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Archive: January 2005

Signs of Intelligence

This morning, Carolyn told me quite clearly that she wanted some yogurt for breakfast.  Technically, what she said was “more baby”, but I knew what she meant.

How did a 13-month-old manage to tell me what she wanted?  By using sign language.  Kat and I have been teaching her Baby Signs, which is a simplified version of American Sign Language.  I’m given to understand that Baby Signs figure in the plot of the recent movie Meet The Fockers, but don’t let that sour you on the idea.  The amazing thing is that it really does work, if you’re willing to put in time and effort.

At this point, we’re actually looking more to real ASL signs than we are to the Baby Signs vocabulary when teaching Carolyn new signs.  I think the real utility of Baby Signs is that it gets you started where it makes the most sense: teach your baby signs like “food”, “water”, “more”, and “all done”.  This allows the child to communicate their wants and needs long before they ever become verbal.  It works because motor skills advance more quickly than verbal skills do.  I’ll be very interested to see if Carolyn retains the signing as she grows up, or if she’s able to pick up secondary languages more easily.

Carolyn’s first sign was “hat”, which of course didn’t help at all with deducing her needs, but it was still incredible to witness.  I was actually there when she figured it out.  She was looking through a Baby Signs board book while I stood watching.  She stared very intently at a picture of a baby signing “hat”, and then put her hand to the side of her head, just like in the picture.  My jaw dropped, but I managed to keep quiet.  She did it a couple more times, then looked up at me.  That’s when I showered the praise.  It only took a day or two to teach her that the actual sign for “hat” is to pat the hand on the head, not just place it there, like she saw in the picture.  Now Carolyn signs “hat” whenever she sees a picture of one of her grandfathers, because they both wear hats all the time.

Her signing vocabulary is now about thirty words, and she’s actually devised two signs of her own—which means, unfortunately, that we have no idea what she’s trying to say when she makes them!  But we’ll figure it out eventually.

As for how “more baby” means “I want yogurt”, that’s because we quickly noticed that when Carolyn signs “more” what she really means is “I want”.  As for “baby”, the yogurt we feed her has a picture of a baby on each container.  One day she walked over to the refrigerator, patted the door, and signed “baby”.  Then she had to do it a few more times while the rest of us scratched our heads and said things like, “The refrigerator’s not a baby, sweetie.  What are you trying to say?” before finally figuring it out.

Sometimes I think she’s smarter than we are.

So if you’re a new parent or a parent-to-be, I strongly recommend that you try this with your own baby.  When a baby starts waving bye-bye, that’s when they’re ready to start learning sign language.  (We started earlier than that, hoping to lay a foundation, and may or may not have been wasting our time.)  It will help reduce frustration, and therefore tantrums, because you’ll be better able to meet their needs when they have them.  The system isn’t perfect, of course: any baby that gets too upset will be unable to communicate with anything besides tears.  It’s still a great thing when your toddler comes into the room and signs “food” long before the hunger starts making her cranky.

I wonder if the children of deaf parents, whether they themselves are deaf or not, have long benefitted (tempramentally and intellectually) from signing, and nobody outside the deaf culture bothered to notice.

Uncensored Caption Text

While watching a movie on TV this evening—all right, it was Volcano on the apparently mis-named cable channel American Movie Classics—I was amused to discover that the “bad” words had been edited from the audio track, but left completely intact in the closed captioning.  What, is there some kind of assumption that being hard of hearing also makes one hard to offend?

S5 1.1b3

Well, there was time off for the holidays, but now S5 is back and ready to increment its beta number.  So, without too much ado: S5 1.1b3 (248KB ZIP file).  Here’s the current testbed presentation, for those who just want to play around with it.  Because of the long holiday break, I want to add another beta round or two just to work out as many kinks as possible.  So this isn’t the last version before going final on 1.1; still, I’m interested in any problems that people encounter.

There’s really only one notable change from the previous version.  I incorporated Jordan Liggitt’s “type slide number” code into this version.  Why his, when others have done similar things?  Because his version was well-marked with comments, and thus easy for me to figure out what he’d done and how he’d done it.  So here’s how it works:

  • If the user types a number (multi-digit is allowed), the script stores the number.  Inputting any non-number key clears the entered number.
  • If the user hits Enter/Return while there is a number stored, the slide show jumps to that slide.  Any attempt to jump directly to a slide past the end of the slide show results in no action, although the number is still cleared.
  • Hitting any of the “Next” or “Previous” keys while there is a number entered causes the slide show to skip the number entered in the appropriate direction.  Thus, entering “3” and hitting the space bar would jump forward three slides; entering 5 and hitting Page Up would jump backward five slides.  Skipping past the end of the slide show will drop you on the title slide, which is something I’m thinking about changing, though I’m not entirely certain in what way.

I’m mulling over which keys should invoke which jumping behavior.  For example, a couple of times I’ve typed a slide number and then hit the space bar to advance directly to that slide.  Instead, I jumped forward by that number, which is correct but obviously not what I was subconsciously expecting.  So I’m thinking about further restricting the keys that trigger the “jump n slides” behavior.  Anyone have suggestions based on other slide show software?

