Denk verschillend

As an unapologetic Apple fanboi on the one hand and a serious, hardworking linguist on the other, it is all too rare to see one's two passions collide. I guess the only instance that readily comes to mind is Apple's iconic 1997 slogan Think different (which I mangled, Google Translate-style, in the title of this post). Back then, the criticsm was that different was used as a manner adverb, and hence that it should be differently. In the Isaacson biography , Jobs (not surprisingly) had his own view on the issue:

"Jobs insisted that he wanted 'different' to be used as a noun, as in 'think victory' or 'think beauty.'" Jobs also specifically said that "think differently" wouldn't have the same meaning to him. Also, Jobs wanted to make it sound colloquial, like the phrase "think big."

There are several interesting sides to this. First, the construction Think X is an intriguing one, in that it indeed seems to nominalize whatever takes the place of X (a bit like how That was so Y (of him) can be used to adjectivize stuff). In addition, I was struck by the comment about big. At first I thought big was one of those adjectives (like fast) where adjective and adverb are homophonous, but as it turns out the form bigly does in fact occur. Apparently Jobs had a keen sense of more than just technology and design.

Today's issue is more clear-cut, though. Last month Apple unveiled the iPhone 6S and in so doing they introduced a clever new slogan, namely The only thing that's changed is everything. It's clever because in so-called S-years people typically complain that the phone hasn't undergone any substantial changes (because it looks the same) and so isn't worth upgrading to (while in reailty the S-years are the best ones to upgrade in). So far so good. The Dutch version of this slogan, however, goes like this: Alles wat is veranderd, is alles. Anyone with even a basic understanding of Dutch will tell you that this doesn't make much sense (it means something like "Everything that's changed is everything"), and that it is certainly not a correct translation of the original slogan. The fix is easy: replace alles 'everything' with het enige 'the only thing' and we're done: Het enige wat veranderd is, is alles.

As you can imagine, when I encountered this slogan, I felt it my civic duty to right this wrong. But how does one get through to a huge company (the biggest in the world in fact) that is known for its secrecy and its, shall we say, selective communication? I tried tweeting at Phil Schiller, and I filled out a 'send us your feedback on our website'-form on apple.com, but so far all to no avail. I visit the Belgian iPhone 6S site every day—I even have it tracked—but it looks as static as a Live Photo that hasn't been 3D touched. Rest assured, though, that as soon as the correct slogan appears, I'll be celebrating it as The Day I Changed The Apple Website.

  1. No, not in that sense.

  2. Careful readers will have noticed that I also changed the order of the verb cluster here, from is veranderd to veranderd is. Both versions are grammatical, but as Broekhuis & Corver (2015) point out, in passive clusters, the so-called 21-order is much more frequent (both in Flanders and in the Netherlands) than the 12-order.

  3. Ok, there might be another reason for my many visits.

Gmail UI woes

A couple of months ago, our IT-department configured the university's firewall to block all outgoing SMTP-traffic (except for its own Exchange server of course). As a consequence, I've been using the Gmail web interface a lot lately, and Oh! My! God! has it been driving me crazy. I'm no designer by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm guessing that whoever is responsible for this jumbled mess wasn't getting straight A's in designer school either. Every day there are numerous aspects of mail.google.com that confuse, irritate, and bewilder me, but for the sake of keeping the amount of complaining on this blog to a minimum, let me pick out my two main grievances. First off, take a look at the following pair:

Pop quiz, hotshot: which of these is the back button and which is the reply button? If I had a eurocent for every time I've mixed these two up, well, I'd have a lot of eurocents. And to add insult to injury: in the view where these two buttons pop up together—the detailed view of a single (thread of) message(s)—the back button is superfluous, because the left-hand column also contains a button to take you to the inbox, which is exactly what the back button does. But hey, it's a good thing replying to messages is not something one does frequently in an email client, right?

