iThink and therefore iM not an iPod tool

Despite deeply-embedded contrarian impulses, I've never been one to be avant-garde and go against popular opinion on purpose when it comes to tech. Effete tech elitists often turn their nose up at whatever is mainstream, like Windows. Not me. Microsoft, Sony, Dell: I'm a big fan. My hate for Apple goes way back to when I figured out that the all-controlling monopoly in the computing world is run by Jobs, not Gates. But in general I've always been wary of the minority or the extreme minority players in tech markets, maybe for fear of getting Betamaxed again.

(Full betamaxed disclosure digression: One Christmas my parents got me a much wanted video of Huey Lewis videos. In case you haven't seen, the Huey Lewis videos of the 80s were like short films more than videos with full blown plots, character development, humor, coherency, etc. Very excited, was I, until I realized that the tape was VHS and we had a Betamax. My parents then expended much effort to copy the VHS to Betamax which, even then, smelled of ripe irony.)

But now, apparently, I'm opting for the minority player in several tech categories. In all these cases I've noticed that the more popular choice seems to have a high hype-to-quality ratio, while the options I choose favor quality over marketing. I have an Xbox instead of a PS2 because the PS2's graphics look like I'm playing it underwater. I have Dish Network satellite TV instead of DirecTV because it delivers better bang/buck. If I were to get satellite radio, it would be Sirius instead of the more popular XM because Sirius carries all the NFL games and I've been impressed by it when I've heard it.

Finally, I have a Creative Zen Micro mp3 player instead of the vaunted Ipod for what'll generalize to quality issues. As you know, the Trackball demands to take reality as it comes and not fool oneself. So take my mp3 choice. iPod is wildly successful, well on it's way to becoming an icon, like Kleenex. This may not last forever if the brilliant iTunes store is forced to let you download music to players other than iPods (and you thought the Internet Explorer bundled in Windows was a slam dunk antitrust violation!). I didn't dismiss it out of hand, despite my Apple-hatred. However, Apple's usual totalitarian fingerprints were on the iPod: higher price, less memory and very low customer service orientation (iPods have built in rechargeable batteries which, when the first ones died after 12-18 months, Apple's response was: go buy a new one. Only after sustained customer vitriol did they change course but they still don't want you to open the back, because they think you're just too stupid to replace a battery).

And finally, there was the nose-in-the-air effete elitism. iPods, like most Apple products, are supposed to have this great interface and design. You're supposed to fork over extra bucks for it and be thankful that Apple cares about aesthetics and convenience to you. Their motto is thattheir products "just work" partly because of superior design. This is a bunch of crap, just a corporate branding scam, as I found out with the iPod:

Several times I tried to operate an iPod in stores. The click wheel, with the typical menu, play/pause, next and previous buttons built in to it, totally confused me. First of all, I couldn't figure out how to get the wheel to understand 'play' as opposed to scrolling the wheel itself.

Second, moving your hand in circles to effect upward and downward motion is counterintuitive. Like rubbing your belly when you want to raise your hand. Is clockwise up or is clockwise down? Lefty-loosey righty-tighty suggests...that up is loose and down is tight? That may work, if your brain isn't wired in a way that it's bothered by the idea that a song playlist is looser in the beginning and tighter at the end. Neither does the motion on a clock: clockwise means more time is passing - is that the same as making the cursor go down? Time left in the day is decreasing that way, and decreasing is downward motion. But what if I'm counting the passage of time and therefore clockwise indicates that more time has passed? That would suggest that clockwise should mean up. Why should I have to remember how this fractured metaphor works?

If you think I should have spent another five minutes trying to figure out the 'right' way to use it, you're wrong. If it were properly designed, I should have gotten it in five seconds. I should have gotten it before I even touched it. Why spend extra money on this?

Now take the Zen Micro. You want to go up, you run your finger up the up/down strip. Guess what you do to go down. The play/pause, previous, next and menu options are in separate buttons around the strip. The whole interface backlights in blue neon when touched. To boot, the menu option is an icon instead of the word 'menu' and you can have the player work in like 6 million forms of communication. How did the Apple geniuses get skunked on such a simple interface?

And the battery. Apple begrudgingly now offers to replace the entire iPod when the battery is dead, for just $66. Send in the old one and they'll send you a new one. Of course that means you'll have to unload all of your files to some place safe, then reload them all from scratch into the new one, whenever it shows up. What Apple is trying to tell you is just upgrade to the newer iPod, because you have to reload all your files either way and why pay $65 bucks to keep old hardware, when Apple ejaculates new models every two weeks? Replacing the dead battery and letting you get on with your life is just not that important to them.

Now the Zen Micro, like everything else that has run on batteries since the transistor radio, allows you to replace the dead battery yourself. It's about $40 and available in stores. So does the tiny iRiver flash mp3 player I gave my wife after I got the Zen Micro - it takes one AA battery. So I'm $26 and several days of mailing packages and countless offloading/reloading hours ahead of the poor iPod-abused tool. Now, the Micro's battery life is two hours shorter, but so far I haven't dreamed of needing the 11th-12th hours of continuous music play that the iPod has.

Somehow all of these quality-driven tech decisions have lead me to the odd end of the tech spectrum. I'm still a Windows guy, I haven't fled to Linux or bought a Mac (there'll be a Trackball Mac attack in the future here). But maybe opting for the trackball and the ergonomic keyboard were just the first indications that I am not a devout mainstreamer. But what makes me see the value of a trackball and the non-iPod mp3 player while everyone else is running their circles up and down?

