Posts tagged technology

Our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.

I Used to Be an Human Being, by Andrew Sullivan. Read it, now. Forget about your cellphone, close all other tabs and turn off your notifications and read it. Better yet, print it. We do too much.

The End of the Halcyon Days, released February 20th 2000, is one of the old mixtapes I have been uploading to my Mixcloud account (and here’s a bonus 20 minutes of stuff that didn’t fit the original 74m CD-R). Like the Y2K Mix I wrote about before, this mixtape is note particularly well-mixed or thought out: I was just a kid with a shareware version of Cool Edit Pro downloaded from someplace such as Tucows, some CD ripping-software besides a cache of MP3s that found their way into my computer via Zip disks, and a willingness to release these mixtapes online as 32kbps Real Audio streams in humble self-made websites with names such as Detuned, Bleep (before Warp Records came with a Bleep of their own), or Radio Deluxe; sharing their URLs on music IRC channels I used to hang out at, often getting kicked for the mixes’ electronica slant not being the ops’ cup of tea.

Therefore, such uploads can be regarded as exercises in nostalgia, both for a drive to experiment and do really badly at stuff that it was alright to later lose interest in (except for a brief relapse a few years later, I had moved on from online mixtaping once I discovered blogging), and for that old dream of an anonymous, untidy, independent Web. Still, things evolve: as we are able to travel back to the 128kbps streams that never were, the artists so dramatically and poorly ripped off in the making of these mixtapes can get some kind of compensation though the financial deals established by these centralized platforms such as Mixcloud & etc… right?…

The Y2K Mix, as the name implies, was a digital mixtape I made for New Years’ Eve 2000. Heavy on IDM and electronica, I find it quite a time capsule for a feeling of technological optimism — a 1999 in high spirits despite fears that the Y2K bug would launch nuclear missiles & etc. — that contrasts heavily to our current state of techno-pessimism (or techno-realism), despite a general sense thare are no immediate existential threats posed by technology (fears of AI notwithstanding). 

Remember how in 1999 the Segway was going to utterly change our cities and way of life, while being a step towards Back to the Future-style hoverboards? And how the Segway turned out to be a ridiculous device used by senior tourists and mall security, ‘hoverboards’ are poorly manufactured electric skateboards, and for a car to be ‘eco’ or ‘green’ means it’s as untrustworthy as a piece of Windows ME-era warez?

Technology mirrors society, so pessimism toward tech is pessimism toward the forces that shape it and how it’s used. Perhaps the Segway would have been a great solution for personal transportation if it hadn’t be ridiculed by everyone invested in cars. Perhaps we could have had clean nuclear fusion energy if a couple of nuclear accidents hadn’t frozen nuclear power in its early technological stages — as if we all still travelled in 1930s aeroplanes because a few DC-2s crashed — while everyone seems very willing to forget oil and coal generate global warming and incredible amounts of misery and cancer and death as they go about their usual business. Perhaps this future could have been as awesome as the future of the 1990s, a nanotech utopia with Star Trek-like universal guaranteed income for all, as the fruits of automated labour were shared.

We need renewed technological optimism. I’ve been listening to the Y2K Mix again lately, struggling with my cheapo $20 headphones’ Bluetooth connection at the gym. Remembering how sixteen years ago I had first published it online as a 32kbps Real Audio stream.

How Your Camera Works

Don’t be put off by the fact that this comes from a technical publication about software development: Daniel Eggert wrote a great article about how digital cameras work, checking all the boxes in succint and easy to understand manner.

Here’s a 3D printed SLR camera. (via Boing Boing)

Of course you can’t print the optics (yet), but we are getting closer and closer to the kind of technology described in The Diamond Age. However, whether next-generation tablets will instruct the Nells of this world how to lead armies against injustice or will just teach them how to animate GIFs is a speculation I will leave to the reader.

Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines: there’s a link to a downloadable PDF (of questionable legality and reliability) at the bottom of the page, so hurry up! (via Radio-Activity)

Nelson, of course, is the wacky David Lynch-esque persona who invented the word ‘hypertext’ and fought for an alternate (some might say DRM-enabled) Web for decades with Project Xanadu. Still, Nelson has none of that tired Silicon Valley entrepeneur bullshit rhetoric. His Computers for Cynics podcast (direct link to episode 0) has more wisdom about technology and control in it than the entire ouevre of ‘open source’ demagogues.

A Short History of the GIF. I remember when I was a teenager ‘gifs’ was slang for digitized porno imagery (was this a portuguese thing or did the video authors gloss over that?). That this was followed by annoying Web 1.0 animations and banner ads didn’t do wonders to rehabilitate people’s view of the Graphics Interchange Format. That day only came a quarter of a century after the format’s introduction, when we got enough bandwidth to start doing all kinds of awesome things with it.

I wonder what goodness may come if we just insist on certain technologies rather than eagerly adopting shiny new things whenever they appear. (via Ideas Repository)

Misc. links Apr 5th - May 1st

Bruce Sterling’s essay on the New Aesthetic. This is an interesting read, even if it did nothing to counter my ambivalent feelings towards the New Aesthetic. On one hand, I like it, the idea. Even if the ‘official’ blog — which I follow — feels a lot more random than a ‘movement’ should (but perhaps I’m mistaken in expecting something like a ‘movement’). I like to think that at last we figured out an aesthetic for the early twenty-first century, that it is our generation’s Futurism, this time centered in CCTV-obsessed Britain rather than in automobile-obsessed Italy. On the other hand though, I may also believe the New Aesthetic is just a bandwagon, a neatly packaged brand for journalists and lazy curators and critics. Consider John Whitney. BEFLIX. The demoscene. The comparatively long history of Glitch art. Software art. Consider Thomas Ruff’s eroded JPEGs touring the world’s art museums (museums!). Cory Archangel’s tweets about 1990s ‘New Aesthetics’. From this perspective, the New Aesthetic seems like a brand invented by the same kind of savvy people who came up with concepts such as ‘creative industries’ and made a killing living off artists and craftspersons. But then again, most art ‘movements’ didn’t ever exist as such.

Journalist Alexis Madrigal calls for a post-Facebook future (mind you, what the article is really about is the increasingly diminished returns of social and mobile software). I’m all for new things, but the current situation was expected after the initial push to develop applications that leverage ubiquous broadband internet and mobile hardware with built-in sensors (mainly camera and location/GPS) pretty much consolidated. I think that now is time to take a deep breath and start figuring out what happened, what worked and why, and what it means. Bring in the academics.

One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age. The authors, Olia and Dagan, blog interesting stuff found in the Geocities torrent rescued by Archive Team. Funny I can’t even remember what was my old Geocities address.

PHP: a fractal of bad design is a very thorough critique of everything that is wrong with the programming language. However, I don’t believe it is constructive to attack PHP developers (such as your truly) as an horde of illiterate, masochistic fools that refuse to use proper tools. Such attacks grossly underestimate the pull of PHP’s being a good enough language for web development — incredibly easy (eg. XAMPP) to get into, well documented, and widely supported by cheap web hosting providers. It’s flawed (eg. I must reemphasize the ‘well documented’ aspect of PHP’s success, given how unintuitive its function names are sometimes) but allows me to do a quick ‘sketch’ of a webpage, hit ‘refresh’ and (often enough) voilá!, it works. And it is this ‘sketching’ (a word I’m borrowing from Processing) aspect that I find vital. To go with the author’s carpenting analogies, most people are building small houses — maybe a shed, maybe a greenhouse to keep the flowers. They don’t need complicated ‘scaffolding’ like in Ruby or Python frameworks. They just need to be able to sketch.

Wired’s piece on deciphering Stuxnet, a real-life spy technothriller.

The Blackmagic Cinema Camera. That Canon 5D Mark III is so last year.

