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Results of the GIF Survey

The GIF Survey is complete.  In just under a week, 1,457 people gave their answers on how they pronounce the acronym, and their perceptions of the rightness of that pronunciation.  I thought that, today of all days, it made some sense to share the results of a far less momentous poll.

For those who missed, it, how this survey worked was that the first question was: “How do you pronounce GIF?”  To this, the choices were:

  • The obviously correct way
  • The clearly incorrect way

Upon answering this, respondents moved on to a section that asked three optional demographic questions: age, gender, and race/ethnicity, all as open text fields.  These had about a 16% skip rate, and about a 4% ‘faithless’ response rate; that is, answers that were clearly jokes, insults, or other explicit refusals to answer the question as intended.

Once the demographic questions were answered or skipped, there was a final question: “How do you pronounce GIF?”, exactly the same as the first question of the survey.  Only this time, the options were:

  • Hard G (like “gift”)
  • Soft G (like “gin”)

For both pronunciation questions, the answer order was randomized so as to avoid any first-choice advantage.  The demographic questions, being open entries, didn’t have options to randomize.

(Aside: I discovered in the course of the survey that there are other pronunciations, most commonly in non-English languages.  My apologies to those who fell outside the binary choice I presented.)

So!  The results came out like this:

Table 1. Perception of pronunciation
The obviously correct way 83.7%
The clearly incorrect way 16.3%

First of all, it amuses and slightly mystifies me that more than 16% of respondents feel they say it the “incorrect” way.  Second of all, these percentages didn’t line up with actual pronunciation.

Table 2. Actual pronunciation
Hard G 77.8%
Soft G 22.2%

This deserves a closer look.  How do perceptions of correctness break down by actual pronunciation?

Table 3. Perception versus pronunciation
Pronunciation “Correct” “Incorrect”
Hard G 87.3% 12.7%
Soft G 71.2% 28.8%

In other words, people who pronounce it with a hard G are significantly more likely to believe their pronunciation is correct than those who go the soft-G route.

It’s an interesting inversion of what one might (perhaps naïvely?) expect: given that the creator of the format has explicitly said the pronunciation is with a soft G, one might expect that those who use the hard G know it’s incorrect but say it anyway.  My personal opinion is that this is actually a reflection of human nature: faced with evidence that undermines our instinctive reactions, we tend to double down.  (Of course, if the evidence lines up with what we believe, we seize on that too.)

Now: demographics, which actually were the point of the survey, but not in the way I think some people assumed.  After I did my first, tongue-in-cheek version of the poll on Twitter, my colleague Aki noted that she’d love to know something about the demographics behind those results, something I’d had flitting around in the back of my mind.  Her comment made me decide to just go for it.  What I wanted to see was whether there were significant differences in perceptions of correctness in various groups.  For example, one might hypothesize that those identifying as female were more likely to say their choice was incorrect.  Well, if that were the hypothesis, what evidence I was able to gather contradicts it.

Table 4. Perception of pronunciation by gender
Gender “Correct” “Incorrect”
Female 83.4% 16.6%
Male 83.5% 16.5%

Roughly speaking, of those people who gave an answer about their gender (81.5% of the total), about 25% of respondents identified as female, and about 70% identified as male.  One thing that did jump out at me was that those identifying as female were more likely to use the hard G, rather than the soft G.  Not by a lot, possibly within the margin of error, but still.

Table 5. Actual pronunciation by gender
Gender Hard G Soft G
Female 82.7% 17.3%
Male 77.2% 22.8%

The other thing that interested me was how patterns of pronunciation and correctness would correspond, if they did at all, to age—for example, were younger respondents more or less likely to think they were right than older respondents?  I decided to group by decades, in effect.  Of the 81.6% of respondents who gave a reasonably valid age (I tossed, for example, “1.7977E+308”), here’s how they clustered.

Table 6. Age groups
20-29 22.2%
30-39 42.7%
40-49 25.5%
50-59 6.6%

There weren’t enough respondents outside the 20-59 range to analyze.  I’m not even sure about the 50-59 group, to be honest—I’m not sure 79 replies out of 1,457 is enough.  But what the heck, I’m rolling with it.  Respondents’ perception of correctness didn’t change a lot, but did seem to rise a bit with age.

Table 7. Perception by age group
Age Group “Correct” “Incorrect”
20-29 81.8% 18.2%
30-39 84.3% 15.7%
40-49 83.2% 16.8%
50-59 86.1% 13.9%

It would be interesting to see if a different division of age groups would create different results.  But what really caught my eye was how the pronunciation shifts with age: younger respondents were notably more likely to use the soft G than older respondents.

