Miscellaneous short rants

CPA Anonymous

Over the past year, my dissatisfaction with the unnecessary preposition “back” has taken an unexpected turn: I’ve acquired a habit of eliminating prepositions from my writing. Not all of them, of course, but you might be surprised at how many you can do without. For example, this afternoon I replaced “put out” with “extinguish”. In a revision of this very paragraph, “cutting down on” was replaced with “eliminating”.

Does anyone else do this? Is there a loose-knit fraternity of compulsive preposition-abolishers?


No Backsies

Many years ago, Isaac Asimov lamented receiving letters from people who asked him to “please write back”. Whatever happened, the good doctor wondered, to the word “reply”?

I’m as guilty as anyone else of using superfluous prepositions, including “back”. This site has dozens of occurrences of “come back”, “went back”, and “go back”, where various forms of “return” would do just fine. Mea culpa. I’ll try to do better.

That said, I cannot stand the phrase “listen back to”. A certain NPR interviewer uses it with grating frequency. “Listen back to”? If you can’t watch back to a television rerun, you can’t listen back to a radio rebroadcast. If you mean “listen again”, say so!



Can we please abandon the phrase “clean-shaven”? “Shaven” works just as well, and avoids the implication that “unshorn” equals “dirty”. It’s particularly depressing to see this phrase used without a first thought by advocates of beards & mustaches. It’s even more depressing to realize that I used it on this site at least once.

Perhaps I’ll adopt the phrase “dirty-shaven” to refer to the face-scrapers. Or maybe just “shorn”.


Update, 2007-12-09: More proposed alternatives:

  • “facially emasculated”
  • “facially neutered”
  • “facially circumcised”

Nothing’s Safe for Work

The acronym NSFW is in vogue among bloggers. It warns readers that linked-to content may offend, hence viewing it in your workplace may not be a good idea.

While it’s considerate to offer readers a choice about viewing potential ickiness, the wording of this warning amazes me. Unless you’re working for a market research firm, why in the world are you reading someone’s journal from work? Don’t people understand that absent an explicit privacy policy (and what company has one?), you must assume everything you do on the Internet—instant messaging, email, IRC, Web browsing, etc.—is monitored by your employer?


It’s All About the Links

The Web has been a cultural mainstay for a decade now. So why doesn’t a CNN story about a New Yorker article link to said article? Why must I hunt it down manually?

We all know the answer, of course: CNN doesn’t want people to leave their site, so they discourage the practice by not adding useful off-site links. (They’re not alone in this practice.) What’s surprising is that after being on the Web for years, they still don’t understand the medium. When will they realize that links make a site more useful, not less?


Email in HTML Format

Why do people send email in HTML format? My email program -- Eudora 3.0 -- doesn’t display it correctly. As a matter of fact, I’ve stayed with that version of Eudora because it doesn’t use an HTML engine (read: Internet Explorer) to display email. I’d rather not open my PC to the security holes that earned IE its infamous reputation.

The disadvantage of using an old email program is that it tries to display the text, stripping all HTML tags. That leaves one big, unbroken blob o’ text. On the rare occasions when I examine the email in a browser, I always find that the HTML tags do nothing more important than add paragraph breaks. In other words, they do nothing that can’t be done in plain text. Remember one of the fundamental laws of computing: never use a more advanced technology when a simpler one will do!


Yet another broken Window

[File menu with ’Create shortcut’ item]

Windows allows you to create a shortcut to a document. I like to place shortcuts to the documents I’m currently working on on my desktop and in my Start menu. So why don’t Windows applications allow me to create shortcuts via the File menu, or via a context menu? I’m tired of having to minimize the current application, bring up the desktop’s context menu, create a shortcut, then be forced to hunt through directories for the file I was working on moments before. The situation is even worse when the file type has no association, for then I also have to open a new file browser to hunt for the application! Why isn’t an application or document smart enough to know how to create a shortcut?

Speaking of dumb documents, does anyone else wonder what happened to the compound document architecture that every tech magazine seemed to be writing about in the mid-1990s? The idea was that a document was a structured collection of different kinds of data, and each chunk knew how to print itself, what editor it required, et cetera. It was an interesting idea that went nowhere, and is today mocked by the dumb nature of Web pages. Take Microsoft; they’re one of the few companies actually using compound documents, in MS Office. Yet Microsoft’s online tech support (a.k.a. "knowledge base") articles are templatized text-only documents. MS hasn’t extended CDA to their database servers. Even though compound document architecture isn’t a new idea, you still won’t see a picture in an MS tech support article on the Web. Where is the innovation? Does Lotus Notes do any better?

I’ll believe that companies really understand compound documents when I see images used flexibly -- not simply in templatized slots -- in database-generated Web pages, or when a document I edit is smart enough to know how to make a shortcut to itself.


The "Concept" Concept

While cleaning my apartment the other night, I uncovered a coupon that was distributed to secretaries at the local university just before Secretary’s Day. Even discounting the fact that this so-called holiday originated in the mind of marketers, the coupon was horrifying. Here it is in its entirety:

McNary Dining Center
wants to wish you...

Happy Secretary’s Day!

Come join us for lunch on Wednesday, April 26th, and have dessert on us! Just give this coupon to your cashier at any of our concepts: Boardwalk Cafe, Parkside Grill, The Deli, Cafe Latte, Della Pizza or Casa Della Pasta.

In appreciation for your hard work!

Let’s reread that, savoring one passage in particular:

... give this coupon to your cashier at any of our concepts: Boardwalk Cafe, Parkside Grill, ...

