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If I didn’t promise to help you out in the next sentence, you’d probably have to look up skeuomorphism in a dictionary.

In simple terms the word means something that resembles whatever it was that used to do the job.1

The word may be unfamiliar. The idea is not.

Take the old Macintosh Address Book app. Before Apple modernised its software, the Address Book app looked like a paper address book.

You might also remember when computer operating system desktops had waste paper bin or trash can icons to tell you this is where you throw things away.

Skeuomorph central

The smartphone is skeuomorph central. Every iPhone has icons showing a torch, a telephone handset, a camera and so on. What each of these does is obvious. The envelope icon isn’t quite so apparent, yet you don’t need a PhD to figure out it is for email. Android phones have similar skeuomorphs.

Skeuomorphs don’t have to be software. Houses might have cladding where manufacturers made the building material resemble wooden boards or brick.

Soon electric vehicles in Europe will have to make noises so that pedestrians and others get an audio cue to take care.

Understanding

The idea behind skeuomorphism is that it helps you to better understand what you are looking at. It’s a visual clue telling you the purpose of the object. You see something familiar and, bingo, you know what that thing is going to do.

There’s a special breed of skeuomorph idea where the visual cue lives on long after the original item has disappeared from use.

Mr flippy floppy

Perhaps the best known is the floppy disk icon you sometimes see used to indicate the save function.

It’s getting on for 20 years since computers had built-in floppy disk drives. An entire generation has entered the workforce without every having seen a floppy disk in action. And yet, everyone knows what that image is supposed to mean.

No doubt you have heard stories of young people encountering a real floppy disc for the first time. While they may not know what the item is, or how it is used. They often recognise it from the icon.

Time to put skeuomorphism to bed

While the thinking behind skeuomorphism makes sense, as far as software and operating systems go, it’s best days are in the past. Skeuomorphic designs are often fussy and ugly. They clutter things up. The images are often meaningless and what is represented is not always clear cut.

Yet there’s a Catch 22 here. I prefer minimalist design. It’s easier to focus on the job in hand when the software stays out of the way. I was about to say that when I’m writing, I prefer to start with a blank sheet of paper. Which is, of course, itself a skeuomorphism.


  1. 1 My Mac’s dictionary says: An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material. ↩︎

Microsoft Word is my fourth favourite writing tool1.

I rarely use Word to write stories or blog posts. Yet, I never hesitate to renew my Office 365 subscription.

It sounds contradictory. That NZ$165.00 Office 365 subscription is good value. That’s true even though I don’t use Word to write and I almost never open Excel. I go out of my way to not let PowerPoint into my life.

At this point you might think this is throwing money away. Open source fans reading this will be aghast.

But there is a method in my madness. Writing is my work. A typical year’s work is 250,000 words. My writing output was even higher for a few years. After more than 40 years in the business, I’ve written, and publishers have paid me for, at least 10 million words.

Most, not all, of the time, I’m paid by the word. Which means my ability to produce quality writing puts food on my table and a roof over my head.

Writing is talking to people, researching, checking then putting it all into words. Sometimes it is about reviving my own work or dealing with words others have sent to me.

Microsoft Word is not optional

Like it or not, Microsoft Word is the lingua franca of digital writing. Almost everyone in the business uses it. It’s been more than two decades since an editor expected copy in anything other than Word format.

At this point, people who dislike Word might be thinking: “Yes, but everything else can save in a Word format. So it isn’t necessary to buy a subscription”.

They have a point. Except that sooner or later, something doesn’t convert between Word and another format.

The most troublesome issue is with edits marked using Microsoft’s Track Changes feature.

Yes, many non-Word writing applications can understand and deal with Track Changes markups. But this is not always straightforward.

The cost to me of failing to deal fast with one edit incident can be greater than the subscription price. It’s rare, but over 250,000 words, it happens a few times every year.

It costs even more than the subscription when we take into account it includes licenses for other family members. In effect my personal subscription costs 25 percent of $165, that’s $40 plus change.

Don’t go there

Even a quick dive down the troubleshooting rabbit hole costs more.

Multiply this by the two or more incidents a year and you can see that paying the subscription leaves me ahead. It’s a solid investment.

Open source fans tell me this attitude is wrong and that I’m paying a tax or even a ransom to Microsoft to be able to work. You could see it this way.

