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The Northern Spy
October 2009

The Centre of the Universe

Rick Sutcliffe

The Spy travelled there

this week for the first time (except for passing through the airport or zipping on past on the 401 a few times over the years) for the first time since moving away after a five month stint in late 1966. Yes, you read that number correctly. It had been 43 years since he'd been in TO. Back then, he toiled up on the third floor of the CP building at the corner of Queen and Yonge as the assistant to the telecommunications accountant for Southern Ontario. He could have walked up to the office, but always enjoyed being ferried up on the ancient pneumatic elevator under the control of the liveried attendant. 'Course, the building is long gone now, and even its replacement doesn't look all that new.

Some things haven't changed, though. The "centre of the universe" sobriquet is still as appropriate as when the Spy coined it then. (No copyright available on obvious ideas; many have come up with the same term independently since, and perhaps even before.) Evidence? Local TO newspapers have national pretensions, but as then, are produced under a world view that assumes the earth ends somewhere south of Sudbury and east of Kitchener, the rest of Canada being irrelevant, and not merely for failing to agree with the desirability of electing their party royal to national power.

Occasion for the visit

was the AGM for CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority; runs .ca) and the board meeting for same the following day. The AGM was routine enough, with members (between grazing times at the food tables in the hallway) passing a motion concerning next year's auditor and some by-law housekeeping amendments readily enough (and without debate!). After that we settled in to hear from Rahaf Harfouch, a new media expert and Obama campaign media consultant, who entertained us with tales of selling a new president to a nation via social networking. Great stuff, and you have to hand a political oscar to the team that pulled off one of history' greatest sales jobs on behalf of a previously almost unknown candidate. If you've got something to sell, Harfoush is the real thing. Hire her. 'Course, the candidate might have won anyway, but the electronic buzz created surely tipped the scales decisively.

Faithful readers who've been waiting for a shoe to drop in this thread need strain their eyes no longer. The Spy has always observed that the less substance something/someone has, the more its promoters sell the sizzle, if it sounds to good to be true it is, and the glass is never really that full. True in this case? The point is, we don' t know, and won't for some time. The last incumbent was probably neither as good as he could have been nor as bad as his political opponents portrayed him. This one will probably be neither as good as his admirers hope, nor as bad as his political enemies fear.

You see, polished image, approval ratings, legislative and promise keeping success (or failure), even an eventual second term either won or denied, all notwithstanding, political leaders' downstream consequences are judged by historical courts of opinion one or two generations after they exit office. Those who voted for a new leader are always glad to be on the winning team, but their good feelings only may eventually extrapolate to "this was a positive experience for the nation".

What's today's lesson at the end of this political rabbit trail? Well, boys and girls, first that technology has permanently raised the bar for future campaigns. Everyone with political ambitions that depend on some semblance of a popular election (and some that don't) will put a microscope on the techniques used to generate sufficient obamania to gain office. For the years to come, social networking techniques and their descendants (nothing, after all, stands still) have become obligatory components of election campaigns, permanent tools run out of the multitude of backrooms found in western democracies.

In itself, this is neither good or bad. Like any tool, CAN (Computer Assisted Networking) can (like the sound of that) be employed toward any end. But Harfouch's comment that even at the very end of the campaign, her co-workers were palpably afraid that the other side would "steal" the prize away (by some unspecified and nefarious means) crystallized the Spy's second point.

On the one hand, many people became involved in the process who had never been before. That's a good thing, the most positive of the outcomes. Also, a democracy defines the outcome of an election as a good thing, the bigger the majority, the better.

However, in both the frozen north and the excited states to its south, successive political campaigns have in recent years seen dramatic increases in divisive demagoguery, mud slinging, and other inflammatory rhetoric. Now, as is always the case, the application of technology to an already existing system initially only sharpens and accelerates what was already there. In this case, that means, spreading current political memes faster, wider, higher, deeper, more passionately than ever. That is, unless a new system is designed for the new technology, it does not directly bring about fundamental change; it only makes the old go faster. Change takes place via:

- prior intentional and thoughtful planning for a new system to run in conjunction with and be enabled by the new technology, or

- that the new technology mature under a relatively stable system and gradually nudge it in new directions as it does, or

- that the new technology accelerates a bad system toward its inevitable a cusp of instability and the whole thing self destructs rather messily.

As any software engineer knows both from theory and practice, computerizing a poor system just makes everything go wrong in milliseconds instead of weeks.

