Friday, August 05, 2011

Sleeping with Techo-Lust

It's been a LONG time since I've been really intrigued by a new techie device.

The last was this pocket PC thing called a Jornada which came out in about 2000 - yes over a decade ago.

It had this nifty fold-out keyboard you could dock it to, and boy did you look like a geek using it - which I considered a good thing. Its fatal flaw was when its battery drained, it lost anything you'd saved on it, and after losing a couple valuable documents unexpectedly, I ended up putting it away. (I still have it. It still works and holds a charge. If there are any collectors who might want it, ping me at the email address provided on the page here.)

Oh, iPads are very slick and shiny, and fingering around the OS makes you feel like you've finally caught up with the promises of scifi. Watching people use their iPads, you can see the visceral pleasure on their face as they zoom and slide and peck away on the screen keyboard, a little smile smudged on their smackers the whole time. Don't let them catch you watching, though, because you will end up getting a breathless demo, akin to the interminable slide-shows back in the 70s, when people would invite you over to show you the slides of their visit to the great hole in the ground or the place where boiling water erupts from the ground or the place where some guy carved big faces of former presidents on high ground.

A starting price of half a grand is just a bit dear for me, especially since it is yet another glorified Etch-A-Sketch (yes it is), even if it's in glorious color. Input on the device is not easy, and it is, in the end, a content delivery device, that doesn't deliver one of the most popular forms of media on the web, the youtube video. (Maybe youtube fixed this by now, but still, it's silly to leave a major media technology off of a media-centric device; kinda like having a screen door on a submarine.)

Like anyone who was plied with a Blackberry at the workplace as an essential tool for optimal organization and constant communication, I've become tethered to its notifications of upcoming meetings, vital emails, and text messages from mylovely wife asking where I put the scissors. I forgot the thing at home recently and missed a very important meeting and chided myself on becoming so dependant on the damn thing, which was why I resisted it in the first place. But, it's just too damn useful, so whattaya do? I hear the Blackberry market is suffering due to smart phones, but I suspect the sheer utility and rock-solid reliability will keep them around for a while...

Partially because smart phones are a pain in the ass. They're fun when you're dorking around with the little apps and become deeply addicted to a mere physics exercise involving dissolving pig heads with slungshot birds, but if you absolutely need to make a call right now and in a straightforward manner - say you're not seeing the kids you need to pick up for carpool - the contacts list will likely end up dialing someone you talk to twice a year, so by the time you've hung up that call, gotten the right contact, dialed it, etc., you're a good panicky couple minutes down the timeline, and while you are talking to the person you wanted to call, the person you mistakenly called has called you back to ask why you called, so your conversation is peppered with gaps and bleeps, causing both of you to ask to repeat what was just said, which makes you not notice the kids are standing patiently outside the car in winter weather. Then, when everyone's snug and buckled, you hear a tiny voice screaming at you, and you discover that when you put the phone down it butt-dialed yet someone else, who's been listening the whole time and now trying to get your attention, so you have to rack your brain to see if you said anything snarky while the kids were piling in - which often happens because they're bursting with news of the day, and many of your rejoinders are "yeah, so-and-so's mom can be a handful." But, as you you lift the phone to your ear to explain, the battery dies because another "feature" of smart phones is that many many of those little applications start up for no reason, or perhaps you started them but there's no intuitive way to close them, so the 39 little apps have been communicating and updating and sucking the electrons off the battery like so many bees in a field of clover in spring. Joy. Rapture.

Electronic book readers - the Kindle from Amazon and the Nook from Barnes and Noble - initially held zero appeal to me because I simply love the ease, utility, hardiness and physical presence of a printed book. Always will.

Plus, when anything is on a battery, there's this little meter running in the back of my head that says, "look at the battery level!" every minute or so, probably because of the trauma of the Jornada experience. I actually feel physical discomfort when I see my laptop or Blackberry power level down to a line, which augments the tension by displaying a lovely caution yellow color, because what if I need it but don't have an electric teat to draw sustenance from?!?! The horror! (Yes, I wax melodramatic, but it is a very real, if in reality less emotional thing I experience.)