At this stage, I’m likely to put off adding the multiple-author meta that I toyed with in earlier versions.  The general need is still there, but I’m just not able to think the problem through with the kind of clarity I want.  It will have to wait for another day.  I’m also dithering a bit about the licensing, though at this point I’m leaning pretty heavily toward using Expat.  My hesitation is largely based on my very desire to make the right choice so that I never, ever have to worry about it again, you know?

Anyway, as always, feedback is welcome.

Tabular Weirdness

Recently I was doing some table styling for a client and ran into what I can only call tabular weirdness.  There were two different things that I stumbled across, and interestingly, they were the kinds of problems you wouldn’t be likely to encounter in layout tables.  These would come up much more often in data tables.

In the first case, the general idea was to put some space between the tables and the surrounding material, but as these were data tables, they came with captions.  So I of course put the caption text in caption elements.  That’s when things started to get inconsistent.

To be more precise, the problems began after I left Safari to check the page in other browsers. In Safari, you see, the caption’s element box is basically made a part of the table box.  It sits, effectively, between the top table border and the top margin.  That allows the caption’s width to inherently match the width of the table itself, and causes any top margin given to the table to sit above the caption.  Makes sense, right?  It certainly did to me.

However, according to section 17.4 of CSS2.1 and the figure that accompanies it, the caption sits entirely outside the table’s box, and that includes the table’s margin.  The two are still tied together by the generation of an anonymous box, but the upshot is that if you give the table left and right margins, then the caption does not follow suit.  If you give the table a top margin, it pushes the caption away from the table. This is the behavior evinced by Firefox 1.0, and as unintuitive as it might be, it’s what the specification demands.

The third piece of strangeness was found in IE/Win.  What I’d done was simply said that some cell borders should be solid—nothing more complicated than border-bottom: 1px solid.  The idea was that it would, as borders do, pick up the foreground color of the cell, but IE/Win had other ideas.  As best I could tell, the borders were a light gray.  You can see it happen in the testcase I constructed to create the images in this entry.  Explicitly specifying a border color fixes the problem, of course, but it was a bit of weirdness I thought I’d pass along in case anyone runs into the same thing.

Mickey Prints

Since Kat and I were going to be visiting Florida so often last year and this, and therefore we of course had to visit Disney World a lot, we decided to buy annual passes.  I was quite interested that when you buy an annual pass, the Disney folks take the prints of your right hand’s first and second fingers.  That data is associated with the card; whether it’s encoded onto the card’s strip or not, I don’t know.  But either way, some of your biometric data is associated with your Disney pass.  When you enter the park, you run the pass through the turnstile and stick your fingers into a reader.  If the fingers don’t match the card, you can’t get in, so you can’t share an annual pass with anyone else.

Now, suppose the Disney database stores that biometric data.  Now they have that data tied to a credit card number, purchasing patterns in the parks, probably a home address and phone number, and so on.  Interesting.  Guess what?  As of 2 January 2005, Disney is doing that for all passes: day passes, park hopper passes, all kinds of passes.  Every kind of pass.  Get a pass, get your fingers scanned.  (Okay, yes, you can opt out and be required to show photo ID, but how many people will bother?)

That’s a whole lot of biometric data associated with a whole lot of consumer data.  Interesting, don’t you think?

On A Roll

Last night we went out for dinner with some of the other kids in Carolyn’s playgroup (and their parents) at default favorite Matsu.  Carolyn, as usual, had miso soup with extra tofu cubes and nori, some steamed sticky rice, and half a harumaki.  All very much as normal.  But then, as Kat started on her Manhattan roll with citrus tobiko, Carolyn grabbed a piece and stuffed it into her mouth.

Her first sushi—I was so proud.  We know she liked it, too, because after demolishing the first piece, she grabbed another one and ate most of the contents.

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(And did I have the camera with me?  Of course not.  One of the other daddies had a camera phone, though, so hopefully I’ll be able to update this entry with a picture.)

Continental Yin/Yang

Since my father moved to live an hour north of Orlando this past spring, and Kat’s parents moved to the West Palm Beach area in the fall, we headed south for the holidays.  Our flight down left two days before Christmas, so that turned into a bit of an adventure.  My fellow Americans might remember what it was like two days before Christmas.  The top news story of the day was, in fact, the bad weather and how it was messing up everyone’s travel plans.

For years, I’d shaken my head and chuckled ruefully at all those poor suckers who were trying, against all reason, to fly at the busiest time of the year, which was in the dead of winter to boot.  Now I was one of those poor suckers, and my family as well.

When we got up that morning, things looked pretty bad, but the Continental web site said our flight was on time.  I didn’t figure that would hold true, but thought it a hopeful sign that we’d depart fairly close to on time.  Just before we were to leave, the site updated the flight status to say it was being delayed an hour.  We decided to head for the airport anyway.  Once there, we checked the boards and talked to someone who said that, yes, our flight was probably going to be delayed an hour or so.  We got through security and down to our gate… and that’s when things started to go south, and not in a good way.

