Category Archives: tools

Making explainer videos for your software

If you want to find out how to do something, such as do a mail merge in Word or fix a leaky valve on a radiator, where do you look first? Probably Youtube. Videos are an excellent way to explain something. More bandwidth than text and more scaleable than a 1-to-1 demo.

I’ve done explainer videos for all 3 of my products. But I found it a real struggle. I would write a script and then try to read the script and do the screencast at the same time and do it all in one take. I would stutter and stumble and it would take multiple attempts. It took ages and results were passable at best. I got some better software to edit the stumbles out, so I didn’t have to do it in one go. But it still took me a fair few attempts and quite a bit of editing. It became one of my least favourite things to do and so I did less and less of it.

Recently, I came across these slides on video by Christian Genco. These and subsequent Twitter exchanges with Christian convinced me that I should stop being a perfectionist about video and just start cranking them out on the grounds that a ‘good enough’ video is better than no video at all (‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’) and I would get better at it over time. As Stalin supposedly said “Quantity has a quality all of it’s own”.

So I have ditched the scripts and the perfectionism and I’ve managed to create 13 short Easy Data Transform explainer videos in the last week or so. And I am getting faster at it and (hopefully) a bit more polished. I’m definitely not an expert on this (and probably never will be) but here are some tips I have picked up along the way:

  • Get some decent software. I use Camtasia on Windows and it seems pretty good.
Camtasia
  • Try to talk slower.
  • Try to sound upbeat (not easy if you are British and could voice double for Eeyore).
  • Try not to move the mouse and talk at the same time. This makes editing a lot easier. Some people like to do the audio and the visual separately, but that seems like too much hassle.
  • If you stumble, just take a deep breath, say it again and then edit the stumble out later.
  • Get a reasonable mic. I have a snowball mic on a cantilevered stand. I covered it with a thin cloth to try to reduce pops.
  • The occasional ‘um’ is fine.
  • Have a checklist of things to do for each video, so you don’t forget anything (such as disabling your phrase expander software or muting the phone).
My setup. Note the high tech use of rubber bands.

I’m lucky to have a very quiet office, so I don’t have much background noise to contend with.

Using Camtasia I can easily add intos and outros, edit out stumbles and add various effects, such a mouse position highlighting and movement smoothing. I just File>Save as the previous project so that I don’t have to re-add the intro and outro. Unsurprisingly, Camtasia have lots of explainer videos. I wish there was a way to automatically ‘ripple delete’ any sections where there is no audio and no mouse movement (if there is, I haven’t found it). Some people recommend descript.com. It looks interesting, but I haven’t tried it.

I did an A/B test of recordings with my Senheiser headset mic against my Snowball mic and the consensus was that the headset was ok but the the Snowball mic sound quality was better.

Some people prefer to use synthetic voices, instead of their own voice. While these synthetic voices have improved a lot, they never sound quite right to me. Also it must be time consuming to type out all the text. Or you can pay to have a professional voiceover done, but this is surprisingly expensive (around $100 per minute, last time I checked) and almost certainly more time consuming than doing it yourself.

Some people aren’t confident about speaking on videos because they are not native speakers of that language and have an accent. Personally accents don’t bother me at all. In fact I like hearing English spoken with a foreign accent, as long as I can understand it. Also I think there is an authenticity to hearing a creator talk about their product in their own voice.

I’m not a big fan of music on explainer videos, so I don’t add any.

I let Youtube generate automatic captions for people that want them (which could be people in busy offices and on trains and planes, as well as the hearing impaired). They aren’t perfect, but they are good enough.

My videos are aimed at least as much at finding new users as helping existing users. So I make sure I research keyword terms (mostly in Google Adwords) before I decide which videos to make and what to title them. Currently I am targetting very specific keyword searches, such as How to convert CSV to Markdown. Easy Data Transform can do a lot more than just format conversion, but from an SEO point of view it is better to target the phrases that people are actually searching for.

I upload the videos as 1080P (1920 x 1080 pixels) on to the Easy Data Transform Youtube channel and onto my screencast.com account (which I pay a yearly fee for). I then embed the screencast.com videos on relevant easydatatransform.com pages using IFRAME embed codes created by screencast.com. I don’t use the Youtube videos on my website, because I don’t want people to be distracted by Youtube ads and ‘you may also like’ recommendations. They might be showing a competitor! I don’t host the videos on the website itsself as I worry that might slow down the website. I also link to the videos in screencast.com from my help documentation, as appropriate.

Some people like to embed video of themselves in screencasts, in the hope of making it more engaging. But personally I want people to concentrate on my software, rather than being distracted by the horror of my face. And not having to comb my hair or look smart was part of what got me into running my own software business.

