serendipity

WHINGE

THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE BUGS

The “don’t you worry about that” philosophy of a former Queensland pollie seems to be the mantra of some software companies. Would it hurt them to show a little message saying the latest (inevitably bloated) version of their operating system is being downloaded automatically? The mouse and keyboard suddenly working spasmodically is a bit of a too-little-too-late giveaway that something is happening.

A long time ago, we decided that our ISP’s plan with 8 GB of downloads per month would be sufficient. And so it was, with no problems until an iPhone entered the house. We immediately came perilously close to being shaped as all the apps we had somehow managed to survive perfectly well without made their merry way onto the phone. [1] Fortunately, for exactly the same cost, our ISP had a “medium” plan that allowed us 20 GB of downloads plus uploads. Calm was restored and there were only occasional warnings about impending shaping, usually after the arrival of a new iDevice or iApp. 

Every now and again, the data usage had an unexpected blip. A blimp would be a better word, actually, as a tenth of our monthly allowance could be devoured in a single day! It finally dawned that upgrades were the cause, with the blame shared between Apple, Microsoft and others, probably in that order.

This month saw a particularly large number of “blimps”: we faced the (unbearable) prospect of three days of shaped internet usage. We bought the 10 GB top-up rather than the probably-not-quite-enough 2 GB option, rationalising that we could use some of the excess to install iOS8 earlier than planned. A foolish strategy really: “update in haste, repent at leisure” as the proverb goes.

A little Google research suggested that moving to iOS8 wirelessly was not without its traumas and that the via-iTunes-on-a-computer approach was prudent. The iPhone was plugged in and the grand updating began. While we did wonder what was going in, we knew there was no need for us to worry about it. And sure enough, after an hour or so, it was the iPad’s turn to be connected. During which time iOS 8.01 was released and probably recalled, but not before it had been downloaded to but not installed on the iPad. 

8 GB of data trundled into our house that night! 8 GB—God only knows what it was! Mind you, He probably chuckled 'well, I did warn them about apples' before becoming more reflective and thinking that the parable of the wise and foolish virgins might have been better expressed in terms of the five late and the five early updaters.

As many of you will have noted, the release of iOS 8 was not without a certain amount of drama. The hoped-for emergency replacement iOS 8.02 was released before our remaining 2.5 GB allowance expired. Both the minor updates were touted as being 70 MB, which made the 8 GB even more puzzling. Taking Euripides advice from 428 BC, "try first thyself, and after call in God”, a hypothesis was developed: if an OS update is installed wirelessly, the system is patched, but if the update is installed via iTunes, the whole bleeping lot (2 GB in this case) is downloaded. And, based on a statistically valid sample size of 1, this was confirmed. 

The iPhone was updated wirelessly and quickly. The iPad was nagging “install me!” But iOS 8.01 couldn’t be installed because it couldn’t be verified because it was a disowned OS. And there was no obvious way to remove it so the iPad would find the newer update. We didn’t worry about that—we had Plan B. The iPad was plugged into the computer; iTunes found iOS 8.02, and an hour or so later the download finished. Oh yes, and gobbled up the remaining 2GB plus of data allowance. The timing was almost perfect: we were shaped a quarter of an hour before the witching hour when the slate is wiped clean, a mere 25 MB over our 50%-greater-than-normal limit. 

As one of the songs from Cabaret says, every story should have a moral: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A fool rushes in to update where angels fear to tread. Let the early birds find the bugs; there’ll still be worms enough for you.

SERENDIPITY, WARRNAMBOOL

  1. Shaped: a less ominous threat than the “throttled” used by some ISPs to describe a considerable reduction in internet speed.
Early operating system upgrades required much longer and more disgusting download times than those described by the author. [An extremely long parasitical worm being extracted from an emaciated linen draper. The man's doctor can be seen on the right measuring the worm and resting it into a jar marked 'Esprit vin'. Plate to:  Album comique de pathologie pittoresque , Paris: Ambroise Tardieu, 1823. Wellcome Library no. 16254i]

Early operating system upgrades required much longer and more disgusting download times than those described by the author. [An extremely long parasitical worm being extracted from an emaciated linen draper. The man's doctor can be seen on the right measuring the worm and resting it into a jar marked 'Esprit vin'. Plate to: Album comique de pathologie pittoresque, Paris: Ambroise Tardieu, 1823. Wellcome Library no. 16254i]

WHINGE

ATTENTION-SEEKING, DISOBEDIENT LITTLE BLIGHTERS

We have fallen upon evil times; the world has waxed old and wicked. Politics are very corrupt. Children are no longer respectful to their elders. Each man wants to make himself conspicuous and write a book.

