Year: 2008

Tunnelling towards the truth

tunnelling spelling trouble

Check out the two screenshots crops above. Observe that in each, one instance of the word has been flagged as misspelled, and the other has not.

I ran into this problem while working on a translation job. The client had instructed me to overtype an existing Japanese document in order to preserve the formatting. After nosing around for a minute, I discovered that the upper line was marked as US English, and the lower line was marked as UK English (I prefer the UK spelling in this case). Not sure how those language settings got into a Japanese document.

iTunes overload

Media types in the iTunes library iTunes is overloaded.

iTunes first came out in 2001. At the time, you could use it to rip CDs, burn CDs, play ripped files, and organize those files. You could also use it to copy files to an MP3 player (the iPod didn’t exist at that time).

The personal computing landscape has changed a lot since then, and so has iTunes. It’s being called on to do a lot more.

I’ve said before that the Mac works best when you “drink Apple’s kool-aid,” that is, organize your contacts in Apple’s address book, your appointments in iCal, etc, because these apps act as a front-end to databases that other apps can easily tap into. The same goes for iTunes: Apple nudges you into using it to organize not only your music, but also your video files, and the iTunes database becomes almost like a parallel file system for media files. iPhoto is the manager for, well, photos.

When I first got an iPod a couple years ago, it seemed a bit odd that I could sync my contacts and calendars to it—through iTunes. While it makes sense to manage one’s iPod through iTunes, there was already a subliminal itch of cognitive dissonance.

With the iPhone, that cognitive dissonance is breaking out into a visible rash. The media types that it manages now includes applications for the iPhone. iPhoto is the mechanism for selecting photos to copy to the iPhone, and either it or Image Capture is used to download photos taken with the iPhone’s camera. Curiously, there’s no way to get photos off the iPhone within iTunes; this feels like an oversight, or perhaps someone in Apple was feeling a bit of that itch as well, and felt unwilling to load up iTunes with another function even further from its central purpose.

While I’m not aware of any yet, at some point there will be apps from independent developers that need to exchange files between the desktop and the iPhone other than those handled by iTunes—it’s easy to imagine word-processing files, PDFs, presentation decks, etc, being copied back and forth. It’s not clear how that will happen. It could all happen via the Internet, although that would be indirect both physically and in terms of the user’s experience. For large files, it would be annoying, and for people without unlimited-data plans, potentially expensive. Apple does offer programmers a bundle of functions called “sync services,” but this requires the desktop application be written to support syncing in the first place. For a lot of the file transfers I envision, syncing wouldn’t be the appropriate mechanism. There’s not even a way to get plain text files from Apple’s own Notes app off the iPhone. It’s widely speculated that cut and paste are absent from the iPhone because Apple hasn’t figured out a good interface for it. I suspect it’s the same thing here: they haven’t figured out a good, general mechanism for moving files between iPhone and desktop.

At some point, Apple is going to have to re-think the division of labor in its marquee apps, to separate organizing files from manipulating or playing them.

Japanese input on the iPhone

I don’t expect to do a lot of Japanese text entry on my iPhone, but I’m glad that I have the option, and I’ve been enjoying playing around with that feature.

Any Japanese text-entry function is necessarily more complex than an English one. In English, we pretty much have a one-to-one mapping between the key struck and the letter produced. Occasionally we need to insert åçcéñted characters, but the additional work is minimal. In Japanese, the most common method of input on computers is to type phonetically on a QWERTY keyboard, which produces syllabic characters (hiragana) on-screen—type k-u to get the kana く, which is pronounced ku; after you’ve typed in a phrase or sentence, you hit the “convert” key (normally the space bar), and software guesses what kanji you might want to use, based on straight dictionary equivalents, your historical input, and some grammar parsing. So for the Japanese for “International,” you would type k-o-k-u-s-a-i; initially this would appear on-screen as こくさい, and then after hitting the convert key, you would see 国際 as an option. Now, that’s not the only word in Japanese with that pronunciation—the word for “government bond” sounds exactly the same and would be typed the same on a keyboard. To access that, you’d go through the same process, and after 国際 appeared on-screen, you’d hit the convert key again to get its next guess, which would be 国債, the correct pair of kanji. Sometimes there will be more candidates, in which case a floating menu will appear on-screen.

