Keyboards, touch typing, dictation

Shawn Blanc has done some research on keyboards for the Macintosh and written an exhaustive piece on using them as a professional writer: Clicky Keyboards. It’s not clear from the piece if Shawn is a touch typist but my guess is he is.

In 1985 I witnessed my friend Steve Splonskowski (still in college) typing at lightening speed on the awful Macintosh 128K keyboard. He was looking at the screen and typing away and it was a thing of beauty. I wanted to type like that so I bought a copy of the keyboarding instruction program “Typing Intrigue” and started playing the rain game (type a letter as it falls from the top of the screen) and quickly moved on to typing odd practice sentences.

At that time I was starting to contribute articles to early computer magazines and between that writing and early email with AppleLink, bitnet and a few other email networks I had enough of a writing load so that within a few weeks I was able to leave hunting and pecking behind. Once I’d made the transition to touch typing my speed and accuracy went down for a while but as I felt more confident and kept my eyes comfortably on the screen and my writing the feedback loop between fingers and brain got tighter and faster. The more writing, the better it got and as a person who had avoided writing for most of my life, a computer and touch typing was like opening a dam: writing spilled out of me on a daily basis.

The way to become a better writer is to write more. If improving your writing tool (a keyboard, a pen) helps then improve it.

Touch typing has changed my life by being one (important) part of the process of getting my ideas outside my head and encoded into writing. Before computers, keyboards, and touch typing my image of myself did not include “writer.” Here’s a now dated piece I did on the mechanics of this experience: How Computers Change the Writing Process for People with Learning Disabilities.

At some point, maybe after I’m compost, touch typing will probably go the way of cursive handwriting but until then it’s a useful skill to have and if you have it the layout and feel of your keyboard is an important part of your writing experience.

One of the things that will send keyboards and with them, touch typing to their grave is dictation: being able to talk to your computer, iPad, iPhone or whatever and have the device type out (encode) your voice. We used to call this “speech to text” or “speech recognition” but the single term “dictation” will no doubt supplant those awkward phrases.

I bought a new iPad (3) for one reason (not the screen): it has dictation capabilities. I’ve been using dictation quite a bit on my iPhone 4S and I’m finding it quite useful and it’s quite good on the new iPad as well. However, it’s a very different writing experience from touch typing and so, my brain is making a feeble attempt to adapt. I really like the tight feedback loop that happens with touch typing and dictation is a different kind of experience. We’ll see how touch typists like me adapt (or not).

No doubt we’re in transition: I’m touch typing this on my MacBook Pro’s keyboard which works quite well for me and for any longer piece of writing/editing I’ll probably be using this tool but for a lot of the other writing I do I’ll just as easily be using the iPad or iPhone with dictation (or with their awful but useable onscreen keyboards).

Steve Jobs changed my life

Dear Mrs. Jobs,

My condolences for your loss.

I walked up to your husband in 1984 at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco and asked him to give me a then brand new Macintosh computer to take with me to Alaska to work with students and adults with learning disabilities. We talked for a few minutes and by the time I returned home to Oregon the Macintosh was waiting for me. In short order that computer changed my life and the lives of the people in Alaska I worked with.

The Macintosh allowed me to experience my own intelligence, separate from my learning disability for the first time in my life. In turn, I helped thousands of other people all over the world experience the same thing.

I met Steve only once more many years later in an Apple Education Advisory Board meeting I was part of but the size and format of the meeting never allowed me to pull him aside and thank him for what he’d done for me.

Steve’s vision has changed millions of lives all over the world. I’m one of those people.

Thank you for what your husband did for me.


Made in the USA

Core77 has a nice post on a new Tumbler blog: Expletive-Titled Homage to American Made Goods. The new blog is FUCK YEAH MADE IN USA and it’s a brilliant idea.

More of us Americans need to attempt to do our small part by supporting and buying from companies that make products in the USA or who have decent working conditions for their workers. Good ran a piece on Best Practices: King Arthur Flour, Where Workers Are Owners and while King Arthur is a bit more expensive than Stop and Shop brand, we’ll be buying it from now on to support an American company that’s doing good by its workers.

