From the archives: January 2011

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Constance Naden’s deep Darwinian lays

Friday, 7 January 2011 — 5:57pm | Literature, Science

Given my longstanding interest in the use of scientific and mathematical language in literature, it may come as a surprise that I have only recently discovered the poetry of Constance Naden. Naden died very young in 1889 at only 31 years of age, hence her relative obscurity, but she was nevertheless extremely prolific throughout the 1880s as a poet, philosopher, and scientist. Her work was significant enough to elicit the praise of William Gladstone, who dubbed her one of the eight finest women poets of the nineteenth century, alongside such luminaries as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Brontë.

You can find Naden’s writings online in the posthumously published The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden (1894), a volume that includes translations of Schiller and Goethe, among others. It seems as though she was something of a polymath.

My introduction to Naden’s work came by way of this audio podcast of a lecture delivered by John Holmes at the Royal Society, who spoke on Charles Darwin’s influence on the ideas and concerns of Victorian English poets. (This is the subject of Holmes’ recent book, Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution.) In the lecture, Holmes speaks briefly on “Natural Selection”, a playful comic poem about a palaeontologist who is scientifically delighted to find that his beloved has been whisked away by an all-singing, all-dancing “idealess lad”. This poem belongs to a quartet entitled Evolutional Erotics (1887), in which Naden explores the collision of love and the scientific mind. Another poem in the set, “Scientific Wooing”, brings science into the register of high romance in a manner that might be construed as ironic (but then again, might not be):

At this I’ll aim, for this I’ll toil,
And this I’ll reach—I will, by Boyle,
By Avogadro, and by Davy!
When every science lends a trope
To feed my love, to fire my hope,
Her maiden pride must cry is “Peccavi!

I’ll sing a deep Darwinian lay
Of little birds with plumage gay,
Who solved by courtship Life’s enigma;
I’ll teach her how the wild‐flowers love,
And why the trembling stamens move,
And how the anthers kiss the stigma.

I am reminded here of the tensor algebra pastoral from one of the great masterworks of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad:

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not – for what then shall remain?
Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Continued »

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There’s an App Store for that

Friday, 7 January 2011 — 12:38pm | Computing


Yesterday, Apple launched the Mac App Store, the latest interface refinement capitalizing on the observation that increasingly, Mac OS X is not likely to be a new user’s first Apple product. Just as we saw iTunes navigation features such as Cover Flow migrate over to the OS X Finder, now we are seeing OS X take after the iPhone/iPad user experience by delivering software via one-click installations. Click on the button to purchase or download an app, and the App Store dumps it in your Applications folder and on the Dock.

OS X veterans will note that this is, in theory, a 200% improvement on what was formerly a three-click installation: download the DMG, drag the app into the Applications folder, and optionally dump it on your Dock as well if you are still oblivious to the eldritch wonders of Quicksilver.

And in theory, one would think this is one of the best features yet to arrive on the Mac for users and developers alike. The end-user software culture for Mac users has always been very distinctive: unlike the unfortunate bifurcation in the savage lands of Windows, where software is often either a) homegrown and free or b) professional and exorbitantly priced with corporate site licenses in mind (and therefore often pirated), Mac software for the individual consumer is pretty much where it was in the early 1990s: practically anything that Apple didn’t hand you with the system comes from independent development houses, usually in the form of try-now, buy-later shareware, their products reasonably priced. Compared to other platforms, good free software is much harder to find.

(Incidentally, the Mac App Store has already delivered a 1990s time-capsule feeling of its own, raising the hungering corpses of products long believed dead. I mean, StuffIt Expander? Kid Pix?!)

For this model, digital distribution was a dream come true from its inception, and it would make sense to believe that a centralized distribution channel for downloads and updates only improves on it. In practice, however, there is no advantage to using the Mac App Store for anything that is already available directly from the developers.

Apple’s approval process effectively ensures that software updates through the App Store will lag behind the automatic updaters that already exist. Buying directly from the developer relieves them of Apple’s 30% cut for products sold via the App Store. There is also no support for time-constrained shareware trials, which are far and away the best way for developers to demonstrate why their software is worth paying for.

Product licenses, thank goodness, are bound to your Apple account instead of your machine; if something disastrous happens to your computer, you can always download your purchases again later, and there is no limit to the number of machines you can install them on. This is still more annoying than the DRM-free status quo of “punch in your product code and we’ll trust you the rest of the way,” but at least with a centralized ID you don’t need to worry about losing your product code.

In any case, informed users accustomed to hunting for quality Mac software that didn’t come pre-installed have no incentive to use the App Store at all except for software that is otherwise unavailable. The App Store’s function is to inform everyone else that third-party software even exists. Developers are effectively compelled to push their products onto the App Store in order to remain exposed and competitive, but if they make their products available directly, it’s hard to think of a reason why one wouldn’t obtain them that way instead.

Postscriptum. Speaking of third-party Mac software, I am presently composing this post in MarsEdit and finding it wonderful. I may end up blogging more frequently again purely for the pleasure of using it. Daniel Jalkut, the man behind MarsEdit, wrote an informative FAQ about the Mac App Store and what it means for his product. It confirms most of my sentiments above.

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