Using non-ASCII-characters

Some of us still remember the times when it was recommended to avoid „special characters“ when writing on the computer. Some keyboards did not contain „Umlaut“-characters in Germany and we fell back to the ugly, but generally understandable way of replacing the German special characters like this: ä->ae, ö->oe, ü->ue, ß->sz or ß->ss. This was due to the lack of decent keyboards, decent entry methods, but also due to transmission methods that stripped the upper bit. It did happen in emails that they where „enhanced“ like this: ä->d, ö->v, ü->|,… So we had to know our ways and sometimes use ae oe ue ss. Similar issues applied to other languages like the Scandinavian languages, Spanish, French, Italian, Hungarian, Croatian, Slovenian, Slovak, Serbian, the Baltic languages, Esperanto,… in short to all languages that could regularly be written with the Latin alphabet but required some additional letters to be written properly.

When we wrote on paper, the requirement to write properly was more obvious, while email and other electronic communication via the internet of those could be explained as being something like short wave radio. It worked globally, but with some degradation of quality compared to other media of the time. So for example with TeX it was possible to write the German special letters (and others in a similar way) like this: ä->\“a, ö->\“o, ü->\“u, ß->\ss and later even like this ä->“a, ö->“o, ü->“u, ß->“s, which some people, including myself, even used for email and other electronic communication when the proper way was not possible. I wrote Emacs-Lisp-Software that could put my Emacs in a mode where the Umlaut keys actually produced these combination when being typed and I even figured out how to tweak an xterm window for that for the sake of using IRC where Umlaut letters did not at all work and quick online typing was the way to go, where the Umlaut-characters where automatically typed because I used 10-finger system typing words, not characters.

On the other hand TeX could be configured to process Umlaut characters properly (more or less, up to the issue of hyphenation) and I wrote Macros to do this and provided them to CTAN, the repository for TeX-related software in the internet around 1994 or so. Later a better and more generic solution become part of standard TeX and superseded this, which was a good thing. So TeX guys could type ä ö ü ß and I strongly recommended (and still recommend) to actually do so. It works, it is more user friendly and in the end the computer should adapt to the humans not vice versa.

The web could process Umlaut characters (and everything) from day one. The transfer was not an issue, it could handle binary data like images, so no stripping of high bit or so was happening and the umlaut characters just went through. For people having problems to find them on the keyboard, transcriptions like this were created: ä->ä ö->ö ü->ü ß->ß. I used them not knowing that they where not actually needed, but I relied on a Perl script to do the conversion so it was possible to actually type them properly.

Now some languages like Russian, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, Georgian, Thai, Korean use a totally different alphabet, so they had to solve this earlier, but others might know better how it was done in the early days. Probably it helped develop the technology. Even harder are languages like Arabic, Hebrew, and Farsi, that are written right to left. It is still ugly when editing a Wikipedia page and the switching between left-to-right and right-to-left occurs correctly, but magically and unexpected.

While ISO-8859-x seemed to solve the issue for most European languages and ISO-8859-1 became the de-facto standard in many areas, this was eventually a dead end, because only Unicode provided a way for hosting all live languages, which is what we eventually wanted, because even in quite closed environments excluding some combinations of languages in the same document will at some point of time prove to be a mistake. This has its issues. The most painful is that files and badly transmitted content do not have a clear information about the encoding attached to them. The same applies to Strings in some programming languages. We need to know from the context what it is. And now UTF-8 is becoming the predominant encoding, but in many areas ISO-8859-x or the weird cp1252 still prevail and when we get the encoding or the implicit conversions wrong, the Umlaut characters or whatever we have gets messed up. I would recommend to work carefully and keep IT-systems, configurations and programs well maintained and documented and to move to UTF-8 whenever possible. Falling back to ae oe ue for content is sixties- and seventies-technology.

Now I still do see an issue with names that are both technical and human readable like file names and names of attachments or variable names and function names in programming languages. While these do very often allow Umlaut characters, I would still prefer the ugly transcriptions in this area, because a mismatch of encoding becomes more annoying and ugly to handle than if it is just concerning text, where we as human readers are a bit more tolerant than computers, so tolerant that we would even read the ugly replacements of the old days.

But for content, we should insist on writing it with our alphabet. And move away from the ISO-8869-x encodings to UTF-8.

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Tablet Computers

The idea of tablet computers is actually quite old and it has been tried a couple of times, at least up to prototypes. Probably a certain level of hardware and software was needed to make them both useful and affordable for enough people to become a mass product. This is actually a quite common thing. Some person, group or company has invented something really good, but they were not able to provide a sufficiently reliable, useful and affordable product to the market or just were not able to leave their home market efficiently. There are just a few examples for this, that I have observed.

  • Tilting trains have been tried in Germany, UK, Italy, Spain, Sweden Switzerland, Canada, France and Japan, in some countries several times. Many efforts become dead ends because the technology was not easily built in an affordable and reliable and maintainable way, so the mechanism was disabled or the trains were put out of service way too early. Italy actually made this technology work, but some of the train sets suffered serious deficiencies in quality, reliability and maintenance. Spain did the Talgo, which is less ambitious, because it uses gravity instead of an active mechanism and provides for a weaker effect. Sweden developed the X2000 trains, which seemed to work more or less well, but were quite expensive. But finally it seems that companies are able to produce good trains with this technology, like the relatively new Swiss ICN-trains.
  • A British company had produced trailer bikes for children already in the 1930s. They have one wheel and are attached to a parent’s bike. These were hard to get and they were almost unknown, even though the idea is great. In the 1990s German companies started to adopt the concept and actually produce them in good quality and sell them internationally, which was off course easier than 60 years earlier. They are now a common concept.
  • In the 1970s many bicycles had three speed hub gears. Derailleur gears already existed, but they were hard to use and fragile. For steeper roads it was possible to use a larger sprocket and to be able to climb slopes at the expense of lacking higher gears for flat sections. A British company produced a 5 speed hub gear, but it was extremely difficult to get and the quality was so poor that it would be almost half of the time in repair for a more active cyclist. Today we see mature hub gears with more than ten gears, but the derailleur technology has also become mature enough for the main stream.

