Search this site powered by FreeFind

Thursday, December 31, 2009

I stopped dead in the street contemplating this unappealing suggestion.

Fill the air with unlimited talk and text? Wait, let me run the other way.

Monday, December 28, 2009

On getting internet users to pay for content

Alan D. Mutter, a media consultant:
Content providers see that the idea that everything has to be free, supported by ads, isn’t working well, and they’re trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube, but only partially...

One of the problems is, newspapers fired so many journalists and turned them loose to start so many blogs. They should have executed them. They wouldn’t have had competition. But they foolishly let them out alive.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Random pleasures from The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

I marveled at "The Way We Live Now" for its furious, calculating description of the rise and fall of a mysterious tycoon much like Bernie Madoff: a bold Ponzi schemer, a market manipulator, a makher who lives ever bigger until the fake money-pile turns back into a pumpkin, ruining him and many others during the railway craze of the mid-1850s.

It's hard to stomach Trollope's visceral anti-semitism but he kept me entertained for hours on my US Airways flight last night. Before I delete the book from my Palm Pilot, here are two moments I appreciated.

  1. Dolly Langstaffe, a stupid, wealthy young man who's lost an awful lot of money at cards and the other idle pursuits of his set, has at last found himself a plain-spoken lawyer who, while he rakes in a hefty cut, does it openly, and has taken this young idiot's affairs in hand in a plain-spoken way. Langstaffe defends him to his friends:
    "If you knew the comfort of having a fellow who could keep you straight without preaching sermons at you you wouldn't despise Squercom. I've tried to go alone and I find that does not answer. Squercom's my coach and I mean to stick pretty close to him."
    I know some people who need a Squercom very badly...

  2. Lady Carbury, who began as a silly, vain woman, has been brought low by her own stupid choices and those of her son. Beaten down gradually into a person with a little more sense, she is lucky enough to be loved in the end by a steady, intelligent man of her own age who, understanding her faults, loves her anyway.
    "He drew her towards him and in a moment she was kneeling at his feet, with her face buried in his knees. Considering their ages perhaps we must say that their attitude was awkward. They would certainly have thought so themselves had they imagined that anyone could have seen them... It is not that Age is ashamed of feeling passion and acknowledging it, but that the display of it is without the graces of which Youth is proud, and which Age regrets."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My sentiments: more ways to avoid Christmas

I've been building a cathartic page called How to avoid Christmas and this is perfect for it...

scary santa claus
Extracts from
Saying No, No, No to the Ho-Ho-Ho
by Hilary Stout for the New York Times, December 23, 2009

"Instead of buying stuff for people who don't need it and will probably return it anyway, I'm going to take all the money that I would have spent on presents, find some needy people — not a charity — and give the money directly to them," said [a man who plans] to spend Christmas Day working on his Web site, trolling Facebook and taking an elderly woman who lives in his Manhattan apartment building out for dinner.

A media consultant and ... his partner of 20 years have long celebrated Christmas elaborately. But 2009 was so disappointing economically, politically and spiritually, he says, that the holidays aren't worth celebrating. The couple will spend Christmas Day watching "I Dream of Jeannie" episodes on DVD and taking dips in their pool in La Quinta, Calif.

[Another couple plan] to wake up in their Christmas-tree-free home, get in the car, drive to a mountain and go for a hike. They hope they won't see another soul on the trail. They'll have breakfast at one of those chains along the Interstate, probably the only culinary option open on Christmas Day in Georgia. In the afternoon, they'll go to the movies.

A survey, commissioned by ... a residential program for adults suffering from drug and alcohol addiction as well as dysfunctional family situations, found holiday stress to be almost universal — 90 percent of respondents said they suffered from it — but that this year the feeling was amplified. Thirty-eight percent of the people polled said they expected to feel more anxiety this holiday season than last. Most blamed the economy, but 77 percent also cited family conflicts.

"There's a lot of pain associated with Christmas," said Hank Stuever, the author of a new book, "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present" ...

In recent years the movie industry has saved some of its biggest releases for Christmas Day, recognizing that the classic Jewish practice of going to the movies on Dec. 25 is catching on with gentiles looking for a break... Another American Jewish tradition, going out for Chinese food on Christmas, may have crossover appeal as well.

