iphones

WHINGE

THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE BUGS

The “don’t you worry about that” philosophy of a former Queensland pollie seems to be the mantra of some software companies. Would it hurt them to show a little message saying the latest (inevitably bloated) version of their operating system is being downloaded automatically? The mouse and keyboard suddenly working spasmodically is a bit of a too-little-too-late giveaway that something is happening.

A long time ago, we decided that our ISP’s plan with 8 GB of downloads per month would be sufficient. And so it was, with no problems until an iPhone entered the house. We immediately came perilously close to being shaped as all the apps we had somehow managed to survive perfectly well without made their merry way onto the phone. [1] Fortunately, for exactly the same cost, our ISP had a “medium” plan that allowed us 20 GB of downloads plus uploads. Calm was restored and there were only occasional warnings about impending shaping, usually after the arrival of a new iDevice or iApp. 

Every now and again, the data usage had an unexpected blip. A blimp would be a better word, actually, as a tenth of our monthly allowance could be devoured in a single day! It finally dawned that upgrades were the cause, with the blame shared between Apple, Microsoft and others, probably in that order.

This month saw a particularly large number of “blimps”: we faced the (unbearable) prospect of three days of shaped internet usage. We bought the 10 GB top-up rather than the probably-not-quite-enough 2 GB option, rationalising that we could use some of the excess to install iOS8 earlier than planned. A foolish strategy really: “update in haste, repent at leisure” as the proverb goes.

A little Google research suggested that moving to iOS8 wirelessly was not without its traumas and that the via-iTunes-on-a-computer approach was prudent. The iPhone was plugged in and the grand updating began. While we did wonder what was going in, we knew there was no need for us to worry about it. And sure enough, after an hour or so, it was the iPad’s turn to be connected. During which time iOS 8.01 was released and probably recalled, but not before it had been downloaded to but not installed on the iPad. 

8 GB of data trundled into our house that night! 8 GB—God only knows what it was! Mind you, He probably chuckled 'well, I did warn them about apples' before becoming more reflective and thinking that the parable of the wise and foolish virgins might have been better expressed in terms of the five late and the five early updaters.

As many of you will have noted, the release of iOS 8 was not without a certain amount of drama. The hoped-for emergency replacement iOS 8.02 was released before our remaining 2.5 GB allowance expired. Both the minor updates were touted as being 70 MB, which made the 8 GB even more puzzling. Taking Euripides advice from 428 BC, "try first thyself, and after call in God”, a hypothesis was developed: if an OS update is installed wirelessly, the system is patched, but if the update is installed via iTunes, the whole bleeping lot (2 GB in this case) is downloaded. And, based on a statistically valid sample size of 1, this was confirmed. 

The iPhone was updated wirelessly and quickly. The iPad was nagging “install me!” But iOS 8.01 couldn’t be installed because it couldn’t be verified because it was a disowned OS. And there was no obvious way to remove it so the iPad would find the newer update. We didn’t worry about that—we had Plan B. The iPad was plugged into the computer; iTunes found iOS 8.02, and an hour or so later the download finished. Oh yes, and gobbled up the remaining 2GB plus of data allowance. The timing was almost perfect: we were shaped a quarter of an hour before the witching hour when the slate is wiped clean, a mere 25 MB over our 50%-greater-than-normal limit. 

As one of the songs from Cabaret says, every story should have a moral: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A fool rushes in to update where angels fear to tread. Let the early birds find the bugs; there’ll still be worms enough for you.

SERENDIPITY, WARRNAMBOOL

  1. Shaped: a less ominous threat than the “throttled” used by some ISPs to describe a considerable reduction in internet speed.
Early operating system upgrades required much longer and more disgusting download times than those described by the author. [An extremely long parasitical worm being extracted from an emaciated linen draper. The man's doctor can be seen on the right measuring the worm and resting it into a jar marked 'Esprit vin'. Plate to:  Album comique de pathologie pittoresque , Paris: Ambroise Tardieu, 1823. Wellcome Library no. 16254i]

Early operating system upgrades required much longer and more disgusting download times than those described by the author. [An extremely long parasitical worm being extracted from an emaciated linen draper. The man's doctor can be seen on the right measuring the worm and resting it into a jar marked 'Esprit vin'. Plate to: Album comique de pathologie pittoresque, Paris: Ambroise Tardieu, 1823. Wellcome Library no. 16254i]

PEDANTRY

SPECU-CRANK: ENERGY CRISIS

I’m going to address an issue which is sufficiently abstract and pedantic that it may be too persnickety even for the pages of CRANK: the energy economy of pretty much every popular science fiction TV series or film makes no sense at all. 

