The Watch

I got an Apple Watch this week – it was an anniversary present from my wife. I’ve vaguely wanted one, but wasn’t sure. I’ve used it for a day now, and it’s interesting in the same way all new Apple products are interesting to me.

I’ve had two different experiences with new Apple products: either it is a complete game-changer, or it doesn’t seem to offer anything, and over time, it slowly becomes apparent why it is valuable. A clear example of the latter is the Apple TV. We had a Roku box, and replaced it with the Apple TV. And at first, all I thought was “okay, more of the same.” It didn’t run apps, didn’t do anything special, and was pretty much the same thing, with a different UI and slightly different lineup. But then its value became slowly more apparent as I realized I could stream anything from my Mac into the living room, and use AirPlay to mirror over video from an iOS device.

Other things hit it out of the park. Switching from a big tower PC with Linux to a little Mac Mini in 2005 was a complete game-changer. Moving from a MiniDisc player to an iPod with every piece of music I owned was a complete paradigm shift. The move from a crap Windows Mobile phone to an iPhone in 2009 was a huge thing. I think any time I replaced something with an Apple equivalent device, it was a major positive change, and usually added functionality that greatly helped my productivity. Or, in most cases, it removed distractions that gave me much more time to focus on other things.

The iPad was a weird example, though. It didn’t replace anything; it was an odd supplement. It did take over using an old laptop when I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and made the passive second-screen experience much more fluid. It also took over using my main laptop on planes or during travel. But it ping-ponged between being too big to be a phone and too small to be a laptop. I tried bringing only it on small trips, using it as a writing machine with an external keyboard, and it never really hacked it. I also used it as an ebook reading machine, before I largely gave up on reading ebooks, because they are horrible and you really should read everything on paper. I love the iPad, but it’s stuck in this chasm between what I need and what I want.

That brings us to the watch. First, like any other Apple product, it is immaculately designed and engineered. The display is incredibly crisp and radiant. The lines of the case are smooth and minimalist. The way it sits on the wrist is not overly “techie” looking like a Pebble watch or other smart watches. It’s very sleek and smaller than my last watch, a Timex Expedition.

I’ve always worn watches. I never don’t wear one, including at night and in the shower. Since high school, it has been a changing cast of plastic waterproof Timexes and Casios, ranging from the most basic drug-store cheapies to a few more expensive G-Shock and Ironman models. My only real requirement of a watch is that I don’t need to think about it, that it is ultimately waterproof, unobtrusive, and has a battery that lasts a long time. I don’t care about fashion or gold or leather or any of the fetishistic Rolex-esque collectible qualities. I dislike analog watches, and I don’t care for wind-up or mechanical watches. If I have to have features, I want a date function, maybe a multiple-timezone thing, a very readable display, and a light is key.

I’ve wandered into the world of smart watches only in the earliest ideas of it. I did have a solar-powered G-Shock with altimeter, barometer, and all that jazz. It was okay, but did not charge well indoors, and I never went outdoors. I did a few different iterations of the Timex DataLink, which was interesting, but ultimately flawed. I generally like the look and feel of Timex, but it always seems they don’t test the UX of their watches, or they generally have 80% of the features I want, and the other 20% is sheer stupidity. And then when they break a year later, you have no way to replace a weird-shaped proprietary band or get them repaired, so they are ultimately disposable.

There are obvious issues with my demands that an Apple Watch won’t meet. It needs to be charged daily. There are Apple apologists who say you can maybe get two days out of it if you turn everything off and don’t actually use it, but get real — you need to charge it every day, for about 45 minutes or so. You could do this at night, but I like to have a watch on at night so I can read the time when I wake up at 2:37, and I’m interested in tracking sleep. I also can’t really wear the Apple Watch in the shower. You can, but it’s “splash resistant” and not “water resistant 5M” or whatever. Washing hands with it on is fine. It’s probably best to keep your wrist clean and avoid irritation, too. So I will try to kill two birds here and put it on the charger in the morning while I am getting ready, and let it charge while I’m in the shower. That’s a change in workflow, and I’m super anal-retentive about getting ready in the morning and do everything in the same exact order like I’m on the spectrum or something, because if I don’t follow a Rainman-esque procedure, I end up putting on deodorant four times and then only shaving half my face. So I need to get used to the new procedure.

The interface to the watch is interesting. It’s a new paradigm. When the iPhone came out, it took a page from the Palm Pilot playbook and made itself a subset of the Mac from which it synced, so you took only your essential data and mirrored it to your phone, along with its own Apps. This is different than the way Windows Mobile and now some Android phones work, with a different methodology, in that the phone is a PC, and the data is partitioned or divided between the two in some hodge-podge manner just like if you had two completely different PCs in your house. My friends who believe in the phone-as-PC are dumbfounded by the phone-as-subset paradigm, and think it is an indicator that the iPhone is “stupid” or “cobbled” because it can’t do everything a PC could. I see it as the opposite; a phone masquerading as a PC usually can’t do everything as well. The input and output methods on a phone aren’t the same as a PC, so you need to tailor the UI of the phone differently, to expect a touchscreen and fat fingers and less viewing area. You also want to keep a phone lightweight, so it requires less CPU and uses less battery. (This is more apparent on the tablet-as-full-PC paradigm, like the Surface. When you transfer an entire PC to a tablet, you also bring over all the parasitic overhead of an OS that has to be backward-compatible 20 years, so you have a disaster of a registry system, DLL hell, the requirement of a thousand background processes and virus scanning and obsolete drivers for floppy drives and line printers polluting your OS, and random PC LOAD LETTER errors or whatever the hell else you don’t want popping up in a Win 3.11-esque UI on your tiny touchscreen.)

So the Watch is a subset of a subset. It pairs with your iPhone and gives a glimpse of its data through a bluetooth tether, with a certain amount of computing working through its own CPU, memory, and network connectivity in the form of WiFi. I don’t know what the division is; this is hidden from the user. It’s fairly seamless; you put on the watch, tell your phone to pair with it, and after scanning a weird QR-like code on the watch face with your iPhone camera, it’s done. It is odd to think of this Russian dolls method of nesting, but that’s how it works, and it works.

I was worried the watch UI would not work out for me with my rapidly diminishing nearsightedness, but it seems fine. The big change is the haptic interface it uses to send notifications. This is more than just a single-frequency buzzer; it uses some kind of variable motor that can make notifications feel like a “tap” of different frequency to send things to you. Depending on the app, this can be quite effective. The issue is how to standardize this on apps, or have an app come up with a good idea of how to notify you. For example, the Apple Maps app uses different tapping to indicate when you should take a turn, which is pretty genius. I think there is a good possibility for an app that uses taps to do things like tell you running pace or notify you of different types of communication via a morse code-like tapping system, to change the need to look at things. I don’t know what yet, but the idea of a haptic sensor in such a prominent place (as opposed to a phone in a pocket) could mean something significant in the form of direct communication beyond the sense of sight.

Apps right now are limited, and it depends on what you want to use the watch for. There is essentially no good input device for the watch, aside from Siri. If you use Siri a lot now, this is very useful. I use Siri at least ten times every time I cook (I can’t do measurement conversions at all — sorry for failing you, grade-school math teachers) and having it on my watch is wonderful. If you make a lot of quick phone calls, having a speaker phone on your wrist where you can yell “call home” is very useful if you drive a lot. Frequent texts, in the form of “send a message to Joe saying I’m going to be ten minutes late” is helpful.

