Thursday, September 9, 2010

My Beloved Phone Had a (mini) Stroke (too)

Alright, I don't mean any of that literally. I have this Windows (r) mobile smartphone, along with maybe one or two others on the planet. I try to ignore all the press about why this phone is just an awful kludge, because, well, I rather like it. The operating system is "open" which simply means that the carrier can't really hobble it the way they can other smartphone OS's. It's a true operating system which will run anything designed to run on it.

Sure, Verizon had to open up the GPS and forgo lots of fake-out income from their pay to be told where to turn service. They also have to allow me to install software which makes a hotspot of my phone, but in return they get my undying love. But the main reason I bought this phone was that it was the only thing on the market which had this rather incredible AMOLED display, and I wanted to try its input method, which allows me to trace whole words over the QWERTY (virtual) keyboard, instead of either that old Graffiti or handwriting recognition trick of translating gestures to letters. I get whole words with my gestures! I'm OK with thumbs on an actual keyboard, but this one promised better speed, and I'd say it delivers. (If anyone's actually interested, it's a Samsung Omnia II)

Very lately, it has become utterly unreliable. But, being a techie, instead of assuming it had crashed when it froze, I would let it sit and sure enough, things would gradually come back to life. A glance at the memory (in the machine) and some honesty about my heavy usage gave me a gut sense that the file system had become impossibly fragmented against almost no more margins for memory overhead. I'd installed too much stuff and used it too heavily.

I'm a bit surprised that they put so little memory into this thing (not for storage, of which there's plenty, but for the OS and Apps). I'm also surprised that Microsoft decided to force the automatic closure of open programs at some threshold for memory use. That just cramps my style! I know why they did it, since it certainly enhances the generic non-techie user experience by keeping the phone more alacritous and light in response to touch and use. But, I more or less preferred the crankiness of my previous model. Still, by and large, this one worked welll until it didn't.

My guts told me that I could make my evident need to refresh the software (by zapping the phone back to factory specs) much more satisfying if I had the excuse of a new bug-fixed software image to download. Sure enough, there it was, and how the hell had I missed it!? Well, for sure, there wasn't anything wrong with the phone until  my heavy usage and app testing made the phone cranky. I hadn't bothered to look for updates because I didn't need any.

I'm not really all that pumped up by apps, by the way. There's no shake-a-restaurant slot machine, nor am I interested in social networking or podcast apps or all the other things they pack this thing with. But I do find the Opera browser (the new one, not the one burned into the image, which was never updated, damn!) as useful as any out there, and I loaded on Chinese fonts and the router thingie and Google Maps, of course. These are my essentials, and I guess they cramp the phone.

I decided a while ago that I would not become attached to any particular hardware - apart from its physical touch and feel, maybe - and that I would have all my important work in the cloud. That's so that I can work on any piece of hardware anywhere, regardless of the state of mine. It's so that I don't have to worry about things breaking, or getting stolen or crashing or becoming infested. Each of these things has befallen any particular piece of  hardware I've ever owned.

I've never been interested in "customizing" my stuff much. I aim for usability, and consider my computer a tool. Default user interface, default ringtone, I'm about as interested in other from that as I am in stylish clothes. Or, maybe I'm just afraid of attachment.

I think the distinction between hardware and software is nearly meaningless anymore, and it's nowhere more clear - than when your phone does what mine's been doing. The look and feel was as though there was a hardware flaw. It would hang and fail to reboot, but sure enough my hard earned seat-of-the-pants sense that it was the software was proven when the shiny new and updated software image brought the phone back to like-new performance!

Except, well, coincidentally at the same time as all this other stuff was happening, a section of the touch screen had lost its touch. You figured it would have to happen eventually since Windows mobile suffers from a resistive (think "press") touch screen up against Apple's incredibly responsive capacitative screen - which simply means that it detects the electrical potential of your skin's touch seemingly instantly. So, the stylus makes no "impression" at the upper left corner, which means I can't select and correct words which are wrongly predicted by my "Swyping" (c). More critically, I couldn't get past the "align screen" hurdle when my renewed phone restarted.

I'd already discovered that when hoping that the realignment would resolve the evident loss of touch, but I was then able to crash out of the endless loop. But now there was no way around it, and like a crazy person I kept doing the same thing over and over expecting different results until, ahah!, I found the exact off-put spot where a touch would be referred as if to the place where the X was drawn. Phew! The screen now is perpetually misaligned, which is easily enough proven by the drawing program which follows the stylus with a trace, but the phone is still pretty usable.

The real problem was that this hardware issue was an obvious canard in the way of my proper diagnosis hardware I'm happy enough that my learned "instincts" prevailed. Sad that the phone is less than perfect. Well, so am I, evidently from recent health issues but I remain serviceable as well.

I could turn the phone in under my extended warranty, but then, #1 I'd have to go through all this rejiggering yet another time, and #2 I think they'd only supply me with a "refurbished" phone, which is pretty much like buying a car without the Carfax (r) history. Someone else's handling.

But the whole point of today's post, if you read far enough for me to get around to it, is the important distinction between tools as means and tools as objects, and how poised we all now are forced to be between the attractions of the shiny and new and the comfortable familiarity of worn-smooth chestnuts. Working on my friend's computer, he was complaining that just as he gets used to running Quicken (r), e.g., and knowing where to find things, they foist a newer and better version on him when he didn't want or need one.

