Catholic Koan

BaptizedRosita Boland wrote about this picture in the Irish Times the other day. It’s from a schoolbook she had as a child.

The article is well worth reading. I just wanted to add that the image has gone viral. I’d missed the story in the Times but was alerted to it by Laughing Squid, an “online resource for interesting art, culture & technology”. Shortly thereafter, a friend in the States posted it to Facebook.

People around the world are intrigued and somewhat horrified at God’s strictly hierarchical love. Myself though, I think most are missing the philosophical depth of this little puzzle. To the uninitiated it might seem obvious that the Church wants you to select the baptised baby, but the baby is not there to be encircled! Clearly Catholicism is a lot more Zen than I thought.

I think as a child I would have resolved the conundrum by drawing in the baby. Maybe that’s too linear, but I liked drawing.

I don’t know in fact if I had this actual book in school. My brain is telling me I’ve seen it before, but I don’t trust my brain. I reckon I’m older than Rosita Boland though, but much, much younger than that drawing style, so it’s theoretically possible. In my recent trawlings through the attic I did find books from the same series, one of which I now have in my hand. And here’s something interesting – they’re not from Ireland.

They were reprinted here by Fallons and, according to the flyleaf of this one at least, “edited and revised by a panel of Irish Catechists”, but they were actually written by American nuns – mainly a Sister Maria De La Cruz of an order called the Helpers of the Holy Souls – and originally published by W.H. Sadler in New York in 1969. Look at the spelling of “baptized”.

The One Cent Catechism? My world is rocked.

Ink With Links

A Japanese advertising poster containing QR codes
Adverts with links let you buy on the spot.

When I posted yesterday about QR codes, those little symbols used to put Web links on real-world objects, reader Azijn made this thought-provoking comment:

I find QR codes a bit weird. Why not have an app that can simply recognize a certain default font in which advertisers will agree to publish their URLs? Humans and phones alike can recognize that!

Indeed, I can find no such app. How come? Azijn’s idea would surely work.

But then you have to remember that most design actually happens by accident. QR codes are prevalent for this purpose mainly because they’ve been around long enough to catch on. They were invented by Toyota for labelling components and it was in Japan that they were first used on phones. But that doesn’t mean of course that they’re the best solution.

QR codes did have a couple of advantages. They were designed expressly to be read by machine and have built-in error correction, so they were easier for simple devices to process. But now that phones are very powerful computers they should have little trouble handling text recognition – I doubt if there’s even any need for special fonts¹.

I can think of one way to speed things up though: A typographical convention to indicate where a website address begins and ends, such as putting it between two easily recognised symbols, so that the phone doesn’t need to scan whole pages. Example:

►http://i.doubt.it◄

Any such text will be highlighted on your phone’s screen, showing you that it’s clickable.

Can I get a patent on that?

  1. There have been fonts designed to be easily read by machine since at least the 60s, for example the hardcore OCR-A, the more friendly OCR-B, or the space-age classic Westminster – which I had always thought belonged to NASA or IBM or some such but turns out to have been created by a British bank. These days though Optical Character Recognition software is so good that they are no longer really necessary, though obviously plainer, less ornate fonts are likely to get better results.

QR Code

Go On, Point Your Phone At It

See that? That’s a QR code. You find these things everywhere now; in papers and magazines, on business cards and posters. If you’ve been wondering what the hell’s going on, they’re a similar idea to barcodes. They can contain hidden messages, contact details, dirty limericks – best of all, links to websites.

Scan one with your phone’s camera, and its browser will open the page. (You’ll find a free QR reader for most recent phones here.) The one shown is for this very blog. Now real-world objects like printed pages, even buildings, can have clickable links.

But why stop there? I’m growing a vast privet hedge maze in the shape of this code. Soon you’ll be able to come here by clicking on satellite photographs.

Nokia’s Last Hurrah

N9 © Nokia

There’s no argument, the N9 is a beautiful device. It’s almost hypnotically attractive, better perhaps than even the iPhone at the magical trick of making you feel that this is how phones were always meant to look. Sculpted from curved glass and a single block of matte polycarbonate, graced with a simple, powerful new operating system, this is the most radically restrained design that Nokia has ever produced. Aesthetically, that is; from a feature viewpoint it’s downright exuberant. All in all, a tour de force of phone engineering.

Only one question really: What exactly is it for?

This is not the first of Nokia’s new Windows phones, rather it is the first with MeeGo. First, and quite possibly last. For MeeGo is the operating system that Nokia were developing to take on the iPhone. Until they lost their nerve, decided it couldn’t possibly be done in time to save the company, and let themselves be bought into Windows Phone 7 instead.

And yet here’s a MeeGo phone, somehow ready before any Windows one. What exactly happened there?

It had to be this way. If the Windows device had come out first, MeeGo might have been allowed to drift on without ever becoming finished product, and MeeGo was the one chance Nokia’s designers had to prove to the world – and to their boss – that they could have taken on Apple and won.

Launching an already doomed product might seem a bizarre expense for an already beleaguered company, but not bringing MeeGo to fruition also had a price – one that might have been paid in resignations. The N9 may best be understood as a magnificent gift; from Nokia’s management, to Nokia’s talent.

Something Weird In The Graveyard

Brendan and his monks' ship is carried by a gi...
OK, this time this image is relevant...

Well all right, there are probably countless oddities in any graveyard. For example this cherub. It has a head of short curls of course, but at the back its hair is shoulder length. Presumably this serves to strengthen the figure’s neck. The unfortunate result though is an angel with a mullet, sure sign that heaven has gone to the dogs.

