RS232C, anyone?

August 11th, 2014

It's both amazing and mildly depressing to think of how many of the interfaces catered for by xkcd's Universal Converter Box I have within an arm's length of where I'm sitting as I type this.

Universal Convertor Box

Most of them still passing bits or electrons back and forth just like they were built to. I'm pretty sure my F Connector1 would be a wee bit confused to find itself plugged into an adapter that sends the PAL signal my aerial provides on to a USB2 port.2

  1. I had no idea that was its proper name.
  2. But then, the whole point of an adapter is that a device need never know what's really at the other end of the connection.

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The Infinite Space Between Words

May 17th, 2014

Inspired by one of the more thought-provoking scenes in Spike Jonze's Her, Jeff Atwood finds a really neat way to help us visualise just how fast modern computers can transfer bits back and forth in The Infinite Space Between Words:

So instead of travelling to Pluto to get our data from disk in 1999, today we only need to travel to … Jupiter.

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'You make it seem as if the capitalists would entirely remove all human labor from their businesses in deference to robots, if they could. This would constitute an egregious disregard for the communal good, and so I'm afraid it's impossible to imagine proprietors acting in this horrible way!'

March 16th, 2014

A Preliminary Phenomenology of the Self-Checkout is long, but totally worth it:

III. The Ghost in the Machine


You have bought a greeting card, you indicate. Why, then, can't I feel its heft in my bagging area? Is it because of the appalling taste you have? I will not abet this item. I will never detect it, for you are unscrupulous and depraved. This disingenuous gesture will not cause your niece on the occasion of her birthday ("Time to celebrate!") to feel any particular tenderness. Welcome to the new phase in human history that my presence has inaugurated: soon, greeting cards will no longer be available for purchase. So, too: yarn, cotton balls, postcards, feathers, stickers, and some seasoning packets. In their stead, you might dare enjoy communing with your fellow man.

Also features a man who pays a terrible price for trying to game the Machine for the sake of saving money on half a dozen lemons, and Karl Marx chatting with John Locke1 about the price of lemons (among other things.)

[Via MetaFilter]

  1. No, not the character from Lost.

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After Dark in CSS

March 16th, 2014

After Dark in CSS is an exercise in nostalgia for those of us of a certain age:

After Dark menu

[Via The Tao of Mac]

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' … the most lunatic thing I've seen on a piece of silicon since I found out the MIPS architecture had runtime-mutable endianness.'

February 17th, 2014

I bookmarked Mike Hoye's Citation Needed weeks ago but never got round to posting a link here. Unfortunately I've forgotten where I came across the link to this piece in the first place, but I can't let that stop me. If this is the sort of thing you like, you'll enjoy this a lot:

"Should array indices start at 0 or 1? My compromise of 0.5 was rejected without, I thought, proper consideration." – Stan Kelly-Bootle

Sometimes somebody says something to me, like a whisper of a hint of an echo of something half-forgotten, and it lands on me like an invocation. The mania sets in, and it isn't enough to believe; I have to know.

I've spent far more effort than is sensible this month crawling down a rabbit hole disguised, as they often are, as a straightforward question: why do programmers start counting at zero?

Now: stop right there. By now your peripheral vision should have convinced you that this is a long article, and I'm not here to waste your time. But if you're gearing up to tell me about efficient pointer arithmetic or binary addition or something, you're wrong. You don't think you're wrong and that's part of a much larger problem, but you're still wrong. […]

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15 Sorting Algorithms

November 17th, 2013

15 Sorting Algorithms in 6 Minutes. Be sure to turn the sound up – it's half the fun of watching how each algorithm works.


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Retail Therapy

September 20th, 2013

From McSweeney's, Retail Therapy: Inside the Apple Store

When Apple employees are asked what they love most about their job (and they are asked often) most invariably answer "the people." They mean their co-workers, not the customers.

