Why PDFs drive me crazy

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Please, please don’t put anything on your website as a PDF unless I actually need to print it out.

Today, this rant is brought to you by the Durham County Board of Elections. I wanted to find out about early voting for the municipal primary, which I’d heard starts today. When I clicked on “Early Voting and Primary Election Information,” I got…a PDF. Clearly it’s their print flyer. Since they’d already put it together, they figured it was easiest just to throw the PDF up on the web.

So instead of this process:

  1. Click on link
  2. Read new page

I have this process:

  1. Click the link
  2. Browser appears to load for a couple of seconds, then pops up a dialog box asking me whether to open or save the PDF
  3. Choose “open” and click OK
  4. Watch status bar in downloads window
  5. Wait a couple seconds for Preview to start up and load the downloaded PDF
  6. Read PDF
  7. Close Preview window and switch back to browser

Now I have a PDF cluttering up my Downloads folder. I’ll have to decide whether I should keep it for reference (and file it where?) or delete it.

It’s an example of a bigger problem that’s everywhere: web, software, hardware. Developers and engineers make stuff so it’s easiest for them to make — instead of making it so it’s easiest for others to use.

Mark Hurst , who runs the blog Good Experience, recently gave an example of this from a customer experience perspective. He just wanted a company to stop sending him email, but they were focused on the difference between marketing email and transactional email within their organization. He says, “Building a successful company these days means creating a good experience from the customer’s perspective, not from the company’s perspective.”

I like to put it this way: The system should accommodate the user, rather than the user accommodating the system. This doesn’t mean “dumbing things down.” It just means you have to stop thinking from your perspective — What’s the easiest way to make this? — and start thinking from your user’s perspectiveWhat do I want to do? How can I do that using this system?

So when you put something on your website, consider what the user wants to do with it. If it’s a form they need to sign, they probably need to print it. If it’s a journal article, they probably want to download it and either print it or read it on an e-reader. These things should be PDFs.

But if it’s just information they want to read? For the love of Pete. Don’t make them download a PDF to read it. Put it up in HTML.

At the county fair

Yesterday, I drove up to Warrenton to volunteer as a judge at the Warren County Fair, to help out one of my friends from college who is a North Carolina Cooperative Extension agent up in Warren County.

What a great experience! I’d only experienced the North Carolina State Fair before — a bewildering number of competitions, exhibitions, and people. The county fair had a much smaller, close-knit community feeling. The exhibitions were held in a barn behind the local Lions Club. (The Lions Club itself was serving plate lunches — fried chicken, string beans, butter beans, mashed potatoes, and gravy, obviously all cooked right there by some fantastic homestyle cooks.) The barn was hung with signboards for local businesses — all hand-lettered, great examples of that wonderful lost art.

With a partner (a cooperative extension agent in another county), I judged entries in photography, potted plants, flower arranging, and cakes. There were also competitions in painting, needlecrafts (needlepoint, sewing, quilting, knitting, crocheting), other baked goods, and canned goods of all kinds.

There are some amazing bakers in Warren County! There are also some fantastic gardeners. (The begonia competitors were so strong that we had to get the entire panel of judges involved to decide!)

But I was disappointed to see so few entries in many categories — just one or two. I wanted to see more of what people in the community are doing. And I was sad to hear several of the cooperative extension agents saying that county fairs are dying all over the place.

The Warren County fair coincided with a lot of talk in my RSS feed and Twitter stream about the New York Maker Faire this weekend. I thought about the online revolution of makers and crafters, sharing their projects and tips at Makezine, Craftzine, Ravelry, BurdaStyle, and elsewhere. I thought about Etsy, and how it’s big enough to attract its own satire blogs.

I thought about the growing interest in small-scale, local food. Duke’s campus farm was started by young people who want to learn about small-scale organic farming, and there are many other campus farms around the country, responding to an interest in sustainable agriculture. More and more people are interested in community gardens, too. Likewise, there’s a new interest in home cooking with these fresh, local ingredients. Mark Bittman sells a lot of books teaching people how to cook and bake.

And I thought — Why are all these makers, crafters, gardeners, small farmers, and bakers all on the internet? Why aren’t a few of them at the Warren County Fair? Or the Iredell County Fair, or the Duplin County Fair, or the Stokes County Fair?

I know the internet has a more urban population overall — less likely to live in places with small ag fairs. But despite appearances, not everyone on the internet lives in New York or San Francisco.

What’s a county fair but an old-school meetup for local farmers, crafters, and makers? It’s a place to show off what you grow, the animals you raise, and the things you make. It’s a place to meet other people who do what you do, and people who are interested in paying you for what you do.

Maybe the county fair is a tradition whose time has come back around. If you grow things or make things, maybe you should check whether your county has a fair.

