Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What Price, Convenience?

What is technology, after all?  Let's break it down to its simplest.  I think technology falls into one of two categories:
1.  New capabilities we didn't have before, such as breathing underwater or in space, or flying.
2.  Convenience - doing things we always have done, but faster with less work.

There might possibly be a third category, that of entertainment, but I need to think more on it - perhaps it is some shading or blending of the other 2.

Most of the technology out there is of the second.  Truly innovative and creative inventions can achieve the first - but they are few and far between.

In America, as in many other countries allowing some form of "free" enterprise, people are incented to develop new products and services - and hunt for markets for them - whether or not they really provide true benefit.

That begs the question about what is meant by "true benefit?"  I would argue this is something that is generally agreed as a benefit, with little or no negative effects.  DDT had a benefit, but the negative effects I would argue vastly outweighed, and gave it a net negative impact on our lives.  So true benefit is something where the net impact is largely positive, that is to say the negative side is very small.

This balance of net effect can change over time, and change as the technology evolves.  For example, when Mr. Bell invented the telephone, the negative side effects were relatively minor - unsightly wires strung up on poles everywhere, and perhaps some exposure to electrical radiative energy.  With cellular phone technology, this can be argued to be a larger negative effect - larger amounts of radiation, and social impact of being able to be always reachable means it is hard not to interrupt socially important interactions for the call of the moment.

Let's look at the microwave oven.  What are the negative effects of this?  Many argue radiation exposure, many argue that the way it cooks the food, it destroys much of the nutrient value of the food.  I would add that we also have what I like to call the "microwave effect."

The Microwave Effect is an increased social expectation of instant gratification.  I would associate this with
  • A shorter attention span
  • Less patience (as we all know is a virtue!)
  • Less planning and therefore less wisdom
  • An "addiction" to convenience
  • Removal from a "connectedness" to the source of our products and the process of using them
With the microwave oven,  not only is our food heated unevenly (which I always hated), and the nutrient value damaged, but we expect dishes to take less time to prepare.  "What, you seriously expect me to cook something that takes 30 minutes to make?"  (Come on, 30 minutes is too long??)  It takes less planning - if it is frozen, you can still throw it in, so you don't have to think ahead.  Thinking and consciously participating in our own lives is what makes us alive - rather than just floating from event to event or neurotically, anxiously keeping some hectic schedule.

This addiction to convenience removes us from the source of the food - did the food come from somewhere nearby, or halfway around the world?  Or more likely, did portions of the meal come from multiple countries spread around the globe?  What is the cost of this?  In time, energy, fuel?  What is the cost of putting the decision of our food sources in some corporate executive's hands, while the farmers in our own back yard are struggling to pay their bills, let alone buy the product your company makes?

However, the Microwave Effect is not just limited to microwave ovens - hence the name.  One could perhaps argue that personal vehicles may have some of it, or the plethora of specialty TV stations.

Whenever we use technology, I would challenge you - think about the lesser-known negative impacts.  Where was it made - and do you want your money going to them?  How was it made - were they environmentally conscious?  Was the packaging outrageously excessive, so that something you use once (to get the product from the factory to you) get thrown out, to last in a landfill for over 1,000 years?

Does this technology give a "true benefit?"  That is, not only is the net benefit good, but is the negative impact small?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Windows 7 - I'm a PC!

Folks, I've been using Windows 7 for a couple of months now, and I have to say - I am not impressed.  The biggest 3 things Microsoft did with Windows 7 were:
  • Fix the stability issues introduced in Vista (seems like every other release of Windows is inherently unstable)
  • Pretty up the interface - a lot of graphical enhancements with very little real benefit
  • Completely move around all of the administrative functions, just to shake things up and make sure that the "experts" have to relearn it, while the "average joe" suffers and calls on the experts more
First, let's look at the "fixes" on stability.

Shoring up the House of Cards
We all know the score, especially those of use who have been using it since the first viable version (3.0).  Windows for Workgroups, Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows NT, Vista - all these versions were, let's face it, unacceptable for customers paying for a product.

