Batter Up

Welcome to 2017!

The beginning of the year is completely arbitrary. There’s no relationship to any specific event*, but it is when it is, and we’ll have to make the best of it.

* I’ve long been of the opinion that the year should begin with the Winter Solstice, when the days begin getting longer again. Better yet, set it in mid-February, when pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. But there’s too much cultural inertia behind the current system to make a change at this point. A shame nobody thought to introduce Pope Gregory to baseball. The 1582 season was a thriller, and might have converted him. As it was, the confusion caused when Italy adopted the new calendar in October, while Greece remained on the old calendar forced the abandonment of the World Series with Milan and Athens tied at two games apiece. But I digress.

My first post of 2014 covered continuing problems with the Bay Bridge, BART, and the San Francisco Giants. In 2015, I talked about BART and Caltrans again, and added a few thoughts on the NSA, police militarization, the Oakland As, and phablets. Despite the initial gloom and doom, both years had their ups and downs, but turned out relatively well.

I started 2016 with “The Tale of Knuckles Malloy” and we all know the general consensus on last year. I won’t accept sole responsibility for the state of the world, but it’s clear I should begin this year with a rant instead of trying to entertain.

Unfortunately, I really don’t have anything new to say about the problems besetting our transportation infrastructure, super-giant phones, or the increasing number of threats to privacy and security. And the less said about the Giants’ and As’ off-season moves thus far, the better.

How about a generic admonition instead of a rant?

If you’re one of the majority who regards 2016 as the worst year since [insert date here*], don’t just sit back and hope 2017 will be better. That’s not going to work.

* Popular choices include 1969, 1944, and 1930. If that seems rather 20th Centuryist, you might want to consider 410, 1066, or 1348.

Granted, there isn’t much any one person can do about some of the depressing aspects of 2016. But some can be dealt with. Pick one–any one–and do something–anything–about it.

It doesn’t have to be something big. I’ll spare you the usual platitudes about grains of sand and beaches or acorns and oak trees. But you’ll feel better for having made a contribution.

An Unsolicited Rant

Bear with me, please. I feel the need to vent a bit. And yes, I know I’m beating a dead horse and, given the quality of my readers, probably preaching to the choir. Neither fact makes venting any less satisfying.

The number of drivers doing stupid things on a regular basis continues to climb. The thing is, most of those stupid things fall into one of two categories. Fix those, and we’ll eliminate hundreds, if not thousands of accidents a year.

First, stop crossing solid lines–yes, even solid white lines. Yes, I know it’s legal in some states and in some circumstances. It’s still a bad idea.

Solid white lines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices show places where crossing is discouraged, i.e. where it’s unsafe, or outside normal driving practices.

That’s why you see solid white lines just before a freeway exit and just before an onramp merge: drivers are concentrating on merging into or disentangling from freeway traffic; adding another vehicle disrupts the smooth flow of cars and makes the process more complicated. You may need to cross the lines in an emergency, so there isn’t a firm prohibition against it–but a traffic jam is not an emergency*. Neither is missing your exit because you were checking something on your phone.

* Unless you’re driving a police car, fire truck, or ambulance. But in those cases, you’re exempt from normal driving standards anyway.

Seriously, people, if you’re trying to get off the freeway, don’t do it by crossing the solid lines, even to get out of a tie-up. You’re either blocking people trying to get onto the freeway or people trying to exit legally. Similarly, if you’re trying to get onto the freeway, don’t do it across the solid lines: they’re probably there because you don’t have enough of a sight line to be sure the lane is clear.

Second, stay close to the speed limit–ideally within five miles per hour–or the prevailing speed of traffic. The arguments against speeding have been made over and over. I’m tired of seeing them. You’re tired of seeing them. Consider them included by reference.

But traveling significantly slower than the speed limit is just as bad. You become an unexpected obstacle to other drivers. Anywhere that sight lines are reduced, you’ll trigger abrupt slowdowns that can avalanche, causing major traffic tie-ups, even if nobody gets into an accident.

