Archive for September, 2011


What’s really included?

September 30, 2011

I’ve been organizing my flights, hotel bookings, and car rental for my trip to the US in March 2012 for the annual WritersUA conference.

Some of the travel booking websites are great — clear, easy to use, and you know exactly what to expect. Others… well, let’s just say there’s a whole world of usability issues associated with hotel, airline, and car rental websites. I won’t go into the myriad variations of selecting a date range (and what’s with me selecting a ‘to’ date for March 2012, but the ‘from’ date remains set at today’s date??).

Today I’ll focus on the list of ‘amenities’ and ‘inclusions’. The problem with these is that it’s rarely clear as to what is included and what you have to pay for as an extra.

Here’s an example I came across in my search for hotel rooms (this was for a hotel close to Sydney Airport, Australia):

Check out the second sentence: ‘Includes free parking… and airport transfers’. So you’d assume that parking and airport transfers are free. But no. There’s some generic statement about ‘conditions apply’ to the ‘free parking’ (but these conditions are not stated anywhere on the website, so you don’t know whether you’ll meet their conditions for free parking or not).

The second part of the sentence is just plain contradictory. After telling you that airport transfers are included, the parenthetical statement is that ‘a small cost of $6 p.p. per way’ applies. Thus airport transfers are NOT included in the room rate, even though you’d assume it is because it’s in the ‘Included’ part of the sentence. If there are two of you and you have to get to the hotel from the domestic terminal, that’s going to cost you $12 extra, then if you have to get to the international terminal the following day, that’ll be another $12, thus increasing the hotel room rate by some $24 per stay.

Now let’s take a look at a typical description for a hotel room. Once you get past the flowery language and look at what you get, it’s not at all clear what’s included in the room rate and what’s not. In the screen shot below, I’ve highlighted in green those things that I *assume* are included in the rate. The items highlighted in pink are questionable — are they included for no extra charge or not? If there is an extra charge for these items, how do I find out what it is? Most of the hotel websites don’t tell you!

I assume the items in green are included; I'm not sure about those in pink

I assume the items in green are included; I'm not sure about those in pink

I had to hunt a little further on this hotel’s website to find this:

But how much is it?

But how much is it?

The issue here is how much does the internet access cost? Is it free? Is there an hourly/daily charge? If so, how much? Is it free in the lobby but not in the rooms?

The Sydney hotel I ended up booking told me over the phone that internet access was $29 for 24 hours (that’s just highway robbery, in my opinion!), but I couldn’t find out how much it is at that Dallas hotel on any of the aggregation sites or the parent chain’s website.

I’d like to see the list of ‘amenities’ in a room’s description divided into two — one for what’s included, and one for what’s an extra charge (or at least some visual indication such as an asterisk as to what you’ll pay extra for, with links to how much you’ll pay).

Ease of use and transparency of actual charges that I’ll incur would help me make decisions more quickly and allow me to compare prices more easily. Is a hotel that’s more expensive but that includes free internet access a better deal than the slightly cheaper hotel that charges an exorbitant rate for internet access? Is the hotel room rate that includes all taxes etc. a better deal than one that excludes them so you’ll think the price is lower but will get hit with a nasty surprise at the end of your stay when you find out about the state tax, the city tax, the room tax, the fire tax, the airport tax, the credit card fee, and whatever else they want to add to your bill.

What do you think?

Update: Speaking of added fees, check out this list… The car rental for two weeks is $286.00. The compulsory ‘extras’ add another $202 to that rate! And there’s also a further disclaimer that more charges may apply! Unbelievable. And there’s no indication as to what each of these charges are for. Sometimes I think they just make them up…

Oh, and if you add insurance to that, expect to increase the charges by anything from $10 to $30 per DAY to that total charge.