[Another plans] to drive eight hours to the Grand Canyon... "We'll do some hiking and sit in the hot tub." They're taking wine and their own wineglasses. "We'll sit in our room and enjoy the view and have a unique Christmas. And not feel guilty about it."

[A new widow] said, "I decided not to stress myself by conforming to some tyranny of the 'shoulds.' " She's decided to spend Christmas Day stripping wallpaper.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How to get restaurant customers to spend more.

From the New York Times:

Unless a restaurant wants to frighten its customers, the price should always be at the very end of a menu description and should not be in any way highlighted.

A study published in the spring by Dr. Kimes and other researchers at Cornell found that when the prices were given with dollar signs, customers spent less than when no dollar signs appeared.

The study, published in the Cornell Hospitality Report, also found that customers spent significantly more when the price was listed in numerals without dollar signs, as in "14.00" or "14," than when it included the word "dollar," as in "Fourteen dollars." Apparently even the word "dollar" can trigger what is known as "the pain of paying."

Mr. Meyer said that in his view, adding zeros to the price, as in 14.00, is not a good idea because "there's no reason to have pennies if you're not using pennies, and it takes the price from being two digits into four digits, even if the two last digits are zeros. It's irrelevant, and the number could feel more important, which is not a menu writer's goal."


Monday, December 21, 2009

For those who worry that kids will think video games reflect reality....

Ezra found this quote about would-be swashbucklers who couldn't tell the difference between the written word and reality on the ground:

There can be little doubt that the young men of Renaissance Spain, impatiently awaiting summonses to serve in their Emperor's armies or eagerly volunteering for the expeditions to the New World, felt themselves stimulated to heroic action by exhilarating romances which glorified the warrior as the prototype of their culture.

It is reported that the extraordinary feats of one of Charles V's celebrated captains, Don Fernando de Avalos, Marqués de Pescara, were attributed to the noble ardor and desire for glory awakened in his heart by the habitual reading of chivalric novels in his youthful years.

In a Portuguese work of the early seventeenth century there is an amusing anecdote which bears witness to a similar influence exerted by these books upon a simple soldier in the ranks. Since it is particularly apt and brief, it is worth quoting in full. It reads as follows:

While a Portuguese commander had an enemy city under siege during the fighting in India, a number of his soldiers who camped together as comrades carried in their outfit a novel of chivalry with which they passed the time.

One of these men who knew this literature less than the others regarded everything that he heard read as true (for there are guileless people who think that there can be no lies in print).

His companions, playing on his gullibility, kept telling him that such was really the case.

When the time came for an attack this good fellow, stirred by what he had heard read and eager to emulate the heroes of the book, burned with a desire to demonstrate his valor and to perform a deed of knighthood which would be remembered.

And so he leaped wildly into the fray and began to strike right and left with his sword among the enemy so furiously that only by great effort and much peril his comrades and numerous other soldiers together were able to save his life by picking him up covered with glory and not a few wounds.

When his friends scolded him for his rashness, he answered: 'Aw, leave me alone! I didn't do the half of what any of the knights did in the book that you fellows read to me every night.' And from that time on he was exceedingly valorous.

I can't keep up: why, exactly, is social media networking so crucial?

Found at Language Log, from Stone Soup:

Stone Soup cartoon about text messaging


Mark does Illustration Friday: "Undone."


When the monkey, the bull and the red rat got loose, the world became undone.



Sunday, December 20, 2009

Melinama does Illustration Friday: "Undone."

I kept falling asleep and then getting woken up by my cellphone alarm - I had to make a keep-up-the-good-work phone call to my son every 20 minutes or half-hour - but I was so tired I couldn't stay awake. I am quite undone by the (hopefully) "in the knick of time" pace of the end of his semester.


Still life: chicken and Bulgarian embroidery

Can you tell I'm cleaning out my camera?


The amazing donkey fight

The third picture is, of course, my favorite: I never saw a donkey sit on a horse before. Analyzing Jethro's ears, I think he was having a good time throughout. I can't read horse ears as well.

