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Obsolescence now redundant

From today’s Sunday Times, in an article on the police crackdown on street racing:

Acting Insp Colin Asplin said the introduction of digital police radio communication — expected around Christmas — would mean they could sneak up on young hoons.

“It’ll make their scanners pretty well redundant,” he said. “It's going to have a profound effect on the way that we do our business. We’ll have a greater element of surprise.”

On reading this passage, I furrowed my brow at Asplin’s use of the word ‘redundant’ to mean ‘obsolete.’ I’d never seen it before, and was a little confused as to how it had arrived there. Sure, “to be made redundant” has meant something close to obsolete in British and Australian English for years (as part of an assumedly-Industrial-Revolution-era idiom meaning to be fired from your job) but I wasn’t so sure this was the right spot to be using it.

In the “you’re fired” case the redundancy is (fairly) clear: some new technology is able to perform your job function, thus your personal performance of that function is redundant and you’re fired. If the new technology can perform that function better, faster, or cheaper than you can, then you aren’t just being made redundant: you’re also being made obsolete. Or maybe you’re being made redundant because the new technology has made you obsolete. Still with me?

Now, in the case of the police and their radios the old radios are being made redundant (and obsolete) by the digital ones, that much is certain. Digital radios do the same job, and better, so the analog radios are being taken out of service. But hoons aren’t doing anything with their scanners. They aren’t installing a second scanner that duplicates the function of the first, their scanners are just ceasing to be useful. So, strictly speaking, they aren’t being made redundant. They’re just being made obsolete.

But with all of the above in mind, the Acting Inspector’s misapplication is quite understandable: if you take the idiomatic use of ‘redundant’ at face value (and take its association with obsolescence too seriously) you might assume it can be applied anywhere a thing is taken out of service. If redundant equals unemployed, then the scanners are redundant! Unfortunately this logic falls apart for anyone with an understanding of why redundant equals unemployed.

It’s an interesting development either way. I wonder if this use of ‘redundant’ will catch on (or if it has already caught on, and I’m just suffering from a recency illusion); it would be most amusing to see the prescriptivists go crazy trying to correct everyone, only to realize (years from now, on their deathbeds) that they had failed, and that there were now entire generations of people speaking ‘the wrong way’.

Gag reflex

I love this. Family groups (I love those guys!) are decrying a Lee jeans print ad campaign, complaining they portray prostitution, child pornography and oral sex.

Said family groups are calling for a ban —and they’ll probably get it (yes, Australia is a nanny state)— but even so, last I checked there were a few standards you needed to hold yourself to before calling for a ban on something. They’re nothing formal, mind. Just a few commonsense checkboxes one should consider before lodging a formal complaint of any kind and alerting the media. The list goes a little like this:

  1. Ensure you’re not a moron.
  2. Ensure the basis for your complaint is sound by the judgment of a reasonable person. If you’re unsure, check with someone not affiliated with your cause.
  3. Ensure the wording of your complaint isn’t easily refuted. If you’re unsure, have someone literate examine your complaint.

Now, maybe I’m not the best person to ask whether the childhood and family groups referred to in this news article actually consulted the checklist. Only they know for certain. But keep the line “prostitution, child pornography and oral sex are suggestively portrayed” in mind when you consider the following photographs:

Girl and guy pose on a bed. Fully clothed, though the girl is exposing a garter belt.Same girl (she’s the same in all the photos, incidentally) reclines, fully clothed (though with a very low cut top), sucking a lollipop.Girl sucks on a popsicle. She’s topless, though the suspenders on her shorts conceal her nipples.Girl and guy recline on a couch. He has his thumb in her mouth, while his other hand inches inside her beltline.The same lollipop-and-suspenders routine described earlier.Topless girl throws a leg over topless guy photographer in a sea of satin sheets.Guy has a thumb inside his own beltline, pulling down to reveal the higher reaches of his pubic hair (or the lower reaches of his belly hair, you decide).Same girl “presents” herself, fully clothed.

