On the Pronunciation of “X”

Now that the new version of Apple’s PC operating system has launched, some thoughts on something that’s been bugging me for a while.

Apple’s OS was called “OS X” from about 2000 or so. At one time it was “Mac OS X,” then at some point they dropped the “Mac” part. Now, of course, they’re dropping the “X,” (and the capital “M”) and going over to calling it “macOS.”

In the old version, I knew that the “X” was the Roman numeral for 10. It was release 10 of their operating system, so that was fine. But I always pronounced it as the letter “X” in my mind. Not least because, as the version numbers incremented, they were presented like this: 10.2, 10.3, and so on. Or more fully, “Mac OS X 10.2.”

So how were we meant to say that? “Mac Oh Ess ten ten point two”? Surely not. You can see why my internal monologue pronounced it “Oh Ess Ex ten point two”.

And so it was and so I left it. I knew the “X” had originally meant “ten,” but I couldn’t imagine that anyone would still pronounce it that way. Until I started listening to podcasts.

Wherein erudite, knowledgable Apple users such as John Gruber, or the hosts of the Accidental Tech Podcast were clearly heard to talk about “Oh Ess ten.” Though they mostly avoided saying the full, convoluted, Roman and Arabic mix of numbers. I think I did once hear David Sparks on Mac Power Users saying “Oh Ess ten ten point eight” (or whatever minor release number it might have been).

Still, I didn’t let it bother me. It wasn’t doing any harm, after all.

But then people started talking about relative sizes. I think I first noticed it when retina screens were being discussed. If you’re going to provide graphical resources to support both retina and non-retina screens, you have to provide versions of the image files at different resolutions. These are referred to in writing as “1x” and “2x” versions.

Now, it is obvious to me that that isn’t a letter “x” there (even thought that’s what I typed), but a multiplication symbol. More properly rendered as “×”.1 The idea being that you have the original file, and one at twice the resolution. The multiplication symbol is said as “times.” So we have “one times” and “two times.” Right?

But those pesky podcasts.

Soon they were filled with “one ex” and “two ex.” It was the OS X problem all over again — but this time in reverse!

But I gradually realised I might be wrong in my assessment. Graphics files are complicated beasts, after all. A file suitable for a retina screen doesn’t have twice the pixels needed for an older screen, for example: it has four times as many. There are twice as many on the x-axis and twice as many on the y-axis.

And that’s when I realised that the “x” might refer to the x-axis. Saying a file was “2x” could be shorthand for saying that it had twice as many pixels on both its x- and y-axes.

In which case pronouncing it “two ex” would be right after all. Perhaps the terminology came from developers and designers referring to size of the files.

Except… I have subsequently heard people say other numbers followed by “ex,” when what they clearly meant was a multiplier. Specifically, I heard CGP Grey saying “ten ex” when talking about a tenfold increase in something like YouTube subscribers. And he used to be a maths teacher, so he should really know better.

Can we ever escape from this insidious invasion of “ex” into spaces where “times” belongs? Probably not. But it’s disturbing when otherwise-smart people make themselves sound so ignorant.

(And don’t get me started on the full-stop or period character that splits up those version numbers. Hint: it’s “point”, not “dot.”)

  1. That may or may not look any different from the letter, depending on the typeface you are seeing it in, but it’s a different unicode character. []

Recent Events

It’s been a strange few weeks.

There was the referendum, and its immediate aftermath. That’s still ongoing, of course, and won’t be over any time soon.

Then there was my leaving do from work, as I’d reached the end of the at-risk period, and am now redundant, obsolete, out of work, etc. The do was good. We had a decent turnout of current and former colleagues. My boss’s boss’s boss, the one who told us the news that we were being made redundant, turned up (he is the only one of the hierarchy who is based in Britain, the intervening layers being in Manila) and paid off the tab at the time he left, which must have been about 7pm. We still managed to spend just over £250 after that, which was optimal, as there were five of us.

I got an Uber home, and accidentally discovered what the difference between “Pool” and “UberX” is. I found myself in a car with four strangers (including the driver). To be honest I don’t think “Pool” was an option when I last used an Uber. I assume the “X” means “Exclusive.”

Anyway, they were all going to Islington, which left me to snooze on to Hackney, so it worked out fine.

