Wednesday, August 29, 2007

They're Baaack!

You know summer is over and the Fall semester is in the air when you pass a group of what appear to be Brown students, intensly hunched over around a table, and overhear one of them say:

What I'm wondering is, how long do you have to look before you find an ideology?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Flying Through Words

It's rare that I encounter something in the computing world so novel, so fascinating, and so utterly different—so unlike anything I've thought of myself—that it makes me stop and rethink what I know and do. I recently came across something along these lines: Dasher, a text-entry tool, which I found out about from Spike.

It turns out I'm just late to the party. Several of my colleagues have heard of it, and Kathi even tried it last year as a substitute to typing, but she found it painful with a mouse. I, on the other hand, played with it on my OQO (a tablet PC), and it was the most fun I've had in a while.

The Dasher page contains a link to a Google Video. I figured the talk would be either just the math (which would have been interesting enough) or...or what? Demos for an hour?

It's actually wonderful. The metaphors are, at the very least, tantalizing. Every time I thought there would be no more content, there was yet another new idea. (At minute 33 I started to clap.) There's much fascinating material at the end, too, from translation interfaces to multi-modal inputs (which I've been especially pondering given the need for such things in cell phones).

It's interesting that the rise of mobile computing has led to tools that can actually help the long-neglected physically-impaired. This is just enlightened self-interest at work: on today's mobile computers, we're all “physically-impaired”.

I have some complaints with Dasher:

  • Punctuation is difficult (what is the natural order for punctuation?).
  • It uses the shorter edge of my screen (as Jacob Baskin pointed out, perhaps it's because people write English rightwards rather than downwards).
  • It uses rectangles rather than pie-wedges (Spike claimed some cognitive reason, but I suspect it's just to simplify implementation).
  • Worst of all, it violates its own cardinal axiom, Fitt's Law. Suppose you have two frequent next letters, say p and r. Then these appear in large boxes, and q in an appropriately small one. The boxes are, unfortunately, right-aligned (with the edge of the screen), so you have to navigate this tiny channel between the Scylla of p and Charybdis of r as you hunt for the miniscule q over at screen's edge.

But enough bickering. I certainly will not be using handwriting recognition on my tablet ever again, except in extreme circumstances. And one nice side-effect: Dasher seems to consume far less power than the handwriting recognizer, which is a boon on a lightweight mobile platform.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Film Festival Time!

Three of the best things about summer in Providence: (usually) great weather, Crazy Burger, and the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

This year's festival was pretty typical in quality, so I approached it as usual. Once it begins, I go into a trance-like state of absolute concentration. The festival sells six-packs of session passes, which is just about as much as a human can consume anyway. This year, over four days, I made it to seven sessions featuring a total of thirty-six movies. Don't let that last number scare you: some were an hour-and-a-half long and some as little as two minutes. That, of course, is the beauty of the festival.

The typical festival movie is just what you'd expect of independent film: pretentious, self-indulgent, and too long (yes, there are five minute movies that are too long). But you could level an equally long litany against traditional movies, too. What stands out in independent film is passion, gutsiness, a realism forced by underproduction, an urgency imposed by tight budgets, and talent forced to stand in the spotlight in all its human, unvarnished glory. It's usually the case that the two-minute shorts are the very best movies: it's no surprise that they are invariably comedies, because they draw directly on the skill embodied in the perfect set-up of a stand-up comedian; though, because they transport this skill into a new dimension, the ones that make a social or political statement are even better. And the visual and production effects of some of these movies entirely belie their film school and other such origins.

As always, the festival had some suprises and some disappointments. My picks from the animated shorts were Fish, but No Cigar; Nasuh; Par Avion (a haiku of a movie: within the first three seconds, the animation succeeded in placing you on the banks of the Seine in Paris); Perpetuum Mobile (Leonardo da Vinci rightly credited as a props designer); and Voodoo Bayou. Of the movies, Entry Level was pleasant and refreshing. Amongst documentaries, Across the Plateau (Chuan Yue Gao Yuan) was a delight, while wordlessly emphasizing the growing Chinese presence in Tibet in two capacities: construction and the military (those two not being entirely independent). And finally, the movie that stole my heart was the short, Rocketboy.

We caught our first festival the week we moved to Providence in 2000, not having known of its existence before. Since then, we've screwed up only one summer, when we accidentally made travel plans for that same weekend. That so traumatized us that we start checking the festival calendar months in advance, so as to not repeat that mistake. The festival continues to grow in size and depth. Like a comet, it invades our life every summer, sprinkling a host of meteors about us, and satiates my entire year's need for movies in a week. Summer, and life, wouldn't be the same without it.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Assault by Battery

Kathi and I are doing a series of user interviews to gather security requirements for a concrete system we're building. This is best done with a recording device for transcription, so we purchased an Olympus DS-2 Digital Voice Recorder.

There are many wonderful things about the DS-2. It's small, it's elegant, the display is legible. The buttons are a little strange: there's no clear on-off, and it was only intuition that led me to figure that putting it on Hold would eventually turn it off. But these are minor complaints for a device that has been functioning quite nicely.

Today, we found the batteries were running low: the indicator had gone from three bars down to one. Since we're still on our first round of batteries, we weren't sure what this meant in terms of recording time. The unit is rated to run 18 hours, but nobody who works with electronics takes these sorts of ratings as anything other than gentle fun, a brief diversion from the world of hard facts. Anyway, I figured, why bother? We'll start recording, keeping an eye on the device; most probably it would work fine; when it runs out, we'll pause the speaker, switch batteries (takes under a minute), and resume.

