There's Yer Feckin' Start Button

Win81

Terrible fuss was made when Windows 8 introduced a whole new interface designed around touch, completely lacking the familiar and comforting Start Menu. Now instead of mousing through a list to find an app you were supposed to tap or click on its big bright “tile” on the new home screen.

This is an attractive interface, and as well designed for touch as anything from Apple or Google. The little problem is, the vast – indeed, vasty vast – majority of users do not have a touchscreen. They are still using mice, touchpads, and similar pointing devices. Because while touchscreens are cute and all, most people use Windows PCs for work things like typing reports or articles, or entering numbers on spreadsheets – things you need a keyboard for. And in those situations, a touchscreen is at best a frivolity. It’s actually inefficient because, at least compared to a touchpad, it requires you to move your pointing hand further from the keys.

For all these people, having to use an interface designed for touch is a small irritation but a constant one – and we all know how infuriating constant small irritations can be. In response, some PC vendors introduced their own solutions: third-party apps that imitate the old Start Menu. Samsung took a different turn, and equipped some of their Windows 8 laptops with an extension that looks remarkably like the Dock from the Mac OS X desktop. This has led me to formulate the theory that Samsung actually like Apple’s legal team personally, and look forward to meeting them.

Eventually though Microsoft responded to the outcry and yielded with good grace, restoring the Start Button to its pride of place in the free update called Windows 8.1.

Did they buggery.

They said they restored it. But if you’ve downloaded the 8.1 preview (or more likely, watched the demo video), you’ll see that all they’ve really done is placed a button on the taskbar of the Windows Desktop – a button that opens not the Start Menu, but that same old shiny tiled home screen. It is an improvement in that you can find your applications in the place that your hand has spent the last fifteen-odd years going to and so don’t have to change direction every. bloody. time (the “proper” shortcut is at the right-hand edge of the screen), but it’s still a touch-oriented interface on a mouse-oriented device.

Similarly, it won’t let you boot straight to a desktop like all previous versions of Windows. Even if you only ever want to use applications on the desktop, you have to get there through that damn screen of tiles. Every time.

A tip: If you move the Desktop tile to the top left position it becomes the default option, and so can be selected without any mouse movement at all by hitting the “Enter” key. Similarly you can put the Windows Media Center tile here – if you have it – to make Windows 8 more usable with a remote control. Or perhaps I should say, less unusable.

Why does Microsoft not allow these as options – even turned off by default? The reason is they want to ‘encourage’ software vendors to develop for the touch interface – by taking away any other option. In its visionary ruthlessness it’s a very Apple-like move, certainly a bold one. Probably, once the new religion catches on, they will allow flexibility and convenience again. But right now it’s just another little thing that makes me want to spend less time as a Windows user and more as a Linux one.

By the way, this is the first Windows version with a point-release name since Windows NT 3.51, way back in 1995. Though it should be pointed out that Windows 8.1 is known internally as NT 6.3. As the NT series started not at 1 but at 3.1, we deduct that to find that Windows 8.1 is really NT 5 – which was Windows 2000.

OK now I’m confused.

Linux For The Normal

Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04
Whatever else, Linux these days is beautiful. Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s all very well, but why would you – an ordinary person with no particular ideological bent or business need – want to use Linux? Obviously if you’re reading this you’ve already got a perfectly good computing device of some sort. It will have an operating system from Microsoft or Apple or Google that you’ve spent time – perhaps years – getting to know. You may have spent a lot of money on software that won’t work with anything else. Why would you even dream of starting over with a whole new system?

I admit, this applied to me too. Now and again I would install Linux, marvel for a while at how all that great stuff was available for free, and immediately go back to the system I paid money for. Not because it was better, but because I knew it better. This catch-22 of not using Linux because you don’t know it and not knowing it because you don’t use it could go on indefinitely, always keeping you from taking that last step over the threshold. Unless and until a situation arises where nothing but Linux will do. And this is what happened to me recently.

Twice in fact.