But not far from my own father’s grave – which we are here to tend – is a tiny new one, less I think than two feet long. On the simple wooden marker, not one name but two. And they are Dutch – Henk and Aukje Fase.

Dramatic explanations like an unnamed child – or even a pet – leap to mind, but either would be in breach of some basic Christian graveyard ideas. A more sober theory is that the tiny grave contains an urn of ashes; an unusual arrangement here but one I believe is allowed now. Two names though. You sense a story – and hope it’s not that they died together. That’s rarely good.

Perhaps it had been their wish, once they were both gone, for their ashes to be mingled and interred here. I wouldn’t blame them, it is a beautiful place. The grounds of a monastery founded by Saint Brendan the Navigator, a man who in the Sixth Century set out on a voyage to Paradise. Or possibly America. Intriguingly, there is a very old Dutch version of the legend., and in it he specifically leaves from here in Galway.

But there’s too much death altogether this week. My girlfriend just lost a cousin who was only my age. And a cousin of my mother’s mother has just died. That’s my cousin twice removed I think. Ok, fairly distant; sitting in this graveyard I’m probably surrounded by people I’m more closely related to than that. I wouldn’t have remarked on her at all were it not for the fact that she lived to be one hundred and five.

That’s a proper go.

Something Weird In The Graveyard

Brendan and his monks' ship is carried by a gi...
OK, this time this image is relevant...

Well all right, there are probably countless oddities in any graveyard. For example this cherub. It has a head of short curls of course, but at the back its hair is shoulder length. Presumably this serves to strengthen the figure’s neck. The unfortunate result though is an angel with a mullet, sure sign that heaven has gone to the dogs.

But not far from my own father’s grave – which we are here to tend – is a tiny new one, less I think than two feet long. On the simple wooden marker, not one name but two. And they are Dutch – Henk and Aukje Fase.

Dramatic explanations like an unnamed child – or even a pet – leap to mind, but either would be in breach of some basic Christian graveyard ideas. A more sober theory is that the tiny grave contains an urn of ashes; an unusual arrangement here but one I believe is allowed now. Two names though. You sense a story – and hope it’s not that they died together. That’s rarely good.

Perhaps it had been their wish, once they were both gone, for their ashes to be mingled and interred here. I wouldn’t blame them, it is a beautiful place. The grounds of a monastery founded by Saint Brendan the Navigator, a man who in the Sixth Century set out on a voyage to Paradise. Or possibly America. Intriguingly, there is a very old Dutch version of the legend., and in it he specifically leaves from here in Galway.

But there’s too much death altogether this week. My girlfriend just lost a cousin who was only my age. And a cousin of my mother’s mother has just died. That’s my cousin twice removed I think. Ok, fairly distant; sitting in this graveyard I’m probably surrounded by people I’m more closely related to than that. I wouldn’t have remarked on her at all were it not for the fact that she lived to be one hundred and five.

That’s a proper go.

What Phone Is Right For You? 6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

Siemens "Fernscheiber 100" teletype....
Humble, and Deeply Unattractive, Origins

Though the iPhone changed personal computing forever, its significance was not immediately grasped even by Apple’s competitors – perhaps particularly by them. Sure, the likes of Nokia and Blackberry probably appreciated the threat it represented in the high-end smartphone sector. Almost beyond doubt, Google saw the potential it had to control a huge slice of the market for Internet services. Microsoft would have recognised a major new extension of Apple’s many-tentacled marketing strategy.

What may have taken longer to sink in was the fact that Apple was taking them all on at once… As the iPad and its imitators demonstrate, the iPhone was harbinger of a new and very significant generation of devices – one that would break personal computing free from its clumsy origins.

For half a century, computers have followed essentially the same design paradigm. This is strange when you think about it, because they could really use almost any. All the operator is doing fundamentally is putting numbers in and getting numbers out, there must be a million ways to do that. Many were explored in the early years: dials, punched cards, paper tapes, patch cables, levers, bells, rows of switches and lights. The possibilities were endless – and deeply unstandardised.

Then some pioneer had the brilliant idea of using a teleprinter. You may not even remember these, they’re now almost extinct, but the teleprinter (also called teletype or telex) is essentially a networked, motorised typewriter. You type on your terminal, the one at the recipient’s end rattles off a printed message. The bright idea was to wire one of these up to a computer so its keyboard could be used for input and its printer for output. Using a pre-existing technology not only meant a big cost saving, but harnessed a recognised interface metaphor that users could grasp immediately. Replacing the printed paper display with text on a TV-like monitor made it all the more familiar and friendly. This metaphor was so effective that it has basically gone unchanged ever since. Even devices as svelte as the iMac or petite as a netbook are, under the skin, just fancy telex machines – like a shape-changing alien from a SciFi cartoon, unable to prevent hints of its true nature showing through its disguise.

There have been attempts to break the mould; perhaps the most effective was the use of pen input on devices like the PDA or Tablet PC. But that was just swapping the restrictions of one metaphor for those of another. What Apple realised was simple but profound – you could design a device without metaphor. Let the application in use dictate the interface; the device itself should come with as few restrictions or presuppositions as possible. Beyond the necessary limitations of form factor – it must be this size if you want to carry it as a phone, this size if you want to read comfortably and so on – it should be as reconfigurable as possible. Thus the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad family is a device as rich in possibility as we have ever had, and perhaps ever will until we figure out how to make shape-changing hardware.

But just because it’s revolutionary, that doesn’t necessarily mean the iPhone is the best phone you can get. And while some rivals still seem to be in shock even now, one company was ready to respond to and rival Apple’s innovation. One company may already be beating them at their own game.