Sunday, July 23, 2017

On Aps

Although operating systems haven't changed so much in the past decade or two, there was a time when their rapid innovation was making a computer users life easier, easier and more idiot proof.

I don't know shit about how the old punch-card computers worked back in the days of WW2, but I can recall having to type 'dir/p' into MSDOS to find the exact name of the executable file of the game I'd just installed off 13 floppy disks or 16 megabytes of information.

Having a graphical interface like Windows didn't mean that much given that most kids just wanted to play one game at one time. It just meant that with nice friendly pictures to click on, now a moron could do what a kid had to figure out before.

But Windows presented all our '.exe' files in folders or on a desktop with a nice little logo so you could visualize how many games you had in your 'games' directory.

Then the internet came, and with it, computers were increasing the size of their 'hard disks' and CD's, and bandwith increases and processing speeds and you know - the 90's - until the internet started being able to do what previously you'd needed individual programs to do. 

Instead of buying the CD's and installing the latest edition of digital encyclopedia 'encarta' with it's media files and soundwaves - you could just look whatever up on the internet. Soon you could buy shit, listen to music or watch videos. You know everything the internet could do.

Then Alton Brown, as far as I know, started talking about his dislike of 'unitaskers'. Alton Brown is a cable TV cook, and he doesn't tolerate kitchen utensils that have one very specific purpose. A knife is a multitasker, you can use it to cut things, even to smash things and crush things. An avocado slicer-remover is a unitasker, it is a less useful version of a knife that takes up space and increases ones costs.

So the internet, when it got really good, was starting to become our wordprocessor, our directory assistance, our bank, our social diary, our university textbooks, our library, our phones, our television. Not quite our games, because we tend to want to load as much data as humanly possible onto our hardrives and have an immersive experience in surround sound, but who knows maybe some day. One glorious program, all these glorious tasks. It was shitting on the kitchen knife, the rolling pin, the muffin tray, the skillet. The internet could do everything except prepare meals for us.

Then came smart phones, and one of their chief selling points for the touch screen LCD display, bulky size compared to the Motorolla Razer and low battery life was aps, glorious aps. Why you could even have an 'ap' for the internet.

But close your eyes and imagine if you will, an alternative history, you know that popular genre of fiction where the American Civil war was interrupted by space lizards and now the present day looks crazy. Imagine an alternative history of sales and advertising for aps.

Here goes...

You wake up and pick up your phone. It says you have a notification. It's a friend request from Skuzzy McFuckface. 'I love that guy!' you remark wondering what shenanigans he's been up to since you last shared a desk in year 10 legal studies class. You accept the request and download the social ap that connects you to Skuzzy McFuckface. You don't bother reading all the permissions a pop-up informs you the ap needs, just par for course really, and let it install. Logging you in automatically as soon as the instalation process is complete.

There you can see Skuzzy's feature photos, recent posts, and the ap will notify you whenever Skuzzy wants to directly communicate with you. It also provides you a channel with which you can send to him a request that he join your ap, an ap that will in turn connect him to your exclusive social network ap.

Yes... is it really a social network when you need to download an individual ap for every single social contact you have and give them permission to read all the data on your phone?

Oh well, it's just the world we live in, and it does allow for slightly slicker user interfaces.

You remember back to 2003 or fucking whenever, when aps first came out 'imagine an internet with only one site on it - your email site!' and 'imagine an internet where you can't browse, just go directly to your banking!' and 'imagine an internet where your homepage is just our homepage, and all it costs you is your contacts and calendar data!'

Yeah, that crazy year where you downloaded 40 different versions of the internet that only did one thing, giving a whole bunch of companies access to your data so they could, at the very least do a dismal job of targeting marketing at you.

Why doesn't anyone point out that with few exceptions, aps are a step backwards, rather than forwards. Overwhelmingly aps are unitaskers. 

Sure, there's things like Uber that need a portable device to work, access to GPS, billing information but I would contend that it could have been done marginally less efficiently through a web browser. That excellent multitasker ap.

Facebook give perhaps the best example of regress masquerading as progress. Facebook was first and foremost a website, an improvement on myspace and friendstar, that made our phone directories as simple as remembering someone's name, or if you mixed in the queer community, their pseudonym. 

