Gender Disappointment – psychological condition or just spoilt?

When I was a kid, out strolling with my mum, we would often meet a lady of similar age to my mum who’d had a child that suffered from Down’s Syndrome.  Back then in the 1960s / 70s, it was a rare sight to actually see a child with Downs out and about.  Many died relatively early, and others were institutionalised.  This lady had chosen to keep her child at home with her.  He was a happy child – I would see him on and off until I left home.  I think he was a wee bit younger than I was.  What her reactions would have been when the child was born I had no idea; I can only imagine.  But in later life whenever I mother and son they seemed perfectly happy, despite the  difficulties they both faced.

I was reminded of this lady this morning when, on my scout through the online editions of various Sunday newspapers, I came across this article about a ‘psychological condition’ known as Gender Disappointment.  This is the condition suffered by women (and their partners) who give birth to a perfectly healthy child who’s the wrong sex – they get a girl when they wanted a boy, or vice-versa.  Now, I can see that it may be a severe disappointment to know that you’re going to get a little girl when you already have 3 or 4 boys; but that, I’m afraid, is genetics and biochemistry for you.  That’s the way the cookie crumbles – there may be things you can do with diet and such to make conception of a child of a particular sex more likely, but I’m not sure how effective they are.  And yes, it can be heartbreaking if you have 5 or 6 girls and desperately want a boy for whatever reason.

But here’s a quote from a woman suffering from this ‘condition’:

“Another mother of three boys writes: ‘I honestly don’t think I’ll ever get over not having a girl. I think about it every day, and the  disappointment never goes away. I will carry this agony with me for the rest of my life.'”

I’m sorry.  Three healthy sons.  This ‘disappointment’ is a slap in the face to the childless.  This ‘agony’ is an insult to those who have given birth to a disabled child that will require constant care, or that will die in childhood.  And what do her own children feel about this?  That they’re ‘second best’?

The perceptive amongst you will by now have gathered that, as I put the term ‘psychological condition’ in inverted commas, I’m not at all convinced.  Post natal depression is a psychological condition.  OCD is a psychological condition.  ‘Gender Disappointment’ is not a psychological condition; it’s an excuse given by some whinging couples to feel sorry for themselves because, possibly for the first time in a long time, they haven’t got exactly what they wanted.  The ‘perfect family’ they envisaged ain’t going to be perfect because they have boys rather than girls, or vice-versa.  I have a name for folks who bitch when they don’t get exactly what they want.  It’s called being SPOILED.

So, sufferers of Gender Disappointment; grow up, get over it, get a grip, stop whinging and appreciate the fact that you have healthy children. Count your blessings and accept them for what they are – one of the great miracles of life.

24 hours of techno-hell!

For better or worse I’m a tad dependent upon the technology around me working to support me in my work, entertainment, staying in touch with friends – the usual.  So, I have to say now that Friday 26th February has now been officially declared ‘Techno-Hell Day’ – the day on which most aspects of communications and media technology at Pritchard Towers decided to withdraw their functionality.

As is often the way, Facebook kicked off proceedings with a smattering of the bugs for which it is well known; I can sort of handle the events of two days ago being displayed as ‘most recent’ – what tends to brass me off big time is when the Notes application in Facebook decides to stop importing my blog.  There’s usually a 5 or 6 hour delay between me writing a blog post and Facebook reflecting that fact automatically; in the last week or two there have been outages in the service that’s prevented blog posts from getting to Facebook at all.  So I’ve been manually adding details of the Blog posts, or stopping and starting the Facebook notes application – a process which seems to import TWO copies of the most recent Blog…sigh….

OK – situation normal, Facebook fuc…er…broken.

What’s this…Broadband seems rather slow.  Ooops…Broadband is now absent.  Broadband is now back…running at a tenth of normal speed.  A quick call to BT indicates that there are ‘significant network problems’ – again, this seems to have happened more frequently in the last year than in the previous 8 or 9 years we’ve had BT Broadband installed. 

And finally – attempted to record the NME Awards on the all singing, all dancing, DVD recorder.  Woke up this morning to see that the DVD recorder had decided it really didn’t WANT to record the awards for us.  It had happily recorded adverts before…just decided to crap all over the disc.  And the T4 programme about the same awards this morning seems to be full of up their own backsides presenters rather than the music.

