Saturday, April 30, 2005

OMG, I'm a website design whore

It's funny. No it's not.

Never design a website for a school. Consider yourself warned.

I've been hired to create a website that I will never add to my portfolio, and if asked, will deny I had anything to do with. I've been asked to create the ugliest website in the universe. One that clashes with every aesthetic design sense acquired by anyone who's web-browsed for more than three months.

They want big, bold, black font. They want an enormous header, leaving very little space for content. They want primary colors. Red. Green. Yellow. Blue.

And the font for the tagline is so dated. It looks like something on a Mac SE.

I told them softer colors were more pleasing to the eye, that putting the large words in grey and their tagline in black would make the tagline stand out more. I created an alternate with a slightly softer color scheme that was still strong, but didn't cause afterimages when you look at a white wall after viewing their site. I gave them links to some websites with beautiful design. They acted almost insulted.

Every one of my aesthetic suggestions was denied. The soft grey of the border. A light blue menu. A pale manila content area. A good background graphic. Minimizing the title bar area so that there is plenty of space for content. No, they want black and white and primary colors.

They say they want to attract computer-savvy professionals to their school. Anyone, professional or not, who looks at this site is going to want to leave. Immediately. I am exactly the kind of parent they want to attract, and looking at this travesty makes me want to tear out my eyeballs with a rusty fish scaler.

And never design a website for a teacher.

The woman I'm dealing with is scary. I suppose it comes from dealing with recalcitrant seven year-olds for six hours a day. She never apologizes for her mistakes. Everything she says is firm and direct and leaves no room for negotiation, which is particularly funny when she's wrong.

And often she is, because she seems to think her computer is Universe Central. That everything she sees is what everyone else must see. I had to explain to her at least seven or eight times that other people have different browsers and different fonts from what she has, and may not even have Microsoft Word (gasp!). She was quite indignant about this.

I received a messy flur of Powerpoint, Word documents and email from her and another person involved in this project, and attempted to incorporate them all into the resulting webpage. Some of these elements were contradictory, and some didn't come through well because, as a computer-savvy professional, I kill all html in my email. She seemed rather angry when she phoned this morning. My original estimate for putting together the basic structure was five hours. I emailed her I'd thus far put in about seven hours and that the misestimate came because I wasn't experienced with making estimates for clients. I had simply meant to warn her that we were going over the original time estimate. Setting up the original site had taken about 4 hours, but they didn't like it. Adding their menu items took another hour. They asked me to change about fifteen things, which took another 2 hours.

Her response to this: "I don't understand why I send you something and it doesn't end up looking like what I sent. I don't think we should pay for you learning to write webpages. We're on a budget."

My response (after an underbreath 'fuck you, woman'): "I'm quite experienced with writing webpages. I'm not experienced with having clients, and I hope you see there's a difference." She also has no idea that most "professional" web designers would charge her for all time spent, whether learning or not. Or maybe she does, and she just likes to whine about money. It's a typical school reaction. They're always on a budget, just like everyone has a temperature. I was very tempted at that moment to tell her to go ahead and find another web designer. Frankly, I'm still tempted.

And the stars. Oh, my stars. Their student-drawn logo has stars in it, and she wanted a scattering of stars in the top right corner. I set it up, choosing four different stars from the logo. She almost screamed at me: "The stars are all wrong." She sent a Word document with how she wanted the stars to be. I look at the document. There are four stars. They are placed in almost exactly the same spaces as I've placed mine. They are all the same star, just in slightly different sizes. She doesn't like that fact that I chose different stars. She doesn't like the fact that I chose squishy, childlike stars. She wants the good-looking child-drawn star, repeated. I suspect she'll get pissed off if I don't size the stars identically to hers.

Oh yes, and the Word document. I use Wordperfect, which didn't read her Word doc very well. This upsets her too, when I tell her I'll have to look at the document in Word when I come back to work on Monday: "We're paying you outside of work." I guess this means I have to have Word or something. Fortunately, I found I had a copy of Word on my old computer, which was able to read her document, though it didn't have the Mac SE-style font she wanted for the tagline.

Here's a sampling of our conversation about the Word document:
Her: "I want you to create the webpage exactly as I have it here in Word. Except I don't want the blue box in the content area."
Me: "The content area isn't blue on the website, right?"
Her (checking): "Um, it isn't."
Me: "So that's not something I have to worry about."
Her: "Okay, and this Times font should be Arial. I want it to match the menu."
Me: "Okay, you don't want it to be Corsiva, like it was before [in another document she sent]."
Her: "No. And I want the English and Spanish buttons to be in little yellow boxes at the bottom, under the school address. I thought I created them but I must have not saved it."
Me: "Way down there where no one's going to be able to see it?"