Table 8. Pronunciation by age group
Age Group Hard G Soft G
20-29 73.1% 26.9%
30-39 77.8% 22.2%
40-49 84.2% 15.8%
50-59 83.7% 16.5%

So if you’re a soft-G speaker and are convinced that’s correct, perhaps you can take comfort in the belief that the children are our future.

I’m not going to present numbers on race/ethnicity.  This is partly because the question was a MacGuffin: I asked it because it would have seemed odd not to after asking for age and gender, and also because I’ve found over the years that asking for ethnic or racial identification is a handy way to give some people a chance to vent a little built-up animus.  The other reason is that even after filtering out the few abusive and the somewhat more numerous “decline to answer” replies, the remaining values are all over the place and difficult to make consistent.

If you’d like to try, you can download the filtered-and-resorted data set for that question, as well as similar sets for age and for gender.  I’ve also put up a data set containing just the answers to the two mandatory pronunciation questions.  Feel free to analyze them as you like!  Each file is a ZIP of the data set in tab-separated text format, so they’re pretty small.

And just to be clear, I’m not planning to post the complete data set, just in case any combination of demographic answers could be used to reconstruct an identity.  (Each set was sorted differently, so a line number in one set doesn’t correspond to the line number in another.)

So what did all this tell us?  It told us something about the people who saw the survey and chose to respond.  It told us that if the results are representative, then people who are older tend to use the hard G and be more convinced of their rightness.  Maybe that’s representative of the world as a whole, and maybe not.  It may not mean a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it was fun to ask, hopefully fun for people to answer, and fun to crunch the numbers that resulted.

My thanks to everyone who took part, and to Aki for prompting me to do it in the first place.

Bits of the Past

I sat digging through the map built by GrandPerspective, showing me what was chewing up 720GB of my 750GB SSD.  I already knew my iPhoto Library was the main culprit, consuming just over a third of the total volume, but surely there were other places I was wasting space.  And there were: old software installers, virtual machines I had long since ceased to need, movies I’d ripped for watching on trips and never gotten around to dumping afterward, years-old Keynote files that I’d never gotten around to compressing.  I dealt with the most obvious offenders, one way or another, and then rescanned the volume.

A set of blocks popped up near the middle of the new map, a cluster I’d not noticed before, even though they were clearly somewhat sizable.  I moused over to see what they were.

They were CD-R master images.

Images of my daughter’s medical records.

Of her MRIs.

Somewhere in there, her final brain scans, the ones where the doctors did not even bother to count the emerging tumors, there were so many.

There’s enough data in there to recreate 3D models of her brain as it turned on itself.  Enough to reconstruct the cartography of her death.

I should just delete it.  Keeping the information is pointless now, when it cannot save her, a reminder of futility and helplessness.  It’s worse than useless—because if a treatment is one day discovered, the data in these files could torture us with the certainty that her life could have been saved, if only it had started later.  Better to not know, and eke out an existence in the spare shelter of ignorance.

I’m not sure I can delete it.  No matter how horrifying the images and records might fundamentally be, they feel like pieces of her, tiny bits of her life and death.  That erasure of data would feel like an erasure of history.  Like a betrayal.  Even to shunt them from my primary machine to some sort of backup storage would feel the same as I did when we carefully packed all of her favorite toys and kindergarten drawings into a box, and stored it away, out of sight but never out of perception.

Perhaps I might feel differently if I hadn’t been missing her so keenly the past few weeks.  There doesn’t seem to be a specific reason for this, unless it’s the beginning of this specific school year.  We’ve all been feeling it, in our own ways.  A few days ago, in the middle of a weekend afternoon, the family was at home and just being a family when I suddenly felt her absence like a spiky, sickly, impossible hole in the center of the world.  It was as sharp and present as the rush of first love, very nearly tangible and visible.

I look at these files, knowing that there are no rational reasons to keep them and many reasons—rational or otherwise—to let them go.  I envision erasing them, and I can’t.  All these jagged bits of the past, which do not cling to me; rather, I cling to them, senselessly, hopelessly, afraid to look at them but afraid to let go.  Perhaps I believe that with enough of these tiny memories, these shards of her life and death, I can cobble together a wall that will shut out the void her absence tore open.

Just enough to keep functioning, for a little while longer.

Which is, I sometimes think, the worst betrayal of all.

Workshopping

I’m criminally behind in sharing this with everyone, so I’m jumping straight to the bottom line here: I’m teaching a workshop on advanced CSS layout techniques in October, and co-teaching another workshop on CSS animation in November with the inestimable Val Head.  Both are courtesy O’Reilly & Associates, and will be conducted at their offices in Boston.

