Life is a Mystery

5 July 2015 . Comments Off on Adventures with a keyboard

Adventures with a keyboard

Nate is getting ready to head off to college and divesting himself of some bits that he no longer needs. One of those is a Cooler Master QuickFire TK keyboard that he has since replaced with something snazzier. I’ve been borrowing it for a while and have now decided to adopt it as my primary desktop keyboard. It reminds me a lot of another keyboard I used to use!

Quickfire TK and Original Mac

Yes, indeed, that old Mac keyboard is the only thing I have left from my original 1984 Macintosh. The sound and feel of it are almost exactly the same as the sound and feel of the Cherry MX Blue keys on the QuickFire TK. It turns out I love that feel, but I hate the graphics of the TK. The typography is horrible and the backlighting is to severe for my taste.

Luckily, the Cherry keycaps are quite common and many outfits make replacements. Unfortunately none of those feel quite right to me. I have found one company that will print custom graphics on the keyboard for me. So I started to think about what I like and miss in the keyboards I use. For one thing, I’ve always been frustrated that keyboards (at least in the US) come with words on some of the action keys like “shift” and “return” instead of the symbols. This is particularly aggravating on keys like “option” which are indicated on menu shortcuts with the ⌥ symbol, and I always forget which key that is. I also really like Apple’s new San Francisco font and would like to have that on my keycaps.

So here is my plan:

Quickfire tk 2

When I dug out the old Mac keyboard in the picture above I realized I’d instinctively drawn a lot of inspiration from it. I loved it’s offset upper-left letter placement and I like its use of small symbols (the ⌘ command key). I had even returned to some gray keys (though I keep the main letters white so that there is a chance some of the blue LED lighting will glow through to make the legends somewhat visible).

Using a Windows keyboard on a Mac

One of the challenges of this plan is that the TK is a Windows keyboard. I need to swap certain keys (option and command) to get proper Mac placement, and I need to fix certain things (numlock) so they function at all. I don’t want to use the System Preferences to swap keys, because I want these choices to be limited to the TK, not to impact Apple keyboards, for example.

The perfect tool for this turns out to be a wonderful open source project called Karabiner which allows me to control all sorts of specifics about what signals get to a Mac from a keyboard. I’ve installed Karabiner with private.xml file for settings I need to make the TK feel more Mac-like. These settings take care of the numlock fix and command-key swap when the TK keyboard is in use. There are still some minor quirks with F6, F12, F13, F14, and F15, but those are pretty minor.

Update

WASD Keyboards prints keycaps to order, but does not have a keyboard with quite this arrangement of keys. I was able to get almost all the keys I needed from them, though, using this layout. You will note that I had to radically change the color scheme. It turns out that neither white nor gray keys transmit much light from the LEDs. The best transmission (at least of the blue LEDs on the QuickFire TK keyboard) were blue and green keys. Orange also transmitted some light. Also, they do not may R1 1×1.5 keys at all (row one, 1 by 1.5 aspect ratio), so I bought the R1 1×1.5 version of the Portal keys to be my control keys.

Here is the result, both unlit and lit up.

IMG_2768

IMG_2770

Note the placement of the lights under some of the longer modifier keys means that the symbols on these keys are not lit up at all. That’s unfortunate, but I can live with it.

9 April 2015 . Comments Off on Open Government Data and the case of Wiener Linien

Open Government Data and the case of Wiener Linien

Those who know me know I have a special place in my heart for Vienna. For many years I visited my Grandmother there. I attended first grade at Volksschule Mannagettagasse in Grinzing. I brought my own children to Vienna many times to visit their Great-Grandmother. I love Vienna, and I especially love Wiener Linien, Vienna’s magnificent public transit system. So I was shocked to learn, as I prepared for another visit, that Wiener Linien is virtually invisible on today’s mobile devices. Digging into the problem revealed a fundamental misunderstanding, as I see it, in the meaning of “open data.” Wiener Linien has claimed to provide “open data” but in fact provides data that nearly nobody can properly use.