I'll be very happy when this project is over, which will hopefully be two weeks from now.

Friday, April 29, 2005


For those with perfect eyesight, myopia is a thing to worry about when middle age approaches, and more often it is hyperopia (far-sightedness) that afflicts. But myopia isn't really all so bad.

A funny thing is that almost any person with less than perfect eyesight considers his/hers to be terrible. They use adjectives like "very," "extremely," and even "severely" to describe their nearsightedness and moan about how awful it is. Most of these babies have a measurement of -2 or -3 diopters. If it can be treated with LASIK, believe it or not, that's not terrible eyesight. LASIK is effective and pretty safe for treating an eye with greater than (mathematically speaking; a negative number is less than 0) -6 diopters.

The diopter scale measures from -30 to +30 (I believe) with 0 being perfect. Very few people hit the extremes of the scale, just as with any bell curve. My measurements are -13.5 and -14. Which is genuinely bad and makes me laugh at the babies, but is not yet blind. In practical terms, anything more than 4 inches away starts to get fuzzy at the edges.

Myopia on this scale has some really neat benefits:

You have a built-in a magnifier. You can stick a ladybug, or a opal, or a Russian lacquer box two inches away from your eye and see beautiful detail in an enormous size.

Lights are not lights, but something that looks like a perfectly round glowing amoeba. Mysteriously, the amoebas are pretty much the same size no matter the size of the light you're looking at. A small light, an LED for example, will be dimmer amoeba than a stoplight, that's all. The amoebas shrink and grow based on the contractions and expansions of your own pupil. If you stand still and watch closely, you will see the amoeba pulsing to your heartbeat.

Looking at morning light through trees is an experience bordering on exquisite.

You can still see objects quite well; you simply have no crisp detail or edges. You home in on colors and shapes, and other senses kick in as well – you can pick up a small bird from its motion, discern from its movements that it's a sparrow and not a dove. However, discerning a sparrow from a chickadee is impossible, because they're about the same size and move similarly.

Perhaps because of the habit of trying to find patterns with uncertain vision, a myopic person can see shapes that take some effort for normally-sighted people to pick up. I can find human faces and animal shapes in trees, quilts, anything with a complex and irregular surface.

I never know quite how to react when myopia is depicted in the movies. Nerd loses his glasses and he instantly starts imitating the Mummy, pawing the air before himself and stumbling, might as well have a paper bag on his head. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it disgusts me because it's not like that at all. In theory, I could drive my neighborhood without my glasses: I can discern pedestrian-sized blurs, dog-sized blurs, red blurry stop signs, and amoeba stop lights. One of these days someone should make a movie scene where the nerd loses his glasses and keeps going, and when someone comments on the loss, asks, "Do you really believe everything you see in the movies?"

And sometime in the next year, I'm going to lose all that. I'm waiting for FDA approval of a phakic intraocular lens, or PIOL. This lens is inserted under the cornea, which allows the person to continue to be able to focus near and far, unlike cornea replacement. The first lens has been approved, but my surgeon is waiting for a second lens to meet approval, one that he believes is better for my eyes.

After that, I'll be able to wake up in the middle of the night and see everything. It'll be an amazing experience, I'm sure, having had poor eyesight nearly all my life. But I'm going to miss the amoebas, the magnifying glass, and morning light through the trees.

Postscript: anyone with -8 diopters or poorer vision should really look into PIOL. If your vision is this bad, you need very thick corneas to withstand LASIK, which reshapes your cornea by lasering off bits. You may end up with severe halos in your night vision. Do not let the low price or a LASIK surgeon sell you on this procedure until you've considered PIOL implants. Visit the website for questions on any type of eye surgery.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

economic rantings

I don't think I belong in this era anymore. I think I'd like to go back to 1986 or 1990. I'd say 1976, but I hated the clothes. I'd say 1920, but they wouldn't let me vote and they would think I, being a person of color, ought to behave like a servant. These and the lack of indoor plumbing disqualify any earlier era.

I wake up in the morning and hear:

- George Bush needs a couple more billion dollars for his Iraqi adventure
- The budget deficit is at a record high
- The trade deficit is at a record high
- Housing prices are, yep, at a record high

Then I hear an ad offering loans. You can borrow on the equity of your house so you can pay off bills, your new car, the last smattering of bills for your vacation, or perhaps some microwaveable chicken boxes for tonight's dinner. Better yet, with a loan you can buy a new car or go on vacation. Or you can buy the home of your dreams with the special balloon loan where you pay interest only, or even better, pay *less* than interest-only (so you end up owing more at then end of five years than you originally borrowed).