In the early days of the Macintosh (1984), Steve Jobs built a plant in Fremont, California (east bay) that assembled Macintosh computers by robot. He did the same thing with NeXT computers. No doubt one of the reasons Apple products can be sold as cheaply as they are is the low cost of foreign production and Tim Cook’s sourcing genius, but how many of us iPhone users would pay a bit more for an iPhone that was made (maybe by robot, maybe by American workers) in the USA. I know I would.

Now that Apple is over the hump so to speak and doing very well, maybe its time to do an experiment to see how many Americans would be willing to support “made in the USA” vs low price.

The journey is the reward

Patrick Rhone over at minimal mac led me to Frank Chimero’s writing on his digital tools: The Setup which got me thinking about my digital tool situation again.

Here’s a quote from Frank’s post:

I think tweaking the rig is a large part of being a nerd.

Agreed. As my friend Dale says as we hunt for the best camera/lens combinations: the chase (the process of hunting and considering) is part of the larger process of using, tweaking, and enjoying one’s gear. I generally take that a bit further as I rent and buy things, use them, then sell them as I figure out which gear doesn’t work for me. I can’t quite get it all figured out in my head; experience gives me the feedback I need. That’s my process with cameras and lenses. With computers I’ve stayed with the same type (PowerBook or MacBook Pro) for over ten years and this has served me well. I’m comfortable with the form factor and until recently I didn’t see a need to change things.

But, as the cloud has become a bigger part of my digital life (I use Gmail, Google Reader, and other cloud-based services) I have less need to have everything stored on a single computer, and because I’ve started using my iPhone and now iPad more, having multiple devices has become more comfortable. I thought it might be a good idea to have a larger desktop computer and a smaller portable computer for travel. I’m a touch typist so using an iPad for constructing a long piece of writing like this isn’t something I want to do, even with a bluetooth keyboard.

Minimalism is an idea, not an ideal
Frank is a professional designer who spends a lot of time in Adobe-land and now does this on a 13″ MacBook Air. This means he’s willing to make a tradeoff: horsepower and speed for simplicity and portability. Seems simple enough. Of course most people never consider this tradeoff yet they have little use for much of the horsepower they have in their computers. I’ve considered this tradeoff for most of my computing life (moving away from desktop computers over ten years ago) yet seem to have had a doubt about it recently.

There’s nothing wrong with attempting to run one’s digital life off an iPhone (figuratively, the ultimate pare down) and as an exercise it might be fun (and frustrating for some) but minimalism is an idea, not a universal ideal.

The ideal ideal is whatever is right for you and you can only find out what that is by using your tools, paying attention, and “tweaking the rig” over time, not to fit someone else’s ideals of what constitutes the ultimate rig, but to fit your own life and style. There is no ideal or even an ideal direction, there is only the path and how you feel about your own walk (or run or stumble) down it. I know, very “zen” of me. I struggle with this in almost every domain I enter and reading Frank’s post was a nice kick in the butt for me to take stock and think out loud.

Here’s another quote from Frank’s post:

A person only flails around in regards to their rig when they don’t have a clear idea of what constitutes their work.

This is a bit harsh but its true and as we honestly look at what we do with our digital rigs over time the flailing slows down as we tweak the rig to fit the work. The problem is if you look at your work one day you’ll think you need a high end desktop computer, the next and you’ll be fine with a 13″ MacBook Air. How one constructs this overview of one’s work (personal sampling rate) is important because each task isn’t necessarily weighted the same. This is tough stuff with lots of room for flailing.

At times I use Lightroom to process 100 or more RAW photographs taken with my Canon 5D. The question is, is that “my work?” Well, no, not really, it’s a rare occurrence that happens a few times a year and my current 15″ MacBook Pro can handle it.

At times I use both Lightroom and Pages to put together a MagCloud project but I don’t do this very often and so far I’ve done it on this 15″ MacBook Pro. Is it ideal? No, but it does work.

The question is, if the 15″ MacBook Pro is working well for me in everything else I do and feels a bit constrained when I do these two tasks which I do infrequently, should I get another computer to do these two tasks (maybe then I’ll do them more) or do I live with what I have knowing that it’s right for me in every other respect?