The amazing ice sheet hanging off my tin roof - for how much longer?

Gradually, all day yesterday the snow and ice on my tin roof sagged off the edge and hung down lower... and lower... this is what it looks like right now.

The amazing computer desk I made while at Wesleyan

I was tired of squinting at my tiny netbook so I elevated it using a baritone horn and a pocket trumpet.

The amazing book holder I made while at Wesleyan

I was tired of watching Ezra try to type quotes out of a book he had trapped in his lap under one elbow.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why are Connecticut men in cars so mean? Is Mike Luby the angriest man on the planet?

I just got back from visiting my son in Middletown, Connecticut. I was idly observing in my various trips back and forth to my hotel that the drivers around me were awfully rude. For instance, I noted that men driving in the right-hand lane made no attempt to help incoming drivers - they would drive exactly the same speed, not speeding up to make space behind them, not slowing down to make space in front of them, so the poor would-be-merger was forced all the way to the end of the vanishing merge lane.

I also noted a few of them aggressively rushing into the empty right-hand lane (construction ahead) and then bullying their way back into the left-hand lane after triumphantly passing ten cars obediently waiting their turn.

But worse than those anonymous nasty guys: Mike Luby. Ez and I were meeting someone for lunch in town. I parked in a diagonal parking space and we got out of the car. I walked to the parking meter and squinted at it trying to figure out how many quarters to drop. Suddenly there was loud horn blaring - I looked around for the source - it was a guy in the car next to mine. Had he just been sitting in there all this time?

He got out of his car and started yelling at me, didn't I realize I'd just hit his car? What? I didn't hit anybody's car. Yes I did, he shouted: my car door hit his car! He made an elaborate show of inspecting his car (which was very dirty). He got down on his knees to inspect it! He got his head closer and closer to the car and finally exclaimed angrily: Look what you've done!

So I go over and look. I know my eyes aren't that great, but he kept pointing and I kept not seeing. Finally I saw it: a spot, really not more than 1/16", on the very edge of his wheel well. I looked at him in astonishment: was he really going on and on about this tiny speck?

Well, yes he was, and he got angrier because I seemed so amazed, and he asked for my insurance card, and he called the police! And I'm afraid I called him a nutcase, which didn't help. I thought he was going to have a rage-induced heart attack.

He wanted me to stay and wait with him for the police, but I was afraid of him, so Ez and I left (I told him which restaurant we were going to in case he wanted to have the police come arrest me). They didn't come.

When we got back to the car after lunch, a shopkeeper came out of his store to tell me, with concern, that some strange guy had been taking lots of pictures of my car. I thanked him and we left. Now I'm waiting to hear from my insurance company.

Monday, December 14, 2009

In which I travel to Connecticut to do laundry at Buddhist House

It's the end of the semester at Wesleyan and my son hasn't done laundry since the last time I was up here. So this is what we had to do, to get his laundry done.

  1. Pack a gargantuan amount of laundry into a huge suitcase and a huge mesh bag;

  2. Drive across campus at rush hour to the only building where he can get more money put on his laundry card. I wait in the rush hour traffic by the side of the road while he hustles in there and charges up the card;

  3. Drive back across campus more or less to where we started. He has the key to a house where there is supposedly a washer and dryer.

  4. Enter the house, greet the inhabitants, locate the washing machine and discover: it is full of semi-fetid water;

  5. "Oh, it's been like that since last Friday. I called the Physical Plant but they didn't come I guess. Try Buddhist House."

  6. Drive to Buddhist House and knock on the door hoping somebody is home. Success! Beg to use the laundry room. Permission granted!

  7. Cram half the laundry into the washing machine and consider the fact that if we leave the premises, and there is nobody here when the laundry is done, we'll be locked on the outside and the laundry will be locked on the inside;

  8. Set up paper-writing shop on a tiny corner of a table in a cold kitchen, heaped with other people's clothes, near a bulletin board to which someone has thumb-tacked a pair of orange thong underpants decorated with odd Christian motifs;

  9. Spend two hours huddled at the table - I did leave at one point to get takeout food, and I would have felt more guilty about bringing such things into Buddhist House if there hadn't been lots of Dunkin Donut wrappers in the trash;

  10. Pack the two huge loads of still-pretty-damp laundry back into the car and come back to Ezra's room where he gets back to work and I festoon the joint with clammy clothes...

