Archive for the ‘General’ Category

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every runaway success there is an equal and opposite backlash.

So it is with iTunes. Despite being the structural hub of a suite of products that has, without any exaggeration, revolutionized media distribution, telecommunications, home computing, and skateboarding with headphones, there are those that revile it. Most of the complaints are quite vague, some are specific. The chief complaint I hear is that you have to have iTunes to update your Apple devices, and to copy data to and from them. This is too controlling, too restrictive. How dare they tell us how we can copy data to and from our own devices?
The same basic rhetoric spews forth from app developers complaining about the restrictions placed upon their app development.

I am not an Apple fanboy – I lost the love after Sculley ousted Jobs back in ’85. I still love everything they built prior to that – a small part of me still thinks of the Apple ][e as the most advanced thing I’ve ever seen. I look at their later creations objectively and critically. And it is in this spirit that I felt I had to step in to put a few words forward in defense of iTunes and the iDevice ecosystem.

It is quite empirically true that the Apple ecosystem is a fairly prescriptive – that is not to say restrictive – one. But to accuse Apple of maintaining tight control for the sake of that control is quite incorrect.

As anyone who has ever worked in IT support, and in particular in support of corporate desktop fleets, knows, if you don’t design well and then maintain some level of control over the fleet you’re charged with supporting, it will go to hell in a hat box in about five minutes, and then it is All Your Fault, and you are expected to fix it in half the time it took the users to wreck it.
The answer is the Standard Operating Environment, or SOE. Everything is built to a tight specification, which hopefully meets the company’s requirements, and things are locked down to maintain the standard. Support and maintenance structures are built into the background to keep things running. There is a standard way of doing most things, and if it has been built correctly, it just works. At least, that is the utopian ideal. To go into why many SOE implementations fall short would take me the lifecycles of at least a couple of laptops, and despite my accustomed in-print peregrinations, even I will not deign to digress that far.

The point is, Apple are merely doing the same thing. They have set themselves the task of producing products that Just Work(tm), that are very easy for non-technical people to use, and which are easy for them to support successfully across the world. Ultimately this benefits their customers just as much as it does Apple; it’s not some conspiracy designed to rob people of their freedom of choice. It’s this symbiosis that has made the Apple product suite a commercial leviathan and the envy of every other tech company that ever existed.

So the next time you feel like complaining about how Apple does things, you need to remember that there would be no enormous upside to the Apple product in front of you without the extremely well-thought-out supporting infrastructure, of which iTunes is a huge part, that you take completely for granted and in fact complain about. They know what they’re doing and they make it so that you don’t have to. Be grateful someone has gone to all that trouble.

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A lot has already been said since we heard the unassimilable news that an ABC chopper had come down near Lake Eyre and that the three men on board, the very well known Paul Lockyer among them, were feared dead. Tributes have been flowing freely.
That these three men were consummate professionals, good men, and very dear to all of their family, friends, and colleagues alike, goes without saying. But there is more to be said.

I am the first to be critical of the excesses of the national media. Some of the nonsense that spews forth, the indulgence of self-interest that is often so apparent, the abandonment of quality standards for the advancement of cynically turning a dollar, all combine to disgust me on a regular basis.

But the ABC, despite the usual background babble of its I-Feel-I-Must-Have-An-Opinion critics, has always been an oasis in the media-ethics desert I sometimes feel we are subject to. Aunty has provided us with coverage of regional, national, and international news that I for one have often clamoured to watch in preference to commercial media, not to mention often being the only friend for some people in remote parts of the country. The coverage it gives us seems natural, down-to-earth, and unaffected. A breath of fresh air at every turn. It has increased and helped us maintain our national awareness and cohesiveness, while asking nothing in return.
In short, it is a genuine national asset.

I watched the coverage of the chopper crash with a sense of loss. The men who lost their lives have been called Journalist, Pilot, Cameraman; but in my view they were not just professionals doing a job. Working for the organisation they worked for, doing the job that they were doing, whether they understood it or not, they were most definitely working in unselfish service of their country. Oh, certainly they wouldn’t have done the job if they didn’t love it, and the intrinsic rewards they derived from their careers were obviously well worth any associated privations. But I only hope that they halfway understood the way in which they made a genuine contribution to the place. Without work like this, by people like these, under the auspices of an organisation like the ABC, we would be blind to so much of our own country, its shape, its upheavals, and the people in it.

