Have your pi, and eat it too

I don’t remember when it was that I first heard of pi. I was home schooled, but my mum and dad said that all attempts to get me interested in maths failed, and this was one reason why they finally sent me to school aged nine. So maybe my dad explained the concept of pi while we were plodding through the Leadhills looking for dippers to ring. Or maybe it was one of a succession of long-suffering teachers and lecturers. Whoever it was, I’m grateful, because pi is a lovely number.

Now, anyone who knows anything about maths knows that pi is the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter, and that it has a value of 3.1415927 or thereabouts. If you know nothing about maths, just imagine a circular lake with a bridge right over the middle. It’ll be 3.14… times further to walk all the way round the lake than to walk over the bridge.

If you’re a real math geek, you’ll also know that pi is an irrational number, which means that it has more digits after the decimal point than anyone can ever imagine or calculate, and hence it can never be written exactly. If you’re a really serious math geek, you may even know a piem or two. And if you’re totally hardcore, you’ll object that pi could have any value you like in a non-Euclidean geometry. But I’ve never met any math geek hardcore enough that they could tell me what the meaning of pi is. Why should an everyday thing like a circle manifest itself in mathematics as a number so big and exotic that nobody can ever know it exactly?

Maybe a discussion of where circles come from would help. The circle, and its 3-D cousin the sphere, appear in nature because they are the most effective way of enclosing space. If you have to make a bag to keep stuff in, as Nature did when evolving eggs and tomatoes, then a spherical shape bags you the most “stuff” for a given amount of eggshell or tomato skin. And, since Nature abhors waste, these objects turn out spherical. Well, eggs aren’t quite spherical, but luckily for chickens, they’re not quite tetrahedrons either. So maybe pi is just a mathematical way of saying that Nature doesn’t do corners. And if it’s irrational because it’s natural, then the endless series of decimals is no more worrying than bugs in your organic lettuce.

Then again, the state of Arkansas recently redefined it to 3.0 exactly. If they’d chosen 4, maybe eggs would have turned cubical overnight and chickens would have really had something to squawk about.

Or then again, maybe pi doesn’t have any meaning whatever. I struggled with math at university because I insisted on believing that it had some kind of correspondence with reality, and looking for physical metaphors to understand it intuitively. The laws of physics can be described as mathematical equations, and the behaviour of some physical systems can be predicted by mathematics, so it’s easy to believe that the universe is somehow made out of mathematics, and learning it will unlock all the mysteries of the universe. But in the end, the universe is made out of universe, and maths is just a game that mathematicians play.

Níl i mata, a shaoi, eolaíocht nó feidhm. (“Wise one, mathematics has neither science nor use.”) – an Irish piem giving pi to 7 decimal places

The Darwin Diet

We’ve had the GI Diet, the Atkins Diet, and a hundred others. But what if Charles Darwin wrote a diet book?

Well, ever since “Man… descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped“, until the discovery of fossil fuels, human populations were limited by competition for resources. What that presumably meant was that, just in order to survive, Man had to eat everything and anything he could lay hands on. So there’s the Darwin diet right there. Eat anything you can lay hands on if you want to live.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t fit well with a post-industrial society where fossil-fuelled machines do all of our manual labour for us, and the market economy brings us a cornucopia of processed foods designed for profit. Yes, people complain about McDonalds, but it’s exactly the foodstuff you’d expect a free market to produce. Looks nice, tastes nice in an addictive, trashy kind of way, cheap to mass-produce, and who cares what it does to your health. McDonalds don’t, because they don’t have to pay for your healthcare.

The amazing thing isn’t that some people are fat, as the media keep telling us. It’s more remarkable that some people are still thin, while they have the chance to consume everything and do nothing, and the evolutionary mandate for it, too.

“An engine that knows what it’s missing”

So after a couple of weeks of commuting, I finally got my first puncture on the Skyline. I wasn’t looking where I was going, ran over a tiny rock the size of a marble, and got a pinch flat. Even blown up to 100psi, those skinny tyres really are wimpy compared to mountain bike tyres. But I guess that’s the price I pay for getting to work in 20 minutes instead of 40.

