Digital Sentimentalism

Just last week, I learned from a colleague that the Android Ice Cream Sandwich was finally available for my Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF-101. After briefly going through the installation docs, I decided I’d give it a go.

There were two parts to the installation. The first was a scary sounding step called Super Wipe which essentially clears out the internal storage of the tablet before putting on the new software. Thankfully there were two versions. a Full and a Lite. I thought to my self “How clever, I can go with the Lite, and it’ll all my user data”.

So just before powering down the device in preparation for the procedure, I did a quick mental check “is there anything I might need to backup?”, followed promptly by a non-chalant “Naah…”.

I have this principle called the x-month rule of unneccessity: If something has been sitting in storage untouched for more than x number of months, it can be safely discarded (thrown away, sold, etc.) as an unnecessity. The value of x for me was 6 months, which is about how long I’ve been using my svelte Thinkpad X201 as my primary machine. Ever since then, the Transformer has seen very little use.

It all happened so quickly. Super Wipe Lite took less than 2 minutes, and flashing on the new ROM took about 10. After that, the thrill of watching the full potential of my tablet unleashed by a software upgrade took my mind of whatever digital etching were there before.

Until last night.

Maybe it was the dinner time conversation which inevitable turned to the subject of family holidays, but it suddenly occured to me that a large body of the photos from our Taipei trip were on the tablet, and nowhere else. It was during that trip that I bought the tablet, and I’d emptied all the photos from my phone to the tablet. Wifey and I would always enjoy the photos on the tablet so I never bother copying it anywhere else.

It was 1am at in the morning. The wine from dinner was keeping me awake, but the thought of our losing our photos forever haunted me. I rarely feel so helpless with my technology, I’ve never been more emotionally attached to 1’s and 0’s, and I never hated “digital” more.

One last puzzle to cap off the week, I suppose. But the stakes on these were astronomical. And it had to happened right after me accepting a post-dinner riddle from the father-in-law.

You can read a blow by blow account of how I eventually recovered the photos, but it was nerve wrecking.

More than a broad frustration with technology, it’s made me very hesitant to entrust any sentimentalism to these electrical signals. The less you have, the less you have to lose.

So much for being a technologist and a digital native.

Dead tree libraries and exploratory learning

Wifey and I were driving in the car yesterday morning when the thought hit me: will I ever get to take my kids to a real library with dead-tree books? Somewhere in the background, this question was made starker by the recent introduction of one Kindle DX device into the household.

But back to the question about kids and library trips, mom used to take my brother and I to the library when we were young.

My most distinct memory of the whole experience was how sick I’d feel right before we made a trip to the library because I’d misplaced the soon overdue books we’re needing to return. It was then in my early years, I learned that being stressed out is a luxury one cannot afford when the the car engine’s started and the whole family is waiting in the driveway. I also learned that if you’re planning on hoarding lots of stuff, they should ideally be digital and indexable.

But I digress. My second distinct memory is that of the state library we would frequent. Upon entrance, it had two clearly defined section: a section for children, and a section for grown-ups. You could tell which was which by the way spaces were furnished, and how high the bookshelves stood, but you could also tell because the kids’ section smelled like children. I’d always try to steal a whiff from the grown-up section: the smell of grown-up knowledge and wisdom.

The only times I got to enter the grown-up section were when we were about to leave. Mom would send me to get dad who was busy looking up some motorcycle manual, or something about stock markets, or something about computers. Oh, what joy for me – shelves taller than the eye could see, amber coloured monochromatic computer screens to look up books, and… THEY HAD AN UPSTAIRS: double delight!

I would take my time to browse through the shelves as though I were looking for something, while hoping for the day I could understand what lay behind the incredibly serious looking covers with photo realistic pictures and titles I couldn’t pronounce.

Those trips to the library gave me something to look forward to. The whiff “knowledgeable” adulthood ever so gently nudged me to grow up a little quicker, if for nothing other than to be able to reach for the higher shelves.

I fear my kids may not have this experience. Their earliest recollections of knowledge repositories may very well begin a 4-coloured logotype, a blinking text cursor, and a button that says “Search”. What’s a seven-year-old to type in the box? How’s a child going to search for something that he/she doesn’t even know exist? And how’s a child to defend him/herself from the every increasing ubiquity of attention grabbing advertisements that seek to colour his/her mind for their commercial purposes.

I sure hope we don’t screw it up too badly for them.

Machine Jobs: career advice from a software developer

This Yesterday morning, I got out a little earlier than usual – combination of an early night before, and me wanting to beat the weather to work. It was so gloomy, the skies threatened to burst and pour down at any moment.

