The Writing Life of a TadpolePosted on by PolyWogg
Continuing down the Open Access rabbithole, I found the UNESCO-led site, the Global Open Access Portal. You can even narrow it down to just Canadian access sites. Which I did. And then went further down the rabbit hole with some of the following highlights:
The Writing Life of a TadpolePosted on by PolyWogg
A little over three weeks ago, I blogged about doing a Year-in-Review book on Shutterfly and submitting, then waiting. The book arrived, and as with a previous book by them, there are some parts that underwhelm. There are a few places where I feel like the printer colour ran a bit. Not enough in this case to send it back (I had the previous one reprinted), just enough to mildly notice.
I was also looking to do a Trip Book for the family trip to B.C. back in 2010. These ones are similar in size to the Year in Review ones, I like the 8.5×11 inches size in landscape mode, but they didn’t have to be identical. And after checking out a bunch of sites, I decided at the end of the post to go with one of Shoppers / Loblaws / Uniprix (they have the same interface software).
Except then I didn’t. I tried loading Costco, just to try it, and this time it worked. Perfectly fine. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Shutterfly, far fewer layouts and themes, or stickers, but still pretty solid. It was however a lot easier to see the full suite of what was available all at once than it is in Shutterfly, where the full list can quickly overwhelm you (20000 backgrounds????).
It is a bit harder to compare the books. The travel book is thinner than the Year ones, but overall, it turned out pretty well. I even found some of it simpler. I’m letting my wife figure out if there is a difference in quality before I do more. The timing with Costco is certainly far more controllable — printed in Canada, picked up in Canada, etc. I got it way faster than the Shutterfly book, and no printing glitches either. But I’d be hard pressed to say the quality of the covers is as solid. Nice, but not quite as good. I just don’t think I care about the difference enough to stay with Shutterfly. However, Shutterfly has some sweet deals regularly, and I don’t think Costco does. Not that I’ve seen so far, anyway.
But I’m happy with the Costco book, which is the bottom line.
The Writing Life of a TadpolePosted on by PolyWogg
I like using our digital photos for different things — the website, a digital photo frame, some prints around the office, custom calendars, etc. And annual photobooks — a Year-In-Review style that goes month-by-month. Except I’m a bit behind on them, having only completed three or so of the last 13 years worth of organized digital photos that are in my digital gallery. So when I added “Make a Photobook” to my #50by50 list, it wasn’t a specific commitment like “Make a photobook of (someone’s) wedding” or “Make a photobook of a specific trip or year”, it was “knock one off the long list of photobooks you want to do” i.e. get back into making them.
Starting with a Year-In-Review book
Just over two years ago, I took a look at several websites that offer do-it-yourself photobooks, and I gave a bunch a try. Some of them failed for software limitations, others for their variable quality. I pretty much ended up going strictly with Shutterfly in the end. For my new YIR book, I thought I might as well start with Shutterfly again.
Shutterfly is a solid site overall, with all the basics plus some bells and whistles. They have regular coupon deals, established history, and I can reuse/copy old projects to incrementally improve each year while keeping some basic consistency. And lots of extra product possibilities like mousepads, notepads, notebooks, magnets, mugs, etc. I re-familiarized myself with the site and didn’t see any major changes in the functionality of the web design in the last two years, still no downloadable software to do it and then upload as one piece but rather still just all online, and the default templates for “years in review” are still not particularly attractive (only two main defaults from which to choose). Still, a solid choice. There are e-share options too, but I’m not particularly attracted to them nor do I need the option since I have my own photo gallery site with more content than would go in the books.
I bit the bullet. I put together a year in review (or actually a partial year in review) for the second half of 2010. In so doing though, I wanted to revisit the basic design of their template and see if I could create a new master template that I could reuse for future YIRs. Some of it was quite simple — adding background colours, putting in the months of the year, making sure every month has at least four pages to start with, etc. It took me most of a day to put the template in some form that I could call a “master” draft to build from for the future, but I only have to do it once and it probably took me longer as I was coming back “new” to the software/website. I then copied it over to a new project for a backup. And then used that to create “2010 – Book 2”.
Choosing the photos is a bit more of an iterative process than one might think. Here’s my general work-flow:
a. I copy all the photos from Andrea’s phone, the compact point-and-shoot camera, my phone, my tablet (rare), and the DSLR, plus any that others happened to send us of shared events into a set of photos by month;
b. I then sort them into days and events;
c. I pick the best ones for uploading, sending everything else into sub-folders called “extras”, keeping about one for every 2-3 that go in the extras folder (I don’t delete photos unless they’re blurry or technically wrong for some other eason…I’ve gone back too many times to a photo that was perhaps good for everyone, but in looking at the extras, I find one that is GREAT for a specific person, allowing me to crop it to just them);
d. For a Photobook, I start with the web choices, and weed it down to a smaller list of possibles, and then let Andrea weed even further.
I uploaded the weeded set to Shutterfly and the template worked almost perfectly. A couple of little tweaks here and there, but not enough to warrant changing the master, more tweaks for colouring with the photos I was laying out in the template. I added some prose, chose some photos for the covers and inside page, and bam! I submitted the book with a 50% off coupon. Sweet.
Now I just have to wait.
Considering a Trip Book
I’m willing to experiment with other sites, just to try them out, and I’m going with some trips as the theme. But which one to try?
Last time I tried Mixbook, the software was a bit unwieldy. This time, I found 11 templates for “Year in Review” style books. The Minimalist style was a bit black and white, but cute; Linen / Vintage / Colourful YIR / A Year to Remember / Year in Review / My Year Magazine / Graduation Year in Review / Watercolour Year in Review are all more thematic or event-driven than I would like. The one called Family Yearbook would be an awesome style for people with multiple kids and I could see easy ways to adapt it. However, the Kraft Year in Review is outright awesome. Simple chronological design, exactly what I am looking for in YIR-style without weird or wonky titles for each month. My only complaint is it is a bit drab … most of the layouts could benefit from a bit more colour per page. The software seemed to work okay, and as with most, you do a lot better with everything pre-chosen before you start. Definitely a viable option, and an improvement over previous attempts.
