Tag Archives: software

Art & Fear

I find this applicable to most (all?) of my endeavors, both art (screenwriting) and craft (software development):

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Unfortunately, I find myself all too often in the perfectionist camp, holding not dead clay but detailed sketches of ideas never pursued. I highly recommend reading more excerpts from Art & Fear. It sounds like good advice for life in general.


Memorize Anything

Today I read an amazing article in Wired about Piotr Wozniak, the inventor of software that uses spaced repetition to help you learn things permanently. Spaced repetition is where you learn something, then relearn it right at the point where you’re about to forget it. Each time you relearn it, you remember it for a longer period of time. The concept is simple, but requires a computer to determine the exact point at which you need to relearn something.

Wozniak created software called SuperMemo (SM) to implement the spaced repetition algorithm. In essence, it’s the ultimate flashcard program. It allows you to use images, HTML, and sounds, too. His latest feature is “incremental reading”, where you grab a bunch of documents from the web (or email, etc.) and throw them into SM. You prioritize the documents as you insert them; when you have time to read them, SM determines the order. As you read the document, you pull out info nuggets that you don’t want to forget, and these get added to the flashcard stack. Interesting, but it sounds like a bit of work.

Although it can be used to learn anything, the killer app is language learning. Indeed, in Wozniak’s native Poland, SuperMemo has been used extensively by students of English who wish to study abroad. There’s also rampant piracy and use in China and other countries. However, piracy is unnecessary, since Wozniak writes openly about the algorithms he uses, and open source alternatives have arisen.

One standout is Mnemosyne. It also offers support for HTML, images, and sound. One interesting feature is the 3-sided flashcard, which is particularly suited to language learning by including written form, pronunciation, and translation.

Another free program I saw recommended was OpenCards. It is based on OpenOffice Impress, a free PowerPoint alternative. As such, your flashcards can contain anything that can go into a PowerPoint slide, such as background images, animation, video, sound, etc. OpenCards runs on all major operating systems.

One issue I had with this super learning system is that, other than language, I couldn’t think of much that I wanted to keep in permanent memory. It did occur that in addition to foreign words, this is a great way to retain a large English vocabulary and keep it sharp. In On Writing, Stephen King recommends expanding your vocabulary by reading good authors and looking up words you don’t know1. I already do this, but now I can retain them indefinitely. That’s pretty cool.

If I was in school, however, this would be a fantastic way to retain knowledge for tests. I did a lot of cramming, which they tell you not to do. Cramming helps you pass quizzes and tests that cover recent lessons, but when it comes to the comprehensive final, it fails2. High school students who use this system diligently can demolish memorization-heavy AP tests. Not to mention the vocabulary-heavy SAT. Heck, this could make even high school language courses worthwhile! And all of this would lead to a clear advantage in college, where the same system should also work wonders. Later in life, you can brag about graduating magna cum laude – in French! – even though you studied something you never ended up using.

Update/Clarifications (4/23/08)

In case I didn’t sell this strong enough, the Wired article explains how cognitive psychologists and memory researchers are completely baffled as to why everyone isn’t using this technique. They equate it to using torches when light bulbs are available.

Although there is an obvious use for high school students, it occurred to me that placement in accelerated classes starts as early as 3rd grade. In my school system, you had to be placed there by 7th grade if you wanted to take the most advanced math classes in high school. So parents probably should start their kids as early as 2nd grade.

You don’t need to leave your computer on all the time – it will save your progress to disk :) However, it is important to use the software daily. Skipping several days can set you back quite a ways.

Another free program is Anki. While it’s a general purpose spaced rep. program, it has extra features for learning Japanese, English, and Russian. Students of Japanese can also try Reviewing the Kanji. It was also suggested in the Lifehacker forums that Pimsleur language CDs (which are available at your local library if you don’t want to buy your own copy) could be converted to OpenCards decks for optimal aural learning.

Update (6/15/09)

I should have mentioned that Anki is my main program now. I find that it’s the most usable at this time. However, for practicing your pronunciation of foreign languages, Rosetta Stone is pretty good.

