The Decalogue of Nick #3: I work in schools IT policy

For Scott Welch.

When I walked away from linguistics, I walked upstairs into department IT support for the Languages Department. It was an underpaid but cosy sinecure, where I got to write papers, work on the side as a research assistant, and practice bad Italian, French, and German on my peers.

That didn’t last, and it couldn’t of course. Just as IT was being centralised into faculty in 2006, and I would have to give up my cosy office, an old friend gave me a call. He was doing a PhD in physics while I was doing mine in linguistics, and we both worked in university tech support.

He had just taken a secondment with a consultancy, that was advising the Australian federal government on interoperability issues in the school sector and the university sector. They had a project going on persistent identifiers, which was kinda philosophical and might be right up my alley. Was I interested?

That started my current career; it’s been ten years now. I’ve been working for national infrastructure projects, of various flavours, in the school sector or the university research sector. I’ve been called a business analyst in all those projects, although that’s a title of convenience more than anything else, because I have done and do lots of different stuff.

  • I have done the conventional BA tasks of gathering requirements and writing use cases and communicating between developers and management. I have even drawn the odd flowchart.
  • However, I do on occasion cut code where needed, I know what developers get up to, and I can write it up. As a delighted colleague once said to me, when he discovered that I programmed: “Oh! So you’re not an idiot!”
    • Staff befuddled at where I fit in the world have come up with Technical Business Analyst.
  • A lot of my work has been in standards for data transfer online. That work is a lot of fun: it’s a bit of philosophy, and a bit of engineering, and a lot of ratiocinating. More often than not, in international collaboration.
  • Increasingly, I’m moving into policy analysis, and I’m also becoming more aware of systems architectures, and planning strategic choices around them.
  • Since 2013, the particular national infrastructure project I’ve been involved in has been the National Schools Interoperability Project, which works on improving access to information for stakeholders in the Australian school education sector (including schools and system vendors, as well as government agencies).

It’s kind of hard to describe what I do, because I do bit of everything. I hop from being a developer to a data analyst to a policy analyst to a business analyst, at a moment’s notice. But I like that.

I don’t post here much about my day job. The approaches we use are hardly unique to Australian education, but I haven’t gotten into the culture of talking about it much.

For a very long time, I didn’t identify myself with my new gig; the circumstances of me having to leave university were somewhat wrenching, I had a lot invested in my academic identity, and the new gig was not something I’ve trained for, or expected to end up in.

It took me some years, really, for me to take pride in what I do in my day job.

The real test of it would be for me to start pontificating about my day job on Quora, the way I do about linguistics—or the way I can, face to face, with Scott Welch, who turns out to be in the same line of work. But the gig is a little more politically sensitive than I’ve been accustomed to; and I haven’t sought out yet the network of people who would be interested (other than Scott).

But I do take pride in it now. It’s a job, true, and like any job it has its downsides. But as its best, I get paid to think. And that is to be cherished—particularly in a small country like Australia, which effectively has no R&D in the private sector. (That’s why you’re going to have to blast me out of government work.)

And the gig is flexible enough to allow me to pursue other things. Perhaps a little too flexible… 🙂

What is the timeline of the Greek breathings?

I’ve written a fair bit up about this at… . All secondary research, but it’s secondary research that seems to have been cited at Wikipedia.

Your timeline is right:

  • There was a distinct heta letter for /h/, which looked like H, but it was not used in all locations.
  • There was an innovation in antiquity (ca 400 BC), whereby Greeks in Southern Italy broke H in half, and used that for /h/: Ͱ
  • From there, Greek papyri use one half of H as a diacritic to indicate an H is present, and the other half to indicate they are missing: x҅ x҆ . (I didn’t write down when, but my page says “by the time Greek starts showing up in papyri”, so it would have been around 300 BC—before /h/ stopped being pronounced.
  • Those symbols survived long enough to be passed on to Early Cyrillic, and thus Unicode.
  • In Greek manuscripts by the 12th century, the diacritics ended up being curved: ἀ ἀ
  • Notice that the symbols were used long after the /h/ stopped being pronounced. In fact, accents and breathings started being notated as diacritics, precisely because they were starting to be lost in pronunciation. They were first used to teach proper speech, and after they had completely disappeared, they kept being used because the ancients had used them.

