Print text messages: video edition

Today I published my first YouTube video, How to print text messages on Android:

I already knew the obvious choices of software to use for some elements: Audacity to record and edit narration, Pixly to draw the hand pointer animation. I’m a novice at making videos, however, so I spent a good deal of time figuring out what program I should use to edit the video.

First, I tried Kdenlive, and managed to put together the entire video how I wanted it, only to run into a fatal error: I couldn’t export successfully.

Eagle-eyed viewers may notice that the part where I demonstrate a purchase doesn’t use an actual currency. There are actually several layers of compositing in this shot:

Purchase screen with generic currency symbol

When Kdenlive attempted to render this, it just produced glitches: it flashed images like the sad face emoji, from completely unrelated parts of the video. No settings tweak I found solved the problem.

So, on to OpenShot, whose interface feels largely comparable to Kdenlive. I soon discovered, however, that it lacked some basic effects that I needed, particularly freeze frame. Apparently version 2 lost a number of effects that were present in version 1.

Finally, I moved to Blender. I guess, deep down, I always suspected it would come to this.

Blender is a ridiculously capable program, especially when you consider how lightweight it is. It manages to include 3D modeling, rigging, rendering, animation, compositing, video editing, a game engine and more in a download between 80 to 150 megabytes, depending on your operating system. Compare to, say Maya, which can take days to download.

How Blender accomplishes this is surely black magic, but it’s not for fear of the dark side that I avoided it till last: it’s the user interface. To the uninitiated, Blender feels like learning how to use a computer for the first time.

Want to select something in the timeline, or, in Blender-speak, the “video sequence editor?” It’s right-click, not left-click. Want to move it? You can click and drag, but it won’t release when you let up on the mouse button. You need to click again to release. Scroll wheel zooms. Ctrl+scroll wheel scrolls. And so on.

In other words, Blender’s interface is comparable to Dwarf Fortress.

Nonetheless, it only took me about day and a half to re-cut my video in Blender. On the bright side, if I ever need to add a 3D Text Collector mascot and some explosions, I’ll already be in the right program.

How Unicode can save math: part 2

It’s widely known that decimal – or “numbers” to most of us – is an inferior system. Decimal doesn’t work well for computers, which prefer base two and it doesn’t work well for humans either, at least not when compared to dozenal.

Dozenal is also called “duodecimal,” or “base 10” (when writing in dozenal) and it is a much more natural system for humans than decimal. The usual example of why is a clock. Look how neat it is with the number 10 right at the top:

Dozenal clock face
From the Dozenal Society of Great Britain

Dozenal has a big problem though, as we can see from the clock. What number does 10 represent, when you see it out of context? You just don’t know.

For decades, we’ve solved this problem in computer programming with funny prefixes. To a programmer, dozenal and decimal might be “base 0xA” and “base 0xC”. Likewise, in a dozenal world, we might write “hexadecimal” as “base 0z14” or something. If we need to start writing all our numbers with warts to indicate the base, however, dozenal seems doomed.

But wait, there’s hope. Unicode already contains the digits for “dek” and “el.” (That’s ten and eleven, if you’re not a cool dozenal kid.) If your browser doesn’t have a suitable font, refer to the clock above. If it does, they look like this:

↊ ↋

Now all we need is nine more Unicode symbols for the rest of the digits. Zero is special: for zero, there need be only one.

Text Collector version one released

Today, Legal Text Collector graduated from beta to production, version 1.0. It’s been a long time coming: I started working on it seven months ago. I made my first notes on the idea about five years ago.

Exactly thirty years ago today, Reagan said, “open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and in a small way, I think I can sympathize with Gorbachev. The main change from beta to production is that now people can start posting reviews: I’m opening the gates of public criticism.

Google allows public reviews only after a production release. In the safety of beta, Google provides a private feedback option, which nobody used. Many people did, however, send me questions and bug reports via email.

It’s hard to overstate the the value of that feedback. My friend Trish, my aunt Meg and my erstwhile colleague Jon of Sandline were especially helpful in testing the early alpha versions; strangers who stumbled upon later public betas kindly sent me information to resolve some of the final bugs. Through 14 alphas and 16 betas, Text Collector grew from 3.5 thousand lines to 5.5 thousand, a testament to how long the long tail can be.

So it is a dramatic moment. Much remains to do, but at some point I must tear down the wall to public criticism. Private feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, so this doesn’t worry me too much, but only time will tell.

It’s a good day to print text messages

Even though my elevator pitch for Legal Text Collector is, “It lets you print your text messages,” in all the time that I’ve been writing it, I never actually printed any messages.

Text Collector doesn’t (yet) print text messages directly. Instead, it converts them to pdf, and you’re free to copy and print pdf as you please. In development, I just examined output pdf. Many, many times. Printing is a formality.

Still, this gives me an itchy feeling. I find it unsatisfying to leave the final step untried.

So I celebrated the beta 15 release by actually printing messages. On paper. In color and grayscale.

Why celebrate beta 15? I expect it to be the last beta release before 1.0. Every 1.0 feature is in and every 1.0 bug is fixed. In other words, beta 15 is Version One. All that remains is to take a deep breath and bless it with a “production” designation.


How Unicode can save math: part 1

Every casual math enthusiast has by now heard of the raging war between tau and pi.

The what?

Ok, I mean, tau’s gaining a little ground, but really, pi has the weight of history behind it, so “raging” and “war” might be overstating things a little. The point is that 3.14, et cetera, is a bad circle constant and there’s a more intuitive option, “tau.”

Take a 90-degree angle. In radians, it’s half pi, but one quarter tau makes much more sense:

A quarter cut out of a pizza
Half pi!

If we call 2 times pi “tau,” this slice is one quarter, and things just make more sense.

Doesn’t seem to be catching on.

Not really, no. And tau has some problems too: for example τ=2π, but the tau glyph has only one leg and pi has two, so it looks like pi is twice tau. Shouldn’t tau have four legs? Clearly, the problem is this symbol: we need something more familiar. How about we just redefine pi to be twice itself?

Madness. Only confusion and chaos can result.

But not if we change the spelling. We’ll say that pie = 2pi.

Mathematicians will never go for it.

Perhaps, but food-based math has rich history. If you’re worried that it lacks a succinct one-character symbol, well, that’s where Unicode comes into the picture. In 2017, we finally have pie emoji, 🥧.