I’m no sexologist, but I’ve been around the block. Correct me if I’m wrong on these points:

  1. Prostitution tends to involve the exchange of money for sexual favors. These photos depict nothing of the sort.
  2. Child pornography tends to involve children. There are no children in these photos.
  3. Having a model suck a lollipop may be a sly reference to oral sex, but 90% of people will miss it unless she’s deep-throating an 18" kielbasa.

The funny thing is there’s no mention of regular old pornography in the article (child pornography is an entirely different beast). The ad campaign effectively replicates a trashy skin-mag photo shoot (yes, that’s kinda the point) and yet the bulk of the complaint centers on things that aren’t in the ads at all.

Some of the more hysterical comments left under the article make me wonder what these people have been drinking to forget their own childhoods.

Sex does sell. It’s been selling for longer than you’ve been alive. But you became immune to the sex you saw on TV and in magazines when you were growing up, so the marketers had to dial it up a notch to make sex sell for you. Now they’re doing the same for your kids, only you weren’t ready for the dial to go up again.

Get used to that feeling, you’re going to be getting it a lot during the next fifty years. Music is too loud. Movies are too violent. TV is too boorish. Kids are too disrespectful. Sound familiar? Yes, you’re turning into an old person. Congratulations.

Smacked out

I can’t believe I’m about to link to two articles in one day, let alone two articles featuring childhood and family groups, but here it is. A recent survey showed that 69% of adults were A-OK with smacking as a means of disciplining children, with some 45% cool with smacking a child hard enough to leave a mark.

Childhood groups find this disturbing, and are calling for (wait for it…) a ban on the practice. What they’re clearly missing (besides a checklist that would prevent them from making asses of themselves) is the fact that nearly 70% of people in this country are for the very thing they’re trying to outlaw. Maybe they’re just not grasping the whole “politics is a popularity contest” thing.


So Apple’s September 12 ‘Showtime’ event turned out to be more interesting than I’d suspected. New iPods, new iTunes, movie sales, and a sneak peek at ‘iTV’… a TV frontend to your computer’s media collection.


OK, be honest with yourself: the iPods aren’t all that exciting. When new headphones are a bullet point in the announcement, you know the device itself can’t be too much of an upgrade.

All three models of iPod saw upgrades. 80GB at the top end, better battery life, brighter screens, new software features that won’t be backported to older iPods (as an incentive to upgrade, of course)… that’s it.

The Nanos, back in the familiar anodized aluminum bodies and bright color options of the Minis they replaced, are similarly unexciting. “Completely remastered” for sure —they’re thinner, have better battery life, brighter screens, similar software upgrades to their big brothers, and are now up to 8GB at the top end— but not all that impressive. It’s not the massive shift we saw last year in the transition from mini to nano, but you can’t do that every year. In twelve months, when they move up to 16GB in the top end, I’ll be first in line to upgrade. Having trimmed my music library down to a modest 10GB plus podcasts and photos, 8GB is just shy of ideal; so for now I’m content with what I’ve got.

Also in the anodized aluminum department… The Shuffles, now there’s something interesting. Tiny, clip-on, tiny, tiny, iPod Shuffles. Dang. If I were still a Shuffle enthusiast they’d look mighty tempting, but I’m just too married to having a display.

iTunes 7

Another year, another upgrade. Or rather, another UI. Frankly, I’m disappointed. Not because the UI is inconsistent with the rest of Mac OS X and kind of embarrassing in places, or because the new features constitute bloat (in fact, I’d say all the features are quite welcome this year), but because everything feels bolted on.

Cover flow view, although wonderfully optimized (the original CoverFlow from which it takes its name made an absolute dog of my system) is just kinda dumped into a pane. It’s novel, and it’d make a great way to go through your collection in a fullscreen party-proof jukebox mode, but is it really useful as a browser? Making it share a split view with your library listing is just lame; put it into Front Row where it really belongs.

Album art view looks quite ridiculous… a frankenstein of views. I’d always dreamed of a way of browsing albums in iTunes by their art, but I imagined something more like Delicious Library than what we got. Sure, it looks great with full albums, but if you have a lot of EPs with short track listings, a lot of singles, orphaned tracks, or if you’re just suffering from the years-old Album Sort Bug, album art view is going to make you suffer.

The other features are great.