It built in an email feature, so that instead of the laborious old way of sending emails - saving someone's real name and email address into your contact list and then composing an email and typing in a pre-existing contact. You just wrote to any of the hundreds of people you were friends with by name and put in your message.

Then around the time that the masses flocked to gmail, and gmail gave people a chat feature, Microsoft bought into facebook and started turning facebook's excellently low cost email feature into an instant chat feature. 

That was fine, but then they started subtracting features, culminating in launching 'facebook messenger' - messenger... messenger... where had I heard that name before? Oh yeah, MSN Messenger, that other microsoft acquisition people used predominantly to communicate before facebook. That program that was frankly, pretty annoying, as it increasingly filled up with weird ASCII art handles and emoji stickers. 

Facebook the very innovation that had cleaned out Messenger, was now being used to launch messenger back at us. And facebook touted it as a mandatory improvement.

Now it's true that facebook users hate every change facebook introduce, and then grudgingly accept it, until the viciously defend it against the next change they make to the interface. But in the case of forcing an additional ap just to check direct messages on their user group, that was a true valid complaint. 

You gave us not just one unitasker - an ap or internet just for facebook, but then said the facebook ap couldn't do everything that facebook does - and notified it's users of messages that directed them to the ap store to download the ap necessary to check their messages.

It's literally the opposite of progress. Messenger ap may be one of the worst offenders of recent history, but at the very least, it is useful. Most aps yeild such sparing utility they should deep in their source code feel an embedded perpetual shame cycle.

Part 2

I was reading in the Mx the now defunct free newspaper handed out to Melbourne's commuters to occupy their minds on trains and trams after 3pm weekdays, an article where some financial planner source was 'horrified' to discover over 15 per cent of Australian citizens plan on winning the lottery in order to achieve their retirement goals.

I can't be sure, I'm reaching way back, but I'm pretty sure it was 15 per cent. And the simple reason that financial planner was horrified by the statistic, was because winning the lottery is not a plan.

To win division one in Ozlotto requires that you pick all 7 numbers of the draw correctly. So what are the chances of you buying a game and picking 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 winning? The odds are actually known but if you were told that if you paid $2, and you had to have the first 7 integers come up out of a rolling barrel filled with balls labelled 1-45. Those balls are all loose, and bouncing around everywhere, all mixed up and you want me to pay you $2 on the chance that that process will produce something so ordered as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. And the carney says 'oh no, they don't have to be in order. They just have to be those numbers.'

When the numbers appear so specific and orderly as 1-7, you probably have a more accurate understanding of what a long shot it is that the draw would produce that outcome. If the 7 numbers are more jumbled up, say 4, 26, 17, 41, 9, 12, 30 it might seem as jumbly as the jumble of balls, and more likely to be scooped off the top than something orderly. This is an illusion though. Any combination of 7 numbers is just as unlikely as the first 7 numbers.

The illusion is called the illusion of control. And while forcing the first 7 numbers on a participant would result in people saving their $2, allowing people to pick any 7 numbers they like and also play multiple games will have them surrender their money more easily.

A carney understands he has a good racket if he can play this game 45 million times at $2 a pop provided he has $2 million dollars to pay out should a punter beat the odds in the early days. Otherwise he can reasonably expect to grasp a coll 90 million in his small hands from 45 million x 7 rolls of the drum.

And this is why lotteries exist, in a small country like Australia, with 15 per cent of the population banking on winning a lotto, they can pay $15 a week every week for a dozen years and still not expect to win (numerically speaking) for another thousand years. Under the illusion that by picking their numbers they will finally connect with the god of fortune and be blessed with financial security. Hence economists call lotteries a 'tax on stupidity'.

So that's a chunk of the Australian population, but I imagine the psychology that drives lotteries to work in Australia, and people to sink $15 a week into a highly low-risk retirement strategy that ensures close to 0 returns applies the world over.

Now I don't mix with many young folk who don't even contemplate their retirement given that they haven't even begun their working lives yet, but I've met at least one teenager who dreams of designing an ap that will make them rich.

