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Speechless

Listening to a few-weeks-old This Week In Tech podcast this morning on the train, a bit of chatter between John C. Dvorak and the gang caught my ear…

Dvorak
Over the years I gave a lot of speeches and over the years I’ve used everything: I’ve produced films and put them up…
Laporte
You used to use your Amiga! Didn’t you?
Dvorak
Right. Video Toaster, I’d make some presentations that way. Also I spoke without PowerPoints for a while…
Laporte
How is that? Because I’m thinking of doing that.
Dvorak
No! Don’t do it!
Others
[Laughter]
Dvorak
I’ll tell you why.
Laporte
Like an old-fashioned speech! You speak!
Dvorak
It doesn’t work! It doesn’t work. What happens is: people are so used to looking for some diversion, something up on the screen, that if you think you’re gonna stand up there in this day and age and entertain people you better be the best speaker in the world. I mean, when you’re just up there talking cold with nothing for somebody to glance at or any talking notes, you have to be looking down a lot because you gotta see what you’re gonna be talking about. With PowerPoint you just look at the slide because it just triggers what your thoughts are. This is, of course, normal professional speaking where you’re not just sitting there reading a paper, which as far as I’m concerned I don’t understand why people even give a speech like that. You might as well just mail it to me.
Gibson
Exactly, just hand it out.
Dvorak
Yeah, hand it out, I don’t need to have you read it. Most of these people can’t read very well.
Laporte
I do, like you, find myself using more video, audio, multimedia, and fewer slides: I don’t put a lot of text on slides and I don’t use as many slides.
Dvorak
I just use them as talking points, and people can refer to them or sometimes they wanna see the slideshow or they wanna download it afterwards or whatever, but if you think you can go out there and give cold speeches without PowerPoints in this day and age to these audiences it’s a huge mistake. You gotta have something. It doesn’t have to be PowerPoint, it’s just gotta be something up there. That’s just the way it is, I’ve experimented, you just don’t get the results you’re looking for when you just stand up there and pontificate.

Part of me agrees with the man. If there’s a forty foot white screen behind you and it’s blank, not even illuminated, people may wonder what your deal is: put up a photo that illustrates your point, or a video feed of your head so they aren’t staring down from their tiered seating to your tiny little podium-bound figure. The other part of me says Dvorak has just seen too many lousy speeches, and given too many lousy speeches, to believe anymore that a great speech can be delivered without a crutch. He’s given up.

Obviously, I disagree. I’ve seen dozens of fantastic speeches, and have delivered a handful myself (modest, too), that don’t depend on that kind of crap. When you’re speaking, people are there to see you, to listen to you. Anything on the screen, particularly if it’s text, is a distraction. Try listening to your local news anchor and reading the headline ticker along the bottom of the screen at the same time. It’s a diversion of attention, and it’s pointless.

I gotta say, at least the man is humble enough to admit he isn’t the best speaker in the world, but it’s lousy advice. If you’re a bad speaker, maybe you shouldn’t be giving speeches. If you’re a bad writer but a great speaker, maybe you just shouldn’t be writing your speeches. If you need a good enough example of people “in this day and age” delivering speeches without half-assed props and crutches, look to your world leaders. People watch and listen to these speakers because they feel they must, because they feel they will be better informed for having paid attention. If your audience is getting bored listening to you speak, then sure — maybe you do need to spice up your presentations.

Or maybe you’re speaking to the wrong crowd.


Certifiable

A few months back Sven-S. Porst shot me an email:

I am planning to make a post on my site touching the topic of e-mail encryption once more. While the software for encryption is in place for everybody using Mail (or Mozilla based mail applications), the main problem that keeps us from having encrypted e-mails is that very few people have the certificates that are required to do the encryption.

Being that Sven and I correspond with some regularity (he has quite a knack for calling bullshit when he knows I’m wrong about something), and that he has a reputation for the depth of his software reviews, I knew it’d be worth a look. After checking the link he provided to a very useful (though slightly out-of-date) how-to for getting a free mail certificate, I promised I’d have a play and wait for his post on the matter to add my two cents.

Time flies, huh?

