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Software review: TeXnicle LaTeX editor

TeXnicle is a relatively new free Mac OS X TeX editor. I just had a go at it (for about an hour) to wheedle out some of its basic features and possible flaws. It is of course (i.e. conforms to current trend in LaTeX editors) one of that “all the things in a big window” style editors, with a information section to the left, the editor in the middle, and the output PDF on the right. Small console window under the editor. You can “live update” the PDF.

TeXnicle

You can customise which engine you use by default; I use xelatex. However once I did that I found it still compiled the file I had open with pdflatex. After clicking about a bit I found that one of the icons in the information section (the little cog) allowed me to change which engine I was using for the current file, which is apparently remembers.

The build started to complain about a file I was \input’ing which could not be converted to UTF-16, However this is not a problem I have encountered with the same files under TeXShop. For the sake of getting things to work I commented out the \input line and continued with my demo.

Like most of these programs if you’re used to a really powerful editor (e.g. BBedit, Textmate, EMACS, a programmer’s IDE) you’ll find the editor lacking in many advanced features. It’s not even up to TexShop’s ability yet. That’s why I’v always found it necessary to keep versions of those editors around and available to edit file if I need to do complex search-and-replace based on regex, for example.

It has some syntax highlighting which is customisable to some degree. The default syntax highlighting is a little too subtle, everything being various shades of blue, except maths macros, which are red (not being a maths/science person, I always feel a little left out). I tried out the maths macro just to see and it puts only the dollar signs ‘$’ in red, the content between them is left in the default colour.

Some more work could be done on the syntax colouring. All arguments in braces {}, including the braces themselves, are coloured the one colour. So if I write a footnote, it looks like this following screen cap:

syntax colouring

(I’ve change the default colour here to green). As you can see, what is hidden from immediate display, is my use of embedded formatting commands inside the \footnote{}, viz, the ‘\emph{lectisternium}'; it’s all just a big block of green. I think a number of solutions ought to be applied to improve this:

  • embedded, recursive, arguments should be coloured differently (perhaps just getting darker with additional recursion, or cycling through a preset palette selection).
  • commands inside commands ought to be highlighted.
  • certain common commands like \footnote \emph \textit \textbf \section etc should have separate colour schemes.
  • the brace colour should be subtly different to the colour of the argument content (eg. slightly darker).

By default the editor is set to “hard wrap” which meant my soft-wrapped tex file line ran off the right of the page. There is a global option to change this, which I had to discover, only after looking for, and failing to find, a “view” style option to apply to the current window.

The “live update” is an interesting idea but its execution needs improving. Of course while you’re typing the poor thing is just about continuously compiling or trying to compile to PDF. But what happened is that the PDF preview did not jump to the place where I was typing. It did seem to jump around (to the last page in my case) but not exactly to where I had made changes. Which sort of defeats the purpose a little.

Well, that’s about as much time as I should spend on this, took me longer to write than to demo.

My advice to GPS manufacturers

This is not about Apple maps. It is about the hardware devices you use in cars (yes I know you can use your iPhone or Android device with turn-by-turn but in general their software has all these problems too).

1. Update pronunciation of map components. Multiple issues here.

2. Map data need to contain the “Display” name (shown on the map) and a “pronunciation” name (for the text to speech). How can the voice mis-pronounce a place like Greenslopes? That’s two common English words, Green / Slopes, in a compound word.

3. Things like “STATE ROUTE 22″ or “NATIONAL ROUTE 3″ do not need to be SPELT OUT which is what it does currently (i.e. “Ess Tee Ay Tee Eee Arrr Ohh You Tee Eee Twenty-Two”). I’m looking at you Tom-Tom. The first time I encountered this in the device I nearly had an accident as I was at a complex and unknown intersection and suddenly the device is spelling out words which I am trying to piece together what it was telling me while navigating a high speed intersection / freeway off ramp.

4. Have an easy way to program “I don’t need this part of the route” into the device. For instance, to get from my Home to the major freeways/tollways nearby. I know how to do that, and I have preferred routes (paying attention to things like time of day, difficulty of turns across oncoming traffic, etc) for each freeway nearby which are different from the ones the device likes. Its really annoying to drive 100 metres from your house and have the device furiously be recalcing and telling me to turn around or make weird turns to get back on the route it wants me to take when I KNOW WHAT I AM DOING.

5. Sometimes what I need are directions to get onto the freeway in the right direction from where I am. Once I’m on the freeway going in the right direction (to/from city), I know where I’m going. The navigational problem is that I don’t know the current local area and the best way to get to the right freeway on-ramp.

