Lucia 2011

Lucia concert at Storkyrkan, December 2008
I shall never forget my first Lucia in Sweden. In Stockholm on my own for job interviews, I was startled by the darkness and cold. New friends took me to the Christmas market on Gamla Stan, where we warmed ourselves with glögg and roasted almonds. We then went to the Lucia concert at Storkyrkan. The beautiful music and candlelight reflecting off the red brick walls of the old church transported me to another place, far from the cold, dark city. It was magical and inspiring.

Twelve winters after that snowy Stockholm night, I found myself singing the same songs of the season, in the Predigerkirche in Zürich. Tonight was the dress rehearsal for Nota Bene’s annual Christmas Concert in two days.

I fell like I have come full circle. Come Wednesday night, I hope that my voice may, like Lucia, cast light into the darkness—and perhaps lift the spirit of a lonely traveler far from home.

Happy Lucia!


Fade away

Since getting my new iPhone 4S, I have found it more difficult to tell which side is up when plugging in the cable. I thought at first it was just my eyesight, but a closer look revealed the truth.
USB connectors by Michael A. Lowry
USB connectors, a photo by Michael A. Lowry on Flickr.

The labels on the connectors of the new cable are smaller and printed in a lighter color than on the old cable.

This is not merely a cosmetic change. It’s a functional one.

Because the connectors on both ends of the cable are symmetrical in shape, it’s impossible to tell by touch alone which way is up. The USB logo and corresponding dock connector logo printed on the connectors are important visual cues that save people time when connecting devices. The new markings are very difficult to see. They are practically invisible in low light and to those with poor eyesight.

It’s surprising that a detail like this was overlooked. One hopes that Apple, a company renown for its attention to detail, will address this oversight promptly. A less charitable view is that this was a deliberate choice, motivated perhaps by the same thinking that led to the company’s recent fascination with desaturation in its user interfaces.


A simple solution to misscrolling

Tim Bray discusses a problem he calls ‘misscrolling’—the disorientation one encounters when scrolling down through a document page by page, and reaching the bottom:
For some reason, browsers are reluctant to leave white space showing at the bottom of the window… leaving the last line you were reading stranded at some random location in the middle of the page.
When this happens, my flow of reading is disrupted because my eye doesn’t knowwhere to go to pick up where I left off.
I thought of this solution a couple of years ago: immediately after scrolling, if the end of the content has been reached, a red line should appear at the point that was the bottom of the page before scrolling. This red line should fade away after a few seconds. The red line tells you where you left off, so you know exactly where to continue reading.

I saw something like this in an e-book reader a few weeks ago. It wasn’t implemented as a line, but a little arrow marker that appeared briefly in the left margin.

Padding the bottom (or indeed, any side) of a document with white space doesn’t seems like the best solution to this problem. When one reaches the end, there should be a clear indication of this. Apple has chosen to bring iOS’s ‘rubber-banding’ effect the Mac to make these edges even more clear to the user.

In a text editor or spreadsheet program, it makes sense to let the user could scroll an arbitrary distance beyond the limits of the content; however, this wouldn’t make a web browser easier to use.

Via Daring Fireball.


Realism vs. idealism in depictions of women

Venus von Willendorf
Photo: Matthias Kabel
People have long held a fascination with the human—and in particular, female—form. Some of the earliest cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago include depictions of women. Throughout human history, artistic depictions of the female form have reflected the ideals and longings of the cultures that created them. Both instinct and culture are important to shaping these preferences, and concepts of beauty definitely change over time.

Depictions of women often depart from faithful representation of the female form. Venus figurines dating back thousands of years exaggerate some features like hips, breasts, or genitals. By choosing to emphasize these parts of female anatomy, perhaps the artists hoped to express their awe at women’s power to create and nurture life.

Artists are limited by the medium in which they work, the technology available, and their own knowledge and skill. As the state of the art has evolved, so has the faithfulness with which artists have portrayed the world. What has not changed though is that artists exaggerate.  The media and the tools may be different today than when the Venus von Willendorf was carved some 22,000 years ago; but the basic principle is the same: start from images of actual women, and create an idealized image of femininity.

Michelle Merkin
Modern glamour photography takes this process to its logical conclusion. Starting with already fit models, photographers and graphic artists tweak, enhance, add and remove, until the desired image of perfection has been achieved. It should come as no surprise that the resulting images are striking, and effective at capturing the attention of readers (and the dollars of advertisers). Perhaps in part because the images are exaggerated, they are arresting.