To begin with the most notorious example, the villains of THE MATRIX are a race of ruthless hyper-intelligent machines who can only survive by harvesting the energy produced by the remnants of the human race, who have been imprisoned in endless arrays of slimy pods for this purpose. This is impossible, because human bodies don’t actually generate energy: they merely convert the energy contained in the food they eat—whether this be nutritious quinoa salads, chocolate, caffeine, or the unpleasant black goo made from rendered-down cadavers which is fed to the Matrix’s inhabitants—into other forms, such as body heat, daydreams and internet arguments. Moreover, humans are very inefficient converters of energy, and a large fraction of their caloric input is dissipated in the form of farts, indigestion and bad dreams, or stored on the hips and belly, and would thus be unavailable for use by evil AIs. It should also be remembered that these evil AIs must be devoting a substantial fraction of the energy generated by their captives to powering the computers maintaining a simulation of Sydney in 1999, chasing Morpheus around with those squid robot things, and pumping black goo back into the pods, not to mention all the wasteful lightning crackling off the big pod towers. Lastly, I note that the paragon of humanity in this scenario was Neo himself, and that even if the aforementioned items in the debit ledger were to be ignored, it still seems unlikely that a high standard of machine civilisation could be maintained using the leftover wattage from Keanu Reeves.

You may object that THE MATRIX is an exception: a triumph of style over substance, an inept hybrid of vulgar Marxism and stoner paranoia which shouldn’t be used to indict an entire genre. But it is not the only example.

In endless films, aliens invade our solar system in search of fresh resources, having used up their own home worlds: in a handful of others, with a somewhat firmer grounding in psychological realism, humans bridge the gulf of interstellar space to steal resources from aliens. The problem with this scenario is that interstellar space is so mind-bogglingly enormous that if you have the wherewithal to up and haul your civilisation across the light years between the stars, you obviously don’t have a resource problem. Earth’s colonial history is not a sound guide to the challenge of travelling to even the closest stars. Try imagining if the Atlantic Ocean were millions, rather than thousands, of kilometres wide. And even if, as you may object, some kind of warp drive could make the journey faster, any imaginable technology capable of faster-than-light travel requires either vast energy inputs or technology so far in advance of ours that it would also solve any crisis you are trying to fix with an interstellar trip.

The same goes for that subset of films in which interstellar expeditions are mounted to find rare commodities or ingredients. Many people were annoyed at the plot of AVATAR being driven by a quest for a substance giving the snidely lazy name “unobtainium”; your author, by contrast, was annoyed by the fact that the rest of the galaxy is made out of the same sort of stuff as our solar system, and that an interstellar expedition to find this MacGuffinite would almost certainly be more expensive than just making it one atom at a time in a particle accelerator.

Conversely, no matter how desperate and grinding a science fiction dystopia gets, there is always, it seems, a surplus of capital to be devoted to high-tech fighting arenas, elaborate costumes, futuristic robot-police and high-speed snow-piercing trains. The worst example of this is found in the MAD MAX films, which posit a world in which oil is more precious than gold, but also in which the main leisure activity consists of driving ferociously around the outback in cars and trucks with very poorly-tuned engines. In reality, a world where oil is more precious than gold would feature much less thrilling forms of transport, like pack animals or bicycles.

Even the rebooted BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, justly celebrated for its gritty and dark sf vision, still scores badly in this regard. If an army of sexy robots is pursuing the desperate remnant of humanity through interstellar space, the desperate remnant of humanity is going to run out of fuel first, simply because the sexy robots don’t need to waste resources on air, food, gardens or overheated political intrigues which exactly mirror those of 2000s America. Unless, of course, the sexy robots are squandering their budget on bikini waxes, facial peels and hair salons. It’s worth noting that BSG is one of the only shows to even address this problem, in an episode which focuses on an industrial dispute on the fleet’s “refinery”, but it’s also worth noting that this was a really embarrassingly bad episode which seemed to be constructed from the writers’ high-school memories of Cannery Row rather than any knowledge of actual workplace relations.

Perhaps the flaws in these fantastic universes are echoes or dim reflections of the wealthy parts of a global economy, in which the labour done to produce iPhones and cheap clothes is kept from our sight, in which the effects of our own real energy economy are having permanent effects on climate and which, as a society, we seem hopelessly unable to grapple with. Either that, or they are the symptom of one man devoting his own surplus energy to ruining his own ability to enjoy harmless, escapist entertainment. I hope it’s the latter.

MIKE LYNCH, SYDNEY

An early steampunk-themed storyboard for THE MATRIX. Neo (centre); Trinity (lower right); evil AI, tending human-powered battery pods (lower left); concentrated human woes, etc. The telephone system of Melbourne . Wood engraving, engraved by F A Sleap. Published 1 September, 1890, Melbourne, by David Syme & Co. State Library of Victoria, accession no. IAN01/09/90/8.

An early steampunk-themed storyboard for THE MATRIX. Neo (centre); Trinity (lower right); evil AI, tending human-powered battery pods (lower left); concentrated human woes, etc.The telephone system of Melbourne. Wood engraving, engraved by F A Sleap. Published 1 September, 1890, Melbourne, by David Syme & Co. State Library of Victoria, accession no. IAN01/09/90/8.

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