For the Week of June 7, 2004
I finally bit the bullet and bought a new desktop. I think it's my last.
The cost of switching goes well beyond the cost of hardware. Even with a fine program like PC Relocator, Jenni and I spent nearly a full day moving the files. There were programs on the old system I didn't want on the new, and XP pretty much demands that all your work (like this letter) go under My Documents.
Then, on Sunday, we wrestled with what hadn't worked. Somehow my Internet connection was hosed. And I never did get my old mail files moved over (so apologies to all correspondents). Plus, the default settings on XP make for tiny, tiny text, and not all applications (or Web sites) respond to the common fixes.
Getting a new PC was once like going to Disneyland. Now it's like going to the dentist. My little computer store, Feather Computers , recently moved to an office-warehouse block diagonally across from Atlanta's first great PC store, Soft Warehouse (later Comp USA). But while that old store swarmed with crowds every Saturday, looking for their first 486 processors or 100 Megabyte hard drives, the 2.4 GHz processors and 120 Gigabyte hard drives at Feather were alone.
The entrance is an Oriental bazaar. The low-ceilinged showroom is filled, not with technology, but with toys, trinkets, and crystals, all imported from the Chinese mainland. My favorites were the plastic German pigs, complete with lederhosen and beer steins. The real stuff is on the other side of a low door, in the un-airconditioned warehouse (with its 50-foot ceilings) - 120 Gbyte drives in their original packages, cases and motherboards and 17-inch flat screens for $429. Outside this showroom's wire cage, I found a young Chinese woman building my PC from parts. It took her maybe five minutes to replace a faulty hard drive. ("I should not have used one from a package that was open," she complained.)
What was most remarkable, however, was the quiet. The place was virtually empty, with just me, the young woman, a second Chinese woman handling office chores and one other customer, a young black woman more interested in an extended warrantee than a working machine. Orders at Feather come in through the Web. They're fulfilled from pallets of inventory, all stamped Made in China.
The evolution of the PC has ended here. What began with a bang has ended with a whimper.
It's time for a re-boot, one that starts with "exploding the PC." That means abandoning the PC platform, and the painful upgrade cycle, embracing instead a new platform and paradigm, one in which components can be replaced easily while the rest keep going.
That platform, as I've said, starts with a modular, scalable wireless LAN. Upgrading such a system should be as easy as replacing the central radio, since 802.11g is backward-compatible with 802.11b. Storage and interfaces and processing can all be separate components, living where you want them to. So long as each component has an access point it can be easily changed-out.
In fact, an Always-On network can be upgraded without taking anything old off-line. There's no reason why my wireless LAN couldn't handle both my old machine and my new one. Just add new ports at the center.
Moreover if this network is constructed as a mesh, rather than as it is currently in residential gateways, around a central access point, then adding components should make it more robust. Cognitive radios in a mesh should be able to define, not just the scope of the network, but its limits, so that signals don't run across your property line. This would be done by adjusting power outputs - just enough to reach the farthest reaches of the network, with orders for more-or-less power sent regularly across the link.
Then there's the upgrade path. You just add. There's no longer a need to subtract.
But the most important point is the one I keep harping on. When a wireless LAN is your platform, with the Internet available in the air, with PC processing available through the air, then the way is clear to developing a new generation of PC applications, applications that draw their data from the environment, as in Zigbee networks, and work automatically.
Microsoft's biggest mistake continues. The company is confusing data - media - with computing. Media isn't the PC. Media is media and the PC is the PC.
In an Always-On network data can come from anywhere - from your heart, from your soil, from your refrigerator, from the very air. (Wouldn't you like to measure the level of pollution in your house and then buy just-enough scrubbing to control it?) It can be processed anywhere it's convenient. You can interface with it where and how it's best for you - from a touchscreen or using your voice.
Back when my kids were very young, my son John still a babe in arms, we went on vacation to the Okenefokee swamps. We learned that this swamp was approaching a "climax state," and that if things continued the peat would rise over the surface and the swamp would die. Many other ecosystems are in a "climax" state, we learned. And the best way to re-start the cycle is with fire, a disaster that (in the case of the swamp) burns away the peat and brings back the swamp.
Before the fire, however, it's very quiet, and still in the swamp. Nothing seems to be happening. The world just waits. That's what I felt in the Feather store. The technology world is waiting for the fire.
Your Clue is to light a match.
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am presently searching for opportunities.
My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .
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Takes on the News
Once And For All
I've learned from cartoons of two big lies we tell our children.
We tell them that evil people know they're evil, that they stand for evil, and that they have evil intent. We give them lines like "Bwa-ha-ha-ha!"
Second, we tell them that the battle of good and evil can be solved, that the story can be ended, that we can be happy ever after. We're going to end this, the hero will say, "once and for all."
