Pondering extended ASCII

An examination of ASCII chars

A bit of background: the extended ASCII chars 145-148 were meant as control characters. However, Microsoft instead used them for some custom characters, namely “curly” quotes. Apple stuck with the original charset definitions, meaning that curly quotes from Word sometimes still show up as broken on MacOS. Although oddly, the entities for the same char (like “) work – apparently functioning as aliases to the “correct” upper-ASCII characters (like “).

My question is, why doesn’t this same remapping happen with the literal character? Isn’t it worth the sacrifice of some unused control characters to allow the user to see quotes as the copy editor intended them? Why punish the user because someone else used char 147 instead of 8220?

Also, if Microsoft hadn’t used those slots for their own stuff, and left it alone, then we would have those standard ASCII codes for other uses now – non-character delimiters, anyone? How great would it be if you had characters specifically for string delimiters, so you wouldn’t have to always be escaping quotes? I even notice that the original name of char 150 was “Start of guarded area”, 151 was “End of Guarded area”, 152 was “Start of string” and 156 was “String Terminator”. Sigh, for what might have been.

ASCII Num Entity Bad Char JS charCodeAt of Bad Good Char JS charCodeAt of Good
145 ‘ 145 8216
146 ’ 146 8217
147 “ 147 8220
148 ” 148 8221

Analog Man in the Digital Age

Analog Man in the Digital Age
The Engineer’s Dilemma

Being a Somewhat Rambling Musing on the Information Age

We live in an interesting time. We have come out of the Industrial Age and into the Information Age. More and more the world is connected digitally, but paradoxically, people feel more lost than ever.

Partly, this is caused by a disconnect between the analog and digital world, and a loss of tangibility and analog character.

Let’s take the example of a letter. In the old days (not so long ago) a letter would be written by hand, pen to paper. Then came the typewriter, and here is where the engineer’s dilemma comes in to play. The typewriter, when it comes to the task of conveying text, is vastly superior to handwriting. It is far more legible and consistent than handwriting. From an engineer’s perspective, it is a better solution to the problem of how to record text. It’s pretty black and white, there are a number of advantages to type over handwriting, from an engineering perspective.

But there is a sterility, a loss of analog character, that takes place when transitioning from handwriting to type. The essence of the message is intact, but the flavor of it, the subtle changes in handwriting, the ability for non-linear writing, the insertion of non-textual doodles, the feel of the line quality from pen or quill as ink grows lower, all that is lost.

Take that to the next stage, and the typewritten letter becomes an email. In that transition, the look is more or less the same, black type on a white surface. From an engineering perspective, the gains are substantial. By making the information digital, it can be transmitted nearly instantaneously anywhere in the world, copied to other locations for redundant backups, and indexed and searched easily. But here, there is also a loss of analog character. The transition from paper to screen has come at a cost of tangibility.

This is more substantial than it might seem, because we are analog animals, and all of our senses are important to us. For example, a letter might have a scent, applied either accidentally or intentionally by the sender, which not only relays sensation to the recipient, but also helps form stronger memories. In an email the physical form is gone, which to means not only a loss of tactile sensation (the thickness of the paper, the flipping from page to page) but also a loss of potential context.

Emails are usually always read in the same place: while sitting at one’s computer. A letter is received at the same place, the mailbox, but might be opened and read in any number of places. This loss of context removes potential context that could form more meaningful memories, such as reading a letter from your lover while sitting at a kitchen table, the sunlight glinting in and the smell of fresh-baked muffins in the air, or reading the same letter while on a noisy crowded subway on the way to work. Memories are more solidly formed when they are associated with all senses at once, and can be triggered in the future by stimulus to any of those senses. In the subway example, years later you might be on a train, and the swaying motion might suddenly bring back the memory of reading that letter, and bring a wistful smile to your face. By homogenizing the letter-reading experience, each email is much less likely to have unique environmental context, or indeed much content beyond purely visual.

Digital content is generally higher-quality than analog content at this point (from the view of production value and perceived “professional” quality), it is slicker and better produced. In a few clicks, a person can create a pleasing slide show of high-quality images. But it is the analog character, the “fiddly bits” that makes people yearn for an old photo album, with photos stuck in slightly crooked, and handwritten notes on the backs. “Scapbooking” is a hyper-extension of this analog character, and the abundance of textures and visuals, the crunchy analog feel, has made this hobby incredibly popular.

So this is the engineer’s dilemma: how to preserve the analog feel in a digital world?

