The sound of one hand touch-typing

I’ve often wondered, if it would be possible to keep one hand on the mouse and just use a single hand for typing. This would especially speed up pointing-intensive tasks such as editing graphics. Matias actually sells a keyboard called the “Half Keyboard” that allows one to do so. As the name implies, it is half a keyboard with the mapping of the left hand that allows you to switch to the right hand mapping via Shift. You still type with your left hand, but can use the muscle memory of your right hand. This post has details on how well this works:
Unlike many purported "solutions" to typing problems, Half-QWERTY has actually been tested – at the University of Toronto Input Research Group (with which Matias is affiliated). After about ten hours of practice, most test subjects were typing with one hand at over 50% of their two-handed typing speeds; one subject hit 88% of her two-handed rate. Errors, however, were about twice as frequent as in two-handed typing.
 The post also mentions a few caveats, notably the problem that if you do not already touch type, usage might be a bit difficult to pick up. For touch-typists it would obviously make a great keyboard for mobile devices. For more on the idea of “one hand clapping”, you can look up Koan at Wikipedia.

Multi-touch versus keyboard

For recent travels I bought an Apple bluetooth keyboard (following the lead of my brother). It is a joy to have a real keyboard for typing longer texts (such as this one). Arrow keys are great for moving the cursor and for selecting text.

Apple has done an awesome job of supporting Bluetooth keyboards on the iPad. This surprises, because I don’t think there are many people who use one. Examples: All keys work, even strange ones like curly quotes. The same holds for the function keys (next track, pause music, screen brightness etc.). Selecting text with shift and arrow keys and the shortcuts for cut, copy, paste work, too. Furthermore, when the iPad is paired with a keyboard, the soft keyboard does not pop up, any more, saving screen space. The only current drawback is that I would love to have an English spell check while using the German keyboard layout (also know as “kezboard lazout” in the exotic circles that have this need).

Yet, the user experience is also a bit strange. It is liberating to have the iPad screen propped up in front of oneself and to be able to move around with the keyboard. But once I do that, I switch to “remote control mode”. Then a trackpad attached to the keyboard makes more sense than having to reach for the screen and touch. This might point to a new kind of hybrid notebook: The screen not being clamshell makes the iPad quicker to operate in most situations. For typing, an external keyboard is perfectly usable (I wish it didn’t need batteries, but at least they last long). But it probably needs to be foldable and have a trackpad. Then future user interfaces would be designed to be operated both by keyboard and by touch. Android’s use of cursor keys is exemplary in this regard.



18 common phrases to avoid in conversation

Fun. Includes the classic faux-pas “are you pregnant?” which is better asked indirectly as “you look great” (you can also borrow the addendum from an earlier tip, “what’s your secret?”).

Guides for watching TV series

There are many great TV series out there, but some of them take a while to become watchable (“Star Trek: The Next Generation” comes to mind) or have some awful episodes in them. Thankfully, there are people out there who are willing to protect the general public. For example, “How to get into 20 classic science fiction shows” helps with


George Clooney on the Iraq war when it started

You can’t beat your enemy anymore through wars; instead you create an entire generation of people revenge-seeking. These days it only matters who’s in charge. Right now that’s us – for a while, at least. Our opponents are going to resort to car bombs and suicide attacks because they have no other way to win. [. . .] I believe [Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld] thinks this is a war that can be won, but there is no such thing anymore. We can’t beat anyone anymore. [George Clooney in 2003]
Quoted from the IMDB page on Clooney’s bio. Be sure to also check out his retelling of the fight he had with David O. Russell (just search for this name on the page).

Usability: phone numbers and special characters

Why do so many web sites insist that, when entering a phone number, you not type any non-digits such as spaces, hyphens, parentheses or slashes? The structure that these characters bring to phone numbers help humans considerably and computers can easily filter them out. So what is the harm of allowing them? I would even store phone numbers in a database as they were entered.


Touch user interfaces benefit the blind

The blind profit from accessibility features that are possible because of multi-touch. This seems counter-intuitive, because multi-touch conjures up the image of user interfaces that are sometimes almost too visually rich. Apparently, Apple’s implementation is very capable. You can, for example, point your finger at the screen and the computer speaks out what is there. It’s obvious that the same feature would not make sense with a mouse. Gestures are also great for blind people. Daring Fireball points to two moving stories of a blind guy who is very happy with what multi-touch allows him to do.


Seven don’ts for websites

Source: xkcd
The following is a list of seven things that frequently bug me about websites.


Idea: simple check-in for small items that are illegal on airplanes

Boy is it ever becoming complicated to fly these days: Because airlines want to save costs, you usually have to pay for checking in luggage on short-distance flights. But what you can bring in your hand luggage is extremely limited: no lighters, no sprays (as in deodorants), no pocket knives, etc. It would be nice if there was a way to quickly check in these small items without having to pay for them. They could be handed in at the security check and would be transported in the cabin, but locked away from passengers. Alas, considering how many passengers there are on even mid-sized airplanes, this is probably not feasible. But I’m sure it would be a competitive advantage for the first airline that does this. Maybe just for business class and first class?

