Category Archives: general

Twitter does it again!

As you most probably know, I’ve been learning Norwegian for the last 23 months, largely by conversing with Norwegians on Twitter with the help of two grammar books and various dictionaries. It’s been a fascinating process. (I haven’t blogged properly about the process yet; maybe one day I will.)

What I didn’t quite realise when I first started was the three-for-the-price-of-one nature of the Scandinavian languages. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are really a collection of dialects stretching across Scandinavia, with no clear boundary between one language and the next. The borders between the countries determine which dialects are considered as belonging to which language, but that’s about as far as it goes. It turns out that learning one of the three languages means you can already understand substantial amounts of the other two if you’re prepared to do a bit of guesswork. Bilingual or trilingual conversations are common between the Scandinavians on Twitter: each participant tweets in their own languge, and generally has to explain only occasional words to the others.

Written Danish is so close to the Bokmål variety of Norwegian that Danish and Bokmål mostly just look like misspelt versions of each other. This isn’t very surprising, since  Bokmål is descended from written Danish. (Norwegian had no written form for several hundred years, while the country was under Danish rule.)

Swedish, however, is a lot less guessable, largely because the spelling is so different that Swedish words which are very close to the Norwegian equivalents can look quite different from them. But I’d like to be able to read Swedish without a struggle. I’m encountering more Swedish than I was, both on Twitter and elsewhere: for example I sometimes get Swedish replies to my Norwegian tweets or forum posts. Also one of my favourite authors, Tove Jansson, wrote her novels in Swedish, and I’d love to be able to read her actual words. Her writing is stunning even when translated, and I imagine it’s even more stunning in the original.

So I’ve been feeling the need to learn at least some Swedish. But I’ve no desire to laboriously plough through lots of information which simply repeats what I already know about the Scandinavian languages via Norwegian. What I’m really after is the differences from Norwegian. When is it safe to assume that the two languages work the same way? When isn’t it safe? Does that word which looks similar to a Norwegian one actually mean the same thing or not? It seems to me that learning Swedish this way is both less information to absorb, and a more integrated way of learning. Relating new information to what I already know makes it easier to remember and puts it in context, implying greater understanding than if it were random information.

So I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a book on Swedish written for Norwegians, rather than one for English-speakers.

Now, where does one get such a thing? Probably from a Norwegian publisher, at great expense . . .

Some of these thoughts came up in a recent conversation on Twitter between me, a Swede and a Norwegian. It was a good conversation which confirmed my feeling that getting material intended for Norwegians was probably the way to go. I wasn’t expecting what came next, though. Inger, the Norwegian, mentioned that she had a Swedish–Norwegian dictionary, from when she used to teach in a Swedish-speaking school in Finland. She said she had no further use for the dictionary, and that she’d therefore like to send it to me.

Human generosity is in my opinion a wonderful thing, and it’s no less wonderful when it comes from people you’ve never met. And in this case it came in a form which I’m happy to share in a blog post.

If you think Twitter is about nastiness, libel and boring minutiæ, then either you’re following the wrong tweeters or you’ve missed the point of the communities which form there.

Don’t follow the instructions

How many AAA batteries is it possible to need? How many non-rechargeable ones is it possible to need?

For myself, I don’t like the waste and expense of batteries that can only be used once. I use rechargeable ones wherever possible. When I’m in the supermarket and see packets of 16 AAA batteries, my usual reaction is “What sort of wasteful person buys 16 of those all at once?”

But of course you can’t sensibly use rechargeable cells in everything. In particular, they’re not suitable for anything that uses a tiny amount of power and takes months to run them down.

Well, a few weeks ago everything of that kind in the house ran down at once, and I had the unexpected experience of needing to buy a packet of 16 of the things.

However, the strangeness of finding myself buying them was nothing to the strangeness of what I found on the box.

Box with sticker: "Please remove prior to putting in microwave"

The label which Sainsbury’s chose to put on the box.

So there you go. I suppose it makes sense: microwaving the batteries seems likely to destroy both them and the microwave, but at least if you follow the instructions you’ll still have an intact, non-microwaved security tag afterwards. Maybe you can sell it on eBay or frame it.

I decided to go one better though, by not following the instructions at all. In fact I didn’t even microwave the batteries.

Why I hate infinite scrolling

Note: if you already know you hate infinite scrolling are looking for instructions on turning it off, details are here.

Nasty surprise

A few weeks ago, something unpleasant happened to my blog. The top of the page looked OK, but if I scrolled down more than a small distance, a semi-transparent box would slide up at the bottom of the screen, obscuring the last few lines of text.

blog title on translucent background, floating on top of one of my posts

The first sign that something was wrong.