A few more details:

  • New CSS Layout (October 17-18) is two days of deep diving into flexbox, multicolumn, grid, and related technologies.  There will be a heavy emphasis on Things You Can Use Today, including bugs and how to handle them, with a keen focus on using everything in a progressively enhancing way.  In other words, you should walk away knowing how to use new technologies right away, without leaving behind users of older browsers, and have a good sense of what you’ll be able to do in the next 6-12 months.  This will be hands-on, interactive, and very much a dialogue with technical instruction.  If you’re looking for two days of watching me drone in front of a slide show, this is not that.  I’m not even sure I’ll have any slides at all—I’ll probably spend the entire time in BBEdit and a browser instead.  The class size is limited to 40 people.
  • CSS Animation (November 17-18) is another two days of diving deep into the topic.  For this one, I’ll spend the first day going through every last piece of CSS transition and animation syntax, with generous helping of transform.  On the second day, Val will show how to put that syntax to use in a way that serves and strengthens your design, instead of undermining it.  It’s basically a day of learning how the tools work, and a day of learning how to properly use the tools.  Again, class size of 40; and again, very much hands-on and interactive.

So that’s what’s up.  Looking for ways to seriously expand your skills in layout or animation or both?  Come, join us!

Twenty Years Later

It was right about now, exactly two decades ago, that I pulled on my Tom Servo “I’M HUGE” T-shirt and strolled from my apartment over to Strosacker Auditorium for the CWRU Film Society’s screening of MST3K: The Movie.  I’d gotten the evening off from my tech crew duties on Schoolhouse Rock Live! at the Beck Center so that I could catch the movie in a theater again, having been one of the few who’d seen it during its initial theatrical run.  To say I was looking forward to it was an understatement.  I’d been a fan ever since my high school best friend, Dave, had introduced me to it with a VHS copy of the “Rocketship X-M” episode.  The first HTML document I ever marked up was a copy of the MST3K Episode Guide I’d found on Usenet.

I was a staff member of the Film Society, as well as of the university—at that point I was just over a couple of years into being the campus Webmaster and, more or less coincidentally, not quite a couple of years into being divorced.  The Film Society was a fun way to pass weekend nights in good company, contribute to a collective effort, and get to see a bunch of movies.  So when I pushed through the glass lobby doors, I looked around to see what needed to be done.  The ticket counter was already staffed by a couple of people, neither of whom I’d ever seen before.  Which was to be expected, a month into the fall semester.  We always picked up a few new members as incoming students got adjusted to campus life and looked for stuff to do.  I clearly remember one of them, a laughing girl with short-ish curly hair and a unique clothing style.

I remember because later that evening, after I’d seen the movie and was manning the concession stand for one of the later shows, she wandered over to see if I needed any help, then stayed to flirt.  For once in my life, I smoothly responded in kind.  We kept up the good-natured banter throughout the evening, peppering it with sharp looks and sardonic grins.  As things were winding down on the last show, just as I was opening my mouth to ask her if she’d like me to walk her home, she asked me if I’d like to walk her home.

And that’s how Kat and I met, twenty years ago tonight.

Anyone who knew either of us well would never have pegged the other as a likely match.  She wasn’t even an MST3K fan: she’d come to Film Society that night, a month into her graduate school studies, to join up and thus have a group to hang out with, and hadn’t even really looked at the schedule first.  We had wildly different tastes in music, art, food, recreation, even basic relationship expectations.  And yet, somehow, one way or another, with a lot of work and a lot of luck, it’s worked out.

In the time since, we’ve had experiences more amazing and suffered more deeply than either of us could have imagined, as we traded tidbits of information and innuendo over an array of candy bars that balmy September evening.  We’ve each shown strength neither of us would have imagined in ourselves.  I think we also bring out the best in each other, and that too is a kind of strength.

Two decades.  Hard to believe, sometimes, but we did it…and, as Crow might say, I’d do it again if I had to.

Thank you, Kat.

Bittersweet

This morning, our youngest child Joshua attended his first day of kindergarten.  After breakfast and lunch-making and a shoe argument and coffee for everyone but me, we walked up our sun-dappled street to the elementary school together, me and my wife and our son and the empty hole beside him, where his sister would have been.

Today was his big day, and Kat and I worked hard to keep it that way.  We took his picture on the front porch, as we did for each kid on their first day, and strolled along the sidewalk.  We smiled as he shifted his brand-new backpack on his shoulders, getting used to its weight and feel with its folders and crayon box.  We ruffled our hands in his first-day-of-school haircut—a Mohawk, at his request—as he assured us that he and his friend M.L. would know everything they needed to do in school, since they’d already learned it all in preschool.  We stood with him outside the school’s front door, chatting with parents and teachers as we waited for the start of the day.  We headed into the building in a line, eventually splitting off into the kids’ room and the parents’ orientation room.

