October 13th, 2011

Brain, Child article about genealogy

Stephany Aulenback has an article in Brain, Child (an actual, paper magazine that I read, and only parts of which -- not including this article -- can be read online http://www.brainchildmag.com/toc/indexfall2011.asp) about genealogy. I am, obviously, fascinated by genealogy, people who do genealogy and the stories we tell ourselves based on genealogy. However, I also recognize that this long-term fascination translates quite often in irritation with what I perceive as Rookie Errors.

I am pleased to report that Aulenback has Great Perspective on Rookie Errors. Her article is well worth reading.

The narrative is simple: Aulenback watches the American version of "Who Do You Think You Are?" and decides to explore Ancestry.com. "It's the easy of making those jumps [Ancestry.com suggestions] -- from what you think you know about your family to what other people think they know that makes the whole thing so addictive." What a precise and concise and perfectly accurate description of the process. Her very next sentence is: "Unthinking product of the patriarchy that I am, I explored my father's side of the family first." !!! I explored my father's family on Ancestry.com first as well (strictly speaking, my father's father, because, along with my mother's mother, those were the branches where I had no paper genealogies to start from). I think I'll steal the "unthinking product" line myself. It's a good one.

Aulenback goes on to describe what she discovered that was probably true and an interesting contrast to family understanding and a variety of things that turned out not to be true. She finds a cousin who has posted a family tree which she can copy information from. Eventually, she starts working on her husband's family, for the benefit of their children and to improve the odds of finding noteworthy ancestry. Along the way, she tells a story about an elderly member of her husband's family who self-published a genealogy, but introduced so many transcription errors in the information she and her mother-in-law passed along that they called it "The Book of Lies". "But, I reasoned, not all amateur genealogists are bound to provide inaccurate data, right?" This all happened such a long time ago. You really have to relax and accept the idea that no matter what you do, there _will_ be inaccuracies. But if this is what it takes to motivate to continue the journey then I have no complaints.

Digging through her husband's ancestry, she finally comes across someone who married royalty, and has a blast recapitulating that quintessentially American fascination with same: planning a visit to the castle, etc. Her sense of humor in this description is clear and enchanting. Then, of course, as the high wore off, she double checked the data quality at the hinge connecting the royals to her and found reason to doubt. Best of all, Aulenback _identified the original source of the error_! And she found a wildly entertaining story about the woman who didn't marry royalty at all (of which she is correctly skeptical as well, much as I am skeptical of the Penelope van Princis story).

I have only one complaint, and it isn't about the article at all (which is astonishing in its perfection and enjoyability); it's about the italicized bit after the author info, where the author gets in a last post script. Aulenback relegates the Humphreys/Chang foolishness to this post script but I'm sad that she even included it (both the 40 generations to a shared ancestor for every pair of people alive on earth today and the everyone-is-descended-from-famous-person-X nonsense; in this case, Confucius and Nefertititi and everyone with European ancestry is descended from Mohammed and Charlemagne). I am happy to see that she at least chose a moral to draw from it which I can support.

Brain, Child is an excellent magazine, but even by their standards, this is an amazing non-fiction piece. Her blog (very picture heavy so don't read it over a slow connection) is at:


usability, Amazon and that whoopsie over on google+

Recently, an employee of Google posted a very long, um, commentary on google+ that was publicly visible until he took it down. It was so, um, interesting that a bunch of people copied it where you can read it if you have time for that sort of thing. The employee who did this is not a shy guy -- he's been blogging and writing about matters technical and other for years and not in a neutral sort of way. I didn't read the whole thing and I'm not planning on reading the whole thing and I would have considered it not actually nearly as interesting as a lot of other people seemed to find it (I just get pissy when people insist that the Important Thing is something-or-other that would destroy the business. I really do. It's like breaking out in hives) EXCEPT for what appear to be repeated comments that Amazon's website is not usable.

Amazon.com's website isn't usable? I'm not entirely certain what that would even mean, but it turns out there are _years_ worth of people making more or less the same argument. (To be fair, I may remember a certain ex-Microsoft newly minted VP of Marketing back in 1996 making that argument. And a whole lot of other people disagreeing with her about what should replace it, but agreeing in principle to the idea that Amazon.'s website is not usable.) Amazon apparently hired Larry Tesler (!!! Not a reality based guy. The Lisa and the Newton were both Uber Cool products that should have never gotten _started_, and should have been canceled every step of the way. They did not make any business sense at the time because it was too early for those products to be made and thus sold at a price point the market for them could handle.) and ignored him when Tesler complained about usability issues. The rant includes this phrase: "Larry would do these big usability studies and demonstrate beyond any shred of doubt that nobody can understand that frigging website" [Amazon.com], and, later, this paragraph:

"I think Larry Tesler might have struck some kind of chord in Bezos when he said his mom couldn't use the goddamn website. It's not even super clear whose mom he was talking about, and doesn't really matter, because nobody's mom can use the goddamn website. In fact I myself find the website disturbingly daunting, and I worked there for over half a decade. I've just learned to kinda defocus my eyes and concentrate on the million or so pixels near the center of the page above the fold."