King Naram Sin of Chaldea probably did not have this quote impressed into clay tablets around 5,800 years ago, as is often claimed, but I’m sure he would have wanted to. Maybe he was too busy organizing the Assyrian version of ICAC to put pen to clay.

We’ll ignore any interpretation that writing an article for CRANK is akin to writing a book and concentrate on the ‘respect’ aspect of the quote. I find that, more and more, I am surrounded by disrespect and attention-seeking behaviour: “listen to me” “I’m not doing that” “don’t forget me” “Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!” And so on, all day long.

The washing machine was the original prima donna. A continuous trilling echoes through the house near the end of the rinse cycle if it deems its precious cargo is ‘out of balance’. If it’s so smart, why doesn’t the damn-fool thing add some more water, swirl the clothes around a bit, and try again?

The fridge developed a much more subtle approach to attention-seeking. No amount of levelling would convince the door to shut by itself, let alone with a gentle push. A master of deception, its door looks shut and then…beep, beep, beep, on and on until you come and shut it up (pun intended).

But it was the inductive cooktop that was the final straw. Put something on it, like the shopping, and likely as not a beep will be emitted every so often until you take it off. Trill, trill—sorry that’s the washer needing its load redistributed. Where was I? Oh yes, the cooktop. Perversely, if you’re frying, and you take the pan off, it beeps. Beep, beep—sorry that’s the fridge this time, somebody didn’t shut its door properly. Trill, trill—[sigh]—the washer wasn’t satisfied with the redistribution. How can you get anything done, when even your interruptions are interrupted? Pure chaos! Taking a deep breath now… ahhhh… as for touching the marked spots on the cooktop that purportedly control power and temperature, well! Maybe it’ll condescend to turn on or off or do whatever you’d hoped would happen, but more likely is complete disdain.

The kindest way to describe the cooktop’s timer is ‘perverse’. Unlike the oven’s, which can easily be heard in the next room while watching TV, the cooktop’s timer is annoyingly insistent yet quiet enough to ensure you must be close by. But there’s worse: when you use the timer to remind you to gauge activity on hot plate 1, it assumes you want to turn off hot plate 1 at the same time! In fact, some seconds before the timer actually sounds! No doubt this is a feature of which the designers were mightily proud, and maybe something I could rectify if I could (be bothered to) read the microscopic print of the instruction manual. But as the default action? I ask you. And even more remarkable, the ultimate in intelligent design must surely be this: if you turn off hot plate 1, the timer turns off too!

And speaking of arrogance and timers, the new microwave doesn’t appear to be able to be used just as a timer—too demeaning a chore for such a self-opinionated high-tech device, I suspect.

Well, that’s a run down of the attention-seekers of the title. Now, let’s tackle those that have perfected disobedience: the TV and the computer. On second thoughts, maybe not. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. I’ll get back to you after a cup of tea, a Bex and a good… beep, beep, beep, beep…. [slams fridge door]… lie down.

SERENDIPITY, WARRNAMBOOL

Thinking to save time and effort the Inuit people trained polar bears to respond to ice-box alarms, though not always with the desired results. Fortunately polar bears did not care much for fizzy pop and preserved fruits.  [Showroom windows at the Metropolitan Gas Co., 196 Flinders Street, Melbourne]. Commercial Photographic Co., ca. 1930 - ca. 1939, State Library of Victoria, H2011.52/171.