A second thing one rarely does, is write new messages. In order to help you execute this obscure task, Google has devised this beauty:

Oh, where to start? There's so many things wrong here. First off, it doesn't look like a button at all. Here's what it looks like in context:

It doesn't look anything like the other buttons in this column. If anything, it looks like the title of the column, something that's not even clickable. I'm guessing the reasoning here was: "Composing a new message is a very common task, so let's make a Big Fat Red Button for it", but the effect has been the exact opposite; by making it stand out so prominently, it completely disappears and becomes invisible.

Looks aside, though, let's focus on what the button says. The Dutch verb opstellen is the literal (Google Translate-style) translation of English 'to compose'. Aha, exactly what someone who wants to compose a new message needs, right? Nope. You see, the verb opstellen is only rarely used in combination with mail or e-mail. You don't have to take my word for it; we can look at some numbers. I did a couple of searches in the Corpus of Contemporary Dutch, a corpus of over 70 million words from (among others) newspapers, journals, legal documents, television news broadcasts, novels, and internet texts. The verb opstellen (in any of its inflectional forms) occurs 24,650 times, the noun e-mail 12,264 times, and mail 8,320 times. The question now is to what extent these sets overlap. It turns out that (e-)mail co-occurs with opstellen only a meagre 16 (sixteen!) times. Compare this to the numbers for sturen 'to send' and schrijven 'to write':

mail e-mail total
opstellen 11 5 16
sturen 1706 1409 3115
schrijven 621 771 1392

What does this mean? Well, it means that Google should have chosen a different name for their button. The verb they've put on there is only very rarely associated with the action connected to the button, which makes it unintuitive and hard to use. That said, though, I think the problem is more fundamental than the choice of verb. Even if the numbers in the table had been reversed, I still think the button would have been poorly designed. The most informative part of the verb phrase een nieuw bericht opstellen 'to compose a new message' is the direct object een nieuw bericht 'a new message', not the verb. So if anything, that's what should have been on the button: nieuw 'new' or nieuw bericht 'new message'. It would sidestep the whole issue of which verb to use, and instead would focus much more directly on the result the user is trying to achieve.

Anyway, the good news is that I will be changing workplaces soon—more on that in a future post—at which point my days of Gmail-web-interface-suffering will be over. I can't wait.

  1. Both nouns are used interchangeably in Dutch.

  2. A quick word on my methodology: for both mail and e-mail I did two searches: one with the noun preceding the verb and one with the noun following the verb. In both cases I allowed for anywhere between 0 and 20 optional intervening words. For opstellen the number of hits was so small that I was able to manually verify all of them and throw out any false positives. For sturen and schrijven I didn't do that because there were too many hits. Note that sturen occurs 72,022 times in the whole corpus, and schrijven 209,487 times.

Applications in the Air

I've always been in love with the MacBook Air: from the day Steve Jobs pulled one out of an envelope (i.e. the day when it was still ridiculously overpriced, underpowered, and equipped with a measly 80GB of non-SSD storage) I knew that one day this beauty—or rather, one of its descendants—would be mine. I like my gadgets small, especially when they are equally capable as their bigger siblings.

Fast-forward to 2014:

 It's a white box!

It's a white box!

Needless to say, this wasn't a snap decision. Like any good nerd, I first went through an extensive mental process of justifying the purchase: I didn't simply want a MacBook Air, I needed one to be able to do my job properly. (In fact, it was a miracle that I had gotten this far without one.) This meant finding that highly specific use case that wasn't already covered by (a) my MacBook Pro, (b) my iPad, or (c) my Asus Eee PC 1005HA-H. Fortunately, as I was in the midst of this arduous task, John Siracusa said: Justification, schmustification: just go ahead and buy the damn thing.

With the hard part out of the way, it was time to enter stage two of the pre-purchase fun: the configuration. First of all, was this the right time to buy a MBA? The MacRumors Buyer's Guide suggested that I should Buy only if you need it but that was a bridge I'd already crossed. There had been whispers of a twelvish-inch version with a Retina display but I actually prefer the 11-inch form factor—recall that I like my gadgets small—and Retina is a bonus, not a must. Moreover, Broadwell didn't seem like it was coming any time soon, so there was little point in waiting for the increase in battery power that this tick is supposed to bring. In short, all signs started pointing to 'yes'.

