Sunday, February 25, 2007

Historical novelists, take note

Sarah, at Reading the Past, is looking for a name—probably something that Turkey City Lexicon should include but doesn’t appear to—for a particular kind of clunker that historical novelists are prone to. Read her post. Go and sin no more.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Annoying logistics announcement for Comcast subscribers

The company that hosts my domain is currently blocking all mail originating with the domain. This has been going on since Monday and it may go on a while longer before it is all sorted out. In any case, if you tried to send me a private email from a address and your email has bounced, that’s the reason. Respond to this post with a comment if you want me to get in touch with you. Your comment will not appear publicly.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Best line so far this week

“It’s easy to make crap, but it takes a lot of work to make something of value.”
—Mailing list buddy Al Geist

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Structure, content, and the principle of linguistic relativity

I’ve done work on clients’ documents for a lot of years, and I’ve learned that the word document, like the word means different things to different people.

To most content creators (writers, for example), a document is the physical reflection of an idea. It is an imperfect reflection, at best; but the essence of a document, in this view, is the visible manifestation of words on paper. Many people are—or at least profess to be—completely insensible to any aesthetic characteristics of that visible manifestation; they are concerned only that the right words are present in the desired sequence. That’s enough.

Other content creators are indeed interested in the shape and style of the presentation, but they still see only the visible manifestation (on paper or on a screen). It’s a two-dimensional surface divided into light and dark regions, but that’s as far as it goes.

There’s another way of looking at a document, though, an approach that is common among technical writers, information architects, and others with more of an engineering bent. In this view a document is a two-dimensional projection of an n-dimensional data structure, and the content (the data housed by the structure) is almost incidental. What’s interesting is the variety of different documents that can be created from the same structure just by moving the “light source” used for creating the projection. It is this view that enables technologies like content management, XML-based content syndication, and the World Wide Web itself.

Take this blog, for example. The structure was designed before I signed up. All I have to do is pour content into the structure and, voilà, here’s an instant document. You may be reading it as a Web page, with a sidebar full of interesting and ever-changing tidbits; or you may be reading it through any of a number of different syndication interfaces. That’s an elementary application of the view that a document is a projection of a structure.

I’ve worked on technical documentation projects running to several volumes where the explicit application of this principle determined the most fundamental characteristics of the document set: Do we organize the material according to the engineering disciplines that contributed to the system (our sources for content), according to the mechanical modules that are assembled to make up the system, or according to the classes of users who have to work with the system? All three of those models end up being used, with the same content being presented three different ways, in three sets of documents.

The difference between these two ways of looking at the word document is part of what drives the relationship between the content creator and the document producer. I might ask, rhetorically, why authors never seem to understand how to use the Styles feature of Microsoft Word, for example, but I really do know the answer: Their focus is on content and everything I do is just “formatting” or “making it pretty.” We can adopt an attitude of mutual disdain (each considering our own perspective the One True Way), or we can appreciate that each of us adds value to the finished product. I’ll keep making containers to pour your content into; you keep making content to pour into my containers; and we’ll achieve a proper symbiosis. In the end, I always save time and money for my clients, simply because they cannot do what I do. This is not because they are stupid or untrainable; it’s just because they are looking at documents from the other end of the telescope. What I do—particularly when people are standing over my shoulder watching—looks like magic to them (I’m sure this is a common experience for many people who see documents as structures and understand software tools from that perspective). And what my content-creating clients do—developing ideas and telling stories—often seems like magic to me (because that’s not how my brain works).

This relationship applies to editing (polishing the words so people other than the writer can properly and unambiguously understand them), to typography, and to document production of all kinds. The best work is a collaboration that recognizes the strengths of all the contributors.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Real-life usability testing

This is a tale about closely observing the behavior of a sophisticated user…

It’s a sleet day today. That is, I get to enjoy having my sweetie pie home this Valentine’s Day because she has closed her office, thanks to the disgusting weather.

She had a small problem a while ago with her brand new (Windows XP, not Vista) computer and asked me to take a look. She was trying to sign on to the server at her office, something she had done regularly on her previous computer with no difficulty.

The particular problem was that she got to a user authentication dialog that had the wrong user name filled in. On her previous computer, this dialog had the correct user name filled in, and she wanted the new computer to behave the same way, saving her the trouble of retyping the user name each time.

The authentication box (provided by the remote server, I believe) had User Name and Password fields and OK, Cancel, and Options buttons. (The Options button actually didn’t do anything interesting.)

So I said, all right, click Cancel. This brought her back to a similar-looking dialog (almost identical, really, except for the dialog title) on her own machine, the purpose of which was to make the connection to the remote server. It, too, had User Name and Password fields, OK, Cancel, and Options buttons. In this case, the Options button opened a new dialog where she had the opportunity to change the default user name. Problem solved.

