Language Evolves

But that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Stinky-breathed Komodo dragons probably evolved from a perfectly nice little fish.

This packaging was clearly designed by someone who doesn’t speak English – or a LOLcat – as they’ve made the cardinal error of applying logic. Consequently they’ve come up with exactly the mistake that the native speaker doesn’t make. Mind you, they’ve probably just skipped a century or two of language development. If dice is accepted as the singular now, ‘dices’ is surely in the future.

Generally I think of myself as a linguistic conservative, on the grounds that language innovations will be different everywhere so older forms are going to be more widely understood. Also, it’s interesting when a word is a misfit. It tells you a lot about its origins – from the Latin ‘datum’ in this case, by way of mediaeval French.

Indeed English spelling tells you so much about the etymological origins of a word that it’s basically useless for telling you how they’re pronounced. But die/dice is just annoying. Following the usual pattern, you’d expect the singular to be douse. When a word needs a rule all for itself, you begin to wonder if you’re not overindulging it.

I think dice should be acceptable as the singular now. Die can be reserved for the technical phrase “twenty-sided die”.

No More Pencils, No More Books

iPad showing OpenStreetMap content
Homework never looked more attractive

Giving iPads to kids in school. How lovely. St Kevin’s in Crumlin is the most recent of something like seven around the country, starting with St Colman’s in Mayo, to join this revolution.

What the hell are they thinking?

I guess it tells you a lot about the world some people live in, that this idea wasn’t shot down on the grounds that the iPads would be stolen by children from other, less well-equipped schools. We assume all these kids are being delivered to the gates by car. It’s even more charming to realise that the kids themselves are being trusted not to break, lose, or ‘lose’ such valuable devices. Of course there’s one advantage – right now, most children who had the cash price of an iPad would probably use it to buy an iPad.

What I find either more touching still, or just hopelessly naïve, is the idea that kids will be able to use iPads, in class or for study, without becoming terminally distracted. They’re being encouraged to do their homework in an amusement arcade. Schools say the tablets will be blocked from things like Facebook and Twitter, but it doesn’t take a child to figure out that there are about a billion other available distractions on the Web, and it’s quite impossible to block them on an individual basis. And remember, this is in school – the only place in the world where it’s legal to enforce hours of brain-crushing inaction on innocent children. I spent thirteen of my most impressionable years being bored to tears, I would have killed for such distraction.

On the other hand, I am distracted every day by the fact that I work on devices I can use to access the Internet. Raised from the very start with the temptation, maybe these kids will develop the iron discipline necessary to keep their concentration in this all-singing, all-dancing world.

Maybe.

One thing that isn’t a problem though – you may be wondering how the hell it makes economic sense to give such expensive tools to every child in a school. To understand, you just need to know about the cost of schoolbooks in Ireland. School teaching is free here, yes. But school books are basically a massive scheme to ream hapless parents until their eyes pop. Compared to that, the cost of an iPad over a few years is almost trivial.

Fixing A Whole

Not my actual download speed

Sorry I’ve been missing a while. Finally, broadband access has reached the country retreat (a.k.a. my mother’s house), and the last couple of days I’ve been setting us up a network.

It’s all gone pretty well. There were problems of course – these things always assume you’re starting with fresh and shiny computers instead of ones that have lived real lives – but in fairly quick succession they’ve all been solved. The Internet speed itself is not that great at about 1.75 Mbits per second; I’d frequently get faster download using 3G. But 3G was frustratingly intermittent, dropping out several times a day – sometimes several times an hour. This connection may not be blistering but it’s consistent, and that’s better. What’s better still, we now have a lovely all-wireless network that can shunt files around and back them up like nobody’s business. I may even take a break from criticising Eircom, the national-yet-privatised phone infrastructure company, for the first time since the year 2000. It’s all very satisfying.

Apart, that is, from one minor glitch. No actually it’s not even minor. It’s beyond trivial. There’s just one place on the network I can’t connect to from my laptop. It’s not something I actually need to connect to¹. But the thing is, I should be able to connect to it.

Do you understand what that means to a geek? The network is not complete. This incompleteness is intolerable.

This is not all obsessive-compulsive disorder. The reasonable worry is that an apparently inconsequential fault on the surface of a complex system indicates a fundamental one below. Unexplained problems ought, where possible, to be tracked down.

Which is where the OCD really comes into its own… Almost always this is a slow, iterative process of experimentation. “What will happen if I try this? Nothing. OK, so what happens if I try this… Nothing. OK, so what happens if I try the third of these two hundred and seventy-eight possibilities?” Curiousity draws you in, but an almost robotic repetitiveness gets you out.

Most of the way out, at least. A day later I’ve figured out what the problem is and I know how to fix it. Actually implementing the solution though, that’s not interesting at all.

So hi, how’ve you been?

 

  1. If you must know, it’s the root of one – though only one – of my USB external drives. 

Shiny, Shiny Shark

iridescent shark catfish Pangasius hypophthalmus
Weird-looking fish

I know I’m writing about dinner a lot this week, but it’s really not my beat. I have friends – Domestigeek, Zucchini and Aubergine – who blog about food far more entertainingly than I ever could. Because they write better? I would deny that of course. But they sure as hell eat better.

