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Nice read: «The Fasinatng … Frustrating … Fascinating History of Autocorrect»

Submitted by gwolf on Thu, 07/24/2014 - 22:18

A long time ago, I did some (quite minor!) work on natural language parsing. Most of what I got was the very basic rudiments on what needs to be done to begin with. But I like reading some texts on the subject every now and then.

I am also a member of the ACM — Association for Computing Machinery. Most of you will be familiar with it, it's one of the main scholarly associations for the field of computing. One of the basic perks of being an ACM member is the subscription to a very nice magazine, Communications of the ACM. And, of course, although I enjoy the physical magazine, I like reading some columns and articles as they appear along the month using the RSS feeds. They also often contain pointers to interesting reads on other media — As happened today. I found quite a nice article, I think, worth sharing with whoever thinks I have interesting things to say.

They published a very short blurb titled The Fasinatng … Frustrating … Fascinating History of Autocorrect. I was somewhat skeptical reading it links to an identically named article, published in Wired. But gave it a shot, anyway...

The article follows a style that's often abused and not very amusing, but I think was quite well done: The commented interview. Rather than just drily following through an interview, the writer tells us a story about that interview. And this is the story of Gideon Lewis-Kraus interviewing Dean Hachamovitch, the creator of the much hated (but very much needed) autocorrect feature that appeared originally in Microsoft Word.

The story of Hachamovitch's work (and its derivations, to the much maligned phone input predictors) over the last twenty-something years is very light to read, very easy to enjoy. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

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[review] Packt's «Instant Haml»

Submitted by gwolf on Wed, 01/08/2014 - 14:34

Packt Publishing sent me Krzysztof Nikiński's «Instant Haml» to do a short blog review... Thing is, and those who read me know, I cannot write short reviews ;-) So lets see how this goes.

Packt's Instant series

First, as for the format this book follows and the series it fits in: They are very short books. I was the tech reviewer for their «Instant Debian – Build a Web Server», and when I opened it for the first time, I thought I had received only the first chapter. This series' motto is Short | Fast | Focused — so, yes, the books are ~50 pages long, with ample margins and many big screenshots. I told the editors I was quite unsure about the value this kind of publications add, as they are very similar to online tutorials, but given they have so many books in this series (printed and electronic), there must be a market for them. They surely know their business better than me!

There is one other detail regarding the publisher I'll stick in this section, although it is not specific to their Instant series: I do most of my reading in my Kindle. Packt seems to have chosen to specify a very small font for their texts. Besides the two books mentioned, I also have their Object Oriented JavaScript book. For all of the other books I read, I use the smallest font setting. Packt books in mobi format (what they present as Amazon format in their web site) are basically illegible without bumping up the font size through the roof. As I understand it, publishers should use industry-wide default sizes, and let the reader adjust their reading experience. Yes, books of technical nature (such as Packt's) often benefit from having more displayed information than what an ebook reader normally shows... But that's for me to decide! And no, this is not a Kindle-specific glitch: I also get a similar experience when opening it from Calibre.

And as for the book...

I am a long-time Haml convert/fan; I packaged its Ruby implementation for Debian (and should update it soon :-/ as new versions have appeared), the corresponding Emacs Lisp mode, and I use it for basically all of my static HTML sites and Ruby-based Web systems.

Haml is a great templating language, meant to make dynamic HTML generation leaner and easier. It is a clean and elegant technology, and can clearly sell itself. And the project webpage has very good documentation, ranging from a short tutorial and a full API documentation for people to contribute to the project.

The first part of this book, of course, covers the "why is Haml so great?" part, presenting the basic equivalences with HTML. In my opinion, the book could be structured a bit differently and would generate a stronger following. Why? Because, even given that Haml is greatly benefited from its Ruby integration and has many hooks to be tightly integrated in a Rails workflow, it can also be used by people who don't want to do Ruby.

I have some static websites that are just a bunch of Haml files, compiled by a very simple Makefile and calling the haml command from the shell. I think there would be some value in presenting this invocation before learning how to call it from the Gems environment (i.e. bundle install).

Using Haml as a standalone tool is only presented almost as an appendix ("Using HAML outside of Rails" section). Even more so if the author presents four different static-site solutions (probably more non-programmer-friendly than my trusty Makefile).

Oh, and this little section uses the (old? obsolete?) uppercase HAML notation for the project's name instead of the now-standard Haml.

Dirty screenshots

About the screenshots presented in this first section (and I refer mainly to the scaffolding examples), they are meant to show how easy things are, but have an important stylistic mistake: Terminals with transparency might look cool (I hate using them, but then again I'm a very boring person when it comes to my computer habits ;-) ), but transparencies have no place in a book (be it printed or e-book), as the images appear very uncrisp. In the Kindle, they just seemed dirty — Now that I'm browsing the PDF from my desktop, I see that the screenshot in "Step 1" has a photo of Earth from space behind the terminal, and even worse, in "Step 2" it is shown over a Web page detailing the installation! These elements are just distracting, and the text would be much cleaerer if it were presented typeset just as a regular code fragment. Opening many of those screenshots in the Kindle was plain useless.

Editor integration

It is perfectly clear from this text that the author strongly prefers Sublime Text, sometimes uses TextMate, and has just heard reports that Haml has some support in Vim, Rubymine, Emacs and Coda. Of course, devoting a full page (as it is for the first case) for each editor would be out of proportion for this size of book... I just felt the imbalance too big, specially given that most editors will sport approximately the same feature set.