Many of the apps — especially the mail app — are in their primitive, first-stab level of functionality. When I was sitting in bed, it was useful to open mail, and immediately delete half the messages, which I always do. But as I was doing this, it reminded me of 1999, when I had my first Sprint PCS phone, a flat rubberized slab of butt-dialing goodness that had a tiny calculator screen to show you texts and what it thought was “mobile web,” a rough and dumb approximation of browsing the internet in the form of showing you the first 18 characters of a stripped-down web site after about a minute of loading. Reading my mail messages on this little screen made me think back to those early days of reading mails on the tiny square screen of a Nokia, with no adornment or spacing or anything, just bare words in a little LCD box. It looks better and smoother on the Watch, but in my mind it is a representation or reminder of that feeling of “this is our first go at this, but in ten years, this is going to be phenomenal.”

Some apps are silly, or plain dumb. Apps are not separately synced; an iOS app may or may not have an associated Watch app. When your phone app has a watch app, you get it when you sync. As an example, the Walgreen’s phone app has a Watch app, and all it does is remind you when to take your pills. That’s it. I could have used a Watch app that showed me my rewards balance, but no. Some apps are decent. Like the Yelp app is pretty good at giving you condensed choices. The Weight Watchers app is buggy as hell and largely useless. The MLB At Bat app seems to be well thought-out, but won’t even launch for me. I think this will get better as the new native apps API get out there. The possibility for good apps exist. Maybe now that they’ve sold a few billion dollars’ worth of watches, they will start to happen.

Built-in apps are good. I like the idea of controlling iTunes with my watch. The messaging apps are decent. I rarely text or use the phone because I’m an introvert shut-in with no friends, but if you talk to friends a lot, there’s a lot of usefulness there.

One of the main reasons I wanted the watch is to keep track of fitness and quantify that. The sensors for this are excellent, as is the activity monitor. I normally use a Fitbit to count steps/floors, and the Watch seems to count slightly lower, which is normal for a wrist-mounted counting device, I think. The heartbeat sensor is pretty good. The integration with Apple Health is awesome. I first used the exercise monitor feature on yesterday’s walk, and it was great to capture my heart rate changes during the usual fast-walk with hills. I also used the Sleep++ app to track sleep last night, and that worked well.

All in all, it’s an interesting device — I’d like to see how it works out in the long term, and find more uses for it with regard to the usual writing/research/data collecting/tasks workflow.

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My occasional history with film

I’m still thinking about film a lot, maybe too much. I’ve ended up buying two 35mm cameras on eBay this week, a Canonet QL17 rangefinder and an Olympus Trip 35 point/shoot.  I ran the first roll of film through the Trip (see attached picture) and I love it.  I need to take more pictures, figure out a good workflow for developing, scanning, and posting things, and determine what I’m really doing with photography. Mostly, I need to learn, and I feel like there’s a deep rabbit-hole of things out there to master. And the whole thing has me falling down a deep nostalgia hole, thinking about previous experiences with analog film.

A couple of years ago, I bought a photo book by the parents of Christopher McCandless, the guy that died in Alaska, described in the book and movie Into the Wild. His parents self-pubbed Back Into the Wild, which contained his journals, letters, and snapshots.  The book had a strong impact on me, not because I particularly admire his story and plight, but because it was a strong link to a nostalgic period of the recent past.

All of the guy’s photos were taken with cheap 35mm cameras, the point-and-shoot variety now largely forgotten.  The book also included copies of post cards and envelopes, with old stamps and cancellation/postmarkings that also reminded me of the early 90s.  I did so much mail for the zine around that time, and the look of those old 22-cent stamps and the cancellations, with their little public-service messages (“end breast cancer!” or whatever) draw me back instantly.  I still have old paper mail in storage, pieces in their well-creased envelopes, and it all reminds me of that period so much.

But the film, the cameras – they mentioned a few of the makes and models, and I googled these, wanting to see what gear he brought along on his adventures.  In the 80s and 90s, there were so many junk cameras, so many different brands.  it was like that with any electronics, too. Today, if you wanted a CD player, you’d have a choice of maybe three or four brands (Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, and some no-name Chinese thing) and maybe three or four models for each brand, and each one would be very similar to the other, aside from a differentiating feature like Surround Sound or digital output.  But back in the 80s, if you wanted, say, a VCR, there were dozens of brands, all of these different major Asian players shelling out radically different versions, competing with a dozen different American firms, with factories in San Jose or Dallas, plus all of the no-name Korean brands imported and given an American label, like the JC Penney brands or Sears versions.  And they were all so completely different, not identical in any way.

I remember I used to go through a lot of jam box tape players, because for a long period, I didn’t have a good car stereo, and would instead go to a pawn shop and buy a $50 jam box and then wire a 12-volt adapter in the car and use that until it got stolen a few months later.  And at the pawn shop, that $50 would buy so many different types, with removable speakers, various space-age plastic chrome finishes and grilles, fabric-covered woofers, and mystical buttons that offered hi-fi settings or switched on LCD power meters that measured nothing from a scientific standpoint, but would light and rise and fall with the volume of the music.  And they all had different EQ types and tone knobs or “boost” switches and different tape counters and ejection mechanisms, and the feel of the mechanical buttons was always different.

Cameras were the same way.  There were the high-end SLRs, which were all too expensive for my blood, but I had a friend or two, usually working for the yearbook club, who would learn how to work a good Canon or Nikon, and maybe borrow one from the school. SLRs all looked similar, but had weird differences, and there were the usual Pepsi/Coke religious wars about which one was best, although it was a ten-front war back then, not just Nikon/Canon.  There were also the low-end things, the Kodak 110s and disc cameras, and cheap Polaroid one-shots with no controls at all, just a dust cover, a trigger button, and a place to plug in the flip-flash with the exploding bulbs that would cost a fortune and smell of burning plastic after they ignited.  My parents liked these cameras, the ones with no settings, the Brownie or the 126, with nothing but maybe a film advance lever to manually crank through the roll after each shot.  And there were also a wide variety of cameras between the two, with some advanced features, some things missing, and some fully automated.

When I was a kid, I won one of the cheap-o cameras at the company picnic for my dad’s job.  It was a Kodak 110 kit, a little rectangle with the lid that pivoted open and worked as a sort of handle, hanging off to one side.  It was as thick as one of the plastic film cartridges, and had a little eyehole to look through, to frame shots.  This model had a “zoom” lens, a glass piece that slid back and forth on a track, so you could snap it into place and increase the range by a small factor.  Everything else was manual, with no focus, no aperture setting, just a film advance lever and a shutter button.  It would take me a year to take a dozen shots, carefully framing them, snapping a picture, and then not knowing for months if it turned out or not.  As a ten-year-old, I never had money for a flash, and would shoot everything in daylight with fingers crossed.  When done, the exposed film got thrown in a junk drawer, with pens and checkbooks and broken calculators and instruction books to appliances.  If we were lucky, a third of the film I shot as a kid was developed.  It always looked bad, with faded colors, grainy prints, and half of the shots underexposed or dark.  Everyone had red eyes, and all of the macro photography I attempted with Star Wars models never looked anything like the films.  It was disappointing, and not a hobby for me to get into, so I didn’t.

