Friday, August 20, 2010

Macs Do Not Age Well; How Come I Still Have One?

Macintosh products continue to disappoint me. Maybe this is because I expect the things I purchase to hold together for more than a couple of years. Ever notice how Apple's products are all shiny, smooth, and sleek in the showroom, but after you use them for a few months they get scratched up, grimy, and gross?

The shiny white finish on my Macbook was designed to accumulate damage. They used the softest plastic I've ever seen on a computer. Meanwhile the rubberized, matte coating around the keyboard started to chip away within a year, peeling off in strips where I rest my palms.

The keyboard absorbs fingerprints like a napkin, but I can't clean it for fear that water's going to get in the tiny cracks beneath the keys.

I run Linux on it, of course, ever since Snow Leopard came along and the Mac software I'd already paid for started asking for more money just to stay up-to-date.  It's a shame Linux didn't have this level of sophistication four years ago when I bought the thing, because I would never have bought the thing.

Recently I tried putting the Mac OS X operating system back on the Mac, though. There's a couple free-but-commercial programs I've been wanting to run that just don't function on Linux: Netflix movie streaming, for one, and the Adobe Digital Editions software which lets me borrow books from the library and read them on my Nook. I've got other (even older) computers now, so putting the Mac OS back on the Mac that I don't really use that often seemed like a logical solution.

You would think that the system-restore disk that comes with a Mac would, well, restore it to factory settings without a hitch.  It did put the operating system back on there. Then it asked me to register a bunch of personal information with Apple. I wasn't really happy about sharing it, but what the hell; it wouldn't hand over control of the system until I filled in an address, phone number, and email address. That's the price of playing with Apple, I guess.

About an hour later I booted into the shiny blue of a virgin OS X install. None of my networking hardware worked. No wireless, no ethernet, not even my bluetooth mouse would function. I had successfully turned my perfectly functional laptop into Jonathan Franzen's distraction-free isolation machine. That's pretty handy in it's way, just not what I was looking for.

So I spent a couple of hours trolling the internet for solutions to this problem. The consensus from boards and forums was that the airport card had probably gone bad, and that a trip to the Apple "Genius Bar" was the only solution. "Or," they said, "try re-installing again."  So I spent another hour repeating myself.

Strangely enough, all the networking hardware worked fine during the installs. It recognized my wifi connection and sent all my information to Apple, after all. But once I rebooted for my first proper use of the computer, all of it went wrong. Strangely, the diagnostics provided by the Apple's "System Profiler" listed all of the stuff that should be working with "failed" written beneath it, and the menu where I should have been able to enable the airport card was grayed out, stubbornly refusing to accept my clicks.

So where did this leave me? Putting Ubuntu back on the machine. This took half as long as the Mac install did, and Ubuntu detected all of my hardware by default.

I don't understand why I can get a free third party operating system to run better on this overdesigned piece of junk than the native Mac operating system, but oh well.  There were good reasons I switched away from the Mac OS last year.  And those grapes were probably sour anyway.

(And then today I realized I should be able to run Netflix through a Virtualbox install of Windows XP. Which may make this the only Macbook in Massachusetts running Windows and Linux, but not OS X.)

Further evidence of Mac Crapitude: we ended up with a secondhand iPod Touch. (It's not so much that I like gadgets, as that I can't resist getting extra use out of other people's garbage.) This thing isn't even three years old yet. Still, it wouldn't download or run any "apps" without a $5 update to its operating system, which required downloading iTunes onto a Windows PC, registering the device, and typing a bunch more personal and banking information into web-forms. This seriously took a couple of hours.

Then, two months after we got it, the touchscreen stopped responding. This thing is an iPod Touch.  Without a touchscreen, it sort of fails at its primary function.  What's next, Apple?  Cell phones that won't make calls?

At first we were able to bring the screen back by squeezing the lower right hand corner, but this only worked intermittently until it stopped working at all. Now, the screen is dead to the world.  The internet tells us it's a known problem with first generation iPod Touches; best advice is to bring it in for repair if you bought the AppleCare warrantee.

Um, not happening.  At least we can still use it as a 16GB flash drive.  Given what we paid for it, we have no right to complain.

Why this animosity towards Apple?  Two crappy devices out of two is certainly not a representative sample.  And they must be doing something right.  People buy enough of their products.