The first exposure most English speakers have had to the problem of producing more characters than your input device has keys has come with cellphones. T9 input on keypad is a good analogue to Japanese input on QWERTY: you type keys that each represent three letters, and when you hit the space key, T9 looks up the words you might have meant, showing a floating menu.

The iPhone, of course, uses a virtual QWERTY keyboard for English input, which is pretty good, especially considering the lack of tactile feedback and tiny keys. It guesses what word you might be trying to type based on adjacent keys. It does not (as far as I can tell) give multiple options, and isn’t very aggressive about suggesting finished words based on incomplete words. For English, at least, I’m guessing Apple decided that multiple candidates for a given input are too confusing. In general, the trend for heavy English text input on mobile devices seems to be towards small QWERTY keyboards, despite the facility some people have with T9. I’m wondering how many people are put off by the multiple-candidate aspect of T9, and if that’s why Apple omitted that aspect, or if it’s simply that not enough English-speakers are accustomed to dealing with multiple candidates.

Japanese input on the iPhone is different. It is aggressive about suggesting complete words and phrases. It does show multiple options (which is necessary in Japanese, and which Japanese users are accustomed to). In fact, it suggests kanji-converted phrases based on incomplete, incorrect kana input. Here’s an example based on the above:

iphone Japanese input sample - 1

Here, I typed k-o-k-u-a-a-i (note the intentional typo), which appears as こくああい. It shows a bunch of candidates, including the corrected and converted 国際, a logical alternative 国内, and some much longer ones, like 国際通貨基金—the International Monetary Fund. Since it has more candidates than it has room to display, it shows a little → which takes you to an expanded candidates screen. Just for grins, I will accept 国際通貨基金 as my preferred candidate. Here’s another neat predictive trick: immediately after I select that candidate, it shows sentence-particle candidates like に が, etc.

iphone Japanese input sample - 2

Let’s follow that arrow and see what other options it shows:

iphone Japanese input sample - 3

I’m going to select ã‚’ as my candidate. It immediately shows some verbs as candidates:

iphone Japanese input sample - 4

Here, 参ります is a verb I used previously, but 見 and 食べ are just common verbs—I’m guessing they’ve been weighted by the input function as likely for use in text messages (the phrase 国際通貨基金を食べ is somewhat unlikely in real life, unless you are Godzilla).

The iPhone also has an interesting kana-input mode, which uses an あかさたな grid with pie menus under each letter for the rest of the vowel-row. It looks like this:

iPhone Japanese input sample - 5

To enter an -a character, just tap it:

iPhone Japanese input sample

To enter a character from a different vowel-line, slide your finger in the appropriate direction on the pie-menu that appears and release:

iPhone Japanese input sample - 7

You can also get at characters from a different vowel-line using that hooked arrow, which iterates through them. I haven’t figured out what that forward arrow is for. It’s usually disabled, and only enabled momentarily after tapping in a new character. Tapping it doesn’t seem to have any effect.

This method offers the same error-forgiveness and predictive power as Japanese via QWERTY. I don’t find it to be faster than QWERTY though, but perhaps that’s just because I’m not used to it.

One thing I haven’t found is a way to edit the text-expansion dictionary directly. This would be very handy. I’m sure there are a few more tricks in store.

Also, a fun trick you can use on your Mac well as on an iPhone to get at special symbols: enter ゆーろ to get €. Same with ぽんど、やじるし、ゆうびん, etc.

Update Apparently the mysterious forward-arrow breaks you out of iterating through the options under one key, as explained here. Normally if you press あ あ, this would iterate through that vowel-line, and produce い. But if you actually want to produce ああ, you would type あ→あ (Thanks, Manako).

