Speaking With the Machine

The first time I visited Amsterdam I stayed at a hostel called The Flying Pig on the outskirts of the central city, near the Vondelpark and the van Gogh museum. After spending a day rambling around the various cafes, museums & shops in the city I returned to the hostel one evening only to find my entry barred by a robot… of sorts. Most people would probably think of it as less of a robot and more of a keyless entry touchpad, but after having a brief discussion with the automaton I’m inclined to give it a bit more credit. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: 5 – 4 – 2 – 1
Robot: ["beep beep" + red light]
Me: 5 – 2 – 4 – 1
Robot: ["beep beep" + red light]
Me: Crap… 5 – 2 – 1 – 4
Robot: ["beeeeeeep"+ green light + unlock]
After finding my way down to to the bar in the basement and listening for a few minutes to the variety of multi-lingual conversations taking place around me I came to the conclusion that my interaction with the touchpad device was really no different from any of these.
When any two devices capable of input & output encounter each other, whether they be human, machine, Dutch, German, goat or buffalo, a series of questions & deductions invariably takes place. For example, “What is this? OK it’s a person so I can talk to him. Except… I am in Japan & I don’t speak Japanese. I wonder if he speaks English. Guess I’ll ask. Crap, no dice. OK, let’s see what we can work out via gestures…” or “Hey this is a dog! I love playing fetch with dogs, but I hate getting mauled by them. This one seems safe because he’s rolling around on his back though. Let’s see if he knows how to fetch… [throws ball] Nope.”
So, the word for this kind of process as it relates to computers & telecommunication is “handshaking” and it’s defined like this:
Handshaking is an automated process of negotiation that dynamically sets parameters of a communications channel established between two entities before normal communication over the channel begins. It follows the physical establishment of the channel and precedes normal information transfer.
In other words, when one fax machine talks to another, the “crazy noises” you hear at the beginning of the call is actually a weird computer-ese version of the human-human or human-animal process described above. It’s like:
FAX1:
HEEEEEEYAREYOUAFAAAAAXXXXMACHINE??!?! [beeeeep sqqqarrrrk beeeep]
FAX 2:
YEEEEEAAAAAHBUTIMANOLDSHITTYYYYYONESOTAAAAAAKEITSLOOOOOOOOOKAY??? [bleeeeeerrrrrrrpp-pp-eeeeeeeeeee]
And once that’s done, the magic (…of fax) happens. Or doesn’t happen, depending on whether the fax machine has found another of its kind or just an angry old man who doesn’t know what’s going on (in which case the fax machine will just keep calling him back every 5 minutes because fax machines have really weird senses of humor).
There are forms of “handshaking” for dogs (“Let me sniff your butt. No, let me sniff YOUR butt.”) and birds (Strut, strut, strut… PLUMAGE!!) and babies (Will this book fit in my mouth? No. Well then… “SCREEEEEEEAAAAAAAMMMMMMM!!!!!!”) but the ones I find the most interesting are those that take place between humans and machines. The old man and the fax machine. Me and the hostel keypad.
What my conversation with the keypad made me realize is that every single element in the design of something like a keypad (or a website or a videogame) plays some part in either facilitating or confusing the process of handshaking & communication. Should the keypad be shaped like a phone keypad or a single row of numbers? Should it beep once for an error and twice for a correct entry or the other way around? Should a fax machine immediately start BEEEEEEEPING loudly when someone picks up? Why couldn’t it announce “This is a fax machine!” in English first before launching directly into it’s own robotic language? And so on.
As a guy whose job it is to help design websites, games and other such products, I believe it’s very important to think carefully about this sort of thing, and to be aware how your assumptions about the way things are “supposed to” work might impact people who don’t share those assumptions. Because while I personally enjoy exploring confusing or experimental interfaces and learning new man-machine language dialects, I also understand that this is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Eternal September

Everyone who’s spent more than a few months “on the internet” knows (hopefully) that there are certain behavioral norms & expectations that ought to be observed in order to keep things civil. For example… DON’T TYPE IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE IT WILL LOOK LIKE YOU’RE YELLING or “It’s impossible to prevent this indefinitely, but let’s do our best to keep online discussions from getting to the point where both sides are comparing each other to Hitler for as long as possible.”

