Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Random post-Olympic thoughts

For all the hand-wringing about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia - fears of terrorism and rampant homophobia, horror stories about stray dogs being murdered en masse or hotel rooms without doorknobs or potable water - the games themselves were pretty uneventful.  Even the doping and judging scandals required of every Olympic Games were relatively muted. I even went the entire two weeks without bothering to write about NBC's lousy Olympics coverage, which is a first for me. 

A few thoughts about the final medal count:

Norway's winter athletics prowess is amazing. This is a nation of just over five million people. More people live in the Houston metropolitan area than live in that entire country. Yet Norway came in third in the overall medal count with 26 medals, including 11 golds. I did the math and determined that that is one medal per approximately 198 thousand Norwegians. The United States, by comparison, won one medal per 11.3 million Americans, while Russia won one medal per every 4.3 million Russians, Canada won one medal for every 1.4 million Canadians, and China won one medal per every 150 million Chinese. I know Norwegians love their winter sports, but that is a remarkable statistic.

Other nations with low medal-to-population ratios include Slovenia (one medal per every  257 thousand people), Austria (one medal per every 479 thousand people) and Latvia (one medal per every 500 thousand people).

The Netherlands, on the other hand, had the most efficient participating athletes. The Dutch team consisted of 41 athletes and won 24 medals. That's 1.7 athletes per medal; Norway, by comparison, had 5.2 athletes per medal, while Russia had 7.0 athletes per medal and the United States had 8.2 athletes per medal.

Speaking of The Netherlands, has any country dominated a Winter Olympics sport as thoroughly as they dominated speedskating? Conversely, has any team in the history of the Winter Olympics ever won so many medals in spite of being so one-dimensional? Of their 24 medals, which was good enough for fifth place in the overall medal count, 23 of them were won in speedskating (they won 64% of the medals awarded in that sport; the United States, on the other hand, won 0%) Their one other medal? Short track skating.

The United States, for its part, did okay, ending up with 28 medals in spite of generally disappointing results in ice skating and speed skating. This was good for second place in the overall medal count, including nine golds. Twelve of those medals were in freestyle skiing and snowboarding events, however, which leads one to wonder how well Team USA would have done if these "extreme" sports had not been recently added to the Olympics.

On the other hand, what happened to Germany's Olympic team? Since reunifying in 1990, Germany has competed in seven winter Olympics and until now has proven itself to be a wintertime powerhouse: in the six previous Olympics, Germany averaged 29 medals per games and never ended up lower than third in the overall medal standings. In Sochi, the Germans ended up with a total of 19 medals and only 6th in the standings.

Am I the only person who finds it surprising that neither Chile nor Argentina has ever won a single medal in the Winter Olympics? Both nations have multiple high-quality winter sports facilities in the Andes, which attract winter athletes from the rest of the world who want to train and practice during the northern hemisphere summer/southern hemisphere winter. Neither country has been able to convert this resource into Olympic performance, however. Australia, on the other hand, came away with three medals from these games, in spite of the fact that there are no winter sports facilities of any type in that country; it rarely snows Down Under.

The biggest non-sports story of the games was probably the incident where the protest band Pussy Riot was attacked by Cossacks with horsewhips while trying to film a music video. Only in Russia.

Finally: is it just me, or has the novelty of the Jamaican boblsed team worn off?

For more thoughts on the final count, see USA Today's For The Win blog.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

It's all about the spacing

Are you still one of those people who puts two spaces between sentences when you type? Well, stop doing it. Because it's wrong.
Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It's one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men's shirt buttons on the right and women's on the left
Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.)

Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren't for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do. (Also see the persistence of the dreaded Caps Lock key.)

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M).

Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here's the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s.

First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we've all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.
The fact that Courier is monospaced makes it useful for creating tables, which is why folks like Kuff use it in their blogs, but I think that Courier is an otherwise aesthetically unappealing font. When I read or type something, I want it to look nice. And putting two spaces after a period just.  Looks.  Really.  Ugly.
But I actually think aesthetics are the best argument in favor of one space over two. One space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing (it also requires less work, which isn't nothing). A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.

Is this arbitrary? Sure it is. But so are a lot of our conventions for writing. It's arbitrary that we write shop instead of shoppe, or phone instead of fone, or that we use ! to emphasize a sentence rather than %. We adopted these standards because practitioners of publishing—writers, editors, typographers, and others—settled on them after decades of experience. Among their rules was that we should use one space after a period instead of two—so that's how we should do it.
Perhaps because I never took a formal typewriting class in school, I never learned that there was such as thing as a "two-space rule." All of my word-processed assignments in high school, undergrad and grad school were written with a single space between periods, and none of my teachers or professors ever told me otherwise. It wasn't until I got my first job after grad school, and the director of the department I worked in groused to me about not putting two spaces between sentences in my reports, that I even discovered that it was an issue. Needless to say, I was surprised and loathe to change the way I typed just to appease a boss demanding a convention I had never previously heard of that turned out to be wrong anyway.

