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Spotlight performance

Spotlight, the Mac OS X file search facility that people either love or loathe, is —by most measures— pretty damn fast. I know, Quicksilver and LaunchBar are faster at what they do, but if you want ‘proper’ search, Spotlight is it. Aiding Spotlight’s speed is a number of heuristics aimed to increase its perceived performance. For instance, it prioritizes files you’ve opened recently. Whether by polling your Recent Items menu or by ordering files in its database by their access date, I don’t know, but it’ll always return something you’ve used recently before the things you haven’t touched in months. If you’ve used QuickTime in the last few days and you type ‘qu’ into your Spotlight search bar, QuickTime player will pop up a lot quicker than, say, Quartz Debugger. Neat!

But there’s a little something else that would speed it up that hasn’t yet made it into Mac OS X (here’s hoping for 10.5). Not literally faster, but the performance would be —at least psychologically— much improved:

Search in the order that the user has specified he’d like the results to be presented in.Users specify the order they’d like results presented in my reordering items in the Spotlight pane of System Preferences.

When I search for ‘bank’, for instance, I’d much rather see the bookmark I have for my bank’s ridiculous and impossible-to-remember login address than all the emails on my system where someone mentions banks. When I search for ‘Dave’ I’d much rather see Dave’s address card than all the photos on my system tagged with his name, or even all the emails I’ve received from him.

These are preferences I’ve expressed by changing their ordering in my Spotlight preferences. It probably isn’t an order that most people futz with out of the box. But for those of us that do, the order isn’t just aesthetic; it has real semantic weight. Weight Spotlight currently ignores. Although my results are presented in my chosen order in the Spotlight results window, they don’t arrive in that order. And the arrival of results is exactly what we’re looking for: we want a good response time, damn the total turnaround time. This is the root cause of the much-maligned ‘jumpy results window’, of course, but their intentions were good. But search-by-preference… there’s something to think about.

The world through the eyes of a…

Anna is an engineering friend of mine —an electrical engineer, not a software engineer, though she has suffered through her share of assembly programming— who is soon to begin a semester on exchange at Purdue. She’s in Disneyland right now, and obviously enjoying herself, but what is most amusing about her description of the place is the engineering bent she places on it all. She marvels at those little things that we in other lines of work would soon overlook.

[T]here are countless rides based on a Disney movie or theme, all with incredible details put into them, each character, each object is perfectly designed to be perfectly incredibly like… WOW… What an amazing piece of engineering really. What strikes me is the perfect working order of everything, each little character waves exactly in time, the line moves at suprisingly ‘fast’ pace due to the great number of instructions everywhere.

By the same token, Jason takes a moment to reflect on his own profession during his trip to see The Mouse:

Sure, a cartoonist in a cartoon land for a day should be like a kid in a candy shop, but it’s really something you could do any number of times and still enjoy yourself.

We found a couple of caricaturists in the New Orleans section of the park and they were really excellent. Very interesting to watch them working in colour.

Engineer remarks on Disneyland’s feats of engineering. Cartoonist remarks on their feats of cartooning (?). Same place, different perspective; that really is the wonder of blogs. I’ve never been to Disneyland, though I shudder to think what I’d write about if I did it tomorrow. Hopefully not software. Do they sell beer?


My brother just emailed me to remind me that he’s a medical scientist; the implication being that he would likely find reason to blog about sputum and urine and feces and whatnot if he were in Disneyland. Delightful.

Fonetic speling iz the dog’z brekfst

Jason Kottke and Slashdot bring to our attention an AP article on “simpler spelling”; an article whose tagline reads:

When “say,” “they” and “weigh” rhyme, but “bomb,” “comb” and “tomb” don’t, wuudn’t it maek mor sens to spel wurdz the wae thae sound?


Consider, if you will, a world where all writers of English spell phonetically. Everyone, from the Australians to the Germans to the Scots, spelling things the way they sound. Chaos.