And then there's DRM - Digital Rights Management, which prevents you from making a copy of a file and giving it to someone else. I have a very firm stance on DRM: Fuck to the hell to the damn no. Ever.

Yes, artists and the content companies who provide things should get paid, and they do when they're reasonable, like the MP3 store at I am a regular customer. I leeeerve my high-fidelity MP3 albums, especially since they've stepped up and now include a digital booklet of liner notes. I miss visiting the record store/head shop downtown, but instant gratification combined with the bonus of not having to rip the CD myself is just too wonderful.

And most DRM systems cripple your machine. I often record sounds from the web (say from youtube vids) for throwing on a mix CD by using Audacity and capturing it through the computer's built-in sound system. A month ago I installed's app on a PC so I could get the free version of Samuel Jackson reading the pretend children's book Go the F**k to Sleep, because how can one not have that in one's arsenal? Audible's app laced the PC with its DRM software, and disabled the ability to record any sounds whatsoever. On MY fuckin' machine. A cardinal sin of the highest order. How dare you disable part of my computer? Unless they back off of DRM, they've lost a customer forever. (I'll just mention Sony's disastrous rootkit fiasco with CDs in passing, which you can read about here.)

eBooks come loaded with DRM. Worse, each device has a proprietary format that only works with the company's eBooks, so you can't buy an eBook and read it on a Nook. Haven't these numbskulls paid any attention to Sony's attempts to corner a format market, or the music industry's idiocy and near demise because they just couldn't get their head around DRM-free music until the horse had left the barn, had ponies, and died?

Plus, publishers are making the exact same mistake made with CDs (even to this day - half of all CDs are still over $10), promising they would be much cheaper than the current market leader (vinyl back then). The majority of bad reviews on Amazon books come from customers losing their shit over the fact that the eBook, which takes a scintilla of the energy it takes to crap out a paper book, are typically a couple bucks more than the paper book. There is simply no logical or justifiable reason why an eBook isn't the same price or cheaper.

But then, signs of intelligent life in the universe started appearing. My library has eBooks you can borrow for free, just like a real book. They even have some I'd want to read.

The Nook has a real web browser that can actually play vids, an MP3 player, and it displays many formats besides their eBook format: Microsoft Office Docs, PDFs, and plain text. Wow. Way to go. I have a bunch of stuff from the Project Gutenberg, so if I felt like picking up a classic, I could. This makes the Color Nook (whose name makes me chuckle because it's vaguely naughty) essentially a low-rent iPad at $250. Plus, they now have "lend-able" versions of the books.

(And the hackers of the world have made converters so you can convert one company's format to your reading device, and strip of the DRM if you want. Yes, it's illegal for now. Hopefully the companies will get over themselves and actually serve their customers in an honest fashion. So, if you're one of those publisher folks, or Amazon / Barnes and Noble folk, here's a tip: you price the "paperback" eBook release at $4 - $2 for back catalogue - leave off the DRM, and money will fly into your accounts. I see the new releases are already typically under $10 - good for you!)

But, but ... you can get a whole freakin' laptop for $300! On which you can install a free application which makes it work like a Nook.

Still, Nooks (and Kindles) are a wonderful little size and optimized for reading. So, damn it, here I am in techo-lust, after all these years. I thought I'd hit the stage of life where I was past that, and could groove in my zen-like repose (not quite smug) holding my library book, plugged into my $20 DRM-free MP3 player, sucking on a Busch NA near beer (most of the taste, none of the drawbacks), and rock on with my bad self.

But I know I will find myself in a B&N, probably within the next few days, seeing if I can shake this feeling. I suspect I'll end up with a Nook, soon.

It doesn't stop there, though! God! Two objects of lust at once! It's just like high school all over again! Though, unlike the Lovin' Spoonful's wonderful song about having to make up your mind, my other object of lust would actually welcome a threesome.

