Tag Archive | technology

We’re living in the future, but a lot of people don’t get it

An magazine ad from 1968: Western Electric is crossing a telephone with a TV set.  “What you'll use is called, simply enough, a Picturephone set. Someday it will let you see who you are talking to, and let them see you.”

An magazine ad from 1968: Western Electric is crossing a telephone with a TV set.
“What you’ll use is called, simply enough, a Picturephone set. Someday it will let you see who you are talking to, and let them see you.”

Some years ago I was attending a meeting of the committee that ran one of the local science fiction conventions. I had just joined the staff, and it was my first full meeting. One of the topics debated that day was a proposal that the committee obtain an email address that several committee members could check, because people kept asking why they didn’t have an email address. The only means that were available to the public (and thus people who might want to attend the convention) for contacting the organization was to either mail a physical letter to the club’s post office box, or to leave a voice mail message via a phone number that didn’t actually ring a phone. A system that was troublesome because if you didn’t check the voice mail box often enough, it would fill up with messages and no one could leave a new message.

During the debate, one person admitted that he had voted “no” each previous time the question had come up, but he had recently realized that it was as inconvenient for him and his friends that he didn’t have an email address of his own, as it had been inconvenient for he and his family that his elderly great-aunt refused to get a telephone. He wasn’t the only member of the committee to admit that they had been resisting adopting that “new technology.”

And this was a bunch of sci fi nerds.

Admittedly, it was sci fi nerds in the 1980s. Personal computers were still complicated gadgets that cost more than a car (the first IBM PC/XT had 128kilobytes of RAM and cost $5000, that’s the equivalent of $12,000 in 2017) and often had parts you had to solder together yourself. But my point is that even people who think they are forward thinking and tech savvy often have big blind spots about technology.

Such as the current dismay I keep seeing expressed online because so many politicians on both sides of the aisle have been talking about rural broadband. “Is this really a pressing need?” As a matter of fact, yes. It is nearly impossible in the modern era to apply for a job if you don’t have access not just to email, but a robust enough internet connection to fill out the often very-poorly scripted online applications. When my husband and I were recently looking for a new place to live, not only were the only reliable places to find available properties online, but often the only way to inquire about a property was to fill out a web form. Even after that point, we had to each fill out applications for background checks via a different website and system than we’d used to contact the property manager.

(click to embiggen)

The primary means to access services such as unemployment insurance, disability benefits, and so forth, is over the web. And that means needing more than a basic internet connection, you have to have a decent amount of bandwidth, or things time out. When new medical equipment is handed out, they doctor’s offices don’t have the time to show you how to use it, they give you a web address to access videos online. That’s how I learned to properly inject myself with insulin (including how to troubleshoot the injection pin and so on): they sent me to a webpage to watch the videos and read the warnings and disclaimers myself.

Internet access, particularly high speed/high bandwidth access, is no longer a luxury. Society, both businesses and institutions, have embraced the new technologies. Just as phones ceased being a luxury decades ago, then cellphones ceased being a luxury about a decade ago, and now smart phones have also crossed that line. For a number of people, particularly poor people, their smartphone is their only reliable way of accessing the services they need to get and keep their jobs, to take care of their kids’ needs, and so on.

Douglas Adams observed in an article in 1999:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Which is accurate, but also just a bit dated. Technology doesn’t just move forward, but the rate at which things change accelerates. Adams’s rules could use a couple of additions. For instance, we might add “Any new and exciting thing creating jobs when you’re in your 20s is a dying, obsolete industry by the time you turn 40.”

And there are the people who don’t understand how mass production and the commodification of products makes things that once were terribly expensive available for a fraction of the cost. This comes up a lot in relation to iPhones, in particular. In certain circles it is popular to hold up the ownership of an iPhone by someone who is struggling financially as proof that the person is only struggling because of bad priorities. This doesn’t take into account the many, many ways that someone can obtain slightly older versions of currently expensive gadgets extremely cheaply. We’ve already established that have a phone, specifically a mobile phone, has become a necessity in our modern society. Getting a refurbished unit of some previous year’s model or a non-refurbished unit of a model from a couple of years ago for free or close to it as part of a cell phone contract is quite common. And then there are various sales and special offers one can find.

That doesn’t even get into the hand-me-down process. Lots of people, when they upgrade a device such as a phone or tablet or laptop, rather than try to sell it somewhere, wipe their data and give the device to a friend or relative who can’t afford a new device themselves.

Luxuries aren’t what some people think they are. Sadly, the people least likely to understand this also don’t realize that being able to look with condescension on others for having or wanting nice things is a form of luxury on its own.

Defining my existence as inappropriate; why should that worry me?

“Sick of your heteronormative bullshit.”

“Sick of your heteronormative bullshit.”