We didn’t talk about our missing third-grader, even to ourselves.  We refrained from sharing the looks, the touches, the abbreviated sentence fragments that are painfully clear to us and nobody else.  Our kids may not understand exactly what we’re saying in those moments, but they know exactly what we’re talking about, just from the way our jaws stiffen and the dull sharded light in our eyes.

We didn’t talk about our hopes of past years, how we’d looked forward to our kids walking to school together, hand in hand.  We didn’t talk about the two years we’d been away from the school, years we had expected to be there as each kid moved through the grades.  We didn’t talk about the absent eyes that would have shone with pride and protection.

We didn’t talk about how we had only made one decaf coffee for the kids that morning, instead of two.  Joshua, like Rebecca before him, loves coffee.  As long as it’s loaded with milk and sugar, that is.

Bittersweet.

As we got ready to leave the school and Joshua to his day, we gave him hugs.  He showed us the work folder he’d been given, a plain Manila folder on which the kids had been asked to draw a picture of their families.  He’d drawn us all: Kat, and me, and Carolyn, and himself.  And between him and Carolyn, a line.

A marker drawn in marker, holding open a place in his family that can never be filled.

We told him it was a great drawing, and to have a great day, and held our tears until we were well out of his sight.

It’s not fair to anyone, least of all him, that these milestones are so irrevocably tinged.  We try, and often succeed, to keep them focused on the present, to take them for what they are rather than what we wanted them to be.  And we’re getting better at it as time passes.  Better is not perfect, and I doubt it ever will be.

But if you’re reading this years from now, Joshua, please know: we were so happy to see you start kindergarten.  We truly felt joy seeing you meet your classmates and teachers, and give everyone that sly half-smile you’ve perfected.  And we felt pride at seeing that you haven’t forgotten the sister who died when you were so very young, and whose memory you keep alive in your own ways.

We may have missed Rebecca, but we didn’t miss seeing you take those first steps into your new school, and we’re beyond grateful that we could be there to see them.

Between the Rain and the Sun

Late in the afternoon, we all drove over to Mayfield Cemetery to visit Rebecca’s gravestone, two years after her death.

“She’s not here,” Kat said quietly as the kids headed back to the car, for once not making a race of it.

“I know,” I said.

“She’s in her preschool.  She’s at New Jersey.  She’s everywhere we are.  This… is the last place she is,” Kat said.

Misunderstanding her meaning, I shook my head.  “No.  The last place she was, was in our home.  In her home.”  My voice cracked on the last words.

Kat didn’t correct me.  We stood silent, holding each other, feeling the stiff rivers of pain running through each of our bodies.

The cemetery groundskeeper rolled slowly by in his SUV, giving us the “we’re closed” look.  Kat nodded at him.  The SUV rolled on.

I took some pictures of the mementos friends had left earlier in the day.  Flowers.  A rainbow-colored spinner.  A small plastic Rainbow Dash toy.  We nestled the figurine into the earth next to the stone, in hopes that it would stay safe through a summer of mowing.  I whispered a few words to my absent daughter, barely voicing apology and love and regret past the tight bands of sorrow in my throat.

We decided not to go to any of the kids’ favorite restaurants for dinner, not even Rebecca’s.  We drove instead to Chagrin Falls, to eat at Jekyll’s Kitchen, our first visit since its reopening.  After dinner, we got ice cream at Jeni’s and walked down the stairs to the falls.  We showed the kids where I had formally proposed to Kat, one icy March afternoon almost two decades before.  Carolyn was incredulous to hear that we’d jumped a closed gate to do it.  Joshua climbed over rocks and logs down on the river’s bank, falling once and then warning me about the moss on the rocks.  “The moss is very slippery,” he informed me solemnly.  “You have to be careful.”

On our way home, the clouds were underlit by sunlight which I guessed was reflecting off Lake Erie.  As we turned alongside the interstate, I spotted columns of rain off to the north, dark beneath the darker clouds.

I had a sudden hunch.  I turned off the direct path home, working north and west in a stairstep fashion.

“Why are we going this way?” Carolyn asked.

“I think your dad is stormchasing,” Kat said.

“Rainbow-chasing,” I replied.  “I just have to get us between the rain and the sun.”

