Showing posts from June, 2012

Why "PIN Number" is Wrong, Right and Avoidable Anyway

Many people dislike expressions like ATM machine, PIN number and LCD display, where there is an apparent repetition of the last word of the acronym. ATM means "Automatic Teller Machine", they argue, so it makes no sense to say "Automatic Teller Machine Machine". This view is very common; you find it in the Wikipedia page for PIN and in many respectable writing guides like DailyWritingTips.

Actually in a way they are all wrong. Somebody who writes "PIN number" is not writing "Personal Identification Number Number", they are writing "PIN number". Through their use acronyms acquire an identity of their own that replaces the original meaning, usually to the point where few people know what they once stood for. LCD was perhaps originally an acronym for Liquid Crystal Display but now "LCD" has just become descriptive of a type of display, like OLED, plasma or TFT.  

You should, argue the language mavens, just say ATM, PIN and LCD. …

Here Be Dragons: How Culture Affects More Than You Think

There is a persistent myth that map makers used to write Hic Sunt Dracones -- "here be dragons" on the parts of the world they knew nothing about. This is actually not true since there are no authentic old maps marked in this way and hic sunt dracones appears just once, on the Lennox Globe made at the beginning of the 1500s. [Update 23 August 2013: a second globe marked Hic Sunt Dracones has now been discovered. New Scientist Article.]

Yet the idea of territory so unexplored that it might as well be populated with dragons describes very well our understanding of other cultures. Most people are aware that people in other places are different -- even if it is only from TV comedy and cartoons like Disney-Pixar's Cars franchise. Very often, though, this understanding does not go much beyond surface differences like the way people greet each other -- visible signs that are almost immediately recognizable. Most people also focus on the unusual and the bizarre in other culture…

The Creation of Levi's and Why Writers and Speakers Should Always Check Facts

Back in the pre-Internet days fact checking was not something you did lightly. Except for some basic facts you could find in an encyclopedia, most questions required a trip to the library and hours of work leafing through musty books or scrolling through reels of microfilm. Not surprisingly when people were on deadline to write an article or prepare a speech they often skipped this step, so many stories were copied from one work to another without verification. People sometimes blame mindless copying on the world-wide web, but in reality it happened long before the web was invented.

Today I was reminded of this when I went to check the story about the invention of Levi's jeans. You have probably heard the popular story that Levi Strauss was selling dry goods to miners in the California gold rush of the mid 1800s when he noticed they were wearing out their clothes in the rough mining work. He took some brown canvas, made it into jeans and added rivets to strengthen the joints. Min…

Why the New Top Level Internet Domains Are Pointless

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is presenting another 1410 proposals for top level domains, the final "dot-something" suffix at the end of Internet domain names (details in the Guardian). These proposals still have to be discussed and voted, so many will not actually be adopted, but any addition to the 300 or so top-level domains already in use is largely a waste of time today, for three reasons:

1. HOW OFTEN DO YOU TYPE ADDRESSES ANYWAY?  Most of the time when I visit websites i am not typing anything, I am just following links. They might be links on a social media page, in an email or in some document. Be honest. how many of you reached this page by typing in the address? If the server stats are to be trusted most of you clicked on social media links and the rest came through search engines.

2.EVEN IF YOU DO YOU DON'T NEED THE COMPLETE ADDRESS. Modern browsers have a single window for typing addresses and searching. This means that if yo…

Love it, Fancy it or Pin it? Rivals Start to Challenge Pinterest

Just two years ago if you had pitched a startup idea like Pinterest to investors they would have asked why you think anyone would want it. Today nobody asks who wants a visual social platform but they will ask what you do that's different. In this scenario it is no surprise that there are rivals coming to market, each with its own twist on the basic formula.

At least two of these rivals already have a usable product available for testing so we can compare them with Pinterest: Fancy, open for public beta testing, and Loveit, still in private beta. Both are conceptually so similar to the original that any Pinterest user can sign up and start "fancying" or "loving it" immediately without looking at the help page. At the same time both also have some interesting features that differentiate them from Pinterest.

Fancy appears to be designed from the outset to support businesses, who can offer special deals to users who "fancy" their products and other part…

Singly's $10K App Challenge: How the Real Winner of Hackathon is Singly

Today's rich ecosystem of software apps is possible because the people coding them build on the work of the coders who came before them. Tools like Flipboard are only possible because they build new levels on top of existing products like Facebook and Twitter. And finding things like the physical location of users is trivial today because the coding work has already been done.  This brings two huge benefits to both developers and users. First of all, the time taken to build a new app is much less. Second, it allows people to implement creative new app ideas without getting bogged down in coding basics.

Singly is a startup that makes the development of social-network-based apps even easier because it provides a standard interface for Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and other networks. Instead of having to learn the API interface details for each of them, a developer can send standardized requests to Singly, which takes care of the rest.  This is already an interesting idea but what r…

How Your Organization Communicates Without Words; Lessons from SpaceX Mission Control

Watching the coverage of SpaceX's first mission to the International Space Station on NASA TV turned out to be much more interesting than I expected. One thing that really surprised me was the comparison between NASA's ISS Flight Control Room in Houston and SpaceX's mission control at their Hawthorne, Florida facility.

SpaceX's mission control is noteworthy for its minimalist, almost spartan style based on basic tables you might pick up at IKEA and simple computer monitors. Almost nothing else is visible. In comparison NASA's flight control room looks unmistakably luxurious and extravagant. In all fairness the NASA facility was probably first built in the age of paper documents and CRT displays, so this look is probably a legacy. But intentional or not the comparison sends a clear message about SpaceX.

Most organizations have a communications department that, with some help from corporate legal, will evaluate meticulously every word -- and punctuation mark -- that…