# Infinity, A Very Short Introduction, by Ian Stewart

This review was originally written for the London Mathematical Society November 2018 Newsletter. The book can be found here.

The “Very Short Introduction” series by Oxford University Press attempt to take a moderately deep dive into various subjects in a slimline volume. Professor Stuart addresses the apparent paradox of tackling the subject of the infinite in such a small volume right at the start, along with the observation that the topic of infinity has long provided such paradoxes. This particular VSI aims to tackle infinity as found in numbers, geometry, art, theology, philosophy and more, and so it is a tightly packed volume indeed.

Infinity is a concept that is, at least now, embraced in Mathematics, but also reaches into Physics, Philosophy, Theology and Language in significant measure. In this book, Ian Stewart sets off almost immediately into the mathematical interpretations and concepts of infinity, starting with examples that are likely to be accessible to a wide range of readers, but also touching on some that will cause more mathematically advanced readers to consider them carefully and which may be challenging to less mathematically literate readers.

These examples are of the paradoxical issues surrounding infinity; all but one of these is explicitly mathematical, some geometrical, others more algebraic; by the end of the first short chapter we have visited David Hilbert’s famous hotel and explored some of the implications for the arithmetic of the infinite.

The second chapter then moves into a more detailed exploration of the consequences of the infinite in numbers, and in particular explores the infinite, non-repeating decimal representations of irrational numbers and the continuity of the real numbers.

Stewart then explores the history of the infinite in the third chapter, and how it weaved through early Greek philosophy and the classic paradoxes of Zeno, and how for the Greeks issues of infinity were closely tied to their thoughts and theories about motion, and indeed whether motion was in fact possible or an illusion. Some time is spent with Aristotle, and how he dismissed the idea of an “actual” infinity in favour of a “potential” infinity. We then move through with both Locke and Kant to the beginning of more modern philosophical analyses of the infinite. Some time is taken to explore the philosophy of the infinite in Christian theology, particularly through Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher heavily influenced by Aristotle and how he used the infinite in his “proof” of God.

Stewart also explores how, in the modern era, mathematicians take the infinite very much as a normal and integral part of mathematics, with little concern about the distinction of actual and potential infinities that were the great concern of the philosophy of the ancient world.

We dive then, from the infinitely large to the infinitely small in the fourth chapter where the seeds of calculus and analysis are to be seen, and the philosophical objections from Bishop Berkeley to the use of infinitesimals. It is interesting to note that these and other concerns about the theoretical underpinnings of calculus were largely ignored in the face of its obvious utility, until others tried to explore these foundations more deeply. Stewart takes us through this work through Cauchy and eventually to the work of Bolzano and Weierstrass who finally introduced the ? and ? notation that has undoubtedly delighted many undergraduates since and ushered in the start of analysis proper. Stewart than dips into an examination of non-standard analysis, a topic that at least I was never knowingly exposed to in my formal studies; it was intriguing to read of these numbers with “standard” and “infinitesimal” parts.

There follows a chapter on the geometrically infinite, which in particular looks at the role of the infinite in art, but which again after an informal discussion dips into the mathematics of what is going on. The chapter after this focuses on infinities that arise in Physics, particularly in optics, Newtonian and Relativistic gravity, moving on then to discuss the size of the known universe and its curvature. These two chapters are both short and may require some unpacking by readers with less background knowledge.

The final chapter is mostly dedicated to work of Cantor and his systemization of modern mathematical thinking around the concept of the infinite. Here we meet the distinctions between the finite, countably infinite and uncountably infinite, transfinite cardinals and transfinite ordinals. But even here we find the objections of some philosophers, in this case Wittgenstein. This is interesting to read in an era where Cantor’s formulations are considered uncontroversial and part and parcel of the “paradise” of Hilbert’s modern mathematics in the same way that the past controversies of complex numbers are of little interest to modern mathematicians.

The approach taken to infinity in the book, is non-apologetically Pure Mathematical in its spirit, and I suppose this may make the work a little less accessible for some readers, particularly those who are not prepared to think through some of the sections, perhaps with a pen and paper. The Very Short Introduction to Mathematics, from the same series, by Timothy Gowers similarly tackles a cross section of challenging examples from the discipline in a relatively small space.

In September 2016, the BBC aired an interesting series on Radio 4: “The History of the Infinite” (this is still happily available online for those interested, at least for those in the UK). In this series, Adrian Moore began discussing the original Greek antipathy to the idea in early philosophy, and then how the idea emerged through Aristotelian Philosophy, Christian theology. It was after this that Moore decided to tackle the more serious implications of the infinitely small and big in mathematics, before emerging back through Physics into more philosophical territory.

I suspect this route, sandwiching the more complicated mathematical treatment between philosophy more related to human experience could be more palatable to a general reader.

The Very Short Introduction to Infinity is nevertheless a fascinating and joyful exploration of the topic, accessible to the committed and careful novice, but with enough detail and asides to delight formally mathematically trained readers.

# Of Wired, Wireless, Sky+ and 5GHz, and the Linksys ea6300 router

This is partly a ramble, partly a product review, and partly a howto, and mainly an aide memoire. It will naturally therefore be unlikely to succeed perfectly at any of those, but if you have questions, place them in a comment.

We moved into this house just under two years ago, and when we moved in there was no network. Yes, I know – in this day and age.

