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Journal Journal: Data Corruption from Excel Autocorrect 1

Someone on TECHWR-L posted a link to this paper (under the paradoxical title "The Cupertino Effect"), which is about how Excel's autocorrect feature can corrupt statistical analysis of genetic data if/when Excel "makes the wrong assumption" about an entry based on how it looks:

When processing microarray data sets, we recently noticed that some gene names were being changed inadvertently to non-gene names. A little detective work traced the problem to default date format conversions and floating-point format conversions in the very useful Excel program package. The date conversions affect at least 30 gene names; the floating-point conversions affect at least 2,000 if Riken identifiers are included. These conversions are irreversible; the original gene names cannot be recovered.

As the author points out, this can cause gene names to come back in analyses as "unknown," because "[a] default date conversion feature in Excel ... was altering gene names that it considered to look like dates. For example, the tumor suppressor DEC1 ... was being converted to '1-DEC.'"

The authors also note that there is a problem with "RIKEN [4] clone identifiers of the form nnnnnnnEnn" being converted to a floating-point number.

The paper also gives some idea of the devastating scale of the problem and its significance for people doing these sorts of analyses: "A non-expert user might well fail to notice that approximately 3% of the identifiers on a microarray with tens of thousands of genes had been converted to an incorrect form, yet the potential for 2,000 identifiers to be transmogrified without notice is a considerable concern."

As far as I know personally and can glean from the paper, the autocorrect and/or conversion feature is nearly impossible to disable completely, and can only be worked around, possibly unsuccessfully 100% of the time. This suggests that perhaps Excel is not the tool of choice for doing these sorts of analyses. (Does the spreadsheet application in OpenOffice work differently?)

Role Playing (Games)

Journal Journal: The Man Who Built The World Next Door

Gary Gygax, July 27, 1938 - March 4, 2008

This is an odd one for me -- depending on how you look at it, I was in the RPG world for many years, but not of it, or of it, but not in it. Most of my friends are gamers, some of them quite hardcore for years. When I was a teenager, I wrote a paper RPG. (In retrospect, it seems as though what I was reaching for -- completely independently of anything, since I didn't know the people involved and they didn't know me, and there was a lapse of several years involved -- was what someone else eventually wrote as Vampire: The Masquerade, although what I came up with was closer to GURPS and, admittedly, ultimately unplayable. At least I got class credit for it.) I had a front-page entry in the Daily Illuminator (under the name of the person whose e-mail I was borrowing at the time, since I didn't have one of my own -- scroll down to October 2). I even owned a set of dice. (I've since given them away.)

However... Aside from a few abortive attempts at LARPing in the mid-90s, I've never actually played a pen-and-paper RPG.

However again, if it hadn't been for the RPG culture, in which I was at least an interested bystander if not an out-and-out participant, I never would have become the (geeky-but-at-home-with-it) person I am today.

So I owe one to Gary Gygax. Thanks, man. I've never even played your game, but you still changed my life.

Journal Journal: Integrating Help Using RoboHelp/VB -- Map IDs Question 1

Here's where you guys come in.

The Back Story: I've not done a lot of in-program help integrations, because I've usually been working with people who know how to do it. None of the programmers here do, and I don't either.

We're looking to streamline our help integration process for in-program, window-level help. The way we would like to do this is to have the developers assign Map IDs in the code right from the outset in the development process, before the help is written. However, doing so would mean that any map file I get from them will not include topic titles. Is this a problem?

(The advantage is that by using this system I could go through the application screen by screen during the testing phase and determine which screens do not have associated help topics.)

As of now, I can create a .h file in RoboHelp and import it into the project file, but if there are no topic titles specified, I can't see any of the Map IDs in RoboHelp's Edit Map IDs window.

If we can in fact implement this system, what does the developer need to give me (that will actually work)? What should the file content look like? Do any of you actually know?
It's funny.  Laugh.

Journal Journal: On Being a Pedestrian in Car Land 1

When you live in a place where the car rules, and car drivers think they're the High Royalty of Turd Island, and you don't drive yourself, you very quickly develop a Traffic Glare. The Traffic Glare, patent pending, is a comprehensive form of non-verbal facial and kinesic communication (consisting partially of extended eye contact, and partially of appropriate facial/physical expression) which clearly notifies menacing drivers that... know they have seen you. have memorised their license plate. are carrying a concealed death ray on your person, and are not afraid to use it if they try anything hinky.

...and further, after having used it, you will file charges against their smoking remains.

Today I had a superlative Traffic Glare. I think it kept me from getting run over at least once...

Journal Journal: Preliminary Course Proposal: Design for Developers 3

(...and friends.)

A friend of mine sent me this big long e-mail about "yak-shaving," which in this case involved wanting to do something with a piece of software, discovering that it wanted access to a particular library he didn't have, trying to find, and then trying to install the library, just to get back to the original task. He mentioned what I noticed ages ago, which is that a lot of open-source stuff doesn't always include everything you need to get the software up and running, I think in part because the developer(s) assume you already have it (they're funny like that).

That got me thinking about a lot of the crap I've seen both in OSS projects and in proprietary projects -- I have to say, proprietary software has definitely got the drop on OSS in terms of including everything (hell, the other day I got an e-mail with a link to Acrobat Reader download in it, just in case you wanted to grab a linked PDF, and were the last person on earth still without a PDF reader, case in point). And I thought a lot of these problems reflect a lack of basic design knowledge on the part of most software developers.