The practice of enhancing photos of women has become so widespread though, that it has led to a fair amount of criticism. Feminist pundits worry that unrealistic images of women contribute to an atmosphere in which women are held to an unattainable standard of beauty. The argument goes that the prevalence of images of beautiful women makes women feel bad about their appearance, and makes men expect above-average attractiveness in women. It has been shown that the images to which people are exposed do indeed affect their attitudes and behaviors, so perhaps this is not an entirely unfair critique.

Some have suggested one possible remedy: that a warning label be required on all images that have been doctored. It’s hard to imagine this happening though. Most images created today are enhanced in one way or another. Moreover, there is no obvious place to draw the line between unadulterated and enhanced imagery.

Lizzie Miller
Photo: Walter Chin/Glamour
Other feminist thinkers have argued for more diversity in the portrayal of women. Glamour magazine recently published a photo of model Lizzie Miller, who, although attractive, is somewhat fatter than the typical photo model. The photo elicited considerable feedback from readers, most of it positive. A common theme emerged in the reaction to the photo: there should be more photos in the media of average women.

Unfortunately though, this is not a solution. What is average? In the United States and a growing number of countries in Europe, a significant portion of the population is overweight. If depictions of women were based on the average, this example would be an unhealthy one to follow! Most people would be healthier and live longer if they ate less and exercised more. Body acceptance is a great, but not when it facilitates an unhealthy lifestyle.

It’s a good idea to increase the diversity of body types depicted in media—but centered around a healthy body, not an average one.


Thoughts on Siri

After using the iPhone 4S for a couple of weeks, I have made a few observations about Apple’s voice-based assistant Siri.

Siri is very good at determining which words you have spoken. However, she is less adept at understanding the meaning of these words. This becomes clear in two ways: first of all, the range of topics and tasks is severely limited. Also, Siri is quite limited in her ability parse even moderately complex syntax. For example,  Siri doesn’t understand this simple statement:
“Remind me the day before my brother’s birthday.”
The biggest stumbling block appeared to be understanding the meaning of the phrase the day before. Siri appears not to know that this phrase, combined with the birthday already in my brother’s address book entry, encodes the specific date needed to set up the reminder.

The other big limitation is that Siri has a very shallow conversation flows. She sometimes keeps some context in mind and asks a follow-up question to clarify an ambiguous detail; however, it’s currently not possible to do something like this:
User: Siri, what is David’s birthday?
Siri: I don’t know when David Smith’s birthday is.
User: It’s April 2, 1975
Siri: Would you like me to remember that David Smith’s birthday is April 2, 1975?
First of all, Siri doesn’t know how to add a birthday to an existing contact. Secondly, by the time you tell her the date, she has already forgotten what you were talking about. She doesn’t maintain the conversational context, so she has already discarded the information that would tell her the antecedent of it in the second user statement above.

Next, consider the following example:
User: Siri, remember my appointment tomorrow evening?
Siri: Yes. You have dinner with Karen Jones at 18:30 tomorrow.
User: Please change the time to 8 P.M.
Siri: Alright. I have changed dinner with Karen Jones to 8 P.M. tomorrow.
User: Please add a reminder too. Remind me one hour before.
Siri: OK. I have added your reminder.
This is another conversation that Siri cannot currently have, because there is no straightforward way to set Siri’s context so that she knows that you want to modify an existing appointment. Put simply, there is no way to tell Siri, “Hey, I want to work with item x.”

Siri’s inability to remember or set the conversational context makes the service feel somewhat rigid and restrictive. Adding this ability will be essential to making conversations with Siri more natural and flexible. After using Siri for a while, one begins to feel like one’s conversations are scripted. It’s like the difference between taking a car and taking the train. The car can drive almost anywhere; the train has to stay on the tracks. As soon as you ask something of Siri that is outside of her known conversation flows, she gracefully admits defeat. Then it begins to feel less like talking HAL, and more like talking to an airline’s telephone reservation system. (The many easter eggs people have uncovered are indeed humorous, intended no doubt to distract whimsically from the fact that Siri is not HAL.)

