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Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson — 28 July, 2015

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

AURORA_KIM_STANLEY_ROBINSONI swore off KSR after reading his novel 2312, which I found turgid and tedious, and so I skipped his recent novel Shaman and wouldn’t have considered Aurora, but for the fact that I stumbled across a Guardian review which praised it as the best ever SF novel about a generational starship. After a KSR hiatus, I was ready to dip in again. I needed lots of reading for the summer, and I knew that a KSR novel would be dense and substantial.

Is it the best ever book about a generational starship? No: that would be Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo — but Aurora is pretty good all the same. It’s thought-provoking and stuffed with ideas and arguments.

The more or less omniscient narrator is the Ship itself, which has an artificial intelligence which has been trained or augmented or improved by a member of the crew who took a particular interest, and then tasked the ship with writing a narrative history of the voyage, which as we join it is already around 160 years into a 12 light-year voyage to Tau Ceti, and starting to decelerate. This conceit allows the author to meditate on the nature of narrative, diegesis, and language. The AI rejects metaphor in favour of analogy, and observes that language itself is almost wholly metaphorical, taking us into Lacanian territory, Name of the Rose territory. The real is unattainable, signs can only be interpreted with other signs, and so on. This is what you might call literary science fiction, then.

I love a good generational starship story, but most of the ones I’ve read have taken a pessimistic view of this method of space exploration for humans. In Ship of Fools, the crew have forgotten their original purpose. In Aurora, the problems of a closed (‘island’) ecosystem, even in a ship whose dimensions are measured in kilometres, are manifold. Biomes! Biomes! Humans don’t understand ecosystems well enough to control them effectively, and yet that is what we are continually trying to do. The analogy here, of course, is that crew is to ship as humanity is to earth.

Our anchor character is Freya, daughter of Devi, one of the ship’s main engineers (fifth or sixth generation), who takes personally the many faults built into the ship’s design, and passes some of her personality on to her daughter. The ship was built too small, the systems not efficient enough, the pioneers essentially mad, volunteering their descendants to face developmental problems, a violent end, or simply, possibly, starvation. Devi is permanently angry about the ship and the fate they’ve been left to; she rails against the people who put them in this situation, the designers of the ship, who were too stupid or careless to see the inherent flaws.

Six generations in, and much has happened on the ship, some of it forgotten, but they arrive in the Tau Ceti system and begin to explore the Earth-like moon of one of the planets in the habitable zone. Here, KSR hits you between the eyes with the challenges of finding a suitable planet to colonise. Size and density affects gravity. Too much gravity would be too much! Imagine living on a Super Earth with gravity three times greater than the one we know! The habitable zone means liquid water, a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, but is the oxygen created by splitting water molecules with sunlight – or through biology? If there is biology, well, then would we even have the right? And if we did attempt to interact with this alien biology, to remove a helmet and breathe the air, it would almost certainly be poisonous to us. Spores, bacteria, viruses, prions! (See Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios for more on that topic.) If there is no life, it would appear to be safe for humans to begin to live there, and attempt to introduce biology. But is there soil for agriculture? Soil implies biology, so if there’s no soil there has to be something we can turn into soil, and how long does that take? Anywhere you go, you’re going to have to terraform, and terraforming takes time. How much time? Who knows? Could be thousands of years. Can we do it? Do we know how? Could we start to do it and somehow avoid killing ourselves with a fatal build-up of waste products or stubborn chemicals – or simply by starving to death?

So there’s the gravity problem, and the atmosphere problem, and the biology vs. a sterile environment problem. Which is before we get to the nature of the light and our Earth biology which has developed over billions of years under this sun and its light. What if it’s almost twice as bright? Or bluer? What about the length of the day? What if a ‘day’ is the equivalent of nine days? What if it never really ever gets dark? What about the weather? What if there is a permanent gale force wind? You’ve travelled for 180 years and when you get there you find that the wind almost never stops.