  1. As opposed to going out of your way to pillage the thesaurus, or using some other list of vocabulary words without a relevant context. []
  2. How bad it fails is related to how well you learned it the first time, the difficulty of the material, the strength of your short term memory, etc. Before you argue that cramming works, consider that you may be a genius, or, perhaps, you went to a shitty school. Just saying. []

Design and Code

The Poetic Prophet, AKA Moserious, raps at ya about designing and coding your site. Yes, your web site. And yes. It is awesome.

Ironically, going to his site triggered a Quicktime update message that crashed Firefox. The message noted that the latest Quicktime fixes many serious bugs. Indeed. But even though I was in the middle of writing this very post, Firefox restored this edit page with all my text in tact. Oh Mozilla, is there anything you can’t do? (Other than not crash in the first place?)

Tip of the hat to Ray and Or.

Blu-ray Becomes a Death Ray for HD-DVD

The high def disc battle was supposed to go on for years. Sony, Disney, Fox, and Lionsgate backed Blu-ray. Paramount, Dreamworks, and Universal backed HD-DVD. And Warner Bros. backed both (it goes both ways), making it the deciding factor. If it backed Blu-ray, it could be over quickly, and if it backed HD-DVD the sides would be even and the war would rage for years with everyone buying two players or multi-players.

A week ago, Warner Bros. decided to back Blu-ray exclusively. The war is over. Condolences to the mourners.

Paramount actually had an escape clause in the event this happened, and Universal announced it will no longer be HD-DVD exclusive. There will be some cleanup, commitments fulfilled, but in the meantime, feel free to buy a Blu-ray player. Newline is also backing BR, as is the increasingly irrelevant Blockbuster.

It’s been an interesting ride. Including the BR player in the PS3 caused delays and cutbacks, and inflated the price. It was selling pretty poorly because of this and a fairly crappy game selection. But this past holiday season it sold 1.2M units1.

This change in the film industry should fuel PS3 sales. From what I’ve read, it’s not the highest quality BR player out there. But unlike many standalone players for your home theater, it supports all of the special interactive features the discs have. This is mainly through Blu-ray Disc for Java (BD-J), which is a form of Java ME. Already a number of titles have been enhanced with BD-J, although it seems mostly limited to enhanced menus. Over time, this could lead to some pretty cool hacks and features, esp. with players that are Internet enabled.

Overall, I’m not terribly happy Sony won, but it is nice that a format has been chosen. Using Java for interactivity is another bonus.

  1. Still way behind the Wii, which sold 3 times that. []

Photosynth: Bladerunner Becomes a Reality

Thanks to Assassin for forwarding this. It’s a Microsoft technology that allows real time photo data mining. Remember that part in Bladerunner when Harrison Ford is watching a video like:

type type type
type type type
type type type

(Yeah, they did it Super Troopers, too.) Well this is kinda like that, only with tons of photos instead of video, and a better interface. It’s seriously badass.

Sandisk Sansa e200 Series MP3 Player Review

For Christmas this year, I treated myself to a longtime object of my technolust: the Sandisk Sansa e280 flash memory MP3 player. Part of the e200 series, the e280 is the 8GB version. I paid $185 at Amazon (no blogger bribes here!). All e200 players have many features to thrash those precious iPod Nanos:

  • Plays MP3, WMA, and secure WMA (see below)
  • 1.8″ color LCD screen
  • Image viewer
  • Video player
  • Voice recorder
  • Data storage
  • FM tuner, with record capability
  • microSD expansion slot
  • User replaceable, rechargeable Lithium Ion battery with 20 hours of play time (average)

That’s what everybody gets. The real kicker is if you have Windows XP [1] and a subscription service like Rhapsody-To-Go, Napster, or Yahoo! Music. This is a Plays For Sure player, so you can take subscription content with you. As long as I am a subscriber, I can transfer any track in my library, even though I didn’t buy it. Since I just got a great deal on Rhapsody-To-Go [2] I expect to subscribe indefinitely. That gives me any of Rhapsody’s 3 million+ tracks anywhere I want. It is the awesome.

That’s quite a feature list, in a very compact package. Here are the highs and lows.


