Thursday, May 28, 2009

Who thought of leaving the trees in the first place?

Riding the train in to Copenhagen this morning, something, I'm not exactly sure what, made me think of hobbits, and I got to wondering, if it took baker's dozen of dwarves and a powerful wizard to conscript a single hobbit into traveling more than 5 miles from his comfy hobbit hole, what it would take to get an entire culture of unadventurous conformist sheep to wake up to the sheer mindlessness of their existence and start making changes in their lives?

Let's stop for a moment and think back, way back, a whole blink of an eye in geological terms, to when our remote ancestors were, let's say for the sake of illustration, living in trees and eating nuts and berries. Just imagine for yourself what that society, such as it was, must have been like. One day, one specific ur-ancestor, one of the real malcontents who was always complaining about looking at leaves and having nothing to eat but nuts and berries, decided that he or she had simply had enough and was going to do something about it. Now back in those simple days, decision was the same thing as action, so our brave ancestor promptly hopped down to the ground and started to forage around, finding roots and vegetables that not only tasted good but also helped to offset some of the less advertised effects of a strict diet of nuts and berries. That evening, our brave protagonist returned to the shelter of the branches and called the others together to tell them about the wonderful new benefits of foraging on the ground. Although some of the younger generation listened attentively and showed some interest in giving this new lifestyle a try, the elders in the residents' association were less receptive. "All you've ever done is complain," they said, "but you don't appreciate how good you've got it here. The tree shelters us from the sun and the rain, our predators can't reach us, and just look at all the nuts and berries. What more could anyone ever hope for? Besides, who gave you the authority to say what's good or bad for others, or for yourself? We have a way of doing things in this happy society of ours, and that's the old way, and it's the best way. We don't like complainers, and we don't like elitist snobs with all their foreign education coming around pretending to know better. You had better learn to be happy with what you have, and stop complaining and trying to get more than you deserve!"

Just imagine what would have happened if that remote ancestor of ours had given in to all that peer pressure instead of persevering in the face of ridicule and disbelief to try and build a better life. Isn't it amazing? Thanks to that one primitive, pea-brained, proto-ancestral creature, we finally did come down out of the trees, developed bigger brains, began to use tools and to walk on two legs. And over the course of time, when someone new recognized something worth improving, the genes of that scrappy ancestor would kick in again and force them to go against the crowd, to be discontented with their situation and to take that extra step, to innovate, to create, and most important, to convince the contemporary descendents of all those other apathetic, complacent, acquiescent excuses for primitive, pea-brained, proto-ancestral creatures to get off their branches and change their lives for the better.

So – which branch of the family are you from?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I have an obscured business suggestion for you

Usually those scam emails go straight to the shredder unopened, but every once in a while something catches my eye. The spelling and choice of words, in addition to being dead giveaways, are almost always good for a chuckle:

I have an obscured business suggestion for you.

What's your favorite funny line from a scam email?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Quick and easy nonfolded paper airplane

A few rainy weekends ago, the boys and I were making random structures with construction paper and glue, and when I asked what we should make next, the request was submitted for an airplane. Now ordinarily, even a folded paper airplane has a pretty short service life around a toddler, plus when they ask for an airplane they don't exactly mean 20 minutes from now. But at the time, we had just made some loops from strips of paper and put them together to make chains, and the loops brought to mind that design you may recall that involves a straw. Well, we didn't have a straw, but a few folds later we had a nice approximation. With a few minor tweaks, this turned out to be a really good flier, and the great thing is you can turn them out faster than toddlers can smash them up (well, almost). This is the quickest and easiest design we've come up with so far:

Start with some paper, scissors and quick-drying glue (10-minute white craft glue is fine). One sheet is enough for several airplanes, but it's nice if you have a few different colors:

Cut four strips about ¾" wide off the short end of the paper. Take one strip and fold it lengthwise in half, then fold the long edges in to meet the first fold, like this:

Run a thin bead of glue along one of the outside edges, and fold the other outside edge over it to make a triangular tube. This is your fuselage:

Glue the other three strips into loops, like this:

Now glue one flat side on one end of the fuselage to the inside of one of the loops, and glue the other two loops to the remaining sides on the other end, like this:

An extra drop of glue between these last two loops will hold things together a bit better.