KSR’s attitude to this idea of a generational starship is critical, it’s clear. He’s clearly taken a leaf from the book of critiques of the closer-to-home Mars colony idea. The designs are flawed: people would be dead within 68 days of CO2 poisoning. In this case, how can you hope to send a viable set of ecosystems on a 180-year voyage and expect things to work properly? People and animals get smaller, appear to get dumber. Bacteria evolve more quickly than we do. They become resistant, super-bugs. We die in a thousand ways, like playing a computer game that’s designed so you can never win. The ship gets infested with bugs and corrosive substances. Critical systems fail and people don’t know why. And then people can’t agree on a course of action when they arrive and things continue to go wrong. Aurora offers a pessimistic view of the generational starship, and an equally pessimistic view of human nature. The question is asked about the original 20 million or so volunteers: from what were they trying to escape? We were all thinking this about the one-way-mission-to-Mars volunteers. Almost by definition, they were unstable, slightly or completely crazy. And in the case of the generational starship, they also don’t live to get where they are going and instead have volunteered their children and grandchildren for some unknown fate out there in the stars. These people are born into a situation they had no say in creating, and have to deal with the consequences of decisions made long before they were born.

You don’t have to dig very deeply to discover the analogy KSR is trying to draw. As we fuck this planet up for our descendants, we are bequeathing them a set of problems they didn’t volunteer to face. Our stewardship of the planet is shoddy, to say the least. The super-rich think they’ll survive the cataclysm, especially if they have all the money, but they don’t know, any more than the rest of us know how to grow fruit and vegetables without blights and diseases and bugs eating them. Nature tends to do better without us.

Earth itself is a pretty big starship. None of us asked to be born here, but we’re stuck with it. And the message is clear: this is all we have. There is nowhere else we can go, and even if by some miracle we could build such a ship and get there, we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers and create a new, safe, habitable, Earth. And for Robinson, the very notion that we might be able to find somewhere else is part of the problem with the way we treat this Earth, and each other. It’s a mass delusion, analogous to those dangerous religions which propose that this life doesn’t matter, because there’s another life to come. And think about it: even if they designed a generational starship and started sending people out to colonise the stars — if there was any chance of survival, who would get to go? Only the rich, only the children of the rich. Stop deluding yourself.

The novel ends tellingly: on a beach somewhere, with waves crashing in and the white noise of surf and sand, the endless pounding created by the extraordinary gravitational pull of a moon, the heat radiation from the nearest star. This wonder, this planet, these forces that are more powerful than us, that we can never hope to harness.

A great book, this, and an important one. People need to read this. Maybe there are answers to some of KSR’s criticisms, but I’d like to see them stated as rigorously.

How to turn a caring lefty into a foam-flecked hateful Tory in just 90 of your minutes — 24 July, 2015

How to turn a caring lefty into a foam-flecked hateful Tory in just 90 of your minutes

Somebody asked me about the Channel Tunnel situation a few days before we left. What did I think, were there risks etc. I didn’t think there was really much danger of a migrant jumping in your car. What’s the solution, though? They asked. Let them in, I said. Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody’s ringing the bell. Do me a favour, open the door, and let ‘em in.

What is it, 3,000 or so people? They’ve all suffered enough, and the economic impact of the channel blockade, Operation Stack, and delay after delay must be considerable.

But of course, they won’t let them in. Beef up security. Turn your back on all that abjection, hope it goes away on its own.

I was keeping an eye on the Channel Tunnel Twitter account, keeping abreast of the Operation Stack business. I knew what to expect when we drove down in the middle of the night on Wednesday/Thursday. These summer journeys are always hard. Closed junctions, diversions, roadworks. And that’s before you even get to the M20 and the lorry park on the southbound carriageway. The bit where the M1 joins the M25: closed. The bit where the M25 joins the M20: closed.

Deep breaths. Zen and the Art of Arriving Eventually.

The matrix signs were not helpful. I was aware there was a diversion in place from J8, but the matrix signs offered contradictory advice. Use the M2, go this way, go that way. In the end, it was better just to reach J8 and follow the diversion. Google was aware.

