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User Journal

Journal Journal: Circular Refuge on reddit 5

It's a happening place. There are upwards of 3, maybe 4 posts a day!
You should join us, if you like.

(message mods to join; can't let the riffraff on reddit in! Just our very own special riffraff.)

User Journal

Journal Journal: Annual check in 15

Hey, Slashdot was instrumental in finding Twue Wuv for me, so I couldn't possibly leave it forever. The 14 day comment limit, however, is unfortunate for those of us who stop by only every 6-9 months. :^)

I have read your updates and am interested in your lives and would love to leave a comment expressing as much.

So, hey, Red5, congratulations on the marriage and baby and stuff! And all the other babies that have happened in the past 5 years or so for everybody else! And marriages! And diplomas! And new jobs! And sorry/congrats about the divorces!


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.
United States

Journal Journal: New federal "security" regs on hundreds of common chemicals 3

Big brother is at it again. The Department of Homeland Security is issuing new regulations requiring reporting on, and guarding of, hundreds of common chemicals with "terrorist applications" (such as propane, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine, ...). This impacts farms, universities, industries from pool supplies to medicine to janitorial, small business, startups, and the general public.

Wireless Networking

Journal Journal: Total bandwidth with MIMO and "smart antennas" 5

A thread in the Slashdot article The 700MHz Question drifted into a discussion between me and rcw-home/rcw-work on using multiple antennas to synthesyze multiple patterns. This allows a particular hunk of bandwidth to be reused to generate several full-bandwidth links simultaneously - either between a base station and several remote stations or even between the base station and a single remote station that itself has multiple antennas.

The thread is beginning to horzon out on my user info history. So this journal entry is a new venue for its continuation after rcw-*'s most recent post.

I'll respond to that after he posts here to indicate that he's also making the move.


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...

...you know they have seen you.

...you have memorised their license plate.

...you 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 involve...you 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.

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"Trust me. I know what I'm doing." -- Sledge Hammer