In the next few months I will be checking my analytics to see how many views these videos get and whether they increase the time on page and reduce the bounce rate.

If you can spare a few seconds to go to my Youtube page and ‘like’ a video ot two or subscribe, that would be a big help!

Note that some of the above doesn’t apply when you are creating a demo video for your home page, rather than an explainer video. Your main demo video should be slick and polished.

WinterFest 2021

Winterfest 2021

Easy Data Transform and Hyper Plan Professional edition are both on sale for 25% off at Winterfest 2021. There is also some other great products from other small vendors on sale, including Tinderbox, Scrivener and Devonthink. Some of the software is Mac only, but Easy Data Transform and Hyper Plan are available for both Mac and Windows (one license covers both). Sale ends 11th January.

A Windows Developer in Mac Land

This is a guest post from fellow software developer, Simon Kravis.

Few developers would choose their development platform on the merits of their respective Integrated Development Environments (IDEs)  but it happens that applications developed in Windows need to be made available on the Mac platform.

There are many environments offering cross-platform (Mac, Windows and sometimes Android) functionality, but close inspection shows that they all have limitations.  Visual Studio (the native Windows IDE) can produce apps which will run on a Mac using .Net Core – but only if they are command line apps on Windows. Other environments (like Xamarin) do support interfaces, but only involving simple controls like text boxes or drop-downs. There are other cross-platform IDEs (such as Qt)  which offer better graphics support, but they are not cheap and the extent of their support is not evident. If you need functionality such as computer vision, there seems to be no alternative to creating a separate code base for the Mac. Once you start on this path it becomes obvious that Macs handle graphics (and interfaces) very differently from Windows.

Macs have evolved rather more than PCs over the decades: they abandoned their proprietary Mac operating system in favour of UNIX in 1999, adopting the NeXTSTEP platform created by NeXT. Apple originally used PowerPC chips, replacing them with Intel Core processors in 2006, and they are currently transitioning to RISC chips. The Mac NeXTSTEP programming language was Objective C, developed in the 1980s and this is still supported, although the modern Swift language was introduced in 2014, and the Xcode IDE appeared in 2003. Xcode is free, even for teams. It uses the Cocoa API, which is accessible from other environments. The current release (MacOS  13.0) supports both Objective-C and Swift and is also used for developing iPhone and iPad apps. Mac operating systems since Catalina (released in 2019) are 64-bit only.  Xcode can only develop apps for Apple operating systems, notably iOS, which powers the iPhone. Most of the web questions and examples relate to iOS rather than MacOS. MacOS uses different frameworks from iOS, so some functions used in iOS are not available in MacOS, or have different parameters.

The Windows IDE (Visual Studio) dates from 1997, when it bundled together Visual Basic, Visual Fox Pro and Visual Source Safe and Visual C++.  It has an open architecture based on plug-ins and supports 36 different programming languages, but the major ones are C#, VB.Net and C++. Visual Studio can develop apps for any platform via the .NetCore framework, but capability for non-Windows platforms is limited. The Community edition is free, and has almost all the functionality of paid versions.

Both Visual Studio and Xcode are highly complex applications. They both have graphical interface builders where controls are dragged from a library onto a form.  Each application has a vocal supporters and detractors. My experience comes from about 5 years with Visual Studio developing C# applications. Before this I worked with Visual Basic for Applications in Microsoft Access, so I am well-versed in the Microsoft way of doing things.

Like most complex applications, Visual Studio and Xcode each have plenty of bugs, often producing completely unhelpful error messages. Reporting an Xcode bug through standard channels resulted in … nothing. Not even an automated message saying “Thank you for feedback. It will be used to improve future versions”. I haven’t even tried to report a Visual Studio bug, but I suspect that the much larger user base for Visual Studio will mean that workarounds are more readily available, even if the giant ship of Microsoft takes years to respond.

Moving to the Mac and Xcode for development was a shock as I found I didn’t know how to do the most basic things. String manipulation (used in most applications) in Objective C is highly verbose compared to C#. Google was invaluable for finding answers – mostly they were from Stack Overflow, but often from 10 or more years ago, sometimes from Apple Developer Forums. As Xcode has changed considerably since then, answers often had to be adjusted before they could be used.  Another problem is that functionality once provided externally has since been incorporated into Cocoa, so attempts to find a current version of a component (or framework as they called in Cocoa) are often unsuccessful.