And then I was unemployed. It didn’t quite hit me at first, because my beloved and I had a weekend trip to Avebury, which was fascinating. Here’s a picture of some stones. And a sheep.


But Monday dawned, and I set to with my new daily plan:

  • 8:00 – Get up, go for a swim.
  • 9:00-ish – Home, breakfast.
  • 9:30-12:30 – Job-hunt things.
  • 12:30-1:30 – Lunch.
  • 1:30-5:00-ish – Side projects (indie dev/writing).

As you might imagine, I haven’t exactly been sticking to that 100%. But the idea is that it’s going to be important to have some structure to my day now that I don’t have one imposed by full-time employment. And job-hunting can be very time-consuming, so treating that as my job for at least part of each day seems like the right thing to do.

The first day was strange, because I kept having this sense at the back of my mind, “I’m working from home today, so I’ll be in office tomorrow,” which would have been true on Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons for the last few years. But then of course it would hit me: no office; no job.

I’m enjoying the experience, though, so far at least. I’ve managed to do pretty well with the schedule, and even extended the swimming to using the gym at the local leisure centre. This is the first time I’ve ever used a gym, except for a few years ago when I had physio after injuring my leg.1 The guy who did my induction managed to hide his disbelief of this fact quite well. And now that I’ve done a few sessions I’m thinking, “Why didn’t I do this years ago?” Oh well.

So all in all, a time of change and newness — which would generally be good, and some of it is. But see the first point, above, and the debris from that. An unknown new Tory government who don’t seem to be quite willing to accept that parliament is sovereign, and so it needs to decide whether or not to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. And Labour too busy tearing itself apart to hold the government to account.

As to the Labour leadership business, I’ll have more to say about that when I’ve worked out what I think.

  1. I’m wryly amused to see that at that leg link from 2004 I’m expressing bafflement about people who would want to leave the EU. []

Pokémon Gone

I am so not a gamer.

Oh, I loved Asteroids back in the day. I solved Monument Valley, and I got on fine with Alto’s Adventure. But I’ve never got more sophisticated modern games. There’s a whole big post about that that I’ll maybe write one day.

But Pokémon Go has lit up the internet for the last week or so, and it sounded kind of fun. So I thought I’d give it a try. Probably more healthy than arguing about the Labour leadership crisis on Facebook, anyway.

I was just out at the shops, and I remembered I had it, and sure enough, there was a wild Golbat outside the local supermarket. You’ve got to throw the pokéball to catch them, right? I’ve seen enough of the TV series with my kids to get that.

A hovering Golbat superimposed on a shop called 'Local Supermarket'.

But could I catch it? Could I buggery. No matter how many times I flicked up on the screen to send the ball towards it, it just would not connect. I must have tried like fifty times, standing outside the shop like an idiot.

This is why I never get into games. I soon hit upon something frustrating and get bored with them. No doubt I was doing something wrong. I’ll try again, I suppose, but it’s very discouraging.

Oh, and I couldn’t get the name I wanted. “Devilgate” was taken, but so was it along with just about every suffix I could think of, including just random strings of numbers.

Kind of cool to see the pokéball rolling off under the vegetable racks, though.


The first month ends and I haven’t yet written a proper post: a very poor start to the blogging year.

Never mind. 2016, eh?


URLs and searching

URL hiding

A while ago, I read a piece called “Improving the URL Bar” (turns out it’s almost a year old, but never mind). I made both mental and Pinboard-based notes of it, because my response to it was, “That’s not improving the URL bar, it’s destroying it.”

Reading it again now, I don’t feel quite so strongly; I partly agree with what the author was getting at. But I feel we lose something important as we make URLs less visible. They show something of the hierarchy of a site, its structure — or at least that’s the origin of the path part.

The argument against that of course is that the path part is an implentation detail that doesn’t need to be seen by users, and perhaps more importantly, the whole thing is meaningless at best, confusing at worst to most users.

Well, maybe so. But to those of us who do understand them, hiding them can be confusing, even annoying.Of course you can click in the URL bar, or press Cmd-L or Ctrl-L, to see the whole thing. More usefully, In Safari, which I’m currently using, there’s a preference called “Show full website address”, which overrides the behaviour. So you can have your choice.