The plane is ready to fly as soon as you finish putting it together, although performance seems to improve slightly as the glue dries. Fly it "canard" style (that's aerogeek speak for Klingon Bird of Prey), with the single loop in front, giving it just a gentle shove pointing slightly downwards. If the nose pulls up and it stalls, press the front loop in from the sides so it looks more like the number 0 than the letter O, and it will nose down and pick up speed. You can also steer a bit by twisting the front loop or by bending little rudders on the two rear loops.


It takes way less time to make and fly one of these planes than it did to write this, but if you take just the tiniest bit of extra care you'll end up with something that flies amazingly well, better than most folded planes and almost as well as a glued-up paper sailplane (stay tuned!). Keep the folds for the fuselage neat, so it's nice and straight, and make sure the loops are square to the fuselage when you glue them on for good straight flight. Just like with real wings, thinner strips for the loops seem to give better performance, but too thin and they won't hold up. Experiment and have fun!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Authorities: Spectacular train wreck 'deliberate'

In the aftermath of this most recent in a wave of disasters, frustrated authorities report that investigations have been hampered by the sheer scale of the wreckage and associated environmental damage.

Overview of wreck. Footprints found at the scene may connect to the suspects.

Two 'persons of interest' are known to have been detained for questioning. Their interrogation has been temporarily suspended pending cleanup operations.

Suspects had to be forcibly removed from the scene of the wreck.

Although the outcome of the investigation remains unclear, the authorities indicated that, in a case of this magnitude, all suspects under 3 years of age will be considered guilty regardless of their innocence.

Vista's new Clock Calendar gadget

It took a little longer than usual to get the kids off this morning, so I just now booted to start the day. Since I paid so much for Vista, I like to keep that expensive clock visible in the Sidebar, along with the calendar for quick reference. I'm not sure how this happened, but here's today's result (I have two monitors with the sidebar on the left of the left one):

Vista's new Clock Calendar gadget

Now if that clock could be made transparent, hey, whaddaya know, it worked!

The transparency-adjusted Clock Calendar

Thought for sure the gadgets would sort themselves out when I clicked on them. Now how do I make this available to others as a gadget?

Update: Just noticed these gadgets sorted themselves out again (although in the wrong order as usual). Maybe while the display was locked when I went to make coffee, not sure.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tweeting for Translators

For translators, Twitter is a great place to increase your online presence, introduce yourself, chat with others in the profession, search for jobs, hook up with clients, and get near-instant help with terminology queries. I've seen plenty of job offers, translation offers, and terminology questions and immediate answers being tweeted on any given day to know it's worth the trouble.

In response to a recent discussion of how to include your twitter contact information on, I put an html Twitter updates badge in the "About me" section of my profile, and it seemed to work out pretty well. For those who'd like to do the same, here's how:

First of all, if you don't have a Twitter account, sign up now at You can start by following me and all your translation colleagues in the Translation Twibe, which is growing daily, and also check out @allfreelancejob, @hotfreelance, @translationjobs, for a few.

Now, if you have a ProZ account and want to tell viewers you're tweeting on Twitter, you need to get what's called a 'badge', which is just the html code that displays your twitter info . Start by going to, and click on Other and then on Continue. Then click the radio button for HTML widget (I tried the Flash widget, and it works, but it's slow and the links don't seem to work), and click Continue again. Select the number of updates you want to display and whether or not you want a title (I just left the defaults; they look fine), then copy the code that appears in the little box.

So, you've got the badge, and now you need to put this in your ProZ profile. Go to your profile and scroll all the way down to the "About me" section near the bottom. Click on Edit, and then paste the code that you copied for the Twitter badge into the edit box. I just put it down at the end of my "About me" information and it seems to look fine there. Click Save and update profile, and you're done! Now when people view your profile on, they'll see your most recent tweets and a link to follow you on Twitter.

