Friday 26 October 2012

One Thousand Years of Rice

I was in the sixth-form when we got our first computer. Prior to that I’d had an NES, which I brilliantly got for christmas a few months before the SNES came out, making it almost instantly obsolete. Nothing’s changed, I still have a lousy sense of timing when it comes to technology. My old laptop died and I had to replace it just a couple of months before Windows 7 came out. The new one had a free upgrade, but the amount of form-filling and verification required was insane. They required everything up to and including a mouth swab for a DNA sample.

So I’m still running Vista. I know that makes me a shameful, pitiable Luddite. I’m not allowed out of the house on my own, and have to employ an orphan boy to walk ten paces in front of me ringing a bell so more respectable Apple fan-boys and Linux users have time to cross to the other side of the street, thus avoiding a potentially embarrassing and infectious encounter with the unclean. Women and children, encumbered as they are by mammaries and/or shortened legs, rarely have time to get far, and I’ve seen many a frantic mother pull their child to the nearest doorway to huddle, terrified, as I pass. The braver ones point at me as I go by, clearly hoping to use me as some kind of cautionary tale, lest their offspring follow my wretched example and find themselves also adrift in this slough of misery, despond, and unintuitive drop-down menus.

I’m in no special hurry to upgrade though; what’s the point? My computer does everything I need it to, even if it is starting to show its age a little. A little over three years now. I reckon I can eke it out for another year or so then get another, better one. One more capable of running whatever system is current at that point.

I clearly know fuck all about programming, but friends who do assure me that it’s not what it once was. Back in the day the limitations on processing power meant you had to produce more efficient, more elegant code to improve performance. These days you just chuck more RAM at it. This means that software upgrades are not always a good thing.

See what I did there?

A couple of years back I taught at a JHS once a week and, slightly unusually, they actually provided me with my own laptop. However, this laptop still had an internal floppy disk drive. After a few months they did a big upgrade on all the software and upgraded this machine’s OS to XP. It promptly all but stopped working. Seriously, if I needed to print something from a USB key I’d better be damned sure that I didn’t have a class first period, as it took far more than the 25 minutes of the teachers’ meeting and homeroom to start up, open Word, and print something out. And if there were pictures involved I could forget it. I’m really not exaggerating this for effect. My phone had more processing power than that computer.

And that was the problem. Even an OS as outdated as XP required too much from a system that old. So there seems little point in upgrading for the sake of it. I know, the bogey man of ‘security’ is all pervasive, but I’m not exactly dealing with state secrets here. If any ‘hackers’ really want a few years’ worth of lesson plans and half a dozen unfinished blog posts, then I’d question their ambition. Aren’t they meant to be bringing down The Pentagon/Google/China this week?

One's a rising force which is making western governments
increasingly concerned about personal freedoms
and information security, and the other...

The last time I was the first to own the new model of anything, it was the third generation ipod nano, the one with the first colour screen. The battery on my first generation one died, and with the flexibility and customer service for which Apple is rightly famed, the only way to fix it was to replace the whole thing. I could get a new model for only a few quid more than a new ‘battery’, so why not?

I got the new one the week it came out; it was so new that there were no third-party peripherals for it yet. I took it to the gym the next day, and, lacking a clip or case for it, stuck it in my pocket. It fell out when I was doing floor presses and I dropped a 40kg dumbbell on it.

Fortunately it was rubberized (the dumbbell, not the ipod or floor. Actually, the floor was too, now I think of it), so I got away with just a massive dent in the casing. It’s still working just fine five years on, though my music library has long since outgrown the 8GB memory, which seemed cavernous at the time. I can buy a flash drive with that much now for the cost of a couple of CDs. Though that’s more a reflection on the ridiculous cost of physical media in Japan than anything else.

I got an iphone when I came back to Japan, about 4 years ago now. A 3GS, all mod cons. Not now of course; now there are any number of cool apps I don’t look closely at before downloading only to be disappointed that they won’t work because the phone is too old. Might be time for an upgrade there as well, what with everything. My eldest can already unlock it and shuffle the icons round by himself, I might just have to write off the old model as nothing better than a child's toy and move on.

This isn’t meant to be a grumpy old man rant about the pace of technological change. Technology doubles every 18 months. I get that and think it’s a fantastic thing. The alternative is to say, ‘No, stop it. Slow down, don’t push the boundaries. Try not to do the best you can.’ That’s clearly a moronic attitude. I’m not even going to include the ‘but’ you’re probably expecting at this point. This is just the way the world works now and you’re going to get nowhere raging impotently against the dying of the light (battery life issues again).

We will not go quietly into the night, just stumble
blindly because we can't use the screen as a torch.

