Journal: News & Comment

This is " March 2004," a page that archives an entire month's entries from my online journal. The latest material for that month is at the top. For my newest entries, visit the home page.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:59:00 PM:

Tr�s sartorial

If you want to know how to dress like a web designer, supposedly I'm your man. I wouldn't count on it, though.


# 7:26:00 AM:

How easy are these words to read?

A new online tool analyzes the readability (and explains the resulting numbers) for any web page (or Word document). Here's my score, compared to articles from some popular sites:

Index Penmachine NY Times PC World White House ESPN Nickelodeon Chomsky
Kincaid: 8.2 6.2 10.6 4.1 12.3 4.0 10.2
ARI: 9.0 6.2 12.1 3.7 6.7 3.5 11.4
C-L: 10.0 11.8 11.9 9.1 15.6 9.1 12.4
Flesch: 71.1 70.4 59.4 84.4 71.4 84.2 58.8
Fog: 11.2 8.9 13.3 7.6 15.7 6.2 13.4
Lix: 38.6/6 34.1/5 47.1/8 28.3/<5 39.3/6 28.3/<5 46.5/8
SMOG: 10.1 9.1 11.4 8.2 10.7 7.0 11.9

In the Flesch score, higher numbers are easier to read. In all others, higher numbers are harder. The Lix index includes a score, plus (after the slash) a "school year" number.

It seems that, on balance, this site is easier to read for the average person than something from PC World or Noam Chomsky, but harder than a New York Times article, a White House press release, or a page from the Nickelodeon cable kids' channel. It's about the same as something from the ESPN sports network, though I almost never write about sports.

Link via Buzzworthy.


Monday, March 29, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:25:00 PM:

Links of interest (2004-03-29):


# 6:24:00 PM:

Skip the first paragraph if you use blog*spot

Okay, you've been warned. If you use (or used) Blogger's blog*spot hosting service for your website, here is something you'd probably rather not know. (Link via Tom Coates.)

Oh, and these familiar copyright-free universal symbol signs (via SVN) have not been updated in 25 years. Time to add some for Internet café and wireless network available at the very least, I think.


Sunday, March 28, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:24:00 PM:

Do ya, honey?

There's nothing remotely original about the band Jet or their album Get Born. The album cover shamelessly apes Klaus Voorman's drawing/photo collage style from Revolver. Listening to the first track, "Last Chance," I felt I'd stumbled into an AC/DC release on the verses, and a lost recording from the hard-poppin' mid-'60s Beatles sound-alikes the Knickerbockers on the choruses.

Both Dewey Finn and Beavis and Butt-Head would love this album: these musicians, unlike the White Stripes, take classic rock not just as an inspiration, but as a template. Snippets of the Kinks, the Beatles, the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, Oasis, and the Ramones (plus BTO, Gary Glitter, and the Knack, for that matter) fly out at you like shards off a steel grinder. Singer Nic Cester lets out a Roger Daltrey-style Yeeeeeeeeaaaaaaah! on almost every cut. Most of the lyrics are about hip-shakin', long-legged women in high boots. It takes three tracks before there's enough of a breather for a guitar solo, and then it's deliciously short.

The rest of the tunes follow from there. And they're fabulous. It's all jangle-crunch guitars, tubby bass, falling-down-the-stairs drums, and throat-shredding singing, with the occasional tambourine, organ, and piano thrown in. No song outstays its welcome—because they range from less than two to not quite five minutes long. Even the ballads are decent, probably because they rip off the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Wilco. (Jet wouldn't deny it, since they sing "Take a look at what I took, a leaf out of everybody's book.")

And of course there's that iPod commercial song, "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" You know it: "One two three take my hand and come with me 'cuz you look so fine that I really wanna make you mine," and then the riff taken straight from "Lust for Life."

At one point, Cester sings "Now I'm in a rockin' band," and I have only one word to say to that:



Saturday, March 27, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:18:00 PM:

Overbudget, and it doesn't work

Bob Cringely has two new articles outlining the hazards when big organizations outsource IT—specifically focusing on EDS (Electronic Data Systems) and the U.S. Navy, which is a situation that isn't working out too well. He identifies a big problem with underbidding from the suppliers, and under-specified requests for proposal (RFPs) from the customers:

[The] amazing disconnect on the part of most bidders between their actions and the health of their company [is] that "get the contract at any cost" attitude. Some bidders just try to break even, figuring they'll make their profit on moves and changes not covered in the original contract. Some don't even think that far, figuring they'll somehow make it up on volume.

