How to write thin science journalism

Ever wondered how to crank out shallow science journalism? In the Guardian‘s “Lay Scientist” column, Martin Robbins shows how it’s done:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

MacSpeech Dictate – a User's Review

I’ve been using MacSpeech Dictate for about half an hour, once or twice a week, since early spring. My experience is that it is great out of the box and has gotten better as I’ve learned to use it.

The hardest thing about using voice-recognition software is to not watch it guess. I do best reading material (from a book, for example). To compose, I have to turn my head away from the screen, or I … start … speaking … in … single … words.

When I look away and just talk, MacSpeech Dictate does much better. I’ve found that, when I’m reading from another source, I do best when I speak in complete sentences, or at least long phrases. Then I go back and fix whatever it guessed wrong.

I was impressed at MacSpeech Dictate‘s vocabulary. It routinely guesses words that the Mac’s spell-checking doesn’t know. (I remember being impressed when it guessed “Tertullian.”)

I was also impressed that they keep any eye on what people say about it on Twitter. A shocking number of software companies aren’t so clueful.

MacSpeech Dictate does what it claims to do, and does it well. For that reason, I’d give it five stars. But I won’t. I’ll give it four, or more honestly 3.5. Here’s what I don’t like about MacSpeech Dictate.

  • It’s poorly-documented. It’s skimpy, and seems in places to be wrong. (But it’s so skimpy maybe it’s just missing the facts I need.) Why not give me a PDF or URL with extra information about how to do something tricky, like using voice commands to select text?
  • It’s not Spaces-friendly. I’d like to be able to use my other apps in the middle of dictating, but MacSpeech Dictate comes with me wherever I go and jumps in front of my windows. Thanks a bunch.
  • It’s nearly impossible for me to use the voice commands to select and modify text. Sometimes, it even misunderstands “forget that” and “go to end” misunderstood — still, after months of use!

Because the voice selection/modification features aren’t useful to me, I find the recognition window indispensable. But it has UI problems of its own:

  • the transparency won’t adjust down to zero, i.e., become opaque. Why? What good is transparency anyway? just make the whole thing spaces-friendly.
  • the font is too small, and likewise the color of the window. (I know, black HUD-style UI’s are the new black.) Let me choose font size and black-on-white text. Steve Jobs can get away with “do it my way” but you aren’t Steve Jobs.
  • let me double-click a word to fix it. The software works best when I give it long phrases. But if I see a problem and double-click it, the text-entry box acts like a choice button. Why not let me use the choice button you already put there, and have the text-entry box act like a text-entry box?
  • why not highlight the differences between the various guesses? If the phrase in question is 10 words long, and the only difference is between the words “sent” and “cent” and “sense” and “incense”, why not display the differences in bold, or in different colors? Take a look at the Filemerge utility that comes with the Mac’s developer tools for inspiration.

iconv is the heat

I’ve been looking for a software tool that would convert foreign characters into a poor substitute.

Call me Ugly McAmerican. I don’t care.

My language has been worn down — I would say, “polished” — like a river rock to the point where it doesn’t have a million characters or funny accent marks or any of that stuff. Now, I don’t mind if your language uses them. I don’t even mind if we have a common encoding. What I do mind is that none of my tools work with your stupid common encoding. When grep and sed and diff and ruby all know what to do with your ?q???????, give me a call.

In the meantime, I plan to go on working in ASCII as much as possible. Then, when necessary, I’ll use tools to convert ugly-quotes to pretty ones, or turn ... into ellipses, etc.

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Standup Desk at Church

I got rid of the behemoth.

stand-up desk at church

When I moved my day off from Friday to Monday, I still wrote my sermons on Friday, but no longer on my day off. As a result, I no longer wrote them at home. Which in turn meant I came home with all kinds of bursitis and odd aches and pains from trying to type a few thousand words in a couple of hours at a non-ergonomic workstation. Ergo, the stand-up desk (“bar table”) I use at home must be more ergonomic than the gigantic desk at church.

So for my birthday, more or less, Mrs. Mess of Pottage bought me a new desk. My arms feel better, but my feet are sore. (The blue shock-absorbing mat at the bottom of the desk is a late-afternoon addition.)