We owe Paul Lockyer, Gary Ticehurst, and John Bean a debt of gratitude. We should all of us hang our heads in a long moment’s contemplation of what this country would be like without people like them to tie it together. We are richer for having had the benefit of their brilliant work, and poorer for them having passed from among us.

All comfort to Paul, Gary, and John’s families, friends, and colleagues, and fellowship to our countrymen at the ABC at this sad time.

Living In The Future

Posted: 28/07/2011 in General

I am not particularly old.

When I was a kid, both of my grandmothers cooked on wood stoves out in the country. One, maybe both, baked bread. My grandfathers chopped the wood for the stove. With an axe.

One of them had a party-line telephone, meaning that a handle on the phone connected to a small internal generator was wound vigorously to send a current out and ring a bell at the local switchboard, at which point you could ask the operator to connect you to those with whom you wished to speak. For incoming calls, you had to correctly identify the pattern of rings that came from the phone, otherwise you would be intercepting other peoples phonecalls. Because the party-line was effectively wired in a big local loop, everybody could listen in on everybody else’s phonecalls simply by lifting the receiver.
Even for people in the cities with normal phones, you had to dial your local exchange and ask to be put through to long-distance connections by an operator. On popular trunk lines you even had to “book” calls.

The term “Service Station” did what it said on the tin. The attendant came out and filled your tank up for you, checked your oil and water, and cleaned your windscreen.

ATMs did not exist, or at least had not reached these shores. Credit cards were mostly unheardof. Everybody dealt in cash, and people had to line up at the pay window on pay day to get a yellow envelope. When you went to the supermarket (the concept of the “super”market had not been around all that long), you put your groceries into a wooden frame on the checkout and the check-out girls had to pull it towards them (thus emptying the frame for the next customer) to start ringing them through. Manually, of course, by reading the price labels on each product and entering it into a register that looked like nothing so much as a companion piece to a beige 1946 Ford. And would probably have stood up well in a collision with one.
Shopping hours were strictly 8:30-5pm weekdays. You made sure you had enough cash, petrol, food, and anything else you needed for the whole weekend. The pubs of course were open. And the churches.
The other exception was the corner shop, which may have stocked a few necessities. Their smell of swept wooden floors, and of their groceries, their somewhat dank lighting, and their idiosyncratic shopkeepers is something we’ll not see the like of again.

Air conditioning was a rarely-experienced fantasy in the biggest shops. The concept of air conditioning in cars, homes, and schools was nothing short of laughable.

Mobile phones were strictly in the realm of ridiculous Dick Tracy and Maxwell Smart fantasy. Phones *in the home* weren’t even ubiquitous, let alone phones that you could carry around.

FM Radio…..? What’s that?? AM radios were sold with regionalised dials with the callsigns of local stations on their dials instead of numbers. And there was no such thing as AM stereo.

For state-of-the-art home entertainment, “Hi-Fi” was the standard. Big record players with big speakers and a discrete amplifier. The era of vinyl was still in full swing with no suggestion it could ever end. Kids who handled records in shops were frowned at because of their fragility. And we were never allowed to “put a record on” because of the high chance of little hands scratching the records with the needle.

In the capital cities and periphery, we were fortunate, as we had four TV stations, 0, 2, 7, and 9. In regional areas, there was only half that; the local equivalent of 2 (the government broadcaster) and a local commercial station. Of course, these were all in black and white, and they didn’t even broadcast all day, and to change between them you had to actually walk to the TV after having convinced your parents you weren’t going to break their expensive piece of relatively newfangled technology by touching it, and rotate a heavily-sprung channel dial with accompanying thunk-thunk-thunk noise. There were quite limited broadcast hours, and the “test pattern” in the intervening hours was a dreaded item of boredom.
Home VCRs did not exist. Recording one programme  off the TV whilst watching a second, and then watching the recorded show back later, was a heady dream we did not dare to have lest our little hearts burst.
If you had two TVs in a family you were rich.

