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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Get something wrong. Do something badly. Achieve nothing and make certain to fall short of your goal. [...] No one brings it up but in business and in life failure is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal, if you know how to use it.

Steve Spalding


<February 2018>




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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 2/16/2018

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 3:14 PM Pacific

  10:52 PM

A little bit of an indulgence today, but perhaps some will find this interesting.

When I was very young—learning-to-read young—we lived with my grandmother, who was German. Thus I started reading in both English and German. As it happens, we had versions of Winnie-the-Pooh in both languages (Pu der Bär in German). While I was going through boxes of old books during the move, I ran across the books again and peeked in them. This reminded me of an oddity that I remember all these years later, namely this: there is a language issue in the opening pages of Winnie-the-Pooh where the German version actually makes more sense than the English version.

I'll try to explain, tho I'll grant that this requires knowledge of at least German 101. Let's start with the English version. Here's a fascimile of the pages (click to embiggen):

Here we learn that the bear is named Winnie, and that this is a girl's name, which is short for Winifred, tho this is not explained in the English edition. (I did not know this as a child, so there was no contradiction to me.) But Christopher Robin explains that a boy bear can have a girl's name by noting that the bear's name is Winnie-ther-Pooh:

I guess? In English this kind of doesn't really make sense. (Then again, it's a children's book innit.)

But look how neatly this works out in German. Here's the same passage in the German edition that I have (again, click to embiggen):

And here's the detail:

If you read German, you can see how well this works. How can a boy bear be named Winnie, a girl's name? Because it's Winnie-der-Pu, not die. Masculine singular nominative, not feminine. For all the trouble it caused me over the years to learn noun genders in German, here's a tiny little payoff.

Since we're here anyway, here are a couple of other interesting things about the German edition:
  • Note the sans-serif typeface; the English edition is set in some sort of serif font (it looks a lot like Times New Roman). Perhaps some of my typographically inclined friends have some information on the use of typefaces for German in the 1950s, which is when my edition was printed.

  • The character Eeyore is rendered in German in I-Aah (in German, the letter I is pronounced ee.) If you're British and have a non-rhotic accent—that is, you "drop" your R's—the German rendering is pretty close.

  • The character Piglet is Ferkel in German; Ferk looks like it's related to pork, and -el is a diminutive suffix (Hansel and Gretel).
Ok, thank you for indulging me.

Update, 1 Jan 2018 Looks like Speculative Grammarian investigated whether the original language of Winnie-the-Pooh might not be Latin. ;-)

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  09:11 PM

Not long ago I posted something about saving your hearing via the diligent use of earplugs if you are around loud things. (In my case, a motorcycle.) I didn't note then that my problem with being able to hear clearly is not new. I've had trouble for a long time hearing conversation in loud restaurants or understanding dialog in movies.

In fact, I had my hearing tested a while ago. Paradoxically, the results said that my hearing is great in some sort of Platonic sense, as in, when tested in ideal conditions in a lab. But Dr. Ears admitted that there was nothing to be done about my filtering problem—being able to pick out from background noise the sounds I actually wanted to hear.

Hearing aids are an option, I suppose. But good hearing aids are shockingly expensive, and often are not covered by insurance. And it's not at all clear to me that they solve this specific problem of attenuating the background noise specifically.

Well, in the creepy way of modern internet advertising, which can apparently read your mind, I recently started seeing ads for something pretty new: "conversation-enhancing headphones." For example, Bose has a product that they call Hearphones. Doppler Labs (which is suing Bose over all this) has a product they call Here Active Listening headphones. (Here, hear, get it?)

If I understand correctly, the devices combine noise cancellation with directional microphones with a kind of equalizer app (on your phone) to do pretty much what I need, namely tune and/or filter noise versus signal. And all at a price that is significantly less than hearing aids (Bose: $600, Doppler: $300). It's true, of course, that you're wearing headphones versus the invisibility of hearing aids. Then again, wearing headphones is pretty normal in a lot of contexts.

I'm pretty excited by all this. In fact, I'd probably go ahead and get a pair of these, but I've been around technology long enough to know that it's not usually a good idea to get version 1 of anything. By the time v3 of these things is available, they should be pretty great, right?