MacOS provides more native functionality than Windows. Features such as computer vision and PDF generation are included in MacOS, rather than requiring the use of 3rd party components, which may not as robust as desired, and may require a license for commercial use. However, documentation of MacOS functionality, if present at all, was rarely useful. A few times I asked questions on Stack Overflow which attracted the ire of the Mac gurus for either through having obvious (to them) answers or through not conforming to the forum guidelines (in their opinion). However, the integration of NuGet with Visual Studio provides easy access to the massive number of 3rd party  libraries available for .Net on Windows.

The model-view-controller paradigm used on the Mac took some getting used to, as did the design of the main Xcode screen. Sometimes a useful display would disappear and I had difficulty in finding it how to bring it back. I often had to resort to retrieving earlier versions from the excellent Time Machine backup.  Form design is similar on both platforms – dragging and dropping components from a library. Both Xcode and Visual Studio have bugs, as would be expected for such complex apps. Events from components are generated automatically in Windows, but have to be defined on the Mac (as Actions). References to the component you’ve added also need to be defined on the Mac (as Outlets) and are not a property of the component, whereas on Windows they are.

The Xcode environment provides only basic facilities from scratch: if you need to do something more sophisticated you’ll have to Google around to find out how. Once you know – it’s easy, but the learning curve for Xcode is much higher than for Visual Studio.   

Rather than starting from scratch with the Mac version of my Caption Pro  app, which uses local computer vision functionality to detect multiple photos, changes image dimensions and adds text to images,  I found an existing open-source project on GitHub with similar basic functionality. This dated from 7 years ago and used Objective-C, so that was the language I opted for. An immediate handicap was that many of the answers I found to my questions used Swift in their example code, which is not interconvertible with Objective-C  in the way that C# and VB.Net are. iOS applications for the iPhone (which are most common) use different frameworks from Mac apps, and routines in them sometimes have completely different syntax.

The user interfaces for the Mac and Windows versions look quite different, as shown below. There are some basic differences – menus appear separately to the application window on the Mac and are locked to the top of the screen, whereas Windows menus are part of the application screen. Toolbars offer access to common functionality on the Mac. Differences also arise from the fact the Mac application was adapted from existing code rather than created from scratch.

Figure 1 Windows App main screen
Figure 2 Mac App main screen

Open-source examples (often from GitHub) are useful, but rarely work out-of-the- box. Sometimes the modifications need are minor – like defining the development team-  but sometimes it’s not possible to get them to build in a current version of Xcode.

Debugging on Xcode is frustrating – the call stack frequently contains assembler (which is perhaps why app performance tends to be better on Macs), and the debug variables window does not list all relevant variable values. Variable types may not be correct – Boolean values may appear as dates, and sometimes variables cannot even be evaluated by po (print out) statements. Printing out structure variables may show nothing.  Despite the generally superior performance of Mac apps, building apps in Xcode appears to be much slower than in Visual Studio on similar vintage machines, and after code stops at a breakpoint, it may take a long time before the variables window is filled. Deployment of Mac apps can still be done on an ad-hoc basis, but you have to register as an Apple Developer to avoid blockages in installation arising from being an ‘untrusted source’. Bypassing these blockages is more than a matter of clicking “Install anyway” so it’s hard to avoid forking out US$100 per year for registration. Windows has similar blockages, which can be bypassed with a code-signing certificate. These certificates are available from many vendors, and are slightly cheaper than Apple developer registration, but the process of obtaining one may be very involved.

Ad-hoc deployment is somewhat easier on the Mac than on Windows, but the method of doing it via Archive generation is anything but obvious. Mac applications are actually disk images and applications keep all of relevant files in a folder. This makes uninstallation a matter of dragging the application icon into the recycle bin, a far simpler process than on Windows. dmg files are not recognized by IIS web servers (and may not be by Apache either), so unless the file type is registered, download from a web site will not be possible.

Apple pioneered the App Store for iPhones (it is the only way in which iPhone apps can be installed) and Mac apps can also be put there. Apple takes a commission of 30% (or 15% if you are a small company) and they review all apps before adding them. Passing the review process may be a lngthy process, as not all problems are detected in a review cycle. Fixing these issues and resubmitting may result in further problems coming to light.  The review process may also be somewhat arbitrary. One App Store app presented an interface in German by default. English was available as Preferences option, but only after guessing where the Preferences option was located. App Store apps operate within a sandbox, which places restrictions on filesystem operations. Whether App Store deployment makes economic sense depends on the nature of the app, its market and price structure. Its advantages are that it targets the 16% of desktop users who use Macs, and streamlines installation (and payment, if applicable). The App Store supports ‘freemium’ pricing, where additional features are made available to paying users, but apps with free trial periods are shown as being free but with ‘in-app purchases’, which annoys some users.

