iPod madness

Everyone and their brother seem to buy an iPod. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal of buying a substandard product that leads to vendor lock-in and further DRM nightmares.

But most people seem to disagree with me.

The most-cited reason to buy an iPod is the design. Apple has a name for cool design of their products. And while I am not fond of beige boxen, I find the Apple designs uninspiring at best. Also, and perhaps this is some weird habit of me that is not shared by the majority of buyers, I buy an appliance to fulfill a specific function. It’s great if it looks great, and design is allowed to up the prce a bit, but if I have to choose between a beautiful, crippled product or an ugly, fully-functional one, I choose fully functional 100 times out of 100.

Yes, I know, weird.

Last week, I read an article on Joel on Software, a blog about software development from a managerial viewpoint. Quite interesting, and this particular article focussed on whether ten cheap programmers could replace one genius programmer. Joel says that is not the case, because the cheap programmers will never hit ‘the high notes’ — that is, they will never achieve the brilliance a good programmer could, not even as a collective.
He illustrates this with examples from music (are ten cheap opera singers that can’t hit the high notes better than one diva that can?) and design. Yes, of course it’s about the iPod and how sleek and beautiful and perfect it is.
The next thing you know, he tell us how wonderful it is that you can’t change the batteries of the iPod yourself — there is no battery cover, and you have to pay Apple $66 for the privilege of using a screwdriver to change your battery for you (because, you know, no user-servicable parts inside!).

Excuse me? Anyone knows that the battery is the first thing to go in mobile media players. So why would you want to buy an expensive player that makes it impossible to exchange the batteries yourself? Why is that good? Why would anyone want that?

It is just completely beyond me. I guess it’s a good example of how people that you consider to be pretty intelligent in one field sometimes say the stupidest things in another field. Sure, be happy in your designed world, surrounded by overpriced gadgets that limit your abilities, getting all of your stuff from a single manufacturer that is willing to DRM your ass into compliance, one that doesn’t seem to find your rights as consumer too important. Heck, use the Apple design EVERYWHERE if you want.

Meanwhile, I will pay considerably less for things that have more features, and that respect my right to use the technology I buy in the way I want.

If you’re in the market for a portable media player and only know the iPod, do yourself a favour and take a stroll through Anything but iPod.

breyten responded to my post again, and ankie also made some valid points.

In particular, ankie pointed out that more recent movies had a more positive outlook on technology. That may be the case — it is an interesting point, and I’ll keep that in mind when seeing another movie in the theatres.
She also contends that technology is often only a tool, instead of the cause of the evilness. That may be, but it also shows that technology is a very effective Tool of Evil — technology isn’t value-neutral in such a movie. And Jurassic Park is a warning about using too much technology, precisely because we can’t predict what huge complicated systems are going to do.

breyten thinks that no-one is terrified of technology. Let me set you straight: maybe not you or me, but we are exceptions. We are surrounded by technology all day, and we have become used to it — but we are not the norm.
There is legislation about xenotransplantations, about genetically modified foodcrops, about stemcell research. What other motivations than fear lie behind these laws? Or, maybe a bit closer to home: when was the last time an elderly relative of yours was able to set up his own computer? Why don’t people experiment and play with their technology, why are they afraid to tread outside of the paths they know? It is because technology is alien to them.
A good example of the ambivalence with respect to technology can be seen in the cyberpunk literature of the mid-80’s. Technology is used to create a ‘system’ in which people are ‘trapped’ by those who designed the system. Corporations keep constant tabs on their employees, privacy is a thing of the past with all sorts of sneaky surveilance, etc. The heroes of the cyberpunk novels are tech-savvy individuals who manipulate the technology (and thus the system) to achieve their own goals. In that respect, technology is glorified — but if you read between the lines, you can see that it was the technology that enabled the ‘system’ to be created in the first place. And the ‘system’ is certainly a distopia. Even the most tech-savvy genre of SF is warning us against using too much technology!

Yes, there are counter-examples. But in general, technology gets the short end of the stick in movies. Just like the 50’s had monsters lurking just under the murky waters of any lake, today’s movies have sentient computer systems waiting to wipe out humanity.

When I had made this ‘weird pseudo-informative display’ icon, I posted about it. Apparently breyten disagreed with me, so he wrote a post in his own Journal about how computers and technology are portrayed in movies.

Of course, I disagree with him, and here is why:

He writes that I look at things from a technical point of view, but:

“What you see on that screen isn’t something that is meant to be a form of communication between the actor and the computer, but in all it’s purposes it’s meant to communicate something to the viewer of a movie.”