Bob's further comments:

Most outsourcing contracts don't live up to their service promises and the only ones that live up to their pricing and profitability promises are those that have an artificially-low labor component...
...there is no way Wal-Mart would entrust its IT services to an outside contractor or even to several outside contractors. Doing so would threaten the entire organization. If costs are out of control and services are inconsistent, that's something to be dealt with internally, not by hoping some outside organization is smarter or more disciplined.

So would it ever work? Well...

[Most modern outsourcing arrangments] aren't contracts to bring new technology to organizations that lack the internal capability to provide that technology for themselves. They are pure cost-saving plays, or at least that's what they are intended to be.

So, according to Bob, outsourcing that works needs to:

  1. Bring in useful new technology that can't reasonably be provided internally.
  2. Have contracts that are priced realistically.
  3. Define the scope of fixed-price work, to avoid getting trapped like EDS, who "blindly signed-on to support at a fixed price an estimated 2,000 applications only to later find the actual number was 30,000."



# 8:21:00 AM:

Links of interest (2004-03-27):

  • I stumbled scross this phonecam photo of old Japanese toys on the weblog of Steven from Panic Software (the anti-startup from two days ago). The yellow-bodied character on the right is called Gaiking, and like its companion is one of the "Shogun Warriors," a toy made in 1978 by Bandai, and distributed in North America by Mattel. Its right fist shoots off, and the, er, nipples are missiles too. How do I know? I have one—with the original box. My daughters (who call the toy "Croissant Head") are fond of using the flying fist to nail me in the leg.

  • The New York Public Library's simple web style guide, for using valid, accessible, and backward-compatible XHTML 1.0 Transitional with CSS to make web pages. (Via Happy Cog and Jeffrey Zeldman.)

  • PC World's Mac Skeptic. (Via Dori.)

  • Google staffers' favourite Google tips and tricks (free NYT registration required). (Via SVN.)

  • A couple of summers ago I wrote about E Ink, digital paper that requires no power to maintain its display. Now the first E Ink device is about to go on sale, in Japan of course. (Via Buzzworthy.)


Friday, March 26, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:45:00 AM:

Most irritating phrases

And now, the official list of the most irritating clichés in English:

  1. At the end of the day
  2. At this moment in time
  3. Using "like" as, like, punctuation
  4. With all due respect
  5. To be (perfectly) honest (with you)

Some other nominees:

  • 24/7
  • Absolutely
  • Address the issue
  • Around (in place of "about")
  • Awesome
  • Ballpark figure
  • Basically
  • On a [whatever] basis
  • Bear with me
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • Blue sky (thinking)
  • Boggles the mind
  • Bottom line
  • Crack troops
  • Diamond geezer
  • Epicentre (used incorrectly)
  • Glass half full (or half empty)
  • Going forward
  • I hear what you're saying
  • In terms of
  • It's not rocket science
  • Literally
  • Move the goalposts
  • Ongoing
  • Prioritize
  • Pushing the envelope
  • Singing from the same hymn sheet
  • The fact of the matter is
  • Thinking outside the box
  • Touch base
  • Up to (in place of "about")
  • Value-added

Apparently a "diamond geezer" is a London slang term for "a good guy" (that, or either a badly dressed rugby fan or a rock musician whose music doesn't justify his or her fame). The term, like the list, is British, and I'd never heard of it before I looked it up.

They sure must be tired of it there, however.


Thursday, March 25, 2004 - newest items first
# 3:51:00 PM:

Links of interest (2004-03-25):

  • "If you hope to accomplish anything, you will inevitably need all of the people you hated in high school." (Via Mark Pilgrim.)

  • "Has it been three years already? [...] three years to the day after Mac OS X 10.0 began shipping."

  • "We tried hard. But that doesn't matter, because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

  • "It will be extremely hard for your friends or your coworkers to actually remember your email address because it is just too long!" (Via Buzzworthy.)

  • "And we love our independence. We're like the anti-startup. We wanted to do this for ourselves and that's exactly what we did." (Via MNJ.)

  • "The Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid won the prestigious Pritzker Prize this week, despite the fact that only one building she designed was built during the first 25 years of her career."

  • "It's hard for a product that doesn't exist to become too popular. If Adobe had actually produced a Mac OS X version of FrameMaker in the 4+ years that Mac OS X has been around, perhaps consumers might have been able to vote with their wallets, but not even a crappy carbonized version was to be had. Talk about your self-fulfilling prophesies." ("But quite frankly, feedback to us that includes conspiracy theories does not garner very much credibility!")


