Monday, October 31, 2005

Another great Halloween

Saul Steinberg, The New Yorker, 10/29/49

And you thought you had a weird Halloween

Things just...happen...to our friend Geoff. And on Halloween, weird things happen.

Halloween in Ballard: Very Ghoul

North Seattle is decorated to the hilt for Halloween, complete with wet, windy weather.

There's an enormous (at least two-story high) Grim Reaper at the intersection of NW 3rd and 76th St. (west side of Phinney Ridge, heading into Ballard), and that whole neighborhood is full of tombstones commemorating the Viaduct and Leilani Lanes.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Very serious

Size doesn't matter

My late father had little respect for television, a medium whose content had reached a particularly low ebb in the 1980s.

While going through his papers today, I came across a tiny 1988 newspaper clipping of the (then) new Sony Color Watchman pocket television. It had a a 2.7-inch LCD screen, ran on batteries, and was capable of both UHF/VHF reception and display of recorded images from a camcorder.

I hadn't realized there had even been such a forerunner of the iPod video. The reason my dad had saved the article was the off-beat headline, which echoed his opinion of miniaturized TV, Sony or iPod:

"Trash Compactor."

Nowadays, even the cat sends email...

...but does anyone read it? Probably not, if the subject line is "Hey!"

Today's rant is about email subject lines. The scope of the rant is personal and business email (as opposed to commercial email and its creepy cousin, spam).

A subject line can be the most important part of any email message you send or receive. Three reasons:

  1. It, along with the sender's name, determines whether the email gets opened and read, set aside for later, or deleted.
  2. It can (considerately) set expectations for what's in the email (good or bad news, critical information, an amusing joke, time-consuming demands on the recipient, etc.)
  3. It distinguishes the message from the dozens of others in the recipient's inbox by indicating that it's urgent, important, or interesting

Yet, I get email with the following subject lines every day:
Hey!
(Response: huh?)

A question
(Response: About what? Is this going to take all day to deal with?)

Computers
(Response: What computers?)

Are you there?
(Response: No, a robot is reading my email.)

You get the idea. A particularly infuriating variation on the clueless subject line involves an onging work project, let's call it "Starshine," in which hundreds, if not thousands, of emails have been flying back and forth -- about Starshine splash pages, Starshine product briefs, and Starshine icons. Then, three or four months into it, someone sends an email with the oh-so-informative subject line:

Starshine

(Response: You've got to be kidding.)

If people want their emails read and responded to -- and want to increase the chance that the recipient will read them in a reasonably good humor -- they should put the message, or a good clue to it, right in the subject line:

Capote Sunday night?

I passed the bar exam!

Question: email software programs

FYI: New condo regs in Seattle

URGENT: Mom's plane delayed

Fun: Bush pursued by mongooses

Attached: Pix from Tokyo

Bottom line: It's flattering to an email recipient to see by the subject line that the sender has taken the time to tailor the message -- to (gasp) actually communicate instead of grunting "Hey!"

Friday, October 28, 2005

Decisions, decisions...

The latest blogthings quiz might help you decide what to wear for Halloween.

Despite blogthings' advice, I will not be appearing as a Playboy bunny. Not even as Gloria Steinem going undercover as a Playboy bunny.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Sigh

They say that women in their 20s today experience a completely different working world than the one I knew 25 years ago, one pretty much without sexism. I sure hope so. My generation is still hard-wired the wrong way.

We sold our leather sofa on Craig's List this week, and the buyer came over to get it today. He's my age (50), works in the high-tech music industry, and is what I'd consider to be a professional. As we walked through the hallway to get to the den, he noticed the elaborate iTunes Music Store launch team plaque on the wall and said "Wow, iTunes! Does your husband work for Apple?"

I guess I've encountered this type of remark so often through the years that I don't manifest any of the obvious reactions, such as rolling my eyes, letting steam escape from my ears, or muttering "oink oink." I don't even sigh any more.

"No," I said. "I do."