I think it's the designed-to-wear-out aspect that really pisses me off.  That one year life cycle, where their crap starts to look like crap just in time for the slightly newer crap to come to market.  They've kicked planned obsolescence to a new level, at a time when our country is less and less able to afford it.  I have co-workers who are pissed because the iPhone 4 came out, and they just bought an iPhone 3 six months ago.  They talk as if they don't have a choice about upgrading.  The Apple product cycle is something they just accept, up there with Death and Taxes.

And then there's the whole infantalism of their culture.  The cuteness of the products.  The little "i" in front of everything, as if branding should be allowed to trump grammar.  The "Genius Bars" in the Mac stores where hard working debt-saddled graduate student computer technicians are trained to be pricks.  The fact that none of their products come with a manual, but then you can go back to the Mac store and buy "The book that should have been in the box."

I mean, honestly, it's like people can't wait to line up and get slapped in the face.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Franzen on the Cover of Time?

It was nice to see a literary novelist on the cover of Time Magazine this week (and interesting to discover that Oprah Winfrey has some kind of grudge against him).

Jonathan Franzen's new book, Freedom, sounds pretty interesting, and in the Time article (in the actual magazine, not the chopped-up link salad they give you on the website) he speaks to his overarching theme: having freedom is about what we choose give up to live the lives we choose, rather than having the right to do whatever it is that strikes our fancy in any given moment.  Hurrah! to that, I say, and also to his other point: if we're going to define our country as a place that "loves freedom", in conflict with terrorists who "hate freedom", we should really devote some serious thought to just what freedom is.

And we haven't yet, because we're a nation of overindulged, spoiled-rotten eight-year-olds.  (That last sentence was all me, not Franzen.)

From a retro-tech perspective, I got a kick out of the photograph (again, only in the print magazine) of Franzen's workspace.  He rents an office space, which he keeps completely bare, and writes with an outdated laptop computer on a plain desk.  There is absolutely nothing on the desk except for this computer.  He's yanked the wireless card out of the computer to make it internet and distraction free.  Even without the wireless card, though, there was an open ethernet port to tempt him.  So to fix that, he took an old cable, put super-glue on the jack, popped it in, and then cut the cord off of it.  Hole plugged; distractions averted.

I admire that level of dedication.  Personally, I would have brought one of my typewriters to the office.  (But just one, so I wouldn't waste time deciding which to use on a given day.)  There really is no better single purpose machine for writing.  Then again, typewriters necessitate a supply of paper, ribbons, pencils, etc.  Then the accumulations of manuscript pages and handwritten notes have a way of cluttering up the workspace.  So the self-contained laptop feels a lot more tidy.

No matter that it took him eight years to do it; Franzen did manage to get to the end of a lengthy novel, so clearly he's found a level of technology that works for him.  It takes dedication and focus to write, or read, anything long-form these days, and I'm looking forward to reading this once it comes out -- regardless of what Oprah says (or doesn't say) about it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Considering The Cult of Less

The Wife and I are still inundated with stuff.  Yard sale troubles, tenant troubles, and house maintenance  troubles all have us wishing we could slim down more than ever.  Just this morning we were talking about how little we'd want to take with us, if we were to sell it all and move on to, say, an abandoned stone castle in the south of France.

So I can certainly understand the impulse behind the "Cult of Less."

Here's the Boingboing article, the BBC article, and the Cult of Less website.

It's amazing, when you think about it, how much modern baggage consists of CDs, DVDs, and books.  (At least we don't have so many cassettes and VHS tapes any more.)  All of that stuff can go on hard drives, now, or stream into our laptops from the "cloud".  The books seem to be the toughest hold-out, which is funny when you consider how easy they should be to digitize.  Just about the only complaint I have about my nook is how few books are available for it.  A couple million titles sounds like a lot, but I haven't been able to find Graham Greene on there, or Nabokov, or even very much Gene Wolfe, so I still find myself clinging to a lot of dead tree like an anachronism, at least until I finish a paperback and give it away.  (I like to follow Tyler Cohen's example of giving away all the books he loves, and throwing away the books he doesn't like, so they don't waste anyone else's time.)

You can only take the Cult of Less so far, though.  And it's a young man's cult, surely.  Some of those guys are giving up on housing, relying on friends with couches to put up with them when they need a place to sleep.  Which I imagine would be every night.  This must foster, at least, an understanding of good manners.  You'd better make a lot of friends, and you'd better be nice to them, if you expect to find a warm place to rest.  But there is no way around the fact that somebody, at least, must be paying the  taxes on the walls that keep the weather out.  We can't all own nothing, as liberating as that might feel.

