Guessing At What Your User Wants Doesn’t Work

Web-based applications seem determined to embrace a form of automation that really doesn’t make a lot of sense and it’s causing more than a little woe for end users. Personalization, the act of guessing what a user wants based on previous activity, is a serious problem. At one level, personalization is actually costing vendors sales. For example, because of my previous searches on Amazon, I couldn’t find a product I really wanted. Amazon kept suggesting items I didn’t want or need. I ended up buying the product on another site and only later found I could purchase it on Amazon for less money. (Not to pick on Amazon too much, I have the same sorts of problems with other sites such as Google.)

Adding personalization to an application is supposed to help a user find items of interest, but we often need to search for something other than the usual item or may not even know what we want. In these situations, personalization actually gets in the way. A recent article, “Personalization is collapsing the Web” expresses the idea clearly by pointing out that people are sometimes ill-informed about current issues because personalization hides relevant news from view. The problem is so prevalent that it now has a name, the filter bubble, as described in “Content Personalization: How Much Is Too Much?” Users can’t find the information they need and vendors are losing sales due to the filter bubble created by various search engine vendors such as Microsoft (in Bing).

In order to provide personalization, sites must track your every move. It isn’t just the National Security Agency (NSA) that snoops on you, but just about everyone else on the Web as well. To some extent, any suggestion that you have any privacy on the Web is simply unrealistic. However, there comes a point at which the snooping, categorization, and misinformed suggestions get to the point of ridiculous and savvy users start searching for alternatives. One such alternative espoused by writers such as John Dvorak is DuckDuckGo. At least it doesn’t track your every move or provide you with suggestions that you don’t need. The prying can even take odd turns, such as the woman who was arrested for researching a pressure cooker on Google.

Guessing, even if the guessing is informed by previous activity, usually won’t work for an application. In fact, it’s probably a bad practice for a lot of reasons. Here are the things that you should consider when thinking about adding personalization to your application.

 

  • Guesses are usually wrong because few personalization engines can actually understand user needs successfully.
  • Personalization can cost an organization money by hiding products, services, or information that a user really needs.
  • Wrongful suggestions reduce the confidence the user has in the application.
  • Tracking the user makes the user feel spied upon.
  • Time and resources required to track a user and offer personalized suggestions could be better spent by making the application faster, more reliable, and more secure.


Odd as it might seen, I have never yet encountered a situation where personalization was an aid to anything other than making me leave the site for a location that isn’t personalized. When viewing a news site, it’s better to see the top stories of the day and drill down into the less sensational stories as needed. In most cases, what I really need is a good search engine that helps me find what I want, once I know what it is. Let me know your thoughts about personalization at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Finding Math Libraries for Your Next JavaScript Project

Finding precisely the JavaScript math library you need can be difficult. In both HTML5 Programming with JavaScript for Dummies and CSS3 for Dummies I define a need to perform math tasks accurately. Both books provide some workarounds for the inaccuracies inherent in performing floating point math. It’s important to remember that some numbers can’t be represented properly in the decimal system used by humans, that there are other numbers the computer can’t represent accurately in decimal, and that there are also error present in converting decimal numbers to binary and vice versa. In short, there are a number of levels at which math errors can occur. Yes, it’s true that the math errors are small, but they become a concern when performing large calculations, some of which can’t suffer any level of error (such as plotting a course to Mars).

The problem is so significant in some cases, that trying to work around the issues becomes an application development task in its own right. It’s for that reason that I started looking for math libraries to perform certain tasks. After all, it’s a lot easier to let someone else do the heavy lifting when it comes to a complex calculation. You can read about the results of some of this research in my article entitled, “Four Serious Math Libraries for JavaScript.” The article not only details the source of many of these errors in great detail, but reviews four libraries you can use to solve them.

The important takeaway I got from the research is that, like many programming tasks, there is no one library that does it all. Each library had something to recommend it. However, each library was sufficiently robust that you shouldn’t need to combine them to create your application. The point is to choose the one library that best meets your needs.