To his credit, the guy was immediately embarrassed. He seemed like the sort of person who just blurts out the first thing on his mind, and I suspect he'd made this sort of error before.

I've been wondering: If we were both 25, would he have assumed my husband was the techie? And, if he had, would I have cared? Would have I have called him on it more aggressively?

I'd like to hear from anyone under 30 about that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

I know I've seen that face before

I want to tag my photos with Riya! (For just a moment, let's ignore the scary privacy implications.)

Monday, October 24, 2005

The contractors from hell

It used to be that mid-way through a major home project, something about the contractor would get my goat.

My, how things have changed. Now I want to throttle most of them right out of the gate. In the past month, I've been annoyed by eight contractors, only four of whom actually turned up in person.

Contractor #1 was the stamped concrete guy who assured me that he did all his estimates on Sunday and would be by at 2:30 Sunday afternoon. I stayed home, waiting; he never showed up or called.

Contractors #2 and #3 were paver installers. One had me fill out a request for an appointment, but apparently filed it in his trash can. The other, recommended by the local stone yard, never returned either of my phone calls.

Contractor #4 was also a paver installer. He returned my call, showed up for an appointment, and spent most of his time trying to convince me to use a particular style of paver he "always uses." The fact that I wanted a different style (by the same supplier, whose catalog he brought along) just didn't even begin to sink in. Plus he didn't want to use a polymerized sand, and had no experience with it.

Contractor #5 was our cleaning person, who shows up for about 2/3 of her scheduled cleaning dates, usually calling to cancel 15 minutes before start time.

Contractor #6 was the fill-in cleaning person I tried out. She was slow, but thorough and very thoughtful. The disqualifying factor here was her insistance on using an"environmentally safe" cleaning solution that had a cloying smell that practically drove me out of the house (and it lingered for days). I asked about using use the cleansers I have (bon ami, vinegar Windex, Murphy's oil soap and a marmoleum cleaner sold by the Environmental Home Store) but she made it clear that wasn't going to happen. Phew!

Contractor #7 was recommended by a salesperson at the plumbing fixtures store as someone who could install a Panasonic fan to replace the mind-numbing Nutone currently roaring away in our bathroom. He cancelled two or three appointments; when he eventually showed up, it was clear he knew a huge amount about fan installation. Unfortunately, he would be moonlighting from his regular job with a busy contractor, and had no idea when he could start. He suggested that I call him and nag him in three weeks! When he started muttering about having to remove part of the ceiling, coming back to do drywall, etc., I had an ugly premonition. It involved a gaping hole that would remain in the bathroom ceiling for the next two months while I chased him down to finish the job. He tried to convince me to hire his son-in-law to do the patio, but I managed to shoo him away.

Contractor #8 does specialty gardening, and was recommended by the (very competent) gardener I hired for a consultation. He warned me that the specialist would try to sell me on a series of treatments, but said that I really needed only one. As predicted, when I called the specialist he launched into a real hard sell about how this garden treatment needed to be done four times a year, and how he'd come over to analyze my garden and show me why it was crucial that I sign up for the entire four-treatment annual series. Stifling my incredulity, I gave him my phone number, but he never called to make an appointment -- essentially leaving my money on the table since I was ready and eager to pay him for the first treatment.

This is worse than dating.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hurricanes, followed by greedy developers

News that New Orleans officials are considering suspending planning and zoning regs to allow quaint historic homes to be replaced with suburban tract boxes reminded me (by contrast) of Warsaw, Poland. Visiting the city center in 1984, I learned that what looked like 17th and 18th century buildings were less than 40 years old. Old Warsaw had been destroyed in World War II, but immediately afterwards the surviving residents rebuilt it, with many squares, palaces and culturally significant streets recreated exactly as they had been before the war.

In sync

A few months ago, when I upgraded to Mac OS X Tiger on my iMac, I chose to do the OS upgrade rather than the clean install. I mean, who wants to reinstall all their apps and try to remember all their settings and preferences?

