Wednesday, April 15, 2009

We're all so Microsofted

This new verb I share will get me in trouble I'm sure. Everyone knows what it means - needless complexity tied to some proprietary core such that the knee jerk response to lockings up is reboot. Hang reboot. Lift by bootstraps. Hang. I guess it too rehearses the Jesus story.

The great idea Bill Gates had was to move power to the desktop, which meant complexity in our laps. This was meant to be away from mainframes, those master control central so called Big Iron processing mills from which we could only manage a dumb terminal. 

I do remember how exciting it was, especially when color arrived, to move the mouse and process pictures. Yes, I even remember my very first naked lady, saved for her by too much boy scout shame from youth (now that could cut both ways, but I had no private collections). The idea was to distribute the code, which made the outrage almost quaint when users found only a single line to distinguish an expensive Windows "Server" from a much cheaper "Workstation."

Well, it depends what you want to do with it, right? I'm not going to blame Microsoft for what's happened across the years of its dominance. A Microcosm, rather, of what has been happening in the world. And as we now should know, perhaps we've gone too far? I'd say almost exactly twenty something years too far (when did Reagan first get elected?).

Yesterday, I went on a treasure hunt along the shores of nearby Canandagua Lake, looking for a likely home for my aging  rotting sailboat. There's almost no room there for a boat so large,  but, as I think I've said some elsewhere here, it could make a fitting end to life. I was reassured that at least one or two places would be willing to handle the weight, and might try to find a way to step the over long and heavy mast. But there was almost no equipment, as compared to Lake Erie or certainly the Sound, where enough critical mass of wooden boats did once exist that some familiarity still lingers. 

But what killed the option in the end was just the cost. I hear that real estate taxes along this lake exceed those along Lake Tahoe. For frontage. 

Without any irony at all, the one veteran boatyard owner told of how the lake had emptied across the 30 years he and his brother had owned his place. He'd screwed up his face in real discomfort at the thought of an old and wooden boat, but in the end warmed a bit and did seem willing. He'd trimmed some equipment at its outrageous cost, and compressed his space for taxes. But I guess he'd go along. But the cost for me would be absurd, so there may be a bonfire in the old girl's future (Stop me now. Lash me to that mast!).

His reasoning was straightforward and simple: families operate differently now. Mothers work in service to their aspirations for children. Fathers golf for networking. There simply isn't time.

So, metaphorically, at least, the hearth has been distributed, and any central activity disbursed. I imagine gatherings only around the flatscreen, for SuperBowl, say, or when the Sabres make the playoffs toward some happy ending. 

But if you follow off the tendrils, there's still more going on than this. This power to the desktop has meant the same ghosted productivity gains which powered our recently popped bubble economy. I say ghosted, because in direct contact with users it's really hard to see what they do apart from messing with the software to the point of wanting to throw it out the window in self-referential uroburos final healing.

And we all should know that it was the very trade in the hardware and the software itself which powered much of these gains. To where at the school I once did run, the cost of a first word processor for my incredibly productive secretary would easily break the budget. Where now each student must own a laptop before any learning can even start, though in absolute dollars these now cost less than those wonderful IBM Selectrics used to.

And the software is and must be free. Is that why our economy deflated? I sure do know that I would never again consider those five thousand dollars I once shelled out to own my first PC. It would seem crazy now, and the one I use seems just fine after 5 or 6 full years of occasional use as an elaborate typewriter. Well, there are my taxes.

I do remember my own amazement when as a freshman engineering student, I got my first programmable calculator. My uncle is a noted electrical engineer, responsible for the mathematical methods which made the design of integrated circuits possible. He's limited in his emotional range, but I do remember him enthusing in his University office once back in those days, about the computing power now on his desk.

There were these few power users then and now who exploited this tremendous calculating power to design things. Like complex derivatives, as well as chip designs or complex stealthy fighting machines. These folks, I'm sure, never do feel the urge to hurl their machines through any window. 

But later on, while the rest of us had found graphics processing and complex formatting for term papers and resumes, the real power users discovered that they couldn't do what they wanted to do on Microsoft's mass market boxes. My first view of the internet was over the shoulder of a Chinese language student of mine, whose field was that sort of math which required fifty thousand-ish dollars of workstation and graphics processing to reveal results from a kind of math whose workings could not even in principle be proven. He'd watch in awe and curiosity at his results, in seeming living color on a for those days impossibly large screen.

A tiny offshoot of this power was to render graphics from across the void, traded in those days alone among afficionados in universities across the globe. My mind reeled.

So, now these commodity workstations, for work, are being tucked back into bed on some virtual mainframe back in some central office. You own a dumb window to a virtual session again, as it makes no sense to manage distributed complexity. Soon, all applications will be free across the cloud. What then, Microsoft? Will you go the way of the news?

It's only the metaphorical sense which interests me, can you tell?

So, will we also return to hearth? Is there still some chance that mothers can be relieved of their dull chasing after junior's projected ambitions? That fathers can spend some time at home too? That there need not be one car per person, stuck in traffic most of most days, seeming not too far away at all from those blobbish scooter bobs in Wall-e. That kids won't be caught dead texting in some face-off with a truck, like happened right around my country corner. Or tangle with some spooked horse, where the roadside cross remains polished right over there. 

