The Last Paper Column

This will read a little strangely. It’s unedited from the version as it appears in the paper.

Alas This is Fake
The Paper Gives Me A Decent Send-Off

This is the last Micro Cosmopolitan in the City Tribune. I’m leaving the paper. After sixteen years – can you believe it? So much has changed over that time. Why back then there was a Fine Gael/Labour government.

I’m going to miss it badly; in particular, being able to say “I write for a paper”. There was something grand about that. But the world is changing, rapidly. Instead of being a columnist, I’ll be a blogger. Instead of it appearing once a week it will be several times a day. Instead of writing on Wednesday for you to read on Friday, it’ll be instant comment on events as they happen. There will be cartoons too, and you’ll be able to have your own say.

I gave you the address before, but now there’s a new and much shorter one – “I doubt it”. Simply type I.doubt.it and you go straight there. Neat, no? Just dots between the words, no W’s or nothin’. And if you don’t like going to websites you can receive it by email for free. Those of you without computers may find that you can read it perfectly well on your phone.

Otherwise though, you’re stuck. This is the sad fact about the way things are going. You won’t have to buy a daily paper, but you’ll need a machine. In the time I’ve been at the Tribune, the publishing industry has changed out of all recognition. I am fortunate perhaps to have started back when we were still something you might recognise as a “classic” newspaper. I actually brought my column in on a piece of paper, held in my fist. Someone had to type it out again. That almost seems crazy now.

1995 wasn’t quite back in the age of typewriters though. The paper had Macs, and I had a primitive sort of word processor you would point and laugh at now. There was just no way these two computers could communicate with each other. Two years later, while doing volunteer work in South Africa, I started e-mailing my stories. I soon had a computer of my own, and though I couldn’t yet afford an Internet connection – and certainly, not a Mac – I was bringing my stories in on floppy disk. And now… Well, we’ve cut out the paper altogether.

I mean, the whole newspaper.

The business is going through a crisis. On one hand it’s being squeezed by new media; I get a large proportion of my news from blogs, from upstart online-only papers, even from Twitter. Now it’s the papers that can’t afford to buy Macs. The oldest mass medium can and will adapt, they have the core skills that are essential for gathering and recounting the news. But they have to find new ways to make it pay, and they need to do that now – right in the middle of the worst recession since the war.

You support those skills when you read the print version of the Tribune, so I hope you will continue to get it – even without me. And do tell all your friends who stopped buying it while I was here.

http://I.doubt.it – Think of me whenever you hear a politician speak.

Love and out,

Richard Chapman

Untangling The Cables

Enough about the government for a while. Time to catch up on the gizmo fun we’ve been missing.

When I heard that the new MacBooks sported a connector called Thunderbolt I admit I was mystified. Sure, it’s said to be twice as fast as USB3 (only just out itself), but twice as fast was not enough. I knew that Intel had a fiber-optic connector called Light Peak in the works. In future, computers were going to be linked by light, not by the same old copper wires that have been with us since the days of the telegraph. It wasn’t like Apple to be going down a technological cul-de-sac.

It turns out of course that Thunderbolt is Light Peak – but in a transitional copper-wire form. If things go according to plan, it will be upgraded in the future to fiber-optic versions. We’ll see. For the moment though, it does 10 Gigabits per second. That may not be light speed, but it is roughly twenty times faster than USB2. Fast enough to, say, transfer a HD feature film in 30 seconds, or enough MP3 files to play non-stop for one year in just ten minutes. So, it’s a start. And though it’s being launched in cooperation with Apple, it should soon be everywhere.

But the really interesting thing about Thunderbolt is that it isn’t just for the usual things you’d connect up by USB – printers, hard drives, scanners and so on. It can also be used for external displays. So in the near future, the same cable could be used for just about every device a computer can connect to.

On top of that, it also carries power – like USB does, only more so. It’s capable of providing 10 Watts. That means many devices that now need external power supplies such as printers or routers, and even some displays, will be able to get it over the connection to the computer instead, cutting down greatly on cable clutter.

It makes you think, doesn’t it? 10 Watts is sufficient to charge some quite potent devices. The iPad requires a 10 Watt charger, funnily enough… Charge your iPad by plugging it into your MacBook.