Soon enough, a light sprinkle fell across the windshield.  Just as I turned west onto Cedar Road, the sprinkle intensified to a light rain.  Ahead of us, the setting sun turned utility lines into threads of golden fire.

“If there’s a rainbow, it will be behind us,” I said.  “Kids?  Is it there?”

A rustling of movement, and then: “Oh my God!” Carolyn exclaimed.

I pulled into the parking lot of the Burger King across from University Square, and there it was: strong and bright at the horizon, fainter at the zenith, paralleled by a still fainter cousin.  Well, would you look at that—double arches over Burger King, I thought, wryly.

The rainbows flared and faded as rain and clouds and sun shifted places, the slow dance of color and light.  I watched it all unfold, feeling anew the ache of regret that I hadn’t been able, hadn’t thought to try, to give her one more rainbowShe would have loved this so much, I thought sadly.  Just as her sister and brother are loving it, right now.

“This is a sign,” Carolyn said.  “It has to be.”  I smiled softly.

Two years.  Two rainbows.

We love you, Little Spark.  We miss you.

Fearing The Cure

I’m afraid there will be a cure for cancer.

Except no, that’s not really it.  In truth, I’m afraid of what a cure for cancer will do to me, and to Kat.

After my mom died of breast cancer in 2003, I gritted my teeth at news stories of promising new cancer treatments.  I’d think to myself, If a cure is coming soon, why couldn’t it have come sooner?  As, I’m sure, the parents of polio victims asked themselves, when the vaccine came into being.

Word came recently that the FDA is fast-tracking a novel treatment for glioblastoma, based on genetically modified polio virus.  Initial trials have been so effective, they’re opening it up to as many as possible.

And I remember reading about this treatment, which had worked in a single case, two years ago, as our daughter was treated for glioblastoma.  We tried to get access to the treatment, tried to get into a study or just be given a sample to administer, and were denied.  Twice.  They wouldn’t let us try it on a little girl with multiple tumors, when it had only been successfully tried on an adult with a single tumor.  That door was closed to us.

So the experimental treatment we tried wasn’t a modified polio virus.  It was something else.  It was something promising.  It didn’t work.

I know this polio treatment, as much as we wanted it then and as promising as it looks now, may come to nothing.  So many other treatments have before.  I remember the every-other-year drumbeat of “Is This The Cure For Cancer?” headlines and magazine covers—all about novel, promising approaches that nobody remembers now, because they didn’t work as it seemed like they might.

“A cure for cancer is the next great breakthrough in medicine, and it always will be,” I sometimes joke, a little bleakly.  But then, that’s what they used to say about polio itself.  About smallpox.  About wound infections.

I read that story about the treatment we’d begged them to let us try, and how it looked like it might cure the cancer we could not, and sick grief ached anew in my chest.  I thought, What if this really works, and we failed to get it for her?  What if I could have called that doctor again, begged and pleaded, and somehow gotten him to say yes that time, and saved Rebecca’s life?  Will I ever forgive myself if the cure was there all along, and I was too weak or blind to force it into our hands?

I still don’t know the answer.

I don’t want brain cancer to remain uncured.  I don’t want any cancer to remain uncured.  I don’t want other families to suffer what we and so many other families have suffered.  There is much I would give to bring about that day, even though it comes too late for my mother, and for my daughter.  There is much I have given, in many senses, to try to bring about that day.

When that day comes, if it ever comes, even if it’s just for one type of cancer, celebrate all the lives that will be saved.  Feel that joy and relief.  But also spare a moment of compassion for all the lives that were lost, and all the lives that were broken.  Especially for the ones who died just before the cure came, the ones who mourn both their absence and the could-have-been that came so close.

Until that day comes, if it ever comes, spare a thought for those who live sick with dread and desperate hope, wishing and praying for a breakthrough to save their loved ones.

Spare another for those who live in dread of that day, and hate that they do.

Name Suggestion

I’ve started playing an occasional game with my iPhone, where I type in a word to start a message, and then repeatedly accept whatever autocorrect suggests as the next word.  If I’ve understood the terms correctly, I’m manually accepting iOS’s Markov chain output.

I’m inclined to post the results to a Twitter account, sort of like I did for Excuse of the Day, but I’m stuck on the most prosaic of roadblocks: I’m having trouble thinking of a good name for it.  (Here, ‘autosuggest’ will not help me.)  Anyone have a winning name they’re willing to contribute?  Full credit to the winner in the Twitter bio, not to mention here, plus a percentage of the multi-million-dollar royalties from the inevitable book and movie deals.

Update 10 May 16: thanks to everyone who made (auto)suggestions!  The final winner is @markovmywords, as suggested by Jonathan Schofield (@schofeld).

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