About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Encounters with readers are bracing. They remind us that nobody cares how hard we work, what obstacles we face, how good our intentions are. They don't see that, and they don't want to. They see the product. When the product is defective in some way, they conclude that we are dim-witted, lazy, incompetent or all three.

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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 10/16/2014

Totals
Posts - 2312
Comments - 2502
Hits - 1,675,128

Averages
Entries/day - 0.56
Comments/entry - 1.08
Hits/day - 405

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 3:03 AM Pacific


  01:08 AM

For Friday Fun this time, I'll tell you the story of how I've been waging war on some squirrels. And how that's going, or not.

We have birdfeeders on our deck:
Some of our birdfeeders

They’re nice. We see all manner of wildfowl — not just the variety of songbirds that we have here in the NW, but occasional surprise visitors like flickers and jays. Now and then we’ll see a hummingbird, who seems to visit the feeder when the pickings are slim elsewhere.

And then there are other visitors. Those would of course be squirrels:


Squirrel [#]

As it turns out, many of the things that birds like, like sunflower seeds and suet, are things that squirrels really, really like also.

Now, I don’t have anything against squirrels as such. They’re, you know, cute and stuff. I don’t even particularly mind squirrels having a snack at the feeders.

But. But, but, but. Here’s the thing. The squirrels chase off the birds. Not deliberately, just because they’re big critters in comparison. And worse, they’re greedy little buggers. They don’t just come and have a handful of millet and then head home. Oh, no. They decimate the sunflower seeds and (especially) the suet. And worst of all, as they perform their acrobatics to get at the seed, they tip the birdfeeders so that all the seed pours out! I’ll fill the feeder and an hour later I’ll see a squirrel out there and the seed is all in a heap on the ground.

This would not do.

I had hopes for a while that I might get the dogs interested in this problem. “Look!” I’d urge them. “There’s squirrels out on the deck!” You know, get their predator instincts engaged. But the dogs are old, and my exhortations barely got them to stop snoring on their comfy dog beds. The cat was, if possible, even less interested.

I did a turn as a kind of human scarecrow. “Hey!” I would shout. I’d run out on the deck and stomp my feet. This worked, to the extent that it chased the squirrels away. But either they were savvy enough or stupid enough to come back in short order, and let’s face it, I can’t spend all day dashing out onto the deck to frighten the squirrels.

I could see that there was only one solution. I was going to have to shoot them.

(Keep reading.)

I knew just what I wanted, so I headed to a nearby sporting-goods store. When I went home, I had one of these things:



Pretty wicked-looking, eh? If you know your armaments, however, you might not be as impressed. (The orange ring at the business end of the barrel is the giveaway.) This is a CO2-powered airgun that shoots 6mm plastic pellets: plastic BBs, in effect.

See, I don’t really want to hurt the squirrels. All I wanted to do was instill in them a desire to go raid someone else’s birdfeeders. I thought that if they experienced the occasional stinging sensation when they came to visit, they’d learn — hey, they’re sort of like rats, right? — to associate that discomfort with our birdfeeders. Very Skinner.

This gun, it horrified my wife and the girls. I’m pretty sure my wife has never fired a real gun before. And although this thing is up just one level from a toy, it does have a bit of heft to it, and of course it’s designed as a replica of a real pistol. I showed her the plastic BBs and how it had a safety and everything. Almost harmless. See, you just point it at the tree over there, and just pull the trigger, and pft! pft! pft! The little plastic balls bounce merrily off the tree. Fun!

She looked … skeptical.

Anyway, thus commenced my attempts to shoot squirrels. Tricky business. For one thing, the squirrels knew enough that if they heard the patio slide open, or a window, they’d scamper off. And even if I could get off a couple of shots, it turns out that aiming a pistol — and in particular, using an air-powered pistol to shoot plastic pellets at a quickly moving target — is harder than it looks on TV. Probably for every dozen shots I fired (and then had to reload), 1 or 2 might come close.

And then it turned out that the few times I actually did hit a squirrel, the pellet would literally bounce off the beast. I’m not convinced that the squirrel even felt much.

So. I can’t say that my firearms-based defense against squirrels has been particularly effective. Basically, we play a game, the squirrels and I. I pretend to be Deadeye Dan, sharpshooter, who will pick off those pesky squirrels if they come tresspassing. And they pretend to be scared and scamper off when I open the window and level my weapon at them.

