03.20.11

The Perfect Email Client

Posted in Email, Technology trends at 12:09 am by ducky

Note: I first wrote this in 2002 (revised 2004, 2006, and 2007) on the Web site for my books, but have since taken down that site.  I was thinking about it today, so decided to repost it:

The Perfect Email Program

People occasionally ask me what I’d like to see in the perfect email program. Some email programs have some of the elements of a perfect email program, but none has all of them. Here’s my wish list:

      1. Virus resistance. While virus resistance is a broad and general topic, I would like, at a minimum, a filter condition that can examine the names of attachments, e.g.
        	if .exe is in attachment name
      2. Easy way to see all “to-do” messages nicely grouped and prioritized.
        The Conventional Wisdom is that you group messages by moving related messages into a folder. For example, move all messages from your manager into your “Boss” folder. Unfortunately, many (if not most) people have a hard time keeping track of their “to-do” messages (to-read, to-reply-to, to-act-on) when they are spread across multiple folders. It’s better if you can sort them in place, in the inbox. Ideally, you’d like the inbox to show e.g. all the messages from your spouse at the top of the inbox, followed by all messages from your boss, followed by all messages from your coworkers, etc.I don’t care what the mechanism is for grouping, as long as the “to-do” messages are visible in one place. For example, if I can set up a view that shows all the “to-do” messages in all folders at once (sometimes called Virtual Folders), grouped by what folder they’re in, fine. I do want to be able to expand/collapse the folders, however, so that I only see what is relevant to my tasks RIGHT NOW.Another way the Perfect Email Program could do it is to let me use filters to change a field in the message that I can sort your inbox by. So for example, if the filters can change the “category” of a message,
        and then I can sort the inbox by “category”, I’m happy.

        NB: The filters in Eudora and Thunderbird can change the Label of a message; Outlook’s rules can
        change the Category of a message. However, it’s a bit awkward to deal with them.

        • Eudora has a very limited number of labels, 15 under Mac OS and 7 under Windows. Eudora doesn’t allow grouping (i.e. being able to collapse messages in a group), but it does allow sorting first by label, second by date.
        • To sort an Outlook mailbox by Categories, you have to set up a View that Groups by Categories. Furthermore, if you reply to a message that you’ve assigned a Category to, when you reply, the receiver will see your Category…. and there is no way to strip Categories from incoming or outgoing messages (unless you set up a macro).
        • Thunderbird 1.5 has a very limited number of labels, although Thunderbird 2.0 is supposed to allow an arbitrary number of labels. Thunderbird 1.5 has grouping in various ways, though it doesn’t seem possible to group by address book. It does allow sorting first by label, second by date.
      3. Grouping by social network. I could have put this in the group-and-prioritize-in-place item above, because grouping-by-social-network works well with the above, but you don’t have to have grouping-by-social-network for group-and-prioritize-in-place to be useful. I want my email client to be able to group messages by which social network the sender is in. I want to see messages from my co-workers in one bucket, messages from my family in another, etc, as noted above.While yes, there are some cases where someone will be in two social networks (like if you work with your spouse), those are rare and can be handled by showing messages from people in two social networks twice, once for each social network.It has been my experience that it is very difficult even for humans to figure out how to categorize email messages by anything else but sender; I don’t think a computer will ever be good enough at it. However, there is one and only one sender for a message, and social groups are reasonably stable (in the sense that Rosario generally doesn’t leave your church group on Monday, join your skydiving group on Tuesday, leave your skydiving group on Wednesday, join your company on Friday, etc.). I think computers probably can make good guesses at who is in which social group by looking at your email history: who did you correspond with and who did your correspondent correspond with? (I do still want to be able to correct the email program’s choices.)NB: IBM and Microsoft have both done some research on merging social networks with email. I don’t think they are quite to the “group by social network” feature yet, but they are getting close.

        Even if the email program can’t guess at your social networks, you can still do the grouping by social network by hand. These two features make it much easier to do so:

        • A filter condition that will check if someone is in a certain address book. This allows filters along the lines of “If the sender is in my ‘Friends’ address book, change the category to ‘Friends'”. (This is much easier than generating a different rule for each friend!)Thunderbird 1.5, Eudora 6, and Outlook 2000 all have the filter condition “is in address book X”. Thunderbird 1.5 doesn’t seem to have a way to filter for “is in any of my address books”.
        • One-click/one-keystroke addition of the sender of a message to a particular address book. For example, when I get a message from my cousin for the first time, I should be able to easily add her to my “Family” address book — and so from then on, her messages should show up with the “Family” category.NB: Gmail has a click->dropdown-select to add to the address book. Thunderbird 1.5 takes click->dropdown-select->move-mouse-a-long-way->press-OK to put the person into the default address book.
      4. An easy way to mark messages “done”. To be able to see at a glance all the messages which I need to read, reply to, or act upon, I need to be able to get messages of my sight — to mark them “done” — when I no longer need to read, reply, or act upon them.My favorite way is to have a button in the toolbar that transfers finished messages out of the inbox and into a mailbox that has the same name as the message’s category. This should also be a one-keystroke operation.NB: Google’s GMail does this with their “Archive” button.Thunderbird has a bug for keyboard shortcut for filing a message to a folder, and one for specifying a default folder to file messages into. If these are implemented, it will probably be adequate. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any action on those two.
      5. An easy way to hide a message until some time in the future.Sometimes you know that you can’t deal with a message right now. For example, if Chantelle is the only one who knows what the status of the patent application is, and she won’t be back from her vacation in Bhutan until next Wednesday, you’d like to make Bob’s message about the patent to disappear for now, then reappear next Wednesday.NB: I like to call this the “hide-until” feature instead of the “defer” feature because I think “hide-until” makes it more obvious and explicit that the message is going to come back.
      6. A button in the toolbar for “move to next message” and “move to previous message”. Many programs let you use keyboard shortcuts (frequently arrow keys), but most of the people I’ve observed use the mouse for navigating, not the keyboard.NB: Eudora for Windows has toolbar buttons for next/previous message. You can set it up with Eudora for Macintosh but it’s a little clunky. Outlook has this for messages open in their own windows but not in the main list-of-messages window.Eudora has a keyboard shortcut for next/previous message. Outlook has a shortcut, but it’s different depending upon whether the index (list-of-messages) pane or the message pane is active. Thunderbird lets you use the up/down arrows, but in Threaded mode, you have to switch between left/right to view previous-/next-in-thread or up/down for previous/next thread.
      7. An easy way to visually indicate who the message was addressed to:
          • TO me and only me
          • TO me and other people
          • CC me only
          • CC me and other people
          • BCC me (me not mentioned)

         

        Ideally, I’d like to be able to set different colors for messages depending upon how they are addressed.

        NB: Outlook lets you color code pretty easily. Google’s GMail shows different icons based on how you were addressed. If Thunderbird 2.0 allows you to group based on sender’s address book, then you could use labels to color code. (This does seem like a waste of the labelling capabilities, though.)

      8. Auto-suggest. If you are working in anything resembling tech support, you might have lots and lots of canned responses to common questions. Finding the right response might be tricky if you have lots to choose from. It would be nice to have filters able to suggest (with checkboxes or some such) probable responses, with the option to either send-as-is or edit. For example, a college webmaster could have a filter

        “If the word ‘admissions’ is in the subject line, suggest the ‘graduate admissions’ response and the ‘undergraduate admissions’ response.”

        I got to use a client with autosuggest (and had just such a filter) when I was webmaster at a major university. It was amazing. Auto-suggest can get you through email about ten times faster.

        NB: This is Thunderbird bug 151925, the somewhat less useful but still valuable reply-with-template is bug 21210.

         

      9. A way to concatenate message conversations with the redundant quoted material stripped out. I think the way that Zest does is very interesting. NB: Eudora 6 does message concatenation and strips quotes if and only if you use preview mode. Gmail hides quoted material in a thread. Apple’s Mail.app and Thunderbird both pull messages in a thread to be next to each other, but don’t concatenate the messages.
      10. Automatic whitelisting. I want my email program to be able to recognize people I know: who are in my address book, who I have sent messages to, and who I’ve gotten mail from that I didn’t mark as junk. While these people should not get a “free pass”, since viruses now frequently forge addresses from people I know, I do want my spam filter to be more lenient for people I know.To make the automatic whitelisting useful, I’d like a filter condition
        	sender is someone I know

        NB: Thunderbird 1.5 has a filter option “is in address book X”, where one of the options is “Collected Addresses”, but Thunderbird doesn’t actually seem to collect addresses for me.

         

      11. Filter actions that operate on attachments. I’d like to be able to move all attachments from people I don’t know into a “probable junk” folder.
      12. Filters that can score. With pass/fail filter conditions, it’s difficult to write good spam filters. Usually, messages with embedded images are spam — but not always. Usually, messages that don’t have me in the To or CC lines is spam — but not always.I want a filter action that will let me add/subtract points from a spam score, e.g.:
        • add 100 points if the sender is someone I know
        • subtract 50 points if the subject line contains Viagra
        • subtract 80 points if the subject line starts with ADV
        • subtract 40 points if the body contains 1-800
        • subtract 1000 points if the body contains iframe src=cid:

        and so on.

        I want a filter condition that will check to see if the spam score is greater than/less than a value, so that I can do things like:

        • if score<-100, delete message
        • if score<15, assign to z-PossibleSpam category

        Note that this is even more powerful if there is filter-by-filter import/export: people could share good spam rules, they could be posted on Web sites.

        (I am leery of having spam rules hardwired into popular email programs — doing so gives the spammers a homogenous victim population that’s easy to target.)

        I did some fiddling with a Visual Basic macro that does scoring (for Microsoft Outlook), and it was pretty deadly. Spambayes, which came along later, is also quite good, but is not particularly good at using information about who you know. SpamAssassin also does scoring and works pretty well.