Wednesday, March 24, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:20:00 PM:


I saw an ad today that included a clever acronym I hadn't seen before: BOGO, for Buy One, Get One. In this case, it was Buy One (pair of shoes), Get One (other pair of shoes) for half price, or BOGO 1/2. There is also, of course, the BOGO free type of promotion.

BOGO. I like it.


Tuesday, March 23, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:02:00 PM:

Talent and effort

Mark Pilgrim notes that "now we have thousands of webloggers who read other webloggers every day, and who themselves write every day, and they're not getting any better at writing. [...] there is obviously a secret third ingredient required for becoming a good writer. You need to read every day... and write every day... and X. But I don't know what X is..."

Talent + effort = quality: I suggest that X is having talent (some have other ideas). People who have a talent for something find it enjoyable, and do it a lot, and so get better at it. Child piano prodigies just love playing the piano, so they do it obsessively, usually instead of obsessively riding skateboards or reading comic books or creating cool tattoo designs inside the back covers of their Grade 9 notebooks.

Yet some people's talents probably lay dormant too, because they never discover them. There could be some Mongolian yak herders who would be great computer programmers, but no one may ever know.

Effort alone won't do: There are people without talent who do the same things, sometimes also obsessively. There are a lot of skateboarders who fall down all the time, and dedicated piano students who can merely plunk out chords, and aspiring tattoo designers who couldn't draw a convincing set of bloody dripping eyeballs held in a skeletal hand if you gave them a million dollars. They may enjoy what they do, and may work hard, but without the talent, they won't get that much better.

The guitarist/organist in my band used to be my roommate. When we started playing together, I had taken four years of classical guitar lessons, and he had just picked up the instrument for fun. He got way better than me in a few months—meanwhile, I discovered that I could play the drums half-decently without ever having tried.

I'm a pretty good writer, and perhaps a better editor. That's not my own assessment, but what my clients tell me. They often thank me for doing things with their words that I find both dead easy and fast, but which they either can't do, or couldn't without a lot of unpleasant effort. I have a talent there—not a great one, but enough to make a living—but I don't know where it came from.

While I write every day, and I read a lot, that's not the source of my ability to work with words. That's been there, in some way, since I learned to read and write. Yes, I work hard at it. But it's never been a chore for me to do well, and in that I'm simply lucky.

I'm also lucky to have a talent that can bring me income. And while I can drum, I don't dance very well, and I can't paint a picture. Even web design is not an easy fit for me—I might have a bit of an aptitude, but not a real talent.

So if you like to write (or tinker with cars, or sing opera, or ski, or translate Greek, or whatever) and lack the talent for it, that doesn't stop you from doing it. You're just not likely to get paid for it.


# 12:02:00 AM:

Who should appear on Canada's money?

Andrew Coyne—who rants and raves rather more on his weblog than in print—wonders who we should put on Canada's money instead of the bland illustrations that currently grace many of our notes.

Only a few of his commenters actually answer the question, but it's worth considering.

Speaking of old-enough-to-be-on-money, the Alarm (yes, that band from the '80s), when told they're too old and no one will buy their music anymore, decided to release a single as "The Poppyfields" and hired a batch of 20-somethings to be in the video.

And up the British charts they go!


Monday, March 22, 2004 - newest items first
# 2:50:00 PM:


Unless my life as comfortable suburban parent and part-time technical editor takes a surprising turn, this will probably be the first and last time that something I wrote appears in the same list as something prize-winning science author James Gleick wrote.

By the way, VisiCalc co-creator Dan Bricklin has posted notes about his own participation in the Programmers at Work reunion I wrote about a few days ago. So have other members of the panel, as well as InfoWorld.


# 9:41:00 AM:

How to edit print text for the Web

Crawford Kilian tries to show how print text can be rewritten for the Web, noting that "standard print relies on reader habits that don't transfer to the computer screen. We really do read differently in this medium. Web text should exploit the difference."

His advice parallels much of what I've said—but, I realize now, not written down here—in my occasional seminars about web writing and editing. That is:

  1. As much as you can, organize text into chunks that fit on a single screen at a time as readers scroll down the page.

  2. Paragraphs should be no more than five or six lines, and sentences 20 words or less—much shorter than their print equivalents—with around 10 words per line (if you wish to control line length, that is).

  3. Use subheadings, itemized lists, boldface emphasis, and whitespace to give strong visual cues about the flow of material.

  4. Cut ruthlessly, reducing word count by as much as 50%.

  5. Avoid transitional words like therefore, moreover, and secondly, and use the structure of your document to move the flow instead.