Worse yet, you become a challenge to the sort of person who exceed the speed limit. They’re going to start playing the Slalom Game: whipping around you without slowing down, and coming as close to your front and rear bumpers as they can to show you just how insignificant they think you are.

Again, there are circumstances where you might need to slow down. Snow, heavy rain, or high winds, for example. The zombie apocalypse*. In the Berkeley/Oakland area, a protest moving onto the freeway**.

* Maybe. One school of thought says you should slow down to minimize the danger to others when your passenger turns into a zombie and goes for your throat. The other school says you should speed up to maximize your ability to flatten the zombies wandering through traffic. A full analysis is, of course, outside of the scope of this rant.

** Be careful not to confuse a peaceful protest with a zombie apocalypse! Hint: protesters rarely, if ever, eat human flesh during the protest. That said, however, if zombies are carrying protest signs, you’ll have to solve the ethical dilemma yourself.

Bluntly, if you don’t feel capable of driving at least fifty on the freeway, take city streets. If you can’t drive at least twenty-five on city streets, take a cab. And if you’re incapable of driving less than eighty anywhere, get out of the car and take public transportation.

Thank you. I feel better already.

Sum Eye Deers R Badt

Put on your curmudgeon hats, please, and join me on a little trip into the dark side of miniaturization. If the Raspberry Pi is the Yoda side of miniaturization and embedded Linux, this is somewhere out in Darth Vader territory.

Lernstift is running a Kickstarter campaign to bring you “the first pen that vibrates when u make a mistake”. Presumably the pen will vibrate if you try to reproduce the Kickstarter. Actually, it’ll vibrate quite a bit. There are more than a few typos in the listing and one heck of a lot of words that are not likely to be in its dictionary.

Is this really a product the world needs?

Quick show of hands: How many of you find the little red squiggles under your misspelled words in [insert name of favorite word processor] annoying? (I’m not asking if you turn them off, just whether they bother you.) Ditto for the differently-colored squiggles for grammatical errors.

I’m betting most of you raised a hand. Now, think about getting those same squiggles when you’re writing a note to yourself. Or writing a check.  Or doing your math homework.

Look, I’m all for giving immediate feedback, especially to those just beginning to learn how to do something, and Lernstift is pitching this pen initially at “writing starters”: children 5-8 years old. But how useful is it to vibrate on a mistake? Part of the feedback process needs to be guidance: explaining what the mistake is. By only implementing half of the process, they are in effect creating a critter that stands on the desk and screams “Ha, ha! You goofed!” as you write.

Wait, it gets worse: The pen will not only vibrate for spelling errors, but it will also vibrate for “flaws of form and legibility”. So the critter isn’t just screaming “You goofed!” it’s also screaming “What? I don’t understand!” Let’s hope it’s a least a different vibration, or those poor kids who are forced to use this thing will be going nuts trying to figure out what the problem is. And it’s the ones who need the most help who will be getting the most frequent unhelpful corrections.

Even better yet: “…we will implement a community framework / app: Through this, users can add their own private and public words to the pen’s language catalogues. We will also provide an app that can be used to create punctuation and orthography rules. That way, each Lernstift user becomes a creator.” One hopes that the app will feed into some kind of a review queue before these add-on rules and dictionaries become available to others. Given the massive confusion about “its” versus “it’s” (and indeed, the current tendency to add an apostrophe to any and every word ending with “s”) I can’t see crowd-sourced style guides catching on. Even if you’re just creating catalogs for your own use–or more likely your kids’ use, given the initial target audience–the process is likely to be aggravating. It would be as if your word processor didn’t have an “add word to dictionary” or “ignore all” choice in its menu, but required you to exit the word processor, launch a dictionary-maintenance program to add the word, and then re-open your document and continue writing. One hopes that at the very least, the add-on catalogs are flagged in such a way that the software will not let you mix and match across languages. The pen will launch supporting English and German, with at least a dozen more planned if you can believe the Kickstarter pitch. (Parenthetically, I don’t see any indications of whether “English” is UK, US, or some other dialect.) Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if you accidentally loaded, say, German punctuation rules and Chinese spelling?

