Monthly Archives: May 2012

If you can read this…

The ability to read and write is something we all take for granted. Without it, we’d have a hard time functioning in today’s world, even outside the workplace. Although we assume literacy is a skill everyone shares, unfortunately that’s not the case. Even in a highly literate society like ours, one-fourth of all children grow up not knowing how to read. That translates into millions of children, and it puts them at a tremendous disadvantage. Studies have shown, for example, that two-thirds of all students who can’t read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. In an attempt to help break that vicious circle, I’ve been a long-time volunteer for an organization called Share Literacy (www.shareliteracy.org), which works through established literacy programs like Head Start to provide books and related materials to disadvantaged children (more than 600,000 to date) and their teachers and parents. One program I’ve worked with as a Share Literacy volunteer is the Higher Horizons Head Start program in Falls Church, VA, which is not far from where I live. The families of the kids at Higher Horizons come from all over the world — Africa, Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East. Seeing the entranced looks on their faces as they sit listening to a teacher read them a story, and then seeing their proud smiles as they carry their own copy of the book home, accompanied by parents who understand the importance of reading to their children, fills me with hope and makes me think that these kids, at least, have a bright future ahead of them.

MEANWHILE, HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD …

Although the frontpage news from Afghanistan hasn’t been too good these days, a number of Afghan success stories have me optimistic. The stories I’m referring to are hundreds of years old, and are part of Afghanistan’s rich oral tradition. They’ve helped teach reading and thinking skills to children in the U.S. for more than a decade, and now they’re being used for the same purposes in the country of their origin, thanks to the efforts of an educational nonprofit I do volunteer work for. Hoopoe Books (www.hoopoekids.com), a division of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (www.ishk.net), began publishing these tales in the U.S. as illustrated children’s books in 1998, because of their ability to help develop higher-level thinking skills. Through ISHK’s Share Literacy program (www.shareliteracy.org), more than 600,000 of these books have been distributed here, in partnership with schools and educational agencies. This led Hoopoe to launch a project to “repatriate” these stories to Afghanistan, retranslated back into Pashto and Dari, the country’s two principal languages. More than 2.5 million of these Pashto-Dari editions have so far been distributed to libraries, schools and orphanages throughout Afghanistan, with the help of an Afghan NGO as well as members of U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams, plus a grant from the U.S. State Department. In addition, hundreds of Afghan teachers have been trained in how best to use these stories. Almost three-quarters of all Afghans over the age of 15 are illiterate — a disproportionate number of them female — and almost five million of the country’s 12 million school-age children have no access to education, with those in school often lacking basic supplies and books. So this project, which makes sure the books are given to girls as well as boys, seems to be making a difference in rebuilding Afghanistan’s human resources.

 

 

 

Akoya supports Building Technologies Program at CBEA Efficiency Forum

BTP is hosting two significant meetings this week that together comprise the Commercial Buildings Energy Alliance (CBEA) Efficiency Forum. Both meetings take place at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, in the nation’s largest net-zero energy office building. In the CBEA All-Member annual meeting on May 23,  participants will set energy targets and membership goals, report on the impacts of previous CBEA projects, assess the status of 2012 work, and brainstorm possible 2013 activities. On May 24, the first-ever CBEA Executive Exchange with Commercial Building Stakeholders will take place. Executives from the manufacturing, service provider, financial, A/E, and utility communities will engage with CBEA members in an array of targeted roundtable discussions focused on energy-efficiency deployment challenges and opportunities. Akoya will be present to lend support and help coordinate the meetings.

From Light Bulbs to IT Troubleshooting in 0.10 Seconds

Even the smallest decisions can have major consequences when you are Akoya’s Director of Business Operations—including selecting the coffee. For many people, the morning’s first cup can be the deciding factor in how productive their day will become.

And when you factor in major decisions like whether to go with IT infrastructure or cloud computing, you get a good idea of the wide range of skills necessary to support a busy small business like Akoya.

Several “stock” responsibilities go along with the title, but the critical pieces that separate the amateurs from the pros:

 

  • The ability to multitask without forgetting three hours later where you left off on the previous task.
  • Organizational skills, meticulous recordkeeping, and a good memory. Two years from now, when you’re scrambling to get a failed hard drive repaired, you’ll need to remember where you filed that warranty, contract, or invoice.
  • Great communication skills, including the ability to stop short the unsolicited vendor before he begins his sales pitch.
  • The curiosity needed to learn and solve problems, because no matter how much you think you know, inevitably you’ll be asked to solve a problem that you’ve never dealt with before (thank goodness for the Internet!).

But the number-one skill set a Director of Business Operations needs is a great sense of humor and the ability to laugh—even at oneself—every now and then.

