On finding the (im)perfect iPad stylus

When the iPad was released four years ago last month, my wife got one right away, while I, with uncharacteristic patience, waited until the Fall. Fast forward two years, and we both upgraded to 3rd-gen devices. Early on in that first two-year stretch, I bought the odd stylus or two. In hindsight, “odd” may be the operative word. The first one I got was a Pogo Sketch with its unique foam tip. Within a year, I threw it away. If this seems a harsh judgment, here is advice from one of the developers at Notes Plus, the handwriting app: “avoid it like the plague.” The second stylus I got was from Boxwave, a functional if unimaginative design. I gave it away with the original iPad.

At the time of the iPad’s release, Steve Jobs famously declared, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” Nonetheless, as the tablet market and stylus competition have expanded, it requires almost as little thought to buy another stylus as it does to buy another app, though it certainly requires more money. Each new one that I got had a design element, or in a few cases a totally new technology, that promised improvement over the ones I already had. Rather than just being a grass-is-greener phenomenon, to a considerable extent that promise proved true. The perfect stylus, however, has remained elusive. (And just to be clear, it will remain so until Apple changes the fundamental underlying screen technology so that a much smaller contact area for a stylus tip is possible.)

Here, in alphabetical rather than chronological order, is my current collection:
* AluPen (JustMobile)
* Apex (LYNKtec) [Active, non-Bluetooth]
* Bamboo (Wacom)
* Cosmonaut (Studio Neat)
* Estylo (NYON)
* Hand (HAND Design)
* Jot Pro (Adonit)
* Maglus (Applydea)
* oStylus (oStylus Design Studio)
* Pad Pen (Playsam)
* Pencil (FiftyThree) [Bluetooth]
* TruGlide Pro (LYNKtec)

There are two others, both Bluetooth-enabled, that I might consider purchasing, but only if/when my current note-taking app of choice, Notes Plus, supports them: Intuos Creative (Wacom) and Jot Script (Adonit).

There are many comparative reviews available online that provide overlapping coverage of most of the dozen in the bulleted list above (but not the Estylo and Pad Pen), of which the following are notable:
* Ellis Hamburger in The Verge (Apr 10, 2012)
* Brandon Widder in Digital Trends (Jan 6, 2013)
* Karissa Bell in The Wirecutter (Jul 17, 2013)
* Yaara Lancet in makeuseof (Aug 27, 2013)
* Serenity Caldwell in TechHive (Nov 26, 2013)

Since my goal here is not a review per se, suffice to say that each stylus has some positive feature(s), or I would not have kept it. But each also has some less salutary feature(s). The things that have gotten the most attention and complaints in reviews, blogs, and online forums are predictably techie:
* tip material — soft rubber (most), hard rubber (Apex), mesh (TruGlide Pro), or disk (Jot Pro, oStylus) — and capacitive behavior; and
* force/precision of screen interaction — there is probably some dependence here on the particular app being used, though the “clicking” on the glass of the disk-based styluses and the Estylo is annoying to many users (including me).


Both of these topics have parallels in the world of fountain pens, of which I am a long-time devotee. Just substitute 14 or 18 kt gold or titanium or steel for the list of tip materials above, and you have fountain pen lovers talking about nibs. Then there is the matter of how much pressure to apply and how well different papers will respond. And we haven’t even gotten to inks yet! This is a fanatical world, much more fanatical than anything most users of an iPad and a beloved stylus can imagine. But it is also a world from which some insight might be forthcoming.

A fundamental consideration for fountain pen users that only merits passing mention in the discussion of styluses is their basic ergonomics. Simply asked, how does a stylus feel and fit in your hand? To address this issue, I have made some modest observations and measurements on eleven of the styluses in the bulleted list. (I omitted the oStylus, which looks and feels much more akin to the Nomad Brush and the Sensu Brush than to any of the other styluses.) Here is a tabulation for weight, length, and cross-sectional shape of those eleven:

wt (g)
l (mm)
cross-section shape
Estylo4143rnd. square
Jot Pro23127circle
Maglus34130trunc. circle
Pad Pen37115triangle
Pencil24138rnd. rectangle
TruGlide Pro15120circle

