really? honestly?

Imperfect harmony

(Or why the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic means we shouldn’t get so stressed when big projects go tits-up. A journey via the physics of music, the ingenious Bach, and a whole lot of faking.)

Take a string. Tie it tightly between two fixed points. If you have a guitar to hand, even better, but it’s not essential. In fact, you should be able to grasp all of what follows without any props at all, providing you’re prepared to take on trust some of the descriptions.

Please now forget everything you know, assume, or half-remember being taught about music theory.

Pluck the string and listen to the sound. That note – the clear, strong one you can hear? This is our starting point. Our fundamental. Hold your finger lightly against the string, half-way along. Pluck again, in the centre of one of the halves. Hear that new note?

If the string’s tight enough, it should be higher than the open-string note, but in a way, its twin. Sounding very similar in character – in perfect harmony in fact – just higher. (“Twice” as high in a sense. The string is vibrating exactly twice as quickly as it did when it was twice the length.)

If you laid the sound waves of the open-string note side-by-side with those of the higher note, every other ‘peak’ of the waves would be in exactly the same place. That makes for great harmony.

(All going swimmingly so far; let’s mix it up by finding another note).

This time hold your finger lightly against the string, but a third of the way along (doesn’t matter from which end). Pluck the shorter part of the string with your other hand. Now this is quite different. You get a note that’s even higher than the ‘half-way’ note. Play the ‘half-way’ note again. Then the “third-the-way-along” again.

Listen to the difference. If they were played together at the same time (you’d obviously need two identical strings) they’d also sound in pleasant harmony. The higher note’s sound-waves are packed together a little more tightly, but laying the two side-by-side, the peaks would again coincide regularly, this time in a 3-to-2 ratio, rather than 2-to-1 as before. Let’s introduce some labels here to cut down on the hyphens… Call the ‘half-way’ note the ‘octave’.

(Try and wipe from your mind the oct– prefix as being anything to do with the number eight. All that can come later, as I hope will become clear). Call the ‘third-the-way’ note the ‘dominant’. What we’ve done so far, without using any musical theory to speak of, is build a relationship that mathematically links two notes together. Two notes that are in perfect harmony.

This simple description will be the building block of what follows. Which should get quite a bit more weird soon – bear with me. (By the way, the demonstration with the tied string and so on couldn’t have been done using notes you’d find on a piano. Not an ordinary piano anyway. Because a piano has to ‘fake’ its notes, just a tiny bit. All will become clear, I hope.)


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The end of the affair

Promised much, delivered a bit of it…. Where did it go wrong, Mistress Mac? Was it your huge screen that wasn’t really, pin-sharp graphics that seemed to blur the more I looked at them, ever-so-unexpected crashes when you promised you wouldn’t, wilful absence of a delete key or my shock at realising just how much the rest of the world hated you as well?

You were gorgeous though, even if far, far heavier than you should be. It’s been a while (over 15 years) since I flirted with your sort. I’d expected the operating system to have changed. But not always for the better, huh? The dock is clever, but how am I really supposed to use stacks? Why do some applications produce a lurking icon that’s-sort-of-like-a-disc that I have to ‘eject’ (but others don’t)? You Macfans are grinning here, thinking, Windowsdinosaurboy, you have to accept some things Are. Just. Different.

Of course I do, but I had such high expectations… Expectations like the not-crashing thing. Oh dear. Three on day one, two on day two, the most spectacular finishing with a jump-jet take-off noise and the fan hitting a coloratura E flat before I strangled the power off.

I’m not a jealous man, far from it; in fact your failure to talk to other devices when I actually wanted you to was just plain embarrassing. The one feature that would have meant I could live (sort of) within a native Mac environment would have been PDA synchronisation. Business critical this one. Can it be done? No.

This was the surreal bit where I picked below the gloss and found myself back in 1987 groping around for bits of shareware and half-baked garage apps from A Bloke In Wisconsin who swears he’s finally cracked how to get Lynx or Lion or whatever to speak in code to Windows Mobile. But not Leopard, yet, oh no, we haven’t got the, erm, sorted, the, er, we’re waiting for more info from Apple, mutter… shuffle… refund.

