Tag Archives: software

The free software movement tries to hack the law

And open source what happens when advocates try to make free software business-friendly.

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything podcast:

Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman tells us about her book Coding Freedom and the time she spent among the Hackers, “Chris” makes his TOE debut with a story about the alleged hacking of the New York Times by the Chinese, and your host wonders if it might be possible to hire a hacker to break into George RR Martin’s computer so that he can read the rest of the Game of Thrones story without having to wait 10 years like everyone else.

Getting out of the office

Monitoring software lets employers keep an eye on their remote workers, with keyloggers to see what’s on their screens and cameras to watch them in their home offices. That’s both wrong and bad for business, says David Heinemeier Hansson, a partner at 37 Signals, a company filled with remote workers And Ignacio Uriarte is an artist who works with Excel and other office software.

Out of the Office – Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything podcast

I’ve been working remotely for most of the last 25 years. Hansson is right — employers should keep an eye on the work product and ignore work habits. If the work product is all right, it doesn’t matter if the employee has what appears outwardly to be lousy work habits.

AT&T: What Is ‘open source,’ anyway?

Me, Light Reading:

Companies evaluating open source technology need to be careful that they get all the open source benefits. That’s sometimes tricky, which is why AT&T has defined “three key characteristics of open source software that we consider paramount,” says Greg Stiegler, AT&T assistant vice president of cloud.

The Singularity is a white person’s problem

terminator

Rich white folks worry about the Singularity, but AI is already making problems for the rest of us.

Kate Crawford, The New York Times:

According to some prominent voices in the tech world, artificial intelligence presents a looming existential threat to humanity: Warnings by luminaries like Elon Musk and Nick Bostrom about “the singularity” — when machines become smarter than humans — have attracted millions of dollars and spawned a multitude of conferences.

But this hand-wringing is a distraction from the very real problems with artificial intelligence today, which may already be exacerbating inequality in the workplace, at home and in our legal and judicial systems. Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are being built into the machine-learning algorithms that underlie the technology behind many “intelligent” systems that shape how we are categorized and advertised to.

Software used to assess the risk of recidivism in criminals is biased against blacks, as is software used by police departments across the US to identify hotspots for crime. Amazon’s same-day delivery service was initially unavailable for ZIP codes in predominantly black neighborhoods, “remarkably similar to those affected by mortgage redlining in the mid-20th century.” And women are less likely than men to be shown ads on Google for highly paid jobs.

Thanks, Cory!

Link

Robert Kosara, a research scientist at data visualization software company Tableau, has been solving puzzles using the US’s nearly 4,2000 ZIP codes for years, writes Christopher Ingraham at The Washington Post. Kosara had a question:

What would it look like if you drew a single line through all Zip codes in the lower 48 in numeric order? Kosara wrote some code and let it rip, and what he ended up with was a map that clearly delineated state boundaries and gave a reasonable approximation of population density to boot. Since it looked as though it were created by scribbling in arbitrary regions of a U.S. map, he dubbed it the ZIPScribble map.

Kosara ran some calculations and discovered that if you started at the lowest-numbered Zip code (00544, Holtsville, NY) and walk through every Zip code in the continental U.S. in numeric order all the way up to the highest-numbered Zip code (99403, Clarkston, WA), the path you’d need to take would be roughly 1,155,268 miles long. Which naturally brought up a second question: What would be the shortest route you could take through all 37,000 of those zip codes?

This type of problem actually has a storied history in computer science. It’s known as the Traveling Salesman Problem: Say a salesman has a bunch of cities in his route — what’s the shortest trip he can take through all of them? This type of computation is used as a benchmark in computer science because it has a lot of applications, from route-finding to the creation of circuit boards, and because it gets complicated really, really quickly. For instance, a network of only 20 points contains roughly 1.2 quintillion(1,200,000,000,000,000,000) possible solutions, only one of which can be the shortest. That’s on the order of magnitude of the number of grains of sand on earth.

What, then, of a traveling salesman problem with more than 37,000 points?

