Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Technology (page 1 of 4)

You Are A Service, and other ads for smartphone addicts

Typecaster Rino Breebaart on what messages he’d put on bus ads for people who happen to look up from their smartphone:

These would work just as well, if not better, as digital ads. Or maybe as a service where you get one of these texted to you for every 10 minutes you’re on your phone.

How I’ve made my social media better

Here are some browser extensions and tools I’ve been using to make my experience on the Big Three social networks better:

Twitter

Since 2012 I’ve been using Fix Twitter to swap the right and left columns to put the feed back on the left, as it was pre-2012. Mostly cosmetic, but for me preferable.

Make Twitter Great Again hides two things that have made web Twitter nearly unbearable recently: other people’s liked tweets popping up in my timeline and promoted tweets.

Twitter Demetricator hides all the site’s metrics for followers, likes, retweets, and notifications in order to, per its creator, “disrupt our obsession with social media metrics, to reveal how they guide our behavior, and to ask who most benefits from a system that quantifies our public interactions online.”

I recently enabled Tweet Delete to automatically delete tweets older than two months.

Facebook

I’m not deleting my account, not yet anyway. For work and other reasons it’s just more convenient to have one. The next best thing to do in response to the company’s rolling malfeasance is to deny them their power source, so I’m using Social Book Post Manager to bulk-delete my old posts and plan to post a lot less. It’s a little clunky, and you have to do the process repeatedly to actually get all the posts, but seems to be working.

I’m starting with the earliest, from the summer of 2006 when I first joined, and working forward. Since you get to watch it work through your posts in real time on your Activity Log, you get to quickly reminisce—or cringe—at all of your status updates and comments of olde (common topics for a while there: Lost, the Oscars, The Office, and the Packers). Once all your posts are removed from a given year, the updates that remain—Life Events, your friending history, photos you’re tagged in—reflect an interesting kind of online anthropological history.

I also use Stay Focusd to limit my time on Facebook.

Instagram

I like Instagram generally, but I don’t like how easy it is to waste time scrolling mindlessly. I also don’t like the feed showing me whatever the Almighty Algorithm decides to show me rather than what was posted chronologically.

My hack for this is to delete the Instagram app from my phone after each time I post a photo. This cuts me off from the mindless scroll, from obsessing over my likes and follows, and forces me to decide whether posting a photo is worth the extra time to download the app and sign in again.

Refer Madness: A String of Beeps

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

I was on the phone with a patron when I heard it: that incessant beep the copier makes when something goes wrong.

Once I finished with the patron on the phone, I went over to see what was the matter. This time it was “Insufficient funds”. The coin tower screen showed 25 cents, which was enough for the two copies the patron wanted to make. I cleared the attempted copy job, tried it again, and it printed fine.

I assume copier technology has advanced since the mid-20th century, but you wouldn’t know it based on what’s churning out copies in many libraries.

“I guess it just hates me,” the man said with a smile.

“It’s just old and cranky,” I tell him, which is true.

“Well, I’m old and cranky too,” he said wryly. (A sense of humor goes a long way when dealing with technology—of any age.)

It’s a phenomenon we’re all familiar with: the computer or copier or iDevice malfunctions, but as soon as someone comes to the rescue, it works fine. We made it through this operation painlessly, but it was emblematic of how much of my job is realizing how things get screwed up and how often it’s the machine’s fault.

I can’t tell you how many times a patron brings a device to the desk and says “I feel so dumb” or “This is a dumb question, but…” Sure, sometimes patrons don’t read instructions or signs correctly. But just as often it’s the design of the machine or app that led to the failure. The annoying beeps and popup error messages are just an insulting icing on the cake.

Though the machine is just trying to say:

*BEEP* ERROR

its frustrated victims actually hear:

*BEEP* WRONG
*BEEP* YOU’RE STUPID
*BEEP* SCREW YOU

Counteracting this ought to be the chief quest of good design. It makes everything better: users can actually use things without going insane and devices can be used with minimum intervention from outsiders.

Easier said that designed.

1946 Olympia typewriter vs. 2012 iPad – who ya got?

Matt Thomas, via Submitted For Your Perusal, spotlights an interesting contrast between two New York Times stories in the same week.

Exhibit #1, from a brief feature on Danielle Steel:

After all these years, Steel continues to use the same 1946 Olympia typewriter she bought used when working on her first book. “I am utterly, totally and faithfully in love with my typewriter,” she says. “I think I paid $20 for it. Excellent investment! And by now, we’re old friends.”

Exhibit #2, from a John Herrman’s essay What I Learned from Watching My iPad’s Slow Death:

Above all, my old iPad has revealed itself as a cursed object of a modern sort. It wears out without wearing. It breaks down without breaking. And it will be left for dead before it dies.

A machine that’s over 70 years old (!) is still performing exactly as it did the year after World War II ended, and another machine that’s not even 7 years old is now a digital dotard. An iPad of course can do far more things than a typewriter. But if it can only do those things for the length of two presidential terms, tops, is it truly worth the investment?

My 1970 Hermes 3000 originally sold for $129.50, according to the sticker still on its body. That’s about $845 in 2017 dollars, which would get you an iPad Pro or basic laptop today. I bought it last year for $30 at an antique store. It’s in seemingly mint condition all these years later, and I can’t wait to see what words it will produce—from me and any future owners. If the iPad’s “slow death” takes place after only a few years, the death of this Hermes—perish the thought—will be downright glacial.

Yet what Herrman concludes about a tablet is also true of a typewriter: “It will still be a wonder of industrial design and a technological marvel, right up until the moment it is destroyed for scrap.”

Which machine’s scraps, however, can actually be turned into something beautiful? Advantage typewriters.

Refer Madness: The Worst Thing

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Some days on the desk are rough. Challenging patrons, technical difficulties, a case of the Mondays—whatever the issues are, like sneezes and football sacks they often come in bunches to create a day that’s better forgotten.

This was not one of those days.

First, there was a man who said he’d submitted an interlibrary loan request for a movie two months ago, hadn’t heard back, then found out there wasn’t a record of it at all. This is an aggravating situation all around, for patrons who deserve better service and for staff who seek to eliminate mistakes. Such a blunder can make a patron visibly and justifiably frustrated, but this gentleman wasn’t. “If this is the worst thing to happen to me today,” he said, “then I really just have first-world problems.”

Thirty minutes later, a colleague was setting up for a presenter who needed a PowerPoint and projector. Such a routine and simple task that usually goes off without a hitch. Instead, the laptop decides to become possessed and inhabit the projector as well. Murphy’s Law reasserts itself yet again. The speaker could not have been nicer. He spoke to the attendees as we futzed with cables and buttons. “If this is the worst to happen to your day,” he said, “it was probably a great day.”

That really happened: two different people used the same line within a half-hour of each other.

Not ten minutes later, I had to bump a patron from a study room to make room for someone who’d made a reservation. He was a regular and knew the study room policies, but you never know how people will react to getting booted. “I don’t have to go home but I can’t stay here, right?” he said with a smile. It wasn’t quite closing time, but he got the picture.

The next time I am having one of those terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days on the desk, I’ll remember this hat-trick of good humor and hope to experience it again.

Ursula Le Guin on the ‘media golem’

A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.

Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:

When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.

Or: just don’t look.

He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.

Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.

Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:

Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.

…and then zooms out on its larger implications:

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?

Dear lord I hope not.

A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.

And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.

Cmd + Ctrl: towards smarter searching and dumber devices

Let me echo Austin Kleon’s ode to the search box:

Maybe it’s not so much the command prompt I’m nostalgic for, but the days when the computer wouldn’t do anything without me — I had to explicitly tell the computer what I wanted to do, and if I didn’t tell it, it would just sit there, patiently, with a dumb look on its face.

I really miss how computers used to be “dumb” in this way. The primary computer in my life — my “smartphone” — is too smart. It used to constantly push things on me — push notifications — letting me know about all sorts of stuff it thought I wanted to know about, and it continued doing this until I had the good sense to turn them all off. It’s dumber now, and much better.

Besides text messages and Snapchat pictures of my new nephew, I don’t get notifications on my phone and haven’t for a long time. I can’t imagine how people with news or social media apps subject themselves to the onslaught of Fresh Hell in their pockets all day.

In Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, Cory Doctorow writes about the need to be protected from computers as they burrow further into our lives and bodies:

I want to be sure that it is designed to take orders from its user, and to hide nothing.

Take orders and hide nothing. Command and control. Pull rather than push. Make Computers Dumb Again.

Relatedly, at Mashable, “Stop reading what Facebook tells you to read” calls for consumers to break out of Facebook’s detention center walled garden and use a web browser to find things:

By choosing to be a reader of websites whose voices and ideas you’re fundamentally interested in and care about, you’re taking control. And by doing that, you’ll chip away at the incentive publishers have to create headlines and stories weaponized for the purpose of sharing on social media. You’ll be stripping away at the motivation for websites everywhere (including this one) to make dumb hollow mindgarbage. At the same time, you’ll increase the incentive for these websites to be (if nothing else) more consistent and less desperate for your attention.

