Shiny Boxes

Just avoid holding it in that way.

This year, Apple will bring the world the next generation of the iPhone which will not be nearly as good as one of the models running Android from makers like Samsung, HTC, Sony, and LG. But none of this matters to the Apple Fanboy who lives firmly in the Reality Distortion Field left behind by the late Steve Jobs. This distortion field has two main components. The first is that your non-Apple device may have neat features, but they are superfluous, stupid, unnecessary, etc. The second is that when Apple puts those same features in their devices, they suddenly become cool and revolutionary and original. The result is a tech solipsism that says that it either doesn't exist or doesn't matter unless it has an Apple logo on it.

Apple makes shiny boxes. That's it. Someone had to say it, so I have said it. Beyond that, Apple is not that great. They don't invent technology so much as brand it and market it. And the sad thing is that it is all ridiculously expensive and will be rapidly worthless.

The criticisms of Apple are legion from their closed eco-system to their high prices to their short battery life to their hype for substandard product to the realization that many of their innovations were already in existence. This picture captures a slice of the criticism:

The belief is that Apple makes original products that are better. Unfortunately for Apple, this simply isn't true. And what is really sad is how Steve Jobs would become livid at Gates and Google for copying him. If there is one thing we learn about Jobs, the man lacked self-awareness, and this lack extends to the company and to the fans.

So, what did Apple bring to the table? The only thing Apple gave the tech world was an aesthetic. This was Jobs's lone advantage. The man had taste where the rest of the tech nerds had none. Basically, Steve's boxes were shinier and prettier than everyone else's boxes. This is not necessarily a bad thing except that the packaging obscures a lack of functionality that has become glaring since Steve died but was already there before his passing.

Aesthetics matter, but they are always subordinate to function. A shiny box that doesn't work is merely art. It isn't a tool. Form must follow function. Function is ultimately what makes a design. It has to work. Apple products don't work very well. They don't play well with others. They insist that users adapt to the product and not the other way around. They are not long lasting because they become outdated in a short period.

The only criticism that Apple Cult members can say about competing products is that they are ugly. Even Steve Jobs criticized Microsoft's lack of taste. But the truth of the matter is that an ugly but functional product trumps a beautiful but useless product. This is why iPhone users are switching in droves to competitors like Samsung. Tech is not a beauty contest.

I think the shine is off of the Apple. Without a salesman like Jobs to push the product, I think Apple is doomed over the long haul. I think the pendulum is due to swing back to form following function. People want products they can use, that last a long time, and don't cost a fortune. The biggest feature of the new iPhone is rumored to be a logo on the back that lights up like the ones on the Macbooks. Stop and think about that for a minute.

[SOC] Beverages, Aesthetics

These stream of consciousness essays usually begin with something about coffee. This is because I usually begin the essay in the early morning haze as the coffee is making. I can't write anything profound about the Juice of the Magic Black Bean except that it gets me going in the morning.

The other day my wife asked me when I started drinking coffee in a serious way. I admit I had to think about it for a bit. There was never a single moment when I decided that I was going to be a java addict. It just gradually happened that way. Prior to coffee, I was a soda drinker preferring to get my caffeine from Mountain Dew, Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper. I hardly drink soda now. As I got older, I transitioned from soda to coffee. Now, I drink coffee all day and hot tea in the afternoon. This is turning into a beverage essay, so I will ride it for awhile.

I don't like soda now because it makes me have to urinate. I used to think it was the volume of liquid but I can drink a liter of water and not have to go. I used to think it was the caffeine, but there is way more caffeine in coffee and tea. I think it comes down to sodium. Soda is basically flavored fizzy salt water.

I don't think soda is good for hydration. I notice that it just makes me thirsty for more soda. VitaminWater has no sodium which is why I think it has become popular as a thirst quencher. I don't drink it, but I do think there is too much sodium in soda. I opt for plain water when I am thirsty. Or, I will drink an ice tea usually without sugar or sweetener. The key is to mix in some fruit flavor herbal tea with some green tea. It tastes great, and it is good for you.

With hot tea, I like Earl Grey and Constant Comment mixed with honey. Both come from the Bigelow Tea Company. I don't use sugar or sweetener. The honey is all you need. Hot tea will jack you up without the harsh bitterness of coffee. I tend to get more jacked up on tea because I drink more of it. As for tea time, I think it is wide open after 4 p.m. This is how the English do it. I skip the cakes and cookies.

Coffee is my mainstay during the day. I carry a nasty cup that holds a gallon. Well, that is an exaggeration, but the travel mug is pretty big. I have been known to fill and drain the thing three times during a typical day at work. But I don't put anything in it except sweetener or sugar when I run out of sweetener. But I will drink it unsweetened as well. I find most people want to mask the flavor of the coffee with cream, milk, whip cream, chocolate, or what have you. This is Starbucks which I liken to a dessert shop instead of a coffee shop.

