Geek stuff

Work in progress

The plan is to port here the whole old Logic Matters site (including, the pages relating to my recent books and also LaTeX for Logicians) into one better organized, and much-easier-to-update, site. Watch this space. It may take a while …

Meanwhile, all the posts from the blog previously hosted at blogspot have been imported here. I will recategorize them and delete trivia over the coming days, to make the archive more usable.

Apple Preview: fail

This might just save a few Mac-based LaTeX users some grief. Suppose you use TeXShop to typeset

\documentclass[11pt,a4paper]{article}
\begin{document}
$\{0\} \to \{y = 0\}$
\end{document}

The result looks just fine in the TeXShop preview window onscreen (which calls on the Mac pdf Preview engine). But print it out and the spacing after the arrow is wrong. You get

{0} →{ y = 0}

Use Adobe Reader to print the pdf and all is well:

{0} → {y = 0}

The problem seems to be that the use of ‘}’ as a printing character before a binary operator can mess up the printing though not the viewing of a pdf by Preview. Very, very odd. But apparently there are other known issues with Preview printing pdfs and missing/misplacing symbols. So the moral is: when it matters, print using Adobe Reader.

Stumbling over the bug caused me some hours of annoyed and mystified head-scratching. The invaluable comp.text.tex newsgroup helped me find a minimal example and pin the blame on Preview rather than on my (occasionally ropey) LaTeX coding.

TeX update and SyncTeX

\begin{geeky procrastination when I should be writing some Gödel lectures}

I keep the TeXShop editor updated, but the background LaTeX installation just works so smoothly that I haven’t bothered to touch it for a while. But I did today get round to uploading the MacTeX 2008 installation. The process is simplicity itself, and then the Tex Live Utility will update the update. (By the way, none of this overwrites the previous installation: you can swap back if need be, and delete the old version later when you are happy to do so.)

Who knows what other under-the-bonnet improvements there are! But the distribution now includes SyncTeX. Tell TeXShop to use this, and this seems to notably improve the synchonization between the editing window and the preview window. Worth the (small) effort of upgrading by itself.

In a TeXie mood, I also played just a bit with the rebarbatively named XeLaTeX (basically, this just adds wonderfully easy font handling to LaTeX). I might report back on this in due course.

\end{geeky procrastination when I should be writing some Gödel lectures}

Papers for papers

Like everyone else, I download quite a few journal articles from current issues or from the Jstor archive. Question: just how do you keep the heaps of PDFs organized? What do you use to search across them?

Well, I’ve belated just discovered Papers (Mac OSX only, I’m afraid), a sort of iTunes for your PDFs. It has been around for over two years — there’s an old explanatory poster here — and it knocks spots off the various previous solutions I’ve tried. Here are some high points:

  • You fire up Papers and there in its designated folder is your library of PDFs, neatly listed and sorted. Papers uses the Spotlight engine to do very fast searches. You can then click on items to read them from within Papers (and you can write notes too). And you can open different papers in different tabs, rather than have a clutter of windows.
  • That’s very pretty, but Papers really comes into its own when e.g. you want to search and download papers e.g. from Jstor. You can search Jstor from within Papers (early releases of the program only knew about science databases: being able to work with a wider set of sources is the big new feature added in later versions). You can just store the found paper details for later: but click on the found title you want to fetch, and you get to the paper’s Jstor download page. Download the paper, and it arrives in your library, with the author/title/year/journal etc. metadata all neatly listed — and Papers systematically changes the title of the PDF file itself, from Jstor’s to your preferred naming system. (I use author, date, first five words of title). So looking in the library folder itself from the Finder, you see a neatly and usefully named set of files.
  • How to you move some previously obtained paper into the library? Or a paper newly downloaded from a current journal issue? No problem, drop the paper onto the Papers icon in the dock, and it will appear in the Library. If it is recent with a DOI identifier, again Papers extracts the metadata and renames the file according to your system. Otherwise you give Papers e.g. the author name and a word or two from the title, and Papers asks Google scholar to find a match: click on the match, and — whoosh! — the paper is neatly filed and renamed again.
  • With a library full of papers you can then sort them in various ways, and make various “collections” (smart ones too, if you want). As I said, you can of course search your library from within Papers. And because the PDF library remains just that (i.e. the files aren’t messed about with) you can inspect it from e.g. DevonThink if you want to do some much fancier “intelligent” searches.
  • The thing is a joy to use, as I’m discovering. You can of course export BibTex and other citation data if you want. And the interface is really neat. It was won an award for being quintessentially Mac — which it is, to the point that they don’t bother to provide a manual apart from a short getting-started video. Just remember to control-click on any likely-looking button or sidebar item, and you’ll get a drop down menu of options.
  • And oh, if you really want, you can sync a collection of your papers to Papers for the iPhone or iPod Touch, to read some PDFs on the move.

