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Sunday, November 14, 2010

software vs. electronics

I draw a paradigmatic line between electronics companies and their behaviour; and software companies and their behaviour: in taking a run at explaining the difference between the good technology we used to have, and the evil punk-ass technology we apparently now must endure...

There was a time, particularly before integrated circuits became indispensable, when electronics companies made machines hard-wired to have all of their functions in place. These machines were inflexible, but by virtue of their top-down design, they were economical and stable. If your unit broke, you could literally take it to the shop where you bought it, and someone knowledgeable about the specs could open it up, take a soldering iron to it, and fix it.

My favourite movie, Blade Runner (the director's cut, of course) shows the future imagined with a hint of electronics, the prevailing futuristic mode at the time the movie was created (setting aside all the genetic stuff). You see different machine units plugged into one another to make ultra-machines out of smaller machines in mostly an intuitive way... that sort of thing.

My favourite car, Connie (a 1985 Volvo station wagon) has a little of the 'mothiness' which comes of old hard-wired electronics getting bashed around and mauled by time. But she is completely solid, completely dependable as a unit performing its intended function, because every essential system is probably double- or triple-redundantly constructed or whatever, against just such an eventuality as the car lasting for 25 years...

On the other hand, my Dad once had a brand-new Mercedes station wagon that was a total pill. It wouldn't start. It locked him out way the hell and gone in Ashcroft, BC, locked him out of the car due to a fault in the motorized seat adjuster. And on and on in the key of total bullshit.

Why should this new car be a total bitch, and my old one a total sweetie? Well as I recall, the Merc had in it a black-hole big enough to be a breeding-ground for any evil: an onboard PC running Windows.

Evil. Pure evil.

Electronics companies would make units and say, 'Here is a dependable unit to perform a function. It is built with pride, to last for a reasonable lifespan, and can more than likely be fixed if it fucks up.'

Software companies used to be that way. Product testing would beat the crap out of the code until only beauty and truth remained, then we ship. There wasn't much choice back in the day, as I'll touch on later.

Then some software companies discovered a way to be rampantly profitable. Those companies no longer would say, 'Here is an OS or application, here is what it does, here are its limitations... enjoy!'

The software companies I deride touch you on the elbow, hand you a cup of coffee and say, 'This way... Step into our world... When once you are initiated we will be your omnipresent best friend, ready to offer you more, ready to listen to your problems, but never far away... If you lack knowledge, see, see that our hell is pretty.'

Listen, Microsoft, listen Apple, no-one needs their OS GUI to have faux-bevelled platinum buttons and things that scroll or fade smoothly into and out of view, no-one needs live window dragging, no-one needs fucking SOUND EFFECTS and fancy wipes. These devour CPU cycles, and by some extension, time from our lives.

I come from a culture where cycles are precious, where k's of memory are precious - and there is no excuse to run amok with pretty fripperies just because we now deal in GHz and TB's. Nor is there any excuse to build shitty, patchy code needing patch after patch after patch just so you can do what it purported to do out of the box, because 'modern computing speeds will compensate for most of the runaround', which seems to be their attitude.

In fact, it is precisely this kind of 'sexyfied', purely profit-motivated, build-on-fill attitude which makes today's operating systems, I mean the newest ones from the big evil companies aforementioned, some of the shittiest, most infuriating and non-functional pieces of software I have ever used.

For example, behold the embarassment that is Windows XP! Copyright 1985-2000. I could believe XP stands for the emoticon meaning 'RAZZZZZ to you!!'

Back in 1985 we were dreaming of the Apple II. Do you expect me to believe that significant portions of code written for monochrome, pre-mouse, 5 1/2" floppy-driven computers remain relevant to any kind of computing in 2000?

No. Windows XP is a garbage pile, 'construction' condoned by a business model too hornily profit-driven to do the kind of responsible, fresh-faced top-down design that is called for!

If you drink from that Windows mug, if you go into their world, instead of staying in the real world and dealing in real concepts, you trade cheap marketing gimmicks for real user prerogatives and real stability.

Remember when Apple made beautiful little computers like the Mac Plus and Classic? Made educational software and pioneered educational (and gaming!) uses for multimedia CD-ROM? Remember Hypercard, a programming language so simple and flexible it could be used to teach kids programming almost in plain English? Remember the diamond that was System 7?

Now, years after what I refer to as the Heresy (Warhammer in-joke) Apple has traded up the breathtaking clarity and simplicity of its groundbreaking operating system, for the hell of OS X: the lurking Dock, goofy bouncing icons, and the whirling ball of DUUHHH. Things slide into sight, things recede smarmily. Be careful with your suffixes, or your files will live in limbo as 'unix executables'. This isn't an operating system. This isn't functionality. This is a money-driven abortion. This is regression!

Thank goodness (thank people, really) for Ubuntu. That's where I'm going next, PUNKS!! I will live and die by the radical sword of good programming done by users for users. Because I'm all programmer. I admire the spare structure of an excellent program, and feel a kinship with where we came from.

We have stood on the shoulders of geniuses who started creating these metal mazes, the tiny avenues and buildings of the tiny electric city... where thought can be swift and spare and beautiful, and in its fashion eternal...

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