        NB: For Thunderbird, this is bug 151622. Note that if the built-in spam filters work well enough, this won’t be necessary.

      13. Easy importing of filters on a filter-by-filter basis.This would let people share the most effective filters.This sounds simple, but I think it is critically important. If spam filters are centrally distributed in some way — like if Microsoft builds them into Outlook, say — then the spammers will learn how to work around them. If everyone’s email filters are different, it will be much harder for the spammers to figure out how to work around them.NB: This is Thunderbird
        bug 151612.
      14. Connection to a collaborative URL filtering service. (This one is a little tougher, as I haven’t heard of a collaborative URL filter service yet.) At the 2004 spam conference, somebody made a casual comment that 95% of spam has a URL in it. This is not surprising, as the spammers have to have their customers contact them somehow.While you can’t just penalize all messages that have URLs in them, you could build up a database of URLs seen in spam. This wouldn’t help the first person who saw a particular URL, but it would help the second, third, and thirty-millionth.Presumably, the spammers would start to use unique URLs for each person, but that’s a bit more expensive. (Expensive is good. If it gets too expensive, the spammers can’t make money any more.) Furthermore, the scoring system could penalize URLs from spammy domains, even if it isn’t an exact match.

I want many other things, but these are the biggies. If you want to hear about all the other things I want in an email program, contact me.

03.19.11

AP takes hyphen out of email!

Posted in Email, Random thoughts, Technology trends at 11:47 pm by ducky

Today the AP decided to change its style guide to drop the use of a hyphen in “e-mail”.  I feel vindicated.

When I was writing my books, lo those many years ago, I bucked the prevailing style guides and left the hyphen out.  The hyphen in “e-mail” just looked wrong to me.  “Besides”, I said, “there aren’t any other words that use the pattern ‘<letter>-hyphen-<word>'”.

Well, I proved myself wrong shortly after that:

A is the A-list of who’s the “in crowd”,

B is for B-school to make Mamma proud.

C is for C-note (the gangster’s small change),

While D’s for D-day which cut Adolf’s range.

E is for E-mail, an electronic note,

F is for F-word (that daren’t be spoke).

G is for G-string that dancers must wear,

and H’s for H-bomb to fight the Red Scare.

I is for I-beam to make a strong fort,

and J’s for J-school to learn to report.

K is for K-9, the cop that goes woof,

while L’s for L-bracket (to hold on your roof).

M is for M-dash (the one that is long),

with N for N-dash (all over this song).

O is for O-ring of Space Shuttle tears,

Q is the Q-tips you stick in your ears.

R is for R-value home insulations,

S is for S-set used in German nations.

T is for T-shirt that Americans wear,

and U’s for the U-joint of auto repair.

V is for V-neck which looks rather dressy,

X is for X-ray which acts to undress ye.

Y is for none else but Y-chromosome,

and if I knew Z I could maybe go home.

But you probably noticed I slipped past a few

I left out the P and W.

M-dash and N-dash are sort of a cheat,

But say what you will, they do keep the beat.

But if you know how to make this song better,

Send me a rhyme for your favorite letter!

Other people pointed out F-4, K-12, K-car, K-mart, N-word, O-levels, P-Funk, P-Furs, P-channel and n-channel, T-ball, T-square, U-boat, V-day, W-2, X- and Y-chromosome, and Z-buffering.

01.06.11

New blog: Glyph of the Day

Posted in Random thoughts at 11:52 pm by ducky

Oh yeah.  Hubby says I should mention that I am writing a new blog: Glyph of the Day, where I plan/hope to write about a different writing system every day, hopefully briefly.

My goal is to give one “Whoa!” each day; if I can’t do that, I’d like to at least give one “huh, I didn’t know that”.

01.02.11

Prediction: cellphone cameras

Posted in Technology trends at 11:54 am by ducky

It is common to do retrospectives at the end of the calendar year, but I’m more interested in looking forward.  Here’s a prediction: ten years from now, it will be common, ordinary, and routine for people to use their cellphones’ camera to help them see.  I expect that people will use them as magnifying glasses (though probably only to about 10x or 20x zoom), telescopes, and night vision enhancers.

12.05.10

Rugzetta

Posted in Art at 10:02 pm by ducky

As mentioned, my husband and I went to Turkey last summer.  In Turkey, we saw a lot of beautiful rugs with my husband coveted, but they were more expensive than we were ready to cope with.

Like he does every year, my husband had a birthday in the fall.  I started thinking about what I could get him for his birthday shortly after we got back.  Clearly, he would love a rug, but we also clearly weren’t ready to spend that kind of money (and he would want to be in on the selection process anyway).  So I thought about how I could make something in the same style as a rug.  I realized that I could print something as a poster, mount it on foam core, glue tassels to the edges, and mount it to the wall.  It would then perhaps fulfill his desire for a rug aesthetic, but without the expense.