But then there’s this whole thing that we have now, of browsers doing a search when you type something in URL bar; especially (though not exclusively) when it’s not obviously a URL that you’ve typed or pasted.

I don’t like it.

Or I didn’t. I’ve been using Safari since I wiped and reinstalled this Mac because it was getting really slow (successfully, I might add). I decided to keep things as stock as possible (within reason — I wasn’t going to switch back from Lightroom to iPhoto, for example, or from MailMate to Mail.app). And Firefox can sometimes be a bit of a resource hog.

But I spent quite some time trying to find out how to give Safari a separate search bar like FF has (or can have — it may be a plugin, but if so it’s one that I install without thinking). I had muscle memory that went Cmd-T, Cmd-K (or Ctrl-T, Ctrl-T when I’m on Windows) when I want a new tab I’m going to search in. Still have it, actually, because I still use FF on Windows on my work machine.

It turns out that you can’t have that on Safari. You just have to search from the URL bar. So I just got into the habit of doing that. And now I find I do it even on Firefox (you have both options there).

I don’t know; I still feel that the URL bar should be for URLs, and searching should be something else. but it doesn’t offend me like it used to.

Still, the effect is to further blur the distinction between searching for a site and going to a specific site. I see people — even experienced, technically knowledgable people — going to Google’s home page and typing “facebook.com” into the search box. I mean, what?

Oh, and of course if you search from Google’s home page in Chrome, your cursor jumps to the URL bar! Or it did the last time I used Chrome. Which blurs the distinction between site and browser, as well as between site and search.

In the end it doesn’t matter that much — people mostly get where they mean to go — but by making it less than clear what is going on when we navigate around the web, we make it harder for people to understand how it’s all put together, and I think we lose something important in doing so.

An elective monarchy, again

I was reminded of my recent post when I watched Thursday night’sThe Big Bang Theory. It was the episode where they try to recreate a high-school prom — at their originals of which, all of them but Penny had bad experiences, of course.

Sheldon refers to the possibility of him being “elected Prom King,” and goes on to say that he’ll point out that kings aren’t elected.

He’s smart, but not that smart. Prom Kings and Queens, by definition, are elected, and in that context, that’s what the words mean.1

And words mean what we make them mean, and meanings change all the time.

  1. People often say that parliamentary elections “shouldn’t become a popularity contest.” But that, of course, is exactly what prom ones are. []

Suzi Q, where are you?

I got a card in the post the other day, from my friends Di and Johnny. Regular readers will know Di as one of the most frequent commenters here (ie, she has commented). We disagreed overThe Great Gatsby.

Anyway, the card had a post-it stuck inside, with some writing on it that I couldn’t quite make out. Di wrote, “Been trying to get this for you for ages… can you guess who it is?”

I was slow to realise that the “who” referred to the writing on the post-it. But she also said there was a clue on the back of the card.

On the back she’d written “devilgate.org”.

The post-it looks like this:


And I read it to say, “To Martin. Suzi Quatro.”

I mean, if it says that it makes sense considering my origin story; otherwise, not so much.

Thanks Di and Johnny. It’s a lovely thought.

Aye, (Head)Phones

I’m not in the market for a new pair of headphones. My venerable [Sennheiser HD450s](http://www.head-fi.org/products/sennheiser-hd-450-headphones) are still doing fine for over-the-head use, and the same brand have provided me with a series of earbuds for mobile use. But I tried a pair of Beats by Dre phones in an HMV the other day, just to see what all the fuss was about.

They looked pretty good, felt comfortable, and sounded great. But the price!

Apparently Apple [bought Beats](http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/28/apple-buys-beats-dr-dre-music-streaming) more for the streaming service than the phones. That makes sense: if they’d wanted a headphone company they’d have gone for Sennheiser, obviously (and if they cared about earphones in general they wouldn’t have made horrible ones for years).

But you’d think that if they wanted a streaming service, they’d have gone for Spotify, which is surely more established.

So I suspect the truth may include a combination of the two, plus a degree of cool cachet, in what is perhaps a demographic that they don’t currently reach.

Either way, if the next iPhone or Mac comes with a cool pair of phones (unlikely thought that may be) I won’t be unhappy.