Windows 2000 introduced the first version of Windows where I didn't have to reboot daily, and could still use it.  Bravo.  Windows XP was, actually, an improvement on 2000.

So, we all are aware of the egg-in-the-face that was Vista.  Those of us who sprang for machines with Vista on it were burned, first by the operating system, and second by moving to 64-bit without waiting the requisite 5 years before stable drivers and software came out.

Now that Windows 7 is out, what's so great about it you ask?  Well, remember Vista?  Microsoft never admitted how bad it was, but they took a beating against the Mac and other Unix-based machines.  They know it, so they changed up the naming convention again (marketing ploys do work against the masses).  Enter Windows 7 - basically Windows XP with the Vista interface.

Except how good was XP really?  It's Windows - crashes periodically (once a week or every few weeks), slows down the longer you use it, you know the drill.  Kind of makes us wonder, why do we pay Microsoft for this stuff anyway?  With that said, it was the most stable version of Windows workstation yet.

Well, Windows 7 returns us to the XP days of stability - with all those fancy special effects and completely rearranged interface.

Wow, it's Pretty!
One thing Microsoft has always done well is designing graphics - icons, pictures, menus, and user interfaces.  Aside from the marketing thing.  They know a good looking vehicle sells better than the rust bucket, even if the good looking one barely runs and can't go above 50 on the freeway.  Especially if it's popular.

I have to admit, the styling is really nice, although the default window translucency is really really annoying.  A few features they introduced make it a bit more usable, but barely.

First, is the drag-window-and-snap-to-screen.  You drag a window to one edge or another, and it snaps to take up that portion of the screen.  Big deal, it's not that great.

Second, multi-touch gestures on touchpads.  Remember my article about the Mac?  Apple knows how to do things right - the 2-fingered swipe to scroll, brilliant.  So brilliant, Windows now offers this, but it is, as all things Windows, jerky scrolling and works moderately at best.  Often times it scrolls too fast, or not at all, and is actually more frustrating than the old swipe in a reserved edge of the pad.

Lots of animations in previously non-animated things, but the Start menu is really annoying.  Before when you hit Start and started typing letters, it would jump down to those choices.  Now it does a search - perhaps useful, perhaps an innovation I'll grant them.  I find it annoying, I hope there's a way to turn it off.

Administrative Confusion
In their never-ending quest to mix it up, Microsoft has again completely reorganized the administrative interface.  That is, the Control Panel, all the little things in Windows you do to control the inner workings (services, scheduled tasks, etc.), even the installation and uninstallation of software.  Just when things were stable from Windows 95 through XP, they went and pulled out the rug from under our feet.

What about the average Joe?  Probably doesn't spend too much time on these things, so doesn't care.  If you are a tinkerer, it would just piss you off.  If you were an expert?  You just gut it up and learn.  The more gullible ones probably pay for training on it - like you need it?  Us poor folks use Google a lot (I avoid Bing like the plague!), and good old-fashioned hunting around.

What about searching in Windows Explorer?  In older Windows, you could avoid the Windows Search 4.0 installation and thus have a useful file search.  Nowadays?  No 2 ways about it, you have this simple (and dumb) search field in the upper right corner.  How do you specify dates, how do you search contents of files?  Yeah, it's dumb.  There is a drop-down when you start typing, you can add a date or file size modifier - that's it.  Haven't figured out how to search file contents yet - unless you use Google Desktop.

Ever wonder why there's no Google Desktop for Mac?  Because Spotlight is built into the Mac, and does all that for you.

I'm a PC, and Windows is Mine
So, if like me, you're not buying this massive advertising campaign, I say my money's going to Apple.  I never cared much for the first generations of Mac, but as of OS X (that's OS 10 for the layman), form and function unite in a perfect synergy - one that all the might of Microsoft still can't even come close to touching.  Thanks to Windows 7 I came up with a new abbreviation - SOSDV (same old stuff, different version).