Wednesday, October 4, 2017


A working Minitel! This one was built in 1985 and is still going strong, cared for by Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll, who spoke recently at MIT's Comparative Media Studies program weekly seminar. They have an awesome new book out about the Minitel that hit on many of the issues I also ran into studying related technologies in my dissertation back in ~2003.

But, as they told me, all the specs for the Minitel were released when it came out in the 1980s so all the service providers could connect to it. Those specs are still available today, so they have a working Minitel and an Arduino device sending it some data. Wow! Super cool.

Minitel, front
Minitel, back, and Arduino device

Closeup, Arduino device

Pokémon GO and Cultural Locations

This is not new, but I have an example of a problematic Pokémon GO stop near my apartment (besides the one that is in the wrong location and the one that was removed IRL), one where the cultural info is wrong in the game but the correct information is just a block away. (And yes, I know these are all from Ingress.)

The stop is "Laughing Man", as you see here in this screen grab:

However, just a short block north is a plaque about the sidewalk tiles in the neighborhood, and it's not a man, it's Geneva, and there is a fair amount of information about her that could have been included in the in-game description. This is another problem: there's no in-game way to rectify erroneous information. Granted, allowing people to submit any old thing would be a disaster and Niantic would need real human filterers (not just machine learning), but allowing people to submit any old thing is how they got the data in the first place for Ingress.

Detectives on the Periphery, and, Volvos

Four detective shows I've been into lately, as two of them came back into rotation on PBS: Shetland, Hinterland, and also the two versions of Wallander (UK and Swedish).

They are all fairly similar in a lot of interesting ways. Moody straight male detective who has difficulties with relationships, wife is maybe in the picture in a difficult way (but this is his fault, not hers) or has passed away but he is still having issues, they all have daughters with whom they also have a difficult relationship, they all take place in the periphery of the English (England) world: Shetland in Scotland, Hinterland in Wales, and Wallander in Sweden, and lastly they all make really interesting and wonderful use of moody, artistic cinematography.

Amusingly, they all drive Volvo wagons, which are Swedish, except in the Swedish Wallander where, at least in S3, he drives a VW. (Technically in Hinterland he drives a small Volvo SUV but it's just a pumped-up wagon with the name SUV.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Civ V and Information Science!

Cool to see this nod to information science in Civ V. Shannon didn't drive around on a steam-powered automobile, and probably didn't wear a lab coat with mad scientist goggles. But, cool anyways.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Game Homage! Not Really

So fun when you find your name in a game! Ok my name is also an adjective and as an adjective isn't particularly uncommon. Here's a "hack the terminal by guessing the password" screenshot from Fallout 4. (A room mate of mine from a long time ago is in game design and had her name as a sign in one of the BioShock games, which was cool to see. This is not that, but it's fun anyways.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why Isn't Underlining Dead?

I was editing a shared document, and we had a bunch of different header types, and some were in underline style.

I changed them to italics.

Now, the history lesson.

Back in the day of typewriters (IBM Selectric II with correctible ribbon ftw!), you had the keys (same pretty much as computer keyboards today) and each key related to a ... thing. Arm? The typing part that thwacked away onto the ribbon, leaving an imprint on the paper (and if you hit too many keys at the same time, the arms would try to occupy the same space at the same time and they'd get stuck). Oh, "type hammer" or "typebar", well those are ungainly.

Each bar / arm had two possible items it could print -- usually, a lower case and an upper case of the same letter. Hitting the SHIFT key would adjust the mechanism (I don't recall how anymore) so that instead of the lower-case part of the key hitting, the upper-case part would.

So you see what is missing: not just fonts, but italics or even bold.

Underlining was easy though: just back up and hit the underline key. _____ Like that but now on the computer _ is its own character in a way that can't be used to underline letters (other characters).

Underlining was the way you indicated to the typesetter (for printing for real, in a book or journal or magazine or newspaper, that is, on paper) that you wanted italics. Even early on with computers when you could have the computer do italics, often we were still told to use underline and then the typesetter would know what to do, since it was the same old thing. Computers were just fancy typewriters in this way -- but of course, they weren't.

Today we are stuck with so many web pages and word processor programs that insist on using black text and a white background to look like black ink on white paper. It's familiar, we know what it is. But that paradigm has been, not dead, but well yes dead in its solitary focus. We can do black ink on white paper, but we don't have to do black on white in the digital space. The paradigm should be "do what is nice and readable." The Financial Times, which prints on slightly pink paper, brands its website in this way (pinkish background), which is sensible. (Actually it's looking yellow, I thought it looked pink a few months ago.) Microsoft Word Mac used to have a "white text, blue background" option which I loved for many versions starting in at least 5.1, but they recently killed it and we're stuck with the black ink on white paper paradigm.

Maintaining the familiar within the new is a long-used approach and helps adoption of new technologies. "Horseless carriage" was what people called "cars", they knew what horses were and what a carriage was. "Wireless telegraphy" was early (pre-music/voice) radio, as people knew what telegraphy was and what wires were. "iPhone" well no it's not a phone, it's a hand held color wireless computer and communicator, but "iPhone" well people knew what cell phones and iPods were, so...

And thus black digital text on white digital background. And, keeping the computer and its keyboard and the overall gestalt familiar, underlining in the fonts. But we don't need it. It's redundant (it means italics!) and I don't think it looks very good. It is time for underlining to end.

Python 3 vs. Python 2.7

I decided it was finally time to move to Python 3 from Python 2. Having done so, I don't see why I wasn't using Python 3 years ago, although my code worked just fine so it wasn't really a big deal.

Python 3 has two big advantages, and there's also a third reason you should be using it by now.

  1. Unicode: You don't have to worry about catching Unicode characters in string types anymore, Python 3 does it for you. This is a concern for me with web scraping. So much easier.
  2. For years I've read about the following dilemma in OSX, with no solution: 
    1. If you DON'T install your own copy of Python 2, you are modifying the OS's copy of important libraries and such, and that can cause problems.
    2. If you DO install your own copy of Python 2, you then have two versions of Python 2 on your computer, and that can cause problems.
    The solution... just install Python 3. These two problems aren't even relevant.
  3. But, the best part was that about 99% of my code still works as is. All I've had to do so far is change print statements, from print "Print this Py2!"  to  print("Print this Py3!"), and get rid of the Unicode error catching.