Monday, June 28, 2010

Making a math of it

People are telling me this with a straight face: yes, England lost 4-1 to Germany or whichever team it was, but if one goal hadn't been disallowed, England would've won. People had been telling me with only slightly less of a straight face that, the other day, America beat some team 2-2.

Alan Plater wrote a stage play called Confessions of a City Supporter in which characters, fans of Hull City FC, would regularly insist a defeat was a moral victory: "We smashed 'em, nil-two."

Football maths. I love this, just love it, because it feels like a collision between math and drama. In drama people lie and misunderstand and don't know and don't realise what they know, it's a seething mass of contradiction. Whereas the beauty of math is that it's right. You can debate whether it was really Pythagoras who spotted what triangles get up to and there are gorgeous stories of lying bastards who got glory for other people's brilliant mathematics - but the math is correct. Triangles, hypotenuse, you know how it goes, it's true and it will always be true.

Seriously, always.

Science is about asking questions, it's about figuring something out then testing, testing, testing until it looks pretty solid. And yet it will forever be questioned, forever tested and the moment it breaks, science will drop it. Scientific method: it seems to be misunderstood these days, newspapers seem to believe today's science is absolute and that boffins - they're always boffins; if you've read a book, you're a boffin - think they know everything.

If a science experiment demonstrates that something happens 99 times out of 100, that's fair enough, that's a good, working, practical conclusion and science will use it until it breaks. Writers, on the other hand, work with issues and feelings and topics that actually do not make any sense at all, except that they make every sense.

Then mathematicians work in proof. That 99 out of 100? Not good enough. Not even close to being good enough. The math behind the security of every credit card transaction in the world is based on something that so far has not been proved. How many billion transactions happen every day? How crucial is this math to the world? Actually, it's crucial enough that banks hire mathematicians and pay them very, very well to try either proving or breaking it. Billions of pounds are spent relying on this math, millions are spent trying to break it before anyone else does and before they take down practically our entire economy.

But because it's not proved, this math is stubbornly called a theory. It's the Riemann Hypothesis. I am no mathematician but when it's explained as well as, say, Marcus du Sautoy does in The Music of the Primes book (UK edition, US edition) then I can see some of the sheer beauty of it. Enough that I wish I'd been a better student at school.

Quick example of how rigorous math is? This is one of my favourite jokes. Actually, it might come from that du Sautoy book. Not sure now. Anyway, are you ready?

A writer, a scientist and a mathematician are on a train travelling from England to Scotland. As they cross the border, the writer looks out and exclaims: "Look! Sheep are black in Scotland!" The scientist takes a look and says no: "In Scotland," he insists, "there is one sheep who is black."

The mathematician peeks over their shoulders and says no. "In Scotland, there is one sheep, one side of which is black."


Friday, June 04, 2010

Apple's iPad for writers

This is the kind of thing I wanted to know before I bought an iPad and it's what I've found after about a week's moderate use of it. So it's about the keyboard, it's about the apps and it's also about disappointments and the odd surprise.

You zoomed in on that word "disappointments", didn't you? Let's start there then.

Disappointments with the iPad

There have been two. First, I unthinkingly expected the box to include the wee little dock, the iPad equivalent of what comes with the iPhone. Apple's quite clear that it doesn't and I'm fine with how it doesn't come with headphones, so I shouldn't have been disappointed but I was. (You get a mains plug and a cable that attaches either to that or to your computer for docking.)

More seriously, the keyboard. This is an odd one because on the whole I'm so pleased with it as to be relieved, surprised and delighted. I will not be buying an external keyboard for it - though I think I've got a kludgy old keyboard somewhere that will connect wirelessly to it, maybe I'll give it a try some time.

Yet there were disappointments with the keyboard and it is what you, as a writer, spend most of your time on. I found the size and shape of the keys good, but the layout, not so much. It appears firstly, for instance, that there is no apostrophe on the main keyboard: you have to press a button marked .?123 which changes the QWERTY letters to 1234... numbers and includes punctuation. There is a secondly, though, which makes this better. Press and hold the comma button for an instant and the apostrophe appears.

So that's good. Except that I now find it easier to go to that numbers screen for it rather than hold up my writing for even that brief instant you have to wait. Plus, the iPad is even better at inserting apostrophes for you as you type than the iPhone is. That's great and and I did just type "thats", letting it correct me. But I type well, I like typing, so I'm having to train myself to let it have its way.