I surfed across these headphones called Bedphones that are designed to be comfortable enough that you can fall asleep while wearing them. I liek to fall asleep to music about once a week, so these intrigue me. Plus, in a shocking display of market savvy, the company has priced them at $30 - a completely reasonable price for headphones. Plus, when we have family movie nights, my 6-year-old will often want to watch her own movie because she just can't seem to find a way to care about Katherine Heigl's hero's journey of collecting a closetfull of bridesmaid's dresses, so will plug into her portable DVD player (a grand bargain at $40), but we have yet to find a set of headphones that don't give her fits. Until now.

I'm having visions of reading in bed as I go to sleep without a booklight, and having the plaintive strains of Moby or Native American Flutes shimmering as the soundtrack on my new comfy headphones, as my wife dreams beside me, the dog sighing at the foot of the bed.

As there is often a cloud to be found within a silver lining, I read something about the Bedphones Android app that retroactively gave me the creeps. This app can tell when you've fallen asleep "determined by how much you move" and turn off your Android music player. At first blush, that seems really cool. MP3 players by default are designed to play way until you request they kindly stop.

But when you think it out, your smart phone will now have the ability to know when you're asleep.

People, your phone already knows too damn much about you, and now you want to let it know when you are unconscious and vulnerable? One of the "features" that smart phone makers and smart phone app developers keep on the down-low is that when you load an app, one of the steps is to grant it access to functions of the phone (like the built-in GPS thingy they all have, the mic, and other apps). This means that some of your apps are watching and listening to what you and other apps on the phone are doing, ostensibly so it can pipe up and offer something that you might find helpful or delightful - kind of a "would you like fries with that?" in digital form. Blackhat developers have also included sneaky little features to gather very private info (see?! ... see?!), like a note-taking app that requests access to your mic so that you can dictate into it, but behind the scenes it listens to the numbers you dial and sends them to China, right-wing media moguls, and Phil out in Schenectady.

So now your phone is going to know when you're asleep.

Perhaps you can render these apps useless by queueing up Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and since they're so smart, they'll appreciate the irony and decide to just leave you alone and go to sleep themselves.


The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Living in a very techie city has yielded an unexpected reward for those of us who still prefer paper form for our books. Frequently, someone will sell off an entire book collection to the large used book chain here, usually composed of well-chosen and carefully tended titles. The bookstore then dumps the entire lot on a carrel for rock-bottom prices, rather than go through the hassle of finding out which are out-of-print wonders versus easy finds and then sorting/shelving them. Since e-readers came out, Eudoxus and I have just about doubled our book collection. It reminds me of all the great classical music I was able to accumulate as an impoverished student when people started dumping their vinyl for CDs.

yahmdallah said...

That just fills me with envy. I immediately went through a mental list of books I'd look for, and was about to moan that the only store closest to me that might do that is downtown, only to discover they have a satellite store near me. And then I was thrilled that they have a satellite store near me!

I have thus far avoided a purchase of a Nook. I went and fondled one on the store and asked a wad of questions, and I was lucky to get a person who knew his stuff. The only thing he didn't know was how to replace the battery. A call to the main compound revealed the answer is once the battery stops working, so does the device, which annoys me.

However, I think I moved about 3 units for them. I saw a couple other folks listen to the answers the guy was giving me, and saw them hoist their eyebrows a few times. He had to break away a couple times to go ring someone up who bought one.

Anonymous said...

I will probably have to get a fancier phone one of these days when I get a "real" job, but for now I have a dinky pay-as-you-go phone which I leave off most of the time. Because I absolutely hate talking on the phone.

yahmdallah said...

From what I've read on the internets and what I've heard from younger folks I work with, the only time they actually talk on the phone is when they need to talk fast to get everyone together for a party. Other than that, it's all text, email, and social networking thangs.

In addition, Ms. Manners says it is rude to call when you can text or email, because a call is an interruption which you should avoid if possible.

So, you're hip and with it. Far out, eh?