But here’s what I learned: The design ideal of an integrated, consistent visual environment can itself introduce confusion. If everything looks alike, it’s hard to keep track of just where you are. On the other hand, if controls that serve different functions have different appearances, you’re more likely to have a clue. This is something architects discovered decades ago. If the on the hillside are not only all made of ticky tacky but also painted the same color, it’s easy for visitors to get lost on their way to a friend’s house. If there are pink ones and blue ones and green ones and yellow ones, visitors stand at least a quarter of a chance.

Anyway, this is just something to keep in mind if you’re involved in the GUI design process for an application. dictum is to use the smallest effective difference. If the difference isn’t effective in terms of user behavior, it’s too small.

Design matters. In books and on screen, as well as in the real world.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Style is arbitrary
The reason we have style manuals—and here I’m talking about books such as The Chicago Manual of Style, The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, and so forth—is precisely because style is arbitrary. That is, there is not one hard and fast rule that makes one style correct and another wrong. Style is not the same as grammar, which deals with the question of whether an utterance sounds natural to a native speaker of the language and does not care so much about how to abbreviate the name of a scholarly journal. So a publisher or an editor chooses a style guide and refers to it for all of the undecidables: Shall I use an Oxford comma or not? Do I use italics or quotation marks? Does this call for a semicolon? Do I form the possessive of this name with an apostrophe alone or with an apostrophe-s? Etc.

A style guide is nothing more than a collection of arbitrary choices according to the taste of its author or the amalgamated tastes of a committee.

The style guide doesn’t tell me that this is the one true path; it tells me that I can maintain a consistency within the work I am editing by following the same style each time I encounter a similar situation. Alert readers are comforted by that sort of consistency because it indicates that the writing and editing were done with care, and this lends credibility to the author (whether or not it is deserved, I hasten to add). The same arbitrariness applies to the choice of a dictionary, and the same value is added by using one: it reassures the reader.

Style drifts
Tastes change over time. That’s why, for example, we’re up to the fifteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. Technology changes, too. And when you are in the business of getting glyphs onto paper, accommodating the limitations of current typesetting technology is necessary.

Combine those two facts with the reality that for every two editors in a discussion of style you get three opinions, and you can see that nothing stays fixed for long. Meanings of words change, spelling changes, our understanding of the science of linguistics changes, the world changes.

Some of these changes are predictable. We have a fairly long history in English of forming hyphenated compounds and then later closing up the compounds to form solid words. We also have a fairly long history of simplifying what we can get away with simplifying in terms of sentence structure, punctuation, and, to some extent, spelling. Similarly, we’ve moved from using lots of capital letters, almost as many as are used in German but with less regularity, to using few.

But I’ve been watching this process long enough to notice that—even within a few decades—these predictable trends move like waves against a beach as the tide comes in. As the wave comes in the water rides up the beach and then rolls back down. Yes, the next wave pushes in a bit higher on the beach, but it too rolls back, if not quite so far as the one before. For example, electronic mail quickly became e-mail and just as quickly became email. But a lot of editors have looked at that construction and there is now some pressure to reconsider and revert to e-mail.

What prompts this post is a reconsideration of how we use capitals. I mentioned the other day that I still capitalize President when referring to the President of the United States. Many style guides have moved toward lowercasing the word when it is used as a noun in a sentence rather than as a title preceding a name. “The president said yesterday….” A couple of months ago, I participated in an online discussion about whether to capitalize Act when it refers to a particular piece of legislation. Some argued that it should only be capitalized when it is used in the full title of the act in question. I argued that if it refers to a specific act and not generically to any act of Congress, it should be capitalized. A nickname or an abbreviated name of a specific instance of a person, place, or thing is still a proper noun in my book, and proper nouns need to be capitalized to avoid ambiguity and confusion.

The wave of decapitation surged up the beach, partly pushed by the tide of style drift and partly pushed by the typographic conceit that a block of text should be as smooth and uniform a color as possible. And I got dragged along with it for a while. But now I hope it is receding. At least I’m doing what I can to pull it back a bit toward the calm sea of convention by undecapitating <g> the words I think should never have been lowercased in the first place. I suspect that the style guides will roll back down the beach a bit, too.

We’ll see what happens.