  6. Use links liberally, and build documents with reader responses and inbound links in mind.

  7. When you have control over the design of the page, choose readable colours and fonts that are appropriate for your audience and topic.

  8. Include relevant illustrations or graphics to help make the document scannable and to augment the text.

Kilian provides a long-form web post, short "chunked" version, and downloadable Word document of his article to illustrate the differences.

If I can obtain permission from the original author, I'd like to try the same with this long article I found some months ago. In my talks, I use it as an example of what Kilian (rather caustically) calls "shovelware," or print-style writing published directly to the Web, without being edited for this medium.

Of course, it may have been written for the Web originally, but if so, it is an example of intending to write for one medium (Web) while actually writing for another (print).

[UPDATE: Dr. King has given me permission to edit the article into a more web-appropriate style (and yes, it was originally intended for a print publication). I'll probably take a few weeks before I finish it, given my time constraints, but I will post an edited version and blow-by-blow as soon as I can.]


Sunday, March 21, 2004 - newest items first
# 7:52:00 PM:

[         ]

Imagine being totally illiterate. These words on the computer screen are incomprehensible squiggles. Trying not to understand words is difficult for those of us who've been reading for a lot time, and when I attempt it, I often think of not being able to read a book or magazine or newspaper. I think many others feel the same way.

But in 1985 I traveled to Moscow and what was then Leningrad, and understood that illiteracy is a far bigger deal when you're walking around. Even though I'd studied a bit of Russian in preparation for the trip, every sign or rooftop Marxist slogan (remember, 1985) was a struggle, where I had to sound out the Cyrillic letters in my head to understand that PECTOPAH was really RYESTORAN ("restaurant"), for instance. Things would be even worse for me in Beijing, Osaka, or Tehran, where the characters are further from what I know.

Here's proof (via Jason Kottke) that words are a lot more prevalent in our society than we usually notice.


Saturday, March 20, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:38:00 AM:

Web design: the right direction

Here's a nice Devil's-advocate post about the SXSW web design conference, positing that web design is moving in the wrong direction:

UI designers are making the same old fundamental "forgetting about the human being on the other side" mistakes—except this time their code looks better. Humans—not code validators—use interfaces.

I would disagree, because while designers are together they often talk shop about techniques and technologies, but one of the major benefits of standards-based design for the Web is that it encourages people to separate the design of material from its content, and thus make the content more accessible to a wider variety of people and devices. It's also easier to make attractive designs that work when you can separate elements of the page into modules that can be improved, rather than being stuck with systems that are so interdependent that it's impossible to fix things without starting, in essence, from scratch.

A simple example: when I rebuilt much of this website to use more Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and less tables-based web design, I also re-did the colour scheme and some of the navigation. Some people didn't like the changes, and some of their comments were good ones. So I tweaked the design, and now it's better. Before I moved to CSS for some of my layout, those tweaks would have been much more difficult, and I wouldn't have done them, so this site would be harder to use (and less useful) today.

On the other hand, one hazard of CSS-based design is that is is easier for people to copy layouts wholesale without much effort—an issue Dave Shea (who did well at SXSW this year) covers today by saying:

Don't let the bastards bring you down. They can steal one of your works, but they can't steal your soul. Keep on creating because there's only one you, and the world is dimmer without your creative energy.

Perhaps the best parallel here is the fashion industry. Oddly enough, clothing designs (i.e. the cut and shape of a garment) cannot generally be copyrighted, while the design pattern of a fabric (i.e. flowers, stripes, etc.) sometimes can be.

So, the fashion industry is rife with knock-offs. But fashion designers continue to make money, and come up with new designs all the time. Even if someone rips off a designer's original CSS layout, that doesn't make the original designer less talented, and doesn't prevent him or her from coming up with better designs in the future. It also doesn't automatically make the site created with ripped-off CSS as good as or better than the original, because the original design was made for a specific purpose that the knock-off isn't.

Similarly, other companies can try to copy the iPod all they like (within the bounds of copyright and patent law and Apple's ferocious lawyers), but by the time they come out with a good-enough knock-off, Apple will have a new iPod Mini (or whatever) that is superior.

The balance of copyright law, and the idea of respect for creativity, is to reward the creator for new, innovative work. The few leeches who rip off designs wholesale might even help there, because they encourage the original designers not to rest on their laurels, and to come up with work that beats the pants off their older material that is getting copied.