In high school, on a lark, I bought another 110 camera.  This was a small “spy” camera, a tiny piece of plastic that clipped over a 110 cartridge, leaving most of the film case exposed on the outside, not much more than a lens and advancing mechanism that clipped over the film cart.  I don’t remember if it had a flash, but I do remember it had no viewfinder, just a small plastic rectangle that clicked up on the top.  I bought this in October of my senior year, right before visiting Canada for the first time.  I took a few rolls of shots with this, and paid to develop them myself, since the $3.45/hour wages at my job afforded me this luxury.  The quality wasn’t much better, but there was more immediacy, and I took a lot of pictures of things.  I knew I’d leave town in a year, and want to remember old friends and my old car and my old house, so I captured it all to film.  And that Canada trip yielded a few good shots, too.  The film quality was still bad, lots of reds to the color mix, and the plastic-lens camera was total garbage.  But the small size, the novelty, and the budget to actually develop photos made it a decent experience.

In my freshman year of college, I had a few bucks of christmas money to blow on the after-holiday sales, and bought a 35mm camera at an Osco drug store.  It was some semi-known name, like Vivitar, but was a low-end, all-manual affair, similar to the ones McCandless used.  This was my first foray into a middle ground that existed, with the pro film format (35mm) but the cheap and easy to use camera that offered not settings or adjustments.  It did have a cheap flash, and it maybe had an aperture setting (a little lever with an icon of the sun and another of a cloud).  And it may have had a similar focus (picture of a mountain, picture of a person’s head.)  But it had no zoom, no focus ring, no tripod mount, none of that.  It also had a manual film advance, and you had to load the film by hand, stretching the first flap out of the film canister across a set of sprockets before closing the back door.

This camera only lasted a few weeks, before the film spool broke, the cheap plastic splitting apart, in an unrepairable way that instantly let in the light, making the $25 gadget useless.  But I got two rolls of film through it; one while I was still home, and one at school.  The school roll had some great shots on it.  I walked a loop of the campus during the day, and the January sun and blue sky made for some great shots of the old limestone buildings, a perfect capture of the 1990 glory of Indiana University.  The home set of snaps had a couple of good pictures of Tom Sample at New Year’s, and the only picture of first college girlfriend Angie I still have.  (A horrible picture of her in my mom’s car.)

I did not have another camera until the middle of 1993, when I was home for the summer  I don’t know what compelled me to dip back into photography, but I think it was from working on the zine, the idea that I would take pictures at shows.  I spent close to $100 on another 35mm camera, once again one of those fixed-focus things.  This one was closer to a DSLR in its general shape, and it did have a motorized zoom lens, along with a better flash, and a motorized auto-load, the kind where you would put in a can of film and it would quickly suck up the end after you closed the back door.  And then at the end of the roll, it would suck the film back into the canister for you, instead of spending minutes cranking on a small dial or lever manually.

I got really into the idea of becoming “a photographer” even though it was a cheap and cheesy all-plastic camera.  I’d buy expensive film, like 1600 ISO Fujifilm or Kodachrome, and keep it in the fridge and get it developed at the one-hour place, always asking for matte prints.  I went to a lot of shows that summer for the zine, getting in for free by talking to record labels, and I’d always ask for a “photo pass” to try and get better access.  I never got any good pictures at shows, just blurry, poorly-lit snaps of Glen Benton or Cannibal Corpse, completely unusable stuff. I took some decent snapshots though, artsy pictures of Goshen College, some pictures of friends, along with a roll or two of the Milwaukee Metalfest, although none that were actually of the bands, just the booths and the drive there and back.  I also got the last few shots of the Mitchell House before I moved out, the only pictures I have of that place.

The camera went into “occasional mode” after that, only getting pulled out on a whim here and there, for parties or trips.  I wish I would have taken far more photos back then, many more shots of people and places, images capturing the Bloomington of 1994 and 1995.  I never knew the importance of these things, that I’d want to write about them, and I got a few good shots, but not enough.  I did a little more later, but I’ve taken more digital pictures in the last three months than the grand total of every frame I ran through that cheap 35mm.

That camera followed me to Seattle, chronicling that voyage.  I didn’t travel much when I was living in Jet City, but it made a few trips down to California. And then after K and I broke up, there was a period where I wanted to be a “photographer” again and went around taking pictures of cemeteries and airplanes and lakes.  It also went with on my long trip from Seattle to New York in 99. Once I got to NY, maybe a roll or two went through it, shots of my apartment, or maybe Times Square.  I’d switched to video for the most part by then, which is bad because the quality is so low, and the camcorder was bulky enough, I didn’t shoot as much.    By the time I started to take vacations, like my first trips to Vegas, it was 2000, and I had my first digital camera, so the film went away forever.

Anyway, the McCandless book reminded me of this, because he took these shots of the desert, the wide open spaces of Alaska, the plains states, and everywhere else off the beaten path of the early 1990s America.  And his pictures, the feel of film going through the low-end optics of a cheap import camera, I could feel the places he visited, much more so than if he’d just snapped some Instagram pics with his iPhone.  That particular type of shot, the lenses or the grain of the film or whatever else, just screamed 1990, the same way my dad’s old slide film 135 shots from when he was in the service are easily IDed as being from the late 1960s.  They just had a certain feel to them.

I made that journey across the desert in 1999, driving through New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada and Texas, on some of the same roads as him, and pulled over many times to walk across the flats and look at dry riverbeds and take a few shots with my cheap camera.  And his pictures remind me of my pictures.  And my pictures remind me of standing there alone, feeling the nature and lack of mankind around me, in a way that a hundred snaps from a camphone would not.  That era is so close to us now, only a few years ago, but it seems like a lifetime away.  And when I pick up a film print I took from them, or look at the copies of his, it makes me jump from my life back to that one.

Anyway, enough rambling.  More film will be shot.  And I have a huge project I dread, involving scans and restoration of these giant tupperware storage bins of negatives and prints, before they all rot into rancid chemicals and fade into nothing.  I should get on that.

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The Allure of Used Media

I was just reading today about some rumors surrounding the system that’s being called, for lack of a better name, the XBox 720.  It’s supposed to be coming out in late 2013 or 2014, which is bad for a couple of reasons.  One, if they screw the pooch and don’t get it to hit that magical pre-holiday season shopping surge, they’re dead.  Second, the entire console gaming industry could be as lively in 2014 as the current 8-track tape industry is today.  But that’s not what shocked me about the news; neither was the fact that they’re moving to BluRay discs for their format.  What threw me is the announcement that the new system won’t let you play used games.

This hasn’t been entirely clarified, but I’m guessing that games will force you to do some sort of online activation scheme, or otherwise be bound to your Microsoft ID.  If you can’t beam home and lock that copy to your ID, you can’t play.  This would probably be swaddled in some distraction, like saying “I’m going to go online now and download all of your COOL NEW GIANT BONUS GUNS!!” and then lock down the game while pulling down updates.  The DIVX DVD player from a decade ago had a similar system, and failed miserably.  It used a phone line to connect back to the mothership, like an old-school cable box did for PPV purchases, but now that every home (in theory) has wifi and ethernet and broadband, that part of the equation is less of a big deal.

I was just reading a J.G. Ballard interview where he talked about the influence of used book stores when he was younger, how he’d dig around these places after some old geezer kicked the bucket and his widow hauled off a century’s worth of book hoarding for six pence a title, and find among the pulp paperbacks the occasional gem.  I used to do the same thing, partly because the prices were always good, but partly because the only other book stores around were Walden’s-type places that didn’t stock anything interesting, or maybe the occasional Border’s that would have the last one or two of an author’s works, at full cover price.  I spent so much time poring over titles in basement stores, taking home books that looked cool, and occasionally stumbling onto something life-changing.