So we suddenly have a "hot" (engaging through visceral) stream of messages traveling via an inherently equally hot (intense, instant) channel. This makes political rhetoric ubiquitous, while simultaneously inflaming its intensity. Of course, those merely rhetorically persuaded to a point of view can be unpersuaded the same way in just as great numbers, but while they hold especially heated views, they may collectively either perceive a threat or pose one to the (current) minority who hold contrary views with equal passion. This political divisiveness is indeed unstable and therefore cannot ramp up indefinitely, especially now that the flames of rhetoric are fueled by performance enhancing steroid gasoline. One senses a cusp approaching.

You object to this line of reasoning? Hands up everyone who thinks that (all, most, any?) political practitioners will voluntarily behave responsibly with their new-found power to generate and energize followers, or that there is any prospect of a sudden shift toward using the new tools to enhance reasoned discourse or at least deprecate the public taste for demagoguery, rather than to gain and keep power.

These worries are no criticism of the candidates (successful or not) and their policies (whether they have any or not). Rather, it is far more of a cautionary note to their marketers, who appear to have stumbled upon a technique set with greater potential power to create deep divisions than it has to inform debate. Stay tuned for the next act. It won't be long coming.

While at the COTU, he also took his own advice,

that is, on purchasing an iPod Touch, by visiting the Apple store in the Eaton Centre, a brisk half hour walk from the convention centre. (Note the repetition; there are other centres between; downtown is conceived as the centre of centres.)

As with Apple products, so its stores. They are designed by thinking different about the experience. There is no counter for salespeople to hide behind, only the genius bar (which requires four days notice for an appointment). All the products are displayed up and working. Other vendor's accessory stock gets prominent space. Want to play? Be their guest. The staff wanders the floor ready to help answer less technical questions, or sell if you are buying.

In particular salesman/specialist Bradley Crystal proved knowledgeable and helpful, the latter displayed even though the Spy was on a mission, knew exactly what to ask for, needed no selling. "An iPod Touch please, supersized at 64G." Bradley, given free rein to recommend fries and a drink (cases and docks), quickly put his fingers on exactly several appropriate items from among many. "Does it have the latest system software?" "Of course, Sir." Good man that. Hire more of the same, Steve. Wait, you already did. The Spy settled for a simple sheathe-like leather belt case with swivel from Sena and a pair of USB power adapters from mother Apple, and passed on docks for now.

The second half of that advice to self, namely, to replace the phone side of his Palm with a cheap dumb model on a strictly month-to-month basis, can wait a couple of weeks, until Rogers' imaginary contract runs out on the five-and-a-half year old once wunderkind from a technological leader, now relic from a weak follower.

First impressions of the Touch itself

were somewhat mixed. After downloading and installing the Olive Tree Bible reader, assorted free bibles, and re-downloading his old purchases from them, the Spy proceeded to raid the iTunes store for calculator apps, PDF readers, and assorted utilities, many of them free. Of course, he organized those apps on several themed home pages. However, round about the thirtieth such install, new apps suddenly no longer worked. Open one, and it immediately crashed and quit.

The logical first assumption is that one or more were incompatible with system 3.1.1 (note the sales promise kept). A reset didn't help. Uninstalling all and reinstalling made things worse. At this juncture, none of the downloaded apps worked (though all Apple's originals still did). Next came a hard reset to the original state, followed by a restore from backup. Whoops, things were just as bad, so the backup shared the corruption. So, do another erase to original, but this time tell the software to treat it like a brand new iPod. Then re-install the downloaded apps in bunches, checking after each group, and expecting to have to do it all again two or three more times to catch the culprit. (Good old binary search, that.)

But no suspect emerged. This time everything worked. A later reorganization into four home pages with a dozen more apps also saw no new problems emerge. Write the whole experience off to a cosmic ray nuking a memory bit during one of the installs. Still, the Spy has to wonder how common this is. Will he yet have to repeat this procedure many more times? He's not touche mail, photos or music yet. If it happens to others besides the man with the black thumb (have aura, will crash anything), what do people lacking the sad experiences of an old croc do? After all, it took some research even for him to find out what was worth trying on a machine he'd never seen before.

For more specific reactions, and in no particular order,

- The iTunes interface for downloading and syncing is fair to good, though it took a while to find things. For instance, the navigation buttons are small and easy to overlook. The search function was not immediately obvious, and you have to do a first search before you get to a page offering the option of a power search. The latter should be on the first page.