It’s more fun than running out and stomping my feet, tho.

Now, I’m sure my wife was somewhat surprised when I came home with what looked like a pistol to her. But she was even more surprised, I think, when I’d be doing dishes or something, then leap for the cupboard, grab the gun, throw open the window, and start blasting away. Who the hell was this guy she’d married, anyway? “Squirrels!” I would have to explain.

But there was a moment. I was making the long trek out to our mailbox one afternoon when I heard the definite sound of the airgun blasting away. When I went back inside, I had to ask. Well, it turned out that there had been squirrels at the feeder, so my wife had grabbed the gun from the cupboard, flipped off the safety, and … well, squirrels!

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  07:05 PM

More Friday Fun. This week I celebrated 15 years as a full-timer at Microsoft. My colleagues at work took me out to lunch and presented me not just with the giganto crystal that you get from the company as your 15-year marker, but with a very cool present: a book. Not just any book, tho — it is, to quote the title page in full:

The

Scientific and Literary

Treasury:

A New and Popular

Encyclopedia

of

The Belles Lettres:

Condensed in form, familiar in style, & copious in information;
Embracing an extensive range of subjects in

Literature, Science, and Art.

The whole surrounded with

Marginal Notes, containing concise Facts
with appropriate observations.

By Samuel Maunder


This was published in 1858 in London. (Actually, it’s the revised edition — the original was published in 1840.) It’s a beautiful little (literally little) book, bound in leather with an embossed title on the spine. Here’s a picture:


(The glasses are in fact required; the book is set in 6-point type.)

And here’s a picture of the title and faceplate.


The evening after the lunch, we were piled on the bed while Sarah read selections to us out of the treasury. There is of course a certain style to books written in the mid-19th century, but Mr Maunder also has a distinct personality. Here he is in the Preface, introducing his work:

     There are few tasks of more difficult accomplishment, than the one which an Author feels bound to undertake, when a performance which has engrossed much of his time, and to which he has probably directed his best energies, is about to be submitted to the public. Literary usuage appears, however, to have decided, that upon such an occasion, some prefatory observations are considered indispensable ; but, while prompted by a natural desire to enter somewhat freely into the merits of that which has occupied his most earnest attention, the overwhelming apprehension of being thought egotistical, and the bare possibility of really becoming so, will often paralyze the Writer’s well-intention efforts. In the present instance, I can truly say, that my incessant occupation from the hour I commenced this volume to the very eve of its publication, coupled as it has been with an anxious desire to render it worthy of public favor, have left me no time to consider what arguments would most likely to fix the reader’s attention to the following pages ; in what terms I should entreat his kind indulgence ; or upon what grounds I could venture to deprecate the severity of criticism.
     May I be allowed to say, that I have endeavoured to produce a work, which — while I am fully sensible of its numerous imperfections — I trust, may be generally acceptable, and, I hope, extensively useful?

I was also delighted with the following passage from the Preface, which in my line of work is known as “setting audience expectations”:

     I am well aware how natural it is for a person who is engaged in any particular study, or who has a predilection for some given topic, to be desirous of making himself as fully acquainted with it as possible, and to feel, perhaps, a degree of disappointment, where another person, with different views and pursuits, would be abundantly satisfied ; but the candid reader, I am persuaded, will grant, that a complete system of any science can hardly be expected in a work whose highest excellence must, after all, be a judicious brevity ; and that if the principles be clearly stated, they will often suffice till the details can be sought in works especially adapted for their elucidation. My great object has been to produce a book that should meet the wants and wishes of a very large and most respectable class of readers, whose opportunities of studying the ponderous tomes of science are as unfrequent as their aspirations after knowledge are ardent. To the literati, I know it can present few attractions ; to the man of science it presumes not to offer anything new. But there may be times, when even these may find it convenient to consult a hand-book of reference, so portable and yet so full, if it be merely to refresh the memory on some neglected or forgotten theme.