Arthur C. Clarke once famously said “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – and this is one place that engineers can look. Engineers are technology-minded, so will most often look forward for solutions.

An example of this is the digital picture frame. It takes the intangible digital photos on your computer and places them in a tangible item. Displayed on the digital frame, the picture can be used in an analog way, it can be picked up, brought closer for examination, and carried around. As technology improves, it could become more and more analog, to the point where the frame could be the size of a polaroid, and a special pen could be used to write on the photo and on the back of the photo, and calling up a particular image would call up the handwritten notes as well. It will essentially become a magic polaroid, almost exactly like the analog ones, but able to be changed at will, perhaps responding to spoken command or even your mood.

Another example is the Nabaztag, which acts as an analog bridge from your computer – it is a rabbit-shaped gadget that can flash different colors or wiggle its ears to indicate things like incoming emails, or the weather forecast. Silly and frivolous, yes, but by branching a tendril into the analog world, it allows the computer to interact with people more on their own plane, and in so doing, become potentially more relate-able, more lovable.

The loss of analog character and tangibility makes it harder to make an emotional connection to digital content than similar analog content. Although a child can form a connection to an animated teddy bear on a computer screen, that connection comes much easier if it is an analog teddy bear that they can touch. In the movie A.I., one character is a robotic teddy bear, designed to play with children. He bridges the digital/analog gap, like Nabaztag. He is a tangible conduit to digital data, a computer in the shape of a teddy bear, able to interact by engaging multiple senses.

DRM issues aside, one objection people have to digital books is the experience. The screen is capable of displaying text very similar to printed text, but the tactile experience is a flat, cold device, with buttons and menus and plugs and wires. But it is not inconceivable that in the not-too-distant future, you could pick up a book and say “I would like to read Homer’s Odyssey” and the cover would change to Homer’s Odyssey, and all the pages would magically fill with the text. Perhaps a bookmark would even unfurl, showing where you left off last time.

But that is the not-too-distant future. One thing that can be done relatively easily, and right now, is personalization. Allowing data to be displayed in the manner a user wants allows a digital experience to have a more analog feel, without electronic rabbits or nanotechnology. This is clearly evident in cellphones, where users can change the ring sound, background, menu, and other things to make the device more unique. This customization imbues the device with some analog character. Recently Google added an option to customize the look of your Gmail account, which gives the interface a more analog feel.

It’s a situation that arises again and again, as newer technologies try to supplant older ones.

Current computer operating systems represent the ongoing struggle to provide analog metaphors for digital content. “File Folders”, icons that look like pages, tabbed and windowed documents… all symbolic representations to give things a more analog feel.

It’s an interesting problem, from an engineering perspective. And not just in an academic sense. This problem, in fact, is what I currently do for a living, as I try to convert print catalog production systems from sheafs of paper and handwritten notes in a folder into a database with a (hopefully) user-friendly front-end.

It’s very difficult to supplant an analog system with a digital one, even if the digital system will speed production and reduce costs. Even though the system being used is now the web-based application that I am working on, some users still pass around folders with catalog section names written on them, even though the folders are now empty, and only symbolic. They persist because we are analog creatures, and tactile, physical things are more meaningful to us then digital representations on a screen.

It’s my dilemma.

Yummy data

I managed to squeeze a little bit of data out of my doctor’s office!

I got the cholesterol lab results! Still need to get the other two blood labs they did, and the ultrasound report, and the actual ultrasounds, but they still haven’t even sent me the forms to request that data, let alone the data itself.

Here is the cholesterol data, presented as ranges using the graphing script I wrote. The vitals were from a visit the same day. The heart rate and temp are probably elevated from the mild fever I’ve had. The hemoglobin isn’t the actual number, if I had one of the other labs, it would have that data, for now I just put in a previous reading.

The HDL is still on the low side, the fish oil and peanut butter I’ve been taking have improved it by 5 points over the last 5 months though. Perhaps this was the cause of my gallstones? They say one factor is having a low HDL level… I’ll keep taking the fish oil and eating peanut butter and see in six months if it continues to go up. Ideally it should be above 60.

(click the image for a bigger view)

Professional Vampires

I gave blood today. I prepped for it this morning by eating two bowls of cereal and a belgian waffle covered in whipped cream and strawberries for breakfast, then drinking a liter of water.

I wrote a little blank vitals sheet on a business card ahead of time, so I wouldn’t get them scrawled messily on a scrap of paper like they usually do when I ask for my vitals.