[Hannah]: History and Livestock

My interests merge with those of my mother:
"...Canny New England farmers found they could circumvent [the ban on carrying their goods across the Canadian border during the war of 1812] by marching their livestock to the border, where the Canadian cohort would entice the animals across with a basket of corn."
- Donald R. Hickey, "American Trade Restrictions During the War of 1812", Journal of American History, December, 1981

Sunday, December 13, 2009

[Hannah]: How I Carried an Explosive Device Around in my Backpack For a Year

Now, before I start this story I want you all to know that I am already (or was, at some point) on the TSA watch list. Let's just say it's something about a 3 and 3/4" knife that I TOTALLY meant to put in my checked luggage. And granted, this is probably more the TSA watch list of morons than the watch list of potential terrorists. But let's just say I have reasons even more than most people to not wish to be carrying minor explosives around with me in my day to day life.

Last year, excited by holiday season sales, I bought a netbook - more specifically, a Dell Inspiron Mini 9. It was super cheap, it was super lightweight, and it did NOT RUN WINDOWS VISTA. I have had the worst timing with computers - the year before last I bought a laptop in a hurry and it turned out to be running one of the earlier versions of Vista, you know, before they'd "gotten all the bugs out". The only problem with the Mini, I thought, was that the keyboard was kind of small, oh, and the processor wasn't super fast. But OK, fine.

But I was wrong. The actual problem was that this computer - its battery at least - can explode!

I was home alone 2 nights ago, just, you know,, using my computer lying on the couch like I do, you know, 14 hours of the day. And I put it down on the floor. And immediately there was a loud noise and clouds of smoke started pouring out of the computer. Also impressive hissing, sizzling noises and some more crackles. It looked like this!
When everything died down a little bit I pushed on it with my foot and it started up again. And then when it finally stopped, it looked like this:

The burn actually goes all the way through the laptop - you can see daylight through it.

When I got on the phone with tech support for the first time, the guy asked me sternly, "now did you say you PLACED the laptop on the floor, or did you DROP it on the floor?" As if dropping it would have been a good excuse for having it explode.

Seriously, though, that's the only time anyone's been mean to me about this so far. The CA and I took it to our local computer repair guys just to see the looks on their faces, which was fun, and I emailed the pix to some tech and consumer blogs ... who, as luck would have it, know some guys at Dell ... who I assume would rather not ruin their holiday retailing season with a massive battery recall.... they have been, as we say, "responsive", thus far.

Now if I can get them to pay my nice landlord for the BURNT FLOORBOARDS in our apartment, that would be a very happy ending to this story. The hard drive isnt burnt so I might even be able to get my data back!

There is a comical photo that illustrates the end of this story but the CA has it and he's still sleeping. Will post soon.

Thoughts for the day

Laurence J. Peter: "An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn't happen today."

Cyril Connolly: "Always be nice to those younger than you, because they are the ones who will be writing about you."

Mark Twain: "Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first."


Melinama does Illustration Friday: "Hatch."

Egyptian Phoenix risingMark pointed out to me that I painted the only bird that doesn't have an egg or do any hatching: the mythical Egyptian Phoenix. Well, it reinvents itself - it burns up its own nest and a new phoenix springs up out of the ashes, ready to live for another five hundred years. That's a pretty spectacular hatch, if you ask me. Wouldn't this make for a good "happy new year" concept?