Thinking to save time and effort the Inuit people trained polar bears to respond to ice-box alarms, though not always with the desired results. Fortunately polar bears did not care much for fizzy pop and preserved fruits. [Showroom windows at the Metropolitan Gas Co., 196 Flinders Street, Melbourne]. Commercial Photographic Co., ca. 1930 - ca. 1939, State Library of Victoria, H2011.52/171.

REPROACH

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Please say my postcode 3280 aloud. What’s that? You said three two eight oh. Oh, shame, shame, shame. That fourth digit is not a letter—it’s a number. How about “3+2+8+0”? You said nought or zero—not the slightest hint of an ‘oh’. Why the compelling urge to mispronounce 0 when it is in a string of numbers? And so begins this diatribe which is naught but a grizzle about nought.

You may blame my oh-pedantry on a maths teacher who would condescendingly sneer ‘you are not a telephonist’ should oh pass anyone’s lips in class. Job-ism was alive and well in those days! But probably fair enough, since telephone numbers are certainly the greatest source of faux ohs. Triple oh, indeed. The military is not much better with a leading but unnecessary oh for an a.m. time, though ‘oh eight hundred’ commits an even greater numeric crime. Mr Bond possibly suffers the reverse problem: it is uncertain whether ‘double oh seven’ should simply be called ‘seven’ or written OO7 instead of 007.

Computer programmers quickly learnt that it was a big no-no to say oh instead of zero—so big they resorted to putting a slash through a zero, or a dot inside. It usually helped. My one free lunch when assessing mini-computers years ago was a valiant attempt by a salesman to keep me occupied while his boffins frantically tried to work out why my test program crashed their FORTRAN compiler so badly that the computer had to be rebooted. Its undoing was my innocuous but serendipitous “G0TO 50”.

Equating the slim ‘0’ to the fat ‘O’ insults one of the greatest advances in mathematics. Early drafts of Design for a positional decimal system simply left spaces in columns of numbers when there were no units or tens or hundreds. You can imagine how well such gaps would survive a newspaper editor’s urge to mangle columns of numbers by left justification (not). Fortunately, later drafts replaced those spaces with a symbol, which became our 0. It entered English from India via Arabia in two ways: as the word cipher (dated, and rarely used to mean 0) and the word zero. Nought came much earlier from the simple concept of nothing.

Why pick on 0 for gratuitous letter-calling? We don’t call 1 ‘eye’ or ‘el’, do we? Well, I suppose the Romans might have, and if they had had the nous to invent 0, ‘oh’ might be defensible. But they didn’t, which is probably ivtunviii, as my texting m8s might agree. And speaking of phones, it is ironic that you press 6 to generate an O, but 0 to generate the space it replaced so long ago—and 0 twice to generate an actual 0! *

Back to nought or zero. Which to use? Some of you may recall that the Ten TV network was once, in Melbourne at least, on Channel 0. “On the go with channel oh” was their catchcry. I delighted in saying this as “on the go with channel nought” but not “on the go with channel zero”, which at least rhymed if not scanned. That suggests the common usage was ‘nought’ back then, probably reflecting the choice between the US-preferred zero and the UK-preferred nought. Even so, there are a few exceptions where zero is accepted on bought sides of the Atlantic, countdowns being the best example: “… four, three, two, one, oh damn, I forgot to light the fuse”. I suspect that the chance of nought surviving the zero onslaught is zilch, nil, none, zip… which I’d better do, leaving you one last thought: might using ‘oh’ for 0 be just unacceptable familiarity in abbreviating (zer)o? And, if so, can ‘sev’ or 'levn' be far behind?

SERENDIPITY, WARRNAMBOOL

*The use of such ancient technology by someone who has worked with "mini-computers" and FORTRAN compilers should come as no surprise to the reader.

Telephonists of yore took great pleasure in misdirecting the calls of snobby maths teachers.  The telephone room, Melbourne Exchange . Wood engraving by Julian Rossi Ashton 1851-1942. Published by Alfred May and Alfred Martin Ebsworth, Melbourne, January 29, 1881. State Library of Victoria, A/S29/01/81/37.

Telephonists of yore took great pleasure in misdirecting the calls of snobby maths teachers. The telephone room, Melbourne Exchange. Wood engraving by Julian Rossi Ashton 1851-1942. Published by Alfred May and Alfred Martin Ebsworth, Melbourne, January 29, 1881. State Library of Victoria, A/S29/01/81/37.

