Friday, October 21, 2011

The soothing properties of suicide by drowning

It's taken a while to hone our routine for getting young Atilla to sleep at night, and the result is quite a drawn-out process. The final step is mine. I carry him around the darkened bedroom, crooning softly while he makes a spirited attempt to play football with my kidneys. Motivated by physical fear, I restrain him as tightly as possible until he loses heart and - usually quite suddenly - relaxes.

Then I continue to walk him up and down while I sing to him.

The show opens with Waltzing Matilda. On a good day that's enough, and I can put him down by the end of the song; but that's rare. Usually, we have to move on at least as far as Tit Willow. Then, if necessary, I work my way through The Lost Chord, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Once in Royal David's City.

I'm not sure quite where this selection of songs came from. Tit Willow came into my mind when he was a newborn, for the lyrics seemed to cover the sheer inexplicability of his crying.
Is it weakness of intellect, birdie? I cried,
Or a rather tough worm in your little inside?
But for the rest, I really don't know. And why the Christmas carols should have lodged in my head, almost three decades since I last sang them at school, is a mystery. But there they are, and now they're being passed on to Tilly.

It's struck me that all these songs were written within the roughly-60 year span that we know as the Victorian era. Victorian music is reassuringly middle-class: it requires no great musical talent to sing in recognisable form, but it does have a distinct tune and words. Earlier music (at least, those works that have been preserved and handed down to us) was written to be performed by professionals for the entertainment of the elite, while later music (at least since the widespread availability of the gramophone) has been written to be performed by professionals for the entertainment of the masses.

But the Victorian period was a golden age of musical democracy, when every middle-class drawing room had its own piano, and to be "successful" as a composer meant writing songs that could be performed, adequately, by people with no talent or training. People like me.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

An epitaph

Truly, Steve Jobs was the perfect media figure for our times.

Telegenic and persuasive in person, with no qualms about spending money and encouraging others to do likewise. And in death, he's attracted ridiculous eulogies from the usual suspects (Stephen Fry, I'm looking at you) and equally ridiculous vitriol from others. So far his death has, if anything, slightly improved his already uncanny ability to sell pageviews.

I have little time for either the Frys or the Stallmans of this world. But I do have considerable respect for the Jobses.

Thanks to my technophile family, I came early to personal computers. The first machine I played with, in 1979, was a clunky toy that took five minutes to boot, and longer to load any program. It seemed improbable to me, back then, that desktop computers would ever be much more than toys. Certainly I never entertained the idea that they would one day make the television obsolete.

In the 1980s I studied engineering, I met people who could, more or less literally, make computers sing. But most of them, like me, suffered from a chronic inability to finish what they started: once you've solved the "interesting" part of the problem, they'd sneer, the rest is "merely packaging".

And that's where Jobs excelled. He recognised that there's nothing "mere" about packaging; on the contrary, it's the hardest and most important single step in product creation. You can spend decades developing and refining your product, but as long as you treat usability as "mere", you're still going to be stuck with the rump of users who are motivated to learn how your product works.

But Apple products, now... people actually want to learn them.

It seems to me that, when all is said and done, what Jobs did was to focus attention on the user: on what we want to do with computers, and helping us to do that. Jobs showed that you could design technology that people would use and enjoy using - and you could make money doing it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Quantitative unease

Memo to the Bank of England:

If you must print more money, for the love of all that's good and holy, don't give it to the banks.

You got £75 billion and want to stimulate the UK economy? Fine, give every Briton £20 a week for a year. The poorest will spend it (thus stimulating the economy), the richer will save it (thus improving bank liquidity). Everyone wins. Even the people you're robbing (savers) get some compensation.

And maybe the unwashed masses won't be quite so quick to blame you and your cronies for robbing them of their chance to have a stake in society, if you cut them in on the loot.

By giving the money to bankers, you miss all of these opportunities. All you're doing is bribing your own key constituents. That's very nice for you, but at this stage it might not be greatly overstating the case to call it "fuelling the boilers of the revolution".

Monday, October 3, 2011

Poe's paradox

So, I was doing a spot of research on the deployment of smart meters in Texas when I came across this site.

I'm not sure if these people are for real. Maybe the whole site is an elaborate troll or a student prank. But I'm very much afraid these people - who, I have to assume, probably vote - really believe that, and I quote, "electrical induction [is] illegal everywhere in the so-called civilized world".

Now, I have to admit, I was slightly surprised to learn there are smart meters in the world that use wireless communication. I can't see any reason for that. It's not as if the meter had to be mobile, nor detachable from the mains, and there is (by definition) already a wired connection between the electricity supplier and the consumer site. European meters, as far as I can tell, use wired connections.

But even allowing for the silliness of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the sheer level of paranoid hysteria on show here takes my breath away.

Unless that's my wifi network.

There's a rule on the internet, that it's impossible to create a parody so blatant that it won't be mistaken for the real thing. As originally formulated it applies specifically to religious fundamentalism, but quite obviously the same is true in the spheres of politics, economics, technology and health. Now I think that rule needs a corollary: there is no theory so stupid that its supporters can't create and sustain their own community of believers.