Ignoring for a moment the well-established International Phonetic Alphabet and the time-consuming, onerous task that is phonetic transcription (believe me), I’d probably write “Fourth of July” as “Fawth uv J'li” in this brave new world of spelling… compared to the “Forth ov Jooliy” pronounced by some creole cartoon crocodile or other. Swapping notes with, say, a Scouser bloke, I’d have as much trouble reading something he wrote as I do just listening to him. In fact, I’d probably have to read it out loud, using my brain’s clever Speech Accent Converter (not a real thing) to convert what is incomprehensible on the page (words I’ve never seen before because they’re written in someone else’s accent) into words I’ve maybe heard before.

Therein lies the beauty of a standard spelling system… written words cross international borders with ease, and survive generations intact. Difficult or not, English spelling is a standard like XHTML 1.1 is a standard: if you write in it, anyone versed in that standard will be able to parse your document, now and in the future. If you write in some mish-mash system that relies on the ever-moving target of pronunciation, you’re writing shit.

“But of course,” one might stammer, “we’d all spell things the same way… it’d still be standardized.” “We just want to revise the more difficult words out there so their spelling is more closely aligned to real-world pronunciation”.

Right. So who’s pronunciation gets to be the gold standard? Yours? Mine? The Welsh’s? The South Africans’? Pick one and get back to me, and then tell me how this “easier to learn” spelling system benefits the rest of the world.

The simple fact is —quite unfortunately for Simplified Spelling’s proponents— that the current system is good enough, and orthography has nothing, but nothing, to do with phonetics. This is nowhere more prevalent than in languages with logographic writing systems, but even in English: writing doesn’t capture speech sounds, it captures words. Reading doesn’t instruct pronunciation, it transmits words from a page to ideas in your head. Orthography is a mere formality, an abstraction layer for our thought processes that allows us to record thoughts on paper. Confusing spoken English with written English is like mistaking bar fights for boxing.

Firefox visuals being updated for v2.0

So it would seem the Firefox team is afraid that IE7’s glassy buttons will out-cool them, and feels the need to compete with a visual update.

Most of it looks fine, no complaints here, but I’m utterly confused at their decision to have the RSS button visible at all times; merely disabling it when there’s no RSS feed available for a site.

When no feed is present, the RSS icon is grayed out. Otherwise, it appears in classic ‘XML Orange’ Now, I’m well aware of the old UI adage that elements shouldn’t simply appear and disappear as their availability varies (they should be enabled or disabled, which is what Firefox is doing here) but transient features of web pages seem to be an exception to this rule.

It seems to me that RSS is kinda like a pair of spectacles. Present only on people with poor eyesight, they don’t hang around on everyone’s faces only ‘activating’ for those people who actually require them. Unless they’re hipsters. Spectacles are a feature of particular people, not of all people, and RSS is the same. A page either has it or it doesn’t. There’s no “it might have it if circumstances were to change slightly”, as is usually the case when a button is disabled. It isn’t like the Print button being disabled when you don’t have a printer selected. The RSS button is, in fact, most like our old friend Security Padlock.

The security padlock’s presence in a browser window indicates that this page is viewed over a secure connection. When the connection isn’t secure, there’s no padlock. One might expect, then, that Firefox 2 adopts a new stance on the security padlock — disabling it when there’s no secure connection, but still leaving it visible. This expectation would be wrong.

The security padlock isn’t at all visible on sites that don’t use secure connections.

In all, the convention for web browsers seems to be visibility, not disability. And while I applaud Firefox’s decision to buck the trend, I must criticize its decision to buck it so inconsistently.

Unless there’s some particularly logical reason for all this that I’m missing.

Mind your step

Undertaking some slightly-less-than-routine maintenance on my Movable Type installation. If things are screwy in the archives for a while, I apologize.

Remain calm.


Done. Makes you feel good when the bulk of your web site is no longer being held together with duct tape. Hey, I live for duct tape, but building things out of it makes me feel dirty. Dirty and sticky.

More minor changes around here (the kind that you won’t even notice!) as the week progresses.

Update Deux

Always nice when you announce that things might be screwy, then soon afterwards your host has major hardware malfunctions and the site drops off the net entirely, resulting in a cavalcade of email and IM notes telling you you’ve broken the site and fix it fix it fix it fix it fix it FIX IT.