We arrived, checked in. Didn’t seem to busy, at three in the morning. We had a bacon roll from Starbucks and a coffee, and I went to close my eyes in the car and listen to the Accidental Tech Podcast. Suddenly, our letter was told to proceed. It was over an hour early. We waited a bit to avoid the border control search, savvy travellers that we are, and drove around. Lined up in Lane 16 and waited a bit. Then we were heading round for the train, the car in front wasn’t even faffing too much, and it looked like we’d be leaving an hour ahead of our booked time.

But not. Loaded on the train, we then sat for 90 minutes. Why? Because a migrant had got on top of a train on the French side, and they were ‘undertaking safety checks’. After an hour, they announced we’d be leaving in around 10 minutes. Five minutes later, the on-board staff came around saying we’d be going in about 10 minutes. 20 minutes later, the train lurched.All the way through in the dark, I expected it to come to a shuddering halt.

While you’re waiting there, during the 90 minutes, you’re getting anxious because the worst case is they open up the train again and get you to disembark on the British side. Go around and board again, but later. It had been so quiet when we arrived, though I imagine that by the time we finally departed (30 ironic minutes after our original booked time), the traffic was building up in the terminal.

So this delay, this 90 minutes of anxiety and boredom, was caused by a migrant jumping the fence. You find yourself thinking, they should just let them die, let them be electrocuted, in the tunnel. Don’t delay my crossing!

And so you turn from a compassionate left winger who would open the borders and let the people come and go as they want to a rabid Ukipper, a foam-flecked Tory who wishes people would just die already and not ruin my holiday.

Which maybe explains why more effort is not being made to do something permanent about the situation. Thousands of trucks and tourists face delays this summer, and every single one of them will have to make an iron-willed effort not to blame the migrants. So it’s well played, isn’t it? A minor inconvenience multiplied thousands of times leads to opinion polls in which the British people show a remarkable lack of tolerance, understanding, and compassion. Which in turn drives the political and media agenda, and means that the pro-immigration counter-argument withers and dies. It means that harsh countermeasures, when introduced, are met with an indifferent shrug,

So, yeah, I was mightily pissed off, but my opinion stands: open the door, let ‘em in. Give them somewhere to live, welfare benefits, free NHS treatment and a free education. This is how you export British values to the world.

*

P.S. After the marathon trip, the remarkable thing for me was that Google discovered an alternative cross-country route for us, taking us on the final stretch from motorway to our village by what seemed like a more direct and less busy route. It felt quicker, anyway.

Synching feeling — 22 July, 2015

Synching feeling

I know I’ve gone on a bit about Apple Music/iTunes recently, but when something frustrates you on a daily basis, it grates.

In all of the coverage, across all the sites, on all the support pages, I have almost never seen mention of the particular problems we’ve been having. Both daughters have had issues – especially with the business of Music on the phone deciding to download enormous numbers of tracks for no discernible reason. One of my daughters has also had a problem I frequently have, which is the difficulty in persuading the phone to sync the music you want from your main iTunes library.

I do not use iCloud Music Library, and I have switched off Apple Music but I still can’t get my phone to simply contain the music I specify. When you have spent (literally) hours setting up playlists, this can cause the red mist to descend. My current problem is one I’ve had before: I have a number of painstakingly created playlists, but the iPhone and iTunes between them decide I also want to have a list of manually added songs and an additional single random track from my library.

How fucked up is this? Take a look at the graphics below. The first one shows the size of the Music library on the phone and the amount of free space remaining with the Alison Krauss track ‘Forget About It’ checked. Note that I didn’t do the checking. iTunes does this on its own.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 07.58.38

You’ll note that with this one track selected, my iPhone shows 29.52GB free space. Now, look what happens when the only change I make is to deselect that single (7.9MB) song from the library:

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 07.58.53

Yes, miraculously, deselecting this 7.9MB file frees up over 4GB of space on my iPhone. Except it doesn’t because when I click Apply, the phone syncs and then the Alison Krauss track has checked itself again and the list of ‘Manually Added’ songs repopulates itself.