Step two: the configuration. That I wanted an 11-inch Air rather than a 13-inch one should come as no surprise by now. Similarly, deciding on the right amount of RAM was a breeze (always max out the memory), but the CPU took some more pondering: was the upgrade from a 1.4 GHz Core i5 to 1.7 GHz Core i7 really worth 150 euros? Would I be doing anything so CPU-intensive on this machine that the difference between the two configurations would even be noticeable? In the end I opted for “better safe than sorry” and chose the i7, especially when AnandTech’s testing revealed that the i7 (surprisingly) was more battery-efficient under light usage. As for the hard disk, the MacBook Air standardly comes with a (non-upgradeable) 128GB SSD and that’s also what I went for. An upgrade to 256GB wouldn’t have meant I could fit all my stuff and any upgrade higher than that is so prohibitively priced that it wasn’t even on the radar.

All of which extensive preambling brings me to the actual topic of this blog post (no, we weren't there yet and yes, there is one): moving from from a 480GB MacBook Pro to a 128GB MacBook Air meant I couldn’t follow my usual upgrade path of restoring from a Time Machine backup. Instead, I had to go all Dan Benjamin and configure the Air from scratch. That in turn was a good incentive to take stock of what applications I really need/use in daily life, and which ones I can happily do without. I’ve listed them below, split up into "no-brainers", "trusted companions" and "flotsam & jetsam".

No-brainers

Dropbox: Dropbox has been indispensable in my work life since the day I first installed it. Everything I am currently working on or involved in—be it related to teaching, research or fun—is in my Dropbox-folder. Thanks to their "invite a friend, get 250MB extra storage space"-policy I’m currently up to 10GB of free storage, but this is a service I’d actually consider paying for if I really needed more space. Almost all of my collaborations involve Dropbox in some form and the fact that all these files are also accessible on mobile or in a web browser has saved my ass on many an occasion.

TextExpander: such a simple idea, so incredibly useful. I have a bunch of general-purpose snippets (names, greetings, etc.), often create temporary ones for repetitive tasks, and have loads of application-specific ones (e.g. for writing LaTeX or HTML). Over the past couple of years, TextExpander has saved me many an hour of typing time.

Things: true to my INTJ-personality, I’m into making lists, to do and otherwise, and in this respect I’ve been a heavy Things-user for several years. It is simple yet powerful and it syncs extremely fast and reliably across all my devices. There are times when I want to make even more detailed overviews and lists—the J-portion of his personality is strong with this one—and I consider switching to Omnifocus, but I always end up sticking with Things.

TotalTerminal: no, I'm not a Unix-ninja who lives and breathes the command line and thinks GUIs are for pussies, but there's something super-convenient about having a Terminal only a single shortcut key away at all times, regardless of where you are or what you are doing, and I find myself using it basically every day.

Trusted companions

Texpad & BibDesk: my go-to LaTeX-editor and bibliography manager. Texpad is being actively developed (there's an iOS-version as well) and keeps adding stuff, but for me the killer feature is how it lets you see the LaTeX-version and the pdf-output side by side. BibDesk is basic, no frills, but rock solid (although it drives me nuts that Cmd-F doesn't mean "search" like in any other well-behaved Mac-app).

MailMate: I've been having a love-hate relationship with Apple Mail lately, and as I was setting up my mail accounts on the Air and Mail started hogging the CPU and sent the fans spinning, I decided it was time for an alternative. After a brief search (and influenced by an overview article from Macworld) I settled on MailMate, and haven't been disappointed so far: it is rock solid, eminently customizable (with keyboard shortcuts for just about anything), very energy efficient, and has great support. My only gripe is that it doesn't support POP (minor annoyance) or Exchange (medium annoyance), but neither of these was a dealbreaker.

BBEdit: I'm not a programmer by any means (I only know a little bit of Python), and so BBEdit, the programmer's text editor par excellence, is probably a bit overkill for me, but when I use it, I always love it. It is perfect for preparing large files with raw data—amazingly powerful find and replace!—and can open many different types of files without clutter or hassle.

