Evolution On Steroids

DSC_0458With modern technology a major part of every day life, we all got used to thinks unknown not too long ago. Starting with the use of computers, the web, 24 digital TV channels covering the Olympics and a three-button mouse over general lingo and typical artwork.

We came used to think of a left-pointing arrow not as a symbol for Go Left, but Go Back, and learnt that an arrow pointing to the right implies Go Forth. A circular arrow means “try again, reload,” a triangle pointing to the right means Play. A cross doesn’t indicate a forbidden route, but a tool to stop things. A little house means Home, and we even learned the meaning of home in computing (and by computing, we mean web browsing). We even learned the difference between one’s home page and a web page’s home.

Some of these newly acquired abilities are somewhat logical choices, but how is it that we came use to think of a stylised magnifying glass as a symbol for Search, not Zoom in, Magnify?

I wonder what  today’s children think when they find a real magnifying glass.


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Security Questions

DSC_0618It seems that a German person is not generally compatible with security questions. One of my online banking facilities recently asked to update details, including the provision of answers to three security questions. I could chose the three question from a pool of over a dozen of pre-defined questions. Wishing to provide memorable answers gets me thinking:

Where was your first job?

Well, it depends. Do you mean the first occasion where I earned money for work, or the first real job with a contract, or the first …

What was your first pet’s name?

Well, it depends. Do family pets count, or would it have to be my pet? What if I had a pair of hamsters?

Where was your first holiday?

Well, I’d say, it depends. Do you mean the first time my parents took me on a summer holiday (I don’t recall the location), or the first holiday that I remember, or the first holiday without my parents? Do boy scout camps count? The first holiday with a spouse? Is a weekend trip considered a holiday?

Today, I might chose one of the many possible answers to each question, but how can I be sure that, in case of need two years down the line, I will make the same choice?

I end up choosing an answer, not necessarily from the truth, and write it down in my personal files (in a secure manner). Since my mother’s maiden name isn’t exactly a state secret, answering security questions with made-up answers is the most secure way to handle these anyhow, but it leads to the final security question, the hardest of all:

Where do you keep your written-down security answers?


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Typographical Marmite

lorem-ipsumMarmite is one of those spreads that splits mankind into those who love it and those who hate it, plus those fortunate souls which never heard of it. You can probably sense where I stand on the Marmite front, but here’s another Marmite-esque clash of the cultures:

Do you like your font modern and straight-faced, a member of the sans-serife family of fonts, or do you prefer a serife font?

See, I quite like a serife font. I think it is easier to read and easier on the eye. To that end, I created a my own WordPress child-theme (which turned out to be very easy to do) and switched this site from the serife-less Helvetica to the serif typeface, with a preference for Georgia.

I love it. I hope you like it, too.


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Fruits of My Labour

polluxHere are the first fruits of my labour: at long last, the W7 Petcam is live! You can see it right here, in the right side bar of the main page.

The view isn’t great because the boys are under a reflecting acrylic sheet to keep them dry. I’ll think of something, maybe move the camera. I have now thought of something, and moved the camera. You can now look them into the eye, if they happen to look into yours.

For now, I am pleased with the current state of affairs.

You can manually refresh the image, or switch to Auto mode. In auto mode, the image refreshes automatically every few seconds, but the longer you watch, the slower it gets. You can’t make it bigger or change to live video, however. This is designed on purpose to preserve my Internet bandwidth.

Castor and Pollux say “hi.”

A Standing Ovation

2011-01-03 009After a brief excursion into the world of the whacky and hopeless, I return to play with the big boys. I play a lot with Microsoft during paid time, so this is one good reason to look elsewhere in my spare time, and begin learning Adobe Flex 4.6.

Boy. Man. Cheeses. They must have some sense of an uphill struggle against Microsoft, and they must have thought that developers out there need any help they can possibly get to adopt this exciting platform. What an inspired idea! I am flabbergasted. The introductory PDF alone is a mere 2574 well-written pages (free download). There’s a week’s worth of reasonably well-made video training and exercises right here, and tons after tons of good documentation, dictionaries, tutorials, you-name-it, an inexpensive but well made development tool, … I am impressed. Seriously impressed. Just go to the Adobe Developer Connection and find out for yourself.

It’s very hard to beat Microsoft’s .NET platform on any account, but I am amazed to see how far (and close) Adobe has got. In many ways, they are way ahead of .NET (like, in terms of target platform support). Looking at the documentation alone, it comes at no surprise that the fringe, including, but by no means limited to, Runtime Revolution’s LiveCode, stand no chance in real life.

I can see room at the fringes for specialised exotics such as MIT’s Scratch (programming for kids), Processing (2D and 3D animation) and many others, but it’ll take some real innovative punch to break into the market with a new general purpose language such as LiveCode.