Two way sync for iTunes-purchased music? Awesome, but please stop treating us like criminals… let us sync the rest of our music too. Fetching album art from the iTunes store? Very welcome. Decent video performance and QuickTime-style HUD controls? Wonderful. Full library backup to CD/DVD? Neat. VGA video downloads from the iTunes Store? Cool (though I’m still waiting on catalog parity between the US and the rest of the world). Gapless playback? Well… what the hell took so long? Two years ago, with the introduction of iTunes 4.5 and it’s gapless ripping feature, I said:

Here’s a better idea.

Get the computer (and the iPod) to start reading the next track before the current one finishes, and eliminate the gap altogether. This isn’t a crossfade, it isn’t a special effect, it’s what we like to call “working the way we expect it to work”. When we want zero gaps between songs, we shouldn’t have to rip entire albums as a single track, it should Just Work™.

And at the time I took a little flack from people who just didn’t experience the problem as I did, like Emma, and from people who were quick to point out that MP3 encoding mandated a certain amount of empty space on either end of the file, and there was nothing iTunes could do about that. Padding, byte rounding, whatever. We’re stuck with it.

But hey! Apparently it was solvable all along, and now iTunes and the new iPods can behave as they’re supposed to. Remarkable.

Codename: iTV

This is really quite interesting. It’s basically the video Airport Express people have been clamoring for for so long, but with a Front Rowish interface and a remote control. The prototype is tiny: roughly the size of a Mac Mini, but thinner. Essentially a thin client TV-out for your Mac or PC’s iTunes library.

Take particular note of that, though. Your Mac or your PC.

Part of me hopes there will be another model available down the track… something a tad bigger that actually looks at home in a stack of home stereo components. A big hard drive, DVR functionality, DVD drive, iPod in (and out)… an entirely self-contained Apple media center that isn’t just a gateway to the media you’ve stored elsewhere.

I suppose what I just described is a Mac Mini, but adopting stereo component dimensions would give the design team a lot of room to work in. Rather than using more expensive laptop hard disks and optical drives, as is the case in the Mac Mini, they could use full-size components. Room for two hard disks, a digital TV receiver, CableCard, etc etc.

A pipe dream, I know. For now, though, iTV is a step in the right direction. As Jobs said: it’s Apple in the living room. Interesting times ahead.

…And now I regret it

So I was curious about iTunes 7’s new “Get Album Artwork” feature, since I figured Apple’s art-scanning staff were somewhat more dedicated than the “provide your own or go without” policy that artists go by when they sell at Amazon, and went through the long process of removing and replacing the art as per the instructions I later relayed to Colin at The Über Geeks.

Here’s a tip: don’t do it on albums you’re already happy with.

It works, of course, and the artwork quality is good. I was also pleasantly surprised by the breadth of iTunes’ collection, but there’s something curious about how iTunes handles store-fetched artwork. Rather than embedding it in the song’s ID3 information as was the case in earlier days —and continues to do if you drag artwork from some external source onto the track— iTunes stores fetched art in a separate directory structure at ~/Music/iTunes/Album Artwork, in a proprietary format. This is, presumably, a means of improving CoverFlow performance, but there are two very noticeable downsides:

Album artwork is no longer portable
Music copied —legally or otherwise— between machines will not retain its art. It may be the case that when you import those new tracks into a machine with iTunes 7 it’ll fetch the art (I tested this on a receiving machine bearing iTunes 6), but the art is certainly not attached to the track itself any longer.
It breaks your pretty screen saver
Mac OS X’s iTunes Artwork screen saver looks for art in the files, not in the new repository. This will undoubtedly be fixed, either as part of an upcoming dot-release of 10.4, or later in 10.5, but for now you’ll have to put up with a screen saver that only has art from those two bootleg recordings you have, and the demo discs from your friends’ bands.

If the bulk of your collection lacks artwork —as is probably the case among non-dorks— then sure, go nuts. But if you’ve already spent long hours collecting artwork from Amazon and applying it to your collection, perhaps consider sticking with what you’ve got.

Albums sorted

Reader Carl Jonard writes to inform me that the new “Album Artist” field in the Get Info panel provides a useful workaround to the Album Sort Bug I re-mentioned the other day as part of the Showtime overview.

