Thursday, July 24, 2008

The iPod Age

Did 9/11 Prepare us for the iPod?

Autumn 2001 was a confusing season, full of upheavals. I don't need to remind you of the attacks that opened the current political age, but I may need to remind you of the stock market crash on the 17th of September, and the original name of the “Global War on Terrorism:” Operation Infinite Justice. In early October, the U.S. began operations in Afghanistan. On the 9th of October, the anthrax scare began. From the cool distance of nearly seven years, it's hard to remember the intensity of the hysterical, paranoid atmosphere which filled the aftermath of the attacks.

It's also easy to forget the events of October 23rd, 2001, a day as important as any of these others (arguably more so) to the everyday life of the average American consumer. On this day, Steve Jobs made the original iPod announcement, heralding the age of the personal digital media player.

By mid-November, the telltale white earbuds had started popping up on the ears of early adopters around New York. It was always good to have a little extra entertainment in those days, in case your train was delayed up the track while the authorities investigated a mysterious package. Even better, these shoppers were doing their patriotic duty by spending their money on consumer goods, the cornerstone of the economy.

The iPod experience is that of a personal cocoon, separating you from your environment, wrapping the user in a personalized experience unshared by others in their surroundings. Generally, it decreases the user's awareness of the world, replacing it with entertainment of one's own choosing. During the unpleasant upheavals of the fall and winter of 2001, this was an understandable and popular choice.

During this time, political debate fell silent. The people of this country gave the benefit of the doubt to its President, and his administration began a number of operations aimed at increasing our security, an understandable response to that most spectacular breach. After the start of the campaign in Afghanistan came the Patriot Act, on October 26th. In addition to the expansion of enforcement powers (or encroachments on civil liberties, depending on how you see it) other provisions were aimed at the integration of intelligence between branches.

In the original iPod announcement, chief among the touted breakthroughs was also integration: the device was designed from the start to work with iTunes for easy syncing. The iPod was clearly a better class of device than the competition; Apple had also spent a great deal of time on user interface, which was (and largely still is) a weak point in most competing devices. The hard drive was also superior to those in other devices. But the real selling point was its ease of use: iTunes was a class-leading piece of software, with which you could manage your digital music collection: in addition to allowing you to rip your own CDs (and, later, purchase content over the internet) it now worked seamlessly with the slickest portable music player available. With the iPod, Apple advertised vertical integration as a feature, and people have whole-heartedly adopted it. As of July, 2008, the iPod market share is close to 90%.

The Patriot Act has not proved quite as popular, but it was reauthorized by a large margin in 2005. What strikes me about both the iPod movement and the political era after 9/11 was that people showed that they were more than willing to hand off autonomy, as well as privacy, to either the government or a private agency, in return for improvements. For the government, this meant improved security. For the iPod, it meant a system that any computer-literate person could easily use. This, to me, is the commonality behind what I call the iPod age.

By now, in summer 2008, the satisfaction levels of the Bush Administration and Apple iPod have diverged significantly. While people are still lining up for hours for the privilege of buying an iPhone, Bush's approval rating has fallen to about 30%. It's taken quite awhile for their stories to diverge, however. In my opinion, this divergence started in early 2003, when both Apple and Bush were readying themselves for their next push. For Bush, it was the war in Iraq: For months, he'd been making the case that Iraq had terroristic ambitions and posed a danger to the United States. Apple, on the other hand, was about to launch its own offensive: iTunes was about to be released on the Windows market, giving the iPod (now running on USB) much larger target market.

We know how both of these turned out: while Apple's market share skyrocketed, the Bush administration's claims of imminent danger turned out to be largely unfounded. Apple's integrated personal entertainment solution worked great for windows computers, and by 2004 became the most popular digital music player available. In 2004, after a war with very few American casualties, Iraq became a very dangerous place for Iraqis to live. While Bush narrowly avoided defeat in the general election, his approval rating has steadily fallen, and the administration's oversight of the war in Iraq has been roundly criticized, undermining the larger “War on Terror.”