Toward the end of last year I tipped into “get another computer land” and ordered a 27″ top of the line iMac and at the same time, a new 13″ low end MacBook Pro (to replace my 15″ MacBook Pro for travel), and an iPad. Yes, it was a huge splurge which I’d been saving up for for a while.

All the boxes arrived from Apple and before I opened any of them up I had a doubt about what I’d done. After all, this move was a rather large change in my digital setup and as I said above I’m not good doing these kinds of things in my head. It wasn’t the money that gave me pause, it was the change in tools and change in work process that would come with the new tools: having a huge computer on my desk that I might be pulled to do most of my work on because of it’s size and power.

Bigger isn’t always better
Frank got rid of a 27″ iMac and moved to a 13″ MacBook Air and one of his reasons was:

I’m the kind of guy who needs a clear focal point, so the vast expanse of 27” made me feel like I didn’t have full mastery over my tool.

I’ve never articulated this but I now know that this was one of the many things that bothered me about the move I’d made in ordering this big desktop computer. I’m ADD and while I like a bit of screen real estate too much and I’m swimming (more like drowning). Some people don’t feel comfortable unless they have a big screen (or two) to spread their stuff out on, some people, whether they know it or not, may think having more screen real estate is an ideal but in fact, they may get less done as they futz around with all the stuff on their big screen. Watching a Twitter feed crawl by while one is attempting to think and write a post gets in the way of thinking and writing the post, for me anyway. With a 27″ screen one can have a lot of things going on, potentially pulling one away from the focal point. I know, it’s useful to see a two page spread when laying out pages and useful to see one’s images on a big screen but how often one has this need varies from person to person and the fact is, I can live without it and have for many years. Somehow I thought I should have it but in the process overlooked my successful history with my current 15″ MacBook Pro.

The other thing I was pondering was an SSD upgrade to the MacBook Pro. I was very impressed by the solid state MacBook Air when it came out and knew Apple was moving in this direction (it’s now known that they’ve been buying futures in flash memory): solid state is definitely the future of computing storage.

The two computers and iPad stayed in their unopened boxes which sat on the floor of my office for a few days and I finally decided I’d made a mistake (a stumble in the path). I called Apple and returned the iMac and the MacBook Pro and kept the iPad. Apple was a pleasure to deal with and they even paid for the return shipping. I suddenly felt lighter although truth be told I was wondering how I’d explain all of this to my friend Dale who was discussing this buy with me and generally supports whatever I come up with (we’re both excellent rationalizers). We’ve discussed it since but I didn’t have the clarity reading Frank’s post has given me.

I love it when reading about someone else’s experience helps me explain my own.

What I have now
As those of you who follow this blog know I ordered and did an SSD upgrade on my MacBook Pro. Except for a single issue with sleep its been a terrific upgrade and I have no regrets to this day about having done it. It will give me plenty of time with this now three year old MacBook Pro to wait for Apple to come out with new MacBook Pros with more solid state options. My last MagCloud project was done on this SSD-equipped machine and it made a very big difference in the machine’s responsiveness working with large files. Of course an external monitor would have helped and like Frank I might go down that path in the future but given that most of my use of my MacBook Pro is doing things like this post I’m fine with it as it is.

I got the iPad less as a portable computer, more as a portable movie player for use on planes. I don’t travel like I used to but I do make a trip across country to Los Angeles every few months to visit my 95 year old mother and as I’ve seen more and more people on these cross country trips using iPads to watch movies and other video content it occurred to me that just getting one for this alone would make these trips bearable. So, this was my initial rationale for ordering and keeping the iPad and I’ve ripped numerous movies from my DVD collection and have them on the iPad and it’s great to watch them on flights. I wasn’t sure if I’d use the iPad for much more than this because it lacks a hardware keyboard and as a touch typist this is an important piece of a tool for me. However, there’s much one can do with an iPad sans typing as most of you already know and a little typing on the screen isn’t a problem.

