Saturday, March 16, 2002

"WITH A LITTLE MUSTARD." "A teensy bit of mustard." "The slightest hint of mustard." All of the above could lead to Dijon poisoning.

I'm still trying to happen upon the code words that will prompt a "sandwich artist" to exercise a little restraint with the condiments. I understand that people say "a little" just to hear themselves talk, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the phrase is ignored. But the other alternatives don't seem to work either. When I order the ol' standby No. 44, the people at Cosi still wield the vinaigrette squeeze bottle as though they're reenacting an audition for "Backdraft." Ask for "a little mayonnaise" with any regularity and you might as well book your operating room now (I'll leave you to insert your own "Mayo Clinic" joke).

Coming soon: Comparing the sandwich shops.

I'm reading:Kingsley Amis, The King's English

Thursday, March 14, 2002

ONE MORE REASON to be skeptical of what you read on the Internet: I've been cited as an authority on blackjack.

I created a beginner's guide to the game two years ago in hopes that some of the first-time Las Vegas visitors at my wedding might work up the courage to sit down at a table and play a little. And because I can't do a damn thing without an all-out Frasier-and-Niles flourish, I snazzied it up and posted it as part of my Las Vegas trip-report site. Until today, it never occurred to me that I was setting myself up as an expert on blackjack, at least not the way I have on other matters. But I suppose it would be hard for the casual visitor to see any difference, and sure enough "Bill on Blackjack" (well, actually "Bil on Blackjack") showed up in a post on the alt.vacation.las-vegas newsgroup.

I'm listening to: Belly, Star
I'm reading: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

I'VE POSTED some more pictures, as I intend to do from time to time. You have to wonder, who will stop me first: the bandwidth police or the talent police?

Saturday, March 09, 2002

MORE MEDICAL FOLLIES. Perhaps my most blatant evidence that "fraud" is the default mode for HMOs.

Dear Member:

We are in receipt of a claim for services provided by Yasmin Panahy on 01/10/02. Under the HMO plan in which you have enrolled, specialist or hospital services are covered only if an electronic or written referral has been issued by your primary care physician prior to treatment, or if the services are necessitated by a medical emergency.

A review of your file shows that we have not received information with regard to a referral for these services. In addition, we have not received information indicating that these services were a result of a medical emergency. Unfortunately, as a result, we are unable to pay the claim at this time.

Care to guess the name of my primary-care physician?

FELLOW BLOGGER AND D.C.-AREA EDITOR Meredith points out how annoying it is when people use "TiVo" as a verb (as I did recently).

I can see that.

But I must lapse into techie-chivalry to defend my beloved black box from Meredith's follow-up comment: "Use the VCR!"

Use the VCR? That's sort of like saying "What's wrong with a goddamn horse and buggy?" in response to somebody calling his BMW a Beemer.

Forgive her, TeevSter, she knows not what she speaks. It's difficult to conceive of what a life-changing technology the digital video recorder is if you haven't spent a few days with one, and I understand that's been a problem for the TiVo and ReplayTV and Ultimate TV people as they try to sell these gadgets.

The whole "pause live TV" thing gets a lot of attention, and it is neet. (Sorry — I've always preferred the depilatory spelling for the "cool" meaning as opposed to the "tidy" meaning.)

And the set-it-and-forget-it aspect, to borrow a Ron Popeil phrase, is great too. No need to remember to put in a tape and do the programming every single time you want to see every single one of your favorite programs. But you knew that, right?

I think my favorite thing about TiVo, though, is the on-screen catalog. The random access. The list of what you've recorded; you click and it plays. No more labeling tapes, fast-forwarding through tapes, trying to remember what's on what tape. And if you want to pause one program and resume watching it later, that pause stays paused. Your desire to watch another program from the same day has no bearing the way it would with a videocassette. Use the VCR? You use a VCR for VCR stuff: making tapes for the permanent collection.

I promise: My next entry will not be a love letter to a piece of technology.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

(I wasn't sure whether this Unabomber Manifesto of sorts belonged here or on my copy-editing site, so I put it in both places. If you're interested in interface design or the Windows-vs.-Mac debate, you'll want to read it, at least until it gets too newspaper-specific.)


If you had never driven a car before, you would have no idea that the stalk on the left side of the steering column controlled these signals. Heck, you probably wouldn't know what the steering wheel was for.

So it would be better to have a big START button on the dashboard, clearly labeled, that directed you to a menu from which you could choose a variety of clearly labeled turn-signal and steering maneuvers, right?

I offer this analogy in sorrow as I prepare to say goodbye to the SII editing system, which I've known in one form or another since 1982. For a long time, before WYSIWYG word processors infiltrated the newspaper market, SII and Atex dominated the market for the proprietary systems on which newspaper people wrote and edited their stories.

These systems were clunky and hard to learn. You could call them DOS-based (although I protest that they present a much more refined interface than DOS). But once you became proficient — mastering their mysterious steering wheels and turn-signal wands — you were off to the races. I worked on SII terminals when they were elegant little made-to-win-design-awards modules that consisted of little more than a standard-size keyboard and a CRT screen. Virtually every command was a keyboard sequence that had to be memorized. In the mid-1980s the design went out the window and SII went to big, ugly, brown Coyote terminals, with the equivalent of function keys (though the keyboard shortcuts remained valid). More recently, "Roadrunner" circuit boards replicated the Coyote interface for the PC and then Coyote software did the same thing without the silicon.