Initially, there was nothing in these results that jumped out at me. The modal cross-section, for example, is a circle (five of the styluses); there are six different shapes in total, but none of them seems to suggest a clear winner in combination with the other pro/con features. With fountain pens, I gravitate to larger, which usually means both longer and heavier, all other things being equal. Among the styluses, I like a couple of the heavier ones, but they are not particularly long. Plus there are the seemingly anomalous values for the Estylo, which is by far the lightest, but also the longest. Mostly on whim (meaning, I was just screwing around in Excel where I had the numbers stored), but also because I was curious about the Estylo “anomaly,” I made a plot of weight vs. length:


There is actually a surprisingly good inverse correlation — as weight goes up, length goes down, with a correlation coefficient (R) of 0.468. There aren’t actually a lot of things in the world that work this way, because larger things generally require more matter to construct, which means weight goes up with length, not the other way around. (If people generally worked this way, then LeBron James would more likely be 6’8″ and 150 lbs, instead of his actual 6’8″ and 250 lbs.) As for this correlation meaning anything, well, presumably not.

I showed this graph to my wife, who earns her living with numbers and statistics. She agreed that the R value was interesting, even provocative, but then so is Tyler Vigen’s recently-discovered spurious correlation (R = 0.993) between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the US. OK then.

I put this all aside, with no particular plan that I would come back to it, let alone write this blog post. Then two things happened: Firstly, I started using the Pad Pen, which had only arrived from Sweden very recently,padpen_white and found that I liked it. It was a little too short to feel like I had a secure grip on it, but it was right up there in weight with two of my other favorites (Maglus, Cosmonaut). Perhaps most importantly, its triangular cross-section was very comfortable and natural-feeling. I even wrote an email to Carl Zedig at Playsam, with whom I had had some correspondence prior to my purchase, telling him how much I like the Pad Pen and how much more I would like it if it were just a bit longer, “even as little as 5-10 mm,” I wrote.

Secondly, all this made me realize that I had never actually looked on the graph at the position of my four favorites, the ones that get 99+% of the usage. I still don’t know why I hadn’t done that before, but now I did, with Pencil, Apex, Maglus, and Cosmonaut (left-to-right) marked as red squares:


If the first graph showed a surprisingly good correlation, this one is staggeringly good. The first R, 0.468, is something that could readily turn up in looking at human behavior, more-than-suggestive but not particularly compelling. But the second R, 0.99969, which I show to more places than the data justify, is perilously close to one (1.0), the kind of value that usually shows up in the lab sciences only in running a calibration curve with known standard materials. Or maybe in repeating your Higgs boson discovery.

Having said that, it’s still only a correlation. There is no hint of causation: I wasn’t testing any hypothesis (which is the essence of science), because I didn’t have one. I still don’t. But I do have to wonder if somebody else has one. Somebody in a biomechanics or ergonomics lab who has looked at how the human hand holds a writing instrument, say, a fountain pen or a stylus. And who understands what the trade-offs are between weight and length of those instruments for a particular hand, say, mine, which might not be the same as for yours. Maybe even somebody who would recognize that I had merely reproduced a well-known pattern. Probably not, but still, it would be fun if it turned out to be true.

In the mean time, I can use the empirical correlation for my four favorite red data points and calculate that I would be very, very happy indeed with a Pad Pen that was 12 mm longer, which would move it straight up to that curve (ignoring the necessary weight change for the same component materials). Closer yet to the perfect stylus, if only for me.

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Escherian puns

Five years ago (February 2009), I took a photo of two geese on a frozen pond, standing in identical poses. They were both balanced on only one leg, with their heads turned back over their left shoulders. The one-leg thing was presumably to keep the other, uplifted foot off the ice. Their heads may also have been turned in a heat-conserving tuck, but I suspect that it was synchronized preening. After all, the Vancouver Winter Olympics were only a year away, and the Geese were Canadian.

En Escherlon

When I posted this on Flickr, I entitled it ‘En Escherlon’. This was an allusion not only to the en echelon parallelism of their poses (from the fortuitous perspective of the camera) but also to ‘Puddle’, a woodcut by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Of course, like all such references the analogy breaks down because you can see both the geese and their reflections in my photo, whereas Escher’s genius was to show us the moon and trees solely mirrored from above in the puddle.

