B.F. Sparrow Weblog

Everything below this message is unaltered from its last date of publication. I cannot warrant that all the links work or that all characters will display correctly.

-- BFS 28 April 2019

This section contains a collection of my musings, advice, and idle thoughts. All of my weblog posts for the year shall be displayed on this page. At the end of the year, it will be sent to the archive, where it will remain in perpetuity, or until my gracious web host tires of my freeloading. Now, the more astute among you are likely asking yourselves why you should heed the advice of some random chap you happened across on the internet, whose website doesn't look like it's seen an update since the IE5 era. This is a question I cannot answer for you other than by observing that, if you're the average American, you spend inordinate amounts of time reading opinions as or less informed and cohesive than my own across the world's myriad social networks. So, now that I'm through insulting my readers, I shall cordially invite them to enjoy the content below.

Everything Old is New Again

Published 19 April 2018

This article was updated before its publication. See below for details.

Loyal readers and dear comrades, I am abuzz. It is my presumption that you, my most affectionate readers, were moved with earnest apprehension when my erstwhile prolific self fell off the proverbial map. It took dedication, you no doubt thought to yourselves, for me to churn out a full three articles in fourteen months. Why, that�s more than one article every five months. Do I never sleep?

But seriously�

I�ve recently happened across a splendid new piece of software that promises to make the ever-daunting task of formatting my articles for HTML a thing of the past. That piece of software is Ulysses, and this article is its maiden voyage. Loathe though my most faithful readers will know that I am to be swept up by trends, I have decided to make an exception to my habit of principled perversity in social and technological matters, and even publicize that exception, so utterly enraptured am I by this software. Indeed, I am really making two exceptions, since Ulysses is not only a markdown utility, but also a subscription-based program, a model which I have vigorously opposed since its inception (although, alas, not on this website). Nonetheless, despite my profuse and public affection for this software, this article is not meant to be a litany of praises for it. If you want those, I recommend you look to the Mac App Store reviews section, where you will find them in droves. Instead, I wish to make an observation about about the new craze over markdown editors, which have seemingly taken the internet by storm over the past few years, a trend that I, although I ordinarily pride myself upon keeping abreast of technological developments, hadn�t noticed.

If you have done as I recommended and read the Mac App Store reviews of Ulysses or its close cousin Bear, or if you use similar software under Windows�, you will have noticed a trend. Some people will speak about the export functions and premade formats, which are genuinely new and noteworthy features deserving of all the praise they receive. Others, however, will speak about the cleanliness of it, or the efficiency of never having to remove one�s hands from the keyboard, or the pleasure it gives them to be relieved of the burden of formatting as they write, or, at least in the case of Ulysses, the marvelous, distraction-mitigating white-on-black fullscreen mode. It is this latter group that I fond most curious, since these features are nothing new.

Anyone sufficiently old, sufficiently nerdy, or sufficiently enamored of A Song of Ice and Fire, will be acquainted with a little program called WordStar� 4.0, to which all of the praises of the second category listed above are just as applicable as they are to markdown editors or other categories of distraction-free writing software. WordStar was squeaky clean, using a very small handful of colors very sparingly (it didn�t really expect multi-color monitors). It was fantastically efficient, not only encouraging keyboard interaction, but demanding it (it had no notion of a mouse). It dodged the filesystem almost entirely, having all of its files in a list accessible, for most purposes, only through the program. Practically all of the production-side merits of Ulysses and its ilk originated in WordStar, yet writers are head-over-heels (my humble self, as I have confessed, included) over the fantastically derivative new software category.

In the eighties, WYSIWYG (pronounced Wizzy-wig) word processors were heralded as a great triumph. Formatting errors would be nipped in the bud and any amateur could create crisp, smart, �professional� content (or use Papyrus and Comic Sans to make dull, scruffy, amateurish content). Gone were the days of wondering what the letter Y had to do with italics, or forgetting you�d left the underline on until that terrible moment when your daisy-wheel printer�s cadence abruptly changed. It was a glorious time to be alive, or so I am told. It would appear, however, that the tide is beginning to turn. People have begun to tire of that phantom Bold tag that they keep tripping over while making revisions, disconnected numbered lists whose indent levels are mysteriously misaligned, and the ever-capricious (or is that independent-minded) Word� text styles. Perhaps in thirty years, our progeny will be rediscovering the simple joys of immediate, transparent visual feedback for their every decision and meticulous, exacting file formats for long and short-form writing alike. Until then, however, I say viva la markdown!

Update: In the interest of full disclosure, I should concede to my most prudent readership that even before this article "went to press" as they say, I found in Ulysses a grave fault which shall likely force me to discontinue its use. To wit, its templates are laced with that odious poison of the World Wide Web known as CSS. While I at first supposed this could be ignored and, despite the bold proclamation found in the archives, be kept my filthy little secret, I found it was preventing me from switching the page's color to the soothing "antiquewhite" and likely would have interfered with my reconciling this entry's font with those of earlier posts. In light of this behavior, it is therefore incumbent upon me to rescind my recommendation and commend to my most meticulous readership the age-old axiom that follows along the lines of "if one wants a thing done right he ought not to delegate it to any software that uses a nonstandard blue cursor."
-- Given by BFS on the date printed above.