My husband also likes fonts and languages.  I once scored points by making him a shirt with glyphs from many different languages on it for his birthday.  Maybe I could make him a “rug” with glyphs from many different writing systems as the graphic elements instead of the flowers and leaves that adorn traditional Turkish and Persian rugs.

Yes, I could!  (Click to see a bigger version.)

Rugzetta design

I had a print shop print it out large and mount it on foamcore; I glued tassels to the sides and hung it on the wall:

Rugzetta on the wall

I also made some placemats, and I put a legend on the back:

Rugzetta legend

Turkey with the nephews

Posted in Family, Travel at 9:41 pm by ducky

As our most recent — and final — instalment of our rent-a-nephew program, we took two nephews to Turkey this summer.

Turkey was surprisingly difficult for us to travel in because we didn’t speak the language.  I realize that that’s probably how it goes for most tourists, but we have generally been able to have *some* facility in the local language.  Even when we went to Bali, we were able to learn some rudimentary grammar and vocabulary.  This time, in part because Turkish is so hard for an Indo-European speaker and partly because we were *so* busy before the trip, we couldn’t really say more than “hello”.

Also because we were busy, we did essentially no planning ahead of time.  Jim booked us a hotel for the first three nights in Istanbul, but aside from that, we had no itinerary.  For the first two days, Jim and I discussed (with some input from the nephews) what we were going to do and how we were going to accomplish it.  Note that “discuss” is a somewhat polite word.

Eventually, we admitted defeat and decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of a travel agent.  We looked around on the Web for recommendations, and ended up going with Turista Travel.  We walked in, told Davut who we were, what we were looking for, and he basically arranged everything.

The basic style of the trip he built for us was a sequence of mini-packages.  “Package tour” had always sounded to me like “two weeks on a bus with 50 other rich old white Americans”, but that’s not the flavour of the trip.  Instead, most days on the Turista-arranged tour went like this:

  • Wake up at a decent, clean but not opulent hotel.
  • Have breakfast at the hotel’s  breakfast buffet (food included, drinks extra).
  • Get picked up by a minivan that would carry a driver, a guide, and 2-6 other tourists, usually Europeans.
  • Go to a cultural site, where the guide would show us around.
  • Go to a banquet center (which our nephews quickly dubbed “Tourist Feeding Centers”) with (food included, drinks extra) with adequate but not super-tasty food and chairs with bows on the backs, filled with other rich white overweight tourists.
  • Go to another cultural site, where the guide would show us around.
  • Go back to the hotel *or* get sent on to the next hotel.  Note that they arranged ALL the pickup / drop offs.
  • Have dinner at the hotel’s buffet (food included, drinks extra).

A Tourist Feeding Center in Turkey

This was not always the exact schedule.

  • Sometimes the guides would take us to a really yummy place for lunch.  Lunch costs came out of their profit, but they allowed as how they could only handle so many meals at the Tourist Feeding Centers.  Those meals were usually really, *really* good (as opposed to adequate at the TFCs).
  • Sometimes the guides would take us to commercial artistic establishments where we would get demonstrations of how crafts (e.g. rugs, pottery) were made, and be given the opportunity to buy stuff.  We believe the guide got a kickback for bringing customers to the factory, but the demos were generally pretty interesting, and the pressure wasn’t too bad to buy.
  • We went on a four-day boat trip where the rhythm was to go to anchorages and swim instead of getting tours of cultural sites.  (The boys loved that part; I was bored.)  (Food included, drinks extra.)

By and large, the trip went very smoothly.  It was not perfect:

  • One day the minivan broke down going over the mountains, and we lost an hour or two while they arranged a different van for us.
  • One day our package was subcontracted to a different vendor, but we didn’t know that, so at the pickup, we were looking for “Turista” and the driver was looking for people looking for “Beach”.
  • One day, there was some confusion about which bus we took, when, and where the tickets were supposed to come from.  The hotel’s English-speaker was on vacation, plus we didn’t realize we already had the tickets, etc.

However, in the first case, it wasn’t anybody’s fault, in the third case we were at least partially to blame, and in ALL cases, the staff worked hard to make it right.  (When we got back to Istanbul, I stopped by the Turista office and Davut tried to refund our money for the bus ticket;  I insisted that we only take half because it was partially our fault.)

We might have been able to do the trip cheaper ourselves, but it is more likely that it would have been more expensive if we had done it “a la carte”, and I am sure that we would have encountered more frustration and seen less if we had done it ourselves.  I am pleased with Turista and would recommend them to all but the most experienced or frugal travellers.

We spent three days in Istanbul at the beginning of the trip and two or three at the end of the trip on our own, and did mosque and museum crawls which I found quite interesting.  We also ate really, really well.  The food in Turkey is really, really yummy in general.

