Sunday, May 30, 2010

iTunes sucks

I feel like in the GNOME world, it's often an unspoken assumption that Apple sets the standard for good design, and that the free software folks just hobble along trying to meet it.

Having not used Macs extensively since the quite-well-designed OS 8.6, I've often assumed this is true (nevermind the poor design of the "Dock" etc).

With K's lovely new iPhone, I had occasion to download iTunes lately (and I kept Windows on a partition of my new laptop just for this purpose -- ugh). This is a sort of submission, ever since my unfortunate altercation with a Mac Genius last time we bought a Mac product, when said genius knew virtually nothing of what file formats the iPod supported and could only tell me, repeatedly, "you just use iTunes."

Well, now that we have an iPhone, it appears you in fact have to use iTunes (things don't just work in Ubuntu with it, and you can't buy cool stuff for it without iTunes anyway), and all I can say is iTunes deeply, deeply suck.

Here are just a few experiences so far:

1. I try to copy a movie to the iPhone. I drag and drop it -- this is the paradigm of virtually every mac app everywhere since multifinder was introduced. This starts playing the movie. Nowhere can I figure out how to exit the movie -- I finally quit the program and reopen, at which time I have to reenter my password information.

2. I can see my shared library from my Rhythmbox machine -- sweet! But I can't copy the songs or download them to iTunes, even though they're DRM-free easily-copiable songs in the linux world (I only buy music from Amazon so as to avoid DRM).

3. I copy my music library into iTunes from a networked folder since the "magic" way didn't work and the app hangs. I have to force quit the application, leaving me with about 1/5 of my music library.

4. I try to "sync" the iPhone to the program in order to let Katharine update her Audobon app and install her newly downloaded TV show. I get a series of confusing messages about syncing "erasing" everything on the machine. Finally, I click "OK", rather frightened of Katharine's losing all the apps she's already paid for. Fingers crossede.

Long story short: the "syncing" model is rather confusing, iTunes is buggy and doesn't seem to be threaded properly so that one operation (importing a library) hangs up the program with no easy way to pause that operation. Furthermore, long operations such as syncing don't include time estimates.

Of course, on the plus side, the iPhone itself is pretty sweet. According to K anyway -- I don't really get to play with it much, and I don't dare to since I might want to write apps for it, which dooes not exactly promise to be a free and open experience to say the least.

I'm pretty sure any neutral comparison of iTunes to Rhythmbox would have Rhythmbox dominating iTunes in usability and feature set. Except, of course, the ability to work with the Apple store -- but that's not exactly Rhythmbox's fault.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

poop, the past tense, and phonological features

So last night Grace said, "I pooped," a pretty typical sentence (we're mid potty training here). Here's how she said it:

ai pʰupʰɪt

This struck me as a pretty interesting utterance.

Here's the relevant background information. First, the Standard English past tense here is formed by two simple rules.

1. Gramatical rule: Add "d" to create the past tense (unless the word already ends in "d/t" in which case you add "ɪd" in order to make the "d" audible).
2. Phonological rule: In a consonant cluster, the voicing spreads from the first consonant rightward in English (the opposite can happen at other times -- as it does in Spanish, for example, where voicing spreads leftward to affect the pronunciation of the "s" in "mismo" or "beisbol").

poop --> (grammar) poopd --> (phonology) poopt
One more piece of background information that is important is to understand Grace's rules for syllabification. Grace has for a long time not permitted consonant clusters. This is pretty typical of children's speech in English, and is typical of many languages throughout the world so it's also true of many accents. Her basic rule is that a syllable consists of C + V + C, where C is one consonant, V is one or more vowels and C is one consonant. When a word contains more than one consonant, Grace has two options: she can ignore a consonant or add a vowel. In practice, she does both, as in the following pronunciations:

Grace's syllabification at work
James: "dʒeimɪz" (standard pronunciation: dʒeimz)
Books: "bʊtʰɪz" (standard prononciation: bʊks)
Star: "tʰɑɹ" (standard pronunciation: stɑɹ)

These have been standard Gracese for a while. Obviously under the pressure of the Standard English she hears every day, all of these formations will eventually give way to the standard ones, and we have started to hear the occasional consonant cluster out of Grace already.

Analysis of Poop-it
Given Grace's rules for syllables, and Grace's frequent formation of past tense words in English with the "d" suffix, I would have expected her to form one of the following two forms:

1. Gracese: pʰupʰɪd (poop-id)
2. Standard: pʰupɾ (poopt)

What she did, however, is she formed a hybrid. This raises the possibility that she has learned neither the grammar nor the phonological rule described above, but has instead simply heard the word form "poopt" and interpreted it based on her own rules for syllabification.

This shouldn't seem that surprising, but to me it is. Listening to her talk, it seems so clear that she is using our grammatical endings "z" (plural, third person) and "d" (past tense) in a variety of contexts. But of course, it's entirely possible that instead of hearing Grace alternate between uninflected forms ("I poop") and inflected forms ("I poopit"), what I have in fact been hearing is simply her alternating between two pronunciations/interpretations of the to-her unpronouncable ("I poopt): "I poop" and "I poopit").

Of course the real proof that she is inflected verbs at all will only come when she begins to create novel (i.e. erroneous) forms like "goed" and "throwed." I can't say for sure whether I've heard these yet -- given how common they are in kid-speak and how interested I am, it's likely we haven't hit this phase yet.

Except that my second example of Grace's syllabification above is in fact a novel form: bʊkɪz. If Grace were in fact simply hearing and mimicking the word form, we would predict "bʊk" or "bʊkɪs". So are these novel forms? Has Grace learned to inflect for number but learned tense simply as "vocabulary"?

Hard to know for sure, but for the next few days I'll be paying close attention to those verbs and nouns that end in unvoiced consonants.