Escher Puddle

I think my photo is pretty good, but the title, well, that was something special, even among my small offering on Flickr where I value the words at least as much as the images — ‘A voice from the past(e)’ and ‘Troiseaux’ are among my other favorites. There things rested — quite smugly and immodestly, I admit — until Friday (two days ago) when one of my feeds turned up this digital drawing by Vijay Arunkumar:


The caption begins with the title, ‘What Creator?’, and then adds, “I just got my Pencil by fiftythree.” Whoa! I had a Pencil on order from FiftyThree and was expecting it to be delivered that day! Was it a sign?!! Probably not. Still, that synchronistic element did add to the sense of mutuality that I felt with Vijay over his less subtle but far more clever evocation of Escher. His inspiration was the famous lithograph ‘Drawing Hands’:


Some significant things are absent in Vijay’s drawing — the detailed shading on the hands, the shirt cuffs, the paper tacked on the backdrop — and it’s rotated 90 degrees compared to Escher’s work. But these differences are irrelevant to the two impactful elements of the visual pun. Firstly, the pencils have been replaced by Pencils, the elegant walnut ones at that, which allowed those two eye-catching stripes of color. Secondly and more importantly, the lower hand has turned the Pencil around and is erasing its own “creator,” the upper hand, which it obviously must have drawn first, before having a change of heart.


This wonderful aspect of Vijay’s drawing will be lost on viewers who are unfamiliar with Paper (above), FiftyThree’s app for the iPad, and how it plays with Pencil. All drawing apps, including Paper, have an erase tool, usually activated with an icon that must be tapped so that your stylus or finger can then go back to the drawing and unmake mistakes. In the screen shot of Paper (above), the eraser is just to the left of the yellow drawing tool with the white fountain pen nib. But the battery-powered, bluetooth-enabled, accelerometer-equipped Pencil allows you to turn it around, just like a real pencil, and this tells Paper that you are now going to erase! It is simple, familiar, and magical, all at the same time. And, as someone who usually has a lot to erase, I can assure you that it is also precise, even with just one day of use so far.

Finally, there is one more thing that is the strongest resonance for me with ‘What Creator?’ It’s the act of self-erasure that evokes not just Escher’s play with the visually impossible but also a deeper existential issue. It reminds me of Marvin Minsky and Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine (now sometimes erroneously referred to as the Useless Machine). If you are not familiar with it, I discuss it at the foregoing link, or you can just watch this video on YouTube:

The essence is encapsulated in the young girl’s last comment: “That’s all it does.” The Ultimate Machine is a device whose sole purpose is to turn itself off. Obviously, in order for ‘What Creator?’ to display this nihilistic flavor in full, the upper hand should flip its Pencil and start erasing, too. If Pencil has enough built-in intelligence to continue erasing even after the rest of the drawing is gone, then its creators at FiftyThree will have to answer one remaining question: Which of the two Pencils is smarter, in other words, which one will get the upper hand?

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“Oh My, A Helicopter Above!”

One of the most memorable moments of Super Bowl XLVIII occurred very near the kickoff. Perhaps you can picture it as Peyton Manning, the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, turns to watch something passing overhead; and the television closeup of his eyes hints at how completely unexpected the moment was. I watched it and thought, “Wow, I hope that didn’t rattle him,” and then “What else isn’t he prepared for?…”

The second flyover

There’s only one problem. You and I are almost certainly thinking about two different moments. If you watched the game from the outset, you undoubtedly think I am describing the well-documented first play from scrimmage (above), in which the Denver center, Manny Ramirez, snapped the ball prematurely, not realizing that Manning was stepping back up to the line for one of his oft-of-late “Omaha moments.” The ball flew past his head, which the cameras captured, and for the briefest instant his eyes registered… what? Surprise, disbelief, terror? But that was Manning’s second flyover, to which I’ll return below.

His first flyover, which was the subject of my opening paragraph above, had occurred a few minutes earlier. Renée Fleming’s singing of the national anthem was followed climactically by fireworks and the abrupt, noisy, very low-altitude appearance above MetLife Stadium of three clusters of helicopters from the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division. There is no denying the thrilling impact of this display on the crowd, to judge from amateur videos taken inside the stadium by fans and from inside one of the helicopters by a crew member. But the impact on Manning? Not so thrilling. Chilling might be more like it.

Here is an animated GIF created by Next Impulse Sports from the Fox Sports feed:

“Oh My, A Helicopter Above!”

Pete Blackburn of Next Impulse Sports offered only this fun-poking afterthought about the animated GIF: “…Peyton Manning was catching a glimpse of the first helicopter he had ever seen in his life.”

