Umbrella and Bicycle

It was raining heavily yesterday, and we all got a bit wet. But I cycled in, nonetheless, because I am a human tool user and can adapt to the situation by wearing the right clothes.

It is not unusual for my students to get up a conversation about umbrellas on a day like this, and indulge in a little light stereotyping. And it always pleases me to be able to tell them that the only time in my life I bought an umbrella was in Milan.

However, the umbrella, like the bicycle, remains one of those fundamentally unimprovable technologies. You can spring-load them, build them into a hat, put ears on them and give them to a child, put slogans on them and give them to a client; but none of this alters the fundamental principle, the discovery of which dates back to the Han dynasty in China, and to the seventeenth century in Europe (Europeans discovered it, of course, in China; in the middle ages, in Europe, people relied on a cloak, much as I rely on my waterproof trousers).


Marchesa Elena Grimaldi – Antony van Dyck

Steve Jobs had a favourite parable, which I have mentioned her a couple of times (making it a favourite parable of my own, I suppose) – that years ago a team of researchers analysed the motor efficiency of a wide range of animals and birds, and found that the condor was the most efficient; human beings stood somewhere in the mid-range of efficiency, until they plugged the figures for human-on-a-bicycle into the algorithm, at which point human-on-a-bicycle streaked clear of the pack by an order of magnitude. To Jobs, the computer fulfilled just such a function for the human brain.

I do not suppose that human-with-an-umbrella would top any table of extraordinary powers, but it would, probably, get near to  the top of a table of animals with water-resistant properties; human-wrapped-in-goretex would do even better, and the catch-all human-wearing-appropriate-clothing would no doubt scream to the top. To the human-wearing-appropriate-clothing, there is, as Billy Connolly surmised, no such thing as bad weather.



Horrific news. Forget the dead whales. Sales of the iPhone, icon of the Spirit of the Age, are flatlining. Which can only mean, logically, that the Spirit of the Age is also in a state of paralysis. We have lost touch with who we are, and, if you believe the advertising, all that we can be (or is that someone else?).

The iPhone was launched in 2007, since when the world has changed. Changed, at any rate to the extent that everyone now has one. It is no longer a cult of the hip and wealthy. It is a universal religion, or, if its advocates are to be believed, a transformation of human possibility on the scale of the invention of moveable type. It is an emblem of the twenty-first century thinking hominid.


As Steve Jobs was fond of pointing out. His favourite anecdote, which he told and retold in interviews and speeches and I suppose keynote addresses (presentations to you and me) regarded a study undertaken at some institution or other into the mechanical efficiency of various animals. A scale was produced, in which humans and other medium-sized mammals came somewhere in the middle, and right out at the top was the condor, most efficient creature on the planet. But then someone had the nous to plug human-on-a-bicycle into the equations, and it turned out that a human on a bicycle was more efficient even that a condor by several orders of magnitude.

Jobs told this story with reference to the information age revolution in general, rather than the iPhone in particular. I do not know that the iPhone has unlocked human potential to quite that degree. Yes, you can now walk and talk at the same time. You can, simultaneously and at the mere swipe of a finger, summon a taxi and read the newspaper and take a photograph of the pavement. All these things are possible. But at some point you still have to pedal the bicycle, as it were. The device is not going to think for you. There has to be something for it to amplify, beyond its own neatness and coolness and silveriness.


I sing the Sofa. I who lately sang
Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touched with awe
The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand,
Escaped with pain from that adventurous flight,
Now seek repose upon an humbler theme;
William Cowper The Task Bk. I

It’s all change in the student’s lounge. The sofas are gone and the chairs have taken over. I sing the sofa.


There’s a story about Steve Jobs and his obsessive perfectionism. At one point in the 1980s he and his family moved into a new house, and spent the next seven years (if memory serves) agonising over not only the choice but the root purpose of their furniture. His wife recalls that they would spend night after night at dinner worrying about, for example, just what a sofa is for.

Perhaps it’s not such a dumb question. I had an American friend in Rome who believed that his relationship with his girlfriend broke down because they did not have a means of transition between the dinner table and the bed. I suspect he was wrong (where there’s a will there’s a way) but his supposition points to the fact that what we take for granted as functional objects – sofas, chairs, desks, tables – are nothing but: they are loaded with symbolic associations and other semiotic baggage.

Hence the shock, yesterday morning, at the disappearance of the sofas. A sofa is at once a convivial object (as my American friend surmised) and a presidential object; chairs are more strictly businesslike, I suppose, but if you sit with the president of the country, or the corporation – not that I have much experience of either – you will probably sit on a sofa. And there will probably be biscuits. I did once teach the president of a large corporation in his office now that I think of it, and I remember biscuits, and coffee brought in on a little silver tray. And sofas.