Not long before my 16th birthday we moved to southwest Washington and began attending the church where my maternal grandparents were members. My new Sunday School teacher was a middle-school librarian in his day job. This particular church had all Sunday School classes segregated by gender (which was fairly typical for Southern Baptist Churches3) and by age, so it was a bunch of guys ranging in age from about 14-18 years old. One Sunday morning shortly after we joined the church, the teacher was telling an anecdote from his public school job, and he mentioned the novel Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret?. “Some of you may have heard of it,” he said.

Without thinking, I nodded my head and said, “Yeah, it’s a pretty good book.”

The teacher turned on me as if I had just transformed into a rattlesnake and was switching my tail ready to strike4. He had the most appalled look on his face. Then the expression changed to very amused condescension, “Oh, Gene! You would never have read this book! It’s a book for girls, and is completely inappropriate for a boy!”

I shrugged and said, “If you say so…”

He shook his head, chuckling even more condescendingly, and then went back to his story.

But I had read the book, several years earlier. I had gone through a pretty intense Judy Blum phase6, see. It started with the novel, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t which was, among other things, about a boy dealing with puberty and significant changes in his family’s financial situation. I had loved the book so much, that I proceeded to read everything else of hers I could get at the public library (or through inter-library loan) in the small Colorado town we had been living in at the time. Sure, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret is a book about (among other things) a girl going through puberty and all that entails. But it’s also a book about one’s relationship with the faith they were raised in, and learning to make adult decisions about what you yourself believe.

The idea of boy’s toys and girl’s toys and boy’s books and girl’s books is pretty messed up when talking about small children, but it seems to me it is much more messed up when talking about teen-agers8. Some people will immediately point out that the teacher may have been so appalled because he thinks of menstruation as a sexual topic9, and good Christian boys who are not yet married10 aren’t supposed to know anything about sex. As if that argument is any less BS than the idea that a boy could never possibly read and enjoy a book that some people think of as a girl’s book.

It’s all heteronormative BS. My church insisted on separating girls from boys in Sunday School classes in part to supposedly thwart sexual improprieties12. But heteronormative BS is not limited to members of fundamentalist evangelical churches.

YouTube's completely BS explanation for why they're restricting videos that just happen to be made my Queer people. (Click to embiggen)

YouTube’s completely BS explanation18 for why they’re restricting videos that just happen to be made my Queer people. (Click to embiggen)

YouTube is hiding some videos touching on various topics related to the LGBT community17. Not sexual videos. Among the videos that have been found to be hidden the Restricted Due to Mature Content label are: trans people showing how to apply make-up, a gay vlogger talking about 8 LGBT African-Americans who ought to be remembered during Black History Month, music videos without sexual content that happen to have been made by queer musicians, some coming out videos, and so forth.

Before anyone tries to lecture me of all people that this doesn’t constitute censorship (which I never said it did), let me explain. YouTube is privately owned, yes. But it offers a service to the public, and therefore must abide by the legal and ethical obligations that comes with offering a public accommodation. They incur those obligations whether or not they charge fees for the service. Among those obligations is one that is sometimes referred to as truth in advertising19: if you represent that your product or service does a thing when it does not, you can face penalties. YouTube claims that it is simply labeling content of a “mature or inappropriate nature” so that other users who choose to surf in restricted mode will not see offensive20 material. They also keep referring to it as a voluntary program.

“8 Black LGBT Americans Who Inspire Me” is not mature content. How to apply foundation, eyeliner, and lipstick is not mature content. “How I Came Out to my Family” is not mature content. Nor are any of those inappropriate.

It is also misleading in the press release to say the program is voluntary. Yes, whether or not a viewer choose to see content that has been labeled “Restricted” is voluntary. Whether a creator’s material is thus labeled is not. Neither are the creators informed that their material has thus been labeled. They have to log into YouTube as a different account and set that account not to view Restricted material and then try to view their own videos to see which ones have been labeled “Restricted.”

So I’m exercising my free speech right to call BS on YouTube. This isn’t a misunderstanding on our part. It is a discriminatory business practice21. It is more of the same old heteronormative BS where anything that admits that queer people exist is treated as if it is pornography, even when they are doing something as innocuous as sharing make-up tips22.

1. By “we” I mean my mom, my oldest sister, and myself. Dad had remarried and was living in Utah by that time, with where my step-mom was had just given birth to the youngest of my half-siblings2.

2. It is worth pointing out that the precipitating event of my parents’ divorce was the discovery that Dad had been carrying on an affair with the woman who became my step-mom for years.