And in to Saturday….Facebook – still stuffed.  Broadband…seems better.  DVD recorder – amazingly enough recording.

Ah well….that’s life in the white heat, bleeding edge techno-world of Pritchard Towers.  Where’s my slate and chalk?

Twitter Phishing…YOUR responsibility!

The recent spate of Twitter ‘phishing’ attacks have been interesting for me in a number of ways. First of all, my wife received one of the phishing DMs from a contact of hers whose account had been compromised. Fortunately, she knew enough not to enter any details in to the page she was directed to, and there was no harm done. A quick change of password just to be on the safe side, and that was that.  Fortunately, she knew enough not to enter any details in to the page she was directed to, and there was no harm done. A quick change of password just to be on the safe side, and that was that.  This particular DM was one that was a ‘social engineering’ attack – an invitation to check a website out to see if the recipient of the DM were featured on that site.  A nice try – after all, most people are interested in finding themselves on the Net!


The second point of interest is why the sudden flurry of attempts to compromise Twitter accounts. It’s been suggested that one reason is that the compromised accounts will be used to promote sites in to search engines, based on the recent development of search relationships between Yahoo and Microsoft’s ‘Bing’.  Getting hold of the Twitter accounts would have been the first stage of the operation; the idea would be to automate those accounts to ‘spam’ other users with  other links over the next few weeks to attempt to increase the search engine standing of those links.

But the thing that’s surprised me most is how often people have actually gone along with the phishing request – to enter your Twitter user name and password into an anonymous web page, with no indication as to what the page is!  To be honest, it stuns me.  And it isn’t just Internet neophytes – according to this BBC story an invitation to improve one’s sex life was followed through on by banks, cabinet ministers and media types.  Quite funny, in a way, but also quite disturbing – after all, these are people who’re likely to have fairly hefty lists of contacts on their PCs, and whilst an attack like the one detailed in this article is quite amusing, a stealthier attack launched by a foreign intelligence service against a cabinet minister’s account would be of much greater potential concern.

There are no doubt technical solutions that twitter can apply to their system to reduce the risk of the propagation of these Phsihing attacks.  For example, looking at the content of DMs sent from an account and flagging up a warning if a large number of DMs are sent containing the same text.  Twitter have also been forcing password changes on compromised accounts – again, this has to be a good move.  It might also be worth their while pruning accounts that have been unused for a length of time – or at least forcing a password change on them. 

A further part of the problem is with the use of Link Shortening services like to reduce the length of URLs in Tweets.  This means that you can’t even take a guess at the safety or otherwise of a shortened link;  a link that is goobledegook could lead to the BBC Website to read the story I mentioned above, or to a site that loads a worm on to a Windows PC – or prompts you for your Twitter credentials.  perhaps a further move for Twitter would be to remove the characters in URLs from the 140 character limit.  That way, full URLs could be entered without shortening.

But ultimately a lot of the responsibility for Twitter phishing attacks lies with us users.  We need to bear the following in mind:

  1. If you get a DM or Reply from ANYONE that says ‘Is this you’ or ‘Read this’ form a friend, then to be honest, check with the person concerned to see whether they have sent them.  If you get such a message from anyone who’s not well known to you, then just ignore the message.
  2. DO NOT enter your Twitter username and password in to any website that a link takes you to.  If you do do this, change your password as soon as possible, and don’t use the Twitter password on ANY other system.
  3. Keep an eye on your Followers – if there is someone you don’t like the look of, just block them.  It may seem extreme but it stops possible miscreants ‘hiding in plain sight’.
  4. Ensure your anti-virus and anti-malware software is up to date – this is your last line of defence designed to stop malware that YOU have allowed on to your machine by falling for phishing scams. 🙂

So…play your part in reducing the impact of Twitter Phishing attacks by not clicking those links!

The wee small hours….

Even when I have something worth worrying about, I have to say that it takes a lot of worry to stop me sleeping; having said that, I doubt there’s a night goes by without me waking up at some point.  2 years ago, however, I did manage to sleep through an earthquake, but that’s another story.

When I do wake in the night I usually just let my mind drift until I doze off again; last night I found myself reflecting on the peace and quiet of that moment.  My wife was sleeping by me; two out of our three cats were in the usual place, and Jarvis (almost certainly the cause of my wakefullness) was wandering around the bed trying to find a place to sleep.  It was quiet, warm.  I was incredibly comfortable, and wasn’t bothered whether I went back to sleep or not.