As promised, the book has marginal notes on every page containing concise Facts. Here’s a picture of one page that shows that there’s a Fact not just on the bottom, but running up the page:


We decided that Our Author had certain predilections himself. For example, consider the contrast between the entry for Dog, which begins like this and goes on for about the same length again:

   DOG, (Canis familiaris), an animal well known for his attachment to mankind, his incorruptible fidelity, and his inexhaustible diligence, ardour, and affection. But when we thus describe this faithful animal, we mean those only which man has domesticated. In his wild state the dog is a beast of prey, and of the wolf kind, clearing the earth of carrion, and living in friendship with the vulture. By Mahometans and Hindoos the dog is regarded as impure, and neither will touch one without an ablution ; they are therefore unappropriated, and prowl about the towns and villages, devouring the offal, and thus performing the office of scavengers. Tamed and educated by man, the numerous good qualities of dogs have claimed and received the tribute of universal praise. Their sensibility is extreme ; witness their susceptibility of the slightest rebuke, and restless anxiety to be restored to favour. Uninfluenced by changes of time and place, these animals seem to remember only the benefits they may have received, and, instead of showing resentment, will lick the hand from which they have received the severest chastisement. The skill of several species in the chase, where they act as the purveyors of man ; their domestic habits ; their kindness to children ; in a word, their general congeniality with man himself, have, in all ages, recommended them to his use and care.[…]

… and the entry for Cat; this is it in its entirety:

   CAT, a well known domestic animal, of the feline genus, but sometimes wild in the woods, and large and ferocious.

Anyway, we’ve been having a great time with this book, and all agreed that Mr Samuel Maunder must have been an interesting and congenial person himself. (His apparent aversion to cats notwithstanding.)

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  10:53 PM

For Friday Fun this week, I asked around about what corporate employees use as their nickname. For example, I work at Microsoft; we call each other Microsofties. I have it on excellent authority that people who work at Amazon call each other Amazonians, and so on.

For help, I asked my Facebook Friends, who are mostly folks in high-tech. I also enlisted the aid of naming expert and well-connected word person Nancy Friedman, who took the question with success to various lists of which she is a member.

Here are some preliminary responses. Note that these are all self-reported names, so I can't vouch for their accuracy in every case.

6 March 2012 Update! Added several that folks have sent me.A couple of responses I got sounded a bit, dunno, corporate, tho I'm assured that these are in fact the right names:
  • Disney: Cast Members
  • Starbucks: Partners
There are some companies that I really wanted to get names for, but so far no luck:
  • Adobe (based on Aldusian — a company absorbed by Adobe — I thought at least some contigent in that company might call themselves Adobians)
  • Apple
  • Boeing (two Boeing people told me they're unaware of any such nickname)
  • Nordstrom See above!
6 March 2012 Update I asked someone today who works at Tully's if they have a name like this. Not that she knows of, she said.

I'd be delighted to expand this list, should anyone be aware of more. (There must be hundreds, I imagine.)

Then there is the question of what we might call a nickname like this. A name based on a place is a toponym. A name for people from a city or region is a demonym. I solicited some ideas for this, too. We threw around corporanym and employeeonym. Someone suggested "idionym, which should mean roughly 'your own name'."

The most interesting suggestion was from Colleague Clay, who knows his way around a number of languages. He suggested ergazomenonym ("from modern Greek εργαζόμενου= employee"). I like it tons, although I'd need some coaching, perhaps, in how to pronounce it properly.

Another interesting exercise, which I have not delved into, is to try to deduce what sorts of rules might be at play in how these names are formed. When Nancy Friedman wrote about demonyms a little while ago, she referenced some rules that I won't repeat here but that go into some detail about the phonological basis for some of the names, and the various additional factors that obtain. I have no doubt that a similar (and similarly complex) set of rules could be deduced for the creation of these ... uh, ergazomenonyms.

So. Your thots?

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  11:04 PM

For some Friday Fun today, I'll tell you the story of how I solved (I think) a problem in my home office. My office is in the bottom level of the house ("daylight basement"), in what's normally known as the "rec room" but around here is just the man-cave. It's a nice setup, except that it gets cold — sometimes 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house.

When it's cold, I have a baseboard heater that I will sometimes use to prevent my hands from going numb. I can get the man-cave toasty, but in order to do that, I have to close the door to prevent all this nice heat from escaping.