OK, the days are over when I regarded beer as the staple and takeaway fried chicken as the health supplement. Seriously, I lived that way for years. Well, I say lived. Nowadays I’m a reformed character, all fruit and nuts and vegetables and cereals. But though my diet is healthy, it’s still not really interesting. There is only so much you can say about bran.

Today though was an exception. Today, I ate iridescent shark.

This is not a 60s band from San Francisco, it’s a type of catfish farmed extensively in Southeast Asia. I understand it’s fairly common in the US where it’s often called tra or swai, but it’s pretty much unknown here and was being offered under its taxonomic name pangasius. At an introductory price of just one euro a fillet too – but really, they had me at the Latin.

Even better, the place was about to close so she gave me the remaining four for the price of two. Mushrooms also being on special offer, I bought a punnet and grilled the whole lot together with butter and just a cheeky sprinkling of mélange d’herbes. The fish was pleasantly unusual. A little earthy, though not so much as catfish usually is, but quite sweet and fatty as well. I didn’t think I could eat four of them, but it was just exactly enough to make me feel sinfully stuffed. And all for three euro.

My cooking tip of the day then: Buy weird-looking fish they’re about to throw out.

The War Against Humour

Ali Ferzat replies to his critics

I was going to call this a worrying trend. But no, it’s not. When I think about it it’s an exciting trend, a real sign of hope.

Governments throughout the Middle East are starting to take jokes seriously.

Pakistan has banned telling anti-government jokes by text or e-mail. On the streets of Syria, noted political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was attacked by pro-government thugs and beaten up, with particular attention paid to his hands.

What does it mean? Well, it shows that Ralph Steadman wasn’t entirely right. One of Britain’s most famous cartoonists of the 1960s, Steadman gave up political caricature because he came to think that politicians were so monstrous in their craving for attention that they saw satire as a form of flattery. Perhaps they only pretended not to be hurt, but they did a good job of it, offering to buy even the cruellest drawing. No wonder he despaired.

But while that may happen where leaders rule by popularity, they take a very different attitude when they control by fear. Nothing undermines fear more than ridicule – that’s why some of the best jokes come out of the most horrific situations. Laughter restores perspective, shrinks giants, drives out darkness. And laughter will win.

A Brilliant Satire Of Market-Driven Idiocy

Julian Gough. Photograph: Anne Marie Fives

Good news: My friend Julian has a new novel out, Jude in London. Here’s the first review, from the Guardian.

Gooder news: You can read it for free. If you like it, you can pay what you think it’s worth afterwards.

Julian and his publisher needed to get copies out ahead of its scheduled publication date of September 6 for the book to qualify for the Guardian’s “Not The Booker” alternative literary prize, so they sent out PDFs on the honour system. The response was so good that they decided to extend the offer, at least until it comes out officially. This “books on trust” idea could revolutionise the publishing industry more than the eBook and iPad combined. Probably not of course, but it could.

If you need to read a bit of a novel before you decide if it’s even worth downloading for free, I can recommend the excerpt The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, which was published by the Financial Times as a short story and later converted into a radio play by BBC4 (Listen here). It’s brilliant satire of the market-driven idiocy that got us where we are today – most of it written long before the crash actually happened.

A Brilliant Satire Of Market-Driven Idiocy

Julian Gough. Photograph: Anne Marie Fives

Good news: My friend Julian has a new novel out, Jude in London. Here’s the first review, from the Guardian.

Gooder news: You can read it for free. If you like it, you can pay what you think it’s worth afterwards.

Julian and his publisher needed to get copies out ahead of its scheduled publication date of September 6 for the book to qualify for the Guardian’s “Not The Booker” alternative literary prize, so they sent out PDFs on the honour system. The response was so good that they decided to extend the offer, at least until it comes out officially. This “books on trust” idea could revolutionise the publishing industry more than the eBook and iPad combined. Probably not of course, but it could.

If you need to read a bit of a novel before you decide if it’s even worth downloading for free, I can recommend the excerpt The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, which was published by the Financial Times as a short story and later converted into a radio play by BBC4 (Listen here). It’s brilliant satire of the market-driven idiocy that got us where we are today – most of it written long before the crash actually happened.

Mathematical Cabbage

Math - It's what's for dinner
Math – It’s what’s for dinner

It’s not every day you taste a new vegetable. Especially not one that defies the laws of space and mathematics. But yesterday I found just that at our local organic farm, Green Earth.

They have some exotic stuff there from time to time, even new potatoes that taste like – and I know this is hard to believe – new potatoes, but I was taken aback to see that they had fractal florets, chaotic kale, or to give it a name people actually call it, romanesco broccoli.

Fractals are a phenomenon of nature of course, and you come across them in things from fern fronds to snail shells. But you rarely see them so clearly in three dimensions. Or I should say, more than three. Imagine a wiggly line drawn on paper. It’s an idealised line, so it has only one dimension – length without width. Now we zoom in. Normally when you do that, the section of line you focus on will look straighter than the whole wiggle because you’ll see fewer twists and turns, or even none. But our line is strange. We find that when magnified it still looks every bit as wiggly as it did on the larger scale. It has wiggles within wiggles, smaller-scale twists and turns in between the big ones. This is called self-similarity, and it too is a natural phenomenon. A coastline is still wiggly whether you see it from space or look at where the water meets the sand through a magnifying glass.

