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Shady Illuminations

The Cat, the Diamond, and Other Beautiful Losers

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John finds that fairness isn’t fair and better is the enemy of even better.  

Mother Nature makes the rules. She picks the winners and the losers. Pretty much like Oprah. She has a lot of power, and you know what they say about power.

I mean “power corrupts.” In case you thought I was referring to Joule’s Law.

According to Wikipedia, which I consulted just now to make sure I actually meant Joule’s Law and not, say, Blaauw’s Law, Joule’s Law says:

(apparent power)^2 = (real power)^2 + (reactive power)^2

I consider myself both real and reactive, and now and then I convince myself that I have some power. But sooner or later Nature explains to me that any power I think I have—real or reactive—is purely imaginary. Which would make both terms on the right side of that equation negative. Likewise the expression on the left side. No wonder nobody takes me seriously.

Anyway, I think her absolute power has corrupted Nature to the point where she doesn’t care about the rules—or about logic—when she’s picking the winners and losers. Much like the audience for “Dancing with the Stars.”

Trolling the Dice

Take the case of nontransitive dice. (Even if you think you know all about nontransitive dice, you might want to follow the link just for the Warren Buffet-Bill Gates anecdote.)

You’d think it would be a basic requirement for gambling that “beats” would be transitive. If I beat Lottie and Lottie beats Luigi, then surely I beat Luigi. Otherwise what sense is there in the universe?

Beats me. Which Luigi does, again and again. It turns out that Nature has rigged the odds, and she permits a numbering of the faces of three cubes so that if Luigi and Lottie and I each take one of these dice and roll against one another pairwise for a sufficient number of rolls, I’ll consistently trounce Lottie, Lottie will routinely clobber Luigi, and despite my obvious superiority over the two of them, I’ll reliably lose to Luigi.

It’s like stochastic perpetual motion. Or a shell game:

 Lottie played Luigi’s game;
 Paid in queer and split for Maine.
 Brady was Luigi’s shill;
 Took his pay in phony bills
 And sent it off for alimony
 To his old lady, Lottie Brady.

In case you’re not up on carnival slang, queer is counterfeit money and a shill is a confederate who poses as a winning gambler to induce bystanders to participate in a crooked game. The point is, Nature is running a rigged game. And what goes for Nature goes double for technology.

In the Backwash of Progress

Every day a new technology replaces an old one. In every such case, the new technology is an obvious improvement over the old one. This is only natural. The new technology was designed with the defects of the old one in mind. It fixes those defects. It has to be better. Think of James Dyson, observing that vacuum cleaners suck and coming up with a better vacuum cleaner. It still sucked, but he was able to get people to pay £2,000 for it. So it was clearly better.

And yet we can all think of cases where some old technology is demonstrably better than the new one that replaced it. How can this be?

Because technological progress, like Nature, cheats. For example:

Now that CDs are being replaced by phones, the backlash against the CDification of sound has subsided. There may still be some audio aficionados who have every edition of The Absolute Snob and think that digital recording is ruining music. I don’t have a horse in that race; my ear’s always been too tin for that. But I do have one beef with digital audio: the volume control. Even my tin ear can discriminate dozens of jnds of sound volume. More to the point, it feels like the experience is a continuum. I want to crank that knob until the volume is just right. But no, technological progress has taken away the analog volume control.

Or typewriter keys. You know what was so great about typewriter keys? They were designed for human hands. There’s a radical concept. What twisted mind came up with that screwball idea? And does anybody have his number?

It wasn’t Jef Raskin, but Jef was someone who designed a tool for creatures with human hands. His Canon Cat had ease of use that has never been replicated in any subsequent computer, pod, pad, or phone. Content persistence, modelessness, commands instead of applications, navigation using incremental text search—and you do it all without lifting you hands from the keyboard.

Well, we’ve fixed that. Hundreds of thousands of hours of developer effort have gone into making operating systems better. From the primordial ooze of CP/M, we advanced to the towering summit of Windows NT. And yet somehow, no currently manufactured computer can match the performance of the Canon Cat, a machine with no operating system.

The Diamond Age

A fair amount of developer time and user research also went into the development of command-line interfaces for consumer apps. All that was lost with the advent of GUIs, which were demonstrably slower. Progress.

And then there’s the WordStar diamond. Wordstar was a word processing program with an interface designed for touch typists. Just more craziness.

Asking what we have given up for what we have gained is never popular but always appropriate. Out on the freeway, a line of cars hurries away from wherever you’re going in such a rush. Hidden under the machinery, the up escalator creeps perpetually downward. The ladder of technological progress was apparently designed by M. C. Escher.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He’s got Nature’s number, but she won’t return his calls.

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