I should add, however, that those who take a design outright without attribution or permission do open themselves up for legal challenges once the original designer finds out—which is damn likely—and so it still isn't a wise thing to do. Especially when many designers will be flattered and helpful if you simply ask to use a design in a non-commercial context, or offer a fair (often small) fee in a commercial one.


Friday, March 19, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:30:00 AM:

Bill Gates started by "stealing" other people's code

[UPDATE: Participant Dan Bricklin (among others) has his own writeup about this get-together.]

Scott Rosenberg reports on a panel of famous computer programmers from 20 years ago (Salon subscription or free ad-supported day pass required), who recently re-convened to discuss the current state of software.

Since the full article is awkward to get if you don't subscribe, here are some excerpts:

"Software inefficiency can always outpace Moore's Law. Moore's Law isn't a match for our bad coding." - Jaron Lanier

"I believe these are two separate roles—the subject matter expert and the software engineer." - Charles Simonyi

"There's this wonderful outpouring of creativity in the open-source world. So what do they make—another version of Unix?" - Lanier again

"And what do they put on top of it? Another Windows!" - Jef Raskin

"It's because they want people to use the stuff!" - Andy Hertzfeld

"The best way to prepare is to write programs, and to study great programs that other people have written. In my case, I went to the garbage cans at the Computer Science Center and I fished out listings of their operating systems." - Bill Gates (quoted from an old interview—he was not present this year)

I guess it was only after Gates learned what he could that he promoted the idea that software must be paid for.


# 8:15:00 AM:

Links of interest (2004-03-19):


Wednesday, March 17, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:18:00 AM:

Top o' the afternoon to you

Don't worry. The green colour scheme is just for today.

UPDATE 11:18 PM: And now it's gone, 12 hours later.


# 9:08:00 AM:

Links of interest (2004-03-17):


Tuesday, March 16, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:01:00 PM:

Six ways kids under seven are different from adults

[UPDATE: Three more items added on April 2, 2004.]

  1. When hands need to be wiped, any nearby surface, regardless of its composition, will do. (Kleenex? Bathroom mirror? Fancy silky white holiday dress? Bedsheets? A parent's hair? Priceless mahogany carving? All fine.)

  2. Ketchup is worth fighting over.

  3. Puddles are to be gone through, never around.

  4. Being carried bodily from one room to another without waking up is no problem at all.

  5. Car windows are always better open, even if it is raining, sleeting, or well below freezing outside.

  6. They can dress in ways no adult could get away with (outside a Pride Parade, anyway).

Or maybe it's just my kids.


Sunday, March 14, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:50:00 PM:

Local boy made good

He's originally from Kamloops, but Dave Shea now calls Vancouver home, and we work together sometimes. He's well known in the worldwide web design community for his CSS Zen Garden (not to mention very cool ideas like this one—especially the blobs).

Today, Dave and the Zen Garden won both the Best Developer's Resource and Best of Show awards for 2004 at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. I'm guessing he feels better about this whole mess now.

Official notice of the awards should appear on the SXSW site shortly (UPDATE: there they are), but in the meantime check out Dave's breathless blog instead (read the 9:40 pm Sunday entry).

And wish him luck in the Bloggies on Monday night (which also happens to be the evening that Prince is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

I'm jealous.


Saturday, March 13, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:27:00 PM:

More resources for improving PowerPoint presentations

For someone who doesn't like PowerPoint much, I'm sure gathering a bunch of resources on how to use it better. Here are the latest two, courtesy of Bill Brown's bblog.


Friday, March 12, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:00:00 AM:

Neil Buchanan's Art Attack

If you haven't watched children's TV for the past decade, you might be unaware of Art Attack. In it, red-shirted Liverpudlian host Neil Buchanan shows kids how to make all sorts of art projects.

Once each episode, however, he makes what he calls a "Big Art Attack." With an overhead camera watching, he takes over a warehouse floor, or a farmer's field, or a parking lot, or some random piece of real estate, and creates a huge piece of art, often from everyday objects. Usually you can't tell exactly what he's making until it's nearly done, but they are often lifelike drawings cobbled together from sports equipment, or using a riding lawnmower in long grass, or out of table salt on a black floor—or once, from the coordinated turning on and off of lights of skyscrapers on the New York skyline.

If you come across one of his broadcasts, even if you're not a kid, watch. You'll be amazed.


Thursday, March 11, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:55:00 PM:


The Canonical List of Weird Band Names does not include my first band, the Juan Valdez Memorial R & B Ensemble. The original lineup played only one significant show 15 years ago, in March 1989. One of our three (!) guitarists then decided to leave, before going on to a career as a professor of zoology, specializing in the behaviour of tiny birds.

