Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Is Optical Media Dead?

When Apple released the MacBook Air in 2008, there was a very curious omission in the design: the computer had no optical drive. No CD, no DVD. Sure, you could opt to purchase an external CD/DVD drive, but by purposefully omitting the drive, Apple made a bold statement: “We don’t think there’s any future in optical media.”

Microsoft fanboys and crotchety old coots like me howled in disbelief. After all, we had accumulated massive libraries of software applications, games, music and movies on optical media. What good is a new computer if I can’t put my ancient copy of Cubase on it? And what if I need to burn a music mix onto a CD to give to some chick in an effort to show her how cool and sensitive I am? And what if I need to burn an ISO of a cool program or DVD that I just pirated from the torrents? What about DVD backups of my prOn collection? Hmm? Is Apple crazy?

Like usual, Apple was crazy like a fox.

Go ahead. Live the life!

In the intervening years, optical media started to disappear like like cupcakes in Adele’s pantry. Valve’s Steam download service became the go-to method of obtaining new games and in recent months they have started offering direct downloads of mainstream software applications as well. Netflix and other streaming services obviated the need to collect a bunch of plastic disks of your favorite movies and TV shows. Most folks download “apps” instead of full-fledged programs, and most major developers offer pay download services rather than disks. And music? Who buys CD’s any more? Your grampa?

Media storage has never been cheaper. Terabyte drives, home-based NAS file servers and even cheap USB memory sticks serve the vast majority of people as viable back up systems. You can even back up your stuff to “the cloud”, if you trust corporations to be hands-off with your sensitive files.

It seems Apple was right. Optical media is going the way of the floppy disk. But before we start digging its grave, we should consider the ramifications of our actions.

Physical media comes in many forms.

Before we go flying off into the Fantastic World of Tomorrow, we need to slow down and assess what we’re doing. Ever since Julius Caesar, Aurelian and the Christian Patriarchy took turns burning down the Library at Alexandria, we have to ask ourselves: how can we save our works for posterity?

How many of Edison’s cylinders were ever converted to vinyl? How many vinyl masters and tapes were ever encoded to a CD? And how many CD’s have been ripped to MP3 or similar formats? How much music was lost forever in this endless process of media evolution? What have we lost?

I submit to you the following: we have lost a lot. From early 20th century bluegrass to moldering silent films to wacky girlie magazines of the 1960’s, in our headlong rush for the new we are leaving behind the gemstones of civilization. This is all due to the vagaries of physical media. If we could digitize this stuff with the highest degree of granularity possible, future generations will merely have to perform the comparatively easy task of trans-coding to more modern formats.

Errol Flynn’s first film “Murder at Monte Carlo” – gone forever.

Wikipedia has a list of  lost films. It is far from comprehensive. Only 10% of silent films and early talkies have survived. Of the golden age of film-making (1927-1950), about half are lost forever. Sure, some of those films were boring. But they all contain at least a grain of insight into the minds of the people that created them and the society that watched them. I’m sure a lot of the scrolls in the Library at Alexandria were pretty damn boring, but civilization is far poorer for their loss.

The Library of Congress and similar organizations are making efforts to preserve as much of this stuff as they can. In fact, the next time somebody tells you that everything the government does is worthless and wasteful, do point them to the Library of Congress website. Then ask them to please continue droning on.

Is it enough? No. Optical media is on its deathbed. It’s up to you, the hoarder of CD’s and unpopular DVD’s, to start a digital library of your stuff and start sharing it. That’s right: share it. The copyright nags are the enemy of civilization. For them, there is a dollar value on the scrolls at Alexandria. They insist that society and culture should move forward only at the pace that provides them maximum financial return. Disney is the enemy, not PirateBay.

The Internet is much more than a series of tubes. It is the first ever repository of human knowledge which has an amazing aspect: the ability to reproduce perfectly, endlessly. But if it isn’t in there, it won’t be out there. To that end, I give you Rudy Vallee singing “My Song” from 1925. After all, he wanted you to hear his song!

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All my pretty speeches are a bust
And so I must try something new.
I’ve been sitting up the whole night long
Writing a song all about you.
I don’t care if it’s a big success;
As long as it will change your ‘no’ to ‘yes’…

My song won’t appeal to a lover of art.
My song will reveal what I feel in my heart.
It won’t have so much of Franz Schubert’s touch.
And I can’t begin like Irving Berlin.

My song, though a poet would never OK,
My song, still you know what I’m striving to say.
My words may be crude; the tune may be wrong,
But you’ll find my heart in my song.


Bad Design

Umm…yeah. This.