I love that feeling; it’s the state of mind in which I count my blessings.  Yesterday I learnt of the death of a young woman known and clearly loved by several of my friends.  I found myself thinking last night of all the other folks my wife and I know, younger than we are, who’ve had ill health over recent months and years; almost a reversal of the natural order of things.  I thought of their families, and of my own mortality.  Not in a gloomy way – almost a matter of fact acceptance and realisation that my presence in the world and awareness of that presence is one of the many ‘everyday miracles’ we take for granted.

Jarvis settles for a while by my side; there’s silence in the world outside and it’s still pitch black.  A moment of light – that usually indicates that the neighbour’s porch-light’s been triggered by the passage of some animal or other.  It also starts me realising that there are a few things in my life I’m not going to manage.  I’ll not be an astronaut; I won’t become a world famous political or business figure; I might make millionaire with a lot of luck and the odd break.  On the up-side, though, I’ve done all sorts of stuff and had a good time doing it.  I have a wonderful wife, beautiful God-daughter and niece who I love dearly, and other folks in my life who I love and respect and who, I think, have the same feelings for me.

In other words, I’ve counted my blessings and found them good.  When it comes down to it, I think it’s the ‘small stuff’ of life that can bring most pleasure.  Like being warm, comfortable, with people you love.

Whatever else today may bring, I’m happy to have experienced that time of quiet in the middle of the night, a time when I knew that, in the words of Browning:

“God’s in his Heaven —
All’s right with the world!”

and I start this new day content.

The To Do List!

todolistWith thanks to Rachel G. who gave me the idea of writing this up!

Over the years I must have tried any number of Time Management techniques – I have to say that whilst I’m much better these days at fitting what I need to do in to the time available, but it’s taken a fair amount of time to get the simple fact through my head that there are only 24 hours in a day and no matter how hard I try I can’t ‘manage’ that time – no matter what I do it still passes me by at the rate of 1 minute per minute.  I can’t stockpile it, slow it down, speed it up; just work with it.

During teh 80s I tried to run with a diary, then a Filofax; in the 90s it was a Time Management System.  They didn’t help me much at all.  Then, sometime in the early 2000s, I came across the solution to my pain which I’ve worked with ever since.  The simple To Do List – and today I’m going to share with you the secrets of my listing success! 🙂

The Book

Despite having a Blackberry (I love the calendar function) I still use a hard backed A$ notebook as my main day to day journal.  Apart from making notes in meetings, containing my To Do lists and being my general working notebook, it’s also the place where I initially record my dreams first thing in the morning and any bright ideas I have.  Each of these notebooks last me between 6 months and a year, and I label them up according to the first and last day recorded in them.  I have a stack of old ones upstairs!

The Time Slot

I was terrible at being on time for appointments and estimating task duration and completion dates.  My wife realised the problem; I tried to fit too much in to the time I had available, and was making unrealistic expectations of myself.  So, I started working on the concept of a ‘time slot’ for tasks.  the commonly used slots are as follows:

  • 0.5 hours – absolute minimum time for ANY item in the list.
  • 1 hour – simple programming tasks – simple bugs, basic functions.
  • 2 hours  –  programming tasks that involve modifying screen layouts, new database tables, etc.
  • half a day – any task requiring time away from home, client meetings.

Fitting my tasks within the day in to these slots sometimes results in me underestimating what I can get done, but it gives me ample time to deal with unexpected problems, making tea, combing cats, playing with Twitter, etc.  It also means that I can usually under-promise / over-deliver.

The List

The actual list consists of….well….a list of tasks that I want to get done within a day.  I try to write things down in order of importance (rather than urgency).  The first thing I do is take a look at yesterday’s list; anything that wasn’t done I’ll consider bringing forward on to today’s list.  Otherwise, I’ll try and split jobs from the previous day’s list as follows:

  1. Not that important, more of a ‘nice to have’.
  2. Something that I am waiting on someone else for – i.e. I need information or resources to do it.
  3. Something that I am prevaricating over.
  4. Something that is now no longer relevant.

If it’s in category (1) then I’m likely to just leave it on the previous day’s list and make a note for today to ‘take a look at yesterday’ if I have time.  If (2) then I check whether I have the resources; if I don’t then I’ll waste no more time on it but list it.  If (3) then if important I’ll prioritise it.  If (4) then it just gets dumped.  I also take a little time out to determine why I’m bringing stuff forward.  For example, did I hit snags with other tasks that caused me to over-run?  Did I try to fit too much in?