I dislike unsolicited popups on web pages anyway; I particularly dislike ones which can’t be got rid of but follow you down the page as you try to scroll past them. For me they have same distracting effect as, say, a moth landing on something I’m reading and walking around on it, or someone plonking things down on a book while I read. So I really didn’t want things I hadn’t even put there messing with the behaviour of my blog in this way.

I’ve known about this blemish for a while; yesterday I finally got round to trying to cure it.

It looked like some kind of CSS trick, so I expected I’d need to change the custom CSS I’ve paid WordPress a small annual fee to let me use.

First step: find out what needs modifying. My browser, Opera, is pretty useful for this sort of thing. In particular, the View menu lets you display various features of the code for the page. So I got it to show the Class and ID attributes which label blocks of text and so on for CSS purposes. I expected one would have a label like “floating-footer”, and I’d then write a CSS rule to make anything with that label invisible.

The actual labels I saw were more worrying:

The floating box, showing attributes called "infinite-footer" and "infinity-blog-tit[le], together with my comment "Oh bugger!"

I don’t like the look of those ID names . .

What were infinite and infinity doing there? I’d set the display format ages ago to five posts per comfortably-sized page—or comfortable for me, at least. I’d experimented with different page lengths, and that seemed the one that worked best. Five posts loaded acceptably quickly, even over my mobile broadband connection, and resulted in comfortable scrolling via the scrollbar. Please, no . . . !

I experimentally scrolled down to what was meant to be the bottom of the page. Then two posts further, to the actual bottom of the page. Sure enough, the ubiquitous and annoying “Sorry, you’ve got to wait while this goes round and and round and your browser goes all sluggish while we readjust your scrollbars” symbol appeared, jerkily rotating as my connection erratically downloaded things I hadn’t asked for. It was followed eventually by the next page of posts. On the same page. Or rather, posts 8 to 14. I’d now effectively got nearly three pages of posts filling up the browser with one idiotically long page.

So I hurriedly went to the blog settings, found the one responsible for infinite scrolling, and turned it off. I was relieved to see on my return that there was now no annoying floating popup. Phew.

OK, let’s scroll to the bottom again. Everything will be OK now. The Older Posts link will have come back, there won’t be any horrible stretchy page, I’ll be able to click the link for page 2, and . . .

screenshot showing "Load more posts" button at the end of the page

Sorry. We’ve taken the link away.

Oh. No. No! No no no no noooooooo! That’s just the same thing, but with a button! I don’t want to create an ultra-long page. I’ve just turned it off, for goodness’ sake! I simply want to go to the next page, where the next five posts will be. What are you doing to me?!

So, back to the settings page. (I must have missed the setting that give me normal pages . . .  Oh. No sign of it. Off to the user forum, then . . . What, discrete pages is currently not an option?! Good grief  . . . ! ) . . . And, finally, to an enthusiastic announcement from WordPress about how wonderful infinite scrolling is and how pleased they’re sure we’ll all be to have it.

That’s why I can’t find the setting, then. They’ve got rid of it. There’s a glimmer of hope in the word currently. But at least for now, I seem to be stuck with one long page which will contain all 103 of my posts if anyone’s determined enough to scroll all the way down. I can choose between having it load automatically when it feels like it, and on request when I click a button. But it’ll be the same unwieldy, user-hostile, browser-hogging, single page.

What’s so bad about it?

Um . . . Everything?

For a start, consider the experience of scrolling through the page. Now, I know that many people are using a scrollwheel. Maybe others like to use the arrow keys. For myself, I’m mainly browsing with a netbook that has a trackpad. Since the screen is quite small, I like to have fine control over the positioning of the page. This is often important if something is nearly the height of the screen. So I navigate using the vertical scrollbar.

Because the trackpad is so familiar and scrolling with it so instinctive, I mostly scroll without needing to look at the scrollbar. I know where it is, and that the pointer is already on it; my finger hovers over the trackpad as I read, ready to make a small, automatic movement when it’s time to scroll down a little. I do look occasionally, mainly to check the pointer hasn’t drifted off to one side, but mostly I’m just looking at the page content. Occasionally I’ll check the scrollbar to see how far through the page I am. It’s a pleasant, relaxed way of reading.

Now, suppose the page has infinite scrolling.

As I approach the “bottom” of the  page, the next section starts to load. I don’t really notice, since I’m engrossed in reading someone’s wonderful blog post. If I did notice, it would be a distraction from reading.