All in all, I’m a newly converted enthusiast. Terrific.

MacBook Air, six months on

Anyone out there who is still wavering about getting a MacBook Air might be interested in some comments from a delighted owner who has now had one for six months (this updates my “after one month” post from last August). Everyone else can, of course, just cheerfully ignore this again!

As background, I make heavy academic use of a computer (particularly using LaTeX, and reading a lot of papers, even books, onscreen, as well of course as the usual surfing, emailing etc.) but don’t really use one as a media centre except for light iPhoto use, and occasionally ripping CDs into iTunes for transfer to an iPod.

  1. The portability is fantastic. No question. Just to compare: I’ve had in the past a 15″ Titanium PowerBook, a 15″ G4 PowerBook, and a 17″ MacBook Pro before; and they’ve of course been portable in the sense I could heave them from home to my office and back. But all of them were honestly just too heavy/bulky to make that particularly convenient. I very rarely bothered to take them elsewhere, e.g. to a coffee shop, or even a library. (You might well ask why on earth, in that case, I had portables at all! Answer: Partly because our Cambridge house is very small, my “study” is the size of a large cupboard, and I very much like to be able to work on the kitchen table for a change of scene, or answer emails with a computer on my knees in the living room in the evening. So I certainly want “local” portability. And partly I need to be able to drive data projectors when lecturing.) Anyway, by contrast with the earlier portables, I can and do cheerfully tote the MBA (in its snug protective sleeve) anywhere, without really thinking about it, whether or not I’m definitely planning to use it. It just is so light and convenient. Much lighter than the new aluminium 13″ regular MacBook which I’ve tried out in the Apple Store too. Yet the MBA always feels remarkably sturdy. There’s not a sign really of six months of constant use.
  2. Some early reviews complained about the MBA’s footprint, saying that it isn’t a genuine ultraportable. People still complain about that. Well, true, I can imagine e.g. it wouldn’t be that easy to use in the cramped conditions of an airline seat. But that sort of issue just doesn’t arise for me. It’s not the footprint but the lightness and thinness which means that you can carry it so very comfortably in one hand, and of course the larger-than-ultra footprint goes with the stunningly good, uncramped, screen and the generous keyboard. In my kind of usage now, I’ve never found the footprint an issue.
  3. I rarely use the MBA to do anything very processor-intensive for a prolonged period of time, and it normally remains cool — though the fans can sometimes kick in a bit enthusiastically e.g. when backing up. And the battery life seems just fine: well over three hours for writing, text-browsing, reading. Recharging though is pretty slow: but if you need to take it with you, then the MBA’s charger is very small and portable (though I’ve bought a second one for my office in the faculty, and so don’t find in practice I need to carry it around).
  4. One main reason I traded up a couple of years ago from the 15″ G4 machine was that LaTeX ran pretty slowly: nearly 30 seconds to typeset my Gödel book on the G4, about 4 seconds on the new intel MacBook Pro. The MBA, despite its slower chip, seems almost as fast running LaTeX , and indeed in most other ways: occasionally, e.g. when opening an application, the MBA is noticeably slower — but it has never been a particularly irritating issue. So this is plenty fast enough.
  5. And the reason, when I traded up the previous time, I chose the 17″ MBP model was to have enough “real estate” to have a TeXShop editing window and the PDF output window side-by-side and comfortably readable. Obviously, I’m now looking at 1280 x 800 pixels, rather than 1680 x 1050 (so that’s just 58% as much). But I’ve surprised myself by getting very used to working with overlapping windows again, and the screen quality is really terrific. The best I’ve ever had by far. Of course it is nicer e.g. for extended on-screen reading to plug in an external monitor as well. But not any sort of necessity — and indeed I seem these days pretty often not to bother even if I’m sitting next to the external monitor.
  6. What about the paucity of ports, mentioned critically by all the reviewers, or the absence of an onboard CD drive? Really not an issue. I’ve a couple of times wished there were two USB ports, I bought a little one-to-two-port splitter, for very occasional home use, but in fact even when I don’t have it with me, I’ve never been seriously annoyed. Of course, if I had one of the new version MBA’s I’d be tempted with one of the new displays that also acts as a USB hub: but that would be an indulgence. I’ve latterly bought an external CD/DVD drive built for the MBA, for when I occasionally need one. (The one caveat concerns day one, long before I got the external drive. Since there is no firewire port, you can’t migrate files from your old computer to your new MBA using the usual firewire connection. And using a wireless connection to migrate is both painfully slow and seems flaky. Is that a problem? I didn’t find really it so. I installed new versions of necessary additional software, like the LaTeX installation, over the web, and then copied my documents folder and other bits and pieces from a SuperDuper! clone of the old hard disk on an external drive. Quick to do, and resulting in a clean and tidy MBA.)
  7. So that’s all very, very positive. Are there any negatives? The flat keyboard is surprisingly nice to use (much better than I imagined it would be). But, unlike the almost silent similarly flat new iMac keyboards, I find the MBA version to does seem a bit noisier (and a bit more so than the MBP keyboard). But that’s a very marginal disappointment.
  8. I thought, when I bought the MBA a month ago, I’d be using it very much as a second machine, carrying on using the 17″ MPB (with external monitor) as a main, quasi-desktop, set-up. In fact I find I now almost never use the MPB.
  9. So, assuming a three year life cycle (and it seems very well built so should last longer with a battery refresh after a while), the MBA after education discount costs much less than half a pint of beer a day. Put like that, how can you resist?
  10. And then, of course, there is the “Wow!”-factor …