Fixing a puncture on a commuter bike is much the same as in a car. You pull over to the side of the road and empty all the stuff out of your “trunk”, a big messenger bag full of junk, in order to access the spare inner tube and tools buried right at the bottom. Then you sit the bike upside down on its handlebars and saddle, unscrew the afflicted wheel and lever the tyre off it. You locate the hole in the inner tube, check the corresponding place on the tyre to make sure the sharp thing isn’t still there, put in a new tube, blah, whatever, done it a million times.

As I was doing this, sitting on a kerb under a tree in the rain, with Asian kids yelling and playing football in the street, I wondered if I hadn’t strayed too far from my roots in mountain biking, by buying into the whole “Quest for freeride” thing. Mountain biking is getting fragmented into more and more different disciplines, driven by bike companies, who want to sell you a different bike for each one. And who could blame them? They need to eat too.

But as some guy on some bike blog once said (I forget which) the cyclist is “An engine that knows what it’s missing”. Riding singletrack on the Frankenstinky feels like shooting squirrels with a cannon. When you hit something it’s spectacular, but I really wish it was lighter and easier to aim… I actually miss my old Inbred 🙁

Then I found something that made me feel a lot better. According to Colleen Smith’s blog, a cyclist can get 300 miles to the gallon… of ice cream! Or 1000mpg if they ate nothing but peanut butter. Even if the ice cream were entirely made from fossil fuels, which Ben & Jerry’s probably is, that’s pretty damn environmentally sound. I need to test this claim some time. Maybe 100 miles and one-third of a gallon of ice cream to start with.

While I was there, I couldn’t help but notice that Colleen Smith is a 6 foot 6 pro beach volleyball player and really hot. Hey Colleen, if you’re reading this, can I get your number? I’m only 6′ 5″ but I could wear platform shoes.

Oh well, back to reality.

10 things left to ride in Scotland

Here are my top 10 features on Scotland’s MTB trails that I’ve tried to ride and failed. (the list of things that I know about but haven’t dared to try yet is about the same size, but not as interesting.)

  1. The diabolical cunning of Rik Allsop gives us the skinny bridge at Drumlanrig Castle. A 4 inch wide plank covered in slippery moss that crosses a large ditch, cunningly positioned after a sharp bend at the top of a long climb. I haven’t even managed to approach it on the right line yet, let alone cross it.donezor’d!
  2. The amusingly named “Back, Crack and Sack Attack” at Laggan. The Crack Attack section tipped me over the bars and ripped a hole in my brand new back tyre. Lord knows what Sack Attack would have ripped a hole in, if I’d got that far :-OWent back, attacked, sack intact.
  3. The McMoab rocks in Kirroughtree Forest. They’re too lumpy and go on for too long, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
  4. The wall ride in Glentress bike park. I still have scars from the last two times I’ve tried it. Should have ridden more BMX back in the 80s.
  5. The Slab at Dalbeattie. I believe this 30 foot long, 45 degree rock slab with a poor runout is made of gritstone and is exceedingly grippy in all weathers, but it still looks scary when you’re peering down from the top on a damp day.dealt with!
  6. The qualifier for the Slab.
  7. The Matador downhill run at Innerleithen.
  8. Glentress’s Ewok Village. I always end up falling off the skinny bits. I swear when I fall off, so maybe it’s North Shore Tourette’s. (Ewok Village rotted and was demolished)
  9. Any steep climb with wet roots near the top.
  10. The 4X course at Fort William. This was embarrassing, I had to get off and walk part of it with people watching. Do not pass go or collect 100 Rad Points.

I’ve not really noticed any trends except that if I wear tights I always end up having a really bad day. I think I need baggy shorts and kneepads to get Frankenstinky’s respect. Also, Continental Gravity tyres are crap. If you inflate them hard enough to stop pinch flats, they don’t grip any more, and I have a big hole in the knee of my new baggies to prove it. Go for the Panaracer Cinder 2.3 or the Maxxis Minion instead, folks.who disabled=

Hone Schmone

I enjoyed myself so much at Innerleithen that I decided to go back on the uplift day. This is a service that hauls riders to the top of the mountain in a bus, and their bikes in a cattle truck. It’s popular enough that they ran two 50-seater buses and two 10-ton trucks all day. Grinding up a dirt road in a bus packed full of 49 middle-aged guys in Robocop-like body armour is a weird experience.