You might be asking yourself the same perplexed question that I was: How can I eat in an idea? While the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition, notes that "concept" is often used as a synonym for "scheme" or "plan" in the advertising and marketing field, there is no mention of a concept as a place to eat.

A secretary at the university explained that whoever designed the different eateries on the campus gave each a different theme. Hence, in the designer’s mind, they were not places to eat so much as "dining concepts". By some process yet unknown to the rest of humanity, this was shortened to "concepts", and a superb example of language abuse was born.

At the time I wanted to use my lunch hour to hunt whoever was responsible for this linguistic Lusitania. I didn’t, but I might yet. What I wonder is whether the people who run the university realize that this reflects badly on the institution’s standards. If a university cannot use basic nouns correctly, why should it expect its students to?

(If you don’t believe that a university could err so egregiously, see for yourself.)


More Broken Windows

In Word 2000, Microsoft has changed the program’s window paradigm completely. Rather than having multiple documents open inside one copy of Word, now each document runs in a separate copy of the application. They’ve changed the program’s behavior from the Multiple Document Interface (MDI) to the Single Document Interface (SDI). Other examples of SDI are Netscape & Internet Explorer.

One question remains... why? The MDI and SDI each have advantages and disadvantages, but why would MS change the behavior of what’s probably the most-used word processor in the world? Everyone is used to it; why change it now, confusing a legion of users?

A clue might lie in a book on programming Windows applications. Programmers are cautioned against writing MDI applications, for vague reasons. Perhaps MS finally heeded their own advice. The reason doesn’t really matter, though; they shouldn’t change a primary behavior of the application unless there’s a darn good reason, and a belated sense of correct design just isn’t good enough.

For the record, there’s a simple test to see whether an application should use the MDI or SDI. If an application can perform a task across many documents, it should be MDI. TextPad’s powerful search and replace does this, so it makes sense for it to be an MDI application. If an application can only make changes to the current document, it shouldn’t be MDI.

As far as I know, Word only operates on the current document, so by rights it should be SDI. Yet that’s a decision that should have been made when the software was first designed, not years later. Word should never have been MDI in the first place, and now is not the time to correct that error. Radical changes to a mature application’s interface should only be done for critical reasons.



2000-05-25. A friend opined that he preferred Word 2000’s SDI because he could now ALT-TAB between documents. Surprise - you could already do that in MDI Word. It is possible to run multiple instances of Word 97, each with its own set of documents open. How’s that for a confused interface? Perhaps that’s why MS changed it.

Loss of Balance

I hate Adobe Acrobat. What a useless way to make documents available on the Web. Since Acrobat documents aren’t plain text, Web spiders ignore them, so their content isn’t indexed in search engines. They might as well not exist, since no one’s going to find them.

To make it worse, this so-called "portable" document format has real problems. Many of the .pdf files I download aren’t readable. So the data really doesn’t exist, since I’ll never be able to read it.

What a waste -- and all because one company is trying to promote their proprietary, highly formatted standard. All of which contradicts the openness of the Web. And since many sites only offer certain documents as .pdf, I can’t even find out what I’m missing. Useless.

Acrobat? Hardly. It fell off the Web a long time ago.


Breaking Windows paradigms

Windows has this neat thing called the Multiple Document Interface, which allows an application to have multiple documents open in sub-windows. It is useful. Windows also allows you to take screen captures of either the whole screen or the current window. This is also useful. So why didn’t they extend this to MDI? There’s no way to capture the active document window of an MDI application. When I took screen captures for my Illustrator tips pages, I had to crop every single image down to just the active document window. It wasted a lot of time. Why did the Windows designers fail to extend screen captures for MDI? They didn’t even follow their own paradigm. Dumb.


Bad popular Science Fiction

Two names: Piers Anthony and Frank Herbert. Anthony wrote some good stuff way back when (like Macroscope). I read On a Pale Horse and liked it. Then I read the next in the series and it was dreadful. In the middle of the book he dropped in two chapters that might as well have come from Mars. He ended the book with his usual long afterword, in which he implied that people who don’t fill every waking moment with activity might as well be dead. That’s it; into the trash barrel with you. I haven’t read him since. From all impressions I get, I haven’t missed a thing. Can you say "hack"? What good does it do to be writing every moment when all you churn out is swill?

Then there’s Frank Herbert. I read Dune and liked it at the time, then suffered through four more volumes. I’ve also read a half-dozen other works of his. Bleah! Why did I bother? None of his characters express any emotion other than a lust for power. Everyone always seems to be scheming. My universe is bigger than that, and I’ve stopped reading his sandbox intrigues.


Evil Advertising

On interstate 5 near Salem, Oregon there’s a billboard that disgusts me even though I agree with it. On a uniform light blue background there’s a cartoon drawing of a small mousy-looking guy. In his word balloon is the phrase "Things sure are quiet without advertising"... as if there’s something wrong with quiet. Do people really think that a quiet moment must be filled with something, anything? Is silence so evil?


Quotes and Double Quotes

What’s the deal with writing quotes? Instead of using the double quote character ("thingy"), some people use double single quotes (’’thingy’’, or, even worse, ``thingy’’). Is there a reason people write this way? Do people want to avoid using the HTML entity "? Can someone explain it to me?


An Explanation

2003-04-01. The ``doubled backtick & tick’’ style is how curly double quotes are typeset in TeX. Old habits obviously die hard.

Last updated 21 July 2008
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons

Previous: Rants: Privacy ··· Next: Rants: Soy