Thursday, 28 September 2017


As someone who has owned a scientific calculator since school, I am very aware on how I don’t need to use most of what one can do any more – in fact, the simpler sums I need could often be done by my phone’s calculator app instead. However, the vestigial memories of trigonometry and matrices still in my mind from my Maths A-Level mean the need may come back, so I may as well be ready.

The scientific calculator was invented by Hewlett-Packard in 1968, with the HP9100A, a cash register-sized machine with a TV screen, no integrated circuits, and a five thousand-dollar price tag. Four years later, the HP-35 was designed to co-founder Bill Hewlett’s brief to fit the 9100A into his shirt pocket, becoming the first scientific calculator as we know it. In 1976, a later pocket model, the HP-65, became the first such calculator in space, in case the guidance computer on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project failed (it didn’t).

With more programming ability than most will ever need, exploring the functions of a scientific calculator can produce some interesting results. On my model, I can move between decimal numerals (your usual 0-9, also known as base 10) and other counting systems. For example, 666, becomes 29A in hexadecimal (0-9 then A-F, base 16), and 1232 in octal (0-7, base 8) – therefore, we have the Number of the Beast, the House Number of the Beast, and the PIN Number of the Beast.

However, the most interesting function there is on my calculator, and the one that produces many of the numbers we are asked to observe in everyday life, is “log,” for logarithm. In the simplest terms, logarithms are used to make long numbers easier to handle, by creating a relationship between an exponent number, and the number that exponent needs to be to raise the power of a base number to the value you want. You can make one thousand by multiplying ten together three times (10 x 10 x 10 = 103 = 1000). Taking 10 at its base, the logarithm of 10 is 3, because you needed to raise 10 three times (log10 1000 = 3) - likewise, the logarithm for one million would be 6, and 26 would be about 1.415. Using the “log” button on your calculator assumes base 10, the “common algorithm,” but base e (2.71828…), a pi-like constant in mathematics, is also used, denoted by the “ln” key on your calculator.

Logarithms are used to calculate earthquake magnitude scales, the pH scale to measure the acidity or basicity of water-based solutions, f-stops for camera shutter speeds, population growth, radioactive decay, carbon dating, and decibels for measuring the intensity of sound. In these examples, the figures on the scales presented to us in news stories, on water bottles and on cameras are easily explainable scales, created from exponentially growing numbers of abstract measurements – hydrogen ions per litre of water, ratios of focal length to a camera’s entrance pupil, and so on, situations where you just need a headline number to say, “oh, it’s that bit more.”

However, the headline figure should always be the starting point for your understanding. You don’t necessarily need to know that a magnitude 2.0 hurricane is thirty-two times more powerful than one of magnitude 1.0, multiplying by that amount with each full number, but knowing this brings clarity to the pictures of destruction that accompany the figures. The same can also be applied to interest rates on bank accounts and credit cards, and other figures that may feel abstract, encouraging an easier relationship with numbers.

That was always the intention with logarithms – they inspired the invention of slide rules, using a mechanical slider on a printed scale to make rapid multiplications and divisions, square roots, logarithms and more. However, the ability to enter the numbers you need would wipe out slide rules entirely, like when Bill Hewlett wanted the HP9100A shrunk into his shirt pocket…

Thursday, 21 September 2017


One hundred and one years ago, the Swiss writer Hugo Ball, with artists Hans Richter, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Sophie Taeuber and others, inaugurated the art movement known as “Dada,” at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Some Dada exponents found their way to Switzerland due to the upheaval of the First World War, and it was the horror of this conflict that fomented a rejection of the logic and values that led to it. Dada, purportedly taking its name from the word reached when a knife was plunged into a dictionary, aimed to effectively start again, making new connections with language, context and understanding, using collage, cut-up writing, poetry, sculpture, theatre – anything can be Dada-fied, right down to Marcel Duchamp putting a urinal on its side, putting it on a plinth, signing it, and calling it “Fountain.”

Now, it is a little bit of a stretch to extrapolate this extreme version of rejecting one form of looking at the world in favour of another, and try and compare it to the current trend over fake news, alternative facts, left versus right, Marxism versus neo-liberalism, or common sense versus nonsense, but that never stopped anyone before. Therefore, I will say that the rejection of the perceived status quo in British and American politics, and the ideologies and acts that have followed it, feel like a kind of anti-Dada, or “jackanape,” to take another random word from my nearest dictionary. It does feel like, instead of reacting to the logic of those at the top, we are instead reacting to the strange and unpredictable sounds coming from the bottom.

