Gadget Lust

I’m not a gadget guy. People are often surprised by that because I have something like ten computers. But, see, I’m a computer guy. Didn’t get a cell phone till my latest job required one (and gave one to me). Don’t have GPS. Don’t listen to satellite radio. Didn’t have a DVR, until I made one myself (out of a computer).

I have many guitars and stringed instruments (like a banjo, a dulcimer, a lute), but of these only two plug in to anything. I don’t own a digital watch, a calculator, a PDA, etc.

But I do occasionally get the itch. Such as with this.

I’ve always wanted to make some digital artwork, but I’m not very good. I get by with #2 pencils, and most of the time, what I draw is rather kid-like, at the Ed Emberley level. (Every now and again, for reasons I cannot explain, given a lot of quiet time and concentration, I can make a truly lifelike illustration.) Nonetheless, they come out kind of cute sometimes and it’d be fun to put them up here from time-to-time.

Problem is, the meager ability I have completely vanishes when I try to move to digital tools. I’ve always felt the lack of a really nice tablet was a big culprit there. Sadly, I can’t really justify spending that kind of money. (I miss you, ‘90s tech bubble!)

Ah, well. A guy can dream. If he can sleep, he can dream, anyway.

Come to think of it, though, this isn’t really a gadget so much as a computer peripheral. So, none of my opening ramp really applies, does it?

Wherein I Compare AI Development To Global Warming

Instapundit highlights this little article on Artificial Intelligence where J. Storrs Hall writes the following:

If you’re OK with calling a robot human equivalent if it can, say, do everything a janitor is supposed to, it’s likely by 2025; if it has to be able to create art and literature and do science and wheel and deal in the political and economic world and be a productive entrepreneur, you may have to wait a little bit longer.

Insty quotes this, and it’s a misleading. Hall believes we’ll have an AI capable of janitorial work, not really an AI that can “do everything a janitor is supposed to”. What he means is that we’ll have, essentially, a more advanced Roomba—perhaps humanoid, though humanoid shape wouldn’t be necessarily optimal.

And, no, this isn’t human intelligence. Robot janitors will, guaranteed, be stupid. They’ll clean while building burns—or if that’s prepared for, while the building floods. And if they’re programmed for that, while the roof caves in.

To my mind, the key graf is:

What remains to be seen is whether it will be equivalent to the 2-year-old in that essential aspect that it will learn, grow, and gain in wisdom as it ages.

First of all: No, it won’t. No mystery. See, that would be intelligence, versus pre-programming a set of defined tasks with a certain set of fixed parameters. I’ll give him some credit that he’s wondering, as opposed to making a prediction that anyone will actually be there in 15 years. 25 years ago, people who used to write and speak about AI predicted wondrous things in 5, 10, 15 years.

And we have the Roomba. And some other very cool domain-specializing tools. But nothing like intelligence.

But the idea that a two-year-old is considered less than a janitor, and a janitor less than an artist suggests to me that the field is still lacking a definition of intelligence. A two-year-old has as powerful an intellect as any of us will ever meet. A janitor’s intelligence isn’t necessarily going to be taxed by his job very often, but sometimes it will be—knowing how to react in an unexpected circumstances, like a fire, a flood, previously unsuspected structural unsoundness.

One can argue that many janitors who face such circumstances react wrongly or inappropriately, but they react to the best of their ability. Robots will simply fail to react to things outside their parameters.

Again, not to say that there won’t be useful ‘bots, but this isn’t intelligence.

I’m not an expert in it, but I think the singularity guys have based their theory on a combination of working AI and Moore’s Law. But Moore’s Law is a trend, not an actual “law”, and AI doesn’t seem to be any closer to realization than it ever was—it’s only a massive amount of computing power that allows the meagerest appearance of less-than-animal intelligence.

Appearance, I say. It’s not even intelligence and the distinction is not something that can be remedied with quantity.

I’ll go one step further: If the singularity were to come to pass, it would be a nightmare for humanity. But that’s a different topic for a different rant.

I Hate Windows

I got The Boy some games for his birthday. I used to be a fairly heavy game player myself but haven’t really had the time in years. He’s playing on a machine that’s about six-years-old, which used to be old for my house. Except I started getting laptops instead of desktop machines (for various reasons) so the desktops are starting to creak a bit.

The three games were Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout 3 and Left 4 Dead. (I’ll leave you to figure out whether it’s mandatory for games to have a numeral in the title these days.) Left 4 Dead worked pretty well and he enjoyed it, though with games it’s often not as simple as “I liked it”. (Online play versus campaigns versus scenarios versus free-style versus whatever. A game can excel in one area and suck in the rest, but still be worth playing.)

