“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”

- Aristotle

"Just because everyone does it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

- Steve Pavlina

"The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws."

- Cornelius Tacitus

"Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising."

- Cyril Connolly

"The possession of a book becomes a substitute for reading it."

- Anthony Burgess

"Posterity is as likely to be wrong as anybody else."

- Heywood Broun

"Ask an impertinent question, and you are on the way to a pertinent answer."

- Jacob Bronowski

"The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is more important than the eye....The hand is the cutting edge of the mind."

- Jacob Bronowski

"Religions are kept alive by heresies, which are really sudden explosions of faith."

- Gerald Brenan

Micro World

I'm just about old enough to remember how IBM behaved in the 1970s and 80s.

If someone else came up with a good idea, they'd make their own version of it. By which I mean: Copy it, screw around with it just enough to make it incompatible with the original, screw around with it some more to make it's most useful features unusable, announce it as IBM saving the world again, and try to force the entire marketplace to use their inferior version.

As market leaders, they'd succeed just enough to split the industry, and a few years later they'd either screw around with the idea again, just enough to make the new IBM screw-up incompatible with the old IBM screw-up...or abruptly stop all support for the whole scheme, pretend it had never happened, and leave anyone still using it in the lurch.

Sound familiar? Nowadays we call it the Microsoft pattern.

The C and C++ programming languages had been established and standardised for years - before Microsoft created the entirely unnecessary C# variant, and tried to make it the industry standard. They failed, but they succeeded enough to mess up the lives of C programmers.

C# is just different enough from C that programs written in one won't work in the other. C# has quirks added seemingly just to be different from C, but if you program for Microsoft in C, you're obliged to use the sharp version.

Webpages are written in HTML, and it's grown and developed from a simple way to format documents to a complex but logical way to design interactive websites. Older ways to format are discouraged, but supported.

And then there's the Microsoft version of HTML. Nevermind that there was exactly zero need to have a second formatting language with the same name, Microsoft made one. Or rather a dozen, because each version of the Microsoft browser understood a different dialect of MS HTML, none of them fully supported by any other browser, and each not even supporting the previous version.

That means if you design a webpage to display in Internet Explorer 8, it will probably (a) not display correctly in Firefox, Chrome, Opera or any of the other browsers which all speak the same core language, and (b) not display correctly in Internet Explorer 9. Or 7, or 6.

Most of the 'interactive' parts of webpages are written in Javascript. Guess who has their own version of Javascript? And guess who's browser won't always work with guess who's own version of Javascript?

Two decades ago, we got the MP3 audio format, which at a stroke removed most of the confusion of sharing audio files over the net. Which promoted Microsoft to launch WMA, bringing the confusion back without giving us greater audio fidelity.

We got MPEG4 for video. So Microsoft invented WMV, and tried to make us use it instead, making absurd claims that WMV files of half the size gave you twice the quality.

There are lots of other audio and video formats for specialist purposes, but you can avoid a lot of confusion by putting them into a uniform container format, and the default one is AVI, or at a pinch you can use FLV.

Unless you're Microsoft, in which case you invent ASF. Which wouldn't be such an inconvenience if they didn't miss the whole point of container formats, and make it extremely difficult for you to make ASFs than don't contain WMA or WMV.

We've had Android smartphones and iPhones for a while now, and the market is pretty standard. So guess who's producing the Windows Phone? Incompatible, less powerful, less well supported, and answering no apparent need.

If we had a government that behaved like this, we'd be wheeling out the guillotines. As it is, we seem content to sigh in exasperation and shrug that it's not what we wanted, but if we didn't have Bill Gates, anyone else would have been a whole lot worse. Somehow.

"Food comes first, then morals."

- Bertolt Brecht


Philosophy is supposed to be profound. By which I mean it should be:

* True. The only way a falsehood can be profound is if it's profoundly wrong, which is profundity in a very different sense.