So you can imagine Apple very soon building a device with just a single socket – used for charging, printers, displays, everything. A single port, a single cable; it can’t really get much more simple than that.

Untangling The Cables

Enough about the government for a while. Time to catch up on the gizmo fun we’ve been missing.

When I heard that the new MacBooks sported a connector called Thunderbolt I admit I was mystified. Sure, it’s said to be twice as fast as USB3 (only just out itself), but twice as fast was not enough. I knew that Intel had a fiber-optic connector called Light Peak in the works. In future, computers were going to be linked by light, not by the same old copper wires that have been with us since the days of the telegraph. It wasn’t like Apple to be going down a technological cul-de-sac.

It turns out of course that Thunderbolt is Light Peak – but in a transitional copper-wire form. If things go according to plan, it will be upgraded in the future to fiber-optic versions. We’ll see. For the moment though, it does 10 Gigabits per second. That may not be light speed, but it is roughly twenty times faster than USB2. Fast enough to, say, transfer a HD feature film in 30 seconds, or enough MP3 files to play non-stop for one year in just ten minutes. So, it’s a start. And though it’s being launched in cooperation with Apple, it should soon be everywhere.

But the really interesting thing about Thunderbolt is that it isn’t just for the usual things you’d connect up by USB – printers, hard drives, scanners and so on. It can also be used for external displays. So in the near future, the same cable could be used for just about every device a computer can connect to.

On top of that, it also carries power – like USB does, only more so. It’s capable of providing 10 Watts. That means many devices that now need external power supplies such as printers or routers, and even some displays, will be able to get it over the connection to the computer instead, cutting down greatly on cable clutter.

It makes you think, doesn’t it? 10 Watts is sufficient to charge some quite potent devices. The iPad requires a 10 Watt charger, funnily enough… Charge your iPad by plugging it into your MacBook.

So you can imagine Apple very soon building a device with just a single socket – used for charging, printers, displays, everything. A single port, a single cable; it can’t really get much more simple than that.

Why l Won’t Buy an iPad 2

iPad2 CartoonBecause Apple censor. All right, I don’t care much either way if they want to reject apps with sexual content, but when they disallowed political satire it became both personal and a matter of principle. They may have relented in the most celebrated case, but until the policy is changed explicitly they can insert the iPad 2 in landscape orientation.

Otherwise, it’s a fine device. In particular I like the cover. Seriously. It protects the screen in transit, then it converts to a stand. Apple design cuteness at its best.

The original was not at all feature-rich, the better to focus attention on the core concept. Now, again in typical Apple fashion, they add just a well-chosen few at a time so that each seems a choice delicacy. It finally has cameras and a gyroscope. Not the rather decent camera of the iPhone 4 though, and nor does it get its high-resolution display. There are real if fairly small improvements to its thickness and weight, but the only truly substantial change is a faster, dual-core processor.

So this is, if you like, the iPad 3GS; most of what the last version lacked is fixed, but cool cover aside (which is an accessory anyway) there are no show-stopping innovations. This is the iPad released just to keep up with the burgeoning crop of Android competitors. It doesn’t blow them away – that will have to wait for the next release – but it undermines their most obvious advantages.

So you want to wait for that next release, or go with one of these rivals? To answer this question, you must ask yourself why you need a tablet.

And the answer of course is that you don’t need a tablet. Don’t be ridiculous. These iPad things are computers with all the parts you might do real work with actually removed. Get a grip, it’s a leisure device. A media consumption appliance. A toy.

The question is, which is the best toy?

Right now, I’d say the rivals are well in the lead. And it’s not about hardware (though we’ll get back to that). It’s more about freedom. Though Apple stuff is beautifully done, it is done with rather controlling ends in mind. Some say they are reinventing the publishing industry, and that may be true. I’m just not so happy about them wanting a 30% cut of it.

Fine Gael to Tax Freedom


Barring a miracle of the ballot boxes, it looks like Fine Gael are going to be our masters for the next few years. So I guess some people will have to actually drag their eyes through the bloody manifesto and see what may be in store. Friend and fellow cartoonist Allan Cavanagh alerted me to this gem:

TV Licence: We will change the TV Licence into a household-based Public Broadcasting Charge applied to all households and applicable businesses regardless of the device they use to access content.