Since I haven’t been able to use my work machine—I’m not allowed on the treadmill and it shows up on my tests when I cheat—I let The Boy replace his old one with mine. Fallout 3 looks great, but it locked up. GTA IV wouldn’t even start, though.

I’ll skip to the ending and say that I got it working, but here’s what had to be done:

1. Game installation. This takes about 18 whopping gigs of space. (18 gigs!)

2. Entering a massive serial code. Have you seen these? Here’s a sample: 8MEH-RB32G-UPE9U-TRLQR-BLQ9O-CEMBR-ACED. Is that a letter “O” or a zero? You may not know. That, by the way, is assuming you can find the code. It’s usually on the back of the manual, or printed on a disk sleeve, or a disk, or maybe a slip of paper included in the box—or maybe it’s nowhere at all and you bought yourself a $60 coaster.

3. But wait, there’s more! In order to play the game, you have to “activate” it. Sometimes this requires a different code like the one you ended in step 2. The software connects to the developer’s studio (Rockstar Games) and that has to work or you’re hosed. And a variety of issues can make this even more complicated.

4. You still can’t play your game, though, unless the damn DVD is in the drive. The software used to ensure the DVD is actually in the drive can cause all kinds of horrible problems with your system.

5. Almost always, you then have to download a patch and fix the game.

6. Now, when we started the game, it failed. We got a non-helpful error message that led to a bunch of elaborate suggestions on what might need to be done.

7. OK, well, I hadn’t upgraded my Windows from SP2 to SP3. SP3 has “Windows Genuine Advantage” in it. “Windows Genuine Advantage” of course provides no advantage to you, the user. It basically allows Microsoft to kill your computer from a distance if its authorization system which—and I know this may shock you—isn’t always correct about who it authorizes. I bite the bullet and do it anyway.

8. Windows Update required me to upgrade the Windows Updater. You can’t make this kind of thing up.

9. After that, the upgrade failed. The helpful advice from Microsoft? “Try again.” I did. I’m not sure where I’m more appalled that this is their advice, or that it worked.

10. Did I mention upgrading the video card driver? Yeah, did that, too. It’s always a good idea. (Mine was three years old, even though the machine is only two years old.)

11. OK, so now it’s time to try GTA again, right? Brand new error message: “The program failed to start. Check out our support web page.” No error number or details, just “It didn’t start: F**k you.” The only hint was that it was the RGSC.EXE program that failed. That doesn’t seem like GTA. That seems more like Rockstar Games Social Club. Which I don’t want. I just want to play the freakin’ game!

12. The web support page? Not surprisingly, no help for this completely worthless error message.

13. OK, I figure if it’s the freakin’ Social Club causing the problem, I’ll register with the freakin’ Social Club. I use my “ilovespam” e-mail and sign up. The form wants my phone number. Address. Unbelievable. I put in fakes or leave blank. There’s no way this should actually affect whether or not the game runs.

14. But it does. Now, RGSC doesn’t crash and the actual game starts. Yay, right!

15. WRONG! Now you need to update your Windows Live software. Windows Live is yet another freaking “social club”/vehicle for selling crap I don’t want. No choice, but at least it’s clear what’s wrong. I download and install Windows Live.

16. Now Windows Live wants me to join. Just kill me. I skip—but the program starts!! Yay! Now The Boy can boost cars and beat prostitutes!

Back in the DOS and early Windows days, there was all this crap you had to do to get games (like Doom) to run: Memory managers, specific graphics drivers, sound drivers, etc. It was all very technical. You could see why someone might flee to a Nintendo or Jaguar or whatever the kids were playing back then.

I didn’t mention it but I ignored 5 different license agreements in order to get this game to play. Crap like this is one reason I don’t play any more. It actually can be a lot worse. Like, you can get to the end of the process and discover that the game won’t play at all. It might be for a technical limitation—or it might just be that one of the half-dozen security protections failed and decided you were a scum-sucking thief.

The irony being that if you are a scum-sucking thief, you don’t have to deal with any of this.

UPDATE: I SPOKE TOO (*#&*(&q# SOON! GTA IV–after letting The Boy play all yesterday and save his games, today it insisted he have a Windows Live Login. Of course, having one, his save games from yesterday are all gone.

I HATE WINDOWS! I also hate freakin’ consoles. They think it’s cute to put on 5 minutes of copyright/warning/video/uninterruptible crap at the front, and that’s freakin’ infected PC games. Get over yourselves!

The Truth Will Out, Eventually

Nerd News Update:

Slashdot is reporting (via the New York Times) that, whaddayaknow, MS did some last minute shenanigans with the driver model for Vista that broke hardware like crazy.

This is interesting to me because when the initial problems with hardware were reported various Slashdot commenters tried to foist blame on to the hardware manufacturers. They, after all, had plenty of time to prepare.

