Thursday, December 13, 2018

The One Device

The One Device: A Secret History of the iPhone
pub. 2017 Brian Merchant
416 pages




Love them or hate them, smartphones have revolutionized society like few other inventions. Entire sectors of the economy now exist which wouldn’t be there had they had not been invented, and barring  some kind of global collapse it’s unlikely their influence will fade anytime soon.  The One Device: A Secret History of the iPhone reviews not just how a computer company decided to gamble on making what would become the best-selling consumer device ever, but investigates how the various technologies which make it possible came into being, and how everything was finally put together. Merchant illustrates that a lot of key elements were already in existence and argues that Apple’s success was putting them together at the right time,  building on to them, and adopting to market pressures in a few key areas (grudgingly allowing for third-party apps, for instance).  It’s faintly anti-Steve Jobs, for as much as it quotes from Isaacson’s biography it also relegates Jobs himself to the background, choosing to focus instead on the inventors, tinkerers, programmers, and engineers whose ideas and grueling work made the device possible.

Unless you're a fan of retrotech videos like myself,  you'll probably be surprised to learn that the idea of smartphones predates Apple, and that the first was made by Apple's hated foe, IBM -- Big Blue itself.  IBM's "Simon", however, was before its time, with a battery life of a single hour. Other technologies which were later incorporated also had their genesis in a place other than Apple's R&D department.  Merchant suggests that many technologies have a long stewing period before they're truly ready for work. In the mid 2000s,  Apple was at a place where they were looking for an edge. Jobs' experiment in remaking Apple products as a linked digital hub --the iMac and iPod linked together with iTunes, for instance -- was a great success,, but he anticipated iPods being undercut in the future by cell phones and wanted address the problem by turning the iPod in to a phone.  The shuffle wheel, as useful as it was for scrolling through music, was poorly suited for dialing phone number. However, a team working on a tablet computer were onto something with touchscreens, and  Jobs' focus on the phone project was such that the tablet, the "iPad", was shelved until a little later.  The phone didn't meet immediate success, however: Merchant reminds readers that the original only had three apps that weren't Apple products, all from Google,  and there was no App store. It took increasing pressure from people hacking into their iphones to allow for third-party programs to force Apple's hand.  It was immediately advertised as an essential feature of the phone in Apple advertisements, and Merchant suggests that the phone would have never taken off (given its price) were it not for the store.

The One Device blends technical research and business history,  and at times its level of detail may cool the interest of a casual reader.  Merchant is generally more personable than technical,  with the exception of the chapter on the iPhone’s processor, and the subjects covered are diverse -- everything from software to mining to business deals.  There's a lot of surprising content in here, too, so if you've an interest in popular tech,  The One Device will probably be of interest.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Perfect Thing

The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness
pub. 2006 Steven Levy
304 pages


I've never had an iPod, but given that Audible was doing a sale this week and that I seemed to be doing an Apple-related set, why not? The Perfect Thing hails the influence of the iPod and shares its history, both how Apple came to experiment with a consumer device and how it used the device to transform the music industry.  It's light "reading" (I listened to it, so the description is imperfect), and its datedness has appeal: this is an Apple book written before the iPhone took over everything else,  written when Jobs had announced that yes, he had cancer, but it was easily remedied with surgery and all was well now.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and pushed the company to focus on just four products -- professional and consumer variants of desktop and laptop computers --  his idea for the desktop computers was that they were to become key components in home entertainment, a "digital hub".  The iMac came packaged with software like iMovie and iTunes to allow users to create their own videos and play music from the computer -- and not just play the CD, but copy music onto the computer to allow the iMac to be a digital music library.  Around the same time, the .mp3 coding format had been established, and there were even clunky attempts at a consumer-marketed mp3 player.  Then the inspiration: what if Apple created its own mp3 player, one that would be designed to  link perfectly with iTunes?

Although its price gave cause for balking,  the device's ease of use and attractive design made it a marketplace winner, changing the way people approached music.   Although CD players had already started allowing for more musical freedom --  make it easy to listen to the same song over and over again, or skip weak songs in an album instead of having to manually fast forward and rewind tape -- the iPod and its clones would make it a breeze.  Although a certain artform was lost in the process (having an album that told a story when listened to in entirety, in order),  most people just wanted to listen to the music they lived, when they wanted it. 

The other great influence of the iPod on music was on the industry itself.   In the days of Napster and Kazaa, the record companies were seeing the rug pulled out from under them, with CD sales following as people were able to just help themselves to goodies out there for the taking -- along with viruses,  malicious jokes, and extremely poor information as people shared files with the wrong artist and title names.  Jobs proposed an alternative: iTunes could be more than a music player and CD ripper;  it could become a storefront, allowing the record companies a way to adapt to the  demand for digital music and maintain an income stream, while giving consumers a safe and legal alternative to obtaining music at a fairly good price -- $0.99 a song. 