My wife is even worse than I am. She is a complete technophobe, to the point where she’ll get actively angry if we discuss the subject. I think it’s because, what with much of the jargon being originally English, when I’m discussing it with salesmen or technicians I understand more than she does. My Japanese is functional at best, whereas her English is genuinely fluent, and it’s a bit of a blow to her ego to be the one left out of a conversation for a change. I try to tell her it’s not a language thing, my Mum would be the same, but sometimes it’s better just to drop the subject completely.

On the odd occasion I do brave it though, it works like this: Soon enough our both our sons will be into this, and it behooves us to be at least aware of it and its benefits and dangers. I have limited time for scaremongers who point to videogames every time some teenage nut-job decides to shoot up his school in Michigan. New technology plays an important secondary role as a scapegoat for older people who can’t face up to their own responsibilities. As does pop-culture. In fact, just about anything new. They said the same about video nasties, Ozzy Osbourne, even Elvis. Elvis! Won’t somebody think of the children?

Fuck off.

Not that these things don’t play a part, of course. It all adds up, but in general they’re symptoms, not causes. And if you’re incapable of even recognizing the symptoms, you’re going to have a much harder time treating the actual condition.

Which is why I feel that, for all my shitty timing, I – we – do need to at least be aware of what’s going on. My sons will eventually, and probably very quickly, surpass me for understanding of all this, but I don’t want to be phoning them in 20 years time (or whatever the equivalent of phoning is then) and asking  how to programme the video recorder (or whatever the equivalent is then, or even now). Kids should surpass their parents, that’s the whole point, but let’s not be in too much of a rush to get there just yet.


  1. Vista... ha ha ha...! It was a shit os even when it was new.

    But apple products - is it advancement with each new release or just a marketing concept? I've had my ipod for about 5 years too. Maybe longer. But it just plays music, there's no advantage to up-grading. What music playing features do I need that I haven't got? And, if I got something more multifucntional, the battery life would be crap.

    Actually I reckon I've had my laptop over 3 years now.

    1. Apple? Marketing. Well, mainly. The ipod was a game changer (when linked to itunes), but it's been diminishing marginal returns ever since. Beautiful things to have, but I'd be hard pressed to to say I actually 'need' any of the devices they've brought out in the last five years or so.

  2. Orwell the other day, Father Ted today, and an attitude to tech that is utilitarian? Are you me?

    I am buying less and less tech, and using it less, as it gets better. First, I am tired as a father of an infant... with another coming. Second, I am tired of upgrades that promise much, and deliver little more than before. In the end I use the Internet to read, email, blog and Facebook (though the latter has 'jumped the shark' with the 'sponsoring'/extortion), and my phone for email, texting, maps, music, and once in a while even to speak on.

    The point of upgraded devices is to encourage us to buy shit we'll hardly use, as we were doing fine. The purpose of capitalism is to get people to buy and spend more than they need to. The only really great development in IT lately is the cheapness and miniaturization of Flash storage.

    I want all my data and capability in just one place, no 'cloud', with a readable screen, but fits in a pocket, and cheap. Make me a laptop the size of a phone, for the price of a good dinner, and I'll get excited again. Like this:

    1. Oh, there is less nostalgia for IT as it improves more quickly, if there ever was. Things like furniture, buildings, bicycles and engines from the past you can get excited about, but not IT. Maybe that time will come once we have reached the limits of optimization of IT.

      I have said a bit more here:

    2. Definitely buying less as I get older, probably using it more though. Everything has to have a definite use now, I just don't have time to buy stuff on spec simply because it looks cool with the hope of figuring it out later. If I don't know what I do with it when I pay for it, chances are I never will.

      I'm really considering that idea of getting the new iphone and giving the old one to the kid. But every apple product gets a ton of 'fixes' a few months after its launch, so I reckon I'll just wait for those...

  3. Out of curiousity what year was it when you were in sixth form?

    I kind of fell of the bandwagon after finishing high school and swapping video games with going to the pub. I was really into video games as a child, I had a Sega Master System and then a Mega Drive and finally a SNES. After that we got the internet and I used to play Starcraft online for hours at a time. The last game I really got into was Diablo 2 and then WOW for a couple of months, but quit that as it took over my life. I remember Diablo giving me a nasty pain in the wrist from clicking the button a million times with a room full of monsters.

    I too have a laptop with vista on it. I installed Linux, but then couldn't figure out how to setup wireless on it, so I just started using Windows again. It is mega slow now, but it is clogged up with junk and just needs a good format, but I couldn't be bothered. I am in front of a computer for 8-10 hours a day, so why would I want to do that in my spare time?

    My first major at uni was computer science and everyone used to tell me that computers was my thing. I even had a small business going installing cables and setting up networks. However, when I got to uni I realised how completely out of my league I was, I was assuming that these first semester classes would teach you programming from scratch, but everyone had already taught themselves in their spare time. After a semester of that I changed to humanities/languages/education and I'm so glad that I did. I never want to do anything related to computers again.