There’s plenty of bad design out there. There’s plenty of ergonomic what-the-fucks. The “tear here to open” that rips apart. The child-safety cap that requires the patience of Job and the strength of a gorilla to open. Today I’d like to share some of my gripes about these every day problems.

The Corporate Bathroom Towel Dispenser

Go ahead. Make my day.

These crappy things have been dumping armloads of extra paper towels onto the wet floor since the 1950’s. You pull to get a towel and the weight of the others makes it rip. So you tug, thus releasing a torrent of unwanted towels. And let’s not forget the people that leave a half-torn towel stuck in the dispenser so you have to pry and pull with your wet soggy hands just to get the failed process going all over again.

And don’t get me started on the motion-sensor dispensers. They make us look like a bunch of desperate, wet-handed mimes performing Vaudeville at the Moulin Rouge.

Short Faucets

You’ll never get all the soap off, loser!

The reason you’re reaching for the lousy towel dispenser is because you just washed your hands in a bathroom sink with a tiny faucet. In order to get your giant mitts clean, you have to mush them up against the back wall of the sink just to get some clean water flowing over them. Is it really too costly to get a faucet that reaches a few inches further? I guess it is.

One Function Shower Control

We got hot, we got cold. What else you want?

These things are common in hotels. Trouble is, we never really know what THIS place thinks hot or warm or cold really means, or how long it might take for the hot water to fully kick in. Worst of all, you have no flow control. You get ON-COLD, ON-HOT and OFF. Notice how OFF is the at the far end of HOT, so to shut it off you must first scald your head with boiling water.

I understand why hotels need to control water use, but I’d like them to offer two types of rooms: one for people who can manually adjust two faucet controls and one for the morons.

Low-Flow Toilet

I ain’t flushing that thing. Sorry. Not my problem.

I’m as a big a hippie as any other. I believe in conserving resources and recycling and being nice to the Earth. But I draw the line at low-flow toilets that fail to accomplish their primary mission. I don’t care what the tag says at the store, these things cannot flush man-size turds at all. There’s no point in being “low-flow” when it takes two or three flushes and a stick from the backyard to get the job done. Fuck that. Give me a 5-gallon turbo-action Turd Destroyer. I’m so glad you can still find them at the re-use store.

Coffee Makers

One cup? Two? Five? Spin the wheel and get a big surprise!

If you want an American-style cup of coffee, be sure to use one of these pieces of crap. Don’t pay too much attention to the fact that the two water calibration lines don’t correlate or that the coffee packet doesn’t really say how much you should use. Just shove the coffee in the bin, fill up the trough with water and pray to whatever God you prefer. You are almost guaranteed to get either feather-light dishwater or sludge from the bottom of an oil barrel. Either way, it will be piping hot, so you’ve got that going for you.

Round Doorknobs

I am all there is!

Yes, door knobs! Why did we North Americans fill our homes with these lousy things? You have to have a lizard grip, supple shoulders and an awkward elbow to pull open every door in the house.  These things are poorly designed for the job: causing a latch bolt to retreat. In most homes in Europe, they’ve evolved to the lever push-down handle. It’s easy, it’s reliable, it doesn’t loosen up and it applies great amounts of force with very little effort. Just one more thing those dirty Europeans got right.

Band-Aid Packets

I am the Devil and you are my slave!

So you just cut your finger. Blood is gushing out. You squeeze the wound closed with whatever rag was on hand. It seems to be slowing, so it’s time for a Band-Aid. But unless you have some decent fingernails and two hands free, you’re not gonna open that packet. And who has two hands free when they’re busy tending to a wound? And let’s not forget those worthless “pull string to open packet” systems they foisted upon us. That stupid red string would slip right out, leaving you with a closed packet, a bloody digit and a head full of fury.

One would think that with billions of dollars of profit, Johnson & Johnson could hire one engineer to solve the problem. But, no. If you don’t like it you can go ahead and bleed to death. See if anyone cares!

Digital Speedometers

Better watch it, Buster!

These things are stupid on several fronts. First and foremost: unlike an analog speedometer, they don’t tell you much about your acceleration or deceleration. These are good things to know when you’re – you know – driving. Next: it tempts people to glance endlessly at the speedo. 39…40…41…42…OMFG…41…40…39…OMFG! One mph here or there doesn’t mean anything. I want to see where I’m at every once in a while and if I’m accelerating I want to know what the rate is. Finally, these things are poorly solving a problem that didn’t exist. Nothing causes more waste than a marketing team director who “has a great new idea”.

STFU, Mr. Marketing Guy. Just put a speedo in there and let us move on with our lives.


Electric Stove Elements

Touch-a touch-a touch-a touch me! I wanna be burny!