All went swimmingly, except for the Missing Sync. As its name implies, it's a patch that deals with conflicts between between .Mac Sync (new), Apple iSync (old) and Palm OS for Mac (an unspeakable pain in the rear). With Missing Sync, I can keep the data that I already sync between my PowerBook, my iMac, and my .Mac online account, in sync with my Treo PDA as well.

It turns out that those of us who upgraded, rather than clean-installed, Mac OS X Tiger, locked deep into the system something that annoyed the heck out of the Missing Sync.

In my attempt to get Treo syncing to work again, I spent several annoying evenings downloading, uninstalling, reinstalling, and encountering "you do not have access to this file"-type messages. I found discussions of the Tiger-upgrade-hoses-Missing-Sync problem online, but, ominiously, none of them mentioned any solutions. The result was that my Treo hadn't been synced since July.

Trusting the people at the Missing Sync to address the problem (think about it, their whole product is based on addressing a problem Palm and Apple don't want to talk about) I kept checking back to their site. Sure enough, today I found a step-by-step solution. Of course, I'd already trashed, damaged, re-installed and generally mucked around with all the files and conduits involved, but I was able to follow their step-by-step about three-quarters of the way through, up to the point where it didn't make sense any longer. And at that point, being an experienced Mac user and trained to expect generally positive outcomes, I just pushed some buttons and leaped into the digital abysss.

The result? Synced again. I have no idea why it worked, but, once again, thank you to MarkSpace (that's the Missing Sync people) for putting out some signposts.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Faded love, fluffy omelettes

Salon columnist Cary Tennis had a lovely column this past week (sorry, subscriptions only). He was riffing on the implications of a letter from a Salon reader who was disquieted by ex-boyfriends who've taken plans the couple had developed together and subsequently implemented them with their new sweeties. She complained about the appropriation of everything from romantic date ideas to a complete wedding theme.

"Do men build dating structures, then simply insert 'woman'?" she asked.

Tennis points out, in his gentle way, that you can't help but absorb ideas during a relationship, and you can't be expected to erase the ideas when the romance ends.

"It's one thing if he cooks an omelet on your stove with your eggs in your pan and then carries the omelet out of your house into his new girlfriend's house and feeds it to her. But every time he cooks an omelet for her, in his pan, or her pan, does he have to credit you for it?" he teases.

This got me thinking of all the great ideas and attitudes I've gotten from past relationships. I don't mean old friends I still hang out with; I mean people who once meant quite a bit to me, but who I'll never see again!

Every time I chop the bamboo shoots and turn on the gas under the wok, I hear Blair, my pony-tailed college sweetie, reminding me "hot wok, cold oil." He's an orthodox rabbi now.

When I see my gray hair in the mirror I think of David, the New York civil rights attorney who showed me the city when I was at Columbia for grad school. One night at the City Limits one of my friends teased him about going gray. David said "I have a deal with God; he can turn my hair any color he wants as long as he lets me keep half of it." David died a few years ago; there's an ACLU scholarship in New York in his memory.

I can't imaging Blair or David being annoyed at me for perpetuating their cooking techniques or their clever lines. When the Salon reader's annoyance about the failed romances is long gone, she should feel flattered that her ex-boyfriends have such positive memories of her that they have kept those reminders in their lives.

Oh, BTW, Steve, wherever you are, I still remember how to make fluffy omelettes!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Is nothing sacred?

Friday's Wall Street Journal (sorry, print version or web subscription only, so no link) had an article about a new version of the classic writer's guide, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White.

If you haven't come across it, The Elements of Style is a slim, supremely elegant book that embodies its own messages. It's short. It's clear. It never aggrandizes the writers or flim-flams the reader. But apparently someone felt that such an approach was behind the times, so they've gussied it up with bizarre illustrations and changed the wording to make the writing instruction more cheery and inclusive.

Yech.

