From the archives: Computing

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Home rows, tone rows, and the lost Dvorak études

Saturday, 23 July 2011 — 10:12am | Classical, Computing, Music, Pianism

I’ve been aware of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard for a long time, but only in the past few days have I decided to try the layout for myself. Like any cognitive realignment pushing against the momentum of a lifelong habit, the initial adjustment process has been slow and occasionally punishing. When you are acccustomed to the fluidity of the keyboard as an invisible extension of the mind, it’s terrifying to find it amputated and clumsily reattached. I expect this overwhelming self-consciousness to be the norm someday when future generations willingly trade in their limbs for more dynamic cyborg substitutes.

Up to now, the closest I’ve come to this awkward stumbling was when I attempted to train my left-hand dexterity on Charlie Parker melodies I would normally play with my right. A kind of impotence, really: I was willing myself to do things that I was used to executing at dizzying velocities with ease, but my body just wouldn’t respond. The trick, I discovered, is to force yourself to slow down, clean up the suddenly naked particulars, and not rely so much on your established ‘chunks’ of muscle memory. My left hand is still a shambles, mind you, but as the lesser automaton it invents the more colourful passages.

That’s why I’m still plugging away in Dvorak. It may be slow-going at first—this post you are reading now is taking an eternity to punch in—but within minutes of playing with it, you begin to perceive all sorts of qualitative pleasures that simply don’t exist in QWERTY-land. It’s like switching to an Apple Macintosh, complete with the moment of epiphany where the cultishness of the already indoctrinated looks reasonable all of a sudden. (Or so I’ve heard. Having been a Mac user on and off since the age of five, I can’t really say.)

Continued »

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IBM’s double jeopardy

Tuesday, 8 February 2011 — 4:09am | Computing, Journalism, Science, Television

A few weeks ago, Colby Cosh—a friend of a friend of sorts who ordinarily writes reasonable things for a chap who still thinks the Edmonton Oilers are a real sports team—penned an article in his Maclean’s blog about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing machine (“I’ll take ‘Cheap Publicity Stunts’ for $1000, Alex”, 16 January 2011), that I found to be dreadfully uninformed. The thrust of his argument is that Watson is a corporate “gimmick”—a fancy plea for media coverage by the faceless villains at IBM, with nothing of scientific interest going on underneath. Keep in mind that by the standards of this article, nothing in the “perpetually disappointing history of AI” will ever be interesting until we’ve graduated from tightly delimited objectives to Big Problems like the Turing Test:

Every article about Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing device, should really lead off with the sentence “It’s the year 2011, for God’s sake.” In the wondrous science-fiction future we occupy, even human brains have instant broadband access to a staggeringly comprehensive library of general knowledge. But the horrible natural-language skills of a computer, even one with an essentially unlimited store of facts, still compromise its function to the point of near-parity in a trivia competition against unassisted humans.

This isn’t far off from saying that particle physics will be perpetually disappointing until we’ve observed the Higgs boson, or that manned spaceflight is merely an expensive publicity stunt that will never be scientifically interesting until we’ve colonized the Moon: it leans heavily on popular culture as the ultimate barometer of scientific achievement, and it requires both ignorance of methodology and apathy towards specifics.

Colby and I had a five-minute skirmish about the article on Twitter, which as a format for debate is unwieldy as piss. I promised a proper response as soon as I cleared some other priorities off my plate. Those other priorities are still, to my annoyance, on my plate; but having finally paid good money to register my copy of MarsEdit, I’m thirsting for a scrap.

This topic will do as well as any. Reluctant as I am to swing the pretentious hammer of “I know what I’m talking about,” this really is (as the idiom goes) a chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality. Computational linguistics happens to be my onetime research area, popular misunderstanding of science happens to be one of my favourite bugbears, and Kasparov’s anticomputer strategies against Deep Blue happened to make a cameo appearance in the meandering slop of my master’s dissertation. None of this matters a great deal, mind you. One should never be dismissive of journalists from a position of relative expertise; they’re the ones people actually read, and it’s vital to engage with what they say.

(It is a little game we play: they put it on the bill, I tear up the bill.)

Continued »

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There’s an App Store for that

Friday, 7 January 2011 — 12:38pm | Computing


Yesterday, Apple launched the Mac App Store, the latest interface refinement capitalizing on the observation that increasingly, Mac OS X is not likely to be a new user’s first Apple product. Just as we saw iTunes navigation features such as Cover Flow migrate over to the OS X Finder, now we are seeing OS X take after the iPhone/iPad user experience by delivering software via one-click installations. Click on the button to purchase or download an app, and the App Store dumps it in your Applications folder and on the Dock.