Additional idea: a pocket knife without blades so that it can be carried in one’s hand luggage.


iPad tips and tricks

Keyboard pop-up keys: If you hold some keys a bit longer, a menu pops up with additional keys. Rules for these menus:
  • If you hold and then let go, a default key in the pop-up menu will be pressed. In some cases this key is the same as the original key (“n” on the English keyboard), in other cases it is different (on the German keyboard, “u” leads to a “ü” and a comma leads to an apostrophe).
  • If you hold and then slide to a key in the pop-up menu, that key will be typed.
  • If the default key in the pop-up menu is different from the original key, you can also slide up starting in the original key and the default key will be typed. This is quicker than holding.
    • Shut down: press and hold Sleep/Wake button until red slider appears.
    •  Reset (forced restart): press and hold both Sleep/Wake and Home button.
    •  Force-quit an application: press and hold Sleep/Wake button until red slider appears. Then press and hold home button.
    • Mute the sound: Hold the volume-down (=less volume) button.
      • Scrolling nested areas in Safari: Sometimes there is a scrollable area inside a (scrollable) document. If you try to move the smaller area with your finger, all of the document moves. Solution: Use two fingers to scroll the smaller area. To try it out, you can go to this page and scroll the text areas.
      • Vertical scroll lock: If you start scrolling straight down or up, a view locks into vertical scrolling and prevents accidental horizontal scrolling.
      • Scrolling to the top: As mentioned before, tapping on the status bar scrolls to the top.

      What’s up with all the toolbars on the web?

      Why are people always such mindless copycats? Facebook has a toolbar, so their web page needs one, too? I find such toolbars a major nuisance, they are distracting, take up screen real estate and every one of them has a different way of being hidden.


      iPad wishes

      After having used the iPad for a while now, I can now give a more definitive wish list. This post rehashes some of my earlier iPad post; read that post for a wider context.


      Great idea: the power supply as a mini docking station

      Interesting product from Lenovo: Its “Power Hub” is a combination of a powered USB hub and a power supply. The HP Voodoo Envy did something similar and had an Ethernet port in the power supply. Taking the idea further, power supplies could become small docking stations in the future and contain larger not as frequently used ports such as VGA. On the go, without the power supply, you won’t need these ports and have a more compact notebook. But if you do want them, you only bring the power supply; no other adapters needed. Apple is bad with adapters (=there are too many), so this might be a solution for them, especially for the MacBook Air.


      A vision for the future of New York City

      Well, actually this blog post title is a bit tongue in cheek: A vision for the future of NYC is how it looked in the past.

      For a long time, cars were high tech and cities mainly focused on accommodating them. This has been changing and other concepts are taking priority such as more modular city layouts, where you live close to you work place and/or telecommute so that you don’t need a car. Urban agriculture similarly avoids having to transport produce over long distances.


      VLC video player coming to iPad

      This is good news for iPad users: VLC is coming to the iPad. VLC has always been a kind of killer application, because it allows you to play almost any video without the need to install plugins. Having it on the iPad is great. [Source: Mac Rumors]

      Update 2011-01-08:VLC: gone from the iOS app store


      Foreign languages: four ways to avoid learning vocabulary

      Learning a foreign language is hard. The main tedium is to learn the vocabulary and the grammar. This blog post explains how to largely avoid these two steps. The methods for doing so are based on two observations. First, children manage to learn new languages really well. Second, songs in a foreign language can be seen as a lesson in that language. And one that you remember well, in contrast to many textbook lessons. Let’s use these observations to first dispel three myths about language learning and then develop four methods for more efficient learning.

