Friday, December 26, 2003

We likes our TrackPoint caps, yesss

The IBM TrackPoint is by far the best integrated pointing device available for notebook computers. It completely blows away trackballs and touchpads (or, at least, the paltry miniaturized incarnations of the latter that are integrated into notebook computers). The absence of TrackPoints from Apple's notebook line may be the single most compelling reason not to get a PowerBook or iBook.

However, TrackPoints do have one minor deficiency: the caps wear out. After a little over two years of heavy use, my index finger had finally worn down the bristly coating on the last spare cap that came with my notebook. A little Googling led me to IBM's TrackPoint replacement page, which reveals that the traditional "Classic Dome" style --- shaped like a pencil eraser and coated with a bristly "cat's-tongue" texture --- is no longer the only option. (If you've drooled with envy over a colleague or friend's shiny new ThinkPad lately, then you've probably seen the "Soft Dome" variety, which I believe now ships standard on all ThinkPads.)

Anyway, the alleged "mechanical advantage" of the "Soft Rim" cap sounded cool to me, so I ordered a batch from IBM's suggested supplier. My report: Soft Rim TrackPoint caps rule. The cap really does feel more responsive because of the shape. Furthermore, the absence of textured coating has two benefits. First, there are no prickly bristles to irritate the pad of your finger. Second, Soft Rim caps don't have the Classic Dome's problem of wearing out their coating in less than a year of heavy use. This wear problem was the reason I had to replace the caps in the first place. Since the Soft Rim style uses shape instead of texture to provide finger traction, it seems likely that this cap will last significantly longer than the Classic Dome caps.

Now, if they only came in more colors... Apple, are you listening?

P.S. IBM's USER lab has been exploring some interesting variations on the TrackPoint theme.

Microsoft Word is a terrible program

L. Menand "speaks the truth to power":

Microsoft Word is a terrible program. Its terribleness is of a piece with the terribleness of Windows generally, a system so overloaded with icons, menus, buttons, and incomprehensible Help windows that performing almost any function means entering a treacherous wilderness of pop-ups posing alternatives of terrifying starkness: Accept/Decline/Cancel; Logoff/Shut Down/Restart; and the mysterious Do Not Show This Warning Again. You often feel that you’re not ready to make a decision so unalterable; but when you try to make the window go away your machine emits an angry beep. You double-click. You triple-click. Beep beep beep beep beep. You are being held for a fool by a chip.

Like all humanities geeks, Louis should really learn to use LaTeX and Xemacs. I learned to use Xemacs as a CS undergrad, and I learned LaTeX during my first year of grad school. At first it was kind of odd but now I actually find it astounding that any human being can stand to edit large quantities of text using Word. Blech. And LaTeX has excellent citation support.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

The long shadow of the Yankee Puritan tradition (and others)

Kos guest DHinMI points to a fascinating idea by D. H. Fischer:

In 1989 the great American historian David Hackett Fischer published Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Fischer shows that in just about everything, from home design to what we eat for holiday dinners, from the names we give our children to the ways we pronounce our words and experience time, marriage, aging and death, there are discernable continuities between certain regions of seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain and certain regions of the contemporary U.S.. The Puritans who settled New England, the Anglican Royalist elite and their servants who settled Virginia, the Quakers from Wales and the Midlands who settled the Delaware Valley, and the poor English-speakers from Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England who settled the backwoods south each brought with them very different conceptions of liberty; as Fischer writes, "the problem of liberty cannot be discussed intelligently without a discrimination of the libertarianisms which must be made in historical terms." Fischer attributes American regionalism largely to the continuing influence of these four British migrations, and the religious, ethical and political societal norms their descendents have carried with them across the continent.

We can see this effect by looking at upstate NY, the Great Lakes states, and western WA and OR, all of which were initially settled largely by Yankee descendents of the Puritans. The Puritans established communities with greater civic participation, tolerance of or desire for government intervention in business and community life and adherence to the law, and lower rates of violent crime than those founded in the regions settled by the other British immigrant groups. This pattern has held for over three hundred years, even as new immigrant groups merged with the Yankees in New England and as the Yankees settled the areas to the west. The other side of this phenomenon is that later immigrant groups have conformed to the norms of the regions in which they have settled; Germans who immigrated to the Great Lakes states largely adopted the communal folkways of the Yankees, but Germans who immigrated to Texas were likely to adopt the more individualistic and anti-authoritarian folkways that originated on the frontier of eighteenth-century Britain.