Then I clicked on a link in tiny print to find this nasty:

Followed by this one:

That’s another $21 on the ‘total’ rate for a two-week rental…

On one of the other car rental websites, was this:

So, even if I’m only going to go on one toll road in 14 days, I could get whacked for another $140…

Update: I found the Twitter account name for that hotel in Dallas and sent them a Tweet asking about the internet rates. Two weeks later — no reply. Why bother having a Twitter account for customers if you don’t respond?

[Link last checked September 2011]


So, what’s it made of?

September 29, 2011

No wonder people get confused! Here’s an item description I saw on eBay for a smartphone cover:

I still can’t figure out what the cover is made of — the photos all show a leather (or leather look-alike) cover, so where does ‘strong plastic’ come from? And ‘Preminum’ quality? That’s a new level of quality altogether…

I don’t expect eBay listings in English to be perfect, especially if they are from a seller whose native language is not English. But this was from an Australian seller.

Perhaps I’m too harsh, but dodgy spelling in a listing from a seller I’ve never dealt with before means that my trust has been compromised before I even read the rest of the listing.

A little bit of editing would go a LONG way to give the listing credibility and for me to trust the seller. Sellers don’t have to employ a professional editor (though if they’re serious about selling online, I’d suggest that they do); just having someone else read it before putting it up should have caught the three major errors I saw at a quick glance of those five points.

As it was, I took this screen shot and moved on to the next seller of a similar item.

By the way… those three major errors?

  • Is it plastic (item 1) or leather (item 3)?
  • Item 4 should be ‘Premium’.
  • Item 2 should be ‘Hard to break’ or ‘Tough’ to keep the structure of the list parallel.

Other — minor — errors that I noticed:

  • This is not a sequential list of steps, where item 1 has to be done before item 2 etc. It’s a list of features with no implied order. Instead of numbers, the seller should have used bullet points.
  • There’s no need to capitalize every main word (title case); capitalizing the first word of each list item (sentence case) is sufficient and makes the text more readable.
  • If it’s really leather, then there’s no need to say ‘genuine leather’. Leather is leather. If it’s not real leather, then you can’t use ‘leather’ — you have to use ‘simulated leather’, ‘leather-look’, ‘vinyl with leather grain’ or something similar.
  • Red italic font with a drop shadow? Hmmm… A little overkill, but this was an eBay listing ;-)

Smartphone operating systems and Microsoft Exchange Server compatibility

September 28, 2011

For a full list of which smartphone/mobile operating systems work with the various versions and Service Pack (SP) releases of Exchange Server, try these links:

Check the sidebar links on these pages for more information, as well as the links within the articles.

[Links last checked September 2011; thanks to the good folks as Microsoft Australia (@MSAU) who helped me with this]


Word: Reattach Excel mail merge data source

September 27, 2011

A few times my colleagues and I have experienced the situation where a mail merge template lose its connection to its data source (in my client’s case, an Excel spreadsheet). I suspect it’s because Word is storing the file path to the data source somewhere that we can’t see or find. I’ve been setting up the letter template and the data source on my computer and then emailing the files to my colleagues, who’ve then dropped the files onto a network drive or into a local folder. Sometimes the mail merge works; other times they just get grayed out options on the Mailings tab in Word 2007 (likely the same in Word 2010).

I figured out a quick fix to reattach the data source to a Word 2007 mail merge letter template:

  1. Mailings tab > Select Recipients > Use Existing List.
  2. Navigate to and select the Excel spreadsheet (or other data source if you’re not using Excel), then click Open.
  3. Select the worksheet in the Excel file when asked (in my client’s case, it’s the well-named ‘Sheet 1’!)

That’s it. All the Mailings tab options are now available to you.

If you know of any way to find out what source a particular mail merge is using, or how to find the stored file path for the data source, I’d appreciate it if you could add that information to the comments below.


Classic menu typo

September 26, 2011

A client of mine travels the world training his clients in how to use certain geological modeling software. He ends up in some pretty out of the way places (mine sites are invariably in out of the way places). He emailed me his photo of this menu typo, with this comment:

There are unexpected colours hiding in the “Rainbow Roll” sushi from Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). It makes you wonder what exactly is in the “special sauce”!

