Saturday, 1 April 2017

Loose Lips Sink Ships

Remember when words actually meant something? It is a fairly recent phenomena, one can hardly go a week without hearing that a word has 'lost all meaning'. 'Ironic' is one of these and fairly unambiguously. When a once wonderful, descriptive and frankly complex word comes to be embodied by 20-something hipster in a fedora sipping lattes out on yet another gentrified sidewalk, it is time for said word to be retired. 'Fascist' has not lost all meaning  but really is over used. Its use has just been grossly misapplied. The term and notion themselves remain more or less intact even if, or perhaps specifically because, the general populace being too ignorant to use it correctly. The most recent addition to this list is the term 'leak'. Like its brothers 'traitor' and 'treason' before it, both the latter cases seeming antiquated even before being bludgeoned to death by reckless over use. It has honestly gotten humorous the way these terms have been bandied about like anybody who is the least bit critical status quo is somehow, Benedict Arnold meets General Petain. So as it has become with the term 'leak'. Once a term reserved for major breakers of information and or trust at the lightest level of government, the Watergate informant springs to mind, the term 'leak' in recent years, outside the more literal meanings found in automotive repair and plumbing, has been applied to everything from records, to film reels to nude celebrity photos, only one of which carries ever close to the stakes of the original meaning (a shiny new button stating 'I Am A Genius' to anyone who can figure out which). Honestly, these days it seems as though there are more sudden and dangerous leaks than a bottling plant located behind a shooting range. Such as what happened with the 'leak' on the design of the soon to be released Samsung Galaxy S8, which, if some people are to be believed, is the single most anticipated event since the end of the Second World War.

The first round of 'leaks' were basically 'teasers'. Professionally shot, shot videos that did everything possible to keep from showing the phone in detail. All of them including the official release date. It is enough to make one think that perhaps that said 'leak' may have been perpetrated by Samsung themselves. A little taste to gather interest, in a bizarre sort of seemingly self-sabotaging advertising. With all the new fangled 'guerrilla' marketing about it is not outside the realm of possibility.

What has turned out to be far more upsetting, though not for the reasons that one may think, is the release of poorly shot, poorly handled, 'hands-on' videos, clearly showing the phone and its function that will likely put some in mind of the edgy old boot-leg and zero-budget 'cult' films popular in the 1980s and 1990s (ask your parents kids).

Despite being impressed by seeing what the next step in phone evolution could do, one reviewer of a boot-leg style video being heard to proclaim 'good God that display!', many commentators managed to find time and space for a good solid whinge. Not that the phone was seen ahead of time. Perish the thought! The greatest source of trepidation seemed to be the low, nearly pirate quality of the leaked hands-on demonstration, never mind that the maker risked legal action by doing so and they were lucky to get any such thing at all but that new features such as finger-print scanners and iris scanners, those are sensors that can scan your eye for security are up by the camera lens. Somewhere the buying public would rather it not be. Keep in mind this is on a cell phone. A greatly advanced  cell phone but a cell phone none the less. That no one seemed to notice in all of their awing and fretting was that the Samsung Galaxy S8 in terms of direct functioning, you know, the things you use it for, is essentially identical to every smartphone design since the iPhone introduced the touchscreen. Do they have new functions? Yes Virginia, indeed they do but that is what they are. Functions. On a device that has been used for pretty much the same thing in the same manner since 2007.

Mark your calendars and take stock good people of the world. For what we have just witnessed in recent days is a truly historical event no one would have  though possible. An instance in which people have both overreacted and underreacted in the same instant to the same thing. Hear that click? It is the hands on the Doomsday Clock inching ever so slightly forward.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Ghosts From the Past

There are some questions that will never be answered. In some cases itisa matter of context. Inquires such as to the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Other questions cannot be answered because they are either too complex as based on too many variables or are too subjective to have a single, pat answer. Things such as the best brand of laptop or the correct way to eat a slice of pizza? Then there are questions that are complex and have a subjective aspect to them, that are difficult to answer for another, more sinister, reason. The answer goes against the prevailing thinking on the matter. An action well known, in historical terms, to get turned into a social pariah in the best of circumstances and tortured and burned at the stake in the worst. It is just this sort of question that is the subject of this article. Get your torches ready. Is the internet killing our happiness?