I want to use this post to record what I’ve learned and make a plea that Wiener Linien step up and actually provide the data the world really needs. As you see, my conclusion is that Wiener Linien should provide GTFS data. Why this is not being done is a long story, bear with me.

Politics and Transit

In 2007 and 2009 I visited Austria and I have distinct memories of using Google Maps to plan trips around Vienna. I found it vastly helpful to use Google Maps since the Wiener Linien website was less than simple at the time. That there was a time Wiener Linien was visible on Google Maps can also be seen on the Google Maps forum. In early 2010 people started to complain there that Vienna’s public transportation had disappeared from Google. A whole Google Transit Österreich group emerged on Facebook to try to find out what broke and how to fix it. It became a news story in Austria.

It seems that in 2010 Wiener Linien and ÖBB (the Austrian railway) decided to no longer share data with Google in the format that Google was able to use. They decided to work toward some more egalitarian open data feed that would serve all providers of transit information, not just Google.

At the time, the only standardized form of data for sharing transit timetables and routes was called the “Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS).” When Google started incorporating transit routing into Google Maps in 2005, no other provider was trying to fill this niche. Google worked with the TriMet transit agency in Portland, which had developed the precursor to GTFS. Other agencies, including Vienna, eventually joined in. But some became shy of working so directly with one provider. Vienna became very shy, and pulled its data altogether in 2010.

Meanwhile, GTFS became the “General Transit Feed Specification” partly due to recognition on Google’s part that even they would be better off if other providers could use this data. While the GTFS specification is still hosted by Google, it is now used by many providers of transit data, not just by Google. And the response of public transit systems has been staggering. Hundreds of systems are now providing GTFS data, as documented at the GTFS Data Exchange.

In 2012 the lack was being noticed. Die Presse wrote about 500 cities having transit data averrable in Google Maps, but not Vienna. In Vienna, the ÖBB finally relented in 2013 and restored the GTFS feed for transit application providers. Yet this move also received criticism within Austria, one blogger lamenting the fact that ÖBB was only providing this information to Google and not as open data, and a spokesman for the Green Party complaining that this information was being made available exclusively to a mega-corporation and not openly.

This highlights the political line being drawn. There are those in Austria who feel that providing data in the format Google prefers, a format that has been adopted widely around the world, would be a political capitulation to a mega-corporation. Clearly, the Wiener Linien data is not being withheld for technical reasons, but for political reasons.

Technology and Transit

In fact, since 2010 Wiener Linien has done a remarkable job of inventing its own API to realtime and routing data. They have made a whole open data portal available with a terrific API and neat JSON responses. This is everything a web or mobile developer could want. Or is it?

I have signed up for access to this open data API and done some preliminary investigation. I was interested in seeing if I could use the Wiener Linien open data to produce the equivalent of a GTFS feed. I found the API clear and well designed, but I also found it utterly unique. It is like no other transit API, requiring a learning curve to figure out and wholly dependent on staff at Wiener Linien who could change the API or responses at any time.

I also learned that the API did not make schedule data available. While some schedule data is implicit in the routing service the API provides, the schedules themselves are not made available. This was confirmed for me in a tweet from Stefan Kriz, “Open-Data-Beauftragter” for Wiener Linien: “@efceleste @wienerlinien Fahrpläne bieten die WL nur via Routingschnittstelle an. Als Rohdaten gibt es diese nicht im open Data Portal.” In other words, while Wiener Linien makes transit schedules available to the public as PDF’s, they refuse to make this data available in the open data portal.

This means that it is impossible for me to create the equivalent of a GTFS feed. It certainly explains why despite Wiener Linien providing what it calls “open data,” Vienna stays invisible on transit applications of the web and mobile world.

There are a very few, Vienna-specific, mobile applications that provide some realtime information based on the API’s that Wiener Linien has provided. But the clear indication that Vienna’s data is unique and does not mix well with others is the fact that these apps all serve only Vienna. Vienna is not part of the world, it stands alone.