Coming up to a quiet traffic-lit intersection, it suddenly dawned upon me that once upon a time, a human being had to perform the very manual task of directing traffic at an intersection. Given that I was commuting to work, I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Expert Traffic Conductor waking up one fateful morning in 1868 to find that he wouldn’t be going to work that day because some machine with light bulbs had just replaced him.

That made me think of other such jobs were replaced such a long time ago, we forget that a human once had to devote his or her life to perform the task, day in, day out. One example is the elevator operator. A another one, the telephone operator.

More currently, I’m inclined to believe the reason a good portion of the human workforce still have their jobs isn’t because machines can’t yet perform them, but because the economics still¬†swing in favour of hiring a human being over building and employing a machine equivalent. ‘Still’ being the operative word.

This is why it puzzles me when someone aspires to be more machine-like with their work.

Granted, I’m not unfamiliar with the fact that the more work one is able to perform per unit time generally translates into higher productivity which, in most cases, increases one’s income. Also granted, I’m acutely aware that every higher-up dreams of commanding a cohort of machine-like human beings; so for an underling, the contortion one’s humanity often presents itself as a wise career move, until you realize you’re just a stop-gap while the real machines creep within range of the corporate budget.

Still, the days of such “machineable” careers are severely numbered. You can trust me on that because bringing such a reality to past is implied in my job description as a software developer.

On the surface, it says “make better software to empower human beings”. What it really means is “make software so that we don’t need to pay that guy to sit there all day and click his mouse”. True story.

So if one is to derive any stone cold career advice out of this, it is to steer clear of the competition.

Instead of aspiring to be more machine-like, seek to be less. Spend time cultivating the things that are uniquely human – traits like creativity, beauty, vision, intelligence, compassion, inspiration. While this almost precludes you from scoring a mindless, well-paying, short-term job, at very least you won’t be out of one when a machine does better.

I took the car to work today

Brother has been overseas for a couple of weeks now, tasking me with giving his 4-wheeled bundle of joy a bit of a stretch every now and then to keep her nimble and her battery topped up.

So today, instead of my usual bike/train arrangement, I schemed to drive the car to work.

While gobbling down my morning muesli, I couldn’t help feeling excited from the novelty of my grand plan. Just to be clear, in all my university and working years, I’d never found myself in an arrangement that required a daily commute behind the wheel from yours truly.

As I entered the garage, I was greeted with a perky chrip-chirp upon announcing my presence with the remote. Tossing my backpack in the back seat was sheer delight. Starting up the car and pulling out of the basement, divine.

My very first traffic light intersection, though, obliterated all sense of excitement and novelty. Glee morphed to dread. Within mere minutes in, the desire to savour every bit of this very curious journey quickly evolved into a wanting to get off the road as soon as possible.

All this while going in the opposite direction of peak traffic.

My daily commute to work over the last 9 months has always been akin to a favourite wrinkle on a pillowcase that never goes away no matter how hot you turn up the iron. Irrespective of how similar the cultural background, social-standing and lifestyle, it is the kind of conversation material that leaves the conversing partner with little to add to, and beckons change of topic. In a tree data structure, this would be a leaf node.

So to keep things interesting, I’d come up with a variety of statements to at least afford a good chuckle, easing the transition into a change of topic.

If I’m feeling eco-friendly, I’d spout something like “It’s one less car on the road”.

Money wise? “Cheaper than a car and petrol”.

Health conscious? “I get a good dose of exercise without even trying”.

Zen: “More than an hour every day to quieten my mind and sift through my thoughts”.

Feeling a little bit fancy? “It’s like getting driven to work every day”.

Oh so productive: “I get to sort out all my emails during my commute. See my 3G phone, it’s got this data tethering thing…”

Up till today, they have been well varnish pieces of wood scraps that I’d so carefully glued together, polished and stowed away in my quiver of self-conviction, just in case someone scoffs, or levies a page out of the very South East Asian my-ride-is-my-pride gamebook against me.

But today, something changed.

As I trudged westward on the “sparser” side of the road, eyes squinted and limbs baked in the the pre-evening sun, concluding my ridiculous* commute, every one my excuses made up for the sake of conversation-flair, turned to teak encrusted in gold.

How genuinely lucky am I, to be able to bike and ride the train tomorrow.

*total distance: 54.68km
total time: 1h 53m
total moving time: 1h 10m
avg. speed 28.64km/h
avg. moving speed: 45.74km/h