Levy is a tech enthusiast, an it's therefore not surprising that he completely dismisses all who look askance at the takeover of people by their little devices.  Are people retreating from one another and reality by losing themselves in their music whenever they feel like it? Sure, and why not? Although there is truth in Levy's statement that moral panics always erupt  around new technologies,  it doesn't follow that there aren't legitimate causes for concern when people put themselves into danger or ignore their family and friends (in their very company) by dropping out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Jobs

Steve Jobs
© 2011 Walter Isaacson
656 pages


The past twenty years have been an amazing ride for Apple Computers, in which the ailing and speeding towards bankruptcy company suddenly metamorphosed into the most valuable company in the world, responsible for creating some of the most iconic products of the modern age.  Walter Isaacson's Jobs chronicles the life of the man who co-created Apple, fell out with it, and then came back to orchestrate the biggest brand revival ever   Throughout  it, Isaacson illustrates how pivotal Jobs and Apple were to not just the computer age, but to the opening of the 21st century as a whole. Although I am not an Apple user,  I enjoyed this biography like few others.

While many computer tinkerers of the day, Jobs' partner Steve Wozniak included, were interested in computers as tools, Steve Jobs’  background in the youth movements o the 1960s prepared him to see computers as revolutionary. He saw them as a way to marry technology and the humanities, and to ignite human potential  -- but he took. His lack of zeal for the tech side for it's own merits meant that he wasn’t particularly supportive of building machines that could be physically altered and expanded. He had a vision of how a thing should be, and didn't anyone else tampering with it.

For Jobs, computers were not merely a technological tool; they were more like art in their ability to expand horizons.  He wholly attached himself to his vision, and resisted the view of computers as open systems to be altered at will. Early in his career at Apple, he and Steve Wozniak argued over how many open slots the Apple II board should come with; Jobs only wanted two, for printers or modems, while the tinkerer Wozniak insisted on eight.  While Wozniak won that battle, he would lose all the  rest, as future creations presided over by Jobs were far more closed off to modding. Apple later used custom screws in their products, for instance, to stymie attempts at would-be home modders or consumers who wanted to repair their products at doing so. (Jobs’ vision for controlling products end to end has continue: just recently news broke that OSX systems would soon be capable of identifying hardware changes and then locking themselves down if someone other than an Apple-sanctioned repairman had replaced  a part.) 

Jobs’ insistence on controlling the vision he had for Apple products made him a domineering and mercurial boss, obsessive about seemingly small details and abusive in their implementation.  Associates at Apple joked about the 'reality distortion field' around Jobs,  the means by which he could convince himself that the impossible was practicable, and even convince  others to join him in the pursuit.  (Sometimes, with enough ninety-hour workweeks, they even achieved the impossible.) Such was his behavior that once Apple had grown from a two-man garage company into a full corporation, its board of directors effected his removal, hoping to dampen the disruptuons he caused.  He would later return after Apples’ drifting performance nearly bankrupted it, but in the meantime he developed his own computer system (Next) and  gained more management experience as Pixar. Next would be a failure, hardware wise, but the kernel of its OS would later be incorporated into Mac’s OS and even help Jobs get  his old  position of power back. At Pixar he was more able to pursue the intersection of art and tech, as  computer-generated graphics proved themselves capable of stories that gripped the human soul in Toy Story.

It was after Jobs’ return to Apple that things got really interesting, however. Jobs’ essential personality never changed, but he learned to be less meddlesome and gave to Apple the ability to focus.  He forced them to target on four products instead of a menagerie; these products were to be the best imaginable, “insanely great”. He often used novel designs that played with the imagination. Instead of familiar beige boxes, for instance, the iMacs of 1997 were colorful egg-shaped units that stood out and were advertised as being especially made for the internet, which by then was roaring.  Jobs focused not just on function, but on feeling; he wanted product to resonate with people, to give them a certain joy in using them, and that was part of the reason he was so obsessive about small details. Everything mattered, even the arrangement of the interior which might not ever be seen.  Jobs was the first to make aesthetics a key consideration in build quality. Jobs' vision prove itself when he pushed Apple beyond computers, into consumer products, with the ipod -- and later, the best-selling consumer device of all time, the iPhone.