So we had a Sky+ bundle installed, slightly sadly because I always got broadband from Zen Internet previously, and I have to say I just love them, but the price for the bundle was simply too much below what was possible from Zen.

For a while we had to have an extension cable trailing through the house to where the router had to be installed because the phone socket was in an odd place. Then I finally installed a double socket a bit closer. Then we had a tidier install, but WiFi only throughout. Somewhat to my surprise we got a reliable fast enough signal throughout the height of the (three storey) house. A bit slow, but everything worked.

Bringing gondolin (my main server) back here caused a bit of a headache, partly to due to the loss of a static IP address, and mainly because of a lack of wired network. Two old Ethernet over mains adaptors took care of that to some extent, but it was slow.

So probably about a year ago I finally installed a Cat 6 cable from the router up to the room housing the computer (and a Smart Switch). This was a BigDeal (TM), because now I finally had reliable and fast wired network where all my main IT infrastructure was.

However, we have a couple of smart TVs and a Sky+ box which were all running off the WiFi, and over the years this caused some problems. The TVs were generally OK, but occasionally the streaming quality of video just wasn’t very good and Skype was sometimes flaky (impossible to tell if the problem was our end). The Sky+ OnDemand service was much more of a problem. Hooked to a wireless to wired Access Point it would often drop a film in the middle of streaming and require a lot of intervention (and frustrated viewers) to resume the streaming. We also saw the WiFi space around us grow more crowded and performance at the top of the house became a problem.

So I needed to get a wired network to our living room, ideally with connections for four devices and preferably move the wireless upstairs.

The house is old and the floor boards brittle, so I decided to run the cable around the gable end of the house, alongside some coax cables already there. I hate ladders, but it turns out I hate flaky network connections more, so on Christmas Eve after a lot of hassle I finally squeezed a Cat 5e cable out of an existing but quite full cable hole, and around to the network switch.

I wired plugs on both ends and connected the switch at one end and Sky+ box at the other. Having got a successful wired connection, I then planned to move the Sky+ router to the living room. This would mean that essentially the BT OpenReach box would connect to the switch, and the switch to the router. For reasons that were just not clear to me I couldn’t get the router to connect to the internet in that position. You will see below that there may have been a prosaic reason but in any case the router would have only provided three spare ports and not quite the four I needed, and I found some hints online that the ideaÂ  of having a switch in the middle would not work.

So I had a rethink and bought a Linksys ea6300 router, it was on offer at a local supplier, and a check of the manual indicated it could be placed behind an existing router. It also has 5 RJ45 ports, one for the upstream link, and so the four remaining that I needed and offers dual band WiFi.

Installing the router was initially easy, it had good web based configuration behind a custom WiFi network out of the box. I did experience a few headaches on my first attempts at configurations but I find that pretty common with WiFi, especially when you want to do something unusual. I didn’t immediately go for bridge mode, but in the end found that in the IPv4 configuration and that sorted it.

One point to note, in bridge mode it wants to default to a dynamic IP but then can’t be configured (obviously) unless you know that IP. Fortunately I had configured by DHCPD to allocated it a specific IP, or I could easily have “lost” it. But in any case, my bench tests showed that in the study, it was connected to the Internet and working perfectly.

So I moved the box back into the living room, plugged in the network cable and awaited my triumphant success. In vain. Nothing was working. I plugged the cable back into the Sky+ box, it got a connection straight away. I tried flexing the cable to provoke a fault, nothing. I checked the cable (again) with a cable tester, all wire pairs reported as correct.

I went around in this circle for quite a while, messing around with settings on my Smart Switch and ports as you do when a red herring is about. I didn’t want to accept anything could be wrong with my new cable for two reasons; one was that it was working with the Sky+ box, but the other was I didn’t fancy another afternoon up ladders racing against the sunset.

I had visually inspected both plugs of course, but decided there was nothing for it but to try new plugs. I cut off the living room end and fitted a new plug. And it all worked… it seems my cable crimping skills and cable tester are both in some doubt.

I was able to plug four devices that could be networked into the back of the router, and got two new WiFi networks into the bargain. At the moment one has the same SSID and password as my old WiFi (and both are operating currently), a second 5GHz network is so labelled at least for now to help with testing.

I am getting excellent speeds from the WiFi now over the upper areas of house. I think occasionally there seems to be a connection hiccup and I may have to rename or disable the downstairs main router WiFi but I am leaving them both for now.

I can much more easily stream video at the top of the house, and the image quality is consistently much better.

The Linksys router is a nice, inexpensive device for this purpose, although that is obviously only a small amount of its functionality. It has no external antennae but as it is adding to coverage at the moment that is not a problem, it’s a visually neat box and the inbuilt web interface is slick and well designed. One very good feature is that it does not come with the usual “admin” or “password” preset but a randomly generated password on install (which you can edit). More devices should do this. The manual is not particularly clear about all questions one might have, but overall this is a good solution for my problem for now, at least at the low price I was able to obtain it.

# A review and response to “The First Jedi”

A few months ago, Allen Baird wrote to me courteously to tell me he had written a book about some experiences running a Jedi Course at Queen’s University, that I was tangentially involved in. I discovered the book was available about a week ago, and obtained the Kindle copy and read it over a few days. This is partly a review of the book as I see it, and some ideas the book triggered me to discuss.

TL,DR?

