Chess, design and software

I used to be a vaguely competent chess player, and now, with my eldest child beginning to play, I’m renewing my interest in a game that gave me much happiness as a boy.  She is learning from the same book I did 30 years ago.

Via JP’s post on cemeteries, I was reminded of the Staunton Chess set.


(from flickrstream of alanlight, thanks)

Chess had been around for ages, and just about everybody used different piece designs. After all, the sets were often handmade, and there was very little formalised international chess. This began to change in the 1800’s, as chess boomed.

A gamesmaker, John Jaques, released the set in 1849. It was called the Staunton after the most  famous chess player of the time. Staunton was heavily involved in the marketing of the product, and wikipedia reckons this was one of the first examples of celebrity marketing.

A set of Chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. STAUNTON. A guiding principle has been to give by their form a signification to the various pieces – thus the king is represented by a crown, the Queen by a coronet, &c. The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. STAUNTON’S pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets.

There are different theories as to the design of the pieces. The romantic theory is that Nathaniel Cook, Jaques’s brother in law, designed them, inspired by the Victorian infatuation with Greek architecture.  Elgin marbles and so on….

A second theory is that Jacques designed something himself that was easy and cheap to mass produce.

The reality is probably a mix of the two.

The design is great because it does several things.

1. reduces confusion through simplicity

2. The pieces are easy to recognise from several angles. Many design clues help you recognise the pieces. (height, weight, outlines, and small details)

3. They are stable, thanks to a heavy base

4. They easily repeatable due to mass production, and therefore cheap.

5. All the pieces work well together

6.  They are aesthetically pleasing, but don’t compete for attention with the game itself.


These are good principles for software.

1. A purpose

2- easy to use, lots of unobtrusive clues

3. stable

4. repeatable. (more industry, less craft)

5. great look and feel

6. work well with others

7. A means to an end

Too much software is built like pre-staunton chess sets. Too ornate, too idiosyncratic, too instable, too intrusive  and too expensive.


Hair and cricket

I’m a cricket fan, odd that,  living in Germany, I know.  Over the years I’ve picked up various bits of cricket memorabilia including this magazine from 1902, Cricket of Today and Yesterday.


Not a lot has really changed, quoting from 1902.

“in a word the spring of the coronation year found the British public on the  tiptoe of expectation with respect to the doings on English grounds of the Antipodean cricketers who has so manifestly outclassed our representatives on Australian grounds.”

This isn’t about the Australian umpire, Darrell Hair. But about cricket’s odd relationship with hair growth advertising.


This tradition has continued. Graham Gooch, former England captain became the pinup for Advanced Hair Studios. Actually the fellow in the advert above looks rather a lot like Mr Gooch.  It is a pity  has gone into hibernation, as they have a penchant for collecting Gooch look alike images. 

You can see the apparent before and after effects here.  (this is a novel use of flickr)

The greatest spin bowler ever,  Shane Warne, has also  advertised the merits of  these hair-growth products. 


Incidentally, the firm in question, Advanced Hair Studio,  has been rebuked by the advertising standards folks about misleading adverts.

Not much changes. The Australians are still the best at the game,  and we still are on receiving end of  meaningless  celebrity endorsements.

On DJs and the history of computer music

While flying back from South Africa the other day (more on my SA trip another day), I got to sit next to a professional DJ.  My knowledge of house and trance music would fill the back of a postage stamp in a big font, but we had an interesting chat about Emerson Lake and Palmer,


as well as Yello, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk and role of computers in modern music.  Marc plays in some of the world’s top clubs, such as 1015  (on Folsom)  the Redwood room in San Francisco, and Tresor in Berlin    I was expecting him to have lots of specialized equipment and software, but his set up is remarkably simple and cheap.

2 x macbook pros.

i-pod for planning sets.

pioneer HDJ headphones.


Apparently the really cool bit on these headphones is the swivel bit.

Total Control mixer, cost less than 600 dollars.



Beatport is an excellent source of trance and other electronic music.

On the software side, he uses traktor. more details here. and

It was fascinating to talk about how the music business works with someone making a good living out of it. We talked about copyright, sampling, remixing, how you read the crowd, the importance of preparation, and life as a DJ after 15 years…

And then over on the BBC website this morning I read about the Ferranti Mark 1 computer and the birth of computer music.


A scratchy recording of Baa Baa Black Sheep and a truncated version of In the Mood are thought to be the oldest known recordings of computer generated music.

The songs were captured by the BBC in the Autumn of 1951 during a visit to the University of Manchester.

The recording has been unveiled as part of the 60th Anniversary of “Baby”, the forerunner of all modern computers.

The tunes were played on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer, a commercial version of the Baby Machine.

You can listen to the recording here.

Things have come a long way since then.



Over on HR Marketer,  Heath has a good go at the problem of bad business writing.

But I have suffered in silence long enough over poorly worded business communications. Action must be taken.

I’m with you.  Make the stuff simple.

That said, although I hate badly written, jargon-ridden sentences,  I’m a sucker for a big word.

Next time I get sent that sort of press release I’ll be tempted to reply, this is a bit sesquipedalian for my liking.

We owe this word to the Roman writer Horace, who wrote in his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry): “Proicit ampullas et sesquipedalia verba” (“He throws aside his paint pots and his words that are a foot and a half long”). It comes from Latin sesqui–, one and a half, plus ped, a foot. It was borrowed into English in the seventeenth century and has become a favourite of those writers who like self-referential terms, or are addicted to polysyllabic humour.

It appears, somewhat disguised, in The History of Mr Polly by H G Wells: “Words attracted [Mr Polly] curiously, words rich in suggestion, and he loved a novel and striking phrase. His school training had given him little or no mastery of the mysterious pronunciation of English, and no confidence in himself… He avoided every recognized phrase in the language, and mispronounced everything in order that he shouldn’t be suspected of ignorance but whim. ‘Sesquippledan,’ he would say. ‘Sesquippledan verboojuice.’ ”

Somebody who uses long words is a sesquipedalianist, and this style of writing is sesquipedalianism. The noun sesquipedality means “lengthiness”. If such words are not enough, there’s always hyperpolysyllabicsesquipedalianist for someone who enjoys using really long words.

Thanks to the worldwide words 

The English language is  rich and deep.  It is a pity that so much business and journalist writing is so dismally bad.

Via Vinnie’s post on Michael Arrington I came across this piece in the L A times.

The TechCrunch poll reflected the youthanized nature of Silicon Valley: .

The word youthanized scares the hell out of me, it isn’t even that long, but is sure is ugly.  What happened to youthful? Or even just plain young?  Andrew Keen couldn’t even blame an amateur  blogger for this, it was written by a proper journalist.

As a final note: A fine use of the word sesquipedalian can be found here.

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Improving the conference call experience.

I’m quite fond of piano music, both classical and jazz.  At the end of tough day,  a touch of Debussy or perhaps Vaughn William’s Lark Ascending takes the edge off things. It still amazes me that a hammer hitting a string can generate so much beauty and peace.

In my new job, I have become a regular user of the conference call.

I have come to hate the tinkle tinkle piano music that plays while you wait for folks to join the call.  You all know the tune.  I like tinkle tinkle piano music, but just not the same 10 seconds of  light jazz,  looping endlessly.

My request,

Dear Conference Call company

Please make a partnership with When I dial in from my normal phone, please pick up my music preferences via my phone  number, and  play me something that I might actually like from my profile.  I might even press *5 to buy the single!

Kind regards,

Your regular user



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