So what you have to do is delete all the music from your phone, plug the phone into a Mac, uncheck ‘Sync Music’ and then sync the iPhone with no music on it at all. Then you can recheck ‘Sync Music’ and try again.

My argument here is quite simply that these are the kind of problems that an awful lot of people have: daily frustrations that drive you crazy, and yet get ignored by the tech press in their rush to provide a ‘hot take’ or an instant review of Apple’s New Music service. These glitches and bugs may eventually get squashed, but not before millions of people have wasted millions of hours dealing with them. The headlines have all been about the iCloud Music service, the use of DRM, the mis-matches with iTunes Match, the curated playlists, the Beats radio. Everybody knows that iTunes is a shitty piece of software, but not many people take the time to spell out the quotidian details.

When it comes to solutions, the scorched earth approach I just took (delete everything, sync with no music, then resync everything from scratch) really puts people off, makes them groan with frustration. And it takes time, and it helps to have a Mac. Maybe my problems are because I do have a Mac, I don’t know, but I can’t imagine dealing with this shit without a central iTunes library with all my music in it. Dealing with this over the Cloud? Jesus…

Tortoising — 21 July, 2015

Tortoising

turtle-bike_350pxI haven’t written much about cycling this year, and there are a number of reasons. The main one is that I allowed the stress and exhaustion of my horrible job to get on top of me, and have neglected to get out on the bike on weekdays – even when the evenings were long. So I’ve only really been out on the bike at the weekends, and even that I haven’t managed every weekend.

When I have been out, I have not enjoyed myself, and have even questioned why I’m doing it at all. I’ve complained on the Twitter a few times about the wind. It has been windy this year! It has. For example, at noon today, the wind speed around here was 25km/h – and so it has been, most of the times I’ve been out since April. Anything over 20 km/h, frankly, feels like something I don’t want to be in, especially in the negative frame of mind I’ve been in of late. Doesn’t matter that I’m on a loop: the wind direction always seem to be such that the wind feels like it’s against you all the way.

So I’ve not been out much, and when I have been out I’ve suffered. I can only think of one time when the legs felt better, stronger, than they had on the previous ride. There have been other positive signs, though. On my most recent ride, I encountered three other cyclists around my age. (I’m assuming their ages based on hair colour – all were greyer than me, but then I’m mousy and the grey doesn’t show much.) Usually, this means me being overtaken, severally, as I struggle up the slightest gradient. On this occasion, however, I managed to catch and overtake one of them – not because I was racing, but just by dint of my steady pace being slightly faster than his steady pace. I try to ride with the same level of effort all the way around, which also meant that when the second of these cyclists overtook me, I eventually caught up with him when he was resting at the side of the road, obviously having overcooked it.

I was aware he was probably going into the ‘old man red’ as it were, because when he did overtake me (and the other guy, the one I overtook too), his legs were spinning in a very low gear, comparative to the one I was in. He’d clearly put in an extra effort to overtake the two of us, but I saw him stop twice to let his legs recover, which is when I went past him.

The third guy also overtook me, and went off a hundred metres or so ahead, but then stayed at a more or less fixed distance in front of me. This was clearly another case of a guy putting in an effort to ‘breeze’ past and then having to dial it back a bit. Again, I wasn’t chasing, but I was being the tortoise to the hares. This last guy turned off the route I was on anyway, so we’ll never know if the tortoise would have caught him.

All of this stuff – this measuring of myself against other people – is not really me. I have never seen cycling as a social activity, and I have zero competitive spirit. Which is not to say that these guys are the same as I. Clearly, at least two of them saw a fellow cyclist ahead of them as a challenge to be met. This is the part of manhood I find depressing and boring. All that said, I am always in a battle against myself, my pathetic legs and my lack of stamina. The ultimate project here is simply to prolong my active life. Both of my parents became more and more immobile as they got older, and I don’t want to end up like them. So, yeah, it did mean something to me that I was out there on the road with other 50-somethings and able to sustain a reasonable pace – for an hour at least. I remain concerned at the lack of stamina. If I could manage two hours on the bike I’d be happier with myself, but that would probably mean dealing with the hip/back/foot pain problem all over again.