Digital signatures and encryption aren’t exactly contentious issues — everyone agrees they’re a good idea. Email is typically sent in the clear: easy to intercept, easy to interfere with, and impersonating someone else is (to a point) as easy as changing the right field in your email client’s Account Setup window. You can even do it in Gmail these days. How many chain emails have you received from “bill@microsoft.com” anyway? You just edit your name and your outgoing email address to match someone else’s and you’re superficially indistinguishable from the real thing The problem with deployment isn’t just the difficulty of obtaining a certificate though (or rather, the inconvenience), it’s the overhead you then suffer trying to use them. That is, assuming you aren’t an asshole, the overhead you suffer trying not to annoy everyone else in the world who happens to be running a shitty mail client. And that’s a lot of people.

Digital signatures are attachments, after all. And if your mail client doesn’t interpret those attachments the way it’s supposed to (that is: by making you aware that this email is signed, and hiding the implementation details) it’ll just show them as attachments. Small, oddly-named attachments. And people get kinda nervous about receiving small, oddly-named attachments in the mail. It screams virus, even if nothing could be further from it.

Thus it becomes your job as a non-asshole to turn off digital signing when dealing with shitty mail clients, turning it back on when you’re dealing with a known-adequate recipient, and turning it off or on during a bulk mailout… to taste, naturally.

It might be worth noting here that when I say “shitty mail client” I don’t (for once) mean Outlook Express; it handles them with aplomb, at least according to Microsoft’s web site. What I do mean is webmail: Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo, SquirrelMail… you name it. And since a quick review of my Sent folder tells me that upward of 80% of my regular correspondence is with webmail users, I’m up shit creek on this one. I don’t want them to think I’m sending them viruses. I don’t want them to have to ask what the attachment is for. I just want it to work. And it’s a damn shame it doesn’t.

One would hope, given that Gmail’s signup process is somewhat less than anonymous to dissuade scammers and spammers, that Google will have the nounce to integrate certificate handling and start doling out the certificates themselves. Apple’s .Mac service is already doing this for Secure iChat, and users have already discovered that the certificate can be extended to their .Mac email addresses too. If Gmail alone handled certificates, I’d be able to sign upward of 90% of my outgoing mail (enough to tell the remainder to get a fucking clue) and encrypt almost as much… it would be the tipping point we’ve all been waiting for in secure email, and it’s long overdue.

Google?

Update

Not having tested Gmail’s “change the From header” feature myself (as great as Gmail is, I still prefer ‘rich client’ applications and do my Gmailing by POP), I have to thank Tomas Jogin for pointing out that Google is crazy smart and actually requires you verify your identity/ownership before being allowed to use a different outgoing email address.

Now, about those certificates…


Response time

When I’m out with people —getting coffee, say— I will invariably run into someone else I know. It happens to everyone; it’s a small world. But I am invariably chastised by my company for not properly introducing them to this interloper before they’ve disappeared.

Jess
You two seemed pretty chummy.
Chris
Well yeah, I’ve known her for like ten years. And in eighth grade I dated her best friend. And Mike dated her other friend for like half a day.
Jess
And you didn’t introduce me to her why?
Chris
Well I would, but for me to do that I’d have to be able to remember her name; and introductions tend to work in such a way that I can’t tell her your name without telling you hers.
Jess
You’ve known her a decade and you can’t remember her name?! Do you remember my name?
Chris
Har Har.

It isn’t rudeness, although that’s exactly what it looks like. The problem is my brain has a seek time measured in minutes and, depending on the subject, a rotational delay of hours. Later that evening I would burst out It’s Rebecca! Her name is Rebecca! and order would be restored, but in the mean time I could either sit around and poll I/O every second and become immensely frustrated, or I could get interrupt-driven on my own ass and just do something else and wait for the penny to drop.

At the same time, I have this wealth of perfectly useless information stored for easy retrieval in short term memory (or RAM, if we want to persist with this metaphor). It makes for interesting dinner conversation, but damned if I can remember anything useful like picking up the dry cleaning. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with my priorities: how often do I bump into some girl I knew in high school and need to introduce her to someone new? Dry-cleaning is another matter. I just need more RAM.