I did the same thing with CDs and music, too.  I mean, I worked both sides of the deal, dragging a backpack of the lowest-rated titles from my collection every time I was broke and had to pay a massive phone bill or buy enough groceries to coast into next payday.  But I’d often spent hours going from A to Z in those used CD places, trying to find something obscure, or just looking for bands I’d never heard, so I could try them out for half the price of a retail CD.  I buy 100% of my music digitally now, and that experience is completely gone now.  I can listen to 30-second clips of an artist’s songs in the iTunes store, and that’s helpful, but the entire tactile situation of running my fingers over five thousand plastic spines on jewel cases to find some obscure d-list band on Earache is gone.

I don’t know how big the used game market is these days, although at the height of my PlayStation 2 days, I’d frequently turn in the duds in my collection for store credit.  I was always the kind of gamer that would be stuck on a single title for weeks and months on end, instead of having to get the latest games as they came out and then immediately solve them.  I am guessing if you’re that kind of gamer, you probably use one of those Netflix-like game rental services, although this begs the question if they will also be screwed by a one-player-per-title system.

The main thing killing the console game system is another reason why the game-ownership system makes less sense.  When you play something like Mafia Wars, you don’t buy the game; the client is your browser, and you “own” your online account.  You don’t spend money buying a physical disk; you buy game currency or points or guns or upgrades or whatever else.  I think more games will follow this WoW model where the client is either free or cheap, and you either pay for upgrades or pay per month or hour or whatever.

I’m also wondering if this will cause a “dark ages” in collecting of systems in the future.  I can hop on eBay and hoard away any number of Atari 2600 titles.  But will there be a point in ten or twenty years when the then-middle-aged person goes to buy all of the XBox720/PS4 games they didn’t have as a kid and be as screwed as that guy who built a replica Cray supercomputer and can’t boot it because nobody has an OS for it?

 

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The Cult of Keyboards

As I approach the end of my 40th year, my body is falling apart.  Okay, that may be an over-exaggeration, but every morning, it feels like another piece has been overextended or abused or mutilated, from the various discs in my back to the muscles and joints in my shoulders or arms or knees or toes or whatever.  Ever since I’ve started working from home, poor ergonomics has caused a rash of various repetitive stress injuries.  Or maybe all of the steps I’ve tried to prevent said injuries have caused it.  I don’t know.

I do know that my keyboards have been the main focus of this hell.  I mean, I also bought extensions to raise my desk, a different mount to raise my monitor, and one of those freaky bicycle seat-looking office chairs to prevent me from slouching, and that all helps.  But I think in the last decade, I’ve probably put down about a million words between work and fiction, and all of those go through my ten digits via some kind of USB-connected appliance that’s based on a design originally thrown down a hundred and a half years ago by opium-deranged business machine sadomasochists trying to find a way to keep busy women in between bouts of making sandwiches.  Never mind the fact that we don’t yet have machines that read our minds or let us simply talk to our computers like we’re Scotty whipping up a batch of god damned transparent aluminum. The fact that we still use essentially the same QWERTY design as a century ago, the one that was specifically invented to slow down typists, is a travesty to all things mechanical.

When I got to Seattle in the mid-90s, ergo-mania was happening, and I knew more people who had RSI or carpal tunnel than I knew in Indiana who thought the earth was created 3000 years ago, and that’s a lot.  Ergo was huge, and there were all of these bizarre startups running out of garages churning out short runs of chording keyboards and strange split devices and custom DVORAK layouts, not to mention all of the alternate mouse designs, like track balls and track pads and track pens and track cocks and whatever else.  And this was before the advent of USB, when this stuff became really easy to make, and before Microsoft upped the ante on RSI by inventing prolific right-click menus and then the scroll wheel, two things that have caused more arthritis of the right hand than all of the collected works of Megan Fox.

Microsoft both created and destroyed the ergo market by coming out with their own mass-produced split keyboard.  I will give credit where credit is due and say this is one product that Microsoft got mostly right.  I’ve gone through a succession of these split keyboards, most recently using the Ergo 4000, which has a large number of “media” buttons, which are nice for doing things like pausing iTunes or skipping tracks or zooming the browser window.  However, aside from the fact that I go though about one of these a year (mostly because of a combination of eating at my computer and the fact that the letters wear off almost instantly) there’s always been something slightly wrong with these peripherals.

Before the Microsoft models, I went through a series of IBM Model M keyboard clones; in fact, my first keyboard I bought in 1991 was an honest-to-god 83-key IBM keyboard from a 5-slot 5150 PC.  In 2012, there are a lot of issues with these keyboards, aside from just the total lack of ergonomic comfort; you’re not going to find a Windows key or an Apple key, and they use a cable that predates USB by at least two or three iterations.  Most of the vintage ones have also gone from the 90s computer beige to the yellow-brown color of linen in a ten-pack-a-day smoker’s house.

But the switches in these keyboards were magic.  New keyboards don’t use individual switches; they use dome switches, where the keys push this rubbery sheet that contains little bits that complete the electrical connection. The result is a quiet and cheap keyboard that feels like typing while your fingers are suspended in a bowl of mush, and at some point, the little domes will sporadically fail, and every 10,000th character you type will randomly miss, eventually causing insanity and the cost of both replacing the keyboard and the window you throw it through in a maddened rage.  The old keyboards used actual mechanical switches, each one happily clicking with a sharp tactile feel as you snapped away at the keys.  Even if you couldn’t type fast, it felt like you were typing fast.

This introduces this never-solvable paradox that seems to creep up in every damn aspect of my life.  I want an ergonomic split keyboard, that is modern and uses USB and has all of the new keys people use like Win and Alt, and has mechanical key switches.  The Microsoft ergo uses rubber dome switches, and at some point, those fail and cause madness.  It also means that even with a brand new keyboard, it feels like I’m typing underwater.  There’s a whole cult of mechanical switch keyboards, mostly from gamers who need lightning-fast key response.  Those are all standard layout, mostly because gamers only use the WASD keys.  There’s also the issue that these keyboards are all marketed to 14-year-old Asian boys, and have names like the “Viper Frag Kill 9000” and you will pay $200 for backlighting and extra buttons specifically used for Skyrim or whatever.  And outside of Microsoft, the ergo keyboard market has largely been killed.  Add to this the frustration that every single computer sold comes with a keyboard, and because the cheapest way of making them is good enough for a person who types at most 140 characters in a row, the $19 OEM POS is fine for almost everyone.

My problem with this – or with building a kitchen island, or finding the right desk, or getting a set of sliding glass doors done, or whatever the hell else, is I fall down these deep internet k-holes of endless searching and frustration.  There are several internet discussion boards full of game playing fiends touting their favorite boards.  But of course, if you posted asking for a good ergo keyboard, you’d get a thousand responses saying RSI is a myth, kind of like if you went into a random bar in Arkansas and asked the locals about global warming or evolution.  And your first 900 results in a google search are links to the Microsoft Ergo 4000.

