Print is Dead Meat

The Boston Globe is one of the few newspapers that still does its printing in-house. I know this because the MuckRock office is inside the Globe Building. It’s fun to watch the print machines running. Ribbons of paper just roll through them. The assembly line is fully automated. There’s even robots in the basement—they lug around multi-ton rolls of news paper and feed the printing machines. Since The Globe is the regional New England paper, it’s trucked from Boston to all over the Northeast. Some trucks need to leave at 3:00 AM in order to get the paper its Maine subscribers on-time. This happens each day, every day. Why are we still spreading the news this way? Why are we reading anything on paper anymore?

Books, magazines, pamphlets, maps, newspapers: all of them just feel good to hold. Paper is comfortable, ordinary and tangible. There’s a beauty to the printed word that can’t be captured on a screen. Yet for each notebook and novel and magazine I buy and read and use and recycle, the guilt feels a little stronger each time. I’m finding it harder to justify printing as a responsible practice. So much water and ink and energy goes into just making print. It has to be moved from wherever it’s made to everywhere it’s sold. Then once somebody’s done with it, it ends up in the trash. I don’t think the ends can justify the means. Despite this, I don’t stop buying or reading print, either. In many ways, I feel about reading dead trees the same way I feel about eating dead meat.

I’m not vegetarian. I’m not vegetarian because fried chicken, hamburgers, and bacon are crazy delicious. Still, I know that these come to me at a terrible cost. It’s a cost much higher than the price-per-pound I pay at the grocery store. Conditions on factory farms are terrible. Animals are kept and slaughtered in terrifying and dehumanizing conditions. The entire industry is unsustainable and environmentally toxic. I know all of this and I still buy into it. Every time I do, I feel guilty. Still, I bury my guilt and buy it and cook it and eat it. After all, dead meat tastes so good. Yet the more I justify it like that, the worse that justification sounds.

I justify buying and reading print in the same way that I justify buying and eating meat. Both leave me satisfied. But is my satisfaction worth their cost? Everything around me shouts, “Yes, all the time!” I tell myself, “Yes, but in considerate moderation.” The answer is, “No, it isn’t.”

I’m trying very hard to accept that.

The Texas Towers

Texas Tower 3

While looking for something else, I came across the Texas Towers, a set of radar platforms built in the late 50s. The radar were intended to detect squads of Soviet bomber planes. The radar were put on top of basically oil derricks. This supposed to extend their range.

Texas Tower 2

The first tower to be built, Texas Tower 2, stood off of Cape Cod. I know, it’s confusing, right? If Texas Tower 2 was the first one built, what happened to TT1? The U.S. Air Defense Command had planned for five towers to be built. But budget constraints forced them to cut two towers from the budget.

It’s a good thing we didn’t build too many. The development of the ICBM made these radar stations obsolete. (Missiles disrupted the market for dropping bombs from planes, you could say.) So they were all torn down just a few years after being built.

Atlas Missile

Way more is available at the archive of thetexastowers.com.

Simple Interfaces

I’ve been working with the React framework recently. It’s pretty cool. It’s gotten me to really focus back on the basics: arranging elements into components. Buttons, toggles, switches all pin the interface into place. Design is in the details: a platitude worth repeating.

It’s in that spirit that I flipped through the web looking for Dieter Rams’s electronics. Courtesy http://dieterrams.tumblr.com, here’s some stand out examples:

Radio 2

Radio 3

What I like about these is how interactive elements are highlighted. It only draws your attention to things it you should know about.

Radio 1

Turntable

I like the arrangements of these.

One weird thing I am only just noticing after putting all these images adjacent is that they’re all sound equipment.

Frames, not rectangles

Computers are not glowing rectangles.

When we think otherwise, we forget that computers are reprogrammable. Computers are intended to be flexible. They are engineered to allow for maximum flexibility. Another phrase for a poorly-conceived computer architecture is a “brittle” architecture.

Frank Chimero (of course), in his essay What Screens Want, articulates this idea better than I can. He writes, “increasingly, technology feels like something that happens to you instead of something you use.” That’s exactly the conflict that images like glowing rectangles are built upon. It is a conflict between seeing computers as tools beyond your control versus seeing computers as these beautiful machines that abstract their own complexity just enough so that ordinary people can begin to use them.

Software imitates all the other machines we used to use for writing, reading, learning, listening, and talking. And we can run that software on machines that fit in our pockets, and that we can take anywhere. These machines should be seen as incredible liberators, of opening doors where none existed before. Maybe I’m just a huge nerd, but I see these machines as liberating, not overpowering.

The hardest part about writing computer programs is building them to be flexible. The most tedious part of writing programs is ferreting out the edge cases. When something does fall through the cracks, the program breaks—it has a bug. You can never think of them all. There’s always another bug.

