2008-07-30

Review: Apple aluminum keyboard

I realize keyboards are a personal thing, but I've liked Apple desktop keyboards for years. I liked the one that came with my PowerMac G4, and I loved the different one that came with my PowerMac G5 so much that I bought a bunch of those keyboards for home and work. At the same time, I've never liked Apple laptop keyboards. I didn't like the Titanium PowerBook G4 keyboard, and I don't like the MacBook Pro keyboard (even if the backlighting is kind of cool).

I did like the current MacBook keyboard, though. But it was still a laptop keyboard, and I was a bit dubious when Apple switched their desktop keyboards to be the same. I was mildly disappointed that there's no option to have a keyboard with the editing keypad but without the numeric keypad. (Gosh-darn accountants ruling the world!) And I was especially disappointed by the false dichotomy between wireless/small and wired/large.

The enticing feature, though, was that the new design reversed the fatal flaw of the old one. Gone was the clear plastic well designed to collect crumbs and hair and whatever other detritus your personal desk is most plagued with. In its place: nothing. Keys so low-profile against the metallic base that there's hardly any key there. Given that I've proven unable to stop the missus eating at the computer, and key switches don't work too well when gummed up with chocolate, as my thankfully rarely-used f1 key will attest, I really liked the sound of a keyboard that would stay clean.

Plus it looks cool.

But it also looks like, well, a pretty crap keyboard. I know I praised the MacBook style of keyboard, but I praised it as a laptop keyboard. And we all know that "laptop" is the fancy word for "computer where every component is both crappier and more expensive than its desktop counterpart".

So I was skeptical.

At first, I hated it. And I hated myself for buying it. And I hated Ubuntu for having a kernel that can't cope with it (see Beware Ubuntu 8.04, which I still don't particularly recommend). A guy at work showed me I could disable the eject key (the trick being that it's System > Preferences > Keyboard Shortcuts, and not System > Preferences > Keyboard; did I mention that I hate Ubuntu's crappy preferences/administration recently?). That was an important step because I was regularly hitting the eject key instead of delete. My fingers were still assuming, I think, that the keys had some height to them, which makes it easy to overshoot and hit the next key along, in whatever direction your finger is traveling.

Funnily enough, I don't make that particular mistake any more. I know this because I've since set eject to open a new terminal as a test, which would be annoying, but not as annoying as opening my DVD drive tray, and it just hasn't been a problem at all.

The keyboard takes slightly less space on the desk, but the gosh-darn vestigial numeric keypad still gets in the way of where the mouse ought to be. If they insist on keeping that particular spare prick around, they could at least put it on the left, where only lefties like that Hitler fellow would be inconvenienced by it. The volume-control and eject keys have moved to be over the main part of the keyboard, though, so I still hold out some hope that next time Apple will find their stones and bury it out back, like they did the floppy drive before it, and the parallel printer port before that. But right now, you're gaining very little free space. About a key's width off your old keyboard. If you've got space problems, you'll continue to have them, I'm afraid. (Unless you go for the small keyboard, but then you lose the editing pad and the USB cable. I'm not putting batteries in a device that has no reason to ever move, and I still don't much like editing on a laptop, even if it is a MacBook.)

The feel is okay, but I don't really think it's as good as the keyboard it replaced. Appearance-wise, it's great, and it's holding up well against cruft, though the bare bits of aluminum are getting tarnished. I like the back, play/pause, and forward buttons. They're handy. More useful to me than f7, f8, and f9 ever were. The expose and dashboard buttons and brightness buttons are useless detractions, though, like the corresponding functionality.

Keyboard feel, though, as I said at the beginning, is such a personal thing that I can't usefully comment on it. You're not me, so you'll have to try one yourself. If you like the MacBook keyboard, you'll probably like this. If you don't, you probably won't. It does feel better after a while than it does initially, but I'm told the same is true of hammering nails into your dick, so I won't laugh at you if you go with your initial "this keyboard is kind of crappy and the keys have no travel" reaction. In terms of resistance to dirt, this keyboard is way ahead of its predecessor. I just wish they hadn't changed everything else too.

The real question is what I'll do if I ever stumble across the perfect keyboard. Good feel, easy to keep clean, good-looking, all the useful keys and none of the useless ones... Stockpile, I guess. If only someone could mate the Apple aluminum keyboard with the Happy Hacking Lite2!

2008-07-27

Review: "What is Your Dangerous Idea?"

When I was a kid, my dad would buy books he thought he ought to read, popular science mostly, read the introduction, and then hand them to me. This let him get back to watching the horse racing, and ensured I'd be quiet until at least the four thirty-five at Ascot.