(This also brings to mind a quote by Dave Chappelle:  "If men could f*** women in a cardboard box, they would never buy a house.")

And try being a member of the Cult of Less and having children.  I can't even imagine the burden of all those baby clothes, diapers, toys, cribs, insurance policies...

Still, The Wife and I are childless, and could theoretically get by with very little.  A few changes of clothes, a couple of laptop computers, and maybe the one car.  Four walls around us, or maybe the hull of a boat, could do for the rest.  I might even hang on to my Olivetti Lettera typewriter.  It doesn't take up that much room.

What is the absolute least you would take along, if you had to fit it all into a couple of suitcases?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Yard Sale Reflections

Two days of yard sale selling have me more convinced than ever that we need to think long and hard over every purchase before we make it. We had a decent take, just about $80 for what were essentially two half-days of exceptionally casual salesmanship. But, as anyone who has ever sweltered through one of these things knows, the yard sale is not about the money you bring in so much as it's about the junk you don't have to haul to the dump. And when all was said and done, we were able to pack the left-overs into the station wagon for a single load to the dump swap shop, where no doubt a couple of the items will be picked back up, lived with for a couple of months or years, and then returned.

Plus we had the added pleasure of sitting under a tree for a couple of sunny days and chatting with strangers.

There's something humbling, though, about seeing goods you've accumulated over the years laid bare across a driveway. Particularly after you've hauled lots of this junk from one house to another half a dozen times. Lots of it is chipped, dented, or covered in dust. If it was pristine or at the least well loved, no doubt it wouldn't be shoveled out for sale like this.

 We polish it off as well as we can in a couple of minutes, but we don't take any longer, since, after all, we're only asking a dollar or two. Attempts to clean things off stem more from a sense of self-respect than marketing. Because the folks who stop to consider our junk are not approaching it with the discerning shopper's care for the best deal. They're thinking more along the lines of, "Would I really want this object in my house even if it cost nothing at all?"

And as the purveyor or such an object, the yard-saler is thinking, "What does it say about me, that my irregular, oddly numbered set of Ikea flatware and my stack of five year old home decorating magazines can't even fetch a fiver? I've lived with these things for years. Do my memories come so cheap?"

What it really feels like, when many of these customers wander through without making a purchase, is not that they are so interested in scoring a good deal on second hand housewares or jigsaw puzzles with no guarantee on their piece-counts, as in touring a museum of the recent past of an ordinary life. Many of them are gruff, uninterested in chit-chat. "We'd never get stuck with this kind of garbage," their condescending silence seems to say. And some of them hurry away, as if we had stolen their time.

We did make a couple of good connections, though. The sorts of sales that confirmed our tastes as something worthwhile, and that gave hope our discards could live on for some time.

I sold a folding typewriter from the 1910s. The feet had flaked away and the platen seized up, but the woman seemed to appreciate it's value as an historical ornament. (Working, it would have been an amazing artifact, capable of producing documents mechanically with a footprint smaller than a laptop computer. But it didn't work, and I had not looked at it in a year, so its value as an ornament was zero to me.) Gussie sold some sort of howdy-doody doll to an old man who had met the original ventriloquist and was going to give the doll a place of honor in his home. Another fellow scooped up an abacus for a dollar, and announced that he had found the perfect wedding gift for his sister, who was a math teacher.

Trash to treasure. The yard sale life cycle system works.

I purchase very little with the modest allowance that The Wife allows me. This year I bought an e-reader second hand, and half-price, from someone who had ended up with two. I got this computer on Craigslist from a man who pieced it together from parts he got at the dump. Maybe once a month I treat myself to a bottle of scotch. A pair of shoes lasts me two years, at which point the soles have worn through.

I'm a bad, bad American. But part of my problem is this: I've had hoarders in my family. My grandfather filled acres with junk cars and rolls of old carpet; wooden boats which he refused to sell slowly sunk into the soil.

I've probably spent more time throwing away my family's purchases than I've spent making my own.

So that shiny new widget on the department store shelf, with its hard clam-shell packaging and optional two-year service plan, always comes to me with a vision of the future, from so much of the crap I've kept before: a dust-covered relic in a storage unit, no longer worth the rent of its cubic-footage, just waiting to be hauled away at great effort and expense to the yard sale or the dump.  The tragedy inherent in a credit-card swipe is a pile of garbage resting on a mountain of debt.

