August, 2007

  • The Old New Thing

    What happens at LL Bean at three in the morning?


    The LL Bean flagship store in Maine is open 24 hours a day. Joshua Gleason went to see what people do there at three in the morning. There are people around, but they're not shopping.

  • The Old New Thing

    Microspeak: Value proposition


    This term is used outside Microsoft as well, but it still bothers me. The value proposition is the benefit that the end-user gets from your product, the thing that convinces them to buy it. What makes it even more annoying is when it is abbreviated to value prop.

    Sample usage: "The main value proposition of this model is that it permits changes to be tracked without imposing a significant burden upon the editors."

  • The Old New Thing

    Which Windows font is named after a tabloid headline?


    Daniel Will-Harris explains the background of several Windows fonts, including the story of where the names for some of the fonts came from. Do you know which Windows font is named after a tabloid headline about aliens?

    On the topic of font history, the designer of Comic Sans, Vincent Connare, has written a bit on the font's history on Microsoft's typography site, as well as a longer discussion on his personal site.

  • The Old New Thing

    Nested fly-out menus are a usability nightmare


    The Windows Vista Start menu abandoned the flyout model for the "All Programs" menu because nested fly-out menus are a usability nightmare, and not just for novices.

    Research has shown that once you have menus more than one level deep, you have the problem that the slightly wiggle of the mouse can take the big, complicated menu hierarchy that the user spent enormous attention to build and make it all disappear in a flash. I run into this a lot. "File, Open Multiple, By Searching..." oops I moved my mouse too far upwards and tickled the View menu and boom my menu vanishes and I have to start all over again. Menu navigation has turned into one of those mouse dexterity games where you have to guide your character through a maze without hitting any of the walls or you die and have to start over.

    The All Programs menu has turned into a unwieldy mess thanks to all the programs that shove themselves into every nook and cranny. As a result, navigating it as a hierarchical menu has turned into a common source of frustration due to the "collapsing menu" problem. The solution? Reframe it as a tree view which acts only when you click. The hierarchy is still there, but it's much easier to navigate.

    This ease of use comes at a cost: If you're one of those people who can guide a mouse with pixel-perfect precision, then you're going to find mouse-based menu navigation a bit slower due to the extra clicking. But if it's speed you're after, then put down the mouse and stick to the keyboard: Type the name of what you want into the Start menu search box, and you'll be taken straight to it.

    (No nitpicker's corner today. We'll see what happens.)

  • The Old New Thing

    Disclaimers and such


    Statements made in a general sense may have exceptions even if such exceptions are not explicitly acknowledged. Example: "Dogs have four legs." There are dogs which do not have four legs, but as a general rule, dogs have four legs.

    Statements are not independently fact-checked. They are based on personal experience and recollection, augmented by informed guesswork. Statements may even be intentionally incorrect for rhetorical purposes, for example, to avoid getting distracted by a side topic, or because it's a joke.

    Not all quotation marks indicate literal quotation; some may represent an imaginary conversation or a fictionalization of a real conversation. All quotations are subject to editing, for example for reasons of space or privacy, but such editing is not meant to alter the basic sense of the original statement.

    Phrases such as "some people" do not exclude the possibility that those people may be Microsoft employees. Microsoft employees are people, too. Similarly, "some programs" might include Microsoft programs.

    There is no correction policy.

    Statements do not establish the official position of Microsoft Corporation. Recommendations and advice are those of the author (or people and organizations the author trusts).

    Contents are provided "AS IS" with no warranties and confer no rights.

    In summary, readers are expected to employ critical thinking skills to evaluate statements in context.

  • The Old New Thing

    The Northwest Mahler Orchestra presents Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony


    On September 9th, the newly-renamed Northwest Mahler Orchestra will be performing the Seattle premiere of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony at Benaroya Hall.

    I first heard this piece back in the 1990's in a live performance by the San Francisco Symphony. It's a large, sprawling work, and I was wise to have attended the pre-concert lecture. With music as with language, I have a particular affinity for structure, and knowing how the piece is put together greatly improves my appreciation. There are unifying themes and devices, but it's a big help when somebody points them out to you ahead of time so you can recognize them when they appear.

    The Turangalîla Symphony is unique among all the works of Messiaen in that it is the only one that doesn't suck.¹ I tried to be generous in my overview of the 2006 Seattle Symphony season and described Messiaen's L'Ascension as polarizing, reserving the possibility that somebody might actually like it. (Nobody in my group did.)

    But Turangalîla is different somehow. Not only does it not suck, it's actually pretty neat.

    One of my colleagues wrote to me that he attended a performance of this piece about ten years ago by the Houston Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach. "The performance was outstanding. About a third of the audience ran from Jones Hall with their fingers in their ears, and the rest stayed transfixed."

    That sounds about right. I'll be one of the people sitting there transfixed. Here's the fifth movement if you want to see how you'd react. (By the way, that's the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, maximum age: 19.²)

    In that video, the strange piano-like contraption played by the older woman is the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that produces an etherial theremin-like sound. (Get to know it up close and personal in another YouTube video.) Jensen Harris calls it "one of the most unlikely musical contraptions ever." He tells me that an ondes Martenot and soloist are being flown in from France at great expense for the concert. (Incidentally, the pianist is also flying in from France.)

    Trivia: Performances of the Northwest Mahler Orchestra are pretty much the only times you'll find me and Jensen Harris in the same room. I'm in the audience; Jensen is on stage.

