Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: technology (page 4 of 11)

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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I’m all chatwitter

This new thing all the kids are talking about, Twitter, reminds me of mathowie’s incredibly detailed chat status messages. In fact, that seems like a better approach, and at least deserving some kind of chat/twitter mashup. Call it chatwitter! Or maybe chat-wit.


Everybody is talking about the iPhone, and who am I to resist that kind of peer-pressure?

The iPhone is stunning, and as it stands, I will not be getting one. Here’s why:

  1. Closed platform: The idea of spending $500 for a phone with as much potential as this but zero extensibility is a flat-out insult to would-be customers. Steve Jobs explains this by saying “we can’t have one rogue app bringing the entire West Coast network offline.” This is disingenuous or a lie. Somehow Apple trusts me not to bring down the entire Internet with one rogue app on my Mac, and the Internet is a lot dumber than Cingular at&t’s network. I don’t know for certain what the real reason is, but here are some possible candidates:
    1. Cingular at&t doesn’t want people installing Skype and iChat, which would let customers circumvent the company’s comparatively expensive services (seriously, 10¢ for a text message?). I don’t discount this possibility entirely, but considering Apple’s successful wrangling with music companies, I’d expect Apple to negotiate that away if they wanted to.
    2. Steve Jobs is notoriously fond of closed boxes. Probably plays some role in the decision.
    3. Apple wants to be able to act as a middleman and get a cut for any software you install on your iPhone. I think there’s a decent chance that this is at the root of it, but of course, it subverts free/open-source software distribution—and some of my favorite software falls in those categories.
  2. Storage not upgradable: The “cheaper” model is currently spec’d with 4 GB memory. By the time the phone is actually available for sale, this may seem a bit puny, and by the end of the phone’s useful life, it will be positively laughable. The lack of a flash-card slot may be another example of closed-box thinking, but regardless of why it’s missing, it puts the owner of the awkward position of spending a hell of a lot of money on a device that should be useful for a long time, but won’t be able to take advantage of what should be an easy and cheap upgrade.
  3. Lack of Flash/Java: I’ll readily admit that many uses of both Flash and Java are crap (some are brilliant though). Jobs has equivocated on Flash, but deciding to leave out either one is making a decision for customers that they should be able to make for themselves.

There are other shortcomings, of course: many people have focused on the lack of HSPDPA support. Apple’s explanation that the network for it hasn’t been built out sufficiently is of debatable merit. On the one hand, it means many people would be paying for a feature they couldn’t use. On the other, it means that when the feature would become usable, they still won’t be able to use it.

Apple is positioning this as a phone that happens to run a version of OS X. I view it as a tiny OS X computer that happens to have a cellular radio, and I view its features and lacks of features in that light. Despite all of this, it’s still an exciting development, not so much for the thing itself perhaps as because of related products we may see coming out of Apple (unlikely though it is, I’d be interested in something with a larger screen that dispensed with the cellular radio—sort of like the “sidepad” I wrote about before.) and because it should serve as a massive kick in the pants to the rest of the industry, raising the bar* in general.


I just signed up for the beta version of Imity. I’m still not sure what to make of it, except that it is freaky.

The idea is a form of augmented reality, or embodied virtuality, or whatever you want to call it. It takes the idea behind social networks like Friendster et al and attempts to replicate them in meatspace (in fact, I suspect they are going to try to tie into existing social networks, so that you don’t have to re-enter all your friends yet another time).

Ok, that’s still pretty vague. Let me try again. You need to have a fairly snazzy cellphone for this to work: the phone is your “presence marker.” You sign up on their website, download a little java app to the phone, and whenever the phone gets in range of another bluetooth device, it logs that event. If that bluetooth device happens to belong to someone you know, maybe your phone will beep at you or something. And later, you can go back to the imity website, and see all the bluetooth-contact events that you logged, and you’ll slap your forehead when you realize your best friend was at the same movie as you, even though you never saw each other.

But the freaky thing is, your phone logs all bluetooth contacts. I went to a coffee shop and logged eight contacts while I was there. Several of these were clearly people using Macs (which all have Bluetooth as well), as they were identified by Apple’s default computer names, “John Doe’s Computer” and the like. So now I can take an educated guess at the names of several complete strangers in a coffee shop. And it will count every time you’re around John Doe’s computer, so that perhaps after you’ve been in the same place at the same time enough, you’ll break down and introduce yourself—”Hi, John Doe. You and I have shown up at the same place at the same time on 37 occasions, so I thought I’d introduce myself.” I don’t know. Maybe not. Like I said, it’s freaky.