Adults know better, or we're supposed to. We learn that no leader really has evil intentions. Hitler and Stalin were nationalists. Osama Bin Laden considers himself a defender of the faith.
What makes you good or evil, in the end, isn't ends but means. Those who do evil are "evil-doers."
Now all nations have evil-doers among them. We call them our military. These people are allowed to use euphemisms for the evil they do, like "collateral damage." We let them do this for two reasons. First, if we forced them to face what they were doing squarely most couldn't do it. Second, we depend on their leaders to tell greater good from lesser evil. We call this the burden of command.
Our great commanders have always been haunted by what they forced men to do in the name of their causes. As it was for Washington so it was for Lincoln and Lee, for Wilson and Eisenhower. There is anguish and guilt. Eisenhower talked of having to act cheerful among men he was sending to death. It wears on you, he wrote.
In order to win our wars, we also use propaganda to muddy these distinctions. We pin inhuman labels on our opponents. We forgive everything our own side does. We must do this. Otherwise how could we do such evil, or allow it to be done in our name?
But in our hearts we know different. The Greatest Generation knew what evil they did in World War II. My dad never talked about it. Chances are yours didn't either. They just tried, through the rest of their lives, to do good, to leave something positive. They prayed you would never face what they did and could make a positive choice. Vietnam veterans are the same way, even though their war was lost. Many have traveled back to Vietnam. Others have plunged into public service.
But Vietnam didn't touch everyone, then or now. Millions of men and women were able to avoid service. Some did this deliberately, others did it by accident. (In my case, I was just a year too young. I filed for the draft in 1973 and no one was taken.) As a result we gained the benefits of the propaganda without having to face the contradictions that made it necessary.
This has happened before. Men too young to have fought in the Civil War created the game of football and committed genocide against America's Indians. Later they sought the glory of the Spanish-American conflict, or like Stephen Crane they re-created the conflicts in fiction.
What makes America unique among nations is that I can write this, you can read this, and if you're an American we can do something about it. We are not slaves to leaders who confuse means and ends, who believe their own propaganda, or who have no qualms about the evil done in their name.
We can end it, once and for all. Or we can endorse it. But if we endorse it, as a people, none of us - even those who opposed the war - will ever wash our hands of what was done in our name.
It's unfair that, to be good, you have to fight with one hand tied behind the back. You have to obey moral strictures your evil opponent thinks nothing of breaking. It's not a fair fight. It's asymmetrical.
For those who seek to do good the choices will inevitably be harder than for those who confuse ends and means. As the conflict grows fiercer, as it nears its climax, these decisions get harder. If you're not anguished by them you're not thinking, you're not truly an adult, and you're likely to be manipulated, as a child is, by the simplest tales of good vs. evil, able to rationalize anything done in your name to reach once and for all.
My prayer for America is adulthood.
Why CAN-SPAM Can't
Not only hasn't the CAN-SPAM act canned spam, it has resulted in an explosion of the stuff across the pond. This is the message, backed by evidence, of MessageLabs, as reported by the BBC.
Some 70% of all e-mail is now spam, and it's going to be 80% in just a few months. Porn is no longer the big problem. Now it's drugs and finance scams.
Solving the problem is going to be increasingly difficult, however, because the U.S. continues to insist on legalizing "spam-that-is-not-spam."
Microsoft is one of the chief culprits here. While they have endorsed Meng Wong's SPF proposal, they have also gotten into bed with outfits like Ironport, which take bribes from spammers-that-aren't-spammers to get their garbage through the filters.
The problem is simple. The Internet is a worldwide network. For any enforcement mechanism to have a chance it must be based on a worldwide standard, or else everyone runs to where crime pays. In the case of spam, crime pays in the USA. Until Americans become angry enough over this to do something about it, over the objections of the so-called "e-mail marketing industry," everyone's inboxes will remain hostage to it.
More Cellular Evolution
You may remember how, during CTIA, I harped on how the cellular industry was rapidly entering the computing mainstream and the industry didn't have a Clue about it?
Here is more evidence. Toshiba's stand at a monitor trade show in Seattle last week featured new cellular phone displays that can take input as well as output in very high resolution.
Last month's nVidia announcements point the way toward cell phones whose ability to handle and show complex data sets will be comparable to the broadband PC you're likely using to access this. Not only does the Toshiba announcement point to screens that can show all that good stuff, like video, it points to cell phones being used to input, not just video data, but all kinds of data, turning them into all-purpose computer interfaces.
And, as I said, the industry is not ready for this at all.
Clued-in is Dell , for realizing that the new horizon in printer competition lies in the price of the ink.
Clueless is the New York Times, for a limp-wristed apology that neither named the reporter behind the scandal nor acknowledged the paper's guilt for what resulted.
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