Mixing Politics and Technology

All this has made it much clearer to me that open data is about more than the data. Yes, Wiener Linien has made some data available openly. But this data is not in the format that most developers around the world have learned to use: GTFS. Because some in Austria still perceive GTFS as a “Google” format, they have missed that it is in fact now the most open and accessible format for developers of transit applications across the world. It is openly defined, and it serves hundreds of cities around the world. Paris, Munich, Prague all provide GTFS data.

While it is possible to provide GTFS data exclusively to Google, this is by no means required or desirable. GTFS data can be provided openly to the whole world, for all developers to use. In fact, this is the definition of open data: a shared format widely used around the world. Vienna is currently not providing this.

Furthermore, Wiener Linien is actively withholding the most fundamental data about its network that could be provided: schedules. Clearly Wiener Linien understands that this is fundemental public information, after all, it posts this to its own website in PDF form and includes these schedules on virtually every bus and tram stop throughout the city. Failing to provide an open data feed of this schedule information is an incredible disservice to Vienna.

If the Green Party and others who believe in open data in Austria truly mean what they say, then they should insist that Wiener Linien provide open schedule data immediately. If they understand the role of technology and care about their citizens and visiting tourists, then they should insist that this data be provided in GTFS format for all, not just for Google. These GTFS files could be posted on the existing open data portal for everyone in the world to use.

Until then, Vienna’s magnificent public transit system will remain invisible to the world.

DSCN0171

30 November 2012 . Comments Off on Nobody over 30 ever had a good idea

Nobody over 30 ever had a good idea

Monica Ertel spent 16 years at Apple. I met her when she ran the Apple Library Users Group in the 1990’s. I love this anecdote from a 1996 interview:

Steve Jobs–he was president then, and he had an open door policy and anybody could go and talk to him. Down the line I hired some people and this woman was about 32 years old I guess, and she went to talk to him. And you could just go in his office. And he made some remark about how nobody over 30 ever had a good idea. And he was like all of 24 years old. And she was just inflamed by this! So she came back to me and said we have to do some research. We have to put together a list of people over the age of 80 who had great ideas, so we found in the Book of Lists people over 80 who had revolutionary ideas and we sent it to him and we never heard from him again. But, I’ll never forget that because he was 31 when he started Next. And I never forgot it and I thought–I wonder if he remembers his arrogant youth when he said that no one over 30 ever had a good idea. You know, Next hasn’t been all that successful, so maybe he was right! Maybe it’s come around.

Monica left Apple in 1998 when Steve returned. Apple’s corporate library was one of the things that fell under his ax as he slimmed Apple into a fighting trim. Some might say he had a few good ideas left in him after 30!

5 October 2012 . Comments Off on sjobs

sjobs

Today I was hunting for a box of winter shoes in our basement (yes, it is getting that cold in Minnesota). I didn’t find the shoes yet, but I did run across an old address book of mine from the mid-1980’s. Old numbers for my grandparents, Sally Bowles, even Peter Yarrow! Numbers for the Boston Computer Society, Foremost Computing, Bill Warner, and contacts at Apple and NeXT. Then I noticed what was tucked into a small pocket in the front of the address book.

sjobs business card

I love the handwritten “sjobs” below the email address. That made me feel so special.

Today, it turns out, is the anniversary of Steve’s death. This is being marked by a video on the Apple site and dozens of stories in the media. What fun it is to discover, totally by chance, this small memento of my own of a visit from Steve long ago.

30 July 2012 . Comments Off on Promises

Promises

There’s a lot of conversation in certain circles about Apple’s new “genius” ads. Are they good? Are they bad? I sense a danger for Apple in these ads, a change in the promise that Apple is making to its customers. This change has been underway since the iPhone 4S announcement, but these ads really highlight the shift.

Take a look at a typical ad from a while back, before the 4S (smart cover):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naVZDRcI0p4

This ad describes Apple’s smart cover for the iPad without a single word. It is joyful and sparse. But most importantly, it promises something the customer can actually experience. In fact, it under promises, because the actual experience is even more fun and magical than the ad.

Apple’s ads used to do this a lot: under-promise. Then the company could delight the customer by over-delivering.

Look back at these older ads and ask yourself: how would a real-life experience compare to the story being told in this ad?

