Saturday, April 05, 2014

Pro forma

Having created a fair number of forms, surveys, applications, etc., over the years, I know full well how easy it is to think that something is perfectly clear, obvious, and easy...and to be quite wrong.

This past week I had the interesting experience of filling out a form whose designers needed to do some additional thinking before they put it online. (Hint: Ask someone who is not involved in the project have a go at filling out the application. Other hint: One size does not fit all.) Some of the more blatant problems:

• It asks me for employment information. No problem. Except this is the 21st Century, and I know for a fact that I am not the only person in these United States who has more than one employer. I’m scheduled for 20 hours at each, so one is not “job ” and the other one “other job. ” The application’s designers clearly never planned for the possibility. Fields for, say, First Employer and Second Employer (if Applicable)—and maybe even a third employer, given the current state of the economy—would not be out of line.

• It asks for present landlord/mortgage holder. I am happy to report that there isn’t one, so I put down None, and the same thing in the box asking for the rent amount. But upon my sending the form, it bounced back and insisted I had to enter a telephone number for the nonexistent mortgage holder. Fail.

• It asks for the same mortgage information for my previous domicile. Sorry, I have almost no recollection about a mortgage that we paid off 20 years ago. Including the mortgage holder’s telephone number.

• It asks if I’ve ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Fair enough. Except the question is followed by a checkbox, a single checkbox with no label next to it! (See below.) Is it a Yes box, or is it a No box? It kinda makes a difference, guys! Having no use for pigs in pokes, I left the box unchecked and, in the text field below it, which was there to explain a Yes vote, said that I had never been convicted of anything but, since there was no label next to the single checkbox, I wasn’t going to check it. Helpful Hint: If you’re asking a yes-or-no question, provide a means for people to indicate yes or no.

• Above the Submit button, it says “I hereby sign and accept these conditions. ” I maintain that the statement implies that pressing the Submit button indicates that I am, you know, signing and accepting the specified conditions. But no. An error box comes up to inform me that I must accept the conditions. Um, isn’t that what I just did? Well, no...for, as you can see below, there is a small, faint, unlabeled checkbox waaaaay off to the right of the statement (and, for that matter, the Submit button), which, apparently, must be checked. And the existence of which makes the “I hereby sign... ” statement inaccurate. There should be an “accept ” statement, with the checkbox right next to it, and then a statement above the button to the effect of, “Click the Submit button to electronically sign and submit the application. ”

• Having finally divined everything the form’s designers were trying to communicate, I was rewarded with a screen that included a button that said, “Click Here to download a copy of your application. ” Nice. Only it didn’t. It opened a PDF copy in a new tab, which is fine, but it didn’t “download ” it. Which also is fine—I’ve been on the scene long enough to know that I need only save the PDF from my browser...but I’ve also been on the scene long enough to know that there are plenty of people on this planet who would not know that. They would accept the button’s label at its word—“Click Here to download a copy of your application ”—and somehow think that by clicking here they were downloading a copy of their application. Clear instructions would be helpful: “Click here for a copy of your application, which you can save to your computer. ” Too long for the button, but placed above the button, it would be helpful to a fair number of people.

In that spirit of helpfulness, I plan to pass along these observations and suggestions to the company in question. After the application’s been improved, that is.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

A Pain in the S

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why this is such a problem for so many people…including the nice folks at Publishers Clearing House, who this morning sent me this e-mail (but, to date, none of the money that they insist someone in my ZIP Code and/or with my initials is guaranteed to win):

You would not believe (or perhaps you would; how on earth should I know?) how often the plural of my last name – indeed, any word ending in s – is mangled. Sometimes it’s rendered as PCH did (just slam another s on it!), sometimes the plural formation is ignored entirely (and my wife and I receive invitations addressed to The Reynolds), and sometimes – most of the time – the good ol’ apostrophe-s is brought in (forming a possessive, not a plural).

And yet it’s so easy:
One Reynolds.
Two Reynoldses.
One Jones.
Two Joneses.
One Hopkins.
Two Hopkinses.

(When my children were little, we had a picture book called Too Many Hopkins. About a family of rabbits named Hopkins. I cringed every time I looked at the title. Alarmingly, it was published by a Major New York Publishing House. Indeed, a Major New York Publishing House that published a couple of my own books.)

I am equally perplexed by the difficulty people have in forming possessives of nouns ending in s. Again, it’s all so simple.
The ball belongs to Jones.
It’s Jones’s ball.