And therewith is the problem: the damn door to the man-cave. First, you have to picture how the rec room/man-cave is configured:


Note the lengthy distance between my desk and the door.

I can close the door, but this introduces the following problems:
  1. People come in and out to go to the laundry room, and they leave the man-cave door open.
  2. The dog whimpers outside the door to come in.
  3. The dog whimpers inside the door to go out.
  4. The cat scratches on the door to come in.
  5. The cat scratches on the door to go out.

So I find myself constantly getting up and opening the door or getting up and closing the door. (Did I mention the lengthy distance between the desk and the door?) You can see that this is going to cut deeply into the highly productive time I spend constantly sitting at my desk.

Not long ago I had a thought, so I scrounged around and got two cup hooks and some stretchy hair ties (rubber bands, basically) and rigged a little closing device on the outside of the door:



After a couple of tries, I managed to get the hooks in just the right place such that now the door gently swings until it's closed but not latched.[1]

Dang, this solved problems 1, 2, 4, and 5 in one go. People can come and go, and if they leave the door open, it swings slowly shut. The dog and the cat can push their way in, and the cat has even figured out how to hook her claws around the door enough so she can pull it open and exit.

The only remaining issue was that the dumb dog couldn't figure out how to get out of the man-cave. So he would push his way in (door would swing shut), decide after a minute I wasn't as interesting as he'd thought, and then sit there whimpering to be let out.

I pondered this for a couple of weeks. Then one day I had another thought. I scrounged around some more and found some string and some screw eyes (yay for a garage filled with stuff). I used this to rig myself a kind of pulley system so that I could open the door from my desk, as long as the door wasn't actually latched:


I added a weight to my end of string that's enough to keep the string dangling but that isn't so heavy that it prevents the door from swinging shut.

In theory I'm all set: door stays shut (or shut enough to keep heat in), and I can open it from my desk as needed. I'll bet, though, that when we decide to sell the house, the real estate agent is going to "suggest" that I remove my contraption. Harumph.

[1] I have in the past installed spring-loaded hinges. For some reason, tho, I was in a sort of maker mood whilst thinking on this problem.

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  07:54 AM

Time again for some Friday Fun.  Ok, you know how they say that you can't judge a book by its cover? Well, I have a theory that you can make a pretty good judgment about a programming book by its title. See what you think.


The [Language] Programming Language
The Ruby Programming Language, The SQL Programming Language
The authors are really hoping you'll think that they've written their language's version of The C Programming Language, aka K&R. Not much chance that their books are a slim 250 pages like the original, eh?


[Language] in a Nutshell
Python in a Nutshell, VB & VBA in a Nutshell
Reference docs.


Programming [Language] or Pro [Language]
Programming Visual Basic 2008, Pro ASP.NET MVC Framework
This is a Serious Book, "by programmers, for programmers." Bound to be fat in order to accommodate the many heavy thoughts it contains.


The Definitive [Language]
JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, The Definitive Guide to Linux Network Programming
This book is big, and it's comprehensive, and it's probably not for programming novices, unless those beginners are unusually persistent or unusually smart. Likely to be good for experienced programmers, tho.


[Language]: The Good Parts
Java: The Good Parts, PHP: The Good Parts: Delivering the Best of PHP
You already know the language. Dammit, Jim, now learn how to use it right.


Learning [Language] or Beginning [Language] or [Language] for the Beginner
Learning ASP.NET 3.5, Beginning C# 3.0, Python Programming for the Absolute Beginner
The book is for the novice, tho it may not be clear if it's for a novice to programming or just to the language. Whether the book actually can teach novices is ... well, let's say it depends on the author.


Head First [Language]
Head First jQuery
For novices (see Learning et al, above), but claims to use unique pedagogical techniques that are "brain friendly." That might depend on your brain, tho.


The Art of [Language]
The Art of Unix Programming, The Art of Assembly Language Programming
The author wishes to invoke the spirit of Donald Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming and aspires to that level of comprehensiveness. Or perhaps they're inspired by Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (Was Knuth inspired by Julia?) Either way, is it possible that the author has an unusually large, er, ambition?


The Joy of [Language]
The Joy of Clojure, The Joy of Patterns
Joy in the title does not mean, I think, that the book adheres to the assume-nothing philosophy that Irma Rombauer made famous in The Joy of Cooking, just that the author enjoys the subject.