* Not vague. It may be true that 'sometimes society seems to change radically but really it's only changed superficially' or 'you don't always need to know the cause of a problem to find a solution', but unless there's some way to determine which social changes really are radical and which problems can't be solved by understanding their cause, these are shallow insights.

* Widely applicable. An insight into how British cookery books of the 1880s contained quicker recipes than those of the 1850s is all well and good. But it's not profound unless you link it to changing attitudes to time produced by advances in Victorian capitalism enabled by greater industrialisation made possible by the transformation of natural philosophy as the hobby of gentleman scholars into science as a profession. Or some such.

* Counter-intuitive. Specifically, incompatible with the common prejudices and ideology of the time and place.

It doesn't have to be novel, though you frequently meet the attitude that a thinker has been refuted not by other thinkers but somehow by the passage of time. Or just by having been around long enough to drift in and out of fashion a few times.

This is the obverse of the equally stupid idea that ancient Indian wisdom is wiser because (a) it's old and (b) you're (assumed to be) not Indian. Which I suppose makes enthusiasm for the exotic a subtle form of racism.

An idea doesn't have to be complicated to be profound, though there's no shortage of thinkers, amateur and professional, who seem to think the more neologisms they coin and the more obscure names they drop, the deeper their thinking gets.

This is a short excerpt from a long essay which someone posted recently, in response to my request that that give a simple, concrete example of their system:

They key rule of the F.E.D. first arithmetic of dialectics, which they call the "Qualitative" or "Q" arithmetic, to keep in mind here is this, the "ontological multiplication" or "qualities multiplication" rule --

<<Aufheben>> of meta^n-units = meta^n-units "times" meta^n-units = meta^n-units + meta^(n+1)-units.

These "qualities multiplications" are carried out below in the context of the "dyadic Seldon Function", which is just a framework for re-squaring the already squared previous stage to generate its successor stage --


-- such that )-|-(n denotes a non-amalgamating sum of 2^n qualitatively-different category-symbols.

After three attempts I managed to read it. And it turns out what he's saying is:

The written letters in written words have different meanings to those in isolation. And individual words in sentences are likewise different than when in isolation. And so on for paragraphs, essays, books etc.

Oh, and the entire universe is like this too, in one way or another.

Now, I'm fairly sure this isn't profound. It's probably true in a uselessly vague way - you could draw a loose but valid analogy between molecules, atoms and subatomic particles on the one hand, and phrases, words and letters on the other.

But I don't think you'd learn anything about letters or leptons if you did. You'd have learned something new about the theory, but not the world it's supposed to be a theory of - and that, I suggest, is one of the hallmarks of pseudoscience.

Now, if it weren't such a vague idea it might be widely applicable - as opposed to just imposable on a wide variety of phenomena by reinterpreting the terms for every case.

I'm not sure whether it's counter-intuitive or not. It's certainly not counter to my intuition - it's just an obscure restatement of the obvious, a description which applies to a lot of bad philosophy.

There's no necessary reason why a profound idea can't fit right in with the folk philosophy of the time, but seeing as common beliefs are a mixture of hasty generalisations and ossified sophisms from forgotten power struggles, it's highly unlikely.

I miss being a teenager, because back then every new idea felt profound - especially if it came from my own head. But by a small margin I prefer the middle aged ability to spot the real deal.

At least...I think I can.

"Some people are moulded by their admirations, others by their hostilities."

- Elizabeth Bowen

"The original is unfaithful to the translation."

- Jorge Luis Borges

"The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness."

- Daniel Boorstin

"Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books."

- Julian Barnes

"A critic is a bundle of biases held loosely together by a sense of taste."

- Whitney Balliett

"Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think."

- Hannah Arendt

"I have a fine sense of the ridiculous, but no sense of humour."

- Edward Albee

"Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when you have only one idea."

- le August Chartier

Pillow Talk

Who needs tardises when we've got bedrooms?