Upon the Necessity of the Desk in Civil Society

Published 29 July 2017

It is a much bemoaned fact of life in the second decade of the twenty-first century that, should one venture into a public place, and I do mean any public place, he may be sure of little save the certain presence of rude, self-important people stupidly staring into smartphone screens. I confess that, although I have long appreciated the wrongness of such behavior on an intellectual level, it never emotionally offended me as it does many of my fellow luddites. Perhaps this is a result of my having grown up surrounded by it, or perhaps it is because I never wish to interact with the strangers on busses, in parks, at restaurants, or anyplace else that fixation upon the smartphone has risen to the level of omnipresence, and I therefore pay their conduct little mind. It was not until this asocial behavior insinuated itself into my very home that I, for the first time, paid it the attention it rightly deserves.

When I was at the University, I determined (halfheartedly and disinterestedly, for the reasons I have listed above) that in the ideal society computers should (much like hillbilly wives) remain confined to the home, and that, thus confined, they would be harmless. This restriction, while fine for a single dormitory room (one quarter of whose space is already occupied by the desk), is woefully inadequate for a larger household containing multiple people, since it allows for a living room swarming with technologically sedated zombies staring at laptops with slack jaws and half-open eyes, most often doing something suitably inane, like tweeting. I thus propose a refinement to my earlier scheme: the only appropriate place for a personal computer is within five feet of a desk.

Apart from the obvious benefit of restoring a level of civility to both public and private spaces alike, this restraint should also make people more productive. There is a growing body of research that suggests that people are at their most productive not when they are constantly connected to the tools of their work, but when they focus more intently upon that work for shorter periods. Furthermore, by confining the computer to the desktop, frivolous digital behaviors become irksome if pursued too long, and there is an incentive of both ease and comfort to quitting one's digital affairs earlier to pursue something more edifying, a fairly broad umbrella under which I even include such unlikely suspects as watching television (in a living room and on a proper TV), as opposed to watching one's "shows" (Incidentally, am I the only one who abhors the use of the term "my shows"?) on a tablet computer or in one of the new floating "picture in picture" windows that seem to be all the rage on desktop OSs right now.

To all these rules there is but one exception, airplanes. Airplanes are neither social spaces nor especially civil ones. To so much as be on an airplane for any period of time, breathing the recycled air, gazing at the stewardesses who were last attractive when Kruschev ruled in Russia, and inevitably being seated within noseshot of someone who hasn't showered in the last ten months, is loathsome, and I begrudge no man whatsoever, not even he who on land I would call the lowest, most repulsive affront to civilization, his diversions on an airplane. Apart from this unique case, however, I see no good reason that computing should not be confined to the desk, in order to prevent the virtual world, with its myriad enticements to distraction, from bleeding too far into the real one.

A Point About Consumption

Published 23 March 2017

Ordinarily, I am unfond of using dictionary definitions in articles. It is, in my opinion, generally a trick used by mediocre journalists and second-rate academics meant to subtly insinuate that their work is well-researched. Since, however, this entire article is about a word, I shall make an exception.

You know what I hate? Perhaps you don't know me that well yet, so I shall tell you. I hate the use of the word "consumer" as a neutral descriptor. Apart from its being ill-suited to the task it is generally assigned, that of describing of the buyers of most products (you don't consume houses, cars, software, and televisions, or at least I dearly hope you don't), it carries less-thanflattering connotations. I have no doubt that once I have touched upon the history and etymology of this expression, the vast readership of this blog will bear forth the light of correctness unto the rest of the world, stamping out this odious linguistic crime.

Webster's definition of consumer is benign enough, giving consumer as "One that consumes: such as (a) one that utilizes economic goods". Yet, it was not always so; the excellent Etymonline tells a different tale. Its first definition, from the fifteenth century, is "one who squanders or wastes". This is followed by one from the mid-eighteenth century, given as "one who uses up goods or articles". Neither of these is nearly so flattering as the innocuous, watered-down definition Webster's uses today. Now, it is entirely possible that you are saying to yourself something along the lines of "But I protest, sir. These definitions are very old, and don't you know we have a living language, which changes over time. These are but the pedantic ramblings of a reactionary mind." To this I respond by asking you what comes to mind when you think of consumption. It wasn't very savory, was it? The term "consumption", when it is distilled down to its essence, it roughly synonymous with parasitism (or, in a different context, a very bad cough). It is a fire eating through months, years, or even decades of human labor, or a fat, atrophying glutton surfeiting himself with rich food, or a bald, stubbly lecher in a brothel where all of the "employees" know him by name, or a metrosexual dweeb binge-watching whatever metrosexual dweebs binge-watch. You get the idea. Consumption implies use in excess, or unbalanced use (taking more than one gives back). It is a lousy, insulting word, and, as a society, we ought to stop using it. Say diner, user, viewer, shopper, buyer, player, customer, or any other word appropriate to the given situation. Do not, however, say consumer of anyone (but especially of me) unless you wish to be rude.