I’m actually looking into a number of library types for use in JavaScript programming. The advantage of JavaScript is that it does provide incredibly strong community support in the form of libraries that you simply use as needed. What sorts of issues do you encounter when writing applications using JavaScript. Let me know what kinds of libraries that you’re having a hard time finding at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. I’d be more than happy to perform the research for library types that receive enough reader support and report my findings to you.

 

Ah, the Elusive Dash

Every author seems to have problems with punctuation of some sort. It’s the reason that copyeditors are so incredibly important (among other reasons). Using the correct punctuation is essential if you want the reader to gain the right idea from your writing. Punctuation often fills in the gap in helping a reader decide how you’d say something if you were speaking directly, rather than through writing.

My personal demon is the dash and all of its forms. No matter how often I try, I end up needing someone else’s help to get the punctuation precisely correct. I recently read, “You’re using that dash wrong” and found it quite helpful because it tells you when and how to use the various forms of this punctuation mark. The article makes it quite apparent that the term dash is only used for specific forms of the horizontal line. However, the article doesn’t tell you about the special ways in which the punctuation marks are used in technical writing. Here are the forms of the dash (er, horizontal line) commonly used in technical writing and their use in that form of writing (which may not necessarily agree with other forms of writing).

 

  • Hyphen: Used to break multi-syllable words at the end of a line. It is also used in some types of coding. You use the hyphen to create a minus sign in code and also to indicate ranges.
  • Minus sign: Used to indicate a negative value. Visually, a minus sign always appears with numbers on the same line as the number, rather than at the end of a line to break words as a hyphen would. In most cases, technical documents actually rely on an en dash to create a minus sign within the text.
  • En dash: A horizontal line that is the width of the letter N that is used to create compound words. It is never used in coding. The en dash always appears within the text of technical writing.
  • Em dash: A horizontal line the width of the letter M and is used to indicate a pause longer than provided by a comma, but not as long as a period. The em dash is often used to separate dependent clauses in a complex sentence. Most authors use the em dash and semicolon interchangeably.


Knowing how authors use punctuation in a document will help you understand the document more easily. The correct breathing makes the meaning clearer. Think about this kind of punctuation the next time you have a conversation with someone. We automatically add the correct breathing when we talk to convey a specific meaning that would be lost without it. You can say precisely the same sentence in a number of ways and have that sentence mean different things. We interpret a sentence based not only on what it contains, but also in how it’s spoken. The lowly horizontal line (of varying length) makes this meaning clearer in writing where you can’t hear the breathing the author means. Let me know your thoughts about punctuation at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Web Page Units of Measure

Creating a Web page usually involves placing elements on the page in such a way that the viewer sees the content in a manner that makes sense. In order to obtain this presentation, you must describe element placement in a manner the browser understands using one of several units of measure. HTML5 Programming with JavaScript for Dummies, CSS3 for Dummies, and Web Matrix Developer’s Guide all discuss units of measure to some extent. However, readers have asked me to explain the units of measure in a little more detail.

Some units of measure work better than others do in obtaining a specific result. For example, when you specify placement in pixels (px), you tell the browser to define element placement with regard to the physical units of a display. This is the most precise, yet least flexible, method of defining units of measure. In addition, it can create issues with mobile devices because these devices typically don’t offer that many pixels of display area and may not allow scrolling of information that doesn’t appear in a single screen (the part that appears to the right and toward the bottom of the page).

More flexible units of device-specific measure include the inch (in), centimeter (cm), and millimeter (mm). In this case, the browser converts the measurement to pixels using the device’s conversion metric. For example, a typical PC display uses 96 pixels-per-inch. However, the user can change the metric so that an inch could consume 120 pixels instead (making the elements larger than normal). Whether this flexibility solves the problem of working with mobile devices depends on the mobile device and the metric it uses to convert physical units to pixels.

