On the nature of things

20 January 2015 23:03 GMT+0100 

technology2431 words

In “The Soul of the Deep”, the final chapter of Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi, the swordsman Sasaki Kojiro is rowed out to Ganryu Island for a duel with Miyamoto Musashi. Both men have devoted their lives to studying sword fighting, but have followed different paths: Sasaki had the support of many lords and was a man of society, while Musashi lived apart and studied in poverty. For the duel, their departures from the mainland to Ganryu Island are indicative of their past and status: Musashi is seen off only by Otsu, the woman who loves him, but they have always been apart, while Sasaki is given a large party, and sent off with many gifts, letters of good wishes, tokens, and other similar burdens.

As he sits in the boat on the way to the island, Sasaki feels the psychic and emotional weight of all the expectations and all the things given to him. One by one, he throws each thing overboard into the sea, so that when he finally arrives at the island for the fight, he is free from all that was given to him.

I think about this scene often: the accumulation and casting off of things, most recently because I had to buy a computer. I had to buy a computer because my last computer was soaked after a September storm blew open an unlatched window, and too late I discovered what had happened: the force of the window blown open had flattened the computer, a notebook, so that the screen faced almost straight up, there was water accumulated on the screen and on the keyboard, and a small puddle pooled underneath the base. Despite a three day immersion in basmati rice, a practice recommended for extracting all moisture,  the computer never started. I salvaged the data on the hard drive, but the rest of the components were no good. More gory details about the event, and the bad timing of it, are here (scroll down a bit). Perhaps I should have used jasmine rice.

Although I started working in Silicon Valley in 1985, it wasn’t until 1998 that I finally bought a computer to have at home. Prior to that fateful day, I had no need for a home computer. Among other reasons, the rate of change in personal computing technology and the immediate obsolescence of any purchase made computer ownership seem impractical. It was all happening higgedly piggedly (also known as Moore’s Law): Intel’s cpu progression from the x268 to x386 to x486 then the Pentium chip then whatever came next; or Apple’s parade of computers from the SE to the Centris then Quadra to the iMac and beyond; and the connection conundrum: dial up (AOL, Earthlink, or your local provider), ISDN, DSL, ADSL, SDSL, VDSL, cable, microwave, and fiber.

In addition I was in front of a computer for much of the day, and why would I want to continue that at home after work? The computers I used took various forms depending on where I worked: a mini-computer with a disk-less workstation running the Wang publishing system at FMC; DOS or Windows 3.1 personal computers at Ashton Tate and Intuit; and because of the cross platform nature of its software, at Frame Technology I had a mix of Macs (IIfx!), PCs (Windows 95), and Sparc stations (Solaris, HP-UX, SunOS)—all this was interesting and fine for the day job, but none of this needed to be brought home.

At home I had a telephone to talk to people and a typewriter (Brother brand, and electric) for writing letters. I grudgingly bought an answering machine around 1993, and spent too long figuring out the right message to record; my two favorite messages were “When it beeps, speak” and “You know what to do.” There was a bit of foreshadowing with configuring the answering machine: how technological conveniences mutate into previously inconceivable black holes of time forever lost, e.g. spending the afternoon reorganizing an itunes music library; updating your drivers for some hardware device attached to the COM, parallel, SCSI, or USB port of your computer; or figuring out what background picture to set on your online society page.

In June of that fateful year, having just released yet another version of personal computer software, and with no desire to ever do so again, I gave notice and left Visioneer in July. I was content and unworried that I had no further full time work lined up, but ironically I did have to buy a computer—I had taken a small consulting job, running a software beta program for an Israeli company with offices in Tel Aviv and Santa Cruz. To manage the program I needed a home computer and to be “online.”

To save money and learn a little about how these things were put together, I built my own desktop computer. At some anonymous computer supply outlet in Fremont, I bought an ATX case, power supply, motherboard, RAM, cpu with fan (an Intel Celeron, overclocked), 3.5″ disc drive, a CD drive, modem, keyboard, mouse, an Iiyama 21″ monitor (it weighed a ton and took up half my desk), and a license for Windows98, put it all together (it worked), got a dial up account at Netgate, and merged that thing onto the information superhighway.

That computer lasted me until 2007, when I left another company, also partly for mental reasons, and was in need of a replacement for that company’s notebook computer which I had been using, in addition to my aged but still functioning desktop. The result was I bought my second computer and first notebook computer that fall, a Dell Latitude from Dell’s online outlet (refurbished, slight dent). I decided to not try to build a notebook computer. That Dell lasted me from about October, 2007, until the rainstorm this last October, 2014 – seven years of use is not bad these days, but I had hoped to get a few more years out of that computer. As it happened we had a computer available for me to use: another Dell of the same vintage, circa 2007, configured almost exactly the same as my dead Dell, although it had a 17″ screen, whereas the old one was 15″. That Dell had been Annie’s, but she had replaced it a few years ago with a Toshiba notebook, which lasted until last summer when some children sat on it, breaking it beyond repair, and she now has an Acer.