The browser, however, does notice. The page is now longer; the scrollbar adjusts itself accordingly, moving upwards the appropriate distance. But I don’t know this, since I’m still busy reading.

I scroll down to read the next line, or to move the page by half a line or so to get an image positioned where I can see it properly . . .  and then all hell breaks loose. Instead of the small adjustment I’m expecting, the page starts hurtling upwards. When I thought I was dragging the scrollbar down, I was actually clicking just below it. Or rather, holding my finger down and sending a stream of auto-repeat clicks. They’re still happening since my reflexes haven’t yet taken my finger off the trackpad.

So the browser is now frantically trying to load the next 5, 6, 10, 20, God-knows-how-many pages. Once my reflexes catch up enough for me to look to the right,  the rapidly shrinking scrollbar is whizzing up the screen, several inches above the pointer. I chase after it. Not only is it running away from me, but it’s doing so erratically and jerkily since the browser and the internet connection can’t keep up.

I manage to catch the scrollbar and can finally start repairing the damage. Now, where was I on the page?

Well obviously I haven’t a clue where I was, have I? Not in relation to where I am now. Before the browser went insane I was three quarters of the way down, but that’s irrelevant now.  The scrollbar is up near the top and I obviously need to be somewhere above that, but how far? No idea.

So I start scrolling back up, trying to find my place. And because the page is now so long, I have to use very very very tiny movements if I’m to move the page at a speed where I can actually see it.

It’s the equivalent of happily reading a book only have it suddenly and unexpectedly snatched out of your hands by someone who then deliberately loses your place, mangles the pages so they won’t turn properly, then throws it back at you. Horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible.

And seriously, what sort of web designer is unable to anticipate that this will happen? They must have used a web browser. With scrollbars. And they must know that people use scrollbars for scrolling with, surely?

Of course, the wilfully autonomous scrollbars are only one of the problems, even if they’re the worst. Here are some of the others.

  • Pages never finish loading. The browser is forever connecting to the server to fetch the next bit of the page.
    Maybe with a wonderfully fast computer and internet connection this is fine. For me it’s not fine: whenever something is loading, scrolling is erratic, jerky and sluggish. This applies especially when I have a lot of tabs open, which I normally do.
    Scrolling becomes comfortable once the page has finished loading; infinite scrolling ensures that it never becomes comfortable.
  • Navigation. With discrete pages, you always know how far down a page you are, so you’ve an idea how much there is left to read.
    You also know which page you’re on. Maybe you’ve decided to browse your way through a few pages of posts, skimming through for anything that looks interesting. Remembering that you wanted to look at something a couple of pages back, you click the Back button twice and there it is.
    Maybe you want to close the browser for now and and continue  later from where you were: you bookmark page 16 and come back to page 16. Even if the blogger adds a new post in the meantime, you’ll be in more or less the right place.
    Infinite scrolling makes all of that impossible.
  • The ever-lengthening page. As you scroll down, the page gets longer. As mentioned above, this means smaller and smaller movements of the scrollbar are needed. Eventually they’re so tiny that trying to go any further is just too irritating to be worth it. Anything further down might as well not be there since reading it is too much hassle.
  • Sequential-only access. To get to page 50 via infinite scrolling, you have to scroll all the way from page 1. You can’t just type ?page=50 or whatever into the page URL. And you don’t know where page 50 is anyway; you have to guess its position on a page whose length is continually changing. Imagine a book where the only way to get to page 50 is by opening every single page on the way to it!
    . . . Well of course there was a time when books were like that. You navigated them by scrolling because they were scrolls and nobody had yet come up with anything better. Then, around 2000 years ago, books with pages were invented, and nobody in their right mind uses scrolls any more. Quite why web designers suddenly want to revert to an unwieldy system that’s 2000 years out of date is beyond me.

Yes, I know that a properly organised site will have archive links and so on for navigation. Scrolling won’t be the only way to get to things. But navigation links aren’t actually the same as, say, jumping forward a few pages to see what you find. They only work when they happen to coincide with what you’re looking for. Links and post titles won’t tell you there’s a hilarious cartoon on page 17. (They can’t; you don’t know it’s hilarious until you see it.) With infinite scrolling you can’t do the equivalent of flicking through the pages of a book until you find something interesting then making a note of the page; all pages are page 1.

Also, sites like Twitter don’t have archive links; you can’t really have thousands of 140-character links to individual 140-character tweets.

I think programmers who inflict infinite scrolling on us should be forced to use a programming language in which all access to memory, databases and arrays is sequential. And to use programming manuals written on scrolls. Let’s see how they like that.