Now that I’ve been using it for a few months, the killer app on my iPad hasn’t been the video player but a simple and elegant RSS reader called Reeder which syncs with a Google Reader account. Between Reeder and Instapaper I find using the iPad to read feeds and tuck things I’m interested in away a better experience than the same applications on the Mac (I’ve been using RSS newsreaders since NetNewsWire was in beta). I think I like the focus of full screen apps and even though Reeder on the Mac is still in beta, even after it’s done I think I’ll like the iPad experience better. Maybe Lion will bridge this with its full screen capabilities but for now the iPad as a tool for reading feeds and tucking the gems away in the cloud is fantastic. And, when I’m away from wifi I use the iPhone for this: same apps and they work fine over 3G.

This has been a surprise to me: I routinely carry both my MacBook Pro and iPad downstairs on winter mornings to drink my coffee by the wood stove and I use the iPad to read the news through Reeder rather than do the same on the MacBook Pro. If the iPad had a decent AIM/iChat like client I’d leave the MacBook Pro upstairs.

Another surprise: the iPad is so small and useful that it undoes my wanting a 13″ MacBook Pro as my main computer. I don’t pull my computer out on planes anymore and the iPad has killer battery life even watching movies so why not stick with a 15″ MacBook Pro which seems to have become an ideal size for me over many years.

Many years ago my friend David Clark pushed (pulled) me into using Gmail and that was the beginning of my move to the cloud. Gmail works flawlessly on computer/browser (or Apple’s Mail app), iPhone and iPad so I can get mail anywhere and not worry about syncing. Same with Google Reader (thanks Steve) and the Reeder client on iPhone, iPad, and Mac and I’m finding that Instapaper is a wonderful cloud container allowing me to toss things into it from any device knowing they’ll be there on the other devices. SimpleNote is the same thing for writing: do the writing on one device, find it on all devices.

So, my digital life is a 15″ SSD equipped MacBook Pro, an iPad, and an iPhone4, all connected via MobileMe (iCal and Address Book), Gmail, Google Reader, Instapaper, and SimpleNote. I back up the iPhone and iPad with iTunes a few times a week. I back up the Mac every day with SuperDuper! onto two different portable firewire 800 hard disks (rotated).

This setup is simple, powerful, elegant, and fits me like a glove. While I did some flailing on the way to it it feels quite comfortable to me now. As Steve Jobs (I wish him well) would say:

The journey is the reward.

Amen Steve. The process really is the product.

Making the leap to SSD on a MacBook

Making the leap to SSD on a MacBook

Actually he made the leap on a MacBook Pro but this post goes into just the right amount of detail on the why and how of solid state drives for portable (and desktop) computers.

My friend Dale and I have been talking about this type of thing for a few weeks now and both of us almost pulled the trigger on it last week when Apple had things on sale. Low end MacBook Pro and SSD drive to replace either optical or HD leaving optical. It’s totally doable and the screen on the MacBook Pro is easier to read (larger dot pitch) than on the 13″ Air. I actually ordered the Mac but then chickened out at the last minute and returned it. I’m not quite ready to do this yet but I’m quite sure that solid state is the (near and far) future.

[via Daring Fireball]

The Attention-Span Myth

The Attention-Span Myth

Maybe my own brain is faltering in a Web wasteland, but I don’t get it. Whether the Web is making us smarter or dumber, isn’t there something just unconvincing about the idea that an occult “span” in the brain makes certain cultural objects more compelling than others? So a kid loves the drums but can hardly get through a chapter of “The Sun Also Rises”; and another aces algebra tests but can’t even understand how Call of Duty is played. The actions of these children may dismay or please adults, but anyone who has ever been bored by one practice and absorbed by another can explain the kids’ choices more persuasively than does the dominant model, which ignores the content of activities in favor of a wonky span thought vaguely to be in the brain.


On with my distractions.

Internet Quarantines

Bruce Schneir has a fascinating piece on Internet Quarantines.

The short of it: If an ISP finds that a computer getting online through its gateway is infected with a virus and is spreading it, that ISP could close down the cable modem of that computer’s home or business network and keep them offline until the problem is solved.

There’s the technical problem–making the quarantine work in the face of malware designed to evade it, and the social problem–ensuring that people don’t have their computers unduly quarantined.