It was all going great until I crashed on my third or fourth run of the day. I took the wrong line over one of the drop-offs on Cadon Bank, landed in some loose rocks to the side of the trail, and wiped out completely. I wasn’t too badly hurt, and I carried on riding for the rest of the day. I even went down Matador and took a look at the big drop-offs. (That was all I did though: look at them. These guys make the 8-foot drop look easy.)

But then on my ride home one of my pedals just dropped off! The thread in the arm of my brand new Shimano Hone crank was totally gone. I thought maybe I’d wrecked it when I crashed, but if that was the case, why didn’t it break there and then? I’ve heard Internet rumours of other people stripping the threads in Hones and having the steel inserts come out of Saints, but I assumed it would never happen to me! 🙁 Maybe Shimano’s Hollowtech system is based on an Easter egg, with cranks made out of high-tensile chocolate.

The shop where I got them said they’d try to submit it as a warranty claim. But now I’m without my bike while they sort that out, and what if I don’t want another chocolate crankset?! Oh well, commuting on a 38lb freeride bike was getting old anyway, and my Genesis Skyline just arrived. All I need is a pair of my sister’s jeans and I’m good to go.

Danger Day – a mountain biking story

Normally on a Saturday morning, I’d drag myself out of bed around 10 o’clock, make some strong coffee, and check my e-mail.

Last Saturday was not normal.

At 10 o’clock I was squinting in the sunshine, peering into a black hole in a forest. A trail led steeply down in there, somewhere in steepness between a chute and a cliff. I was expected to fling myself into this hole. On a bike.

Actually, it all started with the bike. I’ve ridden mountain bikes for years. I always worked on them myself, and upgraded them part by part, so technically I still have the same bike that my dad bought me when I was 15. Like George Washington’s axe, it’s had several new handles and several new heads, but it’s still the same old axe. This year, with the addition of a second-hand Kona Stinky frame, it got full suspension with 5″ of travel at the front and 6″ at the rear. It already had disc brakes and burly Sun Mammoth wheels. It lurked in my hallway, and every time I passed, it whispered: “Dude. Ride me off a cliff. It’s gonna be sick.”

So, inexorably, the Stinky and I were drawn towards heavier and heavier riding. Spooky Wood and the freeride park at Glentress. The amusingly named “Ae Line” at Ae Forest. A weekend of mayhem at Fort William and Laggan. Now the downhill trails at Innerleithen were the proverbial bomb with my name on it.

Still that hole in the forest was waiting. I put on my full-face helmet, strapped on knee, shin and elbow guards, while the rest of the party did the same and then put on body armour too. I didn’t have any armour and wished I did. A sign by the trailhead graded it: “Bike Park Extreme. Tabletops, doubles and drop-offs. Jumping ability mandatory. In case of an accident, dial 999 or 112 from a mobile phone…” Accident. Flies buzzed round a dead rabbit in the blazing heat.

I knew that if any accident did happen, it would probably involve jumping ability. I learnt to jump a BMX on ramps made of scrap wood as a teenager and have been a mediocre jumper ever since. Now add an extra three stone of flesh, make all the jumps four times bigger, and put it all on a steep downward slope to make it five times faster. Kids bounce, adults shatter. I got coaching from Chris Ball at Dirt School.

To cut a long story short, Chris was awesome. He pointed out a few silly flaws in my jumping technique, and by the end of the day I was feeling a lot smoother and more in control. The video evidence showed that I was getting more air than before, too.

But nevertheless, the hole with its “doubles” and “mandatory jumping ability” was still waiting. I now knew what this implied. A double is a jump composed of a launching ramp and a landing ramp, separated by a pit that you have to jump over. Mandatory means that if you land in the pit at speed, you’re screwed. Two local riders showed up, invited us to follow them down, launched themselves into the hole, and were gone in an instant. Ed, the newbie freerider with the bright orange hair, flung his chunky Norco Six in there next. Iain, psyching himself up for a fortnight in Whistler, would go last. The hole was now waiting for me and there was no reasonable excuse to get away.

