May 30, 2009

Webmasters hate old eyeballs

How else can one explain the vast number of Web sites that use teeny gray text? Today I visited a blog that had white text on a black background. I've also seen brown text on a fake parchment background.

These myopia-disdaining designers are the reason the Firefox plug-in Accessibar is my new favorite gadget.

According to Aycan Gulez at Wow Web Designs, designers like gray text better than black because it's more attractive when looking at the page as a whole. "Unfortunately, some visual designers sacrifice readability for a slight increase in visual appeal because they do not really read the text on screen," he writes. "They treat it as a large block of horizontal lines, and the darker those lines are the uglier they look."

Well, that depends on how you define "ugly." I find illegibility ugly.

I suppose my perspective is different because I've worked in print journalism so long. The publisher would chew me out if I printed news stories in gray.

If form follows function, and the function is to disseminate information, then the form should be one that allows the information to be read by the greatest number of people.

Even myopic people.

May 13, 2009

Do pigs swarm?

An OBJ poll showed most respondents believe the news surrounding H1N1 virus -- that virus of many names -- to be hype. One commenter summed the matter up well, pointing out that "over 36,000 people die from influenza every year in the U.S. … More people die in car accidents … yet you do not see them staying out of cars. Just practice good hygiene and go about your business."

You also rarely see news of flu deaths delivered with the breathless sort of mania that has attended the recent outbreak.

Detracting from the hype is the inappropriate amount of furor over what to call the thing. "Swine flu" offends the pork industry and Israelis. "Mexican flu" annoys Mexicans.

Whatever you call it, don't make this unfortunate error:

Third Case Of Swine Confirmed In Orange County.

I'm sorry, a "case of swine?" Is that a crate containing a dozen pigs? Or is it more like "Hey, I've been turned into a pig. Can I go home?" What does a swine outbreak look like? Or is a rash of swine better called an "infestation?"

One may justifiably ask why the story wasn't headlined "Third case of flu confirmed..."

Well, obviously, that would draw a big "who cares" from the readership.

Which is exactly the point I wish to make.

Perhaps it is inappropriate to belittle a fatal illness. But the problem with coverage of The Virus That Must Not Be Named is that it has been completely out of proportion to the actual threat. Moreover, it is out of proportion to the usual coverage of the flu. This sort of skewed journalism needlessly frightens the naive and just leaves the rest of us jaded.

May 9, 2009

Initially concerned

Sometimes when I get an intitialism-riddled press release, I can decipher it with some judicious Googling. But I was stumped by a release from a bank about its new "BSA officer."

Boy Scouts of America?
Business Software Alliance?
Boston Society of Architects?

Those were some of the top Google results. None in the first pageful had to do with banking.

Just for kicks,* I looked at Wikipedia, which gave me a very entertaining list that includes:

  • Bearing Specialists Association

  • Belarusian Socialist Assembly

  • Bethesda Softworks Archive

  • Birmingham School of Acting

  • Bismuth (Bi), Tin (Sn), Silver (Ag) solder

  • Botanical Society of America

  • Bovine serum albumin

  • Brazilian Space Agency

  • British Soap Awards

  • British Stratego Association

and much more.

Fortunately, the bank's publicist quickly responded to my e-mail request for a translation: "Bank Secrecy Act." Without that information, I would have had to omit the item. Of course, I would be much happier had I been given plain English to begin with.

This is a larger issue at daily newspapers, where staff cuts have been staggering. As journalists increasingly rely on publicists to provide information, that information must be correct, concise, and clear.

Clarity requires translating initialisms and other jargon into plain English. Only a handful -- CEO, CPA and MBA are the first that come to mind -- are so well-known as to need no explanation.

And frankly, outside of a business context, even those are iffy. There are circles in which those would be seen as referring to "Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization," "Craft Potters' Association" and "Marine Biological Association," respectively.

* — That Wikipedia is unusable as a source for proper journalism has, I think, now been well-established.

May 8, 2009

In training

Like John E. McIntyre, Mark Twain, and Spamalot's Sir Fred, SunRail is “not dead yet.”

One of the proposed stations is near my home. I look forward to the day I can take the train to work and use my commute for writing or knitting. I just hope they get SunRail built and the station opened before I retire.

That's looking a bit iffy these days.

May 1, 2009

Tweet mystery of life...

After David Pogue told us Twitter can be useful, I've been looking for evidence of this.

I finally got it.

John McIntyre's blog, You Don't Say, was discontinued by the Baltimore Sun when McIntyre abruptly became the latest victim of newsroom cost-cutting.

Previously, when I attempted to follow colleagues on Twitter, I gave up because of the superfluity of most tweets. But this was important, dang it. I needed to know where to go to get my daily dose of McIntyresian wisdom.* So I added McIntyre's Twitter page to my webfeed reader.

McIntyre's interim tweets are entertaining. On April 28, his last at the Sun, he indicated he would continue the blog elsewhere. On April 19: "An unexpected pleaseure in reading here, at Facebook and elsewhere what amount to one's own obituary notices. Not. Dead. Yet."

Then, at last, today: "The blog is back."

So Twitter proved useful indeed for keeping up with one of my favorite sages.

So am I going to ask you to follow me on Twitter? Heck no. Not only do I not have time to tweet my every move, I suspect that if I did, anything I had to say would be superfluous.

* McIntyre is a giant in the field, and the publisher wise enough to hire him will be fortunate, indeed.