While my colleagues braved the brave new world of African Japanese, I went with the less adventurous African Thai food instead…

The 'Rainbow Roll' takes on a new meaning...

The 'Rainbow Roll' takes on a new meaning...

Where’s an editor if you need one? An automated spell check wouldn’t pick up this typo, though it would pick up ‘musroom’. And an automated spell checker couldn’t tell you if the word is meant to be ‘crab’ or ‘carp’ — both would fit into the context.

[Thanks for the photo, J]


Technical Writing 101: References and citations

September 23, 2011

If you are writing a scientific report, an academic paper, or a document where you make statements that you’ve acquired from somewhere else, you’ll most likely need to cite those references.

Why reference? You need to tell your readers where your evidence comes from so they can check for themselves and see if that evidence is valid and reliable for the point you are making. You also need to reference to make it quite clear which are your own ideas and which are borrowed from others. Statements of fact that are NOT common knowledge will likely need a reference.

Citations are the ‘hooks’ in the body of the document that are a shortcut to the full publication details in the References list; e.g. the citation (Johnstone and Storr 2005) is the hook to these full details: Johnstone, R.E. and Storr, G.M. 2005. Handbook of Western Australian Birds. Volume 2: Passerines (Blue-winged Pitta to Goldfinch). Western Australian Museum, Perth, Western Australia.

How you cite and reference a source, and how you format it, will depend on the style set by the school, university, company, organisation etc. The citation above is a variation on the Harvard author/date style.

[Based on a Writing Tip I wrote for my work colleagues]


Open day at desalination plant

September 22, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, a new desalination plant to supply water to Perth, Western Australia was opened. A day later they held an ‘open day’ for the general public, and in November 2011, after a couple of months of final testing, the first water from the plant will be supplied to Perth.

As the desal plant is not that far from where I live, I decided to visit it on the Open Day. I’m glad I did. It was fascinating. I already had some understanding of a reverse osmosis desal plant based on the environmental documents I’ve been editing the past three years for a different project — that knowledge meant I was able to ask some reasonably techie questions and not look like a fool!

We got taken around the plant by bus (it’s a BIG plant with many buildings). We were only allowed into two of the main buildings — the filtration and reverse osmosis buildings — and some of the outside areas. We were driven past the pumping rooms, initial filtration areas, main storage tank, the admin complex (where the control room is), the electrical room (where they convert 132,000 volts [!!!] into 11,000 volts then down to 415 volts), but weren’t shown inside any of these. And the intake and outfall pipes are well out to sea and are all underground so we couldn’t see any of those either.

I was impressed with how clearly everything was signed, and that they’d used color-coding for the pipes — filtered sea water was clear blue, brine was dirty blue/green, chemicals were mauve/purple, permeate was green, etc. All that makes it so much easier to see and understand what you’re dealing with in an emergency.

Color-coded piping

Color-coded piping

Color-coded piping

Color-coded piping

Color-coded piping

Color-coded piping

And I was amazed at the kilometers of cabling and piping throughout the plant — all of which was beautifully arranged, laid out, tagged, and tied off. Even so, it would still be a nightmare to follow a particular cable’s path…

Order in the cables

Order in the cables

Another thing that was amazing was the technology used in the filtration stages. In the final stages prior to the reverse osmosis process, the sea water is pushed through tiny fibers in long columns. Each tiny fiber has a hole down the center and many even tinier holes along its length. I looked carefully and felt the fibers, but there was no way I could see or feel those holes, which are measured in microns.