The book “The First Jedi“, due to its title, runs the risk that the course did of instant derision and dismissal, but that would be a mistake. This is not some sort of fanboy gushing excess, but some quite serious content lurking under a whimsical title. It contains significant quantities of psychology and philosophy than can be applied to daily life, delivered in a vehicle of story telling based in real events surrounding his training courses in Northern Ireland and alluding to the “jedi / sith” archetypes from the Star Wars universe. Big ideas in a sugar coated pop culture shell if you will. You don’t have to be a geek to read it, or to fully get that dynamic, but I would imagine it helps to fully get it. It is both funny, educational and serious in appropriate measure, and I imagine most people will very much enjoy it.

Still Here?

Allen runs his own training, writing and coaching consultancy business alongside his partner Dawn. Some years ago he ran a “Jedi Training Course” as a one day event at Queen’s University, Belfast. Again, note that this whimsical title belies some serious content. This is a tactic I fully approve of, and one I have used myself. My own talk titles tend to be a bit whimsical too. There’s plenty of dry stuffy, self-important nonsense already. The world doesn’t need more. Allen relates the story of running this course, and the media frenzy the title caused within the book. He also manages to get across much of the material.

As I mentioned before, you don’t need any detailed knowledge of the Star Wars universe to get this. I think Allen would be the first to acknowledge that plenty of people know more detail about that universe than him. Indeed, checking again, I find he describes himself in the book as a “Minor Star Wars fan”. This is a vehicle, a metaphor. And of course it’s exploring the fact that the Star Wars universe did not grow in a vacuum. You can find likely inspiration for its ideas littered all around in classical philosophy, and sometimes religion too.

Allen approached me for some help in bringing a martial arts element to his successor course. He covers his initial meeting with me in his book, and I’ll perhaps decline to comment on that overmuch. I wasn’t put off by the whacky title, because I bought into the usefulness of the underlying material, and I could see the linkages to aikido very clearly. Plus, I was supportive of his ideas to bring people to continuing education who would otherwise not think twice about it. I may have been more enthused, but cautious, than he realised ;-).

The book is semi-autobiographical in the sense that the plot is based upon real events, but with some added fictional aspects. Early on in the book Allen talks about a technique called the “Gollum Effect” to describe how one can have a conversation between the two halves of the brain. Largely you could describe this book is being delivered by that conceit. There are two characters who give a “jedi” and “sith” perspective on the events and concepts being discussed. One voice is the largely factual voice of Allen – to what extent this aspect is fictionalised I cannot tell – while the other is presumably largely fictional. I could say that I cannot tell to what extent this other character represents factual thoughts and feelings too, if at all.

Having established this groundwork, the main portion of the book explores the course, its genesis and construction, which is both amusing and interesting. A fair amount of time is given to the media treatment of the course, and this is worthwhile and amusing, though it does inevitably lead to some minor amount of repetitive information being conveyed. I think this has been done to help anchor the book in the evidence of the original course being a real entity. He links this in nicely with the Jedi census phenomenon in the UK, which aside from the humour of it, reveals some underlying attachment to these ideas at some level. Star Wars, like it or not, is a major cultural influence, resonating with other more ancient ideas from both Western and Eastern thought.

Sensitivity and Flow

The book then moves on to the initial course, and submerges the reader in it. You get the course itself for free with the price of the book. It talks about the idea of the Highly Sensitive Person, and the psychological idea of Flow which is integral to education and which I have delivered talks on myself. This idea of flow is, incidentally, alive and well in aikido (and other martial arts no doubt) where it is often described as “moving meditation”.

Assertiveness

Here again we move into territory that underlines why aikido was an excellent choice to convey the concepts of the course. Assertiveness, as an important part of every day life, is a vital part of aikido, and obtains a good treatment in the book.

As an aside, and response, I will note that Aikido is often described as a defensive martial art. I think that’s fair. However, many will conflate the ideas of defence and passivity. In fact, to become an excellent aikidoka, one has to learn that point of assertiveness that is beautifully described in the book as lying between aggressiveness and passivity. Neither of these latter states will help in aikido, one’s mind must remain clear and free of aggression (since otherwise, neglecting any other aspects than the physical for the moment, the adrenal response will rob the body of fine control and the mind’s ability to see the whole situation clearly), while passivity will rapidly end in disaster. You must enthusiastically meet your opponent with neither reticence or an urge to dominate them.

Synchronicity

Allen next explores the Jungian idea of synchonicity exploring how the mind has a tendency to conflate events that are not causally linked. I’ve explored this a little in another long article on perception and especially how it can link to the martial arts.

He discusses practical ways to overcome fear. He misses, I feel, a golden opportunity to link in another great Sci-Fi franchise, covering the Bene Gesserit litany against fear. Perhaps the Bene Gesserit training course will be next. The similarities of idea are huge, and possibly even more aligned to Allen’s content.

This material reminded me somewhat of ideas I have taught in aikido classes to deal with pain. When pain is inflicted upon you, there are two aspects, the physical underlying pain, about which you can do little, but there is also an overlay – the mental expectation of pain. Learning to relax into that can greatly reduce the amount of apparent pain felt.

Control over one’s mental state, and attempting to overcome adrenal response, is a big part of aikido for me. While aikido is not Chinese in origin, Chinese martial arts masters have described aikido as an internal martial art for that reason, and I agree with them. The late Alan Ruddock describes in detail in his memoirs how the ancient story of Monkey is a parable about how the various aspects of one’s mind can be brought into harmony, even if control is too strong a word. The Star Wars generation may know this story better from its TV series, which might just occasionally have been light on philosophy and heavy on action. The book is well worth a read (both Alan’s Memoirs and Monkey incidentally).