So I’m off to France, and the bike is coming with me. Last year, I reached a level of fitness before the summer that meant I was more ready for the mountains than I am at the moment. Then again, I have also felt in the past that I peaked too early in the summer, and struggled for the last couple of weeks in France. No danger of that this year.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison — 20 July, 2015

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

goblinemperorIt’s not what you think it’s going to be.

Those are the words you’ll hear frequently in connection with the Nebula/Hugo-nominated The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison’s novel of court intrigue against the steampunk backdrop of a fantasy kingdom of goblins and elves. (Which immediately puts me in mind of Woody Allen’s ‘The Ransom Note‘ routine, in which he is ushered into the back of a van by kidnappers who promise to take him away to a land where ‘everybody is fairies and elves.’)

Why the fantasy backdrop? It’s a novel of emperors and princes and court intrigue, but it’s not historical, and the use of fantastic beings allows Addison to write about race and gender, prejudice and oppression, whilst maintaining some critical distance.

If I were to criticise The Goblin Emperor, I’d have to admit to some confusion about names. Too many characters who appear briefly, or once or twice, are referred to by complicated names following the arcane rules set out in the appendix, and I struggled to keep track of them all. There’s a list in the back of the novel, but it’s not all that useful, given the variations in names given for the same people, and given that the terse descriptions of who they are don’t really tell you much.

But that naming problem is all part of the world building, and of course allows you to empathise with the titular character, a half-goblin child of a political marriage, who has been living in exile with a bullying relative, and who is plucked from obscurity when his father and all of his older brothers die in an airship disaster. His confusion and bewilderment at court manners and politics are mirrored by your own difficulty in keeping track of all the strange names.

Maia is a sympathetic hero, and as he comes to terms with his new exalted position, he soon realises that the airship disaster was no accident, and doesn’t truly know who he can trust. It’s a fascinating story, offering the political manoeuvrings of Game of Thrones without quite so much visceral violence, and it genuinely becomes quite moving at times.

Yes, I too, was offput by the title and the very notion of reading something about goblins and elves – but it’s not what you think it’s going to be. Recommended.

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free —

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x560-560x560

After catching on – late, thanks, iTunes – to Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, I pre-ordered his 2015 offering Something More Than Free immediately.

It’s pretty much more of the same good stuff – possibly an even better collection of tunes. Isbell has a pleasant, gruff voice, and sings with an oddly affecting deadpan that allows his lyrics to shine through the song arrangements.

The mood shifts between driving rock rhythms (’24 Frames’) and gently strummed acoustic guitar (‘Flagship’), with the lightest touch of country. ‘Children of Children’ turns out to be quite heavy with a long coda featuring a wig-out guitar solo against a bed of strings – one of my favourite sound combos. ‘How to Forget’ is upbeat but obviously rooted in desperate sadness. It has a jaunty rhythm and a spiffy but short guitar solo. On ‘The Life You Chose’, Isbell drops Sylvia Plath references and the drums shuffle along as he reflects on his feelings for an old flame:

“Are you living the life you chose?

Are you living the life that chose you?”

But this is no typical man-who-thinks-he’s-wronged cliché. By the end, it’s clear that the singer’s questions are more directed more towards himself than the old flame.

The standout track for me so far is ’24 Frames’, which has intriguing if gnomic lyrics. What does it mean? 24 frames represents the space of a second, it’s the way the eye is tricked into seeing moving pictures. So I’d guess the song is about the dream-like quality of film but also the way that things can change – be lost – in an instant.

You thought god was an architect now you know

He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow

And everything you built that’s all for show

Goes up in flames in 24 frames

An excellent set, which in spite of its downbeat moods leaves you feeling oddly hopeful.

Complaint — 17 July, 2015

Complaint

The BBC’s online complaints form makes you jump through a lot of hoops before you get to actually complain, but here’s what I submitted.

