Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: technology (page 4 of 12)

iPhone announcement as cultural event

Apparently it comes as news to nobody that Apple announced the second-generation iPhone yesterday. This is interesting.

I’ve got plenty of friends who were aware of the rumored announcement for weeks before it came. And not just pathetic geeks who spend all their spare time huddled over Apple rumor sites–these are regular people who use technology but aren’t obsessed with it. One such friend referred to her own phone as a “Fisher-Price Phone,” which cracks me up. A few hours after the announcement, another friend dropped me a line asking “so are you going to buy an iPhone now?”

I’m guessing most of these people heard from their nerdier friends the rumors that a new iPhone was imminent. It’s not unusual that nerds would know the rumors, or that they’d discuss the rumors about the new phone with less nerdy friends, but it is interesting that so many people would have heard it, been interested enough to actually file it away mentally, and bring it up in conversation unprompted. That a rumor about an announcement to be made at a developers conference, would just become part of the zeitgeist.

Incidentally, yes, I am going to buy an iPhone now. T-Mobile’s service has been going down the crapper lately. I’m conflicted (to put it mildly) about doing business with AT&T, but in this case I’ll compromise my principles for teh shiny.

Time Machine to NAS: Not quite there

I recently upgraded my Mac to Leopard, whose marquee feature is Time Machine, a nice backup mechanism.

I already had a NAS box. I originally got this primarily as a backup target. It’s got a half-terabyte hard drive in it, and it supports AFP, so it seems like a logical target for Time Machine backups. And apparently in the betas of Leopard, it was possible to use a hard drive attached to an Airport Extreme as a Time Machine target. This was disabled in the shipping version, but there’s a simple hack to re-enable it. Which I applied: as it happens, this made also it possible to use Time Machine with my NAS box.

One critical difference between my NAS box and a hard drive hanging off an Airport Express is the disk format. Time Machine requires an HFS+ disk. My box is using something else. Time Machine actually deals with this cleverly by creating a disk-image file on the target drive, but that’s also the root of the problem: Mounting this disk image over the network (even GigE) gets slower and slower as the file gets bigger and bigger. I had set up a very stripped-down backup profile (home directory only, no media files), but still, after a couple of weeks, it had gotten to 42 GB and took forever to mount. Eventually it took so long to mount that Time Machine would stop waiting for it and give up.

So until I get a Time Capsule or something, I’m using my previous backup app, Synk. Even after, it might be worth it to use Synk to back up my media files, which don’t need quite the obsessive hourly backup that Time Machine offers.

Clicking it old-school

Datadesk 101e keyboard

I am typing this post from my spanking new, and yet very old (in computer terms) Datadesk 101e keyboard. This keyboard is so old it has an ADB port instead of USB—I need to use an adaptor to hook it up to my Mac.

I love it.

I used Datadesk keyboards for years, but when I bought my current computer, my old one was looking especially crusty, and I felt like it was time to enter the modern era. I’d read good things about the Matias Tactile Pro, and so I decided to get one of them. I was never entirely happy with it. Some combinations of keys and modifier keys were simply dead, making some of my preferred MS Word shortcuts impossible. Matias even addresses this issue, saying in short, “all keyboards have this problem.” (I never had that problem with the 101e.)

After a few years of service, my Matias keyboard was starting to misbehave, and it was looking appallingly crusty. So I decided to replace it with the keyboard I really wanted all along, another 101e.

Since no online retailer carries these keyboards anymore, I called Datadesk directly, and spoke with someone who’s apparently in a position of responsibility there. We had a long and interesting (if you’re a Mac nerd) conversation about the history of Apple computers. He tried to talk me out of ordering the 101e, since it doesn’t have USB. I told him I had an adaptor. He laughed, and found there were still about a dozen new-old stock 101es on hand. So he sold me one.

He also told me that the people at Datadesk have been kicking around the idea of updating the 101e for the modern age, but aren’t sure whether to update the electronics to USB and give it slightly updated cosmetics without changing the plastics (which he said would be pretty easy), or to undertake a more extensive physical makeover (which would be a bigger commitment). I think either one would be a viable option.