Fear turns to Anger

It would be hard to talk about the Jedi/Sith dichotomy and not write about anger. Allen treats it well, working in some Aristotelian Ethics which is hugely pertinent to life, and reinforcing the importance of assertiveness as a midpoint. I cannot recall if this is the point where he also introduces a bit of Stoic philosophy, perhaps the school of Roman thought that resonates with me most. Marcus Aurelius, one of my favourite philosophers gets a pertinent mention. You can read his meditations at a browser over lunch time.

Mindfulness

And so we come to mindfulness. To me, this is the concept most obviously born out of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism is in many ways more of a philosophical system than a religion as we often describe it, but in any case, there is no need to consider the whole cosmology and religion to cherry pick some its good ideas. Though, in passing, when I first watched the Phantom Menace, I was very taken with the idea that Qui-Gon Jinn was somewhat based, in name and concept, on the Bodhisattva Guanyin.

References to Jedi being exponents of compassion reinforces the feeling that some Buddhism is behind the scenes. I have written before about the apparent dichotomy of compassion in a martial setting.

Anyway, mindfulness brings us back to those ideas of Monkey, and Meditation (whether in movement or not). I think the book implicitly emphasises a truth often overlooked by the want-to-be-spiritual; that mindfulness can be practised as you sit in the lotus position in a silent dark room, but it doesn’t really matter a damn if your thinking all goes to pot as soon as the outside world becomes disturbed. One can practice mindfulness anywhere. Indeed, it’s the only practice worth doing in my opinion. (Much to learn, I still have).

For some more thoughts about this in the martial arts, you can look at my article on the concept of fudoshin.

The book explores, the again, Jungian idea of our Shadow selves, and the extent to which our failure to acknowledge the truth about them can lead to greater problems.

It also explores the ideas of attachment, which is one of the bits of Buddhist philosophy I think is the most interesting and emotionally understand poorly. I would be interested to chat to Allen about this bit some time.

The Sequel

Allen then deals with his attempt to produce a more ambitious version of the course, along with Rory O’Connor and myself. Rory to bring some thoughts about the “Force” into it (or at least real-world parallels) and myself to bring some aikido and potentially some kumi-tachi work too (sword to sword). This isn’t as weird as it sounds since many of these ideas are present in both physical and “normal” interactions and confrontations between people, and sometimes some people can learn through the body more effectively. I roped in John Donaldson, a far superior swordsman to myself, and also something of a Star Wars fan. This was years before John would take to dressing up as a storm trooper or the best Captain Jack Sparrow this side of the Atlantic. Possibly Allen’s second course would have been more successful otherwise.

We did a certain amount of planning for this new version of the course, and everything was good to go, but it was not to be. Things did not proceed as we had foreseen. Allen talks about this and wraps the story to an interesting conclusion, taking the Jedi / Sith conversation to its final conclusion and bringing a nice sense of closure to the proceedings.

But of course, I won’t give away the ending, you’ll have to read the book!

# Gnome 3, or Gnome Shell issues

I use the Debian operating system on several computers. My “main” computer (Imladris) runs Debian unstable (Sid) while the others mostly run on testing. I’ve been anticipating the Gnome 3 upgrade for some time, mainly because of the switch to Gnome Shell which is a completely new way of using the desktop. I had played with Gnome Shell a while ago, and was kind of impressed and worried by it in equal measure, I decided it wasn’t ready for prime time so stopped using it. Naturally I assumed it would be much more impressive upon release; especially since Debian is not (by far) the first GNU/Linux distribution to include Shell.

A while ago a big upgrade came through on imladris, and it was clear it was the Gnome 3 upgrade. I share this computer with three other users, two of which are children for whom I have implemented password less login (locally only). I can only say I think Gnome have significantly mishandled the upgrade. Here are some reasons why.

The display manager can take up to a whole minute to display the list of users (and often doesn’t display the icons). There are some bug reports about a possible race condition that causes this, but seriously on a reasonable spec computer this is unacceptably slow. The same problems occurs when switching user.

My, admittedly old user account simply wouldn’t launch a working desktop. I had to (at a command prompt) delete configuration directories to get my account working again.

Absolutely zero support for the user in transition

So the average user does the upgrade and suddenly their entire desktop has changed. But when they first login there will be some guidance about where everything is gone… right? No. Having already used Shell, I knew, but I had to try and show everyone else how to use the machine again. It’s not that spectacularly intuitive.

Actually, a lot of functions have just gone

There’s a huge removal of existing functionality. All your carefully tweaked panels: gone. All your applets: gone. And bizarrely often with no working alternative.

Not friendly for children

It was possible to set up a Gnome 2 account to make it easy for kids. Low res graphics, and big panels with big select icons. The new paradigm completely ignores all that in favour of a sleek minimalist environment which is probably not that easy for young children to understand.

Dictatorial design choices

It’s been decided that we don’t need minimise buttons or maximise buttons. It’s been decided not to honour old desktop backgrounds. It’s been decided not to honour existing resolution settings. It’s been decided not to show anything on the Desktop (much to the confusion of many users). It’s been decided we can’t right click on the desktop.

Some of this kind of nonsense is exactly why I don’t like some other operating systems who believe they know what’s best for you with Messianic Zeal (I’m looking at you Apple).

All in all I find this transition very disappointing. There are lots of basic things no-one seems to have thought of, and years of desktop customisation have been swept away with an extraordinary arrogance. Don’t get me wrong, I support the idea of trying a new Desktop paradigm: but, for instance, if people used to have applets on their desktop for the weather, or for system monitoring, it’s because they needed it. Rolling out a new desktop that simply ignores these things in favour of how some people thing everyone should use their desktop is exasperating.

I’m seriously hoping that Gnome Shell improves significantly and fast. I won’t hold my breath.

# HTC Desire versus Apple iPhone 4

I have both these phones. The HTC Desire is my personal phone, and runs Android (in this case Froyo, Android 2.2). I’ve been using Android for some time now, and regular readers will know I haven’t been shy about commenting on its problems in the early releases. I also have, and have had for about the last month, an Apple iPhone 4, running iOS 4, for work. I’ve been promising some people a comparison.

Disclosure: I’m not really an Apple fan. From the moment I started to play with some in QUB, I disliked the single button, the cotton wool interface that kept you from “harming yourself”, or doing anything deep. But I know that has changed somewhat, the latest Apple computers, while still having that fluffy exterior now have a decent operating system underneath. So I’m going to try to be as fair as I can be.

First a comment about the build quality. Both phones feel very similar both in the hand and in the pocket, the iPhone feels like it has a better build quality, but then you do expect solid hardware from Apple. Both phones have a button on the top to “wake” the device. Both have volume controls on the side. The iPhone has a nice feature of a slider button that mutes the device at one go; the Desire requires you to put the volume slider to zero (there are other ways, I know). The iPhone has one big button at the bottom, reminiscent of the one button mouse, and this is an area where the Desire wins hands down, with more physical buttons including the search, back button, the menu button, the home button and the optical trackball.

A note on the intuitiveness of the interface. Apple claims that their interface is so intuitive you don’t need any instructions. I must say I find the Android (Desire) interface more intuitive, and when you start that phone for the first time, it walks you through the basics. Very helpful for beginners.

Anyway, time is short and some people are waiting on this review, so here’s a potted comparison.

Feature iPhone Desire
Basic Interface Uncluttered, but uninformative, no widgets, no live wall paper, no active folders. Dull, one size fits all. Switching between tasks and back again is inelegant. Notification of outstanding items is cleaner than standard Android. Very rich, combinations of apps on the desktop, widgets and all the things mentioned by their absence for the iPhone. Much more personalised. Task switching, particularly the back button, is much more elegant. HTC Sense is nicer.
Phone Disastrous. Frequently won’t connect calls when my Desire will. There seems to be something else at play here and I’ve reported it. Both phones are on the same network BTW. It’s more awkward to change numbers on the fly and many other things. But it’s very pretty. Much improved in Android over the last few versions, the ease of dialling, changing numbers is much better. Finding contacts to dial is much easier and faster. Oh, did I mention it works?
Voicemail Fancy. Asks me to set it up every single time I turn on the phone. Recently while travelling, I couldn’t pick up a voicemail because of this for about an hour, by which time I was sitting with the caller. Not Fancy. Works all the time.
Workplace The stock mail client is very pretty, and for example, links to appointments easily (but makes it hard to see if you are free). It has limited threading support which is really nice. The Android exchange support is, in my opinion, superior. It lacks threading, but does have follow up support, which I take to be vastly more important.
Apps Legendary, but there are relatively few free quality apps. For example, I struggled (still haven’t) found a decent calculator (not the built in one) that is free. I find the market app rather clunky. Can’t find any decent external exchange apps that work. Many problems with the Market were fixed in Froyo, the apps available seem to be broader in nature, and many more are free (my perception). Choice of several exchange apps, more fully featured than iOS.
Software Keyboard Simple, elegant, but frustratingly difficult to type complex content, having to change layouts all the time. More cluttered, but actually as easy to use, better word prediction, less switching between layouts.
Battery Life Initially winning hands down, but now hogging battery like no tomorrow, can’t make it through an average day. I don’t know what’s causing the problem and so I’m just deleting apps all over the show. Vastly improved over other phones, still an issue, but actually appreciating it more after the iPhone
Music Very pretty. iTunes integration. This is also the problem. A cheap player I bought for my Daughter allows me to just dump music on it and it works. What I had to go through to get Music onto the iPhone because of my unusual setup, well, it wasn’t easy. Oh, and by the way. iTunes sucks. I mean really… disastrous, but with no alternative. Bulk device, you can just copy the music on and it works. Plays music just as well as the iPhone, in fact better because the former occaisionally and inexplicably stops. Wide variety of music players.
Video Flash.
Web Browser is probably prettier than Android’s and allows more Tabs, seems to be slower though. Native Flash is an advantage here too.
Notifications Really dreadful, and a well known problem in the Apple community. Poorly handled, and when they pop up, and you go to use the phone the notification is just gone. Elegant system that allows multiple notifications each of which take you straight to the issue. Persist, unobtrusively, until dismissed.
Calendaring / Time Automatically setting the time to the wrong time since the clocks changed. Manually fixing this makes calender entries wrong. Setting it back to automatic makes the time wrong again. Google Calendar back end more open than Exchange. Exchange functionality built in too. Minor quibble, cannot change the colour of the Exchange calendar. Date / Time works. Minor quibble, on a non rooted device you can’t use ntp for ultra correct times. Can’t on the iPhone either as far as I know.
Oddities My laptop supplies power out of USB while it’s off. I use this to charge my Desire if need be. The iPhone requires the whole machine to be on for it to charge the phone. The power connector on my Desire seems to be a bit stretched, so if I’m not careful, it’s not being charged. The Desire asks, when plugged in, whether it should charge, act as a disk, do internet tethering etc..