Humans like to label. More than that we need to to it, as was discovered by sociologist Dr. Howard Becker. It is how we organize. It is also how we cope. Not only with the things we do not understand but also the things we do no like and do not want to face. From jazz to rock 'n' roll to heavy metal and from comic books to horror movies to video-games, the 20th century was rife with scapegoats. Things 'experts' and 'concerned parents' were certain were, or would soon cause the ruination of youth and the destruction of society as they knew it. Spoiler alert. It did not happen. Despite their utter, and laughable, failure to predict what was coming, the likes of Dr. Frederick Wertham, Tipper Gore, Mary Whitehouse and Jack Thompson still live on. As Chumbawamba put it in their song “Enough Is Enough”: “The Nazis changed but they never really went away.” Now before the cries of “Godwin!” reach levels that can be heard from the moon, the meaning is not meant to be literal. I am not comparing media censors to Nazis in any substantive sense. I am more than happy to leave that up to Twitter and the YoutTube comments section. I simply mean it as an example of how a way of thinking can persist even after the failure of its originators.

The original media censors did not have much to say about the internet in the beginning. Many were too busy putting stickers on records and calling for a ban on DOOM and MAGIC: The Gathering to really notice. It was not until the first decade of the 21st century, after the internet had established itself as the dominant media force, that things began to change. The message began to shift for the new medium. Questions began to arise about what the internet might be doing to our minds. Terms such as “addiction” began to appear alongside words like “Youtube” and “text”. Much as how they appeared along side words like “violence” and “video-game” back in the old days.

No. The internet is not “killing our happiness”. It is only as good or as bad as we make it. If we are unhappy we need to look to ourselves and stop using modern digital technology as the most recent in a tragic parade of scapegoats and straw-men.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Just A Little Bit of History Repeating

'Progress'. A word one hears often, whether it be social or industrial or, indeed technology. Each era leading into the next, the merciless march of progress forever changing the face of reality. This is what foolish people say. Look closely at the 'time-line' of human development and one will not see a line, a linear advancement from one point to another but rather a cycle. Each point being hit and then going around again until, essentially, the same points are reached. Some cycles are short, some cycles are long but they all, eventually come around. Such as what is happening now with the notion of non-gas powered vehicles.

Electric cars are nothing new. There has been semi-serious talk about them dating back to the late-1980s at the beginning of what would become the late-20th century environmental hysteria. The real story starts some fifty years before with the Baker Electric first produced in 1909. When the idea of motorized transport initially came about, gasoline was not the first thought. The initial proto-types of cars in the 1840s were run on steam. By the early-20th century, experiments with the relatively new electrical currents were being conducted, before the internal combustion engine became popular knowledge. Then, as now, there were particular logistical problems with the electric engines, particularly for those living outside urban centers, where electricity was scarce at the time.

The problems were fixed but by the time the Baker was ready to roll again, Henry Ford had taken advantage of the lull in competition, finalized the gas engine and industrialized his plant operations. Baker did not stand a chance. The cycle has completed and now, nearly a century later, the hiccup earlier in the millennium not withstanding, the electric car is making a comeback. Elon Musk and his Tesla Motors are giving many new hope of an electric car renaissance. The technology for such a vehicle exists, in present time, it is only a matter of time before the roads are full of electric cars. Or so many think. Only thing is, with the completing of the cycle and the return of the electric care has come a new set of problems, every bit as those faced by Baker.