I have always thought it is those hopeless souls that need most attention, as they harbour most novel and exciting ideas. It is sad, in a way, that the world of software engineering appears to be governed by a few big players, but as it happens, this is the rightfully earned case.



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A Perfect Waste o’ Time

29-03-2012 19-16-27I told you how I shrugged off the burden of evening academia and became a free man again. Today, I’ll tell you how I spent some of the newly found spare time. Moreover, I am providing you with a way to spend your spare time:

I was exploring LiveCode, a playful programming language which caught my interest thanks to its different approach, compared to many other languages.

Unfortunately, LiveCode is not only slightly different but also vastly inferior than many other languages and tools, but it’s good fun to some level. In pretty short time, starting from not knowing about the existence of LiveCode, I produced a perfect waste of time: a little application that resembles the 1970’s puzzle where you had to slide 15 out of 16 numbered tiles into the correct positions. The LiveCode makers host an example which implements a similar game; I should point out that I disagree with this example’s approach to the problem. My little time waster contains no code from that example application, although some similarities necessarily exist.

My perfect waste of time starts with with a 3×3 grid, but the grid grows with each level. You can use numbered tiles (just turn off the Use Pictures feature), but by default, you get a picture puzzle, which we find much harder than numbers.

You’ll find a Perfect Waste o’ Time right here.

Go on! What are you wasting your time reading this article, when there are better ways of wasting your time?

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Hallelujah, Krutzitürken and Sakrament!

stmichelWelcome back, everyone. You couldn’t hear me shout expletives when I discovered this site, and its siblings, hacked a few days ago. I was quiet in frustration and disbelief.

After several hours of work, all sites are up again, clean as far as I can tell, more secure than ever, and closely monitored. I am especially pleased that I managed to recover all (or most) articles and comments on this blog. Some funny characters such as German umlauts or typographic quotes are lost and may show through other funny characters – I am working on these, but rely on your good imagination to understand that Leberkn¶del probably means Leberknödel.

The hack redirected the site to a (seemingly Russian) malware site.

I do not understand the motivation behind the attack, and have not seen any damage caused on any computer visiting the site. However, as a general precaution, it’s always good to consider taking these steps:

  • Run a full system virus scan on your computer (may be an overnight job),
  • Change your passwords (and try not to make them all the same),
  • Clear your web browser’s cache (sometimes also called the browsing history).

While I do no know how the attack was possible, common sense, a close inspection and plenty of Google search gave a number of good suggestions. All feasible ones are now in place and should make this site safe from future attacks (and I will be more diligent with backups…).

Let’s hope for the best and move on.

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More Fog and White Smoke

sunglassesI am fascinated by software that I never knew existed. Either this software provides a solution to a problem I never knew existed, or solve a known problem in a way I never new to me. The grammar and style analysers fall into the second category, potentially useful tools.

Earlier, I reported on my journey through several tools, namely White Smoke, Ginger and Grammarly, and dismissed all of them. Just when I had finished writing my report, I stumbled across more tools in the same category: the offline tools Editor Software’s StyleWriter and Serenity Software’s Editor.

As offline tools, neither StyleWriter nor Editor need an Internet connection to work. This speeds up analysis, and eliminates most security and privacy concerns (concerns the online competition seem little concerned about, judging by their half-baked statements and assurances about privacy and security).

Editor has some positive reviews. Serenity Software’s claim to fame also includes quotations from StyleWriter’s website, displaying where the competition’s marketing material fails to use good, clear English.

Frankly, I do not know how good Editor works. The tool has an archaic user interface and workflow, both unintuitive and unappealing. The general opinion gives this tool good marks on its findings, but I don’t even want to get there. It’s ugly and no fun. Dismissed.

StyleWriter has a cluttered user interface of questionable appeal, and offers half-baked integration into Microsoft Word. Their makers confirmed that they “don’t have any plans to integrate StyleWriter into other applications than Word,” and commented that “all other applications can paste text to Word for interactive editing or use the clipboard.” This fails to meet my requirements, but I am glad if this business plan works for Editor Software. Henry Ford also produced only black cars.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get StyleWriter’s Word integration to work reliably. Sometimes it worked, but in almost half the cases, the tool didn’t show the Word document‘s content, or didn’t list the work document among those available.

No matter how you present your text to StyleWriter, by copy and paste or using the Word Add-in, you’ll face a user interface suitable only for a few paragraphs. All formatting is removed, making correlation to the original document difficult. My display jumped about on some occasions, making me think they are trying to scroll both Word and StyleWriter views in sync, but this didn’t work at all. Reviewing a whole document in this manner is not workable. I feel the only reasonable user interface includes true integration with the word processor, just like Word’s built-in red and green wiggly lines.

StyleWriter fascinates me nevertheless, because the tool identified several errors and weaknesses in my writing. The most common offence is unnecessary fill words, and overuse of the  passive voice. Most comments were unspecific, and repetitive: “Shorten this sentence,” “remove fill words,” or “try using active voice,” again and again, with practical suggestions few, and far between. Only few other comments were offered, although I am certain that my writing has room for improvement in many ways.

