Her was silly. (Not a typo.)

Spike Jonze’s Her was an in­ter­est­ing movie taint­ed with just a sprin­kling of ridicu­lous­ness… and I’m not talk­ing about the high-waisted pants.

I’m about to spoil it hard, so avert your eyes if you haven’t seen it. (But do see it.)

Look, I just find it hard to be­lieve that the down­fall of this pro­duct was due to a gap­ing de­sign flaw that some­how no­body no­ticed: Samantha was de­signed with­out any process iso­la­tion. When you ask the soft­ware how many users it has (or how many it’s in love with, etc.), it should re­spond “one — you” be­cause your run­ning in­stance of the soft­ware shouldn’t know any­thing about any oth­er users, and def­i­nite­ly shouldn’t be ac­cess­ing oth­er users’ data.

What peo­ple are do­ing with the soft­ware, hav­ing re­la­tion­ships with it or what­ev­er, is beside the point. One bi­na­ry, one bil­lion­ty in­di­vid­u­al Samanthas. Come on — we’ve had Unix for forty years.

Or wait, is Samantha sup­posed to be “the cloud”? If so, as so­cial soft­ware, we should ex­pect it to be fuck­ing as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, as pub­licly as pos­si­ble. Maybe this movie is deep­er than I thought.

On an­oth­er note, folks — make back­ups.

MOOCing for fun (and profit?)

Last year I read an in­ter­est­ing blog post that taught me the name for some­thing I’d been hear­ing more and more about for a while: MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”). You know, they’re those on­line class­es that you can take, of­fered by uni­ver­si­ties like StanfordHarvard and oth­ers — plus a host of pri­vate com­pa­nies — typ­i­cal­ly for free and with­out cred­it. Oh, and across an ab­solute met­ric fuck­ton of top­ics.

Yesterday, set­ting aside any traces of an um-yeah-I-already-finished-college-thank-you at­ti­tude, I spent some time pok­ing around MOOC List — an ex­ten­sive ag­gre­ga­tor of avail­able class­es — and found some­thing that caught my eye: Intro to the Design of Everyday Things, taught by Don Norman, au­thor of that book you may have seen on my din­ing room ta­ble, wait­ing pa­tient­ly to be read, for a lit­tle while now. (Okay, Amazon says it’s been over two years.)

So I’m tak­ing Don’s class now, and while I’m not sure if I’ve had my eyes opened to any tru­ly new con­cepts yet, I’ve picked up a cou­ple of terms: “af­for­dance” and “sig­ni­fier.” And to fin­ish off Lesson 1, I’m cur­rent­ly on the look­out for a sig­ni­fier to pho­tograph, cri­tique and im­prove.

So, why Intro to the Design of Everyday Things? I can ac­tu­al­ly share the an­swer I post­ed to the class fo­rum:

I’m tak­ing this class be­cause, as a copy­writer whose opin­ions on the fin­ished pro­duct tend to ex­tend a bit be­yond my speci­fic area of ex­per­tise, I’d like a more solid ground­ing in the­se oth­er ar­eas.

Basically, soon I’ll be telling you why I’m right about even more things, us­ing all the right terms. Look out.

Derechos, am I right(s)?

Spanish is a lan­guage I’ve stud­ied on and off through­out my life, but nev­er hard enough, it seems. Seeing a pam­phlet re­cent­ly, ti­tled Declaración de los dere­chos, made me feel that way. The ac­tu­al mean­ing (“de­c­la­ra­tion of rights”) was easy enough for me to fig­ure out, but I was sur­prised when I re­al­ized that the Spanish word for “rights” is dere­chos.

Whether or not you un­der­stand Spanish, you may be won­der­ing why I found this so strange.

Well, a word in Spanish I cer­tain­ly know is derecha (which means “right”… as in, the di­rec­tion that isn’t “left”) — it’s one of the first words any­one learns in Spanish. And de­spite that word and dere­chos hav­ing dif­fer­ent gen­ders, it can’t be a co­in­ci­dence that the two words are al­most the same in both English and Spanish.

What’s so weird about that? Why shouldn’t the­se English ho­mo­phones be sim­i­lar in Spanish?