What are some common and popular Greek beverages?

  • Coffee:
    • Turkish coffee (renamed Greek coffee) for the older generation
    • Frappé coffee for the younger generation
    • Instant coffee (“Nes”) as a lighter, more western option
    • Variants such as Vienna Coffee for a night out
    • Nursed for hours at a café
    • First beverage at home in the morning
  • Herbal teas
    • Sage, Camomile, Nettle
    • Drunk when you’re ill, as a restorative
    • Stereotypically associated with old people; hence Zambetas’ great lyric, Οι νέοι θέλουν έρωτα, κι οι γέροι χαμομήλι, “The young need love; the old need camomile”
  • Tea
    • That thing that English people drink
    • Traditionally treated as a counterpart of herbal teas: a health drink, rather than a social drink
  • Wine
    • The traditional drink of feasting and celebration; can be seen at the dining table
    • Not watered since Byzantium
    • But already resinated since Byzantium (see below)
    • Traditionally, there’s some homebrew lurking around in the village; buying a decent commercial vintage is a nouveau things
    • There are fine venerable distinctive grapes in Greece—Category:Grape varieties of Greece – Wikipedia is a long list. But traditionally, people drink whatever’s handy locally. In my experience, it’s on the sour and unsubtle side.
  • Retsina
    • Resinated as a preservative
    • A tart taste that makes no sense outside Greece, but a lot of sense with lamb chops with oregano
    • Default drink of the taverna
    • Endearingly served in tin pitchers
  • Beer
    • Introduced with the Bavarians in the 1830s. The venerable and recently revived brand Fix was originally Fuchs.
    • In my youth, there were just two brands: Amstel and Heineken (locally called “Green”), with an occasional showing of Löwenbräu. There’s a lot more now, including local brews (and the beginnings of microbrews).
    • Traditionally the secondary, lighter alternative to wine; more common (I think) when going out than in feasts at home.
  • Raki/Tsikoudia/Tsipouro
    • Traditional hard drink
    • Drunk straight in shot glasses
    • If you’ve had grappa, you’ve had raki. It’s a Pomace brandy.
    • Drunk with mezze (tapas)
    • Much more a drink of manly men celebrating each other’s manliness than a feast drink
  • Ouzo
    • Variant of raki
    • Drunk straight in shot glasses, or watered down in tumblers
    • Actually corresponds to Turkish rakı, with the whole aniseed flavour and the turning white with water
    • Drunk in ouzeries (tapas joints), and I assume by manly men celebrating each other’s manliness
  • Whisky
    • The urban and urbane counterpart to raki
    • The choice of the Greek going to a Western-style bar
    • The choice of the Greek showing off their affluence
  • Coke
    • Default soft drink, like it is eveywhere
  • Sprite
    • Second default soft drink, like it is eveywhere
  • Gazoza
    • Traditional equivalent to Sprite, though a bit more lemony
    • Fell out of favour in the last few decades
  • Visinada
    • Sour cherry juice (or cordial, and sometimes carbonated)
  • Byral
    • A local imitation of Coke
    • Big in the 60s, before Coke was launched locally

Is Wendish The oldest European language?

As a wise man (or failing that, me) said (Nick Nicholas’ answer to Which language is older, Persian or Arabic?):

There’s no such thing as an older language.

Markus Zeeb brought up all the right caveats about Basque in his answer:

so Basque might be the oldest (or rather longest continuously spoken) language in Europe (whatever that means, to be honest).

And Aquitanian, the actual ancestor of Basque, prominently figures in my answer above.

So no, Wendish (Sorbian languages) may have been spoken in Eastern Germany before German was. But Wendish is not meaningfully older than German, and is no older than Slovakian, or Greek, or Spanish, or Aquitanian. Even if Wendish were extraordinarily conservative as an Indo-European language, which is not a claim I’ve heard.