This has happened before, of course, because the BBC always seems to prioritise sport over anything else. But to delay the broadcast of Part 3 of a 3-part documentary (Rock ‘n’ Roll America) in favour of Golf coverage, which mostly consisted of watching people stand around watching other people stand around, occasionally interrupted by someone hitting an invisible ball in the twilight, was beyond the pale.

Wrong channel, wrong time. Why were the proms not interrupted? Why not Masterchef? Or better still, why not put the golf on the red button and let the middle class white male audience find it there?

Rock ‘n’ Roll America appealed to a broader audience. My 14 year old daughter specifically waited up to watch it with me, but instead we got to watch middle class white males chasing a white ball around some grass next to the sea. One of the few BBC programmes I find worth watching. But I guess my £145 isn’t worth as much as some golf fan’s £145.

The A to Y of playlists — 8 July, 2015

The A to Y of playlists

playlistsWhenever I think about podcasts I might do myself, I always come back to music. Which I would never do, because of the PRS licensing thing, which would be, you know, a pain.

One of the many issues I have with the new Music app (and with the old Music app, in truth) is the way it so often forgets where you were in the Great Alphabetical List of Songs. I find alphabetical playback the most satisfying form of shuffle, because (apart from the ordering), it genuinely throws up interesting juxtapositions. But if you have hundreds or thousands of songs on your device and the software forgets where it got to, you often find yourself frustrated trying to find the right spot in the playlist. Not to mention this is dangerous while you’re driving.

Siri doesn’t seem smart enough to start playback from a particular letter of the alphabet, so I hit upon the idea of building a selection of playlists of songs that start with a different letter. This is actually a vision I have for a podcast: a genre and era-defying programme, with tracks played alphabetically. For me, it makes things more interesting if you can restrict it to a time limit. I originally thought an hour, but if you want to throw back to the old mixtape days, you could restrict to 90 minutes.

I can then tell Siri to play the A playlist, the B playlist as so on.

You can set this up manually, or do it algorithmically, by setting up a smart playlist where Name begins with and Rating is over *** (i.e. four stars and above) selected by Random, or Least often Played or Most Recently Added, whichever you prefer. I chose least often played, which is why Brad Paisley’s ‘American Saturday Night’ didn’t make the cut.

(You then encounter one of the under-reported major issues with the new iTunes/Music updates, which is that hundreds of your painstakingly created star ratings have been zeroed. Not all of them, no, because that would make some kind of sense. No, it’s just a selection of them, apparently randomly chosen, just to fuck you up. Furthermore, you discover that the new iTunes sees zero stars as being Greater Than three stars. So you then have to spend fucking ages re-establishing some semblance of star rating by giving everything at least a one star rating. Except this isn’t as simple as it should be, because iTunes won’t let you select items that are different types of media. So you have to manually exclude all the digital booklets, music videos, etc. Thanks, Apple. Thanks so fucking much.)

So what sounded fun to start with has quickly descended into a nightmare of dealing with buggy software and trying to work out why it’s making certain decisions. Here is the first playlist thus created: an hour and 28 minutes of randdom alphabetti musicetti:

A

  1. Against the Wind / Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band 5:34
  2. Airstream Song / Miranda Lambert 2:48
  3. All About Tonight / Blake Shelton 3:26
  4. All Kinds of Kinds / Miranda Lambert 4:27
  5. All We Are / Sugarland 3:49
  6. Already Gone / Eagles 4:15
  7. Already Gone / Sugarland 4:36
  8. Am I The Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way?) / Maria McKee 2:57
  9. American Girl (Live At the Cow Palace) / Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers5:20
  10. American Honey / Lady Antebellum 3:45
  11. American Land / Bruce Springsteen 4:23
  12. American Skin (41 Shots) / Bruce Springsteen 7:24
  13. Angry Young Man (Live) / Steve Earle 4:30
  14. Anyone Else / Blake Shelton 4:22
  15. Anyone Who Had a Heart / Wynonna Judd 4:02
  16. April Showers / Sugarland 3:27
  17. Automatic / Miranda Lambert 4:08
  18. A Certain Boy [originally written as “A Certain Girl”] /… 3:31
  19. A Good Heart / Maria McKee 5:38
  20. A Hanging On / Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis 2:51
  21. A Lover’s Concerto / The Toys 2:34

Hopefully, in spite of all the pain and anger in dealing with our new disfunctional software overlords, this will work out quite well for the forthcoming holiday trip. 25 x 90 minutes is 37 or so hours. And there might be a bonus playlist of songs starting with numbers.