Because I had salvaged the hard drive from my wet dead Dell, and I had Annie’s old Dell that worked fine, I was in no hurry to spend money on a new computer. But the gods were against me: in April, 2014 Microsoft had stopped official support for Windows XP, the best personal computer operating system ever. Like rats leaving a sinking ship, I knew that application software makers would one by one stop supporting their applications running on Windows XP. This might not have been a problem, but as I tried to recreate the system I had on the dead Dell, I found I could not come by older versions of software: I would need to either look on Ebay or someplace similar for an older version of an application I needed, or upgrade my operating system. One example was my photo management software, ACDSee. That company no longer published a version of ACDSee that ran on XP, but by chance, through a vendor on Amazon.fr, I found a version of ACDSee that I could install on XP, although it was in French. The French version of ACDSee has worked out fine (it’s even a slightly newer version than the one I had before), but that was the exception, and I knew sooner or later I’d have to get a computer running Windows 7 or newer.

It was now clear to me as never before that computer ownership was the thin wedge of some perverse variation on the second law of thermodynamics: in today’s natural technological state, there is a tendency towards the accumulation of more and more electronics crap. No device can exist in isolation: it requires cables for power and data, adapters and dongles, batteries and accessories. Software is especially bad: for example, a new version of an operating system creates a ripple affecting existing hardware and software: more memory might be needed for that new operating system, or a patch to a driver so a printer still works, or a new version of software if the operating system publisher has some sort of certification program required of software vendors. Old software often cannot run on new computers, and certainly new software can never run on old computers…new wine and old bottles and all that.1Matthew 9:17: Neither do men put … Continue reading

You need to buy more stuff to keep your existing stuff working. Or go back to film, an Olympia typewriter (pica or elite?), and the landline.

Certainly the accumulation of stuff is not limited to personal computer technology: if you have a 35mm camera, a boat, a horse, or any sort of hobby, you have stuff, and it’s not always bad, although how many camera lenses do you really need, and do you really need a knife used only to cut tomatoes?

Of course it’s not all bad, especially those of us of a certain age, who grew up with the rotary phone, calling airlines one by one to book flights, and the yellow pages. A small example: ahead of my divorce, when I separated and moved out on my own, I left behind most electronics, including my awesome Onkyo shelf top stereo system with its five CD magazine that was designed far better, and more compact, than any contemporary carousel system – I still miss that thing. I moved into a new place with only a notebook computer (from my work), and when my divorce transformed from something that was to be as a staid as a Jane Austen novel into some sort of graphic novel, 2:00 am wake ups were normal, and the computer’s ability to show a movie or play some music was a bit of unexpected and useful solace. More recently, I’ve read some books via the Kindle application on my Samsung tablet, and what’s even better is I have previewed a dozen more. I still prefer real books, but there are great advantages to the digital books, and while I find Amazon something of a mixed blessing, the free chapter one that they offer for many books is well done and appreciated.

Still, after the rainstorm that soaked my Dell notebook, when I started to look around for a replacement computer, I was bothered that I was buying something new, contributing to the world of stuff, especially something as environmentally destructive as a computer. Sue Halpern, reviewing Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in The New York Review of Books, ends her essay:

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.2See the January 12, 2012 edition … Continue reading

When we came to France we just had whatever we could carry in our suitcases. Out of necessity we traveled light, in accordance with the quote that could apply to backpackers or sailors: Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.3Backpacking One Step at a Time, … Continue readingWithin a month of our arrival in France we had violated this maxim, but usually out of necessity: our apartment in Marseille was short at least one bed, and the mattresses on the others dated from the Franco-Prussian War, so we bought new ones at Ikea. We also bought some things which we did not need, but made life easier: a good chef knife, a large La Creuset dutch oven, and a stainless steel coffee press – yet the annoying thing about each of these items is we already have these, but they are back in storage in the United States. It didn’t stop there: our first fall in La Garde I bought an Orbea bicycle, yet already have a great Trek in the USA, and our second fall in La Garde I bought a Renault Scenic, which joins my Tundra in my fleet of cars.

Last week I bought a Dell Latitude, my third computer purchase. I bought it used so I can at least fool myself into thinking I’m being slightly less destructive than if I had bought a new computer. I wanted something with a lot of RAM and a fast cpu, and it’s got that, the rest I don’t care much about. It runs Windows 7.1 Pro so I’m back in the game regarding software support. It has a French AZERTY keyboard, and the operating system is configured in French, so I’ll get a little language and typing practice, too. The exterior is the brushed sliver, a nice look, which I hope to enjoy for many years.

To be sure the problem isn’t limited to the accumulation of things – it’s also about how to dispose of it all in a proper manner. Some years back, in a fit of simplification, I got rid of most sports gear: alpine and nordic skis, squash racquets, roller blades, tennis racquets, a Fischer mountain bike, and an Everlast punching bag, among other things. Happily, between Craigslist and Play It Again Sports, it all went to a good home. The same happened when we moved from California, and we sold everything from a baby BOB strollers to a Laser dinghy. We tried not to throw anything overboard.

In another boat, as he is being rowed to the dual , Musashi has only his sword. However, in the bottom of the boat he finds a wooden oar, and preferring that, he carves it into the shape of a sword, a sort of bokken. When the boat reaches the island, he leaves behind his traditional sword and takes with him a simple sword made of wood.


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