In the article “Kindle Vs. Books: The Dead Trees Society” by Sara Barbour, the author expresses her reluctance to switch to an e-reader, even when one was offered to her as a gift, free of charge. The reason for this is not due to usability issues, or lack of features; in fact she mentions she’s never even tried one. It seems to be a romantic resistance to a world where books are more readily available in a digital format, rather than the tried and true “dead tree” medium.
On the other hand, she goes on to opine that she just “doesn’t want to be tempted” with the prospect of carrying around several books at a time on the airplane or at the coffee shop. To me, this idea makes no sense; to deprive yourself of something because you might find it more convenient than the alternative seems a bit crazy.
She goes on to explain that paper books have a personality; they can be signed by an author, and develop signs of wear and tear as they are opened and enjoyed time and time again. This is absolutely true, and I don’t disagree as I have my own vast collection of titles with dog-eared pages and well-worked spines. And like the author, I’m also concerned about the environment, and have many titles on my shelf that I’ve read only once and never picked up again. How many trees could have been spared if I had read that text in a digital format?
The Best of Both Worlds
To my mind, this is not a matter of choosing one or the other.
Traditional books will be a part of our culture for many years to come. Some people will always prefer to read off of paper, and many authors find the relationship with their pen or typewriter provides a different kind of connection than when they sit down at their keyboard. Personally, I think the two mediums compliment each other; I will often scribble ideas in my classic Moleskine notebook as the inspiration hits me, annotating and doodling as I go along. Eventually, these ideas will become documents, blog posts, or entire websites.
If anything, in a dystopian future where the traditional book is rare, the value of quality binding and typesetting should be even more appreciated. For example, a single copy of a first-edition printing of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is currently available on Ebay for approximately $4,403 Canadian dollars. Serious book-collectors are a passionate bunch, and will clearly go to great lengths to keep the written word alive.
Just as I can now carry dozens of full-length music albums in my pocket (on my iPod), I look forward to having hundreds of books at my immediate disposal. The printed word has indeed changed the course of human history, and it will continue to do so for many years to come.
Back in the early days of the web, there were many options for searching. It was mostly a matter of preference which you used, and for some people, it was whichever one came as the default start page on your computer. Here are a few examples of the numerous pages that all claimed to be the best way to search the net:
Some time ago, Microsoft released their own search engine, and called it Bing. Their plan was to offer an alternative to Google. Two words describe the outcome so far: “Epic Fail.” Sometimes the results provided by Bing aren’t even close to Google. For example, my other blog at bcscc.ca details the activities of the club I’m a member of, which include the hunt for Bigfoot and Ogopogo in British Columbia. We’re by far the largest organization in Canada devoted to the search for strange creatures.
On Google, searching for “bc bigfoot” lists our page fourth from the top. On Bing, performing the exact same search for “bc bigfoot” doesn’t seem to list our page at all; Wikipedia’s own article on Bigfoot only turns up on the 6th page of search results, far deeper than your average user is going to look. This is just one example, but as an IT worker I’ve witnessed a number of instances where people have used Bing in their Internet Explorer search bar and quickly gotten frustrated because they can’t find what they’re looking for. As soon as I suggest they try the same search on Google, the frustration disappears as the expected results just turn up.
There is one area where Microsoft still has the edge on Google. MS Word is still my preferred platform for document creation and design. However, Google Docs is steadily improving and makes it much easier to share and collaborate with others on your work. I think the days of installing hundreds of megabytes of software just to the occasional spreadsheet are numbered, and soon Google will own that too.
Edison is often considered the most famous inventor in American history. But there was another character often overlooked by the history books that accomplished much more, and whose contributions may end up being far more significant than Edison’s over the next hundred years or so. His name is Nikola Tesla, and some would say he had a mastery of electricity that has yet to be matched. He was born in what is now Serbia, and moved to the US while still young and impressionable. Tesla actually worked for Thomas Edison for a number of years, and at one point, Edison promised him $50,000 to do tackle the huge project of renovating all the dynamos in the power plant.
Being an ambitious young inventor, Tesla jumped at the opportunity to prove his worth; within a year he had successfully rebuilt the whole plant and presented his work to Edison in order to claim his reward. Edison just laughed and explained he was “only joking” and that Tesla obviously didn’t understand the “American style of humour.” Understandably, this was totally unacceptable to Nikola Tesla. He quit his job and started his own power company, and ended up competing with Edison on a number of different fronts.
War of the Currents
The chart here shows only a couple of the ways that Edison and Tesla disagreed. Edison thought Direct Current (DC) would power the world, but due to the weak signal strength, this would have necessitated repeating power plants almost every mile of electrical cable. Can you imagine our beautiful landscape cluttered with ugly power plants all over the place? Tesla came along and pioneered using Alternating Current (AC), which could travel further without degrading in strength, and this is the system that was adopted for widespread use and is still in use today. This battle became known as the War of the Currents and has spawned several books and documentaries.