The cultural sites were great from my point of view; the swimming was great from the boys’ point of view.  My take on those is probably no more interesting or insightful than any other travelogue you can find on the Web for the most part.  I will give you only a few points:

smartphone vs. cuneiform tablet

  • We made a special effort to stop in the capital, Ankara.  It’s not on the usual tourist route; apparently there’s not much there.  However, they do have an amazing museum there that were quite interesting to someone interested in old writing systems.  In particular, they had lots of cuneiform tablets.  I had always thought of cuneiform tablets as being like the tablets that Moses is shown carrying in cartoons: about as tall as waist-to-chin; a bit wider than a torso.  Well, to my surprise, they are about the size of iPhones, and the script is TINY.  The script was made by pressing the ends of reeds into clay and the reeds were basically the size of small grass blades.  I guess it makes sense: iPhones fit nicely in the hand, and one would probably want a cuneiform tablet to fit nicely in the hand.
  • Also at that museum, I saw artwork that seemed to be between cave paintings and stylized Greek art.  I found that fascinating: I had never seen quite that niche of art before.

    Art between cave paintings and Greek urns

  • As everyone else who has been to Turkey will tell you, the Turks are very very friendly, especially rug salesmen who want to show you their wares.  However, something very interesting happened: they were on us like flies when we were in Istanbul at the start of the trip, but much less when we returned at the end of our trip!  Someone suggested that we walked differently or gazed differently, but I don’t think that was it: I think we were pasty white at the start of the trip and suntanned at the end of the trip.  So if you want less hassle from the rug vendors, catch some rays before you go.

Best anecdote of the trip: there was some commotion at a restaurant we were at.  The woman at the table behind me was complaining loudly that she had complained three times “Excuse me, this is rubbish” to a busboy and said busboy did not bring the manager so she could complain about the food.  (Excuse me, that’s HIGHLY colloquial English!)  The manager (who eventually showed up) pointed out that the busboy didn’t speak English well.  The woman then exclaimed, “How do you expect to serve the public if you can’t even speak the language???”

I was pleased that my nephews both immediately had to stifle laughter and also pleased that the woman was British and not American.  🙂

10.05.10

Artists, how do you work?

Posted in Art at 12:42 am by ducky

I am really curious to hear how people “do” art.

The image of artists that I absorbed as a kid was that their physical being acted as a vehicle for their subconscious, which told them what to do.  They drew/painted/played/composed/carved what they did because that’s what their subconscious compelled them to do.

I don’t really consider myself An Artist, but I have made a few art pieces, and I never have the sense that I am called to do something.  My art tends to be, for the most part, driven by constraints, what my “customer” wants, and logic.  When my muse does mutter something into my ear, it’s pretty inarticulate, and focuses on telling me what’s wrong instead of how to make it better.

So how do you work?  Does seeing something give you an idea for what to make, or do you start with a need (e.g. a customer request)?  Do you use some sort of organizing principle to help guide you, or do you just do what feels right?  Does your muse tell you what to do, or only when you are doing it wrong?  Respond in the comments, on Facebook, by email, whatever — I am just curious.

I am working on a fake rug for a birthday present for my husband.  (I am going to print it on paper, mount the paper on foamcore, and glue tassels to the short ends.)  We went to Turkey this summer, and he very much liked the rugs, so I figured he’d like a rug.  I couldn’t afford a real rug, though, so I decided to make a fake one.

I then looked at a LOT of images of oriental rugs, and generalized a common pattern: a medallion in the middle, a border around the outside, possibly with borders on the borders.  Inside, lots of small flower-like designs that were connected with vines or stems.  That constrained the form.

My husband likes languages and fonts, so I decided to use glyphs instead of flowers as the base decoration.  My husband has five colours in his colour scheme, so I knew what colours I had to use.  I couldn’t figure out how to work lines into the rug, but an Indo-Canadian friend of mine suggested hanging Indian characters (like Devanagari) off of the line.

I originally thought that I could make the borders out of the three languages in the Rosetta stone, but that turned out to be impractical.  (I couldn’t find text that I could copy and paste of those languages!)  However, the idea of the (old) Rosetta stone gave me the idea of using time as an organizing principle: to have the glyphs closer to the edge be older than the ones in the center.  This meant that cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics needed to be near the edge.  (One of them is the oldest written language, but they aren’t quite sure which.)

I felt I needed to have borders on the borders, but the problem was that those borders needed to be really thin.  I was thinking of just putting dots or dashes as the borders, when I realized I could put both and make it Morse code.

Cuneiform and hieroglyphics are both logographic languages.  Other types of languages are abjads, syllabic, and alphabetic.  There are also punctuation symbols, which have come more recently, which meant they should be in the center (and again, be ordered by age). I decided to group symbols on the rug by those classes.

I researched punctuation, and came up with a set of symbols (including the Japanese smiley-face emoticon used in SMSes).  Why ampersand and not comma?  Why European punctuation and not Arabic?  Why not French double quotes?  Either I couldn’t find a good date for the symbol (meaning I didn’t know where to put it), or it was wildly asymmetrical, or its aspect ratio was wrong, or it was kind of ugly.