Since the last time I tried, CostCo has updated their software and their book builder looks a little better, albeit somewhat slow to get it to click over to the “ready” stage. Or more specifically, it goes off to “prepare” the book for editing and never returns. Just sits and “spins” that it is doing something and never finishes. Maybe it doesn’t like Firefox, maybe the site is busy, I don’t know. Pass.
c. Shoppers Drug Mart
The software seems better this time than last, and I was able to navigate through a few choices to get to a reasonable option for a book. I chose their one and only Year in Review template, and it isn’t bad. The overall layout and control options are much more basic than other sites, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing — some of the others are a bit overkill. Definitely a viable option I might consider.
If you go to the Loblaws site, you won’t find their photo book options because their photo service is separate — aka Photolab.ca. And it looks surprisingly familiar. Like with my previous review, Loblaws has the exact same software as Shoppers Drug Mart for their site, it just has a different name. But functionality, templates, etc are the same. So again, a viable option.
I wasn’t overly impressed the last time I tried the UniPrix site, but a friend suggested I give it another try, as he had good luck with it. So I gave it a go. Like SDM and Loblaws, it has some basic options, nothing extravagant. And while the opening interface is different, the final operations are almost identical for the software with Loblaws and SDM. A few differences, for sure, but functionally the same.
PhotoBookGirl is an online reviewer of photobook designs, and she has a bunch of reviews of different photo sites (mainly in the U.S.), so I wanted to give a few of them a try too. Blurb was up first. Blurb has some amazing options to upload a PDF and to sell things onwards into Amazon, but that’s not my focus. When Blurb Bookify starts, you get to the editing options pretty quick but that’s because the main options of other sites — draft templates, layouts, etc. — are all missing. Pass.
Like Blurb, it has options to create a book for sale — including kids books, etc. But the templates that come with it, and the basic interface are a bit too menu driven and mechanical than designed to populate things for you. Pass.
h. Clark Color Labs
The software for CCL is pretty clean. I set up an account easily, uploaded some photos pretty fast, and wandered through their templates. I’m looking for Year In Review designs, and while there weren’t many (only 3), they were all quite vibrant in colour. A very different look and feel to the template than Shutterfly or even Mixbook. The only challenge was that some of the months were set for a single page, others were spread over two, with no rhyme or reason. Plus there didn’t seem to be a reason why in some months they chose to put the name of the month on the page and others just a symbol (St. Patrick’s Day images for March, for example). Where they make up for some of it though is in their easy to access clipart. On a lot of sites, it is hard to find good clip art to add to the layout, but they make it pretty easy, and it was easy to add the months of the year for example or change a background. Overall a pretty simple and direct option. I have no idea if the quality out the other end is any good, but it’s a pretty nice site.
The site has some power, no doubt, and if you want to start from a very minimalist book layout, it’s a great choice. There are only five main themes, variations on “white”, but no choice between a year in revew or a trip or graduation. You can add all that, but you start with a blank template. Not a problem, but why would I want to do all that extra work unless I was starting with a very unique project? Pass.
Upfront, Snapfish has some great opening choices in sizes. I’m mainly interested in the landscape 8 x 11 books, but there were quite a few other choices too. When I chose YIR, just because it is an easy way to decide if it’s viable or not, eight sample templates came up. Most of them are comparable to the Shutterfly and Mixbook options, so nothing to really sell me there. Clicking on “Travel” pulled up another 12 options. One of them was called Road Trip (which a lot of my trips are), and pre-organized around Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc. So a viable option again.
So that gives me a full dozen options, including the original Shutterfly.
I’ve passed on: Costco, Blurb, Bookemon, and Picaboo;
I’m considering: Mixbook, Shoppers/Loblaws/Uniprix, Clark Color Labs, and Snapfish.
However, there is one small feature I like about the Shoppers / Loblaws / Uniprix option. I can print it and pick it up. No shipping required. And while I can’t guarantee the quality until I try it, it’s also not likely being shipped off to the lowest common producer elsewhere. There is a bit of local production involved. I hope at least. So I’ll try one of those three first.
I’ll see how it goes and update later. In the meantime, I’m waiting for my YIR book for 2010.
The Writing Life of a TadpolePosted on by PolyWogg
I’ve been to Newfoundland three times in my life…once for an APEC meeting (1997), once for some HR recruitment meetings, and once for a larger vacation with my family. Back in ’07, it was the HR recruitment meetings, my second trip to the province. I was participating in some broader recruitment, and I volunteered to be the one to go to St. John’s in November. Andrea joined me for the short trip (free hotel room for her!), and we added a couple of days of vacation to the end. With only two days, we didn’t go too far from St. John’s.
We were staying at a nice hotel near the one end of the downtown, with a view of the harbour and Signal Hill in the distance.
The reverse view from Signal Hill is kind of cool too.
Of course, like all good little tourists, we had to go Cape Spear.
We then spent the rest of the day driving around the area south of Cape Spear.
On the second day, we headed north towards Bay de Verde, and then wrapped down around the peninsula towards Dildo.
We were driving a Pontiac Grand Am or Grand Prix rental, and I decided to go off-roading so-to-speak. Somewhere around Grate’s Cove at the northern tip, there was a road on our map showing a connection to Daniel’s Cove, etc. Basically, we wouldn’t have to backtrack and take the same main highway we had gone up to get there. So we followed the map. And yes, I do mean a paper map. The road started fine, a little dirt road, no big deal. About half-way to Daniel’s Cove, it disintegrated into an access road. A little bit further along, and it started to become an ATV trail. We kept joking it was the type of story that would be mocked for years about those damn people from away who stupidly took a rental car down a rut with no place to turn around, but it was nervous joking. We made it fine, in the end, but it was a trifle nerve-wrackng. Particularly when we came to a very large puddle with NO idea how deep it was. Stupid tourists.
When we finished our little tour, and we did the proper dinner at a fish and chip diner in western St. John’s, we agreed it was merely enough to whet our appetite. We definitely wanted to see more of the province.
The Writing Life of a TadpolePosted on by PolyWogg
Anyone visiting my blog, or following me on Twitter, or even just (gasp!) knowing me in person knows pretty fast that I like serialized story telling — movies with sequels, books in series, and of course, TV shows. Just under two years ago, I decided it was time to cut the cord (Cutting the cord – Conclusion). It was a huge decision for me. I was a slave to my corporate overlords for media consumption for home telephone, cell phone, internet, mobile data, TV, etc. And it was costing me a small fortune, even with bundling. I made a huge change. But every few months, I get an itch to have MORE choice that would stop me from having to make such all-or-nothing types of decisions.
