One of the advantages to our new flat is that I’ve got the nice electric piano that used to belong to my Uncle (but was languishing in the garage at the old place due to not fitting up the stairs) in here. I’ve been taking full advantage of it to learn some pieces I always wanted to play. Here’s a Bach 4 part Fugue:

I loved this one as soon as I heard the Well Tempered Clavier (played by Glenn Gould, who’s a lot better at it than I am). It just amazes me that anyone can even write a four part fugue that complies with all the complicated rules for how fugues should be constructed (and this one does) at all, nevermind also produce something so musical and satisfying at the same time.

Fugues start off like rounds where each voice enters in turn a few bars apart with the same melody (called the subject). After that, things get more complicated – another melody (called the answer) is introduced, and the subject is usually repeated in numerous ways (upside down, backwards, etc.), the different voices layered on top of each other producing complex and ever-changing harmonies.

The Well Tempered Clavier is made up of two books, each of which is a collection of 24 preludes and fugues in every major and minor key. This is the A minor fugue (no. 20) from the first book. It’s one of the longest – but I think the length gives the music more weight than the shorter fugues and makes the climax it builds to near the end more dramatic. I hope you like it.

I’m not actually playing it from memory… I have the score scanned into a PDF file which is open on the laptop, and the USB cable in the foreground goes to a foot pedal configured to work as a “Page Down” button so that I can turn the pages with my feet. (They’re not doing anything else; keyboard instruments in Bach’s time mostly didn’t have pedals so I don’t use the piano pedals while I’m playing Bach either). I suspect the score is actually doing the same job as Dumbo’s feather at this point… I’ve played the piece so many times now that it must surely all be imprinted on my brain, but if I can’t see the music in front of me, I freak out and forget how to play it.

(Apologies for the audio quality in some bits – I was recording direct to my laptop from the piano’s headphone socket which started off sounding fine but went a bit weird for reasons I’m not sure of…).



I’ve been enjoying cycling to work lately. It’s only about 3 miles from the new flat, so easily do-able. (The old one was 7 miles away. I suppose that’s also do-able in theory, but not for someone as lazy and unfit as me 😉 ). It’s got more enjoyable since I replaced practically every part of my rusty old bike that could be replaced. Previously, going uphill made me feel like I was going to die of exhaustion, going downhill made me feel like I was going to die if something pulled out in front of me because the brakes weren’t very good, and going along on the flat made me realise I must in fact be dreaming because, as you quickly discover once you start cycling, there aren’t any flat bits in Edinburgh.

Since I started cycling, I’ve noticed 3 things:

  1. There aren’t any flat bits in Edinburgh. No really, there aren’t. Even the streets that seem pretty flat when you’re driving or on foot turn out not to be once you have to cycle on them. (I know I mentioned this already, but it seemed annoying enough to be worth mentioning twice).
  2. People really don’t expect cyclists to stop for them at zebra crossings! When I approach the crossing near my work in the car, people step out in front, expecting me to stop (quite rightly). But when I cycle up to it, they come to an abrupt halt on the pavement and look nervous, then look amazed when I actually do stop to let them cross. They smile and wave and thank me as if I’ve done them a great favour.
  3. At the smallest mention of cycling, some people will start practically frothing at the mouth and immediately coming out with “They should have to pay road tax!”, “They should be prosecuted when they go through red lights!!”, “They should have to pass a test!!!”, “They should be fined for riding on the pavement!!!!”. And so on.

It’s probably evil of me, but it amuses me no end when people get worked up about stuff like this. Their reaction just seems out of all proportion to what provoked it. What on earth, for example, would be the point in charging cyclists road tax? What material difference would it make to anyone else? I could be a smart-arse and point out that motorists don’t pay “road tax” either, they pay Vehicle Excise Duty, or that the roads are funded through general taxation rather than anything specific to road users. Instead I’ll just point out that the level of tax paid is now based on emissions per kilometre, and cyclists don’t cause pollution so it seems completely fair and reasonable to me that they don’t pay the tax. Zero-emission (and very low emission) cars don’t have to pay it either.

Going back a few years, the criteria was engine size. Pushbikes don’t have engines so there was no reason to charge them under the old rules either. Even if you based the tax levels on amount of wear and tear caused to the roads I’d be surprised if the damage caused by pedal cyclists was even measurable at all compared to what cars, lorries and buses do. It’s probably more on a par with the wear caused by pedestrians and no-one seems to be suggesting charging them to walk on the pavements or cross the roads. In fact I’m struggling to see any sort of reasonable objective criteria that would justify charging cyclists road tax. Emissions doesn’t work, engine size doesn’t work, wear and tear doesn’t work… maybe “how much they piss off Jeremy Clarkson” would, but that’s about it.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m a frequent driver myself and I know how easy it is to get wound up by people (pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers alike) doing stupid things on the roads. But I don’t feel the need to demand that whole groups of road users be punished through legislation just for annoying me. Yes, it’s irritating to see cyclists sneaking through a red light or along a pavement when you’re stuck in a jam, and maybe it seems like a double standard that they can usually get away with it and you can’t. But you have to get some perspective. Cars are massively more dangerous than bikes are – a recklessly ridden bike is annoying and sometimes inconvenient, but a recklessly driven car can be terrifying and life-threatening. Driving a car through a pedestrianised area, or going through red lights, or driving after a few drinks can very easily land innocent bystanders in hospital or worse. That’s why you need to pass a test before driving a car and why breaking those rules will get you fined or banned. Doing the same things on a bike, while inadvisable, is pretty unlikely to cause serious harm to anyone except the cyclist themselves. That’s why you DON’T need to pass a test before riding a bike and why the rules are not enforced so strictly. It seems quite reasonable to me.