This fall, I finally gave up and bought a Kinesis Advantage.  They are not cheap; I spent just shy of $300 for mine.  But they use actual Cherry mechanical switches, and feature a unique split system, where the bulk of the keys are in two “bowls”, and all of the modifier keys (ctrl/alt/win/apple) plus keys like the backspace, delete, enter, and space, all sit under your thumbs.  This means you can do 99% of your typing without stretching your hands out of the home position, and the keys happily clack away to confirm your speedy typing.  The Kinesis also has a complex and powerful system of keyboard remapping and macro programming in its firmware, which I will probably never use.   The one real bummer, aside from price, is that the function keys are these little rubber chicklets that will inevitably get jammed or stop working.  There’s also the issue that I am not historically a touch typist, and I had to spend a month using a touch typing tutor program (the wonderful and open-source Tipp1o) to get to the point where those ring and pinky fingers were hitting the As and Ses and Ls and ;s with regularity.

The k-hole has been reopened lately, though.  I’ve been wondering if there’s a good way to replace those damn chicklet keys.  Maybe I should get a keypad or jog-shuttle control to remap these keys.  Maybe I should get out the dremel and buy a dozen and a half loose Cherry keys and replace the switches.  Maybe I should remap the largely useless Home key so Home-1=F1;Home-2=F2, and so on.  Maybe I should stop all of this and actually write books.  Sure, right after I try to find a Kinesis macro programming FAQ online, and then hem and haw about buying a Griffin PowerMate.

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The Death of Palm

In a serious WTF move yesterday, HP announced they were ditching their hardware manufacturing business, and abandoning their work on WebOS devices.  HP just bought Palm a little over a year ago for 1.2 billion dollars.  Their big splash was the iPad killer tablet, the HP TouchPad, which sold roughly as well as the Edsel in the year before its demise. It’s a sad end to Palm, and evidence that doubling down doesn’t always pay off.

I have a long history with Palm, mostly because I’ve always wanted some kind of little portable machine to store my “brain” of vital info and capture little bits of writing ideas as I’m away from my desk.  I remember first hearing about Palm back in 1996, when I was still at my first job in Seattle.  At that time, the gold standard of portables was the Apple Newton, which were nice, but cost somewhere around a grand.  US Robotics rolled out their new device for only $300 for the low-end model, and they were way smaller and lighter than the Newton.  When I first stumbled across this new product on the web, they had a little Palm Pilot simulator you could download, which let you walk through the various screens of the PDA, albeit without the touch-screen area for a pen stylus.  I was 90% sold on this initial model, but 10% of me had serious doubts.  (And 100% of me didn’t have $300 burning a hole in my pocket.)

The thing that was most offputting to me was that the Newton was essentially a shrunk-down computer. You could put cards in it and it had its own file system that you could fill with apps and documents and whatever else.  But PalmOS was based on this alien concept that you carried a mirror of your important data, a copy, that got synced when you plugged the device back into the mothership of your home PC.  It was a sort of parasite, like one of those little helicopters on the decks of huge yachts, and wasn’t a “real” computer.  I don’t know why that bothered me, but it was new at the time, and I didn’t like it.  (It’s the same stumbling block a lot of Windows people have about the iPad, and why you see tons of people in message boards yelling “IT DOESNT HAVE A PCMCIA SLOT!  I CANT RUN VISUAL STUDIO ON IT!  HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO CUT BROADCAST-QUALITY HD VIDEO ON THAT THING?”)

So I didn’t get one. In the meantime, a bunch of people I worked with at my next job bought into a lot of bleeding-edge PDAs that have since left our collective consciousness.  Some of them were Newton or MessagePad die-hards, and a couple bought into the Magic Cap platform.  Windows CE devices also started appearing, which I thought was absolutely ridiculous at the time.  I spent my cash elsewhere, mostly on this other portable reading system better known as paper books, and patiently waited until Moore’s Law kicked in.

After I moved to New York, though, I foresaw a future of sitting on subway trains for a good chunk of my day. So I went down to J&R’s Music World, which is like the East-coast version of Fry’s electronics stores crowded with off-brands and flashy bright pricetags. I bought a Palm IIIx, which I think set me back $200 or so, and then figured out all of the cryptic mumbo-jumbo I needed to get it to talk to a linux machine.  (It probably involved recompiling the kernel five times.)

My use of the Palm fluctuated, and went through phases.  I’d go through periods when I downloaded a ton of ebooks, tried to keep a journal, and jotted down everything I saw or thought of, in hopes of eventually rolling it into my own writing.  I’d play dope wars forever (“you found two hits of acid on a dead dude in the subway!”) and remember reading that Bruce Sterling book The Hacker Crackdown and a good chunk of the Unabomber manifesto on that little 160×160 greenish LCD.  I never got the hang of writing in graffiti, the shorthand system of scratching on the little input area; I can barely print in Latin letters, let alone a system I haven’t been using for decades.

Everyone had a Palm back then.  When I worked at Juno, I think every single person on my team had a Palm III or V, except for one dude that had a Handspring Visor.  (I think one of the Directors also had the ultra-expensive Palm VII, which had an antenna hanging off of it, and could pull down the amount of web traffic you’d consume in about 60 seconds now over the course of a month, all for $14.95.) One of the project managers on my team found a hangman game you could play wirelessly over the IR ports, and our meeting productivity suddenly dropped 100%.  I’d get on the train and see dozens of people clicking with their little styluses on the charcoal or silver boxes, all of them drowning in crazy NASDAQ money as the tech bubble continued to expand like a huge zit on a teenager’s face.

I never fully sunk into the system, though.  Part of it was that it wasn’t 100% of what I needed to do with the damn thing.  I couldn’t really write on it; I couldn’t run totally kick-ass games with it.  There was no camera, no web browser, no way to send emails on the go.  I couldn’t write my own programs for it.  I could barely get the damn thing to sync with my PC, and would only plug it in maybe once or twice a month.  There was also the issue that I had a cell phone that could do about 23% of what I wanted, and this Palm that could do maybe 41%, and then I carried around a MiniDisc player, which totally solved the music issue, but only for the discs I remembered to shove in my pocket that morning.  I really needed some device that would do all of this and more, but that would be almost a decade away.  In the meantime, I assembled this mess of cables and adaptors to plug the Palm into the ass-end of this Samsung feature phone I had back then, so I could use the phone as a modem and dial in to a modem when I was on vacation, which almost worked.

Around 2001 or 2002, I took a half-step in that general direction, and upgraded to a Handspring Visor Prism, and got the Visorphone. The Visors had this cartridge port on them called the Springboard port, and the Visorphone was this sick attachment that  snapped on the back and essentially turned it into a cell phone.  And the Visor could use the phone for data, so you could fire it up and get SMS messages on your phone, or send out an email.  The Visorphone sounded like the coolest thing since the Boba Fett action figure with the shooting rocket pack that some stupid fucking kid shot down his throat and got the whole thing banned, but it was a total piece of shit.  It had its own battery in it, and you had to charge it separately from the main unit.  The software was barely integrated correctly, so it almost worked as well as one of those piece of shit Jitterbug phones.  And your monthly bill of 40 or 50 bucks came with just enough minutes to download and delete about four of your spam email messages.  Plus it got me locked into a T-Mobile contract, which was absolutely craptastic.  I did use the Prism for a while, and it was a nice step up from the IIIx, but I did miss the sleekness of the old Palm, the little fliptop case that reminded me of a Star Trek communicator, and the fact that it ran forever on AAA batteries.

I also owned Palm stock briefly.  I probably don’t need to explain how that went.