Yesterday I lost some things, and the last place I remembered having them was my bedroom. So to find them...I had tidy up my room. Like the song says, I still haven't found what I'm looking for. But I've found a lot more.

This is the periodic table of the elements.

 It hung on a wall when I was nine or ten, and I spent hours studying it. I knew Tom Lehrer's Elements Song before I'd heard of the Gilbert & Sillivan song it was based on.
There's Antinomy and Arsenic, Aluminium, Selenium
And Hydrogen and Oxygen and Nitrogen and Rhenium
And Nickel, Neodymium, Neptunium, Germanium
And Iron, Americium, Ruthenium, Uranium...

There's Gold and Protactinium...
Now, after an hour's work with carpet tape on the back and invisible selotape on the front, it's patched up and above this computer, stuck to the wall with an unopened packet of blu-tack I also found.

There was also a big cardboard box full of printouts. Articles and whole books I'd printed out to read later.

In, erm, 1992.

Twenty years ago. Mostly on the artificial languages that I spent the early years of the internet learning far too much about. I've occasionally come across them in the intervening years and made a mental note to read them sometime. Well this time...I borrowed a shredding machine. Which broke down three times turning twenty years of vague promises into three binbags of paper strips.

I quickly made a dozen PDFs of the more interesting documents, which I fully intend to read...sometime.

Oh, and speaking of the early years of the internet, and a time when Windows 95 was the exciting new update of Windows 3.1....

Before there was there forums of A-O-Hell, there were the forums of Compuserve.

And before there was 24-hour broadband, there were special offers of a month's dial-up.

There was MP3.COM too, which enabled be to download in this amazing new audio format that would sometimes fit onto a 3.25" disc. Still, not everything changes. Journalistic standards are as high as ever.

Next to a perfectly servicable pair of shoes that I haven't seen in over a year, were three rucksacks...and most of my home gymnasium.

And finally...this is a pillow case.

Star Wars came out in 1978, when I was six. Which means before I was ten, I was sleeping on a George Lucas movie poster. And even then, Luke Skywalker's bare chest was more interesting than Princess Leia's bust. Though I don't recall either from the actual film.

This cloth bag has been in a cupboard for three decades. Which means the other themed bedclothes have probably been sitting in a different cupboard for the same time.

But tonight, I'm sleeping among the stars again.

Update: I found what I was looking for. It wasn't in the bedroom.

"It is always easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them."

- Alfred Adler

"A friend in power is a friend lost."

- Henry Adams

"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

- Charles MacKay

"Any theory, no matter how ludicrous, can be squared with the evidence, given enough ingenuity."

- Stephen Law

"Faith is being afraid of the truth."

- Frederich Neitzsche

Is There a Draft in Here? (Part 2)

More posts which have been hanging around in 'draft' form for several years, never to be completed.

From almost exactly seven years ago, musings on music theory:

The university library sent me an invoice a week ago, for two books that I borrowed while in their employ. After being dumped for inconveniently succeeding when I was set up to fail, I wasn't in the mood to return them, so put them to one side to read later...and completely forgot about them.

Well, six months later, they noticed the loan on their records, and politely asked if I could either return the books or pay replacement costs - £15 each for volumes 1 and 2 of Introduction to Music Theory by Eric Taylor.

Seeing as it's an out-of-print standard work, and they have 5 or more other copies, and these remain unborrowed by other students - possibly because the university doesn't have a music department - and because I think they're very interesting...I've paid the 'replacement' costs. First books I've bought in years.

Leafing through them, I was set thinking by how there are two kinds of approach to teaching music theory - top down and bottom up.

The top down approach starts with the most general terms - composition and work, harmony and rhythm - and subdivides these into more specific areas. Harmony devides into counterpoint and chord theory. Chord theory into triads, 7ths and 9ths, modes and keys. Keys gets us into the mathematics of frequency, which gets into the physics of sound and psychoacoustics, which in turn (if you want to go that far) links to the physiology of hearing and even neurology.

The bottom up approach does the opposite, trying to start with the most basic physical properties of sound, and building up a series of more and more abstract levels, each supported by the more concrete one below.

The trouble is, neither the highly general notion of composition, nor the very specific subject of cochleal chamber structure - which is in it's way just as abstract and forbidding - is a good starting point. Both are unfamilliar to the music novice.

The novice has to start with what they already know, which is in the mundane middle ground of pitch, simple harmony, rhythm and volume. Never mind that these terms are not at this stage actually defined. If someone 'knows' pitch, it makes more sense to define frequency as an underlying property of pitch, than to define frequency mathematically, the climb from maths back up to pitch.

Skipping over some slightly fraught notes on my dysfunctional friendship definitely not relationship with C, there's this oddity, typed at 4 or 5 in the morning on someone else's computer:

What if I were to be told tomorrow that I had five years to live? Give or take six months or a year. How would I want to spend the time, and what would my priorities be?

I think the short answer is: Be the person I intended to be at 23. That is, musician, writer and slut. Record an album, write a book, and have large amounts of guiltless sex.

At 24 I stopped making music, stopped writing, and walked into a disasterous relationship - the former two largely because of the latter. I took a wrong turn, and the right road now seems distant.

Of course, there are other things I want to do - various subjects to study...

There's a stunningly patronising essay on the marxist line on climate change, which I'll spare you. It's just that it doesn't read like me, I've absolutely no recollection of writing it, and no idea why I'd try.

Oh well. The final item is the start of a short story:

"Britain's largest nuclear reactor", the newspapers proudly called it. Although it was in the Republic of Ireland and there were two larger.

Commissioned in 2010, the Dankhill plant had promised local jobs for all and limitless cheap energy. Finished five years late and three times overbudget, most of the staff had been flown in from England, and electricity prices were still rising because the plant was still only working to half capacity.

The government minister who'd championed the plant was in jail for perjury following his trial for indecent exposure, the third manager in four years had just been installed, and the press was full of stories about rising cancer rates in nearby villages. And there was a bomb in reactor 4.

It was quite a large bomb, and no one was sure how it got there. But it was definitely a bomb.

All my drafts...have now been excluded.

"When someone's trying to interpret something for you, they always have an agenda."

- Penn Gilette

"In sexual matters, it is generally better to assume the obvious, unless there is some very good reason to think otherwise."

- Antonia Fraser

"Everybody wants to be an outsider."

- John Waters

Is There a Draft in Here? (Part 1)

Blogger lets you save work as a 'draft', so you can finish and publish it later - or just keep stuff you want online but not in public. I've had 14 'drafts' hanging around for years. Here's a few.

I wrote this on January 3rd, 2005:

There is a parasite worm that lives by burrowing into the skulls of ants, and eating their brains. A shout is literally a million times the amplitude of a whisper. Every hour, at least two species become extinct. The human eye has 130 million light receptors. It is unknown why animals need sleep. The difference in scale between a quark and the limits of the observable universe is 10^44 - that's 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

I've no idea where I was going, and not just because I didn't get there. A few days later:

If you want to understand an idea, study the arguments against it.

I occasionally make use of a little magazine called Spiked. It's run by the remains of the RCP - Revolutionary Communist Party. This gang of mad sectarians probably never had more than 200 members before it imploded around 2000, but they somehow produced a stream of televised 'documentaries' throughout the 1990s, using various fronts and pseudonyms.

The speciality of Spiked and the late RCP is to justify rightwing ideas in terms that sound like they come from the left. They opposed the Poll Tax demonstrations because the protesters were 'middle class'. They attacked environmentalism on the grounds that some Nazis were mystical treehuggers.

The actual content of most Spiked articles is of course junk. Like this one on Ten myths about assisted suicide which caught my eye. But it's a useful exercise in clear thinking to sort out other people's muddled thoughts - in this case, deliberately muddled thoughts.