So attachments of any sort are asking for trouble. And it can only get worse if you spend lots of time customizing the software look and feel. Sure, you can save an entire "image" of what you like, but then when it crashes - certainly as is the case with my phone - you're going to want to go out on the 'net and get the updated stuff anyhow, so what's the point? Not to mention the danger of enshrining infestations for resurrection when you restore the image to a new piece of hardware.

You know, I love my tools - I tend to treat them as objects in and of themselves. But more often, I learn to abstract my usage so that I can, somewhat indifferently, use a handsaw or a power saw, say. Frankly, I  don't find much difference between them in performance, but I do find lots of difference in the quiet or noisy state of my mind. Ditto with using a Mac or a PC. No real difference to me. Or whatever kind of pointing device is on offer. Or keyboard.

My relationship to my tools is also moving up into some cloud, then, and I don't mind if I use yours or mine, so long as they're sharp. It's the thing I'm working on which is my object - outside of myself - and giving feedback, through the tool, to guide my next moves. Same while writing, carving dragons, repairing boats (I have trouble with song and dance, where the feedback loop seems broken).

Computers as universal machines confuse all these relations. The economy in which they're embedded creates a vicious feedback loop where we all feel stupid all the time. New is perversely cheaper, and polishing the old to keep the familiar is rewarded only by frustration. I actually feel quite nauseous when a machine I'm working on or with behaves in ways I can't control. I think most people do. Machines aren't supposed to do our work for us. They're supposed to enhance our own control and reach and impact.

Certainly, they shouldn't be mistaken for thinking machines, the way that Google now cements in our relationship with them with their new "psychic" powers to return results before you're finished typing. Why bother to think when everyone else is doing it for you, rendering up their probability factors to Google's teraflops of computational energy.

But most people swallow the stress involved, since throwing the damned things out the window gets expensive. Just like a new power tool, it can be impossible to resist the seductive attraction of such multiplication of your power; muscle power in the one case, brain power in the other. But subtly the thing which was meant to be a tool for your accomplishment of your own goals, has become yet another piece of proof that you don't know what you're doing without its help.

Anyhow, the feedback loop is broken, and you might as well stop thinking for yourself.

It's funny how the processes of our digitally mediated economy so nicely mirror what's happened in education. Well, not funny exactly, but perverse for sure. Most of the schools attended by most of the students do an extremely good job of reminding students, comparatively, about what they're no good at. You might think that school would be a place to build self-esteem and dignity, but for most of the country's youth, it does precisely the opposite.

It is, at root, an elitist institution, premised on training a priesthood. A thinking class now, and the machines have seen to it that there is no more handiwork available for a living wage. Unless, maybe, you're a bona-fide artist. But the rest of the stuff is no-wage DIY assembling build-by-numbers stuff designed on some computer somewhere to be shippable from China. When the jobs moved there, it wasn't the jobs which got taken away, it was dignity, and school can't repair that. Not everyone wants to work with words or in their head or to systematize their understandings.

Surely anybody can see now that the system of education replicates the stratified social structure more than it offers mobility through it, and that spells death to our Republic as envisioned by its founders. We no longer educate citizens essential to the functioning of our "democracy." We engender consumers, even consumers of education and no wonder that the electorate can be controlled with as much precision as a Madison Ave. (so formerly called) advertising campaign. No wonder that the elite now feel no more compulsion than to perfect their own consumption in the direction of Marie Antoinette. What's an Ivy education for, after all?

OK, it's a stretch from cellphones as instances of digital "tools" to technology as a tool of a system which wants to right itself in the direction of masses of frightened huddled minions. I know the Luddites tried this and yadda yadda, it's all good, right? Technology will liberate the people by offering truth to power every time. Except when it exacerbates the trend toward consolidation of power among intellectual and cultural elites.

Education must inhere in the dignity between a human being and her tools. Education now has completed the capitalist mandate of alienation of all workers from the means of their production. And even our mind won't count unless it's been sanctioned by the bona-fides of consumerist education. We've been alienated from our own minds, for chirssakes!

It genuinely doesn't have to be this way. We could learn to crave new-and-shiny less, and value old and wooden and worn that much more. We could rejigger things to where we're happier paying a fair amount to someone whose artisanal work we value, rather than less for some piece of quasi-functional amusement equipment down at the nearest bottom dropout store.

What I really hate is when my wealthy friends chase pennies saved on their new electronic gear. They buy it in the Big Box or on the Internet and then disparage the riff-raff who won't help themselves but wander with hand out along our pretty streets. I just hate that, but who knows, maybe that's because I've got my own hand out.

Well, I blew a ton of time trying to find this one setting which I remember finding late in the game with this phone. Some stupid preference that made me feel better about it. I can find no documentation of whether this was a bug removed by the update I just installed, or a memory lapse about where and how I'd found it in the first place. But hey, it gave me something to do, and it sure beats video games!! Now where was that setting, and would it be easier to look in my head or on the phone or on the Internet, or am I all alone with this stupid issue . . .

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