Friday, June 27, 2003

Really wrong numbers

Got time for just a little, teeny rant? Oooh, please....

One of my minor tasks for the day was ordering some tutorial software. When I visited the tutorial company's site today, I couldn't find any information about the product's compatibility with the operating system I use (Mac OS X). I decided to call and ask before purchasing online. That's when I discovered that these folks, who you'd hope would know something about user interface and usability, provide one of those unspeakably stupid phone numbers with their company name instead of numbers. Until I can dial from my keyboard (and type CONAME) few things are as infuriating as taking the phone with the keypad away from my ear and searching around in the 4 point type as I translate CONAME into numbers.

Phone numbers that are names make sense only in a very few circumstances. An example might be a local number with local exchange prefix, followed by a four-letter word: 321-WORK for a local jobline, perhaps. The prefix is already well-known, and the name makes sense. Plus it's a number a job seeker might be calling repeated over a period of weeks, and a number you might want to remember to tell a friend.

But how often do you call a company that sells a couple of software packages? Would you remember the unusual toll-free prefix they use (1-866 instead of 1-800)? Would you remember that you must then insert a 6 in front of CONAME? Of course not.

For this inanity we can thank some bozo in their marketing department who thought it would be cool to have a phone number that is a name. This is probably the same person who wrote the copy touting the products' features and benefits at mind-numbing length on the site without ever mentioning what operating systems the product runs on. Of course, this company's Website is utterly devoid of even the most rudimentary search function.

All this hasn't stopped me from trying to buy their product. What probably will stop me is what happened after I decoded and dialed their coyly named phone number: I got a recording from a bored-sounding woman asking me to leave my name and number and they'd get back to me. Yep, that's real effective sales. (I still haven't heard back from them.) Perhaps they should put their creative marketing genius to work--answering the phone.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Killer prose

I occasionally review crime fiction (a.k.a. mysteries) for January Magazine and in connection with that follow one of the major online lists, RARA-AVIS. The Rara Avians, as they call themselves, focus on the hardboiled subgenre of mystery fiction. This is a subgenre that thrived from the 1930s through the 1970s (think Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Crumley). You can trace its roots back to certain of the classic (turn of the century) crime fiction writers and many would argue that it's alive and well today in the works of Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and others. Anyway...last week one of the Rara Avians observed that he'd gone back to read a hardboiled classic by Hammett and had been decidedly turned off by the dated jargon:

"Last week I read "Red Harvest" - for the first time, believe it or not - and although I enjoyed and admired it enormously, there were times when the "piled-up slang" (good expression, that) became just too much and stopped me in my tracks, like roller skating along a smooth pavement and then coming to a loose gravel drive. When every other word was a (frankly) phoney-sounding slang term, I didn't know whether to laugh or snarl; especially since, all these years after the writing, the meanings and contexts are no longer always obvious - shit, sometimes the *object* the term applied to no longer exists!"

The following day Kevin Burton Smith, producer of the excellent Thrilling Detective site provided a thoughtful response:

"But Hammett didn't write RED HARVEST for you -- he wrote it for your grandfather, who probably got a real kick out of it. I think we should write for the times we live in, and let posterity hang. If it happens it happens, but most writers want to be read in their own lifetimes, not some hazy spot in the future. I know I do.

"Of course, like anything a writer uses in forging his own style (violence, sex, pop culture references, political opinions, brand names, technical data, whatever), slang can be over-used, but in the right hands any of these can add considerable weight and texture to a book.

"And anyway, what's "slang," and what's just common usage? Will some guy in 2095 wonder why you used such archaic slang in your post? Can you imagine?

" 'Dear Moderator,
Last week I accessed the famous RED HARVEST post by the legendary M-- C-----, and although I enjoyed and admired much of it enormously, there were times when the slang became just too much and stopped me in my URL. What in Microsoft's name is "roller skating"? And other times I was rather troubled by the inherent sexism of the time -- "a loose gravel drive" is a particularly offensive and nasty phrase, no matter how well-regarded the writer is. Were they always so sexist back then? I don't see the benefit in keeping these old archives around if nobody can understand them, or worse, use such occasionally nasty language. What's the point? Someone should definitely Bush these old files, so modern audiences can access their data fully.'"

Bravo, Kevin!

Friday, June 20, 2003

Follow that blog!

When I'm not ranting and raving myself, I like to read other people's blogs. While many of these folks are published writers, it's the unedited tone of the blogs that appeals to me. Here are a few of my favorites:

Joe Kissell's Interesting Thing of the Day,
Kissell, the author of 50 Fast Mac OS X Techniques (Wiley, 2003), puts up something lengthy and thoughtful every day, from the story of the outlandish castle built by the equally outlandish King Ludwig II to musings about the strange dialect spoken in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Bet you can't read just one...

Deborah Branscum's Buzz, now Buzzword News, and now at
Deborah is a media critic who minces no words, but has ground some PR flaks into exceedingly small particles. Her grasp of business journalism and the PR mill that overfeeds it is sophisticated, but her writing is refreshingly plainspoken in a way that reminds me of Jim Hightower or Molly Ivins. See for yourself.

Jeffrey Zeldman's The Daily Report,
Definitely one of the most professional blogs around, Zeldman's daily report on design standards pre-dates blogging (1995) and retains a formal tone. If you are planning to use your blog for business purposes, watch how Zeldman covers the epicenter of online design with authority.