And did you notice my use of the word “forced” up above? Lernstift is already partnering with “education officials who are interested in integrating Lernstift in their curriculum…this would, for instance, allow teachers to see, in real time, what their students are writing, and to respond instantly.” I’m not even going to talk about the negative impact on passing notes in class, I’m just going to point out that unless the integration is handled with a great degree of tact, that critter will no longer just be screaming at you, but at everyone in your class. That’s not the kind of feedback anyone needs, but especially not beginners.

Seriously, folks. Don’t support this Kickstarter. Tell your friends not to support it. Maybe there’s a good idea lurking in this proposal. But if so, it’s diluted to homeopathic levels.

Apple WWDC

Last week was pretty depressing, especially towards the end of the week. I’m going to try to keep it a bit lighter this week, but the universe being the perverse place that it is, I fully expect a major disaster of some sort that will totally blow my plans to shreds. Until the universe starts slinging tire irons at our metaphorical kneecaps, though, cheerful is the word.

Let’s start with some updates on the wonderful world of Apple as revealed in this morning’s WWDC keynote. I’m getting most of my information from Ars Technica, and I highly recommend them if you want additional details on anything I talk about. Note that I’m not going to talk about iCloud and OS X as I don’t particularly use either, so I’m not in a position to comment on the usefulness of the updates.

Correction: One comment specifically on OS X. Apparently Apple has run out of cats. All of the versions from 10.0 (“Cheetah”) to 10.8 (“Mountain Lion”) were named after big cats, but the 10.9 release is “Mavericks” (for the California surfing spot, not the Dallas basketball team). A shame, really, but it does offer some room for fun and speculation. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that next year’s release (whether it be 10.10 or 11.0) will be named “Emeryville” in view of Apple’s close relationship with Pixar.

Moving right along…

Apple has officially announced their much-rumored streaming music offering. “iTunes Radio” will, according to Ars, be built into the upcoming iOS 7 (more on iOS 7 in a moment) and be available through AppleTV and iTunes for OS X. Not making it available for Windows iTunes users seems to make no business sense. Other venues are reporting that it will be available when Mavericks is released; I suspect Ars misunderstood or misreported. At the moment, this comes off as a “me too” play from Apple – it doesn’t seem to offer customers anything they don’t already have, but if Apple can do a significantly better job with its new music recommendation functionality that the current players have, there’s a potential for major migrations away from Pandora, Spotify, and others.

On the iOS 7 front, the biggest news in terms of number of words spent is actually the least significant in terms of functionality. Everyone is reporting on the new “flattened” UI. This is a change that makes little or no practical difference to customers, but will make work for developers who will now need to implement a new set of UI elements to stay consistent with the overall look and feel. Such good times!

On the brighter side, developers will no longer have to worry about the iPhone 3GS as iOS 7 will only be available for the iPhone 4 and newer. Over on the iPad side, original iPad users were not brought in from the cold – they’ll remain stuck on iOS 5. All other iPad users will be able to upgrade to iOS 7 when it comes out in the fall.

And speaking of updates, the App Store will now automatically update apps instead of nagging users to upgrade. If Apple implements this as the only configuration, it’s a big win for developers, who will no longer need to support multiple versions of their apps at once. If it’s optional behaviour, there’s likely to be little change from the current situation, as users who don’t like to update will just turn off the automatic updates and continue to ignore the nags.

More small changes that seem like they could actually be useful for users: the iCloud keychain will act as a password manager, suggesting secure passwords and sharing them across customer’s Apple phones, tablets, and desktops. This sort of functionality has been available from third-parties for years, but baking it into the OS should increase adoption and make at least a small boost in online security. Photos and movies can be shared from inside the Photos app and can be shared via an ad-hoc wifi connection (no need to tap phones together as on Samsung’s Android phones). Safari now has a scrollable tab interface, as well as what appears to be an integrated RSS reader. That could actually be very handy with the demise of Google Reader.