It's fairly obvious why things have turned out this way: advertising. The implication of the Bush security plan was this: leave everything to us, and we'll take care of it. Trust us and we'll make you safer. Unfortunately, in order to secure reelection, Bush's strategy was to make people continue to feel unsafe: holiday travel seasons would carry alerts of obscure origin, and voters were constantly told that another attack was inevitable. Despite what we'd handed over, which by then included the lives of many young soldiers in addition to the rather more ephemeral idea of civil liberties, we were still told that we were unsafe. We were told that we needed another Patriot Act, and more war, to be truly safe.

From a consumer experience, this is clearly an unsatisfying transaction. In 2006, many people decided to go with another vendor, and both houses of Congress swung to the Democrats.
For Apple, however, things went better. We handed over our ears, installed software on our computers, and everything worked more or less as advertised. The hand-over of authority over our media players has been a much more satisfying transaction, even as Apple locked down the players and incorporated DRM schemes. The darn things just work.

It's easy to imagine that the war on terror presented an opportunity for conservatives to push through imperatives which they had long desired, especially the war in Iraq itself. Likewise, the iPod was an opportunity for Apple to create an integrated experience which the user can configure in only a few ways; Apple had complete control over the user experience of this device, something hinted at by many of the UI decisions made, perhaps heavy-handedly, in OS X.

While the end is near for the Bush administration and their policies, as both candidates rush to distance themselves from his actions, I don't think that the iPod age is over. The iPhone 3G has just launched, with further integration: now applications are available for the device, which is nearly as powerful as the iBook of 2001. These applications are available, of course, only through iTunes. In addition to the locked-down software experience, there is no choice of service providers. Demand is nevertheless huge, and will continue to be.

It's harder to forecast the political side of things: McCain offers largely the same deal Bush did, as he supports the Patriot Act and recent modifications to the domestic surveillance system. Though Obama has said that he would like to see the Guantanamo Bay detention facility closed and talks a good game on civil liberties, it's unlikely that the Patriot Act will be repealed.
So maybe it doesn't look like we're going to get a “refund” of our civil liberties. In this case, all we can hope is that the next president will deliver on safety – and, doing so, make the transaction as satisfying as Steve Jobs has with the iPod.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Steel without wheels

So, after graduation, I of course needed something else to do immediately. As it so happens, I was in luck -- though I'd finished my monome project, (except for one led that went bad, and some screw-tightening) I had another project going. I'd decided to build myself a lap-steel guitar, basically from scratch.

I'd seen some plans here, where they claim that "Building a lap steel is easy," and also there is some good information at Brad's page of steel. On the recommendation of a TA at the PRL, I went to Southern Lumber in San Jose and picked out a nice piece of "Phillipine Mahogany." This is apparently not a true mahogany, coming from a different species, but it has a mahogany-like grain and looks darn good. Cost: around $35. Then, things got busy with school and the wood sat. Sometime in the second quarter, I decided to buy a pre-made pickup and aluminum wraparound bridge from Ryan Rukavina, who build lap-steels and parts in Missoula, Montana. Cost: around $155, but beautiful work, and actually a good price for the quality of the parts. Here's a picture that highlights his work:

That pickup is coverd in cocobolo wood with an extremely beautiful grain. It looks really, really nice and sounds quite good as well. 8-string pickups are hard to find at decent prices, and Rukavina came through for me on this one. Look him up on ebay to find his parts auctions.

Lastly, I needed tuning machines and wiring stuff. Tuning machine ended up costing about $48, plus a wiring kit for one-pickup guitars and some chickenhead knobs, from Stewart Macdonald. Cost: around $70, for a grand total of about $260. Not terrible. The cheapest 8-string lap-steel on the market is Morrell's at $265 from Elderly Instruments, and this has a better pickup and much nicer tuners. Plus I got the satisfaction of doing it myself. I'm fairly happy with the way it's turned out. (Oh, don't worry about the $15 or so I spent on finish, steel wool, and rubber gloves...or the hours of labor, hand-sawing, routing, sanding)

I'd be even happier if I hadn't found this a little while before I finished: the Dynalap kit, made by a guy in North Kingstown, RI. $230, including all hardware; just needs to be sanded. Note the art-deco design of kit #2, actually closer to my original intended design than what I achieved. I found this just after I'd made the big order.

But it's all good. I'm just excited that I made a working instrument, and I've been having fun trying to teach myself to play.