A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

A Sturm's Eye View

A journal of sorts to record Jonathan Sturm's (and others') thoughts and observations on things worth thinking about. Feedback welcome, but be aware that unless you prominently say you want your communication kept private, I may publish it.

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Monday 30 October 2000

When I first became involved with the world of publishing and printing, it was an expensive business. Mostly, type was set by shining light through type on a strip of film that moved about in response to keyboard strokes. The light shone onto a piece of bromide paper that would later be developed to show the written words. The bromides would be cut up with a scalpel and pasted onto a board with a grid of blue lines. The "paste" was a solvent based rubber glue that stayed tacky enough to hold the pieces of bromide in place, but not so sticky that you couldn't lift a piece to paste in the correct position.

Photographs were screened (turned into patterns of dots) by sandwiching the negative with a piece of film that was just a matrix of dots) and exposing a piece of either bromide or film and developed. Bromides were pasted onto the pasteboard if it was a low quality publication. Fancy headings were made with Letraset. Letraset made sheets of type on film that you transferred onto paper by rubbing with a stylus that was often just a ball-point pen that had run out of ink. 

Finally, the page was placed in a special camera and yet another sheet of photographic film was exposed. The film was used to expose the printing plate and that was used to print the final paper copies. For high quality photographs, the pictures were stripped into that last piece of film. Whew! Complicated! Lots of stages where things could go wrong and lots of smelly chemicals.

These days we just prepare a PostScript file and send it to a bureau to make the film, or the printer sends the file across his network to his press for direct to press printing. Mechanics aside, the issues facing the publisher are much the same now as they were then. Publishing is all about communicating with readers. 

Effective Communications

One area where communications effectiveness is most easily measured is in advertising. You will have noticed that there are several sorts of advertisements. First, there are the design-intensive, arty sort. Nice pictures, few words and often lots of white space. Then there are the small, usually text only ads. In between, there are ads that consist of a big heading and a fair amount of descriptive body text with maybe a few subheadings here and there. Any pictures used illustrate something important in the text. 

Guess what folks? Well written, text-intensive ads win hands down. For every dollar spent on advertising, this sort of ad brings far more dollars in return than any other sort. Well worded display ads run a distant second. The ad agencies hate this of course. And the graphics designers. Probably the hair dressers, fashion designers, telephone sanitisers and TV film crews too. 

How do I know this? Apart from my own experience, Chris Newton of Results Corporation has years of experience at this sort of thing. Chris is the guru of effective marketing in Australia. What the ad agency folks don't want the punters to know is that the simple textual stuff can be generated inexpensively by the advertiser. No need for the agency and all its attendant expense. Think about the websites you enjoy visiting on a regular basis. Is it for information, or the design?

I experienced one of the dangers of too design-intensive pages a few weeks ago. The site was about typography, typeface design and nomenclature. It looked beautiful! Problem was on my monitor, at the screen resolution I use, the body text was barely readable. If it wasn't a professional graphics monitor, I doubt I could have read the text at all, it was so tiny (6 points). I emailed the webmaster and the response was: "Nobody ever complained before!" Maybe they couldn't read the text well enough to see the email link, I thought. 

Simple HTML allows the browser and/or the reader to determine such issues as text size and font. I could care less about where my lines of text break. Since paper cost is not a concern, does my text need to flow around any graphics I use? HTML was originally designed to convey simple text and graphics, the essential portion of print communication. Yes, I can see the need for animation if that conveys information more efficiently; the workings of the internal combustion engine come to mind. Similarly, sound can enhance the understanding of certain things. But do we need to be soothed by elevator muzak and flashed at by imitation neon signs? I think not.

Given my statements above, some of you may be questioning my use of background texture. No, it's not essential, but people tend to prefer random textured surfaces to blank smooth ones. And those who dislike my choice can turn it off in their browser.