Let me add a linguistic note here as well. The name that Bose has come up with—hearphones—strikes me as so perfect for this device that it feels like it could easily become the genericized term for this class of thing. Any bets?

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  12:32 AM

In September 1991, my son stood in front of the Hartwell village school outside Northampton, England, clutching his Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox. He was a "rising 5," ready to start the academic journey for our kids' generation.

This last Saturday we celebrated two graduations—one for my wife's older daughter, who just finished college, and one for her younger daughter, who just finished high school. In between, my kids went through high school and college (my son for two degrees), and my wife got a master's degree, and her kids went through high school and one through college, and my daughter-in-law finished not only college but medical school. (Me, my only matriculation was to take some extension classes.)

It occurred to me this weekend that for the first time since that day in 1991, no one in the immediate family is in school or is planning to be. After two and a half decades, our lives are no longer organized around the rhythm and protocols of school. We won't need to plan vacations around school breaks. There are no more report cards, or late-night homework sessions, or parent-teacher meetings, or term papers, or end-of-semester projects. No more emails and phone calls and texts from the school. No more permission slips. No more back-to-school shopping. No more standardized tests or SATs or GREs or board exams. No more college catalogs. No more tuition.

It's not as if there's no more school for anyone. My son now teaches high school, so of course his life is very much organized around school. And the likelihood is strong that the family's break from school won't last very long; the youngest has no college plans at the moment, but that's likely just to be a gap year (or years). And you never know which of us might decide that a little graduate school, or a little more, might be fun.

Still, at our house, Saturday marked the end of an era. For the time being, everyone is as educated as they want to be. It's been a vastly interesting (if sometimes stressful) enterprise. For now and for us, school is finally finished.

First day of school, September 1991

High school, June 2005

High school, June 2006

Bachelor of Music Performance, May 2010

Bachelor of Science, June 2010

Master of Science in Nursing, June 2011

High school, June 2012

Master in Teaching, June 2013

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, May 2016

Bachelor of Science, June 2016

High school, June 2016



  11:51 PM

Inspired by a Facebook thread today.

Junior highThis music is hip because the older kids listen to it.
High schoolThis music is cool because it's edgy. And deep.
College freshmanThis music is fun because LET'S PAR-TAY!
College juniorThis music is so much more sophisticated than what I used to listen to.
Early 20sAw ... remember this music from high school?
Late 20sThis music is perfect for our wedding reception!
30sShut up, you snotty teens. This is GOOD MUSIC.
Early 40sHa, you kids today don't even realize this music is a cover.
Late 40sHow did this music get on a PBS special?
50sHey, those weasels are using this music for a TOYOTA COMMERCIAL!
60sCan it be 50 YEARS since this music came out?!

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  11:50 PM

I’ve had two occasions recently of seeing myself represented in, like, actual books. This is a little startling, in a pleasing kind of way.

The first reference is explicit. In his book Engineering Security (or at least in the April 2013 draft of it—download it here), Peter Gutmann is discussing the problem of putting security decisions in front of users. Here’s a paragraph out of that chapter:
The abstract problem that the no-useless-buttons policy addresses has been termed “feature-centric development”. This overloads the user with decisions to a point where they adopt the defensive posture of forgoing making them. As Microsoft technical editor Mike Pope points out, “security questions cannot be asked on a ‘retail’ basis. The way users make security decisions is to set their policies appropriately and then let the security system enforce their wishes ‘wholesale’”
Boy, was I tickled when I ran across that. But I didn’t remember being that smart, so I went to the blog to figure out where I had said such an interesting thing. Alas, although it is true that this information appears on my blog, it’s actually a citation from the eminently quotable Eric Lippert, who knows a great deal more about security than I ever will.

And then today I was reading Steven Pinker’s new book A Sense of Style. This is Pinker’s shot at a guide to writing (i.e., a usage guide), with the twist that Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, so he proposes guidance for clarity and comprehensibility in terms of how the brain processes the written word. (It’s more interesting than I’ve just made it sound.)

At one point, Pinker is talking about how the “geometry” of sentences determines how well readers can comprehend them. For example, it can be problematic for readers to parse long “left-branching” constructions, where qualifiers come at the beginning of the sentence: “if [the modifier] starts to get longer it can force the reader to entertain a complicated qualification before she has any idea what it is qualifying.”