Then I hear other ads. They seem to use the word 'deserve' quite a lot. You 'deserve' a new car. You 'deserve' a vacation. You 'deserve' a $2500 flat-screen TV. Does anyone actually believe they deserve these things? What have they done to merit the reward? Everyone breathes, for godsake.

I see receipts left behind at the ATM, showing bank balances of less than $100. I think $30 is the lowest I've seen. However, that may be caused by low income and high rent, not excesses in rewarding one's breathing. I just hope the person with the $30 balance is not paying a monthly fee for the account.

Sometime when I wasn't looking, it seems the concept of saving money has gone into hiding, or has perhaps ailed and died.

I'm sure I'm going to sound like a curmudgeon, but the way I was raised, if you didn't have the money for something, you didn't buy it. If you wanted to save money on a limited income, you ate rice, mac&cheese, and the cheapest chicken you can find. You deserve nothing until you've done the above for a couple years.

The way I was raised, you could not have everything. You chose your focus. You want a car? Save for the car. You want a vacation too? Pick which one's more important, more needed.

You tried to create a cushion for emergencies. Accidents happen. People get sick. Cars explode. You don't want to have to go through the shame of borrowing money to pay for these things.

Historically speaking, credit was embarrassing -- it meant you didn't have the money to pay your bills. When I was a young person, credit was something to be worked for. You had to be trusted in order to be extended credit. Now credit card companies want to give everyone a credit card, because they can bleed people from the fees and the interest.

And our president tells us spending money is patriotic. Spending allegedly supports our economy (even though most of the clothing available to us, and nearly everything sold by Wal-Mart, is made in China or some such country where labor is cheap.)

Our president is clearly a child of this era. [I suppose I could have left off the last three words of that sentence, but there is a desire to keep this essay flowing right.] There is profligate spending and no concept that money is subject to economics in the same way water is subject to air pressure. Money going out has to come from somewhere; someone has to pay in the end.

Send me back to the late forties. I want to be a boomer before boomers became pigs.

sp4m prevention

How they do it

Everyone gets it, and if you're a normal nontechnical consumer you have no idea what to do about it, except delete the crap as it comes in.

How does it happen that you get this stuff?

Well, every web discussion forum and every e-commerce transaction you do, anything that requires your email address, gives *someone* your email address. Some forums and web merchants are good and ethical about their customers/members. Some are not. They make money off you by selling your email address to other merchants or organziations or individuals. Some of these buyers have ethics levels that include the rule "You shouldn't run over dogs because it gets the bumper dirty. Cats only leave a little stain, though."

Have you ever donated to a charity and then, a few months later, began receiving beg-letters from other charities you never heard of? That's what the recipient of your donation did: made even more money from you by selling your name and address to other charities. I guess they weren't satisfied with what you gave them.

I hate that. That behavior strikes that charity off my list forever. By the way, CARE and the Sierra Club do this. I used to think Sierra Club was a good cause.

Anyway, spammers do exactly the same thing.

Another method spammers use is called a dictionary attack. A lot of people's user names consist of regular words, like 'peekaboo' or 'doglover,' or combinations of human names, like 'jsmith' or 'john_doe.' Knowing this, scum, err, spammers use computer power to combine words and/or letters into possible user names, and use that list to spam. It doesn't matter if the recipient doesn't exist. All they need is for the computer to tell them the message didn't bounce as undeliverable, and they have a "confirmed" address. All they is for the victim to reply, and they have a "confirmed opt-in" address.

Preventative measures

Rule number 1: spammers lie. Don't *ever* reply to a spam message. Don't ever believe them when they claim their spam is legal because they're complying with some bill (S1618) that died and never became a law. Don't ever believe them when they say you "opted in" (though for your own self-organization, you should keep track of which websites you bought from or are a member of.) Don't ever believe that replying with "unsubscribe" (or however the spammer directs you) is actually going to work; it actually confirms that you are a working email addess. Don't ever click that link that wants you to confirm your credit card number or account information ('phishing' needs a whole 'nother article in itself).

When you buy online or sign up for anything, make sure you have removed checkmarks (or done whatever's appropriate) to things like "I want to receive more information" or "subscribe" or "Give me offers." Make sure you scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen. Hunt for those checkboxes.