Update: Since I've had a few questions about where to find the "About me" section on a ProZ profile, here's a screenshot from my own profile with the "About me" section circled:

Optional: the only change I made to the html code for the Twitter badge was to change text-align:right on the fourth line of the code to text-align:left. This puts the "follow me on twitter" link on the left side of your profile where I think it's more likely to be seen and understood.

There you go, welcome to the future, and don't forget to follow me on twitter, too! :)

Monday, May 18, 2009

When is no style the best style?

In casting about for a new look for my Snowball translation memory website, it occurred to me that not only is there a pretty fine line between information and overload, many sites these days are so far over that line it's hard to say just what it is they're trying to tell you. If it gets too bad but I'm still pretty sure there's some useful information hidden in there somewhere, I'll set the view to "No Style", and, as they say, voila. Now why couldn't they have done that in the first place?

Sure, it's great to have a powerful GPU and be able to view all those amazing animated colored shapes, but if the actual information content is still the same, doesn't that mean the signal-to-noise ratio is actually going down?

So, what to do for my own website? Snowball is my tool for translators that's designed to provide as much useful information as possible, as unobtrusively as possible. Doesn't it stand to reason that my web design should reflect that image as well? Now who can I emulate that has a website with maximum information and minimum window dressing? Let me see what I can find on Google.... Oh. That was easy.

OK, now for the information. What message can I present to potential customers in the 50 milliseconds before they click away to some other site? If that's all the time I've got, it's tempting to just make one big, friendly button that fills the whole screen and says "Buy Snowball!" But for those who stay longer, I ought to have links to downloads, tutorials, testimonials, user groups, and other interesting blogs and sites. But should I structure it in a grid with a soothing background, or throw everything down in a clickable collage? Or should I just list everything down the page, like a list of Google hits, in order of importance, with no style? Will I get feedback from enthusiastic visitors - "Wow, your site really rocks - it's got no style at all!"

What do you think? What do people get from your website - information or overload?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Defeating the HP autofail mechanism

When non-engineers talk about engineering, they mean design, and by design they mean styling. So it was that my HP PSC 2200 printer was, uh, engineered to fail.

Now I generally use a clock to tell time, a phone to call friends, and a camera to take pictures, but here I thought I could save space and cash at the same time by getting an "all-in-one" printer/scanner/copier, and have ever since regretted that choice. It's clumsy, it's noisy, the whole table shakes when it prints, and it goes through the machine equivalent of a Cossack dance whenever it runs out of paper. And then there's the software. So I was actually secretly delighted when it suddenly ejected half of the black ink cartridge retainer and juddered to a halt.

On opening the lid, I found this incredibly complex mechanism of molded plastic with hinges and springs, all designed to do nothing more than hold the ink cartridge in position, neatly sheared off with no hope of repair. Hooray, time for a new printer!

The HP autofail mechanism.

But as luck would have it, I was actually trying to print something when it broke; after all, I thought that's what it was for, and I was only on something like my 5th ink cartridge on this machine, so something had to be done. While sitting on my thinking seat, I noticed a couple of my wife's mini hair clips with a death grip on the edge of her makeup basket, and with that the solution pretty much presented itself.

The autofail mechanism defeated.

Despite the strong springs, I did have to put in a section of Q-tip shaft to widen the jaws enough for them to hold the cartridge securely enough in place for the printer to acknowledge its presence, but otherwise I was back in business.

I hate to throw something out as long as it's still performing some marginally useful function, so I'm actually hoping the next failure will be a catastrophic one.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The plant every woman wants

My mother-in-law gave my wife this plant for her birthday. How very nice.

Hey, wait a minute...

No salad for me, thanks.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Serial killers' makeup kit

Didn't realize Hannibal Lecter shopped in the local Netto, too: