Digital Ischemia

03/11/2019

PalmKeys

I need a tactile, curved surface. I need to feel every character, even in awkward positions or the dark. I am of course referring to the perfect smart device input fandangle. Context-sensitive touch screens are all very well, but they demand far too much attention to the medium, and far too little to the message.

Of course such a culmination of superlative design and engineering does not exist. The very fact of me wanting an object of this specification means it will not exist. I must design and create my own. However I’m having a little trouble with electrical devices this week.

First the toothbrush declined to switch on/switch off/charge, except at random times to suit itself. Toothbrushing operations became unpredictable. At other idiosyncratic times of day or night the charging light would spontaneously and irregularly flash or the motor suddenly and unnervingly grind into action. The silver spindle oscillating like a high-speed lighthouse. Clonking it off the porcelain didn’t help. My presence was no longer required. I now see condensation within the light – probably not helpful for something that tries to maintain a safe demarcation between electricity and water.

Second a smoke alarm started emitting an annoyingly loud electric squawk once every minute. I found I couldn’t not count the seconds. I had to get between the kitchen and wherever without being in the hall at the deafening moment. I couldn’t eat my breakfast without counting in order to plug my ears every 60 seconds. This is disruptive to my perfectly engineered routine, not to mention higher thought. The alarm resisted being prised off the wall with my grabber, certainly in less than 60 seconds. Kind neighbour with greater stature easily executed the required ‘lift and twist’, then dug out battery compartment. The battery proved to be soldered to its anode and cathode, and the action proved to void the warranty, as helpfully blurted at me by the helpline. Presumably I was supposed to bury it in the garden until resolution could be arranged.

Third the heating timer had amnesiac episode. Late in the evening the boiler fired up. This proved to be because the timer had forgotten the actual* time as well as the program, and seemed to be sleeping, as I wished I was. Thankfully I managed to lean on the right combination of buttons while simultaneously thrusting a safety pin into the reset slot with my teeth. Bizarrely the actual* time was recalled, but the program has defaulted to factory settings. So be it.
[*Actual time was at that time defined as British Summer Time minus 10 minutes. As the seasons change, it is far easier to adjust the ‘actual’ time once than reprogram the start time seven times. Plus factoring in the vagaries of my circadian clonkwork.]

Three things. Constitutes synchronicity. Am I emitting pulses of disruptive electromagnetic radiation? Has Pluto gone retrograde again, causing cosmic havoc? I suppose it is that time of year – the darkening quarter when crackly mischief oozes out of musty corners. So, you can feel fully confident that this device has designed-in resistance to gremlins. Back to the drawing board. With electricity. And rubber gloves.

Sweetcorn cobs annotated with keyboard characters

Obviously, to the undiscerning eye, these will look like grenades. So I must get in a pre-emptive strike! With my explosive! branding: PalmKeys™️. How damp. Sounds like some plastic-fronded holiday resort in Florida.

These may also look like warped versions of those horror-inducing keyboards that split unpleasantly down the middle, giving that referred discomfort of ‘slackness’ in the underwear area and imperative concern that a seam somewhere has gone.

However, they are in fact based on the eminently fondleable appearance of one of my most formative ‘characters’: Wordy from the BBC children’s television learning program Look and Read.

Wordy from the BBC children's television learning program Look and Read

Please note the incorporated strap which passes across the back of your hand and keeps your PalmKey firmly positioned so you can type with confidence. This is made from the innovative plant-based fabric Maiztex which has strength and durability but also a comfortable silky fibrous layer against your skin.

And if all this wasn’t enough, they double as hand-roller-skates, allowing you to reach all sorts of unpleasant recesses.

03/10/2019

Pratchett’s Prescience

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld counterpart for Capability Brown, Bloody Stupid Johnson, offers mindwarping clues to understanding our present political predicament

Lancelot Brown (born c. 1715–16, baptised 30 August 1716 – 6 February 1783), more commonly known with the byname Capability Brown, was an English landscape architect. He designed over 170 parks, many of which still endure. He was nicknamed “Capability” because he would tell his clients that their property had “capability” for improvement.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capability_Brown

Ironically his poor mother was too early to receive this assessment of potential, hence the inordinately long labour to bring Lancelot into existence. 250 years later, modelling one of his incidental, recurring characters on Brown, Terry Pratchett went three better.

Perhaps the Discworld’s most notable inventor is Bergholt Stuttley “Bloody Stupid” Johnson, an architect whose ability to get things wrong bordered on mythical. Although evidently able in certain fields, Johnson is notorious for his complete inability to produce anything according to specification or common sense, or (sometimes) even the laws of physics. This fact never stopped him from trying, however.

Johnson was not incompetent, far from it; indeed in many ways he was a kind of genius. Pratchett suggests on numerous occasions that he possessed a kind of “inverse genius;” as far from incompetence as genius but in the opposite direction. … While π ≈ 3.142 is a fundamental constant, in the backstory to Going Postal Johnson manages to produce a wheel for which π = 3 as part of his Automatic Mail Sorter. As with a significant number of his creations, the Sorter did work, but the implied distortion of space-time created some side effects, including the Sorter’s ability to sort mail (i.e. output sorted letters) that had not been written yet or might never be written.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_of_the_Discworld#Bloody_Stupid_Johnson

This has dazzling ramifications for the Westminster Plan to Make Britain Best Blighter Again, a slippery beast that no one person knows in its entirety and does not exist in the conventional sense. So, if we can distort the fundamental rules of space-time, the Plan may actually work, for certain values of ‘work’, and of course with some interesting side-effects.