By "design" I mean "visual, textual, and informational rhetoric," rather than "how to put together a program in a way that works and makes sense."

That got me thinking...

"Every CS programme should include a course on design fundamentals, tailored to the specific wants and needs of software development. I should write a syllabus for a course like that, and post it five or six different places, so the meme gets out..."

So, uh, if you were developing a postsecondary (2nd year+ university or third-year college) course on design fundamentals for software developers, what would you include?

What I'd propose would look something like this:
  • Unit 1: Introduction, What Is Design and Why Do You Care?
  • Unit 2: Audience (User) Analysis: Who are your users? What are their wants and needs? What can you assume about them? What shouldn't you assume about them?; Bias; How to find out
  • Unit 3: Information architecture and management for code, UI, and documentation
  • Unit 4: Documentation: Commenting and in-code documentation; User and peripheral documentation; Web documentation; documentation design
  • Unit 5: UI Design Issues: Consistency (ordered lists, menus, workalikes, labels, navigation controls, buttons), Layout, feature placement
  • Unit 6: International Issues in Design: Design for translation, localisation, language bias, interface bloopers, Basic English
  • Unit 7: Metaphorics, Analogy, and Software Design: Introduction to metaphorics, metaphorics and user analysis, metaphorics and assumptions, critical analysis. Assignment: Critique an application using metaphorics principles learned in class (instructor approved topic), 15%.
  • Unit 8: Troubleshooting Design Problems Before they Happen: Avoiding common problems (yak-shaving, inconsistencies, typos, the Comprehensible Only If Known problem), user acceptance testing with a design focus. Assignment: Using the application from the last assignment, devise a simple testing scenario to evaluate a design feature. 10%
  • Final Assignment: Subject to instructor approval of the application/critique, prepare a critique of a well-known application using at least three of the principles discussed in the course. Max. length 3500 words, 35%, include screenshots.

Note: I know that's only 70% of the total mark accounted for; I'm assuming 10% attendance and 20% in 5% five-finger exercises, or a midterm exam or something...

Interface Blooper Example: I still remember from grad school, doing an analysis of Netscape as it appeared in four different languages, and finding that in German, what was then the "Guide" button in English was "Guide" in the German version as well. A quick trip to the English-German dictionary showed why -- according to that dictionary, anyway, the standard German word for "Guide" is "Fuhrer." *headdesk*

I can hear Eth's feet whistling as he descends from 30 000 feet to jump all over me for that, but I'm just reporting what that particular dictionary said, and obviously it was of some concern, since they'd left the button untranslated (as far as we could tell).


Journal Journal: The Case of the Bus-Driving Genius and the Melanoma Bandages 3

I have a friend who is possibly the world's most intelligent schoolbus driver. He is, literally, one of these mind-blowing geniuses (in fact, he once was asked to go to a research university in the US so they could recalibrate an intelligence test for people with freakishly high IQs); driving a bus is just what he does for a living.

He has a lot of unusual hobbies, however, like foiling abductions, becoming an official Friend of the Court in the Province of Ontario, and now, conducting a barefoot epidemiology.

You see, a while back he noticed that he was seeing a lot of people at work who were wearing those distinctive "melanoma bandages," indicating that they'd either had biopsies or lesions/suspicious spots removed. He started counting. He figured out that in six months, he'd seen 110 people in the office at his workplace, and of that 110 people, he'd observed 11 wearing melanoma bandages.

According to Health Canada, aggregate incidence statistics for the population he would be looking at (generally between age 30 and 65), are 18.28 per 100 000 (mean data), or 0.1828 percent.

Process Note: To derive these figures, I took the incidence data per 100 000 in the tables on that web page, selected for the cohort between 30 and 65, and then took the mean of the data. Afterwards, I divided the incidence rate per 100 000 by 1000 to obtain the incidence rate as a percentage. Please feel free to critique my math or my methodology, since although I'm not completely ignorant of statistics (it's the one branch of math I can do reasonably well), I will not claim to have even average math chops.

No matter which way you want to slice and dice those numbers, statistically speaking, they're adding up. My friend is now working with an epidemiologist with the federal government who specialises in cancer clusters. (He likes that she's a postdoc or another form of newly-minted PhD.).

To fill in a bit more of the background detail, there are environmental factors at work. Most of the people who drive schoolbuses in this area are otherwise rather outdoorsy (as Ed says, "You have to like the outdoors to drive a bus, since you're in it so much.") -- they're often farmers who are supplementing their income; most of them are men (who have a slightly higher melanoma rate to begin with, especially on the upper body), and most are between 30 and 65, as I mentioned.

As Ed remarked, "If any other profession showed this kind of a cancer cluster, they'd regulate the hell out of it." Well, maybe they will, now that they know about it. (I'm not so sure it's directly professionally-related, but we'll see what happens.)

We already know that melanoma rates are going up, likely because of a combination of 60 years of collective tan-fetish and the thinning of the ozone layer. However, I'm writing this to make (yet again) a plea that people be mindful and pay attention to trends that they might notice around them. Who knows what you might find out? As Yogi Berra was once credited with saying, "You can learn a lot just by observing." (People mock him for it, but it's actually quite profound, if you think about it.)