From Dan Bowman:

Good morning Jonathan,
My turn to add to the information overload. Let me preface by saying I'm one of "Those People", the ones who hand code their HTML (or maybe lean on NoteTab and a custom Daynotes library <g>). ...and I generally test new stuff in IE and NS, which forces me to deal with some of your recent issues with ANSI codes.
One way around the problem is to use the HTML4 'value' rather than the 'named entity', i.e. "&#8212"; rather than "&emdash". For my limited testing at http://thetimesink.net/Special/HTML4test.htm things render okay in IE and NS and validate against HTML4.
For information on the value codes, hit http://www.w3.org/TR/1998/REC-html40-19980424/sgml/entities.html#h-24.4 .
Just more information than you want or need<g>,
Dan Bowman
a Daynotes site

Thanks to Chuck Musciano & Bill Kennedy's HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide 4th Edition I had already gotten that far by the time Dan's email arrived. I used the HTML validator at W3C to test some code and decided for the short term to forget my beloved quotes and dashes pending finding an interesting, simple and easy-to-use solution or two. More on this later. A stick of RAM for a client's machine just arrived; the day is sunny for a change. I have suppliers of building materials to phone and the garden calls.

Thought for the day:

The trouble with so many of us is that we underestimate the power of simplicity. We have a tendency it seems to over complicate our lives and forget what's important and what's not. We tend to mistake movement for achievement. We tend to focus on activities instead of results. And as the pace of life continues to race along in the outside world, we forget that we have the power to control our lives regardless of what's going on outside.

Robert Stuberg

Tuesday 31 October 2000 

I had a nice little chuckle this morning: Warlock's pointer to this! The story is basically about the failure of banner ads on web pages to achieve very much apart from make advertisers poorer and annoy the crap out of people. There are also thinly veiled hints that TV and other costly advertising is a complete waste. This is not news to those of us who have worked in real marketing. That is, the development of effective means of getting your product sold. Look through any bunch of glossy magazines at your favourite barber/hairdresser and it won't take you too long to find an ad where there's no obvious contact phone number or address.

The best, most tested, tried and true method of advertising is word of mouth. How many of you went out and tried and bought Nero Burning ROM because Jerry Pournelle and Robert Bruce Thompson told you how good it was? I know I did! Like you, I trust these guys. And the next CD burner I buy will in all likelihood be a Plextor. How much did it cost Plextor to send their drives to Jerry and Robert? A lot less than a full colour magazine page!

When I started the Franklin and Friends web page, I decided to use word of mouth to market it. Most of you know Fred Langa and his twice weekly LangaLetter. Fred offers a quid pro quo; you advertise his newsletter on your web page and he'll mention you in his newsletter. Fred vets the websites to ensure they are acceptable and his readers go take a look. His mention has added 96 readers in the last 10 hours.

The rule of thumb is that every person you market to successfully will tell 25 or so others. The same is true if you have convinced them that you are a complete waste of space! I corresponded with some friends about making money from Internet publishing and they told me that the banner ads for gambling make the most money. Since I avoid bars that have gambling machines I figured my readership might not like such banners and I settled on the Tell A Friend banner. The one that doesn't blink! 

One really nice touch with the Tell A Friend banner. After they have advertised at you, they return you to where you were.

Mandrake 7.2 with KDE 2.0 has been released. More on this later. 

Bo Leuf writes:

Following Dan Bowmans's suggestion, I experimented some with the HTML4 values. These are if anything less supported. A very dismal spread of results between Opera, IE, Amaya and a few others. Ick. I had expected better by now.

/ Bo 

-- Bo Leuf Leuf Consultancy LeufCom 

-- http://www.leuf.com/

I can't add anything to that. Ick describes precisely my feeling.

Thought for the day:

What I want are new ideas that are thoroughly tested!


Wednesday 1 November 2000

The download of Mandrake 7.2 is s-l-o-w as molasses. World wide wait indeed! At the current rate it's going to take several days.

Spent most of today working on House of Steel things. Story here.

Thought for the day:

Patience in the present, faith in the future, and joy in the doing

George Perera

Thursday 2 November 2000

After three weeks, EYO returned the Seagate hard disk that gave me SMART errors. They said they didn't see any SMART errors under test, and neither did I. It's the same drive; I kept a copy of the serial number. A friend who knows more about hardware than I do told me that once you see a SMART error, that's it. And very often you don't even have time to back up the data. It makes sense that the drive manufacturer is unlikely to want to replace under warranty unless the errors are dire. This is a puzzle.