No doubt we’re on the way to quarantining in the background (self-healing?) with operating systems that update themselves and applications that send manufacturers information about the environment they’re running in.

The social problem is the one that interests me and Bruce discusses it:

Who gets to decide which computers to quarantine? A software vendor (Microsoft for example) might want to quarantine all computers not running legal copies of its software.

What if someone uses their cable modem for voice over IP telephone calling and that’s their only means of making and getting calls? Take them offline for a virus and you’ve made for a potential disaster when they can’t call for help when they fall down.

What if someone gets quarantined by mistake? What will their recourse be?

Public health is the right way to look at this problem. This conversation–between the rights of the individual and the rights of society–is a valid one to have, and this solution is a good possibility to consider.

Quarantining is a form of social engineering and as we’ve found out with attempting to change the whole to protect the part (ADA, Affirmative Action, etc.) that things get messy. This doesn’t mean that social engineering is a bad thing to do or that quarantining isn’t something to consider to make for a safer/cleaner internet, just that it might get a bit messy downstream.

One computer, two computer

Yesterday my friend Edward and I went to the Apple store in Chelsea (New York City) to check out the 21″ iMac, 11″ MacBook Air, 13″ MacBook Air, 13″ MacBook Pro, and iPad. Edward is an old friend and a MacHead of the first order. He’d not seen the new MacBook Airs yet so this was a treat for him too.

In short, the iMac is the most amazing deal going on a Mac. It’s capable and inexpensive and durable. Given that I’ve been a laptop guy for a long time I’ve never owned an iMac but now that this computer is being designed for professional use it’s the one to get for most people needing a desktop Macintosh computer.

Edward likes big screens and thinks I ought to go for the 27″ iMac but it’s too massive for my desk and my life and while I understand where he’s coming from, the smaller machine will be a huge increase in screen real estate for me compared with my 15″ MacBook Pro. If there was a 24″ model I’d go for that but I’m fine with the 21″ screen. All models of iMac have screens that are so easy to read it’s a no-brainer for me. The glossy screen gives me pause but I’m using my wife’s MacBook while my computer is in the shop and its glossy screen isn’t a problem for me here in my office where the iMac would be, the one window that would cause problems is off to the side. I think the iMac’s glossy screen will be fine once I calibrate it and tone it down some.

MacBook Air
The 11″ MacBook Air, while amazingly small and cute, is not a good option for me. I really can’t see its screen all that well. In Safari I could increase text size but in fact, there are many other situations where the small size of elements on this great, high resolution screen would be a problem for me. I’m guessing for people with younger and/or better eyes this computer will be the favorite. For me, it’s not. But, I’m also less interested in it because I want to think of this second, portable computer as something that could take the place of a 13″ MacBook Pro on the road and the 11″ Air is just too small for that.

The 13″ MacBook Air is a very nice computer. Its screen is slightly higher resolution than the 13″ MacBook Pro’s but that extra resolution doesn’t make it unreadable for me. The tradeoff is, would I go for the “old fashioned” computer (MacBook Pro) with hard disk, more ports, optical drive, etc. for a slightly easier to read screen and a bit less money. I’m leaning toward the Air but this computer is new territory because one has to consider that on the road with it as your sole computer you cannot burn a CD/DVD and backups are slower via wifi or USB.

Given that my plan is to to use this computer primarily to access cloud-based data: RSS feeds, email, web sites, backing it up may not be all that necessary on the road. I don’t plan to have everything on this computer that I might have on the iMac. I’m thinking of it as an iPad with a keyboard that does a bit more (and less).

I could and probably will make use of Dropbox to gain access to files from this computer and also to move things from it to the iMac.

How many times in the ten years that I’ve been flying to LA to visit my mother have I burned a CD or DVD? Maybe once.

How many times have I needed anything that’s on a MacBook Pro that might not be on the MacBook Air on these trips? Only the firewire port to connect to a backup hard disk but, that was when the computer I had with me was my only computer and my strategy was to back it up every single day, even when on the road. Again, the Air, as a second computer, used primarily for cloud-based computing might not need backing up. Certainly not as often, and regular use of Dropbox would take the pressure off to on the road backups.