One major difference between Kathi and me is that she is the kind of person who reads manuals, while I proceed on pure intuition for electronic devices (worked for that Hold button, right?). In this case Kathi's approach was a savior, because on page 11 of the manual, in small print, under Notes, it says

If you are recording into a file and the batteries run out, you will lose your currently recorded file because the file header will not be able to close. It is crucial to change the batteries once you see only one Hash mark in the battery icon.

Give me a moment to scream...okay, I'm back, but I don't feel much better. Never mind that the explanation probably makes no sense to the vast majority of the audience; never mind that it's probably not even true. Just contemplate this failure mode. (I like, especially, the implicit belief that nobody would ever want to use this device in a situation where a single recording might run the entire duration of battery life: a day in the wilderness, say.) As my student Jacob Baskin put it so succintly, “They created a device that performs only one operation...and they couldn't get that one right?”

Bush(n)e(l)l of Acorn

I didn't really want to shake Jesse Bushnell's hand.

Normally I'd be glad to, grease and all. But Jesse, whom I'd known as someone from bike rides, from watching the spring classics in his bike shop (The Hub, which doubles up as a furniture shop, The Zoo), and as one of my bike mechanics, had suddenly shot to fame as a principal participant in this summer's most entertaining happening: the maiden voyage of the Acorn, a replica of the US Civil War submarine, the Turtle. As to where Jesse's hands had been, this New York Times article says it all. (Even the droll, coolly ironic tone of the article cannot disguise the glee of a reporter assigned to a story whose copy virtually writes itself.)

So I go down to the Hub:

(Jesse) Dude, how's it going?

(Me) You're asking me? I'm surprised to see you still a free man.

[Grins, pauses, grins again...] Oops!

So here I am, interviewing Jesse Bushnell. What follows is a reconstruction of a conversation; I went in with prepared questions, but life is not a prepared activity when Jesse is around.

What's your connection with the other two?

They're both great friends. The Duke's my best friend.

Mr. Riley was recorded as emerging from the sub with a beer. Do you think it's safe to drink and dive?

The beer was intentional! That was to thin the blood. There's a ton of lead in that thing, so you've got to keep the blood thin, and the alcohol does that.

Given the quote by which the nation now best knows you, I have to ask: boxers or briefs?

Tighty-whities!

Owing to your action, do you think Alberto Gonzales would be justified in upping the terror level to a new color code? Say up to Celeste?

Who's that guy?

Aren't you embarassed about the lack of a propulsion mechanism, given that you work in a bike shop?

Dude, that's what saved us! The FBI told us that if we'd had a screw, they'd have definitely arrested us.

What's your relationship to David Bushnell?

The Duke tells me I'm related.

This unfortunately stole my next few questions, such as: was he related to Nolan Bushnell (of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese fame); whether, like the senior Bushnell, he too planned to migrate to making naval mines; and whether, given that David Bushnell moved to Georgia and adopted the name of David Bush, Jesse was also related to George W. Bush.

Some of the other things Jesse related was how the media glare was so intense he had to be escorted out the back door; how he got bitten by a dog while he was in the East River, and got stung by several jellyfish; and how the FBI descended on him. He said he was at one point bobbing around in the sub, looking out over at the Statue of Liberty and thinking about how cool all this was, when he saw a group of helicopters heading directly at him and began to revise his evaluation. When the Feds eventually got to him they asked him about various aspects of his life, including details of the houseboat on which he lives. He asked them how they knew about it. Their reply: “Because we have agents on it right now.”

The last word should surely go to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly who, with New York sangfroid, called the Acorn the “creative craft of three adventuresome individuals”. Give the man a medal for his understanding that such utterly unfettered and wholly midsdirected creativity is precisely what makes America so insanely great.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Arresting Blackboards

One of my friends (who is knowledgeable about this incident, but whose identity I've withheld for evident reasons) recently brought to my attention a disturbing event. I cannot testify to the accuracy of the report seeing as my knowledge of Turkish politics is low and I cannot read any accounts in that language. However, I was able to confirm the facts from another Turkish person, so I have at least some corroboration.

Ali Nesin is the head of mathematics at Istanbul Bilgi University. He apparently produces a popular mathematics magazines that sells thousands of issues while retaining a very respectable level of the mathematics. Ali seems to really love mathematics in its many forms (including computer science). Ali also cobbles together scraps of funds to run an annual math summer school for students and teachers.

Sadly, Ali's summer school has been shut down and he has been charged with several crimes. Irrespective of the merits of the other charges, the one that we should take issue with is this one: “giving education without permission”.

Alexandre Borovik has set up a petition to protest this. His blog has multiple posts about the situation. Be sure to visit the blog and see the photographs of the cordoned-off blackboard (and check out the content on it).

I have heard that one of the principal reasons for persecuting Ali is that he is the son of a left-wing Turkish humorist, Aziz Nesin, and the recent rise of Islamist power in Turkey has given a fillip to forces arrayed against him. Reading the older Nesin's biography, it's easy to see why he might have offended these powers—not that that excuses what has happened. Anyway, I have reliable evidence that Ali Nesin is a good soul who means to spread his love for mathematics.

It's a sad blow against fundamental freedoms in Turkey. In addition, no country can prosper that shuts down volunteer schools that teach group theory.