John's Thoughts on Things

This is to be, like many if not most blogs before this one, a general dumping ground for thoughts on life, the web, computers, mathematics, philosophy or whatever else interests me.

In general, if I want to write something that others can see, I'll stick it here (for now...)

John: allsupj "Art, with a right taken away" "Predict, but don't look" dot "A door? a for? What comes next?" dot b(irming)ham dot ac(ademic) dot u(nited )k(ingdom)


Tuesday, November 18, 2003

On Orchestras, Percussionists and the Art of Gentle Simplicity. 

I used to play a little percussion and drums. (Now I'm learning the piano and trying to get my head round synthesizer music.) There were always the many jokes about how stupid drummers are (this 'drummer' is so stupid he forget to leave university after collecting his degree...) I scribbled this little thought somewhere, and decided to write it up for the sake of blogging something. Put simply, percussionists are the Pooh Bears of the Orchestra. The have a job to do, and to do that job they must remember just four things. 1. What to play 2. When to play it 3. How to play it 4. Where to play it Consider the humble triangle. You need to play 1 little 'ting', one hundred and thirteen and a half bars and half a beat into the movement. Imagine that you are a percussionist. If you get (1) wrong, the wrong sound comes out of the wrong instrument and you look stupid. You learn very quickly not to play the wrong instrument. If you choose the big triangle over the little one, or the wrong piece of string to hold it, or even hit it anywhere other than the right place for that particular piece, you run the risk of the wrong sound coming out. It is that simple. You learn very quickly that it is important no to let the wrong sound come out. (You can feel very stupid when that happens, which it inevitably does when one is learning to be part of an orchestra.) If you get (2) wrong, the right sound comes out at the wrong time, thus ruining the moment, the movement, the piece and thus the entire performance (potentially... in situations like this you cross your fingers very hard and hope that no-one heard.) You can do this by simply being a little late with the triangle. This makes you look very stupid. You learn very quickly not to do this either. It's just plain easier that way, I mean, a little flourish in a violin solo can come across as artistic, but how exactly can one 'ad lib themselves out of trouble' on the triangle? Nope -- right sound, right time, no questions. If you get (3) wrong, the wrong sound comes out and you look stupid. You look very stupid because it looks like you can't even play your own instrument! I mean, you only have to hit the thing. You learn not to get (3) wrong either. It's just easier that way. If you get (4) very wrong, you end up in the wrong venue, and the orchestra wonders where you have got to. If you get (4) a little wrong it's not all that bad, but there's just no reason not to be standing at the right spot at the right time with the right instrument to make one of those funny little sounds that the rest of the orchestra can't quite manage. The trouble with our stupid simple percussionists is that they can only remember three things at once. The art is to know that 4 doesn't matter once you're practising, and 3 doesn't matter when you're performing: in the performance you either get it right or you screw up the entire performance. It's not worth worrying about how you play the instrument, you just get on and play it. The trouble is, you just can't live without them. Percussionists know things about how percussion instruments work; they know things that other instrumentalists never need to worry about or learn for one reason or another. Put simply, percussionists are the foundation of the orchestra, the strange random surface on which you build you standardised house. Civil engineers have discovered (the hard way) that foundations are critical, and getting them right slowly, carefully and without making mistakes is the quickest way to build a good building. Vibration, rhythm and resonance is the foundation of the entire orchestra, and this is what real percussionists learn and love to play with. And trust me, percussions can and do love to play percussion with anything. That way you don't have to remember to bring your instrument unless it is for a rehearsed orchestrated piece in which every role is defined to work like clockwork.
posted by John Allsup  # 1:16 pm

Friday, November 14, 2003

On extraneous information in user interfaces 

On extraneous information in user interfaces...
...especially when it is not entirely accurate.

I looked at the Radio Times pages recently... I wanted to get tomorrow's TV... [Think "TV"]

Ok. I went to the right place, instinctively clicking the TV bit. It was the right place, but I didn't realise it until I actually let the browser load the page and took a look.

The problem is that I then realised that I'd clicked "Today's TV" when I really wanted tomorrows. I didn't want to wait for the page to load, so I instinctively clicked back (in far less time than it takes the page to load.) Then I started looking for "TV" in more generality than "Today's TV" advertised.

I Couldn't spot it, so I clicked on TV anyway, I'd started exploring. Then is saw it: there was a day selector. I could get to tomorrow's TV via today's TV.

The question is: Why call it "Today's TV"? Why not just "TV?" A similar thing can be said for "Radio" vs. "Today's radio." In practice, you see this sort of problem all over the place.

The point is this: You shouldn't reason logically: it doesn't work for this sort of thing! People aren't computers and lack the predictability of robots!
People don't work logically; they will not fit themselves into your reasoning. You have to mould your thinking and your reasoning around them; by thinking. By thinking: what will the user instictively do here if he wants this? You need to think, to play, and to structure accordingly; the result will seem far more natural; just because of how you were thinking when you made the design decisions.