We will adapt. Chairs are flexible little objects by comparison with a sofa (pretty immovable on the whole), they can move around, occupy odd corners. For now they are ranged as though for an AA meeting, but that will change. We may not grow to love them, but we will cease to notice them, we will start, merely, to use them. Furniture, in the end (and as Steve Jobs might usefully have reflected) is just furniture.

I wonder though how they are getting on at Regent, with their nice sofas and everything…

Cosmological Notes

Today is Ash Wednesday, and the battle between Carnival and Lent has been decisively won for another year by the roundheads.

Battle of Carnival and Lent - Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Battle of Carnival and Lent – Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Given that the date of Ash Wednesday is determined by celestial data (Easter Sunday is held on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox), it is cosmologically appropriate (I suppose) that today it was revealed to me that 70,000 years ago our solar system was host to another star, a dark star that passed through the Oort Cloud only 0.8 light years from our sun. This is a tiny distance. The star, being a dark star, is now 20 light years from earth, and it would never have shown as more than a star of low magnitude; but the thought of such a vast body passing through our galactic home, so to speak, is rather shocking.

I am sure there are cosmologies (personal, if nothing else) in which both Ash Wednesday and all that it entails and the appearance of another star in our solar system would be compatible. And come to think of it is many years since I read the Book of Apocalypse, who knows what is revealed when those seals are opened.


And where there are gods and zodiacs, there are demi-gods and heroes. I read today (and unfairly wished on one of my students, whose job in industrial robotics has only a tenuous link with the subject) a very lengthy but very interesting article in the New Yorker, an interview with/profile of Jonathan Ive, head designer at Apple, responsible for the iPod, iPhone, iPad and iWatch, and also now the various operating systems (IOS – Apple apparently calls the software design department Human Interface, to distinguish it from Industrial Design).

Ive discusses his approach to design, his impatience with poor design, his obsession with angles and bezels and ‘transitions’; he talks about the pressure of taking decisions that could cost billions in lost revenue, reveals a hazy notion of office geography (he thinks all the buildings in the Apple complex, known as the Infinity Loop, are linked in the same way his and Jobs’s were – they are not), and most of all talks about the Watch, the first Apple product that takes on a technology older than the company itself.

I am neither an Apple fanboy nor a ready believer in non-material cosmologies, but Jobs and Ives I would suggest are already entered in the lists of mythical beings, untouchable heroes due for astralization, so remote and placidly deific (Jobs really only because he is now dead) are they. Ives’s natural habitat for the moment is the dust-free, clutter-free minimalist design studio at Apple; he would be just as home in the dust-free, clutter-free expanses of interstellar space.

Eff the grammar

Here is a short lesson in anti-fluency from a young (and slightly wobbly) Steve Jobs.

Twice in the last week or so I’ve found myself talking about the Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks, which Jobs is quoting here – a classic of software engineering management, one of whose central arguments is that increasing the number of engineers working on a project which is running overdue will paradoxically slow that project down.

The idea is that more workers represent more nodes in the network of communication between workers, hence more time lost in every step taken. One engineer working for a month does not equate to twenty engineers working for a day. This does not mean that one worker will always be more productive than two or more workers – it will depend on the project, on how well it responds to discrete segmentation, there will be local maximums, and so on – but in general the relationship of workers to productivity will not be linear.

I would argue that something similar could be said about the teaching, and more specifically the learning, of grammar and vocabulary. I had a student, many years ago, who had an almost universal store of vocabulary items. He could name a skunk, a halibut, and a diatom. But he could barely pronounce any of them, nor could he string an elementary sentence of English together. At around the same time, I had a student who on one occasion held thirty native and non-native English speakers spellbound, telling a story which, if I recall, entailed him losing his trousers, with a total lexicon of roughly 100 words, not including the word trousers.

Quantity is not everything. Nor is more grammar. It rarely matters that you cannot use the future perfect continuous. Or any other tense or structure for that matter. There is always more than one way to skin a cat. Naturally, a little bit of precision can save time, forestall ambiguity; but an apt circumlocution is sometimes even more impressive, and perhaps more efficient.

The most despondent and least fluent students are often those, I find, who have flogged themselves most zealously with grammar. Paradoxically, wanting to get it right is not always all that helpful.

In both cases where I mentioned to students the Mythical Man Month, I also had to teach the term counter-intuitive. Sometimes, if a certain approach has not yielded the desired results, what is needed is not the same approach done harder, but a little experimentation with whatever seems to go against the grain. Try forgetting things. Try getting things wrong. What’s the worst that can happen?

Like software engineering, it’s all about managing complexity. Or, as one of my colleagues once memorably told a student, eff the grammar and be yourself.