I sold the Handspring to a coworker, and jumped to a Sidekick, which, despite the fact that it was designed for emo 14-year-olds, had its shit together as far as data integration.  It was essentially useless as a phone, but I don’t like talking on the phone, and preferred getting the data-only unlimited plan and spending all day in AIM or browsing the web.  I did briefly consider getting a Treo when everyone else got Treo fever, but talked myself out of it.  Years later, when I was at the big S, we got a couple of Palm Pre units when they came out, and I spent twenty minutes screwing with one, long enough to lock it up two or three times.  I’d already moved to the iPhone by then, and it was the perfect solution I’d waited ten years for, so I was pretty nonplussed.  The WebOS UI had some nice features, but in a world where everyone had Ataris and Commodores, I didn’t want to buy a Coleco Adam because it had a neat keyboard.

I was thinking about all of this, and what happened to all of my old Palm files, and I remembered I used a program called jpilot on linux to sync my old devices.  It made a .jpilot directory, and it turns out I have two full backups of my old Palm’s filesystem, one from 2000 and another from 2001.  It is a total mindfuck to see what I carried on the thing back then.  I’ve got a list of DVDs I wanted to buy; a list of books to research later; and there’s an attempt at a journal that’s mostly a list sorted by date of when I was having panic attacks.  There’s an itinerary from a February 2000 trip to San Diego, and a copy of an early draft of my second book in PDB format.  I have all of the applications that were installed too, from a universal remote app to an R2D2 sound generator to some app that takes a Manhattan street address and tells you the cross streets.

Sometimes I wish I never kept things like this, because now I’m going to spend the next two hours digging through these files.

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I’d hate to be a piece of furniture in Steve Ballmer’s office this week

The Mac App Store launched Thursday, and Herman Miller stock went up two points in anticipation of all of the chairs Steve Ballmer has probably been throwing at people this week.  There’s no way the sweaty-pitted Microsoft CEO isn’t beating his middle managers like red-headed step-children after the news came out that people downloaded a million apps in the first day, with 10,000 apps available at launch.  The Mac App Store changes things in ways that people in Windowsland cannot even contemplate, although when Win7SP2 launches with the MSFT half-ass attempt of the same concept, I’m sure we’ll hear all about the greatness, just like we’ll hear about how great judicial advocacy is from Teapotters that have railed against it for the last two years when they need it to keep Guantanamo bay open.

The Mac App Store changes things in a big way, both good and bad.  Back when I got started in this industry, if you wanted to write and sell an application for a Mac (or a PC), you rode your dinosaur to work, hired a bunch of people to put your crap on floppy disks and into boxes, and then either sold it yourself in your local computer stores (kids younger than 20: imagine a Best Buy with only a computer section, that didn’t suck), or you got your retail boxes dumped into the channel and flushed out to big stores and catalogs.  (Catalog: a paper version of Amazon, but it took 4-6 weeks to get your stuff.)  Then the internet happened, and people sold software on web sites, where you somehow sent money and either got a download or got a CD-ROM sent to you through the pony express for later installation at your own leisure.

But if you had this great software package, you had this huge list of problems.  Gotta set up a web site.  Gotta get a shopping cart system in place.  Gotta take credit cards and get a merchant account and whatever SSL nonsense your ISP wants you to get.  Or, gotta bend over and spread for PalPal’s cut of the vig.  Gotta find a way to have a download center that isn’t just at widget.com/dontlookhere/dl/product.zip so the first person that buys your crap doesn’t just spam the magic link to the world and let everyone download.  Gotta come up with come crazy system of software enablement, serial numbers you type in and send securely, whatever obfuscated nonsense you need to keep the world from just emailing your ZIP file to all of their friends.  Gotta find a way to drive traffic to the site.  Gotta find a way to get people to return to the site for upgrades and new versions.  There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things to consider, and either every software reseller reinvents the wheel, or you join some tribe or cabal or commune or collective or whatever else to use one common set of machinery for everyone’s releases, and you pay for the privilege.

So now you avoid all of that.  Pay Apple a hundred bucks to join, upload your DMG file, and you’re in a searchable, centralized catalog of apps.  When a new Apple user fires up their iMac for the first time, there’s a pretty little icon to click that brings them to a huge store filled with games and productivity apps and stuff people can click on without scrambling for their credit cards or signing up for yet another e-merchant account that will probably eventually get hacked, with your password and Visa number and home phone ending up in a torrent sent out to every script kiddie in the world.

There’s also the issue of central maintenance.  When you have to push out a patch, you don’t spam out emails, and you don’t have to write complicated code to beam back to the mothership and check if the latest version is installed on the user’s PC. You tell Apple you have a new version, and let them do the dirty work.  And when a person bricks their MacBook or spills juice in their iMac and has to go get a new machine, they just plug in their username and all of their apps magically download again.  There isn’t a two-month process of trying to remember all of the crap you installed, or a weekend-long backup and reload on an external drive or a pile of DVD-Rs.

Yeah, there are downsides.  You’re paying Apple that hundred bucks, and they’re also skimming 30% of the take on your sales.  But do you know how much banks take from mom and pop companies on merchant accounts?  I’d tell you, but there are like 79 different surcharges and monthly fees and address verification fees and machine rental fees and every other nickel-and-diming the banks can think of to hit you with.  That 30% erases a lot of headaches.  And compare it to how much of a discount you’d give in channel sales, and it’s not a bad deal.

There are all of the “walled garden” arguments you’ll hear from the Microsoft camp.  You’ve heard the same arguments since the App Store showed up on the iPhone, although you haven’t heard as many of them since Windows Phone 7 adopted the same exact strategy for their app store.  And you probably won’t hear much more about it after that Windows 7 Platinum Home Deluxe SP2 Zune Marketplace shows up in the next rev of their OS, providing the same exact walled garden, albeit with a lot of the wall’s pieces removed to appease any of the big software makers that balk.

I think by the fall, everyone at every point of the food chain is going to try to launch their PC app store.  Amazon’s probably brewing one; I’m sure all of the hardware manufacturers like HP and Dell are going to have a long, painful meeting this Monday where some idiot who has never installed software in his life but can wear a mean tie and gets all of the ZDNet headlines beamed to his Blackberry is going to pitch their genius idea to launch their own bundled crapware app store on their new computers.   App stores will be the add-on toolbar of 2011, just like they were for phones in the last 18 months.

Another argument that is a plus and a minus is what the hell this will do to pricing.  People are now used to paying 99 cents for a game on their phone, so good luck on putting your desktop game on the App Store for $79.99.  Sure, you can trim down that price a bit because you’re not paying $47 a copy in merchant account fees to Bank of America.  And your game is some one-gig DVD release and not just a two-screen screen-tapper you wrote in a weekend.  It’s going to cause unbundling of suites, like Apple is doing with iWork and iLife, where people will only buy the apps they want, at a lower price and a smaller download, instead of buying a full package of apps on a DVD.  I don’t know what the magic price point will become, although I’m guessing people will be less apt to buy a $99 app and more willing to pay something like $19 for Real Apps and $4.99 for games and entertainment.

I just got the update and installed the App Store, and gave it a quick drive to download the new Twitter client.  No problems, no surprises.  I haven’t bought anything yet, but when I get a free second (which will be in like June) I will probably hunt down the latest versions of some of the older registered payware/shareware I have, just to make the next update easier.  All I can tell you now is, I’m glad I’m not working at a hardware manufacturer that’s probably going to go on damage control and require all of its R&D center employees to waste a lot of their free time generating stupid powerpoints re-selling an already done idea.  Also glad I’m not driving across the 520 bridge every morning to potentially have a 57-pound Aeron chair thrown at my head.

