The Smart Phone Has Landed

LG Nexus 4

Then it had a mental breakdown, and so did I. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I feel a little dirty today. After years of holding out on principle against smart phones (or any mobile phone at all) I broke down and ordered an LG Nexus 4 with a contract that ties me down for the next 24 months. Now I’ve sold out to the Tech Gods, seduced by sleek, black lines and cool apps.


And yet I felt strangely exhilarated when the phone arrived this morning. I opened the box to take a peek at the dark, pristine beauty of the glass body, but quickly had to cover it up again. I didn’t feel worthy, yet craved the forbidden fruit. Technology is so much more efficient and beautiful than we faulty flesh bags. That’s why beautiful, young people are portrayed in the ads, enjoying their freewheeling connectedness and urban lifestyles. I’m not handsome or young, and live in a remote rural backwater. What was I thinking? Did I dare take this alien technology out of the box and make it work? What if I got smears and fingerprints on it? What if its actual function was something merely tawdry?

I took a shower and drank a cup of tea before I could even approach the phone on something like an equal footing. But when I first lifted it out the box and felt the snug fit in my hand, the perfect weight, I knew I wanted it. And this is where the swelling music in major chords disintegrates into cacophony. Because I first had to set it up, and that meant deciphering the tiny print in the skimpy instruction manual, as well as using my fat, clumsy fingers to install the sim card.

What followed was an extended outburst of profanity, as I tried to install the card, after first dropping it on the floor. Then the set-up, during which the mood weather softened somewhat, though punctuated by some quite appalling language regarding the miniscule keypad, only to turn into a thunderstorm when I realised there was something wrong with the phone. Apart from my shitty attitude towards new technology. It would not scroll up or down in the Google apps I was playing with.

GollumThen the phone died, its last will and testament being that it didn’t think there was a sim card installed. The only solution was to pack it up and return it for repairs or replacement. The end of the affair, though it started going south with the sim card installation.

Hours of wasted time, my blood pressure through the roof, and the air so blue you’d think it was a Tory Party Conference. Even now, though, I want it back. It was an extension of my hand and felt so right. Precioussss…

A Weekend in Hell: Boredom and Blackouts

Fallen Pylon

Scotland bore the brunt of the vile Siberian weather sweeping off the steppes this weekend.  Power went out mid-afternoon on Friday, and I blithely thought they would get it get all sorted out in a few hours.. So, as my lovely heat escaped, and it became unbearable to stay awake, I decided to hibernate. Woke up on Saturday, expecting a cheerful red light on the bedside radio. No such luck, but I got up anyway, wrapped in all the layers of clothing I had, and walked up, down, and around the flat in an effort to stop the blood congealing in my veins. Back to bed not long after, since that was the only practical way of keeping warm. Woke up on Sunday – ditto – except that instead of walking about indoors, I walked into town to see what was happening. Surprisingly, Tesco had power and was open, so I dived in for warmth and something to eat. The place was packed with panic buyers, stocking up as if the end of the world was imminent. My flat was positively balmy after the wind chill outside, enough to rip your face off, and I stayed comfortable enough to read for a while before retreating back to bed. Then, about 5:30, that beautiful red light on the bedside radio!

A horrible experience. I had enough to eat, but no way of making hot food or drink, and I fantasised about wrapping my hands round a steaming mug of strong tea.

Thing is, you can only sleep so much, and then it becomes like a fever dream of tossing and turning, interspersed with actual vivid dreams. Too cold to read, difficult to think because the cold numbs your mind as well as your body, so no consolation in mental distraction. That and the equally mind-numbing boredom.  “Know thyself,” the philosophers say, well I’ve about had it up to here with me.

It used to be that we had the skills and technology to get through extreme weather like this. Most people had proper fireplaces, you could chop wood to keep warm, cook a hot meal, brew up some tea, stay warm. Now we’re so addicted to centralised technology that we’ve become infantilised. Who now has a working fireplace? We can only hope they will somehow fix things so we can keep on living. That adds up to a lot of power in the hands of those who deal in energy and infrastructure, and while we lead better lives, the hidden cost is independence.  I’m grateful to them in weather like this, but the deal looks a bit dodgy from this perspective.