Once I’ve got the list I go through it and attach a rough time to each item, and prioritise based on the ground of urgent/important, important, urgent.  If the amount of time taken is longer than the working day, then stuff gets carried over to the next day’s list.

I’ll often put the list together the night before the day to which it refers; that way I have the list ready to go when I hit the desk.

The ‘Special List’

This is a list not attached to a particular day but that consists of things that need doing at some time over the next few weeks.  It gets prioritised and ‘timed’ like my daily list.

And that’s it!

I work through the list, sticking with the priority order I’ve set as far as I can.  If I get bogged down with soemthing, I allow myself to flip around the list a little, but will attempt to clear all the urgent/important and important stuff that I’ve allocated to myself for that day.  I don’t get myself too hung up on the list; some days there’ll be stuff that’s not finished; other days I’ll get the chance to eat in to the ‘Special List’ a little.

Things to bear in mind  If something takes significantly longer or shorter than I estimated, I’ll note the actual time donwn, but NOT less than half an hour.

If you want to try this technique out, then the following may prove useful:

  1. Old books are a guide to timings; I often estimate jobs by looking back at how long previous jobs took.
  2. If jobs keep getting moved around the lists, take a good hard look at them to see whether there are any subconcious reasons why you aren’t tackling them.  Take a look at my article on Banjo playing JEDI.
  3. Don’t try and fit too much in to the day.
  4. Sometimes you may get benefits from ignoring the priorities you initially set and just getting jobs ‘knocked off’.  This works well in terms of your lists getting shortened but just remember that the aim is to get the jobs on the list done, not make the list look good!

They STILL shoot horses, don’t they?

One of the things that has surprised me over the last few months has been the resurgence of dance in various forms as a staple of the TV entertainment schedules.  Not that I’ve actually bothered to watch any of it; having two left feet and an aversion for sequins and modern dance has meant that vast tracts of the viewing schedule have been out of bounds for me recently.  When I was a kid I remember watching ‘Come Dancing’ occasionally with my mum – professional dancers doing things with odd sounding names like ‘Rhumbas’ and ‘Tangos’.  The only Tango I’ve ever enjoyed fully (including the orange drink) was the one in one of the Addams family films….

It seemed that Dance was taking over from reality TV as a source of programming material, and I after chatting about it with my wife we started to wonder whether we were seeing a modern day and much diluted equivalent of the ‘Dance Marathons’ from the 1930s depression that gave rise to the film ‘They shoot horses, don’t they?‘ 

The Dance Marathons of the Great Depression were events in which couples competed to see who could dance for the longest – frequently going for over 24 hours.  Couples would drop out when they were exhausted, and the lucky winners would walk away with a few hundred or a thousand dollars.  The marathons gave people without much hope the opportunity of getting their hands on a lump sum of money that, if not life changing, would certainly keep the wolf from the door for a while.  Of course, the possibility of illness or death from exhaustion was always there.  

Obviously, we don’t see that sort of thing happen today – but the analogy is rather striking.  Both times of recession, both periods in which there was severe cultural and environmental issues (back in the 1930s the political extremism came from the Fascist right and the environmental disasters came not from global warming but from soil erosion problems in the US Midwest).  The difference is that today the process is drawn out of weeks and viewed by millions, and, if we include shows like Britain’s Got Talent, has potentially tens of thousands of people who audition and never get to the televised finals.

Will we ever see something like those marathons happen today in the UK?  I doubt it; but I wonder how far the various talent and ‘public access’ dance shows like ‘Got To Dance’ will go in the pursuit of audiences?  The demise of ‘Big Brother’ may just be a temporary hiccough in the history of reality TV; perhaps the way forward will be a return to the past.

The Last Temptation of Mankind?

halOne of my professional interests is in Artificial Intelligence – AI.  I think I’ve had an interest in the simulation of human personality by software for as long as I’ve been interested in programming, and have also heard most of the jokes around the subject – particularly those to do with ‘making friends’. 🙂  In fiction, most artificial intelligences that are portrayed have something of an attitude problem; we’ve had HAL in 2001 – insane.  The Terminator designed to be homicidal.  The Cylons in the new version of Battlestar Galactica and the ‘prequel’ series, Caprica – originally designed as mechanical soldiers and then evolving in to something more human with an initial contempt for their creators.  The moral of the story – and it goes all the way back to Frankenstein – is that there are indeed certain areas of computer science and technology where man is not meant to meddle. 