Kosara took a crack at it. He called it the Traveling Presidential Candidate Problem, after a hypothetical presidential candidate who wanted to visit all 37,000 contiguous Zip codes to clinch the nomination.

Link

Word processing has transformed the way writers work, a transition from typewriters to electronic writing that happened in a  few short years, starting in the mid-70s and ending by 1984 and 1985. The transition has been largely overlooked by literary historians, but now Matthew Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, has written a history, “Track Changes” (great title!). He talked with Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic: How to Write a History of Writing Software

Writers of genre fiction — particularly science fiction — adopted word processors long before literary writers. That’s not necessarily because science fiction writers are technology focused (I’ve been surprised myself by how Luddite science fiction fans can be in their real-life use of technology), but because genre writers need to work fast, and turn out a lot of work at high volume.

Robinson writes:

[Kirschenbaum’s] new history joins a much larger body of scholarship about other modern writing technologies—specifically, typewriters. For instance, scholars confidently believe that the first book ever written with a typewriter was Life on the Mississippi,by Mark Twain. They have conducted typographical forensics to identify precisely how T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was composed—which typewriters were used, and when. And they have collected certain important machines for their archives.

One day, a similarly expansive body of work may exist for writing software—and Kirschenbaum will be one of its first builders.

In the interview, Kirschenbaum addresses the question of which author was the first to write a novel with a word processor.

We can’t know with absolute certainty, I don’t think, but there are a couple of different answers.

If we think of a word processor or a computer as something close to what we understand today—essentially a typewriter connected to a TV set—there are a couple of contenders from the mid- to late-1970s. Notably Jerry Pournelle, who was a science fiction author. He is probably the first person to sit and compose at a “typewriter” connected to a “TV screen”—to compose there, to edit, and revise there, and then to send copy to his publisher. That was probably a novella called Spirals.

But there are earlier examples. Len Deighton, a highly successful author of British high-tech espionage thrillers, bought an early IBM word processor in the late 1960s. It wasn’t recognizably related to the word processors of today; the user typed on an IBM Selectric MS/ST typewriter that simultaneously recorded text on magnetic tape and conventional paper.

Kirschenbaum notes that secretaries, usually women, were the first to use word processors. Indeed, I remember that in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, successful men couldn’t type — typing was clerical, menial work, something that most men simply did not do. The transition to personal computers led to a brief bloom of typing classes — although the word “typing” had girl-cooties, so these classes were called “keyboarding,” or even “executive keyboarding.”

Me, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer, and even in the late 70s it was obvious to many of us that personal computing was the future. I taught myself to touch-type when I was about 12 years old, and I took a typing class in high school to brush up on those skills, along with a few male friends who were also active in the computer club.

Back to Kirschenbaum: Even though the MS/ST lacked a screen, he calls it the first word processor because it stored the text electronically.

Your “screen” was the sheet of paper you had in your Selectric typewriter. You did your typing on the Selectric—which is the same typewriter, for example, we see in Mad Men; it’s a famous ’60s-era electric typewriter—and if you made mistakes, you would backspace. You would get a mess on the sheet of paper that was currently on the Selectric, but the correct sequence of character strokes was being stored on the tape. Then you would put a clean sheet of paper into the typewriter and it would automatically print out, sort of player-piano fashion, the text stored on the tape’s storage.

This unit sold in the 1960s for $10,000. That’s obviously quite a lot of money, and IBM used the term word processing as a marketing device.

Deighton wrote on a conventional Selectric, then handed the typescript to his secretary, Ellenor Handey, to retype it using the MS/ST. Therefore, I call shenanigans on Kirschenbaum’s classifying Deighton as the first author to use a word processor, simply because he wasn’t the one using the MS/ST. Still, it’s an interesting anecdote — Deighton was on the edge between non-word-processor users and word-processor users.

And importantly, Kirschenbaum says the essential thing about the word processor isn’t the screen, it’s the fluid, electronic nature of the text.