- There ought to be a way to make multiple backups by date and restore from a specific one. Then a machine can be restored to a known good state without starting from scratch.

- Organizational changes made down on the Touch do not appear to survive a sync, as home page arrangement seems to sync in only one direction, which is not very intuitive. Or, perhaps the Spy is missing something here, but that also means it's not very intuitive.

- There's some work in progress here, as evidences by two iPod system upgrades since the release of 3.0, and an iTunes upgrade in the middle of all the above. (Was that the culprit?)

- The better of the several ways of pulling in PDF files and reading them on the Touch involves either a partnership with Safari to move files via browsing, or a helper program on the Mac with a drag and drop interface. More on the details after further trials, but some of this actually works, though it seems cumbersome, and there isn't one location from which all readers can see PDF files, each needs its own. In all, the platform is already fairly good for reading books, but has a long way to go.

- It seems to the Spy that the best of the calculators (not yet thoroughly exercised, however) is none other than PCalc, big brother of which has been a fixture on the Spy's mac for a few years. He upgraded from the free wersion to the paid one almost immediately.

- Browsing with mini-Safari takes some getting used to, as there isn't much room for navigation, and moving back a page requires a tap and a gesture, rather than just a tap. Other elements are not where one expects, and there is definitely a learning curve. Also, pages expansion via the two-finger salute is sometimes (not always) cancelled when you press a link to another page. This may make sense if one is changing sites, but not within the same site.

- There does not appear to be a way to configure the fonts. Perhaps one is not supposed to be able to do this.

- Turning the Touch sideways does not in every context turn the display. Some things are fixe in vertical mode.

- Filling in usernames, passwords and security codes is a pain, and the keyboard should be redesigned to show upper and lower case distinctions on the keys themselves rather than indicating the state by a lighted shift key, and to allow transitioning to the symbol set (or caps) for a single character (shift and numeric shift are really shift locks). In addition, the contrary assumption that the first character typed in a box should be gratuitously capitalized is erroneous and misleads toward errors when doing usernames and passwords.

- Store customers are not at all bashful about criticizing apps, but are less forthcoming with praise. Ratings are for the current version, and tend to be statistically invalid, as they are based on based on too few data points. Apple's cutoff on the number of ratings should be in the mid twenties at least before publishing these.

- Best app so far award goes to Olive Tree's Bible reader. This is fabulous stuff, and running a split screen between, say, the NASB and Gramcord is not only wicked fast (sic) but more configurable compared to the Palm. Readability is so much better it can't be compared, and the Greek fonts are just there. They don't have to be separately installed. Too bad the screen can't be split three ways to get the Greek lexicon up at the same time with a tap on a word as for the Palm. Small price to pay for crystal clear reading. Did we mention fast?

- The only significant disappointment to date is the task of multitasking. Having to quit applications by pressing the home button before starting another is awkward, no better than the old Palm. The developers have an obvious homework assignment here. Are either or both of the hardware or OS lacking horsepower? Is progress toward the goal of fixing this part of the reason for Apple's in-house chip development? Red herring alert: Will that chip development work also eventually cut Intel out of the Mac equation?

The bottom line

is that although Apple has a proven winner in their mobile products, and has advanced the state of the art a long way from what anyone else seems capable of, there are still rough edges to smooth out. iPhone/iPod Touch OS is not a completely finished product, but what's there is fairly polished, nonetheless. Yeah, buy one. Just don't expect perfection. It's not the PIEA the Spy wants. Yet.

Promises, promises

you say, having reached column's end and no mention of the Snow cat he thought he would look at this month. The Spy had some Mac backup issues with a hard drive failing, and his web serving Linux box became unstable and needed lots of TLC. (Turns out that suhosin does not play well with the latest PHP, or even in memory of only 2G. Solution: downgrade a few things, add memory, install the latest high memory kernal.) So Snow Leopard didn't get installed. Oh, well. A few apps probably need upgrades first. Besides, the Spy is getting old, is no longer an extra early adopter, and only one of his machines is an Intel and so eligible to herd the new cat. Maybe next time.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

The Spy's Laws collected: http://www.thenorthernspy.com/spyslaws.htm

The Spy's Shareware download site: http://downloads.thenorthernspy.com/

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

Olive Tree Software: http://www.olivetree.com/mac/

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Last Updated: 2009 10 02