Try to check if the merchant has high marks or a good reputation. This doesn't necessarily mean they won't spam you, because satisfaction with online purchases usually means prompt delivery and good communication about the transaction itself. But it may help. When buying from a merchant I'm unsure of, I Google the name of the business along with the words: bad complaint 'bad experience' . I do this to see if anyone has actually been so pissed as to put something on a webpage about the business. Usually I get nothing (or as close to nothing as Google will give) and that, generally speaking, is good.

Inbox already overwhelmed?

I got my first internet account in 1991 or so, right around when large-scale spamming was beginning. I had no idea that posting on Usenet would eventually cause my email address to be "harvested." I ended up with a lot of spam and put up with it for years before getting proactive.

There's limits to what you can do if you're already on spam lists. The fastest method for getting rid of spam is getting a new email address. Cancel your account and get a new one. Try not to give your new account a name vulnerable to dictionary attack.

After you set up a new account, also get yourself a free mail account, such as on Yahoo or Gmail, as a decoy. Use this free account for all your purchasing and forum sign-ups. If and when it gets overwhelmed, dump it and get a new one.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

20 June 2002, in memoriam, Bess

(originally posted 12 April 2005)

It was sunny and windy, as it always is at Redwood Shores in this
season. I'd come to Oracle to see how the young peregrines were doing. Arthur, Amelia and Bess, this season's eyases from Sadie and Jimbo, were beginning to fledge. When I arrived, Glenn Stewart of Santa Cruz Predatory Birds Research Group told me that Bess had flown her way (or fluttered, more like) into the garage. In this dark and unnaturally confined area she could easily get confused or even hit by a car. Fortunately he was able to catch her and place her in a pet carrier to bring her back up to the roof of the building where the nest box was located.

I begged to come along, and we took the elevator up, then a set of stairs to access the roof. This led into a room with some grating, and I could see Sadie flying circles around it, screaming at the
intruders. We tried to do it as quickly as possible: opened the door to the roof a crack, opened the door to the pet carrier. As soon as Bess bounced out, we closed the door and hustled out. Got into the elevator, feeling good that she was back up where she belonged.

When the elevators opened on the first floor, we sensed something was wrong. Everyone was looking at the floor. Someone took Glen's elbow, and he told me to wait where I was. After a half a minute I went outside to the side of the building where Glen had gone. He had gathered Bess's body in a towel and stood mutely for a moment, looking incredibly sad. In those moments while we were in the elevator, Bess had hopped to the edge of the building, and was caught by a gust.
Flipping over and putting her wings out was a reaction of a bird experienced with flight – but this, she was not. Witnesses said she tried to grab the building with her feet. I felt awful, like my
presence had somehow jinxed the situation.

Bess's brother Arthur fledged successfully, and this morning, two new eyases have hatched on the PG&E building. But the thought of Bess tumbling off the building is going to stay with me a long time, as it has as I write this today, almost three years later.

link to falconcam of George, Gracie and four eyases on the PG&E building in San Francisco:

Monday, April 18, 2005

the pigeon vacuum

Pete was gone from his roost on the porch by the time I looked for him this morning. No piles of feathers, drops of blood or disembodied red feet anywhere in the vicinity, so I'd like to assume the best (though I haven't checked the roof yet.) So this afternoon, any normal person would think the story was over.

Pete's absence has apparently caused a pigeon vacuum to develop over my house. Another pigeon has come skidding across the lawn to an upended stop at my house, tossed from the Torino. Or, in this case, a Ford Explorer, which belongs to a friend of mine who was bringing me some duck heads for the Harrises. An acquaintance of his had been messin' with a brand new BB gun. My buddy, who is a decent shot, decided to show him how to use it.

Enter pigeon #2, stage right.

Pigeon #2 staggers from a BB shot to the neck, allowing my buddy the crucial two seconds required to catch said pigeon and stuff it in a paper sack along with the frozen duck heads. (The Harrises' beaks need the application of a Dremel tool, but duck heads are considerably less stressful and somewhat effective.)

Pigeon #2, being a pigeon, exudes testosterone, slicks his hair back, flares his nostrils and says, "It's only a flesh wound." He revives, chop-sockying his way to freedom from the paper bag, only to flap crazily around my dining room.

Pigeon #2 is considerably more slick than Pete, and it takes ten minutes to catch him and throw him into the cage recently vacated.