He has a number of examples, including the following:
  • The US Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control

  • T-fal Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Expert Interior Thermo-Spot Heat Indicator Anti-Warp Base Dishwasher Safe 12-Piece Cookware Set.
And here’s another of this examples:
  • Failed password security question answer attempts limit
Ha! I thought. I know exactly where he got that last example: from me. Well, sort of. Once upon a time I wrote a blog entry about “noun stacks”—big ol’ piles of words like these examples. In the entry I included a number of examples that I had run across at Microsoft. The blog entry was picked up by the Language Log, which is undoubtedly where Pinker actually found the example. But I know where that example really came from.

Naturally, many people find themselves cited constantly, both formally (like, academics) and in popular writing. I suppose a person can get used to reading along and seeing something they’ve written cited in an article or book or whatever. For me, though, even just these tenuous associations with real books is quite exciting. :-)

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  10:26 PM

Sarah and I have been engaged in a gradual process of downsizing, and one of the ways we’ve been doing that is by shrinking our extensive collection of books. Not long ago we did another round of culling and pulled five boxes of books off the shelves. Then, in keeping with what we’ve done many times before, we lugged our boxes around to bookstores in order to sell them.

Prior experience suggested that we’d have the best luck with specific bookstores. Several times I’ve sold books to Henderson’s and Michael’s in Bellingham; the former in particular has always paid top dollar for books, which is reflected in their excellent on-shelf inventory. We have reason anyway to occasionally visit Bellingham, so not long ago we hauled our boxes northward.

But it proved disappointing. We used their handcart to wheel our five boxes in; the stony-faced buyer picked out about 25 books, and we wheeled five boxes back to the car. Michael’s, which is across the street from Henderson’s, was not buying at all, only offering store credit.

With diminished enthusiasm, we headed back south. Our next stop was Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Like Henderson’s, they carefully picked out a small stack of books and gave us back the rest. Although I was tempted to visit Magus Books in the U District—in my experience, they’ve always been interested in more academically oriented books—the day had already gotten long for little gain. Therefore, our last stop was Weasel Half-Price Books, which gave us a handful of change for the remaining four boxes. Presumably we could have demanded back the books they were not interested in, but by then we we'd lost pretty much all of our energy for dealing with the boxes, even to donate them to the library.

All in all it was a heartbreaking experience. The web has been a good tool for those who like books. Sites like Abebooks have created a global market for used books, so that a place like Henderson’s can offer its inventory not just to those in the environs of Bellingham, WA, but to anyone with an internet connection. But the internet has also brought a lot more precision to this market; a bookseller has a much better idea today of what a book is worth—or not worth—on the open market. One effect certainly has been that the buyers at all these bookstores are much choosier than they might have been 15 years ago, when (I suspect) buying decisions were still reliant on a dash of instinct.

More than that, and a fact that’s hard for me to accept, is that used books are a commodity of diminishing value. We collected those books over decades, and each acquisition had personal meaning to us. I could easily have spent an hour pulling books out of the boxes and explaining to the buyers at Henderson’s or Third Place or Half-Price why I bought the book, and when, and why I’d kept it all these years, and why it was a book sure to appeal to some other reader. But they don’t care about your stories, a fact that’s all too obvious when you’re standing at their counter, meekly awaiting a payment that represents a tiny fraction of your investment—financial and otherwise—in the books you’ve handed over.

No one really wants my old VCR tapes or CDs or even DVDs much anymore, either, although I don’t have as much emotional investment in those as I do in books. And I can’t really fault booksellers for their choosiness, since their continued success is dependent on hard-headed decisions about their inventory.

We still have five bookshelves filled with books at home, and we'll continue to downsize. I think I might be done with trying to sell the books, though. I'm not sure I want to experience the sadness of seeing how little all these lovely books are worth to anyone else but us.

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  12:04 PM

I share an office with a fellow writer—let's call him Colleague B. We work on the same team, and thus we do joint planning and work and reporting. For example, every Monday afternoon we have a look at the upcoming week and plan our work. And on Fridays, we put together a joint status report that rolls up all the things we actually worked on.

