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Dear Internets

You’ll have to excuse my recent quietude, it’s nothing personal. You see, I’ve met a young lady; a physiotherapy student a couple years younger than me. You know what it’s like when things are new and exciting and you need to spend a lot of time making eyes at one another… it’s very time consuming, I’m sure you understand. She continues to amaze me though, shy as she is, she has a sense of humor on her and very decent taste in, well… all the things I never thought were important to have in common with someone until it actually happened. Music, for instance; she likes Muse and Powderfinger and Sarah McLachlan, and has actually heard of K’s Choice. She watches Scrubs and Last Man Standing, and picks up obscure references to five-year-old Jimeoin jokes I make in shoe stores. Baffling. Oh, and she’s a nerd, so that’s where half the attraction is. Not a computer nerd though, don’t get too excited. As much as I love you, interweb, curling up with you on a couch and watching Desperate Housewives isn’t quite as nice. My PowerBook gets warm after a while, sure, but it isn’t particularly soft and doesn’t smell as nice.

So… what’s been up? I see the iPod photo ist kaput, that’s cool. It makes me feel a lot better for having bought a Shuffle instead of splurging on the brick just to get a color display. Those 60GBs were fucking huge. I’m still loving the reclaimed pocket space, but I’m guessing my next one will be a 20GB. I do miss the display, and the ability to listen to an album of my fancy without the premeditated loading of one’s iPod even more. Meanwhile my camera has bit the dust, goddamnit; I guess this is what happens when you sleep on it when you’re camping and it’s 3ºC out. I doubt they like moisture all that much. At least I got a few thousands shots out of ’er.

On the upside, phone manufacturers have started to realize that it’s pointless sticking anything upwards of 1.3MP into a phone without a flash. I live for flash —most of my photos are taken at night— so flashless cameras are utterly useless to me. I’m hopeful the Nokia N70 will be a decent contender when it arrives, unless Sony Ericsson dish up something worthwhile in the mean time. I guess whoever is iSync-friendliest will get the crown.

Project Aardvark was finally unveiled! Nice. I dig the name, Copilot, very sexy. The concept is great, I’m mentally replaying the hours I’ve spent on the phone with my grandfather trying to walk him through the hell that is his XP box… and an It Just Works™ VNC solution sounds like a godsend. I’m sure the alpha geeks will turn up their noses and wonder why one doesn’t just set up their own VNC software and do it all for free, but it turns out they’re the same people that take pleasure in a weekend spent compiling Mandrake Linux. One would hope there are plans to port such a product to other platforms (smiling sweetly); after all, all the great stuff is on OS X these days, is it not?

I’m a little puzzled by the payment model. Day passes? Should I be scheduling all my technophobic relatives together for assistance so I can fix all their problems on the one day? Unlimited clients/limited time… it seems a little fruity outside a professional setting. I’d be interested to see the reverse, even if it meant you were buying a valupak of, say, a dozen one-client/one-hour sessions for the price of one of those infinite-client/twenty-four-hour day passes; a tic-tac solution, as it were. Whenever Uncle Bobby needs help you just redeem one of your stack of Copilot credits and fix his annoying little problem. A much more organic experience for the family support-geek.

Of course, internet-based support isn’t the be-all and end-all. Half the calls I get are “my internet doesn’t work”, in which case VNC is absolutely no help, but it has its place. I’m keen to see it in action.


Letters from abroad

An email I just received from Jimmy… (spelling errors and gratuitous use of caps left untouched)

IVE HAD A FEW PEOPLE ASK ME IF I’M OK FOLLOWING THE ALLEDGED TERROR ATTACKS IN LONDON. THE ANSWER IS NO. I PAID FOR AN ALL DAY TRAVEL PASS THIS MORNING. ALL DAY? I GOT ONE JOURNEY OUT OF IT AND THEN THEY CLOSED ALL UNDERGROUND STATIONS. IF I’D PAID FOR THAT JOURNEY OUTRIGHT IT WOULD HAVE COST ME £1.80, I PAID £5.80 FOR MY TRAVEL CARD, SO LONDON OWES ME 4 QUID.

JUST TO RE-ITERATE I AM NOT OK.


Figuration

Although it’s been eighteen months since I first demanded that publishers everywhere bite the bullet and give us full text in their RSS/Atom feeds, it would seem there’s still some gnashing of teeth on the subject.