 

 

Choosing the Right Open-Source CMS

Creating your own website once required a basic working knowledge of HTML. No longer. Thanks to the rise of content management systems (CMS) in the past decade, the heavy lifting is handled for you. But how do you choose the right CMS for your situation? Here are some observations.

Back in the mid 90s — when WYSIWIGs barely existed — I built my first site on a small, free AOL space. (The design was terrible, but I take some pride in the fact that I opted to avoid flashing or scrolling text.) AOL’s built-in WYSIWIG helped with text and pictures but left me floundering in HTML for anything remotely stylish.

Today, WYSIWIGs like Dreamweaver have advanced light years (although they still produce inefficient markup). Now you can build a website like my first one in a quarter of the time, with twice as much content, and NOT have it look like a stream of semi-consciousness.

Dreamweaver is fine for building a simple site featuring text, pictures, audio, and colors. But expectations have risen. We now want embedded video, intricate styling, and interactivity like comments on a blog or posts in forum threads. These features require server-side scripting and database management not available through Dreamweaver, or at least not easily accessible to the novice.

Enter CMS, which manages this kind of programming and puts a nice, user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI) on it. Instead of writing object-oriented code and database queries, you simply click buttons and drag and drop content in a web-based application. Using a CMS will significantly increase the efficiency with which you can add, modify, and remove content from your website, and will make an otherwise technologically exclusive skill accessible to the average user.

Some CMS applications have to be paid for, but others are open-source, which basically means you can use them for free (although hosting typically costs something) and to customize them to your tastes. Among the dozens of CMS applications, those most widely recognized by web enthusiasts are WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla!

While most popular open-source CMS are written in PHP and interact with a MySQL database, no two are exactly alike. You can’t just pick anything off the shelf and get your desired result. Also, a CMS is never going to meet your exact needs right out of the box; you’ll probably need to install at least one custom template and a number of plugins (sometimes called modules, components, or blocks) to realize your site’s full potential.

Choosing the optimal CMS for your website requires having a pretty good idea from the outset exactly what range of features you will offer to users. Are you better off with a more targeted CMS like WordPress, or something more generic like Joomla! or Drupal? The former is primarily meant to host blogs, while the latter two are meant for fully-featured websites that may or may not include blogs. That doesn’t mean you can’t use Joomla! or Drupal for only blogs or that WordPress can’t be made to host a great website with additional features beyond a blog. But the easier path is to start with the CMS that is closest to your final vision. WordPress can make a nice website, but a lot of the things that come built-in on a website CMS are not included in WordPress, so you’ll find yourself hunting for plugins early on. Joomla! on the other hand doesn’t feature a very intuitive blogging system out of the box and is hit or miss on some of its plugins, but its standard package is very well done. Drupal offers great performance and good features, but some users find it to have the least intuitive control panel of the three. Drupal has the best plugin library of almost any CMS I am familiar with, yet it offers the greatest challenge in terms of installing them.

Another pitfall to avoid is choosing the wrong version of your CMS. CMS development teams are constantly releasing new versions and patches, and your intuition might be to go with the latest version available when it comes time to set up your CMS. This can be a mistake. WordPress has a particularly reliable community when it comes to supporting new updates quickly, but this isn’t true of other platforms, and as part of your research you should try to feel out how much support a given version of a CMS is getting. Is a newer version just on the horizon? Does the community gripe about features of the current version? Do some of them swear by previous iterations? If so, consider either holding off (if you can) until the next version comes out and gets a thorough test from the community, or step back to the previous version and try it.

In truth, it is hard to make a complete disaster out of an open-source CMS. Because the open-source community only supports a CMS that they have tried and come to trust, you’re not going to stumble across one that doesn’t have at least a moderately reliable architecture and a devoted community constantly developing new features and plugins. So whatever you pick, the community will be there to help and with enough perseverance, you’ll have a proper website up and running in a relatively short time period, even if you are working alone. But looking before leaping can only help. Whether you’re considering the three I mentioned above, or you are looking to try another CMS like Pimcore, Silverstripe, or PHP-Nuke, a few hours of research and planning upfront can save you days or even weeks of headache down the road.

 

Akoya supports DOE at LIGHTFAIR

LIGHTFAIR® International, the world’s largest commercial lighting trade show and conference, has become increasingly dominated by solid-state lighting products over the past few years. The Department of Energy will be on hand at LIGHTFAIR this week to provide unbiased information and tutorials so that users and potential users of SSL can understand the issues with this emerging technology. As DOE shares its perspective and resources with thousands of LIGHTFAIR attendees, Akoya will be there to help coordinate and support the DOE team.