, I’m going to track it a bit for everyone. It’ll be a diversion from my original focus here at the LoweLife, but that wasn’t really working anyway. I’m taking a page from 43 folders here and am gonna blog the crap out of this.

Coming soon:

You have no idea all the stuff that you have to consider when your 8-year-old child is going to be receiving a regular paycheque. Or maybe you do? I’m gonna tell you once I figure it out.

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Broken or just sprained?

In one of my all-time favourite movies, the girl character tells the boy character that he’s “broken”. Later she revises it to “sprained” – but  before learning that he’s a professional killer.

I was recently reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s story about his dishwasher — particularly some of the astute comments — and it sent my brain madly off in all directions at the same time.

In his blog, Mr. Zeldman recounts an interesting and amusing story about his dishwasher, which is not working as he’d like it to, but which is not, in the strictest sense, broken, and so cannot be repaired.

What rings so true about this story is our general attitude towards anything we touch or use on a daily basis and how we as people react to a ‘broken’ experience.

A lot of what we use every day isn’t really broken, but it doesn’t really work right, either. If it’s something like a cd player with a sticky drawer, we live with it because our options are usually a) try to find someone that fixes cd players or b) buy a new ipod or other media player (finally an excuse) and then feel guilty about sending a perfectly (almost) good cd player to the landfill, or recycling facility, or whatever. There are lots of people for whom a dent, scratch, or sticky door means immediate replacement or repair, but for the rest of us, the seconds bin is our second home.

For me depending on what it is, something may have to be really broken for me to contemplate replacing it, or fixing it. Example: I have a Timex watch that I love. It has one of those great Indiglo nightlights, which not only lets me tell time in the dark, but lets me see whether the child I’m trying to get to sleep at bedtime really has their eyes closed. A couple of months ago, the nightlight stopped working; it still keeps great time, but no longer has the nice bonus feature I like so much.  Now I can either buy a new watch for $70, in which case this one will be garbage (just what we all need, more garbage), or my other option is to go to the Timex Canada website, print off a (very confusing) repair form, and mail them my beloved watch in hopes that they can fix it. I have no idea how long it would be gone, and I’m one of those people who likes to know what time it is. You see my problem? I’m guessing that until this watch completely dies, I’m going to keep wearing it.

How broken does something need to be for us to fix it? People like Jim Kunstler believe — and I tend to agree with him — that for humans in general to really shift their behaviour, something pretty catastrophic has to occur: think the heart attack that finally leads to a lifestyle of good diet and exercise, the financial crisis that finally makes people take notice of the irresponsible antics in the financial sector.

In my work as an Information Architect and Usability Specialist on the web, I’ve seen some pretty broken website experiences, and I’ve watched as agencies and clients ‘fix’ them in different ways. It’s interesting that what I think of as broken is often not what everybody else does. What’s broken to me is merely a sprain to someone else. Sometimes the things that I think are essential to fix are at the very bottom of the list from the client’s perspective.

At the end of the day, a lot of us just limp around on a sprained website, managing to overcome bad usability, poor form design, and wtf? moments through willing suspension of disbelief and dogged determination. We get there in the end because we really want to, or we absolutely need to. It’s painful, but we can use it.

I’m wondering what the catastrophic change has to be to shift our patience for chronic pain? Will there be one? Just wonderin’.

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Back to School

Welcome to back to school.

I am the proud father of home-schooled kids. This is the 3rd year that my wife has got our kids started on their school curriculum first thing in the morning on the day after labour day. We’ve got kindergarten, grade one, and grade three all going on at the kitchen table with our pre-schooler absorbing things by osmosis in the background.

Since we’re in a fairly traditionally structured family, I don’t have much to do with the presentation of the material to my kids, but this year we’re trying to figure out how I can contribute to their learning either by doing Saturday ‘special’ classes, or evenings. That should be fun, if I can come up with something interesting. I’ve been wondering about working with my 6 and 8 year olds on user interface design. I figure they might have insights on what works and what doesn’t. They don’t get a lot of computer time, but when they do (30 minutes per week), I am always stunned by how quickly they learn the interface and make it work for them.

Wish me luck.

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the eternal floppy drive

In my job as an Information Architect, I do a lot of web interface prototyping of different kinds of web UIs. Something occurred to me for the first time only while trying to create a nice ‘save’ button for a web form… all the save icons in the world are still images of 3.5″ floppy drives.

Thanks to Google, I know that I’m not the only one who has wondered about this (though perhaps I was the only one doing it at 2am EST when I should’ve been finishing my ‘end of day’ deliverable). See:

terminally incoherent

let’s bootstrap this world

Personally, I use Mark James’ excellent set of Silk icons for my prototypes. Interestingly, his graphic Image of a floppy disk is called “disk.png” not “save.png”. He just draws the pictures, we create the relationship.

I still have a floppy drive in my computer, but the last time I tried to view a disk of my university essays, the media had degraded to a point where all it did was error out. What will Image of a floppy disk us in the future?

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