The immediate problem with this kind of definition is that politicians, activists and conspiracy theorists are not groups that can have their title replaced with “artist,” or “jackanape artist,” because the artistic imperative is not there, unless they then comment on their own activities in an artistic way. However, either side can accuse the other of being a “stand-up comedian” if they think they are hearing rubbish. Even worse, you can call yourself a “performance artist playing a character” as a way of excusing outlandish thoughts and actions, as done by the lawyer representing arch jackanape artist and “Infowars” presenter Alex Jones. This description came about during a custody battle with his ex-wife, but yelling down a camera cannot be explained away later as a performance, if that is not how it has been presented.

So, the “jackanapes” is not something we have seen – yet. If we do, I have “soapberry” ready, another random word, for any possible anti-anti-Dada uprising. Artistic responses to politics will always come, but when politics feels like it sometimes defies interpretation, the question could then become whether it is easiest to oppose it, or bypass it, or ignore it, instead of interpreting it – if a single answer does arrive, I hope it can pick a better word at random than “soapberries.”

Thursday, 14 September 2017


The new Steve Jobs Theater may be, more than all the products Apple Inc. has made in the last forty-one years, the truest statement of its ethos as a business, embodied by its co-founder Steve Jobs. Above ground, it is a glass temple, inviting you into a gallery-like space – functional, designed with precision and simplicity, both organic and natural. The theatre appears similar to those Apple previously hired for its product launches, but it houses the most advanced technology to be found in a theatre.

Like its products, Apple’s theatre is not the first of its type, but is the best, the benchmark, the definitive experience: it is why, instead of competing with others in unveiling its products at technology shows around the world, Apple can be sure that, when they unveil a phone with face recognition and an all-over screen, the world will come to them.

Watching Apple’s launch last Tuesday, I could spot eternal Apple fanboy Stephen Fry in the audience, along with Pixar’s John Lasseter, whose company was once owned by Steve Jobs. However, I also saw their other co-founder too: outside of being a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” Steve Wozniak is not as high-profile as his friend was, but Apple is as much his company as it is Jobs’s. (A third co-founder, Ronald Wayne, sold his share to Jobs and Wozniak for $800 in 1978, but sold his company agreement with them at auction for $1.6 million in 2011.)

While Steve Jobs was in charge of Apple’s image, Steve Wozniak built the technology itself. Their breakthrough computer, 1977’s Apple II, had a Wozniak-designed circuit board, but a case (and marketing) commissioned by Jobs. One of the first true home computers, it was just about their only collaboration on an Apple product, and its development highlighted the differing approaches they had to computing: Wozniak wanted six expansion ports, but Jobs only wanted two. How the Apple II ended up with eight ports is beyond me, but Jobs wanted a straightforward, controlled user experience, and Wozniak wanted owners to play with their machine however they wanted.

Of course, Jobs’s vision eventually won out with advent of the Macintosh: beautifully designed but hermetically-sealed boxes, using proprietary screws, and Apple’s own interface, packaged and sold to emphasise how natural and easy it is to use. The hobbyist Apple II line, endlessly modifiable by its users, remained in use until Apple finally ended it in 1993, 8-bit technology completely overwhelmed by Macs and PCs, and even the 16-bit Apple IIGS, which had its processor clocked to deliberately run slower than a Mac. However, as Wozniak intended, a 1993 Apple II was fully compatible with a 1977 model, something no longer done, as any upgrades to the insides of an iMac require you to buy a new iMac.

Steve Wozniak left daily work at Apple in 1985, later finishing his university degree, bringing to market the first universal programmable remote control, becoming a school teacher, along with being involved in various other businesses and charities. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs was, and is, Steve Jobs, whose story is well known and often recounted, the company he founded with Wozniak now recast in Jobs’s image. Wozniak’s own words on the Steve Jobs Theater bears out what the Apple today is aiming for: “You can’t define beauty. It doesn’t have words. It doesn’t have numbers. You just kind of see it and you know it.”

Friday, 8 September 2017


Straight away, I can tell you I am not interested in exploring whether “political correctness,” from the name to the concepts involved, is a good thing or not. I predict that you may have already made your judgement upon hearing those words, in that order, based on the information, experience and opinions you have personally.

Instead, I am more intrigued about how the definition of “political correctness,” originally meant to signify something positive, has turned sour, both over time, and when anyone has reason to use it. For a term that tends to mean what the user wants it to mean, no wonder “political correctness” needs inverted commas around it.