These aren’t “laws” per se, because (excuse my capitalization, but I really do want to yell this) NOBODY OWNS THE INTERNET, but they’re almost as universal as any law could ever hope to be. However, if you’ll refer back to my first sentence, please notice that I’ve qualified things by excluding those with “less than a few months” of online experience from being expected to know all these ins and outs.

Seems kind of preposterous today, since kids are now being exposed to the internet as soon as their parents realize that iPhones are more effective pacifiers than anything else yet devised, but try (if you can) to recall a time when this wasn’t the case. It was only 10 or 15 years ago. When did you first encounter email? Instant messaging? Chat rooms? Forums? Was it in high school? College? Jr. High? Until 1993 most people weren’t exposed to any of these until they got to college.

Every September, a new crop of freshmen were turned loose on the internet (or, as it was known in those days, “The Information Superhighway”) and left to fend for themselves amongst a puzzling variety of obscure protocols and acronyms that were only increasing in number. FTP, WWW, WAIS, Gopher, USENET, TCP/IP, etc. But at least they were all in it together. Once a few people clicked “Reply All” and alerted the entire Psych 101 class to their embarrassing weekend exploits the word got around, and by Thanksgiving most everyone had come to understand the basics “DOs and DON’Ts” of online etiquette. Things had returned to a sort of equilibrium.

So what happened in 1993? Well as those of you were too young to be in college at that point (myself included) will recall, it was then that our friends at America On-Line realized that their thriving floppy-disk distribution racket might be aided by including access to this “internet thing” along with your paid, dial-up subscription. And so they began allowing their members to browse not just the walled garden of AOL content, but also the internet itself: web, newsgroups & all.

Every day, more people downloaded the latest AOL system update (do you remember how long it took via 28.8 modem?) and decided to try clicking on the “Newsgroups” link that appeared on their next login. Every day AOL sent out more floppy disks & CD-ROMs. Every day more people joined the service. High-school students, 10-year-olds, cat ladies, construction workers, aging musicians and tax collectors, disgruntled postal workers, you name it. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Post-1993, there could be no equilibrium. Probably there never really was, but in any case… things changed. While some traditions were preserved (I.E. NOT USING CAPS LOCK) many others were forgotten or permanently altered by the influx of new users. Books & CDs became available for purchase. Magazines & newspapers could be read online. High-school & college kids started publishing their own websites & using the internet in ways that it’s previous inhabitants could never have predicted. Many long-time internet users recognized this sea-change & called it “Eternal September“.

But, and this is the important part, this is *exactly* what was supposed to happen. The internet in general, and the web in particular, were designed from the ground up so that it was as easy to publish and share content as it was to consume it. The very first web browser, as created by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland was *also* a web editor. The web is a LEGO set and while it’s fun to follow the instructions and apply all the LucasFilm-licensed decals, it’s even *more* fun to stick Chewbacca’s head on Darth Vader’s body and put him inside a rainbow-colored jail surrounded by strange mutant trees.

A person who fell into a coma in 1965 and awoke in 1985 would probably have few problems understanding how the television in their hospital room worked. You turn it on, change the channels and wait for the commercials to end so that you can get back to the good stuff. But a person who missed out on even 4 or 5 years of the internet’s development would be significantly more confused. YouTube was founded in 2005. Facebook opened to non-academic users in 2006.

How did you first find out about Napster? BitTorrent? Yelp? MetaFilter? Wikipedia? Amazon? Google!? Chances are it wasn’t in a magazine or on a TV news report. Probably a friend or family member said “You gotta check this out.” And it turned out they were right. Things kept changing. You listened to music you’d never heard about before, read newspapers from other countries, bought a digital camera and started posting your photos online. People in Israel thought they were cool. Things kept changing.

Sometimes you weren’t sure if you *liked* the way things were changing. Your boss started reading your blog. All the photos you took with your ex kept showing up on Facebook. People started downloading the movies that your studio produced without paying for them. Was there anything that could be done to stop this? Who was in charge around here?!

Here’s the thing. You are in charge. I am in charge. We are all in charge of it together, but it is owned by none of us. In the absence of any (real) governing body, we have all managed to find a way to co-exist and use the internet together in (relative) peace and harmony. How? Why? Because on some individual level, each of us has made a decision that goes something like this:

The usefulness of being an accepted part of this community outweighs the risks or negative consequences of choosing to participate.