[Language] Cookbook
JavaScript Cookbook, ASP.NET MVC 2 Cookbook
Little algorithmic bites for easy and delicious results.


Idiot's Guide to [Language] or [Language] for Dummies
Complete Idiot's Guide to C++, COBOL for Dummies
Yeah, well. As an aside, I cannot prove this, but I think that the original Idiots book was John Muir's classic How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step By Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot, which was a milestone not only in shop manuals, but in technical writing withal.


Teach Yourself [Language] in [Time Period], Learn [Language] in [Time Period]
Teach Yourself C in 24 Hours and about 4 million more
This book is not just for beginners, but for people who don't even really know what they're getting into. The false promise of these titles once inspired Peter Norvig to pen Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years, which is more like it.


[Language] the Hard Way
Learn Ruby The Hard Way, Learn Python The Hard Way
The whole "in 24 hours" nonsense (and maybe Norvig's reaction) have inspired Learn [Language] the Hard Way aka LCodeTHW. These books eschew shortcuts and oblige you to type in, character by character, the examples that they provide. A kind of programmer's version of Because It Builds Character.


[Language] for Evil Geniuses
Programming Video Games for the Evil Genius
"Hey! Programming is FUN!!"


And then there's the weird stuff ...


Learn You a Haskell for Great Good!
No one seems entirely sure where this title came from, but people have picked it up (e.g. re: refactoring and Flexbox) and we'll be seeing more of it, I predict.


why's (poignant) Guide to Ruby
Foxes and chunky bacon. A, er, unique approach to programming books. Nothing else quite like it for the time being.

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  06:16 PM

For Friday Fun, a word that's new to me (tho not a new word per se — in fact, it's from the 1800s). First: I really like the word retronym, which refers to a term that has to be amended due to a technological change. Thus before the invention of the electric guitar, there was no notion of an "acoustic" guitar; all guitars were acoustic. Likewise dial phones, analog clocks, Classic Coke, and so on. (List of retronyms)

The new word I just learned is semantically kinda-sorta in that camp. (Maybe it's kind of opposite-y.) The term is skeuomorph (Greek: "vessel-shape"), and it refers to a vestigial design feature that represents something that was once functional. A popular example is the buckles on shoes — originally used to, you know, buckle the shoe, now used just for looks. Other examples are faux wood or fabric patterns in plastic; light bulbs shaped like candle flames; fake shutters that people mount next to the windows of their house; fake spokes in a hubcap; the "wax" on a bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon; and (a famous example) the tiny and useless "handle" that's on virtually all bottles of maple syrup.



Digital things often involve skeuomorphic features, and a lot of digital UI is often deliberately designed to look like something real. As a trivial example, drop shadows on anything and everything are purely decorative, since of course there is no light source on electronic bits. If you design digital things, you have a choice of a wide variety of textures — wood, metal, etc. — that you can paint onto something to make it look real. Digital cameras often have a fake shutter sound when you take a picture. The icons for every music player (for play, stop, pause, etc.) all derive from those same physical functions in a tape player, where the Play arrow actually represented physically moving the tape. Obviously, the desktop metaphor for Windows (et al.) is skeuomorphic, along with "files" and "folders". Lexicographerix Erin McKean notes that online dictionaries display information in a format that's based on book-y layouts, even tho that format was originally dictated by the constraints of the printed medium that don't really apply to online stuff.

Skeuomorphic design elements are by no means inherently bad or silly. Sure, putting fake rivets on jeans seems a little unnecessarily quaint. And there's a rousing discussion in the UI design community about whether skeuomorphic design is ultimately a good idea for something like tablets. One blog post calls it "the tactile illusion." For an earful, search for "skeuomorphic user interfaces".

But the argument in favor is that a skeuomorphic design provides a familiar interface — a "material metaphor" — so that people can fit a new design pattern into their existing understanding of the world. For using a music player on a computer this is convenient, tho not essential; ditto for being able to "flip" "pages" in a "book" on an e-reader. If I were designing a jet plane, tho, I would think long and hard before I made any changes to the control panel, no matter how anachronistic it might be in the age of fly-by-wire to have physical control yokes. When we start seeing cars that are likewise controlled all digitally (and we're not far off), it will be a long time before we are weaned off steering wheels, brake pedals, and accelerators.