I’m honestly struggling to find an area where the iPhone wins hands down against its competitor. I can’t think of one. I imagine if the iPhone is the only smart phone you are used to, it seems miraculous. It probably seemed that way against Android 1.1. But Android has grown up now, and it makes the iPhone look just stupid by comparison. I couldn’t recommend an iPhone to anyone. Sorry.

By the way, I fully accept that perhaps when I get used to the iPhone I might come to love it more, but I’ll be surprised.

# Cthulhu and Cosmic Terror

For many years now, I’ve been aware of the Cthulhu Mythos, since it infuses lots of popular culture. Indeed, Dread Cthulhu was recently blamed for the horizon oil spill, a theory that I rather enjoyed.

Despite this, I hadn’t actually read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s books directly. Last week and this, I decided to try out an ebook reader on my phone, specifically the rather excellent Aldiko for android. It’s a nice application. I downloaded two of Lovecraft’s books; “The Call of Cthulhu” and the “At the Mountains of Madness”.

Lovecraft has been, mostly after his death, immensely influential, with references to his work appearing in many modern authors’ work (e.g. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman). He is famous for the idea of “Cosmic Horror”. The idea that the world is not truly rational, and understandable, but nightmarish, chaotic and hostile or at best indifferent to human nature.

I found “The Call of Cthulhu” rather unpleasant to read in parts, not because of the supposed horror, but because of the unpleasant racism implicit and explicit within the book. It does need to be remembered that everyone is a product of their times however, and I find the implicit racism difficult to accept in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien too. But the book was interesting.

The second book, “At the Mountains of Madness” was more mature and less objectionable.

But I couldn’t entirely share the horror of the protagonists. Some of their discoveries were genuinely horrifying (usually acts committed by human beings) but much of the rest would be wondrous. They are horrified by the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry in architecture. Non Euclidean geometry does not frighten me, and indeed Lovecraft understood it wasn’t the true nature of the universe. But seeing clearly non Euclidean architecture in a “normal” setting is wondrous, terrifying perhaps briefly, but not horrific. Much of the horror just comes from the primitive frame of reference, either scientific, or religious or both, of the protagonists.

And this is the bit I really can’t understand, since Lovecraft was a failed astronomer, so he would have known that the universe is, to the best of our knowledge, indifferent to our existence, and that the laws of physics themselves could see our annihilation in so many ways. Indeed, apart from a (probably literal) Deus Ex Machina solution, every scientist knows that the ultimate future of humanity is doomed… Is that “Cosmic Horror”?

By the way, since the world is Sherlock Holmes mad at the moment, I recommend A Study In Emerald (PDF), a Hugo Award winning short story that is an interesting cross over of the Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu mythos written by Neil Gaiman.

I recently bought a Roberts WM201 Internet Radio. I’ve used it for a while now and thought I’d post my thoughts.

First of all, I was looking for a radio meeting certain criteria, it needed wifi, I wanted it to pack a reasonable punch since it would essentially be my main music source, it needed to support upnp media servers. I also wanted it to have an integrated transformer so that it would not have a bulky mains lead since I wanted it for my rather small kitchen. Finally I wanted it to be semi portable, so I could move it from room to room without too much fuss.

The WM201 meets all these criteria, and is based on the Reciva technology that has been well received by a few of my friends, notably Paddy and Noodles. The radio is a pretty good size, not too large and not too small, and feels really solid. It has a wired network port as well as wireless capability which is great. For complex reasons, when it first arrived I had no internet connection (no gasps, I was making do with 3G hookups). That being the case I knew I wouldn’t be able to get the internet radio functionality itself working. But I figured I’d set up a local lan and get the mediatomb server on my development machine working. I was able to hook up to the LAN and enter the WPA password, but it just would not play with any functionality whatsoever if it doesn’t see the servers it expects to. Now Noodles has suggested my geek privileges should be revoked for not working out how much of the internet I had to fake to get it to work. He may well have a point! In my defense I had plenty of other issues to deal with instead.

About a week later I got my net connection, albeit temporarily since some work was needed on the cable. So while the network was up I was finally able to get into all the functionality, and I was really impressed, the small display and control is really intuitive and the shipped remote control is excellent. When it came time for the external network connection to be severed again, I quickly switched the device over to streaming media from a playlist on mediatomb, but interestingly it still gave that up midway when the external connection went down. Dumb, but forgivable.

So again, what’s good? It offers brilliant sound, and more volume than I could wish for. It’s easy to browse through the huge array of stations, and for things like the BBC stations, it has a good interface to the “listen again” service. It works seamlessly with mediatomb on my PC. All excellent. A minor grumble is that it’s not easy to switch briefly from a radio station to the playlist on mediatomb and back again, you have to go through all the menus every time. The number of stations is so huge, finding them can be a little slow, but you can as you would expect, save them to a preferred list. I hit a problem with that; my saved BBC stations have spontaneously stopped working, just showing endless retrying messages. When I go back through the menus it’s all fine. Odd.