Part of the filtration building

Part of the filtration building

The long filtration tubes are filled with tiny fibres, which have even tinier holes

The long filtration tubes are filled with thousands tiny fibers, each of which has hundreds of even tinier holes

Reverse osmosis building

Reverse osmosis (RO) building

Reverse osmosis building

RO building; Anna, Project Engineer

Reverse osmosis sampling station

Reverse osmosis sampling station, where they can sample water from each RO tube

Reverse osmosis sampling station -- back

Back of RO sampling station

Stainless steel piping and join

Stainless steel piping and join -- stainless steel pipes are only used for high pressure piping; otherwise, they use fiberglass. The nuts on EACH of these joins are about 2 inches in diameter.

One other thing that I found out related to the wash stations in case of chemicals being spilled onto the skin, face, or eyes — each had a green light above it. We asked why. It seems that green is the last color spectrum that the eye can see in the case of a chemical splash, so the green light at the wash station means that the signs can still be read by someone who is otherwise unable to see.

Chemical wash station

Chemical wash station

One of the external tanks containing solution for the RO process

One of the external tanks containing solution for the RO process

All in all it was a great day for anyone interested in how things work (me!), and it was a great example of usability in practice.


One million views

September 21, 2011

Wow! Sometime overnight between 19 and 20 September 2011, this blog passed the one million views mark. keeps stats on how many visits your blog has, what posts people are reading etc. I usually do a summary at the end of each year, but seeing as though this was such a milestone, I thought I’d share. In case you’re wondering, I started this blog at the beginning of 2008.

See also:

[Links last checked September 2011]


Brain connections

September 20, 2011

This is going to be a bit of a rambling post on the connections I see between certain activities and my predilection for, and ability to accomplish, certain tasks with a great degree of accuracy and at a pretty decent speed. You might be asking ‘What on earth is she on about?’, so let me explain…

I think there is some serious brain connectivity/function that goes on in my head that lets me be pretty good at what I do. And I think that those brain connections are enhanced — or are informed by — other activities that I do. But I haven’t figured out which came first — the ability or the activities.

Let me give you some examples that have been floating around in my head for a while…

  • Jigsaws. I really enjoy doing jigsaws. I like how I can create an outline (the border) and then fill in all the pieces, usually by focusing first on color groupings, then, within a color grouping, on the nuances of light and dark, then size and shape of the pieces — I’m pattern matching. I also like how most jigsaws are designed in such a way that only one piece can ever match perfectly with its adjacent pieces.
  • Crosswords and other word puzzles like Scrabble, Boggle and the like. As with jigsaws, I enjoy these. I like looking for patterns in letters and making words from them. I like testing my brain with all sorts of letter combinations and then confirming with a dictionary any likely combinations where the potential word is unfamiliar to me.
  • Sudoku. The pattern and beauty of the billions of combinations possible in Sudoku puzzles amazes me. Nine numbers, nine squares, nine columns, nine rows — and when you get it out, it all fits PERFECTLY.
  • Quilts. One of my passions is working with fabric, and especially making quilts and art quilts. Again, it’s all about the patterns. Taking many pieces of fabric, choosing color combinations, cutting the pieces into smaller pieces, then sewing them back together in a totally different arrangement to make a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts, inspires me. I initially worked from other people’s patterns, but more and more I’m designing and making my own. Or just seeing where a particular combination will take me. Part of the process is the quilting I now do on the pieces I make. I’ve graduated from sewing straight lines to full on free motion stitching, which is like doodling by holding the pencil still and moving the paper underneath it!
  • Other sewing stuff. Many years ago, and prior to getting into quilts, I used to make many of my own clothes. Again, the fabric colors and textures, and the patterns were the inspiration. Taking a single piece of cloth, cutting it into bits, then sewing those bits back together to make a three-dimensional object is quite an art form.

So how does all this relate to my work? And my aptitude for certain types of work? Well, this is something that I’ve been pondering for a while. Why? Because I think there’s a direct correlation between the leisure activities that I enjoy and the type of work that I do and have done. I think the brain cells I use for both work and leisure activities are the same.