In a post meant largely to draw attention to one of the few problems caused by separating content and presentation, Dan has unwittingly opened an angry kettle of partisan fish on the subject of RSS-as-notification-tool versus RSS-as-consumption-medium with a single throwaway line.

Personally, I enjoy reading content in it’s [sic] intended environment, with all the site design around it, and find myself skimming NetNewsWire for interesting articles to pull up in a browser later on.

Me, I’m glad Dan finally had the sense to publish full text; now I actually get to read his stuff! Meanwhile the two authors I made special mention of in that original Summaries article —John Gruber and Jeffrey Zeldman— have turned out to be model examples. Gruber, as part of his funding drive, now provides full-text feeds to his members… so not only do I now enjoy reading Daring Fireball in the controlled environment that is NetNewsWire, I get to swagger around town in a shirt that advertises my utter dorkitude in style. Zeldman, on the other hand, hasn’t changed a thing… and he’s all but lost my readership. I’m still subscribed, I just skip over it every time.

Getting back to the point of this, and Dan’s, entry —that inline images look like ass on an unstyled page— I must offer my support for his proposed microformat (a tiny, tiny, voluntary standard as it may be) that basically says “hey guys! when you’re marking up a graphic figure, give it a class="figure"!”

If everybody did it (and it makes sense, fer chrissakes; it’s a semantically-sound classname, for one) we’d be able to style them universally in user sheets and feed readers. In a show of solidarity, I’ve retroactively edited all such instances of figures here on decaf to use class="figure", and pledge to include support of this new standard in future versions of the Mail stylesheet. Go figure.


Haloed

The opposite of the Halo Effect is the Devil Effect? And comics can be made by copying Wikipedia text verbatim and pasting it onto drawings of hot chicks? Why aren’t I in this business?

Why not the pitchfork effect? Or the Bifurcated Tail Effect? Or the Brimstone Effect? I can think of a dozen better names for “things that are obverse to halos” than ‘Devil’. And this is to say nothing of the more likely celestial —in the non-theological sense— origin of the term referring to the bands of colored light surrounding a light source, caused by refraction, making the light source appear larger. Oy.


Gait

If there’s a downside to dating a physiotherapist (the upsides are free diagnoses and massage, obviously), it’s having your anatomical peculiarities pointed out and explained.

Jess
(as a couple and their dog pass us along the river near her house) I like analyzing people’s gaits.
Chris
Their gaits?
Jess
Yeah (letting herself fall behind). Like you, you tend to walk on your toes… kinda bouncy.
Chris
Thanks; I did go to high school… I’ve had this pointed out before.
Jess
Do you know why, then, smartass?
Chris
Not really. I figured it was some kind of subconscious desire to be wearing heels.
Jess
(laughs) No, it probably just means you have short calves.
Chris
Short calves? But my calves are my best assets! They’re the only muscles that routinely outdo Lee at the gym!
Jess
…probably because you’re always bouncing on them. Seriously: squat for me.
Chris
Squat?
Jess
Squat. Low as you can go.
Chris
(squats)
Jess
See how you can’t keep your heels on the ground? That’s because you have short calves.
Chris
Short calves.
Jess
Yes.
Chris
Great.

Sadly, I’m yet to notice anything particularly queer about her speech that I can pick her up on… then again, her parents are English. It’s hard to pick on someone’s locution when yours is a few generations slacker than hers.


Vista

Succeeding a long line of nomenclaturally uninspired releases —XP, ME, 98, 95, et cetera— Windows Vista is an amusing change of pace for Microsoft. It brings clarity to your world™, apparently, and is the first sign in recent memory of the company taking their product-naming seriously.

Todd has an interesting take; essentially that Microsoft are nowadays marketing Windows to be more like… well, you know what.

Microsoft has been attempting to heighten their reputation by elevating themselves and their products to a quasi-spiritual plane. Look at their recent television advertisements, where a father gushes that the whole universe is inside his PC just waiting for exploration — stars, planets, etc — and that all you have to do log on and get going. Then there are the musicians, film directors, and other creative types talking about how Windows brings their visions to life.

More touchy-feely. More in tune with your body. A realistic choice for creatives.

You’ll have to excuse the gagging.


The importance of impartial user testing

[via Boing Boing] The Hold-It is a handy little tool (if you can call it that) designed specifically to prevent straw loss from your can of WD-40 spray. Of course, it has already been obsoleted by something of the WD-40 Company's own device —the smart straw— but it raises the question: why did it take almost fifty years for this problem to be solved?