And, I’m now using Apple’s MobileMe so my address book, calendar and a few other things are backed up all the time to the cloud.

Shopping list
So, if I had to pull the trigger on this right now I’d buy:

21″ iMac: $2218

3.60GHz Intel Core i5
8GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 4x2GB
2TB Serial ATA Drive
ATI Radeon HD 5670 512MB GDDR3 SDRAM
8x double-layer SuperDrive
Apple Wireless Keyboard (English) & User’s Guide
Magic Mouse
AppleCare Protection Plan for iMac

13″ MacBook Air: $2048

2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
256GB Flash Storage
Keyboard (English) & User’s Guide
MacBook / MacBook Air / 13-inch MacBook Pro – AppleCare Protection Plan – Auto-enroll

Total for both: $4266

And in case you think this is over the top, here’s what a 15″ MacBook Pro would cost with an Apple 27″ monitor (not the same hard disk space but even 500 gigs is more than enough for me).

15″ MacBook Pro and 27″ Monitor: $4197

2.8GHz Intel Core i7
8GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 2x4GB
500GB Serial ATA Drive @ 7200 rpm
SuperDrive 8x (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
MacBook Pro 15-inch Glossy Widescreen Display
Apple LED Cinema Display (27″ flat panel)
Backlit Keyboard (English) & User’s Guide
AppleCare Protection Plan for MacBook Pro (w/or w/o Display)

Add an Apple wireless keyboard to that at $69 and you have, amazingly, $4266, the same price.

Seriously, I didn’t make this up or fudge it.

The two computer solution, which is a new way to work for me, might give me the best of both worlds:

A workhorse on my desk with bigger components that might not fail as often (cheaper AppleCare), a larger screen built in, all the regular desktop computing features I need to do work: CD/DVD player/burner, ports galore, etc.

A very portable computer for travel that’s fast, light and capable, connected via the cloud and although not an equal of the desktop computer, enough computer for the kind of non-business travel that I do.

The fact that the two prices lined up seems like a sign: two for the price of one each one does better at its tasks than my “traditional” 15″ MacBook Pro one computer solution.

Actually, there is another possibility that combines a bit of old and new and that’s to go with the iMac, a 13″ MacBook Pro and an iPad. What’s great about this solution is that it gives me two completely functional computers and something even smaller for the plane (without a decent keyboard). Given that I’m borrowing my wife’s computer while mine’s in the shop, the nice thing about this solution is that it gives me two full-featured computers in case one goes down. The negative is that I’m carrying a MacBook Pro in a bag on a plane. That negative doesn’t sound all that bad.

13″ MacBook Pro: $1498

2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
4GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 2x2GB
320GB Serial ATA Drive @ 5400 rpm
Backlit Keyboard (English) / User’s Guide
SuperDrive 8x (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
MacBook / MacBook Air / 13-inch MacBook Pro – AppleCare Protection Plan

32 Gig iPad with portfolio case and AppleCare: $766

Total for for both: $2264 compared with $2048 for a 13″ MacBook Air.

Oh my, back to the drawing board.

Austin Seraphin gets an iPhone

My First Week with the iPhone

Last Wednesday, my life changed forever. I got an iPhone. I consider it the greatest thing to happen to the blind for a very long time, possibly ever. It offers unparalleled access to properly made applications, and changed my life in twenty-four hours.

This post has been on my desktop for a while now. It was picked up by many blogs and I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Austin is blind and he’s making great use of Apple’s built-in accessibility feature called Voice Over.

Had Apple not done early and important work in this area through their Worldwide Disabilities Solutions Group I doubt they’d have been in as strong a place to add accessibility features to their newer products as they are today. Apple has a history of attempting to make their various devices and operating systems more accessible.

Austin has a follow up post: Rejoining the Apple Family

This summer has inadvertently become the Summer of Apple. First, I got an iPhone, which changed my life. Next, I got an iPad, which I love as well. The other morning while eating breakfast, Goddess told me that the time had come to purchase a Mac.

Welcome Austin.