There is no surprise that “political correctness” was born in the home of culture wars, the United States. Originally entering common usage to reflect how Communists were viewed as thinking their ideology was, politically, the correct one, it became co-opted sarcastically in the 1970s by the “New Left,” who looked at sexism, racism and so on with a reply like, “that’s not politically correct,” in opposition to more inclusive opportunities that can be viewed as ideologically sound. However, from the 1990s, “political correctness” was turned against even this by the political right, with the avoiding of expressing anything that could exclude or insult groups of people became viewed as another way of creating prejudices elsewhere. This is a very generalised version of the way the term has turned, but any more than this will risk switching myself off from my own writing.

In short, the battleground of “political correctness” is how to integrate groups of people that have, in various ways, have been socially excluded or discriminated against – women, black people, LGBT people, the disabled, and so on, all small groups that, ironically, would make a majority if taken together. However, acts of “affirmative action” will be at the expense of someone, somewhere, at some point, interpreted as someone at no risk of exclusion before, but now seeing their view of a fair and equitable situation change – no wonder it might rub some up the wrong way.

Inevitably, the search for new ways of describing a shifting society throws up descriptions of “political correctness gone mad,” the “thought police,” references to inflexible people as “Nazis,” society descending into “anarchy,” and accusations that “free speech” is being infringed. These are all terms that can be used, and defined, by both sides of the debate, to their own ends, usually by trying to exclude the other group. It feels like political debate in general run by the principles of Godwin’s law – the longer the debate goes on, the more likely someone will reference Hitler or, in this case, any of the above, in order to cut off, or win, the debate.

I have this, possibly misplaced, hope that people will wear of the debate, and just learn to get on instead. There is little worse than saying you are offended by something, without giving a reason why. The act of “political correctness” is only offensive if it is used to exclude people from a fair society, no matter what other terms are then bolted on to it. Good debate needs everyone to speak the same language to each other, and good society allows everyone to participate without pissing about over using language to exclude people.

Friday, 1 September 2017


Never having lived under an authoritarian, nationalist regime, it is easy for me to say, as a British person, that I am not a fan of fascism.

In modern history, Britain has never had a regime that took itself seriously enough for anything remotely fascist to work - the British national character, or our idea of one, likes to take overly successful or self-important people down a peg, so the personality cult found around many fascist leaders cannot materialise. I need not go over (again) the shortcomings of Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin because they are both apparent, and well known to all of us, but those shortcomings mean they do not make the grade as a fascist leader – no, they’re not good enough for that either.

Replacing the existing British political system with fascist control would be too radical, and far too much work. Groups like the British National Party are tiny, but no “centre ground” party exists either, because the Conservative and Labour parties always vie for control of the middle ground in general elections. Dragging everyone towards the far right really requires a decisive, seismic event, and even the Second World War couldn’t manage that.

In the absence of a personal test, I agree with a passage often used to confirm British hostility to Fascism. It is found in the 1938 novel “The Code of the Woosters,” by P.G. Wodehouse, where Bertie Wooster repudiates Roderick Spode, leader of the Blackshorts. Spode is an analogue of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, who was imprisoned by the British Government, with other far-right sympathisers, in 1940:

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’”

While the writings of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse embody the manners, the thoughts and the language of a Britain now gone, the sheer British-ness of the man himself got him into trouble. He initially did not escape his home in France when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, and was later captured after making an attempt. The following year, interred in Berlin, Wodehouse was made to broadcast five radio talks, directed to the United States and Britain, titled “How to be an Internee Without Previous Training.” In these talks, he confirmed, “I never was interested in politics. I'm quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling.”

In the absence of knowledge about the circumstances that produced these talks, Wodehouse was decried in Britain. After the liberation of France in 1944, he returned to New York, where he also mainly lived before the Second World War began - his pre-war picture of Britain, as presented in his writing, was preserved. The broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, who was a MI6 intelligence officer when he encountered Wodehouse after the liberation, later said he was “a man singularly ill-fitted to live in a time of ideological conflict, having no feelings of hatred about anyone, and no very strong views about anything. ... I never heard him speak bitterly about anyone—not even about old friends who turned against him in distress. Such temperament does not make for good citizenship in the second half of the Twentieth Century.”

Where does that leave me? When modern-day fascists – “alt-right” really is just a branding exercise - feel emboldened by the actions of leaders, you have no choice but to speak out against it but, as usual for social media, you could be denounced for trying to censor someone to promote your own views. Plurality of opinion is ideal, but threatening the safety of others, in order to promote your own agenda, is simply stupid.

People can believe whatever they want, but if you do want to cut your nose off to spite your face, don’t be surprised if people happy with their own noses decide to offer you a scalpel – and if you think this will work instead, trying to sound reasonable will not work either, especially if the words are not there.