Nerdy stuff

Just for fellow Macaholics …

  1. I’ve just noticed that a new version of TeXShop has been released in the last couple of weeks, with a couple of useful little tweaks.
  2. I had a pre-release trial copy of Things for a while, and now the first proper release is out. Very neat and very simple: so it is, for once, “task management” software — ok, a fancy way of keeping To Do lists — that I actually do use.
  3. Oh, and I’ve just got an Iomega eGo Helium external drive. Very small and no power block, so easy to tote, and no fan so very quiet. It’s a bit sad to get even mildly pleased by a hard drive. But still, it is rather pretty …

Things

A while back I posted about trying the OmniFocus ‘task management’ software which implements Getting Things Done type lists. As I said, it’s not that I haven’t tasks to do, and the GTD idea really does work. But, having played about a bit with it, I reckoned my life isn’t so cluttered that carrying on using NoteBook and iCal wouldn’t work well enough for me.

I’ve not changed my mind about Omnifocus. But now I’ve just discovered an alternative, lighter weight, more free-form task management OS X application simply called Things. Still in beta and free, but very well regarded (for a tour, see here): very clean and easy to learn, and even easier to use. I’m a convert. Well worth checking out.

MacBook Air, one month on

Anyone out there who is wavering about getting a MacBook Air might be interested in some comments from a new owner. Everyone else can, of course, just cheerfully ignore this posting! (The headline summary is: get one! — though perhaps not quite today as there is rumour of a chip upgrade soon.)