WHINGE

I HAVE AN AGENDA

Yes, I have an agenda. Note particularly that I said an agenda, with the word ‘an’ heavily emphasised. Yes, that’s right; I used agenda as a singular noun! Now, where are all the Latin experts reeling in horror, falling off their perches and writing self-righteous letters declaring that agenda is the plural of agendum? [1] There is not one to be seen. And we even use agendas for the plural, though agendae appeals to me as a cheeky but incorrect alternative.

Agendum has faded from the language. Is it because our increasingly duplicitous nature these days means that nobody is ever plotting just one thing? Maybe it’s because it looks bad if the to-do list for a meeting only takes up one line on an otherwise blank page. Who knows? Who cares? Me, for one: the title of this piece really should have been ‘I have an agendum’, since I’ll only be grizzling about one thing, but then the rhetorical flourish in the first paragraph would have withered. [2]

For you see it’s not ‘agenda’ that’s on my agenda, but rather it’s ‘data’: why are people so determined to use ‘data are’? Should a ‘data is’ appear, the aforesaid Latin experts descend like banshees en masse. They can’t accept that data has attained the meaning of a collective noun—a synonym for information, and shorter to boot. True, we have a slight paradox in that data (collective noun) is not only made up of lots of data (plural of datum) but can also be made up of lots of data (collective noun). It doesn’t matter how much extra data you add to your data, you still just have data. Data is like a black hole absorbing everything.

Mind you, unlike agendum, datum hasn’t died and indeed thrives, particularly in the geodetic datum of surveying: here, a datum is a set of reference points relative to which other points on the Earth are measured. So there we have it: even datum itself has achieved a sort of collective status. What’s more, it has its own plural, the sensible datums, to take into account all the failed attempts to make the perfect geodetic datum. There’s hope for the ‘data is’ believers yet.

Meanings change and new words enter English all the time. The use of trial as a verb—replacing perfectly good words like test or evaluate—took less than a year to sweep through the language. [3] Yet poor old data labours on, coupled with the inevitable ‘are’, long after its meaning evolved. Perhaps data is available somewhere to show why the use of ‘are’ has such a great following. [4] [5]

I implore you to chastise the media whenever a ‘data are’ is found because the media are responsible for perpetuating the problem. No, wait; shouldn’t that be ‘the media is responsible …’? No, I don’t mean that literally—the media can be totally irresponsible at times—but have we decided that media is indeed a collective noun, like flock for sheep? [6]

It’s up to you to do your bit: replace ‘data are’ with ‘data is’ whenever you see it. And, if people insist on replacing ‘data is’ in your writing with ‘data are’, do as I do to spite them: replace their replacement with ‘information is’.

SERENDIPITY, WARRNAMBOOL

  1. This is a rhetorical question! They are all waiting to pounce on the problem in paragraph three.
  2. The editor of CRANK has hinted that you should split your gripe agenda up into individual agendums to increase the number of submissions—why write one article when you could write two! [Editor's note: or even three]
  3. Surprisingly ‘try’ as in what is done to the accused hasn’t been replaced by ‘trial’ … yet.
  4. The is-ites might be winning: Google search results for “data is” 46.6 million vs “data are” 22.9 million.
  5. Excessive meaningless footnotes interrupt concentration, a gripe I shall leave for another time.
  6. Gems can be found on the internet: the media are expected to show up and hold a séance.

Contrary to what the history books will tell you, Caesar was actually killed during a disagreement at a Latin Grammar Senate Working Group Meeting, after insisting it would just be a lot simpler to add an 's' to indicate a plural. The majority of the Senate vehemently opposed any grammatical structures that would make in easy for other nations to pinch their words (also the feeling of the Roman Numerals Working Group).  The Death of Caesar,  etching by J.C. Armytage after J.L. Gérome. Wellcome Library, London, no. 42744i.