Now look at two recent ads from the past couple weeks (busy day and mayday):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z714Fnylf5s

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LyIwJgQlsc

While the humor and production values are arguable great, and the explicit stories are more or less on message for Apple, the customer experience will never equal what is seen in these ads. No customer is going to get anything like Mr. Scorsese’s speed or success rate with Siri and nobody on a plane is going to find their own personal Apple genius shuttled up to first class. Instead, Siri will frustrate as often as succeed and a genius is a lengthy wait away at the nearest Apple Store. Apple has over-promised.

The dangerous trend in these ads is that Apple is making its advertising more attractive than its actual user experience. It can only under-deliver. It can no longer delight in real life.

I think Apple should reconsider this course. It should refocus on ads that leave room for the customer to be delighted by the experience they actually have with the product. In this way, customers become evangelists for Apple’s products, rather than apologists for products that never quite live up to their ads.

11 June 2012 . Comments Off on Passwords

Passwords

I have a long history with passwords, but the latest LinkedIn compromise brings passwords to mind again and I’d like to share some thoughts on a simple method for creating complex, unique, memorable passwords that are hard for the bad guys to crack.

As this Gibson Research calculator makes clear, length and complexity add a lot of security to a password. But how can you get length and complexity and still remember your passwords, especially when it is essential that you give every site a different password? The best answer I’ve come up with is similar to the answer at Gibson: padding. But my padding is a bit more complex than theirs.

I devise a prefix and suffix that is complex but easy to remember. For example, the prefix “PW:” and suffix “;don3“. These provide the complexity and some length. They have upper and lower case letters, some punctuation, and a number. You should not use these (these are not even the ones I use), but come up with your own along similar lines.

Then for every site I come up with a simple but unique middle. So my Amazon password might become “PW:books;don3” where my Apple password might be “PW:steve;don3“.

The result is a unique password for every site with the length and complexity to fend off easy attacks. Some horrible sites force me to change my password every few months, for those I just add an number I increment, like “PW:silly2;done3“.

Unfortunately, some vendors insist on coming up with rules of their own and I inevitably have a few sites that rule out my method for no good reason (one awful example: a bank that limited passwords to eight characters!). This is why I also use a piece of password “vault” software to keep track of passwords. My preferred vault is 1Password, which exists for Macs, Windows, iOS, and Android devices.

Have fun out there, and use a long, complex, memorable, and unique password at every site you value!

23 March 2012 . Comments Off on iPhone screen oprions

iPhone screen oprions

Some rumors are flying about iPhone screen size today. Usually I ignore that sort of thing, especially since I agree with John Gruber that any sort of change to the iPhone screen size is highly unlikely for practical app development reasons. But today it suddenly occurred to me that Apple does have some flexibility built in here, flexibility I’d noticed a few years back when the first iPhone was released.

What I noticed back then was that though the iPhone has a 3×2 display (not quite the traditional 4×3), the dimensions of the phone itself could easily accommodate a 16×9 display. I thought Apple had probably been pretty deliberate about that.

Iphonescreen

The image above is the technical drawing of the current iPhone 4S. What if the rumors today are off by just a little. What if, instead of chasing Samsung’s absurdly large 4.6 inch diagonal display, Apple were to build a 4 inch or even 4.4 inch diagonal display. Would that work?

Iphone40inch

In this drawing I’ve just stretched the iPhone screen out to 16×9 dimensions. This actually fits very well. The home button would only have to shrink by about 1mm to accommodate the new screen. Of course, I’m sure the hardware engineering issues would be quite a bit more challenging than this drawing implies. However, the software challenge would not be so daunting. Legacy apps could run centered on the screen with black “letterbox” bars on the top and bottom (or sides, if rotated). Graphics would not need to scale to odd fractions. The screen would have a 1138×640 pixel display. Apple has shepherded developers through much more difficult transitions than this screen represents.

Iphone44inch

In this drawing I imagine the same 1138×640 pixel display enlarged just a bit to completely fill out the same handset size. This would create a 4.4in diagonal screen at 16×9 dimensions and greatly increase the hardware challenges. The home button would probably need a new shape and the speakers would have to be rearranged, for example. But note that this screen drop to a 296ppi resolution, well below the “retina display” mark Apple has now promised. I think this scenario is highly unlikely.

