Elliott C. Back: Internet & Technology

A Liberal Engineer

Posted in Education,Science by Elliott Back on February 23rd, 2005.

This is my third year as an Engineering Major at Cornell University, and being in the especially dorky field of Computer Science I’ve tried to balance my education by specializing in English. Too many engineers can’t express themselves in written English, or give a long eloquent speech. Whether or not this is necessary for the workplace is arguable, but whether an excellent command of language is good for one’s soul is axiomatically true. To read Forster or Woodsworth is to come alive in a transcedental sense disjoint from the pleasure of working with machines.

You can look at the issue from a philosophical standpoint, or a practical one. Practically (which is what many engineers are concerned about), command of English and Literature is important from three functional perspectives: innovation & creativity, documentation & presentation, and design & production. I believe that a poet-engineer will have more innovative ideas than a pure engineer, because he has avenues of escape from one realm to the next. While working on a particular problem, his mind can flit between two ideas of knowledge, Lord Byron inspiring a different metal in some alloy, simply by allowing his mind to wander while on the job. The best minds pursue all avenues of innovation, even tangentially. Then, there’s the obvious clarity that skills in English bring to technical documentation. The farther you can abstract your documentation from the harsh technical reality of the machine you’ve built, the easier they are for operators and layman to understand. In a presentational sense, good English means a good resume, which is the key to getting good jobs. How well can you present yourself if you can write the next Google, but can’t speak a fluid sentence? Finally, English, while mystical and lively, is also highly structured and formalized. A full understanding of the grammar of letters and words could help you understand the Car grammar, of nuts and bolts.

Philosophically, well roundedness has been an ideal since Plato first wrote about the immortal soul in the Republic. “Engineering,” he would say, “is good for your mind, but your mind is only one part of the body, spirit, mind consortium. You should exercise all three.” To which we might reply, “And how, sir, should we improve the state of our spirit?” Plato would say, “By the careful study of the Arts you will better your spirit, the creative part in you.” Psychologists might disagree: modern proponents of the liberal education certainly would agree with him. And I think so, too.

To have a truly liberal engineer, you need some part technical studies, and some part liberal. And not just liberal studies, but a passion for the Arts that rivals your passion for engineering.

Hidden Radio: A Review

Posted in Hardware,Music by Elliott Back on October 5th, 2012.

If you aren’t familiar with Hidden Radio & BlueTooth Speaker by John VDN + Vitor Santa Maria, it is one of the more popular Kickstarter projects, having $938,771 on a $125,000 goal. Their plan was to create “the simplest, most powerful radio and wireless speaker for iPhone + iPad ever.” In this review, we’ll see if the bluetooth behemoth lives up to the hype!

Unboxing

The packing for HiddenRadio is immaculate, iPhone style, with a certain simplicity that seems to be directly ripped off from an old-school iPod box. There’s no Microsoft-esque list of system requirements or tacky stickers. You’d feel proud wrapping one of the Hidden Radios up for a gift. There is a subtle panel of use-cases on the back, while the other three sides are product shots:

I opened it up; inside you get a few accessories:

  • A USB mini cable for charging
  • An audio mini-jack FM radio antenna cable
  • An audio mini-jack cable to connect to your Sony Walkman or … whatever
  • A microfiber drawstring dust pouch

Also, there’s the unit itself. A rounded grey (hey dude, I order silver!) cylinder, it looks sleek and is shorter than a beer bottle, and slightly smaller than your palm in diameter. They’re cute looking little devices, and it’s the design concept rather than the sound engineering, I believe, which got them their first million dollars in Kickstarter sales:

Build & Sound Quality

So how does it sound? I received two units, and they are slightly different. Both units exhibit a mediocre range with very little bass when placed on a flat surface. Treble is also attenuated, so you end up having to set EQ on your iPhone to “Rock” or a similar setting to get a response that sounds similar to the song you’re trying to listen to. When held in the air, the speaker sounds quite a lot better. Also, the volume control doesn’t work terribly well. If you set your iPhone to 100% output (no eq), the Hidden Radio will actually distort. So instead of using the beautiful twist feature to control volume, you’ll most likely leave your HiddenRadio 80% open and control volume from your iPhone. More than 80% and the sound quality again degrades.