And designing aps that will make you rich seems to be the premise of the TV series Silicon Valley. It was also George Michael's major story arc in the Netflix series of Arrested Development (FakeBlock). I've heard several speakers, public intellectuals comment on the youths dreams being centered around developing an Ap that blows up and makes them millionaires. It seems this stereotype has been part of popular culture for a few years at least, and at least regarding the aspirations of young white males and model minority Asian males.

Aware that I'm an artist, this is hypocritical to suggest that young people banking on programming an ap to secure their future is the equivalent non-plan as baby boomers counting on the lottery to make them rich.

And again, I am not sure where I'd even begin to calculate the odds of a young coder writing a killer ap and successfully monetizing it to live off that popularity. In the current market, their probably is more capital in the game than there are players to absorb it, the possible 'ap bubble' and maybe it's a repeat of the 90's where as a high school student, stories kept getting told about IT graduates getting offered hundreds of thousands of dollars straight out of University and company cars and what not. 

Fortunately by the time I would graduate from secondary school and pick a university degree the tech bubble as it came to be known had burst, and really those stories of undeserving people being handed wheelbarrows of cash should always be interpreted as warning sirens.

So because I'm feeling defensive, I want to draw a line between my own pursuit of being an artist, being 'in it to win it' with the state lottery and being a silicon valley entrepreneur ap startup.

Although their might be examples of artists that have gone viral and made it big, like Damien Hirst and what not, there is a long standing romantic notion of being a struggling artist, given that most of the most famous artists of art history made no money in their own lifetimes, and in cases like Fra Angelico, or Botticelli, were only discovered in storage some where and announced as masters hundreds of years after the fact.

Must artists have a self-defeating almost pathological aversion to the idea of financial success, security and stability. One I don't particularly share, but I've certainly turned down substantial income and human dignity to be an artist. I feel a lot of aspiring artists do the same.

I also feel that artists, as distinct from the two other groups, enter the world of art with if anything a depreciated sense of their odds of success, like 9,000,000,000:1 or whatever the population of the world is. Possibly carrying around a chip on their shoulder, and rationalizing their decision to pursue art as a kind of masochistic passion, rather than a fear of not having what it takes to be a trial lawyer or something.

But yeah, being in a tech startup is definitely a scalable profession just like art. Where a few winners take all and most programmers eat shit. Probably not as extreme as the arts, unless you allow big film studios like Disney-Pixar and big publishing institutions like Marvel, DC and Shonen Jump into the art world - in which case you create a middle of lucratively salaried artists, just like all the coders and programmers and engineers that never make a groundbreaking ap but instead work on debugging new Google and Microsoft products.

Trouble is, like Dan Gilbert's TED talk on expected value theory, and how the general public greatly overestimate their odds of winning the lottery, the Ap world is much more rife with highly visible stories of Joe Nobodies becoming billionaires and a complete dearth of all the Joe Nobodies who stay nobodies as the news likes to cover people winning the lottery all the time and dedicates no time to people who lose the lottery.

I think in the talk Dan says that just to dedicate the proportionate 30 seconds of coverage of every winner to every corresponding loser, one nights draw would take 11 years to screen all the interviews of people who don't win the lottery with one person saying 'woohoo I won' in the last 30 seconds at the end.

The appeal of designing some disruptive technology that revolutionizes the way we do ? is quite obvious. You get income, prestige, autonomy, independence without having to kiss ass and suck up to slowly climb the ladder. It seems to circumvent every bad story about the working world and you also get to enjoy your riches while you are young.

The payoff is kind of identical to the lottery, and thus I suspect the ability not just to figure out the '?' in the above paragraph but to actually create a working ap that does it so well that no second moving improver can steal the market away from you is probably - while not a random process, just as likely as picking the 7 winning numbers for Ozlotto, or the 6 winning numbers + the powerball for powerball.

Innovative technologies will be developed. Including game changing aps. It's possible that the greater proportion of future generations dedicated to this will produce more innovation too. But that's just the same as more people playing the lottery tends to produce more shared division one winners. 

And none of this here in part 2 changes the fact that aps are a shitty step backwards on the whole. Not the progress they were marketed as.

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