Friday, April 30, 2010

CSS vindication

Jeff Atwood agrees with me that CSS should not be used for layout.

...even if you have extreme HTML hygiene and Austrian levels of discipline, CSS has some serious limitations in practice.

Things in particular that bite us a lot:

* Vertical alignment is a giant, hacky PITA. (Tables work great for this though!)

Wikipedia thinks so too!. Take that, ChristianZ and Pherdnut!

The email cold-call HOWTO

(I wrote this many years ago as a web page but decided to repost it here so people can comment on it.)

The Email Cold-Call HOWTO

A "cold call" is an initial communication with someone who doesn't know you. I've gotten a lot of email cold calls over the years that have left me scratching my head wondering how to respond. This has prompted me to compile a few hints on how to compose a cold-call email. By following a few simple rules you can make it a lot easier for the person you are contacting to respond effectively.

These rules really boil down to one of the cardinal rules of communication: know your audience. This rule runs both ways, and is particularly problematic for cold calls because almost by definition you don't know your audience, and your audience certainly doesn't know you, which makes it that much harder for them to frame an appropriate response. So the object of the game is, first, to learn as much as you can about the person you are contacting *before* you contact them, and then give them as much information about yourself and what you want as you can without getting long-winded.


0. Know your audience. Find out as much as you can about the person you are contacting before you contact them. You don't have to become their biographer, but you should at a minimum do a quick web search. If the person has a home page, read it.

1. Introduce yourself. A sentence or two is all it takes. If you can't come up with anything better, start with "My name is..." If you are writing in connection to your work, give your title and company. If you are a student, give your status (grade level, undergraduate year, or graduate level) and the school you attend. In short, say something about yourself to help your contact anchor their first impression of you and tailor their reply appropriately.

1a. If you are not fluent in your audience's native language, give some kind of a hint what your native langauge is. If you are writing from an institution located in a country where your native language is spoken that's good enough. But if you are, say, a native Farsi speaker who is living in Canada then you should say something like, "I am a visiting scholar from Iran currently at the University of Toronto." Knowning where you are from will help your audience filter out any language stumbles. It will also give them the opportunity to respond to you in your native language if they happen to know it. You never can tell.

2. Say a few words about what you are doing that motivated you to contact this person. Were you referred by someone? If so, who? Did you find some information on the web? If so, what was it?

3. If you want the person to do something for you that you expect will take more than just a few minutes, don't ask directly. Instead, ask if the person can spare some time and give a general idea of the magnitude and character of the task. For example, "Could you spare fifteen minutes to answer some questions about Australian Aboriginees?" is much better than, "Please answer the following fifty questions ..."

4. If you are asking for information, say what efforts you have already made to get it. Where did you look, and what did you find? As a bare minimum you should do a quick Web search before asking anyone for anything nowadays. If the person you are contacting has a home page, read it.

5. Make it easy for your contact to reach you and learn more about you. Put your email address at the bottom of your message. If you have a home page, put the URL there too. Some mail systems munge return addresses so that replies don't work, and this may be the only way your contact has of reaching you.

One last minor point: if you aren't sure about how to address someone, just open with "Hello."

Why I hate LinkedIn

It's because I regularly get email messages that look like this:

Joe Shmoe requested to add you as a connection on LinkedIn:


I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.

- Joe

and I have no idea who Joe Shmoe is. So I have three choices:

1. Accept the invitation and end up with a bunch of connections who I don't actually know. (Actually this might not be so bad. I have never actually made a useful contact through LinkedIn.)

2. Reject the invitation and risk offending Joe if it turns out I actually have met him and just forgot about it (which is likely -- I have a terrible memory for names).

3. Send Joe a message saying, "Um, who the fuck are you?" though maybe not in so many words.

It's just so freakin' annoying that LinkedIn would supply this completely useless default message that everyone uses instead of encouraging people to write a personalized message that goes something like, "Hi, this is Joe Shmoe. We met the other day at the underwater basket weaving society. I'd like to add you to my network."

For the love of Pete, people, a LinkedIn invitation is no different from any other cold call email unless you are absolutely positively certain that the person you want to link to knows who you are. You should put at least a little bit of thought into the content of the message before you send it.

Rosie Jetson, eat your heart out

Japanese researchers have built a robot that balances on a ball. It's wicked cool, like a Segway taken to the next level. It is really amazing to me the extent to (and speed with) which science fiction from the 1960's has become reality. Today we have Star Trek communicators (cell phones, blue tooth headsets), tricorders (PDA's) and now we seem to be one voice synthesis circuit and some molded plastic away from Rosie Jetson. Still waiting for my hand-held phaser though.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Biggest robotics breakthrough since... well maybe ever

Researchers at U.C. Berkeley have built a robot that can fold towels. Veeeeeeerrrrrryyyyyy sssslllloooowwwwllllyyyyy. But it actually works. Now it's a mere matter of optimization.

Seriously, I would have given you even odds that this problem would not have been solved at all in my lifetime. It's one bet I would have been happy to lose, and I'm even happier that I didn't actually make it. But folding laundry -- indeed manipulating any kind of non-rigid object -- is really, really hard.

Next challenge: a robot that can tie shoelaces. To get some appreciation for how hard this is, try doing it with gloves on to simulate being a robot that doesn't have touch-sensitive skin, which most robots, including the Berkeley laundry folder, don't have. I'll bet a case of wine that this will still be an unsolved problem in 2020. Any takers?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Oabama orders a hit

Barack Obama has apparently ordered the assassination of a U.S. citizen without a trial in the name of fighting terrorism. This is an even more blatant assault on the Constitution than anything the Bush administration ever did. Bush merely spied on, tortured, and imprisoned American citizens without a trial. He never actually had one killed.

I predict that the people who are calling on members of the Bush administration to be prosecuted for war crimes will not be calling for Barack Obama to be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit murder, even though that is clearly what this is.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

My very own koan

I haven't been writing much because I've been too busy dealing with getting ready to move. Buying and selling houses is a nice problem to have, but it can still be a royal pain.

But I couldn't resist posting this. I actually invented a Zen koan as part of a usenet thread on self-replicating programs:

Zen master Kwine was raking pebbles in the garden when a student approached and asked, "Master, what is the shortest self-replicating Lisp program?"

The master said nothing and continued raking. The student was annoyed and asked, "Master, why will you not answer my question?"

The master looked up and said, "But I did answer your question."

At that moment the student was enlightened.