Update 17 Jan 2012: Cory Doctorow posted a piece (In praise of skeuomorphs) on skeuomorphs just today (17 Jan)! (h/t to Edward Banatt for the link)

Anyway, I'm happy to know this new word and to have been introduced to the whole idea of skeuomorphic design. Apparently the learn-new-words part of my brain remains, in fact, more than just a vestigial decoration.

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  03:17 PM

The King James Bible (alternately, the Authorized Version or King James Version or KJV) is 400 years old; it was originally printed in 1611. Many people have noted that the book -- specifically, the language of the translation -- has had a widespread impact on everyday English.

For some Friday Fun (tho it's Wednesday, it's a virtual Friday for many in the US), here's a pleasing observation from an article in the latest National Geographic about the creation of the King James Bible. This is by Adam Nicolson, whose book about the KJV is listed below.
If a child is ever the apple of her parents' eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death's door or at our wits' end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one's teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.
Personal anecdote. In my grad school days, I was exposed to a variety of extinct Germanic languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Gothic. Studying these languages often involves Bible readings; in fact, for Gothic, fragments of a Bible translation are the only substantive written text. Early on I acquired a King James Version to aid me in my translation exercises. Although I'd just plucked that version off a shelf full of options at the university bookstore, it proved to have been a good choice. The sometimes archaic language of the KJV is quite close to what I was encountering in my readings, reflecting grammatical anachronisms like second-person plural ("ye"), be as the auxiliary for certain participles ("I am become a stranger unto my brethren"), dative constructs ("salvation to thee"), and such. If I remember right, there might have been instances where untangling the grammar of a text in (e.g.) Gothic actually explained an otherwise odd construction in the KJV.

I say all this as a person who has no connection to the KJV in any sort of religious sense. I understand that some people find the text uplifting independently of the words used to express it :-), but even I in all my secularism, can appreciate the beauty of the language and its impact on that remains in our modern language.

More reading

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson

Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language by the amazingly prolific David Crystal

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture by Alister McGrath

King James Version Search. Handy.

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  07:55 AM

A little while back, I played around with various ways to create placeholder text. Those were specifically for generating nonsense text, but there are various sites/tools/utilities for generating text that have a more serious purpose. For a little Friday Fun[1], therefore, let's have a look.

Data Generator
"... a free, open source script that lets you quickly generate large volumes of custom data in a variety of formats for use in testing software, populating databases, and scoring with girls."

Ok, so that actually sounds pretty useful. (Yeah, except the girls part.) The next few are implementations of the general desire for automatic summarization.

FigSum
Supposed to generate text summaries automatically from figures (e.g. in a paper). "... aggregates scattered information to improve figure comprehension. For each figure in an article, FigSum generates a structured text summary comprising one sentence from each of the four rhetorical categories – Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion (IMRaD)."

Generating Questions Automatically from Informational Text (pdf)
"Good readers ask themselves questions during reading. The National Reading Panel reported that self-questioning was the most effective reading comprehension strategy, based on comprehension gains. So it would be useful for an intelligent tutor to automatically generate instruction for the self-questioning strategy to help students understand text. Our ultimate goal is to generate self-questioning instruction automatically from any given text, focusing on children’s text."

This one aggregates RSS feeds and republishes them as an online "newspaper":

paper.li
"Paper.li is a content curation service. It enables people to publish newspapers based on topics they like and treat their readers to fresh news, daily."

Not so sure about this one, altho it is from Northwestern:

Machine-Generated Multimedia Content
"We describe an automated system, and its attendant set of techniques and tools, that is able to generate novel multimedia experiences. Using existing online sources, external textual and multimedia repositories, and user preferences, the system builds a customized audio/visual experience for the user. We discuss one application in detail: New at Seven, an automatically generated, personalized news show. Beginning with a set of user preferences, the system is able to find relevant text, process that text, and supplement it with images, video, and blogger responses. The final output of the system is an online Flash presentation that uses animated avatars with generated speech and is modeled after a traditional nightly news broadcast."

This one is a real WTF for me:

Autorewrite.com: Create Articles Automatically
"How to write an article? Our system can automatically write articles for you!