I took a run-up, dropped in over a small rock ledge, and straight away I was in what could be best described as a spin dryer trying to mix me with gravel and pine trees. The trail plummeted down over drop-offs, snaked left and right, and then there were a bunch of jumps. And I messed them all up and landed in that pit. It was really just a hollow, with sides shallow enough that sheer momentum carried me straight out of it, though I came within an inch of flying over the bars and headbutting the ground.

It was a mess. There really was nothing for it but to go back and try again, until I either cleared the doubles or woke up in the Edinburgh Royal. On my second attempt, I went slowly and tried to read what the trail was saying, how the builders intended it to be ridden. It explained that I had previously been going too fast to roll the jumps safely, yet not fast enough to clear them safely. It said “Commit, and go a shitload faster”.

The day had started sunny, but now the air was hot, dull and sultry, and growls of thunder could be heard, getting closer, echoing around the mountain as we neared the top again. The light was now dim, and there was the hole in the woods, now completely black, waiting for my third attempt.

And I was determined to make it my final attempt, one way or another. I took a couple of hard pedal strokes along the fire road and dropped in as fast as I could.

Something then happened that I can’t explain. I don’t know what I did, but I swear that I spent more time in the air than on the ground, sailing through the dark woods like a deranged hang glider, or a butterfly stapled to a brick and lobbed. The section was over in an instant. I caught up with the other riders who had gone before me, and still carrying all of our speed, we burst out of the forest and tore down a disused trail that the locals had tipped us off about. We were now carving down the open hillside as fast as we could, blasting over drop-offs, down into a valley shrouded in sheets of rain opening before us as lightning cracked, and spray from above and from the wheels below began to soak us through, as if we were bringing the storm, the act of our descending itself carving open the clouds and pouring out torrential rain.

I swear that’s what it felt like. It f***ing rocked.

Last person in the world on iTunes?

This week I was lucky enough to be given a small, cute iPod Shuffle for my birthday. Yay.

Unfortunately this meant I had to start using iTunes. I’d previously managed all my digital music with a bunch of free software, ripping CDs with (now defunct) RipTrax, playing things with an old Linux machine running mpd/phpMP, and filling my iRiver mp3 player with rsync.

I’ve heard that there are other ways of getting music into an iPod than iTunes, even that it was possible from Linux, but the complexity and level of Linux evangelism involved nearly made my head explode. Asplode, even. And the sheer pointlessness, when my main computer at home runs XP, and my Linux box linosaur is headless.

So off to apple.com I went, downloaded the latest iTunes for Windows, and installed it, and it just worked. Almost! I forgot that I had quite a lot of music in Ogg Vorbis format.

But after a quick visit to xiph.org Quicktime Components I could play all my Ogg stuff too! Though if I ever try uploading any of it to the Shuffle, it may well catch fire.

All in all, I really like the iTunes software, and it may make linosaur’s jukebox function obsolete, and let me get rid of another computer at home.

I even found my own band in the iTunes store. Hardly surprising, since it was me who delivered our album via TuneCore.

(click to see the album in iTunes, if you have it installed) 😀

Hello World, Part 2

The scopeblog receives hundreds of comments per month. As a rule, all of them are spam, but today I found some real comments in there from real people! Thank you wherever you are 🙂

Some of the spam seems to be generated from the blog posts themselves. It is eerily realistic at a casual glance, but still doesn’t quite pass the Turing test. I guess the Internet still has a way to go before it becomes conscious.

Most of the comments were attracted by my rant on Pay More, Get Less. It’s good to know that there are others out there who feel the same as I do about the inhuman rampage of computer technology over our souls.

Although a cynic might say that this is the Internet, where you can always find someone who feels the same as you do, even if you’re a Plushophile.

The Tesla Guitar

My Tesla Guitar video has got quite a lot of views lately, so I’ll try and address some of the comments people have made on it here.