Remote Desktop: when you're one of a handful of Mac users in a mostly Windows environment, Remote Desktop is a very useful app to have. I use it mainly to connect to the university's file servers.

Tweetbot: my favorite Twitter client for Mac (and iPhone for that matter) these days. Elegantly designed, fully featured yet intuitive to use, and it syncs well: what more do you want?

DaisyDisk: this is one of those apps that I rarely use, but whenever I do, I'm very happy to have it, and on a space-constrained MacBook Air it is a valuable addition. DaisyDisk allows you to keep track of and manage disk space in an elegant and intuitive way. Bought it based on a Daring Fireball sponsorship and have not been disappointed.

Chrome: this was a close call, in that Chrome was originally going to be in the "Flotsam & jetsam"-list: I wanted to make the Air a Flash-free, Google-light safe haven. After a few weeks, though, I caved and installed Chrome: sometimes it's just darn handy to have Flash available. Moreover, all things considered, Chrome is a very good (and superfast) browser, and more generally, it's always useful to have more than one browser around.

Skype: more or less the same story as with Chrome: to repurpose a famous Jobs quote: I think Skype is a bag of hurt. Half the time, it works poorly, if at all, and it is a tremendous battery and CPU hog. However, I was in a pinch, needed to have a conference call with a co-worker, and neither FaceTime nor Google Hangouts worked, so a quick Skype install was required.

Flotsam & jetsam

Microsoft Office: in case you wonder, I don't like Office.Really don't like it. Seriously. Me no likey. So with the Air forcing me to start from scratch, I decided it was time to say bye-bye to Redmond. Most of my own writing has been switched over to LaTeX (and TextEdit for notes and brainstorm-style texts), so that part was easy. Slightly trickier were (a) non-LaTeX co-authors, and (b) functioning in an Office-centric environment, but as it turns out, a combination of Google docs and Pages/Numbers goes a long way.

TotalFinder: this is a case of 'obsolescence through OS X-update': I was using Totalfinder mainly because it gave me tabbed browsing in the Finder, but since that has now become a system feature, I no longer had a need for this app.

Echofon: superseded by Tweetbot, for the reasons outlined above (the main one being OS X/iOS-sync).

iStat menus: this one was briefly in the "trusted companions"-category, but I got tired with it quickly. I've long used and liked this app as a dashboard widget (called iStat Pro), and so when I saw there was a similar app, I decided to try it out on the Air, but was disappointed: it often took too long for the app to display up-to-date info, and—quite ironically—it proved to be fairly resource intensive.

This concludes my overview. Given that my app usage tends to fluctuate over time, I might revisit this list occasionally, but for now, it provides a nice picture of what applications I have (up) in the Air.

  1. Just a quick example, whenever the fans on my Mac start spinning, I open up a Terminal window, type top -o cpu, and immediately see what's causing the trouble (usually iTunes or a pending software update).

  2. Well, half geek half nerd.

  3. Ok, technically that is not literally what he said, but it sure sounded like that to me at the time.

  4. In the meantime, Apple has actually upgraded the Airs, but they’re relatively minor spec bumps and I’ve already had several weeks worth of fun from mine, so no regrets here.

  5. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed since the first version of the Air: Apple’s SSD-prices are still unreasonably high.

  6. Yes, I know that Dropbox is not a substitute for backups, and so have several other backup mechanisms in place.

  7. In fact, when I encounter a file type that I haven't seen before and that my Mac doesn't know how to open, my first option is always to try BBEdit.

  8. For a long time, Chrome was my primary browser as it was clearly faster than Safari. Since the scrolling issues in Mavericks, though, I switched to Safari and have not looked back.

  9. Yes, I know that streaming video is bound to tax the CPU and the battery, but when I use FaceTime or Google Hangouts, the effect seems less pronounced.

  10. For instance, I'm currently pretty heavily invested in R and RStudio, and am beginning to enjoy the taste of Caffeine, but that's food for another post.