An economist’s Six Rules for Dining Out. Some of his tips seem pretty universal: seemingly strange dishes at fancy restaurants must exist for a reason and are probably quite good; listening to lots of conversation means people are waiting a lot more than eating (so loud restaurants should be skipped); and dining establishments in very good locations (eg. with lots of tourists) afford to be bad and expensive, and should often be avoided.

The Brain on Love: what happens.

Procrastiworking: is what I do. As for the “creative success” part, the jury’s still out.

The World’s Longest Invoice. I’d have a couple of submissions for the Portuguese version. Just saying.

The Tablet

A couple of weeks ago I treated myself to a Sony Tablet S. I wasn’t very sure why I should buy it, and even though I managed to keep my gadget lust under control until I spotted a relatively cheap price, I still left the shop having weak rationalizations go through my mind:

“I make websites, multimedia and stuff — I need a tablet for testing.”

“Perhaps I’ll use my desktop PC less, thus spending less electricity.”

“Now I’ll finally be able to read those PDF documents I find so tiresome in my big desktop monitor.”

“I don’t spend money on cigarettes — I know people who could afford six of these tablets if they just gave up smoking for a year.”

Indeed, I find myself using my desktop PC less. A tablet is a convenient medium for consumption — checking news, RSS feeds and Facebook, watching short YouTube videos, reading (but not composing) e-mail, all while listening to Internet radio streams. In short: a morning computer (the bedtime slot is, for now, firmly in the grip of my Kindle).

Anyway, why the Sony S? Wouldn’t the iPad fit the “tablet for testing” scenario much better, on its market share merits alone?

Yes. The high-definition new iPad would be much better for that. Its screen is all the superlatives you’ve read about everywhere else, and I it wasn’t that much more expensive. Alas, there’s something the iPad doesn’t have, and it goes right to the core of my ‘religious issues’ against Apple:

A SD card slot.

Meaning: a way for me to put stuff in my computer (that’s what a tablet is) without being dependent on iTunes, some specific OS, or any cloud service. Seeing a friend struggle to watch some videos on her iPad made me feel good about my decision. If I download, say, the new episodes of Mad Men on my PC, I can save the files to a SD card, insert it into the tablet, and watch Don Draper’s birthday party right away. That is how I use my computers. Anyway, what other impressions did the Tablet S give me so far?

The Good:

Removable storage was my requirement, so I’ll reiterate: the Sony has a proper SD card slot, allowing me to check photos I take. It’d be a nice bonus to be able to watch videos shot with my DSLR but the tablet’s 1GHz processor lacks the horsepower to display 1080p video encoded at good bitrates without going into a severe stutter — oh well. SD cards are also much better to handle than the mini/microSD used by other tablets, which are too fiddly to handle on a daily basis.

Honeycomb. This is highly controversial, but I found the Android 3.2 shipped with the tablet much better than iOS. Apple makes the highest-resolution displays on sale at your local electronics shop, and what’s in it? A grid. No recent emails, no calendar, no weather widget or whatever — no, a grid of icons. Desktop widgets make perfect sense in a tablet, probably more so than in conventional computers (I sure don’t miss widgets in mine), and Android wins here. Android also supports multitasking, and it works well in the S, the processor being quick enough to manage things at that level. And while I’m not a big fan of its often-praised notification system (sometimes it becomes tedious to clear notifications one by one — strange since the Android 2.1 running on my phone has a ‘clear all’ button), I’ll stand and see what improvements the promised upgrade to Android 4.0 holds.

The shape. The Sony Tablet S is really comfortable to hold. All reviews I had read mentioned holding it was like holding a folded magazine, and they are right. It’s screen is slightly tilted if I set it on a table, making its handling more natural. Still, there’s a downside to the unorthodox shape though: many third-party tablet accessories won’t fit, so — finding it unacceptable to spend 80 euro in an ‘official’ case — I had to settle for a somewhat ugly folding case that covers the back camera (not that I would make much use of it).