These days I'm more likely to be "handed" a link to a website he hasn't read. The past couple of years he's sent me a link to www.edge.org, seemingly after Radio 4 has hyped it up. Both times I've followed the link and decided that it wasn't the kind of thing you'd want to read on the web and forgotten about it. Turns out, though, that they've been making dead-tree snapshots too: "What We Believe but Cannot Prove" and "What is Your Dangerous Idea?". I came across the latter in a surprisingly good bookshop in Santa Cruz called, judging by the receipt, Bookshop Santa Cruz. The bookshop was interesting in that it wasn't a Borders/Barnes & Noble, didn't have a built-in coffee shop, and wasn't the wall-to-wall new age crap you might expect given the hippies and acid casualties that litter the streets outside. In fact, the CS books (and I actually mean CS, not "iPod for Cretins" and the like; a book on software transactional memory sticks out in my mind) had print-outs of slashdot reviews poking out of their pages.

That's one of those cases where I'm really not sure if it was done as a joke or meant seriously, but on reflection it's pretty cool either way.

Where chains often have "staff recommendations", there's no sign of any vision; just random books that random people have liked for their own random reasons, and that doesn't help you all much because you're probably not all that much like this particular store's random collection of staff (unless you're an arts student working part-time in a bookstore), even though you may have tastes very similar to one or two of the individuals, and definitely have tastes exactly like some subset of the customers.

This is one reason why netflix recommendations rock and amazon recommendations are mostly spam; netflix does a great job of clustering me with people like me, and amazon offers me 32 different editions of the same damn book. Ironically, netflix doesn't obviously make any money off making awesome recommendations, since they're a subscription service, where amazon could make a ton of money off me if they'd actually advertise stuff I might actually want. I guess what netflix gets out of it is that they give me a strong reason not to switch to Blockbuster, despite the fact that there's a Blockbuster right outside my front door, and they get free word-of-mouth advertising like this.

I don't know if small bookshops are going to survive, and my guess would be they won't, but if they do, it's likely to be because of this "fuck you, man; you don't like my fucking music, get your own fucking cab" style. It's hard to imagine it not being beaten by a website that's "amazon but with netflix-quality recommendations", which may be amazon themselves, should they pull their finger out instead of stagnating, like a sourceforge.net that actually makes money. Personalized recommendations don't scale unless you automate them, and unless you have large amounts of raw data to start with. I realize amazon's database is way dirtier than netflix's, but still...

Anyway, in the here and now, I still tend to buy my books from bookshops that happen to have the kind of thing I like and, getting briefly back to the point, I picked up "What is Your Dangerous Idea?" a few weeks back.

Do you remember watching Star Trek as a kid? Maybe it wasn't Star Trek [TNG] for you; maybe it was reading all of Asimov's short stories? Or maybe you had a more varied diet of Heinlein and Dick, Philip K? But if you're the kind of nerd who I imagine reads my ramblings, there was probably some canonical source of all sci-fi themes you were exposed to at a young age, that effectively spoiled all sci-fi since. You go these days and watch a sci-fi movie, for example, hoping against experience that this one won't suck, and twenty minutes in you've realized which Star Trek episode this story is a retelling of, and from then on, you're mainly there for the lasers, robots, kung-fu, spacecraft, and boobies (or combination thereof) that they're relying on this time round.

You'll note, as an aside, that the new Battlestar Galactica gets an almost perfect score there. There's no kung-fu as such, but there are guns and other militaristic paraphernalia, and that's a common and perfectly acceptable substitute. The fundamental story of Battlestar Galactica is quite simple, and it's a mix of a few of those core sci-fi stories ("what happens to society if there's suddenly very few of us left? what makes humans human? when is a machine alive/human?"), but it's spread out nicely over a long period, has more economics, law, marital [not just martial] drama, and politics than is usual for sci-fi, and has relatively few dud episodes. If only George Lucas had these people's talent, or these people had George Lucas' money, how much quality sci-fi might we have had this last decade?

"What is Your Dangerous Idea?" is like watching the complete Star Trek TNG in fast-forward in that it's a compressed form of a bunch of ideas, but without the detailed exploration of any of them that you'd get from something with a thematic focus. Assuming you read popular science books/magazines (or just sci-fi), you've probably come across a good number of the ideas before, but if you've come across all of the ideas before, you read more than I do. The ideas were grouped by theme, and it was fairly obvious that I, for example, had thought more about traditional sci-fi stuff like impact of technology than about economic or medical stuff.