After testing the returned hard disk, I benchmarked both to see how they compare. The 17 GB drive is 5,400 RPM and has a 2 MB cache. The 20 GB is 7,200 RPM and has a 1 MB cache. Both are from Seagate. The 20 GB drive is twice as fast at file reads and writes and has two thirds the seek time. The working partitions for Win2k and Win 98 I copied over to the returned drive with Partition Magic 5. Then I tested that I could boot off either hard disk. Now whichever drive dies, I can get back to work straight away.

Only three more days of downloading Mandrake 7.2 to go. The fastest connect I can manage is 38 kb/s. Still, GetRight ensures that the download resumes if it breaks. Make sure that if you use GetRight you download the SpyWare fix from Steve Gibson. The ad-free, paid for version installs SpyWare as well as the shareware version.

Most of the day was spent working out how much of all the different sorts of steel are needed for the house: corrugated zincalume, C channel, 75 mm angle iron, rod, screws, flashing etc. When I've finished, I will work it all out again to make sure. It seems like everything I had to do today was boring.

Thought for the day:

Somebody's boring me. I think it's me.

Dylan Thomas

Friday 3 November 2000

So, Jerry Pournelle's a shill! What's a shill when it's at home, I think to myself? First, I grab my trusty 1972 Chambers Dictionary. It's falling apart at the seams now, but it's my favourite. It tells me shill is a synonym for sheal and that means "to shell or husk". Makes sense! Jerry always was good at sorting the wheat from the chaff. But the statement was by a Linuxen and since they seem invariably negative, I obviously have the wrong meaning. I grab my second favourite dictionary, The Universal Dictionary of the English Language (1932) and struck out. 

One of my other great favourites is the Complete Oxford. On the grounds of bulk, I have this on CD, but no matter where I look, I can't find it. I have nearly 40 GB of hard disk space and still these CD-based reference works insist on being read from the CD! It's ridiculous. I check the Macquarie English and Concise Oxford. No luck there either! This must be one of those really old English words that fell out of general use back in the 18th or 19th century. Like crile and firefang.

Returning to the article, it refers to Jerry's dissing the current crop of Linux Office Suites. There's not much to argue with here. Despite Office having gained almost nothing useful apart from Outlook since 1995, the other leading suites still lag in functionality and utility. The best of the Linux word processors, Word Perfect required me to indulge in several hours of tedious set-up to produce acceptable output. The font menus have each font listed twice in order to achieve this, one for print and one for screen. This is silly!

The Linuxen told me this was not Linux's fault. It was the stupidity of Word Perfect's font handling. Well, excuse me, but I just want to get my work done and if Linux's leading word processor can't handle its fonts properly, that's a Linux problem.

The second best of the Linux word processors is Star Office. Before it was free, I purchased a copy. It was bad enough that I gave up and waited for a later version. By then it was free, but it reminded me of the really bad old days of computing. After several days work on a document, it would no longer open it. Nor could Word 2000. The Linuxen told me that was my fault for not making periodic saves under another filename. Excuse me, but I haven't had to do that since Word 6.0a! And I generate thousands of Word documents every year.

There is hope for Linux, though. After I finish downloading Mandrake 7.2 (currently 34% complete) I will be trying the beta of FrameMaker for Linux. FrameMaker is reputed to be the word processor by its users and I have every reason to believe them. Plus it's a genuine page layout program. Having the power of PageMaker and Word in the one app would be heaven! If FrameMaker for Linux is the same price as for Mac, it will cost me nearly $A2,000. Word 2k, Win2k and PageMaker 6.5 come to a tad over that price. 

Moving from Win2k to Linux will mean leaving IE and Outlook behind. Netscape 4.7 on Linux is a royal PITA on Linux. It crashes regularly even when only one window is used and refuses to relaunch until I go to a terminal window and kill it. Internet Explorer almost never crashes, even with several windows open, something Netscape appears incapable of emulating. Perhaps I will have to buy Opera for Linux and that means I will have spent slightly more for Linux and apps than Win2k and apps. 