Some of the rest of us, however, have never given up. Playing the songs, that is. We gave up our dignity years ago.


# 1:11:00 PM:

Links of interest (2004-03-11):

  • "And so if we don't... purchase a licence to your excrement... you're going to sue us." (The best analogy yet for the SCO lawsuit against IBM and others over the Linux operating system—thanks, Barc.)

  • "A lithium-ion battery provides 300-500 discharge/charge cycles. The battery prefers a partial rather than a full discharge. Frequent full discharges should be avoided when possible. Instead, charge the battery more often or use a larger battery." (Via MNJ—and see my post from a year ago.)

  • "For fat opera singers, much of the 20th century was a golden age when voice was everything."

  • Disneyland hires professional signpainters for almost all the park's signs (via Dave Shea). Here in Vancouver, some businesses continue to see benefits of this handcrafted approach—if you look closely at the trolleys used in Stanley Park's horse tours, for instance, you can see that they have been exquisitely hand-decorated. My friend Tara and her father did most of the work, although their main income now comes from painting movie sets. Since many signs are unique to their locations, hand-painted signage is one area where mass production still doesn't rule.

  • "...curiously, there's [...] a deafening cultural silence around the Beatles. Despite being one of the most influential recording acts in history, the Beatles do not allow their music to be sampled. Even if they did, the largesse that licensing and other fees demands would make their music far too pricey for most artists to use, a trend that has mirrored in licensing for film and television. (Ever wonder why there's so much indie rock in commercials and movies? You've got your answer.) And the Beatles aren't the only act; the collusion of exorbinant fees and copyright censure has made many of the musicians with the loudest cultural resonance into those whose music is only heard today as an echo from the past." (Via Creative Commons.)


# 8:04:00 AM:

Delicacies at the Kingsway strip mall

VanEats finally made the trip to Samosa Garden in East Vancouver, our family's favourite Indian-style restaurant. The place is already busy enough, but more people deserve to know about it.

They also recommend the new Vij's Rangoli, the takeout place just opened by Vancouver's most famous Indian chef, on Vancouver's West Side.

I haven't even had breakfast, and I'm already craving spices.


Wednesday, March 10, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:31:00 PM:

Badder brains

Let's return to how our instincts understand probability and statistics poorly. Instead of web design, we'll talk about life and death (via Mark Pilgrim) with the late Dr. Stephen Jay Gould.

In 1982, he was diagnosed with a rare and usually fatal form of cancer:

I asked my first question of my doctor and chemotherapist: "What is the best technical literature about mesothelioma?" She replied, with a touch of diplomacy [...], that the medical literature contained nothing really worth reading. [...]

The literature couldn't have been more brutally clear: mesothelioma is incurable, with a median mortality of only eight months after discovery.

But Gould understood statistics from his work as an evolutionary biologist, and so:

When I learned about the eight-month median, my first intellectual reaction was: fine, half the people will live longer; now what are my chances of being in that half. I read for a furious and nervous hour and concluded, with relief: damned good.

He lived for 20 years, and though he died young, at 60, it was from a different and unrelated form of cancer. An average is indeed an average, and almost no one is the average.


# 10:02:00 AM:

Links of interest (2004-03-10):

  • Jef Raskin on interface design: "Well, right now I can go back between my Windows machines and into my Macs, hardly having to think at all, they are so similar and they are both quite dreadful."

  • Search for a phrase and see how Google and Yahoo! rank the results differently.

  • "Milk is a commodity [but in software] every religious debate from vi vs. emacs to Macs vs. PCs is really a debate between differing individual preferences. [...] We can 'taste' the difference, which means the market for software is not like the market for 2% milk."

  • "The Japanese like bright colours and warm, emotional images when shopping online. Germans prefer darker colours and consider bright colours and flashy animation unprofessional. Canadians are least concerned about misuse of credit cards. Americans require less detailed product information."

  • Some of us may want a permanent, long-term e-mail address, but—totally aside from spam—that might not be true for everyone. "I might change [my e-mail address] to something more professional when I grow up," [one] 18-year-old said. "But for now, this one's good."

  • "Often Web servers are left configured to list the contents of directories if there is no default Web page in those directories; on top of that, those directories often contain lots of stuff that the website owners don't actually want to be on the Web. [But] relying on robots.txt to protect sensitive content is a bit like putting a sign up saying 'Please ignore the expensive jewels hidden inside this shack.'"