The truth is, it's not a big deal to me if somebody likes to put two spaces after a period. Maybe that's how they were taught, or maybe for some bizarre reason they think it looks better. That's fine; just don't expect me to do it. According to every major style manual, as well as my own aesthetic sensibilities, typing a single space after a period is correct.

That guy's not my boss anymore, of course. Nor, from what I hear, anybody else's boss anymore, either. And I haven't had this issue with any employer or client I've worked for since.

Athena 1997 - 2014

Late last week, my ex-wife Lori made the tough decision to put Athena down. She and I got her, along with her sister Elektra, when we lived in Austin sixteen-and-a-half years ago. Elektra was run over by a car several years ago, but Athena toughed it out to the very end. While it as an agonizing decision for Lori to make, it was simply Athena's time. The old girl had become weak, emaciated, incontinent and uncomfortable.

See how old that laptop is? Athena was even older!
Athena was not the world's friendliest cat. She tolerated humans - most of them, at least - but did not tolerate other cats very well. She hissed and growled at other cats, and sometimes other people, so often that my nickname for her was "Hiss Kitten." My father was especially amused by her irritability. One time, while witnessing Athena in a rather agitated state, he laughed and demanded to know "what in the Hell is wrong with that thing?!" As fearsome as Athena tried to be with all her hisses and growls, however, she was never very good at backing up her words with actions. Whenever Elektra or another cat would attack her, she would quickly run away.

Her tail is being pulled, and she is not amused.
One thing Athena was very good at, especially when she was younger, was hunting. She kept our apartments in Austin and Midtown free of moths - the phrase "get that moth!" would send her in a frenzy as she scoured the apartment for any moth she could dispatch - and when we lived in Denton she even killed a couple of rats in our back yard. Her hunting activities tapered off over the years, but even as recently as a few years ago the word "moth" would still cause her to perk up.

Perhaps Athena's most striking feature was her coat. Athena was a calico-tabby mix with all sorts of interesting patterns and colors running along the top half of her body from her head to her tail. I used to joke that I wanted to take Athena to a taxidermist when she died so I could continue to enjoy looking at her coat. That's not going to happen, of course; although we had discussed burying her under a tree, like we did with Elektra, Athena will be cremated and her ashes might wind up in a garden sometime in the future.

Athena stayed with Lori after the divorce, but I'd still see her regularly when I took Kirby to her house or otherwise came to visit. She'd chirp her hellos to me and find a spot on my lap to rest and purr very time I came to visit. She stayed pretty healthy through the years, too; it wasn't until the last few months that her condition really began to deteriorate.

According to this chart, Athena lived to be 82 cat years old. She was a beautiful cat, and she will be missed.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Houston to Seoul, nonstop

Add another airline and another major city to Bush Intercontinental Airport's growing list of international services:
Korean Air announced Wednesday it is launching a nonstop service between Houston and Seoul.

The four-day-a-week flight will launch in May between Bush Intercontinental and Incheon International Airports. The flights will depart every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. This is the second destination for the airline in Texas.

"We're very bullish on the Americas," says John Jackson, the airline's vice president of marketing for North and South America, in a statement. "Houston is the fifth largest metro area in the U.S. with a very strong travel market to Asia. We've decided to earn our fair share of the market with a highly competitive product and service that's hard to beat."
The service to Seoul comes as United is adding a second daily nonstop to Tokyo and Air China is expanding its Houston-Beijing service to daily frequencies. There's clearly huge demand for air connections between Houston and East Asia.

This news also comes as the Houston Airport System announces that records were broken in 2013:
According to a 2013 year-end traffic report released today by the Houston Airport System, passenger traffic has risen to record-setting levels in two key areas: overall passenger traffic reached an all-time high at William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) and international traffic at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) reached levels never before seen in its 45-year history.  The combined passenger totals from both airport facilities is up 1.2 percent over 2012 — from 50.3 million passengers to 50.9 million passengers in 2013.
According to the release, IAH handled 8.9 million international passengers in 2013, an increase of 2.5 percent over 2012. Houston is becoming an increasingly important international destination, which is why Korean Airlines is coming to town. That's a good thing for the city, its economy and its people.