Michael Herrick's blog

August Dvorak

One of my heroes is August Dvorak. He saved my career.

About twenty years ago, I had a debilitating case of tendinitis in my hands, wrists and forearms. I couldn’t turn a key in a lock or pick up a cup with one hand. I went to physical therapy and wore a TENS Unit on my belt to deliver pain-killing electrical shocks to my damaged nerves.

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The World Wide Web is still 45 years behind the times

My friend Daniel wrote an article titled A rejection of the rejection of the 1970s where, among other things, he describes some remarkable artificial intelligence programs from the late ’60s with natural language powers far more sophisticated than that of certain trendy technologies people pay through the nose for today. How far we haven’t come! An even more depressing example is a technology that’s literally changed the world, but hasn’t come even close to its full potential—the World Wide Web.

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Fixing the keyboard

The image here is a picture of the keyboard I use every day which, combined with a Dvorak layout, enables me to achieve typing rates that sound like a dull buzz. So I’m all for improving the keyboard. And here’s a great article that makes some simple, common-sense proposals. A key for the em dash. How fantastic would that be?

Caps lock has to go, and other proposals for improving the computer keyboard

His ideas:

  • Get rid of caps lock
  • Dedicated em-dash key
  • Put the exclamation mark and question mark on the same, shiftable key, near the period and comma
  • A key for @. The shift should type .com (I’m less jazzed about that one)
  • Eliminate all the dumb ancient terminal options that were yanked from the Mac keyboard decades ago but still linger on PCs

There are all kinds of people who will say, “Oh, I’m so used to my keyboard, I could never change.” That attitude baffles me. My response is usually, “You’re right, you couldn’t.” But recent experiments with touch-screen keyboards prove that people change and adapt just fine. Time for Apple to start work on fixing the keyboard. They’re probably the only ones who can pull it off right now.

Programming? There's nothing to it.

Heidegger said that the fundamental philosophical question every thinker must eventually confront is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Those of a practical turn of mind will dismiss the challenge as excessively theoretical, but in the practical world of computer programming, the question assumes an aspect even more academical and hair-splitting: Why is there false rather than null?

Theoretical it may be, but the nuance of nothingness—including null, false, zero and empty—has great practical import in programming, and I don’t consider a programmer to be an expert until he’s tackled it. Different programming languages deal with the issue in different ways, and if you don’t understand the question, you’re not going to understand the answers, especially programming for the Web, where you need fluency in as many as five different languages or pseudo-languages. The problem really came home to me working with two of the most popular languages in the Web industry, SQL, specifically MySQL, and PHP. And it crystallized around a task so simple and mundane that it hardly seems worth contemplating: grabbing the value of a checkbox from a Web form and saving it in a database. You’d think, after ten solid years of making Web sites with tools like MySQL and PHP, that we’d know by now how to deal with a checkbox. Incredibly, it’s still a challenge, all because of the different meanings of nothing.

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