And then today, I tripped over an article at How-To Geek entitled simply “The Cheapest Way to Stream TV: Rotate Your Subscriptions”. I don’t want to bury the proverbial lede too far so let me state clearly that the article basically asks why pay for multiple streaming options all year round when you could have one or two “base” subscriptions and just pick up a few of the others if/when there is something worth watching on that network. Like Game of Thrones, for example. [Source: The Cheapest Way to Stream TV: Rotate Your Subscriptions].
Is that why I was gobsmacked? No. It was because his matter of fact way of explaining the options he has to draw upon is simply not even remotely close to what we (don’t) have available in Canada.
For a basic streaming package, he uses Netflix and Hulu for a total of $22 a month. Let’s start with Netflix.
We do have Netflix Canada, so sounds good, right? Except we don’t have the same content as regular Netflix. They have first run TV shows added due to deals with networks. Very few of those shows make it to Netflix Canada until the next season. Current year? Not available in Canada.
Take Hulu or Hulu Plus. Another great basic streaming option. Lots of first-run series matching regular network broadcast schedules. Which is industry speak for saying when it airs on CBS or NBC or ABC or Fox, it shows up either same day or same week on Hulu. You don’t get EVERYTHING, but you get a heck of a lot. Great, sign me up for $12 a month! Oh, wait, not available in Canada. At least not legally. Lots of people are buying Hulu gift cards on eBay, and I’ve looked at it long enough to figure out it would cost me $20 to try it. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. Still pretty shady though, on the black side of the grey zone of legality (yes, it completely violates their terms of service, but that’s not “law”, that’s a company’s ToS, not far off from removing mattress tags). Don’t get me wrong, there are very STRONG advocates that will and have told me that’s the slippery slope to cable Armageddon, although they haven’t yet told me why that’s a bad thing. But I digress.
We do have four other options in Canada to get basic service.
One option is to go with Crave TV. It’s meant to be like Netflix or Hulu, except its “first-run” show complement is somewhere around new episodes of The Beachcombers (for non-Canadian readers, it’s a home-grown show that has been off the air for years). If Netflix was Tier 1, Crave TV would clock in around Tier 3 or 4.
We do have Amazon Prime now, isn’t that exciting? Well, not really, as we don’t get the cable options in it, just the Prime shows. Another “Netflix-lite” style of Amazon Prime. No one would pay for it separately i.e. if it wasn’t included with the free shipping account we did pay for earlier.
A third option, although kind of defeats the whole purpose, would be to get basic cable or a satellite dish. The regulatory board forced Bell and Rogers and others to offer a “skinny” package of a handful of basic channels for $25, which is better than paying 50 or 100 bucks a month, but they also ding you with their add on costs for equipment and any “extras” like sports. Or in one case, a remote to work the set top box.
The final option sounds close to the article’s options: VMedia and it’s wannabe clone Zazeen TV. Less than the cable providers, more flex, and all through streaming. Sounds great, right? Well except they can only do it if you are connected with encryption boxes to their networks. Think of it kind of like people running a bar and having a whole bunch of licensing problems about what they can and can’t offer — so they skirt the rules by creating a “club” instead that you pay a nightly membership fee to enter. Problem solved, they’re not a bar open to the public, they’re a private club. Well, VMedia and Zazeen have special boxes that let you connect to their streams so it isn’t “open streaming” and they’re not broadcasters, so they bypass a bunch of the rules. Except to have that club status, you have to use their internet. And both their internet and their TV options are flaky for service. A friend’s husband is a sports nerd, and he had VMedia. It was so flaky that on the night of a big game, he went to the local bar to watch rather than stay home because he didn’t want to risk missing it. After he paid for the package so he could watch it at home.
Yet when VMedia and Zazeen tried to ditch the encryption boxes and offer pure streaming (they don’t like them any more than the customers do), Bell and Rogers smacked them with legal proceedings and roomfuls of lawyers that they couldn’t afford to fight. So they folded their streaming-only tents and went back to the encryption boxes.
You can also do over the air (OTA) antennas, but not really the same technology. Still, an option in some cities.
After that, even though I can’t match his streaming options, and certainly nowhere near the price / options / reliability intersection point, things screech to a halt.
HBO Now? Nope, not in Canada.
Sling? Nope, not in Canada.
CBS All Access? Surely you jest.
But wait, you do have options. Like Microsoft / XBox or iTunes season subscriptions to shows, or Google purchases. No worries, just $15-20. Per season. Per show. Yikes. A viable option if you only want one show though.
So I love the article, even if I can’t do any of it.
Now if only the CRTC board would read the same article and say, “Hey, why can’t we do that in Canada?” rather than having so many people switch to Kodi, one of the few options to still get first-run shows after you cut the cable cord. Canadians are still willing to pay, it’s not that we suddenly embraced a pirate lifestyle like a virus, we just want a service that can give us what everyone already has for options in the U.S.
The Writing Life of a TadpolePosted on by PolyWogg4
I’ve written a lot about my experiences learning French, and there are days where I wanted to rip my hair out with some of the aspects.
I knew, from the get-go, that learning a new language is hard as an adult. That much is clear, as is the fact that the process of learning anything is often quite different for an adult learner. And I’ve blogged about my initial diagnostic test that said I would be fine for reading and writing but struggle with oral. I just didn’t have the ear for languages, it was clearly indicated on my test results.
And then I started at Asticou, at a very difficult time in my life emotionally, and with a horrible teacher. Where I struggled. A lot. I felt like the stupidest person on the planet, although it is hard to tell if that was because of the school, my emotional state, the teacher, or just the process of learning as an adult where I went from being competent at my job and getting praise to spending all day, every day, hearing nothing but corrections for my errors. Others were excited, I was demoralized. After 8 months, I was struggling with grief-induced depression, and work beckoned just in time to prevent a complete meltdown. I’ve also blogged about finally getting my B, and feeling relieved. Because I didn’t know if I could even pass the B level test at that point.