See also: Just don’t look.

Here’s to smarter searching and clicking by everyone in 2018.

Paper: the once and future king

Richard Polt has an interesting post about the assumption of paper in speculative fiction from the past:

Apparently, a mere 40 years ago it still didn’t occur to some science fiction novelists that paper would become a second-class citizen to glass screens studded with millions of tiny pixels.

Note that the word “paper” does not actually appear in any of these passages. That’s the way it is with things we take for granted: they’re as invisible as the air we breathe.

I expect that our own speculative futures will look just as ridiculous 40 years from now. What developments are we failing to imagine?

(This reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” briefing, which actually establishes a helpful framework for analysis, and Chuck Klosterman’s great book But What If We’re Wrong?, which interrogates the assumptions we’ve turned into self-evident conclusions.)

The question of paper’s place in a digital society popped into my life today at a doctor’s office. I had to fill out an intake form as usual, but with a twist: it was the first time the form was digital. It was on a PhreesiaPad, a touchscreen encased by a clunky orange plastic shell that made it look like a kid’s toy. The opening screen said “Paper Is So 20th Century”.

PhreesiaPad

Paper’s fearsome competitor.

I assume these devices help speed up information processing in clinics and contribute to the all-encompassing idol goal of Efficiency in businesses. But if I had to bet on whether the PhreesiaPad or paper will still be around in 10 years, even 5 years, it’s paper all the way. I’ll be surprised if all those cheaply made tablets and their ilk make it to next year before getting disrupted into obsolescence by the Next Big Thing.

Paper is so 20th century. And 19th. And 18th. And 17th. And 16th. And 15th. And so on for a long, long time. So long that you can count paper’s age in millennia. Silicon Valley startups and speculative fiction authors have a lot of intriguing ideas about what the future will look like, but until they figure out how to close in on paper’s 2,000-year head start I won’t be worried about its fate.

Hear Ye! Listening to ‘The New Analog’

new-analog

“Noise has value.”

So goes the thesis statement of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a wonderful new book by musician Damon Krukowski. He reckons with how digital media has changed how we consume music and what we’ve come to expect from it. New technologies have begat new ways of listening, but to get to that newness, music has been stripped of its context and surrounding “noise” and turned (for a profit) into pure “signal” over a disembodied digital stream.

In theory this would be ideal; noise is usually considered a bad thing, and boosting signal above it separates the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, etc. But what happens when everything becomes signal? What happens when we cede the authority to determine what ought to be signal to Spotify’s mysterious algorithms and the rigid perfectionism of digital recording equipment?

Krukowski illuminates what we lose when we ignore or eliminate noise. It’s not only the small things— incidental studio sounds captured alongside the recorded music and how smartphones flatten the richness of our voices—but bigger ones too: how we’ve come to occupy space “simultaneously but not together”, and how streaming encourages “ahistorical listening.”

This isn’t a fusty screed against newfangled media. Krukowski avoids nostalgia as he straddles the analog/digital divide, opting for clear-headed rumination on “aspects of the analog that persist—that must persist—that we need persist—in the digital era.” These aspects involve early 20th century player pianos, Sinatra’s microphone technique, the “loudness wars”, and Napster, among other topics I learned a lot about.

The book overlaps a lot with Krukowski’s podcast miniseries Ways of Hearing, though I’m not sure which informed the other more. Ironically, despite its inability to convey sound, I thought the book was better at explaining the concepts and aural phenomena of analog that Krukowski dives into. With the relentless iterations of new media keeping us ever focused on the present and future, it’s more important than ever for thoughtful critics like Krukowski and Nicholas Carr and Alan Jacobs to help promote intentional thinking and challenge our modern assumptions.

Google Past

This is the Google Maps Street View of my parents’ home. It’s from 2007, which is old by Google Maps standards. The current view looks very different ten years later. The house is a different color, the front lawn is now completely garden (more like a jungle at this point), and the tree on the road verge was slain by ash borer.

All three cars are gone too. The black Corolla was my sister’s first car. The blue Corolla we inherited from my grandma; it nearly won Worst Car senior year, and my cymbals were stolen from it once, but I remember it fondly. The white Camry was an inheritance from the other grandma, since replaced by another.

I suspect the Google Maps Camera Car will make its way back to this street one day and replace this image with a new one. Until then this snapshot will remain like a mural, a mosaic of memory, unaware a new coat of paint will erase it from existence, but only for most.

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