In fact, I still agree with Gruber that the most likely scenario is that Apple does not change the screen size at all. But if it does, I bet it goes to a 4 inch diagonal 16×9 display on (roughly) the same size handset, not the bloated 4.6 inch route.

12 March 2012 . Comments Off on New is not always better

New is not always better

Every now and then the Apple pundocracy really misses the boat. Mind you, I’m happy they do, it gives the company plenty of chances to surprise people anew. It is nice to be underestimated, and here we are underestimating Apple again. Rebecca Greenfield writes about “The Post-Steve Jobs Decline of Apple’s Genius Design Theory” at the Atlantic Wire today. She concludes:

Now we know: huge profits for not-so-new products. As far as revolutionizing technology goes, there is no post-Steve Jobs Apple.

The article notes that neither the iPhone 4GS nor the new iPad offer anything genuinely new to the user in terms of design. These are both last year’s designs reused. The case of the iPad, which actually grows slightly thicker and heavier, is worse than status quo, she argues.

Did she miss the fact that the iPhone 3 and iPhone 3GS looked much the same? Did she miss the fact that the MacBook Pro has hardly change in appearance in 5 years, and that the iMac’s evolution in design has been a subtle progression over those same years? The Mac Mini is pretty much as it was when it was first introduced. Internally all these machines have made great strides, but Apple does not vary the external design without a significant reason to do so. It is a classic misunderstand of design, especially as Jobs espoused it, to only pay attention to the outside of objects.

I am glad Apple does business this way. It is constantly innovating, but if it just threw every innovation at users year after year, I think we’d all get pretty worn out, or maybe worse, dependent on the design fix. Instead, Apple seems to give its innovations the honor of some time on stage, a chance to settle in. It does not panic or push, it takes a leisurely stroll (from the consumer’s perspective) though a chaotic market.

Remember that “antennagate” issue with the iPhone4? Not only did Apple not change the hardware back then, it didn’t even change it (much) a year later with the 4GS. Does anyone complain about dropped calls? Not much. Meanwhile, Apple lined up a long list of suppliers to build this phone and pretty much all of them can continue building the 4GS with very little retooling. This is how it piles up big profits. The new iPad will even be able to take advantage of some soft cases made for its iPad2 sibling.

Meanwhile, the innovations are there, and they are incredibly significant. The iPhone 4GS brought forth Siri and has sold better than any iPhone to date. Pretty good for last year’s design. I believe the new iPad’s “retina” display and faster graphics will also be massively popular.

Apple’s competitors litter the streets with their meaningless iterations of products. Quick: what’s the latest Samsung phone or the most powerful Android tablet? Not sure? Neither is anyone else. Apple’s customers get a calm and reassuring message from Apple’s approach to the market: you know you will get the best from us, we won’t let you down. It just works.

In an article in today’s London Evening Standard, “Sir Jonathan Ive: The iMan cometh,” Jony Ive talks a bit about the competition:

… most of our competitors are interesting in doing something different, or want to appear new – I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us – a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better. Committees just don’t work, and it’s not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different – they are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product.

Apple respects the customer using their products. This respect shows up in a myriad ways, from the low-key branding (put a case on an iPhone or iPad and event he Apple logo goes away) to the fierce simplicity (one button!) to the reuse of external designs that are getting the job done. An Apple product is not new for the sake of being new, it is new for the sake of being better. And guess what? People, real people if not the pundit sort, recognize better when they see it, even when the package is quite familiar.

Jonyandsteve

18 January 2012 . Comments Off on A letter to my four favorite senators: Drop support for PIPA

A letter to my four favorite senators: Drop support for PIPA

I was distressed to learn that all four of my favorite senators are co-sponsors of the Protect IP Act, or PIPA. This is a terrible bill that does more to threaten the technical and philosophical foundations of the internet than it does to actually protect intellectual property. Please, encourage your own representatives to oppose or withdraw support for this legislation.

