The Age of Steampunk Apps?

As I remarked to the Cat the other day, once someone has an iPhone they have with them most of what people want or need to carry about. The functionality and capabilities are astonishing, to the point where developers can take a favoured or useful object and add functionality that in the real world would be impossibly complicated, expensive, unreliable or all three.

As a long time Steampunk enthusiast, I have been keen to bring some of the delicious (Often pointlessly extravagant) imagery and feel into my apps. To that end I have taken a retro step with the next App to be released with a late 50’s / early ’60’s casing (The last years of pressed tin casings) and Victorian / Edwardian typewriter style keys. This is hardly steampunk, just a flirtation with its tropes, but it is a step in that direction, largely inspired by the “New Victorians” enclave in Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. That book’s “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” is surely not too far away now in some form, which is an enticing prospect for future education.

The App (Print-O-Calc) has a real purpose, to provide the functionality of a printing pocket calculator, something I always wanted. Of course it can’t print (Until the next release of OS4 which will allow direct printing to some HP printers) but it can copy the tally roll into the cut / paste buffer for pasting into notes, e-mails, messages etc.

To add to the fun, it has animated paper and print head motion and sounds, although the sounds can be disabled once the novelty has worn off.

I’m still testing but will submit it for release sometime this week. Should you wish, you can read more here.

Measure for Measure

I was musing earlier today, while reading the motoring section of my weekend paper on the peculiarities of presenting data in different forms. Fuel consumption figures, in EU standard comparisons, are given in litres / 100 km, i.e. a measure of what it costs to go 100km. The measure I convert to, because it is the one that has meaning to me, is miles / gallon i.e. a measure of what you get for your money.

We have just come through (I hope we’re through it) an extended period of conspicuous and often thoughtless consumption where people became quite expert on subjects such as cost, affordability, credit etc. but increasingly distant from the concept of value. Buying a house with a loan of six or seven times your annual wage may be affordable (A bank test which means not that you can afford it, but that they have a reasonable chance of getting their money back), but in all but recent historical terms it is poor value, tending towards perversity. The calculations people make during all these periods of brief collective madness are often based on what is often referred to as the “Bigger Fool” theory; that is to say I may be making a foolish move here, but it will make me money when I sell it on to the next chap. When applied to the housing market, participants consider themselves financially astute, when applied to any other pyramid or Ponzi scheme, participants are viewed as greedy and gullible.

During the approaching period of austerity (If you can call it austerity to aim to borrow only half as much from your grandchildren in five years time to fund your current lifestyle), I suspect more and more of us will be pondering more about value than cost. Probably a painful lesson but also probably beneficial.

Returning to units of measure, I attained what little education I have during the time when the UK was joining the EU (In a sort of sidling offhand way). During this period SI units were being introduced into our education, to the delight of scientists and engineers. Most of the British public seemed wary of giving up our Imperial measures for ones which were not just foreign (And therefore suspect) but mostly French (And therefore probably flimsy and unworkable). The French counterpart to this attitude has always been, when looking at the British, “Yes of course it works well in practice, but does it work in theory?” This sort of question can lead to revolutions and the overthrow of monarchs, so probably shouldn’t be asked out loud.

I remember a physics teacher delivering what he clearly believed to be a compelling argument for the change of units along the following lines … “Imagine you are on a desert island and have nothing with you but a watch. As long as it’s running, it doesn’t have to be set to the correct time. Now construct a pendulum which beats once a second. That pendulum is one metre long. Now construct a box with sides one metre long using that measure. (The materials and tools were to be improvised of course). Now fill your box with water and it will take 1000 litres and weigh one Tonne. So with just a working watch you can measure a Tonne. That Boys, is a coherent system of measurements.”

I have yet to see the full force of this argument, but then I have never yet been stranded on a desert island.

Getting your Head straight

I’m just coming to the end of the last major upgrade I will do for a while to the first 3 Apps. These three comprise the first phase of my major three point scheme. The overall design is that to get everything going in the right direction for you, you should :-

1. Get your head straight. Establish where you are, what your resources (Personal, financial etc.) are, and with the minimum of effort get these in order. This gives you a firm footing and the elbow room you need in order to operate.

2. Make sure that everything you do is done to maximum effect with minimum effort.

3. Make sure that everything you commit significant time, energy or money to is taking you nearer your long term goals and ambitions. In order to do this, you need to establish these goals and then constantly revisit your assumptions and measure your progress.

These three stages are characterised on the website ( as Head, Hand and Heart respectively.

Phase two then is the Apps for the hand, to produce efficiency. This will start with an organising/ planning ¬†App for the iPad (Become: Organised) which I have been modelling and re-modelling for months now. I just can’t get the design to sit still. As I try to nail things down, new ways of approaching things occur to me and in trying to incorporate them instead of producing a nice flexible solution, I end up with an unholy unstructured mess. Ho-hum. The problem as I see it is, if it’s for the iPad it should be fairly freeform not some reductive, prescriptive, directive, constricted and generally bossy solution. The point of project management / personal organisation tools though is to emulate a well organised person and help you to become one. Most of the people I know and have known who are really well organised, although often charming and delightful on a personal level, are the worst sort of prodnose busybodies in the workplace. What I want to achieve is some kind of compromise which, without undue harassment and hectoring, collects all the necessary information and then presents possible solutions for exploration. This sort or collaborative working between user and App is probably more in keeping with the iPad ethos, and is certainly my preferred approach.