Although Jobs was not an easy person to work with or know, there can no denying his pivotal role in the making of 21st century technological society. While Apple's hostility towards the right to repair makes me shudder, I can appreciate the commitment to exquisite design that Jobs made part of Apples culture; every time I help someone at work with an iPhone or a MacBook I enjoy the experience.    As much as I prefer the open moddability of Windows and Androids systems,  Isaacs' book made me far more curious about the 'other side' than I would have imagined.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Review in the dark



Sad news,  dear readers: my modem has perished.  I lost power last night and when the lights popped back on, my modem did not rise from the dead like the rest. Repeated attempts to reboot it and an hour or so with ATT's people and robots indicated that the aging modem had just given up. So, while I wait for the postman to bring me a replacement, I'm sans internet.   That will give me the opportunity to finish the book I'm currently reading, Walter Isaacs' biography of Steve Jobs, but in the meantime I've also read a few others.   In the last week I finished two books which I haven't reviewed yet,and I'll use my downtime (and the lack of distractions) to give them their due.    For the moment, however, I'll comment on Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds, which I just read via interlibrary loan.   After a history of how GPS came to be,   Greg Milner  explores its unexpected applications in fields like earthquake response, and comments on modern phenomenon like "death by GPS",  in which people willfully hurtle themselves into dangerous situations because they trust the voice of a computer more than their common sense.  Although the book is perfectly interesting in what it covers, and well executed there,  I had expected from the title more emphasis on how our personal expectations -- "our culture and our minds" --  were being remolded by the ability to locate seemingly everything  with exacting precision.  Using coordinate systems is a great change from the way humans instinctively deliver directions, but that break can be observed with a paper map:   when I travel and get a little lost,  I find few people who are willing to orient themselves even on the map I'm using.  (I insist on printing out full-page maps, not just directions, because I want to know where I am.  It comes in handy.) They insist on giving me local references instead.  Pinpoint is nice, just not as probing as I thought.   I've got another interlibrary loan book on the way, though: The One Device, a history of the iPhone, and perhaps a examination of how radically transformative smartphones in general have been.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Control

ST Section 31: Control
© 2017 David Mack
304 pages


"...if I’m correct, going to war with Section Thirty-one can only end badly for you. Either you will lose, and you and all your friends will suffer gruesome fates I’d rather not imagine; or you will win—and in so doing, end up inflicting more harm than good upon your beloved Federation.”

For four years, Julian Bashir has yearned to destroy the malicious intelligence-and-covert ops organization known as Section 31 from the inside.  A rendezvous with a desperate journalist in the frozen wastes of Andor, however,  makes him realize more than ever that he is over his head.   Running in the background of the entire Alpha Quadrant's technical infrastructure, from replicators to warp cores and shuttle transports is a common code, creating a massively distributed superintelligence which is monitoring and reporting -- but reporting to whom?  This AI no doubt has some connection to Section 31, which always seems several steps ahead of its opponents, but how can they be defeated when the very substance of Federation civilization is reporting for it?   The truth, as ever, is even more frightening...

Many Trek books are great adventure stories, and some are beautiful bits of drama; the true talents of modern Trek literature are equally able to provide horror and comedy.  Control distinguishes itself, however, by its timeliness.   The world of Control is not a fantasy, but rather one we are building  day by day. Something very much like Control in the real world was already explored by Daemon, Daniel Suarez's cyberthriller, and those who remember its plot may steal  a march on the main characters here. Although Bashir and his fellow fugitive, his lover and fellow S31 double agent Sarina,  seek refuge and help from trusted sources, no place within the Alpha Quadrant is safe for long, because no matter what they do, Bashir and his friends always seem to be playing right into Section 31's hands.   Mack excels in torturing characters emotionally,  and that's supplied here with one prominent death and another character psychologically crushed. The ending was...surprising at first, but carries  its twist.

For those who have been fascinated by Section 31 since their introduction in "Inquisition",  Control explores their past and delivers the final reckoning with them. While it seems a little rushed, the twist ending also indicates that another game is still afoot.

Related:

  • A brief clip from "Inquisition", the episode of Deep Space Nine in which Section 31 was introduced, and another clip from "Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges",  when Bashir learns that someone he admires and respects. Episodes like these are why I believe Deep Space Nine is far and away the best Trek series, not only for its deep bench of complex characters, but the serious moral issues it explored. This wasn't something that slowly developed, either, but was present from the start -- just see the first-season episode "Duet", in which a Cardassian who was a lowly clerk during the occupation assumes the identity of his murderous boss, Gul Darheel, just so that he can be exposed and put on trial -- thereby allowing Cardassia to face its guilt and redeem itself for its past injustices. 
  • Daemon, Daniel Suarez

Friday, November 30, 2018

Disavowed

ST Section 31: Disavowed
© 2014 David Mack
304 pages
"Murder is murder, regardless of whether it is committed by an individual, a group of persons, or the state." - Disavowed, David Mack