Obligatory iPhone rhapsodizing

The day after the iPhone 3G was released, I got one. So did Gwen. It’s very nice. I feel like I’ve entered the future. It’s not fair to compare it to any other cellphone I’ve ever used—the difference is almost as stark as the one between the Mac I’m typing this on and a vintage 1983 DOS computer. I played with a friend’s Palm phone recently, and that was perhaps on the order of Windows 3.1 by comparison. Others have spilled gallons of electrons writing about this thing, so I’ll just offer a few random observations.

Out of the box, it is the source of enough wonder and delight to keep you going for quite a while, but the big deal now is that there’s an official path for independent developers to put software on it, which multiplies its value. The fact that these apps will be able to tie into location data, the camera, the web, etc, suggests any number of interesting possibilities. More than any other gadget I’ve played with in a long time, the iPhone seems full of promise and potential—and not just through software. Having a nice screen, good interface, reasonably powerful processor, and interesting ancillary functions suggests all kinds of hardware hookups to me. Two that I would really like to see:

  1. A car stereo that uses the iPhone as its faceplate. I imagine a home-screen alternative with direct access to four functions: GPS, phone, music, and radio (controlling a radio built into the stereo via USB).
  2. A bike computer mount. With the right interfaces, an iPhone as a bike computer could do a lot of interesting things: capture location-data breadcrumbs, capture performance data (heart-rate monitor, power monitor, cadence), capture photos and voice memos for ride logs. This would be a boon to bike racers and tourists alike.

One of the glaring problems everyone mentions with the iPhone is the lack of cut-and-paste. This is a problem, but another one that sticks out for me is the lack of a keystroke expander. There’s already predictive text input built in, so this wouldn’t be a new feature–there just needs to be a front end to the predictive-text library so that users can set up explicit associations between phrases and triggers. If any developers out there is listening, I’ve got my credit card ready.

Here’s a little interface quirk with the iPhone: One of the few physical controls on the device is a volume rocker switch. When viewing Youtube videos (which are always presented in landscape view), the rocker is on the bottom, with down-volume to the right, up-volume to the left. Check out this screenshot of what happens when you change volume using the rocker switch:
iphone volume control screenshot
The volume HUD appears, showing a volume “thermometer” on the bottom. Here’s what’s quirky: as you press the left rocker, the thermometer advances towards the right, and vice versa. This is counter-intuitive. The obvious way to avoid this would be for Youtube videos to be presented 180° rotated from their current position (that is, with the rocker on top), but for whatever reason, they only appear in one orientation. This is an extremely minor issue, but it stands out when the interface generally shows great attention to detail and emphasis on natural interaction.

Wall-E

Wall-E is a love story about a trash compactor. Somehow Pixar makes this into a beautiful and affecting movie. I don’t know how they do it. Highly recommended.

It’s interesting that the robots, despite having barely comprehensible speech, are fully realized characters unlike the humans, who are just placeholders.

The wind

660 kW wind turbine

Gwen and I visited her folks in Lubbock over the 4th of July weekend. I make no excuses for Lubbock: I don’t think it has much going for it. One thing it does have going for it is flat, open space and wind. Lots of wind. As it happens, it’s in a wind-farm region that’s growing from Abilene to Amarillo. It’s also home to the Windmill Museum, a fitting institution for that town, and our visit to that museum was probably the most interesting part of the trip. If you find yourself in Lubbock, you should go.

They’ve got a lot of old-fashioned pumping windmills of the sort that sprout over farms all over the country—showing considerable ingenuity, variation, and beauty in their design—but they’ve also got a working 660 kW wind turbine generator (see above, see also my flickr set) and a disassembled 1.5 MW wind turbine. We actually had a chance to step inside the tower of the 660 kW turbine.

We learned a lot, including all the basic facts and figures for the generating turbines. The guy running the place once worked in the wind farms of southern California, where the turbines only generate about 200 kW each. Most of the turbines being installed today generate 1.5 MW, enough to power 500+ homes. Apparently electricity-generating windmills have been around since the 1880s, but it was only in the 1970s that they became economically viable—I asked what happened then and (as I suspected) it was a breakthrough in fiberglass fabrication that made much larger windmills possible. Each blade on the 1.5 MW turbine is 112 feet long and weighs 12,000 lb; the actual generator is of a size that would probably fit in the bed of a pickup, but at 14,000 lb or so, would overwhelm it. The farmers in the area renting land to the wind-turbine operators get $10,000/yr in rent plus a 2% royalty on each unit, so they should be making out pretty well even in a year with a bad harvest.