Yet seven years later, I found out that I actually had really good retention, was easily a B and that the previous test was hard because I was tested for C! In fact, I was ready to formally prepare for a C. How is that I didn’t know that coming out of Asticou? How could I have been so wrong about my “current ability” or even my “potential capacity”? How could the system have led me, or let me descend, so far into doubt?
I don’t know. But I got my C finally, doing just about everything against the rules for the actual test except one big thing — I managed my stress during the exam so that I only gave short answers to the questions asked. Fast forward another 10 years, and I did some refresher training. Then jump another two years to some internal placement testing, paving the way for some refresher training this past March. Which went horribly, in many ways.
Quatre semaines de réchauffement
I went to one of the popular schools downtown for four weeks of refresher, all that there was room for in the divisional calendar before other needs would pull me back. I figured I needed between 3 and 5 weeks, so the 4 week attempt was a good compromise. I needed to renew my written level B and my oral level C, but I wasn’t that worried about the written. I’d had it before twice, once with little preparation, but I tried really hard to bump it up to a C. Not quite hard enough, still got a B. I’m very consistent on that one. Not so consistent on the oral practice, hence the training.
Week 1 was a bit tough after not using my french much in the last 20 years, honestly. Particularly in the last 9 years working on corporate planning work, all of which happens in English except for occasional bilingual meetings. But I survived the week, even if one of my teachers did not.
I suspect she was quite good, actually, very knowledgeable, and had a very firm view of what was necessary to prepare for the test. Except I don’t respond well to “my way or the highway” approaches, and I jettisoned her from my team after a week. If I was there for 12 weeks, or even 8, I might have struggled through to find our groove, but I only had 3 more weeks to go and I couldn’t waste time finding a good way to work with her. The replacement was good, and I passed the next three weeks okay. I didn’t feel as strong as I had previously when I got my C, but I was also really worried about the format of the new test. The new test has a much greater emphasis on comprehension than previous models, and I was worried that I could and would miss some nuances. My speaking is fine, as I don’t have the three most common challenges — flow, willingness to elaborate, or vocabulary. I’m usually okay for structures and adequate for pronunciation (I’ll always sound like an anglo speaker, but that’s not pertinent to the test). But my comprehension is my weakest area, particularly if it is informal conversation or off-work topics or, gasp, fast talkers. And with a bunch of past practice and preparation, recordings were killing me.
I had one near-hysterical experience with one tutor. I listened to a recording in which a woman was leaving for vacation, she was responsible for “complaints” and couldn’t find anyone to look after it while she was gone. Her boss was “volunteering”, sort of willing to do it. It made little sense for protocol, but well, the vocabulary was fine. Except that wasn’t what it was about. She didn’t have plaintes (complaints) that needed managing, she had plantes. Like plants. I didn’t even know the word plante existed in french. But I knew plaintes for complaints. My tutor was much amused; 2 years later, I can see the humour, even if I don’t feel it.
And that continued with a lot of the sample recordings. I would listen, it would go well, and then there would be one where I missed a nuance, or an entire substructure, and I would be completely lost. Hard to build up momentum. I was terrified that with the new structure of listening to recordings, I would be dead in the water. So I wanted to practice that a lot.
Ideally, I would have done my training and did my test immediately afterwards. Nope. My training ended the third week of March, and my test was set for early May and then bumped to July! The current scheduling approach for french exams is HORRIBLE, and lots of people are really stressed just because of the process, not knowing if they’ll get bumped at the last minute for higher priorities, never mind the stress of the test itself for many. I think it is ridiculous and haven’t figured out yet why one of the many unions hasn’t hit them with a series of grievances. When they tried to bump me from May 10 to July 10th (yep, almost four months after my training ended), I said, “Sure, no problem. Just put a litigation hold on all files related to scheduling for the last 18 months.” For those of you not in government, that is code wording that says “I’m about to crawl up your butt with a grievance or lawsuit.” Surprisingly, my test date was moved to May 30th instead, along with a polite question, “Is that okay?”. And no, I wasn’t bluffing.
Bilingual capacity is a mandatory part of my job, I’m a priority for reclassification testing and a separate priority for talent management, plus in the midst at the time of job arrangements that required me to have my test done. Giving me the run around on scheduling violates the collective agreement as well as three separate internal rules for HR that I as a manager have to follow for my own staff, and yes, management has to follow for me too. This is happening to people across government, and the stories are mind-numbingly bad. It almost makes Phoenix look like a well-run pay system. It also seems to be happening more to anglophones seeking french tests, and almost not at all to francophones seeking english tests, something that would of been my first step in a discovery motion to scare the complete crap out of them. I’m sure the reality is that they can meet the lower demand more easily, but the appearance of two different treatments is bad for employers winning grievances. But I digress.
My first attempt
I practiced before the test with my friend Andrew, just an evening out for dinner, as we had a few times previously with a couple of other guys as Andrew was preparing. I enjoyed those evenings, although I don’t know if it was helping me much. I just wasn’t relaxing into fluency enough.
Anyway, I did the test, and it was a good news / bad news situation.
The good news was the recorded part. I had no trouble with the recordings at all…they were professionally clear, surprisingly so for internal government services that often cut corners on IT tools. I was suitably impressed with the clarity. Bopped through it, and the dialogues were way easier than I had been practicing with at the school and on my own (for those of you not aware, there are 2 voicemails to listen to, 2 short dialogues between 2 people, and then later a longer dialogue between 2 people if you make it that far).
The bad news is that my stress was bad. I did not feel confident at all with ten weeks between my training and my test. I felt like I was going in cold. I couldn’t remember any good structures, I got messed up with my mots liens (linking words), and then I had a small near out of body experience.
There is one type of question I struggle with…inversions. So instead of asking “Est-ce que vous pensez…” (what do you think), the form is “Que pensez-vous…”. The problem for me is not every inversion, it’s that the inversion often separates out a beginning condition from a larger hypothesis, and thus the verb is in the conditional form (penseriez-vous). Just an extra roll of the R in the middle, and separated from the clause at the end, and together it is just enough to confuse me as to the intent of the question. And if they make it a harder verb like conseiller instead of penser (what would you advise instead of think), I often get lost in the subordinate clauses later in the question.