Text redundancy

If the Instant series is about making short books, I would expect them to be loaded with easy to follow content (as they are), but free of repetition. I felt, however, a large chunk of step 1 of the "Quick start" chapter to be repeated with the the first section of the "Top 6 features" chapter. Yes, the second one adds some depth, but very little. Still, in the later parts of this "Top 6 features" chapter, a more thorough explanation could be used for the Filters, Multiline attributes/code/strings and helpers and extensions sections. It seems the author was on a hurry trying to get it finished, as it is barely explained — Explaining a bit more deeply would surely benefit readers.

Wrapping up

Reading my review, I'm mostly talking about negative issues. IMO, the book is not excellent, but it is clearly not bad. Specially given it fits very well the format for which it was designed. There are many items that could be fixed, and I hope some of them can be fixed (i.e. the screenshots) before the book goes to print — If I understand Packt's page correctly, it is currently only available as ebook, contrary to most of the Instant series' titles.

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The book: Available for sale

Submitted by gwolf on Fri, 10/28/2011 - 10:41

This is an update to my last post regarding the «Construcción Colaborativa del Conocimiento» book.

The book is, as we have repeatedly stated, available online for download — Both as a full PDF or chapter by chapter. In the website you will also find videos of all of the conferences held.

But holding a printed book in your hands is just a different experience, isn't it? :-) Anyway, I said I would give here an update on how to get your hands on it. The main venue would be through my University's e-store. I recommend it to anybody interested in buying the book in Mexico. The book's list price is MX$300 (around US$27), but it is currently sold at half price — I don't know how long will that price be offered.

On the other hand, we also uploaded it to the self-publishing service. Of course, given I have not seen the printed results, I cannot assure you the resulting product will be of the same quality as the one we got here, but I have a couple of books I have bought at lulu, and their quality is quite acceptable. So, you can also buy it from Note the 20% discount it shows will be permanent — That's what I would get as an author, a payment I decided to forefit given we are 11 authors and it would be unfair to collect it all myself. So, the price at is US$12.64 plus shipping — Very similar to the price at UNAM.


«Construcción Colaborativa del Conocimiento», the book: Finally!

Submitted by gwolf on Tue, 10/25/2011 - 19:25


Last Friday, after two years worth of work, I finally got the first box of books for the Construcción Colaborativa del Conocimiento (Collaborative Knowledge Construction) project I worked on as a coordinator together with Alejandro Miranda (pooka), and together with a large group of 11 authors:

Translating over from the back cover text (and this is just a quick translation from me — It reads better in Spanish ;-) ):

What defines us as humans is our ability, on one side, to
create knowledge, and on the other, to share or communicate it with our neighbors. Both features have worked together over tens of thousands of years, and, working together, have led the knowledge to transcend the individual, avoiding the need to rediscovery or reinvention of is already known. Sharing knowledge is what has taken our species to the dominant role it occupies today.

But knowledge creation and sharing has seen a deep transformation in recent decades, thanks to the quick evolution of telecommunications, specially the massification of Internet and cellular telephony. We are transiting towards the so desired –and at the same time so feared– knowledge society.

In this book, eleven authors from very different disciplinary backgrounds and geographic origins ellaborate on how a hyper-connected world has modified the basic rules of interaction in areas as diverse as artistic creation, social organizations, computer code development, education or the productive sector.

This book is the result of a year worth of work for in the "Collaborative Construction of Knowledge" seminar, during which we
used the same new forms of knowledge production we have studied.

The videos of the sessions, electronic participations and the full contents of this book are available under a permisive license at

We will soon have the book ready in IIEc's e-store (which is mostly meant for national requests). I am also uploading the book to the self-publishing service, and we are working on a epub-like edition. Right now it is still not available, but it should be there in some days. I will keep you posted.

Meanwhile, the full contents can be read online at

Thinking about how human-machine interaction is categorized

Submitted by gwolf on Mon, 08/23/2010 - 20:54

During DebConf, I managed to squeeze out of the middle of everything for long enough to write a column, a short article for a participation I have every three months, for Mexican Software Gurú magazine. All in all, I liked the resulting text — The current number's main topic is alternative user interfaces.

I find it sometimes hard to define what Software Gurú's audience is — Probably, project leaders in software development; not the actual developers, but people who actually understand about coding... but care more about The Big Picture, Processes, Architecture Engineering and Buzzword Compliance. It is an interesting magazine, all in all, but with a focus and viewpoint I often feel myself not precisely comfortable with.

So, if this trimester's topic was alternative user interfaces, I decided to write on the history and future of the man-machine interface (Spanish only) (version in the magazine's site). My viewpoint comes from the fact that I do not believe we are in a state of so great, innovative changes that everybody is trumpeting, and I'd rather get others to really think on whether user interfaces have gone different in the last decades. Yes, there are many changes, but in form rather than essence.

Anyway, I shared this text with some friends. Some days later, when I was back in Mexico, Pooka/Alejandro Miranda lent me a very interesting book: Hacer clic: Hacia Una Sociosemiotica De Las Interacciones Digitales (Do click: Towards a Socio-semiotics of Digital Interaction (Cibercultura)), by Carlos Scolari. I am not yet even halfway through it, but I am enjoying it — This book speaks, so far, about the meanings of interfaces, and of the history of interfaces themselves, even forgetting that nowadays we (mostly) refer to interfaces as what we have between the man and the machine.

Hacer click (book cover)

Sadly, I cannot find this book in English, as it is very well worth a read. But if the topic sounds interesting and you can understand the language, don't hesitate and pick up the book. It gives an interesting insight on the topic, for a group of people (us techies) used to looking at things in a much more human-cognitive-process-oriented way.

[update] I found this nice overview of the "Hacer clic" book, written as a presentation for the book. It explains precisely the part I am currently reading - The four metafora for interaction: Conversational, instrumental, superficial and spatial.

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