    I have a Wii now and like to play Mario on it sometimes, but I guess platform games are for oldies I imagine. The sengoku musou game is the shit too, but I can't handle it when I'm tired after work ahah. I also want to get the black and white kindle when they figure out a version that is compatible with Japanese and English. I think they are a really, really good idea. The smartphone is great for maps and I love being able to track my bicycle rides and you can even compete for times with others now (all these 50kg Japanese absolutely kill me going up mountains.) It is pretty easy to fall into constantly checking FB and email which is a shit habit though.

    Other than that, I would like one of these new cheap Google tablets for 20000 yen or so, I will just have to wait until the digital magazines become compatible with it as that is the only thing I intend to use it for.

    Oh, I am one of these people who refuses to buy mac stuff, pretty rebellious I know.

    1. Sixth form? Mid 90s. Hell, even as an undergraduate I remember it was acceptable to submit handwritten essays. There was one guy on out floor of halls who had a PC, with a 133mhz processor. Seemed like lightning at the time.

      I am playing absolutely no computer games now, nor have I been for the past few months. I tend to favour sprawling strategy type stuff and there's just no way I can commit to the 2-3 hour sessions which somehow seem necessary. My gaming history can be summed up as NES - PC - Championship/Football Manager - Civ - kids. That last one's the killer, eh? I while back though I had far too much fun playing Elite on an emulator. Wire-frame graphics and all.

      I'm conflicted about apple stuff. It's massively overpriced for what it is, and their business/customer care practices are clearly not all you'd want, but it all just fits so well together. A lot of the criticisms I saw of the early iphone models was from tech geeks saying 'well, It can't do A, B or C,' ignoring that most normal people couldn't give a stuff about A, B or C.

    2. Yes, I remember when a Pentium 2 or 3 was amazing. I think our first computer was a 386 25 or 33mhz processor. It had this OS on it from some small scale company too. Oh, the memories. We needed MS office on there for school work as whatever WP we had on MS-DOS wasn't cutting it, so we installed MS Office and Windows 3.1, only to have it take up 30Mb of our 40Mb hard drive. That thing weighed a ton too.

      So how old are you now Kamo? I finished high school in 2000 and the internet and mobile phones really started to propagate around when i was in year 9 I guess.

      I ended up buying an Android phone because it was cheap. They gave me a 50000 yen discount for coming over from another company if I bought the phone outright, so I paid 10000 up front and that was it. I think it's quite good. I remember the macs at school and thought they were shit for anything other than playing Sim City 2000. I also thought a one-buton mouse was stupid. It does fit well together though. I wonder if they will be like Microsoft in ten years though? I saw the Windows 8 launch on telly and then they compared it to the Windows 95 launch and it just had a really sad feeling about it.

    3. Sim City. I forgot to include Sim City in that list. I got in serious trouble with a former girlfriend because I'd started a session in the evening of February 13th which had dragged until early the next morning, and was subsequently useless for anything the next day. Live and learn...

      As for age, I'll be keeping that vague. Not because I'm coy, but I'd like to maintain at least a veneer of plausible deniability regarding the authorship of this blog. Don't think you're too far away from me, mind.

  4. Sorry, can't even read the post at the moment. The reason is directly related to taking a more analog approach toward life. What I mean to say is that I'm trying to make a fox hole radio.

    As well as doing a few other things that are just fun.

    All this time listening to music actually makes me feel a little ashamed (as well as elated) when in the presence of people who are jamming.

    My only need for IT is pretty much for learning about what was not made available in school. Like with the radio.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some coils to think about.

    1. IT is not cool, it is useful. Analogue is cool; steampunk is cool. Geeks as into IT as someone who builds their own radio, or puts together his own bicycle, much less builds their own steam engine, or just takes apart an internal combustion engine: uncool.

    2. Will - I remember making a crystal radio as a kid. We had to make our own fun in those days, eh? Kids today, don't know they're born...

      Ant - You'll be somewhat conflicted about this then, I imagine

    3. That is funny, but fussy. This is better design:

  5. I'm pretty sure design engineers design the next three generations of whatever model they've developed and keep the files locked away until someone says it's getting close to release time...

    I've still got my iPhone 3GS and it works fine.

    Ok, not really. It's about gone, but the cheap-ass that I am will not let go until it actually f@#king explodes or at least produces as a serious amount of smoke. Then I'll know I got everything I could out of it...

    1. Planned obsolescence. And we fall for it every time.

      Prior to the iphone, the last time I had to upgrade my phone (apart from moving countries) was because I dropped the handset in a cup of coffee. No smoke, but the screen did go a funny colour when I tried to turn it on. Hopefully I'll be able to avoid anything as drastic this time around.