The first case was a family member who’d acquired a PC with no working hard drive. He could’ve bought a copy of Windows for about €100. But why? He didn’t need Windows in particular, hadn’t spent years learning its little ways. If he was going to get to know one system, it might as well be the one that wouldn’t keep asking for money. On top of this his main reason for getting the computer was to go online, and for that Linux could not come more highly recommended. Viruses that attack it are too rare to seriously worry about, and it is designed in such a way that if one did get on it could do little harm. So we resolved to set him up with Linux.

And there was my own case. As I was telling you earlier, I recently built a system with more memory in it than you could conceivably shake a stick at – 16GB. However, the ordinary 32-bit version of Windows can’t make use of anything like that much. Just as bigger cities need longer phone numbers, you need a modern 64-bit operating system if you want to call up a serious amount of memory.

And here’s an annoying thing, there is no Windows upgrade path to the 64-bit version. So adding RAM can mean you have to buy a whole new license. For about €100.

Or you give Linux a go, and never pay for software again.

Hmm.

So there are people in some quite ordinary situations who could save considerable money by using Linux. And needless to say, it has other advantages apart from low cost and security. It’s also the most customisable, flexible system. There’s so much sheer choice in fact that it can seem a little intimidating at first, so next time out I’ll talk about where to begin.

The Font Of Typefaces

GoogleFont3

In magazines, you have a freedom of design almost on a par with illuminated manuscript. You can set your headlines in any font imaginable, even one where all the letters are little nude couples demonstrating the Kama Sutra, and run them vertically, horizontally, or at any angle between.

On the Web, you’re more constrained. Snazzy design was not a significant priority when it was conceived as a way to publish academic papers. On the contrary, the choice of font was originally left entirely to the reader. That makes a hell of a lot of sense when the priority is conveying information rather than amusing the eye (and in fact any decent browser still lets you override the creator’s intent and choose the font you find most readable), but of course designers soon wanted more control.

One way to insert fancy lettering is to do it as images. But these take longer to download, and directly conflict with important principles of flexibility and accessibility. Worst of all, search engines can’t index the text in a picture. So though they are used a lot for the headers of pages, images are deeply unsuitable when it comes to the body text.

There is some flexibility; the designer can specify what font they want. But “want” is the operative word – the wish will only come true if the user happens to have that font installed on their computer. While this is OK for a handful of almost ubiquitous “Websafe” fonts like Times New Roman or Arial Black, go for anything more imaginative and you’re taking your chances. There are different fonts installed on PC, Mac, Android, Linux, and so on. If the one specified isn’t there, another must be substituted. The result might look OK, or it might be grotesque.

But hey, it’s the Internet – why not just download a font? The idea looks good at first glance but there are a number of problems. A font is a big thing and takes time to download, so you either wait for it to finish before the text can appear, which would be tedious, or switch to it when the font arrives, which would be ugly and annoying.

What’s more, fonts tend to be expensive and proprietary. It’s a profitable industry, and foundries (many still call themselves that) are reluctant to give their high-value goods away. Thanks to this lack of cooperation, attempts to make downloadable fonts part of Web design have sputtered and died several times already in the medium’s brief history.

And that’s the stage we’re still stuck at, as I was telling a friend a couple of days ago. Afterwards though I decided to check on the latest developments – and I found I was dead wrong. Things have moved fast since I’d last looked. There are currently two “Webfont” services actually up and running. Adobe’s, which you pay for, and one from Google that’s free.

Hmm. I do like free.

So I had to try this. I’ve been (sporadically) working on a whole new cutting-edge website using Drupal and PHP and MySQL and all that good stuff. It’s still a long way from being finished though, and the aesthetic stage of the design, when I get there, must start with a clean sheet. So I can’t be doing experiments on that. In the meantime however I’ve neglected my actual working website. In fact it’s dated to the core now. Standards compliant, sure, but not to standards that people remember now. And the newest material on it must be five years old. But it’s all the showcase I’ve got, and I do actually get business from that site. A design refresh might be just the thing.

So I gave it the Google Webfont treatment. You might find it displays the old sensible face first before the fancy handmade-looking one appears, but once it has loaded you wouldn’t know it’s not a normal font.

The range Google has is still limited, at least when it came to my specific need for an all-cap, comic-lettering style font. The best I found is called “Walter Turncoat”, for some bizarre reason. It might remind too many people of MS Comic Sans, but it bears a surprisingly good resemblance to my real hand-lettering.