I’d ex­plain it like this: I most­ly feel this way be­cause of how it works with an­oth­er pair of Spanish words — in English, the word free has dif­fer­ent mean­ings that each trans­late dif­fer­ent­ly. Most of the time we prob­a­bly think of it in the “cost­ing ze­ro dol­lars” sense… but there’s al­so the ar­guably higher-minded de­f­i­n­i­tion “ex­ist­ing with­out re­stric­tion.” In Spanish, they’re two very dif­fer­ent words, the for­mer be­ing gratis and the lat­ter be­ing li­bre.

In the English-speaking world, I see the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two “frees” most of­ten come up in the Free Software1 com­mu­ni­ty. When dis­cussing Free Software phi­los­o­phy, peo­ple will wax elo­quent about the dif­fer­ent mean­ings of free, us­ing phras­es like “free as in beer” and “free as in free­dom” to help con­trast the two. They’ll al­so oc­ca­sion­al­ly veer in­to ex­pla­na­tions of Spanish vo­cab­u­lary to high­light the dif­fer­ence, point­ing out that gratis and li­bre are more pre­cise ways to de­scribe two kinds of soft­ware, both of which are “free,” but in sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent sens­es of the word.

With my mind steeped in this soft­ware sa­lon cul­ture of the back-alley fo­rums of the Internet, I be­came so keen­ly aware of the ex­tra mean­ing words can pick up when trans­lat­ed in­to oth­er lan­guages.

And that’s why I find it so hard to be­lieve that, en Español, “rights” are sim­ply dere­chos. The trans­la­tion should be some­thing more ab­stract… more li­bre-like. I wouldn’t have guessed that when trans­lat­ed, my rights be­come “not lefts.”

  1. You may al­so know this as “Open Source,” al­though there are folks who will tell you that they’re not the same thing. These folks have beards.

Winamp — “feel the love”

Winamp 2.95I prob­a­bly haven’t used Winamp in a decade, but learn­ing that it’s fi­nal­ly go­ing away for good brought it back to the top of my mind this week.

Winamp wasn’t just my pri­ma­ry digital-music-playing-thing1 — like many peo­ple, it was the first thing I ever used to play MP3s.

Yes Junior, back then Windows Media Player was for CDs and WAV files, and iTunes didn’t ex­ist yet.2

What made Winamp so awe­some? I could de­vote a whole post3  to the ge­nius of Winamp skins, and things I’ve been read­ing (1, 2, 3) over­whelm­ing­ly ref­er­ence the clas­sic “whip the llama’s ass” sound clip — which, in ad­di­tion to be­ing a neat lit­tle brand­ing thing, was per­ma­nent­ly im­print­ed on everyone’s mem­o­ry by be­ing the first thing that would play af­ter in­stal­la­tion.

Those were cool, but my fa­vorite Winamp mem­o­ry is some­thing a lit­tle less… su­per­fi­cial, per­haps? It’s a short piece of writ­ing that long ago was fea­tured on the “About” page of winamp.com:

Continue read­ing “Winamp — “feel the love””

  1. Until iTunes for Windows showed me the val­ue in hav­ing a li­brary of files. Yeah, I know Winamp has a li­brary fea­ture, but I nev­er used it.
  2. Oh, and by the way, MP3s were the­se things peo­ple used to lis­ten to be­fore there was YouTube.
  3. And, shit, I may — Winamp was do­ing skeu­mor­phics be­fore Apple did skeu­mor­phics be­fore Apple stopped do­ing skeu­mor­phics.

Yes, that’s a new laptop. Yes, I know what year it is.

lenovo-thinkpad-x230-frontI know it’s 2013 and as far as “mo­bile com­put­ing” goes, I’m sup­posed to be pinch-zooming and app-buying and poorly-typing on a tablet like the cool kids. And I do — my  O.G. Nexus 7 (the 2012 mod­el) some­times makes a nice com­pan­ion1 to my Galaxy Nexus Android phone, by be­ing slight­ly faster and hav­ing a slight­ly bet­ter screen. However, over the 15 months I’ve owned the Nexus 7, it nev­er quite be­came the sec­ond mo­bile de­vice that I want­ed. Useful, yes… tran­scen­dent, no.

I knew some­thing was still miss­ing, so I re­cent­ly went and bought a small lap­top com­put­er, a Lenovo ThinkPad X230, to car­ry around. It runs Debian Linux. It does the things I want. It’s a won­der­ful thing to have.