So there are several requirements to success.

Another interesting aspect is that the actual usage might become different than anticipated. I understand that the tablet computers where sold as a „better replacement“ for PCs and Laptops in certain areas. I do not think that this is reasonable. Having a keyboard and a larger screen is usually better and it makes sense to transport a small or even a larger laptop. I have often had an external keyboard on top of the laptop, when I could afford to transport it and anticipated a heavy use. The netbook was so small that it did not hurt to have it in the luggage, but it was eventually hard to expand the memory and to get a replacement. A relatively small laptop still serves the purpose when a real computer is needed, but luggage is constrained.

The tablet computer does have some features that make it worth having one on top of a good phone and different sizes of Laptops. I am using an Android tablet, which is the most common OS for tablets, but there are off course some others, which I do not know well enough to write about them.

It is easier to switch between keyboard types. I am using the Cyrillic keyboard a lot and the computer with which I am writing this text has two external keyboards attached. I can switch with a key sequence, but this approach has its limitations. Probably buying a Laptop in Russia and just knowing the German keyboard without relying on the symbols on the keys would work for me. But the tablet makes this work with very little setup, while buying a physical Cyrillic keyboard in Switzerland is a bit harder, but still easy and buying a Laptop with Cyrillic keyboard layout does need some effort.

When doing small stuff, mostly reading or even some smaller emails, this is much better than the phone, but it can be used in the train, in the park, anywhere, where it is possible to sit. A laptop requires some kind of a table to be reasonably useful. There are seats with tables in the train, but that is a matter of luck to get one.

Finally we currently have a lot of Android Apps. They could be written for „normal“ desktop Linux as well or as web applications. Maybe that will happen. But currently some of them are available for Android, but not or not in a useful way for desktop Linux. This may change and it heavily depends on what we are actually using. But in my case it is true and it proved to be helpful to have the larger screen than on the Android phone.

Concerning the SIM card, I actually went the extra mile in terms of higher price and more effort for buying it in order to get a SIM card slot. I have not used it very much, because the extra SIM card is kind of expensive, moving SIM cards between devices is inconveniant and using the Android phone as a WiFi-Router seems to work well enough. But maybe this is useful when travelling a lot with SIM-cards from many countries to use just all the slots in older and newer phones and tablets and to use the device with the currently preferred SIM card as the WiFi router for all the others.

And finally it can be said that we can now buy fairly affordable good tablet computers. What I am missing is that tools from desktop Linux are usually not available on Android or only in a limited version. But the most common applications, a web browser and an email client are off course working on both…

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User Friendliness

I have made an interesting observation in terms of user friendliness. Let’s call it an anti-pattern…

I had booked a flight in the internet. Now the ticket was a number, which they sent to me by SMS. I went to the page of the airline and tried to do the check-in, in order to get a better seat, a lesser chance of being an overbooking-victim and to save some time and nerves at the airport.

Now it is necessary to enter some information each time, like Passport number, date of birth, my name, validity of passport and citizenship. By mistake I used the wrong citizenship without noticing and then the page asked me, if I have a Visa.

Now it was impossible to go back to fix this, so I had to cancel the whole process and enter all the information once again. At least I thought so. It was worse, because the wrong citizenship had put the whole booking into a weird status which could not be fixed anymore on the web application. It just refused to deal anymore with this ticket.

It was possible to use the app of the airline and to redo the whole thing on my tablet.

If there is information that is so important to get right, there are some suggestions:

  • Allow the user to go back to any form in the dialog and revisit the entries
  • Show the data that has been entered to make it easy to recognize the error
  • Give the user who messed up a second chance to fix it
  • The question is, why I have to enter my birthday, passport number, name etc. each time. They do not change frequently. Privacy is really a good thing, but I guess in the case of traveling by air all privacy issues are just a joke. Why not give at least some convenience?
  • Anybody who happens to get the relatively short ticket number can mess around with it, which could be very annoying, if he for example canceled the flight.
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Eatable Devices

Wearable devices have become normal and it is hard to buy clothes these days that do not actually belong to this category. If you don’t know, the NSA knows.

The new trend are eatable devices. It has been quite a challenge to create chips and batteries that can be chewed and swallowed without pain and without exploding while being eaten. But the newest chips are made of Bio-Silicon which is 100% eatable and riskless to eat. Batteries have been replaced by condensators, which proved to be the better choice.

Now this opens a huge range of applications. We can write apps that work on the cluster of eatables and support our diet, because they register exactly when, how and by whom they are eaten. Newer pricing models allow us to buy food and pay some part of the price only when we actually eat it. We can see when food is expired and discard it. Of course not in the regular garbage, but finally each household will now get a separate garbage can for electronic devices. Remember to put your clothes in there, even though you were not aware of the chips inside when you bought them. It will be better for the environment.

The labs of IBM and Coca Cola have jointly developed microchips that actually float in the drink and are so small that we usually do not see them. This will support the usual functions of eatable devices and will equip the drinker with so many chips inside the body that permanent tracking will become easy even without a cell phone.

Apple finally found their core business. Eatables. Apples. They almost taste like old style apples, are nicely designed and we buy them in the apple store instead of the supermarket. The first eaters waited half a week in front of the Apple stores to get the taste of the real Apple-apple as early as possible.

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