I’m unsure how the ID3 spec expects Album Artist to work (I tried looking, I failed) but in practice it is used by jukebox software to form a unique album ID. Album Name alone doesn’t cut it for all the reasons we’ve covered already (collisions, collisions, collisions), but the Album Artist/Album Name combo does… assuming an artist isn’t so much of a jerk as to name several of his albums identically. It seems like the kind of thing Sigur Rós would do, but in most cases it’s just fine.

iTunes uses Album Artist in a number of places, notably in Artwork view and Coverflow view, where it will handily infer the artist if said field is empty. As a bonus where the album is marked as a compilation, iTunes will infer the album artist as being “Various Artists”; a nice touch.

Still, this field (and others) will confound a great number of people with substandard tagging. If Artwork view or CoverFlow view are screwing you around by dividing a single album into several chunks, I’d suggest making sure all the tags for tracks in that album are consistent.

Don’t tell me

Something that has always bugged me about spam filters is their tendency to announce, quite proudly, just how many spam emails they’ve captured. It serves a very useful purpose, of course, since people will doubtless want to check their filters every now and then to ensure nothing was falsely identified as spam, but I’ve always found it distracting. Like a small child yelling “Daddy, Daddy, lookit what I found!”, it just begs me to open it, inspect it, and empty it. Every time I get new mail. It reminds me of a bit from Joel Spolsky’s User Interface Design for Programmers:

There was one problem [with the Macintosh trash metaphor]. After a few releases, the Mac designers went a little too far and decided that a trash can with something in it should look “stuffed,” so when you drag something in there, you get a full trash can instead of an empty trash can. The trouble is that neat freaks were distracted by the full trash can. It looks messy. When they wanted to clean up, they would empty the trash. Over time, many people got in the habit of dragging things to the trash can and then mechanically emptying the trash so that the trash can wouldn’t look messy, thus defeating its original purpose: to provide a way to get things back!

Yes, I’m one of those neat freaks and I hate looking at a full trash can. Even if it has 30KB of files in it, it just looks so damn full! Maybe it’s time the trash became a little more dynamic: give it a few dozen levels of fullness, each representing some percentage of the disk’s capacity occupied by trashed files, but I digress. If we’re talking Junk instead of Trash, doesn’t a huge number of “unread” junk emails strike you as odd? I’m pretty sure I don’t ever intend to read them.

A spam filter that announces the arrival of new spam is only marginally better than no spam filter at all. Spam is something I don’t want to deal with: period. But now instead of hitting Delete once for every incoming spam email, I’m made to switch to the spam folder, scroll through the list for potential false positives, and hit Erase Junk Mail to get the visible spam count back to zero. Every time I get new mail. The Junk folder, by highlighting its contents so proudly, sets off the neat freak alarm. And it’s a loud alarm. If you ever meet my mother, you’ll understand. And god help you.

So I’m neurotic, it’s an annoyance. In an effort to curb this Junk anxiety, I’ve opted for stealthy spam filtering by configuring Mail to mark all junk as read on arrival. Now the spam can pile up for days, weeks, I pay it no mind. Whenever the fancy takes me (not often), I’ll take a peek to make absolutely sure there are no false positives. But otherwise, who cares? If it’s not telling me about all the spam it trapped I can just go back to living the life I had before spam became an issue: a simple, carefree existence of full-fat milk, high-carb beer, and leaping before I look.

The rule? Essentially: If message is junk, mark as unread. Consult the “Rules” or “Filters” pane of your email client’s preferences for details.

Now, to be perfectly fair, it’s only natural that the Junk folder should display its unread count by default; I’m not arguing that spam filters should be black holes. A lot of people would be worse off without some indicator of trapped spam, since they’d never be reminded to look for false positives and may (on mission-critical mail accounts) be completely screwed by a lost email. Likewise, some people would never empty their trash if it didn’t look full, and bad things would happen. Disks would get over-full with the bloat of a thousand deleted podcasts. But me, I just don’t wanna know. I’ll look eventually, but constant reminders just make me look more often than I need to. I found my happy medium with a simple rule. You can too.