Which I did. I think the question was something like “what advice would I give someone managing a project like a corporate planning project”. Except I wasn’t fully certain that was the question. Plus I had a problem of a mental break. I had told her I was a planner, and that I did corporate planning (at the start of the test). Then for a presentation component, I described the steps of a project. So as follow up she was now asking me about a corporate planning project (merging the two). In my answer, I decided, for no apparent reason other than I would do so in a real conversation in English, that I would explain that there was a difference between corporate planning and planning a project. After going down that rabbit hole a few sentences, she even tried to throw me a rope to get back out, to which I basically said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get there, keep your shorts on” (not really, I just mean I acknowledged her attempt — and kept going another two sentences). It wasn’t necessarily fatal, but by the time I got to the end, I’d forgotten the question. I tried to go back to it, but didn’t hit it solidly. If I had been totally clean for the rest, I could have saved it, but of course I wasn’t.
Why did I go down that rabbit hole? The inverted question form. I wasn’t quite sure I understood it, and so I stalled with this other context. Not surprisingly, I only got my B.
Returning to training
The stakes got higher after that. I found a new job (#50by50 #04 – Start a new job) and like all management positions, it requires a CBC-level profile for reading-writing-oral. I have exemption for reading, and renewed my B for writing, so I just needed the C in oral. In the interim, they let me start on secondment of four months less a day. Basically up to just past Hallowe’en, at which time, I would turn into a slowly decomposing pumpkin. The ironic part is that the organization box isn’t actually CBC, it is only BBB, which I could already meet. But they are in the process of reclassifying it, and they can’t put me in it at BBB knowing I don’t meet the CBC yet.
So I need a C to keep the job permanently. In March, I was confident after my training. By May 30th, not so confident. And I got a B. I knew I could get the C again, just a question of when.
My new boss agreed to schedule another week of training, and we did it in conjunction with the test. We scheduled the test, it came back as August 25th, and the training was adjusted to start August 18th. The perfect model — practice until the day before and go in hot.
I had five days to prepare. I rightly expected that Day 1 and Day 2 would be warm up for me. I avoided full simulations in those days, I just wanted to practice speaking to get my rhythm going. Day 2 in the afternoon was the day of the eclipse and we even went outside for awhile. It was great.
Day 3 started off well, but my simulation wasn’t great. The afternoon came, and I don’t know if it was the air in the building (terrible circulation there) or something I had for lunch, but I didn’t feel at all well. We knocked off early and I came home and slept.
Day 4, a Wednesday, was PERFECT. I was flying in the morning. I joke, but only partially, that if my test was that morning, I could have had a shot at the exemption. I was bopping back and forth in time, I was nailing the indirect voice, I remembered some of my mots liens, it was heaven. Not as strong in the afternoon, but still good. Progress.
Day 5, the Thursday, started off okay. I wasn’t hot but I wasn’t bad. Then the afternoon started. And I hit a brick wall. I was struggling with EVERYTHING. I listened to a recording, and I missed 60% of it. We shifted into a small presentation of some topic I’ve done a 100 times in my life, and I couldn’t even conjugate present tense well. I completely locked up.
And then it happened. I started to say something conditional, and instead of “Je pourrais…”, I actually said, “Je could…”. JE COULD? What the f*** was that? I haven’t made an error like that in 19 years. Wow.
My teacher wanted to continue, but I knew better. If I fought through that, by the time I was done, my confidence would be zero. I quit right then and went home. Not the most promising omens before the test the next morning. I hoped a good nights sleep like Tuesday would put me in the realm of Wednesday’s performance, but I was restless that night.
The big day
Friday dawned, and off I went. I parked at work, checked the time of the appointment on my computer (there was some doubt as to whether it was at 10:00 as I told Andrea or 11:00 as I was expecting, but it was indeed 11:00, whew), and walked over to the building. Relaxed in the basement seating area with my hematite stone in my hand. I don’t know why but it relaxes me, as it did for my first successful attempt at the C back in 2005. Went upstairs, registered, waited, and then, the examiner arrived. It was on!
We went in, got set up, and my nerves about the format of the test were gone, since I’d been through it before. I knew what she was going to say before she said it. We tested the volume, everything good to go.
We started with Part 1, which is general questions about where I work, how I got there that morning, my typical day, etc. I confess that I’ve had a small niggling doubt about something, and I decided there was nothing to be lost by hedging my bets. When it came to my title, I said I was an analyst. Not a manager. Sure, I mentioned that I manage a small team from time to time, but nothing that would indicate that I was a full manager, acting director, or even head of an entire division. In government philosophy, the bar is pretty high for management to be fully fluent yet lower for non-management. Does that translate into the rigour of the test? There’s no evidence either way, nor could there be, but nothing to be lost by diminishing my job a bit. And it’s not a lie, I do a lot of analyst duties. I just happen to have a full manager title. In the end, the questions are your basic A and B levels, nothing challenging there, but I didn’t want it to turn into a deep philosophical discussion in Part 4. For this test, Part 1 was easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Part 2 starts with the first two recordings, i.e. voicemails, and I used a mix of indirect style to describe in simple terms what they were about, how they ended, etc. My goal for each piece was to respond directly to the question, and generally forget the rules, structures, everything I memorized. Just talk and have a conversation. Nothing challenging in the voicemails.
The next two recordings were the dialogues, and again, nothing challenging. I understood every single word. No missed nuances.
With Part 3, the presentation, we were into solid B territory, and all three of my options were describing past situations. One of them allowed me to talk about my decision to quit law school. I haven’t practiced that a lot in French, but I have in English, including on this blog, so I wouldn’t search for something to say, just how to say it. I wasn’t as good as Wednesday, but I was flying pretty well. I was natural, I was at ease, I described the steps in the decision, and ended. I was a bit weak on the finale, but the opening and middle were solid.
We moved into the follow-up questions, and I went on hyper alert. Here it comes, the inversion format. “Que conseilleriez-vous…”.
An inverted hypothesis with an option to give advice and express an opinion? I’m on it!
I used the conditional form to start (imparfait of avoir l’occasion, followed by conditional form of proposer) and we were off to the races. I followed up with the switch to present tense, and then, I just talked naturally. I relied on my flow, my (reduced) elaboration and my vocabulary to outshine my pronunciation and grammar structures. Two more follow up questions, a bit repetitive, and then it was time for the tough part.