Remember “brittle” architectures? Rigorous logic sounds impressive, but it’s terrible for programs. Programs have to accomodate all different kinds of inputs. They have to allow for all different kinds of users. Software has to be fluid, plastic. Software has to be accessible, egalitarian. Otherwise it’s a lousy piece of software.

Last week I tried to answer “What is a website?” in as many ways as I could. I think I’ve gotten all those answers down to one: a website is a frame. Websites, like the computer programs that serve and render them, are flexible and elastic. They can’t make any assumptions about the “true” state of the site. They can’t enforce any rules on how the site will be seen or used or reused. They can only accomodate. They can only draw the boundaries on what it is, provide some limits towards what it could be. It’s a sea of uncertainty, it’s my job to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible. But there will always be unknowns that creep up. There will always be bugs crawling around inside our machines. But the face that problems can emerge? That the unknown can suddenly reveal itself from within the confines of the program, of the machine? That’s a feature, not a bug.

We are given these tools with all this power and potential and we can carry them around and point them at things and use them to achieve all sorts of amazing work that’d be too time consuming or expensive to do before. These aren’t rectangles, they aren’t the last mile of the culture supply chain. They’re frames, and they want to show us things we couldn’t see or hear or feel before. And to think otherwise, to perceive these machines with skepticism and hostility and cynicism: that just about breaks my heart.

What is a website?

Videogame muzak

The other day I was hanging out with friends. We had just finished a round of Mario Kart. Everybody started chatting and left the game on the results screen. The music that backed the results screen kept looping, though. It sounded like some strange gameshow or elevator music. It sounded really cool.

So I started looking around for other endlessly repeatable videogame tunes. I learned that a ton of peeps have already had this idea. You can find video game music that’s been extended. For example:

I can remember a significant number of the videogame tunes, from when I got my first console 1 and on. Videogame songs are probably as memorable for me as TV theme songs are for my parents. And if videogame music is as similar to muzak as I’m suspecting they are, then that’s really interesting.

  1. A teal GameBoy Color, when I was in the first grade.

Uber über alles

I spent some time this holiday weekend catching up on my Instapaper queue. A bunch of those articles were all freaked out by Uber. They are right to be: Uber is freaky as heck.

From Ben Thompson’s “Why Uber Fights”:

The implications of this analysis cannot be underestimated: there is an absolutely massive worldwide market many times the size of the taxi market that has winner-take-all characteristics. Moreover, that winner is very unlikely to be challenged by a new entrant which will have far worse liquidity and an inferior cash position: Uber (presuming they are the winner) will simply lower prices and bleed the new entrant dry until they go out of business.

From Bobbie Johnson’s “How to Get Away with Uber”:

Amazon — more than any other company, more than Google, more than Facebook, more than Apple — taps into what people desire in a terrifyingly primal way: We want a thing, fast and preferably cheap. Not much else matters. We know Amazon’s not a nice company, and that the people who work there are treated poorly. We don’t always like it, but there is absolutely, definitively, nothing we will do to stop it.

From Paul Ford’s “One Day, I Will Die on Mars”:

I am Uber. I believed to 0.56 certainty that I could find a bicycle for the person doing the delivery and provide that person with a discounted rental fee. Unfortunately the city of New York insists that bicycle rental kiosks must be controlled by an entity that is not Uber and thus I am not granted the level of full control that is necessary for me to truly optimize the city. No one benefits, no one at all.

So, Uber is terrifying because it will grow into something massive, the logic of the service demands it have a logistics monopoly, and because we’re going to tolerate socially destructive behavior because we’ll all have a tiny stake in its success. The ends will justify the means, and the meanness. That’s all pretty freaky.

Here’s what freaks me out about Uber, though: it goes to pretty far lengths to isolate you from your driver. You give the software your destination; the app gives the driver your destination. You pay the software; the software pays the driver (minus a cut off the top). We use the software to insulate ourselves against the people we pay to do things for us. The freakiest thing Uber can do is to actively isolate its customers from its workforce, so that we can be continually encouraged to use a service that makes millions of dollars by dumping all its risk onto its employees.

P.S. Johnson forgets to make an obvious analogy to Mechanical Turk. Just sayin’.

Regarding This Website

Image Test

I’m using this post to test images. But I’m also using it as an excuse to post these SimCity 4 screenshots of road networks. An interstate junction in the middle of nowhere Another interstate junction also in the middle of nowhere

Hello Again, World

Well, here I am again. I feel like I do this every year. But this year I’m serious! (Even though I said that last year…)

What I like about blogging is how informal it is. Just a dumping ground for ideas and pictures and whatever. But I always mess it up! I always take it too seriously, too personally. Maybe my New Year’s resolution should be to overcome perfectionism. Actually, that’s a great idea.

I think the rule for now will be “bigger than a tweet.”