One bit of freeware actually managed to get my PDA contacts into the Mac address book – all but one of them, anyway. Unfortunately it was supposed to do iCal as well, but could only cope with going in one direction (and that wasn’t the device-to-Mac route which might even have satisfied me as a back-up).

Apple themselves. Flawed Geniuses. That shop/zoo/theme-park in Regent St. ‘Nuff said. Having beaten a way through the spotty backpackers to find similar-breed-but-in-black-T-shirt, I asked what seemed to me simple questions. “This is what I need…” “Will this work with this?” “And this software I think too, and it all has to work together or I’ll bring it back: how wonderful that you give me 14 days to get it right, at no risk.”

“What do you mean, not the software? It’s the whole set-up I need to check out. Oh, ok, yeah, sure I understand, you trust me, but not completely. Yeah, that’s fine. Tell you what I’ll buy the software then, get free trial versions if I can to test it all out, but if it’s good then I’ll open my shrink wraps and I won’t have to come back to the zoo again.”

At which point I asked for some pornography.

Well, you’d think I had judging by the look on the face of my Genius. What I’d actually said was “Ok, so can I also buy a copy of Windows then so I can install that if Parallels seems to be working out?”. No. I cannot get that here. I cannot buy porn here, I cannot buy narcotics Class A, B nor C here, I cannot buy an Olympic-size swimming pool here, and I most certainly cannot buy a copy of the most popular operating system in the world from here. It’s a computer shop for heaven’s sake. What was I thinking?

C’mon guys – the war is over. You have your market, Bill has his. You’re fashionable, he’s functional. You Aren’t Really In Competition With Each Other. Move on. Sell his software. Take a margin on it. Don’t be so proud. Perhaps even think about licensing some of your own stuff? Sell those little white apple stickers as well and let your wannabee designer/musician/artist types use it to cover up the letters “IBM” on their £400 laptop that is just as quick, just as useful, oh and about half the weight… (ranting aside, I’m rational, I know PCs are cheaper and just as quick, but I still came into your shop. Repeat: you are not in competition).

And some other little tips for Apple if they’re remotely serious about having anything called customer-centric strategy. Sticking a little plug-in to Safari to play the most common embedded media files wouldn’t really be that hard would it? I’m even prepared to wait for a ported iPlayer if that’s a better way overall for the BBC to spend my licence fee. But to get “Game Over” when trying to watch a tiny video clip on the BBC News site? Purrrr-lease.

Put the delete key in. Just above backspace, where that rather less useful Eject button lives at the moment. Just there.

Buy Missing Sync or PocketMac Pro. Make one of them work. Make a fortune out of a robust PDA-to-Mac product. Or just put it into the operating system.

(I’ll probably get another one before very long though. Let’s see if there’s anything behind this new MacBook Pro launch rumour first…)

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How will we die online?

The first post – and straight to the last rites…

It’s well over 10 years now since I’ve been part of online communities of one sort or another. Support, discussion, campaign, “special interest”… Some of the cheery older souls I’ve known are in their 70s now. One or two may even have died. In fact, statistically, quite a few must have.

But these are still early days for this end of the market. Logging on and popping off is only going to get more popular, inevitably (in the most literal sense of the word). Many of the departed have already publicly documented their decline and demise, of course – in some cases movingly and memorably (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4211475.stm).

Blogging off into the sunset has so far only been open to those who have a bit of notice: perhaps tragically young, perhaps angry, always compelling. What of the rest of us, declining at a greater or lesser rate? What protocols will evolve as an ageing generation taps ever more slowly at the keyboard, arthritic knuckles creaking away? Will it be good form to breezily claim spritely vigour, in defiance of all physical evidence? Or will it be polite to gradually warm up your network to the reality of your imminent cooling down? (Getting honest about things – which, if this site has a theme at all, could become a recurring feature here.)

And just getting the message out to those networks, particularly if it’s all a bit sudden… Will wills routinely feature a few choice URLs, or even ids and passwords? (I am reminded of the death of a friend recently: the family, doing their best to contact friends, went through the address book sending blank emails with funeral directions attached. From the deceased. That was interesting.) Has the first enterprising intermediary already set up shop? I note that www.ifyourereadingthis.com already has an owner.

We don’t know. But we’re definitely going to find out.

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