As has been revealed by a recent hearing in Britain before the Advertising Standards Authority brought by British company Electrocity, Tesla were fibbing about the potential power of their Tesla S. Early advertising claimed it had a much more powerful battery pack. According the advertising the Tesla S had a 135kW battery pack and their 'supercharger' charging stations had 120kW. While this is now the case, it was an upgrade that were only brought about after the charges were filed. Even were it stands now, a 135kW battery pack is not enough to sate most people's desire for vehicle performance. At lest if the sales numbers on high-performance vehicles are anything to go by.

The other thing holding back the development of a fully-electric car as the dominant mode of road transportation is the price tag. The Tesla S is impressive to be sure but with a price tag in six-digits, it is essentially doomed to be a curiosity for the super-rich and/or well-connected. It will be until enough of them sell at the full price and enter the used market and the environmental imperative becomes strong enough that sales in gas-powered vehicles decline, that fully electric cars will become the dominant presence on the world's roads. A process that will take decades. Not a few years.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Spotty Service

Advertising has never been a terribly sure thing. To be sure, there has long been a sort of dubiousness about commercials, that often expresses it self in a particularly jocular manner. The paraphrasing of Mark Twain as 'lies, damned lies and advertising' being a perennial favorite. The odd thing is that there does not seem to be nearly the same healty skepticism when it comes to other forms of advertising. Forms such as mottos, slogans or, as they are known today, 'taglines'. Boastful ones such as 'we won't be under sold' or 'the real thing', have given way, largely in the 21st century, to more conciliatory or even semi-philanthropic sentiments such as 'have it your way' or 'you deserve a break today'. New business, much like new media, has followed close behind its legacy predocessors. While companies such as Twitter are still allow a slight boast, delcainring themsevels to be 'what's happening', competitors such as Facebook are going the new route, heralding themselves as 'opening the world to like-minded people'. By the same token, music streaming giant Spotify has always proclaimed itself tobe the place with 'music for everyone'. Sadly, this claim holds about as much weight as a mayoral cadinate promising free ice-cream on Sunday.

Such deception has not always been the realm of the onine world. Having long ago learned from the mistakes of the past, the majority of online commercial entities at least attempted to be as direct and honest as they could possibly be when it came to dealing with customers. Even Amazon, which has developed a bit of a dodgy reputation when it comes to the delivered product living up the the discription, or even the image, advertised, has plausable deniablity when it comes to product sould by outside retailers that they allow to sell through their site. A shrewed move that increases profits while limiting responsibility to proucts they sell themselves.

The first signs of trouble began to show in 2013. In October of that year, a story in The Guardian revealed that there had been something of an exadous of some of its most popular acts. Beginning with known contrarian Thom York or Radiohead fame, others including Black Keys and Amiee Mann soon followed suit in pulling all their material from the streaming site. Even long-time Spotify supporters such as Metallica and Bob Dylan began to pull up stakes and cut their losses. Act such as Garth Brooks and Led Zepplin were featured on the site without their agreement and the less said about David Byrne's comments on the whole debacle the better.

The decent into corporate shill-ism has only gotten deeper for Spotify in current days. In an article last Satrudy the Guardian revealed that Spotify would be limiting access to particular acts to paid, premium suscribers. This in the wake of an agreement with some of the major players in the record industry. So it is less 'music for everyone' than some music for everyone. We all have to sell our soul sometimes I guess. And it is not always for virtuoso guitar skills.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Rise of the Machines?

It has been a notion long feared that, before long, the machines will come to out-number humans on the planet. The general notion that being greater in number, it will make it that much easier for the robots to enslave us. Or at least make us obsolete in most cases. Indeed, there is now a projection, made by those who are supposed to know about such things, that by the year 2055, up to 50% of human work activities will have become fully automated. This includes careers such as teaching, occupation management, therapy and acting. There are already machines said to be able to write poetry.