Of course… it’s not entirely that simple. Some people are forced to participate against their will (“Hey dude, don’t tag me in that Facebook photo”) or make decisions that they will later regret (“No, actually. In spite of those pictures of me smoking weed and wearing a Megadeth Rules t-shirt taken 12 years ago, I think I would make a great addition to the teaching staff here at Pleasantville High School!”) But, just as we were on those pre-1993 Septembers of old, all of us are in this together, and by the time “Thanksgiving” rolls around I think it will all start making a lot more sense. After all, as painful as it may be in the moment, humans are unparalleled in their ability to adapt to change.

However, there are certain institutions and entities that are not so adaptable. For instance, corporations, banks and governments. These have all been organized (at least recently) on the basis of predictable inputs and outcomes. Entire books have been written on the subject of their inflexibility, and whether anything can be done about it. It seems to me that we are starting to find out.

About 7 or 8 years ago I read an article in this weird Canadian technology magazine that ended up going out of business several weeks later. The article was about a bunch of the same things that I’ve talked about here and there was one bit in it that always stuck with me. I lost track of the magazine for years, and despite a number of attempts to track it down online, it wasn’t until recently that I found it in an old box of books and finally got a chance to re-read it. I’ll just paste it in here so you can see for yourself, copyright be damned…

And what the heck, I’m in a charitable mood so let me fire up the old scanner and share the rest of the article with you as well.

Best of 2k12

Well 2013 is almost over, so I guess I might as well post my annual “Best New Music” playlist… for last year… ¬¬

Here’s the direct download link for the individual MP3 files. It’s about 114 MB in total. I’ll try to get this year’s list posted in a much more timely fashion. Stay tuned!

Best of 2k11

It’s Best of 2k11 time, and this year the list is enhanced with Spotify and other bonus content too!

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Download ZIP Archive [200 MB]

1 – The Streets – Outside Inside – The Streets final album Computers & Blues is really really good. Maybe not quite as amazing as Original Pirate Material or A Grand Don’t Come For Free, but what is?

2 – A-1 – Be Cool – This SF rapper comes to you by way of bushwickwill on Twitter who used to write the “Nation of Thizzlam” blog and still writes interesting stuff for The Awl. Here’s the video for the song. Also, A-1 can rap about anything and you can get his mixtapes here.

3 – CSS – Hits Me Like a Rock – It’s a pretty good album but I couldn’t resist this track because of the buzzy synth that kicks in part of the way through. Also, Bobby G. is handling his transition from badass rock star to Serge-Gainsbourg-esque guest vocalist really well, don’t you think?

4 – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – If I Had A Gun… – The Album is pretty good. Noel should have gone solo before “What’s the Story” though.

5 – Herman Dune – Tell Me Something – Probably the best yeti-related music video since Divine Comedy’s Bad Ambassador IMHO.

6 – M83 – Raconte-Moi Une Histoire – The whole album is massive. Even this novelty-ish song pwns.

7 – Lana Del Rey – Video Games – Fuck all y’all, I like this song. Look how “meaningful” and “relevant” the video is too! =D

8 – Bad Passion – Rockin’ Your Beats – Get the whole EP for free and enjoy the slooooooow jamz.

9 – Daughter – Landfill – Just one EP on Spotify so far, but you can find other stuff in various places too.

10 – Burial – NYC – Any time Burial puts anything out in a given year I’m probably going to post it here.

11 – Melanie Laurent – Uncomfortable – I’ll admit I basically just started listening to this album because of the sexy cover, but then it turns out to be produced by Damien Rice and she’s also Shoshanna from Inglourious Basterds?

12 – Atlas Sound – Te Amo – What I said about Burial applies to this album as well.

13 – Jens Lekman – Waiting for Kirsten – Aren’t we all, Jens? From his 2011 EP. You can here him tell more of the story here.

14 – Jeffrey Lewis – I Got Lost – Never heard of this guy before finding his new album on Spotify, and that is a shame. He also made a bunch more cool stuff including this album of Crass covers.

15 – Strange Boys – Me and You – A fine album by some weirdos from Austin. And they made a fun video too.

16 – Weezer – Like A Good Neighbor – I don’t know why Rivers teases us like this. He’s clearly capable of making Pinkerton-esque stuff but he saves it for some sellout insurance commercial? Barry Manilow wrote this song.