When the techies talk about ease of use, they often fail to observe this critical distinction between initial user-friendliness and true utility. A driver doesn't have time to navigate a series of menus in order to navigate a car, and a newspaper editor doesn't have time to fiddle with a mouse or toggle between an infinite series of desktop windows. Better to put up with the learning curve once (OK — "edit" is "CMD E" . . .) and then operate quickly with that memorized knowledge.

I'm probably on shakier ground here, but all of the above is my problem with the Macintosh cult. The Mac is engineered to be used by beginners. Nothing wrong with that, but you outgrow being a beginner. The Mac-Windows distinction becomes blurred, of course, because you can operate a Mac with keyboard shortcuts and you can operate a Windows machine with Mac-style mousing. But just as the Mac types will observe that Windows offers an imperfect imitation of the Mac interface, I say Apple's keyboard shortcuts seem to be more of an afterthought than Microsoft's. The DOS vestiges that the Windows programmers probably consider a failure are, to me, a big selling point.

Still, though I like Microsoft Word just fine at home, I am not happy about being forced to use it at work. It would be fine if I were working for Simon & Schuster, with five minutes to devote to each word, but I'm at The Washington Post, where I'm lucky to have five minutes to devote to an entire story.

Here are some of the areas in which, amazingly, SII's pre-PC-era programmers came up with things that the modern PC industry has yet to match:

  • Two-step keyboard shortcuts. Hit the CMD or UDK (more on that later) button and a prompt awaits the rest of the equation. This sounds like a tiny difference, but it's a huge advantage in terms of speed and ease of use. Instead of having to form a simultaneous two- or three-finger chord as we must with CTRL and ALT and CTRL/ALT shortcuts, with Coyote we can hit CMD, let go, and then hit the next key. A minute later, if we want. With the same finger, if we want. The type-type-type-slap-slap-type-type rhythm is preserved without that awkward pause during which we must be sure that two keys are depressed at the same time.

  • Easy-to-use macros. UDK stands for "user-defined key." Hit CMD UDK, do what you want the UDK to do, then hit CMD UDK again and the key or key combination on which you want that macro saved. Windows macros allegedly work in a similar fashion, but I've never been able to do much with them. And because UDK is its own key separate from CTRL or ALT, you have access to every symbol on the keyboard as a shortcut. CTRL L might be taken by a built-in function, but UDK L (or lowercase l or right-ALT L or left-ALT L or right-ALT lowercase l or left-ALT lowercase l) is there for you. Every key is a blank slate at least three times over.

  • Save strings (hundreds of "clipboards"). The MOVE key in Coyote acts like the Windows clipboard. But Coyote also allows you to save strings of characters under any symbol on the keyboard. If I save my byline under SAVE B, it's there. It's easy to change if I want to change it, but it stays there until I make such a change. And I can recall it (see above) with a one-hand shortcut, not a two-or-more-finger chord. More than any of the other Coyote advantages I talk about, the lack of a Windows or Mac equivalent to this truly stuns me.

  • Multiple-task find and replace. In Windows, you can search and replace quite nicely — but one thing at a time. Coyote (again, with a bit of a learning curve) allows you to build a single find-and-replace string that searches for multiple things and replaces each with what you want. I have one that converts numbers from one to ten into numerals. The same one converts numerals from 1 to 10 into numbers. In Microsoft Word, I'd need 20 separate searches to do all those things. Now, imagine combining the UDK, the save string, and the multiple search-and-replace. If you've never seen Coyote in action (or, ahem, never seen me use Coyote), the hugeness of this concept will be hard to comprehend. Let's just say that I can create a UDK that, with two keystrokes, fixes a particular writer's 10 worst habits throughout a story.

  • Split screens. In Coyote, I can be editing two stories at once — or editing on one screen and looking up a wire story or sending a message or doing whatever on the other. One keystroke toggles between the two environments. The traditional 50-50 (or whatever percentages you like) split screen is also available, but I've always considered that overrated.

  • Integrated messaging. As an editor in a fast-paced environment, being able to focus on just one screen rather than toggling from window to window is a good thing. Coyote had "instant messaging" before ordinary people had e-mail.

    Here's the "to be sure" graf: To be sure, there are advantages to the true WYSIWYG technology available today. Some of those advantages are specific to the Post setup, however, and some of the potential advantages are not being taken advantage of at the Post (which is part of the reason I'm so irked). But overall, a basic lack of awareness among the programmers of the realities of newspaper production means we're taking a step backward by "modernizing."

  • Wednesday, March 06, 2002

    IT'S TIME FOR Grouchy Bill's Kelebrity Korner®!

  • Why I am I supposed to give a flying fuck (or non-fuck, as the case may be) about whether Joshhh Hartttnettt has to make the ULTIMATE SACRIFICE of refraining from fornicating with comely lasses for a month or two? All I have to say is, boy, I'm glad I never had to do such a thing when I was his age.