This kind of intelligent interference causes me problems with capitals. The iPad, especially in the excellent Pages app (£5.99 UK, $10 US) assumes quite rightly that every sentence begins with a capital letter. I hold this to be self-evident but that means I go to do it too: I tap the shift key, thinking I need it. Since Pages has already pressed shift, so to speak, I find I'm really un-pressing it and my sentences begin with a lowercase letter.

For some reason my fingers can't get used to where the wee little shift keys are either, so I find I'm pausing to find them and then pausing to go back to correct this uppercase/lowercase issue.

But that said, the automatic correction is rather impressive. I loathe predictive text on phones but here it's more what-you-really-meant. Very nicely, the iPad is good at spotting when the mistake is that you've left out a space: it's smart at recognising when one mistyped word is really two correctly-typed ones run together.

And the whole feel of typing on glass is very, very good. I should say I am in the minority who likes the iPhone keyboard even for protracted typing so maybe your mileage will vary. I also wonder if it will be as good for women or anyone who doesn't have a nervous fingernail issue.

Last, you do need to prop the iPad up to type on. Well, you don't. It's flat in front of me now but that means your hands tend to hide some of what you're typing. I bought Apple's iPad case (£30 from Apple Stores) and it's mixed, leaning toward good, and works very well as a stand that tilts the iPad to a good angle for typing. Also for reading: I've found I leave it propped up at that angle even when I'm actually using another computer. I tend to refer to the iPad for my calendar, for Twitter, for reading books in stolen moments.

Apps for writers

Buy Pages. I bought it before I bought the iPad. It's a good, strong word processor and is preposterously cheap. I thought the desktop Mac version was preposterously cheap but this is under a tenner.

Pages will read and write Microsoft Word documents though I expect not very complex ones. Getting documents in and out of Pages is not great: you end up emailing them around and thereby getting a bit in a tangle over which is the latest version of what document. You can copy your documents to and from your computer using iTunes but I've yet to even try, it's sufficiently inelegant. You can share your documents over but I've not even looked at that.

If you can think of Word as just the thing you need to send documents to people, if you don't think of Pages as trying to be a Word clone, you will like Apple's word processor. More: you'll be impressed. And when you go back to Word on your Mac or PC, you'll find yourself poking a finger at the screen.

That's how good Pages is and also how good the iPad's touch screen is. Using a mouse and proper keyboard do very quickly feel archaic, even wrong.

I did find it hard to see how to name the documents you create in Pages: turns out when you have the list of documents open (it looks a little like Cover Flow) then pressing and holding on the name lets you set it.

Once you've bought Pages

There are writing tools on the iPad app store, some of which are exactly the worthless distraction we seek but a few are close to essential.

For most writers, I'd say that in includes Evernote (free). The app lets you jot down anything, stray lines, ideas, images even and then later examine them right there in the app or on any computer that you can point at I have a problem with some of the graphics, just aesthetically, and they happen to be one of the few bits you can't customise. So I recommend Evernote but am still looking around


I thought I wanted an iPad for iBooks, for being able to read a lot.

Damn right.

For all that I write on the iPad, watch a lot of TV and video on it, listen to a lot of music and radio programmes, and spend far too much time on Twitter with it, by far the thing that has given me most pleasure is reading.

What I didn't expect was that iBooks isn't the only game in town.

There are three.

By far the best to use for straight reading and for buying books too, Apple's iBooks could be all you need. But there aren't that many books yet on the iBooks Store. Whereas there are many, many times more books downloadable from Amazon for its Kindle and Barnes and Noble for its Nook device.

Fortunately, both companies make free iPad and iPhone apps. Both are fine, leaning toward very good, though iBooks wins because buying books is much more obviously easy and simple in that. Dangerously so.

You may be thinking that I've sequed away from the topic of iPad for writers. But you can't write if you don't also read and reading on the iPad is a joy.

Plus, it's possible if a little tricky to get your own books into your copy of iTunes and iBooks. I did a pitch recently that reworked 10,000 words and reading it again on the iPad was a bit of a treat.

I'm not certain I'll write the next 10,000 words on it. But I've written all of this blog entry on my iPad: I think I've done it more slowly than I would've done on a full keyboard but I also think part of that is how I still need to get used to the keyboard layout differences.

Apple's iPad is available from online and real Apple Stores. Other tablet computers are available - apparently - but if they were any good, you'd not have read this far about iPads.