Upon Control

Published 10 February 2017

The uproar surrounding Windows 10 seems to have died down. People have come to accept the new world order in which Microsoft receives regular updates about, as that tiresome homunculus Joe Belfiore passionately insisted in a now-famous interview, the "health of the system". Unlike some tinfoil hat-wearing "privacy advocates", I am not here to split hairs about the extent of Microsoft's knowledge of users' systems, nor to rail against their doing this. It's probably harmless, and neither I nor any rational person should have reason to doubt that Microsoft is as good as its word when it comes to the type and quantity of the data collected. Instead, I would like to write about a much more pernicious problem that I have observed in Windows 10, which not only portends ill for the future of personal computing, but also just makes me a bit mad. That problem concerns attitude.

Windows 10 is the only OS I have ever used which, seemingly just for sport, insults my intelligence. In order to illustrate this, allow me to walk you through a typical day with Windows 10. Every time I boot up a Windows 10 system configured to my liking, I am greeted by a friendly reminder that Cortana is available should I want her. This reminder does not disappear on its own, but must be dismissed. Now, the fact that I have not wanted anything to do with Cortana for the past 500 days or so makes no impression upon my oh-so-eager OS. It is quite certain that if I only knew how Cortana could make me, to quote the setup screen "awesome, or just on time", then I my fingers would stumble over one another in a mad scramble to be the one to throw the switch. This is only the beginning. After I have dismissed this reminder for the millionth time, I might open up Chrome. My homepage and default search are both Bing, and therefore, just as reliably as the gas bill, when I open Chrome, I will be greeted by a reminder that follows something along the lines of "Wanna check out Microsoft Edge", or perhaps it's "Bing works best with Microsoft Edge", or it might be, "Get paid to surf with Microsoft Edge". Whatever the exact wording, it is written very much in the same tone as the Cortana reminder, the gist of it being:

"If only you, you poor, ignorant man, knew the bountiful joys to be had by using Edge, you wouldn't toil in medieval ignorance, running a browser with a vast extension library, the universal standard rendering engine, and built-in flash. No, you'd leap with both feet into our half-baked science-fare project of a browser. In fact, we want you to love it so much that we'll pay you the princely sum of a half-cent per hour for using it."

Microsoft is, in fact, so certain you'll love Edge, that I have heard reports of its changing the default back after major system updates, although I have never experienced this myself.

Pushiness is one thing, but one of the more irritating aspects of Windows 10, as well as the recent iterations of Microsoft Office, is the subtle, cloyingly conversational, buddy-buddy tone that is taken in communicating information to users. Instead of simply giving the user the pertinent information in, for example, tool tips, Microsoft insists on infusing Office and Windows with "personality". This in spite of the fact that they are nothing more than tools, albeit complex, multifaceted tools. This complexity is no excuse, though. I do not want my Swiss Army knife to wink at me every time I open the corkscrew element. I see this tone as excusable only is Cortana, which is meant to have a measure of "personality" since it is meant to be an approximation of a person, a highly solicitous yet not-very-bright person.

Finally, there is the matter of forced updates. This, perhaps more than anything else in this article, bespeaks the arrogant and condescending attitude that Microsoft has assumed of late. The reason given is a suitably altruistic one, to preserve the security of users' systems and make the use of Windows a better any more complete experience by pushing feature updates. Why, though, must this be forced? Why must Microsoft dominate everything? Under Windows 7, the default Windows Update option, and therefore the option the overwhelming majority of users selected, automatically downloaded and installed updates, prompting the user only when a restart would be required to complete the installation of new updates. If you recognize this as the way Windows 10 behaves, you should, because they are exactly the same except that the restart could be deferred indefinitely, but I cannot imagine that most users would defer the update any longer than their in-progress work demanded they do so. The tyranny of the default is the only tool needed to make novice users fall in line, but experts and power users need not chafe against defaults when other options exist. The current restriction upon Windows 10 Home and Pro, however, insults Microsoft's most knowledgable users while providing no added benefit for novices.

By way of contrast, the other major proprietary OS, that of the Macintosh, nags me about features once a year, and only that often if I install the new annual OS update. If, by the way, was the operative word concerning OS updated, because Apple never forces you to take either point updates or new versions. Furthermore, Apple retains security support for old versions of the OS for two years after they are supplanted. Microsoft, with the Windows 10 rollup scheme, doesn't support old versions two weeks after something new comes along (unless you're using the Enterprise version which you, dear reader, likely are not). Finally, Macintosh dialogues are the politest, most genteel dialogues in the world, bar none. They were even better under the classic Mac OS, about which you can read more here.

A note for Macintosh users: I have changed all character encodings to Mac OS Roman and removed curly quotes and curly apostrophies, which seems to have resolved the display problems under OS 9. If you experience any visual flaws, do not hesitate to let me know where you saw them and which browser you are using. Please note that, although I shall make a good faith effort to resolve problems with all Mac and Windows browsers (and even that queer DOS browser), I only wish to support Classilla. If, therefore, I am ever forced to choose between Classilla compatibility and compatibility with another browser, the other browser will have to suffer.

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