Many aspects of improving UI design can as simple as that. A good discipline is to know what you are thinking; what your acelerated 'logically derived' intuitions are doing for you; to be able to slow down you thinking so that you can see, then speed it up again. This is hard; very hard; and I am but a beginner on the road to learning this important and useful skill: Not so much how to think, but how to metathink.

Just a thought.

posted by John Allsup  # 11:30 am

Thursday, November 13, 2003

A thought on Open Source... 

...and the question of: Who pays? (And to whom?)

With the basic Capitalist system we enjoy (or not) at present, 'the company' (or 'the corporation', or 'the rights holder') makes the product (whatever it is, whether a vacuum cleaner or a magic show.) The customer pays the company, the company charges what it thinks it can reasonably get (or otherwise.) Simple as that.

For Capitalism, the answer to the question: Who pays whom? is 'hardwired' into the system. It is simple, it is efficient; or so it would seem. The trouble is that it is hardwired with laws; laws that, as time goes by, require one fix after another. For example, competition regulation, advertising standards, financial dealing rules, etc.

With the Open Source model, the answer is not hardwired. Thus the solution must be a 'soft' solution. You can have a 'customer pays company' system where it works well enough (e.g. RH, Suse, etc.) But being 'software,' it isn't as efficient at doing 'customer pays company' as Capitalism (i.e. (kind of...) it brings in less money for the same quality of product.) That said, you can play with other solutions. There is flexibility. This flexibility is one of Open Source's great strengths. We can, to some extent, redesign our solutions and implement them on a running system, (possibly with the odd 'reboot',) rather than relying on almost eternally 'patching the patches.'

Surely in the long run, with more research and know-how being directed to the problem, far more efficient solutions can be found?

Just a thought.


posted by John Allsup  # 2:31 pm

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Zeta's legal threat over Atkins 

On the BBC website, it is reported that Catherine Zeta Jones, via her lawyers, have threatened to sue anybody who publishes stories saying that she is on the Atkins diet.

I quote from the BBC report:

The lawyers' letter said news reports made it appear that Zeta Jones was "more concerned about her outward appearance than she is with serious health concerns."
This is, of course, an admirable sentiment, and a good reason to try to oppose attempts by others (especially the tabloids) to say that she is on Atkins. Personally, I simply don't care whether or not she is on Atkins... it's her body, not mine. My body is mine, and I don't use the Atkins diet, nor do I plan to. Maybe because the popular obsession with having a 22" waist (i.e. your own) just doesn't apply to most men?

Anyway, what I do want to say is that I think that threatening to sue is unproductive. In light of the recent court case, this use of lawyers threats can give the impression that CZJ is image obsessed, and overly aggressive in protection of that image, and that IMHO has a negative effect upon the message and intent behind the legal threats. (I'm not trying to provoke anything, that's just the feeling I got after having read only the headline and first paragraph of the article in the printed version of Metro. I thought 'Zeta Jones... lawsuits... legal threats... here we go again.' The point is that many readers will stop reading the article having got that far, and what will they think? What will their impression of the situation be?)

Many people are tired of the way that the modern legal system is used, and are beginning to see expensive lawsuits as little different than 'sorting out' some undesirable neighbour by 'rounding up the boys' and 'going in with the baseball bats!'

Anyway, just my view: Admirable intent, but lack of clear thought as to how best to serve that intent.

posted by John Allsup  # 6:30 pm

Saturday, November 01, 2003

A beginning, is a very delicate time... 

...know then, that I'm currently sat in my (shared postgraduate) office at the School of Mathematics and Statistics (University of Birmingham, UK), contemplating my first ever foray into the brave new world of the blog. There have been plenty of times, and plenty of ways that I just wanted to jot down thoughts about a topic, a program, (or programme,) or a piece of music, or some such. I tended to just stick it into a text editor and invent a new (and different each time) method of organising those thoughts into a directory hierarchy of plain text files, categorised in some manner or other. (Said manner was constantly reinvented as a matter of habit... you can imagine the mess!)

And guess what? I'd end up reinventing, reinventing, reworking, rejigging, re-whatevering: without having added much in the way of useful thoughts to what I had written before. Blogging appears to provide a useful solution to this, giving you little choice in the matter. Things are (for appearances' sake) stored in the order in which you write them, and search facilities are used in lieu of categorisation. Thus you just write, rant and argue things as you think them, edit them a little, and the stick them where others can see them.

Obviously there are some things best kept to oneself, but a simple directory of text files with a flat structure will suffice for those; (filenames and grep being sufficient to categorise what little of these files there will be.) Note that there will be an approximate one blog-entry to one file correspondence.

When I write, you will notice a mild addiction to the use of parenthetical remarks. You'll see, for example, "(filenames... there will be.)" As a guide to reading, first ignore all the parenthetical remarks. (Yes, all of them.) They are there to add incidental meaning after the original reading (so to speak.) I could use something a little more like footnotes, but these tend to disrupt the spacial locality that parenthetical remarks have, so I tend to opt to insert little extra bits and pieces in amongst the text I write.

Anyhow, this is my first message, and it isn't really here to say much, other than that, in some way, shape, or form: I have arrived.

posted by John Allsup  # 9:44 am


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