I separated abjads into the far corners, since abjads are old and kind of different.  Phoenician was particularly important, so it got to be bigger.  Arabic and Hebrew have dominated the abjads, so got second billing.  We saw Arabic in gold letters in black circles at the Aya Sofia this summer, so it made sense to use gold on black (even though black is NOT in my husband’s colour scheme).

I thought about what lines I could draw, but my husband was involved in learning a part for an opera, so treble and bass clef symbols kind of threw themselves in front of me.  As the treble clef has a higher aspect ratio than the bass clef, I needed to put it on the long axis and the bass clef on the short axis.  The treble clef wasn’t really the right size, so I used two, mirror images of each other.  The bass clef mirrored looked like a heart, so in the space left over I put four hearts.

One of the clefs needed to be Indic glyphs, and I thought I would need to use the larger of the two clefs in order to have room for all the many Indic writing systems.  (There turned out to be fewer Indic writing systems than I thought there would be.)  Given that I was grouping treble-clef glyphs by geographical location, bass clefs and the hearts should also be geographical regions.

Asia is closer to India than Europe is, so Asia got the heart and Europe got the base clef.  All the other glyphs had to swim in the sea between the continents: Africa fit nicely next to the middle-eastern abjads, island nations like the Maldives fit in nicely between India and Asia, and the New World glyphs (plus some runes which maybe did not descend from Latin) swim around the European bass clef.

At this point, I did more-or-less just plop glyphs down however the spirit moved me, but I will confess that I don’t find that fine structure turned out particularly well.  I did try to make more historically important languages bigger, but basically I just tried to spread them out sort of evenly.  It’s okay, but I don’t think it they are the best part.

The egyptian hieroglyphics looked kind of plain, so I spent a LOT of time trying to make the border look better.  I first made a collection of logograms instead of only Egyptian logograms, then experimented A LOT with different colours and numbers of characters. My muse kept telling me it was wrong.  Finally, I changed the colours because I didn’t like the yellow in the centre, and that had the side effect of making the logogram border look much better.  Who knew?  I certainly didn’t.

***

For my painting And The Word Was Sheep, I drew a light blue circle, a dark blue circle, and a green trapezoid, and showed it to my friend George when I told him I’d make him a painting.  I told him I didn’t even know what colour the background should be, and he said “Black!  With Stars!”  That meant that the circles were planets, hence spheres, not the disks I had been imagining.

I asked him if he’d like squiggles like I did in Page Mill Ziggurat, and he said “No, glyphs!  In the shape of an Omega.”

He then came up with this complete backstory which had to do with Man starting out in the garden of Eden, then descending into evil (over the dark blue planet), then coming back into goodness (light blue planet) and eventually reaching the stars.  This meant that I needed enough glyphs to be able to make an omega, and that the glyphs needed to be in chronological order.

I did make artistic decisions about which glyph in a writing system would look nicest, I did choose which writing systems to leave out, and I did decide that the shapes looked naked and needed clouds (for the circles) or branches (for the trapezoid), but those were really the only artistic decisions I made.  Everything else was either George’s choice or constrained.  Even the “berries” in the branches were George’s idea.

01.05.10

Predictions for 2020

Posted in Technology trends at 1:46 am by ducky

Oh what the heck, since everybody else is doing it, here are my predictions for 2020:

  1. Essentially all cell phones will have built-in video cameras, GPS, and have voice controls.
  2. At least one country will nationalize music in some way, e.g. paying the music companies a per capita fee for their citizens every year.  Some countries will strike copyright laws for music.  Most just won’t bother enforcing copyright laws for music.
  3. Improved search + improved geo-location of social media streams will mean that it will be far easier to get information about your micro-neighbourhood.  Think Google Trends or Google Flu or Twitter Trends, but for the five mile radius of where you are right now.  (And, because of #1, you can get video.)
  4. Know where newspapers are right now, on the brink of death?  That’s where TV will be in 2020 — squeezed between on-demand entertainment and crowd-generated news.
  5. The cancer five-year survival rate cure rate will be 90% for most cancers, and 40% for the most difficult ones (bone, brain, pancreas, and liver).  Treatment will, unfortunately, still majorly suck for most patients.
  6. Mapping will extend to reconstruction of scenes based on user photos (like what Microsoft demonstrated at TED) in a big way.  By 2020, 100% of San Francisco’s publicly accessible spaces (yes, including alleys) will be mapped, and about 35% of interior spaces.  People at first will be quite upset that the world can “see into” their living room, but they will end up getting used to it.
  7. Marriage for same-sex couples will be recognized by the U.S. government.
  8. Know where newspapers were five years ago, sort of moseying down the path of death?  That’s where universities will be in 2020.  They will face pressure as superb educational content will become a commodity.  Third-party organizations will jump into the mix to provide tutoring and certification, leaving non-research universities with little to offer aside from post-teen socialization and sports.
  9. 30% of the world electricity energy production will be solar in 2020.  (It’s going to be one hell of a race between climate change and solar energy production, but I think solar energy will win.  All the climate-change deniers will say, “See!  Toldja so!”
  10. Data format description languages will overthrow XML. mean that data will get passed around in compact formats instead of in XML.  (Yes, the DFDL might be in XML, but the data wouldn’t be.)