Yes, I did read the online Spiked for a few months. It was that particular kind of journalism which starts by listing uncontroversial facts, then goes fuzzy for a sentence or two of word association, hoping you'll just be carried along without noticing...and when it emerges back into clear writing, suddenly it's all hypotheticals, insinuations, cherrypicking and moralising.

The trick to reading it was to identify the fuzzy moment of gear change. Often it hinged on a single adjective, buried in one parenthetical remark.

More ideological picking-apart on January 31st, in what I think was a summary of a debate on pension cuts:

Some interesting points came up in the forum last night. One was the habit in mainstream economics of treating the mass of people as a kind of crisis generator.

If people live longer, they are seen as a drain on resources for living beyond a productive age. If the average length of life falls, they are not fulfilling their full productive duty. If the birth rate rises, the new population are once again a drain, because the state needs to waste money on feeding and housing them. If fewer babies are born, this reduces future productivity.

Other points. The occupational pension fund owned by a company may be it's largest lump of money. It could run into billions of pounds. Some companies are the targets of takeover bids mainly for the size of their pension fund.

Individual saving is promoted as a way of deferring use of personal resources until old age. Saving food might work like that, but money doesn't.

Two weeks later, I felt the need to say something about technical frustrations:

Three films captured today, all files unreadable beyond a random point - different for each one. It could be a problem with the codecs, or more likely the OS, or more likely than that, the capture software.

I don't have a desperate yearning to reinstall Windows for the second time in a week - I've done it so many times I've memorised the 25 character authorisation code.

If I knew what the problem was, and knew that it was insurmountable, I could live with that. If I knew what it was, and could find a solution, that would be great. But I don't know what the problem is, and that is guarrunteed to bother me.

In the following two weeks, I was obviously feeling introspective:

It's so tempting to withdraw from any political matters, and shrink into the private world of music, computers, philosophy and science. Areas that we can pretend have no political influences or ramifications.

Having a cold, trying to lose weight, installing software, watching television, looking for love. These are the things that belong in personal blogs. I've just been to a forum about an encroaching police state - imprisonment without charge, trial without jury, a climate of fear

...and that's as far as I got. Seven years later, I'm still overweight and still installing software, but don't watch TV and aren't looking for love.

I'm not sure whether I'd realised it yet about forums on hot-button issues: Usually no one in the room knew anything about the subject under discussion. There was a speaker, usually some young hack who'd read one approved article by an elder hack and slightly rephrased it for an audience.

And then there was the audience, some of who knew nothing and so kept quiet, while others knew nothing but could produce enough airy generalities to sound like they did - unless you happened to have genuine knowledge yourself.

Actually, I do remember the moment I first realised the speaker was a fraud. It must have been earlier, around 2002, in a forum on the 'war on terror' and the possibility of America invading Iran. In retrospect they were never going to do it, no matter how insane the rhetoric got, but at the time it seemed they just might.

This forum was on something like "Is Afganistan the new Vietnam?" - a sign that what the speaker really wanted to talk about was the Vietnam war, and didn't have much to say about Afghanistan.

The moment of revelation? She said, and I quote: "In world war two, the average age of the combat soldier was twenty six. In Vietnam he was nineteen."

She repeated in several times in different words, as a major point. I must have spent a minute staring straight ahead, digesting that this supposed expert's source was a pop record sampling a documentary.

And on the theme of people bullshitting each other, this from a week later:

I seem to have drifted into the habit of staying up all night, going to bed at 0700, and waking up around 1400. I've always been a night owl, and it's a good way to study, compose, and work uninterupted - but it does rely on there being nothing to do in the daytime, except the occasional client with a computer to mend.

Unfortunately I have an interview tomorrow at midday, at which I have to prove that I'm still self-employed. The scheme is one of the government's ways to reduce apparant jobless figures - in this case, by getting 'jobseekers' to go through to motions of running their own business for six months.

