Saturday, May 14, 2005

Perry Carp

When I started this entry, I thought it was about popcorn. It's actually about geeks and popcorn.

A few weeks ago, several us were standing around talking at work, when someone mentioned she had heard that researchers had figured out why some popcorn kernals don't pop. Every single one of us knew what she was talking about:

...the key factor that appears to influence popping quality is the chemical structure of the pericarp, or outer hull.... During heating, the corn pericarp acts like a pressure cooker that locks moisture inside the corn kernel. The heated moisture leads to a pressure buildup until the kernel eventually ruptures and pops, essentially turning the kernel inside out and producing the fluffy white product that we eat. (source: Science Daily)

Better pericarp, fewer old maids. Simple as that.

I won't get into the research issues -- whether it is strange that people study the hull strength of popcorn -- others are much more qualified than I about that subject. But what about the fact that my coworkers all knew about the findings of people who study the hull strength of popcorn?

I haven't done a rigorous scientific study on this, unlike the popcornists, but I believe that maintaining a mental roster of relatively useless facts is a well-known trait among geeks (it's probably a trait among pericarpenters, too) . But the kicker for those who work with software, at least on the development side of the house, is to bring up those facts at inappropriate moments.

Moments like this one. Um. Okay. Gotta go.

Double Chocolate Popcorn Balls!

All hail to the Popcorn Board (striving "to raise the awareness of U.S. popcorn.")

Thursday, May 12, 2005

See the Ads, Tuppence A Bag...

For those of you who despair that there's just way too much stuff on the Web.

Install the Google Content Blocker.
And sing along with me...

Sung to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from the movie "Mary Poppins."
Play the tune for me, please!

Um diddle diddle diddle, um diddle ay
Um diddle diddle diddle, um diddle ay
All because the subject matter's
Never what you wanted.
Now the stuff is really gone,
And you can surf undaunted.

Um diddle diddle diddle, um diddle ay
Um diddle diddle diddle, um diddle ay
Because all of the text obscured
Most of the lovely ads.
An interstitial popped-up quick,
To help me with the fads.
But then one toolbar I installed,
It saved me so much time.
All of the content was forestalled,
The rest was quite sublime.

All because the subject matter's
Never what you wanted.
Now the stuff is really gone,
And you can surf undaunted.

Um diddle diddle diddle, um diddle ay
Um diddle diddle diddle, um diddle ay
I clicked and surfed around the Net,
And everywhere I went.
I'd use the toolbar and would see
The absence of content.
A site with Flash or JavaScript
Is not to a me a shock.
Because my browser's well equipped,
With Google Content Block.

All because the subject matter's
Never what you wanted.
Now the stuff is really gone,
And you can surf undaunted.

Um diddle diddle diddle, um diddle ay
Um diddle diddle diddle, um diddle ay
So when the content's in the way,
There's no need to shut down.
Just summon up the blocker,
And you'll never see a noun.
But better use it carefully,
As no doubt you'll see.
One night I clicked upon my blog,
And now I'm content free!


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Have You Heard of ID Theft?

You have? Could you tell NBC for me?

Consider these quotes from today's (May 10, 2005) NBC Nightly News piece called "ID theft epidemic:"
  • "the massive problem of ID theft"
  • "a national crisis"
  • "a situation that's clearly out of control"
  • "yet another brazen scam"
  • "financial information swirling around in cyberspace"
  • "the exploding underworld of ID theft"
Why do they use such hyperbole?
Yes, I'm worried about criminals impersonating me. I know people who have had money stolen from their bank accounts. I've been amused and terrified by the CitiBank commercials. In fact, I don't know anyone who hasn't heard of ID theft. That's probably due in large part to the media.

Hyperbole is a most effectively used to persuade. Why does NBC think it needs to persuade me? Does it think that I need to call my senator or representative? But Congress is already responding. As Bill Nelson, Democratic Representative from Florida exclaimed in the NBC piece, "If we don't do something about this, Mr. Chairman, None of us is going to have any identify left!"

No identity left?
Sometimes I just appreciate print journalists. For example, in today's Boston Globe, David Abel wrote a story called "ATM cards pirated for plenty, police say." It contained information about who had been arrested and for what. It contained a graphic showing how the guy stole PINs and ATM card information (oh, and by the way NBC, PIN stands for Personal Information Number. Its just a PIN, not a PIN Number).
The story contained practical advice on how to prevent such ATM skimming with such low-tech methods as using your hand to hide the keypad as you punch in your PIN. There was no massive, exploding, brazen swirl in the story. Just the facts, Ma'am.

ID Cloning
I think so-called ID theft is more like ID cloning. After all, even if someone is pretending to be me, I'm still me, aren't I? I agree with Bruce Schneier in his essay, "Mitigating identity theft" in which he writes that identity theft is not theft at all, since an identity is not property to steal. It is impersonation using private information leading to fraud.

Schneier's bigger point is that that those who are trying to fix the problem concentrate too much on making personal data harder to steal when they should be working on how easy it is to commit fraud with personal data. He suggests that when financial institutions are liable for fraud losses, they will find solutions.