Ransom Love has a cooler name than you.

When I was an undergrad, back around 1999 or so, I attended a Linux evangelism session in New York, run by a little company I'd never heard of, called Caldera. One of the speakers demo'd a new product called Caldera OpenLinux on a Sony Vaio laptop. During the presentation, he simply stuck an OpenLinux CD into his laptop, and a few button-presses later the laptop rebooted into a slick graphical installation program. He selected some packages and pushed the installation button. It was easy. It had pictures and icons and all the usual trappings of a graphical interface. It had a Tetris game to play while you waited for the operating system to finish installing. A little while later, the process was complete, and he brought up the KDE 1 desktop.

It was astounding: you could get this entire operating system, which looked quite comparable to Windows or MacOS, which were selling for hundreds of dollars at the university computer store, for free (or, if you wanted a box and manuals, for forty dollars or so). And you could get all the source code, not only for the kernel but for nearly all the applications. And it came with programming tools, like an industrial-strength compiler, right out of the box --- a major plus for computer science students. And, thanks to Caldera's work in packaging it all, it was accessible to people who'd never run Unix before.

My friend PSP and I snagged a bunch of free OpenLinux CDs on our way out. A few months later I installed Linux on my new machine --- the first one I ever assembled from parts --- and no computer of mine has been without Linux since. (I'm posting this from a laptop running Fedora.) Since then, other vendors like Red Hat and SuSE have surpassed Caldera, but nevertheless Caldera provided my first introduction to a Linux that I could install and use.

The evangelist's name was Ransom Love, and he was the CEO of Caldera Systems, Inc. He was sharply-dressed, with a real, styled haircut, and his personality exuded an odd mixture of geek and suit. He was charismatic and cool and at least acted like he was genuinely excited to be showing off Linux for a bunch of undergrad computer science geeks.

In the years since those heady days, the tech bubble burst, Caldera bought/merged with SCO, and the resulting monster has become a company that will live in infamy. It's sad.

Anyway, Love departed well before the current SCO/IBM debacle began. He's now at Progeny, the Linux company founded by Debian creator Iain Murdock (hence probably still on the side of Good). And Love still has some interesting stuff to say about his former company and its relationship with IBM.

UPDATE: For further fascinating reading, check out this ZDNet article on the history of Caldera: Love and his associates were working at Novell, trying to convince upper management that it had to move to Linux, way back in 1994. First of all, this demonstrates astounding foresight, if you think back where Linux was in 1994. Second, it's a bit eerie/ironic, because if you flash forward a decade, Novell's bought both SuSE and Ximian, two of the Linux community's leading lights; and they've finally admitted that Linux is the best bet for the company's future.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Making a mix tape for someone special?

Don't force the recipient to ferret out obscure subtexts. Make it simple.

A good monospace font is hard to find

Anonymous (2001) is a TrueType version of Anonymous 9, a freeware Macintosh bitmap font developed in the mid-90s by Susan Lesch and David Lamkins. It was designed as a more legible alternative to Monaco, the mono-spaced Macintosh system font.

I still swear by Lucida Console, but this isn't bad. If you're a programmer, you probably spend several hours a day staring at monospace fonts. Give Anonymous a try.

I'm glad we cleared that up.

From the ATF's FAQ:

(A29) Are "potato guns" or "spud guns" legal?

"Potato guns" or "spud guns" generally consist of sections of PVC plastic tubing and fittings and are designed to launch a muzzle-loaded potato (or other similar-size projectile) using hair spray or other aerosol vapor as a propellant. The propellant is ignited by means of a barbecue grill igniter or other similar ignition system.


ATF has previously examined "potato guns" or "spud guns" as described above and has generally determined that such devices using potatoes as projectiles and used solely for recreational purposes are not weapons and do not meet the definition of "firearm" or "destructive device" in either the NFA or GCA. However, ATF has classified such devices as "firearms" and "destructive devices" if their design, construction, ammunition, actual use, or intended use indicate that they are weapons. For example, ATF has classified such devices as "firearms" and "destructive devices" if they are designed and used to expel flaming tennis balls.

Dammit! Now I have to dismantle in my flaming tennis ball gun!