Contrary to what the history books will tell you, Caesar was actually killed during a disagreement at a Latin Grammar Senate Working Group Meeting, after insisting it would just be a lot simpler to add an 's' to indicate a plural. The majority of the Senate vehemently opposed any grammatical structures that would make in easy for other nations to pinch their words (also the feeling of the Roman Numerals Working Group). The Death of Caesar, etching by J.C. Armytage after J.L. Gérome. Wellcome Library, London, no. 42744i.

CRAZY TALK

TELEPATHIC CAMERAS ARE RUINING YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS

A red robin on a stump in the bush is an uplifting sight, enough to erase any thoughts of contributing to CRANK, and just begging “photograph me”. Grab camera, locate bird in viewfinder, zoom in 10-fold, activate auto-focus, and flit—the ungrateful wretch flies away. It hadn’t moved for five minutes! My hand twitches and reaches for pen and paper.

It’s not just robins that have this knack. Crows that have been casing your food bags for hours vanish at the appearance of a camera. Herons, egrets, honey-eaters, hawks, emus, you name it—all are in (or should that be not in) my collection of “this was where the <insert expletive-enhanced name of bird> was” photos.

It slowly dawned on me that my camera was controlling the birds’ minds. I should have realised sooner—there’s even an ESP mode for goodness’ sake. And once you are aware of this menace, you realise it’s rapidly spreading. Only the other day I saw an entire swamp cleared of hundreds of ducks: a fellow walker simply raised his iPhone and the whole bloody lot took off, leaving just a few cormorants. Yes, yes, I know that suggests a GM solution to the problem but it won’t work. Although no cormorant has ever flown off when being photographed, the pressing of the shutter induces a subtle turning of the head that destroys the bird’s profile and hence the picture.

Besides, this power is not limited to the avian world. Kangaroos and wallabies will watch inquisitively for hours—but camera out, off they hop. A baby wombat tries unsuccessfully to hide under its fleeing mother. Cats and dogs stop their captivating behaviour. All animals succumb to the camera’s power!

Even humans are affected. What else could be causing the exponential epidemic of “selfies”? How many times have previously sloth-like people materialised between you and your subject? Reflect on that shot of a fat bottom or a hand with a plate of food or even a bicycle rider. Those interlopers were not thoughtless dolts—they were controlled by the camera. This manipulation starts young too: kids smiles turn to frowns and tears at the sight of the camera. Maybe so-called primitive tribes were right in thinking that a camera takes one’s soul. That might explain those red-eyed snaps.

But worse, it’s not just animate objects that are affected. The lamp post growing out of a person’s head, the electricity wires passing through their ears, or the underpants on the clothes line, all of which moved into position just as the shutter was pressed. Water is a pushover for the camera: a spectacular double rainbow arching across the sky fades to nothing, a cloud passes over the sun, and a mist descends on a panorama—each in the time it takes to ready the camera. Even the sea’s horizon develops a slant.

And wind too. The Amazonian butterfly with its power to cause a cyclone in Asia has entered folklore. Just why is beyond me. No one mentions the hundreds of thousands of years needed for the said cyclone to start spinning. [1] Compare that to the instantaneous power of a camera. It’s a perfectly windless day and a colourful snapdragon calls out “snap me, snap me!” Off with the lens cap and whoosh, a gale starts blowing around the flower. Yet one more blurred photo—every time!

While “point and hope” is the mantra for viewfinderless cameras, the older claim of “point and shoot” is rubbish. The reality is “point and shit”, the last word uttered vehemently as another prize-winning shot is ruined by the camera’s malicious telepathic and telekinetic powers.  We must find a way to eliminate this scourge. We have more to lose than our souls.

SERENDIPITY, WARRNAMBOOL

  1. What scientists are starting to realise is that the current global warming has nothing to do with today’s carbon dioxide levels but results from the interaction of a tract of red-hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) and a Lepidopteral swarm millennia ago. 
A robin redbreast on the branches would have provided a ray of colour in this gloomy scene. It certainly would have but there was no red robin about to actually be scared away by the camera. Image by the author.

A robin redbreast on the branches would have provided a ray of colour in this gloomy scene. It certainly would have but there was no red robin about to actually be scared away by the camera. Image by the author.