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A cautionary tale of incompatible formats

In 1998, I got a new credit card in the mail and after thinking about how many photocopies I could make for $1500 or if that was enough to buy like one sixtyfourth of an acre in some deserted forest, enough to build some kind of treehouse-esque unabomber shack, I suddenly realized that I had the insane desire to buy a MiniDisc recorder.  So I rushed over to The Good Guys, this old Best Buy-esuqe electronics store, and bought a Sony MZ-R50 and rushed home and recorded Joe Satriani’s Crystal Planet onto a blank disc.

(Reasons significant: 1) Joe Satriani recorded his first album after receiving a credit card in the mail; 2) He was signed to Sony, and I think a song of his was in a MiniDisc commercial, not that there were tons of those in the US; 3) I had recently broken up with a girlfriend, and the reason I broke up with her, or the catalyst at least, was driving two hours to Portland with Ryan in his Miata to see Joe Satriani, listening to CP the whole way there, and both of us bitching about our respective girlfriends and vowing to somehow escape the situations, only I did and he did not.)

I did not have a good way to record digital to digital for a long time, and the MiniDisc required you to record stuff in real-time – you didn’t just download a bunch of MP3s and dump them to the disc.  You also had to carry around however many discs with you, and if you brought three and went to work, you were guaranteed to be sick of all of them by the time you got to the train station.  I vividly remember going on an awful first date with a lowtalker who produced feminist programming for cable access and still lived with her mom and wanted to go to dinner at a soup restaurant and then go to see this movie about white supremacists, and then I really fucked things up because the movie interviewed all of these white supremacists in Bloomington, Indiana, and while they’re talking to these guys about the evils of Jews, they’re all drinking out of Pizza Express cups and I’m like HOLY SHIT THOSE ARE PIZZA EXPRESS CUPS I HAVE LIKE 90 OF THOSE IN MY APARTMENT.  She was still somehow interested and kept calling and I eventually told her I was in love with someone who lived in LA, which was partially true anyway.  So after this first date, I had to walk her to her car at the cable access thing, and it was like eleventy billion blocks from the train station.  And the only MD I had with me was a best-of from Millions of Dead Cops, which is like 27 songs, a dozen of them being “John Wayne Was a Nazi” and the rest being entirely unintelligible 22-second long songs.  And I think I listened to it nine times on the walk back to the train.  And that’s why I got an iPod.

I have an 80GB iPod and it’s almost full, and it’s also lasted longer than any other, which means it will fail soon.  It is my damn lifeline for morning traffic though.  Is there something that will hold more music that I need to get?  Maybe I need to get a bunch of iPods and put them on a bandolier like Chewbacca.  If they made an iPhone that could fit 80 GB I would just do that.  Maybe when the drive dies in this (inevitable) I will find a way to hack it into a socket that I can hot-swap a bunch of different drives.  Maybe I will just wise up and say “why the fuck do I have all of these Charlie Parker albums and I only listen to two of the songs, so fuck it” and get the collection down so it will fit on my iPhone.

I’ve still got all of this MiniDisc crap in my storage locker.  I think if I had infinite time I would make some kind of art project out of it, like make a MiniDisc-based mellotron keyboard. Someone did a movie about the mellotron, a documentary, which I guess is a lot better than my last attempt at a documentary.  I got blindingly drunk in Laguardia airport, then had to fly to Pittsburg via Cincinnati Ohio (which is really in Kentucky, the airport I mean) and so I got to OH/KY and had a few more beers and decided I was going to make a concept movie about the moving walkways in the airport and started filming The Walkway is about to end, which is basically me sitting on the floor by the end of the walkway, and every ten seconds, a robot voice says “the walkway is about to end!” and every single person that walks past ignores it and stumbles when the moving ground becomes non-moving ground, and the whole thing is an important metaphor for something, but then I started to sober up and had to catch a plane to Pittsburgh and that’s the end of the story.  (The footage for that is in my storage locker, too.)

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Requiem for an iPhone

Well, my must-last-two-years-according-to-AT&T iPhone 3G just crossed the magical Apple rainbow at nine months.  It was working fine, but it started developing a crack in the back case, just above the dock connector.  It probably could have lasted another year, but I figured I would make the trek to the Apple Store and see if they would swap it for a new one, even if I didn’t have AppleCare, and they did.

First, if we’re in a recession, it sure didn’t look like it in the Bay Street Apple store.  They were wall-to-wall with people grabbing Apple gear for the holidays.  I’m curious what their actual numbers are for sales in the holiday season, and also curious if these new Microsoft stores are doing anything comparable.  Anyway, I made an appointment for the genius bar, and managed to get in at exactly the specified time.  And the swap was no hassle.  Thanks to the whole iTunes-centric backup recovery paradigm and the fact that I backed up right before leaving, the whole thing went almost seamlessly.  (Only exceptions: my WiFi and voicemail passwords vanished and had to be re-entered when I got home.)  I also sprung for AppleCare, just in case, and a new screen protector, which they installed for me.  (It’s pretty much impossible to put on an adhesive screen protector in a home with a long-haired cat, unless you don’t mind staring at a few stray cat hairs on your touchscreen for the rest of the protector’s life.)

What’s weird is that while the Apple genius boxed up my old phone and got ready to pitch it off to whatever Chinese landfill/salvage dumping ground old iPhones go to at the end of their lives, I felt slightly emotional about seeing it go.  Granted, I got an exact clone of the old model, and it even looks identical because it’s in the same old case, but I still felt slightly sentimental about seeing it go.  I think part of that is because this is one of the first cell phones that wasn’t just a vague utensil I occasionally used to make calls, but an actual fully-fledged computer that I used for a wide swath of applications within my somewhat-connected life.  I mean, I really used the camera; I listened to pretty much every Rockies game I could this season, and when I couldn’t listen, I followed along in the MLB app; I sent and read many an email; I used it as a real web browser, not a postage stamp approximation of a web browser; I found myself texting a lot more than I typically would; I even wrote a few blog posts on it.

I guess there’s always been this lack of a suspension of disbelief in my use of a palm-sized computer, either because it didn’t do what I wanted, or it had such clunkiness in what it did do.  Like, I used to have a couple of Palm OS non-phone devices, and while those were decent phone books and occasional game machines (mostly Dopewars), there was a big line to be drawn with all things connected, because there was no way for me to surf the web or read emails on those things.  Yes, you could attach on some giant pack the size of the actual device and sort of use it as a crappy cell phone, and maybe run an email program that barely worked, but there was a pretty hard stopping point in the usefulness of these machines, and it was clear that I would also need to carry a cell phone and a laptop to be semi-functional in the field with these.

I guess now we’re truly reaching this age where we can have a palm-sized computer that can really run apps and really do things and because of that, I feel the same kind of emotional (and somewhat stupid) bond I feel toward some of the primary computers I have in my life.  I mean, when I finally kicked to the curb my entirely obsolete PC that was my primary writing machine from 1991-2001,  I felt a bit of remorse to see that beige rectangle go to the garbage, even if it was fully useless even as a doorstop by the time it went in 2005.  There were many good memories of that thing sitting on my desktop as I chipped away at various books.  And I felt the same kind of nostalgia as that tiny black piece of plastic and glass (which probably had more CPU and memory than said PC) got sent back to the void.