# 7:36:00 AM:

Web editing advice, now in newfangled sound recording form

A few days ago I linked to Anne Pepper's web editing tips. There's now an MP3 audio transcript of her talk posted to the Editors' Association of Canada site.


Tuesday, March 09, 2004 - newest items first
# 2:08:00 PM:


I brought home a Dell laptop from the office I'm working at. It runs Windows 2000, and is showing its age—the 10 GB hard drive is too small, Microsoft Office asks for installation CDs when you run it (but still works fine if you cancel that request), the fan makes intermittent creaky noises, and so on. In other words, the machine has reached Cruft Force 3.5 or thereabouts. (By comparison, my Windows 98 computer at home is around Cruft Force 5.)

Since I wanted to use the Dell in the kitchen, where there is no network plug, I figured I would just swap the wireless network card from my PowerBook and plug it into the Dell. In theory, the "plug and play" card would find the correct software and Just Work. Especially because the wireless card I use on the PowerBook is a Dell card. (Here, look.)

Yeah. As if. The Add Hardware Wizard detected the card, but couldn't find a driver, and so kindly offered to eject the card for me. So I went to the Dell site. No luck on drivers for the Dell-branded card. I happen to know, because of my research for the PowerBook, that the Dell card is actually an ORiNOCO card, which was originally manufactured by Lucent Technologies, who sold the brand to Agere Systems, which then was sold to Proxim. So, off to the Proxim site.

Now, is my card an "ORiNOCO 802.11b wireless PC Card," or an "ORiNOCO ('Classic') Gold/Silver 802.11b wireless PC Card"? Heck if I know. I downloaded both drivers. One got part way through the installation and quit. The other locked up and I had to force it to quit before the installation wizard even appeared. No luck, even after trying Safe Mode.

So, in desperation, I tried running the Add Hardware Wizard again manually, then hunting through all the available driver types until I found one for Lucent Technologies (not Dell, not Proxim, not Agere) called "ORiNOCO wireless PC Card (5 Volt)." I chose that, and bam, I was online.

Can you reasonably expect someone who hadn't taught him- or herself a whole lot about wireless networking, and worked in the computer software industry for eight years, to have figured all that out?

Here's the irony: to make the card work in my PowerBook, I just downloaded the driver from Proxim, ran the software, and followed the instructions. Yeah, it took awhile to figure that out, but it's still significantly easier to install a Dell wireless card on an eight-year-old Apple laptop (which Dell has never officially supoprted for use with its wireless cards) than it is to install the exact same card in a laptop manufactured by Dell itself.


Sunday, March 07, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:55:00 PM:

Abort, abort

This evening my two daughters, ages four and six, set out with me for some grocery shopping. We made it into the store, returned some pop cans, and were on the way through the cosmetics department to find the firelogs when I turned and discovered my older daughter happily colouring on her younger sister's face with a lipstick sampler.

I turned the shopping cart around, gathered up the kids, and we went home. Sometimes it's just the wrong time.

(I returned—alone—to buy the groceries after the kids went to sleep. I came back to the house just before midnight, by which time things were pretty calm.)


Saturday, March 06, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:59:00 PM:

Microsoft Word seminar: sorry, full!

Much to my disbelief, the workshop I'm presenting about onscreen editing with Microsoft Word on 15 May 2004 is now full, with 25 paying participants, more than two months in advance. If you're interested in taking it, you might want to keep an eye on the registration page to see if anyone cancels in the next few weeks.

If there's sufficient demand and everything goes well, I'll try presenting another one in the fall.


# 11:50:00 AM:

PowerPoint or not, here's what to do

Seven steps to better presentations (via SVN, which adds two more). I'll add these to my PowerPoint commentary links.


Friday, March 05, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:47:00 PM:

Links of interest (2004-03-05):

  • "And really, when you're my age, would you rather look like me, or Jakob Nielsen?" ("...on matters of style, grooming and gracious living, you'd do well to listen.")

  • "The two basic types of [catalytic] converters are Monolith and Bead [...] Monolith converters contain a catalyst that looks a lot like a honeycomb inside the shell of the converter, while Bead converters contain a pellet or beaded type of catalyst." They can be recycled.

  • "Come take a look at the next version of one of the most important program suites for the Mac." Neat—but I doubt it's really worth what an upgrade will cost.

  • "Dedicated to elegant drafting in contracts: plain English, clarity, legal precision, appropriate risk allocation and commercial sense."