Besides device and physical measures, you can also use printer’s measures that include the point (pt) and pica (pc). These units of measure theoretically work the same as physical measures because a point is 1/72nd inch and a pica is 12 points (or 1/6th inch). In reality, it’s possible that a browser will convert the units of measure based on the size of the fonts that the device uses. However, you can’t count on this flexibility and must assume that these printer’s measures are simply a different kind of physical measure.

Fortunately there are two units of measure that are guaranteed to reflect the size of a font on the display. The em is a measure of the actual font size. One device may use a 12 point font while another device uses a 10 point font. An em will equal 12 points on the first device and 10 points on the second device without any modification of the code on your part. This feature makes the page quite flexible and usable with any device. The other unit of measure is the ex, which is the measure of the x-height of a font (the median of all of the characters in a particular letter set). As with the em, the ex automatically scales to consider the point size of characters used by a particular device.

All of the units of measure so far are absolute. You place elements on a screen in a precise position. Modern Web design dictates that pages employ Responsive Web Design (RWD) to ensure that the page will work on any device. A part of RWD is to use relative placement wherever possible so that the page and its elements automatically resize to meet the needs of a device. You use the percentage (%) unit of measure in this case, where an element uses a percentage of the available space, whatever that space might be. Of course, this approach means that all devices see the entire page. However, a disadvantage of this approach is that the elements might be so small on some devices as to make them unusable.

What are your thoughts about units of measure? Which do you use most often? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

An Avoidance of Technology

As an author, I’m always interested in hearing how people use technology to better their lives or as a means of entertainment. However, I’m just as interested in the non-use of technology. In fact, there are people who outright avoid technology or keep their use of technology at a certain level and I find that learning about these people makes me a better author. For example, I recently read about a family that won’t use any technology newer than 1986. A number of other people are discussing the avoidance of technology for technology’s sake as a means of creating a more sustainable environment. Some people equate these kinds of movements as a backlash against technology, but that truly isn’t what’s happening here. These people aren’t some new age Amish who choose to ignore certain technologies as part of a religious conviction. What is really happening is that people either fail to see a need to embrace certain technologies or they have chosen to use only the technologies that serve a specific need in their lives.

It’s currently estimated that 15 percent of Americans don’t use the Internet because it doesn’t make sense for them to do so or they lack access in some way. Interestingly enough, 9 percent of Americans don’t have cellphones of any type. There are many reasons for not having a cellphone, but in many cases it’s a personal choice. Even if the person had access, they wouldn’t want the cellphone because it would interfere with their lifestyle. The assumption that everyone owns a smartphone (essentially a computer sized down to fit into a cellphone body) is also incorrect. Only about 56 percent of Americans have a smartphone now. All these statistics, and many more, point to the idea that not everyone embraces every technology and there are many reasons for not doing so.

All of my books to date have assumed that someone has embraced a particular technology and wants to know about it. However, while many people assume that the potential reader has lots of experience with technology, my lower end books usually don’t make this assumption because many people are still adapting to technology. I also don’t assume the use of technology is a personal desire—many people use technology solely because of a job requirement.

The reason this post is important to you is that it helps to explain some of the things readers have questioned me about in the past. The question of why it’s important to explain a concept at a certain level hinges on the audience I’m addressing. Within this audience are people who have no experience and a low level of desire to interact with the target technology, so I must ease them into learning what they need to know. Unfortunately, the very act of easing some people into a technology offends other people who openly embrace a technology and were really looking for the short explanation for a technology. It’s hard for any author to find the precise mix of information that will meet the needs of the broadest range of readers possible and there will always be some level of disappointment for many readers.