Ooh, here’s an incredibly useful change: Siri now has an optional male voice! How thrilling! (Seriously, there are useful Siri changes, including integration of Wikipedia and Bing search results, but that was too easy a target to resist…) I’m a little surprised Apple hasn’t started cutting deals for celebrity voices as on GPS units. Granted that the larger vocabulary would be a bit of a barrier, but I’d be willing to bet that a core vocabulary could be defined and implemented, and less common words could be handled with the current synthesized approach.

What else? I’m not seeing a whole let else. I’m sure my former cow-orkers are busy installing the developer beta of iOS 7 as I write this. Hey, gang, chime in and let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed that we should be looking forward to.

Until we hear from that old gang o’ mine, I’ll rate iOS 7 as “nice, but not earth-shaking”.

Google I/O 2013

Google I/O, the annual developer conference, is in full swing and, despite the hopes of the masses, there weren’t any really major hardware or Android announcements in Wednesday’s action.

As Sundar Pichai (head of Google’s Chrome and Android divisions) promised, the focus this year really is on goodies for developers; it’s also about Google’s ongoing efforts to consolidate redundant services and to become more a part of your daily life beyond search.

So what does Google have for us at I/O this year?

We’ve got a bunch of updates to the the Google Play Services, which are a set of tools and APIs that can be used in app development. The updates include improvements and enhancements to the map and location functionality (letting developers figure out where a device is, take certain actions when entering or leaving specific areas, and determine whether you’re walking, biking, or driving*), to messaging functionality (improvements to capacity and cross-device notification), and to gaming (sharing game state across devices, managing achievements and leaderboards, and simplifying multiplayer programming). There’s a lot of good stuff there for developers; for me personally, though, the only one that sounds useful is the ability to dismiss a notification on one device and have it go away on all my other devices as well.

* Google Maps is also getting an update on phones and the desktop, integrating business ratings and offers, Street View and Google Earth, and user-submitted photos.

Developers also get a new tool for creating apps and the ability to push pre-release app builds via the Play store with access controlled via Google+. The first should be useful, as it will allow simultaneous viewing of the app at a variety of screen sizes and orientations. The latter doesn’t seem to offer any real advantage over the current practice of internally-controlled access lists – losing the need to sideload apps seems pretty minor; I only recall one bug that could be directly traced to testing via sideloading. Maybe some of my former cow-orkers would care to comment on the potential advantages?

What a surprise! Google has a new music subscription service – probably the worst-kept secret leading up to Google I/O. I’ve read all of the articles I’ve found so far, and I’m not seeing what this brings us other than the Google name. It looks very similar to Spotify and other streaming services. I could see some utility if it’s tightly integrated with the existing Google Play Music, analyzing the music you already own and making recommendations based on that. It appears that is part of the plan, but it doesn’t seem like enough to take this beyond the “me too” level.

The various chat and messaging services are being merged. Google+ Hangouts, Google Messenger, Google Talk, and Gmail are now all part of a single “Hangout” infrastructure. Pardon me while I go take a nap. I’m sure it’s great that all these different channels will now interoperate, but this is pretty much a snooze for someone whose webcam is more of a webcan’t.

Anything else? There’s a big package of enhancements coming to Google’s core search functionality, all aimed at letting you search in a more “natural” way. Changes include using relationships between objects to provide related context (the example used in the demo was that asking about the population of India would also trigger Google to display a sidebar with population data for other countries), to provide context-sensitive searching (for example, recalling a recent search for airline information to provide location data for searches for hotels, rental cars, and restaurants), and – if you’re using Chrome – to provide an always-on, voice input mechanism for those searches. The first two could be useful (privacy implications aside), but that last one bothers me a bit. Like many people, I leave a few common applications running constantly: email, browser, file manager. Do I really want Chrome sitting there in the background listening for its trigger phrase? Again, leaving aside the privacy implications, either it’s using a chunk of CPU for local processing of the audio stream, or its using a chunk of bandwidth to send the stream to Google for processing. (Pause for question: why do webcams have a light that comes on when the camera is active, but not the mike? Or does the light serve as a notification for either or both functions? If so, how, in Google’s new “always-on” “Conversational Search” world, does one know if their webcam is being used to spy on them (see this and this for recent cases – I’m not even going here yet – that’s a post for another day.)