Windows deployment can use .msi files, which have been around for decades, but are not easily installed by non-admin users. Self-extracting executables are more tractable, but 3rd party tools have to be used to create them. Windows 10 introduced Universal Windows Programs, which are easier to install and can be placed in the Microsoft Store, which operates in a similar way to the Apple App store, but for Windows desktops and tablets.

A key question which is very difficult to answer is “How long will it take me to convert my Windows app to run on a Mac?” Factors affecting this are app complexity, functionality and programmer skill.  The time between starting work on the Mac app and first deploying it on the company web site was about 3 months, but the amount of time spent on the project each day varied between zero and 3 or 4 hours. If you are a paid resource, then the cost of a cross-platform IDE may be justified, but the requirement for local computer vision functionality added a great deal of complexity to my requirements, which is one reason why I opted for a separate code base. Substantial evaluation would be required before deciding if a cross-platform environment could support any required  functionality.

Simon Kravis runs Aleka Consulting, a small software and consultancy company in Canberra, Australia specializing in information management and offering a number of software products. He has mainly developed scientific and engineering programs, starting in the era of paper tape.

Creating a forum for your product

I started selling software online 16 years ago. Until this year I never had a forum for any of my products. I handled customer support for PerfectTablePlan and Hyper Plan by email and kept customers up-to-date with an opt-in email newsletter. But I rethought this position with my latest product, Easy Data Transform and started a forum at forum.easydatatransform.com in December 2020.

My ISP offered various forum software packages, but I really wanted Discourse, as I consider it head and shoulders above all the other forum software I have interacted with as a user (even if I find the badge system a bit patronising). I didn’t want the hassle of setting up and patching a Discourse server, so created the forum through www.communiteq.com (previously discoursehosting.com). It was suprisingly easy to set-up. And it gives the option to export everything, in case I want to part ways with them. The sheer number of options in Discourse are quite daunting, but I stuck with the defaults for the most part.

Some people use Facebook Groups for their product forums. Ugh. You have almost no control of such a forum. Facebook could even be showing ads for your competitors on your forums. Or they could just decide to shut you down and delete all the content. That is before we get on to the fact that Facebook make their money monetising hatred and abusing our privacy at an industrial scale. No thanks.

The advantages of a forum are:

  • Letting customers talk to each other, and post content helps to create a community around the product. Which, in turn, can add a lot of value to your product.
  • Customers can help each other with support questions. Sometimes they will answer before you are able to or will give a different perspective. Or even give a better answer.
  • If a customer asks a question that has already been asked, you can send them a link to the appropriate forum page.
  • It is a quick and easy channel to communicate with customers. I can post a link to a new snapshot release in a few minutes. This is much quicker than sending out an email newsletter. It is also more interactive as customers can respond on the forum and see each other’s responses.
  • A lively forum is ‘social proof’ that your product is worth buying.
  • A forum with lots of content should have a large SEO footprint.

The disadvantages of a forum are:

  • The time to maintain it. A forum that is broken or full of spam and unanswered questions is worse than no forum.
  • Disgruntled customers potentially airing their grievances in public.
  • The cost of the forum.
  • An empty forum looks bad.
  • Bad actors can be a pain. For example, people posting links to spam or competing products.

It probably only takes me 1-2 hours per week to post on the forum at present. Some of that is time I would have spent answering support emails. If that rises substantially then I may have to delegate it.

I try very hard to provide a good product, with good support and haven’t had any issues with negativity, so far. But I know from my experiences moderating Joel Spolsky’s Business of Software forum that moderating a busy forum can be tricky, time-consuming and emotionally draining.

The cost of the forum is currently around $20 per month, so pretty low. That may climb, but hopefully sales will be climbing as well.

I was a bit worried about whether the forum was going to look empty. I warned customers that the forum was an experiment and would be closed if there wasn’t enough activity, to manage their expectations. I also created a ‘sock puppet’ account and ‘seeded’ the forum with a few support questions that I had been previously asked by email (with the permission of those that asked) and then posted answers. But I only did this a handful of times and then the forum started to take off.

I have heard stories of people getting 1000+ spam posts a day on their forum. But I haven’t had any issues with bad actors, so far. I’m not sure how much of that is down to Discourse and how much of it is down to luck. But, no doubt issues will occur at some point.

I still have my product newsletter, which I send out every few weeks when there is a new production release.