Two of my favorites were fairly familiar ideas. David Gelernter's "What Are People Well Informed About in the Information Age" worries that people are becoming more ignorant; Daniel Goleman's "Cyberdisinhibition" that our brain's evolution doesn't help it cope with social interaction over the Internet (the difference from the telephone, say, presumably being that it's easier to be part of a group on the net), and Geoffrey Miller's "Runaway Consumerism Explains the Fermi Paradox" that advanced societies that don't reject such things end up investing ever more effort in improving access to fast food and porn (and analogs). Kai Krause worries about what happens to the anthill (society) if all the ants want to be queens (reality-TV stars/rappers/whatever it is the youngsters of today consider the easy way to the top).

It's similar concerns of my own that always leave me baffled when people (nerds) get excited about personalized news. I remember reading in the early 1990s about such a thing from somewhere like MIT, where the over-excited nerd was banging on about how great it would be to only see news stories that interest you. Even then, a non-American would have been likely to find themselves thinking "dude, that's 80% of what's wrong with the US". But it's what we got, one way or another, all of us. I largely gave up on news because I was sick of the stories being factually incorrect or editorially misleading, whenever they covered a topic I knew anything about. I found it hard to believe that was just coincidence, and that all the stories I couldn't easily judge were correct. It's possible, but Sturgeon's Law provides a simpler explanation. So what do I read now? Stuff on subjects I already know about, from the handful of sources that aren't too often incorrect or misleading. People like me, I guess, talking about stuff I already know. Unlike the guy from MIT, I think this is a bad thing. A more acute form of the cause of many of the world's troubles. A deliberate atrophying of our abilities to empathize.

I'm always surprised, for example, when I meet someone who believes in a god. Because people like me don't believe in gods. I never have, and short of serious brain injury, never will. The people I spend my time with, and talk to, and whose books I read (with the exception of Knuth) don't either. So meeting someone who believes in a god is like meeting someone who doesn't have electric lighting. You realize that such people probably exist, but they can't really be many in number, can they?

In their places of worship, they're probably thinking the same things about atheists right now.

Anyway, if you liked Raymond Carver's ability to get across a person's whole life in half a page, and you liked Star Trek as a kid, you might like this book. Don't be deceived by how short the chapters are; apart from the blatantly mad ones, it's easy to let your mind wander and fill in your own sci-fi story for each one. At least if your medication's as strong as mine.

Battlestar Galactica and netflix.com also come highly recommended. Santa Cruz much less so.

2008-07-19

Review: "Chances Are: Adventures in Probability"

Statistics and probability have a hard life. They're often counter-intuitive (i.e. "hard"), neither the principles, the methods, or the valid/invalid implications are well understood by the general public, they're often abused to add an air of "science" to help snake-oil salesmen and mistruth-peddlers mislead more convincingly, and many of their truths are deeply unsatisfying to humans because they don't give us the simple intelligible insight we crave.

Especially if you're young, I think, and especially if you can program a computer, this can be hard to take. Any "statistical" or "probabilistic" algorithm is naturally suspect, either seen as a cop-out or just impractical because you don't have the amount of data to work with that the Amazons, Googles, and Netflixes of the world do. And I personally as a kid grew up thinking that these "approximations" were just temporary stop-gaps until we really understood, really had the insight.

Now I'm an old man, I accept that there are many situations in which statistics and probability offer us the best answers we can hope for, or the best answers we could want. I'll never know whether this book, had I read it as a teenager, might have offered me a shortcut between there and here, but I can say that it's an enjoyable read. I've never previously been taken through the chronological development of the field, never been shown the wrong turns that were made, and never understood just how recent so much of the field actually is. (I also never knew why "Student's t-test" had such a silly name. The actual reason is pretty silly in its own way, but probably nothing you'd guess.)

This book won't teach you statistics or probability, but it will give you a better appreciation of the field, its history, and its relevance. It's over-written at times, making too much of an effort to be literary to no great advantage, and with some resulting awkwardness, but these are just a handful of sentences in a 300-page book. I also wonder how well the book works if you go in knowing nothing of the subject matter. As ever, there's conflict between telling things in the order in which they happened, the order in which they're easiest to understand, and in this case there's the added dimension of the order which makes for the best story.

As it happens, the missus bought this book for herself. I don't think I'd have bothered to take a closer look in a bookshop, but since it was lying around at home there was nothing to lose, and I'm glad I took the time.

If you're too lazy to read a book but would like to be convinced of the importance of the field, try subscribing to netflix. Marvel at their "viewers like you" ratings, which, once you rate enough movies, "knows" you better than you know yourself, and is significantly more useful than the average rating of all users. The book doesn't talk about clustering algorithms, but it does touch on this kind of distinction. Netflix does this without being able to give you any insight beyond "you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake", and yet no-one could question its usefulness. Sometimes, kid, insight is neither necessary nor possible, and this can be a good thing, not just an unfortunate roadblock on the path to enlightenment. If you won't take my word for it, read the book.