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mark does Illustration Friday: "Hatch."


graphite on paper 4 x 5



How ambitious, glamorous building projects ruin arts communities

The urge described in the article below - to prove that you are a hot-stuff community by building something bigger and glitzier than you can realistically support - happened in North Carolina in the 1980s. As touring artists, the Pratie Heads (Bob and I) saw this dreadful mistake made in many small communities:
  1. People get excited about their artistic community;

  2. They persuade civic leaders that a large performing arts building or larger home for their arts council will show the world what an up-and-coming town they are and will draw more business and investment money and tourists;

  3. They call on wealthy residents and businesses to give money for the new building, and they draw on the taxpayers, who are often very reluctant to pony up;

  4. They build the new building. The wealthy residents and businesses are happy to see their names on various rooms and doorposts;

  5. It turns out to be very expensive to run the new facility. There is a lot of overhead and more employees are on the payroll;

  6. They actually have to cut back on programs. They charge so much for the use of their space that artists who used to use their studios and musicians who used to rent their rehearsal spaces or performing venues - back when they offered shabby but cheap and modest-sized spaces - can't afford to use them any more;

  7. The place, predictably, goes into the red. Donors get tired of being hit up for more money just to keep the doors open, especially when they see that the fancy benefits they had been promised are not materializing;

  8. The arts councils can't afford to help out artists at all any more. The whole thing collapses.
We saw arts councils go out of business after moving from their shabby cheap spaces that were bursting with life to big sterile "impressive" buildings with not much happening. We saw new big fancy libraries built that then couldn't afford to buy new books to put on their empty shelves. We saw organizations that used to sponsor small and mid-size concerts now only willing to sponsor big country-western stars - or Andy Williams - because only huge crowds and huge ticket prices would pay for their new huge concert spaces.

What North Carolina really needs is more small and mid-sized venues, because our arts-loving communities are NOT huge. Just because you build a giant performance hall doesn't mean you can fill it.

Extracts from
In the Arts, Bigger Buildings May Not Be Better
By Robin Pogrebin December 11, 2009

Organizations were "blinded by the excitement of what it would be like to have this great new facility," said D. Carroll Joynes, a senior fellow at the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center.

"It's exposing poor management and poor planning ... nobody actually asked: 'Is there a need here? If they build it, will they come?' "

"What has been thought of as a short-term asset can be a long-term problem," said Jonathan Katz, the chief executive of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. "Facilities cost money to operate, and they deteriorate. The facility itself becomes a series of expenditures."

[An arts consultant:] "Cultural buildings ... were driven not by the artistic community but by a civic agenda." Now the economy is pushing organizations into ... a renewed concern about "protecting their capacity to take artistic risks."

"When you overexpand, you limit your ability to take those risks," Mr. Ellis said. "Although expansion is usually seen as a sign of health, it is not always a sign of vitality."

...the $461 million Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami ... whose vision statement promised it would transform the city into "the cultural capital of the Americas" — ended its first year, in October 2007, with a $2.5 million operating deficit, thanks to low ticket sales and high operating costs.

In Chicago, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies owes $43.6 million of the $51.6 million it borrowed ... the institute's galleries are now open only on alternate Sundays and the second Thursday of every month... [The CEO:] "We counted on a whole lot of weddings, bar mitzvahs, private parties ... these have materialized with less intensity than anticipated." ... he tries not to dwell on what might not have been. "I wish my hair would grow back too, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it," Mr. Lewis said. "Now I've got to go on."

"Cue the harps ... and whale music..."

Extracts from
Paranormal Flexibility
by Charles M. Blow December 11, 2009

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on Wednesday entitled "Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths" ... it points out that many Americans are now choosing to "blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs" and that "sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups" said that they have had supernatural experiences, like encountering ghosts.

Twenty percent of Protestants and 28 percent of Catholics said they believe in reincarnation, which flies in the face of Christianity's rapture scenario.

Furthermore, about the same percentages said they believe in astrology, yoga as a spiritual practice and the idea that there is "spiritual energy" pulsing from things like "mountains, trees or crystals." Uh-oh. Someone's God is going to be jealous.

Furthermore, 16 percent of Protestants and 17 percent of Catholics said that they believe that some people can use the "evil eye" to "cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen."

Since 1996, the percentage of Americans who said that they have been in the presence of a ghost has doubled from 9 percent to 18 percent, and the percentage who said that they were in touch with someone who was dead has increased by nearly two thirds, rising from 18 percent to 29 percent.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Harmony: two ungulates eat out of one bathtub

Mark does Illustration Friday: "Crunchy."