3. Many years later that particular church decided to allow a mixed gender Sunday School class, but only for the people over 65 years old. And members who happened to be that age but didn’t want to attend Sunday School in a mixed gender setting were allowed to attend the adult men’s or women’s class, instead. When my grandmother told me about it, she actually tittered and made a comment about how radical it was to let men and women discuss the Bible in the same room. My step-grandfather then commented that, “Well, I guess at our age they don’t expect anyone will misbehave.” From which you can correctly infer that one of the things at least some Evangelicals believe is that you can’t put people of the opposite gender in rooms with closed doors without the very real risk that sexual hijinks will ensue.

4. Which may seem like a really strangely specific metaphor, but because one of the churches we had briefly attended during my nomadic childhood had included some members who were into snake handling5, I actually had seen another man in a church have the exact expression as this teacher did when a rattlesnake in a jar that most of us didn’t realize one of the members had snuck into the church, suddenly got very tired of being trapped in said jar.

5. Snake-handling: A practice in certain Pentecostal and Evangelical churches inspired by a literalistic reading of Mark 16:17–18. Handling venomous snakes without being harmed is seen as a sign of one’s faith and possession of the Holy Spirit.

6. To be fair, many years later, when I mentioned something about Judy Blum during a conversation at work, at least one of my co-workers gave me a rather startled look and asked, “You read Judy Blum when you were a teen-ager?” When I said that I had and mentioned a couple of my favorites7, her response was a very emphatic, “Wow!”

7. Deenie, It’s Not the End of the World, and of course Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.

8. Although, attitudes like this teacher’s make it easy to believe the story that gets shared around from time to time of the adult male legislator with a wife and teen-age children who didn’t know that menstrual blood flow was an involuntary biological function.

9. It’s a biological function that occurs in members of one sex, yes. And it is related to the reproductive cycle, yes. But it’s biology. And sometimes a health issue. Fully functioning adult members of a society ought to have at least a passing knowledge about the health issues of their species, regardless of whether they experience it themselves.

10. I should mention that two of the guys sitting in that Sunday School room with me that morning would, in less than two years time, each have a rushed marriage to their respective girlfriends who would each give birth to their first child only a few months afterward9.

11. A situation which studies have shown again and again and again would happen much less frequently if kids are given accurate information about sex, sexuality, reproduction, et cetera.

12. Because sex (and flirting and dancing14) can only happen between people of opposite sexes, right16?

13. There is no thirteenth footnote.

14. An old joke which was much beloved by my college debate coach (though I’ve heard it from others before and since): “Why do Baptists condemn sex other than missionary position15? Because they’re afraid it might lead to dancing!”

15. It’s true, even married people are not supposed to do anything other than very vanilla sex. Which is the inspiration of a similar joke: “Why do Baptists say it’s sinful for a woman to smoke cigarettes? Because they’re afraid it might lead to oral sex!”

16. Which is ridiculous. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only queer boy sitting in that Sunday School classroom that morning. Not that I had any romantic or sexual relationship with the other guys, just that I and two others each came out of the closet years later. One of them I’ve run into a few times since, as he lives in Seattle, now, too. Last I heard, the other was living in San Diego.

17. YouTube faces social media storm over LGBT-blocking ‘restricted mode’

18. You can read a bit more of YouTube’s side here: YouTube apologizes for blocking LGBT videos. Note that the headline is completely false. YouTube’s statement is not an apology for blocking the content. It says the word “apologize” but it’s for our supposed confusion at not realizing that they’re restricting LGBT content for reasons and not because of other reasons. Except we aren’t confused, we understand perfectly.

19. The principle is not limited to advertising. Any communication about the use of the product can be subject to this scrutiny.

20. Oddly enough, a lot of videos spouting off white supremacist, racist, and anti-queer bigotry (often making the kinds of hate speech which YouTube’s user guidelines says are not allowed) are freely available on the service without the Restricted label. So it is reasonable to conclude that the service is applying a definition of “offensive” that tilts cartoonishly far in one particular political direction.

21. Restricting or denying service due to the sexual orientation or gender identity of the people producing it, which is clearly the case in the vast majority of the identified videos.

22. And if you think that it’s universally offensive for people of some genders or some gender identities to wear make-up, then please explain why we keep having to see the horrific spray-on tan of our deplorable president.

Shiny new toy: my new Macbook Pro

I was trying to take a picture that showed the Touch Bar the first night after my laptop arrived.

I was trying to take a picture that showed the Touch Bar the first night after my laptop arrived.

I replaced my 5 1/2 year old Macbook Pro with the sparkly new Macbook Pro with Touch Bar. I’ve been using it for about a month and a half and thought I’d share my impressions. Note: I’m just a queer sf/f writer (who happens to have worked in the tech industry for more that a quarter of a century); I’m not a professional technology reporter, I’m not making any money from this blog and certainly not any money from Apple. But I own and use a lot of Apple products and have been using computers for over thirty years. So take this review accordingly…

Read More…

Hacking and phishing and spying, oh my!