And a side note, iPhone wise – I was tapping away while standing in line at Taco Bell, and curiously got a WiFi connection and didn’t know why.  Then I realized I was standing next to a Starbucks, which has an AT&T hotspot, and at some point I logged in at a different Starbucks, and the new magical AT&T hotspot connector mojo worked without interaction.  That sure beats the old days of having to enter a thousand characters of login info, including a password you can never use or remember.

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Xanadu House and 80s nostalgia

I sometimes have this weird nostalgia that’s much more complicated than just “remember the 80s”, but rather a deep nostalgia for what I saw as cutting edge or a glimpse of the future way back when. It’s hard to explain, but it’s that weird feeling I had twenty years ago when I looked at some futuristic computer or technology, and I had this premonition that in the year 2000, this would be “it”. And the feeling is stronger when there are a lot of other interconnected memories or feelings about it. And the other day, this totally happened in a way that is easily explained, but probably still doesn’t capture what the fuck I’m rambling on about.

Okay, Wikipedia had a featured article the other day about The Xanadu House. No, it has nothing to do with Olivia Newton-John or the Rush song from Farewell to Kings. It was a series of three houses built as demo/museum units by the architect as a showcase to “the home of tomorrow”. They were made of sprayed polyurethane foam and looked something like Yoda’s house or maybe something a Hobbit would live in. They were a very 70s-looking design, and I could totally see something like them in a Roger Dean-airbrushed Yes double gatefold album cover, or maybe done up on the side of a van with a wizard shooting lightning bolts that lit up along with the 8-track player.

Okay, the outside did look pretty borderline artschool-project, but the inside was the interesting stuff. There were computers everywhere: controlling the lights, monitoring the bitchin’ hot tub, cooking your food; measuring your calories and watching your weight; integrated into the Elvis-like wall of TVs, one tuned to each station (total: 3); and everywhere else. The house was a full-on wet dream of automation. Now you see why I was somewhat pulled into reading all about this house and scouring the web for more info. I’ve still got this land out in Colorado with nothing but cacti and prarie dogs on it, and the idea of building some huge, fucked up, unconventional structure like a geodesic dome or a decommissioned jet airliner or a giant tube made out of a million egg cartons and some nuclear-proof epoxy solution is pretty appealing. Add to that a slew of computers that I don’t really need and that’s damn near what-I’d-do-if-I-hit-the-Lotto material for me.

But as I dove deeper, I found a lot of threads that pulled me back to when they got this house built down in Florida, in 1983. These computers back in the day weren’t a bunch of IBM blade servers or anything; turns out the builders were using a slew of good old Commodore 64s in the styrofoam innards of this dream palace. The TVs weren’t giant plasmas like Bill Gates would have, but rather the old-school, silver, two-knob not-so-flat CRT sets like you’d find at your Aunt Barbara’s rec room back in ’80. The online shopping system wired into the food-processor kitchen used a 12″ analog laserdisc for its info. The “home gym” consists of the same non-resistance exercise bike your parents bought back in ’78 and used as a clothes rack for ten years before unloading it at a yard sale. This wasn’t a Jetsons home as much as it was my Christmas list from 1983.

And that’s when this unfamiliar house became a home I knew, at least in proxy, for some weird reason. I was IN Florida, in Orlando, in 1983. My parents loaded us up in the station wagon and drove south a thousand miles, first to Tampa, and then to the Disney kingdom. And we didn’t go to the Xanadu house, but it looks a lot like the kind of place we would have stopped. We hit a lot of roadside attractions that trip, and a lot of the gift shops and historical viewpoints, from Tarpon Springs to the Atlantic coast, had the same tacky yet “futuristic” sign that graced the front of the Xanadu house. Everything about the old pictures, the way they were framed, the style of the furniture, just rubs some weird brain cell deep in my head that makes me think of a million memories that have nothing to do with this house and everything to do with my own life.

For example, I remember, again on the trip, going to a Showbiz pizza with my family. For those who don’t remember, Showbiz was similar to Chuck E. Cheese, the pizza parlor where you bring the rugrats for birthdays and parties. But back in the day, Showbiz was very oriented toward arcade games, and had a fuckload of consoles, including duplicates of many popular games. And at that time, the big deal were laserdisc-based games like Dragon’s Lair. Nobody seems to remember this particular fad, but these machines had a big giant laser disc player in them, and when you jerked around the joystick, different scenes from this Disney-eque cartoon would play. The game totally sucked from a playability standpoint, but everyone was too busy circle-jerking over the fact that the output was basically like DVD-quality animation and sound, and this was at a time when most arcade heroes were 16 by 16 pixel sprites. I remember staring at people playing these games in amazement, thinking this was the future of arcade games. Of course, the future was that nobody wanted to pay 50 cents per game (this was one of the first two-coin titles), the laser players crapped out and took forever to load, and in another year, the entire coin-op arcade game industry would take a crap and completely implode, meaning nobody would be too interested in the progress of games for another five years. (About when Nintendo started slapping NES guts into consoles and charging people to play games on a console you could just buy and play at home on a TV – that is if you could find a NES, which you couldn’t, because Nintendo was in the middle of a price-fixing, fake-supply-problem war.)

And I went to Epcot on that trip, which was right when it opened and they had a lot of cool displays about the future and how science would win everything. (They’ve long since ripped all of this shit out and replaced it with “Bob the Builder’s Why Every Kid Should Buy More of My Garbage” exhibits.) And the exhibit showed electronic cars that we’d all drive to work in 1997, and ways to raise more food for the world through hydroponic greenhouses we’d all use when we went to Mars, and so on. Epcot was originally going to be a huge experiment in sustainable living, but when Disney realized there was no money in that, they had GE, GM, and AT&T drop these huge advertisements for life in the future. And the same thing is, in 1983, it all seemed so fucking feasible that in 20 years we’d all have video phones and TVs with smellovision and pod cars, and I remember that view of the future so vividly. And now that future is in the past, and none of it happened. I used to read in Compute magazine about how, maybe if we all tried hard, cars might have a single microprocessor in them, and it would be so cool to get so much blazing power out of an 8-bit 6510 wired into our engine. And now, I’ve got at least twenty processors sitting on my desk, in my watch, in my camera, in my mouse, and none of them are doing anything remotely as interesting as what I thought they would be. I have ten times the computing power of that Xanadu house sitting in the battery charger to my camera, and none of it is being used to automatically cook my food or turn on the jaccuzi when I get home from work. And that’s sad, in a way.

The house has a much more sad ending, though. It ran as a museum until the ’90s, then sat vacant, as Florida mold consumed the sterile white interior. Squatters broke in and tore up the interior, and eventually, last year, the owners bulldozed the place, and plan on putting in a condo on the land. There are a lot of pictures on line of the interior in disrepair, and then the dozer taking out the foam walls. Very sad stuff.

Anyway, I forgot what my point is, other than to somehow describe that feeling I get when I look at an old Amiga or something. I remember the summer of 85 when all of the computer magazines were abuzz about that thing like all of the glamour mags are currently abuzz about the Jessica Simpson divorce or something. I mowed lawns and babysat and applied at every McDonald’s and Hardees within 10-speed distance of my house to scrape up money for that A-1000, and never made it. Just looking at the magazine pictures was like a view into the future of computing, something that could draw multiple windows and 4096 simultaneous colors! Looking back at the old beige-platinum machines, I imagine this massive future, but then I realize that my old Palm Pilot is probably faster and with a better screen.

Ah well, enough rambling. I’m still reading this Neil Armstrong book and it’s going to take me forever to finish. Better invest some more time into it…

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