But I digress. What else is Google offering?

Google+ is getting a bunch of updates beyond the changes I’ve already mentioned, most of them enhancements to photo editing and tagging.

How about a shiny new Galaxy S 4 (arguably the current latest word in Android phones) with stock Android 4.2, rather than with Samsung’s tweaks and proprietary extensions? The main appeal here is quick access to official Android updates without needing to hack the phone. Sounds appealing, given the usual slow pace of official OS updates, but the full retail price of $649 is a bit offputting – and a lot of people seem to like manufacturers’ UI enhancements (TouchWiz, Sense, MotoBlur, and so on). So limited appeal overall. (Personally, I’d rather see Google working with (or leaning on) the device manufacturers and carriers to streamline the upgrade approval process.)

That’s pretty much it. No new Android OS (a reference to a new 4.3 release showed up briefly on an Android Developers’ site, but was quickly removed and no official word has been released). No update to the Nexus 7 – no new hardware at all, in fact. In short, nothing that triggers my issues with delayed gratification.

OK, so where does that leave us in reality? We should be seeing a flood of app updates that incorporate the new APIs Google is offering. My best guess for the next killer app: Your phone detects that you’re walking towards the door and pops up a notification to remind you to take your keys (including specifying door keys or car keys depending on whether you’re heading for the front door or garage door), tells you whether you need a jacket, and analyzes what you’re wearing to tell you whether the blue one or the black one will go better with your shirt. A suggestion for whoever writes this app: don’t make it ad-supported. Instead, the paid version should allow users to turn off the voice prompt that says “Are you really going outside dressed like that?” Trust me, you’ll make a mint.

Don’t Say It

Say what, now?

I’m as unhappy about the events playing out in Valley Springs, California as anyone else who’s not directly involved, but for the last couple of days, every story has tripped a mental fuse for me.

In case anyone has missed it, the story in question is that of eight-year-old Leila Fowler, who was stabbed to death in late April. Yesterday, her twelve-year-old brother was arrested. (No links, it’s not hard to find all the coverage anyone could want, and then some.)

What keeps tripping me up is the statement in every story yesterday and today: “His name is not being released since he is a minor.” Just to be clear here, it’s not just this case, it’s every news story reporting on a juvenile accused of a crime.

Yes, I understand the desirability of keeping the names of minors out of the press, especially given the fact that an arrest is far from proof of guilt. For that matter, I hope that all of the various news agencies have updated any earlier stories that gave his name. I’m even in the apparent minority that would be happy to have his name continue to be withheld even if he is tried as an adult.

I’m not suggesting that the news media should give his name. Quite the contrary, in fact.

What I’m getting stuck on is the incessant repetition of that sentence. Is it really necessary to say the same thing every time? It wouldn’t be that hard to find out his name if one were motivated to do so – let’s face it, how many twelve year old brothers is she likely to have had? Repeating this sentence over and over just feels like it’s calling attention to the omission, and daring someone to start digging.

I’ll grant you that it’s not as easy to find someone’s name as it often appears in mystery novels, but that might just make it worse. If someone goes to the effort of doing the research and learning the brother’s name, he’s going to want to do something with it, and the harder he has to work, the more likely he is to want to show off.

Really, if the paper didn’t say “His name is not being released…” would you notice? Would you care? Most of you probably wouldn’t. Those few who would care are going to care regardless of whether the disclaimer is present or not; at best, the presence of the disclaimer serves no function, and at worst it provokes a few people.

Let’s just drop the disclaimer, state the facts, and move on.

What’s Wrong With Ebooks?

Kane Hsieh argues over at Gizmodo that the biggest problem with ebooks is that they try to replicate the experience of paper books. As he puts it, “The problem with ebooks as they exist now is the lack of user experience innovation.” I disagree.

Let’s take his points in order.