Of course, we’re a long way away form creating truly artificial intelligences; those capable of original thought that transcends their programming.  I recently joked that we might be on our way to having a true AI when the program tells us a joke that it has made up that is genuinely funny!  I think the best we’ll manage is to come up with a clever software conjuring trick; something that by deft programming and a slight suspension of disbelief of people interacting with the software will give the appearance of an intelligence.  This in itself will be quite something, and will probably serve many of the functions that we might want from an artificial intelligence – it’s certainly something I find of interest in my involvement in the field.

But the problem with technology is that there is always the possibility of something coming at us unexpectedly that catches us out; it’s often been said that the human race’s technical ability to innovate outstrips our ethical ability to come up with the moral and philosophical tools we need to help our culture deal with the technical innovations by anywhere from a decade to 50 years; in other words, we’re constantly trying to play catch up with the social, legal and ethical implications of our technological advances.

One area where I hope we can at least do a little forward thinking on the ethical front is in the field of AI; would a truly ‘intelligent’ artificial mind be granted the same rights and privileges as a human being or at the very least an animal?  How would we know when we have achieved such a system, when we can’t even agree on definitions of intelligence or whether animals themselves are intelligent? 

Some years ago I remember hearing a BT ‘futurist’ suggesting that it might not be more than a decade or so before it would be possible to transfer the memory of a human being in to a computer memory, and have that memory available for access.  This isn’t the same as transferring the consciousness; as we have no idea what ‘conciousness’ is, it’s hard to contemplate a tool that would do such a thing.   But I would accept that transferring of memories in to storage might be possible and might even have some advantages, even if there are ethical and the ultimate in privacy implications to deal with.  Well, it’s certainly more than a decade ago that I heard this suggestion, and I don’t believe we’re much closer to developing such a technology, so maybe it’s harder than was thought.

But what if….

In the TV series ‘Caprica’, the artificial intelligence that controls the Cylons is provided by an online personality created by a teenage girl for use as an avatar in cyberspace that is downloaded in to a robot body.  In Alexander Jablokov’s short story ‘Living Will’   a computer scientist works with a computer to develop a ‘personality’ in the computer to be a mirror image of his own, but that won’t suffer from the dementia that is starting to affect him.  In each case a sentient program emerges that in all visible respects  is identical to the personality of the original creator.  The  ‘sentient’ program thus created is a copy of the original.  In both Caprica and ‘Living Will’ the software outlives it’s creator.

But what if it were possible to transfer the consciousness of a living human mind over to such a sentient program?  Imagine the possibilities of creating and ‘educating’ such a piece of software to the point at which your consciousness could wear it like a glove.  From being in a situation where the original mind looks on his or her copy and appreciates the difference, will it ever be possible for that conscious mind to be moved in to that copy, endowing the sentient software with the self awareness of the original mind, so that the mind is aware of it’s existence as a human mind when it is in the software?

Such electronic immortality is (I hope) likely to be science fiction for a very long time.  The ethical, eschatological and moral questions of shifting consciousnesses around are legion.  Multiple copies of minds?  Would such a mind be aware of any loss between human brain and computer software? What happens to the soul?

It’s an interesting view of a possible future  for mankind, to live forever in an electronic computer at the cost of becoming less than human?  And for those of us with spiritual beliefs, it might be the last temptation of mankind, to live forever and turn one’s back on God and one’s soul.

Web 2.0 – User Generated Content or garbage?

wastebinSome months ago, an Internet Form that I belonged to was taken offline after an internal dispute….and it never came back.  The upshot of it was that the content of the forum was no longer available – gone for good.  Of course, it wasn’t all pearls of ever-lasting wisdom, but there was some interesting stuff there that’s now gone forever.  A week or so ago, another friend commented on my Facebook profile about the ephemeral nature of a lot of what we put online  as ‘User Generated Content’, and it’s quality, and that got me thinking about just how much user generated content is worthy of any form of retention.

