Thursday, January 29, 2009

The original desktop interface

Something I read about at Down the Road today made me think of something I haven't thought about in a long time... years, really.

When I was seventeen, I'd just changed cities and schools. I didn't have any friends handy, and I've never been the outgoing sort who rounds up new ones by the score or something.

It was just the daily drudge of getting up and getting out there. It’s funny how it feels. I’m an adult now and I have to work just to live. Back then I didn’t, but oddly enough, I felt more trapped. Today, I can at least conceivably resign and find another job. But back then, that was the school I was mandated to go to. I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t just stay with my friends in another town.

I took French all through high school, right up to grade thirteen. I’m no good at it now but I was stumblingly conversational back then. Anyway, my French class was in one of the portables behind the school. At some point that fall, I noticed someone had scrawled something funny on my desk... someone from another class. I don’t remember what it was now, but it was intriguing enough that I scribbled some comment in reply. Later, there was a reply to mine. And a conversation was struck up.

Now this was in the 80s... a long time before the internet or even BBSes, cellphones and texting. People communicated face-to-face, or at home on dedicated phone lines, or through letters, and that was pretty much it. So this kind of thing, a two-way blind conversation, was rare. Nearly impossible. But this other person and I, united by geography (a common desk) but separated by time (different days sitting in it) managed the kind of thing that’s now so very common in email and chat rooms and forum boards. We forged a conversation, and a kind of friendship, without ever meeting.

After a couple of weeks I wanted to say more than just five or ten words written in pencil on the top of the desk. So I wrote out some stuff on a piece of lined paper, hid it in some of the joinery of the desk, and left instructions on where to find it. The other person did, and did the same. Suddenly we had actual artifacts of one another’s: letters.

Her name was Cheryl. She was a foster child, living in a home with people she didn’t like much (my guess is, she was probably afraid to get close to anyone for fear of the sense of loss when she would inevitably move on). She slowly revealed to me that she was troubled, but I never really did find out about what. We would tell each other of our friends (in my case, the ones I'd left behind) and interests, our hopes for our eventual careers, make fun of the teachers we had in common, and things like that. I can remember how excited I’d be, heading into that class, and what a crushing disappointment it was whenever there wasn’t a reply from her, and how fantastic it was whenever there was. I guess it went on for a couple of months, into the winter. I started talking about meeting up, and then the notes from her kind of tapered off. I got the impression she figured out I was one of the chubby nerds most girls wouldn’t be caught dead with, and that was that. For myself, I held onto those letters for years. I had them till four or five years ago, I think. They were just so magical. Not in what they said; they were kind of boring and shallow (I imagine my own were no better). But for what they represented. An impossible friendship, a happy secret, just a whiff of romance. Eventually, I just got tired of moving them from drawer to drawer... I knew I’d always have the memory of them inside me, so I really didn’t need the plain, sophomoric scribbling themselves anymore, and out they went.

I remember looking her up at the end of the year when the yearbook came out. That, I still have. She was a pretty girl, even tiny in black and white, and easily out of my “league”, as they say. She must have moved on that summer because I don’t remember seeing her in person or in the yearbooks subsequently. God knows where, or who, she is now. I wonder if she thinks back to her own excitement sitting in that desk, reaching under the ordinary wood for those impossible pieces of paper...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Everything old is new again

I had to look it up, but here’s what I know. I bought a second-hand PowerShot G9 early in January last year. Shortly afterwards, in fact, just a week short of a year ago, I sold my PowerShot S80, which I’d carried around for 20 months, to my friend P-Doug for, if memory serves me, $200. That spring, I threw in a spare battery, since he only had the one.

Ever since then, I’ve taken just shy of 10,000 still and moving images with the G9. I’ve dropped it at a basketball game, lost it at a dusky roadside (where it was apparently hit by a passing car) and then found it again after driving half way across the city, and taken it tubing down the Grand River, where its companion, an infrared-reconfigured PowerShot S70, was drenched and cost over $300 to repair. And for all that, I’ve found that I’ve missed the lightness, compactness, and ease of access and control the S80 furnished. And so every so often, I’d look around… eBay, Craigslist…