Not Valid with Signature
I agree with Schneier. Recently I used a credit card at Sears. I swiped my card and waited. The little card reader then told me to hand my card to the cashier. As I did, the cashier looked at me blankly and said, "What? I don't need that." Yes you do, Sears. You could be at the very least validating my signature on my card with the one on the screen.

But Congress is feeling the heat from the media as much as it is fanning the flames itself. Stung by such hard-hitting questions from TV journalists as "The question is, why hasn't more been done?" and the fear that there won't be any identities to vote for them, Congress will likely pass some kind of knee-jerk law that will require me to sign a pledge that I won't ever reveal my PIN to anyone, even criminals, and go merrily about their ways. Or worse, they'll come up with legislation that costs money but doesn't have any incentives to stop the fraud, and make it more expensive for me to go to the bank or use my credit card. It's been done before...

So, NBC, tone it down, OK? We get it. Give us a few more facts and a lot less hype.

Monday, May 09, 2005

RoboHelp Plays Nicely with Word

Those of you who use RoboHelp as your help authoring tool are probably already bored of the discussions about its future, now that it appears not to be the darling child of Macromedia/Adobe.

In the midst of all the hyperbole about the sky falling, some of the clearest advice I've seen reminded people that RoboHelp will not stop working even if Macromedia/Adobe fires all the RoboHelp developers tomorrow. It's a piece of software. It works today, and it will work tomorrow.

But what I hadn't seen discussed, at least not until I posted it to HATT - the "Help Authoring Tools and Techniques" group, is that RoboHelp HTML is dependent on Word in a very specific case. The two applications must play nicely together in order to generate any print documentation. In other words, if you want to generate Word or PDF output from RoboHelp, RH has to be able to access Word directly.

When Microsoft releases a version of Word that is not compatible with the current release of RoboHelp (X5), you won't be able to have that version of Word and RoboHelp X5 on your computer and expect RoboHelp to output printed documentation.

So, RH may continue to work for a long time. It just may not workwith the next version of Word.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

UX Against Them

I really hate abbreviations sometimes. There I was, on a quiet Sunday morning skimming the latest issue of the journal interactions when I kept reading "UX." Maybe it was because of the hour, but I couldn't work out what the author meant by UX. Since interactions is concerned with human-computer interactions, I figured the U had to stand for user, but the X had me stimied. User InteraXtions? User TransaXtions? No. X meant eXperience.

User eXperience
Are we so stingy with space and time that we can't type user experience but have to reduce it to UX? And what about my user experience? I spent more time searching for the meaning than I did reading what the author had to say. And I guess I'm an UX professional. At least I get paid to be concerned about the user experience.

I think my reaction to UX is where my training as a writer trumps my training as an UX. I think you should do what you can to keep the reader reading. And if that means writing "user experience" time after time after time so that the reader doesn't have to stumble through a field of UX, then that's what I have to do.

Usability and User eXperience (UUX)
As I kept reading I learned that another professional organization I belong to, the Society for Technical Communication, has an group called "Usability and User Experience." So, the STC has a SIG for UX professionals called UUX. Can UUXX be far behind?

interactions is ACM's magazine for designers of interactive products. The May-June edition is a special issue about who owns the profession currently known as User eXperience. But even in the introduction the editor wonders if the controversy over the ownership of user experience is legitimate.

Are You For UX or Agin UX?
I suppose this discussion about ownership is one of questioning legitimacy. Some who spend time being concerned about users' experiences feel that they don't get no respect. Those in charge command respect. Therefore, we'll reckon with each other about who's in charge of user experience so that others will realize that we must be reckoned with. But for me, it's a boring discussion. I would rather spend my time learning how others make the user experience better rather than whether they think I'm an owner or an employee of UX Corp.

The American Idol Syndrome and the Proper Episcopalian

This is the first post of my first blog. I want it to be pithy, clever, and scintillating. But I imagine it won't be, and that categorizing an entry is like whispering a wish out loud -- the thing can never come true.

I've avoided setting up a blog until now for a few reasons (that I remember):

  • I already know that I'm self-interested. So do my friends. But I don't want to be appear to be solipsistic (not trying to be "preachy" by linking to the definition. However, even as I knew this word existed, I couldn't remember it and had to ask my wife. I figure if I couldn't remember the word then maybe others won't remember the definition). And having been brought up as a proper Episcopalian (is there an improper one?), I know about the power of appearance. ("Whatever you do, make it look as if you meant to do that!).
  • I think I'm much less interesting than most people who blog. I was talking about blogging with a friend recently and we agreed that while we enjoy reading blogs and find out lots of really interesting stuff from them, neither of us thinks we have anything worthwhile to post ourselves. I think this attitude must be the opposite of the "American Idol Syndrome," people believing that they are better at something than they are.
  • I'm a bit of a coward. I also doubt that my skin is thick enough for the "collaborative" nature of blogging.

But my fascination with ideas has overcome my reluctance. I'm not sure what content I'll post or what themes I'll keep to, but whatever they are, I'll be posting them because they are interesting to me. Oh, and I'll probably think they're all pithy, clever, and scintillating.