  • Screen is sharp, photos and videos look good.
  • Sound quality is quite good, both for WMA (160K) and FM stereo
  • Using Rhapsody’s jukebox software, transferring music is quite easy. You either drag and drop files, or synchronize with your Rhapsody Library. If you needed to, you could pick and choose from your Library instead of copying the whole thing. Personally, mine is a giant “best of” collection, so it’s very convenient for me to connect it to my PC have it automatically sync up. Right now I’ve got around 600 tracks that I’ve chosen over the last year, and it takes up about 2.7GB.
  • The design is very nice. It’s shiny! And black. It’s not quite as compact or beautiful as the iPod, but… duh. As far as I can tell, Apple has kidnapped the best designers on the planet (minus Agent Hulagun), so nobody else can have such elegant-looking products. It’s the modern day equivalent of Ivan the Terrible poking out the eyes of Postnik Yakovlev after he built St. Basil’s Cathedral.
  • New batteries are only $20 from Sandisk, compared to $60 for iPods.


  • Like just about every other MP3 player I’ve read reviews on, the earbuds kinda suck. Sound quality is decent, they’re just these big round discs that don’t feel like they were designed to go in your ears. They’re too big for your ear canal (I think they’re more bellybutton sized), and I haven’t figure out a way to place them so they don’t feel like they’re about to fall out. I’m looking for a replacement, and have my eye on the Sennheiser PMX60 headphones. I’m pretty sure the larger drivers will drain the batteries faster, but at least they’ll be comfortable without messing up my incredible hair.
  • The voice recorder seems to record a high-pitched whine along with your voice. It’s annoying, so don’t expect to make any podcasts from it. And you have to speak into the mic, so I don’t think you can use it to record lectures. Of course, the mic hole is about 2mm in diameter, so it’s a wonder it works at all. At least you can pause and continue the recording.
  • When using the thumbwheel, your thumb rests on the left side of the wheel, which is not optimal. You scroll down, you’re turning counterclockwise, and the screen scrolls up. This is really an artifact of using a very compact device, and I don’t see a solution – that’s just where your thumb naturally rests. To make this more ergonomic you’d need to make it bigger, which nobody wants. I’m sure most compact MP3 players have this issue.
  • When connecting to my PC for transfer, the Rhapsody software needs to scan the device for tracks. This takes several minutes, and I only have about 600 tracks (“only” meaning it’s only 1/3 full). In “mass storage” mode, you can’t transfer subscription content, only drag and drop files. So it doesn’t scan your tracks when you connect, but when you disconnect it essentially reboots and does this “Refresh Database” thing that also takes a couple minutes. You can’t win.
  • The only way to recharge the battery is by hooking the device up to a USB port via the included cable. Not an issue – unless you want to travel with it. Luckily, there are many 3rd party Sansa accessories that solve this, and they’re even blessed by Sandisk. This includes USB charging ports for your car’s cigarette lighter, as well as wall chargers.
  • The LCD stays on when the device is connected to a PC. Since you connect to charge the battery, it seems dumb to be draining it by lighting up the screen.
  • Photos and videos can’t be placed on the microSD card.

I’m nitpicking a bit with the lows, but I’d rather be thorough in case one of them is a deal-breaker for you. Overall, I think the highs far outweigh them, and I’m quite happy with my purchase!

[1] And presumably Vista, but don’t hold me to that. I think it just needs Windows Media Player 10 or better.

[2] I’m afraid it’s gone now, but during the holidays they offered the to-go service for $8 month. I’d been paying $10/month for the Unlimited service, which doesn’t allow you to transfer to MP3 players, and the upgrade price was $15/month! I created another account, hoping to merge the two, but the best customer support could do was cancel the old one. I downloaded the entire library from my original account and then imported it from the new one, so I was able to save just about everything. After spending a year carefully selecting 600 tracks (out of several thousand), you don’t want to have to find them again!

Cool software

I saw this clip of a program called ASSIST (MIT) which is used as a design aid for mechanical applications.
Probably old-news to some Crack Team members, but the clip just started showing up and I though I’d share.


I’m told that Microsoft has a “Physics Illustrator” that works the same way.
Anyone have any experience with this kind of software?