Diminishing tech returns — 4 July, 2015

Diminishing tech returns

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 14.28.09It struck me, as I spent two nights this week trying to sort out my daughter’s problems with her new Apple Music app, that Apple have been releasing a lot of stuff recently that doesn’t work that well.

When I worked for an IT company, we always used to joke about ‘upgrades’ making things worse, and computers being rubbish. The problem for the industry has always been that it relies too much on making stuff obsolete as quickly as seems reasonable (to them) and refreshing/recycling their product cycles. When you depend on your existing customer base for the your future income and profits, you’re always going to be making things steadily worse.

Tech always follows this pattern. Things start off basic, with few features. Then, for a few cycles things might improve as ‘missing’ features are added and the usefulness and functionality of the hardware/software improves. But then, always, a tipping point is reached and the platform is in trouble.

PageMaker was good up to version 5, I seem to remember. Then PageMaker 6 was worse, and then it died, to be replaced by InDesign. InDesign itself is so long in the tooth that it’s too hard for new users to learn properly. Long-term users probably hate and resent it by now, too. Photoshop probably peaked around CS1. The current version, again, is just too hard for a new customer to pick up and use effectively. Think about that: you’re only making something for people who have been using it for years, and who can take on board new features or simply know enough to ignore them.

MS Word peaked around version 5. Apple Pages peaked two or three versions back. iMovie peaked at version 2. iTunes, christ, it’s been so long since it was any good, I don’t even remember.

First computers got to complicated, and they gave us smartphones, which were simpler. Software written for mobiles had to be small, efficient, and fast. But then the hardware kept ‘improving’, so the software got more complex, with more features, demanding more and more of the hardware. So then they introduce the Watch, which gives us a smaller, simpler platform again. But there’s a problem, a perception that even these simpler platforms are starting out too complex.

I’m not sure it’s entirely true of the Watch. I mean, there’s a whole lot of web sites depend on publishing how-to articles and FAQs and reviews, and they have a stake in making things seem a little bit difficult. So I haven’t got a Watch and couldn’t say, but I do know how disappointed I have been in recent years by the following:

  • iMovie – which took a turn for the worse, threw away loads of features (I guess Apple were trying to do the right thing) but just became a lot less useful. This was mainly because Apple have tried to make iOS and MacOS versions more or less identical.
  • Pages – which went from being a fast and efficient word processor and page layout app to being half-crippled for the same reason that iMovie was
  • Aperture – which was better than Photoshop for virtual darkroom duties, but has now been discontinued
  • Photos – which replaces the terrible iPhoto and Aperture, but does less than the latter and is (again, I say this) intentionally crippled so that iOS and MacOS versions match.
  • Various upgrades to the Mac itself, which have created loads of niggles. Slow discovery of WiFi; Mail refusing to send; printers disappearing and reappearing; Airplay, which barely works and means I’ve wasted £ on speakers I never use.
  • And now iTunes/Music, which have fucked things up in bizarre ways. For example, my star ratings have disappeared from about 25% of my tracks; artwork has disappeared; my daughter’s phone kept logging into my Apple ID (how?) and downloading my playlists to her phone (older, with less storage). Twice.
  • Family sharing, ha ha.
  • iCloud, ha ha.

I could go on. Some of the problems don’t even get that much publicity, and I think I know why. People now expect their tech to be complicated and barely functional. All the new users Apple have gained in recent years have come from platforms where this was how things were. But for long-term Mac users (a smaller niche), the way things are now is much, much worse than it ever was.

The case of Photos, and even iMovie, were instances where Apple was trying to do the right thing by users, and strip things back to the basics, trying to make things easier. When it comes to Music, however, they’re glomming on new features and complicating the interface and user experience.