I’ve got a slightly different weekend update than usual, today. Neither of these are related to specific stories I posted yesterday, they’re all stories that I came across later in the day Friday that should be shared fairly quickly. The first one is not just your typical phishing attack story, though:

Wide Impact: Highly Effective Gmail Phishing Technique Being Exploited The tl;dr version: this particular hack involves the hackers sending emails from a hacked account, to people in that account’s contact list. So it starts with you getting an email from someone you already know. But it’s much more clever than that! They take text from previous messages that person has sent, and it isn’t random. They find messages where the person has sent attachments, and they construct the new message from it. So if it’s someone you know, the phrasing of the subject and the text sound like something that person would write. The attachment in the new message is merely a screen capture, and it hides a link to their fake Google login in page. So you click on the attachment from a friend, and you’re told to view the attachment you need to log in to Google, and they get your username and password. And within seconds, they’re going through your account and sending more hacked messages to your friends.

They’ve even constructed the login page so that if you take the precaution of looking at the address bar in your browser before you start to sign in, you see “https:accounts.google.com” so you think you’re at the real Google. You’re not.

Once they’ve got your password, they can read all your email and do other things to your account.

The linked article has screenshots and advice for how to recognize this kind of attack, as well as steps for what you can do to see if you’ve already been hacked. Check it out!

And this one is less about hackers: Security backdoor found in end-to-end encryption system used in WhatsApp. The Guardian reports that security experts have found that since buying WhatsApp, Facebook has added a back door. In updates, Facebook denies that his is a backdoor to government agencies and claim they will fight any attempts from governments to access accounts.

Which is meaningless.

The existence of the backdoor means that when Facebook loses that fight (because of court orders, for instance) that the backdoor will be used to read the supposedly secure communications. The original design of WhatsApp and similar end-to-end services didn’t have a backdoor because if one exists, it will be exploited eventually. Also, Facebook’s description of the service currently lies and says that they can never read the messages. With the backdoor there, yes they can.


While we’re on the subject of cyber security: Cellebrite, a Major Dealer of Hacking Tools, Has Itself Been Hacked. This is one of the companies that makes tools that allow people to hack your phone. After indulging in a moment of schadenfreude that these hackers have been hacked, we then have to worry about what is in that 900GB of data that was stolen from them. Since the dump “contains what appears to be evidence files from seized mobile phones” among other things, who knows whose personal information has been stolen. Supposedly Cellebrite only sells their tools to law enforcement agencies and the like, but it has been previously shown that those agencies include some very shady regimes. And in the case of their mobile hacking devices, those things could be resold or stolen from those agencies and be in anyone’s hands.

And let’s do one more: E-Sports Entertainment Association hacked; profiles of 1.5 million customers exposed. The leaked data includes real names, phone numbers, and birthdates. Very useful for identity theft. Not much you can do about it once the information has been stolen.

ETA: Several people are questioning the Guardian story about Whatsapp: The backdoor that never was, and how to improve your security with WhatsApp. The argument seems to be that while there is a security problem, it isn’t technically a backdoor. The article I linked has information on things you can do to avoid your Whatsapp messages being compromised. I’m going to leave it to the security experts to argue this out.

Blogging sites of yore and related news

Image from a 1944 US Navy Training Film.

Image from a 1944 US Navy Training Film.

In case you haven’t heard, the owners of LiveJournal have been moving the servers to Russia. A Russian company bought LiveJournal many years ago (because in those areas formerly part of the Soviet Union, blogging means writing on LiveJournal), but had left the servers in the U.S, which means that your data on those servers was covered by U.S. law. That is no longer the case. I know lots of people abandoned LiveJournal ages ago, but I still cross-post my blog there, and it is still the case that at least two long-term friends always read my posts by clicking over from LiveJournal. During the first couple of years that I was hosting my blog here at my own domain (FontFolly.Net), about half of the clicks to my blog each day were referred from LiveJournal.

I also want to point out that at least one prominent sci fi writer (George R.R. Martin) still does all of his blogging and otherwise communicating with fans over the internet through his LiveJournal. I know of several others who have domains of their own who still cross post to their LiveJournals, as well.

A lot of people are archiving their LJ posts so as not to lose those years of journaling. Since the owners have also removed HTTPS security on everything but the payment page your LJ password is slightly less secure. There are ways to mitigate that, but if you have a LiveJournal account you ever log into, you should make sure that the password used there isn’t used anywhere else. I’ve used a password manager for years, but not everyone does that. I highly recommend 1Password which is available for PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. I have friends who use and swear by LastPass. Both get stellar reviews.