Designers and programmers are spending time and effort on recreating the look and feel of turning pages instead of giving him the ability to read on a single infinite sheet and scroll it by blinking.

Granted that there are some really bad simulations of page turning out there, but that’s really not preventing anyone from reading ebooks. And every ebook reader I’ve tried in the past year allows you to turn off those simulations. At least one (Moon+ Reader for Android) will automatically scroll the book for you, eliminating the need to even go to the effort of blinking. In short, ebooks are not tied to the paper book UI.

It should be possible to take advantage of the ebook reader’s connectivity and computing power to “make reading more accessible and immersive than ever”. He offers the idea of language immersion by replacing words and phrases with other languages, and the ability to submit sections to Quora or Mechanical Turk.

Again, this is already happening. Every ebook reader at a minimum offers the ability to look up words in a dictionary. More mature readers offer the ability to translate words and phrases, look selections up in Google and Wikipedia, and to share with other programs (on my own tablet, Moon+ Reader offers sharing selections with 19 different programs – chances are that there’s something out there that would work quite well for submitting to Quora). As for language immersion, why limit yourself to a few words or phrases when you could just buy the book in a foreign language?

You can’t convert paper books to ebooks.

There’s a tool called a “scanner”; I understand that they can be purchased in stores called “electronics outlets”. Seriously, people have been using scanners to convert paper books to ebooks for more than 30 years (Project Gutenberg started in 1971 with a scan of the American Declaration of Independence.) Granted that it’s a slow, labor-intensive process, but so is converting LPs or tapes to CD or MP3 (at least if you want to do it well). Hsieh suggests a “buy it in paper, get it in digital” option similar to what Amazon has begun doing with CD purchases, but fails to explain where the electronic versions would come from or how this would help the people who already own paper copies.

I’m going to quote Hsieh’s final point in full, rather than summarizing it.

Distribution costs are zero. The paradigm of a “book” – a chunk of a few hundred pages of writing, is no longer necessary to be cost effective. Authors can distribute serialized portions of stories on a regular basis, and reach millions of readers instantly. All the things that made the internet culture grow – memes, viral content, instant sharing – can be leveraged by writers of ebooks. Authors, no longer dependent on publishers, are afforded previously unheard of flexibility with story telling. A novella can seamlessly grow into a thousand page epic, one chapter a week, urged by a growing fan base.

Publishers do more than distribute books. Off the top of my head, they promote books, they edit books, and they weed out the unreadable crap. Even if you doubt that the editorial changes improve the book, just the fact that somebody thought the book was worth publishing (meaning “enough people will like it that we can make a profit selling it”) is a signal to the reader that it might be worth reading. Take a look at any site on the Internet that allows people to post their own writing (not just stories – try blog comments, or crowd-source help sites such as Stack Exchange) and you’ll find that Sturgeon’s Law is optimistic. Would you trust a doctor, car repairman, or programmer who had been trained using books sold on the Internet by the authors?

OK, quick show of hands: How many of you reading this blog post would read it if I was charging $0.99 for it? (Be honest now: if you all say you would, I’m going to convert to a pay model tomorrow!) Next question: Would you buy my first book in electronic form if I gave you a link to Amazon right now? Great, that’s about $20 bucks in my pocket. How do I get the word out to the rest of the Internet and get them to buy it too? Well, I suppose I could send an email to every email address on the planet, but the sales conversion rate for spam is pitiful. I know: I could buy a billboard in Times Square. That would run me about $200,000 for a month. I’ll make that back in no time at all! Can I borrow 10 grand from each of you? OK, Chapter One will be out this week. Tell all of your friends to come by next week for Chapter Two!

Under Hsieh’s model, not only do I need to write my books, I’ve got to sell them too. Even if I’m a genius at marketing, the time I spend on it is time I don’t spend actually writing. I suppose I could pay someone to do it for me. And while I’m at it, I could get her to hire someone to convert my immortal words into the most popular ebook formats, run the website where I sell the books, and so on. How will I know if she’s any good? I know: I’ll check the Internet and see what everyone has written about her. Oh, wait…