I am willing to accept Jones’ in the above example, partly because we’ve (many of us) bee brought up on newspapers that use that style, primarily to save space, and partly because some style and usage guides do propose bizarre gyrations for forming the possessive of monosyllabic proper nouns; I worked with an editor, back in the day, who insisted that the possessive of a one-syllable name gets only the apostrophe – Jones’ – but a multi-syllable name gets apostrophe-s – Reynolds’s. That never made any sense to me, and the style manual that our office used recommended apostrophe-s in all case…except biblical and Hellenic names. Thus, Moses’ staff, Zeus’ head, Jesus’ disciples, and so on.

So some confusion is understandable.

But I will never understand the bizarre impulse to stick an apostrophe in front of every end-of-word s. The Reynold’s House is just plain wrong. If the family living there is named Reynolds, it would be The Reynoldses’ House (plural possessive). If the family living there is named Reynold (which I’ve only ever seen as a given name, not a surname, but who knows), it would be The Reynolds’ House (Reynolds being the plural, Reynolds’ being the plural possessive). Under no circumstances would it be The Reynold’s House.

(If it was the house of my real-life friend whose first name is Reynold, it would be Reynold’s House.)

Yes, it requires a moment’s thought. But it’s not at all tricky – certainly not tricky enough to justify the idiotic response given by a fellow member of a panel I was on at a writers conference some years ago: In response to a stupid question about forming plurals and possessives of names ending in s, the fellow panelist stupidly answered that she always avoided giving characters names that end in s, so as to, you know, not have to think too much.

And, yes, I know – there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Just stupid people.

Lenten Thoughts

Ash Wednesday invariably pulls me back to that childhood meme of “giving _____ up for Lent,” which blank was almost invariably filled by a type of candy or other small treat. Why God should care whether or not I’m eating Baby Ruth bars during the next 40 days is something that was never explained, or explained well. The best we ever got fell along the lines of, “Jesus suffered and died for you on the cross. The least you can do is give up Baby Ruths till Easter.” When, of course, a sugar coma would ensue, courtesy of the Easter Bunny.

In my college days, the Campus Ministry folks proffered an interesting notion: Take something on for Lent, rather than give something up. I learned that this was rooted in Catholic social-justice theology and was a positive, progressive outcome of Second Vatican Council reforms. (Which, even then, forces were working to undo, but that’s another story for another day.) That was, to me, a more meaningful attitude. A common suggestion on campus was to forgo (or reduce) lunch, and donate the money that would otherwise have been spent to hunger-fighting causes. That had the satisfying effect of both fulfilling the “giving up” tradition and giving one the sense that by so doing he was actually doing something positive for the good of someone else. Jesus, after all, exhorted his followers to feed the hungry; he did not insist they forswear M&Ms for six weeks.

Over the decades since then, I sometimes take on something for Lent (in more recent years, a spiritual activity or exercise); I sometimes give up something (one falls back on these dietary angles at such times); and, more often, I do not much of anything at all.

Except, apparently, to give some thought to the matter.

Some years ago, working in the office of a religious organization, I had determined to give up between-meal eating for the duration. Certainly I did not announce that practice, nor in any way call attention to it. But when a co-worker inquired on my passing on a plate of cookies that was passed around at coffee break, I ’fessed up. It was Lent, after all – confessing seemed de rigueur.

And I was mocked.

My co-worker, a pastor, smugly informed me that Jesus’ dying on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice, and that my activity was therefore meaningless. (One notes how frequently “religious” people’s knee-jerk response to other people’s ideas or beliefs is ridicule. One wonders about the solidity of a “believer” who must armor him- or herself with snarkiness. Further, one wonders how many converts are won by sarcasm. Again, questions for another day.) I pointed out that my “sacrifice” was nothing at all, rather the practice was designed to focus my attention on what, after all, I’m told the season is all about, viz., the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus…the same reason, I assume, that my co-worker was given to wear a rather noticeable cross at all times.

The response, of course, was more snark, at which I dropped it. “Never try to teach a pig to sing,” my father often advised me. “It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.”

At about that same time, a time in which I still practiced Catholicism, I was at mass on the first Sunday in Lent, during which, to my disgust, the celebrant decided it would be a good idea to mock those who choose to “take on” during Lent, rather than “give up” something – food, of course. “And if you’re like me,” he pronounced, patting his well-rounded abdomen, “you could stand to lose a couple of pounds.” No argument…but a good job of missing the point. To “give up” in order to derive a benefit – I’m going to give up chocolates for Lent so I’ll look good in my new duds on Easter Sunday – trashes any notion of sacrifice (which is the point the priest thought he was making: you have to give something up, because Lent is about sacrifice); trashes any notion of focusing the attention on that which Lent purports to commemorate; and pretty much makes a mockery of the season entirely. I came away thinking that, for that gentleman, it was merely the practice for its own sake, without any kind of spiritual or theological underpinning. And what, then, is the point?

