Everything but the iPhone

by Howard Scholz

The IBM mainframes back in the 60’s would play “Mary had a little lamb” when they had completed their diagnostic startup procedures. It was a welcome, though tired, sound. And those who pine for *those* particular good old days can find here a PL/ I program for Linux, that plays the very same tune, in direct homage to their dinosaur ancestors.I sit here typing on a QWERTY keyboard, a manifestation whose purpose was and is to slow down my typing.  Back in the  day (1970’s), John Dvorak, was pushing a new keyboard layout, the Dvorak keyboard.  He explained that the first typewriter keyboards were alphabetical in their key arrangement.  But problems arose frequently, around two of the typewriter hammer arms getting caught together.  The typist would have to reach in and release the stuck hammers,  and sometimes things would end up a little bent.  The problem was that people were typing too darn fast, and the machines could not keep up.  To resolve the problem, they engineered a keyboard layout that would slow the fingers down sufficiently for that machine to keep up.  The Dvorak keyboard never really caught on, and sits in closet next to the old Beta Max tapes holding movies in Esperanto and starring William Shatner.  (that would be Incubus : http://www.incubusthefilm.com/ )

This not the only, nor the most significant instance of humans who have been inconvenienced for their machines’ sakes, even beyond the time of its necessity.  I ponder this while I wait for the computer to start up.  And while I sit on hold on the phone.  Or while I am trying to figure out how to make the iText libary for Java resize PDF, when it seems the library can do almost everything else, even playing Mary had a Little Lamb.  I speak of society as a whole, but I whine the loudest for myself, because every once in a while I have an epiphany.  Not only did the machines not fully come through on their end of the bargain, but it seems that I am working for them.

The two biggest recent announcement from Apple that come to my mind are the eminent release of the ‘iPhone’ and their release of their Safari web browser for the PC.  Scanning the amplitude and variance of those ‘events’, it is clear that we are in choppy water.  A couple of weeks ago Adobe released the specifications of their Actionscript Virtual Machine.  And around the same time, it was announced that an Actionscript virus, the first of its kind, had been produced in a lab.  And I’m parsing text files, to put a watcher on the CVS repository so I can know when a particular file is checked in, because I need to work on the file.  But nowadays, slogging through text is still like digging in the mud, but more like doing it with a backhoe, with tools like Flex and Bison, and Antlr at the ready.  And I need the practice, because we have to write *something* to run on that Actionscript Virtual Machine.  And because Domain Specific languages are coming more into the fore, because people are realizing that…. Oh.  The file has been checked in.  Brb.

Adobe.  The company started with two guys from Xerox Parc who had one simple product:  a language for computer printing, which eventually became known as Postscript, which lifted peoples spirits and made all kinds of new things possible in typesetting.   And this finally grew into the PDF document format. which is really great, but now I am trying to figure out how to resize and scale the damn thing.  And in doing a Google search, at least I am comforted by the knowledge that there are thousands of poor souls like me trying to figure out the same thing.  You can scale the document, but any embedded objects also have to scale.  And the text dpi can go down to 72, but the image dpi has to remain over 300.  And boy, I think.  This sounds like a problem for a computer!  What the hell am I doing figuring this out.  Especially with Coldfusion 8 coming out in mere months, which will take care of all of this automatically.  Or so the next batch of naive software serfs is told as they are led down the gilded path.

The brief flashes of “Hey, wow, this is neat.” occasionally whispered in houses, cottages and bungaloes all around the globe form the silouette around the far reaching concept of Web 2.0.  People say “Ajax, widgets”  “like I can drag this from here…. to here… on a web page” and the ever popular “Hey, wow, this is neat.”  I heard one more that was a little closer to the goal, which was, “I was thinking about trying to configure the computer to start up that way, but one day it just was.”  Web 2.0 is moving way past the machines who’s goal was to slow our typing, to ‘type-ahead’ forms on sites.  (“Hey, let me type that for you.  You’ve had a long day.”)   Customer centric portals and “Social network” sites rise in appeal, and blogs a must do, to stay connected in an efficient manner.  Rather than humans catering to the computer’s needs, we begin to see the computer bending toward our idiosyncracies.

The final rung on the ladder has several small groups groups with eyes focussed on it.  There are the Tree People.  That is, the believers in the Backus Nauer expression of ideas, which can always be reduced into a tree.  And if that’s too hard to see, that it’s a tree, we can represent it in XML so you can SEE that it is a TREE.  Even the “Semantic Web” folks have put together formats (RDF) which are XML.  But they have a clearer picture about the nature of human expression and ideation (that, that seems to be about the extent of it).  And I slowly edge away from the hardcore tree people, and the confused Semantic Web people, but keep a clear distance from the other side of the hall, which is clearly inhabited by hackers, chaos phreaks and hardcore gamers, looking fluent in Lavishscript for Worlds of Warcraft Bot building, but not the guy to ask about Font Sizes and dot pitches for PDF’s.

So, I should get back to the iText.  Things will move along in the world at large.  And slowly the “Hey, wow, this is neat’s” will turn into “how did I ever get along without that.”  And we’ll trade our being inconvenienced by the machines into a nice healthy dependency on them.  With the machines and websites focussed on being the most efficient and most helpful to our needs.  And then we’ll have everything.  Well, everything but the iPhone.

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3 Responses to Everything but the iPhone

  1. Steven Ross says:

    I thought that the dvorak keyboard was invented to be better for your ergonomically not necessarily to be faster. So Dvorak was trying to solve the problem whereby you type a lot of words on one hand with a QWERTY keyboard bot not so much on a dvorak… just an fyi. I think their speed difference is maybe 5-10wpm tops for a decent typist.

  2. howardscholz says:

    Yes, you are probably right. And probably safer too, because with the key presses alternating hands a little more, it greatly reduces the chances of the friction between your fingers starting a small fire. :-) Joking aside, it’d too bad we had become so used to QWERTY before alternatives came along.

  3. Christopher Cotrell says:

    The Dvorak keyboard was actually invented in 1936. There’s a story, probably apocryphal, that the US military, one of the largest users of typewriters in the world at the time, was about to switch all its keyboards to Dvorak in late 1941, but then got distracted by other things.

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