My vitals:

My hemoglobin always seems to be on the low side.

It went MUCH smoother than last time. The woman doing it was very good, I barely felt the needle, she was quick and efficient. When it was done, she used a non-stick arm wrap instead of bandaids, so my arm hair didn’t get all ripped off painfully when I removed it.

Amateur Vampires

I gave blood today. I was worried since last time I gave blood I nearly passed out, so this time I made sure to eat a big breakfast (which works out well with my trying-to-eat-a-big-breakfast experiment). Apparently it worked, I felt fine.

I was the guinea pig for the girl who took my blood, seemed like it was her first time, she had a woman guiding her through the procedure. The heavyset girl was nervous, flushed and sweating, and continuously getting flustered and either freezing up or doing things in the wrong order. Luckily the older woman was there to correct her, or probably something horrible would have happened to me, the girl seemed especially confused about what order to undo clamps.

Excerpt from the scene:

[Girl is standing there, frozen]

Woman: What is it?

Girl: …

Woman: What’s the problem?

Girl: um… [gestures downward, to what I assume is a puddle of my blood on the carpeted floor]

Woman: You must have clamped that tube in the wrong spot. [rubs blood into the carpet with her shoe] It’s ok, doesn’t look like you spilled too much.

Since she was a novice, setup took a lot longer, as did breakdown. Which is annoying when you’re waiting for them to take the needle out of your arm. The whole process took about an hour and 15 minutes. The last two times I gave blood, it was more like 40 minutes. I know people have to learn sometime, but there is a great deal to be said for efficiency.

It got me thinking about giving blood.

One issue I have is, they don’t give you much for it. Yes, they sometimes have swag, like a mug or whatever (this time they gave out a coupon for a free personal pizza at Unos, which is about the unhealthiest food you can buy – no wonder americans are so obese, when a *HEALTH* organization like the Red Cross is giving out coupons for 2400-calorie meals), but they *could* give you something much more valuable.

Like if they did a free cholesterol screening. I’ve seen the machines, they are about the size of the hemoglobin machines, I bet they could do a combined one that does both. THAT would be valuable.

I always ask for my vitals, but they are ill-prepared for that. This time, I got my vitals messily scrawled on a bandage wrapper. Not only that, but she only wrote blood pressure and heartrate, I had to ask again to get the hemoglobin number. She seemed annoyed that I was asking for information. And I saw her punch in about 6 or 7 values, and she only gave me 3 (4 if you count BP as two fields) so who knows what other data she had that she didn’t share?

Data, BTW: Pulse: 60, BP: 106/68, HGB: 14.5

Rendered with my chart-drawing script:

Now that I think about it, she took my temp, but didn’t give me that value…

Sigh, selfish medical people, never want to share data. Like gollum with the ring, they are… “Yessss, my precioussss data, preciousssss…”

But anyway, my point is that, how about they give you a free cholesterol test if you give blood?

And maybe also have a trained nutritionist on hand to give free advice while you are in the recovery area? Instead of walking out with a coupon for a free bucket of lard, maybe people could walk out with some useful data and advice…

Also, this time I gave blood, it was the Red Cross, the last two times it was a local hospital that came to Staples. The hospital had better giveaways (the steel-lined plastic mug I got last time is quite nice, I use it every day) and were friendlier. Maybe it was because the girl was so flustered, and the woman was busy helping the girl, but they barely spoke to me at all.

Another thing they could do while giving blood, and for medicine in general — one thing that works as a great pain/discomfort suppressor is distraction. I read an article recently about a doctor who decided, rather than sedate kids to calm them down, he gave them his iPhone with a video playing on it to look at. Seems simple, but apparently most places just drug kids to quiet them down.

It would have been nice if they’d had a TV with the news or something on it while people donated blood. They did have a really crappy boombox in the corner, crackling out some tunes, so that was better than nothing, but probably the more senses are distracted, the better.

healthy breakfast

My breakfast this morning:

Quick nutritional estimates shown: [Calories/grams of fat/grams of fiber]

16oz with 2% milk and sugar [60/0.6/0]
Mixed fruit
4 strawberries [15/0.1/1]
2 peach wedges [20/0/0.8]
5 grapes [17/0/0.2]
6oz stonyfield farm lowfat vanilla [140/1.5/2]

I cut up the fruit in a bowl and then poured the yogurt over it.

Total Estimated Calories/Fat/Fiber:

Pretty healthy, and very yummy, to boot.