I mentioned the story to Rustin, and he said, "You really should write this up as a journal entry. You really are the IGCU*, because you see this stuff, and you notice it; your blog entries have the potential to make a lot of people aware of stuff long before it hits the news." I do think things like this are quite significant in a number of different ways. I also think it's important to chronicle them and disseminate the information so other people can learn and contribute.

* For "Inter Geek Communications Unit," which, as he says, is because I function as kind of a nexus between a whole bunch of (groups of) geeks, and pass information through. Not only that, but I'm a huge clearinghouse of information myself. I just wish more people would tap into the resources I have available...

Journal Journal: The Environmentally-Friendly Angel in the Off-the-Grid House 3

This interesting paper by Sherilyn MacGregor looks at the way much of "environmental citizenship" involves making lifestyle changes that inevitably (I blame the patriarchy) wind up increasing the amount of uncompensated labour expected of (primarily) women. Since, by and large, women still do the majority of family, relationship and household maintenance tasks (many while holding down full- or part-time jobs outside the home), many of the most frequently-touted "personal changes" we hear about guessed it, more work for women (generally).

Switch to cloth diapers? Great, but someone, probably mommy, winds up swamping out diaper pails (you could not pay me enough) and running the washing machine all those extra times.

Switch to environmentally friendly, biodegradable cleaning products? Also great, but someone, most likely the female someone who does most of the household shopping and provisioning, has to first find and buy such products (which, with the exception of vinegar-and-water, are not readily available at every grocery store here), and then apply the extra elbow grease they all seem to require.

Switch from sending Lunchables to school with Sally and Junior to packing brown-bag lunches? Definitely more environmentally friendly (and you can recycle those paper bags, too!), but someone has to make sure lunch-fixings are in the house, and someone has to pack lunches. (When I was a kid, past a certain age, I fixed my own lunch, but that's basically unreasonable below the age of about eight or so.)

Give up the second car in favour of public transportation, walking, or biking? An excellent idea, except that who's likely to find their daily commute prioritised, especially in an unequal relationship dynamic (all too common) where the male partner works full-time outside the home and the female partner works only part-time outside the home or not at all? (Judging by the experiences of friends of mine with children -- and this story by BitchPhD, I'd say it makes more practical sense to let unencumbered Hubby take the bus/train/subway/streetcar/bike and the errand-runner and schlepper of kids take the car...but that, too often, isn't what happens.)

Take up making "Slow Food"? Someone has to spend all those hours searching for the perfect raw ingredients and then spend even more hours preparing and cooking that stuff. One thing "Slow Food" proponents forget, I think, is that it's hard to savour a meal on which you've just put in four or five solid hours of back-breaking, persnicketty work.

Take up shopping locally? Watch the amount of time and effort you spend sourcing and buying food quadruple, and the amount of money you spend easily double, and that's assuming you're shopping around and bartering when you can. That has to come out of someone's time and effort budget...

All of which basically conspires to put straight, partnered women who want to be more environmentally conscious in a kind of a bind -- taking up a more environmentally friendly lifestyle will almost certainly result in a loss of quality of life for them, in terms of the amount of free time they have (cooking meals that take four hours of steady work to prepare does rather cut into the amount of time in the day one might have to, oh, say, be publically involved, or visit friends, or catch up on one's reading) and the amount of work they have to do to maintain their households. It also denotationally represents a huge regression in terms of the lifestyle afforded to women -- a return to the primacy of the home-making role as key to the maintenance of the personal environment; a very Victorian "Angel in the House" concept, if you ask me.

This problem is, of course, a lot simpler for unpartnered people (of either sex) who have no children, because it is significantly likely to be more their decision to do or not to do (social pressure and acculturation notwithstanding) whatever they want/feel like/have time for/have money for. Add in a relationship where there's a power dynamic drawn across gender lines, and it gets significantly more complex in a big hurry. Add children to that relational power dynamic, and the complexity goes off the scale. I think this is a very important issue that more people should be talking about, especially people like me, and Rustin, who are proponents of sustainable/communitarian/off-the-grid living and so on. Regardless of the environmental benefits, a green lifestyle built on egregious gender inequality is as unsustainable in the long term as rampant consumerism (for reasons that have been adequately documented elsewhere, but not excluding financial dependence, backlash against social pressure, and out-of-control authoritarianism based on gender hierarchies).

I'm not entirely certain whether you could say of women as a class that taking this sort of self-ceding action is an exactly uncoerced choice, either -- women are socialised from birth to sacrifice their own well-being for that of others, and there is already a considerable amount of social pressure to do these things for the greater good, but why (I blame the patriarchy) must the vast bulk of the giving-up, doing-without, and labour-intensive alternative living happen because of the uncompensated labour of women?

As I've been saying for years, it's equally shitty to be a reactionary git because it's good for the trees as for any of the usual reasons...