Air travel was expensive. Only-taken-by-the-rich expensive. And an elitist thing to indulge in. Real people caught trains.

Seatbelts in cars were not unheardof, however they were generally  restricted to the front seat, and there were plenty of cars still on the road with none at all. Babies were brought home from the hospital in their often unrestrained mothers’ arms.
Manual cars had two- or three-on-the-tree and a front bench seat. A car radio was a rare option. The car heater for the winter months certainly existed, but the smell it emitted generally meant you were better off without it.
Japanese cars were a bit of a niche that certain people indulged in, for some reason. Nobody really took them seriously. Only rich people drove European cars.
If you had two cars in a family you were rich.

Teenagers spent their 20c pieces in pinball machines. There was nothing else. Rich households may have procured a TV-connectable game of “Tennis” which was a $300 game of pong. Thus was the harbinger of our modern times.

As I look back at all of this, it all seems very familiar. These days it probably seems as though it is the collected dim rememberings of an octogenarian trying to justify how “everything was better back then”. But I am 40. All of this stuff was the norm a bit over 30 years ago. Which no longer feels like a very long time.

Now…..tonight I sat and helped my daughter put a virtual ensemble outfit on a virtual doll in an app on the iPad, a touchscreen device that can be bent to almost any purpose, including, very easily, face-to-face communication with anyone anywhere in the world at a few moments’ notice. I can get pretty much any information, see any vision, hear any song, buy any damn thing I like, communicate with whomever I like…….watch the world……..all through moving my fingers around on a single pane of glass.

I can…..
– Fly to the other side of the country with as little as a day’s notice for a few hundred dollars;
– Get most things I could want 24 hours a day 7 days a week;
– Be contacted anywhere via pretty much any means I choose by virtue of a small device I carry around in my pocket, on which I can also take brilliant photographs and distribute them to any part of the world in a matter of seconds, get any news I like, buy anything I like, sell anything I like, read any book I like, find my way around reliably with the help of a network of satellites up in space, and do pretty much anything else I can think of;
– Watch NASA missions in space *LIVE* and in high definition (okay, not any more as such but until recently);
– Watch TV and movies in my car;
– Choose from, hell, I don’t even know how many TV channels for free, all in huge high-definition colour, and I can buy access to more TV if I want (but, honestly, why??);
– Get music and movies to enjoy at home that are crystal clear on disks that are unbreakable excepting by dint of considerable effort;
– Sit in comfort in a T-shirt regardless of the prevailing weather pretty much anywhere I choose to go;
– And, for the most part, any combination of the above.

I sometimes find reconciling the above catalogue of amenities of a world gone by (to borrow a phrase from David Brin) with my life these days difficult, and that’s coming from someone who has worked in IT for 15 years. The old-timey list of life’s realities above still feels so very familiar, and yet nary a trace of any of it is still apparent from day to day. Is the world a more fun place? Definitely, I think. Is is better? I dunno. That’s subjective.

But I do know that my generation was the last to have the experience of the old world, at least the suburbia portion of which was a fairly consistent place between 1946 and 1980, by and large. We were the last to live in the time prior to the crashing wave of the technological revolution. For those that came after us, the world of pervasive, rampaging technological advance is all that they have ever known.
We knew what was happening. We could see the revolution hitting. Even with the first wave. The pocket calculators, the VCRs, the hand-held LCD games, the portable tape players, the digital watches along with all of the other digital readouts that suddenly appeared, the ATMs. We knew what was going on, even if we couldn’t really conceive of where it would lead or that the pace of change would only and ever accelerate.
We are in fact one of few generations to bestride the change. And I wonder about the effect of that. I sometimes feel that despite the fact we have taken to the new world like fish to water, there is an element of automatic comparison to how things were “before”. Perhaps it’s as simple as nostalgia. But something in me wonders how later generations would cope if presented with things as they once were. I sometimes wonder how well *we’re* coping. The term “Future Shock” was first used in my presence probably 30 years ago in reference to a story about someone from a hundred years ago turning up in the present day. But the term can probably be applied to people living during such times as these. I wonder if it will apply to every generation from now on.