    Actually, that's not all I have to say. I'd also like to say I'm not sure resisting the comely lasses doesn't come, how you say, naturally to Joshhh Hartttnettt. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm just saying. If I broke some sort of jude law, I'll mark it down on my heath ledger.

  • Is there a word less sexy than "sexy"? I guess a lot of people like that sort of thing, but that word tends to apply to the "after" picture glorifying a process similar to the one that turned a pretty Canadian girl named Pam Anderson into the grotesque, animatronic slut Pamela Anderson Lee Kidrock Whosnext. White hair, white-polished talons, orange skin and black-ringed raccoon eyes! Who could ask for more?

    I'm looking at the cover of Entertainment Weekly and seeing a picture of another grotesque, animatronic slut next to the S-word and the name of that cute girl who used to have a supporting role on "Felicity." What happened, Jennifer G.?

  • ALL I WANTED was a Single, mustard and pickles only, and a small chili. There were only two cars in front of me. About five minutes later it was just one car.

    I stayed one car away from the barely functioning speaker at that Wendy's drive-through for about 20 minutes. For reasons I'll get into in a much longer entry, I'm feeling less guilty these days about the beefy, fatty side of life's menu, and the minor detour to the open-late Wendy's has become a tradition when I know there's nothing suitable to eat waiting for me at home.

    To the east and west of the U.S. Capitol lie beauty; to the north and the south, well, something more gritty. The picturesque East Capitol Street bisects the Capitol Hill neighborhood, from the Capitol itself to RFK Stadium and the Anacostia River, and it separates the District of Columbia's Northeast and Southeast quadrants. Northeast is "the Senate side"; Southeast is "the House side." There is no West Capitol Street, for west of the Capitol lies the Mall: the Smithsonian museums, then the Washington Monument and a growing list of memorials between that obelisk and the Lincoln Memorial and finally the Potomac River.

    North Capitol Street starts with the Union Station vicinity, which features a some nice buildings, including a historic post office complete with museum, and some good hotels and Irish bars. It quickly deteriorates into some of the most dangerous real estate you'll ever hear of. Charlton Heston did a fear-mongering NRA ad from an underpass not far from North Capitol, the dome in the background, a few years back.

    That dome was in my rearview mirror as I waited, and waited and waited, at this Wendy's off South Capitol Street. South Capitol is more commercial than North Capitol; it's dominated by fast-food places and gas stations. There's a Best Western hotel on the Southwest side, not far from a major post office and the city's main vehicle-inspection station. The Wendy's is less than half a mile from my house, but it's part of another world. A block or two south of the Wendy's are some reputedly hard-core gay bars and a straight strip club that shows up on HBO's "Real Sex" as the home of the Miss Black Nude pageant. A block east is a very large strip club. This one showed up on E!'s "Wild On"; it's not your friendly neighborhood strip club. It's more like the kind of place where NBA players get into trouble. Or so I imagine.

    You might be getting the picture that I wouldn't necessarily be comfortable sitting in this location for half an hour, and you'd be right. On this night I wasn't quite so concerned, because the next car in line was a police car. So I cranked my cassette tape — the Blake Babies' "Sunburn" backed with Juliana Hatfield's "Hey Babe" — and I waited, annoyed but a little amused. I enjoyed the music and I enjoyed looking at the Chevrolet Monte Carlo in front of me, a semi-creative revival of a nameplate introduced in 1970. The guy in the Monte Carlo was like me, annoyed but with a facade of patience. You don't want to get too cross with the people who'll be handling your food. He finally started to say "Hello? Hello?" Eventually he placed his order.

    He, too, wanted a Single and a small chili, though his Single would have cheese and mayonnaise and onions. Ewww!

    I heard something that sounded like "One moment, please" when I got to the speaker, but I couldn't be sure. I stayed polite for about five minutes before launching into my own "Hello? Hello?" I heard another "One moment, please," I think, and then something I couldn't make out. After another "Hello?," I heard the word "order," and so I ordered. Mustard and pickles. No cheese. You can say you want only what you want till you're blue in the face, but the cheese question cannot be avoided.

    "Mustard and pickles only."

    "With or without cheese?"

    Things went quite quickly after that. I'll never know what the problem was. Monte Carlo Guy got his food, I got my food, no sweat.

    I got home and visited with the missus, then settled in for the after-work routine. A little blogging, plus a good night of Tivo'd TV. "Watching Ellie," "Undeclared," "A Cook's Tour," "The Real World," "Frasier." I've never really understood the chili burger — or "goddamn chili hamburger," as James Caan said to Marsha Mason in "Chapter Two." In Arizona they call it by the puzzling term "chili size," a name redeemed only by a Green on Red lyric (from "Black River": "Foreign diner / Chili size / I hope that Tabasco sauce don't / Burn me up inside"). But the idea has grown on me, and the mustard and the pickles provide the perfect tangy accompaniment to the hearty heat of the chili.

    So it was with great anticipation that I opened the wrapper to find — cheese and mayo and onions.


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