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.

Monday, 13 March 2017


There are, indeed, some mysteries humanity is not meant to know. Why, for instance, is it considered not only traditional but pretty to drag a deceased tree into one's domicile and then proceed to adorn it with all manner of bibs and bobs on an annual basis? The theory is well enough to comprehend. The practice, however, if applied outside the applied time-frame, would surly be regarded as an act of lunacy. So too, as I have recently ascertained, is the case with the charging apparatus for many modern models of computing device. While not generally regarded as such, said devices are little more than an appliance, particularly inn the household context. Though even in the office environment, when was the last time one saw a coffee-maker or copy machine with a detachable power source? It simply does not happen. Writing devices, on the other had, particularly of the portable model, are fully detachable, the ends that plug into the device themselves invariably breaking. Not so with refrigeration units or electric irons and the like. They surely do break but this tends to be at the wall end or somewhere in the middle. Why then, does no one find electrified writing machines with similarly built in power sources? Or, more accurately, why does one no longer? For, you see, when first beging developed, the electric type-writer did, in fact, possess a power source that came as part of the unit. As did the later 'word-processor' of both the analog, paper-fed types and the more advanced digital variety. It was not until the advent of the domestic commercial computer in the mid-1980s that power cords came to be detachable. Though even then, they tended to be made up of sterner stuff than those found today. With the end result that such early examples of mechinized writing impliments can still be found in operation today. As indeed can the even older, mechanical ones. Ease of use not always leading to economy or longevity.