    Nitpicker's Corner

    ¹Although this statement is presented as fact, it is actually my personal opinion. I do not know whether Microsoft Corporation officially takes the position that Messiaen's music, with one exception, sucks, though if it were put up to a vote, I'd definitely vote in favor.

    ²The maximum age applies to the orchestra members themselves, not to the conductor or guest soloists.

  • The Old New Thing

    Windows Vista has more extended options on the context menu


    As we saw when we discussed context menus, holding down the shift key when opening a context menu adds so-called extended verbs to the menu. These are verbs that are less frequently used whose presence would clutter up the menu or pose an attractive nuisance.

    For example, the "Command Prompt Here" command is an extended command since your typical non-technical user has no use for it,¹ and selecting it creates a baffling command prompt that screams "You are not smart enough to use this computer! Return it to the store and get a Mac instead!"

    In reaction to this, one person wrote, "I've not seen anyone even attempt to justify why this should be hidden like this. Shift+RightClick is not a standard move so no one is going to find this by accident."

    And indeed, that's precisely why it's hidden²—so that nobody finds it by accident! The only³ people that find it are the people who are smart enough to go looking for it.

    Nitpicker's Corner

    ¹Although this statement is written as if it were a fact, all facts presented here are really just my personal interpretation of the world. That interpretation is not the official position of Microsoft Corporation, and it may ultimately prove incorrect.

    ²The use of the word "precisely" here is rhetorical, emphasizing that the argument against hiding them works equally well as an argument for hiding them. The statement is not an establishment of the official Microsoft position on why the menu items are on the extended menu. It is merely my interpretation of the situation.

    ³The use of the term "only" here is not meant in an absolute sense, as if there were some physical barrier preventing people from using it inadvertently. It is possible that somebody might hold the shift key by mistake when calling up the context menu, in which case my statement that "The only people that find it are the people who are smart enough to go looking for it" becomes incorrect.

  • The Old New Thing

    At last you can turn off the USB 2.0 balloon


    One of the more annoying messages in Windows XP¹ is the "This USB device can perform faster" balloon that appears whenever you plug in a USB 2.0-capable device into a USB 1.0 port. When I click on that balooon, I get a message that says, "Sorry, you don't have any USB 2.0 ports. You'll have to install one to be able to take full advantage of this device."²

    Yeah, that's really nice, but one of my machines is a laptop, so its USB ports can't be upgraded. And my desktop computer at the time had an older motherboard that predated USB 2.0. The really annoying part was that there was no way to turn off the balloon. "Yes, I know I inserted the device into a USB 1.0 port, but this computer doesn't have any USB 2.0 ports, so stop bugging me already."

    It actually got the point that I went out and bought a USB 2.0 adapter card just to shut up the stupid balloon.³

    Thank goodness that in Windows Vista, the USB folks realized how annoying it is to show a balloon that yells at you for something you can't do anything about, and they added a way to disable the pop-up.

    Nitpicker's Corner

    ¹Although this statement takes the grammatical form of a statement of fact, it is actually a statement of opinion. Other people may legitimately disagree with this opinion. Whether the message is in fact "one of the more annoying messages in Windows XP" is irrelevant to the story; the employment of this statement of opinion is rhetorical and serves a useful storytelling purpose, namely to serve as an interesting introduction and to establish a context for elaboration. It does not establish the official position of Microsoft Corporation regarding how annoying that message is.

    ²That is not literally what the message says, but the underlying meaning is comparable. The message text has been paraphrased for rhetorical purposes (to create a more informal tone) and for time-saving purposes (to save me the trouble of having to re-create the message and carefully transcribe the message word-for-word).

    ³Again, the use of the word "stupid" here is rhetorical, indicating my level of frustration and not attempting to establish the official Microsoft position on the intelligence of the balloon or the people responsible for it.

  • The Old New Thing

    We're all in this together: Maintaining common tools


    In the Windows division, as with any other product group, there is a common "bag of tools" that people tend to rely on to get through the day. Occasionally, somebody will encounter a problem with one of these tools.

    When I run Program Q, I get the message XYZ, and then it appears to get stuck in an infinite loop allocating more and more memory until it finally runs out. Is this a bug?

    Just a few hours later, the question is repeated. It seems

    Resending. Is anybody else seeing this?

    First thing the following morning:

    3rd time.

    The owner of Program Q, please help.

    At this point, I felt compelled to explain how it works, but of course I did it by firing up my thermonuclear social skills.

    You own Program Q. The source code is in X\Q. Have fun. Let us know what you find.

    Fortunately, one of my colleagues chimed in with an explanation.

    Raymond's point is that many of our tools are supported by whoever pitches in and helps. Don't be shy.

    We're all in this together.


    Although the situation described here is purported to have been real, details of the story not essential to the message may have been altered, removed, or exaggerated in order to make the story more enjoyable. The behavior exhibited in this story does not constitute an official position of Microsoft Corporation.

  • The Old New Thing

    When you copy a folder, why are the contents merged with the existing contents?


    When you use Explorer to copy a folder, and the folder already exists at the destination, Explorer merges the contents of the folder being copied with the folder that is already there. Why was this behavior chosen instead of replacing the existing folder?

    My colleague Bob Day explains

    Nitpicker's Corner

    ¹Although this statement is written as if it were a fact, the claim that Bob's remarks qualify as an "explanation" is actually my interpretation of his remarks and does not constitute an official position of Microsoft Corporation.

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