Bobcat in the Tropical Snow

Acrylic on canvas

9 x 12



Stumbled Upon

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Napoleon and the tailor - a Yiddish folktale

My loose translation from Immanuel Olsvanger

When the emperor Napoleon was fleeing Russia, he found himself running through a Jewish village. He's running, and the Russians are right behind him!

When he saw a passel of soldiers hot on his heels, he ran quickly into the little house of a simple tailor and said to him in a shaky voice: "Hide me quickly or they'll kill me!"

The tailor didn't know who he was, but when someone begs you to save him, you save him. He said to the emperor: "Be so good as to crawl into my bed under the feather comforters, and lie there and don't move!" And the emperor got into the bed, and the tailor covered him with one feather comforter and another, and a third and a fourth as well.

Not a moment had passed when the door flew open and and two soldiers with spears rushed in. "Has anybody come in here to be hidden?"

The Jew said, "No! Who would come here to be hidden?"

The soldiers searched here and there, and finally stabbed through the feather comforters on the bed a couple of times - there was nobody. They went away, back to wherever they came from.

When they were well and truly gone, the emperor crept out from under the comforters, pale as the wall. He says to the Jew: "You should know - I'm the emperor Napoleon. And because you've saved me from certain death, you can ask me for three things. Whatever they may be, I'll give them to you!"

The poor Jew thinks a minute and says: "Look here, emperor my dear, see how my roof leaks? It's been this way for two years already. Maybe you could have somebody fix it?"

The emperor looks at him and says: "You blockhead, of course I'll do it! You're asking such a modest thing from me? Ask for something better! But remember, now you can only ask for two more things."

The little tailor turns it over in his head: what better thing can he ask for? He thinks and thinks, and eventually he says: "Here, on the same street as me, lives another tailor, he's taking some of my customers. If only you could get him to to move someplace else!"

The emperor waves impatiently and says: "There's an idiot for you! Typical! OK, I'll get that other tailor to go to the devil! But can't you think up anything bigger to ask for? You only get one more wish!"

The Jew heard this and thought very hard; finally he smiled and asked: "I'd like to know, please tell me, how did you feel, lying in my bed, when the soldiers stuck their swords through the bedcovers?"

The emperor heard this and was outraged. "How dare you ask? The nerve! For this kind of impudence I'll have you shot, you so-and-so!" He immediately called a couple of his soldiers, and they clapped the tailor in irons and carried him away.

You can just imagine how the Jew's heart trembled in his bosom, especially after they said: "You'll be shot tomorrow morning." He probably didn't sleep all night! He cried and shook, quivered and quaked, and said confession.

Next morning he was tied to a tree, and three soldiers stood facing him with their rifles. And a fourth stood to one side with a watch in his hand, waiting for the moment of execution.

Finally he raised his arm and started counting: "One! Two! Thr..."

He had not quite called out the word "three" - and here comes a General on a horse, shouting "Stop, don't shoot!" He goes to the Jew and says: "The emperor forgives you, and he's sent you this note."

Sighed with relief, the Jew took the note and started reading. And this is what the note said: "I felt then exactly as you were feeling just now."

The tailor has kept the note with him to this very day.


Friday, December 04, 2009

An alternate grading rubric (from a physician)

A friend was amused by Hannah's grading criteria and wrote the following.

I might put together a physical symptom scale as experienced by the

F:nausea and/or vomiting
D:eye strain and headache
C:Mild heartburn
B:neutral buoyancy
B+:slightly more buoyancy
A-:mild euphoria or a sense of general wellbeing and fitness

[Hannah]: emotional grading rubric

Honestly, grading is so subjective. This is my first semester of grading papers and I seriously found that only my emotional reaction could really tell me what the grade of an undergraduate 5-7 page essay ought to be.
Rage: F (professor says: a paper that receives an "F" is a paper that is actively hostile toward knowledge).

Bewilderment: D

Irritation: C

Utter indifference: B-, B

Intense frustration: B+

Mild pleasure: A-

Actual enjoyment, interest in having conversation with student: A
I imagine a paper that produced actual laughter and tears might merit an A+ but I sure haven't seen one of those yet.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

How to make sure you always have a guitar pick.