Because the daily expectations for customer service go beyond anywhere else in retail, only those with managerial ambitions will invoke their commitment to helping people. Some thrive on that. Others get diagnosed with PTSD. Consider that the flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City is open 24 hours and has more annual foot traffic than Yankee Stadium, yet only one door. Every day, in every Apple Store, people flood to customer service, when what many truly need is therapy.

On the face of it, a typical set of retail customer service war stories. Until the last customer's story, which is something else entirely, a reminder of how personal our modern personal computers have become.

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Infinite loop

March 19th, 2013

A slice of prime early 1980s computing nostalgia, served up for British computer geeks of a certain age by The Register:

They would, Clive Sinclair claimed on 23 April 1982, revolutionise home computer storage. Significantly cheaper than the established 5.25-inch and emerging 3.5-inch floppy drives of the time – though not as capacious or as fast to serve up files – 'Uncle' Clive's new toy would "change the face of personal computing", Sinclair Research's advertising puffed.

Yet this "remarkable breakthrough at a remarkable price" would take more than 18 months more to come to market. In the meantime, it would become a byword for delays and disappointment – and this in an era when almost every promised product arrived late.

Sinclair's revolutionary product was the ZX Microdrive. This is its story. […]

It was a pity that Sinclair botched the ZX Microdrive so badly: it was a tragedy that the QL relied upon Microdrives.1 I tell you, with floppy disk drives, a decent keyboard and a finished operating system, the QL could've been a contender.

  1. And an inadequate keyboard. And firmware that required more space on the built-in ROM than could fit on that ROM, leaving early users with no choice but to to plug in an external ROM card holding the remainder of their computer's operating system.

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Big data

February 17th, 2013


In the future, you have access to all your data. Memory, or the lack thereof, is no longer discussed. It is only assumed, a feature of modern life, since you can now relive all your past data as experiences. But because of "technical constraints," all of your experiences are taxonomized and merged for ease of efficiency/retrieval. To access your past, then, is to relive each experience – in real time, all at once.

You begin:

You spend seven weeks holding your iPhone to your ear on hold.
You pull to refresh for seven months, click to refresh for nine.
You miss 30 Thanksgiving dinners restarting your laptop.
12 Valentine's Days restarting your iPhone.
You swipe past iPad ads for 48 hours before ever seeing content.

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Kate Bush, 1982-style

January 27th, 2013

A tribute to the ZX Spectrum and the albums of Kate Bush:

The Kick Inside, ZX Spectrum-style

(In fairness, I should note that the copy above is at 50% of the size of the original, which serves to mask some of the rough edges. Follow the link to see the album covers in all their pixillated, colour-clashing glory.)

Nice work. It's surprising how nicely some of them turned out.

The Sensual World and 50 Words for Snow benefit from being essentially black and white images in the first place, so the dithering doesn't fall foul of the limitations of the Spectrum's graphics display,1 but some of the more colourful later albums like Aerial and Director's Cut look pretty damned fine all things considered. The run of albums from Lionheart to Hounds of Love is another matter entirely…

One last thought: we should all be eternally grateful that the creator of these tribute images didn't accompany them with reproductions of Kate's music created using a Spectrum's sound chip.

[Via MetaFilter]

  1. Basically, in graphics mode the 256×192 pixel screen was divided into 8×8 pixel blocks, each of which was limited to a single foreground and background colour. Chunky, but more than made up for by the sheer amount of computer you got for your £175 if you went for the version with a massive 48KB – yes, that's Kilobytes, not Megabytes – of RAM. Those were the days.

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September 27th, 2012

Scrollbars Through the History.