If you ran Quora, what would you do to make it better?

Ah, Mez.

There’s symptoms of what needs to be fixed in Quora, and then there’s the underlying issue.

Almost all answers are targeting the symptoms. Which is cool, the symptoms are what they’re experience and being frustrated by.

But look deeper. If I’m running Quora, I have to deal with the underlying issues. Not just the symptoms.

Scott Welch got closer than everyone to the issues—the lack of a continuous improvement culture, and the debacle of corporate culture reported on at Glassdoor.

But dig deeper yet, if you step into the shoes of Adam DiCaprio. Scott and I have done so face to face, and I know he’s said it here too.

But he’s had his shot at an answer, Mez. And here’s mine.

Why do I loathe Quora Inc. by Nick Nicholas on The Insurgency

I decided that if I’m going to be a Welchite about Quora, and complain about it, I owe Quora the courtesy of articulating why constructively.

And I split the post into “At the surface”, and “At the core”.

At the surface is the stuff everyone complains about. Moderation, UI, User Relations.

At the core… well, I’ll quote my blog post.

Lack of leadership

Who’s running the show? Is there a CTO? Is there a CFO? Why are all the high profile managers jumping ship? Does D’Angelo even exist, or is he a scripted bot? If he’s a scripted bot, can we at least improve the frequency of his posts?

Lack of vision

What problem is Quora solving? Is it an expert forum? Is it a social forum? Is it a knowledge repository, crowdsourcing Doug Lenat’s Cyc? Is it a training bed for AI bots? For intranet knowledge bases? Where do we writers fit in? Why are we here and not on StackExchange?

Lack of sustainability

It’s been six years of burning through venture capital; even by Silly-Con Valley standards, that’s been a while. Is there a plan for profitability? Is there a not-for-profit exit strategy? Is there a strategy at all? And will there be a Quora in five years’ time?

These issues are not getting visibly fixed. And these, in the end, will unhouse us all.

You want to make Quora better? Don’t just fix the symptoms. Fix the core. A Quora in five years that’s exactly the same, with the same random number generator UI and unaccountable moderation and adversarial user relations—is still better than a defunct Quora.

How many Brazilian states can you identify on a map?

There are 22 states in Brazil. I know this, because of the Brazilian flag. Ordem e Progresso!

Of those states, I can name…


Is Rio a state as well as a city?

Please don’t unfollow me, Alfredo. Your point is very well taken.

How is the enmity between Greece and Albania different to that between Greece and Turkey?

I’m going to speak from a Greek perspective, and I hope that Turks and Albanians will weigh in.

The hostility between Greece and Turkey is very old, and definitional to their identity. They came to regard each other as the Primordial Enemy. (Hence the immortal line on Ekşi Sözlük: “The good old days, when Greece was the National Enemy.”)

Greeks really did come to define themselves as Not-Turks. The world was viewed through a binary lens of enmity, and had been since the Seljuks came to Anatolia; the credal difference between Islam and Christianity was all enmeshed with the ethnic difference (and in reality took priority over it). And there are defining incidents in Greek history which can serve as rallying points for that enmity. 1071, 1453, 1669, 1821, 1897, 1923, 1974.

Enmity between Greeks and Albanians just does not have that kind of heritage. Until the forced islamisations, Albanians were another annoying Balkan ethnicity. In situ in Albania, there were yet another people with an uncouth language for the Byzantine elite to look down on. As the Arvanites, they were warlords and settlers in Greece; they were stereotyped as pigheaded, and either admired or feared as warriors, but they were close-by neighbours.

Once the islamisations happened, Muslim Albanians were Turks. The Millet-based split was total; to Greeks, Muslim Albanians were Muslims first, Albanians second. Hence the confused appelation Turkalvani, which does not mean Turkish Albanians at all, but Muslim Albanians. In the Greek War of Independence, Orthodox Arvanites fought Muslim Shqipetars; they spoke the same language (maybe in a different dialect, maybe not); but as far as Greeks were concerned, the Arvanites were Greeks, and the Shqipetars were Turks.