If we really think about the things we buy, we can minimize this pain. And maybe we can live lives that revolve around people again, instead of things.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sex Sells ... Math?

Sex has been used to sell a lot of things.  But math?

There's no reason the nice lady teaching your children their algebra shouldn't be attractive.  But I wonder.  If Danica McKellar was my eighth grade algebra teacher, what would I really remember from that class?  Polynomials, or something else?

Honestly, do we need the "boy crazy confessionals" and the Cosmo-style quizzes right on the cover?  And the titillation of the letter x?  Such blatant subtext: "It's a variable.  But put three of them together and it's pornography."

And how about the implication that it's not enough for our daughters to be smart, they have to be drop-dead sexy too?

Regular readers will forgive me, I hope, for putting pictures of pretty girls on my blog.  That's actually a lovely dress.  (The more persistent among you may find less even modest pictures a google image search away.  Not that I checked.)

Hey, remember Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years?  Is it me or does that girl look familiar?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On How We Come to Love what we Love, Including Old Things

Of those of us who have this attraction to old things – or affliction by them, more like – I suspect there are two types: those who came to it by love and those who came to it by privation. Either way the result is the same.

I originally settled on the manual typewriter because it was the most reliable piece of machinery I could get my hands on for $50. Once I had it, there was no need to pester well-meaning poor parents or tempermental rich grandparents for the likes of upgrades, ink cartridges, repairs, and diskettes. Nor was there any squandering of allowances, the earning of which was far too laborious and dear to apply to faddish devices.

I came to love my typewriters because they were mine, not because I'd had any particular draw to them in the first place. I suspect if the latest computers and printers had been easier to acquire, easier to replace and upgrade, I would have come to love those in the same way, through repeated experience of pleasure in their use. As it turned out, I wrote papers, stories, and love-letters on old machines, and so they worked a fetishistic magic on me.

Is this the healthiest reason to love something: because it is always there, and therefore convenient? But how about this reason: because it is reliable, and steady, and enduring. Certainly, we should take our time with things we are to invest our time and emotion into, just as we should with people.

After all, this is how we form the relationships that endure, among people: not from the hot-headed pursuit of the youngest and newest companion, but from the seasoning of shared experiences that accrue among those we find ourselves, by accident, convenience, or routine, in the presence of most often.

This is why, even though we have virtual access to over a billion souls through social networking sites on the internet, we spend the majority of our time on Facebook chatting with the folks we went to school with long ago. The seasoned relationships are the ones that mean the most to us.


I've convinced myself this is a perfectly reasonable way to come to love something, this circumstance and convenience.

The alternative – determination and pursuit - is overwhelming. It requires constant search and discernment, such a connoisseurs effort which, when it comes down to it (and despite it may feel otherwise) is in the hands of advertisers and marketing men anyhow.

Self-determiners assign themselves labels. They tell the world they are “preppy,” “goth,” “thrifty,” “refined;” they're “Harley” or “BMW.” They seek out clothes, accessories, and friends that match their categories, priding themselves on unique taste. But really they only landed in that category because of the display at the Hot Topic or J. Crew, or because all their friends rode motorbikes and they wanted one too.

I understand this desire to assign myself to marketing categories.  I'm not immune.  “What are you into?” Classical music, retrotech, science-fiction-literature, hiking, flying. Voila mon profil. Without categories, how can I market my blog? How could it ever be monetized?

But in reality, do I really belong in any of these? I only practice classical music a few hours each week. I don't have the space to accumulate any old junk beyond a few typewriters and old computers. Science fiction doesn't turn me on to the extent it used to, and though I have a yen to re-visit Moby Dick, I can't locate that copy I bought back in 1992. As for hiking, though I think I'd love to spend months charting every mile of trail in Acadia National Park, in truth I only have the time and energy for local pathways like the power-lines across the street. Oh, and I'm a passionate private pilot, having flown a total of 38.25 hours - 19 years ago.

So I've got to stretch the labels to get them to fit.  And I came by each of these phases and faces by accident first, and preference only through time. Does it speak ill of me that there have been so many (also sailing, running, and pipe-smoking) that it becomes impossible to define this life with any focus? A more aggressive and motivated sort might have made a choice and followed it through to a level of perfection and professionalism that could guarantee good fortune and career.

Me, I'm left to muddle along as best I can. None of the labels will stick* and I am well-nigh unmarketable.

*Except that I grow old. And shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.