Year: 2007

How to make random strangers hate your pet

One of the cool things I do (not astronaut or fireman cool, to be sure) is that I get to help design the user interface for my features. As a writer, this generally just involves writing all of the labels and error messages, but my wife is always joking that I don’t do enough to use my powers for the fame and fortune of our dogs. Clearly, someone at has the same idea.

I had forgotten my iPod at home, so I was using my backup headphones to listen to Pandora. (I’m so ineffective without the noise-canceling effects of music that I keep a pair of backup headphones in my desk drawer. With a little Johnny Cash or Death Cab for Cutie, I’m a tech writing machine.) I liked one of the artists and clicked their link to find out more, only to see this page:

Now, there’s something to be said for friendly error messages — especially in consumer contexts like this one. The reader may even be disarmed enough not to be annoyed. To Amazon or Pandora’s credit, I’ve never seen the “ Error Corgi” since, but I’ve encountered cutesy or mascot-themed error messages on other sites.

Flickr, for example, is famous for using the message “Flickr is having a massage” during downtime. The first time I saw this, like the ideal user I mentioned earlier, I was highly amused. The second time I saw this (a month or two later), I was less amused but not annoyed. But when Flickr upgraded the site from Beta to “Gamma” (whatever that means), I saw this and other cutesy but useless error messages over, and over, and over. I was much less amused after several days of being locked out of my account.

The lesson here is that error messages should be easy to understand, but truly informative. (As a side note, I hate Apple error messages because there’s so very little real, actionable information in them. I could go on and on about the uselessness of Apple Help, but I’ll save that for another day.) Attempting to be colloquial or cute can in the long run backfire in situations where the users is likely to see the error repeatedly.

And that’s why Pugsly and Josie will never be featured in any of the error messages I write.

EDIT: Here’s one of the Flickr error messages I was talking about, but didn’t have a screen shot at the time:

Hiccups indeed.


To the kitchen tilted inland
I slide down in the dark.
The pipes whine and shudder
as I pour myself some water.
I climb through the living room
to the bed that leans toward the sea,
where I take my place beside you,
our feet to the window,
and beyond, the grass, the wind,
the dunes, the waves, the storm.

Amazon, Powell’s, and eBay

Recent book purchases:

  • Matthew Arnold: The Portable Matthew Arnold
  • Wendell Berry: The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
  • Robert Bly: Eating the Honey of Words
  • Billy Collins: The Trouble with Poetry
  • Emily Dickinson: Collected Poems
  • Kilala Kitamoto: LEGO book museum Vol. 1
  • W.S. Merwin: Selected Poems
  • William Stafford: The Way It Is
  • William Stafford: Writing the Australian Crawl
  • David Wagoner: Dry Sun, Dry Wind (First Edition)

Crashing a poetry reading at Open Books

I’ve driven by Open Books on 45th here in Seattle many times, but I’ve either been too busy or they’ve been closed. My wife and I were driving past last night after dinner when I noticed that they were open.

We parked around the corner and walked through the rain, only to see that the store was crowded with people, spilling out onto the sidewalk. I suspected that this was the tail end of a poetry reading, but hey, the cash register was open and people were still looking over the shelves (an inventory of 9,000+ books of poetry, according to their Web site), so I thought I could sneak in and grab the book I’ve been trying to find — one of Wagoner’s collections published after the Collected I have. (Fine, call me a Wagoner fanboy/groupie — he’s a great guy, and I love his poetry.)

Anyway, I pick up the book and make my way back to the front of the store, noticing for the first time that the center of attention seems to be someone other than the cashier. Crap!, I think, It’s the poet herself! (I’d been hoping the reading was an open-mic or something, I guess.) I didn’t recognize her based on any book jacket photos I’ve seen, but then I wouldn’t be able to recognize most of the poets I read (mainly in journals). I edged close enough to read the name on the cover of the books stacked next to her. I pride myself in knowing the national and local poetry scenes reasonably well, but her name still didn’t ring a bell. Now I was in the awkward position of being in line to have a book signed by someone I didn’t know, or to blow past her to buy the book I really wanted.

I opted for a strategic retreat instead. So, back to the shelves, wending my way through the chairs neatly aligned to face the back of the store, back to the front, through all the poetry aficionados looking shy as they asked to have their books signed, out into the rain and cigarette smoke.

I think there’s a poem in all that somewhere…