Okay, I admit it, #10 might just be wishful thinking.

Update: At the time I wrote this, I had not read up on the Google Nexus One phone, which I now find out has voice commands for just about everything.  I guess prediction #1 about voice was under-optimistic!

01.02.10

Early days of the computer revolution

Posted in Hacking at 3:39 pm by ducky

I was talking to a friend of mine who I’m guessing was born in the late 1970s, and mentioned that I had been using computers since 1968ish and email since 1974.  (Yes, really.)

I saw a lightbulb go off over his head.  He knew I was in my mid-forties, and knew I was a computer geek, but hadn’t ever really put two and two together.  “Oh!  You were around for the start of the personal computer revolution?  What was that like?  That must have been totally *COOL*!!!

I said, “Not really.”

He was stunned.  How could it have possibly not been totally cool and awesome?  I could see him struggling with trying to figure out how to express his confusion, how to figure out what question to even ask.

I said, “Look.  You are old enough that you were around for the start of the mobile phone revolution, right?  That must have been totally *COOL*!!!

“Oh”, he said.  “I get it.”

Mobile phones, when they first started out were kind of cool, I guess, but they weren’t “magic” then: they took real effort and patience.  They were wickedly expensive, heavy, had lousy user interfaces, and you had to constantly worry about whether you had enough battery life for the call.  The reception was frequently (usually?) poor, so even if you could make a connection, your call frequently got dropped.  The signal quality was poor, so you had to TALK LOUDLY to be heard and really concentrate to understand the other person.  And they didn’t do much.  It took a long time for mobile phones to become “magic”, and they only got better incrementally.

When they first came out, personal computers were kind of cool, I guess, but they weren’t “magic” then: they took real effort and patience.  They were wickedly expensive.  They crashed frequently enough that you always had to worry about saving your work.  They had so little disk space that managing your storage was a constant struggle (and why floppies held on for so very long after the introduction of the hard drive).

When I started my first job out of college (working at a DRAM factory for Intel in 1984), they had only recently put in place two  data-entry clerks to input information about the materials (“lots”) as the lots traversed the manufacturing plant. (When did the lot arrive at a processing step?  When did it get processed?  Who processed it?  What were the settings and reading on the machine?)  However, to get at that information, engineers like me had to get a signature from higher level of management to authorize a request to MIS (which might get turned down!) for that information.

A few months after I started, they bought three IBM PC XTs and put them in a cramped little room for us engineers to use.  I believe the only programs on them were a word processor and a spreadsheet.  There was no storage available to us.  They had hard drives, but we were not allowed to leave anything on the hard drive; we had to take our work away on floppies.  The PCs were not networked, so not only was there no email (and of course no Web), but no way to access the data that was collected out on the manufacturing floor.

If I wanted to make a spreadsheet analyzing e.g. the relationship between measured thickness of the aluminum layer, the measured sputtering voltage, and how long it had been since the raw materials had been replenished, I would go to the factory floor, walk around to find different lots in different stages of processing, copy the information to a piece of paper, take the piece of paper and a floppy disk to the computer room (hoping that there was a free computer), copy the data from the piece of paper into the spreadsheet, print the spreadsheet (maybe making a graph, but that was a little advanced), and copy the data onto my floppy if I wanted to look at it again.

Even though we “had computers”, we had no network, no email, and no wiki.  The way I shared information was still:

  • make a bunch of photocopies and put them in people’s (physical) mailboxes,
  • make a bunch of photocopies and walk around putting them on people’s desks,
  • make a bunch of photocopies and pass them out at a meeting where I presented my results, or
  • make one photocopy, write a routing list on it (a list of names with checkboxes), and put it on the first person’s desk.  They would read it, check their name off, and pass it to someone else on the list.

At the next company I worked at (1985-7), I got a PC on my desk because I was implementing the materials tracking system (because I had bitched about how stupid it was not to have one — yeah!!).  Our company had a network, but it was expensive and complicated enough that my desktop computer wasn’t on the network, nor were the two machines on the floor.  Ethernet used a coax cable and (if I recall correctly) you had to make a physical connection by puncturing the cable just right.  The configuration was tricky and not very fault-tolerant: if one computer on the network was misconfigured, it would mess up the entire network AND it was difficult even for a skilled network technician to figure out which computer was misconfigured.

At the next company I worked for (1987), I had a Sun workstation on my desk, and we had a network file servers, but I don’t think we used email, even internally.

At my next company (1988-90), I had a Wyse 50 “glass teletype” on my desktop and full email capability.  The Wyse 50 didn’t have any graphics, but that wasn’t a real big deal because no programs I would ever want to use at work had graphics of any sort. My department used email heavily, but there were some departments in the company that did not use email, so there were lots of memos that were still issued on paper.  They would go either into my (physical) mailbox, or would be pinned to cubicle corridor walls.