Anyway, years ago (after the debacle where the previous LJ owners conspired with or were duped by some rightwing anti-gay groups into deleting hundreds of journals for bogus reasons; never mind that when it was brought to light LJ restored the journals and claimed it was all a misunderstanding) I migrated all my LiveJournal entries to DreamWidth, which is a much smaller company and doesn’t have an image hosting service. And now my actual blog is hosted at FontFolly.Net, with cross-posting to Dreamwidth, LiveJournal, and Tumblr. And I babble on Twitter.

Since I’m not the sort of person that the Russian government is out to shutdown, I think the main danger to me of the move of the LJ servers to Russian soil is that eventually the owners of LJ will decide that the U.S. journals aren’t generating enough revenue to justify keeping them. We’ll all get deleted at some point and I’ll lose contact with some people who only know me from there. So if you are someone who likes reading my rambles and rants and such, follow me on DreamWidth, at FontFolly.Net and/or Twitter. And ping me to let me know who you are so I can follow you back as appropriate.

Note: you don’t have to have a WordPress blog to follow FontFolly.Net. One of the options will just send you email updates when I post something. And it’s not me sending the emails, it’s an automatic WordPress thing, so you only get anything if I actually post a blog entry.

I may turn off comments on LiveJournal and/or delete older entries. I haven’t really decided.

There’s some features of LiveJournal (and Dreamwidth) that I really wish were easily available from my blog. The ability to post things that are only visible to a pre-defined list, for instance. There are ways to get something like that elsewhere, but only slightly similar functionality. And the main reason LJ’s worked so well is because it was not uncommon at the time, particularly if you were a geeky person, for the majority of your friends and trusted acquaintances to already have an account on LJ. Another thing I really liked was the ability to go look at journals being followed by someone you followed. I found some interesting writers I might not have ever even heard of otherwise that way.

This is related to another thing I’ve been thinking about/wrestling with recently. So I’ve been trying to motivate myself to work more diligently and methodically on finishing the galley edits to the first novel in my Trickster series and publish the darn thing. One thing I find that motivates me is to have a deadline that other people are expecting something from me. The more concrete the something is, the more likely I am to deliver. So I had been contemplating trying to use Patreon for that. Give myself a monthly task of posting a revised scene or similar, right?

My reason for considering Patreon is not about money, but rather the fact that Patreon has tools in place to restrict access of information. If I post a chapter on my blog, that puts it out there in a published format which may have implications for the later publication of the finished work, for instance. Lots of people publish excerpts and samples of works in progress, I know. I’m just not sure how much of that I want to do. So having an option to restrict it to only certain people (similar to when I bring excerpts to my writers’ group for comment) is appealing.

It’s been suggested that I just start a writing blog (whether it be a subset of my existing blog or separated) where I set myself deadlines, post reports, and maybe just ask people if they would be willing to look at something at give me feedback from time to time. And that might end up being what I do. As I mentioned when talking about my yearly goals, just giving myself the assignment to post once a month about my goals did seem to help me stick to them better the two years that I did that.

I’m still thinking about how to go about this. And I’m always open to ideas.

Let’s talk about writing tools

Sometimes I still write by hand...

Sometimes I still write by hand…

When I dropped off my phone to get the battery replaced, I thought I’d need to spend about an hour someplace, and figured it would probably be spent sitting at Starbucks with my iPad. But because there were a lot of repairs already queued up when I arrived, it was going to be a bit over two-and-a-half hours. So I set my watch for a half hour outdoor walk and intentionally meandered the long ways around the shopping area first, only heading to the coffee shop after. If I didn’t already know how addicted to my technology I am, the times I started to pull my phone out to take a picture of something cute or send off a message to my hubby drove the point home.

Once I got my coffee and found an empty seat (outside, the inside of the coffee shop was packed, and so loud!) I went to dig out the pocket notebook that usually hangs out in my iPad bag. I had expected to find a mechanical pencil there, because I tend to have writing implements tucked away in just about every bag, pack, jacket, and coat I own. I hadn’t expected to find my favorite mechanical pencil!

My friend, David, has a business making pens, pencils, and other things out of wood–often fancy and exotic wood. I’ve bought more than a few from him, but my fave, hands down, is a thick pencil made of tiger wood, with pewter-colored metal bits, and it holds a 2.0mm lead. Your typical mechanical pencil holds only a 0.5mm. I use those when I have to, but I constantly, and I mean at least once a paragraph, break such thin leads when I write. The next standard size up, 0.7mm, is slightly better. For years I collected pencils that required a 0.9mm lead because I didn’t break those very often.

I apparently press really, really hard when I’m writing, especially if an idea has seized me and I’m trying to get it down. Or if I’m writing a scene with lots of dialogue. My theory is that, since I learned to type at age 10 and routinely type at over 100 words a minute on computer keyboards (and even then, when the muse is on, it feels like my fingers just can’t keep up with my brain), that my hands are simply trying to make the pencil put words out as fast as a keyboard can, so the fingers get a little frantic.