Theme updated

I’ve updated the theme for my blog, Harder Better Faster Stronger. If things look funny, please reload.

I do not have this update available for download just yet—I want to shake it down in my regular blog for a few days before making it publicly available.

There are only a few visible changes. I’m using Helvetica instead of Lucida Grande for the typeface. I’ve added gravatar support. I hope I’ve made things a little more consistent and harmonious.

A lot has changed under the hood. I’m now using Blueprint CSS (with customized metrics courtesy of this generator). Getting this to work right without hideous kludges required a fair amount of tinkering, and resulted in me learning a bit about WordPress’ inner working and a bit more PHP.

Please let me know if you run across any obvious design bugs.

We need a word

Paging Rich Hall: In this modern era, when people communicate by blog, IM, twitter, e-mail, phone, and occasionally in person, we sometimes respond to things that our interlocutor said in a different medium—sometimes when it’s not obvious we were even a party to the referenced statement, which can be momentarily disorienting for the person who made that statement.

We need a word for this practice of abruptly picking up a conversation in a different medium. Electrolocute? Ricosay? Resumversation?

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.

Flipside fragment

I’m not sure I can sit down and squeeze everything I might want to say about Flipside into a single blog post—or that I even want to commit all those thoughts to print. I may wind up dribbling out a few more posts on the subject over the coming days.

In the meantime, here’s one tidbit. In a conversation with someone I met at Flipside, he asked me about firespinning—specifically, if I had noticed any physical benefits. I think my answer might make a good blog entry.

I’ve always been a klutz. I attribute this in part to being left-handed, partly to a growth spurt when I was 13 that left me a stranger in my own body. But I think that a big part of this klutziness was a form of learned helplessness: I had learned that I tend to break, or scratch, or knock over things, so I accepted that as normal, and never made an effort not to.

With firedancing, there’s an obvious need to be precise in your motions. There are also strong incentives to practice—practicing is enjoyable in its own right, and it’s easy to make rapid progress by practicing, especially as a beginner. Firedancing also forces one to be more aware of the spatial relationship between one’s body and its surroundings.

So a lesson that I learned at an intuitive level (and later at an intellectual level) was that I didn’t necessarily need to be a klutz. I was capable of using my body the way I wanted if I put a little care into it. I became more aware of how my body related to my surroundings, and more conscious of how I moved in general.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that I’m graceful today, I’m more mindful and precise in my movements, and that has been a benefit.

Delayed reaction

Burning Flipside officially opens tomorrow. A few key people are out there already. I’ll be heading out with the hoi polloi. I’ve been busy getting everything ready for the theme camp I’m leading, Circle of Fire, showing up for burn-night planning meetings, making lists, lengthening them, and lengthening them again.

Gwen and I went to our first Flipside in 2003. While some people at the time said that participating in Flipside was a life-changing event for them, Gwen and I reflected that we didn’t feel that way—not because we’re jaded, but because we felt that however big a footprint Flipside left, we had done enough living that we could keep it in perspective as part of the continuum of our lives, not see it as a break in it.

I’m about to depart for my fifth Flipside (skipped 2004), and here I am. Going to Flipside meetings, obsessing over my theme camp for weeks in advance of the event. Oh, it’s changed me. It just took longer for me to realize it.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to do some prep work for the bacon-avocado margaritas I’ll be serving at camp.

After the storm

Split tree on Clarkson

Austin was hit by a severe storm, with baseball-sized hail and 80-mph winds, at about 12:30 AM on 15 May 2008.

We came through it OK. There are a few new dings in our car, there’s a small rip in the screen on our porch, and some of our tomato plants look pretty bedraggled, but no big deal. Power was out on our block for over 24 hours, something I’ve never seen before.