The late sportswriter and Boston University journalism professor, Timothy Cohane, had a term for the contemporary approach to teaching writing. He called it NSTO, or "no shit too odiferous." According to Cohane, NSTO started with doting parents who insisted that every creative effort of their children was perfect, and that no revisions or editing should ever come between the beloved offspring's spoutings and the reader. This attitude crept gradually from the home to the schools, where teachers got tired of calls from irate parents complaining that little Johnny and Sally would be stifled if their compositions, no matter how incoherent or sloppy, received any grade below an A. And, in a 1999 revision upon which the 2005 illustrated version is based, a whiff of NSTO insinuated itself into The Elements of Style.

Cohane, like Strunk and White, knew that writing is demanding and good writing is the result of thought, practice, and study. Just read 10 blogs and you'll have no trouble telling the difference between the ones written by talented, experienced, disciplined writers and the ones written by blathering nincompoops -- nincompoops making exactly the same mistakes that Strunk and White show you how to avoid or correct.

The version of Elements of Style that you want is the final revision by White (1979), and the good news is that it's still widely available. I recommend picking it up at your local used bookstore. The versions you want to skip are the 1999 revision and the 2005 illustrated version of that revision. "The 1979 Elements will be studied long after the post-White versions have been filed under 'mortifying mistakes' and forgotten," reviewer David Gelernter predicts in the Journal.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Looking for something different?

I've started to follow local event blogs, including Metroblogging Seattle and Ballard Community, as well as inballard.com. That's how I've found out about some unusual community events, such as Ratapalooza, Nov. 12 in Ballard.

Not yet on the blog sites, but certainly on my calendar, is the Nordic Heritage Museum's annual Yulefest. It's a bit early this year -- Nov. 19-20. The crafts for sale range from Scandinavian sweaters and jewelry to the work of mid-range and high-end local artisans. I do much of my holiday shopping there on Saturday, then go back on Sunday for the the food. They have a tea room, a beer hall, and an a la carte lunch in the first-floor dining room, all with musical entertainment, plus a hallway full of baked goods. I highly recommend the lunch. Nibble on a few open-face sandwiches, but save room for the Romme Grot, a warm pudding that will remind you of crepes and sour cream.

If you miss Yulefest, you can get your holiday shopping done at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market, 11-3 p.m. in the winter (except for Dec. 26), or the Fremont Sunday Market, 10-4 p.m. in the winter (also closed Dec. 26). Unfortunately, there will not be a weekend Holiday Gift Fair in Ballard or Fremont this year because the old Safeway building that housed it in recent years has been torn down. Waaaaaah!

Another excellent crafts fair option is the annual Phinney NeighborHood Association Winter Festival and Crafts Fair, Dec. 3-4. That's about the right time to buy seasonal greenery, and I recall their wreaths are usually a very good deal. By the way, those stunning fused-glass plates you see on the fair website (and at right) are the work of our friend Els Gangloff.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Garden reassurance

A couple years ago our community club brought in three garden experts for an evening presentation. One of them, a fellow from Ohio, immediate caught my interest. He spoke clearly and plainly, with an obvious love and respect for plants and little or no interest in garden design trends. I held onto his business card, and last week made an appointment for him to come over for a garden consultation.

I was a concerned about what he might think of my garden, since I never seem to have enough time to apply all the special sprays and organic additives. But he liked it, and reassured me that the fungus that affected the pear tree this year was probably a result of the unusual spring weather and would not permanently damage the tree or threaten any other plans. His advice was to put plenty of Cedar Grove compost on the beds, and to use compost tea at least once a year. I've since made arrangements with the local compost tea person to have the whole garden treated later this month.

Calvin -- that's the gardener -- suggested two plants I might add to the garden: Sarcococca, also called "Christmas box," (a very small shrub with fragrant white flowers that bloom in the winter) and the hardy Geranium "Spinners," a particularly large and dramatic hardy Geranium with intense purple/blue flowers. I've had up to 40 varieties of hardy Geranium, but have never grown "Spinners."