Another sound quality issue I encountered was a constant buzzing from the unit–but only one of them. The other HiddenRadio didn’t have the same poor circuitry causing the buzz. Fortunately, it seems to be worst only when turned on, or in front of a monitor, and not playing sound. Once it locks onto a bluetooth signal, the buzz amplitude is reduced or eliminated–but you might notice it on a quiet song!

As for the build quality, it’s not good enough. I’m not sure why you twist the device left to open, which is an awkward motion for right-handers. The device feels plastic, and doesn’t have enough weight in the base to stick to the surfaces you place it on, so actually turning it on usually takes two hands: one to stabilize it, the other to twist it open. This defaults the main point of Hidden Radio: the gorgeous twits-to-open feature. Both of my units suffer from superficial defects: the first has paint already chipping off the plastic around the base ring, while the second one’s grille has a permanent dimple. See if you can spot it:

Hidden Radio definitely needs to improve their quality assurance process before selling to the mainstream customer. Another example–one unit came with some charge, while the other (better) unit was entirely uncharged:

The base also needs a few more pounds of weight so that it sticks. Right now, I either need to apply more downwards force than it would take to fire an NYPD glock, or pick the thing up in two hands to turn it on.

Ports

The Hidden Radio has all of its input ports on the bottom–you charge it through a mini-USB cable that plugs in on the base. You can also either give it direct audio input or FM antenna through a minijack on the base. There’s also a bluetooth/direct input/FM radio switch and channel picker to control the modes there:

Other Reviews

You can check out their KickStarter comments page which includes mostly negative feedback. The founders appear to be removing anything but positive comments from their Facebook page. Here are a few comments from Kickstarter:

  • I bought a five pack to give as gifts, unfortunately, the one I opened to try (only after hearing all the negative reviews) it sounds TERRIBLE. At low volume it is so distorted that I cannot bear to listen.
  • I received two units, both look very nice. But the first one has a lot of white noise in the background while charging via USB, the second one’s volume control is out of order.
  • Well add one more backer with the frustrating automatic shut-off between two and three minutes. This only happens in wireless and wired mode though. In FM mode the HR stays on.
  • Everything worked flawlessly out of the box. Simple, easy to use, well made and it really does sound good.
  • Frankly I have to say that the sound quality is horrible yet especially at the max volume. Voice being distorted and sound stage is bad.
  • First of all, this thing is solid. It’s surprisingly heavy, which is nice because with the “no movement” pad on the bottom it has no problem staying in place on a variety of surfaces (I tested glass, wood, and laminate). Secondly, the range is amazing. I have a small 3/2 house and I can sit it in one corner of the house and play music in the other corner. That’s going through 3 walls, one of which is insulated. Finally, the volume is loud, surprisingly loud.

TechHive also gave it a big “meh” review.

My Take?

This is HiddenRadio v1, which for $115/unit, you get a gorgeous bluetooth speaker you can plug into your bedroom and kitchen and rock out while you read, cook, do chores, etc. The sound quality is acceptable, if you know how to goose the settings, and hopefully the Hidden Radios will survive the test of time. I’d give it a 3/5, for now, until they improve the frequency response of the units. Bluetooth is also a bit gimmicky, and quite static-prone.

I don’t care about direct minijack access or FM radio; just give me an amazing bluetooth speaker with great batter life, a bigger speaker or more speakers for better sound, and a twist-to-the-right to open, and I’d happily give you 5/5!

Steve Jobs: A Bad Role Model

Posted in Apple by Elliott Back on November 22nd, 2011.

Steve Jobs, former Apple & Pixard CEO, died on October 5th, 2011, at the age of 56 after a fight with cancer. His life and career was inspiring enough to Apple for them to put up a permanent online memorial of wishes shared by millions around the globe.