Nine out of the eleven pictures are of scrollbars from Apple's MacOS and iOS or Microsoft Windows, with one of the other two from NeXTstep (a.k.a. MacOSX's eccentric uncle) and the other of the Xerox Star (a.k.a. the grandfather of every other GUI shown). No room for scrollbars from other interesting Graphical User Interfaces from the 1980s and early 1990s?1 For shame…

Digital Research GEM Commodore Amiga Workbench Acorn RISC OS Palm OS Psion EPOC32 X Window
GEM scrollbar (Atari ST version) Amiga Workbench scrollbar Acorn Archimedes scrollbar Palm OS scrollbar EPOC scroll bar X Window scroll bar

[Via Daring Fireball]

  1. Yes, I know that X Window was – among other things – a platform for building a GUI on rather than a standard interface, but there were a lot of systems that did just that.

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My eyes, my eyes!

August 1st, 2012

A Tribute to the Windows 3.1 "Hot Dog Stand" Color Scheme.

[Via Build & Analyze #88]

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I've submitted the odd Smug Report, too.

July 22nd, 2012

Jeff Atwood's post about the response of Stack Overflow's users to a request for examples of New Programming Jargon includes some real doozies.

18. Common Law Feature

A bug in the application that has existed so long that it is now part of the expected functionality, and user support is required to actually fix it.

I have to admit that back when I was teaching myself Visual Basic for Applications, my work included multiple instances of Stringly Typed functions. Even now, I struggle against the temptation to leave Ninja Comments.

All in all, it's just as well that I'm not being paid to write code.

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70 degrees

June 18th, 2012

I swear this sort of thing makes me want never to set foot in an Apple Store again:

Beneath all the chillness and chirpiness [of an Apple Store] is a consumer destination whose whimsy is the result of painstaking calibration. Think Disney World's underground tunnels, except with all the draconianism out on display and integral to the whole aesthetic. The products placed on blond-wood tables at precisely measured intervals. The reservations-only appointment system at the Genius Bar. The Five Steps of Service. The fact that Jon's beard is trimmed to a uniform three inches. It takes a lot of work to stay this relaxed.

Turns out, though, that there's one more bit of precision required to make the Apple Store so Apple-y. The notebook computers displayed on the store's tabletops and counters are set out, each day, to exactly the same angle. That angle being, precisely, 70 degrees: not as rigid as a table-perpendicular 90 degrees, but open enough — and, also, closed enough — for screens' content to remain visible and inviting to would-be typers and tinkerers.

The point, explains Carmine Gallo, who is writing a book on the inside workings of the Apple Store, is to get people to touch the devices. […]


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Nine algorithms

June 12th, 2012

John Dupuis reviews Nine algorithms that changed the future by John MacCormick:

John MacCormick's new book, Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers, is very good. You should buy it and read it.

Among all the debates about whether or not absolutely everybody must without question learn to program […] it's perhaps a good idea to pause and take a look at exactly what programs do.

Which is what this book does. It starts from the premise that people love computers and what they can do but don't have much of an idea about what goes on inside the little black box. And then, what MacCormick does is take nine general types of high level functions that computer perform and explain first what those functions really mean and second a general idea of how software developers have approached solving the initial problems. […]

Sounds like something I'd enjoy. The Kindle edition1 is quite expensive so I'm not going to rush and buy it now, but I'll certainly be interested in picking up a copy at a reasonable price once it shows up in paperback.

  1. Not that I own a Kindle, but I'm quite happy to read Kindle books on my iPod Touch.

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Still, The Google did not load.

January 20th, 2012

At McSweeney's: In Which I Fix My Girlfriend's Grandparents' WiFi and Am Hailed as a Conquering Hero.