Microsoft Word is still the gold standard for writing software; even people who write primarily for the Internet — including most of the technology journalists I know — use Word. That absolutely flummoxes me. Even today, Word  seems to me to be software designed primarily to produce printed hardcopy, often ornately formatted in ways that writers don’t care about. It’s not designed for articles, blog posts, or books; it’s designed for corporate annual reports.

Until recently, I preferred to write in text editors designed by and for software developers. Now, there’s a new generation of word processing software developed primarily for people who write electronically; Ulysses for Mac is one of those apps, which is the one I use. Scrivener is a more well-known example.

A lot of writing today gets done in email applications and web browsers — specifically the text entry box of Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m writing this post in the composition window of WordPress. I’m writing on a plane (Kirschenbaum discusses how word processors have changed WHERE we write, as well as how), and I don’t currently have an Internet connection. I really, really hope I don’t lose my work, but WordPress is pretty good about that.

And of course, writing on mobile phones is hugely popular. Maybe the people who are toddlers today will never learn to keyboard; they’ll just thumb-type.

Kirschenbaum also talks about writers he calls “refuseniks,” who were adults in the 70s and 80s and who refused to use word processors. Harlan Ellison is possibly the most outspoken example, still pounding away at a typewriter. Cormac McCarthy is another example.

Another example, not mentioned by Kirschenbaum in this interview: Our friend the science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, author of “The Forever War” and a couple of dozen other, excellent novels. Joe is no refusenik; last time I talked tech with him he was a user of a Mac, iPad, and iPhone. But he likes writing his first drafts in fountain pen on bound, blank books. He says he just writes better that way.

I’ve added Kirschenbaum’s book to my Amazon Wishlist. And, hey, there’s another idea for a book: How digital technology changes the way we read. When I was a teen-ager back in the 70s, I could easily read two or three books every week. Now, I read a half-dozen books a year, if that. I have to make a conscious effort to set aside some time every day to read books. Most of my reading time is taken up reading articles.

 

Link

Mac Users Reporting Widespread System Freezes With OS X El Capitan 10.11.4 Update

I thought it was just me. I’ve been experiencing occasional freeze-ups for a while now. Everything locks up. The clock stops, and the mouse cursor won’t move. I need to do a cold restart.

This is the first mention I’ve seen that other people have had a problem. I’ve suspected a hardware glitch – which is annoying, because my MacBook Air is about a year old. I’ve been putting off calling AppleCare.

I hadn’t seen freeze-ups on days I reboot, so I rebooted daily.

As I write this, I’ve just updated to 10.11.5. The release notes don’t give any clear indication of fixing the problem I’m having, but you never know.

Stay on top of Apple Mail using Mail Perspectives

I was pleased to once again have a two-minute audio tip featured on Mac Power Users. In it, I describe Mail Perspectives, software that lets me stay on top of email by displaying a mini-window showing key information about recently arrived messages.

My tip starts here.

Listen to the whole episode here: #309: I Haven't Discounted The Possibility That You're Crazy

An archivist argues for archiving software, with a shout-out to George R.R. Martin

Researchers in April recovered Earthrise images from a 1966 Lunar Orbiter, after nearly 50 years in dormant tape storage.

Two days later, Carnegie Mellon researchers identified and retrieved graphics created by Andy Warhol on an Amiga 1000 PC in 1985. The “group forensically imaged floppy diskettes at the Andy Warhol Museum. After some elaborate intermediary steps, including reverse engineering the proprietary format in which the files were originally created and stored, the previously unseen images were released to the public.”

Archivists often talk about the need for preserving old applications, so that old documents can be read. But Matthew Kirschenbaum goes further, saying the software should be preserved for its own sake.

Software__It’s_a_Thing_—_Medium

Consider the case of George R.R. Martin and WordStar. A month after the Earthrise/Warhol recoveries, Martin told Conan O’Brien that he writes on WordStar on MS-DOS using a machine that isn’t connected to the Internet.