The Linuxen can cry out that you can have your software for free as much as they like. They can rail against Jerry Pournelle as much as they like. But they cannot change reality. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. It's work successfully completed that gets the job done. The tools and the time to do the work are paid for in one way or another.

Thought for the day:

Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday 4 November 2000

I now know what a shill is

Jon -

>From Webster's third New International Dictionary UNABRIDGED (the Big Thick one):

1shill\shil\adj [ME, fr. OE scirll,scyl; akin to OE ciellan, sciellan to resound, sound loudly, D schel shrill, strident, OHG skjalla to clash, clatter, Lith skalyti to bark for a long period at LOW] archaic chiefly Scot: SHRILL, SONOROUS 2shill\"\var of SHEAL 3shill\"\n -s[prob. short for shillaber]: one who acts as a enterprise (as a circus or carnival) to get the sale of tickets started after the barker has finished his spiel 

b: one who is employed by a pitchman to pose as a member of the audience and make the first purchase 

c: one who is employed by a gambling house to pose as a customer and keep action going 

d: one who poses as an innocent bystander to help a confidence man win over a prospective victim 4shill\"\ vi -ED/-ing/-s :to act as a shill ---------------------------------------------

And there you have it - "In a Nutshell"<BG>




Hi, Jonathan. Apropos "shill"...

> This must be one of those really old English words 
> that fell out of general use back in the 18th or 19th century. Like 
> crile and firefang.


Oxford English Reference Dictionary... Shill, n. (N Amer.). A person employed to decoy or entice others into buying, gambling, etc. (Probably from earlier "shillaber", origin unknown)

I can recommend the OERD highly.

/ Bo

-- Bo Leuf Leuf Consultancy LeufCom -- http://www.leuf.com/

Thanks guys. As JHR pointed out in an earlier email, I too am a MS shill by this definition. For many years Jerry used to review word processors and summarise his feelings at the end by saying words to the effect that he was sticking with Q & A. Eventually, Word was good enough that he kept it as his default word processor. Except my word processor of choice was Sprint, the same scenario applied here at Windfell Farm. 

Word for Windows 2 was marginally ahead of its rivals. Word 6 was way ahead. Word 95 had most of the bugs removed and the sensible addition of the concurrent spell-checker. A year or so after Word 97 came out, I did a search on Technet on kbbug for Word 6, 95 and 97. There were twice as many bug reports for Word 6 compared to Word 95 and three times as many for Word 97. The bugs don't much get in the way of getting useful work done, but do indicate the relative merits of the three in my mind. If the ability to merge table cells vertically existed in Word 95, I am certain I would have stayed with that version.

When I was managing a computer training organisation, I was the word processing/desktop publishing guy. I trained users of Word, Word Perfect, Lotus Word Pro, PageMaker, MS Publisher, CorelDRAW!, Ventura and Claris FileMaker Pro. I wrote the training manuals for Word Pro using Word Pro. There was a small number of features from Word Perfect and Word Pro that I would gladly have seen incorporated in Word. The vertical cell merge in tables comes immediately to mind. However, there were many more features of Word that would have improved its rivals. On balance, Word enable more work to be accomplished in a given time.

People often say to me that their needs are simple and all they need is lower end software to get that job done. This is not necessarily true. Who does  AutoCorrect benefit the most? The professional typist who types accurately at 120 wpm or the two finger typist who can barely accomplish 20 wpm? Another example will illustrate my point better.

I had a one-on-one training of MS Publisher with a young lady who needed the skills to create a monthly newsletter at the bank she worked for. In the afternoon session, she seemed a little despondent and I asked why. While she was happy that she could accomplish the task, the time taken concerned her. I promptly demonstrated the same task with PageMaker and she was very impressed that it greatly simplified and shortened the work. I then did a few sums on the whiteboard to demonstrate that a PageMaker license and a training would pay for itself after only three or four newsletters. I might be a shill for MS Word, but I am a shill for PageMaker as well.

Similarly, my database product of choice is File Maker Pro on the grounds that for my needs, it's around eight times faster to create a fully functional database. As well, I can zoom in on report pages to fine tune the layout, something I cannot do in Access. So I'm a shill for Claris as well.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I am a shill for whatever lightens the load. I really don't give a tinker's cuss for particular brand names.