Part 4, which is well into high B and C territory, started with a dialogue. And I just about lost focus. First of all, I was expecting a recorded intro…nope, she spoke, asked if I was ready, and then the dialogue started direct. Except it wasn’t a dialogue. It was a man speaking very slowly, formally, announcing a change. I thought at first it WAS an intro before I realized it was the so-called dialogue. But he spoke for almost 90 seconds to 2 minutes with nobody else talking. It was a formal speech for a meeting, and then he asked if there were any questions or feedback. So a woman started talking and disagreeing with the change. The normal process for Part 4, and that part was fine.
I listened to the second part again, and I was a bit nervous with one word if I understood everything correctly. They kept saying “unités”. Which I had never heard used before. I assumed it meant units, but didn’t know it had an accent at the end. I just went with it. I used it the way they had. I did the indirect style, wasn’t perfect this time, but the dialogue was quite long. I summarized it like I’m supposed to, not provide a transcript, and we were into the follow-up questions.
The first was the standard “what’s my opinion of that”, easy enough. And again, I threw away my concern with the perfect structure, responded naturally to the direct question, and kept my answer a bit shorter than I would in practice. I got another follow-up, another chance to provide advice or opinion, same deal. And a third which was a weak softball question.
And that was it. We chatted naturally as we exited about our kids being sick, we said goodbye, and the test was over.
After the test, my reaction was immediate. “That was TOO easy!” The easiest test I’ve ever had in my career. I understood everything, I was relaxed, no games, just talking, biding my time until the tough questions came and they never did. The woman doing the test was awesome. She helped me relax, her diction was perfect, pace was good. She asked for a clarification of something I said in Part 4 and it was easy to respond to it and explain what I had meant. It was almost fun.
I panicked about the “unité” word, then started to second-guess my use until co-workers told me it did indeed mean unit. I realized too that I had blanked on another vocabulary word when I was talking about my law school days. I tried to say the people in the cases had been dead for 70 years, and “morte” was not coming to me. I knew there was a word like “deceased” (décédé) and I think I said something close to that (décés) but I know one wrong vocabulary isn’t terminal (no pun intended).
What was interesting to me though is that while I was calm during the test, surprisingly so, when I got back to the office, my energy left my body at an alarming rate of fast talking. I talked to my boss, my team, my old coworkers, random people in the hallway, and over two hours, I had verbal diarrhea to tell them about my experience. But mostly I was asking a question.
“It was easy…what does that mean? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”
I posted the same on FB. Then the waiting began.
In the past, you could have your results sometimes the same day. Usually the second day at the latest. Unless you were on the line between A and B or B and C, in which case they wanted someone else to listen to the tape too to verify the result. And back then, it was an actual tape cassette. So it took time to physically set someone up to hear it. Now it’s all electronic. And it took five days for my result to come in. A full five days.
I don’t know why, although maybe I was on the line again. I don’t know. I just know that during the week, I went from a high of “Yay me” to a low of “oh, I must have failed”. Most people go through it, I know, but the post-action self-criticism is a brutal experience. I’ve been checking my BB religiously all week.
Any results? Any RESULTS? ANY RESULTS?????
Today, I took Jacob to Appletree, long wait. And just before we left, I checked once again. SLE Results. Gulp.
I opened the PDF on my BB (which is a really tiny screen), zoomed to the result, and watched as the fuzzy little letter resolved to a C.
So I closed it and did it again to be sure. 🙂
Yep, I renewed my level. I can now deploy and not for nothing, keep the job I’m in. The level of pending complications if I didn’t get it this time is averted, and I’ve been trying not to think about it. Now I don’t have to do so.
My overall reaction to the renewal experience
I had a very strange experience on Tuesday during my practice/training. My tutor asked me if I had seen a video on Youtube called, “Who’s afraid of the big bad C?” Not cancer, it’s the C on the learning exam, and it’s done by the same company that has prepared the tools that the learning school uses internally, MyLearningMyWay.com.
So we watched the video, which is open to anyone to watch.
The video provoked two completely different reactions in me, hence the weird experience.
On the one hand, I saw a whole bunch of things I disagreed with for the advice. Basically things like saying focusing on grammar or mots liens or structures was an indication you were still only a B. That those weren’t things to worry about. Except of course those are things people DO often need to worry about, because they both aid in communication if used right and hinder communication if used wrong. If I had watched that video around the time of my first test in 2005, I would have disagreed with almost EVERYTHING. Even back in March, I would have dismissed it as philosophy over real preparation.
But now I had the other reaction too. The emphasis she argues is on communications of ideas, not the structures etc. And I had some evidence of this. My wife got her B a number of years ago, and has been clearly capable of higher levels with training and practice. She has a great ear for comprehension, something I am very jealous of her having. She had to renew this year too, and a B was guaranteed, no problem. Easy peasy. But she prepared a bit more for this one. She looked at some of my materials from my training, she looked at some of the online stuff, she practiced some of the areas and she learned what the structural elements were in the test. And she went in, responded directly to the questions, badda bing badda bang, she got a C! A full letter upgrade with no additional training. She just communicated with the tools she had already learned. Freaking awesome, she is.
And that’s what was on my mind going into the test. Making sure I played to my strengths (flow, elaboration but not too much, vocabulary) and not fussing as much about my weaknesses (linking words, comprehension). Not because I totally agreed with the video, but that I realized that I could communicate my ideas, and if the structure wasn’t perfect, worrying about it wouldn’t help. If I had something in my toolbox that I knew well enough to use, I would use it; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I was as ready as I could be with what I had in my toolbox.
I also had a small hidden weapon in my confidence. During the week of practice, one of my tutors and I had a conversation about HR processes, how the government works, and basically everything related to my HR guide for the upfront part of finding a job. I did it all from memory, an almost 2 hour conversation where we just discussed how it worked. In short, the exact same conversation that I have had with lots of people over the years in English. But I was doing it in detail in French. And she understood me just fine.
I am exaggerating slightly, but this was the most “real” demonstration of my ability in my career. A real conversation, 2 hours, unstructured, questions, answers, clarifications, explanations, examples. All of it. Exactly as I would do and have done in English. All in French. Was I perfect? Hell no.
But I communicated. And that’s what I tried to harness for the exam. And I did.