      Three myths about language learning
      1. Myth: You need to test to activate your knowledge. Instead, there is evidence that beginners fare much better if they can remain passive. Otherwise, they would be asked to build on something that they don’t understand and that decreases confidence. I admit that this one is a bit counter-intuitive, but if you think about how long children stay relatively mute and mainly observe, it makes more sense.
      2. Myth: You need to learn vocabulary. Instead, it’s best to learn words in context. Learning individual words is hard, learning words in context is easier. The best example is how much text one remembers from songs in a foreign language. One “learns” the song as a whole and not the words, but one remembers their meaning, too, as a byproduct. Context and (less painful) repetition seem to help with recall.
      3. Myth: You need to learn grammar. Instead, it’s best to learn building blocks. If you know a language well, you don’t apply grammar rules, you use pieces you know. If something is grammatically incorrect, it “sounds wrong”, finding out why is much more complicated. That is, you have an intuitive feeling instead of explicit knowledge of the grammar. Backpedaling a little, I do think you should learn grammar (e.g., I find conjugation tables helpful), but its role is to support the building blocks and not the other way around.
      It boils down to whether you can push the knowledge down to your subconscious, whether you can automate it. And for that process, the intellect is often in the way. If you do tests, you strengthen uncertainty and thus the intellect. Later on, if you are already proficient, tests can be fun, but early on they often do more harm than good.
      Four methods for more efficient language learning
      1. Bilingual text: Take a short text in the foreign language and read it aloud many times. Most traditional textbooks contain this kind of text. Before you start reading, make sure that you understand the text. You should also listen to it being read by a native speaker. If a word is difficult, you write the translation above it (this is where the text becomes bilingual). The translation should be word by word, even if there is a better (non-literal) translation. This makes sure that you stay in the foreign language as much as possible. The repetition leads to the sentences being memorized and saying it aloud is speaking practice (without any uncertainties). [I’ve used this method for years, but have also later encountered it in the great German book “Sprachen lernen leicht gemacht” by Vera F. Birkenbihl.]
      2. Audio immersion: Download an MP3 in the foreign language and listen to it without actively trying to understand it. This is a complementary measure to other ways of learning a language and makes the sound of the language more familiar to you. It is best to start when you already understand a little. Repeating the same material several times is also beneficial. Thankfully, the internet now provides us with all kinds of MP3 material: news, podcasts, etc.
      3. Bilingual audio: It was just the other day that I’ve heard about a new auditory method for learning a language that is called “No-Work Spanish”. You listen to an audio book where each sentence in Spanish is followed by the translation in English. This method is the auditory analog of (1) and could obviously be adapted to other foreign and native languages.
        • Pimsleur also provides auditory language courses.
      4. Learning with pictures: This is my abbreviated name for the Rosetta Stone language course series. It is obviously a simplification and you should read their web pages for an accurate description. Rosetta Stone (RS) simulates a child’s experience of adults pointing at things. It does so via a computer program that shows and names pictures with things, activities etc. You have a choice between ordering a CD with the program or of running the program online. In both cases it is the same program (a web application, including Flash technology). RS also employs voice recognition to check your pronunciation. All of RS is technically really well done: You can click on almost anything to hear it spoken; there is an alphabet with example words that is always accessible (I tested it with Russian); etc. Alas, it wasn’t for me. The words that I learned with RS did not stick, whereas I have no such problems when using method (1). But I’ve always found that I needed to see a word in writing if I wanted to remember it (RS is not all about pictures, but enough so that I prefer method (1)). So if you have a different learning style, this might well be the perfect solution for you. To find out if it is, you can check out the free test drive at their web site. You also have to see if you can afford it (=it is not cheap). As an aside, it would be nice to see their technology (such as clicking on a word to hear its pronunciation) applied to method (1).

        Another visual way of learning new words are picture dictionaries. Googling for “picture dictionary” turns up great resources, many of them free.


      Addendum to the Apple 2010 fall event

      Background information on the Apple 2010 fall event:
      • iPod nano: is probably not based on iOS, but rather the old Pixo iPod OS.
      • Ping...
        • turns iTunes into even worse of a kitchen sink than it already is. Thinking about how iTunes could be broken up, it is interesting to note that on iOS, the corresponding functionality (play music, play videos, buy music/videos, ...) is already available via several apps.
        • is great for Apple, because it allows them to data-mine (which they can’t risk with the Genius feature).
        • is currently music-only, would make great sense for movies, too.
      • AirPlay: works with compatible devices other than Apple tv. It is not sure, if it will work with Macs, though (as receivers as opposed to senders).
      [Source for some of the above: The Talk Show]


      Two observations about the new iPod nano

      Apple today presented a new iPod nano which is really small and has a touch user interface. Two predictions:
      • The iPod nano makes the iPod shuffle meaningless. It is almost as small and has a display. Psychologically, it might be important for Apple to keep the shuffle, though, because cheaper options help sell more expensive devices. The shuffle could retain its usefulness if it still were a USB stick (as it was in the beginning), but I doubt that will ever happen.
      • The iPod nano should become a watch. Steve Jobs already mentioned that one of the board members will strap it to his wrist. A nano watch would have many of the innovations of the Mutewatch (charge via USB, touch interface, etc.), but be more versatile. All that is needed is a “watch mode” where a single tap on the surface shows the time. Otherwise, the display would not be switched on, which should lead to the battery lasting long enough for comfortable watch use.
      Update: You can read more about the iPod nano on Edgadget. Apparently, you can already configure your nano to behave like my hypothetical watch mode. Alas, it does not have an alarm, because it has no external speakers. Thus, for a watch, some kind of beeper would have to be added (which should not take up too much space), much like the first iPod touch had.