Overall I am pretty happy with how the forum is going. Should you have a forum for your product? As always, it depends. I think you should consider it if:

  • Your customer base isn’t tiny.
  • You want to interact with your customers and get feedback. This might be less the case with mature products.
  • You have the time and energy to police and maintain it.
  • Your product is relatively open ended or complex. For example, if your product just checks whether website are up or down, there is probably a very limited amount you can discuss.

Stalking website visitors with Microsoft Clarity

Microsoft Clarity is a new service that allows you to see, in detail, how visitors are interacting with your website. It includes:

  • heat maps, showing where visitors are clicking or touching or how far they are scrolling
  • recordings of visitor sessions, including mouse movement, clicks, touches and scrolling

You just need to get a Javascript snippet from clarity.microsoft.com (for which you need a Microsoft login) and paste it into the header of each page. You can then login to clarity.microsoft.com at a later time to see your results. The service is free.

I tried it on my www.easydatatransform.com website. Here you can see a click heatmap for the buy page:

People are clicking all over non-hyperlinked text. Hmm. Perhaps they somehow couldn’t the see the effing enormous blue button next to it? Notice that numbers are starred out to avoid personal information, such as credit card numbers.

You can also see how far visitors scroll down the page with scroll heatmaps:

So I can see that the buy button is appearing well above the fold.

You can also watch recodings of people interacting with the website, showing their mouse movements, clicks, touches and scrolling. This is where things start to feel a bit stalkerish. You don’t get any identifiable information on the visitor beyond their country, browser and their operating system and I’m ok with people watching me interact with their websites like this. But it still feels a bit voyeuristic. The results are also a bit strange. Some people just click all over the place and highlight random text (touches are tracked separately from clicks). There is a distinct danger that you could watch hours of sessions and come away without much actionable information.

You can filter the information in various ways, including by country or referring website. You can even filter to see sessions with ‘Rage clicks’ (where the user has clicked or tapped repeatedly in the same area).

Watching a few sessions with ‘rage clicks’ I could see that some people indeed seem completely unable to see the effing enormous blue ‘buy now’ button on the buy page. So I have also added a text hyperlink where most people are clicking in the text and will probably try changing the button colour. Perhaps to shocking pink!

Running Pingdom Website Speed Test on the Easy Data Transform home page, both with and without Clarity a few minutes apart, I can see that it had some effect on speed, but not too much.

Without Clarity script: 175.2kb of scripts, 7 script requests.

With Clarity script: 194.3kb of scripts, 9 script requests.

The load time was actually 0.1s faster with Clarity. That is probably just an anomaly.

I have disabled Clarity for now. But may reenable it after I have made some changes to the website, to see the effect of the changes. Overall I was quite impressed with the service and it was surprisingly easy to set-up. But the cynic in me does wonder what exactly Microsoft is getting out of it.

Easy Data Transform v1.0.0 released

v100-screen-cap

I finally released a paid version of Easy Data Transform today, for both Windows and Mac. I am very pleased with how it has turned out. Obviously it is only v1.0.0, so there is plenty of additional features I could add, including:

  • Batch processing
  • Support for JSON, XML, SQLite input/output
  • More transforms
  • A 64 bit version for Windows
  • A Linux version

But I need to listen carefully to prospective customers to decide which additional features to prioritize in future releases. It might be something I haven’t even thought of.

But v1.0.0 already has a really useful core of features. And, if you aren’t embarrassed by v1.0, you didn’t release it early enough. That said, I haven’t cut corners on quality. It has proper documentation and has been through extended beta testing, dogfooding and several rounds of usability and third party testing.

The product has a fully-functional 7 (non-consecutive) day free trial. I think that is enough for prospective customers to decide if it does what they need. I also have a 60 day money-back guarantee.

I have decided to go with a subscription model: $99 / €90 / £75 + tax per person per year. Which covers up to 3 computers. At this price point I can afford some paid promotion and to provide a decent level of support. I am not offering a monthly subscription, as I don’t really want people who are going to pay for 1 month (to do their annual TPS reports) and then cancel.

Have you got some data you need to merge, clean, reformat or de-dupe? Give it a try. You can get a 25% discount if you buy a subscription by the 27th December 2019 using this link.

 

Easy Data Transform

I have been furiously coding a new product. Easy Data Transform. It is a Windows and Mac tool for transforming table and list data from one form to another. Joining, splitting, reformatting, filtering, sorting etc.

easydatatransform

I have been thinking about this product idea for years. In fact I threw together a janky prototype back in 2008. It allows you to perform various operations on a pair of lists.

list-weaver

I used this prototype for jobs such as creating a list of emails of people who had bought Perfect Table Plan v5, but hadn’t upgraded to v6 yet. It worked. But it wasn’t very good. The biggest annoyance was that each operation obliterated everything that came before. Which made it very easy to lose track of where you had got to. And there was no repeatability. It was also limited to lists and it became clear that I really needed something that could also handle tabular data. I never released it.