Another friend once theorized it’s because I used to play bassoon, saxophone, and similar instruments (at one point in school I was in two orchestras and four bands at the same time), and my fingers are like mini athletes or something.

But my money is on the impatience.

My favorite tiger wood mechanical pencil was in the some pocket as my high tech Apple Pencil, which I found amusing.

My favorite tiger wood mechanical pencil was in the some pocket as my high tech Apple Pencil, which I found amusing.

I’ve argued many times that the fundamental tool of a storyteller is the sentence, rather than the word. But other tools are important. Most of my life I’ve carried pencils, pens, and notebooks everywhere, because I never know when an idea, or a scrap of dialogue, or something else I need to get down before I lose with will occur to me. Now that I’ve gotten used to always having my iPhone with me (and for several years before that an iPod Touch), the need to always have paper and a writing utensil is less urgent. A lot of scenes for my stories have been tapped out on either the iPod or iPhone. For many years in an app called WriteRoom. WriteRoom of iOS was my fave because it was simple but also had its own online shared repository years before Dropbox existed. Unfortunately, the developer came to the sad conclusion that he couldn’t make enough money selling that iOS app to cover his living expenses while fixing bugs and making updates, so he retired the software to concentrate on Mac products.

Even though I can now run full versions of my favorite combination word processor and writing project manager, Scrivener, on my iPad and iPhone as well as the Mac (and PC if I really wanted), sometimes I still like to be able to pull out a physical pad of paper and scribble some thoughts down. I don’t know if it’s the feel on the pencil in my hand, or what, but my brain seems to work from a slightly different perspective when doing that. I dove done some brainstorming on the iPad with the Apple Pencil, now that I have that. It isn’t quite the same, but that may be a matter of my finding an app that matches the way I think.

Writing tools are very personal. I have favorite dictionaries, as well as favorites in software, paper, and pencils (pens are an entirely different conversation). And yes, sometimes my inner procrastinator fixates on one of the tools as a why to avoid working right now. In truth, all of those things are simple a means to get the ideas transferred from my imagination into a format that other people can read and (if I’ve done it right), evoke similar ideas in their imaginations. It’s important to remember that the story is the goal, not the package it comes in, or the means by which it gets to the audience.

Exploding phones and misjudging customers

Okay, now I may begin to feel sorry for Samsung. I mean, it was sort of cool that a company which has been making money be copying Apple’s look (and producing demonstrably inferior equipment) was losing tons of money and taking a hit to their reputation because of exploding phones, but now it’s even worse: Samsung Recalling Almost 2.8M Washers Due to Impact Injuries. During the spin cycle the drums become detached, crashing into other parts of the machine, causing parts of the outer body to break off and fly away hard enough to have caused broken bones in some cases. Exploding washing machines!

In case you missed the earlier news: one of Samsung’s new phones started exploding, catching fire, and similar things, prompting the TSA and agencies in other countries to ban them from air travel. Samsung did a recall and replacement of some of the models, and the replacement phones also caught fire, resulting in a complete recall of all models: It is the consensus in the tech world that Samsung execs rushed the Galaxy Note 7 into production with a seriously shortened test cycle because of rumors that the iPhone 7 would be a dud–which made them think they could grab a bunch of the market. The reasoning being that rumors were the size and shape of the iPhone 7 wouldn’t change much from the 6s… because people only buy new phones because they come in new shapes, not because of improved cameras or other interior features.

Other people were predicting bad iPhone sales because Apple removed the headphone jack. What has actually happened is that millions of the new iPhones sold the first weekend, and since then Apple has been selling the phones literally faster than they can manufacture them. Apple did report the first year-over-year revenue drop (but still 9 billion dollars of profit) for the most recent quarter, but the new iPhone went on sale at the very end of that 90-day period, so the new phone sales had little to do with the numbers.

Samsung appears to have done worse than shot itself in the foot with this attempt to take advantage of an opportunity that was never there.

There’s a certain type of tech person, the sort who gets a full-time job writing about technology for general interest news sites, for instance, that looks at technology from an extremely skewed point of view. They aren’t the only people who do this, but let’s stick to them for the moment. They seem to be incapable of looking at a product as anything other than a bulleted list of features. And they are especially bad at imagining that anyone in the world would ever use a particular product differently than they do.

I know this because there have been plenty of times that I fall into that mental trap (and the related one of not remembering that people aren’t going to like and dislike the same sorts of things in stories/movies/et al as I do).

Even though way back in the day I had been addicted to my old Apple ][e, I was less impressed with the original Macintosh. Then I got a job testing software and hardware and writing customer documentation for a company that sold software that ran on DOS-based PCs (Windows didn’t exist, yet), and I became obsessed with being about to control every little thing on my PC. I would tweak configuration files to modify which utilities and portions of the operating system would be loaded into which parts of the memory, for instance. I looked at Mac users as people who didn’t really understand the equipment they were using.