Backtrack: 2 stories I planned to tell, but didn’t at the time

August of this year my Hagerstonian friends Laura and Allison (I’m sure the official term is Hagerstowner, but I’m stuck in my ways) came to visit and vacation around Australia. They had fun, although I warned them in advance that coming here in winter was folly, and did all the usual tourist jive. Arriving on a Monday from Cairns and leaving on a Friday for Sydney, they weren’t in town for any part of a weekend —which makes it tough to party too hard— but such is life.

As is generally the case with any American visitors to our fine country, they asked in advance if there was anything they might bring for us: any American treats we might desire. Dave’s family, ever hungry for sugar, requested York Peppermint Patties, Salt Water Taffy, Peanut Butter M&Ms, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and all the great stuff you just can’t buy here but might crave if you had grown up with it. Having developed quite an affection for Big Red over the years, I would normally request a case of that… but since they sell it in supermarkets now it wasn’t an issue. I would’ve asked for a case of Root Beer, but weight is always a consideration; even though they’ve mandated I bring them a case of Schweppes Lemonade next time I’m there. Not having anything else to suggest, I thought hard about what in the world I would want from the USA that I couldn’t get myself.

One of the things that becomes invaluable to a man traveling the world with his buddies is a good cup. A big cup. The kind of cup you can drink beer from, or a good gin and tonic. The kind of cup you can eat ramen out of in front of the TV, or your breakfast cereal on a two day train ride. A good cup is every receptacle you’ll ever need when you’re living out of a suitcase. At the start of our holiday last year, at a Taco Bell in Orange County, I collected my first such cup.

Fearing the Jumbo size at first, I opted for a Large and it served me well for a month. I say fearing because the Jumbo was bigger than any cup I had ever before seen. A month later, stopping by a 7-11 in Hagerstown, I found its replacement: the Double Gulp… a cup that made the Taco Bell Jumbo look dainty, and I didn’t have to be afraid any more. That cup served me for another two months on the road, and does to this day, but in the months following our trip I became nervous that I might lose it. Or break it. It might melt in the dishwasher. Or some fiend, sick with jealousy, might steal it from me. Something had to be done to preserve my Double Gulp.

You have to appreciate that the Double Gulp is unique in my world. The biggest soda you can order here —and this is in a movie theater— is the ‘Super Mega’, which weighs in at a paltry 34 ounces. Not paltry by Australian standards, but laid side-by-side with 64 ounces of 7-11 chug-a-lug luxury it’s quite petite.

With all that in mind, I asked Laura and Allison to bring me a spare Double Gulp cup to keep safe for the day mine bit the dust. I’m a modest man, clearly. In all the world I just wanted a cup: they brought me twenty. You might say I’m set for life. I should probably throw some kind of Gulping party.

I’m a godfather now too.

It was a lazy wednesday afternoon some months back and I was driving around with Ben when my phone rang. Afterwards he made a sarcastic comment that he could tell I was talking to a woman —my voice raised three semitones and I suddenly sounded enthusiastic about everything— but he was right: Sherene had rung to ask if I would be her son Quinn’s godfather. I accepted, naturally, without quite knowing what godfatherhood entailed, and waited for the big day.

I’m told godparents are responsible for the child’s religious education, something that in this case will have to wait until Quinn is old enough to be taken to a strip club, but is also responsible for the child’s rearing should the parents be killed. A little morbid, but if the Scouts taught me anything it’s to always Be Prepared™. I found out shortly afterward that I’m not at all legally bound to take in any orphaned children, being that I’m not Quinn’s legal guardian, but I am at least morally bound. I found out even more shortly after that that they already have a legal guardian lined up; I’m just here for the religious guidance and the honor.

Whew.

The service itself was quite amusing. I’m unsure that there was a religious soul in the chapel beyond the chaplain himself, and here we all were pledging to raise this child in a manner consistent with the Catholic faith, with Jesus in our hearts and our gold in the collection plate, Amen. I got to light a candle.

So yeah, godparent. Me. I know it pales in comparison to all the breeders out there doing the deed (the Cederholms, for instance. Congratulations to Dan and Kerry), but it’s what I got and I’m sticking with it. ‘Til next time, stay tuned for more of Tales From Chris’ Life!