Friday, February 09, 2007

I admit to some jealousy for the good people of Oswego

Since moving away from Central New York thirteen years ago, I have not had occasion to strap on my snowshoes even once. As I write this, there is no snow on the ground in New Haven and we really have not had any snow to speak of this season. While I don’t miss the chore of clearing the driveway, I do miss the beauty and silence of really deep snow; country roads that are smoother and wider in winter after the plow goes through than they are in the summer; kicking down a steep, powdery slope in six-foot strides, all the way to the bottom in seconds instead of slowly and awkwardly clambering down the same slope one gingerly foothold at a time through summer’s brambles; the challenge of clearing the driveway and the parking area in front of the old barn with Gerald, Our Ford and a backblade, spending hours twisted around on a metal seat, pushing snow in reverse gear; warming up by the woodstove afterward with a cup of hot chocolate made from scratch. Ah, youth!

If you are free to pick the place you live based on the sort of natural disaster it’s most prone to, snow country seems more benign than tornado, hurricane, flood, forest fire, mudslide, volcano, or earthquake country. But that’s just my opinion, and you are certainly entitled to your own.

Monday, February 05, 2007

All clear. Maybe.

THANK YOU to all those who wrote to help with eliminating the popup ads.

I think I’ve eliminated the source of the problem. However, if you are still getting popups or experiencing any other technical difficulty with this blog, please contact me. Again, you may email me directly (see the link at the bottom of the blog) or post a comment anonymously (which I won’t publish but will treat as private correspondence). Any details you can provide will help me (browser and version, operating system, what anti-virus and anti-spyware programs you run, whether you have the popup blocker in your browser turned on, etc.).

I have also turned off the Google ads. I wasn’t making any money on them, and some people find them irritating. So they’re gone.

Please scroll down to the article titled “Lip service,” which is where the real blog conversation should be taking place. There have been some thoughtful comments so far.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

We interrupt this program to ask: Do you see popup ads when you view this blog?


A reader wrote to tell me that when she accesses my blog, she is confronted with popup ads or redirected to undesirable sites (not consistently the same site, so there’s no point in being specific).

If you have seen this problem yourself, please tell me about it. In particular, I’m interested in whether you are going directly to the blog page ( or accessing it through a feed reader. In the latter case, it would be helpful to know what feed reader you are using and what the feed URL is that you are using. Also, please tell me if this problem occurs when you first come to the blog or when you click a link on the blog.

You can reach me either by emailing me directly or, if you prefer to remain anonymous, submitting a comment. I will not be approving comments to be posted on the blog, so your report will remain confidential.

If you are not having any problems with the blog, feel free to tell me that, too. However, this is not a poll. One problem is too many; it makes no difference if everyone else is getting through normally.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Lip service

This is not a poll. It is not a poll because the number of people visiting this blog is not statistically significant. In fact, I’ll be thrilled if half a dozen people respond in the comment stream. I’ll be flabbergasted if a dozen respond. Go ahead, flabbergast me.

The questions below pertain to the general topic of how people share information, ideas, and art. Feel free to focus on just those questions that interest you and to which you want to respond. These questions are intended only to stimulate thought and discussion.

In responding, please state, for everyone’s benefit who reads this—even if you know that I know who you are—whether you are a knowledge creator (an author, for example), a knowledge processor (an editor, for example), a knowledge purveyor (a publisher, for example), a knowledge steward (a librarian, for example), or a knowledge consumer. You can be part of multiple categories; there are no points off for that. It might also be interesting to know whether you are under thirty, thirty to fifty, or over fifty. No need to be more specific than that about your age, I should think.

Okay, on to the questions…
  1. Google has entered into agreements with certain libraries to digitize every book in their collections, including books that are still protected by copyright. Google believes it does not need to secure permission from copyright holders to do this. Does the public interest in free access to information outweigh publishers’ and authors’ interest in being compensated for their work?

  2. E-books can be produced in such a way that once you pay for one and download it you can send copies of the files to your friends or post them on your own blog or Web site. They can also be produced in such a way (using digital rights management) that you cannot share the book. Some people argue that the latter model creates a barrier that limits sales. Other people argue that the open model encourages piracy. What is your opinion?

  3. Most authors never earn a nickel from the books they write. If all authors understood this, do you think the number of books published each year would continue to increase or would begin to decrease?

  4. If it’s posted on the Internet, it’s okay for you to use it. True or false?
If I get some responses to these questions, I’ll post some more. This could become an interesting discussion.

Ketherian has picked this up and is promoting it as a meme. Feel free to join in.

I am refraining from replying to comments, because I really want to see what a cross-section of people think about these issues. I would like to clarify a few things, though.

First, I worded the questions with some care. Incomplete information and ambiguity are intentional. Comments about the quality of the questions, while I do not mind them, do not advance the discussion.

Second, I do not have an axe to grind and will not be arguing against anyone’s position. I just want to see where this goes.

Third, so far I have posted all comments; I do not intend to censor anyone’s opinion.