It was a pleasure to be around someone who knows plants and enjoys gardens. He made improving the garden seem very do-able. Calvin will be back in January to prune the pear tree and execute a major remodeling of the gigantic camellia. Stay tuned for my upcoming adventures with the compost tea guy.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Fruit ice cream recipe

A reader who found the Waring Ice Cream Parlor directions here requested my strawberry ice cream recipe. I'll preface it with some general comments on fruit ice cream:

You base fruit ice cream on either a plain vanilla (uncooked) or a French vanilla (with eggs, often cooked) recipe. (I use the plain vanilla). If the fruit has been reduced to a puree, it can be added to the mix at the beginning of the freezing process. But if you want the fruit in larger pieces, mix it in at the end of the freezing process. It prevents clogging the dasher, and it prevents the fruit from ending up as hard as rocks.

Fresh fruit: Slice or chop 1-2 cups of fruit, and combine them with half of the sugar called for in the ice cream recipe. Let this mixture age in your refrigerator for 24 hours. (The extra sugar in the fruit will prevent it from freezing solid in the ice cream.) After the aging, puree some of the fruit and add it to the ice cream mixture, saving the rest of the fruit pieces to be added by hand at the end.

Strawberry Ice Cream

2 cups heavy cream (1 pint)
2 cups light cream (1 pint)
3/4 - 1 cup sugar
1-1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt

Chop strawberries, mix with half of the sugar, and let fruit mixture age in the refrigerator 24 hours.

Puree about half of the strawberry mixture.
Pour cream directly into cream can of ice cream machine.
Add the pureed strawberries.
Add the rest of the sugar, along with the vanilla and salt.
Stir with wooden spoon or plastic spatula until sugar dissolves.

Place can into ice cream machine and follow Ice Cream Parlor directions to process and freeze ice cream. When you remove the ice cream from the freezing container, mix in the reserved strawberry pieces, then allow the ice cream to harden or "ripen" in the freezer of your refrigerator.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Fluff-in-mouth disease

A colleague and I have been discussing ways to improve the readability of web sites. (All aspects of readability: word choice, sentence and graf length, voice, tone, fonts, colors, use of links and buttons, column widths, and use of bullets.)

We've been collecting ideas, and that sent me back to one of the classic web readability writers, Jakob Nielsen. This page is worth visiting if you do any writing for the web. I love the way Nielson's research with users demonstrates the inherent unreadability of what he calls "marketese."

Of course, marketese is also inherently unreadable on the printed page for exactly the same reason: It's padded with a lot of self-congratulatory fluff.

Here's an example of classic marketese. Write this way, and your marketing team will dislocate their shoulders patting each other on the back.

We've been hard at work developing more great features for our loyal readers! You'll find more than 50 scrumptious new recipes for holiday meals and treats that'll have your friends and family jumping for joy. Plus plenty of links to sites on holiday party planning. Be sure to check out the new pages on selecting a turkey, carving a pumpkin, making cranberry sauce, and using your kitchen mixer to prepare pie crust. Need more help? Head for our our video library on cooking techniques.


Now here's the same information, rescued. But, sad to say, the only people who will congratulate you for writing this way are the readers who are trying to get information from your site.

New on the site:

• 12 recipes for seasonal meals
• 38 recipes for cookies, cakes, and candies
• Party planning links
• Selecting a turkey
• Carving a pumpkin

Need more help? Check out:

• How-to guides
• The video library of cooking techniques

Nielson concludes:

Promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts "Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions," their first reaction is no, it's not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them from using the site.

I'd argue that, outside of his experimental environment, web users don't even get far enough on the page to argue with the fluff. I think they just scan it, move down the page looking for actual information, and (if they don't spot it), go to the next website on their Google results list.

A group of ravens...

...is sometimes collectively referred to as "an unkindness" or "a conspiracy." This bit of info came up today during some research I was doing for work. Honestly! "A Conspiracy of Ravens" would be a great short story title.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Dinner on the new patio?