Just so you know, grit 600 wet/dry sandpaper (the finest grit that Bunnings stocks) is not fine enough for use on an iPod.

Might have to try grit 1000.

Grit (alternate ending)

Just so you know, grit 600 wet/dry sandpaper (the finest grit that Bunnings stocks) is not fine enough for use on an iPod.

Before sanding and polishing Before sanding and polishing Before sanding and polishing

Not fine enough to stop work there, anyhow. What it’ll do is take out the deep scores and scratches your iPod may have accumulated over a year of sharing a pocket with your keys, with sand, with dirt, with coins, being dropped, being thrown, and all the other wear and tear that comes with the normal life of consumer electronics in the average man’s possession. It’ll replace those deep scratches with a million shallow scratches… so many that the plastic takes on a foggy, matte look. That’s where the Brasso comes in. A few minutes buffing and polishing takes out the shallow scratches and restores the screen’s once-glorious finish.

After sanding and polishing After sanding and polishing After sanding and polishing

Naturally, this isn’t going to stop me mistreating my iPod any more than I mistreat my camera or my phone. It just makes me glad I can spend a few moments grinding it down to bring out its best… same way I would a car.

Or my face. Or silverware. Or a workmate’s morale.

A MIME hurt me, once

The UNIX command line’s file utility, present in OS X’s Terminal, has a handful of nifty file-identification tricks up its sleeve, my current favorite being automatic MIME type discovery with the -i flag. From the man page:

-i    Causes the file command to output mime type strings rather than
      the  more  traditional  human  readable	ones.  Thus it may say
      ``text/plain; charset=us-ascii'' rather than ``ASCII text''. In
      order  for this option to work, file changes the way it handles
      files recognised by the command itself (such  as	 many  of  the
      text file types, directories etc), and makes use of an alterna-
      tive ``magic'' file.  (See ``FILES'' section, below).

It reacts rather hilariously to directories, though.

Chloe:~/Desktop clarko$ file -i "naked ladies"
naked ladies: application/x-not-regular-file

Not a regular file, huh? You bet it’s not. I’m almost compelled to start serving random files from my server with that MIME type, throwing in an x-friggin-awesome-file or two just for good measure.

Your cigarettes. They'll have to wait outside. We don't want them here

A matter of moments ago, Western Australia’s new anti-smoking laws kicked in. Like similar laws in New York and elsewhere, they prohibit smoking in licensed venues with fines of up to A$2000.

As an ex-bartender (I believe the term is reformed bartender) I warmed to the idea years ago, back when the boss would paint wild visions of a renovated sports bar “just as soon as the smoking ban comes in and the riff-raff move elsewhere”. The riff-raff were our regulars, smokers all, who would presumably evacuate the moment our bar became unsuitable for their activities. They’d relocate somewhere with an open-air beer garden, perhaps. This thought made my boss very happy.

Needless to say, a man with such distaste for his best customers is no longer in charge of a sleepy suburban bar and brasserie, nor do I work there any longer, but that’s another story. His only role here was to plant that magic date in my head: July 31, 2006. How I looked forward to that day.

Me, I’ve never been much of a smoker. My old man smoked cigarettes for nigh on thirty years, which was enough to keep me the hell away from them. He never smoked indoors — a practice that might just be the definition of discourtesy — thanks to an awareness of the damage cigarette smoke can do to a ceiling and the foreknowledge that he’d be doing the painting. And while I do enjoy the occasional cigar (and deeply appreciate the lack of a Cuban trade embargo in Australia), I’ve never smoked indoors for the same reason. Plus it’s just mean to the non-smokers around you. Sure, it (was) legal, but who wants to be that much of an asshole?

The real question is: why in the hell did this take so long? August 2006?! I could’ve spent my work nights (and nights off) coming home from bars smelling of beer and sweat instead of other people’s cigarettes! I could’ve been sweeping peanut shells instead of ash and butts! My laundry might’ve actually smelled clean coming out of the washer!

But on reflection, there is actually a downside to all this. Now when you meet an attractive stranger a bar, you can no longer immediately discern whether they’re a smoker or not to adjust (or reconsider) your approach. There goes another litmus test. Bastards.