It’s almost like getting the C was just a bonus.
(Oh, who am I kidding? I GOT MY FREAKING C AGAIN. Booyah! If that isn’t worth an entry on my 50 by 50 list, nothing is! Besides telling my wife and my boss the results, I also sent a message to a friend at work who had a funny story of her nephew getting a hole-in-one in mini-golf and I used his mixed French/English phrase as my subject line — “J’ai got it!”).
I’m curious in part by what comes next. Sure, the obvious, I get to deploy from my old job and accept the new one completely. Plus I get my bilingual bonus back. All good.
Yet there is something else in my need for the renewal that has been blocking me on other things. I want to do some new astronomy stuff. I want to learn to fly a drone. I have some learning courses I’m interested in. Maybe some photography work. But ALL of them were ones that I felt needed to wait until my french was renewed. Not that I was spending 24/7 doing french, but just that I couldn’t afford to divert any of my mental energy into a large new project until that one was done. Now that it’s done, I’m curious to see where my desire to grow takes me. On with the journey!
The Writing Life of a TadpolePosted on by PolyWogg2
Just to recap, the oral test is divided into four parts. The first two are more or less transactional French, with voice mails and meetings to listen to and then respond to a few questions. They are designed to test your ability for Level A (Beginner) and B (Intermediate), but you really don’t get into the real C level questions until Part 3.
The first part of Part 3 is an opportunity to do a short exposition on a subject of your own choosing, amongst a predefined list. You are given three possible topics, always related to work, and you are supposed to choose one. If you don’t like any of the three, you can go for a fourth, but then there is no choice — you have to take the fourth one, an obvious risk.
Once you have chosen a topic, you have 90 seconds to make notes for yourself. And then it’s GO time — you talk about the subject for 2-3 minutes. Two minutes is too short, and they’ll cut you off at 3, so you want to land somewhere in between.
Now that you know how the process works, let’s talk about the topics. There are two general forms:
Recounting a story of a specific event; or,
Describing something that is either more general or happens more frequently.
What does that mean? Well, for the recounting option, you will likely have to describe:
some event you experienced (training, crisis, first day, social activity, or the competition for your current job);
some work you did that you liked or hated (project, acting for your boss, or a business trip);
a challenge you faced (small or large, specific or general, controversial file, or an HR problem);
interactions with a colleague (difficult colleague, a mentor, or someone you helped); or,
something that has changed (work environment, or physical changes to the office).
For those who did their B test, the structure is basically “What was the project, what did you do, what was the result”. For the C, it is similar, but you also have to add “why”, and nuance to what extent it went well or what impact it had on you or your division in general. Basically adding some colour commentary to your story. While in almost all cases it is in the past, it can be a hypothetical or in the future (such as a project you would like to do and, again for the C, why you want to do it).
The second type is a bit more difficult for the Level B, but more suited to Level C commentary. These ones, describing something that is more general or a frequent event, include questions such as:
types of social activities for your division;
the qualities of a leader (compared, for example, with a manager);
type of preferred tasks, and why;
whether meetings are important to your ministry;
what’s an appropriate relationship between supervisor and subordinates;
the elements required to create teamwork;
how you go about meeting deadlines; or,
the (general) steps in doing a performance evaluation.
In all of these (except maybe the last one), you are still identifying several factors and providing the commentary about each, but they are less about “steps” and more about key variables.
My preparations for this section have identified four main ways to respond, and I’ll use the first type (specific events) to show the possible structure:
Level B or C (bad): Introduction; Details — Yep, lots of people start this way. They just talk. But you’re supposed to respond DIRECTLY to the questions asked, and having no structure is a good way to just seem like you’re wandering around with no understanding of what the actual question was or how to respond.
Level B (good): Introduction; Step 1 + small detail; Step 2 + small detail; Step 3 + small detail; Conclusion — This is the normal structure everyone learns, practices, etc, as it allows the person to use passé composé and imparfait in the same story, series of relatively short and medium-length sentences, and then wrap it up.
Level C (option 1): Introduction; Aspect 1, colour commentary; Link to Aspect 2, colour commentary; Segue to Aspect 3, colour commentary; Conclusion — This is the one that all the learning schools seem to generally recommend, with opinions and general facts added to the various colour commentaries, using complex (but not complicated) phrases that are a bit longer, use subordinate clauses, etc, or “les mots liens” that aren’t “and”.
I mentioned there are four options, but I only gave 3, because that is what the schools generally teach (well, #2 and #3 I guess, they don’t teach #1, although in a way they do as early in your language training they get you to talk and talk to improve your comfort with the language, before trying to get you to focus in later parts of your training).
For me, I struggle with #3 above. Why? Because I talk too much. (Not just in French, as my wife would chime in!). So when I go to do the colour commentary, there is a REALLY good chance that I will “tourne autour du pot” which is a french idiom that means “beat around the bush”, or more pointedly, to say things in general terms rather than being specific. I lose my train of thought, I get lost in the sentence, and it REALLY sucks as an answer. Sure, I give the description and the colour commentary, but then I sound like I’m just repeating myself, which I am. When I did my last exam, it was under the old format, and I managed to hold myself to three sentences for every “higher-level” question exactly to avoid that problem.
That’s not a strategy that will work for this new format, so I came up with a slightly different structure that works for me:
Introduction — repeat the question back to them to basically show you understood and to make sure you’re responding directly too;
Discussion, introduced by there are several factors (* unspecified number, you’ll see why in a second)
Aspect 1 + (small colour commentary);
Aspect 2 + (small colour commentary);
Aspect 3 + (small colour commentary);
Aspect 4 + (small colour commentary);
Aspect 5 + (small colour commentary);
Conclusion — repeating the key part of the original question and adding summary of my position of the situation
What’s the difference? More items to say in the same period of time, which means that I *can’t* go into detail on any of them or I risk getting lost in my own head. I stay on track, plus in the 90 seconds, I can think of four or five things to say, but I don’t have time to think about what to say. Because my problem isn’t exactly HOW to say stuff, it’s WHAT to say. I just don’t have time to add sub-points as I’m deciding on what to say, and then when I go to add my colour commentary, I fill my time trying to figure out what to add (content). If I skip that trap that may only affect me, and stick to the higher level description with enough detail to sustain a colour commentary, I’ll stay on track to the end of the summary. And I say something about several factors, because if I am running long, I can drop the last one or two; if I have said “there are five”, then it will look ridiculous if I stop at 3 for time management.