I’m a keyboard snob. I like keys that have a long stroke and solid action. Not many keyboards these days offer that. And frankly, I’m surprised that more people aren’t keyboard snobs. Until we get direct neural hookups, keyboards are going to remain the primary text input device for many of us. We tap on them thousands of times a day, and even a tiny improvement multiplied out over thousands of repetitions per day add up to a pretty big improvement. It’s a mystery to me that well-engineered aftermarket computer mice are as popular as they are, but not keyboards.

Although most keyboards sold today are cost-engineered disposable crap with lousy feel, there is clearly a market for keyboards with quality engineering. The Matias, despite my problems with it, is much better than most. There’s also the even more retro PC Keyboard, and the intimidating Das Keyboard.

Compared to the Tactile Pro, the 101e is much quieter, though still louder than most modern keyboards. It weighs much more: it stays where you set it on your desk. It’s bigger in every dimension. I don’t mind the fact that it takes up a little more desk real-estate, but it would be nice if the total height were a little lower; a rounded front edge on the space bar would also make it more comfortable to use. But I’m very happy with it. When you push down on a key, it goes straight down. With the Matias, sometimes the keys felt like they were trying to veer off to one side.

If you’re a snob about keyboards and don’t mind using a Griffin iMate, get one of the 12 11 remaining 101es. Or perhaps let Datadesk know that you’d be interested in getting an updated version of the 101e.

Update: Numbers don’t lie (even if statistics do). My best score at keybr.com was about 48 WPM with my old keyboard. 64 WPM with my new one. And I don’t even touch-type.

Another update: According to a fellow old-school keyboardista, although there are other USB-ADB adaptors out there, they can cause problems, so you really want to use the Griffin iMate.

Yet another update: Gruber and Benjamin discuss old keyboards on an episode of The Talk Show, and make sidelong references to the 101e, although do not mention it by name.

A still further update: NPR recently did a story on a kindred keyboard, the Unicomp, which carries on the old IBM Model M.

MacBook Air reaction

The interesting thing about the MBA (heh) is that it is intended as an “outrigger” computer. While it could be barely self-sufficient, the idea seems to be that anyone owning one would have a bigger computer somewhere else. That’s a reasonable assumption and the outrigger market is a reasonable one to serve. But if that was Apple’s starting point, they’ve made some weird choices.

  • Price: $1800 is a big commitment for a secondary computer.
  • Size: It’s small, but it’s not that small; its footprint is big enough that it clearly bothers a lot of people. And for that matter, it seems that they could have shaved an inch off the width and half-inch off the depth without cutting into screen or keyboard.
  • Power: It’s not exactly high-spec, but it’s pretty high-spec.

There is an emerging trend of cheap and cheerful devices that aren’t practical as fully functioning standalone computers, but are fine for web-surfing, media playback, and lightweight work. Things like the Nokia N810 or the Asus Eee. Apple seems to be borrowing the outrigger aspect of these devices without picking up on their other features—low-power CPU, small screen, limited keyboard, etc—features that make them less than workhorses, but easier to schlepp around and longer running. The MBA is a more or less full-power serious work machine and fashion statement that isn’t quite self-sufficient but doesn’t quite embrace its second-computer status either.

It’s been widely speculated that Apple would, eventually, introduce something that would fit somewhere between a laptop and the iPhone. Like a tablet. It may be that the iPhone is Apple’s tablet, but the choices behind the MBA leave room at the low end of the market for something else. Some people are already filling that void by installing OS X on the Asus Eee. I don’t think the MBA is going to be it for a lot of people.

Leopard initial reactions

Rather than buying a new computer, I’m updating my old one right now, and installed Leopard yesterday.

Normally when I install a major upgrade, I do a “clean install”—reconstructing my old environment by manually importing old files and recreating preferenecs is admittedly laborious, but it gives me a chance to re-examine what’s on my hard drive and jettison stuff I never use. I cloned my boot drive to an external drive, and selected the erase-and-install option in the Leopard installer. After that finished, it offered to import my old setup from my external drive. For some reason, I chose this option, and regretted it, as it faithfully imported every bit of cruft from my old system, some of which caused Leopard to lock up. Apart from that, I have to admit it did a sterling job—every jot and tittle was in place. It would be nice if I had more control over what got imported and what did not.