These days, as indicated, I am less inclined to “do” anything for Lent, except for some introspection and other thought exercises. But I do value the season (agnostic though I may be) for the reasons touched on above – the opportunity to place oneself in the context of the mythos and speculate on the meaning of it, to focus on something beyond oneself, even to – yes – take on something that might prove to be of benefit to someone else, however small that benefit may be.

And I think we can do without the snarkiness and mockery. That’s always been one of the less-endearing traits of  “religious” people.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Good Way to Lose Customers!

And so much for

For some time now I have enjoyed reading and, sometimes, sharing article at Salon, but that now comes to a screeching halt.

The reason? Intrusive, obnoxious advertising.

Look, I get it: Advertising pays the bills. I get to read Salon’s stuff for free because of their advertisers. I understand the model (heck, I used to work in an ad agency), and I support it. What I don’t support, can’t support, will not support are in-your-face ads that insist YOU MUST LISTEN TO THEM, at peak volume…never mind the fact that you, if you’re at all like me, are already listening to music, at a comfortable level, on your computer.

The big breakup occurred just a few minutes ago, when I clicked an article link in Salon’s daily e-mail to me. The window hadn’t even loaded when a box popped up and, immediately, AT MAXIMUM VOLUME, began to scream an ad for Homeland Season 2 on Blu-Ray.

In a friendlier age, one was given the option to “click for sound.” No more, apparently.

Why the hell would any advertiser think anyone would want to be assaulted in such a fashion? Okay, an advertiser selling AEDs might want to take such an approach, but why would anyone else? Basically, that kind of auditory rudeness only sours me on the advertiser and the advertising medium. After this experience there is no way in hell will I buy Homeland Season 2 on Blu-Ray (not that I’ve ever been interested in Homeland at all, on Blu-Ray or anything else, but that’s another subject). And, as indicated, I’ve now had it with Salon, too.

Good job, everybody. Unless the goal was not to alienate readers/customers. In which case, bad job, everybody.

I’ve been looking at Salon with a jaundiced eye of late anyhow, ever since I began to notice that their e-mail announcements include a “sponsored post” (aka “ad”) that is meant to look like one of the article links. (Today’s ad is for, you guessed it, Homeland Season 2 on Blu-Ray.) I come from a background in which editorial and advertising are clearly delineated, and I resent attempts to disguise the latter as the former in the hope that someone will be fooled into clicking on it.

But I don’t resent that as much as BEING SCREAMED AT THROUGH MY ALTEC LANSING SPEAKERS, and that in the end is what did Salon in for me.

I’m not saying that I will never read a link to Salon that someone might send me – that smacks of slicing off one’s own nose – but I have unsubscribed from the daily e-mail and will in general consign Salon to the scrap heap of Sites That Used to Be Good.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Gosh, I Wonder if this Is Legit

This shows up today in my Yahoo Mail:

It so happens that I do know, slightly a Jerry Caliendo. But it also so happens that, except for one or two social-media exchanges in which I attempted to determine if we're related, I’ve had no traffic with him. He’s not in any of my address books—certainly not my Yahoo address book—nor is it terribly likely he has my Yahoo address either. So the genesis of this pretty unimaginative bit of phishing (for, cynic that I am, I believe it to be Not Entirely on the Up-and-Up) is a mystery. Could be one of those viruses that gets into an address book, then sends to everyone in the address book but makes it look like it’s coming from a different address in the same book. Had that happen at a workplace some years ago. Not fun. Everyone is mad at you because “you” have a virus, and why aren't “you” doing anything about it? Of course, in that job, someone was always mad about something. Or, often, nothing at all. 

But I digress. 

One has to assume that if an acquaintance was in fact sending a link to 60+ addresses, he or she might preface it with some kind of introduction. Especially since the link purports to belong to a French entity. And for heaven’s sake, why can’t the phisher be bothered to come up with some imaginative bogus supposed address? As I have complained before, it’s like these guys aren’t even trying anymore. It may well be, as I keep reading, that these scammers are growing more and more sophisticated, but they seem to be growing less and less creative. And if they can’t be bothered to come up with something interesting, then I can’t be bothered to put my computer at risk by clicking on their link. 

Come on, people—it’s a two-way street!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Men of Steel

Here is a photo of the actor Kirk Alyn as Superman in the 1948 Columbia serial Superman; Alyn also appeared in its 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman.