Then Windows came along, and over the years the PC world became more and more like the Mac. I don’t just mean the GUI interface and pointing-and-clicking, but more and more of the nitpicky details of how the system was configured were hidden away from the user—not just hidden, but the systems worked in ways that it was not longer necessary to know that stuff to use the product.

The really big change for me, though, was meeting my husband. In all of my relationships before Michael, I was the person who knew the most about computers in particular, and technology in general. Michael knew at least as much as me, and had an even better knack at troubleshooting and coaxing seemingly broken equipment into working again. And… he started managing my computer. And I found, suddenly, that I had a helluva lot more time to actually work on my writing when I wasn’t acting as the in-house IT department.

Then, because he was tired of spending so much time troubleshooting my Mom’s computer (a series of used PCs coupled with her habit of clicking on absolutely any link she received in an email thus infecting the computer literally with thousands of pieces of malware), we bought her an iMac. And I picked up an old used Macbook that ran the same version of the OS as her machine, so when she couldn’t remember how to do something, I could fire up my machine and walk her through it over the phone. And then I started using the Mac laptop as my convention machine because it was, frankly, easier to use than my Windows laptop.

And during that long journey, I discovered on a new level something that I had constantly found myself (as a technical writer) arguing with engineers at work: the customer cared about what the machine allowed them to do, not how the machine did it.

Right now, people are griping about the headphone jack being removed from the iPhone (interestingly, Motorola dropped it from some smart phones earlier this year, several other phone makers have announced phones without headphone jacks coming soon, but no one is complaining about them). And they’re complaining that Apple is changing its laptop lines to use only USB-C ports supporting USB and Thunderbolt (again, something that a bunch of Chromebooks did earlier, and at least one PC laptop maker has announced they’re doing next). And I understand those gripes, I do.

But so for not one single person—not one—has presented any argument that isn’t the logical equivalent of arguments that were used to protest the removal of floppy disk drives from computers. They are the same arguments that were raised in protest when Apple replaced serial and parallel ports on the iMac with USB years ago. They are the same arguments people made about why compact discs shouldn’t be replaced with downloaded music files. They are the same arguments people made when cassette tapes and vinyl records were replaced with compact discs. The same arguments that were made when VHS tapes were replaced with DVDs. And the same arguments that were made when cable replaced antennae on the roofs of houses and apartment buildings.

And I suspect they are logically equivalent to the arguments that were made when electricity replaced oil lamps.

My five-and-a-half year old Macbook Pro has an ethernet port that I have never, ever used or needed. The Macbook I owned for a bit over three years before that also had an ethernet port that I believe I used exactly once. My current Macbook Pro has an SD card slot that I never used until late last year when I bought an adapter that allowed me to fit a micro SD card in flush with the side of the computer (rather than sticking out as the SD cards do) so I could have a supplemental drive to move some files onto because I’m having trouble getting by on the size of hard disc I currently use. The laptop also has a combo mini video port/thunderbolt 2 port which I use about once every couple of weeks to connect my second backup drive to. I have never, ever used the video port of the port. Nor have I ever used the optical audio port built into the headphone jack.

But I paid for the circuitry and more to support all of those ports as part of the price of the laptop. And I had to pay for those because a small fraction of the other owners of these laptops want them.

I am anxiously waiting for my new Macbook Pro to ship. It will have four USB-C ports. I’m going to have to buy three adaptors in order to use my current accessories with the new machine. Wait, actually, only two. I keep forgetting my external drive uses both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0. But those are the only adaptors I will need. And I’m only going to need them for a while, because some of these accessories are even older than my current laptop, and they probably should be replaced pretty soon, before they die on their own at an inconvenient time.

jfydsJust as the original USB was a huge improvement over the serial, parallel, and SCSI ports they replaced, USB-C is a big improvement over the others. If you want technology to get better, you have to let go of the older parts. It doesn’t matter how noble horse drawn carriages look nor how jaunty a coachman appears when snapping a buggy whip, no one born in the last 60 years is willing to give up their cars, light rail, heaters and defrosters inside the cars, or streets free of random piles of horse shit because someone misses buggy whips.

No one likes change before and while it’s happening…

“Remember when floppy disks could save/destroy the world?”

“Remember when floppy disks could save/destroy the world?” (click to embiggen)

Several years ago I went on a rant about what a horrible idea it was to switch to digital music. I had a whole slew of reasons why keeping my music library on disc was a better idea. I liked my portable music player and headphones. I could carry a bunch of albums with me, and I could be sure that those discs would play in either my computer, or in the stereo or most stereo music players that most people had. I didn’t have to worry that they would get erased, or that a new player I had would have compatible software.