6. Stick to the Main Roads on the way there. I’ve driven to places where it’s told me do make some STUPID SHORTCUT down a series of local streets because that’s 1500 metres shorter than sticking to the main road. NO. Stop it. This is OK for locals, but those people don’t want me transiting through their local streets.

7. Long-distance travelling modes. I know that Euros don’t usually have this problem so they never really think about it, but it’s certainly true in the USA and Australia. Sometimes I know where I’m going and how to get there. What I want to use the device for is to warn me about speed cameras, tell me my current speed (more accurate I think than the speedo and important for the speed cameras) and give me on the screen the distance to the destination and time of arrival. The last two won’t work without a destination programmed into the device. So they need a sort of mode to shut the navigation instructions up – this ay do also for points 4 and 5 … a “shut up until …” mode or even a simple always-visible on-screen button or one on the hardware that mutes only the navigation instruction voice when you don’t care about but leaves the safety camera warnings ding.

Instagram versus Flickr

So most people who read the news should be aware of the new Instagram terms of service by now (if not, read the linked boingboing article). Its resulted in quite a bit of outrage on twitter and other social networks (here is Wil Wheaton on the fiasco). I deleted my account yesterday.

What’s most interesting (as in co-incidental) is Flickr’s new iPhone app was released only a few days ago. Now I’ve used Flickr for years. I upload photos I take on my DLSR to the site and I pay for an account (you get extra upload privileges and so forth). Paying a fee for a service like this makes sense. Flickr is of course a much more comprehensive photo sharing site than Instagram ever was. It used to be the (and to some extent still is) the professional or semi-professional photographer’s go-to site for photo sharing. Professional photo-editing applications like Lightroom and Aperture have plug-ins that allow direct integration from them into Flickr (iPhoto has it built in, as does Aperture now too).

But Flickr was dying under the ownership of Yahoo. Already the most popular camera type on the site were various types of iPhone. Their old iPhone app sucked, and many of the third-party alternatives were not much chop. Flickr, if they had acted earlier, could have totally ruled the photo-social application space. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram started to eat into Flickr’s market. But only last week, Flickr released a new iPhone app and it is truly great! I already started to use it on my iPhone, experimenting with using my phone as a serious camera (‘the best camera you’ve got is the one you’ve got with you’ as the saying goes). I’ll still use my DSLR of course, but I think my iPhone experiments will continue.

This Instagram TOS debacle and their new Flickr app seems to be a PR heaven for Flickr. Already people are moving over – people who’ve never used Flickr before. Their new (and great!) Flickr app made the decision to delete Instagram and its overbearing terms of service very easy. ONce I heard about it, and as soon as I got home from work yesterday, I deleted my Instagram account. Here’s a good set of instructions how to get your photos out and delete your Instagram account. Join us on Flickr.

A more detailed Postbox critique

OK So I’m back on Mail.app but still looking for a Postbox alternative. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? I realised it was quite simple.

I am a Gmail Filter and Label power user. I’ve had the damn thing since its “beta” meant you had to get an invite to get an account. Over the years I’ve amassed a huge number of filters to label my email. The first thing that happens is if I’m not in the To: or the Cc: the email is immediately rent from the Inbox. Then various filters apply different labels, usually doing things like: labelling emails with tags like ‘notifications’ (from things that send me automatic notifications); or ‘subscriptions’ where various newsletters go; or ‘history’ for my history and classics related email lists; variations of ‘comp.’ for computer programming lists; ‘uq.’ for things related to university; ‘finance’ for invoices and order confirmations, and so on. I have a long list of filters and about the only perennial gripe I have with gmail is that it ought to provide a more powerful way to manage the filters.

Things that are left in my Inbox are things that are either important and directly for my attention (emails from friends etc), or one of the above that has escaped my filters (but won’t for much longer).

But Postbox seems to think a new email in a label ‘comp.tex’ (several TeX mailing lists end up there) should be brought to my Notification Centre attention at an equal or even more important priority than one in my Inbox. This one fatal flaw (and the outpouring of irrelevant notifications as I started it up once I got home and sucked down a days worth of email into it) was enough for me to just close it down and switch back to Apple Mail.app, as much as I want to avoid using it. But despite its many other flaws at least it only dings at me when I have new mail in my Inbox!

I could go back to the dead-end of Sparrow once more, I suppose.

Postbox anachronisms overload

Too much anachronism. Back to Apple Mail.app. I wish Sparrow wasn’t bought by Google. ;-(

Postbox 3 anachronisms redux

I’ve been using Sparrow as my email client on my Mac for the past year. I liked it a lot, but the whole Sparrow team had been bought up by Google for them to work on Gmail some months ago, which is a pity as it means no more major updates to the application (there have been minor fixes but nothing more).

