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  • Archive for December, 2010

    shifting sands


    2010 - 12.04

    Two events have happened within the last couple months that I want to ruminate upon; two events which I think say something subtle but strong about how our world is changing.

    The first event is the news that Technics is ceasing production of the widely, widely celebrated 1200 turntable.

    Now, if you’ve ever listened to the radio, or heard live music, I guarantee that you’ve heard music played back on a Technics 1200. Matter of fact, I’d be willing to make a bet that everyone who reads this, at one point or another in their life, has gotten their ass *rocked* by music coming from a 1200. For a very long period of time–and we’re talking decades here–the Technics 1200 has had not just a significant role in the turntable market; it has utterly dominated it. If you’re gonna be playing a lot of records, and you’re serious about buying a deck that was bulletproof, reliable, and sounded top notch, this turntable was THE choice. I can’t really think of an analoguous product that’s held such reverence. When you’re done playing with all those kids toys, step up to the real deal and get yourself a set of 1200s, junior.

    The fact that demand has fallen so much–to the point where it’s no longer financially sensible to continue with the manufacture of this ledgendary means of music playback–it says something about how technology is changing. Even in the face of of what I’d call a vinyl revival, this is happening. There are still legions of people out there who believe in the superior fidelity of analogue records, and plenty of people, like myself, who have built CD collections but have started to feel like, hmm, maybe digital music formats are kind of lacking in something… call it “warmth.” Or maybe that tactile interaction of dropping a needle into the groove. Or just the simplicity that the sound waves you hear are literally etched into the record–no binary ones and zeros, no D/A converters, no sampling rates, no lasers or fancy tricks whatsoever. Just analog waveforms, straight from microphones far away to your platter, right here.

    That the 1200 is soon to be an out-of-production commodity, is a bit shocking. How long before the last film camera rolls off a closing assembly line? Or how long before you cannot buy a panavision movie camera that isn’t digital? How long before books cease to be ink on paper, and exist only as ones and zeros? Maybe these events will never transpire. Even so, it’s a watershed moment, to watch this veritable giant come tumbling to its knees.

    And speaking of transportation, the second event which recently happened that, to me, says a lot about the changing nature of our world is the completion of a project in which a series of driverless vans, equipped with cameras and various sensors, but no GPS, have autonomously navigated from Italy to China. That’s a real milemarker (ugh)  for human technology.

    Roadways are very complex. They have uneven surfaces, various colors, lines, painted symbols, signs and markers bearing all manner of information. All intended to be interpreted and reacted to in conjunction with the processing power of a human mind. Add in the fact that these vans navigated through several different nations, each with their own convention of roadway signage and languages. And then add in the fact that all these roads were populated with other cars driven by human drivers, with all of their random, inattentive, unpredicatble, and sometimes downright dangerous or malicious posturing to get their ahead of the next guy, and this is kind of a mind-boggling achievement. All with no GPS–something human drivers regularly use to find their way.

    I’d say one big difference between these two events is that while the future that will result from the first one makes me sad on several levels, this second one has exciting ramnifications. Yes, it’s gonna be a long, long time before anyone sells a car that’s intended to automatically drive you home from work while you read the New York Times or take a nap, but the fact that this technology now exists is a fleeting glimpse of what’s to come. Flying cars, for example, are going to need this technology. If we ever have large scale local air travel, it’s going to have to be automated. Human beings can barely handle the coordination it takes to drive their cars in 2 dimensions without getting into crashes. Almost every day on my commute home I see someone pulled over from a fender-bender. Driving in 3D? Never, ever going to happen for the proletariat.

    To tie it all together though, what these two things share in common is that they were made possible by the power of the microprocessor. They call this era that we live in the Information Age. But it’s not the acquisition of more information that has allowed the rapid advance of technology in the last several decades. Some people will call it the Digital Age. But it’s not the digitization of analog data that has changed our world. It’s processing power. Flops. Teraflops. Petaflops. Cycles per second. Megahertz. Gigahertz. Terahertz.

    CD players weren’t possible until digital processing ability reached a certain threshold. And they weren’t economical enough for mass dissemination until economies of scale and drastic advances in processing power made the modest requirements necessary to decode CDs dirt cheap. These forces, grinding away for a while now, have finally resulted in the demise of the analog champion. For most people, the indistinguishable difference between a sufficently high, finite bitrate and true analog reproduction has led them to invest in the lower-cost system. Compact Disc.

    The processing power required to visually decode roadmarkings, conduct defensive driving, and navigate to a destination without access to global positing satellites is a newly attained high water mark. When you compare it to other recent events, like the sucessful containment of antimatter at CERN, or the discovery of graphene, it may seem inconsequential in comparison. But I see these two matters, seeming disparate events, as poingant indicators of the same trend–our ever-expanding ability to decode our world and to master the complexity of analog systems by letting the processing horsepower we’ve invented do the heavy lifting for us.

    In the end, perhaps this will free up our minds to focus on other, more complex tasks. Imagine what more you would accomplish if all the time you spent driving was replaced by free time. You could write a novel, you could paint a masterpiece, or learn a new language. Or maybe just space out in front of some mindless TV. Afterall, a little relaxation is good for the soul too.

    The very beginning


    2010 - 12.01

    This moment is like opening up a big christmas present that’s wrapped in such a way that it’s obvious what it is.  Like a bike.  And since you know it’s a bike, you immediately have all these preconceived notions of what you want to do with it, where you want to go, what color you want it to be.  But you don’t really know where it will take you.  The adventure it will provide you is, by nature, unforeseeable.  Will you tumble into the swamp when riding it over the narrow bridge to the secret hideout?  What gear will you use to outrun the neighbors in a frenzied game of cops and robbers?  Will the tires be able to carry you over railroad bridges and sewer grates in the street?  Or will they fall in?  And what will it feel like, to have the wind rushing past your face, at cruising speed on a long country road on a crisp summer afternoon?  What will it sound like?  How will the air taste?  It’s all ahead of you.

    It’s all about speaking positive, thinking positive, working toward a better end.  That’s the theory anyway.

    Phase one implementation… BEGIN!