The nature of our work, however, adds a certain chaos factor to our planning. On Mondays, we can certainly attempt to plan out what we need to do for the week. But every day—literally every day, and sometimes more than once a day—something new pops up. People send us email requesting a review of some documentation, or a developer will stick his head in the office and want input on some UI, or a bug will come in from a customer, or ... well, the possibilities are wide and varied, but there's always something.

Now, Colleague B is, by his free admission, a bit OCD. He is consistent and orderly both about our planning and our reporting, and he has that thing where he intuitively understands the delta between today and some upcoming date. Me, I'm a bit more on the other side, and my sense of time and dates is referred to around our household as "magical thinking."

Colleague B is not a big fan of the daily dose of chaos. Here we've planned out our week on Monday, and people keep coming in and asking for stuff. As he says, in his ideal world, people who have something for us would get in line, and we'll get to them when we're done with what we're working on.

On the other hand, I don't mind nearly as much the drop-what-you're-doing interruptions. I'm apparently happy to put aside the thing I'm working on in order to work on this new thing, or at least, till some other yet newer request comes in.

The world of computers has an analog for us: Colleague B is FIFO: first in, first out. Take a number, and we'll service you in order. In computing terms, FIFO describes a queue. Me, I'm LIFO: last in, first out. Like stacking trays in a cafeteria—the last on the stack is the first one off, and indeed, in computing terms, LIFO describes a stack.

Happily, it turns out that this combination of work styles works out well. Colleague B works his way through our Monday list, odds are good that by Friday, items can be checked off. But at the same time, we've handled a half dozen or so new jobs that came up during the week, things we had no idea about on Monday. In fact, Colleague B says that occasionally he'll finish up something and go read email, and by the time he's become aware of some new request, I've already handled it.

Of course, there's a certain amount of literary license here. It's not as if Colleague B won't handle ad-hoc queries with alacrity, and it's not as if I'm unable to handle anything other than whatever the most recent emergency is. Still, programmers know that sometimes the right data structure is a queue and sometimes it's a stack. As long as there are two of us, and as long as we divvy up the work correctly, we can handle pretty much all of it.

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  09:22 PM

The default color for a lot of devices is, it seems, black. I can look up from where I'm typing and spot these items in black: monitors (3), keyboards (2), USB hub, computer speakers, mouses/mice (2), laptop, external hard disks (2), modem, router, TV, remotes (3), Roku device, cellphone, chargers, almost all cords, headphones. Not everything is black, but that certainly seems to be ... popular.

It's, what, elegant, I suppose, but it has its downsides. Whenever I'm rooting around in the dark recesses of my backpack for my mouse (black) or bag o' connectors (black) or earbuds (black), I find the near invisibility of these items somewhat inconvenient. However, I accidentally made a discovery that has begun to change my life, so it's got me thinking about this mania for black.

After I got my most recent phone, I was looking for a one of those protective silicone jackets for it. I found one at a kiosk at the mall, but the girl was apologetic: sorry, the only color we have is red. Oh, well, I thought, I can live with that.

And boy, can I ever. With its bright-red cover, my phone now is quite visible. Indeed, I never have trouble finding it, even if I've carelessly left it on our (green) couch or if it's ended up in the passenger footwell of the car.

A guy I used to work with is a big fan of the classic Moleskine notebooks and carries a couple of them everywhere—one for work notes, one for personal notes. After I'd had my epiphany about the red phone cover, I noticed that one of his notebooks was black, the other red. When I asked him about it, he had a similar story: they'd been out of black, so he got a red one, and that had actually worked out well, since not only could he distinguish his notebooks, but he had a lot less trouble finding them.

Since then, I've gone out of my way to look for bright colors. When I ordered a Kindle Paperweight (black, of course), I ordered an orangey-red (!) leather cover for it. I never, ever have trouble finding it in my backpack, by the bedside, or halfway under the couch when I've fallen asleep reading.

My phone and Kindle

I can probably continue to work fine with my black keyboards and monitors, but if I could paint the TV remotes, I would definitely do that. Yes, I think my life us going to be a lot more colorful in my future.


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  06:11 AM

Jeez, I totally missed it: this blog just turned 10—my first entry was on June 27, 2003. I had previously used Livejournal but found that (at the time) they had no search facility. And I needed a coding project to accompany a writing project I was on, and hey, how hard could it be?