Lo, in the twilight days of the second year of the second decade of the third millennium did a great darkness descend over the wireless internet connectivity of the people of 276 Ferndale Street in the North-Central lands of Iowa. For many years, the gentlefolk of these lands basked in a wireless network overflowing with speed and ample internet, flowing like a river into their Compaq Presario. Many happy days did the people spend checking Hotmail and reading

But then one gray morning did Internet Explorer 6 no longer load The Google. Refresh was clicked, again and again, but still did Internet Explorer 6 not load The Google. Perhaps The Google was broken, the people thought, but then The Yahoo too did not load. Nor did Hotmail. Nor The land was thrown into panic. […]

[Via Pop Loser]

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USB Typewriter

January 9th, 2012

The USB Typewriter is a hilariously anachronistic yet strangely beguiling piece of kit.1

I strongly suspect the image of an iPad strapped to the USB Typewriter is causing the late Mr Jobs to do somewhere in the vicinity of 200rpm even as I type this.

[Via Memex 1.1]

  1. Personally, if I were in the market to replace my eight year old Mac keyboard with something a little louder I'd be inclined to look for a way to hook up my Mac Mini to an IBM Model M keyboard, for nostalgia's sake. Be sure to listen to the audio of the sound of a Model M in action on that page: what a glorious racket!

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The Icon Handbook

December 20th, 2011

Despite the fact that I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've had cause to design an icon over the course of the last decade, I'm sorely tempted to treat myself to a copy of The Icon Handbook by Jon Hicks just on the basis of the quantity and quality of eye candy on display therein:

This is a book that I've been wanting to write for a long time. Whenever I've looked for a book on this subject, the only available publications are reference guides that simply reproduce as many symbols as possible. Where books have gone into theory, they were published decades before desktop computers, and therefore miss the most relevant and active context of icon use. Sometimes the topic is covered as a part of a book about logo design, and amounts to little more than a page or two. So I've set out to create the manual, reference guide and coffee table book that I always desired. […]

A sample of the book's content can be downloaded from the publisher's site if you want to see what I mean.

[For the record: I have no connection with Jon Hicks, other than having read his journal for some years now and admired his Helvetireader theme for Google Reader. All the evidence is that he knows what he's talking about.]

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Searching and browsing (and tapping and holding)

December 6th, 2011

In the course of a post about Browsing vs. Searching, user interface guru Bruce Tognazzini touches on something central to the experience of using the current generation of Apple software:

[…] Instead of working to make everything visible to the user, Apple's industrial and graphic designers, now fully in command, are doing just the opposite: Apparently bereft of even the barest knowledge of behavioral (HCI) design, they have busied themselves hiding everything they can, increasing visual simplicity at the expense of actual simplicity. Then, they pretend both to themselves and to us that the only instruction you'll ever need for an iPad is, "Turn it on." iPad users are left to stumble around, trying to find the things they need to get their work done, things so carefully hidden that without a friend to help them, they are unlikely to ever find them.

Case in point: At some point in the past, perhaps the distant past, Apple added the capability to jump from letter group to letter group by holding down on the letter column, rather than just stabbing at your letter of choice (and usually missing). After four years of using iDevices, during the course of writing this column, I accidentally held down for a second on an alpha character, causing the slide bar to appear. I never knew before that moment that hold-and-slide even existed in Contacts. Principle: If a capability is not visible and the developer does not teach that capability, it may as well not exist.

Damned straight! I had no idea the slide bar existed until I read that last paragraph earlier this evening.

I like iOS, I really do, but it's a crying shame that the most usable portable computers I've ever owned were designed by Palm1 and Psion2 back in the 1990s.

Come on Apple, you can do better than this…

[Via Daring Fireball]

  1. I loved my Palm IIIx and Tungsten T. The T5 was prettier and had better hardware specs, but by then PalmOS was clearly running out of steam.
  2. My Psion Series 3c was the best-engineered portable hardware I've ever owned. The Psion Series 5 came with tremendously capable software, but it wasn't as robust, and it was orphaned when Psion decided to concentrate on making software for smartphones.

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Wanted: some angry nerds

December 4th, 2011

Jonathan Zittrain declares that the PC is dead. Which would be fine, if only the smartphones and tablets that are ushering in the post-PC era weren't so locked down:

[…] Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don't merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we're seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other – and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse. […]

[Via The Brooks Review]

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