Furious with his former employee’s success, Edison started a smear campaign to try and illustrate how dangerous AC really was. Enter Topsy, a baby elephant who had apparently lashed out at someone after they had fed her a lit cigarette. Edison made a spectacle of electrocuting this poor elephant in 1903, and the footage still exists to this day:
In fact, the very idea of executing prisoners by electric chair was cooked up by Thomas Edison in another brilliant scheme to discredit Nikola Tesla. Unfortunately, the idea caught on, and only now are prisons realizing just how much it really costs in terms of electricity to end a human life.
A Brighter Bulb Prevails
The other area where Tesla was proven correct in the long run was on the subject of light bulbs. Yes, Edison’s incandescent bulb was the standard in homes and workplaces for nearly 100 years. But now, in the 21st century, it is Tesla’s fluorescent bulb that we are switching to because they last longer and are more energy efficient. Every office, school, and home now has several fluorescent bulbs in place.
In fact, Tesla’s inventions are almost everywhere nowadays. Radio, Radar and Sonar, Remote Control, and Hydroelectricity are all products of ideas Tesla either developed or patented. He was the first one to look at the raging current of Niagra Falls and realize the sheer power that could be harnessed, and much of the area surrounding Niagra Falls receives its electricity to this day from the power plant he started there.
One of my favourite examples of Tesla’s legacy is the company Tesla Motors. In an attempt to wean Americans and others off of their addiction to gas and oil, Tesla Motors is developing a range of electric vehicles and has prompted almost every other major car company to start doing the same. In 20 years time, nearly half the vehicles on the road could be electric, and the impact on the environment will be immeasurable.
Edison’s legacy carried him well into the 20th century. The incandescent light bulb and the phonograph resulted in both fame and fortune for him. Tesla died a poor man, perhaps too far ahead of his time, but in the 21st century I feel he will become a household name, as we realize what an immense impact his inventions really have on our every day existence.
Most of my life, I’ve been a PC guy. As a kid, I learned how to read floppy disks to find my favourite games from the command prompt.
After the days of DOS were over, I moved to Windows 3.1 and all the good things that came with it – like Solitaire and Minesweeper. Once I knew the ins and outs of the operating system, I started to learn about the system itself.
One of the arguments often lobbed at PCs by Mac users is that they’re too complicated. A Mac, they say, “just works” inside an attractively designed case. I would argue that one can learn an awful lot about how computers (Mac or PC) work by opening up the case and poking around a bit. Hard drives, CPUs, chips and switches are essential no matter what software you’re running on top of them.
I can proudly say that on several occasions, I’ve been able to cobble together a collection of spare parts and actually build a Frankenstein PC out of them.
Here are the basic ingredients you need to construct a working computer:
- Hard Drive
- RAM (Memory)
- Operating System (Usually a bootable Windows CD)
- Display (a screen of some kind)
These zombie boxes almost never started on the first try; I’d have to open it back up again and troubleshoot it to figure out what went wrong. But the satisfaction I got when I actually saw something on the screen was incredible; and little did I know I was gaining valuable experience in Desktop Support, a field I would end up working in for several years.
The Times, They Are A-Changin
The late, great Steve Jobs may end up having more of an impact on computing than his friend and competitor, Bill Gates. Gates made billions getting Windows into homes, schools, and workplaces. Apple Computer, for a time, looked like it was going to be left behind. Then Jobs came along and redesigned the company to be hip and portable.
The first MP3 player I ever had was called an iRiver. A 32 megabyte hard drive was considered decent at the time, 64 being ideal but significantly more expensive. Then iPods came along and blew the iRiver, along with Creative’s Zen and Microsoft’s Zune right out of the water. Sleek design and a simple interface your grandma could learn made people completely reconsider their expectations of computers and peripherals.
My Phone? iPhone.
Those early models of iPod eventually became iPod Touches, which quickly evolved into iPhones and iPads. I’ve owned a variety of different cell phones; a Nokia, two Motorolas, and a Sony-Ericsson. All of these phones eventually suffered from stuck buttons or unreliable software.
Just last week I finally caved and got an iPhone 4 – A few buttons on the outside, and everything else is touchscreen. Simple, elegant, but also efficient and versatile. The blank canvas provided by the high-resolution touch screen means that application developers can place buttons wherever they want.
In closing, I learned a heck of a lot about computers from building them from the ground up. It was cheaper and more fun than just buying something off the shelf. However, after several years working in Desktop Support and recently switching to an iPhone, I have to admit – I’m a fan any device that “just works.”