Update: Fixed a thinko, and thought of something else, based on a discussion of wedding planning and Emily Post at Pandagon. Seems to me that a lot of these lifestyle traditionalists who prize things like home-cooked meals and houses cleaned without the convenience of modern chemicals forget that for the majority of people in particularly the 19th Century, but also in other historical periods, where there was a household to be run, there was also hired help. Lots of it. To maintain a similar quality of life to a modern household using late-Victorian technology, you'd need a staff of seven, at least. (This probably explains why women haven't really seen a decline in the amount of housework they do, or feel obligated to do, since the 1920s, despite the proliferation of labour-saving devices. The labour-saving devices have replaced the scullery maid, the housemaid, the butler, the lady's-maid, the housekeeper, and the cook, putting the onus on one person and technology to do what used to be the work of six. I don't even want to get into the idea of rising culturally-imposed standards facilitated by technology, but I will venture the opinion that modern people have more and cleaner clothes and larger and cleaner houses than their ancestors of 120 years ago.) The thing is, technology is not really going to operate your mop or vacuum cleaner for you, wet-dry Roombas notwithstanding. Nor is it going to load your dishwasher (if you have one), load and run your washing machine, and put away the laundry afterward. There are a lot of "collateral" tasks that wind up needing to be done...and redone...and done again after that.

The difference being, in the 19th Century, the heads of the household paid people to do these things. A labour-intensive eco-friendly lifestyle is an awful lot of for-free expended in service to the commonweal, possibly to the detriment of the person doing the work.

This is not, of course, to argue against being environmentally friendly, but on the other hand, I'd like to see people lose a little bit of the rockstar, back-to-the-land glitz, since it's a lot of hard work -- and if they're the male half of a heterosexual couple, they may not even be aware of how much work it really is (I blame the patriarchy), since a good deal of the work is basically invisible, uncompensated, "women's" work.

In short, be mindful, because your environmentally-conscious lifestyle might actually require you to have a consciousness-raising of an entirely other sort.

Journal Journal: Straw Poll: Do Technical Writers *Do* That? 8

In my current job, and in several of my past jobs, a significant portion of my time (say, as much as 20%) is finding inconsistencies/typos in the interface, noting and logging them, and tracking crashes and runtime errors and what I did to produce them. (In my current job, they've decided to use my method of error logging in their fix cases now!) An example of finding a typo in an interface would be noting and logging an incorrect apostrophe usage in a menu item ("Copy another suppliers' setup"), or finding an inconsistency would be noting that some fields refer to an item by one term and other fields refer to the same item by another term (in the current application, we're having a persistent problem with switching the term "Dealer" over to "Ship To" and standardising the abbreviation for "Purchase Order" to "PO" not "P.O." or "Po." (Incidentally, I've seen the abbreviation used both the two former ways on the same tab in the application.)

Is this normal tech-writing kind of stuff (once a copy-editor, always a pain in the ass), or have I really and truly crossed over into testing (or what)?

Incidentally, this is why I think there should be a separate job title for someone who copy-edits the text in a UI.
Linux Business

Journal Journal: Anyone looking for a Linux Sysadmin Job? 2

I know of two that are open right now. One is in the Washington DC area and requires an on-site presence, and the other is a telecommuting or on-site job located in southern California. There's also a Linux sysadmin internship available at the latter one, too.

If interested, leave me a comment with contact info, and I'll send the information.

Journal Journal: Information Overload: I need a library catalogue system 11

I have realised that I am suffering from information overload, especially pertaining to the streetcar project, which encompasses 500+ electronic documents, several books, a collection of internet bookmarks, various photographs, two videocassettes, some e-mails, and various other stuff. I am starting to realise that I need a database of some sort. A program like Library Master is looking good -- if expensive -- since I also have a digital library of over 10K items, and a personal hardcopy library of over 2000 items I'd like to catalogue. Since it's getting to the point where one single throwaway reference in some obscure 40 year old trade journal is actually a significant puzzle piece to me, I sort of need all this stuff indexed by keyword. Not all these things have indices! And I'm actually willing to do the scary amounts of data entry required. After all, once it's done, it's done, and the catchup work is negligible.

A sample information schema or record entry in my hypothetical database would look like this:

Keywords: Antitrust, EMD (Electro-Motive Division, Electro-Motive Company)
Source: "Is EMD a Monopoly?", Trains, June, 1961
Pages: 6, 11
Authors: Unknown
Notes: diesel locomotives, NY grand jury, indictment, repower, re-engine, Sherman Act, freight traffic, 12M tons/$211M waybills/1st 9 mos of 1959, market share, competitors out of business, percentage of diesels sold

I'm tempted to buy a copy of FileMaker Pro, although it's also rather expensive, since I know that one can easily set up fields in it that are string-searchable very easily (I've used it before to manage a database of ~1000 address/contact information labels, back when I was doing targeted e-mails to schools in South Asia).

Is there anything comparable that I can get for significantly less money (like, optimally, none)? If I spend $250-400 of my research budget on software to manage my information, that's less money that I have for source materials.

Please don't suggest Base, which comes with OpenOffice. I've tried using it already, and, unless you can get the Form Designer walking and talking (I can't, and the documentation is beyond bad -- Hey, OO documentation team! Screenshots, maybe? Got a bit of a Comprehensible Only If Known Problem going on, too!!*), the fields aren't as customiseable as I need. What I want is exactly what I've shown above, and I'm not willing to compromise on organization, since I know how I search for things (by important concepts or keywords), and I pretty much guarantee that would get me the results I want, 99.9% of the time.