Apocalypse Postponed

Yesterday, in one of those your-life-flashing-in-front-of-your-eyes moments, my MacBook failed to load anything from the menus. A disappearing-down-the-toilet moment as well, since my life is on this laptop and I don’t have any other computers, not even a mobile phone. With repeated tries – Douglas Adams  had something to say about this endearing yet stupid human trait – nothing persistently continued to happen.

While it wasn’t happening, a terrible, fatalistic calm descended on me, a sort of spiritual numbness. Then it occurred to me to try loading Chrome directly from the hard drive, just as they did in pioneer days. And it worked. Now I could afford the luxury of a post-traumatic panic. Because my computer is a really sick puppy, has been so intermittently for a while, but every time it works right I forget about a) looking into getting it fixed, b) shoving everything I possibly can into the Cloud, and c) backing stuff up on a regular basis.

So I bought a reconditioned MacBook online, just like the old one, with a more recent OS, twice the RAM, and a DVD drive that isn’t warped by overheating to the point where it’s unusable. And I promised to be a born-again, proactive bear, and get some kind of external backup device.

Eerily similar to somegreybloke’s experience, except he only lost the internet.

I’m beginning to think he’s a bit of a guru when it comes to online matters. This internet thingy is complicated, and it helps to have a reliable guide who can explain it in simple terms. So here’s everything you need to know about internet acronyms, Facebook, and Twitter. Forget the For Dummies series of self-help books – all you need is Graham Murkett to get you up and running.

Filter Bubbles: The Gated Communities of the Internet

This post arises out an article in today’s Guardian – Google: friend or foe to the open internet? – and a link posted to a video clip from one of the TED conferences. This talk is given by Eli Pariser, a political and internet activist.

I’ve written briefly about filter bubbles in DuckDuckGo: Dada and the Search Engine. Essentially, they are that rarefied space around your search engine that occurs when results are tailored to what it thinks you will like, determined by an algorithm. But Pariser goes into more detail, complete with Show ‘n Tell, in a way that brings the concept alive.

In my comments on the Guardian article, I said:

Walled gardens and filter bubbles are as perniciously divisive as gated communities. For that reason, I think a lot of people either don’t care or prefer the ideological seclusion.

Confirmation bias – the “tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses” – is a universal human attribute. It’s hard to fight, and we all have ideas that resist factual correction. Filter bubbles exacerbate the problem by pandering to our pre-conceived notions. That’s why I dumped Google Search in favour of DuckDuckGo, because it doesn’t filter searches or track them.

But many people like ideological exclusion zones, much as many people like gated communities, for much the same reason – fear of unfamiliar influences. I need all the help I can get in not shutting the door on unsettling ideas (as long as they’re rational), so filter bubbles are anathema.

Here’s the TED video.

Today Encyclopedia Britannica, Tomorrow The World?

Yesterday I received an offer I couldn’t refuse – a free infographic from Wikipedia. Here it is, complete with preface. Let’s talk about it after you’ve had a look.

Redefining Research
After 244 years, the Encyclopedia Britannica has decided to halt the presses and go out of print. Facing the realities and the stiff competition from Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica will now focus primarily on their online services. But even then, it might be too late. Wikipedia has grown to be the number one source for students. In fact, many students will stop research and change topics if it’s not on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia provides a wealth of information with over 26 billion pages of content. Though the quality of Wikipedia has been questioned, the editors of Wikipedia, known as Wikipedians, are vigilant with ensuring the data in Wikipedia is current and accurate. Studies have even shown that Wikipedia is almost as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. This infographic highlights how Wikipedia has revolutionized research and how it has become a reliable fountain of knowledge.