He also has lice, which means the cage will need to be sterilized after we figure out what to do with him. He has a wound to the crop – not fatal, but it makes him unreleasable for the time being. I don't know if he'll become hawk food. Maybe the pigeon takeout is pre-ordained.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Pete II

Pete spent three nights inside, and four days being shooed around my backyard wearing little pigeon jesses. It took surprisingly little time for him to gain some reflexes and some strength, though he's still a bit klutzy on the feet, and he's still dumb as a rock about maintaining his personal space. Until yesterday, the places he would fly to were amazingly limited: the porch, two spots on the fence, and on top of an old cage. Now he flies to unusual places – the avocado tree, and the steps. Since I took his jesses off yesterday, he's been increasingly hard to catch, though it's still pretty easy. But he is starting to resemble a pigeon more than a butterfly now.

Last night was his first night out – he spent it on the porch, where I worried about him getting surprised by raccoons. Years ago, they invaded my coop two or three times, causing horrible messes of blood and dying pigeons. Shooting at them helped a little, but they would come back in another season or so. However, raccoons have never come up to the porch despite the appeals of the garbage can, so Pete seems to have some measure of safety. Hopefully it will stay that way until Pete decides he's a free pigeon.

Though they seem to have mostly forgotten about it, the hawks still grumble occasionally about their takeout not coming. Fortunately, they can be appeased with a quail leg quarter and a little pleasant company (though I suspect the quail leg is considered pleasant company enough.)

I've just finished fitting their new hawkmobile (a Honda CRV) with perch space, and drawers for all the hardware that comes with falconry: extra jesses, leashes, and swivels; transmitters and batteries, electrical tape, zip-ties; spare bunny lure. The back is now divided in two with a thin plywood sheet, so I can now carry human passengers comfortably (or as comfortably as one can be with a Harris hawk behind one.) In the Ranger, passengers got a jump seat that was cramped for anyone over 5'5" or over 180 pounds. Its old hawk setup (attractively stained and finished, with two perch bins and three drawers) was a mere two inches too wide and too tall for the CRV. Retrofitting would be a significant chunk of work and it would probably end up looking trashy, so I decided to start fresh. Maybe I can sell the old setup to someone with a truck or a wider SUV.

The purchase was, in my eye, just in time. With the Ranger, each trip to the gas station was accompanied by a low moaning, which was all I could muster, given the anemia caused by a hemorrhaging wallet. A meal with lots of protein assuaged the pain a little, but did nothing for the fundamental cause of the problem. The CRV, with its alleged 29 MPG, is a pretty significant cure.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Pete Delivery

A pigeon came to visit me today. I had parked the scooter in the garage, scraped the garage door shut, swiped up the newspaper, headed to my front door, and stopped short. Three feet away from me was the pigeon. Not a very bright one. He wavered, and I took one step forward and right, forcing him to retreat into the little alcove before my front door. Trapped. I took the last step forward, he tried to dash and I clapped my hand over him.

His name is Pete Delivery.

I put him in a pet carrier with water and a mix of granola, split peas, buckwheat and rolled oats. He seemed slightly thin, and was obviously very young: his cere was the same color as his feathers, a charcoal grey. In a few days it would begin to turn white. However, he no longer had the tiny yellow downy hairs I associate with very recently fledged pigeons. Klutzy and apparently not yet believing that wings should be a primary method of locomotion, he came here by sheer providence. There's no good nesting places for pigeons nearby, so I think our spring gusts must have carried him from home until he petered out and landed.

Hence Pete. Besides, he looks like a Pete.

The two Harris Hawks who live here, however, do not believe in providence. They claim they phoned for takeout, using my credit card (hey!), to the pigeon delivery service. I don't really know much about the pigeon delivery service. I imagine it as being something like newspaper delivery, some Mexican guy in a '74 Torino grabbing a pigeon from the pile on the seat beside him, and flinging it out the window onto the lawn. They hawks are rather upset that their delivery never came. Little do they know it was intercepted.

Hence, Delivery.

Pete is currently in a larger cage, with a bowl of hen scratch and pheasant pellets mixed up with oyster shells and grit. I'm gratified to see him eating, though he seems to eat just enough to keep him going, unlike my old flock of twenty, who would come home and gorge themselves silly, until they looked like they'd each swallowed a tennis ball. (I had to get rid of the old flock two years ago, when my landlady discovered them.) They used to fly great circles around the house, and I used pop some into the car and drive out to make them fly home. I don't love pigeons, nor do I hate them. I do like life.

I don't intend to keep Pete for long, just enough to get some fat on him and give him the chance to learn to use his wings. Maybe three days to a week. I have no idea how I'm going to teach him to fly without losing him, other than jessing him up like a hawk and giving him a fishing line leash.