* One of these days, once I no longer have seventeen other projects on the go, I'm going to sign on to the OO documentation team.

Journal Journal: "And Where Would *We* Like to Go Today?" 4

Discourse Analytics Notes on Microsoft Design Guidelines

I've been here before.

A coworker e-mailed me a link to "How To Design a Great User Experience," which appears on the MSDN site. (They've helpfully abbreviated it in some places as "How To Design a Great UX." The Great and Powerful UX has Spoken! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.)

This stuff is, in general, really great (if basic) design advice.

If only Microsoft would take it themselves.

You could fisk* this entire article down to the subatomic particles, but I'm really only going to pick on seven of their 17 main points, the ones that offend me the most.

#1. Nail the basics.
Creeping featuritis. Do I really need to say any more?

#3. Don't be all things to all people.
Of course, Microsoft doesn't want you, the application developer, to be all things to all people, because it's too busy solidifying its cartel status in the OS and core application market -- that is, becoming all things to all people itself -- to want anyone to horn into its market share. You could almost say that Microsoft has a corporate philosophy of trying to be all things to all people. (Tie this in to my later point about the word "enable.")

#7. Make it just work.
This is truly a laudable goal, which wouldn't be quite so laughable if anything that came from Microsoft "just worked" outside of a user space roughly the size of a breadbox. "just working" in the Microsoft paradigm is often "Do it our way, and you won't get hurt."

#10. Make it a pleasure to see. This doubtless explains the Windows XP default interface, which only a colourblind person or a four year old with a huge collection of Duplo blocks could love. Actually, personally, I think this is a misstated goal entirely. I don't think an interface should be "a pleasure to see." I don't want to take pleasure in the interface; I want to not notice it 99% of the time. Granted, since a lot of that is habituation, the design goal for a UI should be Make it unobtrusive. (That's an awfully big word for this document, though.)

#11. Keep it simple.
It would be a bad design document if it didn't mention the "KISS Principle" at least once. However, in terms of user interface design, especially in applications (operating systems are an entirely other matter, kaff kaff), I think it's more important to achieve clarity than simplicity. Complex applications generally do not (and should not) have simple interfaces, but there's nothing saying that a complex interface can't be clear. (Terrible precision of language in this document, don't you think?) Perhaps I'll go into more detail about this sometime, as it's threatening to become an entire article on its own.

#15. Don't be annoying.
This one broke my irony meter and exploded the top off my head, all at the same time. Question for Microsoft: If you know this, why don't you practice it?! It took you bloody damn long enough to shoot the paperclip (and I notice there's still an "Office Assistant" on new copies of Word). Your paradigm is notorious for the "Oh! You said 'Do X,' you must mean 'Do Y'!" problem. In the name of making things easier for novice users -- how many completely novice users of Windows do you think there are left in the world?! -- you've implemented things that you've purposely made difficult to turn off and ignore (Automatic Updates, for example) that drive the rest of us nuts. Perhaps you might want to reconsider your design paradigm in terms of relative annoyingness?

#16. Reduce effort, knowledge, and thought.
While I agree with most of the actual concrete suggestions given as bullet points under this tip, the phrasing of the tip itself makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I am always in favour of increasing the user's knowledge and thought, although I advocate gentle learning curves wherever possible. Engaged, thoughtful users help you create better products in the long run, through constructive feedback. Taken as a semantic entity, this tip is just a little too close to the prevailing Microsoft dumb-down for comfort. Don't dumb down, smarten up!

A Further Terminological Note: In the next document in the series, called "Powerful and Simple," the writer explains "our definition of power" (in application terms) thusly:

An application is powerful when it enables its target users to realize their full potential efficiently. Thus, the ultimate measure of power is productivity, not the number of features. Different users need help in achieving their full potential in different ways.

Someone walked right into a connotational minefield here, mostly dealing with pop psychology and certain social situations. As I remarked earlier, I've been here before.

You can pretty much tell they were itching to use the word "empower" there, but it got scrapped in favour of the quasi-synonymic "enable." That particular word, however, conjures up some pretty scary connotations that are rather apropos to Microsoft itself, that of the codependent relationship. Microsoft depends on its user base, and they depend on it (not too many tech writing jobs using Linux or Mac these days), but the relationship is abusive at best. You see, they'll get you all sorts of cool toys (like that application-by-application volume control everyone's raving about in Vista), but smack you around with an ugly-ass UI full of DRM and phone-home features, and then get in your face about it when you complain -- "Whaddaya gonna do, switch? Yeah, go ahead and try it, bitch."

I'm also bristling a bit at the "need help achieving their full potential" phrasing, since the other place (besides Microsoft design manifestos) I hear that phrase a lot is in dealing with programmes and services for disabled people. Usually the kinds of programmes and services for disabled people where the staff ask their adult clients, "And how are we today?" *golf clap* Nicely done. I'd shudder to think what kind of a picture of Joe and Jane Averageuser this Microserf has in his/her head. And if that doesn't tell you practically everything you need to know about Microsoft's attitude towards UI design, as revealed subliminally (or sub rosa) by its discourse, I can't help you.