Like Amazon’s Silk browser, Apple’s Siri is a hybrid application that combines programs run locally on the mobile device with operations distributed to a cloud of servers. By splitting up the work between on-device and in-cloud operations, Apple gains several advantages. First of all, the computationally expensive work is offloaded to powerful servers better suited to these tasks. Every operation that can be performed on a server in Apple’s data centers is an operation that doesn’t have to be performed on the iPhone’s A5 CPU. Because computationally-intensive operations consume more power, it makes sense to offload them to the cloud, where battery life is not a concern. This allows Apple to find the right balance between good voice recognition performance and decent battery life. This design requires that Siri have network access, and using the wireless transceivers also consumes power. This means that there’s a trade-off between using battery power to perform calculations locally, and using power to distribute these calculations to the cloud. I expect Apple will adjust and fine-tune this balance in the future, as batteries and mobile CPUs improve.

Another benefit of Siri’s hybrid design is that because the recognition portion of Siri is done in the cloud, many improvements can be made transparently, behind the scenes. Users will not have to install an update on their iPhones to benefit from updates to to the voice recognition engine.

The most important benefit of Siri’s hybrid design though is that Apple is collecting huge numbers of (one hopes, anonymized) Siri conversations. Every question an iPhone user asks Siri is a datapoint Apple will use to refine the system. Voice recognition quality can be expected to improve over time as Apple collects and analyzes millions of voice samples. Even more importantly though, Apple is amassing a wealth of information about what users are asking Siri. When Siri gets the same type of request from thousands of users, this is a clear indication that this is something users want Siri to be able to do. Popular requests that Siri cannot yet handle will be given priority when it comes time to add new features. We can expect an expansion of the topics about which Siri is conversant, the depth of her conversations, and the actions of which she is capable.

Already, Siri is fun and quite useful in some limited situations. It’s just a first step though. Siri 1.0 is but a tantalizing taste of what is to come.


Treat the symptoms when that’s the best you can do

After getting no help from physicians, I recently decided to try an herbal cough syrup to treat my chronic bronchitis. After just a week, the symptoms that had been pestering me for a year began slowly to subside. Although the problem has not completely cleared up, already I feel much better . My singing has also improved—bronchitis is definitely not good for one’s voice.

Looking back on the many visits I have paid to doctors in the past year, I am struck by a pattern: almost all of the activity during my doctor’s visits centered around performing tests to determine the cause of the problem, and very little attention was paid to treating the symptoms. I had chest X-rays, blood tests, a CT-scan, allergy tests, lung capacity tests, an asthma test, and even tests of potential allergens collected from my home. None of these tests revealed the cause.

No medicines were prescribed, because the tests revealed no problems. “Your lungs look perfectly healthy,” several doctors told me. Ok, fine. Then why do I have to cough every day? No one could give me an answer.

Yet after just a week of taking a Swiss herbal remedy every day, my symptoms had largely vanished. Why didn’t any of the many doctors and nurses I spoke with ever recommend ways to treat the symptoms? Not one of the doctors and nurses I saw ever recommended anything other than further tests.

I’m afraid that this could be an example of the sort of thinking that turns many people against traditional medicine:
If a condition cannot be explained, it’s not a real problem.
If a treatment is not well understood, it’s not a real treatment.
Of course it may be just a coincidence that I’ve begun to improve only now. Perhaps my body needed a year to repair the damage caused by last year’s bout of pneumonia. Maybe the cough syrup was as much placebo as real cure. Maybe changes in lifestyle, activity, or weather affected my health in a positive way. It’s hard to know. I hasten to point out that I too prefer to understand the reasons behind things. On the one had it seems logical that better understanding of a problem will lead to better solutions most of the time; but on the other hand, this too might be a form of self-delusion: it feels good to have an explanation that fits within one’s accepted way of thinking.

For me, a scientific outlook is such an integral part of who I am that I too was very much engaged in the search for an explanation to my problem. Did I unknowingly contribute to the decision to overlook possibilities for treating the symptoms? Was I so set on understanding the problem that I ignored potential solutions? It’s an interesting question.

Still, I’m frustrated that the medical professionals whose help I sought gave such short shrift to treating the symptoms. I feel a deepened sympathy now for those who have much more serious problems than I, and who are neglected in part because their conditions are not well understood.


Facebook discontinues blog and RSS feed importing

For years, Facebook has given blog authors the ability to import their blog posts automatically and have them added as notes to their Facebook profiles. Facebook is now eliminating this feature, meaning that users will have to add each blog post manually if they want it to appear in Facebook.