  1. The portability is fantastic. No question. Just to compare: I’ve had a 15″ Titanium PowerBook, a 15″ G4 PowerBook, and a 17″ MacBook Pro before; and they’ve of course been portable in the sense I could heave them from home to my office and back. But all of them were just too heavy/bulky to make that particularly convenient. I very rarely bothered to take them elsewhere, e.g. to a coffee shop. (You might well ask why on earth, in that case, I had portables at all! Answer: Partly because our Cambridge house is very small, my “study” is the size of a large cupboard, and I very much like to be able to work in the kitchen for a change of scene, or answer emails with a computer on my knees in the living room in the evening. And partly I wanted to be able to drive data projectors when lecturing.) Anyway, by contrast with the earlier portables, I can and do cheerfully tote the MBA (in its snug protective sleeve) anywhere, without really thinking about it, whether or not I’m definitely planning to use it. It just is so light and convenient.
  2. Some reviews complained about the MBA’s footprint, saying that it isn’t a genuine ultraportable. Well, true, the footprint isn’t in fact that much smaller that the 15″ machine, and I can imagine e.g. that very frequent fliers would find it a pain to use in the cramped conditions of an airline seat. But that sort of issue doesn’t arise for me. The thinness means that you can carry it so comfortably in a hand, and otherwise the footprint goes with the stunningly good, uncramped, screen and the generous keyboard.
  3. I don’t use the MBA to watch movies, or do anything else very processor-intensive. So I’ve never had a temperature-induced core shut-down. And the battery life seems just fine: well over three hours for writing, text-browsing, reading. Recharging though is pretty slow: but if you need to take it with you, then — unlike the small brick for the 17″ — the MBA’s charger is very small and portable (though I’ve bought a second one for the office, and so don’t find in practice I need to carry it around).
  4. One main reason I traded up a couple of years ago from the 15″ G4 machine was that LaTeX ran pretty slowly: nearly 30 seconds to typeset my Gödel book on the G4, about 4 seconds on the new intel MacBook Pro. The MBA, despite its slower chip, seems almost as fast running LaTeX , and indeed in most other ways: occasionally, e.g. when opening an application, the MBA is noticeably slower — but it has never been an irritating issue. So this is plenty fast enough.
  5. And the reason, when I previously traded up, I chose the 17″ MBP model was to have enough “real estate” to have a TeXShop editing window and the PDF output side-by-side and comfortably readable. Obviously, I’m now looking at 1280 x 800 pixels, rather than 1680 x 1050 (so that’s just 58% as much). But this is manageable, and the screen quality is really terrific. Of course it is nicer e.g. for extended on-screen reading to plug in an external monitor as well. But that’s a luxury, not any sort of necessity.
  6. What about the paucity of ports, mentioned critically by all the reviewers, or the absence of an onboard CD drive? With one caveat, I’ve found those features no problem at all. Just not been an issue for me since day one. (So the one caveat indeed concerns day one. Since there is no firewire port, you can’t migrate files from your old computer to your new MBA using the usual firewire connection. And using a wireless connection to migrate is both painfully slow and seems flaky. Is that a problem? I didn’t find really it so. I installed the necessary additional software, like the LaTeX installation, over the web, and then copied my documents folder and other bits and pieces from a SuperDuper! clone of the old hard disk on an external drive. Quick to do, and resulting in a clean and tidy MBA.)
  7. So that’s all very, very positive. Are there any negatives? The flat keyboard is surprisingly nice to use (much better than I imagined it would be). But, unlike the almost silent similarly flat new iMac keyboards, this is a bit noisier (a bit more so than the MBP keyboard). But that’s a very marginal disappointment.
  8. I thought, when I bought the MBA a month ago, I’d be using it very much as a second machine, carrying on using the 17″ MPB (and external monitor) as a main, quasi-desktop, set-up. In fact I find myself increasingly heavily favouring the MBA. I’ve hardly used the MPB.
  9. So, assuming a three year life cycle (and it seems very well built so should last longer with a battery refresh after a while), the MBA after education discount costs much less than half a pint of beer a day. Or one modestly decent bottle of Chianti Classico a fortnight if you prefer. Put like that, how can you resist?
  10. And then, of course, there is the “Wow!”-factor …

A blast from the past

After an electrical storm, my new MacBook Air suddenly stopped recognizing the wireless network at home. It could pick up a signal from about six neighbouring houses, but not the Airport base station a few feet away, while the old laptop had no problems. I tore my hair trying everything I could think for a few frustrating hours. No luck.

Eventually I phoned Apple Care. And after re-trying one or two other things, the guy at the end said “Restart, holding down Command-Option-P-R”. Wow. Zapping the PRAM!

Which took me right back to 1990 and my first Mac (a IIsi, since you ask). In those days, zapping the Parameter RAM was a fairly frequent dodge, used whenever the poor thing got a bit confused. But I can’t have done it for a decade or more. I’d long forgotten it was even an option. Did the trick though, so here I am again …

MacBook Air!

I’m a pretty minimal user of the mobile phone, and don’t use my iPod that much either … so it really would be an expensive self-indulgence to buy an iPhone and contract. OK, ok, let’s be honest, it’s still very tempting! But I’ve manfully managed to resist, and I’ve put some of the consequent savings together with some computing money from the Faculty to buy a MacBook Air instead. (Is there a financial fallacy buried in there somewhere? Well, let’s not examine that too closely, …) It will be genuinely useful to have a much more portable laptop.

It would be really boring to bang on here about what a great machine this seems to be, even after just a few hours close acquaintance. I’m perhaps not entirely convinced by the keyboard (which could be even quieter for library use???). But the screen quality is stunning. And it remains a surprise to the hand every time you lift it that something that — when opened up in use — looks so sizeable and well-built is so light. It’s pretty speedy too — indeed, it seems to compile the LaTeX file for my Gödel book about as fast as a MacBook Pro whose clock-speed is 50% more.

I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. So I’ll try not to throw it away.

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