I mention this because, in all of the hullabaloo about Man of Steel, which had its premiere today, one keeps reading references to George Reeves as the “original” screen Superman. Not just in fanboy blogs, either: a Salon article about the “curse” of Superman movies leads off by calling Reeves “the first actor to portray the beloved superhero on the screen”, and my childhood chum and fellow comic-book aficionado tells me that Entertainment Weekly commits the same sin.

If only there was some way to, I dunno, check facts before publishing articles. If only there was some resource to which one might turn to look up such information, perhaps some kind of movie database on the internet. If only the writers of such articles had sense enough to pause for a moment and ask themselves if what they “know” is in fact at all accurate. If only editors would examine articles with jaundiced eye. If only publishers would view fact-checkers as essential to their business, not extravagent frills that fall to the axe during the first round of budget cuts.

If only...

I am very fond of George Reeves; for me and most of my peer group of the so-called Silver Age of Comics, Reeves is Superman, even more than Christopher Reeve, and likely always will be. But to carelessly claim he was the first filmic Superman is just plain wrong, and does a disservice to Kirk Alyn. Reeves did not step into the cape until the 1951 feature film, Superman and the Mole Men, which served as a kind of pilot film to the TV series Adventures of Superman, which aired the following year.

Were one of such a mind (as I shared with my aforementioned childhood chum yesterday), one could in fact make the case that radio actor and announcer Bud Collyer was in fact the screen’s first Superman: Having voiced the character and his alter ego on the radio series The Adventures of Superman, beginning in 1940, Collyer provided the voice of Superman and Clark Kent in a series of cartoons that began in 1941. (Collyer reprised the dual roles in 1960s Saturday morning cartoons.) Although of course never seen in the Superman role, one might claim that Collyer was the first to portray the character.

However, I am content to give the credit to Kirk Alyn. It is, after all, where the credit is due.

Meanwhile, I perceive that I am sounding a little like someone from The Big Bang Theory. Sorry about that. My point here is more about getting facts straight that showing off my comic-book geekiness. But whatever works.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Apostrophe Catastrophe, pt. 2

Words are insufficient to express how much I detest this sort of thing:

Not the ’70s per se, but rather the typographical dumbness and/or inexcusable laziness inherent in having the apostrophe in such instances going the wrong way.

For once, uncomfortably, I have to put myself among the Blame the Computer crowd. Specifically, I blame “helpful” applications that insert legitimate quotation marks and apostrophes into our sentences. That and dumbness and laziness (see above).

For the most part, I appreciate having " and " turned into “ and ”, but the problem arises when the program gets to ' and ’. See, Word, PhotoShop, InDesign, etc., don't know an apostrophe from a single quote mark. So it looks for cues from the structure of a sentence. If it guesses that the user wants single quotes around a sentence, or a word or words within a sentence, it will correctly produce something like this:

“The quick brown fox jumps over the ‘lazy’ dog.”

Good enough. Likewise, when the program detects a single quote mark within a word, it correctly deduces an apostrophe is the order of the day:

“The quick brown fox’s kits jump over the ‘lazy’ dog.”

But things go entirely off the rails when those sentence cues don’t hold. For instance, a couple of paragraphs ago, when I wrote “ and ” ? I had to go back and make sure the second quotation mark curved the right direction. Good ol’ Microsoft Word wanted to give me “ and “ … because the space after and made the program thing it was the beginning of a sentence, phrase, or word. It gave me the right quotation mark, but in the wrong context.

And when I wrote good ol’ Microsoft Word back there? Word correctly determined that I needed an apostrophe in ol’, since it indicates a missing letter, and delivered the goods. But it—and nearly any other program you’d care to name—gives out entirely when it comes to something like Welcome to the ’70s. It’s the space in front of ’70s that throws it, making it think that a single quote mark is needed rather than an apostrophe. And it delivers the wrong goods.

The fix is really very easy: You type ’70s --> , and then go back and delete the --> . Alas, computers have convinced a great many people that anyone who can use turn one on is a writer, editor, designer, typographer, you name it, and so a great many people who don’t know the difference between ‘ and ’ – and are too ignorant to know they don’t know – are misusing left-hand single quote marks as apostrophes. Luckily, it’s almost certain that a majority of their readers or viewers don’t know the difference either. But for those of us who do…nails on a blackboard.

That said: Kudos to the designer of the image above, or a semi-astute editor or art director, for not sticking an apostrophe before the s in ’70s. If ‘70s is like nails on a blackboard, ‘70’s would be like an icepick in the ear.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013