...It could be yours! I am seeking recommendations for a top-rated, highly experienced patio contractor. (Not a contractor or garden design person who has done a couple attractive patios, but a stone or concrete company whose work has been proven to stand up to the damp Northwest weather.) If the contractor you recommend gets the job, I'll cook dinner for you (and a friend) next summer and serve it on the patio (weather permitting).

Patio will be 18' x 20' and includes a short pathway.

Please submit recommendations in either category:

1. Concrete pavers
The contractor should be committed to installing all the correct drainage and founation layers for the patio, and willing to guarantee the durability of any cement/mortar used.

2. Stamped concrete
I recently saw some beautiful stamped concrete patios in California and realized that, if done by the right contractor, this can be subtle rather than garish. The contractor should be able to show examples of previous work with subtle "aged brick" staining, plus needs to have access to a stamp with the octagon-and-tile pattern. (Not all contractors have all stamps.)

Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!

How to recondition a leather couch


10 years ago I purchased a semi-custom high-end leather couch. It has some of the thickest leather you can buy, and the back cushions are filled with down. With its combination of thick hide, and dark coffee leather, I figured it might -- just might -- survive in our cat-infested household.

After an initial onslaught from Bosco the Destroyer and Sam the Sprayer (both departed in the couch's early years of residence) the couch has done well with the cats. In fact, the current crop of kitties shows little interest in it, preferring cat trees, fleece slumber balls, and desktop cat beds.

Every few years "recondition the couch" makes my summer task list, but I never get beyond a quick once-over with a leather cleaning solution. Thus the couch gets drier and dustier looking, sort of a scratched cafe-au-lait. I contacted two local carpet cleaning companies that recondition leather furniture, but discovered that much of their hefty price is the cost for moving the couch to their facility and back.

I did some research online and got advice and supplies from the local Tandy leather shop, and finally executed a couch-reconditioning plan (described below) that turned out to be quick, neat, and effective. Even the cats noticed the difference. As soon as I tucked in the last seat cushion, Kaylee jumped onto the completed couch and made herself at home.

Supplies:

• Reconditioning supplies: 1 small (200 ml) bottle Lexol pH leather cleaner and 1 small (200 ml) bottle of Lexol original formula leather cleaner preservative. Since you will use an entire bottle of each for one couch, you should buy two bottles, or the larger size (though the larger bottle will be harder to handle with wet rags and slippery hands). BTW, both of these treatments are scentless and safe to touch.

• Other supplies: tarps or old sheets to protect the carpet and floors around the couch. 4 - 6 lint-free dish towels or other old towels to apply the liquid treatments.

Step-by-step reconditioning:

1. Put down tarps or sheets; then remove all easily removable cushions. NOTE: If your couch has zip-on back cushions, don't remove them. The zippers can be hideously fragile.)

2. Working from the top down (to avoid problems with drips) apply the leather cleaner to a wet towel and rub in to all the leather surfaces, raising a little lather. Wipe off lather with a damp towel. This process should take 15-20 minutes for the entire couch and cushions.

3. Let everything dry for 30 minutes.

4. Shake up the the leather conditioner (which is sort of creamy and sticky) and (again working from the top down) apply it with a damp towel or sponge to the leather, rubbing in broad motions. Don't panic if dark streaks appear where leather is scratched, nicked, or has been stained. These will disappear within 10-15 minutes. Be very careful to get the conditioner in to creases and seams in the leather; if you don't, these will look dry and dusty afterwards. Make sure all conditioner is rubbed in (don't leave wet spots). Conditioning should take about 20-30 minutes for couch and cushions.

5. Buff with a dry towel. Keep in mind that this not shoe leather, and the conditioner is not shoe polish. The leather will be soft and pliant, not smooth and shiny.

6. Reassemble couch and enjoy.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The rain returns

I arrived in Seattle in late September, 20 years ago. On October 1, I woke up to pouring rain which, in my memory, continued steadily through the following April (with the exception of a week of snow in late November).

Since then, I've joked that every year on October 1, someone turns on the faucet. Sure enough, around midnight tonight, the annual deluge began. Now it comes back to me what all those raincoats in the hall closet are about.