Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

April 1997

If Six Were Nine

I once had a group of Americans for dinner, Americans note, and after the main dish I asked them what they fancied for dessert, and said I thought I might make an apple pie (make them feel at home, and all that). Their reaction was along the lines of "You don't make apple pies, you buy them, and even if you did make them you wouldn't make them between the courses. But, yes please."

From their comments I understood that these particular Americans had seldom actually made an apple pie in their life, and that they didn't seem to understand that apple pies are actually rather easy to make. Out of politeness I refrained from asking them where they bought their mothers.

There are a number of foods that you can buy in shops that offer convenience, but that are actually easier or at least no harder to make yourself, and are always tastier. Jelly (what Americans call Jello) is a good example. With the introduction of automation and convenience people are losing the skills and knowledge that we have had for years.

That's not to say that convenience isn't a good thing. Looking in my diary for the coming year I note that I'm not planning to make Puff Pastry again. Life is just too short.

Automation of tasks in software has done similar things to skills in other areas. Desktop publishing for instance.

Typesetting is an art that shares some things in common with user interfaces. If it is done well, you shouldn't notice it: all your attention is spent on the content; if it is done badly, you spend all your time fighting with it. Typesetting is a skill that not many of us have, and few of us want, I expect. The book "Typography" by Ruari McLean has preserved for us a title page of a book proof-read by Jan Tschichold, regarded as one of this century's great typographers, with his mark-ups, indicating insertions of a half-point space here, and a point there. It was the fifth of eight proofs before Tschichold was satisfied. The book politely calls Tschichold's mark-up "meticulous".

None of us want to spend time dealing with this level of detail, and so are happy to let computer programs do it for us. However, we then depend on the programs to do it right: because we are amateurs at the job, there are many things we don't see if it comes out wrong.

I sing in a choir, and our pianist is cursed with the gift of perfect pitch. During rehearsals when we sing an a capella piece (without instrumentation) if we slip even a semitone over the space of minutes, she has followed that slippage every hertz of the way. At the end of the piece, all she does is play the final chord of the piece as it should have been, and the crash of discord to our ears is comment enough.

For those of us cursed with the talent of being eagle-eyed, typesetting errors have the same effect to our eyes as dischord has to our ears. Unfortunately if there is a double  space between words in a typeset piece, my concentration is immediately distracted from the message to the medium. This makes for great proof-reading, but annoying reading. However, my experience is that just as most people don't have perfect pitch, most people don't notice these types of proofing errors, which then makes it surprising that so few programs correct for them. I only know of one program that prevents double spaces between words, for instance. But the worst of all is so-called 'smart quotes'.

The words "smart" or "intelligent" are words that are all too often used to describe software, or aspects of it, in order to suggest how convenient they are in use. I was once so fed up (furious would actually better describe my state of mind at the time) with a particular program that I went to the trouble of crossing through the word "intelligent" in the description of it in all the manuals at my work, since I had seldom seen a program that actually displayed less signs of intelligence than that one.

Now smart quotes is a property of a program that decides for you whether to use the ‘ style of quote or the ’ style. You type the key that's marked ' and you rely on the program to do the right thing. But, you'd better not, because there are few that always do, and each program does something different. One gives you only straight quotes, another looks to see what the previous quote was in the piece and then produces the other, others produce one sort after a space, and the other sort after a non-space, and so on.

And the problem is, many people don‘t seem to notice: check a list of events sometime and see how many dates are preceded by the wrong quote. In fact CHI 96 decided to drop the quote before 96 because it cost so much trouble when proof-reading. Talk about technology-driven!

Luke and Ophelia

First published in the SIGCHI Bulletin, April 1997

Other Posts