Beer comes into the picture on a Friday or a Saturday for me. I spent a long time as a teetotaller. The reason for that was simple. I never drink when I have to drive. This means I never have a beer at the bar or at a party or anywhere else that requires a drive back home. This is because it takes two beers in an hour to be legally drunk. Personally, I can't even get a buzz from two beers much less be drunk. But the DUI laws are meant to punish drinking not bad driving. I am probably more impaired from sleep deprivation, but it isn't against the law to drive while sleepy in a regular vehicle.

The craft beer revolution is sweeping the land, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the upside, I can say that I have quaffed some tasty brews. I've been drinking beer since I was a kid, but I can't say that I enjoyed the taste of the beer. This is because I drank cheap beer or domestic beer which is a sort of bland watery bitterness. To be perfectly honest, I think the crap beer drove me to drink whiskey because the whiskey worked quicker. I drank to get drunk, and I just accepted that drinking came with bad taste. With whiskey, the ratio of buzz to bad flavor was better than drinking a pitcher of Budweiser. With good craft beer, it really is about the flavor. Right now, a fave of mine is New Belgium Summer Helles. It is crisp and refreshing, and I say that without a trace of irony. It is great after a hot summer day mowing the lawn.

The downside of the craft beer revolution is the beer snob. These are people who drink beer like it is fine wine. Those people make me want to cling to a six pack of PBR and call it a day. I don't think you should analyze beer. I think you should just drink it.

There are many craft beers out there, and new labels and varieties pop up daily. Every place has their local brew, and garages and warehouses are being turned into microbreweries. You could literally have a different beer each day of the year and not drink the same beer twice. The varieties can be dizzying.

Moving on from beverages, the subject of aesthetics has been on my mind lately. When it comes to that branch of my philosophical tree, I can only say that it needs serious development. But I have made progress when it comes to the design of useful things. This would be architecture and product design. Here goes.

It all came to a head for me last week after reading an article about a housing project in Harlem. Now, for those unfamiliar with the projects, let me break it down for you. Public housing tends to be bad. People have various theories about why the projects are bad, but I think it comes from architecture. You can talk about people being on drugs, drug dealers, poverty, and the rest. But I think the reason the projects are so bad is because they are ugly places that suck the spirit out of people.

The article I read was a new project in Harlem by a new modernist architect hoping to make some difference in the design of the buildings. So, he makes some monstrosity that belongs on the home world of Bizarro Superman.

Somehow or other, the Bizarro building is supposed to succeed where the more symmetrical and orderly builidings failed. It boggles the mind that people spend money on these eyesores. But because it is public housing, modernist architecture gets the indulgence to do as it pleases.

The reason government housing is so bad is because of how it treats its residents. Bad design treats human beings as if they are an afterthought. People forced to live in these places out of necessity internalize this dehumanized mindset. The cornerstone of design is that form follows function. These aren't homes built for human comfort and flourishing. They are warehouses for bodies. Their design is utilitarian at best and nihilistic at worst. The lack of the human element is the missing ingredient.

The common feature of the projects is that they are minimalistic in design. They leave you feeling cold. The reason for the minimalism is that they aim for efficiency. An apartment building without amenities like gardens, courtyards, playgrounds, and balconies will be able to house more bodies as they do not waste space on these nonessential elements. But here is an example of more human public housing:

So much modern and postmodern design eliminates the human element which is what makes it so bad. This building makes the other buildings look like prison cell blocks.

I am a big believer in the dictum that form follows function. There is something Aristotelian about it. What I reject are the other dictums that "less is more" and "ornament is a crime." Those two minimalistic notions have made the form not follow the function because they eliminate human needs and desires in favor of some Platonic purity. I always thought something was wrong with minimalist concepts.

Beauty is a human need. People need beautiful places. The problem is that designers have forgotten or never knew what is beautiful. So, they opt to make something ugly, or they choose to make something empty. This would be postmodernism and modernism respectively. But beauty is hard to achieve while those things are easy.

When it comes to product design, utility becomes more important than aesthetics. For instance, this old radio may or may not be functional, but we can say that they don't build them like this anymore:

This radio screams that it is antique. Now, it was possible in those days to design radios with more straightforward design, but they were thinking furniture and not appliance. This is why many old appliances had the look of furniture about them. This old TV carries on the idea:

Somewhere along the way, they stopped making appliances that looked like furniture. This is because they weren't furniture. They might be in the living room, but they aren't furniture. So, you start getting something like what Dieter Rams designed for Braun. Here is a Rams radio:

This design is very straightforward. It isn't so much a product of beauty so much as utility. Applied to a room or a home, this design would be cold and lifeless. But applied to an appliance, it works very well. The result is a timeless and functional device that can go anywhere. But are these objects beautiful? I don't think so. But is it supposed to be beautiful? I honestly don't know. What I do know is that the objects must be functional. If no sounds comes out of that radio, it is junk.

Apple products are the ones that pay homage to the work of Dieter Rams but almost purely as an aesthetic. For instance, one of the most vexing issues with the iPhone is the inability to remove the battery. The other thing is that the object seems weighty and luxurious, but you will be throwing it away in a year or two. And the screen is too small to view or read anything. Basically, it is a pretty box but not a functional box. People want their stuff to work and do more things. Utility trumps beauty when it comes to tools and appliances.

