01.14.10 | Permalink | Comment?

This is a post about writing.

See, after I read Rands’ review of OmmWriter, I sceptically downloaded the program. I ran it. And…

And I took a deep breath. No, not the kind of deep breath you take before your first bungee jump. Or the kind you take when you’re just about to run from the bulls in Pamplona (I’m assuming — not that I would know).

Imagine being surrounded by noise, lots of noise, with one task thrown at you after the other, and you’re struggling to keep up, you feel like you’re on an accelerating threadmail, and then suddenly… Very suddenly. It all stops. It feels great, and you take a deep breath. That kind of deep breath.

OmmWriter is a well thought out minimalist writing tool. It hides everything else on your desktop. You get a calming, Zen-like background to type on, accompanied by equally calming music. And little else.

You start typing. When you move the mouse, a few options appear. Resume typing and all options get out of your way. Simple.


OmmWriter saves its files as plain old text files, so there is no support for bold or italics. It’s fine by me. Spell checking while you type is available and is equally well thought out: misspelled words turn gray instead of the more familiar and more disruptive red underline. Nice touch. Surprisingly though, spell checking is not enabled by default.

The only complaint that I have about OmmWriter is the use of an underline cursor instead of the standard i-beam. In my experience, underline cursors work best with monospaced fonts such as Courier. In the following screen snapshot, it’s hard to tell whether the cursor is under the letter ‘i’ or the letter ‘n’, and I often find myself deleting the wrong letter:

Ommwrite Underline

The program is still in beta testing. I wish that the release version 1.0 will add a Find feature and support for smart quotes.

OmmWriter is not the first program to try this minimalist approach but I find it the best. I eagerly downloaded and tried WriteRoom when it first came out but was disappointed. WriteRoom bills itself as “distraction free writing software”; the right idea but off-the-mark implementation.

Google Home Page Is Now Simpler Than Ever

01.06.10 | Permalink | Comment?

Google has quietly updated its home page, it is now cleaner than ever:

Google home page before moving mouse

It remains clean if you type your search query and press Enter. Other items fade in quickly if you move the mouse inside the browser window.

Google home after moving mouse

This works on all browsers that I tried except Internet Explorer 6 (it works on IE8, I don’t have IE7). Note also the aggressive push for Chrome. The message “A better way to browse the web / Install Google Chrome” appears on all browsers except Firefox for Windows — it does show in Firefox for Mac. Bug or feature?

iPhone’s Stocks App

01.05.10 | Permalink | Comment?

iPhone's Stocks App Chart (version 1.0) I’ve always liked the iPhone’s Stocks app, even in version 1.0. In addition to the eye candy, the app showed out of the box thinking. Most other charts have the axis labels neatly rounded, e.g. if the price range is between 11 and 29, the Y axis labels would be 10, 20, and 30.

But someone forgot to tell the iPhone developers. Instead, the Y axis on the Stocks app shows the low and high for the stock or index, thus conveying very useful information on a diminutive screen. In the chart on the right, you can tell right away that the low and high for the index are 4683 and 5050.

Recently, I was further impressed with how the app handled an interruption in data feed:

Stocks App Chart with Broken Feed

Compare the above with how Yahoo! Finance handled the interruption in data feed on the same day:

Yahoo! Finance Chart With Broken Data Feed

In Praise of… Commuting?

12.15.09 | Permalink | Comment?

Southbay Coast When we moved from Phoenix to San Pedro several years ago, I reminded my wife all the time how my commute became longer, all of 2 miles instead of 1.5.

We moved again a couple of months ago and my commute is now a whopping 11 miles, driving under blue skies on a scenic coastal road, with the view alternating between Catalina island, beautiful beaches and imposing cliffs, often watching the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean.

It’s horrible!

Or is it? I never thought I’d say this, but I am now liking my commute. It all started when I plugged my iPhone to the car’s stereo. After a few days of listening to music, I switched to the WNYC’s Radiolab podcasts and have been enjoying them thoroughly. I just finished listening to Placebo, their best so far. In another podcast, I was pleasantly surprised that a guest speaker was one of our own SuperLab customers, Dr. Julian Keenan.

Then there are those days when I don’t feel like listening to anything. I enjoy that as well. It’s the pause that refreshes.

Commuting is not so bad after all.

Filed under General

“We’ve Never Done That”

11.26.09 | Permalink | Comment?

In exploring what we can or cannot do on our new hardware product, I met today with the rep from the company that makes all the nameplates used in our hardware products. I received what I thought was a compliment:

“I don’t know if we can do that. I’m not saying that we cannot, but it’s just that you ask me to do things that we’ve never done before.”

He may have meant it more like “you’re such a pain where the sun doesn’t shine”, but I chose to take it otherwise!

Filed under Design

Wher iz the Diktionary?

10.28.09 | Permalink | Comment?

Until April 2005, some applications provided a dictionary, but each had its own. Then Mac OS 10.4 Tiger was introduced and included a system-wide dictionary: teach it the word “Hisham” in Mail, for example, and all the other Mac programs now knew that Hisham is not a mistake (though some friends might disagree!)

I thought that Firefox was the only Mac app to still provide its own dictionary instead of taking advantage of the Mac’s built-in one, but I found a worse app this week: it neither uses the built-in one nor provides its own. The developers suggest that you “Take the time to copy edit your work so that you can avoid embarrassing typos…”:

Writing an App Review in iITunes

In essence, you need to type your text in another app, then copy and paste it. And not just to have your work spell-checked: this app’s edit field is not resizable — a very un-Mac experience. You don’t have to type long before it becomes a chore.