The fact that [Johnson] continued to receive commissions after the defects in his abilities became apparent is considered to be the ultimate expression of the apparent thinking behind the Victorian follies, i.e. an indication that the person commissioning the work can afford to waste money like this.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_of_the_Discworld#Bloody_Stupid_Johnson

This is the first rational explanation for Brexit. Commissioning irrational, inept, inarticulate people to deliver this historic act of self-harm is the ultimate expression of British power. “We are so {insert current promotional superlative} we can afford to squander and destroy vast swathes of our resources and opportunities.”

No drawbacks really, just excepting that tiny wee issue: THIS ISN’T A FANTASY WORLD. It’s enough to make you wish for a transparent tyrant in the style of Lord Vetinari, but that’s just my personal fantasy.

17/09/2019

Highbrow Raising

I was recently accused of ‘highbrow’. This concerns me. Firstly, I feel my content is far too eclectic and mongrel to be highbrow. Highbrow implies refinement. Not smut. Secondly, why is highbrow pejorative? Why must it imply elitist exclusivity (an intellectually snobbish way of saying intellectual snobbery)? Should we not maintain the dynamic range of subject matter? Or, conceited to say so, but even raise the level of debate? Rather than, say, BBC-style, dilute to the lowest common denominator.

There is surely demand for miscellaneous, middle-aged, middle-class, morally philosophic pedantry? I will not be smart-shamed! No, as always happens when I’m challenged, I will be defensive, obtuse and perverse.

What is it about Benjamin Britten’s writing for strings that makes them sound as if they have been recorded in mono? There is some characteristic compression in space, pitch and amplitude that seems perfectly suited to the recording technology at the time. After all, his name is an anagram of tin bert. Bert being a technical term in the sound engineering world, for which I have not yet found satisfactory definition, but surely subtly modifies the derogatory ‘tinny’.

Where Mr Britten and I can share common ground, I believe, is in a penchant for the night male. Sadly that only works as a homophone, a fact that Mr Britten might appreciate, as one whose aural orientation was for his own generation.

This is the night male crossing the border,
Breaching the fence and restraining order.
Obsession, fixation, denying he bored her:
These are the terms of his psychiatric disorder.

Past new cut grass and mower-scarred boulder;
Trailing his phlegm over his shoulder.
Snorting noisily as he passes,
Silent smiles from his punch-bent glasses.

Left hand on down-pipe, right hand on ledge,
Anything for pleasure, scars give him edge.
Hauling up buttocks, embedded with grime:
The gradient’s against him, he’s in decline.

Birds turn their heads as he encroaches,
The full moon blushes at photos he poaches.
An un-neutered cat howls at her mate,
Then squirms away, hissing with hate.

In the dorm he passes no-one awakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes…

Hm, my mental stylus seems to have skipped to AC/DC… Yes, it’s Night Prowler. But ghastlier yet, the tune is something else: Night Fever. Yes, the Bee Gees. No one can possibly need YouTube karaoke support for that, so I offer it merely for citative rigour. One song to the tune of another, but not at all what Humph intended. And Benjamin must be rotisserating in his monochrome satin shroud. WH Auden has surely evaporated in a plume of disgust. Still dismissing me as highbrow?

As it turns out, the only nocturnal emission in my vicinity is something that quips in the night. Promising but thus far I am haunted only by a bird. Of the female gender. If it actually is Ms Tawny Owl. But this is more my desperate grasping, ahem, than the confident result of research.

Quizzing the internet for “identify nocturnal bird call site:uk” returns primarily, reassuringly, the enquiring mind of the RSPB: where did you see it? Um, garden. How big? Approx. 40dB. What colour of feathers? Black. Type of beak? Open. Doing what? Calling! What colour legs? Black. Unfortunately only my answer to the first question is acceptable to the RSPB, reducing the ‘field’ of potential results to a mere 157. ‘Call’ themselves bird experts.

The rest of the search results are lifestyle magazine-style articles discussing, silently, an arbitrary selection of nocturnal animals. Or—shudder—amateur bird nerds querying forums about their own personal encounter which sounded like (a) a dementor, (b) boiler pipes freezing, (c) a cow being unwell, or (d) a maniacal laugh. No help.

History is written by the victors.
Self-help guides are written by the lucky.

We all want to be helpful, to share our good fortune, but I think lifestyle gurus over-estimate their level of control in the process. Their personal random sequence of experiences and behaviours become the magical formula to fix everyone. Their perspective on the world becomes the universal panacea. Then the marketing kicks in. Marketing, ironically, alienates me. Marketing ironically, ironically, might get my attention.

Book introductions are a good gauge of the author’s effort and commitment. I enjoy openers along the lines “I just can’t put into words the rollercoaster experience of the past few years”. Oh please try. Oh, you have. Oh dear, I can’t seem to stop the book snapping closed.

While we’re in the realm of people volunteering unsolicited advice, I particularly love the half-baked ones.
“You can easily calculate how much protein you should eat with this formula: Your body weight X 0.5 = grams of protein to eat.”

I should eat half my body weight in protein? Daily? Seems unlikely.
Do you mean my body weight in kgs? Then about 25g protein? Seems inadequate.
Surely you can’t mean my body weight in imperial measures if you’re talking about grams of protein?! Less than 4g protein? Ridiculous.
Pounds then? American style? Sigh. Then I should eat 54g protein per day. That’s the first one that sounds believable.

Or, of course, perhaps you mean per week or per year. But I have now spent so much cognitive energy on this ‘easy’ calculation I will need to protein binge for the rest of the year. Last pernickety thought: multiply by a half rather than divide by two? Maybe your arithmetic needs a little more protein.

That’s your sneak preview of my 2020 Edinburgh Festival Fringe show: Fussy ain’t Funny. That should lower the highbrows.

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