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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for January, 2010

Variations on Folk Sayings (3)

Monday, January 18th, 2010

“Don’t troll the feeds.”

Pronouns and Pro-verbs in Command-Line Interfaces

Friday, January 8th, 2010

I wonder how hard it would be (and how useful) to have concepts like pronouns in command-line interfaces. For example I often find myself typing something like:
mv file.tla /foo/bar/fnord/plugh/xyzzy/
cd /foo/bar/fnord/plugh/xyzzy/
Would it be possible to use a something like a pronoun in place of the long string in the second command:
mv file.tla /foo/bar/fnord/plugh/xyzzy/
cd there
where the semantics of there are roughly “the last thing referred to in a previous command”.

Along similar lines, some natural languages (I understand Japanese is an example) have the idea of “pro-verbs,” that is, words which stand in for verbs: “I ate some cake, it was nice, [pro-verb] some biscuits.”. Could we, similarly, have such a concept on the command-line, say rep for repeat:
grep -i "University of Rummidge" *.txt
rep ../old/*.txt

These ideas are vaguely appealing; but, would they be used enough to justify them being included? Also, it is easy to give a couple of examples where they work well; but how would they generalise? Say, I wanted to refer to the second-last thing in the previous command line, or use most of the previous command but change one of the command-line switches? Would it be easy to do all this in a way which is easy-to-use? Or would it get hopelessly complicated too quickly?

Granularity of Typing

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

As I have improved my typing skills over the years, I have noticed that I increasingly make errors at the whole word level rather than at the wrong-letter or transposed-letter stage. For example, when I try to type the word “universe” I frequently find that I have typed the word “university” before I realise that I have made an error. “University” is a word that I type many times a day; “universe”, perhaps once a week or less. This would seem to relate to the idea of “chunking” in memory—instead of controlling each individual letter being typed, instead I am chunking together the typing activity of whole words as “basic units”. There is an argument (from Rumelhart and McClelland, Parallel Distributed Processing) that when experienced typists type a word like vacuum, where the first three letters are all in the left hand, the right hand is moving towards the letter ‘u’ before the left hand has finished the “vac” part of the word.

Another piece of evidence for this: a colleague of mine has said in an email: “slip of the fingers: Venue for the meeting will be S122A, (*not* S110B)”. Fingers would have to slip very precisely to type the exact sequence of letters required to type the name of one room rather than another; the slip is at a much earlier stage in the cognitive process! It would be interesting to do a proper study of this kind of mistyping, perhaps this would make a good student project.

A Modest Suggestion concerning Scientific Conferences

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Typically, a scientific conference works like this (certainly in the areas in which I have worked): authors submit papers with a strict page limit n, struggle to fit their exciting work into n pages, get reviews, then if the paper is accepted they have to address a pile of reviewers comments about the paper, and squeeze all of this into the same number of pages. Of course, reviewers rarely ask for things to be taken out: most comments are “clarify this”, “explain this in more detail”, “give the parameters/pseudocode for this”, “do some more experiments do whatever and include the results”. Of course, this is impossible, and so we end up taking out more of the stuff that made the paper comprehensible in the first place.

Suggestion: instead of having the same page limit for both phases, have a page limit of n+1 or n+2 for the final version; then, the authors can have a hope of address the reviewer’s comments properly. I’ve come across this idea discussed a couple of times, but I can’t remember it being used for real.

And whilst we’re on the subject, why do we care about strict page limits in an age where the ink is mostly bits anyway…but that is probably an argument for another day.

The Dyson AirBlade is a wonderful invention; but, still…

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Why is it that, despite hot-air hand-dryers being around for most of my life, and therefore presumably designers of public toilet areas having a long time to get used to them, that there are still vastly more sinks in these areas than there are dryers, despite the hand-drying taking much longer than the washing process?

Post-manufacture Modification (1)

Monday, January 4th, 2010

A nice example of post-manufacture modification of a product: the watercooler taps at my dentist. Clearly it is cultural convention (and analogy with things out there in the natural world) to use white and blue for cold things— but what cultural or learned experience was I meant to have had to inform me that blue is colder than white?

Two Taps on the Watercooler: Cold/Very Cold

Two Taps on the Watercooler: Cold/Very Cold

Kids Today; Kids Back Then

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Over Christmas, my mother landed on the commonly-expressed idea that “kids today” hardly talk to one another; instead, they spend their time “texting and emailing”. Is this really a problem? Is it, indeed, worse than when I was a kid in the 70s/80s? I’ll admit that some uses of technology are very isolating—computer games being a canonical example (though this is changing, for example with the Wii and online gaming, as explored in the last episode of Benjamin Woolley’s excellent Games Britannia series on the BBC over the last few weeks).

When I think back to my childhood, I had very little communication outwith school with other kids. I was a geeky, only child, lived on a street with very few other kids in the locality, with essentially no use of phone (indeed, no phone in the house until about 1985), and with comparatively few visits from schoolfriends (perhaps the occasional on-the-way-back-from school visit; but this was capped off very strictly by teatime, at which we all had to be back in our own homes). The ideal my mother was describing might have described her childhood—living in the middle of a newly-built row of council houses in the 40s and 50s, where most people on the street were families of a similar age; but, it certainly doesn’t match with my experience. I would have imagined that computer and mobile-phone technology would have vastly improved my communication as a child/teenager.

The Digital Divide (1)

Monday, January 4th, 2010

There is a lot of talk about how “everyone” is computer-literate and Internet-savvy these days. Generally, there is a lot of truth in this; but, occasionally, something happens to bring me down to earth with a bump. One of these was a few days ago. I’ve been staying with my parents over Christmas, and I took my laptop with me, usually leaving it on my bed as there isn’t a desk or anything in my room. One day, my father said to me, in a somewhat panicked voice: “what’s that glowing thing on your bed? Is it going to set the bed on fire?”. Think of him when you think that “we can just move everything online”.

Admittedly, this anecdote concerns a man in his 80s. It would be interesting to know if there are any statistics out there that capture how many people there are out there who are computer-illiterate to the extent of hardly knowing what a computer is, and what the demographics of this group are.