I don’t like infinite scrolling.

A wedding and a funeral

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, but haven’t had the energy. It’s not the easiest story to tell. And I have a feeling that even now, I’ll tell less of the story than I really want to.

Lucy’s Illness

Another person who started the year with a dose of flu was my nephew’s fiancée,  Lucy. However, she didn’t do as well as I did; early in January she went into hospital with pleurisy and various other problems which looked like flu complications. The hospital drained copious amounts of fluid from her chest.

Initially she appeared to be recovering well. But around the third week (the timescales are a little vague in my mind now) she started deteriorating again. A scan revealed shadows on her liver and pancreas, which could have been signs of an infection spreading there, but which of course put other worrying thoughts in our minds. By then she was too ill to have an anaesthetic to take samples from her liver and pancreas. But one from her spine proved to be cancerous, and a sample of the fluid drained from her chest turned out to contain cancer cells too.

A few days after the cancer was confirmed, my nephew Pete was called into the hospital. This was, I think, on the Friday or Saturday. He was told that Lucy may only have a week or so to live, and that if they wanted to get married, they shouldn’t wait for the July date they’d planned.

The wedding

The Sunday afternoon was spent planning the wedding, which took place next day in hospital. Amazingly, all the people who were to take part in the original July wedding were able to get there, at 24 hours’ notice, and about fifty guests were able to attend as well. Lucy wasn’t well enough to get married in the hospital chapel, and there wasn’t room in the hospital ward for all the guests, so there were two parallel services: a marriage blessing service in the ward, and a communion service in the chapel for the rest of the guests.

I wasn’t able to get to the wedding, because I hadn’t recovered enough from my flu to travel down to the other end of the country (the journey just to orchestra and back for a  rehearsal wiped me out). But considering the circumstances, it seems to have been a fabulous occasion, and as close to the originally-planned event as possible. For example:

  • rings were purchased from a local jeweller similar to the ones Pete and Lucy had intended to get
  • Lucy was able to dress as she’d planned for the original wedding
  • a member of the hospital staff made a wedding cake
  • another member of staff (maybe the hospital press officer) took lots of wedding photos—and got one printed out on the day so Lucy could see
  • one of the nurses asked the people who were doing building work outside the ward to take an hour off so it would be quiet for the wedding
  • champagne also arrived, via the hospital staff.

Pete and Lucy were married on January 31st. Lucy died just 15 hours later, early in the morning of February 1st, still wearing the ballgown she’d worn for the wedding, aged 40.

The Funeral

Lucy’s funeral wasn’t held until just over a fortnight after her death; this was largely in order to give as many people as possible the chance to get there, especially since the wedding had been planned at such short notice. It was of course a very sad event, but it was also an exceptionally supportive one. There was a short committal service at the crematorium (which had to be invitation-only because of the number of people expected), followed by a memorial service at Pete and Lucy’s church, where they were originally going to get married.

When I arrived at the crematorium, which was packed, I was immediately struck by the supportive atmosphere. One notable moment in the service was when we listened to the heartbreakingly appropriate song Bye My Love by Brian Houston, which Pete had chosen. I was in a seat near the front, but was aware of everyone getting their handkerchieves out as the song progressed. The gist of the song was “I’ve got to go now, but my love for you remains”.

The memorial service was (as it should be) a wholehearted celebration of Lucy’s life.  It was conducted by a minister who had known Lucy for about twenty years, initially as her student chaplain at university. So his own personal memories of Lucy were included along with those from various family members. It was also done in such a way that anyone could participate meaningfully; not only those with a Christian or other faith. I feel this was really important, since it was obvious that those attending were there because they wanted to be there—there was no sense of anyone being there from a sense of duty or whatever. Everyone wanted to remember and celebrate Lucy, and it seemed to me that they were all able to.

Towards the end of the service, Pete spoke about Lucy’s final moments. How he found the strength to do this I don’t know. I won’t go into detail here about what he said, but it was inspiring and had to do with Lucy embracing her departure from life as fully as she’d embraced living.

Somewhere between 350 and 400 people were at the memorial service. And as funerals go, it was about as celebratory as you can get.

How the year began: A dose of flu

2011 began with a dose of probably-swine-flu. “Probably” because the only way you can be sure about that is to send of a sample of the virus for testing.