I am plagued with these things. Precise temperature control is impossible. They are ugly as sin and collect drippings and crap, then burn them to uncleanable rusty globs. Disgusting. Worst of all, if you have oil in the pan there is no way to get an even spread because not one of your stove elements is level. Sure, you could prop one end up with tin foil but you’ll never get it right. It’ll just slosh in this direction and that. There is no hope. Give up.

The newer covered induction elements are much better. But nothing beats a properly leveled gas stove. Period.

Mexican Candles

Praise Jesus, especially when the power goes out!

I love these things. They’re a buck apiece and burn for many many hours. Trouble is, they tend to heat up, turning the candle liquid inside. When you blow it out it cools off and buries the wick. Now, when the power goes out you find yourself digging away at the wick in order to tease it out. And when you try to light it, it just won’t stay lit. It drowns itself in wax. So what seemed like an inexhaustible candle turns out to be a one-use waste of money.

Oh, and the photo above says “Ecce Homo”, which is Latin for “Behold the man”, which Pontius Pilate said when producing Christ for the crowd to mock. These candles are not saying Jesus was a homo. I hope we got that all straightened out.

Low Slung Deck Chairs

Go ahead. Sit down.

A descendent of the Kennedy Chair, which was in turn a variation of the Eisenhower Chair, the low-slung deck chair is the bane of the American patio. They look so cool and sleek and inviting, but once you’ve plopped your fat ass in there, you’re not getting back up. You can’t. So instead you give up and start barking commands at the wife and kids. “Get your old man a beer and another cheeseburger, would ya?”

Now that you’re drunk and full of greasy food, the likelihood you’ll ever stand up is gone for good. So you drift off into a nap. Later on, the wife wakes you to let you know the guests have all left and the kids are watching TV. You now have the excuse of post-nap lethargy to ask your wife to pull with all her might and get your fat ass out of that damn chair.

Next Sunday the whole process repeats. But damn – it looks so good on the patio, doesn’t it?

And finally…

Clock Radios

HA HA! Your career depends on me!

Probably the most lasting and egregious form of bad design, the ubiquitous digital clock radio is the biggest piece of shit ever foisted upon an unknowing world.

The various manufacturers have different schemes for making the various settings and none of these awful designs have improved on the plain old alarm clock. There are wind-up travel alarm clocks that have worked admirably for many decades. Until I lost mine, I’d bring it on trips because it was dead simple and totally reliable.

Nowadays, when you come rambling into your hotel room at 2am and need to set your clock to wake you up at 6:20 sharp, you’re screwed. You can barely focus your eyes on the tiny buttons and text, much less make the logical leaps required to perform the sequence for a reliable alarm. So you call down to the front desk for a wake up call that never comes because someone called in sick that day.

In sum, fuck all these cheap plastic clock radios. I hate them.



















Digital Samsara


This post isn’t about the psychedelic trance composers Digital Samsara (although if you dig that kind of thing, they really are the best).

This post is about samsara in the digital age. And by samsara I refer to the Hindu concept of an endless continuation of births, deaths and re-births. Samsara is intrinsic to the Hindu spiritual world and samsara is also the cornerstone of western Science. Evolution and astronomy describe forms of samsara. Even the human condition – our social and cultural mores and constructions – are samsara. They ebb and flow and wither and transpose without end.

The only certain thing is change, eh?

Digital samsara is the inevitable demise and rebirth of concepts and systems in the digital domain. We must accept this. Whatever format or feature or function that you adore will eventually disappear and you will never see it again.

Sadness over the “loss” is understandable. Something dreadfully important – something cosmic and universal! – went away forever. We grieve. Then we move on. And as we do, new forms appear and hold us spellbound. We fall in love again.

We are all used to this cycle. It describes our lives. But there is one aspect of our lives that is utterly intolerant of samsara.


The continual generation of wealth doesn’t work well with samsara. It’s hard to bank on cataclysmic change. Widget producers won’t give you a big hug when you inform them that widgets are out and whachits are in. And those smug whachit manufacturers will shit a brick when whatchits go out of style and some young punk replaces them with gidgets.

Enormous fortunes are won and lost on single events (blips, really) along the continual line of samsara. Only the craftiest, wisest thinkers can maintain their fortunes through a cycle of death and re-birth. Such people are very rare. Steve Jobs is one and he survived just two cycles. Now he has joined the NeXT project himself.

The trouble with samsara is its inevitability and its impassivity. It can’t be cajoled or convinced. It can’t be bought off. It just…is.