I disagree with this. What is on the screen is, often, completely irrelevant to the plot of the movie. Consider my example of Jurassic Park. What the little girl sees on the screen is not important: the audience doesn’t even need to see the screen — all they have to know is that the girl can somehow manipulate the machine into showing her the information she needs. That this is visualised by way of navigating a 3D representation of the file system is completely irrelevant — it does not convey any message that is pertinent to the movie itself.
Take, for instance, The Matrix Reloaded. In a certain scene, Trinity uses nmap to discover a known ssh exploit to hack into a computer. No fancy animations here: just a text-interface, and she typing on the keyboard. The audience knows she is a l33t haxx0r and that she is haxx0ring very l33tly indeed, even though they don’t understand what exactly is happening — it doesn’t matter, because it’s not important to the plot how she does it.

In my post, I theorised that movie makers want to make us feel alienated by technology. breyten says:

“Why would they want us to feel alienated from technology, when they know like no other what the possibilities are, and what the impossibilities are?”

You see, there you have it: we, as a society, are both enamoured and terrified of technology.

What makes a good movie? A good movie speaks to us about our hopes and our fears. We fear the unknown, and technology is one of those things, even though we rely on that same technology every day. Consider the role of computers and technology in movies. If a major part is reserved for a robot or a computer system, it is always the bad guy. Consider Jurassic Park, The Matrix, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or I, Robot, or The Terminator, or Tron. The only time we see a machine do Good Things is when they are used to counter-act a machine that is doing Bad Things (Tron, The Terminator 2) — we never see a machine being genuinely benign, robot pets aside.
The fact is that technological development has progressed tremendously in the last fifty years — and the rate of development is still speeding up. Moore’s Law still stands — so far, chips have followed the logarithmic scale predicted by one of Intel’s founders. Aided by computers, and soon extensive genetic engineering and nanotechnology, we will soon be able to do many things that ten years ago were the realm of science fiction.

That is frightening to many people. They aren’t used to this fast pace, where new technologies are introduced while the stuff it’s supposed to improve upon hasn’t even been around for that long. DVDs are relatively new, yet the new standards are already lined up, and the first consumer products are already appearing. But the prototypes of the new systems (holographic!) technologies are already working in the development labs. The lifecycles of products are shortening, and the products themselves are growing more and more complex. Philips’ new credo of ‘Sense and Simplicity’ notwithstanding, adding more and more complex features to a system makes it more and more complex to work.(*) People feel alienated by this, they feel powerless and insignificant. They feel threatened.

In William Gibson’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties“, which is set in the near future, one of the characters visits a vintage hardware shop:

Looking past the dislay, she could see a lot of old hardware side by side on shelves, most of it in that grubby beige plastic. Why had people, for the first twenty years of computing, cased everything in that? Anything digital, from that century it was pretty much guaranteed to be that sad-ass institutional beige, unless they’d wanted it to look more dramatic, more cutting edge, in which case they’d opted for black. But mostly this old stuff was folded in nameless shades of next-to-nothing, nondescript sort-of-tan.
She pointed at the beige hardware. “How come this old shit is always that same color?”
His forehead creased. “There are two theories. One is that it was to help people in the workplace be more comfortable with radically new technologies that would eventually result in the mutation or extinction of the workplace. Hence the almost universal choice, by the manufacturers, of a shade of plastic most often encountered in downscale condoms.” He smirked at Chevette.
“Yeah? What’s two?”
“That the people who were designing the stuff were unconsciously terrified of their own product, and in order not to scare themselves, kept it looking as unexciting as possible. Literally ‘plain vanilla,’ you follow me?”

When I first read that passage, I dismissed it: clearly that was bullshit. But now I know it is true. Look around: there are beige computer cases everywhere, and only the snazzy hardware comes in a black case.
I know someone who opted to pay 300 euros for an iPod, instead of paying 25 euros less for the Archos Gmini 400 which has so many features that it makes the iPod look like its retarded cousin. His reasoning? He liked the design of the iPod better — in other words, the buttons of the Gmini scared him and he didn’t want to deal with that, even though it would enable him to do many more things that would have been useful to him.(**)

Good movie makers know what the public wants, and good movie makers know how to exploit those repressed emotions and fears. Hence the eternal role of technology as Bad Thing. But obviously, the public works with technology as well — surely they would recognize Excel as being a spreadsheet and not a Tool Of Evil?
And thus the movie makers need to invent weird displays and Blinken Lights, to stress that this computer/technology is different from the small and harmless PC that lives in the study. Instead, this computer is a large monolithic block, set in a clean room with lots of machinery surrounding it. An acolyte in labcoat checks the various subsystems, and the audience knows: This is Technology that is Unknowable. It could do Bad Things and we wouldn’t know until it was too late.