Music discovery and music consumption are in fact two separate things. Mixing them together creates a poor user experience. The nice thing about iOS was in fact the way that the iTunes store, with its fairly useless music discovery tools, was completely separate from the Music listening app. But the new Music throws in your face the frankly terrible curation going on in the iTunes music store when it comes to new music discovery. It reminds me of my old job, a few years ago, when I had to step in to stop the purchasing department from creating new product categories for almost every new product they put into the database – mainly because they didn’t know enough about stuff to know what it was or what it did. In the case of music, different employees are obviously categorising music in different ways, so that the same artist doing the same sort of thing will ends up under Blues, Country, Singer-Songwriter, or Folk, depending on, I guess, who is inputting the data. Or maybe the problem is at record label level.

Anyway, finding new stuff is not easy. And human curators who know less than you do are not going to help.

For a few years, it looked as if Apple might succeed in the Jobsian project of turning computers into appliances. But recent events have sent things off the rails. There are lots of things to love about Tim Cook’s Apple. I love his activism, his focus on diversity, his robust response to dickhead analysts and shareholders. But. We’ve taken several steps backwards from the computers-as-appliances goal. And this is not the first blog entry I have written rueing a recent Apple ‘upgrade’.

Five minutes with Apple Music — 30 June, 2015

Five minutes with Apple Music

300x300
An artist’s impression of what it might look like to see the Ashley Monroe album on the iTunes country landing page

Well, after spending a few minutes with the new Apple Music I am prepared to issue my definitive, irrevocable opinion of it*.

*Not really, but I was actually surprised at how quickly I grew irritated by it. I mean, I’ve already said I didn’t think it would be for me, but my attitude had mellowed somewhat since, as I thought about how much my daughters might like access to unlimited music on the family plan, and how that might end up being cheaper for me than my current music buying habit.

But then, a mere five minutes in, I went off the whole idea. Ten minutes later, I disabled the Autorenew on the subscription option. So why?

*ahem*

  1. The getting to know you screen, with its friendly bouncing circles of artists. That’s just another algorithm, of course. But, well, it’s sexist for a start. Tell it you like Country, and it offers you around 10 male artists for one or two female artists. I was able to double tap on favourites like Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, and the Dixie Chicks showed up (last album released in 2006). But no Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Ashley Monroe, Gretchen Wilson, Brandy Clark, Little Big Town etc. So we’re broad-brushing at this stage, but I hate broad brushes when it comes to musical tastes. X does not follow Y. To offer me Cliff Fucking Richard and not Tom Petty was just gross and disgusting. (Maybe these are signs that Mr Petty is not playing, who knows?)
  2. Once in, it offers you ‘curated’ playlists which are, frankly, rubbish. For some Apple ‘curator’ (or algorithm) to offer me a Bruce Springsteen ‘Deep Cuts’ playlist was just an insult. Don’t you know who I am? Yeah, I need some maths equation or corporate drone to tell me all about Springsteen. As to the artists it suggests, please. Toby Keith? Like, if you tapped Dixie Chicks and they offer you Toby Keith? That’s just trolling.
  3. The Country home page is as shite as the usual iTunes store home page. Yes, Kacey Musgraves is front and centre, but where the fuck is Ashley Monroe? Where, Apple? What the hell is wrong with you people?
  4. Radio? Radi-no. See notes above under curators.
  5. Oh, and £9.99/£14.99 – rip-off Britain. A fair price, even allowing for currency fluctuations by adding 10% to the € price, would be more like £7.69 and £11.69. Call it £7.99 and £11.99 to be generous to Apple, and we’re looking at being ripped off to the tune of £3 per month on the family plan, £36 per year. Paying, in other words, for more than two phantom months that other European countries don’t have. That would be Greedy, coming between June and July, and Bastards, coming between August and September.

So I still don’t know how my kids will take to it, but my visceral reaction has honestly surprised me. Turns out, I’ve still got really strong opinions about music and music discovery, even at my age.

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