What seems clear is that Facebook is trying to convince people to skip the step of posting to personal blogs in the first place, making Facebook the primary location of what would otherwise be blog posts. If people post these items directly on Facebook, they become the property of Facebook. The company can use the information as it sees fit, and keep it cloistered away, unavailable to the public web.

Facebook’s decision sucks, and means I will post even less to Facebook..

If you want to own what you write, don’t post it on Facebook. Post it on your own blog or web page. If you want to share it on Facebook, post a link. Services like dlvr.it automate the process, replacing the feature Facebook is eliminating.


Doomsday survivalists and the anthropic principle

This morning I read an article on The Verge about survivalist condos—homes built in disused missile silos and military bunkers—intended to allow their wealthy and determined owners to survive a cataclysm.

Most doomsday theories are just plain silly, particularly those based on prophesy. Neither the ancient Mayans nor the authors of the Old Testament had true insight into the future of the world. They were doing the best they could with the information they had, of course; but they were mere storytellers.

However, there are conceivable threats to humanity’s survival. Extinction-level events have occurred in our planet’s history, and will probably occur again. This leads to a macabre corollary to the anthropic principle (and a form of selection bias): those who plan for catastrophe, will be the only ones to survive in a universe where such events are common. Disasters of large magnitude are relatively uncommon. However, assuming such events have a non-zero probability, doomsday theorists will eventually be proven correct: it’s just a matter of time.

I assume though that most of the people who invest in such bunker homes believe that the cataclysm for which they are preparing is likely to occur within their lifetimes. So the real question is whether it makes sense to invest time, money, and effort in what is essentially a form of insurance against an event whose probability is very difficult to estimate. If this investment requires diversion of resources and isolation from the rest of the world, then there are additional opportunity costs. It’s an interesting dilemma!


It’s impossible until it’s imperative

So many former Mac haters have come around in recent years that I’ve lost count. Now even Forrester is advising IT departments to open up to the Mac, acknowledging that Mac users are more productive than their Windows-using coworkers. My guess? The guys at Forrester finally used a Mac, and were only then inspired to give the platform a fare shake in their analysis.

Someone once said that the typical IT pundit’s definition of an Apple fanatic is “anyone who liked the Mac before I did”. It’s more evidence that people form their opinions first, and find justifications for them later.


Thanks, Steve

It was with sadness that I learned today of the death of  Steve Jobs. Although I never met him, he had a big influence on my life.

My interest in computers began the day my father brought an Apple II+ home with him. Dad had the foresight to see that computers would soon be an vital part of modern life, and he felt it important that we have one in our home. That first Apple computer in the back room of my childhood home was the spark that ignited my lifelong interest in computers—an interest that would later become a career.

I worked at Apple while attending university. Later at IBM, I anointed myself unofficial chief Mac evangelist of the company, patiently overcoming bureaucracy and prejudice to make Big Blue a more Mac-friendly workplace. There are Apple connections in my family too. Shortly after I left Apple, my brother started there. He and his wife now work at the company’s Cupertino headquarters. Without Steve Jobs, my life would have been very different.

From his parents’ garage, Steve started a company that would one day become the world’s largest. Steve imbued everything he worked on with a special philosophy. You can see it in everything from how the Apple designs its products to the way the company treats its employees. You can also see it in the touching stories from the creative team at Pixar. These companies owe their success to Steve’s vision and passion.

Steve went before his time, but damn if he didn’t get a lot done in his life! He truly made the world a better and more beautiful place.

We’ll miss you, Steve.