The opposite of an appliance or tool would be a work of art. This would be a sculpture or a painting. These things are noted for their absolute lack of utility. The function of art is to capture and convey pure beauty. Unfortunately, much art is not beautiful preferring to be kitschy or shocking. But that is a subject for another post. . .

Form follows function.

PRINT--Serpico by Peter Maas

When I was a kid, I remember watching this movie with Al Pacino, and the only part I remember is the guy catching a bullet in the face. I also remember learning that cops could be bad as well as good. As I grew older, I realized that most of them are bad. The story of Frank Serpico is a true story. I made it a point to always revisit the story and read the book as opposed to just watching the movie. So, I found one of those familiar red covered paperbacks in a used bookstore, bought it, and read it. Here are my two cents.

Basically, Frank Serpico was an honest cop in the corrupt New York Police Department of the 1960's and 70's. The vasr majority of those cops were on the take accepting bribes to not go after gambling, drugs, prostitution, and other victimless crimes. But they would also make some victims along the way of innocent shopkeepers as they would shake them down for protection money and free grub. The only thing you can say about the cops were they were cheaper than the mafia. As for "honest" cops, they would abstain from the corruption but did nothing to stop it in fear of losing jobs, pensions, or worse. Frank Serpico was a hero because he would not be corrupted, and he would not tolerate corruption. He paid dearly for his honesty.

The aftermath of the Frank Serpico affair was that the NYPD got cleaned up in terms of the worst abuses. I think this is also why crime went down so dramatically in the Big Apple. Serpico had pulled the lid off of a rotten jar, and the public and the politicians could not tolerate the stench. It took decades, but they cleaned house. Unfortunately, Frank Serpico was shot in the face as he was betrayed by his fellow officers during a drug bust. It is obvious to me that the cops wanted him to die. But he lived. The cost was that Serpico would never be a cop again.

The Serpico story touches on a lot of my favorite themes. The first of them is the "crooks with badges" theme. I'm not saying there aren't honest cops, but the 99% give the honest 1% a bad name. As I write this, one of the sheriffs here in SC has been arrested for corruption and is awaiting trial. Another sheriff was arrested some years ago for being the drug lord of his county. I can go on and on about the corruption in the LAPD. Meanwhile, the NYPD still regularly has stories in the Times and the Post about corruption. Anytime I see a story about dirty cops, I put a link on Twitter. Why are there so many dirty cops? I think the job itself attracts the worst sorts of people. You have to have something pathological in your personality to want to be a police officer. Frank Serpico may not appreciate me writing this, but I think there was something pathological in his personality as well except it was pointed in the right direction instead of the wrong direction. I remember reading somewhere that heroes and serial killers were similar in that they had no regard for their personal wellbeing. When the dirty cops tried to appease or threaten Frank Serpico, they had had no idea what they were dealing with. Frank didn't seem to care what happened to himself. Even when they threatened his parents, he never gave in.

This brings us to the second theme which is "one man making a difference." Serpico is similar to other types like Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden who took on the system and changed things. The thing these guys all have in common is that the change came when knowledge of misdeeds came to light to the public. The reality is that these guys made a name for themselves, but the corruption goes on as before. Ellsberg showed that they lied us into Vietnam, but this did not prevent them from lying us into Iraq. Snowden may have revealed NSA abuses, but they are never going to stop. Governments have done this forever, and the public gives a collective yawn about it all. And the headlines of your daily newspaper has some dirty cop story in them, and you better believe those are just the unlucky few to get caught being dirty. Most dirty cops never get caught, and they live to collect a fat pension.

True change happens when people develop a conscience. This is not the work of heroes but saints. You can admire heroes for doing the right thing, but you can't help but admit that their impact is marginal. Heroes don't seem to produce more heroes. Saints are different because they multiply in their quiet way. What the world needs are not more heroes exposing corruption but more honest people content to do their jobs. This is because the real battleground is not in the fickle court of public opinion that has a short memory but in the hearts of individuals.

I can sum up this issue with one statement. A winner is a cheater that never got caught. This cynical statement came to me as it dawned on me that Lance Armstrong was a cheater in a world of cheaters. You can expose corruption all day, but it doesn't seem to ever stop it. To strip Lance Armstrong of his titles is to give them to someone else every bit as dirty. Likewise, exposing dirty cops merely cleans house for those clever enough not to get caught. The message here is not to clean up your act and be good but to clean up your act in hiding your misdeeds.

I don't have the answers to all of this yet, but I am searching. Do I believe Frank Serpico is a hero? Absolutely. He has given us a shining example of what we should all be. Unfortunately, Frank Serpico is alone. He was an honest cop, and he is the only honest man with a badge I ever knew. The only other one is Andy Griffith, but he wasn't a real sheriff. Serpico never returned to being a cop. This is why his story is tinged with sadness. He simply showed the world how bad it was, and it has remained that way.