Do they really mean to charge all households for RTɹ, whether they watch TV or not? That would be a new general tax, just one that’s collected through its own separate – and therefore ridiculously wasteful – system. Further, it forces me to pay for something I don’t want. I do not own a TV, and one of the reasons for this is that I don’t think what RTÉ broadcasts is worth paying for. If you saw it, you wouldn’t too.

RTE ThumbnailBut perhaps they mean you will be charged if you have any device in your home capable of viewing RTÉ ‘content’. (Do you get nervous whenever anyone uses that word?) They’re hardly going to come round and check what sort of phone you have, so unless they go the unthinkable² route of tracking all internet activity to make sure no one secretly watches television, the logical and simple way to do this will be to charge a tax on every broadband connection or data tariff.

So in the guise of a TV licence, they introduce a tax on freedom of information and of expression. No way, Fine Gael.

  1. RTÉ is the publicly owned broadcasting service, funded in part by a television license fee in a similar fashion to the BBC. In a highly dissimilar fashion, it also has commercials.
  2. Please God they do realise this is unthinkable, don’t they?

The Computer Whisperer – Part 1

Red Button CartoonA couple of days ago I mentioned that I had to help a friend with a very sick computer. I’d run into him in Dublin, and he’d told me he wanted to add the drive from his old PC into his new one. I assured him that as someone with mechanical skills, he should have no problem. These things are quite straightforward.

How naïve I can be.

A day or two later he texted me. Something was wrong, the screen had gone mad and he couldn’t read it. I thought at the time he just meant that there was an error message he didn’t understand. When I saw it later I couldn’t believe it: Neat vertical stripes like a butcher’s apron making everything – including an error message – completely unreadable. Weirdest way I’ve ever seen a screen go awry.

But that only came later. First, while investigating the screen problem, he’d found a switch. A red switch. Red-for-a-reason red.

That’s right.

Just about any PC can work on the two most common voltages used worldwide: 110v (US etc.) and 230v (Europe etc.). Most switch between them automatically, but older and/or cheaper ones have – you guessed it – a red switch, on the back of the power supply. Throw this in the US and your PC shudders to a half-powered halt. Throw it in Europe…

Bang.

You know, I can’t be annoyed with him. Sure, they made the switch red so that people would know it’s not something you can just throw. And in most cases that works. But there’s another kind of person that it has a completely opposite effect on.

I like the people who can’t resist red switches.

Greetings From Uncanny Valley

Uncanny DiagramThere’s a strange phenomenon, familiar to people at the cutting interface of technology and art, that goes by the name of “the uncanny valley”. As a general rule, the more something looks like a living human, the more humans like it. We like photographs or drawings of humans. We like kittens and monkeys, lively animals with human-like faces, even better.

So naturally in fields like CGI or robot design, people have striven to make their work look more and more like reality. And this is where they hit a strange snag. Because though the relationship between realism and likeability is pretty much a smooth straight graph, as soon as something looks almost, but not quite exactly, like a living human, it suddenly scares the living toothpaste out of us.

It may be because our minds are upset by the category conflict. We like things that seem human, but we aren’t fooled into thinking they really are. When we actually become uncertain, it’s disturbing.

Or perhaps it is simply, if sadly, that instinct tells us something which looks and acts almost but not exactly like a human is a human – but one who is severely diseased and therefore dangerous.

The worst effects occur when something is very human-like in one way but not in another. A robot with very realistic human skin and features for example, but whose movements are unnatural. Or one that moves right, but has an inhuman, skeletal face. These things are as creepy to adults as clowns are to children. So it seems if we ever do have mechanical companions, they will either be friendly, cartoony machines we will never mistake for people, or so damn realistic we wouldn’t know they weren’t without being told.

The computer-animated film Polar Express was said by some to be stuck in Uncanny Valley, the motion-capture technique giving the CGI characters uncomfortably too-natural movements. But today, I came across another example:

Baby sloths.

That’s right. Baby sloths are really cute, really silly-and-sweet-looking. But the way they move… creeps me the fuck out. See for yourself.