1. Yes, the sound comes out of the sparks. There are no other amps or speakers involved.

2. Yes, it sounds pretty harsh and horrible, no matter what pedals I try. It also needs a different playing style than you would use with an ordinary amp, and even then it sounds awful! Any chords more complex than octaves or fifths just sound like noise.

This is a consequence of the way the signal is processed into pulses for driving the Tesla coil. I’ve not figured out a way to improve the tone without losing the lightning-like look and large size of the sparks.
It works much better with bleepy waveforms from a monophonic synth, which is why the other famous musical Tesla coil sounds better. The only part of the video when you can actually hear a melody, is when I played a lick that I’d found to work well with guitar synths in the past.

I think some Youtube poster suggested a hexaphonic pickup and six channels of processing, one per string, and he is right, this would help a lot. But I don’t really want to build another five channels of electronics and recharacterize everything for EMI all over again. Anyway, the terrifying distortion might even be useful in some kinds of music!

3. What pedals did I use in front of it? For the video, a Marshall Shredmaster distortion pedal. It actually makes no difference to the tone, but adds sustain, which it was sadly lacking otherwise.

4. It is possible to mic it up safely, I’ve done it!

5. I’m still waiting to hear from Trent Reznor and Muse :-<

It’s not the easiest or safest instrument to practice with, but I’m working on improving the sustain and adapting my playing style to it. Watch this space for a better sounding demo!

Less is More: Pay More, Get Less

‘What can we design that makes our life better, not just “more”‘ – Treehugger.com

I recently read Treehugger’s debate on Nikon’s decision to stop making film cameras. I think it summed up a lot of things I’ve been dealing with lately, so I decided to do some blogging about it.

If you live in the developed world in the 21st century, as I do, you probably know all about “more”. More megapixels, gigabytes and gigahertz every couple of years. Cell phones that can surf the net, whether you actually want to or not: I’ve covered this issue before.

But there’s another kind of more that I find even more insidious: More features on our software and consumer gadgets. Once a designer puts a microprocessor into a gadget, he can add extra features by just adding more computer code. These features add practically no manufacturing cost to the end product, while they can still be used as selling points by the advertising guys, so the result is a kind of feature arms race.

The downside of this is that buttons, knobs and large displays do add manufacturing cost, so if the designer wants to maximize features per unit cost, he ends up using a very deep and complicated menu system to control his features. Operating an instrument like this can feel like flying a Jumbo jet when your only access to the flight deck is a letterbox-sized hole and a pool cue. More might be better for the sales guys, but it’s definitely not better for the poor end user.

This is possibly the thing I hate most about the information age. Back in the good old days, instruments had one button per function. To listen to music, you grabbed a vinyl record, put it on a turntable, and lowered a stylus onto the track you wanted. The record deck did not suddenly turn into an address book because you accidentally double-clicked the 33rpm button, and make you spend 10 minutes figuring out how to transform it back. In short, each function had a real, material cost in terms of hardware. The result was that designers had to think hard about what functions to implement, and make sure they were really worthwhile.

I’ve never felt this more than in my dealings with electronic music. Synthesizers, samplers and recording software are powered by microprocessors, made for gearheads by gearheads, but a good musical performance needs an intuitive, gut-level connection between the musician and the instrument. There is very little time for double-clicks or multi-level menus, unless you’re Kraftwerk.

I’m “lucky” enough to own some of the worst excesses of the 90s, like the Yamaha A4000 sampler. It has the jumbo jet syndrome in spades: it took me a good six months to get comfortable working my way round the user interface, in so far as you could get comfortable at all. It bombed, to the extent that fully loaded examples can be found on Ebay for about $250. (I’m keeping mine.)

The polar opposite of this would be a “classic synth” that does one thing and does it very well. Sometimes this isn’t even what the designer intended it to do, as in the case of the legendary TB-303. Its built-in pattern sequencer was so awful that very few people had the patience to program more than a few two-bar loops. The tone generator only had five knobs to change the sound – six if you count the tuning – but those few adjustments were carefully chosen and delightfully tweakable.

These built-in limitations led to the birth of acid house music, and the 303 has kept its resale value a lot better than the A4000 🙂