It is too bad that this negative portrayal of technology is so pervasive. Neo-luddism is putting a serious brake on, for instance, genetic technologies. We need those technologies to thrive and survive in the future.(***)

I was going to write here that the only movies that I know of that present a neutral (and perhaps even favourable) view on technology are the Ghost in the Shell and GitS: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii is a known transhumanist), but these also feature scenes of ‘brain hacking’ and all sorts of negative consequences of further technological development.
Does anyone know of a movie that is optimistic about technology?

(*): At work, I sometimes have to make interfaces onto databases, so that the client can, for instance, edit the information about the products that need to be presented on the website. Sometimes, this is pretty complex, because the rules and the features of the products are complex — and this results in a complex interface. I do not try very hard to make this ‘easy’: if it is complex, then you are doing your users a disservice by pretending it is easy. The most common interactions with the system should be simple, yes — but if the complexity is inside the system, then no amount of fudging can make it completely simple, short of cutting features.
(**): That, or he is the victim of marketing and mass hysteria — I don’t know what is worse.
(***): Amongst others, in space.

New icon

So, what’s a guy with 100 icon slots for all eternity to do? I only had 18 icons, so it was time to make some new ones.

I am always fascinated at the displays various technologies have to divulge information about the system status to the human operators. In movies, most of these displays just don’t make sense.
Take War Games, for instance. The WOPR-core is stationed in a sort of clean-room (which was probably de rigeur at the time the movie was made). Along the walls are 19″-racks, with lots of Blinken Lights… And someone is going around the room, armed with a clipboard, and making notes, presumably of which lights are blinking and which not. Obviously, that doesn’t convey any useful information (at least not at the cursory glance the bit-part actor is giving it — apparently Blinken Lights could convey useful information if you knew how to look at it).
WTF is up with that? Just a random pattern of blinking lights don’t convey any useful information — why not just pull up a console monitor and have the computer display useful text messages?

Another example is Jurassic Park. The evil hacker has unleashed the dino’s and is making off with the genetic data. Our heroes have to master the computer, in order to stop further mayhem from occuring.
The girl looks at the screen, and says: “Oh, yeah, this is Unix, I know this.” OK, so far so good: all is well in the world when 11-year old girls know Unix, right? But then she navigates through a graphical display with the mouse. WTF is up with that? How is that useful? How is that Unix!?

I think the movie makers want us to feel alienated from technology. The Computer is a mysterious machine that can be used for good or, at the drop of a hat, for evil. And you’d never know until it was too late: the Machines are mysterious and only the High Priests of Technology can mediate for the poor huddled masses.
There is a distinct Luddite slant in movies, not just in the past, but also recently (see: I, Robot or The Matrix) — but that’s the subject of a later post.

In honor of the nonsensical displays, I made this icon. Ten points if you can spot where it’s from!

(Also, for the enterprising casemodder, there is Project BlinkenLEDs — I’m available for help if you want to make such a thing!)

Missing the point

Sometimes, my weird hobbies become a topic of conversation at work. Perhaps someone comments on the Winamp Control Box and asks me whether I make more stuff like that, or they ask me how my weekend was (“Excellent! I received another shipment of 220 LEDs!”). When I tell them that I am building my own DVD player, I invariably get incredulous looks. People don’t understand why: why not just buy one? Why not just buy a DivX-player, hook it up to your TV and be done with it? This week, a colleague went out of his way to tell me that he bought a DivX-player for a mere 40 euros and that it worked like a charm!
That’s fine if you merely buy it for the functionality. As greatbiggary comments on a post about someone’s attempt to clean up a set of screws for the restoration of an old classroom-chair: people just want to buy shiny boxes and be done with it.

Another example: babarage is thinking of getting a new computer. I proposed some parts to her, which would give her a good system for her needs at a very affordable price. Yesterday, she mailed me with a box from Dell that was comparable to the partslist that I recommended her, at a comparable price. She wondered what she should do: build the machine herself, or buy a pre-built box?

People buy stuff because it ‘kinda’ fits their need and then make do with what they’ve got.

That’s just not good enough for me. Why make do with the things that other people thought you might like? Why not make it so you know you will like it?
You see, I feel the need to create. That’s the very definition of creativity: to create something that wasn’t there before. To make your visions into physical matter. To shape your environment to your particular needs.
Why would I adapt to the machinery around me? Machinery is made to serve humans. I apply my sentient force, and the machinery should obey.

Today’s MegaTokyo-strip puts it so much more elegantly. In the next-to-last panel, Largo speaks of computers, but his words can be applied to pretty much any appliance/machinery that you use with any significant frequency.
Pre-built is an affront to everything that is l33t. Only when you have carefully selected the parts, assembled them by hand and tuned them with utmost care, then you have an appliance worthy of being used by you, The Creator.

Telling me that you bought a DivX-player for 40 euros is missing the point entirely. I guess I’m weird that way.