If the line is more wiggly than it looked from a distance, that means that it’s also longer than it looked. So if you could somehow keep looking closer and closer forever, you’d find it was always longer. Isn’t that a bit weird? It’s just a line on a finite, two-dimensional sheet of paper, yet somehow it’s infinitely long. That leads to the idea that shapes like this wiggly line, similar on all scales, must somehow be more than one-dimensional – though still less than two. It’s one-and-a-bit-dimensional. Fractionally dimensional. Fractal.

Just as there are wiggly lines that are a bit more than one-dimensional, there are flat patterns that exist in more than two. And there are solid objects – like the romanesco in my hands – that occupy more than three. Of course it doesn’t really extend into some invisible extra space.  The fraction of a dimension is just a clever way of quantifying the self-similarity. Yet looking at it, I feel like I’m wearing 4D classes¹. The symmetrical complexity is fascinating and beautiful. Its spires are made up of spirals made up of spires, spiralling into spire upon spiral spire. Whorls within whorls. Amen.

And gently steamed for about fifteen minutes, mathematics is delicious. Especially organic mathematics.

  1. One red lens, one blue lens, one green lens.

An easy intro to fractals.

Steve Jobs – An Astonishing Career

Steve Jobs
The best technology CEO since Thomas Edison?

There would always have been more to do. This is a good time for Steve Jobs to depart. Apple is at its peak; both triumphantly successful and wealthy, yet simultaneously admired and even loved. Since the company returned Steve Jobs to his – there is a strong temptation to say ‘rightful’ – leadership role, it has been on an almost unparalleled tour de force.

It began so apparently simply, with products that looked more like quick fixes for the mess he found Apple in than parts of any masterplan. The iMac was in all respects except one an obvious stopgap, an almost desperate attempt to stem the flood of computer users away from the Mac to PC. Make them cheap and paint them bright colours. But stopgap products don’t normally become best-sellers. And more subtly, attractive design revitalised the idea that a computer could be a consumer product.

The diversification into media players too seemed like a quick way to bolster revenues, and yet it evolved into a product that utterly conquered the top end of the phone market. And kept evolving, into one that some say will replace the laptop and the desktop. How the hell does that happen? Whether it was a secret plan of astonishing foresight, or ‘merely’ an extended run of inspired improvisation, virtually everything Jobs touched turned to gold.

In one of those coincidences, I was joking on the phone with my girlfriend yesterday about the news that Apple’s stock was now worth more than that of all the banks in the eurozone combined. (This, on top of having more ready cash than the US government.) I said that gold and Apple shares were the only things people dared invest in now. But what if Steve Jobs resigns? It’ll be like if gold suddenly evaporated.

Will Apple stock plunge? I doubt it, but it will fall some. It has fallen a little already, even though the news only went public after Wall Street shut for the night. Markets are nervous animals. But share price means little to a company that has no need to raise money. What does matter is whether they will continue to be great.

One strongly suspects that the attention to detail in Apple products, the integration of the technical and the aesthetic, is a direct expression of Steve Jobs’ personality. Without that obsession actually in the driving seat, will Apple continue to make great, pioneering products?

For the foreseeable future, I think they will. But somehow it won’t be the same.

Tablets In Court – Continued

As for your “Apple is killing the [tablet] marketplace”, as companies like Palm/HP and RIM are showing: there’s plenty of competition that’s doing fine without toe-ing the copying line.

~ Comment by reader Azijn

Not so much, it seems.

HP have thrown in the towel, after their tablet being on the market for an astonishingly brief three weeks. The world’s largest computer manufacturer doesn’t think it can make its money back on tablets. What chance does a relative minnow like RIM have?

Both HP’s WebOS and RIM’s QNX are – or were – really interesting and attractive operating systems, and it’s true that they’re arguably a lot less similar to Apple’s iOS than Android is. (Though it has been argued by some that they’re a little bit too similar to each other.) But it’s immaterial; only Android has the ecosystem of apps to compete with iOS. For the foreseeable future, there is no other realistic alternative to the iPad.

Samsung have clearly being sailing close to the legal wind – in part perhaps to establish just what can and can’t be copyrighted. It’s interesting legally because many of the laws being invoked by Apple were designed to prevent counterfeiting or passing-off of fake goods. Now clearly Samsung are not passing-off. Their products say ‘Samsung’ on the front in large letters. But they know that Apple have managed to create an aura of sexiness around their products. Is the iPhone the ideal size and shape? Is it the most beautiful design possible? It doesn’t matter; people now want something that looks like that. So to compete, it may be necessary to look as similar as you legally can. Perhaps Samsung will argue in court that consumer electronics is more like the fashion industry now.

But I would be happier to see companies attempting to innovate with Android instead. HTC have tried of course, but for sheer inventive madness I think you have to hand it to their neighbours Asus.