Andy Ihnatko's Yellow Text,
Ihnatko was blogging years before blogging existed, with rambling opinion pieces in MacWorld and other Mac magazines that delighted readers while no doubt dismaying editors. Yellow Text, like Ihnatko's columns, reveals him as a homerun hitter--he strikes out about two-thirds of the time but leaves you gaping in awe (or howling with laughter) when he slams one out of the park. [Added Sept. 2004: Yahoo! Andy has finally shed the unreadable yellow-text-on-black-background motif. Maybe he started to read Zeldman...]

Sunday, June 15, 2003

For sale by nincompoop

The guy down the street has put his house up for sale. "For Sale by Owner." It might as well say "For Sale by Nincompoop" or more specifically, "For Sale by Greedy Delusional."

The sale is preceded by three weeks of frenetic painting and gardening by hourly workers supervised by the cheapskate owners. The paint colors are 20 years out of date because that's what matches their furniture and towels. And they've convinced themselves that everyone prefers old wall-to-wall carpeting over the hardwood floors that lie beneath and that the aluminum screen door doesn't detract at all from the front entryway.

Based on my recent observation of our neighborhood, that house will languish on the market for couple of months before the owners wise up. Eventually they'll notice that nearby houses represented by agents for well-known realty companies have been sold. They'll get sick of cleaning the house on a daily basis and spending their weekends hanging around listening while prospective buyers troop through and badmouth their furniture, decorating and landscaping. They'll get tired of rushing home from work to show the place to prospects. They notice that weekly ads in the paper are costing them a small fortune. If they're lucky, that's the worst of it. If they're unlucky, they'll have gotten an offer that somehow turned sour, resulting in unpleasantness, threats of lawsuits, and no agent to hide behind.

For whatever reason, I've noticed that the "For Sale by Owner" folks, even when they finally give up trying to unload the place without paying a commission, will never hire the a realtor from one of the area's leading firms. No, they always hire a firm you've never heard of with a male agent who looks like someone from a 1960s sitcom. He prices the house about $10,000 lower, puts up a sign in lime green or fluorescent orange that looks like it just came from the hardware store, and puts out flyers that promptly vanish and are never restocked. By this time, the for-sale-by owners have moved out, taking their outdated furniture and paintings with them but leaving the outdated paint job. They "save" money by failing to stage the house and failing to hire a lawn service. They come over and mow, once, and after that the lawn gets long, scraggly and (if it's summer) brown.

By now buyers are actively avoiding the house, speculating that someone (not just the lawn) died there. After three or four months of deterioration, a real estate speculator scoops it up for 20 percent less than the for-sale-by owner had been asking before getting an agent. And that's when the real fun begins.

The speculator hires contractors, who add on to the house using the cheapest materials possible. They go up and out, turning the house, whatever its original style, into a huge box occupying every inch of ground and air space allowed within the building code. They put in enough bedroms for a bordello. Layout is convoluted, closets are non-existant, but the kitchen is loaded up with marble, slate, Corian, and stainless steel. A fancy front door appears. They tunnel from the street down into the basement and turn the basement into a two-car garage. On the bright side, they pull the old wall-to-wall and either refinish the floors or put down Pergo. There's not much yard left at this point, but most of what's left is promptly paved in concrete and then decked over. A six-foot fence with a three-foot lattice add-on surrounds the backyard and sideyards. Three or four instant shrubs and trees are plopped out front and smothered in bark. Then the sign for the fanciest real estate firm in town goes up; the asking price is 20 percent more than what the for-sale-by owner had originally set, and the place sells on the second day to a landlord who turns around and rents it to four college students. They arrive, each with boyfriend or girlfriend, and a couple pitbulls (great fenced yard!) and now the neighborhood has eight vehicles to contend with (the garage is being used as a combo storage locker and party room).

Plea to for-sale-by owners: Get a top-notch real estate agent to begin with. You'll save time and money, and our neighborhod won't turn into fraternity row.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Sheba attacks

Two years ago my husband adopted a deaf white cat. The shelter that found her wandering around had temporarily named her Angel, but it was clear to me within minutes of meeting her that this was a particularly inappropriate apellation. We renamed her Sheba the White Tornado. People often mis-hear the name and think we are referring to her as Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction)--a mistake that's understandable when you've seen her in action.

Sheba's deafness theoretically renders her vulnerable to surprise attack from other animals, but in practice this never happens. Sheba's defensive strategy is to savagely attack any cat, dog, or other small animal she sees. It's effective--no one has ever voluntarily gone a second round with Sheba.

Unfortunately, Sheba has got it in for the big gray cat next door, which is plainly terrified of her. Since we never take Sheba out at night, the gray cat has become more or less nocturnal. But yesterday the two collided in the neighbors' backyard. I separated them immediately, and carried Sheba home, but the gray cat seems to have suffered psychic damage and now won't come out at all.

Cat question #1

My neighbor Steve called me today, worried because Smokey, the big black cat we share, seems to be losing hair. Did I know why?

"It's summer. And he's a cat."

Working from home leads to an odd juxtaposition of technical crises with family and neighborhood events. I'm a writer, editor, and Web content producer for a high tech company. That means working the same hours I would if I were in San Jose, and keeping a phone by me at all times. But my lunch break can be spent cooking an omelette instead of driving to Subway, and my coffee breaks are out on the front lawn supervising Sheba the deaf white cat and chatting with neighbors and Ralph the mailman.