It’s not hard to use Google’s free Webfonts on your own site. (If you take care of your own hosting anyway. If you have a hosted blog it can be more tricky and/or costly. I’ve added a few useful links below.) In fact there are three ways: The easiest is to simply add an “@import” link to your style sheet. That way you can change the whole site with just one edit. However that method can cause some browsers to slow down, so the faster way is to add a link to the header of every page. There’s also a technique using JavaScript, but I don’t know of any advantage to that. More details on Google’s page.

It’s true that it seems a little rough. In the illustration I’ve inflated one up to some ridiculous size (350pt!), and you can see that in spite of it being a real vector font the edges are bizarrely complex and jagged. This I guess is an artefact of the compression that makes them load at such an impressive rate.

I’d like to see the roughness improved upon somehow – or perhaps it will be less important as screen resolutions continue to increase – but even with it I think the font gives the site a personality and friendliness that simply would not have been possible otherwise. We are on the threshold of a new era here.

Apple Loses Its Cool

The iMac G4 was the first major case redesign ...
Now that was cool

Happy Car Crash

Sorry things have been so quiet. I was a little more hurt in the accident than I realised. Showering the next day I noticed I could no longer reach my left shoulder. The rare post-collision arm shrinkage syndrome, apparently. Or my right shoulder was bruised and had stiffened up. From the seatbelt, I assume.

Fine today though. In fact there’s other good news; I had better insurance than I thought. It isn’t obvious from the policy document, but I was covered for a hire car to go car-shopping in. Funny how you really need a car to buy a car; makes you wonder how the first one ever got sold. And thanks to the old car’s low mileage we got more than we expected, so replacing it won’t be a serious problem. All’s well then, and other than the fact that I might easily have died it wasn’t a bad experience. As Nietzsche said, that which does not kill me lets me live longer.

This line is often quite badly translated.

There’s more good news too, but I think I’ll hold that in until I have the details all nailed down. It’s big, so I don’t want to dilute it with maybes and looks-likes. Let’s go instead to the regular news agenda.

So, Apple Versus Samsung Eh?

Something over nothing really. Well, a billion dollars. Almost nothing. As I’ve said before, it’s a slightly spiteful lawsuit on Apple’s part. They managed to get a US sales ban on some Samsung phones for looking like iPhones. But these laws against aesthetic imitation were written to outlaw counterfeit goods, which the Samsungs clearly were not.

This is a relatively small skirmish in Apple’s rearguard action against the rise of Android. A billion-dollar fine might seem exorbitant, but I suspect that the Koreans probably think it was money well spent. Making devices like the iPhone was just a stage in the process of showing they could make ones better than it. Now they’re the biggest phone company in the world, while Apple must settle for being merely the biggest company in the world.

There are no real losers here.

That though will be very much not the case if Apple win some more of their suits against Google and other smartphone makers over things like the pinch-to-zoom gesture. If Apple were allowed to prevent others from using such basic tropes it could devastate competition in the smartphone market, leaving consumers a choice between the iWay or the highway.

Yesterday at the IFA electronics expo in Berlin Samsung announced a slew of innovative products at least one and probably two of which I will buy, when I can afford them. Apple haven’t announced a product I was determined to own since the second-generation iMac. And I still can’t afford that. If the world’s most valuable corporation uses lawyers to stop me having things I want, I’ll…

I’ll be very annoyed.

Apple Loses Its Cool

The iMac G4 was the first major case redesign ...
Now that was cool

Happy Car Crash

Sorry things have been so quiet. I was a little more hurt in the accident than I realised. Showering the next day I noticed I could no longer reach my left shoulder. The rare post-collision arm shrinkage syndrome, apparently. Or my right shoulder was bruised and had stiffened up. From the seatbelt, I assume.

Fine today though. In fact there’s other good news; I had better insurance than I thought. It isn’t obvious from the policy document, but I was covered for a hire car to go car-shopping in. Funny how you really need a car to buy a car; makes you wonder how the first one ever got sold. And thanks to the old car’s low mileage we got more than we expected, so replacing it won’t be a serious problem. All’s well then, and other than the fact that I might easily have died it wasn’t a bad experience. As Nietzsche said, that which does not kill me lets me live longer.