  • I'm always amazed when I come across jobs that, once I know about them, seem obvious, but which I'd never thought about before. For instance, sure, factories make stuff, and many of them have conveyor belts, but someone has to make the conveyor belts too.

  • When did The Onion go from pointedly funny to frighteningly psychic? We can pinpoint the date as 18 January 2001.

  • There are four ways to tie a necktie, but I've only ever used one: the basic Windsor my dad taught me in 1982. I've noticed that many current ties (like one I bought today while my wife looked at bedsheets) are made of thick fabric, and require some skill with the Windsor to avoid a really fat ugly knot at the neck.


# 7:26:00 AM:

Ah, the French

Tim Bray links to a couple of discussions about open-source and proprietary software. One of them is in French (PDF file), so Tim provides some quick translations of key parts.

My French is probably much worse than his, but I remember it well enough to tell whether the translations are any good, and they do seem to be. What's interesting is that, in a paper that talks about how the difference between open-source and commercial software is a cultural one, its own origins at a French academic institution shine through.

Could you imagine, for instance, someone from Harvard Business School—even expressing the same sentiments—writing that "proprietary formats [...] imprison information and make systems autistic" or "To choose an operating system, or software, or network architecture is to choose a kind of society. We can no longer pretend that free and commercial software, or Internet standards and protocols, are just tools. We have to admit at least that they are political tools"?

Years ago, I saw Alien Resurrection in a movie theatre. Its director, unlike those of the previous three instalments of the series, is French. And sure enough, what began as a gothic techno-thriller became, by the end, a semi-oedipal French art film (with an unusually large budget).

The language and culture we grow up with help define how our brains grow. Might that someday also be true of the software we use?


Thursday, March 04, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:03:00 PM:

More web writing guidelines

Following up on my recent post, here are some more web writing guidelines from Dennis Jerz (via Crawford Kilian) and Anne Pepper.


# 7:35:00 AM:

Dirty nostalgia

In the '70s, TV ads (most especially for Wisk) were obsessed with ring around the collar. But ask a kid today and he or she probably wouldn't know what you were talking about.

Why is that? Do people wear white dress shirts less often? Are the fabrics, or our detergents, better? Or are we just more concerned with Botox treatments now?


Tuesday, March 02, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:03:00 PM:

Eighteen months in 206,000 pixels

Large numbers are sometimes hard to comprehend—even relatively small large numbers. What does 500 of something look like? How about 200,000 of something? Or 3 million of something?

One disadvantage of digital cameras is that you have to make an effort to make photo prints. I had left it too long, so yesterday I had 500 (!) 4x6" prints made at my local supermarket, which now handles digital files from CD. They covered 18 months, from the fall of 2002 until two days ago. And here they are:

[500 small thumbnails of photos in a 20x24 grid]

One advantage of digital is that these 500 are only the ones I wanted, out of several thousand in total. They're private, so no, you don't get to see any bigger versions. However, if you look closely, you will spot a few that have been posted on this site previously.

Some more numbers: That 20x25 grid of photos is 400 pixels wide and 515 pixels tall, which is 206,000 pixels in total. The full-size version of each photo was originally 2048x1536 pixels, or 3,145,728 pixels in total—more than 15 times as many dots per photo as the entire montage you see above.

The 500 photos on disc consumed 400 MB of information. The picture of those 500 photos on your screen is 76 KB, about 5,000 times smaller. Even using my high-speed Internet connection, downloading the full disc's worth of photos would take at least an hour and a half. The small version you see takes between one and two seconds.


Monday, March 01, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:19:00 AM:

Bad brains

Probability and statistics are powerful arts, but the human brain seems poorly designed to deal with them. It's not hard to find examples: confidently buying lottery tickets, or driving an SUV because it's "safer," while being reluctant to fly on a major jet airline, or afraid of a stranger taking your kids at the playground, for instance.

Jakob Nielsen gives a good analysis of why statistics can be deceptive in web usability studies, but his explanations apply in many other fields as well. Particularly notable:

Researchers often perform statistical analysis to determine whether numeric results are "statistically significant." By convention, they deem an outcome significant if there is less than 5% probability that it could have occurred randomly rather than signifying a true phenomenon.

This sounds reasonable, but it implies that one out of twenty "significant" results might be random if researchers rely purely on quantitative methods.


Quantitative studies must be done exactly right in every detail or the numbers will be deceptive. There are so many pitfalls that you're likely to land in one of them and get into trouble.

If you rely on numbers without insights, you don't have backup when things go wrong. You'll stumble down the wrong path, because that's where the numbers will lead.


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