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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. 

Reamde By Neal Stephenson (Books 2016, 13)

It’s a page-turner, an engrossing thriller. I got through the 1040 pages in about a week of being on holiday in Greece (it would have taken me a lot longer at home, especially if I had been working).

Its biggest flaw is exactly how much of a well-oiled machine it is, how beautifully, unreasonably jigsaw-like the pieces all fit together, so that all the players end up together at he right place at the right time for the denouement (which event itself takes up probably close to 200 pages). It’s a bit — no, extremely unlikely that all of the disparate characters could have come together just as they do.

But by the time it’s clear they’re going to, we’re so engaged with them all that we want it to happen just like it does. It’s only when standing back afterwards (or to be fair, during breaks when in the course of reading) that you we think, “This is actually kind of preposterous.”

But still, preposterous fun.

The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and others (Books 2016, 12)

Gaiman returns to the character and story that made him famous (and wins the graphic story Hugo award by doing so).

This is a prequel to the original story. In that, you’ll recall (or if you don’t you should go and read them), Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, starts by being captured by a wizard as he returns exhausted from an earlier adventure.

This is that earlier adventure. And it’s right up there with the rest of the Sandman stories. Highly recommended.

Normal by Warren Ellis (Books 2016, 11)

I’m not sure this counts as a novel, by length, but never mind. Released as four Kindle-only ebooks over four weeks, it builds up into at least a novella. And a pretty god one. Very much built on problems of today, it concerns a group of people at an institution that cares for sufferers of “abyss gaze”: futurists who have thought too much about possible futures, until doing so broke their brains.

It’s an interesting idea, and of course to make it a story, a crisis happens. Well worth a read.

The Sadness of Empty Seats

It is very sad to see all the empty seats at the Olympics in Rio — especially remembering how hard it was to get tickets four years ago.

I expect that not many people in Brazil are well enough off to afford tickets — though you’d think it would be incumbent upon the organisers to set the prices at a level where people could afford them. It’s not as if it’s the ticket-buyers who pay for the bulk of the games’ costs, after all. That would come from the corporate sponsors. Or so I would expect: I don’t have the actual figures.

You’d think that there would be a lot of tourists. I’m sure there are, but it looks like it’s not enough to fill the seats. Maybe getting to Brazil and buying the tickets is just too expensive for many.

And of course there were empty seats visible at London 2012 too, which annoyed everyone — especially when we discovered that many, many seats went to corporate sponsors, who then just didn’t bother to use them. But then, everything was shown as sold out on the ticketing site. Aparently in Rio that is not the case.

Oh well, you get a better view on the telly, anyway.

Proposed New Cycling Race for the Olympics: the “Commuter Race”

This is something that I wrote some notes on around the London 2012 Olympics, and just sitting here watching the Men’s Road Race on day 1 of Rio 2016, I thought I’d dig it out and finally post it.

Competitors have to ride stock bikes — no fancy superlight frames or custom wheels; just ordinary commuter-type bikes. They can be set up for the individual, but they must have mudguards and lights and EITHER a rack and one pannier OR the competitor must carry a backpack or messenger bag; the bag to hold a weight equivalent to (say) a laptop and a change of clothes.

The race to be a typical commute distances (say 5 miles?) carried out over normal commuting streets, during rush hour, with normal traffic.

Competitors get disqualified for jumping red lights or going the wrong way down a one-way street; and receive time penalties for going on the pavement (maybe disqualification there too, actually). They may receive a time bonus (or at least clock-stoppage) for unreasonable delays, as for example when an articulated lorry is reversing across the road and holding everybody up.

To be run as time trials with say a one-minute separation, so competitors should not be directly racing against each other.

An alternative version would have them use bikes from the city’s bike-hire scheme. They’d have to turn up at a designated pickup point, wait if a bike wasn’t available, and so on. This has the added advantage that it forces host cities to have or introduce such a scheme, and to keep the bikes well maintained.

It’s challenge that normal people — ones who commute by bike, at least — could really identify with.

Smith & Jones

The “other” Labour leadership candidate, as you might say, is called Owen Smith. There is a Guardian and New Statesman columnist and noted left-wing writer called Owen Jones.

It’s easy to confuse them; I saw this article (which is actually from almost exactly a year ago, and is about the first leadership election, but never mind) today and was confused, because it seemed strange that Jeremy Corbyn’s opponent would be writing a piece warning of the attacks that will come if Corbyn wins.

Then I realised that the byline was Jones, not Smith.

All I can say is that Kid Curry & Hannibal Heyes, and Mel & Griff Rhys — and indeed, The Doctor & Martha — have a lot to answer for.