What is lost in such discussions is that projections such as these are based on a false premise. Or at least a faulty one. For a key handicap of any mechanized device, no matter how sharp its artificial intelligence, the one thing it will always lack is emotion. Acting is a non-starter if one cannot emote. Judging cases, while possible, would remove any sense of judicial discretion. A computerized entity would be unable to make the quick decisions required of an office manager and could not comprehend the emotional empathy required to be an effective therapist. The prospects of a mechanized take-over of human work, while ominous and it no way over-blown if plausible, are also a bit too far-fetched to warrant a great amount of present day concern.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Mail Verus Modems

In the endless march of progress, it can be very easy to lose a sense of proportion. If something is has been around before one is born, it can be easy to think they had always existed. Even if one is broadly aware that one invention of a particular ubiquitous device, it tends to be only in the the most abstract of terms but also a simplistic and inaccurate ones. The Cliffs Notes of History seem as though they would read along the lines of “Everyone used used candles, then there was the light bulb and they didn't anymore” so on and so forth for every other device invented since 1850. Have you ever seen the old footage of people who first tried to invent a mechanized flying machine, completely ignoring the fact that, in most cases, the blimp already existed? Some of them literally putting what amount to propellers on cars? Pretty funny right? As well as dangerous and essentially pointless as what would be the airplane was years away and looked nothing like these early death machines. This is not to say that no one should every try anything and we should all be reading and printed books and newspapers by candlelight in a room warmed by a wood stove, just that true invention, or innovation to use the accurate term for the majority of cases, comes only with long period of difficult labor, a streaming parade of failures and, more often than not at least in the old days, at least several injuries if not one or more deaths. Scarifies that increasingly not only go unsung but completely unknown as time goes on. To be fair, this preamble has little to nothing to do with the modern age which, according to my rigorous empirical research is a frightful bore for at least 45% of modern audiences but this is near the point where I actually get to the interesting stuff.

Modems are great!
Modems. For those of you born after 1990, this funny looking word refers to little boxes that let computers but not phones or tablets, get on the internet, at that point called “the World Wide Web” (what all that 'www' business stands for in web addresses) or “the Information Superhighway”. They are the reason that we can do what we now do, mostly forgetting what went before.

But not always ...
While now mostly inside the computer casing, yes they are in there along with the DVD player and hard-drive, tucked away and unobtrusive, back in the day they were big, hard, plastic things making a noise that would be heard emanating form the deepest bowels of Hell. Based partly on the the technology used in Fax machines, there were modems, originally pronounced moe-dems by the elderly and uninitiated, back before the internet (yes, there was indeed a time before the internet, even dial-up). What happened in those days, when we all wore bonnets and computers ran on coal, was that data would be sent directly from one computer to another, hard-drive to hard-drive, by way of a modem. What makes the current situation truly ironic is that while in these latter, halcyon days of high-speed internet and wireless connections, traditional mail is referred to as snail mail yet back then, say around 1988, the mail, also know as the post, was actually faster at getting information from one place to another. Though to be fair this situation was not only to do with the somewhat clunky performance of the technology of the day. This was also a time in which the postal service was still regarded as a service and there were a minimum of two deliveries a day from Monday to Saturday.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Sudden Death

There are many dangers in this modern world. Many of them clear and obvious. Others not quite so much. Who, for example, ever would have thought that a seemingly healthy green veg could cause thyroid glands produce too fast or that air bags, once the high-point of automotive safety, could kill those of insufficient height? Came straight out of the blue, those did. Something else that is beginning to come as something of a surprise is the flammable nature of particular pieces of cutting edge of technology. In particular, those using lithium ion batteries. A respectable member of the periodic table and wonderfully usable antidepressant lithium, at least of the 'ion' variety, has an odd tendency to catch on fire if allowed to get over-heated. As an unfortunate Australian woman discovered when her wireless head phones burst into flames. Whilst she was wearing them. On an airplane. With all the compressed air and such, it is truly a lucky thing the situation did not turn into a reenactment of the Hindenburg.