Yes, you probably realized it by now: the guilty app is Apple’s own iTunes. iTunes has always had two faces. The nice, Mac-like one is fast and feels, well, like a Mac. The bad face is the iTunes store part of the program that’s built using WebKit. But this hardly excuses iTunes: Safari too uses WebKit but feels a lot zippier, and yes, supports the built-in dictionary.

Close All Windows

06.24.09 | Permalink | Comment?

On her way out of the house in the morning, my wife said: “Please remember to close all the windows. The gardener is coming today.”

“Yes honey.”

“I just cleaned the house. If you forget, the house will be full of grass dust when I come back.”

“I won’t forget.”

“Please write a note to remind yourself.”

I have a history of forgetting to do things around the house, I can’t blame her for insisting. So I wrote a note.

Close All Windows

Filed under General

The Outrage of Air France 447 Crash

06.17.09 | Permalink | 6 Comments

When Air France flight 447 was reported missing, news reports blamed storms over the Atlantic. As a frequent traveler, this didn’t make sense to me. Then reports started coming out blaming the pitot tubes that measure an airplane’s speed. It turns out that both Airbus and Air France already knew of problems with the pitot tubes and were in the process of replacing them.

Airbus A330My outrage is this: why wasn’t GPS technology used to determine the airspeed? The on-board computer could have compared a calculated speed using GPS data to the speed readings from the pitot tubes, and automatically warned the pilot. The Airbus A330 has state of the art avionics including GPS according to their site. If free or really inexpensive iPhone apps like V-Cockpit GPS and MotionX-GPS can tell Jane and Joe how fast they are going, why can’t Airbus do so?

Further, why hasn’t America’s FAA or Europe’s EASA aviation authorities required that GPS information be used as a backup to pitot tubes? Commercial airplanes have several pitot tubes for redundancy. But if one stops working due to freezing weather over the Atlantic, then all of them are likely to stop working for the same reason. An airplane would need an alternate method of measuring speed, not more tubes. It is a crying shame that a proven technology like GPS was not used.

We programmers are used to being blamed for failures. Sometimes the blame is well deserved, like the spectacular explosion of the Ariane 5 rocket (see video). Other times, the fault is with management, like the failure of the FBI’s $170 million Virtual Case File (VCF) project. In this case, our profession could have easily saved 228 lives and hundreds of millions of euros.

Verizon MiFi: a Review

06.09.09 | Permalink | Comment?

Verizon MiFiI was very excited when I read David Pogue’s May 6 review in the New York Times about a new “personal, portable [...] wireless hot spot” that I could take with me anywhere. The Verizon MiFi was released about 10 days later. With three planned trips coming up and hotels charging $10 to $15 a day for Internet access, buying one was an easy decision.

What Is It?

The MiFi is a stylishly designed credit card-sized device. It connects to the cellular network much like laptop cellular cards, with a difference: the MiFi is wireless, and a router. Simply turn it on, wait about 15 seconds, and you are online. That simple. And being a router too, you can have up to five devices (laptops, iPhone, etc.) online at the same time.

The subscription cost is $40/month for up to 250MB of data or $60/month for a generous 5GB/month quota.

My Experience

The installation requires that you connect it to a computer via the supplied Micro-USB cable, resulting in a disk appearing in the Finder or Windows Explorer. The disk contains all the needed software. In my case, I had to unplug and re-plug the MiFi a couple of times before the Mac could see it (Engadget had to try a different Mac, see their review). Once installed, you’re done. Running the VZAccess Manager afterwards is optional.

The MiFi worked largely as advertised. Speeds are decent, and once installed, using it is trivial — just turn it on. I have used it in two hotels and two airports so far without a hitch. I’ve also used it with my iPhone in an area where there was no AT&T EDGE data signal.

Sleepless Nights

Once upon a time, turning a device off did what you thought it should do: cut off power so that not a single milliamp continues to flow. Not so anymore: turning a device off or on these days is like submitting a request and asking it to please, kindly do so. It may or may not. And the MiFi flat out refuses to honor your request if it’s connected to anything.

I had the MiFi connected to my MacBook to keep it charged then I closed the MacBook to get some sleep. But I kept hearing the CD-ROM spinning briefly every minute or so, indicating that the MacBook was starting up. I waited to see how long this would go on and gave up after some time. I got up, unplugged the MiFi from the MacBook and plugged it into the wall charger. The power LED light turned on. I tried to turn it off, to no avail; it kept turning on again! The MiFi will only sleep if it’s running on battery.

Another thing, really minor: I found the two green LEDs to be too bright. I mention this because reducing the unnecessary brightness is also an easy way to increase battery life.

Overall, if you are on the road for any significant length of time, the MiFi is well worth the subscription cost.

[This article was posted using the MiFi]

Filed under General

The Age of Folders

03.04.09 | Permalink | Comment?

What if the folder’s icon gave you an idea of how often you use it? In real life, a wrinkle here and a scratch there lets you know that the folder wasn’t just purchased, but on our virtual desktops, they all look spiffy. Keith Lang takes a stab at this and a pretty good one too:

Icons of Used Folders

The icons provide nice visual clues but without adding color and other distracting elements like a badge. In other words, just about right. See the full article here.

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