Ignoring the obvious fact that tons of moms "use the goddamn website" (including me) quite successfully thank you very much, that last sentence is important so I'll just repeat it here.

"I've just learned to kinda defocus my eyes and concentrate on the million or so pixels near the center of the page above the fold."

I am absolutely certain that _that_ is what mass audiences do with visually presented material. Visually presented material which assumes attention to the components irrespective of their location in the visual field does not work well with a mass audience (boy, howdy is that an understatement). If you want to sell to a large market, you _design_ to be consumed the way the mass market likes things.

As for the clutter on the periphery, it has come and gone over the years and depending on whether you are logged in or not and a variety of other things (as I am sure the author of the piece and some fraction of his audience is aware). Moms who have been shopping on Amazon.com for a decade or more know which bits they like and are happy when they are consistently placed, even if it doesn't satisfy the needs of a new customer or, really, anyone's aesthetic preferences. But we're probably okay with it moving a little ways, just not all the way across the page and reshaped, recolored, blah, blah, bleeping, blah.

Here's the real moral of the story. The elf drove across country to start a little bookstore on the internet because he saw an adoption curve and he wanted to sell crap to those adopters. But within a year or so of being in business, the elf, being numerate, understood that there were only So Many Customers, so he was going to have to figure out a way to sell More to the existing customers and worry less about new customers. It would be years after this decision that people started carping about Amazon and its unfriendliness to new customers, while simultaneously acknowledging that whoa did that machine extract the change from the pockets of the repeat customer. Well, yeah. They're late adopters. And if there's a moral to the adoption curve story, it's that it's way freaking easier to get 10X the money out of someone who is an earlier adopter than X money out of a later adopter. Also, 10X > X (assuming X > 0). Amazon's design is intended to extract maximum cash for minimum effort from existing customers. The sooner people realize that, the better their subsequent critiques will be.

That, in 2011, there are still people will to emit comments along the lines of Amazon-is-unusable (without any qualifiers beyond a slam at presumptively technologically impaired mothers) is a tribute to the power of Aesthetic to overwhelm any data to the contrary. Just because it's coming from a scruffy, possibly drunk guy, screwing up on a social networking site doesn't make it any less about Aesthetic than if it were, say, Oscar Wilde (who, come to think of it, could be described as a scruffy, possibly drunk guy, screwing up in a social setting).

R of K&R dies

The ZDnet response is good:


And the one at Dr Dobbs is touching:




collects some nice, short tributes.

There are many more.

My first experience with Ritchie's work could best be described as 45 minutes of anger and frustration with K&R (the book), trying to get hello world to work and failing because I had the wrong slash. After that rocky start, however, I grew to love the world he (and others) created in Unix and C (when I wasn't busy hating computers generally, because they had failed in some way that was not my fault). My short and ridiculously remunerative career existed entirely within that world. While I do not in any way miss programming (and have written virtually no code since retiring), if, for any reason, I had to return to that life, I would once again insist on working only within that world.

I hope he enjoyed his life and his place in our world.

Today's Activities include: picture hanging wire, book shuffling

I didn't pick A. up on the bike today, however we did go for a brief bike ride upon our return home. She wanted to play on the swings, but the whole playground was just too soggy. She kept asking for an acorn as we walked out to the car, but we could only find acorn caps. Fortunately, one from a previous expedition turned up atop a dresser so she did eventually get one.

We've been able to cook more meals at home lately; today we had a pork and veg stir fry (we had steak with mushrooms/zucchini/tomato yesterday).

I'm continuing to rearrange books, which is low key fun and very satisfying. I went to the hardware store yesterday for paint (for the downstairs lav), but forgot to get picture hanging wire so I went back today (they are starting to recognize me, which is unsurprising -- it's an Ace). That let me hang a family photo that had two really difficult to get onto the wall hooks by converting them to a single wire which at least I understand.

This year, two of my friends from Seattle have stopped in for a visit while on their way to or from a not-employment-related workshop. That got me thinking I should do something similar. While catching up on (still more -- makes me think it really will never end) filing, I read a genealogical newsletter and thought, hey! The 1940 census comes out soon. I should be prepping for that -- and I should be tracking down a genealogical society locally to get tips from other people while I'm at it. I'm going to miss the annual meeting because of a conflict, and the October meeting is already past, but hopefully I'll be able to go to ones starting in December or, worst case, January. I'm also looking around for a relatively local seminar on prepping for the census release -- there's one in NYC, but I'm not going to that one.