This line is often quite badly translated.

There’s more good news too, but I think I’ll hold that in until I have the details all nailed down. It’s big, so I don’t want to dilute it with maybes and looks-likes. Let’s go instead to the regular news agenda.

So, Apple Versus Samsung Eh?

Something over nothing really. Well, a billion dollars. Almost nothing. As I’ve said before, it’s a slightly spiteful lawsuit on Apple’s part. They managed to get a US sales ban on some Samsung phones for looking like iPhones. But these laws against aesthetic imitation were written to outlaw counterfeit goods, which the Samsungs clearly were not.

This is a relatively small skirmish in Apple’s rearguard action against the rise of Android. A billion-dollar fine might seem exorbitant, but I suspect that the Koreans probably think it was money well spent. Making devices like the iPhone was just a stage in the process of showing they could make ones better than it. Now they’re the biggest phone company in the world, while Apple must settle for being merely the biggest company in the world.

There are no real losers here.

That though will be very much not the case if Apple win some more of their suits against Google and other smartphone makers over things like the pinch-to-zoom gesture. If Apple were allowed to prevent others from using such basic tropes it could devastate competition in the smartphone market, leaving consumers a choice between the iWay or the highway.

Yesterday at the IFA electronics expo in Berlin Samsung announced a slew of innovative products at least one and probably two of which I will buy, when I can afford them. Apple haven’t announced a product I was determined to own since the second-generation iMac. And I still can’t afford that. If the world’s most valuable corporation uses lawyers to stop me having things I want, I’ll…

I’ll be very annoyed.

The Return Of The Google Stalker

Sebastian Thrun, Associate Professor of Comput...
Sebastian Thrun, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been an extraordinary day here at I Doubt It. An article I wrote eleven months ago was mentioned in comments on The Atlantic. I stared fuzzily at the hit counter for several seconds this morning, thinking that somehow the decimal point was in the wrong place.

Then someone followed up with a post to Reddit, and all hell broke loose. So far today there have been more than 6,000 visitors to the blog. I won’t lie, that’s better than average.

The article in question concerned the – let’s be clear from the start about this – apparently deranged accusations being levelled against Eric Schmidt and Sebastian Thrun, both of whom have held leading positions at Google and at Stanford University, by a man calling himself Peter Cao. (Posts that seem to be by the same hand have appeared under the names M Cao, PeterCaoFruit, and Cao Ming.)

He does this by a strange form of stalking: Whenever these men are mentioned in a forum open to comments, Cao will turn up to make his accusations. Search on his name and either of the others and you will see it, again and again, relentlessly. Often he’s the first to comment, giving a distinct impression that he spends a great deal of time on this. His claim, or at least the most specific claim among vaguer accusations of crime, is that Thrun and Schmidt are somehow implicated in the murder of a Stanford student.

What some people have asked – have had to ask – on comments here and on those other forums, is whether there could be anything in this, though I don’t think anyone who actually reads Cao’s words entertains that idea for long. It would be wrong however to dismiss him as a raving madman simply because he writes like a raving madman. Perhaps he sounds less coherent than he really is because of poor English skills. Even if he is unbalanced, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that he is telling truth.

And if it were true, well, what a story. The man notorious for saying “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” caught in a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice! And who could better orchestrate a cover-up than the CEO of Google? It would be easy to ridicule such a Perfect Crime, but we can’t dismiss it purely on the grounds of being dramatic. The unlikely may happen less often than the likely, but it happens.

And on the face of it there are questionable aspects to the official story. As briefly as possible: The dead person is Mengyao Zhou, an apparently excellent young Stanford doctoral student who suddenly disappeared in 2007. Some days later her car was found almost a hundred miles away, in Santa Rosa. They found her in the boot (trunk).