GMail and Google Calendar. These apps had to be good and they indeed are good and easy to use. And feel solid, unlike Google Reader.

The Annoying:

The charger. After purchasing the tablet I must have said some loud expletive as I opened the box and came across the dreaded proprietary charger and its weird and fragile-seeming connector. The Sony S won’t recharge through its USB port or through some other ‘standard’ charger, so you’re stuck. Still, I found that the battery lasts long enough that if I just leave the charger in my little nest of chargers the whole process is relatively painless. But beware, if I traveled a lot and had to take that… thing on my luggage, perhaps I’d choose another tablet.

The apps’ look and feel. Android is true to its Linux roots when it comes to the fragmentation of its applications’ look and feel. Many apps just seem weird as some UI elements are resized, while others go into strange alignments, since most are developed for phones’ smaller screen resolutions. Still, consistency is one of the things I hope that will improve with time.

YouTube. The official app is great — except it won’t let me browse and watch my own Watch Later playlist. What’s the point, then?

The Despairing:

The web browser(s). What the hell? Just because the tablet is a ‘mobile device’ I expected more than a ‘mobile browser’ — the kind that resizes and reformats webpages for your ‘mobile’ screen. I mean, the Tablet S has a 1280x800 resolution, which the same as the laptop I had until recently. I want to be able to see websites’ real pixels, — I want those settings that pretend to turn off resizing to actually work. And the problem isn’t exclusive to the stock browser — Firefox for Android brings the same half-baked web browsing experience.

Google Play. There’s something I like about the app store: the ability to browse it on my PC’s (proper) web browser, and having the apps I selected already installed the next time I pick up the tablet. It’s ‘magic’ and convenient. So it’s a shame I had to browse through Play in the process. And to clarify, I am not talking about the ‘Wild West’ mentioned in Apple vs. Google debates — I am sure the iTunes store is also full of crappo apps, apps that’ll steal your data, and both. Outside of places with strict open-source rules (ex. Linux distributions), the whole App Store model is wrong because, among other things, all App Stores end up being like Tucows circa Windows ME. Google Play is a worse implementation of a bad model. Its search functionality is a joke (search! — this is Google we’re talking about!), most of the stuff in the ‘Staff Picks’ sections looks like stuff that’ll steal my data, and I invariably end up googling — proper Googling — for blog posts on “good Android apps for <X>”.

Google Reader. Really, really buggy. Google Reader reloads posts while I’m still reading them — sometimes marking that post as read and advancing to the next post. Sometimes posts marked as read completely disappear. This app had to be good. And it’s the very opposite. There are alternatives such as Feedly, obviously (it does look good but also has some minor quirks of its own — ex. for all Google Reader integration they forgot to add a way to ‘star’/bookmark a post — facepalm!) — but it’s a bit worrisome that such an important reading app by none other than the tablet OS’ manufacturer can be such a failure.

Unexpected absences of apps. I don’t really care about Instagram or other iOS app blockbusters. A browse through Play will reveal lots and lots of apps that will make your bad digital photos look like bad analog photos — Pixlr-o-matic alone will ensure Tumblr currency for generations. But there are some glaring omissions of good, official apps that don’t look like they’re going to steal your data: Facebook’s app really needs a proper tablet version, so does Twitter. But Tumblr! Still in need of an Android app that works (tablet or otherwise) — it exists, but won’t even install.

Anyway. Except for the dreadful charger, most of the Sony Tablet S’ downsides concern Android apps and the Android app market. The hardware is pretty good, and with the possible exception of a HDMI port (offered by some competitors) there’s not much else I’d want — aside from the new iPad’s screen resolution, that is. I expect the software to improve in quality, while fearing the inevitable bloat of newer versions (the app versions I had on my phone when I first bought it were pretty snappy too), and I hope to be able to revise some of the bad things I wrote here. Still, the main questions remain:

Did I need a tablet?

Probably not.

What will I use it for?

Procrastination. Only procrastination.