In any case, the times we live in are exciting and unique – to a much greater extent than most people realise. I for one am grateful for the opportunity to see come to pass almost everything cool that we used to think of as coming “in the future” when we were kids. Well, the future is here. All the more sobering when you consider how a society such as ours would have been thought of by, for example, the Romans with our voice-activated lighting, long-distance travel, and astounding medicine. More sobering still are the possibilities that await people another two thousand years hence. It’s quite something to consider our place on the timeline of history.

I retain a strong affection for the time before 1980 when I was a kid. Probably a lot to do with the fact that I was a kid, all play no work, kind of thing. There will always be stuff I miss about it. But also that we didn’t have everything, and not everything was easy.
Now of course, pretty much everything *is* easy. I wouldn’t trade our current advantages for anything. Living In The Future is, invariably, awesome.

I hate shopping.

Men hate shopping. This is immutable. Okay, yes, one can easily point out special categories of exception, and woe betide me, I realise, should I errantly neglect to point this out, but for the most part, your average index male hates shopping.

Grocery shopping, being a subset of the set “shopping”, fits neatly beneath the crosshairs. Grocery shopping can represent a special kind of hell for the males of the species, most of whom struggle with domestic blindness at the best of times1, and so suffer the inherent disability of not knowing where on earth any bloody thing is in the supermarket, although over time a certain slight familiarity creeps in. Sending a man to a new supermarket, then, is  very special kind of torture, ladies, eclipsing by some degrees what you think of as your most withering Look2.

One of my pet hates whilst in a busy supermarket is that you cannot pause for precious breath but some inconsiderate loon comes up and wants something on the shelf behind you and you have to bleat the standard perfunctory “Sorry” and move along. Then, no sooner have you moved than another son of a motherless goat3 comes up and….rinse, repeat….rinse, repeat….it is infuriating.

One day befell the worst of all possible circumstances; tired, hungry, running late, and having been vouchsafed a truly hideous grocery list, a portion of the entries upon which I could not visualise, let along successfully locate.
As is my wont, I was standing with my back to a shelf in an aisle, vainly scanning the shelves opposite for some item of culinary miscellany, when someone came up and politely indicated that they wanted something on the shelf behind me. I grunted my assent and moved. Not a minute later, I was accosted again. This went on. The sixth time was a dear little old lady with a kind look on her face. Sadly, I was forced to tell her what I felt she needed to hear, viz: “NO! You do NOT need the Tena Lady thingos! Piss off and leave me alone!!”
The speed of her departure belied her apparent age.

I made my way away from the shelves to the back corner of the store, to the strains of “Cleanup in Aisle Six!”, which, on reflection, I should have thought more about, as I may have made a vital connection. I needed a rest; I just needed one solitary minute without people trying to usher me left and right. I leaned gratefully up against the firehose cabinet to catch my breath.

And the bloody fire alarm went off.

I managed to hold the bastards off until I ran out of cans.

I have no idea what I am headed for after I shuffle off this mortal coil should my record of conduct be found slightly wanting, but my most cynical demons fill my mind’s eye with a plane of existence filled with garish fluorescent lighting, maddening muzak, endless shelves full of unfamiliar and largely pointless foodstuffs, a list of items so esoteric that I go crosseyed just trying to read it, a basket with wheels which will only permit motion at 45° to any propulsion applied to it, and a sad little old lady weeing on my shoes.

1. https://pragmocracy.wordpress.com/2010/04/12/domestic-blindness/

2. For the record, we’re not scared of your Look. We’re not. You can’t really do anything to us we’re scared of short of sneak-attack physical violence, so anything short of that is of little consequence. We just let you think we’re scared of your Look so you’ll stop there instead of doing something tiresome like throwing our things out of the window or telling us about Grey’s Anatomy.

3. Happily for my local crime statistics, my more rational synapses recognise that the people in question are actually just going about their blameless occasions, not at all possessed with the evil irritatory intent with which I privately imbue them. This does not however prevent me from thinking very poorly of them indeed. Some of them would be shocked.