Many of the trees in our neighborhood have been very badly damaged. A neighboring house had every west-facing window broken. Oakwood Cemetery, which has many ancient trees, has been ravaged.

I’ve posted some photos of the storm’s aftermath around my neighborhood on flickr.

The Unforeseen

Saw The Unforeseen over the weekend. Despite its flaws, this movie should be mandatory viewing for Austinites.

Austin inspires a strong affection in its citizens, whose pride in the city can sometimes grate on residents of other Texas cities (then again, they’re probably just envious). That, coupled with the long, rapid growth that this city has seen, has led to the widespread nostalgia for how much better the city used to be that is the badge of its citizens and a ready topic of conversation.

The attachment Austinites have for their city, and awareness of its rapid growth, projects forward in time as well as backward. Austinites seem unusually concerned with the shape their city will take. Development is the central political issue in the city. Especially as it affects the environment, and most especially as it affects Barton Springs.

The movie The Unforeseen takes Barton Springs as the nexus for all these issues and dives in.

The movie rolls back the clock to roughly 1970, when Gary Bradley, the developer of Circle C and Barton Creek, came to town. The filmmakers spent a lot of time interviewing Bradley, and it was interesting how they humanized one of the leading demons of Austin progressives. Bradley made the interesting observation that when planning out a development, the only problem he couldn’t fix was access to water. The filmmakers also showed how, right from the beginning, there was strong opposition to these developments—how there was already proto-nostalgia forming.

It also goes into the hydrology of the area—this was one of the most important parts of the movie, and one that really deserved to be expanded. Simply getting to see the interior of the Edwards Aquifer was worth the price of admission—the aquifer was always an abstraction to me. Now it’s a place. Key fact: city hydrologists tested the speed that water flows through the aquifer to the Springs. From 20 miles upstream, it took three days for water to exit at the Springs. Not enough time for significant filtration to occur. The pollution entering the aquifer comes right back out. Underwater footage taken at the Springs in 1994 and 2004 illustrates this fact: water that was once clear is now cloudy.

The movie closes on Hutto, a town to Austin’s northeast that I last saw back in college Back then, it was a small farming community. Today, lots for 11,000 houses have been platted there, and the mayor readily admits that he doesn’t know where they’re going to get the water. Aerial footage of cookie-cutter housing developments butting up against the few remaining farms was enough to get me choked up.

The main flaw in the movie is its ham-fisted sentimentality and preachiness. The facts and the record speak powerfully enough. Cutting away to stock footage of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis and children frolicking is just whacking the audience upside the head.

A minor flaw is the title. The movie makes very clear that none of this was unforeseen.

Springtime

It’s springtime in Austin, and it’s another reason to live here.

A week ago the weather was warm and humid. Walking through my neighborhood felt like being in a greenhouse, with the air hanging heavy, and the sight and more importantly the smell of green everywhere.

The past few days have been drier and cooler. Jasmine—which grows wild on my street—and wisteria have just bloomed, and the smells are intoxicating. The trees have leafed out, and walking down my street is like walking through a tunnel. Being inside (as I am now, for some reason) seems a waste.

As the plants come back to life, so does the community, after our long, bitter winter. There’s a rush of events during the window of time before summer fully bears down on us. We come out of our shells and rub now-unclad elbows.

Stand mixer showdown

Bosch Concept 7 & Kitchen Aid elevator bowl mixers

Gwen has wanted a stand mixer for a long time. She’s worked in commercial kitchens before, and harbors the frank desire for a gigantic Hobart.

That’s not in the cards. We’ve both been researching stand mixers for a while. Barring a Hobart, Gwen was interested in a traditional Kitchen Aid with an elevator bowl, which basically looks and runs like a tiny Hobart. I had come across the Bosch Concept 7, which is about as unlike a Kitchen Aid as a stand mixer can be. Costco had a special on some 475-watt Kitchen Aids, so we got one of those. We also got a Bosch mail-order. Today, Gwen made a couple of recipes on each, so we could decide which one to keep.