Why? Well, take a look at all those activities I enjoy. They are all about patterns — patterns of letters, words, numbers, colors, sizes, shapes, textures… And they are all about taking lots of small bits and putting them together to make a whole. It’s a process I enjoy.

And my work? Well, that’s all about patterns too, and/or taking little bits and putting them together to make a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts:

  • Technical writer. When starting a new project/document, I invariably start with an outline, then flesh out the empty spaces as I gather the information. Each piece of information that I gather goes somewhere in the larger whole and it’s up to me to place it with similar pieces in a pleasing manner that’s useful and logical to the reader. I trim, refine, and embellish the pieces until eventually I have a completed document, Help file, website or whatever.
  • Technical editor. My copy editing involves several passes over a document. In each pass, I check another aspect of the document. While it seems as though I’m checking every word (and I do on the reading pass), invariably I’m looking for anything that doesn’t match the pattern I’m expecting. So, if one header has slightly different spacing, alignment, or content than another, I’ll spot it because the pattern doesn’t match. If a paragraph’s font is a slightly different size, alignment, indentation, etc. I’ll spot it as it doesn’t match the pattern. If a word is incorrect in the phrase, or is misspelled, I’ll spot that too as it doesn’t match the pattern I’m expecting. I’ve stated — half in jest — that I can spot a bolded period at 10 paces. Well, I can, but that’s because it doesn’t match the pattern that I’m expecting. I see the mismatch/inconsistency, then look to see what’s causing it. I’m sure that I’m using the same brain functions for editing that I use to put a jigsaw together.
  • Librarianship. My first career was working with information at a macro level (see While teaching information skills to students was a big part of what I did, there were other parts of that job that fitted how my brain likes to work. Many librarians hate cataloging but I enjoyed it — I loved the detailed patterns in the Dewey Decimal System, and the sheer beauty of categorizing all knowledge into 10 major divisions, with (almost) unlimited subdivisions beneath each. Even today, I get a little thrill at knowing that I can parse a Dewey number such as 595.78909941 to understand that it’s a book about the butterflies of Western Australia. I used to be able to parse an ISBN and tell you what language the book was in and which publisher published it (for the major publishers only). However, after nearly two decades away from that work, I’ve lost a lot of that knowledge.

So what can I conclude from all this? Well, it’s all about patterns. My brain seems to like patterns. It notices if the pattern isn’t followed or if there’s an inconsistency in the pattern. My brain also likes pulling together lots of small pieces/chunks and making them into something bigger that often bears little resemblance to what I started with, but that fits with another pattern.

I’ll come back to the original thought I had at the beginning of this blog post — does my brain’s liking of patterns and construction mean that I’m good at editing, writing, making quilts, doing jigsaws, etc.? Or has my enjoyment and focus on these activities made my brain much more attuned to patterns, which then translates into an aptitude for this sort of detailed work? In other words, did the chicken come before the egg?

I sure don’t know the answer! ;-)

(On a related note, Kai Weber co-presented a session on pattern recognition at the TCUK Conference a few days after I wrote this:

[Links last checked April 2019]


Housing reservations?

September 19, 2011

Into the category of overblown verbiage used to describe a simple process, comes this one:

Housing reservations?? Whatever happened to ‘room booking’, ‘reservation’, ‘accommodation’, or similar?

I received this as confirmation for a room booked at a famous US hotel (well, famous enough for me to have heard of this hotel from here in my little corner of Western Australia!). As far as I could tell from the website, this hotel doesn’t offer ‘housing’ as I understand this term to mean — just ‘rooms’ and ‘suites’ for short-term accommodation for visitors and travelers. If it does offer long-term ‘housing’, then that’s not clear from its website. I found this message confusing enough to go and check their entire website for ‘housing’. I found nothing. And it didn’t help that the hotel’s website didn’t have a Search function!

Maybe ‘housing reservation’ is a southern thang, y’all….

Bottom line: Plain, unambiguous language is better for everyone.