Trying to figure out precisely how to present information to my readers is important to me. That’s why your input is so important. Always feel free to let me know how you feel about the coverage of technology in my books. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to change the manner in which I cover technology, because I’m always faced with competing interests between readers, but I’ll always listen to what you have to say and make changes as appropriate. Are you avoiding technology? Let me know why at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Encouragement, A Self-sufficiency Requirement

I’ve received more than a few e-mails over the years about the seeming impossibility of working closely with a spouse in our self-sufficiency efforts. Actually, husband and wife working together toward a common goal used to be the normal experience—working separately is a modern event and one that probably isn’t very good for relationships at all. In Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work I talk about the need for respect. Doing simple things that mean so much when it comes to displaying your respect for the other person and not simply assuming the other person knows that you respect them. As important as respect is to a self-sufficiency relationship, encouragement is even more important.

Rebecca and I encourage each other daily in both small and large ways. A peck on the cheek when the other person looks down is just the tip of the iceberg—sometimes the other person needs a hug instead. Being the other person’s cheerleader is a major part of keeping the other person active so that the two of you can meet the requirements you’ve set for your self-sufficiency efforts. A little encouragement goes a long way toward making an impossible goal quite achievable. Doing the impossible with less than nothing at times has become a somewhat common occurrence in our relationship. Believing that you can do something is an essential element in actually doing it. Knowing the other person believes in you too tips the scales in your favor.

Of course, the other person can fail despite the best encouragement we can provide. When failure occurs, it’s time to think about the failure and assess what went wrong. There are actually benefits to failure and failure is a natural part of life. Sometimes a little more encouragement will help the person get back up and try again. Other times, you must conclude that you’ve learned one more way to avoid failure and move on to something new. The point is that failure doesn’t mean the encouragement or idea were ill conceived or wasted—it simply means that you need to do something different. The world is full of untried possibilities, so pick one and give it a try.

When it comes to self-sufficiency, partnering with someone who understands the benefits of both respect and encouragement is a far smarter choice than choosing someone with skills. Anyone can learn a skill—not everyone can encourage another person and there is most definitely a lack of respect between people today. If you’re just starting your self-sufficiency efforts, don’t become discouraged. Anything worth doing takes time and patience, and requires a partner who both encourages and respects you. Certainly, the two of us have done both for each other over these many years. Let me know your thoughts about encouragement and respect at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Getting Ready for the Crafting Months

I’m not quite ready to kick back and enjoy the wood stove yet, but I may be getting there. The wood pile is starting to look mighty nice and the cool evenings are definitely inviting. In a week or two, I imagine that we’ll need to start having evening fires and that’s when the crafting will begin. Of course, I participate in a number of crafts, but this winter I plan to focus on making some socks. Warm socks are a must have item during the cold winter months.

In Knitting for the Gentleman Farmer you see a pair of socks I made using my Knifty Knitter, but I’d like to do more. The socks I’ve made so far are more akin to slippers, than something you’d put on your feet before your shoes. So, I recently purchased Loom Knitting Socks: A Beginner’s Guide to Knitting Socks on a Loom with Over 50 Fun Projects (No-Needle Knits), which is a book designed for us who like to avoid needles because they’re a tad hard to handle. This book tells you quite a lot about making socks in just a few pages. For example, you discover how to size your socks properly so they don’t slide around on the wearer’s feet (as mine are prone to do).

The book uses looms of various sorts, one of which is the Knifty Knitter. I may end up getting a few other loom types, which wouldn’t bother me at all. It would be nice to create socks that I could wear anywhere with shoes and that simply isn’t possible using the Knifty Knitter. I’ll also have to get used to working with thinner yarn and possibly add a bit more light so I can actually see what I’m doing.

What I like best about this book is that the author takes time to demonstrate how you can create an amazing array of patterns using a loom. The Knifty Knitter instructions only show how to create a straight knit—nothing very fancy at all. I’ll be able to use the techniques I learn in this book to create nicer looking hats, blankets, and scarves as well (generally, I don’t make other items, even though I certainly could).