OS X veterans will note that this is, in theory, a 200% improvement on what was formerly a three-click installation: download the DMG, drag the app into the Applications folder, and optionally dump it on your Dock as well if you are still oblivious to the eldritch wonders of Quicksilver.

And in theory, one would think this is one of the best features yet to arrive on the Mac for users and developers alike. The end-user software culture for Mac users has always been very distinctive: unlike the unfortunate bifurcation in the savage lands of Windows, where software is often either a) homegrown and free or b) professional and exorbitantly priced with corporate site licenses in mind (and therefore often pirated), Mac software for the individual consumer is pretty much where it was in the early 1990s: practically anything that Apple didn’t hand you with the system comes from independent development houses, usually in the form of try-now, buy-later shareware, their products reasonably priced. Compared to other platforms, good free software is much harder to find.

(Incidentally, the Mac App Store has already delivered a 1990s time-capsule feeling of its own, raising the hungering corpses of products long believed dead. I mean, StuffIt Expander? Kid Pix?!)

For this model, digital distribution was a dream come true from its inception, and it would make sense to believe that a centralized distribution channel for downloads and updates only improves on it. In practice, however, there is no advantage to using the Mac App Store for anything that is already available directly from the developers.

Apple’s approval process effectively ensures that software updates through the App Store will lag behind the automatic updaters that already exist. Buying directly from the developer relieves them of Apple’s 30% cut for products sold via the App Store. There is also no support for time-constrained shareware trials, which are far and away the best way for developers to demonstrate why their software is worth paying for.

Product licenses, thank goodness, are bound to your Apple account instead of your machine; if something disastrous happens to your computer, you can always download your purchases again later, and there is no limit to the number of machines you can install them on. This is still more annoying than the DRM-free status quo of “punch in your product code and we’ll trust you the rest of the way,” but at least with a centralized ID you don’t need to worry about losing your product code.

In any case, informed users accustomed to hunting for quality Mac software that didn’t come pre-installed have no incentive to use the App Store at all except for software that is otherwise unavailable. The App Store’s function is to inform everyone else that third-party software even exists. Developers are effectively compelled to push their products onto the App Store in order to remain exposed and competitive, but if they make their products available directly, it’s hard to think of a reason why one wouldn’t obtain them that way instead.

Postscriptum. Speaking of third-party Mac software, I am presently composing this post in MarsEdit and finding it wonderful. I may end up blogging more frequently again purely for the pleasure of using it. Daniel Jalkut, the man behind MarsEdit, wrote an informative FAQ about the Mac App Store and what it means for his product. It confirms most of my sentiments above.

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Suggested reading, immemorial edition

Thursday, 24 June 2010 — 3:30am | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Game music, Jazz, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Pianism, Video games

I’ve been neglecting this space for over two months. Unfortunately for my capacity to keep up with the world in written words, they have been two very interesting months. Had I posted a bag of links on a weekly basis—and this is already the laziest of projects, the most modest of ambitions I have ever had for this journal—the entries for the latter half of April and the first half of May could have been expended entirely on the British general election (with an inset for Thailand’s redshirt revolt) and still failed to capture the play-by-play thrills on the ground.

Somewhere along the way, I penned a dissertation of sorts, but let’s not talk about that. Here is the crust of readings that has built up in the meantime. There are more, but the list below was becoming rather overgrown and at some point I had to stop.

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Suggested reading, abcdelmrs deiinot

Monday, 12 April 2010 — 11:12pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Debate, Journalism, Literature, Music, Scrabble

Until last week I had been out of touch with tournament Scrabble for well over a year and a half, having taken a hiatus from playing at any events. In the meantime the organizational politics in North America have drastically transformed: Hasbro decided to redirect the National Scrabble Association toward developing the game in schools and ceased to support the tournament scene, which spun off into a non-profit licensed to use the Scrabble name and a rebel organization that isn’t. The best thing to have come out of competitive Scrabble going unofficial, though, is The Last Word, a model community newsletter that improves on the NSA’s old snail-mail Scrabble News in most respects (although it noticeably lacks annotations of high-level games). If you are inclined to read about Scrabble squabbles, Ted Gest has written in the latest issue about the NASPA/WGPO split.

And now for something completely different:

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