The experience was different from what I expected. Just before New Year, I caught what seemed like a fairly normal, but feverish, cold. It came on gradually, over several days. When I’ve had proper flu in the past, it’s come on very quickly: e.g. going from being well to being ill in the space of less than an hour. So I was confident that this wasn’t going to be flu, just a cold. My temperature went up to about 100–101 °F for about three days, which is typical for me when I catch something like that. It stays up for about that long, then gradually goes down again over a few more days, and the cold is over (with the possible exception of a lingering cough afterwards).

This time though, once the three days were over, my temperature continued going up. Friends on Twitter became increasingly alarmed as I reported the daily temperatures.  In particular, it tended to shoot up in the evening, during the gap between one dose of paracetamol wearing off and the next being due. It reached 103.4 °F one day; 103.6° the next; 103.8° the next. And of course it did this over the weekend of New Year, in which the Friday and Monday were both public holidays and the doctor’s surgery was closed. I did my best to drink plenty of fluids, slept a lot, and (surprisingly) managed not to feel too horrible by being very careful about how much I ate and when. My technique was to avoid having a full stomach at times when my temperature was likely to go up.

Unsolicited advice abounded of course, mostly boiling down to

  • Drink lots of fluids, which you already know and are already doing as a matter of course, but we still think we should tell you to do it.
  • Go to the doctor, which is physically impossible while confined to bed and which the surgery have specifically asked people with flu NOT to do, so you can make yourself more ill by travelling there, and so you can irresponsibly infect everyone else while waiting to be told to drink lots of fluids which you already know and are doing.
  • Keep your temperature down to stop us worrying, even though it’s a perfectly normal flu symptom and is probably helping to fight the virus.
  • Here are the symptoms of meningitis which you’re already familiar with. Are you sure it’s not meningitis? You should really get the doctor to check that it’s not meningitis, even though you’ve checked the symptoms umpteen times already and definitely don’t have any of them. Even though you’ve not got any symptoms of meningitis, we’re still scared that it’s meningitis.

Admittedly the temperatures were the highest I’ve ever had except for the occasion when I did have meningitis at the age of 17. But I was surprised not to feel considerably more ill at nearly 104 °F than I did. (With the meningitis, I remember feeling horribly ill and disoriented, sitting on the side of my bed with very little sense of where I was or what time of day it was; feeling nauseous and having a severe but bearable headache; not wanting much light because it hurt my eyes; not being able to put my chin on my chest because my neck hurt if I tried; and my father taking my temperature then saying  either “It’s 105!!!” or “It’s 104.5!!!” in a tone of voice that implied that my temperature had no right to be that high. I remember the symptoms coming on extremely fast. And I remember my mind being too fuzzy to absorb whether my father said 105 or 104.5.)

When I was finally able to ring the doctor on the Tuesday, he cheerfully told me that I didn’t need to worry about the high fever “unless you start coughing up blood or anything like that”, and (surprise surprise) that I should drink lots of fluids. Also he confirmed that it was OK to take ibuprofen as well as paracetamol. So I took ibuprofen doses half way between the paracetamol ones, thereby achieving what I now thought of as “low” temperatures around 101–102 °F and avoiding the idiotically high ones I’d been experiencing. (I was also, incidentally, amazed at the dramatic quantities of sweat my body was capable of producing in the process of cooling itself down by two degrees. Ugh.)

A couple of days later, my temperature started heading back down to more sensible values. The most alarming thing was that it showed no sign at all that it was going to do this: the fever simply stayed up on its plateau for days on end, with virtually no change. And I had a nasty feeling that the infection was trying to work its way lower into my chest. I didn’t fancy the idea of getting pneumonia, or the laryngitis that it was hinting at either. So it was a relief when the flu showed signs of finally improving.

When I finally made it back to orchestra, I was a bit startled when several people said they’d never had flu in their lives. Maybe that’s why I got the odd reactions on Twitter, though. I’ve had real flu three or four times, including Hong Kong flu as a child in 1968, and a flu in 1986 which knocked me out for months, so I tend to assume that people have experienced flu and know how to deal with it (namely by expecting a high fever, drinking enough, resting until it’s taken its course, and calling the doctor if anything happens which doesn’t seem normal for flu or which could be a complication).

The flu left me exhausted for weeks afterwards, of course. But it also had a positive side effect: I’d been trying to get down what I think is my ideal weight (the one at which I feel healthiest), and an enforced week of eating next to nothing brought me within a few pounds of that now-achieved goal.

The next event of 2011 is a much more serious one, involving a bereavement in the family, so I’ll write about that in a separate post. I don’t want any hints of flippancy from this post to spill over into that one. The two are connected though, and part of the reason for my extended silence here is that we were hit by that before I’d had a chance to recover my strength from the flu.