So it was ridiculous that people where carrying around iPods! Or any other digital music player, for that matter! What if the digital format in question was abandoned or obsoleted? How would you play your music on another player when this one wore out? Did owning music even mean anything when it was just a file on your computer?

Now, to be fair, I had converted a small number of my music discs to digital to play on my computer1, so I didn’t have to walk across the room while I was in the middle of writing something to change music. That was all right, but it was an alternative. It would never replace my real music library.

Then my husband bought me a pretty pink iPod Nano for my birthday.

And I became quickly addicted as I realized I could convert dozens of big heavy discs to files on the tiny iPod… Read More…

Farewell to Camden County

MV5BMTc2MzQxNDIxMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk1MDU1MQ@@._V1_UY1200_CR111,0,630,1200_AL_So years ago I was a faithful viewer of the comedy series “My Name Is Earl,” the story of a not terribly bright petty criminal who became convinced that because of all of the awful things he’d done in his life, he was destined to try to make up for them or karma was going to keep punishing him. So he made a list of all the bad things he’d done, and with the assistance of his brother, Randy, and Randy’s sometimes girlfriend Catalina set out to make amends. Earl and Randy are also frequently both helped and hindered in their quest by Earl’s ex-wife, Joy. Everyone is frequently helped and oddly rescued from various situations by Joy’s current husband, Darnell aka “the Crabman.”

The series was a silly look at life in the fictitious Camden County, which was inhabited by a strange assortment of characters. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, though I was always amused by the fact that the one person I knew who most disliked it said he hated it because it was completely unbelievable, yet he himself is always telling stories about his ridiculous in-laws and the unbelievably stupid problems they got themselves into. Which made me decide that either a) he had a really big blind spot, or b) all those stories he liked to regale people with of his supposed true family misadventures might have been more than slightly exaggerated.

Regardless, I really enjoyed the not-cynical way that “My Name Is Earl” demonstrated in its storylines again and again that most humans are muddling along as best as they can, seldom realizing just how much our lives are interconnected, and how much we contribute (in both good and bad ways) to the lives of others.

Then one spring we learned that it wasn’t going to be renewed for a fifth seasonRead More…

Reading in public

Guys who read books on public transport are such a turn on.

(Click to embiggen)

I want to be very clear that I love ebooks and audiobooks. Being able to carry around a whole shelf full of books in my pocket is one of my favorite parts of living in the future. Not having to decide (quite so often) which old books to relegate to a back shelf, or get rid of altogether just because we’ve brought a bunch of new books home is a good thing, too. We both still buy hardcopy books, and there are currently a few piles of them in the bedroom that haven’t found a home on the shelves somewhere in the house, but it’s a slower process since both of us buy a lot of books digitally, now.

One thing I miss, now that smart phones are ubiquitous, is seeing what other people are reading on the bus. Seattle is a city of bibliophiles and other literary people, and for most of the 30+ years I’ve been riding public transports in Seattle, I could always count on seeing interesting books on my commute. Sometimes I might see someone reading a book I love, and I’d find myself grinning—hoping they were having as much fun with the book as I did. Other times I would see a title I had never heard of, and find it intriguing enough to look up more information on the book when I had a chance. Other times I would see someone reading a book that I despised, and I would wonder what sort of person would read that.

There are still people reading hard copy books on the bus, of course, just nowhere near as many as there used to be. Now instead of seeing a dozen books or so on my morning commute, there are a dozen or so people staring at their phones or iPads or Kindles.

Which still warms the cockles of my heart, because I love reading, no matter what form it takes.

And I’m certainly not going to give up reading (and some mornings writing) on my iPhone. Among the downsides of reading a hardcopy book on the bus is the time spent digging it out of my backpack, and then later needing to stop reading far enough before my stop to put the book away and get my pack zipped up and situated. There was also the need to decide whether to pull out my book or my notebook and a writing implement. And the frustration after I chose when I discovered I didn’t seem to be in the right headspace to concentrate on that book, or to write.

With the phone, I can slip it out, fire up a book, and start reading. If I want to make a note, or get another idea I want to write down, it’s just a couple of swipes and taps with my thumb to switch to a writing app, write it down, then get back to the book.

Of course, there is a bit of the paradox of choice that the phone amplifies. Occasionally I just can’t decide which of the many choices that are on the phone to read. Which of the several books (because I’m always in the middle of more than one) to pick up, or should I open one of my news apps and catch up on the world?

Having all those choices doesn’t usually paralyze me, but I do often dither for at least a few minutes. So maybe I’m only kidding myself when I say I get a bit more reading time in now that I’m not fumbling with getting the book out and putting it away again.

But I don’t think so. For one thing, with the phone, I can become obliviously lost in the book right up to my stop, then jump up, slip the phone into my pocket as I’m moving to the exit, and get off the bus.

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