Intuitive running

I’ve tried to do the Couch to 5K running program from CoolRunning.com several times now. While the first couple weeks are pretty easy for me, the next couple are always harder. Much harder. Harder like after I finish the workout, I’m not actually sure I can walk back to the locker room without collapsing. I always burn out around Week 5.

I want to challenge myself, and I’m afraid of going too easy on myself.  (Dear potential employers who find this page: That’s my answer to the “What’s your greatest weakness?” interview question. I know it sounds like I’m saying “Well shucks, I just work too hard,” but I’m getting to why it actually isn’t great.)

I hear successful runners talk about pushing themselves to the point of nausea or collapse like it’s just what you have to do to get a good workout — so I think “Come on, you should be gasping for breath! Otherwise you’re just coddling yourself!” Which is all very powerful and goal-oriented and success-driven, until my body literally cannot handle it anymore. Then not only do I not accomplish my goal, but I end up sick or injured, and miserable.

So I’ve been dreading and procrastinating making Yet Another Attempt at Couch to 5K. I know I should exercise. And I really want to succeed at running. But I’d been starting to feel like I was just setting myself up for failure.

I bring this up, because I just saw another article via CoolRunning.com titled “Learn to Run in 4 Simple Steps” that suggests a different method: running from within. I know, it sounds like it’s going to be woo-based. It’s not.

With this method, you set yourself a total workout time — say, 30 minutes. Within that time, you run and walk at the intervals that work for your body. Run until you hit the point of breathing hard and being physically uncomfortable. Then walk until you catch your breath. Repeat until workout time is up.

I can tell this isn’t going to match up to nice, tidy interval times on a predefined schedule. I may not always make steady progress day to day: maybe I’ll be able to run an 8-minute interval on Monday, but on Wednesday I’ll only make it to 6 minutes.

When I was trying to do Couch to 5K, I thought a day like that meant I was failing at the program. Hey, I did those intervals once — why can’t I do them now? Do I have to go back and do last week all over again?

I got discouraged by these normal ups and downs, because the program didn’t account for them. I didn’t realize I should expect them. Maybe it will get me farther in the long run (no pun intended) if I let myself be a bit more flexible (er, also no pun intended).

Here’s the first good sign: I’m actually excited about trying this “running from within” method. I can’t wait to see what happens. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Oh, Word

I’ve been editing a manuscript in .docx format for the past two days. Up until now, Word hadn’t been giving me any problems. (I use Word 2008 for Mac.) But when I tried to open it today, it suddenly popped up an error window saying:

The file [filename].docx cannot be opened because there are problems with the contents.

Unspecified error

Location: 2

Google let me know that this is a common problem with .docx files, a bug that Microsoft knows about but hasn’t fixed yet. (Maybe it’s fixed in the most recent version of Office for Windows; I don’t know. I’m using the most recent possible version of Office on a Mac.) Great. Just another day with Word: completely bizarre, unpredictable aggravations.

I found this page about possible fixes. Once I read it was possible to fix manually with a text editor, I got cocky. After all, it’s just markup, right? How hard could it be? I can handle LaTeX; surely I can handle this.

Dear God. Don’t even bother. The XML makes no sense at all. The specific instructions at that link are for corrupt entries in a Table of Contents. This manuscript didn’t have a TOC. So I had absolutely no idea what I was looking for in this huge block of bizarre XML. I gave up on it.

And downloaded OpenOffice. I haven’t used OpenOffice much since I switched to the Mac. But it was just like I remembered it: most of the same features as Word, but without the hassle. It imported the “corrupted” .docx file without a murmur of complaint and let me finish editing it with Track Changes. The edit was completed on time and sent on its way.

So I’m here to recommend OpenOffice. I’ve been recommending it for at least the last ten years to anyone who needs to use Office regularly. I love the iWork suite for laying out my own documents, spreadsheets, and creating my own presentations. But if you really need a Word clone, or you’re on Windows or Linux, or you need it to be totally free: you can’t do better than OpenOffice.

Mad science vs. mad engineering

Ha ha, very funny. (Engineers, at least in my field, would have good answers to all these questions. And a mad control group.)

Comic by Sanjay Kulkarni of Cowbirds in Love. Via Neatorama. Hat tip Abi Sutherland.

Mad scientists vs. mad engineers

A handy flowchart of the scientific process

Scientific Process Rage at Electron Café. (Click the image to go to the full-size original.) Please note: contains a couple of four-letter words.

“Public Perception of Science” was how I thought my Ph.D should go. “Science in Reality” is how my Ph.D has actually gone. Maybe I’m not Doing It Wrong after all.

I still need to reach “Sweet, maybe I can publish this!” and graduate, though!

(hat tip BoingBoing)

Public Perception of Science vs. Science in Reality by Paul Vallett


Welcome to the new site!

I’ll be blogging about all the things I find interesting here — and that’s a lot of things! Come back and check out what’s new!