As we know articles is very important for business,especially for Internet Marketing Business.But not everybody can easily and quickly write a good article.Now with our automatic rewrite system,you can write an article with only several clicks.Those new articles are friendly to Search Engineer,Search Engineer consider it as new articles.Our article generator tools are very useful for internet marketing,bum marketing,etc.

To get new articles, you can use our Automatic Article Spinner, Synonym Tool, Keyword Tool and Smart Rewrite Tool."

And finally, the best for last. (I was kidding about all of these being for serious purposes.) You can try the following tool yourself! I myself used it to generate a paper titled "A Methodology for the Refinement of Neural Networks"[2].

SCIgen - An Automatic CS Paper Generator
"SCIgen is a program that generates random Computer Science research papers, including graphs, figures, and citations. It uses a hand-written context-free grammar to form all elements of the papers. Our aim here is to maximize amusement, rather than coherence."

The best part of SCIGen, and the stunt that really made it (in)famous, was that the students who created the tool then generated a paper that was accepted at a conference. (Not a reputable one, but still.)

[1] For some definitions of "fun."

[2] Which I see has since been, er, rejected.

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  12:12 AM

For some Friday Fun, a cartoon out of a recent edition of The New Yorker:


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  01:01 PM

John McIntyre has a post today about using evidence to support assertions about language, and I've been thinking anyway recently about the need for empirical support for things like planning your documentation. (More on that another time.) Thus I was primed today while I was editing to think about edits I make that I really can't justify.

The writer David Owen said once that early in his career he interned for someone who "maintains an idiosyncractic but absolute ban on the word however."[1] Every editor has terms — words, phrases — that they just don't like. A word seems ungainly to them, or it violates some bogus rule that the editor once learned, or ... well, whatever. It's subjective, but in each case it's specific to that editor and can't be justified in the usual ways. (Logic, precedence, or appeal to authority.)

So for a little Friday Fun, here's a list of edits I make that have no more justification than "because I don't like it." :-)

upon
Custom Formatting Based Upon Data [#]

The number of times in which I think upon is better than on is so small that I can't remember the last time I let upon stand.


within
ASP.NET MVC 3 and the @helper syntax within Razor [#]

My ban on within isn't quite as absolute as it is on upon; there are times when it does clarify. (Something like The rule constrains the numbers to those within a specific range.)


desire, desired
Windows Server 2003 ships a new ‘Configure Your Server Wizard’ to help you properly configure your server in the desired mode. [#]
[A]n advanced HTTP handler designed to enable file protection for any file you desire. [#]

I am on a personal mission to stamp out desire in technical docs. C'mon, it's just want. And not just that. My experience is that desired is almost always a way to avoid saying youthe desired mode really just means the mode you want.


wish (as in, any option you wish)

Same as desire, tho my aversion to wish is milder than it is to desire. Just use want, already. Anyway, there are uses I am ok with, like wishlist.


we/let's/our
Now let’s run the site. We can start our web-server and try out the site using any of the following. [#]

This one practically makes me froth at the mouth; I mean, my reaction really is irrational. To me, we and let's sound gratingly condescending — I refer to it as "nurse talk" (How are we feeling today?). Obviously most people are just fine with it; practically every tutorial I edit starts off talking about "we" are going to do this or "let's" add a page to "our" website and so on. And the ones I can't get my hands on are out there in the world and people love them. Nonetheless, if I'm given a chance, I discreetly change every we to you and our to your. The only exception I'll make is if the text really is talking about we to mean "we, the authors," as in We have designed this tutorial to show you how to ... or whatever.


There are other such things, tho they're less obvious. No matter how many times Geoff Pullum tells us that which is okay for a restrictive relative (I know this! I agree, even!), I reflexively change it to that. Ditto for only, which has a very free position in sentences, but which I often (again, reflexively) scooch over so that it's closest to the thing it modifies.

So there you have it ... some True Confessions about my editing. You might want to argue with me that some or all of these are just fine, there's no need to edit these things. I would be obliged to agree, as long as I'm being reasonable. The point is, tho, that they just bug me. And I don't think I can be talked out of that.


[1] David Owen, "The Fifth Estate," The Atlantic Monthly, July 1985.

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