It strikes me as the height of self-serving hypocrisy and totally intellectually bankrupt the way people treat sentiments and views based on their vintage.

On the one hand, we have people, largely motivated by their own personal and trendy social politics, vibrating with sanctimonious outrage at the fact that someone should have the infernal temerity to quote an idea that was mainstream thought thirty, forty, or fifty years ago. Such obviously indefensible viewpoints are derided and demonized as out of touch, old fashioned, and no longer having a place in modern society. This is on the implied basis that we now have better ideas based upon having several additional decades to develop and percolate. The latest thinking *must* be better, surely?

And yet. On the other hand, we routinely see thinking and ideas that pre-date our grandfather’s obviously outmoded mindset by millennia being preserved and trotted out, and yes, positively revered, on a daily basis. We quote the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Chinese and the Tibetans, and many other historical figures, chapter and verse, we by default assume that Ancient Knowledge is somehow of a much finer ilk than the mucky, plastic thinking you get These Days(tm), and we model our very society on a single, very old, book, that is by its very nature apocryphal: The Bible.

Both of the above attitudes can’t be right. Whomever mixes both of them in their personal philosophy marks themselves as in severe need of a blow to the head.

But they can both be *wrong*.

Assessing thinking based upon vintage is the worst kind of stupidity if done in earnest, and a deplorable mendacity if done for any other reason. Ideas have merit, potential, malice, and menace. They do not have a use-by date. There is no such thing as old-fashioned thinking. And anyone who tries to tell you that is trying to manipulate for their own subjective ends.

Think, assess, accept or reject. But do so adhering strictly to the tenets of objectivity and reason. Any other approach……well……that went out with the ark, surely……?

Turning 40

Posted: 22/04/2011 in General

Billy Joel wrote “We Didn’t Start The Fire” to cope with turning 40 back in 1989. It felt pretty significant at the time, and served to emphasize the mythology surrounding the marker. I feel no such need per se, but if my blog post to mark the occasion gets as many hits as he sold copies of the single, I will be satisfied that I have achieved just as much. Insofar as there is such a thing as “defensibly self-serving”, You Are Here.

I turned 40 today. More words have been written, I am sure, about turning 40 than any other of our symbolic ontogeny markers based, I can’t help feeling, a little heliodeifically, on laps around the sun. People usually bemoan the milestone, hand in hand with annoying platitudinous waffle along the lines of “Life Begins At 40” as some act of psychological karmic balancing. I am convinced that if you feel the need to say this, it is not going to work for you anyway.  They complain that their life is over, etc, in spite of the really quite obvious diametrically opposed empirical evidence. I always thought I would be the same, but as I got closer to it, I got more serene about the whole thing.

The fact is, I’m glad I’m 40. Oh, there are downsides, like an increasing prevalence of Old Man Noises when getting up or down, general little aches and pains, all the Kids listening to their damn doof doof music (Music? Ha. That’s not music),  and an encroaching habit of, when in pharmacies, idly wondering when I will start requiring the bevvy of “assisted lifestyle” goods ubiquitous therein, and even issuing a grateful nod to their existence in a sort of clinical anticipation.

But being 40 is good for a range of reasons.
I have all of the trappings of adulthood we sacrifice so many of our younger years to achieve – a house, a great family, and a pretty decent job. All of the stuff I slogged towards for years – the payoff has happened.
Being 40 confers a feeling of no longer having to fight for credibility from older people. I’ve lived most of my life in a latent self-righteous rage about being ignored or overruled purely because of my age. Rightly so, in all likelihood, for it is oh so true that you can’t put an old head on young shoulders, but that’s very beside the point. Also, being younger is such an angsty thing. I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything, but the self-assurance that comes with the trappings of just a modicum of geriatricity is hard to beat. Nothing beats a bit of seniority. And of course it’s only 15 years now until I get my Senior Discount Card.

The big thing though: I’m still here. I have known too many good and blameless people, my contemporaries, and younger, who aren’t. Life has an attrition rate, ultimately 100%, in the end, but it-only-happens-to-somebody-else stats like the fact that only two-thirds of men make it to retirement age get very real when you see it in action. People may complain about turning 40, but they never stop to think that it’s a whole lot better than that which is the only other alternative.
In short, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.