* Dismantle point-by-point, in the style of adversarial journalist Robert Fisk

Journal Journal: It's really real! It also has lots of links in it! 5

Reed and Wright Goes Live: Rustin has managed to get his posters picked up by a major distributor for that kind of thing -- go check out the DIY Manifesto and the US Military Chronology! He's also put up a bunch of new stuff on his website, which looks really cool. If I could link images, I'd show you directly what's on this page, which is a cool watercolour painting of Rustin!

Call Me Bug Barbecue: Starting fairly soon, I'm going to be switching jobs slightly, going from straight technical writing to a combination of technical writing and testing. I guess all those bug reports I've submitted have paid off. I'm actually really happy about this, because I decided a while ago that testing was probably the logical next step in my career.

Coming Attractions and Links and Things: I'm planning on writing a musicological analysis of visual-auditory synaesthesia that I'll be posting here, and I'm also thinking about writing an entry on my blog about television broadcast signal intrusion, called "Nihilists on the Airwaves." (Also, speaking of broadcast signal intrusions real and otherwise, if someone can de-freak me from stumbling onto the "Wyoming Incident" videos, I'd truly appreciate it. Thanks in advance.)

Speaking of videos, I'm truly enjoying some of the stuff that's currently on YouTube, like:

Heck No! (I'll Never Listen to Techno) by Maldroid, because if the robots win, we'll have to listen to techno...

Becoming Insane and Suliman (music only), two tracks from Infected Mushroom's forthcoming album Vicious Delicious. (I really love Infected Mushroom's synths and instrument choices; they have great colours.)

They Don't Do A Lot of Drugs at UWaterloo; They Don't Need To: Speaking of synaesthesia, those of you with the common form of synaesthesia (the letters-and-numbers-are-colours form) should check out the University of Waterloo's (my school!) Synaesthesia Research Group's genetics study. Are you synaesthesiac? Do you have a synaesthesiac family member? Better yet, are there any of you synaesthesiac Slashdotters who've gotten together with another synaesthesiac and had kids?! They're looking for you... I'd sign up because I'm relatively local, but I'm not genetically related to my family, so I don't have any information they'd need. Bah. Oh well, I'll read their papers, although they seem to focus almost exclusively on what they call "digit-colour" synaesthesia (which I suppose is more testable than "sound-colour" synaesthesia). I'm still trying to figure out how digit-colour synaesthetes manage to read without being overwhelmed. I think it would cut down my reading speed. Anybody got any input on that?

Journal Journal: The Gold-Plated, Ruby-Encrusted Dog Turd Revisited 2

A couple of weeks ago, I got an offer I couldn't refuse. A company wanted to hire me to go work on a technical writing contract here in town -- the site is only about six blocks from my house, although with this Alberta Clipper we've been having lately, I'm still taking the bus.

I tried to talk them into buying Help&Manual, really I did.

But nooo, they had to go with the so-called "industry standard," RoboHelp.

Astute readers will recall that I just had a run-in with RoboHelp, and I actually just bought my own copy about six weeks ago (on 10 December exactly, actually), which set me back a hefty punch-in-the-gut $1300 CDN, accounting for the exchange rate. Ouch.

Today, I went to Adobe to download the demo so I could actually get started writing on the project. Well, guess what. They have a new version out! Six weeks and my copy is already one version behind. Naturally, the good people at Adobe are more than willing to help, by supplying me with an upgrade, for the truly nominal fee of $499 US.

Keep in mind they also didn't think to tell me that there would be a release out within weeks.

Not only that, but in the new version, the demo is broken (unlike how it was in the previous version). You can only create so many help topics, and if you do create a project and then test-compile it, an ugly red notice saying something like "THIS FILE WAS CREATED WITH A DEMO VERSION OF ROBOHELP AND IS FOR EVALUATION PURPOSES ONLY. NOT TO BE USED FOR ANY OTHER PURPOSE" at the bottom of each topic.

Thanks a lot, you chiselling bastards.

Not only that, but the new release seems buggy and slow.

You'd better believe I'm going to be recommending Help&Manual to all my future clients. "You don't really want RoboHelp -- it's a money sink. It's also buggy and slow. People are going to be migrating away from it, most probably"...

...especially if I have anything to say about it.
The Internet

Journal Journal: Those Poor Stupid Bastards 5

In my other life as a blogger, I have this friend who calls himself "Spocko." He used to run this amazing blog called Spocko's Brain, where he chronicled the rhetorical excesses of the radio screamers on KSFO in San Francisco, complete with audio clips. Well, Disney, who owns KSFO, got a little miffed about that, and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Spocko's ISP, who promptly pulled the plug on Spocko's page.

These people don't get it, do they? Years after the creation of sites like The Smoking Gun, The Cigarette Papers, Tobacco Control Online, and The Memory Hole, they're still trying to intimidate through damage. And we all know what the Internet at large thinks of damage...

Anyhow, here's Spocko in his own words:

ABC Radio Lawyer tells Spocko to Shut Up

Three days before Christmas I got a Cease and Desist letter from ABC Radio regarding my use of audio clips from KSFO radio hosts Melanie Morgan and Lee Rogers on my blog, Spocko's Brain.

KSFO is a Disney affiliate whose radio hosts broadcast violent rhetoric directed toward journalists, liberals, Democrats, Arabs and Muslims all over the SF Bay Area and to the world via the Internet. I commented about the content of these host's broadcasts on my blog and informed KSFO's advertisers about what they were supporting by letting them listen to the exact audio quotes from the hosts.