Unlike a lot of books on the market, this one provides realistic levels for each of the patterns. In addition, there is a nice mix of models (young, old, male, and female). It gets tiring to see books that feature all of the patterns being worn by a young woman. Seeing a guy wear some of the items is a nice change for me and will make me feel more comfortable giving those particular sock patterns to my male friends.

Now all I need is a full tea kettle and some of Rebecca’s amazing herbal teas. With the fire started, tea in hand, and some music playing, my Knifty Knitter (and other looms yet to be purchased) will see a lot of use this winter. I’ll provide updates on some of the other looms I try later in the winter.

 

In Praise of Editorland

A good friend of mine, who just happens to be a really good editor too, runs a blog site called Editorland. If you’re like me, you have a shelf full of books that purport to tell you how to write better. These books do provide you with the mechanics of writing better—they provide a common framework of rules that everyone follows to make writing clearer, succinct, and expressive. However, they all lack something that Editorland provides—an experienced hand.

Experience is hard to find in books, articles, or even most places online. It’s not just a matter of learning when to break the rules or to observe the rules to an extreme—being a good editor (or a good author, for that matter) consists of far more than rules. For example, creativity is a good thing, even for a journalist, but certain kinds of creative prove troublesome to an extreme. Burying the topic of a story well into the story is never a good idea and Bill lets you know about it as part of his one blog post.

Sometimes it’s a matter of when to use a hyphen or the proper spelling of a word. The blog posts cover a wide variety of topics that will interest anyone who writes and is tired of not finding good answers in the books on their shelf. The idea of Editorland is to make you a better editor (or author) in discovering how to feel your way through a topic and how to use both words and punctuation effectively. Writing is an art, no matter what sort of writing you do—it can’t be taught in the same way that an engineering discipline can be taught. Experience is the best teacher.

The best part of Editorland is that you can go back through the years of posts that Bill has created and learn quite a bit about the art of writing. The topics seem fresh, even when they were written quite some time ago. In short, if you write, give Editorland a try to see for yourself that it has quite a lot to offer.

 

Exercising Care in the Woods

It’s fall and the woods are quite beautiful. For the most part, the bugs have started packing it in, even though we haven’t had a frost yet. I can spend hours in the woods, enjoying a soft breeze, with nary a bite to show for it. There are times where I just sit on one of my stumps up there and wait for something to happen (it usually does). I never run out of interesting things to see in the woods, despite the fact that they really aren’t all that large.

Of course, it’s also the time of the year when I’m cutting wood for winter. So, I often go up with my chainsaw in hand, looking for wood to cut up. The first priority is to keep the woods clean, so I start by cutting anything that is already lying around. Even small wood burns, so I’m not too particular about what size the logs are. Sometimes I find a log that is quite dry and burns nicely lying right there on the ground. In fact, that’s where I found these piece that I cut up.

CarefulWoodCutting01

There is an equal mix of slippery elm and black locust in this case. Both woods burn quite nicely. These pieces are quite dry, but not rotted. Even if there were some rot, I’d take the wood because it’s better to keep the woods cleaned up whenever possible and wood with a little rot still burns just fine.

After I get done looking for fallen wood, I find any snags (trunks that lack limbs) that no one is using. It’s important not to cut down every snag because owls and other birds often nest in them. In addition, it could be a matter of self-preservation because bees will also nest in the snags at times. (For this reason, I actually put my ear up to the trunk and listen for a while.) On this particular day, I found a wonderful piece of black locust to cut up.

CarefulWoodCutting02

This snag looks like a mess. It doesn’t appear to be usable. The inside has rotted out and there are shards where the tree was hit by lightning. However, this is black locust and the wood is actually quite good. Cutting into it, I found that the outside had indeed rotted a little (up to a half inch), but the inside was both sound and dry. so, the snag ended up on the wood pile along with everything else.

On this particular day, I found everything I needed on the ground or as a snag. However, there are some days when I do need to cut a tree down. When this happens, I look for trees that are already completely dry (the bark has come off of its own accord) and no one is using. Even with these restrictions, I usually find all I need. All it takes is a little looking and given the beauty of these woods, looking is something I like to do.