Design

The Kitchen Aid has the traditional design, somewhat like a crane, with the drive on top and a bowl-lifter on the vertical column. It has an old-fashioned Machine Age look to it, and the exterior made entirely of metal, except for a couple of knobs.

The Bosch is a smooth, low-profile wedge with a vaguely iPod aesthetic (or perhaps the iPod has a Bosch aesthetic). It’s entirely plastic except the drive gears. Power is transmitted through a central shaft that runs up through the middle of the mixing bowl.

Part of the appeal of the Bosch is that it is compact enough that it can be stowed pretty easily—and it weighs less than half as much as the Kitchen Aid, so it’s easier to move around, although it feels solidly built, it has suction-cup feet, and of course, all the weight is at the bottom. Another big part of the Bosch’s appeal is that food-processor and blender attachments are available for it. Our kitchen is short on space, so being able to get rid of a blender base and a food processor (which is disproportionately bulky) is an important consideration. The flipside to this is the all-eggs-in-one-basket problem: if that base ever fails, we’re out three appliances.

Operation

The Kitchen Aid comes with three mixing attachments—a dough hook, a whisk, and a cookie-dough paddle; The Bosch comes with a hook and whisks, and we bought paddles separately. The Kitchen Aid drives all three through an epicyclic motion; on the Bosch, the whisk and paddles have two axes of rotation, but the dough hook has only one—it just goes in circles. It turns out that having two degrees of rotation makes the mixing process much more efficient: using the dough hook on the Bosch does work, but to some extent it relies on friction between the dough and the bowl. Although the Kitchen Aid has a lower-power motor, it was more efficient mixing bread dough. Also, given Gwen’s commercial-kitchen background, operating the Kitchen Aid was basically the same as operating a Hobart—as she says “when the dough starts climbing the hook, I know it’s done.” The layout on the Bosch is so different that it just doesn’t work the same way, and she would need to learn new cues.

For different reasons, we observed that the Bosch was also less efficient making cookie dough. In this case, it came up a little short because the paddles don’t graze the bowl’s surface as closely as the paddle on the Kitchen Aid does, so ingredients that are trapped in that dead zone take longer to mix in. Also, because the Bosch’s bowl is half a torus, scraping down the sides with a spatula takes more work, and leaves a blind spot behind the drive column.

We made about six pounds of bread dough in each of the mixers, and in the end, both did a fine job kneading, and making cookie dough. We suspect that the Bosch would really shine on bigger batches.

The Bosch comes with a lid, which has a chute for adding ingredients. Getting ingredients down that chute was awkward—the opening is just too small to tip in a cup of flour (for example), and removing the lid definitely slows things down a bit. It’s possible to operate it without the cover in place, although a bit messier. Even without it, it’s less messy than the Kitchen Aid.

Cleanup

Cleaning the Bosch’s bowl after kneading dough was far and away easier than the Kitchen Aid’s. The Bosch’s bowl is some kind of slick plastic, and the all dough just pulled away from it in one piece. Cleanup after the cookie dough was harder on the Bosch, because that stuff was more liquid and gluey, and tended to get caught in the gear that is built into the top of the bowl. As to the mixers themselves, the Bosch’s lack of surface features makes it much easier to clean.

Verdict

So which one are we going to keep? We haven’t decided yet. The Kitchen Aid is a known quantity for Gwen (who will do the vast majority of cooking with whatever we keep). The Bosch isn’t, and she wants to make another recipe before we decide.

Update

To reach a decision on which mixer to keep, Gwen made two cakes. Using the whisks on both mixers, the Bosch actually did a better job mixing—its batter was visibly smoother than the Kitchen Aid’s, and it got mixed with less spatula intervention. But the bowl is the Bosch’s Achilles’ heel: it is very large (to accommodate the driveshaft running through the middle), and it has no handle or spout—in fact, the lip of the bowl is distinctly ill-designed for pouring, with a notch for the lid to fit into, and a wide edge above that folding back into a sort of “cuff.” This made getting the batter out of the bowl such a mess that Gwen decided it wasn’t worth it. If she’s going to be discouraged from using it, it’s not worth it.

Victory goes to the Kitchen Aid.