The radio becomes better yet when you use the Reciva portal to set up your “stuff”, a list of your preferred stations and podcasts. Obviously it’s much easier to do this on a web page, and then you simply register your radio. Now (it seemed to require a hard power cycle for me) the radio has an extra “My Stuff” menu which gives really easy access to your favourite stations and allows you to quickly select podcasts, far faster than navigating on the radio. An odd note, if you for example navigate through “listen again” in the normal way, you can fast forward, pause and rewind the playing media. But if the same stream is selected from the podcast menu in “My Stuff”, you can’t. A slight annoyance.

I’d really recommend the device overall, it’s great. Incidentally the cheapest prices I could find were on Amazon by some distance, but time and time again, I would select a seller and only at the final hurdle be told they wouldn’t ship to Northern Ireland. I’ve complained about this before, it would be useful to know rather sooner that I’m wasting my time. Anyway, I found a simple way to work out which sellers ship to Northern Ireland and find the cheapest of those. I selected one from each and every seller on Amazon. Then when I went to checkout I removed all those that caused complaints. It was then easy to find the cheapest remaining seller. Much faster than trying them one at a time.

# Android 1.5 (Cupcake) firmware

I recently wrote about my experiences with the Google G1 dev phone running the 1.1 Android firmware, and discussed a number of problems.

Last night I obtained the just released 1.5 (cupcake) firmware and performed the upgrade. That all went smoothly, it helped to have done it before and working out the idiosyncrasies of the process. So how does the new firmware measure up?

Initial thoughts and feelings are very good. Picture handling in MMS is hugely improved, although I still had a problem with an old video clip, but I’ll see if it was the oldness that was the problem. The optional on-screen keyboard is very useful and surprisingly easy to use, with predictive words hovering just above it. I enabled the options to automatically rotate the screen upon device reorientation, that is a big improvement in general usability, and means you no longer have to flip out the keyboard just to provoke rotation.

Other improvements include the camera – much better, and video capability, although the microphone doesn’t pick up sound very well on video. The web browser is also much improved and hugely more usable and readable, the auto rotation helps that too.

One very quirky problem, the one screen I’ve found that doesn’t auto rotate on the device orientation is the home page. That rather surprised me. Overall, this is a very significant set of improvements, and I’d suggest any G1 user upgrades as soon as possible.

All of this goes a long way to making the G1 a good day to day phone for me, although I’m still having to limp from one charging source to another, I don’t think I can get through a day of my normal use without charging in the car and at my desk – and yes, I’m frequently trimming back all the features to extend battery life, when I remember.

Update

Here are a few more comments after a little while of using cupcake. Of little problems and whether or not I’ve resolved them.

• Bluetooth pairing
After Cupcake, the phone no longer automatically paired with my in car gadgetry. In the end I found that going through the settings and clicking connect explicitly for each device connected it that time, and next time it did so automatically.
• MMS issues
There are still some of these, I get some images from some people that are much smaller than I remember getting from the same people with the same phone when I had the N95. It’s not clear if this is because the G1 is just not allowing the same level of zoom, or what else may be to blame, but still rather small. Also, video clips are simply not playing. When I receive one I still get another text from my provider (O2) telling me I can’t receive them. But now there is an icon suggesting they can be played. When you try, you simply get a number of seconds of a blank screen and silence. Suggesting possibly a codec problem, but I can find no mention in the oracle of google as to how to fix it if so, or whether I should expect it to work.
• Fast switcher apps
The API that allowed apps to turn off and on some features has been deliberately disabled. Not a huge issue, but it means many apps that helped you turn on and off wifi, for example, no longer work. Unhelpful in a phone that still has profound battery life issues.

# HTC Android G1

I obtained an HTC Android G1 dev phone to play with. I’ve been working with it for almost a week now, and so can post my initial thoughts. And they are quite seriously mixed. There are things about this phone that are just unbelievably good, but with some shockingly unbelievable flaws too, enough to possibly render the phone unusable for me to be honest. You’ll probably see as you go on that shocking, and unbelievable are two buzzwords I use a lot in this review. It’s more polite than rearranging this acronym FTW into its more usual order and expanding.

First, some caveats. The phone I received was a dev phone, it had the 1.0 firmware revision, and that might have been the cause of my initial problems. It’s now on 1.1 (and update was irritatingly problematic too). The dev phone comes with the phone, headphones, a US charger, a USB cable, and about two post cards worth of docs. Mostly these discussed set up of APNs. That wasn’t trivial, and O2, my provider were frankly as helpful as a chocolate teapot. It didn’t help that their systems showed, at least with the 1.0 firmware, that the phone was missing key capabilities.

Thanks to Noodles, I got some working access, and initially getting things synced with Google, and wifi was easy. I actually had some problems with bluetooth pairing, but it could have been the other end. I spent a lot of time trying to find the most elegant way or exporting my evolution contacts to Google, and eventually found the magic command line to produce the CSV on Debian Sid your paths may vary.

First of all lets summarise the stunning features of this phone.

• Big clear screen
Mostly the interface is crisp and clean and the touch interface is very intuitive and easy to use.
• QWERTY goodness
The G1 screen slides out to reveal a full qwerty keyboard that is really easy to type on.
• Shell goodness
You can download applications that allow a local shell, and for me much more usefully an SSH client. Coupled with the keyboard and connectivity this is excellent.
• Calendaring
This is just superb, intuitive, easy to navigate, cosmetically pleasing, automatic sync.
• Email
Almost belongs in grumbles since the built in client does not, under any circumstances, accept self signed certs. But the K9 market app does it all, it seems to be a fork, or more likely set of patches maintained on the original email client.
• Messaging
This is really in both lists. The nice way in which the G1 threads correspondence is very helpful, but there are problems. See below.