So. Onward. I think Einstein may have had a point about spacetime not being all nice and linear and organised. Because now-vague and meaningless concepts like 20 and 30 seem to be soooo far behind, and yet 50 and 60, numerically equidistant, seem to be looming gratuitously large on the horizon. But by and large, if from now 80 takes as long to come around as 40 did, I’ll be happy enough.

I read an article during the nominally historic period just after the 2010 federal election, shortly after the independent actors in the federal lower house had their glowing regigenetic moment in the sun, carrying the hopes of a nation like no-one since Phar-Lap, in the process making deals to, among other things, bring about a better tone in the houses of parliament. Everybody was full of high hopes for a new era. The cynics sneered.
The article contained reference to a political observer from the UK observing our lower house during Question Time. He commented that he couldn’t believe the atrocious conduct. One of the local journos responded that if he thought this was bad, he should have seen it prior to the “new era”.
This should be a national embarrassment, nay, outrage. Over the past week it seems to have deteriorated even further.

The behaviour we see from our politicians would not be tolerated in any other sphere of life. We expect higher standards of behaviour from our kids at school, in dealing with people in public from day to day, and in the workplace. Especially in the workplace. In that context, it would not be unreasonable to expect someone to be disciplined for such an abandonment of acceptable standards.

One of the gaps between theory & implementation, and hence central flaws, in Democracy, is the basic assumption that ultimate accountability awaits at the ballot box. This is supposed to be the grand remedy, the ultimate balancing factor. Get rid of those that do not perform or who fail to implement the public’s will. Sadly, it’s not that simple.

We have what is largely a binary democratic system in this country – we either pick Option A or Option B. There is of late some fuzziness around the edges with the independents and Greens gaining the balance of power in the lower house – a novelty which, while refreshing at the time, may not capture the imagination of the electorate in a sustained fashion. Time will tell. But this, despite the best of intentions, didn’t appear to change the basic reality.
The result of this binary system is that if in any respect both sides are as bad as each other, there is basically no hope for improvement in that context, and the accountability-at-the-ballot-box theory goes out the window. This strikes at the heart of the touted benefits of democracy. Candidate parties don’t need to be particularly principled, they just need to be the least worst, and often not by much of a margin.
This situation is not helped by a political media which tacitly accepts this situation in a fatalistic kind of way. They get to know the players and their general levels of performance, and allow them to maintain a kind of minimum status quo instead of enforcing on our behalf higher standards, the role they claim to occupy in the political process, and they way they justify their existence. In any case, there’s no point in them pursuing the offenders because they’re all as bad as each other. So the system is fundamentally broken in this respect.

If the fundamental assumption of accountability-at-the-ballot-box is broken in this way – in that there are aspects of political behaviour that cannot be enforced by the electorate in this way – then we mustn’t capitulate to this. We need to force the issue. The only way to do this is to co-opt the media into making parliamentary behaviour an election issue. Not in a fleeting, politically expedient sense, either. We need to yell at our pollies to legislate to enforce a minimum standard of behaviour.
The idea is in a way laughable, but is it so different to any other election issue? If the media’s attention can be gotten – probably unlikely given their generally self-interested ethos (after all, what have they got to gain from less entertaining politics?) – not all that different from those that they claim to police, unfortunately (quis custodiet ipsos custard indeed) – then just maybe it could become one of these national discussions the pollies are so in favour of us having when it distracts from their peccadilloes.

Never has the federal electoral situation been so conducive to getting community priorities addressed. An election could well be triggered early, because our mainstream political parties *really* don’t like being dictated to by the independents & the Greens, and as soon as one side decides they have enough electoral petrol in the tank they will attempt to force an election. Ergo, any issue in which they can grab the initiative will be like gold to them.

It will probably never happen. But with the new power of social media, it’s nice to play What If. What if the net commentariat took this up to the powers that be? What if the media was pressured into getting this issue onto the national agenda? What if we forced our politicians to behave like the decorous, professional adults we deserve?

It’s a nice thought. That’s what I would call Democracy.