Of course, the colour commentary has to have some of the key “opinion” phrases:
à mon avis, …
selon moi, …
je trouve que…
il me semble que…
I try to avoid “je pense que” as it slips in even when I don’t want it to, so I already use that. I would love to use “d’apres moi”, “quant à moi”, or “je crois que” but those never come to me. They just don’t seem as “natural” to me. Similarly for “pour ma part”. I would try to use “en ce qui me concerne”, but I bet I would forget the “me” and just use “en ce qui concerne” which is a totally different sense.
For the links between sections, and even for the more complex of the little colour commentary, I can segue with the most common “mots liens” that I am capable of using at least some of the time:
parce que / c’est pour quoi / c’est pour cette raison que (because)
à cause de / grace à (thanks to)
puisque (since – time)
etant donné que (given)
alors que / lors de (while)
En meme temps que (at the same time)
depuis que (since – time)
tant que (as long as)
apres que / avant que (subjunctive)
d’abord / au debut (at the start)
ensuite, puis (then)
finalement / en fin (finally)
en générale (in general)
en effet (in effect, indeed)
alors / donc / en consequence, par consequent, apres tout
For / goal
afin de … (in order to)
afin que / pour que (subjunctive)
cependant / pourtant (though, yet, however)
par contre (by contrast)
tandis que (whereas)
au lieu de
sinon (middle of phrase)
à moins que
malgré / malgré que / bien que
de plus / d’ailleurs
Nevertheless / anyway
neanmoins / quand meme
mois que (less than)
loin de (far from)
plus que (more than)
tel que (such that)
aussi / comme / et / ainsi que
While Part 4 seems at first to be quite different in the opening, it basically requires a summary of what happens in a long conversation, and while I accept there are quite significant differences, you can pull some of the same elements. First and foremost, you don’t want to fall into the trap of listing everything that is said; it’s a summary, not a transcript. Second, there are still some good “mots liens” to use to show how it develops.
And in both Part 3 and 4, you have follow-up questions. But that is for the next post.
The Writing Life of a TadpolePosted on by PolyWogg
In Part 1 of the Oral Exam (the introduction / mise en train i.e. warm-up), there are lots of little questions that they can ask you about, and they boil down to two types.
TYPE 1 – DIRECT QUESTIONS
The first type includes simple questions like how is the weather, where do you work, etc., and these require one sentence answers, basically confirming you understood the question. For my work at the training centre, it includes simple introductions, directions, the workplace and routines. The first group is around simple introductions that ask things like:
What is your name (comment t’appelles-tu? comment vous vous appellez?);
What is your educational background? (quelles études avez-vous faites?) — j’ai étudie en matiere d’administration publique [et à la faculté de droit]. (x avoir pris, use “avoir suivi des cours de…”; avoir un diplome en; x compléter, use effectuer)
Where do you work (Où travaillez-vous?) — je travaille au ministère d’Emploi et Développement social Canada;
Are you originally from Ottawa? (etes-vous originaire d’Ottawa?) — Non, je ne suis pas originaire d’Ottawa, je suis de Peterborough. [other options: Je suis né à….Ma ville natale est…];
How are you? (comment allez-vous?) — je vais bien, ca va bien.
TYPE 2 – DESCRIPTION
The second type asks for a description of four or five sentences, just enough detail to show you can answer without going down into the weeds too far. With a lot of exams, they’ll ask you one or two (or even none) and jump immediately to Part II.
You still have to be ready for them, and in my case, they are not no-brainers. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I *SUCK* at transactional french, where I get asked a simple five word question and I have to respond direct and simply. It is so artificial and superficial that my brain locks up. It’s acceptable to respond to the question of how is the weather with “it’s nice” (il fait beau). That’s it, that’s all, keep it moving. It’s ridiculous. But it is to get you talking, feel more at ease and then get you past any nervousness and on to the real questions. In the past, there are lots of people who did the tests and felt afterwards that the opening actually determined their level — if they did well in the opening, they think the person got enough info to say, “Okay, probably a B, let’s test that a bit”, or “Oh, good quality, includes an opinion, definitely close to C, let’s that a bit too”. More of an upfront indicator that was confirmed or denied through the subsequent test. It isn’t supposed to work that way, but it would be the odd examiner who wouldn’t get SOME indication from your opening phrases as to where you might fall on the spectrum.
I’m actually more at ease with the description ones, although even then, some of them seem RIDICULOUS. Who in their right mind would ever ask me to describe in detail my morning commute, complete with where I turned, and if I turned left or right. Sure, it’s good to be able to do that, but if I was an examiner and had to listen to that for every client, I’d want to shoot myself. Unless the client was secretly Batman, that might be interesting, but the rest of us? Not so much.
And in that vein, practicing isn’t about memorizing a routine or module, it’s about thinking about possible questions in advance so you know “what” you might say. In other words, if you get asked it in the exam, you don’t want your answer hinging on the content as you think of what to include, making it look like you can’t speak. No different from a job interview, you don’t want the first time you think of how you have dealt with a difficult co-worker to be during the actual interview.
A. My commute
My answer will likely revolve around five elements:
Je dépose mon fils, Jacob, à l’école, près de rue Greenbank.
Après cela, je suit le chemin Greenbank jusqu’à l’avenue Carling et tournez à droite.
Je continue tout droit sur l’avenue Carling jusqu’à la sortie de l’autoroute de la rivière des Outaouais.
L’autoroute se termine au pont de Champlain, et je suive le pont au grand complexe de Portage à Gatineau.
Il ya une entrée au garage de stationnement sous le complexe, et un ascenseur de là à mon bureau.
B. Describing my office
Je travaille au ministère d’Emploi et Développement social Canada et mon bureau est situé au deuxième étage de la phase 3 du complexe Portage à Gatineau. Dans un espace à aires ouverte, j’ai un cubicule, qui inclue le minimum de mobilier nécessaire pour travailler. J’ai un bureau, une chaise, un ordinateur, un classeur et une petite bibliothèque dans laquelle je conserve quelques rapports relatifs aux activités du ministère.