Maybe we can return to times when the notion to go sailing wouldn't cost an arm and a leg - Ken Kesey flashbacks here from both Oregon and Alaska - and moorings would be nearly free.

Maybe our kids can play outdoors. Maybe we can stay put a while and get to know our neighbors, strange though they may be. Imagine now, the ether's down, and everybody walks outside to see.

For me that's how this all got started. I was asleep in my apartment on the wrong side of town. The bedroom lit up. I know the clock read 7:47, though I can't remember just dusk or nearly dawn (I can't have gone to bed so early then, though I sure do now). We wandered out in awe and terror to watch an old and luckily abandoned building go up in flames. I think it was in process toward rehab. I knew that it forshadowed something. All houses for miles around were emptied as a neighborhood in bathrobes gathered. It must have been the dawn.

Now at the start of the stupid documentary I'd rented, I had to endure this ominously soundtracked likening of purloined downloads to outright theft. I suppose you've seen it, though this time was my first:  "You wouldn't steal a car. You wouldn't steal a DVD. So why do you steal ripped off movies? It's illegal!"

Well, in a world where it's legal to patent DNA, I'm not sure how unreasonable it truly is to snag the bits which might brighten up your day for free. It's only the publishing house that suffers. Except for super stars, most performers would be thrilled just to have you witness their work. Isn't that what YouTube's all about, not to mention blogging. Please take my songs, I just want you to know me!

I think the money can and should be made for live touch and live performance. What would be so wrong with that? Please take my words for free, I only want you to want to know me, and then you'll pay me to be me. 

I know the place where I still work remains unwilling to calculate their cost to lose me. A modest raise was on the table, and then got pulled back off. It might have been enough to turn my negative cashflow positive, but there's always the same claptrap about how we all must tighten our belts and work a little harder because, in my case it's literally true, we do this for Jesus.

Bullshit on that! These people I serve prove time and again that they can't endure no downtime. I must make their data redundant and distributed, which I actually do very skillfully, and can and must extort money for new hardware simply by calculating the cost of a single demonstrated day of no worker productivity. Twenty something people twiddling thumbs get really expensive, so bring on the hardware. Bring on the software costs if it keeps Father Difficult, friend of the Vicar General, happy. 

But not one red cent for you, dear worker, who must be near the bone to be justified, as proven by your willingness to stay. Fuck that. I don't work for Jesus. Well, maybe I just do, since I know that this is not what Jesus wants for me, and you sure as hell will never earn my trust as his interpreter. 

My character, which is defined by what I do when no-one's looking, is full intact. You will soon know the cost of my absense which would have been so trivial to match, and then I will advise what you must pay to replace not only me, but to keep my very excellent staff plus that additional one we so desperately require. I don't run in a rat cage for my living, thank you very much. Ooooh. Burn baby burn. And thank you God for not inspiring what little they would have needed to keep me.

What can we not afford exactly? I'd say it's the way we keep on doing things, without leisure.

I have a very simple dream, and have even drawn up the design to enact it: Google's stuck on it's brain power. It's hired the best, and racked up more computering power than the rest of the world combined. But it will never crack this one simple code: that people, no matter how unschooled (well, I'm not sure I want to get into that one) can instantly recognize the differences between this and that, which computers can't even begin to. Computers don't do metaphors, which is why they're so easy to outwit.

Computers don't do touch. People do touch, people do metaphors, since metaphors are built on touch; the differences between inside and outside, bounded by touch sensitive skin. Metaphors are built on as ifs for things we know but cannot see. And the future, for sure, is built on our desires.

Once, at a Rainbow Homecoming, way back at my beginning - it must have been just before that fire, I heard a prophecy, attributed I think, to the Hopi, that the world would soon be covered by a great web. I imagined the power grid. No-one could imagine this inter-network. Not then.

So there must be those people who can see ahead. Whose vision is not clouded by too many words. I'm not one of them. I need signs and tellings and hidden code. Perhaps dyslexia might encourage such second sight, if only the television were not so hard at work to own, proprietarily, our souls.

We're all Microsofted, like my computer when it needs a boot. Like the recent cover of Time Magazine. Too much distributed complexity. Too much is owned by too few. I say take the downloads and screw the man, but then I do digress, always and anon and on and on.

So here's my simple idea, and for those except my friends who try to patent it, I'll say it's public domain already. I mean there has to be something left that's common property. Something noone can own, right?

So these clicks you all make, choosing this and avoiding that. They are a kind of transaction, no? All the network needs to hand you back is some simple map of whatever dimension it is you navigate, so you can tell if you move closer or farther away. Think geography of the mind. Now ads can be placed just where you'll pay attention, because you're not looking for that kind of black hole detection (there's the network kind and then there's the cosmic kind). 

These ads could represent actual things made with quality, and even through some other geographic mapped dimension, quickly orient you among those you trust. The background techniques are trivial. But the idea cuts directly against the grain. Because the capitalist system actually wants you against the wall, and the only way to do that now is to own the ground on which you stand. DNA patented for your relief from environmentally engendered diseases. Fighting titans to protect you from some poor non-lexic raghead. Wanting yourself a superstar like that one on the screen. You've sold your soul, that deal's been done. Now we're only negotiating price.

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