Besides, would you really want all the traffic laws to be enforced strictly all the time? For fairness you’d have to enforce them at least as strictly against cars. Some people would claim that the laws are already enforced with an iron fist against the poor beleaguered motorist, but it’s easy to see that that’s not quite true. If you drive at 31MPH in a town, or 71MPH on a motorway, do you always get a ticket for it? No, although it’s technically illegal, in practise you almost never get a ticket until you’re over the limit by quite a generous margin. If you park on a pavement or on a double yellow line in a quiet residential street but aren’t actually causing an obstruction, do you always get fined? Again, no… I’ve done it plenty of times and never been fined yet. The truth is, motorists get away with a lot of minor infractions that are theoretically against the rules but in practise aren’t likely to hurt anyone. Seems fair enough then if cyclists do too.

In the end, forcing cyclists to pay tax and pass tests, or punishing them for every trivial, harmless technical violation would just discourage people from cycling, and that would be a bad thing. Cycling has a lot of advantages… it’s healthy, it’s non-polluting, it saves fuel, it cuts congestion, and it’s much safer for other road users. We should be encouraging it, not discouraging it, because everyone benefits indirectly if more people cycle.

And anyway, if you’re still convinced cyclists get much better treatment, there’s an easy solution… bikes aren’t that expensive… come join us ;).

Let me be the first (err, second actually) to say I’ll miss netbooks

I was interested to see this article in the Register. The majority of the comment online about the death of netbooks seems to be along the lines of “Tablets are so much cooler and slicker, netbooks were clunky and annoying to use and who really needs a full PC these days anyway, especially when they’re travelling? Hardly anyone, that’s who. Good riddance netbooks”. But I for one am disappointed that they’ve stopped making them… I can’t see that anything else is going to meet my needs quite so well when I’m travelling… and finally someone agrees with me!

I took my HP netbook running Xubuntu away with me several times last year. I always found it useful, but on the three trips where I combined work with pleasure, it was indispensable. It was light enough to carry around in my backpack without taking up half my cabin baggage allowance or knackering my shoulders. It was cheap enough that if it did get damaged or stolen it wouldn’t be the end of the world (yes, I do have insurance, but you never know when they’re going to worm their way out of actually paying up). Its battery lasts a genuine six hours on a single charge, even when I’m actually doing work on it. It has a proper (if fairly small) keyboard so typing emails or documents on it doesn’t make me lose the will to live. It has enough storage space to keep most of my important files locally in case I can’t get online.


Most of all, it actually runs a proper full operating system! This isn’t something I’m just arbitrarily demanding because I’m a technology snob. I really do need it and do make use of it. At my technical meeting in Madrid in September, I was running a Tomcat web server, a MySQL database server, a RabbitMQ server running on top of an Erlang interpreter, and a full Java development environment. Try doing that on an iPad or an Android tablet! You might think all of that would be pretty painful on a single core Atom with 2GB of memory, but it actually ran surprisingly well. I wouldn’t want to work like that all the time but for a three day meeting it was perfectly adequate and usable. The full OS also means I can encrypt the whole disk which gives me a lot of peace of mind that my files are secure even if the thing does get stolen.

But now I’m starting to get worried about what I’m going to replace it with when the netbook finally departs for the great electronics recycling centre in the sky. Despite the market being flooded with all sorts of portable computing devices, I can’t see any that are going to do what I want quite so well as the netbook did.

Get a tablet? Urgh, no thanks… I’m sure they have their place, but even if I added a proper keyboard there is no way I’d get all that development software to run on Android or iOS. OK, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some way to hack some of it into working on Android, but Android is hardly a standard or well supported environment for it. It’s not going to Just Work the way it does on a standard PC running Windows or Ubuntu.

Get a Microsoft Surface Pro? This tablet actually does run a full version of Windows 8 (or will when it comes out), but at $900 it costs nearly three times as much as my netbook did. I couldn’t justify spending that on something I’m going to throw into my backpack and take all over the place with me. I’d be constantly worrying it was going to get broken or stolen.

Get an “ultrabook”? Again would do the things I need, but again would cost WAY more than the netbook, would almost certainly weigh a lot more than the netbook, and I’d be very surprised if it had comparable battery life either (at least not without spending even more money on SSDs, spare batteries, etc.). For the “pleasure” part of my Madrid trip I was staying in a hostel room with seven other people. There was ONE power socket between the eight of us. When travelling, battery life really does matter.

Get a Chromebook and install a full Linux distribution on it? This is actually the option I’d lean towards at present. Chromebooks have price, portability and battery life on their side and apparently are easy to install Linux on. The downsides would be the ARM processor (which could limit software compatibility as well as making even the lowly Atom look blazingly fast in comparison), and the lack of local storage (Chromebooks generally seem to have a few gigabytes of storage. My netbook has a few hundred gigabytes!). So, still not an ideal option, but unless some enterprising company resurrects the netbook concept, could be the best of a bad lot :(.

(I freely admit I’m in a small minority here… not many people need to run multiple servers on their computer while travelling, and not many of those that do tend to extend their business trips with nights in hostels. But that doesn’t stop it being annoying that something that met my needs perfectly is no longer being made 😉 ).