That’s why any enmity of Albanians and Greeks is pretty recent. A notion of Albanian nationhood was stymied through to the end of the 19th century, because not only the Greeks, but the Albanians themselves regarded themselves as Christian or Muslim first, and Albanians second. That’s why it was so important for Albanian nationalists to proclaim that the religion of Albania is Albanianism: without Albanianism, there could be no Albania.

And hate to say it, but because of all that, Greeks have hardly noticed Albania as an enemy. Anything up until 1912 was chalked up to the Turks—including Ali Pasha of Ioannina. (How many Greeks realise he was Albanian? How many care?) The raids of the Christian Arvanites against their neighbours, which gave Greek its word for “plunder” (πλιάτσικο < plaçkë “thing”—plaçkë e luftës “thing of war” is implied) have been long forgotten.

There was an ongoing enmity against Turks until recently (and of course, the atavistic stuff still lurks in the collective subconscious, despite the Thaw). In the face of a bogeyman that imposing, any hostility against Albanians from Greeks was secondary, and localised. (And I know very well that Albanians have not felt the same way.)

Albanians became prominent in the popular conscious again with the mass migrations of the 1990s. There was a lot of hostility, and I’ve heard reports that the Arvanites were particularly hard on the Albanian migrants: they had something to prove. But it was really not the fear and existential stuff that was invoked with Turks; it was looking down on them.

Since then, the reaction has gone two ways (from what I gather from a distance). On the liberal side, the Albanians are the model minority, admired for their work ethic, and even seen as a welcome addition to the polity. (That’s a pretty extreme view for Greece, of course.) On the reactionary side, well, one of the favourite chants of the thugs is Δεν θα γίνεις Έλληνας ποτέ, Αλβανέ, Αλβανέ-έ-έ “You’ll never be a Greek, Albanian, Albanian!”

But from memory, hostility towards Albania has never roused the level of ire or passion that hostility towards Turkey has.

How hard would it be to write more poetry using only Quora questions?

Mergers and edits can, it’s true, impair
the incidental rhymes of Quora questions.
The metre of such verse would brook deflections
as well—though your example doesn’t care.

But I’d dispute the questions need be live.
They can be captured at the time of writing,
and any links can redirect. Inviting
their permanence is hope that cannot thrive.

You posit here a jeu d’esprit, a joke,
no verse with which the heavens to command.
Let it then be a mandala in sand:
the transitoriness its masterstroke.

How do you use Quora? Do you spend equal/more time reading, editing, asking questions, or answering questions?

I used to read much more. There are still days where I can spend a good couple of hours reading, and it’s my favourite activity in between tasks or in transit.

But as I get more and more A2As, and as I’ve become more and more proud of writing, I spend a lot more time answering questions than before. And I spend a lot of time on comments (discussions on my answers or answers), and some time in messaging.

My routine is to start by going through notifications, have exchanges with others on comments, then read answers in my notifications, then split between reading my feed and answering questions. About equal time comments and answering, a bit more time than either reading feed.

As a Quoran with a reputation for your answers, which of your questions do you wish attracted more answers?

Recall always the great dictum of Yishan Wong’s answer to Why are my questions not answered on Quora?

Quora is a great place to write answers and to read answers, but it is not a good place to get your own questions answered.

There are people on Quora who seek information, but well… even if Quora says that’s a purpose of Quora, that’s not how I use it, and I suspect that’s not how a lot of voluminous writers use it.

The questions I ask are usually either followups of discussions I’ve had (in which case they’re targetted—sometimes at myself—and will likely get an answer); or they are questions that arise out of discussions or answers, that I throw out there just in case, but am not really hanging out for answers to.

I don’t know if I am typical or not, but I suspect that there are users who overwhelmingly ask questions (and Thank You, guys!), and users who overwhelmingly answer questions. If I’m typical, the latter aren’t hanging out for more answers: they ask targetted questions in a particular context, which are likely to get answers, rather than open-ended questions which may or may not.

It’s a good question, Andrew. I don’t have a good answer for you, but I hope others will.