‘Web 2.0’ is very much about user generated content; a Web 2.0 site is essentially designed by the interaction that it offers users of the site – be it the ability to configure the user experience, participate in discussions, real time chat, post articles or images, whatever.   For those of us from the 70s and 80s,  it’s all very reminiscent of the paper based fanzines and newsletters we created, or the BBS systems of the 1980s and 990s – of course, the sheer volume and speed of communication offered by Web 2.0 exceeds the earlier versions of ‘user generated content’.

One might even include things like ‘Letters to the Editor’ in newspapers and magazines – how many of us knew someone who’d had a letter published in the local, or even national, press?  And then you get in to the rarer scenario of having an article, poem or story accepted for publication – and getting paid for it.  I still remember all the details of the first article that I had published in 1982 in the now defunct magazine ‘Electronics and Computing Monthly’.

The further you go back, the more important one thing becomes – and that’s editorial filtering.  Basically, space was limited in magazines, and so you wanted to fill it with what would sell.  And that’s where the quality control of the editor came in.  Even with fanzines, there was a similar need – you had a limited amount of space dictated by the cost of copying, postage and the time taken to type and duplicate it all.

Today, many of these limitations are gone – cost of publication is minimal, distribution is done by the reader picking their copy up form your site, etc.  Anyone can set up a publication in the form of a site, and expect to get a lot of content from users of the site.  In theory, a perfect world of conversation between similarly minded people across the globe, with no editor getting in the way and dictating policy.  It’s a wonderful dream.  And it doesn’t work.

To be honest, most people are just not up to the job of writing for an audience; the editor didn’t introduce censorship – he or she bought along quality control, focus and direction for the publication.  I’m far from perfect myself, but I learnt quite a bit about writing for an audience by having a couple of hundred article and a dozen or so books published in the days of the ‘paper press’.  If we forget the obvious nonsense that turns up as comment on blogs – the spam, the ‘me too’ and ‘I agree’ posts – then much of what does end up online is often poorly phrased rant or loosely disguised ‘advertorial’.   A lot of content on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and the online discussion forums is by it’s nature ephemeral – water cooler discussions enshrined in hard disc space – and the good stuff that you do find is typically drowned in the noise.

Like I said, I’m far from perfect and am conscious enough of my own abilities to know that my blog is simply the 2010 equivalent of a fanzine written by me and with a small audience.  But it’s important that we don’t get fixated on the idea that the removal of editorial policy on the web and the resultant ‘free for all’ for people to provide content is necessarily good.

It isn’t.  It’s removed quality control, and generated a Web that is increasingly full of rubbish.  If you want quality – look for sites with editorial policy or moderation.

The PAYG Laptop?

You write one article about Appliance Computing and the following morning this BBC story pops up – Laptop Launched to aid computer novices’.  The ‘Alex’, a Linux based laptop, is aimed at people who’re occasional computer users and comes with an Office suite, mail, browser, broadband connection and a monthly fee.  In other words, a PAYG laptop.  There’s nothing new about this; a number of Mobile Phone Companies offer mobile broadband access packages that include a Windows laptop, and in the recent past there have been a few occasions when companies have attempted to launch similar schemes, sometimes backed with advertising.

I say attempted, because they’ve tended not to work, and I’m not at all convinced that this one will be any more succesful.  The company’s website describes the package available here,and to be honest it does seem rather over-priced for what is a modified and stripped down Ubuntu distro.  And one that seems to only work when your broadband connection is running.  It’s a good business model provided that you can get people to buy in to it.  There’s a review of the package to be read here.

Now, first question – who is the market place?  The Broadband company who’ve developed this package claim that almost 25% of people in the UK with computers don’t know how to use it.  really?  That I find difficult to believe.  Most folks I know – across the board, non-techies, techies, old, young, whatever are quite au fait with using their computer to do what they want to do.  There may be aspects of computing that they don’t get, in the same way that I don’t ‘get’ iTunes, for example, or the intricacies of computer or video gaming, but I know no-one who’s bought a computer who doesn’t make some use of it.  Perhaps that 25% didn’t really want a computer, or have ended up with one totally unsuitable for them?

If the market sector is this 25%, then what proportion are willing to buy a £400 computer and a £10 access fee?  Apparently a ‘sofwtare only’ option that can be installed on older computers and that will simply cost you the monthly fee is out in the next couple of months, which might allow people with older computers to make use of them.  the package comes with 10Gb online storage; does this mean that local storage is not available?  If so, what happens to your data if you don’t pay your monthly fee or cancel your subscription?  To be honest, that sounds like something of a lock-in akin to Google Docs.  According to this review, on stopping the subscription, the PC effectively ‘expires’ – along with the access to your data.