And now, the reprehensible clangers.

• Battery
The battery life on the N95 is shockingly bad, but actually the G1 is on a par with that, you seem to need to constantly trim all the features that consume power to get through a day reasonably (all be it, the battery life is stretching now I think, and less day-to-day fiddling helps).
• Video Capabilities 1/2
This is the first 3G device I’ve ever had that didn’t have a forward facing camera for video calls. I know some other smart phones are similar, but the N95 I have does have this capability. A non issue for many, but something to note for some.
• Video Capabilities 2/2
Even now, quite a while after release, the G1 is incapable of using its camera for video clips. I find this extraordinary, I think it’s the only phone I’ve ever owned with a camera that can’t do this.
• Media Messaging
This is quite frankly, shockingly bad. It’s a complete pain in the ass to configure MMS, and even then it often simply doesn’t work. There are long delays and repeated failures in sending and receiving MMS, and yet other times it does it. I can’t yet work out the pattern. The way in which the phone shows attached images is really appalling, and difficult to manipulate.
Rather than showing the image when clicked on till you click again, it annoyingly shows it for a number of seconds of its choosing and then goes back. You can’t zoom, rotate, download, or otherwise manipulate the image that doesn’t even fill the screen size available.
Even more extraordinary is that while the phone can’t take video clips (see above) it also fails to be able to receive them. That’s an unbelievable flaw in a phone this high end. Instead my provider sends me an SMS telling me I’m a third class citizen and invites me to download the file using a browser. When you try to do this you will find you can’t actually save the damn attachment anywhere to bring the market apps (no inbuilt video viewer) to bear on this thing. I just can’t get over this stupidity. I have to wait to get home to a real PC to view these.
• The contacts section in Google seems to allow no space for birthdays. Since for me that’s a pretty critical aspect of calendaring and I’d like the data hooked to the calendar, that’s annoying.
The headphones plug into a mini USB socket on the bottom, but as such they are custom. The N95 has a much better system of having an adapter that provides functionality to tweak music playing with a plain ordinary headphone jack in case you have better headphones.
• Memory Management
Another shockingly bad aspect of the phone. It’s onboard memory is quite limited, but so what? I put an 8 Gig micro SD in it. Well, almost nothing can actually be stored on the extra card apart from music and some other files. All applications, text messages, and so on take up the main memory as far as I know.
• No automatic rotation
The device certainly appears to have the accelerometers to allow automatic rotation of the screen, but simply, it doesn’t. You have to pop out the keyboard to do so whether you want to or not. Stupid.

Every new phone you acquire seems to have new features you don’t know how you did with out, and problems that irritate you from previous good experiences, but seriously, the MMS problems this phone has, has caused me to have both phones on my person and swapping SIM cards this last week. That’s just ridiculous. It’s quite likely the G1 will end up in a drawer until someone gets their act together and deals with that astonishing flaw. That or I’ll sell it on. It’s a shame, so much else in the phone is excellent, but the problems are often simply inexcusable in a smartphone well into the 21st century.

Update

I was pleased to read that a firmware update is to be released Real Soon Now, that will resolve most of the serious issues on my list, or at least I hope the MMS handling will be improved given what is on the list, otherwise this would be even more braindead.

Oh, and by the way, I know the iPhone shares some of these problems. There’s a reason I don’t have one.

# Playstation 3 80Gb

I had a PS1 and have a PS2. I’ve put off buying a PS3 for a while because they were so dear, the graphics seemed to be at the expense of game play, and because I missed the boat on backwards compatibility on the first model. Today I phoned a friend to ask about backwards compatibility and he told me it was all just software now. Ok, that’s not going to get any better, so I finally went out and bought a PS3. The big display box features prominent billing for the new dual shock controllers. You won’t notice, unless you turn the box round after you get handed one, that it says it no longer has any backwards compatibility with the PS2, not even software but rather absurdly, there is PS1 support. I think Sony have finally lost their minds, they seem to be on a campaign to progressively punish customers who weren’t early adopters. Whatever saving they made for this compromise probably wasn’t worth it, and if I’d read this before I purchased that might well have been the clinching point. Yes, I have a PS2, but I just took it out of place to make room for this beast. Now I need to find a home for both.

Next I began trying to set up a media server on my main Debian box, imladris. I first tried gmediaserver, but found that I could see all the files but the PS3 said “unsupported data” for all of them, then I tried mediatomb, and had the same problem, even after tweaking the config.xml file to add PS3 compatibility, and using the command line tool to import files. I finally found that by surfing to http://localhost:49152/ and adding the directory from that interface that it worked. Phew. This was a big reason for buying the PS3.

So I sat down to play Ratchett & Clank and was immediately told I hadn’t enough disk space. Absurd. I have 60+ Gb free and need 419 Mb. I find there’s a known bug that means I need to download a big file to get this to work. Doing that now.

First experience is a lot less positive than I hoped after such a long wait.

Edit

Another odd little thing, it took a very long time for 1+ Mb to download last night. Google suggests all sorts of things that make the wireless connection slow, but here’s the thing, I’m using a wired connection, since my wifi doesn’t quite reach the corner the PS3 is in. Odd.