It gets even freakier when you imagine matching these bluetooth events against a GPS breadcrumb trail. It’s one thing to look at your imity log after the fact and note “at 17:23, I was near John Doe’s computer” and then try to figure out where you were at that time. It’s another when you know “at 17:23, I was at Clementine coffee shop, and was near John Doe’s computer.” Super-freaky. Then you’d push all that data into Google Earth and develop a model of where people hang out.

Or maybe not you. Maybe Starbuck’s installs Imity-like Bluetooth sensors at all their doors, or better yet, a consortium of retailers that all share this data, so they can work out where people go and when. Even if they spend cash, or don’t spend anything, they can track you via your bluetooth device. Of course, you can also track that they’re tracking you.

Idea for an improved cordless mouse

Up until recently, I was using Apple’s mighty mouse. I liked it, but like many people, I was frustrated by gunk getting on the scroll-ball, requiring frequent, baroque, and only semi-successful attempts to clean it. Eventually it just stopped working, despite all my efforts. Logitech’s MX Revolution has been enthusiastically reviewed, and Amazon was offering it at a discount, with a rebate on top (making the price merely high, rather than absurd), so I took the plunge.

Aside: For years, I managed with a plain one-button mouse. Then I got a cheap two-button-plus-scrollwheel mouse. Then I got the mighty mouse, which can scroll both up/down and left/right. With each upgrade, my minimum expectations ratcheted up, so the idea of simply doing without scrolling, and then doing without two-axis scrolling, became unacceptable. Funny how that works.

The mouse requires Logitech’s fancy driver software to customize all its various buttons and wheels, and I have found this software to be artificially limiting, and buggy to boot. I’m hoping that’ll eventually shake out. I realize there are 3rd-party drivers one can use, but I’m loathe to lay out more money to make this mouse work the way I want, and it’s not clear to me whether those drivers can interact with the mouse’s marquee feature, the scroll-wheel clutch.

From a hardware standpoint, the mouse itself is pretty nice. Despite the wacky shape, it feels good in my hand—good thing I’ve always been a right-handed mouser, even though I’m a lefty. It’s a little disappointing that this requires both a charging stand and a USB transceiver dongle. It would be more elegant for the charging stand to run off USB power and include the transceiver in it (I’m guessing the reason this is not done is because AC adapters that step down to the right voltage are readily available off the rack, and DC step-down converters would be custom parts). Even still, you’re using up a bit of desk space for the charging base.

But that’s not my idea. I’ve never had a cordless mouse before, and the one obvious drawback is that the mouse needs periodic recharging—every 2–3 days in my experience. That’s not unreasonable, but if the mouse craps out on you in mid-day, you’ve got to fish out your old corded mouse and use it while the wireless one recharges. Bummer.

So here’s my idea. The wireless mouse kit would consist of the mouse plus two transceiver dongles. Each dongle would include a battery. One dongle would be plugged into the host computer’s USB port, and the battery would charge while plugged in. The other dongle would plug into a socket in the mouse, and that battery would power the mouse. When the battery in the mouse-side dongle was exhausted, you’d swap the two. Zero wait time, zero desktop clutter. Obviously two sets of batteries would tend to increase costs, but countervailing efficiencies might negate that. Another benefit to this design is that the same mouse would work with a USB cable instead of the dongle twins—the user could make the substitution in a pinch, and the manufacturer could sell the cord-only variant as a lower-cost model (which would streamline manufacturing), sell the dongle twins as an upgrade, and use the same dongle twins across models (further streamlining production).

According to this guy’s take-apart, Logitech appears to be using a 1700 mAh 3.7 V battery. That’s roughly equivalent to three high-quality AAA batteries ganged together, which would be half the size of a 9-volt battery (like the one in your smoke detector). Not an unreasonable size for a dongle. Each dongle would also need charging circuitry, and that might be a problem in terms of size or cost—I don’t know enough to say.

Instead, it would also be possible to power the mouse during use through a special mousepad with an embedded induction coil.

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