But the idea has been running as a background process in my brain for 11 years since. And I think I have come up with a much better design in that time. Finally I had mature, stable versions of my Perfect Table Plan and Hyper Plan products out, so I decided to go for it. I am really pleased with how it has turned out so far.

If you aren’t embarrassed by v1.0 you didn’t release it early enough. And so I have cut lots of corners to get this first public version out. The documentation is only part written. I created the application icon myself  in 10 minutes. There is no licensing. The GUI is lacking polish. The website would make a designer cry. But the software seems fairly robust. My 13 year old son wasn’t able to crash it after 10 minutes of trying, despite financial incentives to do so.

I did some market research and spoke to some people who knew a bit about this market. But I deliberately didn’t look closely at any competing products, as I didn’t want to be mentally restricted by what others have done. For better or worse, I want to blaze my own trail. Copying other people’s stuff is a zero-sum game with no net benefit to society.

Most of the things that Easy Data Transform you can do, you can also do in Excel or SQL. My claim is that it is much quicker, easier and less error prone to do in Easy Data Transform. No programming or scripting required. I am hoping that people will be able to start using it within a couple of minutes of downloading it (I plan to do lots of usability testing). Will people pay for that? I hope so. I’m not aiming it at programmers. Perish the thought.

Naming is hard. I came up with some 70 names. Things like ‘Data Hero’, ‘Transform Flow’, ‘Transmogrify’ and ‘Data Rapture’. But the domains were taken, people I asked hated them or there was an existing service or product with that name. So I ended up with Easy Data Transform. It does what it says on the tin.

Why desktop? Surely no-one is writing new desktop apps in 2019? I believe a desktop solution has some real advantages in this market. The biggest ones are:

  • You don’t need to load your (potentially highly sensitive) data on to a third party server.
  • Not having to upload and download (potentially very large) data sets makes it much more responsive.

Easy Data Transform is currently free for anyone to use. You can get it from the super-minimalist easydatatransform.com website. The current 0.9.0 version expires on the 4th August 2019. You will then be able to get another free version. Once the product is mature enough, and if I am convinced there is enough demand, I will release a paid version. The free beta will probably last several months. Please try it and let me know how you get on. I am particularly interested to get feedback from anyone using it for real day-to-day tasks.

Of course the real challenge is always marketing. How to get noticed amongst many competing products. As well as helping to improve the product I am hoping that this extended beta will also help me to get some traction and better understand the market. For example, what price to charge and what trial model to use. Watch this space.

Bloviate

I wondered what it would look like if you took a body of text and then used it to generate new text, using Markov chains of different lengths. So I knocked up  quick program to try it.  ‘Bloviate’.

bloviate

Bloviate analyses your source text to find every sequence of N characters and then works out the frequency of characters that come next.

For example, if you set N=3 and your source text contains the following character sequences staring with ‘the’:

‘the ‘, ‘then’, ‘they’, ‘the ‘

Then ‘the’ should be followed 50% of the time by a space, 25% of the time by an ‘n’ and 25% of the time by a ‘y’.

Bloviate then creates output text, starting with the first N characters of the source text and filling in the rest randomly using the same sequence frequencies as the source text.

Note that a character is a character to Bloviate. It treats upper and lower case as different characters, makes no attempt to differentiate between letters, punctuation and white space and does not attempt to clean up the source text. Which also means it works on any language.

Bloviate also tells you the average number of different characters following each unique sequence of N, which I will call F here. As F approaches 1.0 the output text becomes closer and closer to the input text.

Using ‘Goldilocks and the 3 bears’ as input:

If N=1 (F=7.05) the output is garbage. Albeit garbage with the same character pair frequency as the original.

On cre She sl s ramy raked cheais Bus ore than s sherd up m. ged. bend staireomest p!”Sof ckstirigrorr a ry ps.

” f waine tind s aso Sowa t antthee aime bupis stht stooomed pie k is beche p!

At N=3 (F=1.44) it looks close to English, but jibberish:

Once up and been sight,” she this timed. Pretty so soon, she second soft. She screame up and she screame hot!” cried the Mama bed the Papa been sleeping in the Papa bear

“Someone’s bear growl.