While I had the theoretical ability to send email to the outside world then, almost nobody I knew outside the company had email, and figuring out how to address messages to get to the outside was difficult: you had to specify all the intermediate computers, e.g. sun!ubc!decwrl!decshr!slaney.

It wasn’t until that company imploded in about 1990 and my colleagues scattered to other computer companies that I had anyone outside my company to correspond with.  (Fortunately, at about the same time, it got easier to address external email messages.)

It wasn’t until 1991 that I stopped seeing paper memos — a full twenty fifteen years after the introduction of the Apple II computer.  My husband reports that he also stopped seeing paper memos in about 1991.

I would contend that computers didn’t really start to become “magic” until about 1996 or so, when the World Wide Web had been absorbed by the masses and various Web services were available.  Only after about 1996 could you pretty reliably assume that anyone (well, those born after WW2 started, at least) used computers or had an email address.

So when personal computers first came out, they were not totally cool.  The idea of personal computers was totally cool.  The potential was totally cool.  But that potential was unrealized for many many years.

11.21.09

Right-brain vs. left-brain: Sarah Palin

Posted in Politics at 1:48 pm by ducky

Sarah Palin is, you might have noticed, a very polarizing politician.  Liberals are absolutely flummoxed that anybody could like her.  Conservatives can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t like her.  I think that Sarah Palin shows up a fundamental difference in values between liberals and conservatives: conservatives value right-brain thinking and liberals don’t.

As I have posted before, Jonathan Haight found that liberals and conservatives place different weights on aspects of morality.  Liberals weight fairness much more highly than conservatives, for example, and conservatives weight what Haight calls “purity” much more highly than liberals.  “Purity” is IMHO a poor term for it: “gut instinct” is probably a better term.  It’s getting the feeling that something is wrong or right.  This is a right-brain function.

Our educational system works hard to get people to stop listening to their gut, to process with the logical, procedural, lingual left-brain side.  There are good pedagogical reasons for this: the right brain is fundamentally non-lingual, so it is difficult (if not impossible!) to explain right-brain decisions, to examine the decisions for errors in reasoning or assumptions, or to grade right-brain reasoning.  The right brain can only communicate its conclusions with feelings, with “gut instincts”.

The right-brain does not communicate its decisions well, but that doesn’t mean that its processing is invalid.  There are many things that the right brain can do that the left brain cannot.  You cannot derive a great song, deduce that your spouse loves you, or prove that that figure a block away is your cousin Chris.  People who make decisions only with the left-brain, only with facts and logic are more vulnerable to errors in the models or starting assumptions.  (One might argue that the entire mortgage meltdown came from an over-reliance on left-brain reasoning and paying inadequate attention to the little voices saying, “waitaminute — can this really work?”)

If you value right-brain processing, then the political climate for you must be very frustrating.  Liberals don’t even pay lip service to right-brain processing: it is so non-valued that it is a complete blind spot for them.  (If Obama was any more left-brain, he’d fall over.)   I can imagine that it would also be scary to see your beautiful country in the hands of people who apparently are paying no attention at all to their gut.

Sarah Palin is total right-brain.  Here is what she said when asked when Bill O’Rielly asked her if she was smart enough to be president:

I believe that I am because I have common sense, and I have, I believe, the values that are reflective of so many other American values. And I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of a spinelessness that perhaps is made up for that with some kind of elite Ivy League education and a fact resume that’s based on anything but hard work and private sector, free enterprise principles. Americans could be seeking something like that in positive change in their leadership. I’m not saying that has to be me.

Nothing in her answer has to do with left-brain facts or logic, and in fact she skewers left-brain training (“elite … education” and “a fact resume”).  She is also completely unapologetic about being right-brained; instead of being guilty and ashamed of it, she gets angry and frustrated at her critics.  This is a high-status behaviour, and people think that high-status people do good things, as I have posted about before.

Meanwhile, liberals look at her left-brain abilities and are appalled.  They find fault with her left-brain abilities, as evidenced by what they see as her rhetorical weaknesses: her inability to marshal facts into the type of coherent, rhetorically logical arguments that they favour.  They do not value her right-brain rhetorical abilities — her ability to reach people’s “guts” — because they do not value right-brain skills.  The conservatives are less bothered by her weakness in left-brain skills because they do not value left-brain skills as much.

The left also remembers G. W. Bush, who was also very right-brain, going on gut and instinct.  They think that his instincts were frequently wrong (e.g. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction) with disastrous consequences.  So to some extent, they are punishing Sarah Palin for what they saw as G. W. Bush’s mistakes.

Note: I have been somewhat loose with the terms “liberal” and “conservative” here.  While I think there are probably not very many right-brain liberals, there are left-brain conservatives.  Andrew Sullivan is clearly a left-brain conservative, and Sarah Palin clearly drives him absolutely nuts.

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