Did they never solicit customer feedback? Well, yes they did. They’ve been chronicling the many weird and wonderful uses people have for the spray —in their marketing, on the web site, in the book— for decades. So were there no complaints in those thousands of letters from people who kept losing their straws? Or did they just not care? It seems to me that their customer base is so fanatical (and they are) that the product’s halo overpowered the mediocre user experience. WD-40 is awesome stuff, why not let this little complaint slide?

Because it’s your job; not just to address gripes, but to root out the little things that might not even warrant a grumbly note from a fumes-dizzy fanboy. Sweat the details, and don’t take the praise as proof that your product is flawless.


A finite number of tunes

I’ve always been quietly amused by the fact that ‘the alphabet song’ is to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, moreso that my parents used the same tune to teach me to spell my name:

C - H - R - I - S - T - O
P - H - E - R, off we go.

OK, so they never got past the first verse. I suppose that’s why I never really learned how to spell my middle name until the sixth grade. But it just occurred to me, somewhat freakishly, that Old Mother Hubbard, Little Miss Muffet, and, oh, a billion other nursery rhymes share a tune too. Mashing them up yields infinite pleasures:

Old Mother Hubbard
sat on a tuffet
to give her poor dog a bone.

Some in rags
and some in tags
and pretty maids all in a row.

OK, so the rhyming couplets kinda fuck things around, but what’s the deal? Little Bo Peep? Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary? Little Jack Horner? Hark, Hark, The Dogs Go Bark? Jack and Jill? I read Heavy Words Lightly Thrown just a couple of months ago and it made no mention of the common rhythm and rhyming pattern. Is it really that hard to think of a new tune when you’re constructing a nursery rhyme, or do people believe that it is precisely this tune that makes a rhyme fit for the nursery?

And they thought DJ Danger Mouse was a thief.


Dry

Last semester UWA began deployment of Desert Cubes in men’s bathrooms around campus by way of ‘experimental’ waterless urinals, and have just now started soliciting feedback on the system. As is always the case when it comes to change, and especially to matters of hygiene, there has been some initial confusion; not because of any particular reflex to hit the flush button —those were all replaced with motion sensors some years ago in a retrofitting frenzy— but because, well… they seem too good to be true. From the poster tacked on the wall above the urinal:

The urinal you are using is of the waterless type and is designed to save a most valuable resource.

Desert Cube

Each cube contains naturally occurring microbes that degrade the organic matter that odour-producing bacteria normally grow on, eliminating malodours at the source. The microbes also attach to uric scale deposits and convert them into soluble compounds, preventing unsightly stains.

Cleaning is done daily by simply pouring 5 litres of water down each urinal. Stainless steel urinals are washed down from the top as usual.

No flushing, just peeing on our tiny microbe friends. Frankly, I’m impressed. The bathrooms actually smell cleaner… whether it’s because I’ve become desensitized to the classic trough lolly odor of naphthalene or not I’m unable to tell, but the ‘citrus fresh’ fragrance of the cubes is a nice change to dampness and piss.

<sidenote>To my North American readers, chances are you have no clue as to why anyone would want a pisser that doesn’t flush. That might be because you’re accustomed to using some of the world’s most poorly-designed urinals (3.5 gallons per flush? that’s the national standard you aim for?), or it might just be that you don’t live on the driest continent in the world, but I can see where you’re coming from. Water conservation: not a big deal to you. We take it where we can get it. Note also that waterless urinals ≠ waterless toilets. Shitting is still considered a water-intensive activity.</sidenote>

The untold story, though, is that of the cleaners. What do they get out of this? Checking the literature, the end-of-day cleaning procedure is a bit more than the “rinse with water” the marketing claims, but I’m unsure whether this constitutes more of an effort than ‘the old way’ or less. By comparison, I’ve been using Enjo products around the house for a few years now, and though it’s actually more work in places than using traditional chemical cleaners it’s greatly offset by the better, cleaner, fresher results all ‘round, and the pleasant feeling you take away from knowing you didn’t just burn your hands, eyes, and nostrils with four kinds of bleach. And that’s to say nothing of the environmental impact.

Back to the topic of urinals, Richard Morhall —of campus plumbing and maintenance— is just waiting for your enthusiastic emails at rmorhall@admin.uwa.edu.au; so assuming you’re a student or at least live in Perth, I’d drop him a line and a big bravo for the planet and for the nostrils of gentlemen everywhere.