Tried again with the clean install, followed by manual copying of specific folders and files. I had a little trouble importing my old Mail folders, and discovered that I had to export my Address Book data (using Address Book running on a different computer) before I could import it to Leopard. And then I discovered one of those annoyances only a geek could love. For whatever reason, my short user name was now adamjrice. It has always been adamrice in the past, and this change was, of course, unacceptable. The path to my $HOME directory had changed similarly. One new and appreciated feature in Leopard is that it’s actually easy to change this: right-click on your username in the Accounts prefpane sidebar and it gives you the “advanced options” to fix this. Nice. However, it makes this change by creating a new $HOME directory with defaults, not by moving the old one, and instantly, silently migrating you to that. This causes weird and unwanted results. My advice: if you are going the clean-install route, check to make sure you are happy with your short user name before you do any customization. Fix it if need be, and log out/relog.

Other than these breaking-in pains, so far I’m happy. My computer is noticeably faster (not just subjectively—apps open faster, and Second Life, a poky pig, ran at about 2x the framerate making it almost tolerable), although this may have as much to do with blowing out some crufty haxies as anything else. Network throughput likewise seems to be faster, but I haven’t measured this.

QuickLook is probably worth the price of admission all by itself, especially if you can get plugins for the files you use the most. Last night, Gwen was trawling through a directory full of EPSs with meaningless names. Even though she’s still running Tiger, I mounted her drive, installed a QuickLook plugin for EPS, and was able to browse most (not all) of those files with previews in a couple of minutes. Big win. Coverflow in Finder, which seems like a frill, is useful in the same way QuickLook is, especially when, say, trawling through a directory full of meaninglessly-named EPS files.

As others have mentioned, Spotlight has gone from sucking to not-sucking. I reiterate that fact simply because the transformation is so stark.

So far, I’m calling this a success.

Technology on the bike

2007 hasn’t been a good year for cycling, at least not for me. I recently made a birthday resolution that in 2008 I would ride more.

Along with riding less, I’ve paid less attention to bike technology, which is something that’s always interested me. Lately I’ve been paying a little more atention. I just read about a prototype bike-computer/rear-view camera called Cerevellum. This looks like a great idea—plug-in modules for different functionality. One idea I’ve never seen implemented on a bike is a crash camera. Now, this might be more of a concern for me than most people, but the overhead would be slight and the potential benefits considerable.

I envision the system including rearward-looking and forward-looking cameras, an accelerometer, and some flash-memory storage. It wouldn’t need much—just enough to capture about a minute’s worth of video and audio (about 180 MB for good-quality uncompressed video—chump change by today’s standards). If the accelerometer detected any sudden movement (indicative of a crash), the cameras would save the preceding 30 seconds and the following 30 seconds. That should be enough to capture license plate numbers, the circumstances of the crash, etc. A manual trigger to save would also make sense, as would manual still photography capture. Equipment like this does exist for cars, but nothing miniature enough for a bike. With 1 GB memory cards as common as dirt, one could record several minutes of footage per ride, as well as a lot of still photos, which could be interesting in ways other than crash documentation.

Word annoyance du jour

screenshot of MS Word with two open documents

There are lots of reasons to be annoyed with Word. I’ve just discovered another one.

Look at the screenshot above. It shows two open documents in Word. Which one is the active window? (too small? You can see the full size image.)

Trick question. Neither is active. Even though these are the only two documents open in Word, neither is active. Keystrokes will not be sent to either one. Note how the title bar of the left window makes it appear to be active, while the scroll bar of the right window suggests it is active.

This condition arises erratically when the command-` systemwide shortcut is used to cycle through the windows of the current app. It only seems to happen when windows of other apps are also visible. I’m working on a job where I’m copying timecodes from the left window into the right, and the fact that I can’t use command-` to cycle is slowing me down measurably—almost as much as taking time out to blog about the problem is doing.

Google Crowdsourcing Machine Translation

Screenshot of google translation crowdsourcing interface

I clicked through a link from a gadget site to a machine-translated press release for a new car-stereo head unit. I noticed that when my cursor hovered over a block of text, one of those floating mock-windows that are so popular in web2.0 appeared. It permits readers to enter their own translation for that sentence or chunk of text.