I’ve reverted to using Postbox3. It has a number of anachronisms that really annoy me. After a year, all of that list is still mostly true. Bear in mind it makes the claim that it is “The world’s best desktop Gmail client for Mac and Windows”, which on the Mac it isn’t, as that’s Sparrow, it’s just that Sparrow’s EOL’d.

So this annoying list still stands after a year;

  • It plays sounds when you get emails that aren’t in your box. Which is really super-annoying. I’ve turned on its Notification Centre integration so we’ll see how that goes.
  • You can’t mark/unmark an email on gmail “Important” unless you’ve got the individual email open (in the list view I can assign the mail to a “Topic” called “Important” but the email is already in the “Important” label on gmail so I don’t know what’s going on there). So if I need to bulk un-assigning the “Important” label to a whole bunch of mis-assigned emails, I have to use the Gmail interface where it is trivial.
  • It anachronistically insists that emails on gmail which are “Starred” are “To dos”. No, guys: they are Starred. If you use the gmail “Star” to indicate “To do”; good for you, but not everyone does.
  • PDFs are still not displayed in-line.

Stuff I like:

  • Opening emails in tabs is a nice feature.
  • When I fired it up again (after nearly a year of not using it), it downloaded the messages fast – or at least it gave the appearance of being pretty fast. Apple Mail is a snail in this regard.
  • It doesn’t suck.
  • It’s not EOL’d.

New stuff to annoy me:

  • No integration with the App Store (for fairly good reasons): but the manual update was one minor-increment version at a time (I had to go 3.0.2 -> 3.0.3 -> 3.0.4 -> 3.0.5 -> 3.0.6 to get up to date)!
  • Needs to inherit the “pull down to refresh” paradigm that iOS started and is now migrating to apps on the Mac.
  • Overall it’s not as elegant as Sparrow but it has more features. So it’s a little like using Thunderbird or Outlook.

I will use for another week and see if my only option is to back to the Apple Mail.app, which has plenty of clunk — and suck — of its own. Mail.app is in my opinion the single most inelegant program that Apple makes; it also doesn’t in almost any way play nice with Gmail’s labels and other features. However it’s interface is pretty slick for the sorts of features it does implement.

Keyboards and “tablets”, and writing

It seems to me that people who love the Microsoft Surface RT because of its keyboard (for example, Jeff Atwood) just needed to buy a Zagg keyboard for iPad.[1]

Jeff Atwood does indeed make a good point about keyboards and tablets in general:

On screen keyboards get the job done, but if I have to scrawl more than a Twitter length reply to someone on a tablet or phone, it’s so much effort that I just avoid doing it altogether, postponing indefinitely until I can be in front of a keyboard. By the time that happens I’ve probably forgotten what I wanted to say in the first place, or that I even needed to reply at all. Multiply that by millions or billions, and you have a whole generation technologically locked into a backwater of minimal communication. Yelp, for example, does not allow posting reviews from their mobile app because when they did, all they got was LOL OMG raspberry poop Emoji.

Most people who know me also know I’m part-time working on a PhD in a non-technology field.[2] One that therefore involves lots and lots of writing; not to put too fine a point on it, but I do a lot of my thinking with a keyboard.

My friend Robert commented on Facebook that; “I don’t feel a great need to carry the keyboard with the iPad, personally.” and I have to say I feel the polar opposite to him on that point.

The reason I like the Zagg keyboard with my iPad 2 is because I’m never sure when i want to write with it. If they keyboard is just “at home” then I’m never far away from a real computer with a real keyboard (I still use the wired ones because I prefer them) or even, a laptop. For writing, i.e. getting out complex ideas quickly without interrupting flow, a keyboard is supreme (for the moment at the least). For example, when I went to Los Angeles six weeks ago (a 14 hour flight from Brisbane) I had the iPad with the Zagg with me on the plane and I had a compelling thought that was going to feed into a paper I am writing for ASCS 2013 conference; I was able to quickly churn out about 1200 words for the paper right there on the plane. Now I also had the laptop (a MacBook Pro 15″) on the plane in the overhead locker, but really, the iPad with the Zagg keyboard is exactly perfect for this.

Also, when I’m at uni sometimes I haul it out and go and and sit somewhere nice outside (rather than at my desk with the Mac) and write few paragraphs. In fact I find it ideal for getting a good uninterrupted writing flow happening; I’m not so tempted to waste all that flow with cross-checking against all my references in Papers or hunting down new ones. I can get my ideas down freely, bring it back to the computer and desk (with books) and spend time there double-checking the references and doing new research. So I need the keyboard with my iPad at all times. The Zagg allows me to do that and I don’t have to type into MS Word on the Surface.