Effective communication between men & women

And now, a few more thoughts related to the Watson–Dawkins debate:
In response to Rebecca Watson’s entreaty that men “[not] do that”, a great number of respondents, including Richard Dawkins, opined at length and with varying degrees of civility. It’s clear that different people are interpreting Ms Watson’s comments differently. As I see it, there are two ways to read Ms. Watson’s statement “Don’t do that.”:
1 A kind word of advice to men considering talking to her, limited to that particular situation in the elevator at 4am or ones very much like it.
2. A demand not only of how to treat her specifically and limited to that situation, but also a broader statement of what is right and wrong when talking to women in general.
If you interpret her words in the first way, it’s hard to find any fault with them. Every woman has a right to communicate her wishes and preferences to those around her.
However, I can understand why some might have interpreted her words in the second way. Many people go quite easily from “this makes me uncomfortable” to “this is wrong, not just for me but for everyone.” Religious people do this a lot! E.g., “You must show respect for my religious ideas; if you don’t, it will greatly offend me and my god!”
If Ms. Watson’s comments were intended as a broader commentary regarding not just that particular situation late at night in an elevator, but also on how men should talk to women in general, then this would probably explain some of the push-back she has gotten.
Each man is different. Each woman is different. Every situation is unique, and general rules are blunt tools applied to delicate tasks. I can understand men who might have been perplexed by Ms. Watson’s words. I think she might better have expressed herself by starting from a position of empathy and understanding for those she wished to inform. Here’s and example of how Ms. Watson might have communicated her advice more effectively:
“The situation in the elevator made me very uncomfortable. I felt trapped, and intimidated by the stranger. Of course I don’t know what his actual intentions were—perhaps he really only wanted to invite me for coffee and conversation—but the situation felt sexually threatening to me. If he was trying to pick me up after hearing my talk earlier in the evening, then he was being disrespectful, and was way out of line. In any event, it seemed to me that he was ignoring my statement that I was tired and wanted to sleep. Perhaps I should have countered by inviting him for a coffee the next morning in the hotel bar. I mean maybe I really had nothing to fear! But the fact is, I was so uncomfortable with the situation that I was just glad to get away from him.”
“Men, please try to show some understanding of what it’s like to be a woman. Even if you’re a true gentleman, remember that there are a lot of assholes out there. We women have to deal with them all the time. You’ll go a long way toward showing that you’re not one of the assholes if you show a little consideration. This means sometimes forgoing making an invitation if it might make the woman uncomfortable. Your intentions are surely important, but they’re not the only thing that’s important. The situation—and the other person of course—are also very important. If the man had invited me for a coffee the next morning in the hotel bar, I would have been much less like to have taken it as a sexual overture. This alone would have made me more comfortable. Just use a bit of common sense, and do your best to read the other person and the situation before acting. Women everywhere thank you in advance!”
Men clearly need to be conscious of how the communicate with women. I think women could improve how they communicate with men too. Remember that unlike in a debate, the goal should not be to prove the other wrong. The goal is to communicate your thoughts and wishes in a way that the other will understand.


Men, women, assumptions & offense. Thoughts on the Watson–Dawkins debate

This morning, I read Phil Plait’s blog post on the weekend’s dustup between fellow skeptics Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins. Plait sides with Watson in this debate, and doesn’t show much understanding for Dawkins.

Reading some of the many comments on Plait’s post, as well as comments on Watson’s post, I was struck by how one-sided most arguments were. Most commentators stood clearly on one side or the other: they either didn’t see what all the fuss was about, or they thought Dawkins was out-of-line in his remarks.

This sort of misunderstanding is unfortunately quite common. It happens any time two people engage in a debate about a topic informed by different experiences. Each person’s experiences combine to create a set assumptions that can make it difficult to appreciate or even understand another’s point of view.

  • Rebecca Watson felt uncomfortable with an unwelcome advance from a man she did not know, and believed that the man should have known that his overture would be perceived as sexually aggressive.
  • Richard Dawkins felt uncomfortable with the assumption that the man’s invitation for coffee in his hotel room represented a threat, and thought that the man should have been given the benefit of the doubt.

Watson believes that men should try harder to understand women. In her view, if a woman feels uncomfortable with a man, it is the man’s sole responsibility; he should accept this responsibility gracefully, adapting his attitudes and behaviors to match the woman’s standards of what is acceptable. A man cannot assume that a harmless invitation will be perceived as harmless. He should know that many invitations will be perceived as sexual, that they will likely be unwelcome, and that they can therefore create a threatening environment for the woman. For him to act as though he is not aware of this is insulting to that woman in particular, and to all women in general.

Dawkins believes that women should try harder to understand men. In his view, men and women should be treated equally—not just in principle, but in actual day-to-day practice. A woman receiving an invitation from strange man in an elevator should feel and react no differently than a man would if he were in the same situation. It is the woman’s responsibility to express her desires and limits openly and clearly. If she is not interested, she should assume the stranger’s intentions are friendly, and should decline the invitation gracefully. For the woman to assume that the man poses a potential threat is insulting to that man specifically, and to all men in general.