Notice that these pictures show that the woods is intact. It’s what I try to achieve when I cut wood for winter. I leave all of the young trees and anything that’s alive intact as much as possible. Even the ground vegetation is left intact except for the narrow path I create for myself. (All the wood is carried down by hand to minimize damage.) Using management techniques like these ensures that the woods will continue to look beautiful and produce wood well into the future.

Have you taken a stroll through a woods lately? Let me know your thoughts about careful management techniques at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Contemplating the Future of the Written Word

Last week I wrote a post entitled, “An End to the Written Word” that generated more e-mail than most of my posts have in the past. The e-mail content covered a broad range of thoughts and emotions about the written word. Of course, it’s hard to imagine that anything we have used so successfully for so long will eventually go away, but that’s how technology works. A technology is kept only as long as it’s useful. However, I need to provide some more input on my thoughts about the written word based on some of the e-mails I received.

Let me put one thought to rest immediately—I’m not just talking about paper print. Yes, everyone has been predicting the end of writing on paper for many years now and if anything, some businesses actually use more paper than before the computer revolution. However, paper will eventually go away in its entirety. There are a number of indicators of its demise in my own life and I’ll share them with you.

 

  • Manuscripts: At one time I sent my manuscripts to the publisher in printed form. I boxed up my books and sent them for editing in double spaced form. The manuscript would come back with editors marks in place at some point, I’d make any required changes and send it back (the postage really got out of hand at times). In fact, paper would pass back and forth several times before a printed book came out. The process was incredibly slow. Today I’m using electronic media for all my book needs and my printer is collecting dust.
  • Royalty Statements: All of my royalty statements used to come in paper form. Some of them still do, but many of them come electronically now. I eventually look for the huge folders used to store my tax information to become quite svelte indeed.
  • Contracts: A lot of my contracts are now issued in electronic format. I use an electronic signature to sign them. Not only is this approach faster, but I don’t have to provide storage for bulky contracts any longer—the contract goes right into the same folder as all of the other electronic files for my book.
  • Book Purchases: Most of my books are now sold as e-books, not as printed books. It will eventually become uncommon for me to sell a printed book. In fact, I have to wonder how long I’ll continue to obtain printed author copies.
  • Banking: More and more of my banking is done electronically. Even when I do send a check to someone, they often don’t send it back to the bank. The transaction is performed electronically.


I’m sure you can come up with examples from your own life, but the fact is that printed matter is going to go away. However, that’s not what I’m talking about. Eventually, writing itself will become something that professionals use to express abstract ideas that can’t be presented in some other way. People will commonly not use any form of writing because there will be other ways to convey thoughts and ideas to other people. In fact, those other ways already exist. I don’t look for writing to go away in my lifetime, or even in the lifetime of my grandnephew or grandniece, but I do look for it to go away.

Many of the uses that writing once fulfilled are being filled by other technologies. For example, it’s quite possible that contracts in the future will be written using a video record, not writing. A mortgage might show an actual recording of the property in question and include pictures of the participants in the deal. An iris scan of the parties will encrypt the video so it can be played, but not changed. Of course, this technology is quite futuristic indeed, but the concept isn’t all that hard to grasp.

Books and other forms of general communication are already starting to become more visual and less written—it isn’t much of a leap to think other communication will follow. Sites such as YouTube have become popular because it’s easier to show a video of an event than to write about the event in words. In addition, the recording is actually easier for other people to understand. Sites such as Facebook also rely heavily on graphics, not on the written word. The point is that anything that is concrete and easily conveyed using a combination of audio and graphics is already being presented in precisely that form, without written words.

I’ll be discussing this topic more as time goes on, but for now, this gives you an idea of some of the questions I’ve received. This whole idea of writing going away has taken some people by surprise (and others simply expect it to happen). What are your ideas about writing? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.