The wise among us understand and accept this. Our business venture will not grow exponentially forever and guarantee us wealth and happiness for generations. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

Yet strangely, it is this very belief that pervades corporate concepts of the digital realm and threatens the balance of our digital lives. There are some who believe that the digital samsara can be forced to obey crumbling old rules of wealth creation. They use power, threats, money and guns to force their way. They will lose in the end. But we must ask how many will suffer before that day comes.

What the SOPA legislation actually looks like.

Like children, the RIAA and MPAA want to continue suckling the warm familiar taste of mother’s milk. They cannot imagine a world without $17.99 CD’s and $12.00  movie tickets. For decades, they have had free reign to bilk artists, cheat writers and gouge consumers. Things have been so good for so long on this blip, this birth, this life.

But that life played its hand. Ratcheting up prices, monopolizing distribution and collecting radio stations are the modern business equivalent of performing a heart and liver transplant on a 99 year old man. It is fighting samsara, not surrendering to it. Despite all these efforts, the body is still dying.

These should be the watchwords of the old distribution method.

A wise man would have looked at the scope and reach of the Internet and realized that a new era in human expression was presenting itself. The RIAA and MPAA, like children, did not see this. It was like a heaven of wine and caviar had appeared before them, but they insisted on continuing to suckle their mother’s teat

But not everyone was so blind.

It was technologists who understood samsara and paved the way. From nappy-headed wunderkinds like Shawn Fanning to inscrutable geniuses like Steve Jobs, these were the people who saw plenty. Rather than grieve for the loss of the old ways, they welcomed the beauty of the new ways.

This cannot be stressed enough: the monetization of online content distribution was pioneered by programmers, not the music/film industry.

Rather than greet this new creature, the entertainment cartels have entered digital samsara screaming and kicking. Like children torn from the breast, they cry.

I want my profitability back!

It isn’t coming back. The 99 year old man is dying. You are too old for your mother’s milk. Do not grieve. A great rebirth has occurred. Celebrate it!

Wise people have discovered that there is profitability in the new medium. It’s a different system, though. Rather than convincing 100,000 people to spend $10 on your content, you must now convince 1,000,000 people to spend $1. In all likelihood, the volume will not be there to realize your prior years of obscenely high profits. But the new medium operates more efficiently and cheaply, so your costs can go down.

In the short term, this will hurt. In the long term, purveyors of content that people want will become fantastic gatekeepers of global intelligence. In the long term, the money will come.

But you must be patient and wise. The RIAA and MPAA are neither.

Right now, the raging child is threatening to destroy the medium rather than exploit it. The child wants its Mommy back and if Mommy is gone then it will fashion a new Mommy from the body of the woman that should have been the wife.

We can rebuild her! We can bring her back to life!

All around the world, the entrenched industry is seeking to stop digital samsara and somehow stifle human progress. SOPA, ACTA, etal. are the cries of children who have been tossed into the backyard pool by a no-nonsense Dad. Swim, damn you!

As we all know, samsara does not yield. Digging in your heels and generating friction is merely adding tension to the tectonic plates of society. There will be outrages and destruction. And none of it will slow or limit the next set of deaths and re-births. BBS > USENET > Napster > Kazaa > Limewire > BitTorrent. A natural evolution moves in sync with digital samsara, buffeted by the **AA into unusual habitats, but continuing to grow and improve and morph as necessary.

All the weapons in the arsenal of billionaires fail to make a dent. DRM and HDCP burst, then weaken, then dissolve in the face of perpetual change.

Yes, pirates sail the Seven Seas. But in the digital realm, there is no need to damage and plunder; one need only understand the sea and the wind. The pirates are fine sailors and can see the changing winds and read the stars while their pursuers struggle to stay afloat. The money-changers curse the storms that the pirates ride out in quiet bays.

Many years ago, Nordic people settled in Greenland. Rather than live in harmony with the land, they exploited it for wood and domestic animals. They refused to subsist on fish and sea mammals like the natives did in the north. In fact, the settlers sometimes hunted the natives for sport. The natives tried to explain to the settlers that Greenland was not Scandinavia; samsara dictated a different approach.

Eventually, the Greenland settlements collapsed. The natives, however, still thrive.

In digital samsara, the pirates are not evil men bent on plunder. They are denizens of the media and are trying to teach the “settlers” how to live there. But the settlers want fresh meat and crops grown in perfect rows. They want the Old World. They refuse to learn how to survive in the new one.

The settlers will cause some deaths and they will destroy some things, but they will eventually fail. They will collapse. Samsara will go on.

It is the way.

Worth noting: while writing this missive, I was told I was being laid off from my job after seven stable and productive years. I grieve, but I also realize that this death will lead to a re-birth and I look forward to that new face.