I’m afraid that from what I can see I’m not impressed with either the environment or the limitations offered.  One of teh things that you learn after a while in putting together user interfaces is that people who come in knowing nothing soon gather skills and in some cases start finding the ‘simple interface’ that originally attracted them to be a limitation.  With a standrad PC, you just start using more advanced programs and facilities; with something like the Alex you’re stuck with what you’re given.  And whilst you could just buy a PC, and ask someone to set it up ‘simple’ for you (to be honest, it isn’t THAT difficult with a Windows PC, Mac or Linux machine if you ask about) and use a more ‘mainstream’ machine, you’re still stuck with your data being locked in to the Alex environment.

The solution to this problem is perhaps to look at front ends that sit on existing platforms, rather than work to further facilitate the move towards a computer appliance future split between a large number of manufacturers who lock us in to proprietary data stores.

The Appliance Computer?

ipadWell, the fuss over the launch of the iPad has died down somewhat – it wasn’t the Second Coming or the Rapture, the world didn’t suddenly turn Rainbow coloured (not for me. anyway) and the Apple Fans have gone quiet.  So, perhaps it’s time to take a few minutes to think about what the iPad might mean in the future.   This is an interesting viewpoint – that the iPad could be the first step on the road to the computer as a true ‘appliance’. 

In some ways, this might not be a bad thing – after all, it’s the way that all technology has tended to go over the years.  Take for example radio – the first radio receivers required the operators to be reasonably knowledgeable about the equipment, and in some cases be able to build and maintain their own equipment.  Radios required large outside aerials, and I clearly remember a ‘Home Maintenance’ book that my mum had that dated from the 1920s that had great amounts of information about how to service your wireless were it to go wrong.  By the 1930s they were more self contained ‘black boxes’ – OK, self contained walnut wood boxes – and by the time we hit the 1970s little radios were being given away as children’s toys.  We’re moving along that path with computers; when home computers first became available then you were expected to want to write some of your own programs or even build the machine, then published software came along, then we have the time we’re in now when very few people write their own software at all. 

But the thing is with contemporary computers is that you can still write your own software if you wish to; you can go out, buy a copy of VB.NET, download Python or PHP or Java and with some application write your own software.  And if your computer doesn’t support media you want to view or listen to, you can just get a piece of software installed that will do the trick.  And if you want it to do something totally new, you can again find an application somewhere, or write your own, or commission someone else to write it for you – all without fear or favour.

If computers follow the logical progression, then we could expect to see them move on to a stage of development where they are pretty much ‘closed units’ – the old joke of ‘no user serviceable parts’ will be very applicable.  Think of the computer of tomorrow as being a little like your smartphone or a digital TV with Satellite TV and a DVD recorder built in; there’s content for you to view, you can save it, there may be services to buy, but you’re not going to be able to add functionality to it by producing your own code or content to run on it.

In other words, surprisingly like an iPad.  And some analysts have noted that the apparent lack of expandability of the iPad might not be a design omission, but might actually be a deliberate design policy.

Producing computers that are simply glorified media players has a number of advantages for many parts of the hardware and content industries.  To start with, if you can totally control the hardware and software environment then you can restrict your support calls; many software houses that produce applications for Windows have to have reasonable support functions in their companies because whilst their software runs on Windows, each PC running Windows is to a great degree unique, and therefore offers a near unique environment on which the application runs. 

A further point is that once you stop people from being able to put their own software on these machines, then you also prevent a lot of the issues of illicit copying.  By controlling the platform you can control the way in which the platform handles content that might be protected by some sort of Digital Rights Management software.  Indeed, it’s not too difficult to imagine a situation in which the functionality available on the unit can be remotely enabled and disabled  based on the payment of licenses or rental fees – similar to the way in which satellite TV receivers can be activated or de-activated remotely.

The Appliance Computer has a lot to offer manufacturers and content providers; it locks users in; it protects content; it makes the equipment more reliable.  But it also eats away at the very foundations of what has made so many software applications possible – the ability for anyone to write their own software.

Don’t let Appliance Computing remove the freedom to compute.