During the days of OS/2 (Windows’ only serious competition in the early ‘90s), MS used to send people out to pretend to be disgruntled OS/2 users. I later came across some of these professional trolls proudly admitting to their work, though I unfortunately can’t find their boasts today.

But the purpose was served by pushing blame elsewhere before contrary evidence came to light. MS will now push its new version of Windows while maintaining that nothing was really wrong with Vista in the first place.

A Compiler For Every Child

Over on Yahoo (hat tip: CodeGear), Robin Raskin has an interesting inversion of “No Child Left Behind” called “All Children Move Forward”.

The language “No Child Left Behind” evokes certain ideas. If you’re familiar with the infantry rule of not leaving men behind, for example, you could see education as a battlefield with lots of wounded–an analogy that works on a lot of levels.

In any event, it’s an inherently defensive phrase. The fact that you’d feel the need to emphasize not leaving children behind suggests that you are, in fact, leaving children behind. Lots of children. Enough for you to make a point out of stopping. (A tee-totaler doesn’t make strong statements about how he’ll never drink again.)

Anyway, the article’s data point is on CodeGear’s deal to authorize a million licenses to Russia. Good for them. Delphi is a great tool, and friendly enough for kids to grasp quickly while having depth they would be hard-pressed to exhaust.

Smart move, too, because those kids will grow up and whose tools will they be familiar with? (Delphi was released 13 years ago last month, which raises some other points of interest.)

What never fails to come up is that there’s no one to teach these tools. (OLPC detractors make this point, as well.) It’s doubtless true that a big chunk of children won’t be able to–or will lack interest to–suss all this out for themselves. But the percentage that will is larger than zero. To the gifted outliers, this will be manna from heaven.

And the rest? Well, remember, there are teachers. Way more than ever before. The internet is full of them. No one really needs to learn much of anything alone these days. The more tools kids have, the better.

You’ve Got Women, You’ve Got Women On Your MInd

Andy Marken sends along this interesting document discussing whether women are being served by computer companies. One of the things I love about this is that he uses Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman as his reference point. (Someone, somewhere, should be offended, I’m sure.)

Throughout the ‘80s and early ’90s, the big question in the computer industry was “How do we get people who don’t use computers to use computers?” I confess we always thought that was a kind of stupid question. But that’s because we were coming from the heavy geek perspective. Sure we used e-mail and bulletin boards to create communities, but the technical bar on that was high enough to keep most people out.

And, by keeping most people out, it was safe to classify it as “nerdy”.

This, in turn, kept more people out for fear of nerd-by-association. It was the GUI that lowered the bar for most, and the World Wide Web (itself a sort of GUI on top of the Internet) that provided the carrot.

True story: When a neighbor complained that she had to drive her son to the library for a research project, we asked her why she didn’t just use the Internet. Her response, “You can look things up on the Internet? I thought it was just for shopping!”

So.

The Wild West days of computing are over (sadly) and, as always happens, the womenfolk have moved in and civilized things.

Andy talks in terms of hardware and services, of course, and gets down to the nitty-gritty of demographics. Curiously, he doesn’t mention the one computer company that women love: Apple.

Apple seems to have realized something few others have: Because hardware and software are mostly at a commodity level, whether you buy a PC from Dell or Fujitsu or Sony or use OpenOffice or that copy of Microsoft Office you got from work or send mail using Google, HotMail or Yahoo… None of it amounts to very much real world difference.

And so they focus on aesthetics. The iPod entered the market to derision. Why, it had less capacity and it cost more and you couldn’t replace the battery…. All valid points, but MP3 players, like computers in the ’80s, were geek devices. The iPod made them cool.

That they were going to do the same thing with the iPhone was obvious, though the ramifications haven’t been fully felt. Apple isn’t just serving women, they’re angling to turn these markets into ones that are actually consumer-oriented.

As has been pointed out, the people who buy Microsoft’s software are its resources, not its customers. Its customers are big companies who want MS to lock things down. Same with phones, to a degree.

But Apple appeals strongly to women, at least going back to those Mac commercials which compared the tangly jungle of wires on the back of the PC to the sleek clean look of the Mac. And more recently, with the Airbook–a thing of beauty which, like most of Apple’s products sacrifices a degree of practicality and frugality, for a whole lot of aesthetics.

All this goes to suggesting that Marken is essentially correct: There are big bucks on the table, and from what I can see, only Apple is picking them up. (And this coming from a guy whose last piece of Apple hardware was 1979’s classic Apple ][.)

Remember the iPod commercial that used this video? Mad TV parodied it. It’s kind of funny. But the lament–that every time Apple comes out with a new iPod, one is required to purchase it–is a suggestion that Apple has achieved a kind of holy grail: Not only do people feel compelled to buy our products, they feel compelled to do so every time we make a change to them.

This is a place every industrialist must strive to be, don’t you think?