We were all struck by this story when we heard it so many years ago. It evolved, in our household, into the concept of "saturation" - in order to have a pair of scissors when you need one, you simply have to keep buying scissors until everywhere you look, in every room, there's a pair of scissors.

My bandmate Jim Baird wanted to make a note at rehearsal the other day, looked around, and said, "Hey, where's a pencil? Usually wherever I look in this room there's a pencil. ... Oh."

Extracts from
Bill Harley's guitar picks
Heard on NPR's All Things Considered on January 3, 1995

I am in heaven. I just got a package in the mail, one gross of flat picks, 144.

Only if you're a guitar player do you understand. The layperson would equate it with 144 pairs of clean, matching socks in the drawer.

In the past 10 years, I've probably bought 1,000 flat picks, and I don't know where any of them are. Have you seen them? I don't think anyone's stealing them. Flat picks are the bane of my existence, but I have to have them. Without them I'm lost. I can't stand on stage without a flat pick.

There must be at least 500 flat picks lying around my house, but I can't find any of them.

I have a theory, which led me to buy that gross of flat picks. It's scientific. There's no magic. It's based on the second law of thermodynamics. The universe tends towards disorder. It's only natural that a concentration of flat picks should disperse throughout the universe seeking equilibrium. If I have 10 in one place, they're going to move away from each other seeking an absence of flat picks.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and there's a lot of places that have absolutely no flat picks at all. I am only a natural conduit, a hollow reed dispensing flat picks, helping the universe in its inexorable move towards a steady state.

There is a corollary. If I redistribute enough flat picks and they are fairly evenly spaced, then wherever I go, a flat pick will be waiting for me and my guitar. I won't have to be organized and expend energy in the preservation of the concentration of flat picks. I'll be in tune with the universe.

One more thing. My flat picks are yellow medium Tortex. If you find one, don't pick it up. I'll be back for it.

"We are making a new world" - Paul Nash


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Make websites that older people won't hate! It's a no-brainer.

I've been railing against hip young web designers and their fancy sites with tiny font-sizes and hard-to-click cascades of menus for a long time, and I'm far from 65 years old. Is it more important to designers to impress each other or is it more important to make a website understandable and easy to use?

Extracts from
Usability for Senior Citizens
by Jakob Nielsen

Seniors are one of the fastest growing demographics on the Web. The United States alone has an estimated 9 million Internet users over the age of 65 as of September 2004.

All industrialized countries have huge populations of senior citizens, many of whom have substantial assets.

Although they are typically retired, seniors lead very active lives and often have great interest in modern technologies such as the Internet, which gives them another method to communicate and stay informed.

In our study, email was the main Internet application used by seniors. Our participants used the Web mainly for:
  • Research
  • News
  • Tracking investments
  • Researching medication and medical conditions
  • And, to a lesser extent, to shop and bank online

To learn how seniors (defined as over the age of 65) use the Web, we conducted three series of usability tests. They asked 20 seniors, and 20 younger internet users to perform these tasks:

  • Fact-finding
  • Buying an item
  • Retrieving information
  • Comparing and contrasting
Overall usability was slightly more than twice as good for non-seniors as it was for seniors.

Why is usability lower for seniors?

Websites tend to be produced by young designers, who often assume that all users have perfect vision and motor control, and know everything about the Web.

Among the obvious physical attributes often affected by the human aging process are eyesight, precision of movement, and memory.

... we observed several users who did not differentiate clearly between a website's search box and the browser's URL box. After all, both are input fields that you type in when you want to go elsewhere.

Our testing identified many instances of poor design that compounded to make the Web more than twice as hard for seniors to use. Complying with the guidelines for designing for seniors would remove many such usability problems.

The most widely known principle for supporting seniors' computer use is to support larger font sizes than those younger users prefer. The principle may be well known, and it was indeed confirmed by our study, but still, it is frequently violated by sites that freeze text at a tiny font size.

For hypertext links, large text is especially important for two main reasons: 1) to ensure readability of these essential design components, and 2) to make them more prominent targets for clicking.

You should also avoid tightly clustered links that are not separated by white space. Doing so will decrease erroneous clicks and increase the speed at which users hit the correct link. This rule also applies to command buttons and other interaction objects, all of which need to be reasonably large to be easy to click.