Why the C&D Letter Now?

In mid-December I got confirmation that a major national advertiser, VISA, pulled their ads from the Melanie Morgan and Lee Rogers show, based on listening to audio clips I provided them. I also think that FedEx, AT&T and Kaiser are considering pulling their ads. Visa isn't the first advertiser who has left KSFO, multiple advertisers have left the station, especially from the Brian Sussman show. In July of this year when KSFO lost MasterCard as an advertiser someone from KSFO "outed" me on a counter-blog (which I won't link to). This same person has also threatened me with local and federal criminal action for using the audio (which I clearly used under the fair use portion of copyright law). And because they have suggested violence toward me (in addition to talking about suing me "for everything I have") I have chosen to remain anonymous. [You can't check this because Spocko's blog is now down, but I will personally vouch for having seen the violent and inflammatory comments made by that person, and in fact, corrected them at length on the legal definition of "defamation," which they were apparently too arrogant or lazy (or both) to look up. -- ?!]

As Thers has said, 95 percent of blog fights don't mean anything, but I think this one does since KSFO is using the full weight and force of an ABC/Disney lawyer and copyright law against a private citizen blogger. I dared to use the audio content in question for nonprofit educational purposes (I don't even have ads on my blog!), and thus under the protection of the Fair Use Doctrine set forth in Section 107 of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C.107.

It's about Money not Ideology

Talk Radio is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is also a regulated industry because the public gave the broadcast airwaves to radio stations. There are rules. First there are FCC rules with fines of $325,000 for obscene and indecent speech, thanks to the Christian Right. Interestingly, the radio union (which KSFO hosts hate so much) worked very hard to stop those fines from being directed to individual radio hosts. So the corporation will bear the burden of any fines. Next, there are guidelines at the local station level, the network level and the parent company level. So even if the inciting of violence and hate speech is ignored by the FCC, the continued violent rhetoric has been, and continues to be, approved at the station level (KSFO) the group level (KGO-KSFO) the company level (ABC Radio) and the parent company level (Disney). They are ALL aware of this speech, and because they have not acted in a meaningful way, they all are giving approval for it to continue.

No Management Action

When Keith Olbermann and Media Matters ran Melanie Morgan's comments [In no small part, I think, because of the yeoman's work our Spocko has done in publicising Morgan et al and their speech habits. -- ?!] about "putting the bull's-eye on" Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, management did nothing. Morgan did a jokey non-apology where she never even mentioned she used the term bull's-eye.

I'm guessing Lee Rogers may have gotten a memo telling him to stop talking about burning people alive, torturing them and blowing their brains out, because on November 30th, he defiantly said to management and advertisers, "Nobody is gonna tell me what to talk about or not talk about or in what fashion on this radio program. It ain't gonna happen!"

ABC/Disney acted only when they lost revenue. Then they went after ME with a cease and desist letter.

Why me? I'm not the one saying journalists should be hanged, thieves should be tortured and killed, people should be burned alive, stomped to death or have their testicles cut off. I'm not the one saying that millions of Muslims should be killed on the presumption that they are extremists or just because they live in Indonesia. I'm not the one who says that lying is as natural as breathing to Egyptians and Arabs or demanding that a caller "Say Allah is a Whore" to prove he is not an Islamist. I'm simply documenting this speech and providing it to the people who are paying KSFO hosts on commercially supported broadcast radio.

They have Lawyers, Guns and Money. I've got a 5th tier blog and no money
[Technically, this is not true. Right now, Spocko has no blog and no money. But what he does have is space on a tenth-tier blog, and, more importantly, a tidal wave of publicity. -- ?!]

Because I and some other listeners hit right-wing talk radio in the pocket book, they are acting like wounded animals and brought out the big guns, Corporate Lawyers. Am I scared? Hell yes. They can easily squish me like a bug and tie me up in legal battles for the rest of my natural life (and Vulcans live a long time), not to mention that unlike KSFO radio hosts, I'm not getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars and generating millions of revenue for a multibillion-dollar parent company. If I pursue this further I expect the next step is a "CyberSLAPP" suit.

I don't want to consider the possibility of Morgan's good friend Michelle Malkin deciding to publish my address and real name so that her minions can send me death threats or "white powder" in the mail. Chad Castagana, was charged with mailing more than a dozen threatening letters containing white powder to liberals. He got the idea from someone that journalists, liberals and democrats were the enemy and deserved to die.

Brian Sussman proudly poses with his handgun in KSFO publicity shots and says that he thinks that everyone should have the right to have a machine gun. Maybe I'm over reacting, why would they attack me? I'm not famous, I'm not an elected official, I tried very hard to be accurate about what THEY said BY USING THEIR OWN WORDS.

I tried to help companies protect their brands from being tainted with the violent rhetoric and anti-any-religion-but-right-wing-christianism speech. I wanted to help the VPs of marketing avoid being associated with Lee Roger's "testicle talk" or Sussman talking about cutting off a finger and a penis of an Iraqi in his imaginary torture sessions.