I use Wikipedia extensively to get a basic overview of a topic, as well as linking to it by default in this blog. If I want a particular point of view, or to go deeper into a subject, I’ll choose another information source. I’m grateful to Wikipedia for making my life as a blogger so much simpler. That said, I do have some vague stirrings of anxiety. Can an article created by anonymous authors be properly authoritative?

According to the infographic, the level of inacuracies – 2.92 per article for Britannica, compared to 3.86 for Wikipedia – is fairly impressive if you consider the Britannica to be the gold standard. And the ability to quickly correct them, as opposed to having to live with mistakes in print editions, is a distinct advantage. Wikipedia say they’re making plans to “have all articles be 25% more accurate.” That would bring their level of inaccuracies to 2.895, slightly better than the Britannica.

Wikipedia also claims to be 98% as accurate as college text books (American, I presume). Excellent, if true, but you have to wonder how they compiled these statistics. It’s comforting to know that 20 colleges are helping with content and editing. Which ones? It makes a difference – there’s a wide variation in quality.

The statistics on library usage and number of books make me wonder if they’re conflating them with non-research usage. I use libraries a lot for fiction, but almost never for research, so they could be mixing apples and oranges. And I’m appalled, though not really surprised, by the level of plagiarism Wikipedia enables. As someone who earned his degree, I think plagiarism is fraud – it should be punished by expulsion, at least at college level. The other appalling statistic is that 56% of students abandon a topic if there’s not enough information on Wikipedia. That represents a stunting of intellectual curiosity when information isn’t easily available. Research is about digging. If you can’t find it, dig deeper. You’re more likely to come up with something original.

The final thing that jumped out of this infographic is the gender imbalance among the editors. Only 9% are women. Is it that men are inherently more geeky? I’m sure there must be a higher proportion of women in academia. At least there’s a planned 25% increase in women editors. And by 2015, Wikipedia plans to increase the number of regular editors from (presumably) 1,400 to 200,000, a massive recruitment. Given that editors are self-selecting, I wonder how they’ll manage that.

Feel free to post comments on this – I would be very interested in the feedback, and so I suspect would Wikipedia, who approached me to post the infographic. Wikipedia represents a seismic shift in the way we access knowledge, as well as questioning what counts as authoritative knowledge. One of the basic skills we should all learn is a critical approach to knowledge, dealing with both the argument and the stance of the author. It’s difficult to do that when the author is anonymous.

So Long and Thanks for the Macintosh (Steve Jobs 1955-2011)

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak made me fall in love with computers.  Although I had a Sinclair ZX81 in the early 1980s, it wasn’t until my first long term job in Seattle, in 1989, that I met the Macintosh Plus.  Part of it was the frisson of working in a fairly unconventional job – testing condoms – combined with using exciting new technology.  In a word, cool.  But it was more than that.  The Macintosh Plus was beautifully designed, beautifully executed inside the box, and a pleasure to use.  I was also a virgin when it came to real computers, not counting the ZX81.  No surprise, really, that I fell head over heels in love.

I wasn’t faithful, because PCs were so much cheaper, and I couldn’t afford to buy a Mac for home use.  But every Microsoft PC reinforced the divide between ugly, complicated, bug-prone computers, and the grace, ease of use, and elegance of a Mac.  I would stay late at work, just to use the Mac.  Finally, I realized there was no point in settling for 3rd best, and bought one.  I’ve never looked back since.  True, the beach ball is sometimes noticeable on this 3 year old MacBook, but I think of it as an idiosyncrasy rather than a fault.  Usually.

I will be forever grateful to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak for creating the Macintosh, and making the world a more civilized place in the process.  Now Steve Jobs has died, far too young at 56, and from a disease that claims far too many people.  I just wanted to say, thank you.

Here is Steve Jobs’ Commencement Address at Stanford University in 2005.  I like what he has to say about living as if you were going to die the next day.  Hard to do, but worth striving for.  A fascinating insight into his life and motivations.