Martin dubbed this his “secret weapon” and suggested the lack of distraction (and isolation from the threat of computer viruses, which he apparently regards as more rapacious than any dragon’s fire) accounts for his long-running productivity.

WordStar has an honorable history:

Writers who cut their teeth on it include names as diverse as Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, William F. Buckley, and Anne Rice (who also equipped her vampire Lestat with the software when it came time for him to write his own eldritch memoirs). WordStar was justifiably advertised as early as 1978 as a What You See Is What You Get word processor, a marketing claim that would be echoed by Microsoft when Word was launched in 1983. WordStar’s real virtues, though, are not captured by its feature list alone. As Ralph Ellison scholar Adam Bradley observes in his work on Ellison’s use of the program, “WordStar’s interface is modelled on the longhand method of composition rather than on the typewriter.” A power user like Ellison or George R.R. Martin who has internalized the keyboard commands would navigate and edit a document as seamlessly as picking up a pencil to mark any part of the page.

And yet people branded Martin as a Luddite on social media.

Kirschenbaum writes that it’s “fascinating” that people view WordStar 4.0 as a key to its user’s personality — in this case, Martin’s.

The software, in other words, becomes an indexical measure of the famous author, the old-school command-line intricacy of its interface somehow in keeping with Martin’s quirky public image, part paternalistic grandfather and part Dr. Who character. We know, that is most of us of a certain age remember, just enough about WordStar to make Martin’s mention of it compelling and captivating.

Software, It’s a Thing

I’m fooling around with the Notebooks app.

It’s a writing app for the iPad, iPhone, and Mac. It has a Windows version too.

I think it might be the ideal app for me for nearly all my writing. That includes my professional journalism, personal blogging, creative writing, online comments, and random digital scribbles. It might replace a text editor, word processor, scratchpad app, Scrivener, and much of what I use Evernote for.

Or it might be a dog. I’ve only looked at the iPad version, and that for only a few minutes.

Still. Impressed.

www.notebooksapp

My 16 favorite iPhone apps of 2011

These are the apps I find most useful. I compiled the list just by reading the app icons off the first and second screen of my iPhone. The only apps on this list are ones that I’ve been using more than a month, to prevent infatuations from getting listed.

Social

Tweetbot ($3). My favorite Twitter client. Mac bloggers can get rhapsodic and precious in their Tweetbot reviews. I just like Tweetbot. It’s fun and easy to use.

Instagram (free). My love for this free social photo-sharing app snuck up on me. I thought I was just trying it out, and then I tried posting a couple of photos, and a few months later I was hooked. Whereas Flickr seems to have gotten crustier over time with useless features, while failing to keep up on essential capabilities, Instagram does everything a photo-sharing site should and very little that’s unnecessary. Using Instagram, you can post photos, write captions, share with other people, view photos from other people, Like photos, leave comments, share on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social networks, and that’s about it. It’s like Twitter for photos. Oh, crap, now I’m the one sounding precious, aren’t I?

I can do without the filters on Instagram, but everybody else seems to like them.

Foursquare (free). I check in regularly. I don’t know why. I never get any offers. Rarely, someone I know has checked in at the same location, but if they’re there I almost always know it already. And yet I still keep tapping that button.

Facebook (free).

Fitness

Lose It! (free). Keeping a food and exercise journal is key to losing weight and getting fit; you need to write down every bite you eat, and every time you work out. That’s important for two reasons: For controlling the amount of food you eat, of course, but also to become conscious and mindful of what and when you’re eating.

Most fat people aren’t mindful; they just eat compulsively and automatically. Keeping a food journal requires you to be aware of what you’re putting in your mouth.

I weigh and measure every meal and snack. I take precise measurements with a scale when I’m home, often down to the gram. When I’m out, I estimate. Lose It tracks the calories of those foods, and also the calories burned exercising, and does so with an easy-to-use and attractive interface.

This year, Lose It added a bar code scanner, which has proven very useful; when I’m eating packaged food like a frozen dinner, I just scan the barcode with the iPhone camera and Lose It automatically tallies the calories.