17 The Feelies – Morning Comes – This whole album is worth a listen. Good vibes from a band that has been around pretty much forever.

18 – Trembling Blue Stars – Sunrise on Mars – The final EP from Trembling Blue Stars, but if you’re an idiot like me and never listened to his previous band, The Field Mice, then have I got a greatest hits collection for you!

19 – Jonti – Twirligig – I heard good things about this album from @theavalanches on Twitter, which is pretty much the highest praise you can get, right? Can you imagine that we might get records from Avalanches *and* The Wrens in 2012? That would be apocalyptic…

20 – Little Scream – The rest of the album didn’t catch me at first, but this song is incredible. Even more so in the live video version.

21 – William Elliott Whitmore – Bury Your Burdens – This guy is 33 years old. Why is his voice like that? Anyway, the record is awesome.

22 – Slow Club – Gold Mountain – I’ll admit I basically just started listening to these guys because they share a name with a really good restaurant in SF, but it was all for the best. Their new record and their first one are equally great.

23 – Sakert! – Can I? – 2011 was the year I really got into Swedish pop music. Sakert! normally records in Swedish and then puts out English stuff as Hello, Saferide but this year she put out an album of some translated Sakert songs. Learn more about Hello, Saferide on the aptly titled Would You Let Me Play This EP 10 Times a Day?

24 – Darren Hayman – The Ship’s Piano – Starting to wrap things up on a quiet note with the former Hefner singer’s song (and album) about little pianos. He also made a record and put on a gallery show about Russian space dogs this year and I bought one of his space dog paintings. It’s pretty sweet.

25 – Tune-Yards – Wooly Wolly Gong – Oakland city represent.

26 – Air France – It Feels Good To Be Around You – Sweden, sweden, sweden… This is the only song Air France put out this year but while we’re waiting for more, here’s all the rest of their music.

Don’t forget, you can get all my previous yearly mixtapes (and others) in the /mixtapes section of the archives!

And the amazing Louis C.K. image is from here btw…

Happy New Year!!

At night time I go out and see the people

I don’t really have any speakers large enough for listening to loud music right now, so I’ve been listening to mostly quiet stuff. You can listen to it any time, but to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Slash), “It’s always 3 A.M. somewhere…” Anyway, if anybody needs a DJ to play the chillout room at your party, just let me know. I got *hours* of this stuff… =)

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Download ZIP Archive [170 MB]

Don’t forget, you can get all my previous mixtapes in the /mixtapes section of the archives!

Last Thoughts on Steve Jobs

Technology is a morally neutral or ambiguous force, and this is nowhere as obvious as in the history of modern, digital computers. The earliest such computers were used to calculate artillery flight paths, develop the hydrogen bomb & create actuarial tables that contributed to the massive enrichment of insurance companies & other corporate entities in the second half of the twentieth-century. Prior to this, the mechanical punch-card computers from International Business Machines had served largely the same function & throughout the 1950s it seemed that the advent of digital computer would only multiply the existing competitive advantage held by their wealthy owners.

This arrangement was not entirely without benefit to the average citizens of the United States & other industrialized nations. Standards of living rose as the efficiency gains created by computers were allowed to “trickle down” from producers to consumers in the form of lower prices for manufactured goods, cheaper credit & a variety of other ways I won’t get into here.

However, the new “freedoms” afforded by this process were of a particularly limited & insidious kind. Those who wished to share in them were required to become willing participants in their own systemization. The ways in which this systemization was made palatable to people who had spent the better part of the previous 200 years fighting against monarchistic control are rather astonishing, and have been thoroughly documented in works such as 1984 & Brave New World, as well as the documentary films of Adam Curtis and Errol Morris. While there was opposition to this increasing centralization of knowledge & control, the massive cost of computer hardware made it seem that these “means of (electronic) production” were no more likely to be owned by their true end users than were the mines & factories of 19th-century Europe.

However, throughout the 1960s computers were getting smaller & cheaper at an almost incredible rate. It was becoming increasingly obvious that in a matter of years, anyone would be able to own a computer thousands of times more powerful than those currently being used by the largest corporations. But why would they want to?