Disavowed is the brilliant result of multiple spy plots intersecting one another, bringing together the standard and 'mirror' universes. Following Rise like Lions, a political entity much like the Federation has established itself in the Mirror Universe, and is strengthened by a hidden  organization called Memory Omega.  Established by Emperor Spock to conceal itself and to become a galactic puppetmaster, Memory Omega functioned rather like Hari Seldon intended the Second Foundation to function in his attempt to shorten the galactic dark age and create a second Republic.   Because of Omega,   the nascent Commonwealth has tremendous weapons at its disposal -- weapons the Breen of the standard universe have caught wind of, and are planning a covert invasion of the mirror universe in order to steal.  Section 31, the amoral organization which pledges itself to protect the Federation without sanction  or oversight, which previously nearly effected genocide by turning Constable Odo into a Typhoid Marry,  is intent on preventing the Breen from gaining this kind of advantage -- and to help scotch the Breen's plan, they are putting Julian Bashir -- who is helping them only because of the threat the Breen might pose with these weapons -- into play.  But there's always another level of conspiracy,  and before this one runs its course we'll see a Dominion invasion of the mirror Alpha Quadrant, a beloved character on trial, and a faction who are even better at pulling strings than Section 31. This is, in short, a very cool book.

Many years ago one of Trek lit's best miniseries hit the shelves: Section 31, telling stories of  that very interesting organization as it acted in TOS, TNG, DS9, and VOY;  I was very glad to see their return,  especially under the able pen of David Mack. Mack here writes a sequel to both Rise like Lions and The Fall series, bringing two universes together, and allows us to spend time with a lot of beloved characters who are long gone in the standard universe, but still active in the mirror. People like Weyoun, that merry villain, and Eddington -- a rebel in one universe, an admired head of state here.  And not to mention Saavik, whether you're imagining her as Kirstie Alley or Robin Curtis.  We get glimpses of some of Section 31's toys,   there are the expected allusions ("Not good enough, damn it, not good enough! -- thank you, Captain Picard), and a fair bit of comedy to balance out what is one edge of the seat moment after another.  Bashir, for instance, is entering Section 31's service as a double agent; he intends to work for them only to bring them down, and so does his girlfriend. When she 'seduces' him into joining 31, however,  members of 31 are in fact observing them and mocking their poor acting skills...even the Vulcan.  Why 31 is still using Bashir and Sarina Douglas is one of the wheels-within-wheels ops that won't be unveiled until the end. We also receive regular insights into the Breen and into the mirror-Dominion, who are..very much the same, but different in an important way. 

This is a thoroughly gripping tale, and I'm looking forward to the sequel, Control.

Other Highlights:
“Because this isn’t about strength. Justice isn’t decided by power. It isn’t born through the force of arms. It comes from people of conscience taking responsibility for their own lives—and accepting the consequences of their actions.”

The book as a squarish chunk of hot smoking conscience

In autumn of 2017, The New Criterion published an article about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "cathedrals", his Gulag Archipelago and a series of epic 'novels' known as the Red Wheel series. I delayed posting this until I was finished with the trilogy, and promptly forgot about it.

Some excerpts:
"In taking literature so seriously, Solzhenitsyn claimed the mantle of a 'Russian writer,' which, as all Russians understand, means much more than a writer who happens to be Russian. It is a status less comparable to “American writer” than to 'Hebrew prophet.' 'Hasn’t it always been understood,' asks one of Solzhenitsyn’s characters, 'that a major writer in our country . . . is a sort of second government?' In Russia, Boris Pasternak explained, 'a book is a squarish chunk of hot, smoking conscience—and nothing else!' Russians sometimes speak as if a nation exists in order to produce great literature: that is how it fulfills its appointed task of supplying its distinctive wisdom to humanity."

"Like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gulag is literary without being fictional. Indeed, part of its value lies in its bringing to life the real stories of so many ordinary people. When I first began to read it, I feared that a long list of outrages would rapidly prove boring, but to my surprise I could not put the book down. How does Solzhenitsyn manage to sustain our interest? To begin with, as with Gibbon, readers respond to the author’s brilliantly ironic voice, which has a thousand registers. Sometimes it surprises us with a brief comment on a single mendacious word. It seems that prisoners packed as tightly as possible were transported through the city in brightly painted vehicles labeled 'Meat.' 'It would have been more accurate to say "bones",' Solzhenitsyn observes."

"Real people do not resemble the evildoers of mass culture, who delight in cruelty and destruction. No, to do mass evil you have to believe it is good, and it is ideology that supplies this conviction. 'Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale of millions.'
One lesson of Gulag is that we are all capable of evil, just as Solzhenitsyn himself was. The world is not divided into good people like ourselves and evil people who think differently. “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."