A Spoonful of High Fructose Frenzy

I've mentioned here a bit about my change in dietary habits. I've always had a sweet tooth and love the sugary stuff: cookies, soda, cake. I used to put a tablespoon of sugar on Rice Krispies as a kid and add double the Country Time powder to make lemonade. There was no piece of chocolate cake I couldn't conquer and no half-used can of frosting that I wouldn't attack with a spoon. I figured since I don't like ice cream, I'd balance that with more of the sugar stuff.

But in the wake of kidney stones almost two years ago, and watching the older generation catch America's middle aged man curse, AKA Type II diabetes, like it was a virulent cold virus, I have cut way back on the sugary stuff. Unlike meat though, I do miss it when I haven't had it. So I have a Sprite every once in a while and a couple of cookies each night. It's probably the last area of my eating that is not really in balance.

In response, I've been paying more attention to the stuff used in regular foods. I figure if I am going to get my sugar from the good stuff, I may as well cut it out of the usual stuff that I don't really need to be all that sweet. And since high fructose corn syrup is the sweet ingredient used in many foods, I've kept an eye out for it to try and avoid it.

And it's everywhere. Soda, applesauce, ketchup, baked goods, sauces, syrup, etc., etc., etc. My slow slide towards becoming a granola has sped up as I now chastise Mrs. Trackball of Truth for replacing the natural applesauce with the usual type, which is really HFCS-sauce. Yes, the usual tastes a little sweeter and less appley than the natural kind, but not that much. Not worth the health damage - I mean, it's just applesauce.

So I'm trying to tune my tastebuds of truth to seek out these refined sugars and to avoid them. It's hard to do, but when you realize that your soda tastes like the maple syrup which tastes like the ketchup which tastes like that muffin which tastes like the applesauce, you start noticing the type of foods to avoid: food from the food industry. The alternatives are the organic, the natural. And those natural sweetnesses actually taste better - I'm amazed how sweet fresh fruit can be.

But dodging the infusion of sugar and HFCS in America is difficult. Having kids, who love this stuff more than adults, makes it hard. My gut instinct that adopting a diet of seafood, beans, rice, veggies and fruit would probably put me on the path of a well balanced Jedi Buddhist rings true, but the chances of getting the other family members on board is a tough one. We're venturing to Wegmans tomorrow, a real grocery store, so hopefully I can nudge the food selection further away from artificially sweetened foods. A spoonful of decent food now is better than a bagful of pills twenty years from now.

When did you start believing in Santa again?

This is the time of year when parents and little kids go through a faith-check on the whole Santa question. Adults take it on faith that a part of growing up is first believing in Santa and then not believing in Santa. Kids have faith that Santa is real and that everyone in the world is not lying to them about Santa and a whole bunch of other topics.

As a kid, I figured that if Santa had the whole night, with all those time zones, that he could spend more than an hour per time zone to get the job done. Tight, but probably doable, I figured. When I realized that this wasn't possible, my parents asked me and my big mouth not to ruin it for my little sister, which I was okay with. At this point, some people would be aghast that my parents ever perpetuated such a fraud and horrified that they made me a co-conspirator. Truth is, it didn't bother me then and it doesn't bother me now, because, well I never stopped believing in Santa Claus.

Most adults, in the rush to grow up and appear worldly and wise, often try to cast off and distance themselves from what they consider childish things. So they start drinking coffee, stop believing in Santa Claus and complain about how worse kids are today than they used to be, just to come off as an adult. It's all a bunch of immaturity in the guise of maturity.

I'm not going to dive off here into an intellectual discussion of the benefits of imagination and fantasy for small children and the mean Burgermeister Meister Burger adults who are hell bent on ruining all that. That's for another post.

Here's the truth: Santa does exist and his existence is easy to see. His existence is real, from a certain point of view, as Obi-wan Kenobi would say. Children around the world send their wishes to Santa by visiting him, writing him, etc. and he in turn shows up and delivers presents and grants wishes to them on Christmas. The Santa system is more readily observable than quasars, gods, air pollution and imaginary friends. It wasn't until I became a parent that I fully understood how real he really is.

No, there's no jolly old man with 8 flying reindeer who squeezes down chimneys. If that reality makes you not believe in Santa, then I am sorry to report that the only reason a dollar is worth a dollar is because we all collectively believe that it is - it's not backed by gold or anything. It's literally not even worth the paper it's printed on (the linen it's printed on is worth less, actually). Yet there's no reason to lose faith in something because the actual reality doesn't gel with the mythology or the marketing or the conventional wisdom. That's an adult understanding of the world.

If you look beyond the childish 'adult' belief that Santa doesn't exist, you realize that he does exist and that his existence is quite magical. Parents and other caretakers are Santa's elves and his reindeer. They make the system work by scurrying around to make Santa real. They are the source of the magic in the worldwide system of Santa. The whole society, from the Post Office that delivers letters to Santa, to Toys for Tots, to malls and churches who host him, to NORAD who tracks him on Christmas Eve, pitches in. It's a naturally occurring phenomenon that is older than automobiles, more resilient than the electrical grid, and would be harder to eradicate than hate if anyone was stupid enough to try.

So what is Santa if he's not a man? He's a metaphor and an icon (thanks to Coca-Cola), but at the core he's really a vessel for parents' love of their children. He's a third party love reflector, built from parental love and capable of receiving children's overpowering love and trust (because parents would melt like buttuh in a blast furnace if they got a full dose of it). Because it would be overpowering and fraught with the usual parent-child obstacles if it was direct. The mechanics of it might be materialistic but the reality is that it's about love.

And that is easy to believe in.