At N=5 (F=1.14) it starts to look like proper English, but semantically weird:

Once upon a time, so she went for a walked right,” she lay down into the kitchen, Goldilocks sat in the porridge from the three chair,” growled, “Someone’s been sitting my porridge and she tasted the door, and ran down the bedroom. Goldilocks woke up and she second bowl.

And it comes out with occasional gems such as:

“Someone’s been sitting my porridge,” said the bedroom.

At N=10 (F=1.03) it starts to become reasonably coherent:

Once upon a time, there was a little tired. So, she walked into the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.

At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge.

At N=15 (F=1.01) it starts to get pretty close to the original text, but doesn’t follow quite the same order:

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.

At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep.

At N=12 (F=1.07) the whole 680k characters of ‘Pride and prejudice’ produces:

It is a truth universally contradict it. Besides, there was a motive within her of goodwill which could not help saying:

“Oh, that my dear mother had more command over herself! She can have her own way.”

As she spoke she observed him looking at her earnest desire for their folly or their vice. He was fond of them.”

Obviously the source text is important. The Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics make nearly as much (or as little sense) at N=5 (F=1.08) as the original:

Is this to me, for me, to me

Mama, just a poor boy from this to me

Any way the truth

Mama, life? Is this time tomorrow

Carry on as if nothing all behind and face the truth

Mama, ooh, didn’t mean to me, baby!

Just gotta leave me and lightning, very fright out, just killed a man

Put a gun against his head

Pulled my time to die?

At N=12 (F=1.05) 160k characters of Trump election speeches produces:

Hillary brought death and disaster to Iraq, Syria and Libya, she empowered Iran, and she unleashed ISIS. Now she wants to raise your taxes very substantially. Highest taxed nation in the world is a tenant of mine in Manhattan, so many great people. These are people that have been stolen, stolen by either very stupid politicians ask me the question, how are you going to get rid of all the emails?” “Yes, ma’am, they’re gonna stay in this country blind. My contract with the American voter begins with a plan to end government that will not protect its people is a government corruption at the State Department of Justice is trying as hard as they can to protect religious liberty;

Supply your own joke.

I knocked together Bloviate in C++/Qt in a couple of hours, so it is far from commercial quality. But it is fairly robust, runs on Windows and Mac and can rewrite the whole of ‘Pride and prejudice’ in a few seconds. The core of Bloviate is just a map of the frequency of characters mapped to the character sequence they follow:

QMap< QString, QMap< QChar, int > >

You can get the Windows binaries here (~8MB, should work from Windows 7 onwards).

You can get the Mac binaries here (~11MB, should work from macOS 10.12 onwards).

Note that the Bloviate executable is tiny compared to the Qt library files. I could have tried to reduce the size of the downloads, but I didn’t.

To use Bloviate just:

  1. paste your source text in the left pane
  2. set the sequence length
  3. press the ‘Go >’ button

I included some source text files in the downloads.

You can get the source for Bloviate here (~1MB).

It should build on Qt 4 or 5 and is licensed as creative commons. If you modify it, just give me an attribution and send me a link to anything interesting you come up with.

Qt is broken on macOS right now

Let me say up front that I am a big fan of the Qt framework. I have been working with it continuously since the late 90s. Both of my commercial products (PerfectTablePlan and Hyper Plan) are written on top of Qt. But Qt is quite broken on macOS right now. In fact I struggled to find a version of Qt 5 that supported recent versions of macOS and didn’t have a showstopper bug. I must have wasted a couple of weeks grappling with these issues. I am putting my notes here in the hope that they help someone else.

Here are the 4 bugs in macOS version of Qt that have causing me the most headaches:

Qt Version
bug v5.9.6 v5.10.1 v5.11.0 v5.11.1 v5.11.2
QFontDialog broken (link) ok ok ok ss ss
QStaticText::size() returns wrong value for rich text
with line breaks
ss ss ok ok ok
widgets such as QTableWidget do not repaint correctly (link) ok cwa cwa cwa cwa
default QComboBox size is incorrect (link)
ok ok cwa ok ok

Where:

ok = bug not present.

cwa = bug present, but can workaround.

ss= bug present, making release unusable for me (showstopper).

Consequently Qt 5.11.0 is the only usable release on macOS for me and I have to kludge my way around two quite nasty bugs. While the QStaticText issue is fairly obscure (but important for me), how in the hell did QFontDialog get completely broken without anyone noticing? And then not get fixed for two whole releases?! I also know other developers who are having to stick with earlier versions of Qt due to the bugginess of the recent versions of Qt on macOS. This isn’t good enough.

Thankfully the recent versions of Qt are much more solid on Windows.