Early minicomputers were purchased by universities & eventually microcomputers found their way into the hands of individual hobbyists, but throughout the 1970s, they never really escaped from the ghetto of massive nerdiness. Despite their ever-decreasing cost, there was still little reason for most people own a computer, and those corporations & governments who had already benefited greatly from their use had little (if any) desire for this situation to change.

But Steve Jobs was among the shrewdest of the nerds. He emerged, serpent-like, from the tree of technology, offering us an Apple. We saw that it was good and ate of it, planting the seeds so that more would grow. We shared the seeds with our friends, parents, children, siblings, colleagues and others until the trees grew in every yard and the fruits were carried in every pocket.

But even as Steve’s success has proven the validity of his ideas, there remains much work to be done. As the slumbering giants of mass media, centralized government and academic institutions awaken to their own declining influence, the reactions have been all too predictable.

But the die is cast, the tools are now widely available. It’s time to build something new. And though, “it’s only my opinion, I may be right or wrong“, I think it’s going to be something wonderful.

Endgame

Some guys took apart a new Apple TV & found out that it’s got 8 GB of Flash memory (plus space for more) inside. Since the device doesn’t actually allow users to store any audio or video content locally, this would seem to suggest that Apple is planning to open the device up to iPhone-style apps at some point. The implications of this should already be scaring the crap out of video game console manufacturers like Sony, Nintendo & Microsoft, but I suspect they don’t see the Apple TV’s “iPad guts” as a real competitor for their current or next-gen systems. However, I wonder if they’ve also considered the possibility that Apple could develop (read: acquire) some server technology (i.e. OnLive) that would allow users to stream games of unlimited size and complexity in full HD resolution from a central location, enabling AAA game developers to completely bypass issues of piracy, physical distribution & hardware limitations via a $99 box that never needs upgrading & could in all likelihood be given away free to end users with a online-service subscription. Most of the moving parts are already in place here (user accounts & billing through iTunes, stored value cards at nationwide retail, relationships with game publishers & developers, and now the set-top hardware) so Apple really just needs to wait for broadband internet speeds to reach an appropriate level, buy some big servers & flip the switch. Of course all of this assumes that they can get their head out of their ass about building a real online service with matchmaking & etc. but maybe they’ll learn a thing or two from this whole Ping business and surprise us yet. And if not, it would be pretty damn hilarious to see Microsoft come chugging along & knock down the whole iTunes house of cards by building the exact same thing on top of the existing Xbox platform.

tl;dr Consider buying $AAPL

Anarchy in the USA

Commenter “AL” in a Gapers Block thread on Critical Mass in Chicago writes:

It is an outright statement of differentiating values – expressed not through free speech, not through permitted demonstration – but in guerilla fashion with absolutely no accountability. The very organization of CM is setup in distributed cellular fashion so as to obviate the possibility of anyone being held to account for the misdeeds of those participating.

BINGO! To me it’s the “distributed cellular” setup of CM that makes it so powerful, but also so controversial. As Americans, and members of democratic society at large, we’re all brought up believing in the idea that there is a “system” in place and whether we’re for it or against it, its existence cannot be questioned. The “system” allows us to transfer accountability, both good and bad, to symbolic entities and figureheads. Hate the Tea Party? Blame Glenn Beck. Love your iPhone? Thank god for Steve Jobs! But what’s lost in this process is the understanding that all organizations are composed of individuals acting out of their own free will. Probably the reason we choose to ignore this is that it’s really fucking complicated (and often scary) to deal with thousands of distinct individuals, as opposed to a centralized organization. Consider the record industry trying to prevent piracy by suing individual downloaders or the DEA trying to fight drugs by jailing end users. If all these folks belonged to some kind of organization, “United Drug Users” or “Local Downloaders 451″ then the solution would be much easier! Similarly, if the CPD could simply call up the “President of Critical Mass” and ask him to tell CM riders to obey stop lights, then I’m sure the antagonism between motorists & cyclists would be greatly reduced. But because this isn’t possible, the two “groups” are forced to confront each other as individuals. It’s not something that we’re terribly good at (hence the screaming) but it’s an absolutely essential part of being human.

tl;dr CM is divisive because it represents anarchy and disorder, which can be either incredibly empowering or frightening, depending on your personality & perspective.

(FYI, I could go on for days about the *other* socio-political implications of Critical Mass, but I think this is the crux of it…)