Thought for the day:

Efficiency is intelligent laziness.

David Dunham

Sunday 5 November 2000

Yesterday the GetRight download of Mandrake 7.2 broke. As usual, I left setting this up to my fifteen year old son Thomas. He programs the VCR, universal remote control and other such things that are too much bother. On this occasion he forgot to check how much disk space was available on the drive he was downloading to. GetRight politely asked if I wanted to attempt a repair to each of the two files, but only one, the extras CD image, was recoverable. It and the installation image were just a tad over halfway through. Ah well! There's lots of nasty bookwork to catch up on this coming week.

My main workstation is pretty busy this week making WAV files from my record collection for transfer to CD. I am using GoldWave for this. Before purchasing it, I tested several sound recording applications and GoldWave seemed the right balance between functionality and price. Its main claim to fame is that it doesn't require as much CPU to record as some of its rivals. Before you record, you make a blank sound file so that the software doesn't need to do this on the fly. In my case it means I can carry on doing useful work while recording in the background.

Many of those old bits of rare vinyl are a bit clicky and scratchy. Me, too! I am testing Steinberg Clean for improving the recordings, but I am open to suggestions for alternatives. It's not that I am dissatisfied with Clean's performance or ease of use, it's just that it's not inexpensive and the Australian distributor hasn't got back to me about a price. So far I have found no software capable of removing my defects.

Out of interest, some of that old vinyl includes the first Ämon Düül album, Dies Wärts, Stevie Wonder's The Twelve Year Old Wonder, the Aeroplane single by Jethro Toe (sic), Live at Topanga Corral by Canned Heat, several of Brian Eno's albums on his Obscure label and a few Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed albums.

Some of these recordings are being converted to MP3 since I enjoy listening to music while I work. I have been using Right-Click MP3. It's free and very easy to use. You just right-click the file(s) you want to convert and choose whether to delete the WAV or not. Thomas suggested I try AudioCatalyst. It rips around ten times faster and allows batch extraction of CD tracks. GoldWave  extracts  multiple tracks to a single WAV file. This is not such a problem for me as I tend to listen to albums, rather than individual tracks. AudioCatalyst doesn't appear to be capable of batch MP3 ripping.

For CD burning we use Nero Burning ROM. I have yet to make a coaster using this excellent software. It's not perfect though. A couple of times it's decided to burn at single speed, rather than 4x. In truth I should have noticed when going through the dialogs, but one would expect it to remain consistent from burn to burn when making a batch of CDs.

I've mentioned Garry Dupree before. I am mentoring him into the computer industry after his gold medal winning career as a chef was abruptly terminated by an accident. He was having problems with a client's machine and phoned me to discuss it. Eventually, the problem was pinned down to a hardware problem, either the hard disk, the IDE cable or the MoBo. 

The original problem occurred when Garry tried to change the relative partition sizes on the hard disk using Partition Magic. This generated an error rendering the hard disk unusable. For situations like this, I always clean the Master Boot Record with a dangerous little utility called ZeroBoot that writes a string of zeros to the MBR on the primary IDE drive. This produces what is to all intents and purposes a completely clean disk. You can download it here (it's only 1KB), but be warned: it gives no warnings and is instantaneous. There are no messages and I accept no responsibility for its misuse.

Seagate's diagnostic tool gave a clean bill of health to the cleaned hard drive, but the OS (Win2k, it was NT4 WS before) would not install properly. After lots of farting about, it eventually transpired that while the Seagate diagnostic gave the drive a clean bill of health when set to Master, it said the opposite when it was set to Slave! Interesting to say the least. Of course Steve Gibson's Spinrite would likely have been a better tool to test the drive, but it takes a long time as it is the most thorough tool available. I wish that Steve would rewrite it to work on NTFS as well as FAT!

Of course this means I'd better test that Seagate drive giving the SMART error and later deciding not to. It's only ever been used as a Master.

Thought for the day:

I seem to hold in my head some mutually exclusive notions. For example, it is true that the unexamined life is not worth living, and true that ignorance is bliss, and so on. I haven't made up my mind about everything yet.

Robert Fulghum


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© Jonathan Sturm 2000