Maybe there is no disbelief or terror, but there is surprise for sure (as the quote above implies), plus a furrowed-brow hint of annoyance, of something not quite going according to plan. And, if we know one thing about Peyton Manning, it is that he plans and prepares thoroughly, perhaps like no other quarterback ever. Nonetheless, watching it happen live, I felt certain that he didn’t know this flyover was coming. Broncos Coach John Fox ran practices with loud crowd noise, but apparently not with helicopters overhead. While I’m not suggesting that this first flyover was premonitory for the second one, like radon leaks or snakes crawling out of the ground before an earthquake, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a psychological (not psychic!) connection when that errant snap from center went sailing past his head a few minutes later. Something like, “OK, maybe he is a bit distracted.”

After that, it was all downhill. The Seattle Seahawks were simply overwhelming, and the Denver Broncos never recovered. Nor did Peyton Manning, perhaps from either flyover.

As for an explanation of the second flyover, after the game Manning told reporters, “We were using the snap count on the play and due to the noise no one could hear me. I was walking up to the line of scrimmage to sort of make a change and get us on the same page and then the ball was snapped.” Manny Ramirez (Broncos center) concurred: “It was real loud and we’re trying to go on a cadence and I thought I heard him [emphasis added]. I didn’t, you know. He was already walking up to me because he had already said the cadence and I snapped it.”

12thManOr maybe he did hear “Peyton.” The only thing that has gone more unnoticed than Manning’s reaction to the helicopters is a brief interview on KIRO-TV (Ch. 7, the CBS affiliate in Seattle; direct link here) with Seahawks fan Mark DeRawls[?], who was seated in row 15 behind the end zone where the safety was scored. According to the interview, DeRawls, a self-proclaimed Manning-sound-alike, shouted “Omaha!” as the Broncos were lined up, and he is sure that his shout “got through [to Ramirez], and he hiked the ball.”

Interestingly, there is an independent observation and analysis that is compatible with this version of events. In a February 4 article, the CBSBoston duo of Feiger and Massarotti reported this comment from former Patriots tight end Jermaine Wiggins:

I put [the fault] squarely on Peyton Manning’s shoulders. I looked back at it over and over from different angles, and it’s one thing when the center snaps the ball and he thinks it’s on a different cadence and he’s the only one that moves. But when you got the whole offensive line moving in concert, everyone from left tackle to right tackle, everybody is moving – so that’s on the quarterback.

Put those two things together, and perhaps the Broncos line moved on the snap because they heard a Peyton, rather than the Peyton. This is potentially testable, by seeing if DeRawl’s 12th Man shout of “Omaha!” can actually be identified as a component in the soundtrack of the game, at precisely the right moment to have triggered the snap. Profound, if true. [Aside to John Brenkus: How good is your waveform analysis equipment?]

All of which leaves one final question: What does “Omaha!” actually mean? What is so important about shouting this word that a false hearing of it might have started the Broncos down the slippery slope of losing the Super Bowl? John Breech of CBS Sports gave us Peyton Manning’s answer as of mid-January:

I know a lot of people ask what Omaha means…. Omaha is a run play, but it could be a pass play or a play-action pass, depending on a couple things: which way we’re going, the quarter, and the jerseys that we’re wearing. It varies, really, from play to play. So, there’s your answer to that one.

Yeah, and it also depends on whether the day of the week ends in “y.” Thanks for nothing, Peyton. But your words no longer matter. Your actions give us the real answer. Regardless of the cause of the second flyover, the answer was obvious from the first one. Omaha is not a real or fake audible, but an acronym, OMAHA: “Oh My, A Helicopter Above!”

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Go real-istic: a timeline of the Chobani crowdsourced recall

As I was writing yesterday’s post about the “non-recall recall” by Chobani of some of its Greek yogurt, I wondered briefly how this all started. Who actually took the time to explore, research, and investigate this, and then pulled it together for the rest of us? Watching more of the Twitter stream today, there was the answer at 9:17 am from John Sowell, self-described as a public safety reporter at the Idaho Statesman:

John Sowell ‏@IDS_Sowell
Six days after I broke the story that stores removed Chobani yogurt from shelves, the company admits to a recall.

His story, Chobani yogurt removed from store shelves, was published on September 1st (Sunday).

He had spent the previous day tracing the problem back: “The first three complaints questioning yogurt quality were posted Aug. 22 on Chobani’s Facebook page.” That was ten (10) days prior to his published story, and there were other complaints subsequent to those first three from which he quoted.