This is interesting, and something I hadn’t noticed before. It raises all kinds of interesting questions. Most obviously, how do they vet these reader-submitted translations? But it’s fascinating as a machine-translation paradigm. There are two general approaches to MT: one is basically lexical and grammatical analysis and substitution: diagramming sentences, dictionary lookup, etc. The other is “corpus based”, that is, having a huge body of phrase pairs, where one can be substituted for the other. And there is a hybrid between the two, that uses the corpus-based approach, but with some added smarts that permits a given phrase to serve as a pattern for novel phrases not found in the corpus (this is also pretty much how computer-assisted translation, or CAT, works). I wonder how these crowdsourced submissions work back into the MT backend—if they’re used strictly in a corpus-based translation layer, or if they get extrapolated into patterns. I’m skeptical that they’re getting a significant number of submissions through this system, but if they did, the range of writing styles, language ability, and so on that would be feeding into the system would seem to make it incredibly complicated. And perhaps a huge jump forward in improvement over older MT systems…but perhaps a huge clusterfuck of unharmonized spammy nonsense.

.Mac—a missed opportunity

A post on oreillynet got me thinking about .Mac, Apple’s online thingy for mac users. Apple recently updated it, and while the updates are nice enough, I think Apple is missing an opportunity.

I don’t know how many people use .Mac. I get the impression that not many do. It seems overpriced for what you get. So what do you get? An e-mail address and web mail. Online photo galleries and web pages. Remote backup, storage and (for some apps) syncing. Apple just increased the available storage from one gig to ten, and added some other features—”groups” (sort of like Yahoo Groups or Google Groups), domain-name hosting, and upgrades to the existing features (the photo album is pretty slick).

All this for the not-very-low cost of $100/yr. Apple is competing with two other alternatives here: free and generic.

There are free groups, free photo hosts, free mail services, free blog hosts, and so on. Of course, these are all ad-supported. And they’re good: Gmail’s webmail is considered by some to be the best mail client out there—web-based or local. It’s hard to compete with free, especially when it’s as good as it is. Admittedly, a lot of people get a little creeped out by having their data mined by Google, and putting their entire digital lives in Google’s hands.

On the generic side, for the price of a .Mac subscription or less, you can get a web-hosting account that gives you access to a Unix shell, more storage space (at Dreamhost, which notoriously oversells, I’m getting something like 250 GB of storage, of which I barely use 1%), web-based management tools, and access to the whole panoply of web-side apps, like WordPress, Drupal, Gallery, and so on. So it is possible to duplicate most or all of what .Mac does using open-source software that gives you more control and potentially broader functionality. Not everyone wants that level of control or needs all those features, but there are a lot of WordPress and Movable Type blogs out there, a lot of bulletin-boards and community sites, and so on. Clearly it’s not a small market, and I’d bet it’s a lot bigger than .Mac.

So, given that .Mac is not free and does not offer the same level of functionality as the other options, what does it offer? I see two things: All the templates for information hosted on .Mac look great (although the underlying HTML can be scary), and it has good integration with the client. Pretty much what you’d expect from Apple.

.Mac has been around in some form since the Internet first caught fire, and at that time, the kinds of things that regular folks would want to do online were not well-established. .Mac (originally “iTools”) was speculative in that sense. Some things, like photo galleries, turned out to be correct. (Although even there, flickr has shown us how photographs can be the nexus for communities, in a way .Mac can’t approximate.) Others, like remote backup, haven’t really panned out yet because A) the service doesn’t offer a meaningful amount of storage, and B) most of us don’t have a sufficiently fast upstream connection to make it practical. .Mac has changed and expanded its services, but hasn’t always kept pace with trends in Internet usage.

The recent updates to .Mac seem nice, but do not tempt me. What would tempt me would be if Apple offered the same slick client-side integration, but tied into a more generic hosting service—one where I can install a WordPress blog or a Drupal CMS.

The single-window interface

From time to time, I’ve mused about modifications to the typical WIMP interface. I’ve previously written about an idea I called the sidepad. This is another take in the same spirit: a single-window interface.

Extreme interface nerdery within.
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