Yet it isn’t Microsoft that is holding me to ransom, it is the editors and publishers who commit to Word. If everyone accepted plain text2 I wouldn’t need to pay the fee.

It might be better to frame the fee as paying for membership of the hireable professional writers club. Either way, it’s a bargain.


  1. In my world it ranks behind IA Writer, Byword and Pages. ↩︎
  2. Text was fine for a long time. That changed about 20 years ago. ↩︎

Technology commentator Bill Bennett looks at how the millennium bug is back – because it never exactly went away. In trying to solve the problem, programmers pushed it back 20 years. And time’s up. He’ll also look at how Volvo is experimenting with adding noise to near-silent EVs, after research showed pedestrians were twice as likely to be involved in an accident with EVs than those with traditional engines. And is working remotely back in fashion in response to corona virus?

Source: The Y2K bug makes a comeback | RNZ

I’m on RNZ Nine-to-Noon talking about technology.

NZ game developers exportsNew Zealand interactive game developers earned $203.4 million dollars during the 2019 financial year – double the $99.9m earned only two years earlier in 2017. The success comes from targeting audiences around the world and 96% of the industry’s earnings came from exports.

Source: Interactive Game Exports Double in Two Years to $200m – NZGDA

Technology lets us export photons instead of atoms. The idea was a common theme in my writing 25 years ago when the internet took off. It took time for the reality of this to creep up on us. Now it is happening in a big way thanks to New Zealand’s game developers.

One hundred years ago farmers would load sheep carcasses onto the, then, latest technology; refrigerator ships. These would belch smoke as they steamed to the other side of the world. It meant exporters earned foreign currency. This kick-started New Zealand on the path to, fifty years later, being one of the world’s richest countries.

Sheep carcasses, milk powder, crayfish, apples and all those other exports were made of atoms. They weighed kilograms and they needed to be physically shifted. The products would often take weeks to reach their destination by ship. There were physical risks.

Game developers sell light particles

Today, when, say, Grinding Gear Games, makes a game sale on the other side of the world, photons, tiny particles of light, race to their new home in a fraction of a second.

There’s nothing wrong with physical exports, that’s been what we’ve done for as long as anyone can remember. Yet tomorrow’s rivers of gold are going to come from exporting photons. We need to start thinking of games exports in the same way we once thought of meat or dairy exports.

If the game industry grows at the same pace for the next five years it could be worth a billion dollars a year by 2025. That’s still less than, say, wine or kiwifruit, but with much better margins.

Y2K bug has 2020 echoThe millennium bug is back with a vengeance, after programmers in the 1990s simply pushed the problem back by 20 years.
Source: A lazy fix 20 years ago means the Y2K bug is taking down computers now | New Scientist

The New Scientist reports on problems with software caused by an echo of the Y2K bug that had every excited in the late 1990s.

It turns out one of the fixes then was to kick various software cans down the road to 2020. In theory that gave people 20 years to find long term answers to the problems. In some cases they might have expected software refreshes to have solved the issue.

As the New Scientist reports:

Parking meters, cash registers and a professional wrestling video game have fallen foul of a computer glitch related to the Y2K bug.

The Y2020 bug, which has taken many payment and computer systems offline, is a long-lingering side effect of attempts to fix the Y2K, or millennium bug.

Both stem from the way computers store dates. Many older systems express years using two numbers – 98, for instance, for 1998 – in an effort to save memory. The Y2K bug was a fear that computers would treat 00 as 1900, rather than 2000.

It turns out that as many as 80 percent of the quick fixes in the 1990s used a technique called ‘windowing’. This meant treating all dates from the 00s to 20s as 2000 to 2020 instead of 1900 to 1920.

In one case people selling cars got acknowledgements from the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency dated in the early years of last century. That’s not going to cause havoc, but you can get an idea of the problem.

There’s another problem in the offing. The year 2038 problem.

This happens because Unix time started on January 1 1970. Time since then is stored as a 32-bit integer. On January 19 2038, that integer will overflow.

Most modern applications and operating systems have been patched to fix this although there are some compatibility problems. The real issue comes with embedded hardware, think of things like medical devices, which will need replacing some time in the next 18 years.

To my knowledge no-one in New Zealand has come across similar 2020 problems. Or have they? If you know of any please get in touch.