Lose It’s database and calorie calculations aren’t the greatest. I find that most of the foods I eat aren’t in the database; I have to add them manually. Fortunately, I only have to do that once for each food; after that, Lose It remembers. Likewise, I’ve had to adjust my daily calorie budget; Lose It’s recommendations are way off. But Lose It makes it easy to do those things.

I use Google to find the calories of any foods that aren’t in the database. For example, Google grilled turkey and brie sandwich and you’ll get several entries; I just pick the median amount and enter it in to Lose It.

RunKeeper (free). I use it to track the duration and distance of my daily walks.

Both Lose It and RunKeeper have social features and badges that I don’t pay any attention to, with the exception of posting my RunKeeper results each day to Facebook.

Weightbot ($1.99). Lose It lacks a good diary for keeping track of your weight over time; it’ll tell you what you weighed last time you weighed yourself, but not what you weighed six months ago. That’s what Weighbot is for. It’s less important now that I’ve hit my goal weight, but I keep it up anyway.

Media

Podcaster ($2). I listen to hours of podcasts every week, and Podcaster does a better job managing them for me than the native iPod app. Podcaster does automatic, over-the-air updates of new podcast episodes, and lets me create a playlist and listen to one podcast after another without having to manually start each one.

Audible (free). Audiobooks.

Productivity

OmniFocus ($20). The iPhone version of the ultimate to-do-list management app. I also use the iPad and Mac versions. Mainly, I use the Mac version, and use the iPhone version to add new items.

Due ($5). Reminders and timers. I use it instead of the built-in iPhone timer for a couple of reasons. One is because it supports pre-set alarms. For example, I have a pre-set configured at 5 minutes to time steeping tea, and another at 32.5 minutes for the turnaround point on my walk.

The other reason I prefer Due to the built-in timer is you don’t have to press a button to turn off; it rings for a second or two and then shuts off on its own.

Since this fall, iOS 5 has its own reminders app; I haven’t compared Due with that.

Due has many other capabilities, but I don’t use most of them.

Other

GV Mobile+ ($3). My preferred Google Voice client for the iPhone. I bought it before Google had its own, official client. It’s not so much better than the official client that I’d recommend others pay for it.

Soulver ($4). Better than the iPhone’s built-in calculator; it displays results adding-machine-tape style. You can also include words in your calculations.

TomTom USA ($40). GPS and turn-by-turn directions.

1Password ($8.99). Password management. One version runs on the iPhone and iPad, and it syncs with a version for the Mac. Essential for generating secure passwords, and remembering my hundreds of passwords for Web sites and networks.

Chipotle (free). Very nice mobile commerce app; it remembers our weekly order, and, with a couple of buttons, we order, pre-pay,then I drive over, cut to the front of the line (without making eye contact with anyone in the line — that’s important), pick up and go. I’ve been trying to get an interview with Chipotle about this app for The CMO Site for months; if you have any connections over there please let me know.

For OmniFocus nerds only: A big feature request

OmniFocus is the control panel of my life. I write down everything I need or want to do in OmniFocus, and then when the time comes, I do it. This post is for my fellow OmniFocus nerds only; it won’t make sense to anyone else.

Here’s something that bugs me about OmniFocus, and that I’m hoping to see fixed in Version 2.0: The Folders/Projects/Groups structure is plain confusing. We should instead just have items which act as projects if they contain other items, and act as actions if they don’t contain anything else. Actions can exist at the top level, they don’t need to have containers.

Users should be able to nest these action/projects to an unlimited number of levels.

Eliminate parallel projects. They’re just confusing. I know what the theoretical difference is between parallel projects and the other kinds of projects. I just don’t see parallel projects as useful. To the contrary, I see their existence as harmful.

Single-action lists do essentially the same thing. The default for new projects should be configurable in preferences as either sequential or single-action lists.

I plan to write this up as a feature request and submit it to the appropriate email address at the Omni Group; I’d just like to show this to other people first, to see if I overlooked anything.