Dear Dear Al, Amy, Michael, and Sherrod,

I am writing you, my four favorite senators because I hope I can get your attention. You are all four co-sponsors of the Protect IP Act and I believe you are making a grave mistake. I hope you take the time to read this letter personally, and reconsider your co-sponsorship.

You all know that I am a life-long Democrat. Amy and Al know that I have been an active DFL organizer in Minnesota and campaigned hard for their election here in SD64. Though I’ve never lived in Colorado, I’ve known Michael since we could count our age on our hands and campaigned for Sherrod long before he became a senator. I am more proud than I can say of all of you, and your presence in the US Senate gives me hope for our country.

However, Protect IP is fatally flawed. I have worked with technology for over 30 years, I’ve built tools on the web since 1993. While we all tend to imagine that the code supporting the internet is deep and robust, let me tell you, it looks a lot like the code that holds together our country, vast and contradictory. Protect IP assumes that some simple tweaks can solve the problem of piracy: that is a lie. Piracy will stay with us, what Protect IP will actually break is the foundation of the internet.

Al, you wrote to me that “We must protect American jobs from piracy, which has become rampant on the Internet. We don’t tolerate shoplifters in stores and we should not tolerate them online.” I agree that piracy and shoplifting are bad. But I ask you all to consider consequences. When someone shoplifts from a store, do we shut down the store? Do we require that all stores prevent all theft? What would our society look like if we did? Visualize this for a moment. Metal detectors or full body scanners at every entrance? Customers always treated as potential thieves? Stores that have “sponsored” shoplifting cut off from their bank accounts? It is hard for those who are not technologists to imagine what Protect IP looks like to those who would have to implement it, but it is a lot like a world where shoplifting is treated with such disproportional harshness.

Yes, we have to protect jobs. But consider how many jobs depend on the internet as a whole. Consider how many jobs are created by the open network that is easily accessible to all inventors and investors. Consider the chilling effect of Protect IP on legitimate commerce and expression. Consider the ease with which it will be abused.

I understand the entertainment industry is important, and their concerns about piracy are well founded; but Protect IP is a terrible abuse of government power and a vast overreaction to the problem. You are being hoodwinked by an industry that will do well enough without this “protection.” You are sponsoring an internet that will at best encourage the development of tools to facilitate repression around the world and at worst be the germ of an American repression we will all live to regret.

I am so proud to have you all in the Senate. But I can’t tell you how sad I am that all four of you are co-sponsors of this dreadful bill. This one is a show-stopper for me, if you can’t see past the lobbying of the entertainment industry to the truth of what Protect IP does, then I am afraid I will have to question the role of my party in the protection of freedoms that are so much more vital than intellectual property.

Please, reconsider your co-sponsorhip of this bill. Please do everything you can to make sure it does not actually see the light of day. See that it gets tied up in committee, or suffers some other face-saving demise. Please, make sure Protect IP is never actually the law of this land.

With deepest respect and thanks for all you do,

Eric Celeste

13 October 2011 . Comments Off on Goodbye, World

Goodbye, World

As the luminaries of the computer world leave us, we will recognize more and more of those who live on in our machines. Dennis Ritchie created the C programming language. This was work first done with his partner Brian Kernighan from 1969 to 1973. Along with Ken Thompson and a number of others, Dennis also gets credit for creating Unix at Bell Labs during this same period. C and Unix lie at the heart of almost every electronic device you carry today. Whether it’s your iPhone with Apple’s iOS flavor of Unix or your Android phone based on a flavor of Linux. Most software on your computer or phone or pad is written in a derivative of C still today. Ritchie died this past weekend.

I learned to write code for my first Mac with the book he and Kernighan wrote: “The C Programming Language” often called K&R C. I still refer to it when writing iPad apps, the first edition, no less. It is still relevant. The first example code in the book is a charming model that virtually every programming language since has used since, the “hello, world” program. Here is my variation for Dennis today:

main()
{
    printf("goodbye, world\n");
}

Thank you, Dennis, for all you gave us.

2876612463 4f329cbfc1 b

Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 / efc@clst.org