I only started following all this on Wednesday afternoon, but at that time Chobani was in quasi-denial, for example, in this reply: “@foodscitech No recall here!” A search on Twitter for the combination @Chobani and the phrase “no recall here” yields about 80 tweets on September 4th (Wednesday) that begin with that exclamatory phrase. The last one is at 6:00 pm, which presumably is the demarcation between unreal (“No recall here!”) and real (Oooops, well maybe we should issue just a little one — my words, not Chobani’s).

Going farther back, the denial is there still earlier — two tweets on the 3rd, one on the 2nd, and one on the 1st. Here is that very first one on Sunday (the 1st) at 11:01 pm:

@tcruzmo No recall here. For more information check out our blog post. We’re glad you got in touch with us! http://cho.ba/19Zp0vD

It does make you wonder if @tcruzmo had read the Idaho Statesman earlier in the day, doesn’t it? [Update on September 7th: Alas, nothing that dramatic. @tcruzmo subsequently indicated receipt on the 1st of an email mentioning a "Class III recall."]

At the end of that same week (August 30th), Spartan Stores of Grand Rapids, MI, added a list of about 50 Chobani products to the “Recent Recalls” page on the websites of all six of its supermarket brands — D&W Fresh Market, Family Fare, Glen’s Fresh Market, Glen’s Market, ValuLand, VG’s Fresh Market, and VG’s Grocery, numbering collectively nearly 100 stores. As an example, here is the page for D&W Fresh Market (10 stores). The list is followed by an explanatory paragraph that begins with this sentence:

Chobani has issued a voluntary product withdrawal of Chobani products manufactured at the Twin Falls, Idaho facility due to premature swelling or bloating.

As an aside, I can’t help asking this irreverent question: Would there be some timing for or version of “swelling or bloating” that would not be “premature” and hence by implication could be deemed acceptable?…

Now return to mid-week and, according to Candace Choi’s article on Thursday in the Huffington Post, “the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it was in talks with the company about the matter.” That would be September 4th, at the height of the “No recall here!” mantra. On Thursday morning, she (@candacechoi) tweeted that “Chobani CEO tells me it was company’s decision to enact a recall. But did not know if FDA first reached out to company or vice versa.”

For the record, here is the FDA’s posting of Chobani’s “Recall — Firm Press Release,” dated September 5 [Thursday] and entitled “Chobani, Inc. Voluntarily Recalls Greek Yogurt Because of Product Concerns.” So now there is a definitive answer to the rhetorical question on Chobani’s website, “What is real?”: the recall.

At least two lawyers who were watching and tweeting weighed in, hinting (or more) at legal issues. Michele Simon (‏@MicheleRSimon) tweeted “lawyers at work (being one I can smell it). Prob worried about legal implications of ‘recall’ http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm165546.htm”; and Bill Marler offered 140+ characters on his blog: Chobani, here is the difference between a Recall and a Withdrawal and some Questions, which begins with the phrase “According to the FDA….”

They are understandably seeing the world through law-colored glasses, and I don’t doubt the role, however much behind-the-scenes, of the FDA. But, as I said in my previous post, this was arguably the world’s first crowdsourced recall (at least by that name). It is very unlikely that all of this would have happened on the timescale that it did without the visible, strident, sustained commentary — and embarrassment for Chobani — on Twitter and Facebook (unless there had been some serious public health impact to speed up the result, which thankfully seems to have been absent).

For clarity and emphasis, here is a recap of that timescale:
• August 22, first customer comments or complaints on Facebook;
• August 30, Spartan Stores announce Chobani’s “voluntary product withdrawal”
• September 1, John Sowell’s story in the Idaho Statesman
• September 1, first tweet using “recall” re: Chobani
• September 4, revelation of FDA “in talks” with Chobani
• September 4, cessation of “No recall here!” mantra
• September 5, press release from Chobani on voluntary recall

To put the Twitter stream in perspective, here it is for the past month with data for “Chobani” (orange) and “Chobani recall” (blue) taken earlier today from Topsy (but note that the right-hand most datapoint is for the 5th, not the 6th):


[click on the image above for a larger version]

As I said in a tweet earlier today, the “pressure” had been building since Monday, and not just in Chobani’s cups. Nothing to do with the FDA, though we should be glad they were also active. But the larger implication is clear: In the social media era, if you manufacture things we put in or on our bodies, it would behoove you to pay real-time, fine-grained attention to your customers, as well as long-term attention to rules and regulations. Otherwise, you are liable to be awarded a de facto crowdsourced recall (or similar penalty) instead of being able to wait for or even avoid a de jure one.

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