A couple of weeks ago, I found one being sold on eBay with a starting bid of $35 on it. It was broken – the lens had come open in the guy’s pocket and jammed, leading to the dreaded E18 error that plagues PowerShot cameras. I read up on it to find out what it would cost to repair it, and learned that in such cases, it’s often possible to gently work the lens assembly such that the gears pop back into alignment. So, I bid on it; $51, which raised the bid to $36. The day before the auction ended, someone bid $45, which boosted mine to $46. I decided to hedge my bets and raised my bid to $66. The day the auction ended, a Saturday around noon, I was sitting in the Bishop and the Belcher with P-Doug, keeping an eye on the auction using a wi-fi connection and my little Eee laptop (which I got free from my bank... remember when they used to give you toasters?), refreshing the page every few seconds. With seconds to go, some troll out there bid $52 – which ironically enough would have won it for him if I hadn’t previously raised my limit. In the last six seconds, he gambled I’d bid sixty bucks, and bid $61.05. That raised my bid to $62.05, and he didn’t have time to respond. Screw you, asshole. >:)P

So, for sixty-two bucks US, plus postage, I wrangled… a broken S80. It was a gamble. I hoped I’d be able to overcome the E18 error myself, but if not, I knew a place where I could get the work done. The question was, would it be worth doing? I’d already blown $300 on a camera in the summer I would never have bothered to fix if it weren’t reconditioned to shoot infrared. But, the fellow at the camera shop reckoned it could be fixed for “about $92”… weird number, but that’s what he said. So I felt like one way or the other, it would pay off.

Well, the S80 arrived today, and I started to gently work on the lens assembly. Within a couple of minutes, I heard the “click” while working on the innermost element. I put the battery from my G9 into it, and the S80 sucked the lens assembly back in and then extended it again, and I had a working S80 again. Oh, it sounds rough opening and closing, and I might want to see if there’s something cost-effective they can do about that, but the point is, I got a real bargain. So, after a year, I’m back in the saddle again with an S80.

I’m undecided, just yet, how to handle the issue of the cameras. I don’t hate the G9. It shoots RAW, it does voice recordings, it does better videos than the S80 without the high-pitched whine… but it’s big. Half again as big as the S80. The controls aren’t all gathered to be worked easily with your right thumb. So I’m not sure. I suggested to P-Doug, once I’d won the auction, that I thought maybe the G9 would be my “winter” camera – since I’m not carrying the S70 to shoot infrared much in the winter – and the S80 would be paired with the S70 (as it was in the summer of 2007) to be my “summer” camera(s). I guess we’ll see. Right now, I’m just jazzed to have an S80 again. I honestly don’t know why Canon axed them so quickly; they were only out about eight or nine months – or why they killed off the S line with the S80. An S90, that could shoot RAW (which the S70 can but S80 can’t) and maybe had a bigger, Digimarc III sensor, would have been a big hit, I think.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Imaginary friends, squared

I’m kind of a fan of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and I’m rewarding myself for a big clean-up this afternoon by indulging in a few episodes. Something’s just occurred to me for the first time as I watch the opening credits. Will we always need writers and animators? With the kind of computing power we have now, and are likely to have as it exponentiates into the future, will it be possible, sometime in a decade or two, to simply set up an artificial word and just watch it? If you can create anything at all, why not a world that behaves by certain set rules, seeded with a few central characters who behave in certain general ways, create a “camera” or first person character though which events are observed, and watch it go? The creators themselves would be as much in the dark as any of the other viewers. These could be cartoons, or quasi-realistic shows, things set in the past, or future, or worlds that never existed. No actors, writers, or directors to pay... pure product, and worlds full of beings who might, in their own way, be as real as you or me... What could be possible?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Kind of like Finnegans Wake

Here’s how it went. I was just coming up to work and I crossed into a snowier lane, and I thought, is this a mistake? It will take me longer to stop. Something in my mind brought up foot-pounds per second per second, which made me think of that scene in The Shining where Jack is raging about hurting Danny. My mind switched gears to metric, and I started thinking, what’s the equivalent? Newton-metres per second per second? And then I remembered Mars Polar Orbiter, which crashed on Mars because some of its instructions were in imperial instead of metric. Then I thought it was disappointing to find out that some people in NASA were still using imperial… it would be almost as startling as seeing someone wandering the halls of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lighting kerosene lamps. Then I looked it up and discovered that it was Lockheed-Martin who sent the instructions in imperial, not the JPL. What a relief. NASA’s rep is saved.