Now one’s automatic assumption in those circumstances would be murder, but with more detail the picture changes. Her head was resting on a garment folded up for a pillow (paywall protected, full text here). With her were several empty bottles of a sleeping pill; receipts and CCTV showed her to have purchased the pills. The coroner described the level of the drug in her system as potentially fatal, and an email that Zhou sent to her 16-year-old sister as “consistent with a goodbye note.” A coroner’s verdict of suicide was reached in 2008.

It remains puzzling that Mengyao Zhou should lock herself in the boot of her car, so far from home, to commit suicide by overdose. But then you can’t expect someone killing themselves to make choices that appear rational to others. If it’s not tasteless to speculate, perhaps she felt ashamed and wanted to hide herself.

The only evidence of foul play that has been offered by anyone is a second autopsy, commissioned by her father two months after the death. He claims that it found signs of blunt force trauma. This hasn’t been made public as far as I can find, but the original examiner, Dr. Kelly Arthur of the Sonoma County coroner’s office, reviewed it and said she stood by her original finding that there were no signs of trauma.

So the only interpretations really possible are (a) a suicide, and a father who, quite understandably, refuses to accept that, or (b) a murder and elaborate cover-up, involving two police departments and a coroner. While the latter isn’t impossible, what makes it unconvincing is the absence of any motive or a credible suspect. No one seems to have suggested who would want to kill Mengyao Zhou, or why.

Except Peter Cao. He asserts that Mengyao Zhou was murdered by or with the help of Schmidt and Thrun of Google, or by people “on their side”.

Why? Well Cao claims that in 2004, while a Stanford student, he was assaulted by a female colleague. There is a detailed account of his side of the story in what appears to  be a statement to college authorities or campus police, here. It seems that later she accused him of sexual assault, though again I must emphasise that I can find no account except his to go on (and yes, I’ve tried search engines other than Google…). That could mean anything from a perfect cover-up to the whole thing being a fantasy of Cao’s, but I assume the most likely explanation is that the matter was dealt with on campus and no formal charges were ever brought.

So we have no way to judge who was in the right here, but perhaps that’s not relevant. The important point is that Cao asserts that Thrun, or a faction he believes to exist in the faculty supporting Thrun, took her side because they are both German. While it sounds highly unprofessional, there’s nothing impossible about that. There can certainly be groups that work within institutions to discriminate against non-members. It is plausible that Cao was a victim of injustice, discrimination or even blatant racism.

What Cao goes on to allege is that this group forms part of a Mafia-like collaboration of fascists which had Mengyao Zhou murdered as a personal demonstration to him that they could get away with killing any Chinese Stanford student they liked.

I leave the reader to decide how probable they think that is.

Chrome. Beautiful, Brittle

Good news if you’re using an Android phone or tablet. The mobile version of the Chrome browser, about which I have raved before, has finally been officially released. Chrome handles complex modern sites better than anything else available for mobile, a distinct advantage for the Android platform over iPhone. If you have a decently big screen you can enjoy an experience almost indistinguishable from a desktop browser, using real websites instead of over-simple mobile versions or apps. The illusion becomes perfect on the Galaxy Note, as hovering the pen near to the screen triggers “mouseover” events like dropdown menus, just as on a desktop computer – and just as I’d hoped.

All right, it doesn’t have Flash. This is Adobe’s (and ultimately, Apple’s) fault rather than Google’s though, and there should be a plug-in to fix it soon. It still seems to lack any full-screen mode too. But in every other respect it outclasses the competition, from Google’s own default mobile browser to even the likes of Dolphin HD. Naturally it still has that lovely playing-card interface, it’s as neat and simple as any Chrome variant, and it’s fast. Remember, this is coming from someone who vastly prefers Firefox on the desktop, both for its features and for its independence. Firefox for mobile is getting very good, but this leaves it standing.

Really just one thing stops me from telling you to go install Chrome for Android directly without passing Go or collecting two hundred euros. This would be its slight tendency to crash every five f***ing minutes. Seriously, it happened so many times while I was writing this that I’ve given up and am completing it in Jota. I’m enormously disappointed. I was hoping that the final release would fix the instability that plagued the beta. You know what? It’s actually worse.

I still suggest you download this, even try it as your default browser. It is that nice. I just wouldn’t recommend you use it to write anything longer than a Tweet.

Really Google, what the hell?