It's about Brands: All the Blessings, None of the Taint

I have found out that KSFO is sold to advertisers as "a Disney affiliate" with all the associated family-friendly connotations. So KSFO is getting all the benefit of the Disney name as well as the massive infrastructure of ad sales at the national level. Clearly ABC Radio doesn't want KSFO hosts' horrific comments to actually reach advertisers. Advertisers are kept in the dark so KSFO can benefit from the Disney brand glow (ABC Radio News creditability glow?).

Advertisers should be able to decide if they want to keep supporting this show based on complete information. We already know that management at ABC and Disney support these hosts, which means that the ABC/Disney Radio brand now apparently includes support for violent hate speech toward Muslims, democrats and liberals.

But instead of directing the hosts to refrain from violent rhetoric and hate speech, they go after the weakest person with the fewest resources. It's cheaper and easier.

Bottom line: ABC/Disney is supporting and profiting from this violent speech, they should at least also accept any negative connotations or financial impact it might have to their image.

What can you do?

1) As El Gato Negro [of Online BlogIntegrity] suggested, let's distribute the audio clips of violent rhetoric and hate speech to multiple locations on the Internet so that the ABC/Disney lawyers will have to find and send cease and desist letters to ISPs with stronger policies than the nice people at 1&1.

2) Crank this up around the blogosphere/internet, if you have a blog or site, please post about this.

3) Let's see if anyone in the mainstream media cares. Sadly they have a hard time writing about people who want them dead. I would think that at least the PUBLISHERS and MANAGEMENT at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associate Press would want to at least defend their own journalists and photojournalists. To date only the LA Times has called Morgan out for accusing them of photojournalist misconduct.

Some members of the press HAVE covered this. When Joe Conason at Salon did a story about Morgan and KSFO [in which Spocko was mentioned -- ?!] he got called a hack by Morgan. When Todd Milbourn of the Sacramento Bee did a story about Move America Forward he got called a liar by Morgan.

4) Donate to groups who would defend bloggers, journalists and others that Morgan, Rogers and Sussman attack. Specifically I'm recommending you donate money to the Electronic Frontier Foundation [which has, incidentally, provided Spocko with some legal advice, so all the more reason to donate -- ?!], the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Media Matters.

You can also support the journalists who are doing their jobs and are threatened with death from talk radio hosts.

5) Write the advertisers of KSFO. I have a list of SOME of the advertisers who advertise on KSFO. Drop me a line at spockosemail @ and I'll send you a link to an updated list.

As always, be polite, let them know what they are supporting and how it is impacting their brand in your eyes. They often times have their own stated values that they want to maintain, you may want to ask if their corporate values align with what is being said on KSFO (often times the hosts are the VOICE of their brand in the Bay Area, so it's not just the fact that their ad is run right after some violent hate speech, but that the person who is reading their copy is the person who is spewing the violent rhetoric.)

I'm open to other ideas too.

I'd like to thank everyone who has written letters to advertisers, especially PTcruiser, BP and Zeno. Thanks to Interrobang and Blog-Integrity folks for the forum, and special thanks to El Gato Negro.

LLAP, Spocko

There you have it, folks.

I'd just like to reiterate to readers that if you do send nastygrams to any of the offending companies (and some of them are very offensive), be polite and professional. Thank you.

Update: BoingBoing has picked this up as well, here, and the original audio clips are here.


Journal Journal: My Teeny Tiny Technical Writer-Dick 3

I admit it. Not only do I not have very many tools, most of the ones I do have aren't very big, and damn, I don't even know how to use the big ones very well.

(Get your minds out of the gutter. The big ones, in this case, would be MS Word and FrameMaker...)

I'm a Help&Manual kind of girl, generally, and when I'm just futzing around with text, I like, well, text, and anything word-processory I want to do strictly for my own use, I tend to do in OpenOffice. The first genuine word processor I ever used was WordPerfect, so even though I haven't used WordPerfect in five or six years, I still feel like using Word is the equivalent to beating one's head against the bus map taped to one's office wall. (It's convenient to my chair, for ease of exasperation.)

Right now, I'm trying to learn RoboHelp Word, because that's what I'm using for the new project. I did a tutorial on RoboHelp HTML, which looks pretty easy -- it looks basically the same as Help&Manual, only with some feeping creaturitis. Pobody's nerfect.

RoboHelp Word is giving me fits. It uses a lot of advanced Word functions, and that's fucking me up, too. Compared to the average-Word-user-on-the-street, I can make Word walk and talk, and sit up and beg. For a technical writer, my MS Word skills aren't very good -- I don't use styles all that much, I try not to use templates, I don't know how to generate a table of contents (though I can generate an index -- both of these things are much easier in FrameMaker!), I don't do macros, and I'm generally of the opinion that simply because a bell or whistle exists doesn't mean one needs to use it.

My document designs tend to be on the Spartan side. On the plus side, many, many people have complimented me on how simple and easy-to-read my documents are, so there is method to my madness.

The previous author on this document obviously did not share my "simple is good" philosophy. There are, for instance, over 140 styles in the master document I'm working on. (I think one hundred forty three, but I could have messed up my count by a couple.) *sigh*

They tell me that the next project I do for them (assuming I live that long), I'll be building the documentation from scratch. I hope they're not expecting something mind-bogglingly complex, because they're not bloody likely to get it.

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"Open the pod bay doors, HAL." -- Dave Bowman, 2001