What we found out was that Hopkins had in fact been closed to flight operations all morning, and so all the planes that were supposed to be there were in other cities.  Our plane was still in Newark, for example, and still ground-stopped.  So in order for our flight to happen, the flight from Newark had to happen; that way we’d have a plane for our flight to Orlando.  Thus, the absolute soonest our flight could leave was two hours after it was allowed to take off from Newark.

And when would that happen?  Nobody could say.

So we found a play area with some other kids and let Carolyn run around.  Every so often, we’d check back in with our gate to see what was up.  No change; our plane was still in Newark.  The projected departure time for our flight kept being pushed back, hour by hour.  A 1:30pm departure become 2:35pm, then 3:35pm, then 4:30pm.  And it was still only 1:00 in the afternoon.

Somewhere around 2:15pm, just as I was about to go check on the flight again, Kat wondered aloud if anyone had gotten out yet, and if maybe they could switch us to an earlier Orlando flight.  So I asked about our plane (still in Newark) and asked if they could switch us to an earlier flight.

“The only flight before yours was a 9:00am flight”, he said.

“Right.  And has that flight actually left yet?”

“Um, good question!”  He started tapping on his keyboard.  No, it hadn’t, and they actually had a plane on the ground, and there were seats available.  But I’d need to go talk to them at their gate, half the concourse away.

So I told Kat where to meet me and headed to gate 21, wondering how on Earth they could still have any seats on the flight.  When I got there, I made my way to the counter and asked if we could be transferred over.  The man behind the counter told me there were seats available, and he’d get us moved over, no problem.  This guy was a little slow with the computer, and needed some help figuring out how to put in a baggage-transfer order to get our bags from our original plane to the new one.  I don’t know if he was new or what, but I was starting to become concerned that we’d arrive with nothing but our carry-ons… and believe me, when you take a 12-day trip with a 13-month old, you have a lot of checked baggage.

He apprised me that they’d try to get the bags transferred but there was no guarantee, and if any got missed we’d have to wait (or come back) to get our bags from our original flight.  As he worked to assign us seats, I mentioned that we’d been on First Class standby on our other flight, and if he could put us on standby for the new flight, that would be great.  I felt kind of stupid saying it (and said so); I mean, we were probably going to get to Orlando on this flight before our original plane even took off.  And I should still be worried about where I sat on the plane?  But to my surprise, he handed me first class tickets just as the boarding process started.

So there we were, sitting in first class and really feeling incredibly lucky.  At that point, I figured that if half our checked bags and the car seat showed up in Orlando with us, we’d be in clover.  We pushed back from the gate just past 3:40pm, less than an hour after borading had begun, so I figured it was a pretty good bet our bags were on the original plane, not the new one.  For us, this was a three-hour delay from our 12:30pm flight—but the plane we were now flying had originally been scheduled to leave at 9:00am.

As the 737 taxied toward the runway, I couldn’t see it.  The whole airfield looked like it was an unbroken field of snow, including the tarmac over which the plane was (bumpily) rolling.  As we continued to cross the airfield laterally, I wasn’t seeing any exposed concrete.  I started to wonder if we were planning simply to drive to Orlando when I saw it: our takeoff strip.  Except it wasn’t a strip.  It was a stretched-out series of barely-there irregular patches of pavement largely encased in snow and ice.  And we were turning toward it.

“Takeoff’s going to be a bit bumpy,” I said to Kat.  We held hands and our daughter, and said “I love you” to each other, as the plane accelerated down the runway.

(Which sounds all dramatic and fear-of-death-like, but actually it’s just a ritual Kat and I developed over years of traveling together.  At some point we looked at each other just as the engines fired up for takeoff, and said “I love you” in unison.  It was a moment of affection that we decided to continue, at both takeoff and landing.)

The run-up to liftoff was definitely jarring, one of the roughest I’ve ever experienced, and I entertained some half-serious concerns that the plane wouldn’t reach V2 and would slide off the end of the runway, as happens every few winters or so.  Once the wheels lifted, though, the flight was smooth and uneventful.  We got to Orlando in the usual amount of time, and—here’s the part that still blows me away—all of our bags had been transferred.  Every single one.  We were able to load up the car and get to my father’s house in time for dinner, only a few hours later than scheduled.

So while Continental definitely started the day on our wrong side, what with the complete lack of information about the true nature of our flight’s delay prior to our getting to the gate, they definitely made up for it by day’s end.

No Comment

While I was away doing family stuff in Florida (again), there was an enormous comment-spam flood.  Nearly all of it was caught by my spam filter, but that was still 352 messages I had to delete from the filter’s trap, not to mention 352 e-mails asking me to approve or disapprove them.  And it kept coming.  So I turned off commenting completely as a temporary measure.

Then, several days later, I flipped the comments back on.  In fifteen seconds, I had four more comment spams, and these got past the spam filter, as inevitably they will, sooner or later.  So I flipped the comments back off.  Now I’m feeling a profound disinclination to ever re-enable them.  Yes, that’s letting the bastards win, but I only have so much energy to fight them.

So that’s why comments have been turned off.  No estimates regarding when they’ll be back.

January 2005
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