[1]. This was originally a tweet.

[2]. Incidentally, that is the reason why I have a lot less hard-core programming and application architecture posts on this blog; Outside of work, most of my thinking about technology is about things that do or don’t get in the way of me being able to spend my time researching and writing; and at work, I’m engaged on a mission critical and time sensitive project for a very high profile company that I best not share my technology opinions on until it’s complete.

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Google authenticator and Gmail iOS app rubbish

I have two step authentication turned on my Google account. If you don’t know what that is, whenever you login to the gmail web interface it is set up to send me a code via SMS which I then also have to enter. Applications (e.g. my Mail app on my laptop) use a “one time password” facility. This is all very neat and much more secure than most other methods.

Recently I discovered there is an app that I can install on my phone which act in the place of the SMS generator. It’s a bit like those RSA security token things that people might be familiar with – once a minute it generates a new code. When you set it up on your phone you enable it in your Google account and then the process prompts you to use the app to take a picture of a 2-D barcode that’s generated on the web page’s screen. I guess that seeds the code generation in the app.

I also use the Google Gmail application on my phone sometimes because it’s much better at searching my mail archive than the built-in Apple Mail App on the iPhone (which never has the full archive of emails, anyway).

Yesterday I upgraded to the new iPhone 5. It’s fine. Gmail is not. The process of setting up the authenticator again required me to temporarily disable two-step authentication entirely for a minute or so, re-enabling it, and re-enabling the Google Authenticator app.

Oh and now I have to re-login into the Gmail app on my phone. Here is a fresh hell. Talk about a UX disaster from Google. Now I’ve got to switch back and forth between the two apps. You can’t copy the code the Authenticator generates. I have to wait until it generates a fresh code (for maximum life span of the code), memorise it, then switch back to the Gmail app, type the code in to the tiny field Gmail app gives for it, check the miniscule “remember this computer” checkbox, press the dainty enter button, all before the bloody code expires. And it’s hard. If you get it wrong, or you aren’t quick enough, you have to repeat process, only this time you also have to backspace over the old code, because it’s still in the input field (the “remember this computer” checkbox conveniently unchecks itself, however).

I mean, this royally sucks. Now I have a headache. After about 5 attempts at this it looked like I finally got it all done in time, but the Gmail app, I think, has locked me out. It became unresponsive. Force killing it and trying to log back in just seems to make the app lock up. I can’t determine if it’s the app locking me out for security reasons, or some other sort of failure. People lambast Apple for all sorts of trivial things but Google turns out shit like this and it’s ok?

Fail, Google, fail.

Surface

An alternate universe – Marco Arment:

The Surface is partially for Microsoft’s world of denial: the world in which this store contains no elephants and Microsoft invented the silver store with the glass front and the glowing logo and blue shirts and white lanyards and these table layouts and the modern tablet and its magnetic power cable. In that world, this is a groundbreaking new tablet that you can finally use at work and leave your big creaky plastic Dell laptop behind when you go to the conference room to have a conference call on the starfish phone with all of the wires and dysfunctional communication.

iPhone users less loyal?

Apparently, iPhone users are now “less loyal” than they were before. This is according to a company called “Strategy Analytics” who want to sell you a report that they have which measures that now only 75% of western European iPhone owners, and 88% of US owners, want to upgrade to the new model down from 88% and 93% respectively in 2011. The company claim its due to “negative press” and “a perceived lack of recent innovation”.

Now why they reached this conclusion I can’t tell without shelling out for the report, and not just reading the press release (quite apart from the fact that 77% of users still want an upgrade, and that’s a pretty good number!).

But. But. But.

My perception is that that a lot of iPhone 4 and 4s owners are actually just satisfied by their current device. Of everyone I know and regularly talk to I’m the only who has gone out and actually bought the iPhone 5 (delivery due: tomorrow!). I suspect a lot – in fact I’d wager most – iPhone owners, who are now in the largest part just average people, not techie obsessives, will just wait until their current contract with their carrier has expired and then upgrade. In the meantime they are just not thinking about phone upgrades. Maybe they heard something something new iPhone 5 something Apple Maps bad something and sure this has not translated into an instant consumer lust to upgrade now or else, they way it would have if Apple had announced the new iPhone had an all-new teleportation device in it. But that doesn’t mean when their contract expires and they can get a new subsidised phone they will not upgrade to an Apple iPhone. In the meantime if they asked about, their answer is “meh” and that’s the reason you see this drop in survey numbers.

You know, sometimes people are just satisfied with what they have.