Pull-down menus, hierarchically walking menus, etc. cause problems for seniors who are not always steady with the mouse. It's better to make designs that do not require pixel-perfect pointing.

Supportive and Forgiving Design

When websites violate the guideline to use different colors to distinguish between visited and unvisited links, seniors easily lose track of where they have been.

We've certainly seen the same problem among all age groups: It's confusing when websites change the standard link colors, and it's particularly confusing when the same color is used for all links, whether or not you have visited the destination page. However, seniors have a harder time remembering which parts of a website they have visited before, so they are more likely to waste time repeatedly returning to the same place.

Seniors also have a harder time using unforgiving search engines and forms. We saw users thwarted because they typed hyphens in their search queries, and punished because they used hyphens or parentheses in a telephone or credit card number.

Error messages were often hard to read, either because the wording was obscure or imprecise, or the message's placement on the page was easily overlooked among a profusion of other design elements. Simplicity is even more important than usual when seniors encounter error handling: Your message should focus on the error, explain it clearly, and make it as easy as possible to fix. Also, as much as possible, website tasks should adapt to seniors and their preferred way of doing things. After decades of writing telephone numbers in a certain way, it's not a very nice experience to come across a form that insists on a different format.

Usability Increases Satisfaction

Seniors strongly prefer those websites that are easiest for them to use. The correlation between the success score for our test tasks and users' subsequent subjective rating of the sites was very strong.

Usability for seniors is important, and not just so that they can perform a task aimed at a one-time purchase. By focusing on improving usability for seniors, you can increase their satisfaction and the odds of forming a long-term relationship.

Besides the business reasoning, we all have a very personal interest in increasing usability for seniors: It's the one user category we're all likely to join one day.

Update on Jethro the donkey and Superman the miniature horse

Miniature horse and donkey under one tarpThanks to tarpology learned from Tom Lyndes, I was able to string up a second tarp next to the first to make the shelter big enough for two ungulates who are probably not the best of friends. I also dumped about eight or ten loads of rocks under the tarps and then dry-tamped concrete in there and sprinkled it wet - they had trampled the under-tarp area, which is where the Bathtub of Hay (left) teeters on concrete legs, into a muddy bog. Now the ground there is elevated and doesn't chill their hooves.

Remember, they eschew the perfectly nice shed I built. The tarp is a compromise between Jethro's tendency to stand out in the rain and snow and my wish to have him warm and dry.

Are Superman and Jethro friends? Hard to say. They have little fights most mornings and bite each other, but if Superman runs away Jethro runs after him to continue the "game" (?). Superman whinnies piteously when I take Jethro out for a walk, and at no other time.

Feeding treats to a donkeyHere's Ezra feeding lemon rinds to Jethro. Note how Jethro has made his lips very, very long so he can snatch the lemon peels while keeping his body far back from the electric fence.

The fence, BTW, is a mostly psychological hazard. I myself have been electrocuted by it numerous times. It startles but doesn't harm.

ADDENDUM: Just before Ez fed these lemon peels to Jethro, one of the chickens had tilted her head appraisingly, sidled back and forth, and then jumped up on Jethro's back. She stood there a long time, until I got the camera, pecking at random goodies she found up there.

Jethro twisted his head around to touch his snout to her beak but did not complain or seem surprised. Perhaps this has been happening for a while and I just haven't seen it before.


Walmart Crib: does this say it all?

baby in shopping cart under a lot of big walmart purchases
How to avoid Christmas. As seen at People of Walmart.

Mark's paintings this weekend (not for Illustration Friday)

He did these when he was visiting with his brother.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

I HATE keyword stuffing. SEO over-optimization blows.

Now that I've been writing squidoo lessons I run into some pretty seedy, spammy online neighborhoods.

I don't mean the neighborhoods where people offer to put a tiger in my underwear. I mean those neighborhoods where people that say the same thing over and over again, and over again again, hoping by repeating their "catch phrases" endlessly to convince google they are the ultimate and most perfect answer to the our searches.

It's like this, from a post called keyword stuffing keyword stuffing (heh):