These extreme and unwavering absolutist positions belie the hurt and offense their adherents have endured. Both Watson and Dawkins consider themselves victims of the ignorance and intolerance of those who do not understand what it’s like to be in their position. Yet ironically, they are both willfully blind to the feelings of the other. Neither side will understand the other until they let go of this absolutist way of thinking.

Both Watson and Dawkins are skilled debaters, their abilities honed by years of argument. However, no amount of logical debate will resolve this issue. What’s required is for both sides to acknowledge the feelings of the other. Too many debaters—and particularly, many in the skeptical community—are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they neglect to show respect for their opponents, and instead concentrate on the mere facts and arguments of the debate. Worse still, erstwhile reasonable people tend to let resentment and rancor slip into their arguments when they feel slighted. Dawkin’s bitter sarcasm is an excellent example of this sort of unthinking lack of consideration of the feelings of others.

Dawkins should offer an apology for the tone of his comment, and make it clear that offending people was not his intention. He should expand upon his ideas and make his position more clear. He should be honest about his feelings and experiences, and how they influence his point of view. He should acknowledge the obvious truth that millennia of evolution have given men and women not just different bodies, but also different minds, feelings, and behaviors. We do not live in a perfect world where no woman need fear assault, and no man the assumption of aggression. Pretending that we live in such a world does not make it so. Dawkins should express some compassion for those women who have been victimized, or who have felt powerless to stand up for themselves. Instead of chastising these women for whining or being meek, Dawkins should encourage women to give men the benefit of the doubt while still standing up for themselves.

Watson should accept that despite her claimed feminism, she is espousing a society in which men and women have different rights and responsibilities. She should be honest about her feelings and experiences, and how they influence her point of view. Men and women are different in meaningful ways. Men initiate sexual contact far more frequently than women, and are inherently more aggressive. There are simple and well understood biological reasons for these differences. Both intuitive common sense, as well as many cultural traditions, build on the assumption that men and women think, feel, and act differently. Watson should not pretend that she supports true equality of the sexes, and instead should lay out a reasoned justification for a system that treats the sexes differently. Furthermore, she should accept the inherent unfairness of such a system, particularly toward honorable, well-intentioned men. She should acknowledge that uncomfortable situations are a necessary part of life. She should express some understanding for men who through naïveté, optimism, or idealism choose an approach that makes her uncomfortable. She should encourage men to express their affection, admiration, and interest in ways that will be most appreciated.

Put simply, Watson and Dawkins must acknowledge the truth in each other’s positions. This will not only make their arguments more honest; it will also engender trust and respect, and make for a more fruitful and less acrimonious debate.


Happy Fourth!

Captain Big Hat
On this Fourth of July, I wanted to write something touching and heartfelt, stirring poignant memories of fortitude through hardship, and triumph over tyranny. I hoped to pen words inspiring a rededication to the highest ideals of freedom, justice, and equality—an homage to the industrious, pioneering spirit that defined a nation, and still today emboldens the common laborer and the titan of industry, the grassroots volunteer and the astronaut.

Unfortunately, I had a bit of writer’s block, so I won’t write that today. Maybe next year.

But that’s not to say I don’t plan to celebrate. Anyone up for a BBQ at the lake tonight?


The perils of focus-stealing

Today I was working on a couple of remote systems from my Mac. First, I was working on an Xserve, to which I had connected via Screen Sharing (Apple’s built-in VNC client in Mac OS X). Secondly, I was working on a Linux virtual machine via the vSphere client running on a Windows 2003 server. I had connected to this Windows box via MS Remote Desktop. I had to reboot the Xserve to install updates, and while I was waiting for the VNC connection to be reestablished, I switched over to the RDC session and started working on the Linux VM.

I opened a terminal window and started working—downloading code, compiling it, etc. I was halfway through typing a command when all of a sudden it seemed as though the space bar had become stuck. I don’t write this because the space bar was physically stuck; it just seemed that way because in the Linux console, the command line was filling with spaces. I quickly typed Control-C, but nothing happened. The spaces continued to appear, many tens per second, until the first half of the command I had typed had scrolled off the top of the terminal window. What was going on?

It was then that I realized that the VNC session had been re-established to the rebooted Xserve, and that Screen Sharing had stolen focus, forcing itself to the foreground, albeit on another display. Screen Sharing must have stolen focus between the time when I pressed the space bar down and the time when I released it. The remote box I’d been working on just assumed I was still holding down the space bar. This time, no damage was caused by this bug; however, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where this sort of problem could wreak real havoc.