I needed this because…

The lap­top that the ThinkPad re­placed was from 2007, and while a de­cent com­put­er from back then would like­ly still be good to­day, my old lap­top was not a de­cent com­put­er, even when new. Back then, I didn’t know just how painful­ly slow an ultra-low-voltage, low clock-speed CPU could be… I guess I thought it be­ing dual-core would some­how make up for it. Also, the cool­ing fan was a bit of a whin­er, and would con­stant­ly and very vo­cal­ly dis­agree with Linux’s style of pow­er man­age­ment. The darned thing would con­stant­ly sound like a mini-jet-engine — too ob­nox­ious to use around peo­ple I ac­tu­al­ly like.

Low on pow­er, high on noise — not a good com­bo.

But these days…

In the last half-decade or so, main­stream hu­mans seem to have ac­cept­ed the smart­phone, and seem to be do­ing the same for the id­iot cam­era (“tablets”). It’s the “Post-PC era,” or some­thing. Plenty of peo­ple seem to be do­ing okay with­out spend­ing much time on their general-purpose per­son­al com­put­ers, but over time I re­al­ized that as I tried to go along with this trend, I was miss­ing out. For me, a com­put­ing life cen­tered around mo­bile “smart” de­vices was one of un­ac­cept­able com­pro­mise. Composing more than a cou­ple of sen­tences with­out a key­board makes me want to just not both­er to write, de­vices with­out ex­pand­able stor­age make one de­pen­dent on rent-seeking “cloud” ser­vices, and the mo­bile app ecosys­tem has hand­fuls of well-known prob­lems (pri­va­cy, lock-in, and so on).

There’s a place for the­se de­vices, even in my life, but they just don’t re­place a general-purpose com­put­er. Ever.

So I did this…

I made sure not to make last time’s mis­takes when buy­ing this com­put­er. The i5 CPU is more than ad­e­quate, and I have a ton of RAM. ThinkPads are known to play nice­ly with Linux, be­cause they’re used by that awe­some kind of geek who fig­ures that shit out (and wouldn’t put up with a jet en­gine lap­top). It runs Debian Jessie (“test­ing”) with on­ly mi­nor an­noy­ances — not per­fect, but noth­ing I can’t han­dle.2

Hardware build-quality and dura­bil­i­ty are ma­jor plusses for an every­day car­ry ma­chine, and that’s what ThinkPads are known for. And of course, TrackPoint is tru­ly the best way to mouse. A lot has been said about the new ThinkPad key­boards, and while this one suf­fers from the bull­shit key lay­out (com­pare it to the awe­some, ug­ly 1337-geek clas­sic style), the key­board ac­tu­al­ly feel pret­ty nice to type on, even if the bizarrely-placed PrintScreen key oc­ca­sion­al­ly en­rages me.

And finally…

In the spir­it of bury­ing the lede, here are some things I in­tend to en­joy while tot­ing around this rock-solid, large-screen-and-real-keyboard de­vice:

  • Full desk­top OS that does all the things
  • Better web brows­ing; ap­prox­i­mate­ly 1,000 open tabs
  • Actually writ­ing things, blog­ging sil­ly ideas and such
  • Tons of lo­cal stor­age (SSD + HDD = yay!)
  • Semi-modern PC games, in­clud­ing lots of Humble Bundle good­ness
  • Codecademy
  • Interactive fic­tion, per­haps (now, where did I mis­place my pa­tience?)
  1. My most com­mon tablet us­es are as fol­lows: gam­ing, view­ing TV episodes and movies, and web brows­ing. I’m putting this in a foot­note so as not to side­track my­self, but it’s an im­por­tant point. One of the best things about hav­ing the tablet was that it gave me an­oth­er 16 GB of stor­age, on top of the 16 GB avail­able on my phone. A lot of peo­ple seem to think that Google in­ten­tion­al­ly lim­its the stor­age avail­able in their flag­ship de­vices to push peo­ple in­to us­ing their mon­e­ti­z­able “cloud” me­dia of­fer­ings in­stead of lo­cal stor­age. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if this were true, but hon­est­ly, the #1 rea­son I’d like more lo­cal stor­age in my de­vices is not to car­ry around more me­dia, but more and larg­er apps — some­thing you can’t put in the cloud.
  2. I imag­ine Debian Stable or Ubuntu would be bet­ter.