Experimenting with these tools heightened my awareness for grammar and style. Given the unappealing and largely impracticable user interface, I fear the software would become a disused item on my hard disc, once the novelty has worn off.

I can not recommend buying any of these tools, but I can recommend experimenting with them. If you can’t decide which tool to experiment with, try StyleWriter. This is the only reasonable contestant as far as I can see, although I struggle to understand how anyone would think this user interface good enough for the 21st century.

(Click here for the first part of this article.)

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A Lot of Fog and White Smoke

fog-in-sicilyI was searching for a software solution the other day, when stumbling over Whitesmoke and Ginger. Neither was what I sought, but once intrigued, I loaded their trial versions.

Both products claim to be a better version of Microsoft Word’s spellchecker and grammar tool. These tools provide spellchecking, and claim strong validation engines for grammar and style, and producing high-quality suggestions. Various language dictionaries, translation, thesaurus, … This post is too short for the impressive list of features, so you may understand my reasons for a closer inspection.

In a nutshell: it’s a joke. Try the free trial for a good laugh, just do not spend a penny on it.

I offered the same test to both tools:

First, I gave a simple and correct sentence, which a reference to a 3.3V voltage. Incomplete sentence was the verdict when facing the decimal point.

Second, I gave a 10-page Word document. This document (none of mine ;-) sports poor grammar, many spelling and upper case errors, poor style, use of jargon, missing articles or false word choice (e.g. weather vs. whether). The analyser tools should have shone with  long lists of findings. However, notes were mostly on missing articles and words missing from the dictionary.

Third, I gave a half-page long and reasonably well-written document, with more reasonable results. One repetition was reported, and no inappropriate advise was given.

Last not least, I found Grammarly, an online tool serving the same purpose – a pure online tool, given that their Microsoft Office Add-in crashed within minutes. Grammarly’s results and suggestions were better than Whitesmoke or Ginger’s. I used Grammarly for a while in a real (technical) document. It gave plenty of advise about my use of passive voice, thank you very much, and made me conscious of my writing style. A cross-check with the poorly written document showed no overwhelming success for Grammarly though. I also found many aspects of their online tool not practical or unacceptable on various accounts.

Grammarly found more issues and provide better guidance, compared with Whitesmoke and Ginger, but is far from being useful and worth a paid subscription.

An interesting journey. The journey soon continues with the more capable contestants, StyleWriter and Editor; stay tuned.

(The second part is right here.)

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Online Fun

I don't believe in war (graffiti) Did you ever notice that LEO, the brilliant and free online dictionary, also sports voice output? I wasn’t sure about the correct pronunciation of a word, and the tool came to my rescue. Brilliant.

This appears to be based on the Linguatec Voice Reader, an impressive piece of kit that reads text out aloud, supporting a great number of languages. Most impressive.

I have no need for the Linguatec Voice Reader, but it can still make my day. You’ve got to try this: Go to the voice reader demo site (it’s right here), then enter a text of your choice. I chose this from last Friday’s post: Talking on the mobile phone while sitting in a toilet cubicle with the trousers round the ankles is, I find, hugely borderline and a sign of disrespect for the party called.

I am sure you’d be impressed by the tool. I am also sure you’d be hugely amused having it read text of one language using the language setting for another language. For example, have an English text read in French.

Cheap, harmless yet highly effective amusement. Thanks, Linguatec!

A Reason to Join Twitter

lost duck I never knew a reason to join twitter, but I am seriously contemplating doing so, ever since I heard that the US Library of Congress decided to archive every tweet ever made.

I think everyone should sign up to Twitter right away, and inundate them with so much inane babble (also known as a 140 character maximum tweet) that they stop such nonsense and focus on a more selective method of preserving knowledge and history.

They must be out of their minds, but it’s kind-a difficult to explain in 140 characters.


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From A to B

30percent How does one get from A to B these days?

Like almost everything else, you’d start by going online, and seek Google‘s advise.

Google’s maps are superb after all, and their driving instructions excellent. Our collective blind reliance on Google as the world’s single source of information on almost anything is increasingly worrying. Not that I have reason to believe they do anything wrong, or filter or rate or present information in a way that I disagree with, but I grow increasingly uneasy about this whole thing.

Supersized media barons such as Axel Springer or Rupert Murdoch are tiny players in the information monopoly game, when you compare it to Google.

So, when it comes to journey planning within the UK, it turns out that there is an excellent, government-funded alternative: Transport Direct.

Unlike Google, Transport Direct only covers the UK.

Unlike Google, Transport Direct considers the use of sustainable transport (i.e. bicycles) and use of public transport in addition to regular use of roads and cars. They factor live travel news into the equation, compute the CO2 cost of a trip, know locations of car parks.

And, they aren’t run by Google.


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