** Feb-2019 Update: Qt 5.12.0 seems to be a big improvement. **

** Mar-2019 Update: I had to revert PerfectTablePlan to Qt 5.11.0 because versions built with 5.12.0 and 5.12.1 kept crashing deep in Qt. **

** Sep-2019 Update: I had to revert PerfectTablePlan to Qt 5.11.0  again because versions built with 5.12.4 kept crashing deep in Qt. **

** Oct-2019 Update: Qt 5.12.5 fixes all the bugs above and doesn’t seem to introduce any major new bugs that I care about. **

Getting Qt 5.9 working on Windows (eventually)

I have had Qt 5.5 and 5.6 installed on my development machines for some time. Now that I have purchased a new Mac development box (an iMac with a lickably beautiful 27″ screen) I thought it was a good time to update to a more recent version of Qt. I went for Qt 5.9, rather than Qt 5.10, as 5.9 has been designated as an LTS (long term support) release. Upgrading turned into a real chore. I am quickly writing it up here in the hope that it helps someone else, and as a reminder to myself a few years down the line.

I like to build Qt from source. Because then I know it was built using the same compiler, headers, SDK etc as I am using to build my product. And I have more control over how Qt is configured. Also I can patch the source and rebuild it, if I need to. But I have had problems building Qt on Mac before. So I decided to install the pre-built binaries on my new Mac. I installed the latest version of XCode and then the Q5.9.4 binaries. This was a couple of big downloads, but it all went pretty smoothly.

I successfully built Qt 5.5 from source on my Windows machine previously, so I decided to try that for Qt 5.9. I have Visual Studio 2010 installed. This isn’t supported for Qt 5.9.4, so I downloaded Visual Studio 2017. I unzipped the Qt source into C:\Qt\5.9.4, ran ‘x86 native tools command prompt for VS 2017’, made sure Python and Perl were in the path and then:

cd C:\Qt\5.9.4

set QTDIR=C:\Qt\5.9.4\qtbase

set PATH=%QTDIR%\bin;%PATH%

configure -opensource -confirm-license -opengl desktop -nomake tests -nomake examples -no-plugin-manifests -debug-and-release -platform win32-msvc -verbose

nmake

Note that you are told by the nmake script to do nmake install at the end of this. But it tells you somewhere in the Qt Windows documentation not to do this, unless you have set the prefix argument (confusing, I know)

The build failed part way through making qtwebengine. Something to do with a path being too long for Perl or Python (I forget). It seems to be a known problem. Odd as the root path was just C:\Qt\5.9.4. I don’t need qtwebengine at present, so I deleted everything and tried again with -skip qtwebengine:

configure -opensource -confirm-license -opengl desktop -skip qtwebengine -nomake tests -nomake examples -no-plugin-manifests -debug-and-release -platform win32-msvc -verbose

nmake

It seemed to complete ok this time. But using this version of Qt to build Hyper Plan I got an error:

Unknown module(s) in QT:svg

On further examination the SVG DLL  had been built, but hadn’t been copied to the C:\Qt\5.9.4\qtbase\bin folder. Similarly for a lot of the other Qt DLLs. I couldn’t find any obvious reason for this looking through logs, Stackoverflow and Googling. I could possibly do without the SVG functionality, but I wasn’t sure what else was broken. So I decided to give up on bulding from source on Windows as well.

I download the Qt 5.9.4 binaries for Visual Studio 2017. This seemed to go ok, but then I discovered that I could only build a 64-bit application from these. No 32-bit version was available for Visual Studio 2017. Many of my customers are still on 32 bit versions of Windows. So I need to be able to ship my product as a 32 bit executable + DLLs[1].

So I uninstalled Visual Studio 2017 and installed Visual Studio 2015. I then got an error message about Visual Studio 2017 redistributables that I hadn’t uninstalled. So I had to uninstall those and run a repair install on Visual Studio 2015. That seemed to work ok. So then I download the 32-bit Qt 5.9.4 binaries for Visual Studio 2015. I had to download these into a different top level folder (C:\Qtb), so as not to risk wiping existing Qt installs that I had previously managed to build from source.

Eventually I managed to build Hyper Plan and PerfectTablePlan on Mac and Windows. What a palaver though! Qt is an amazing framework and I am very grateful for everyone who works on it. But I wish they would make it a bit easier to install and upgrade! Has anyone actually managed to get Qt 5.9 built from source on Windows?

[1] I don’t bother shipping a 64-bit executable on Windows as the 32-bit executable works fine on 64-bit versions of Windows (my software doesn’t require excessive amounts of memory). I only ship a 64-bit executable on macOS as almost no-one uses 32-bit versions of macOS now.