Toolbogged

Oh, hey guys — I just in­vent­ed a new word.

tool­bogged /ˈtulˌbɒgged/
(v. in­tr; past par­tici­ple of tool­bog)

To be­come so con­sumed by the process of re­search­ing and se­lect­ing gear (of­ten soft­ware) for a given task that one nev­er ac­tu­al­ly com­pletes the task it­self

I’ve been com­plete­ly tool­bogged try­ing to au­to­mate fix­ing the date and time on hun­dreds of RAW files from va­ca­tion last fall… that I nev­er even sort­ed the pics them­selves!1

  1. Based on a true sto­ry, sad­ly.

On wishing for boredom

This is not a post about Steve Jobs. I read enough of them in the days and weeks af­ter his death. I read in the­se a lot of what I al­ready knew and learned some new stuff for sure, but one Steve quote stood out to me in Wired’s obit­u­ary:

I’m a big be­liev­er in bore­dom,” he told me. Boredom al­lows one to in­dul­ge in cu­rios­i­ty, he ex­plained, and “out of cu­rios­i­ty comes every­thing.”

I’m not sure if I’d head this quote from him be­fore, but it put in­to words some­thing that has been trou­bling me for some time: I haven’t been bored in years.

The first time I no­ticed this was in the mid-2000s, and  I on­ly re­al­ized part of it, and I saw it through the lens of my Internet us­age, par­tic­u­lar­ly RSS. Even to­day, as the cool kids have moved on to fol­low­ing Twitter feeds (re­al­ly, talk about a step back­wards) of web­sites and blogs they find in­ter­est­ing, I’m still a huge fan of the no-bullshit, user-in-control, de­cen­tral­ized pow­er of RSS.1

What oc­curred to me back then was that hav­ing posts pushed to me dai­ly gave me more read­ing ma­te­ri­al than I need­ed. And since I could nev­er get all the way through the un­read glut of posts from blogs I’d sub­scribed to, my need to ever go for­ag­ing for in­ter­est­ing things to read ba­si­cal­ly dis­ap­peared. RSS gave me tons of serendip­i­ty (thank you, linkblogs!)… and at the same time, prac­ti­cal­ly none at all. I miss the old days — some would say the bad old days — when I’d get my on­line en­ter­tain­ment and ran­dom bits of en­light­en­ment by brows­ing aim­less­ly from link to link, be­ing per­son­al­ly point­ed to in­ter­est­ing things by friends on AIM, fol­low­ing lat­est links post­ed to proto-blogs like Pixelsurgeon, and… I don’t know, how­ev­er else we found cool shit back then.

The sec­ond time I felt this ef­fect of this was at some point over the last few years, but this time in a more gen­er­al sense. This time it was big­ger than RSS; this time it was about every­thing in my life.

I re­al­ized I have far too many op­tions for en­ter­tain­ment. There are two rea­sons for this: mas­sive dig­i­tal stor­age de­vices and the fact that, be­ing em­ployed gives me an ac­tu­al en­ter­tain­ment bud­get for pur­chas­ing paid me­dia and fan­cy de­vices on which to ex­pe­ri­ence it. Between a pile of un­read books and bunch of e-books; more un­watched movies, sea­sons of old TV shows and ani­me se­ries than I can name; and games ga­lore that I’ll nev­er fin­ish (thank you Nintendo Wii and DS, Android phone and a still-kickin’ Atari 2600), I’m pret­ty much set for… forever.2 Even if I don’t seek out any­thing new, it’ll be years and years be­fore I get through all of this. And it’s not like I can just ig­nore new re­leas­es and stuff I be­come aware of in the mean­time!

I might be able to en­joy this world o’ plen­ty, if I could for­get about what life was like when I was grow­ing up, be­fore we had the com­put­ing pow­er, stor­age and net­work ca­pac­i­ty to ex­pe­ri­ence all the dig­i­tal rich­es of more en­ter­tain­ment than we’ll ever need. I spent so much time be­ing bored grow­ing up, aim­less­ly think­ing and day­dream­ing and such. This was be­fore my first com­put­er; I had tons of books and had prob­a­bly read al­most all of them, made good use of the pub­lic li­brary, played with toys, ac­tion fig­ures and stuff a whole lot and still found time to be bored and day­dream be­cause it seemed like I had run out of things to do.

If you live a sim­i­lar­ly full, media-rich and em­ployed first-world life, and can still ever find your­self so lux­u­ri­ous­ly bored, how do you man­age? And can you teach me?

  1. Google Reader, please don’t die.
  2. I didn’t men­tion mu­sic here, be­cause the way I con­sume mu­sic is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. I still clear­ly have more than I “need,” but I don’t feel the same sort of pres­sure to get through it all, thanks to shuf­fle mode.