My tenure is nearly finished, at which point the jobcentre will try to put me onto an 'Intensive Jobsearch' programme, and I tell them to go fuck themselves. I've been on that programme before, and it was the biggest waste of time I have ever experienced.

More tomorrow.

"If you mix religion and politics you get...politics."

- Stephen Andrew

"Talking about jacking off is like dancing about architecture."

- Shawn Baker

Look at My Junk

Okay, I have a website.

Which is to say, a bundle of stuff for people to surf, which gets expanded as and when and if I have something to add. As distinct from a blog, which is the most recent page of a diary, with previous pages attached for the curious.

Or alternatively, a website is a place I can show what I'm doing, whereas a blog is a place I can say what I'm thinking.

Or, a site's a service, a blog's an ego trip.

Either way, now I've got both. It's early stages yet, but if you're into samples for music or utilities for utilising, you might like it. Later, when I've done some music and videos, they'll go there too.

Have a visit, and let me know what you think of the 1970s decor.

"The two most important things that can happen to you in a mainstream movie are being killed and having an orgasm."

- Roger Ebert

Bigger vs. Better

There's an old aphorism/joke in computer programming: Any good program can be killed with enough improvements.

There's another one which runs: Inside every large, unwieldy program is a small, useful utility trying to get out.

I learned this idea twenty years ago, and it's always made sense.

It's why I use Audition 1.5 for audio editing. It's small, fast, almost never crashes and has all the basic features.

Compare with Audition 5.5 which is big, slow, unreliable...and has actually had some of the more useful features removed.

It's why for wordprocessing I use Word '97, which is small, fast and rock solid stable. As opposed to MS Office 2012 which is none of these.

I don't just use Windows XP, I use TinyXP - proof that once a major company have spent millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours making a product, all it takes is a few nerds working in their spare time to make the product what it should have been all along.

Meanwhile the major company have given us the disastrous Vista, the 64 bit kludge, and the bloated Windows 7 - an operating system so confident that it can deal with every contingency, it won't let you fix it when it can't.

Which is why last week I dealt with three separate people, all of whose Windows 7 installations needed a complete wipe and reinstall. None had been provided with a disc to do this when they bought the computer. Which is why their ability to do their jobs relied on knowing someone who worked with someone who could get them a copy of what they'd already paid for.

Oh, and we're about to get Windows 8 - a new design concept based on the assumptions that everyone lives on the cloud...and no one has a mouse.

Possibly the best music making program around is Reason. I use version 5, which has synths, samplers, drum machines, a brilliant vocoder, lots of distortion types, some great compressors and EQs, and all with amazing CPU efficiency.

It also has one bizarrely lacking feature - you can't record audio on it. You can play recordings, you can process them, but you can't make them.

To have your singing over your synths, you have to plug Reason into a program which can record audio, record yourself, do the editing, denoising, level normalisation and such in the second program...and export the result to be loaded into Reason as a sample.

Reason version 6 has audio recording. And editing.

And autotuning, and more distortion types, and more sound-mangling effects. The upcoming version 6.5 supports a proprietary plugin format, and from the demos I've seen it could put Reason right back on top of the heap.

The thing is, it also runs at half the speed, crashes more often...and the security authorisation is a freaking dongle. Your entire recording studio, hinging on one small, unreliable, easily lost, easily broken, inconvenient bit of plastic.

So that's three reasons why I'm still using version 5. Out of date, clunky, relatively limited, but fast, usable, and reliable.

And so, we come to Firefox, the great orange hope of web browsers. The reincarnation of the first great browser, Netscape Navigator, and the one preferred by the majority of those who aren't happy to use whatever Microsoft gives them.

The one which has had eight major upgrades in the last twelve months. And has been getting progressively slower and less stable with each upgrade.

After spending a week with version 11...I'm posting this on version 4. Oh yes, and handcoding the HTML on Windows Notepad.

"There can be no tactics that do not depend on a strategy – and no strategy that does not depend on theory."

- Louis Althusser