Focus stealing is evil. Fix it, Apple!


It’s not just about technology

On Daring Fireball yesterday, John Gruber observed that the way Apple demos the iPad—sitting in a comfy chair, rather than standing at a podium—illustrates how Apple’s competitors overlook the non-technical aspects that go into making a product like the iPad great:

But there are other things any competitor could copy, easily, but seemingly don’t even understand that they should, because such things aren’t technical. Take that chair. The on-stage demos of the iPad aren’t conducted at a table or a lectern. They’re conducted sitting in an armchair. That conveys something about the feel of the iPad before its screen is even turned on. Comfortable, emotional, simple, elegant. How it feels is the entirety of the iPad’s appeal.

The Smart Cover is another good example. This clever invention combines a screen protector and a stand in one handy device that’s actually fun to use. It didn’t require huge amounts of technological investment, economies of scale, or multi-billion dollar purchasing power. It required only thinking about the problem in a novel way. Apple’s competitors could have come up with something like this, but they didn’t. If Samsung, HP, Motorola, and RIM cannot even compete with Apple on something like this, how can they hope to entice customers away from the iPad?


Apple and Intel announce Thunderbolt

The updated MacBook Pros announced today include a fast new IO system, developed jointly by Apple and Intel and formerly known as Light Peak.

Both Apple and Intel have agreed to call the new technology by a common name: Thunderbolt. When the IEEE 1394 interface (“FireWire”) was developed, different companies used different names to refer to the interface. This led to some confusion in the marketplace, and it seems Apple and Intel are hoping to prevent a repeat of this.

New MacBook Pro specifications appear on apple.com

Apple announced updated MacBook Pros today. The technical specs of the updated computers were leaked and widely publicized yesterday, and are now officially available on the MBP specs page.


Time for a trip to Stockholm?

Last winter, while in Andermatt recovering from my first bout with vertigo, I mailed my application for my new U.S. passport. It arrived not too long afterward. Well now, the time has come for me to renew my Swedish passport too. It’s not possible to apply for a new passport at the Swedish consulate here in Zürich; one must do so in person at the embassy in Bern.

So today I spoke with a nice Swedish lady at the embassy, and booked a time to come in and take care of the paperwork. She explained that I would have to bring ID with me, a proof of Swedish citizenship (kindly faxed to my office by the Swedish tax authorities in Stockholm), and 215 Swiss Francs. The price seemed a bit steep to me. I knew I didn’t pay that much for my original passport. A quick search online revealed a page from the Swedish Police, explaining the costs of applying for a passport. Applying at a police station in Sweden costs 400 SEK; applying at an embassy abroad costs 1400 SEK. The higher price is equivalent to just over 200 CHF; this explains the 215 CHF price quoted to me earlier.

It turns out there’s another reason I need to visit the police in Stockholm. Back in October, I received a letter that had been delivered to my permanent address in Stockholm and forwarded to me here. The letter was from the police in Stockholm. The letter advised me that they had my Swedish driver’s license, and that I should come to the police station on Kungsholmen and pick it up in person. I had been missing my driver’s license for a few weeks, and was glad to learn that it had been found. But it took me a moment to figure out how it ended up in Stockholm! Looking again at the letter, I saw that the Police had received my driver’s license from the Swedish embassy in Bern. Then I realized what had happened. In September, there was an election in Sweden. I voted at the Swedish consulate at Stadelhofen, right here in Zürich. When casting my vote, I showed my Swedish driver’s license as proof of my identity. I must have misplaced the license there in the consulate. They sent it to the police in Stockholm because Stockholm is the location of the permanent address on file for me with the Swedish tax office.

I had been planning to go to Sweden sometime in the spring or summer anyway; but now I’m thinking that if I have to pay one thousand Swedish kronor more to get the passport here in Switzerland, I might as well put that money toward to cost of air travel to Stockholm instead. Then I could pick up my new passport and my driver’s license at the same time, and spend a few days visiting friends too.

So now I’m looking at the prices of tickets to Stockholm for weekends in February and March. Obviously, I need to be there on either Friday or Monday too, so that I can be there on a day when the police station is open. So, Stockholm friends—is there anything fun happening in the next couple of months?