The entries have wandered around a bit through coding, writing and editing, family news, and other topics (see the Categories list over there on the left). This has reflected, among other things, job changes. The blog has also accreted a variety of blogging-related features, like a blogroll, trackbacks, an RSS feed, a Google AdSense box, a Facebook Like button, and so on—a microcosmic revue of blogging trends.

The actual code that runs the blog is a rat's nest, tho as recently as this weekend I was still poking around in it to make changes. (I would never wish that onto anyone else, gah.) Nonetheless I find it fun even now to wallow around in the code and add some small improvement.

What a learning experience it's been.

The volume has fallen off, as happens. I have a couple of other, more-focused blogs, and I contribute to a gang blog at work. And there's Facebook. One thing that hasn't changed is my tendency toward blather. Thank goodness there's the Internet, eh? :-)


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  12:19 PM

Here's a way not to make friends and not to influence people: hand out your personal email address everywhere and then discover that the address is merrily bouncing people. Whoops.

I taught a class over the last couple of Saturdays and told folks they could send their homework to me at mike@mikepope.com. On Wednesday I got an email from a student telling me that the email address I had handed out wasn't working. (The student had managed to find me via a different channel, thank goodness.) I tried sending an email to the address I'd distributed, and sure enough, back it came.

The keeper of my domain (mikepope.com) is GoDaddy. As part of registering my domain and getting them to manage it, I'd gotten "free email forwarding" for the domain. When someone sends email to the mikepope.com domain (e.g., mike@mikepope.com), the message is forwarded to my other, "real" email addresses.

Some months ago, I started getting a steady volume of messages to my real email addresses that told me an email had bounced, often with the message "invalid recipient address." The strange thing was that these were bounces for emails that I had never sent. This turns out to be a well-known problem—spammers forge a From address on their spam mail (they don't want you to reply, they just want you to click the link in the email they send). Spammers use many, many different forged From addresses in their attempts to get around spam-detection strategies. Apparently the mike@mikepope address had fallen into the hands of just such a spammer.

I did investigate a bit whether there was anything I could do about this; I didn't want my ISP (Comcast) to think I was originating these spam emails. But nothing can be done, so I stopped worrying about getting these oddball bounces. In any event, the volume of these no-recipient bounce messages had tailed off recently, tho I didn't think much about it at the time. (I think I reckoned that Comcast's spam detection was filtering them.)

Then came the incident with the class and the frustrated students, so I had a look. It turns out that I had misunderstood something about how email was handled for mike@mikepope.com. Yes, I've set up forwarding for that address at GoDaddy. However, I also have—I don't know whether I actually intended this or whether it was a feature of my domain hosting—an email account at GoDaddy. And over the last few months, that email account had been filling up with lots and lots of these bounce messages for spammers. In fact, the mailbox had reached capacity. As a result, when students sent me email, they were in turn getting a legitimate bounce message from mike@mikepope.com, which said:
child status 100...The e-mail message could not be delivered because the user's mailfolder is full.
Because I didn't understand that I had an actual mailbox at GoDaddy, this didn't make sense to me at first. But after hacking around in GoDaddy's wretched dashboard, I eventually got to the actual email mailbox that I didn't really grok that I had. The Inbox had hundreds (thousands?) of the spam-related bounce mails, along with a few legitimate emails. Oh and look, a nice red graphic told me I'd reached 100% of my capacity. (GoDaddy's response to this problem was to offer to sell me more space.)

I bulk-cleared the Inbox and Trash and now it all works again. Who knows how many legitimate emails I've missed because they got bounced from mike@mikepope.com and the sender didn't or couldn't try again. Hopefully not many.

Now I have to figure out what to do to prevent this in future. One way would be to monitor this GoDaddy-hosted mailbox. I might also just get rid of the GoDaddy mailbox (and keep just the email forwarding), since as far as I know I don't need it. I hesitate on this latter only because managing anything via the GoDaddy interface is ... not fun and not easy. And I don't want to break the part of the system that does work, namely forwarding. Ah, well—it wouldn't be a real website unless I had to screw with it all the time. :-)

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