Among them:

  • “One of my heros died today. Thank you Steve for changing my world in so many unbelievable and wonderful ways! The world lost so much today.”
  • “Thank you for your life well lived. You was able to transform materials into masterpieces of design that help people to be more human.”
  • “Dear Mr. Steve: You are the greatest man I never knew…”
  • etc…

I want to challenge this post-mortal view of Steve Jobs as a saint. Jobs’ entire life is a relentess story of episode after episode where his immorality, crass capitalism, and greed shine through every moment. I debated writing a post titled “Steve Jobs: The Embodiment of the 7 Deadly Sins,” but felt that it would be better to simplify Jobs’ personal flaws into more simple categories. You all know what he did well, the companies that prospered under his unforgiving hand; now, perhaps after reading this article you can bring some balance to the other side of the scale of Steve Jobs’ life.

Selfish & Above the Law


Credit to Flickr user Acaben for the photo

Liver Transplant

Do you remember the liver transplant Steve Jobs received in April 2009? He flew 2,000 miles from Northern California to the Methodist University Hospital Transplant Institute in Memphis, Tennessee, where the waitlist of organs is about 80% shorter. How did he get in line for a transplant organ in another state? He multiple-listed by buying homes to meet the residents requirements of the foreign states. The shady process has since been stopped, but was, at the time, legal:

Transplant centers cannot stop anyone from registering as a potential recipient at multiple locations, said UNOS’ Dr. Higgins. So long as patients meet the clinical evaluation criteria, can afford to pay and have access to follow-up care there is nothing in theory to stop the rich from listing themselves at many different centers.

Someomewhere in Tennessee, there’s was a sick/dying patient who had to wait longer for his new liver, because Steve Jobs bought his way to the top of the list. Topping it off, as he had terminal cancer, he should have been consider ineligible. However, due to different admission criteria in different states, Jobs could throw out money to find the state with lax enough criteria to put him on the list. And because he was terminally ill, of course, he found himself at the top of the list:

Transplant chief, Dr. James Eason said “He received a liver transplant because he was … the sickest patient on the waiting list at the time a donor organ became available.”

Car Plates

Another great example of Steve Jobs’ willful contravention of the spirit of the law is with his “no-plates” Mercedes car, which he drove without license plates, legally under the rule of law which required plates to be affixed after the car was 6 months old. Jobs, of course, “made an arrangement with his Mercedes leasing company in which he would exchange cars every six months; trading for an identical Mercedes each time. As iTWire puts it: “At no time would he ever be in a car as old as six months; and thus there was no legal requirement to have the number plates fitted.”

Such an arrangement would be unlikely to be offered or accepted from mere mortals like you or me, but Jobs could flaunt his wealth and status to secure the means to pursue an arbitrary loophole in the law to stroke his massive ego.

Poor Personal Judgement

Lisa

When Apple came out with the LISA computer system in 1976, Steve Jobs claimed it was named after the acronym “Local Integrated Software Architecture.” Years later, he recanted, saying “Obviously, it was named for my daughter.” But in her childhood years, fighting in courts to avoid paternity, Jobs claimed he was “sterile and infertile, and as a result thereof, did not have the physical capacity to procreate a child.” Does this make Jobs a psycopathic liar? Or does their subsequent reconciliation show his human side?

Alternative treatments

If you had treatable cancer, would you go to a doctor and have it cut out? Or would you complain, as Jobs did, “‘I really didn’t want them to open up my body” and wait 9 months. Steve Job’s insane decision to resort to alternative medicine to treat his pancreatic tumor because he “believed in alternative herbal treatments” shows absurd personal judgement. Among the “alternative treatments” he tried were “a vegan diet, acupuncture, herbal remedies and other treatments he found online, and even a psychic.”

Hubris


SJ is god, right?

Apple’s censorship

I’ve written before about Apple’s arbitrary app censorship and once sent Steve Jobs the following email:

Reading your interchange with Gawker writer Ryan Tate, I have to comment on the closed-off app store approach, and the idea that some content/applications are inappropriate for public consumption. I appreciate fully the technical beauty of the iPhone/iPad approval process, vetting apps to make sure of their quality and trustworthiness. Better battery life, no malware, and an overall positive experience have made the iPhone/iPad platform what it is.

But, banning applications that challenge your particular sense of morality is wrong. Whether it’s political satire, crude tasteless humour, or porn, consumer and individuals deserve an open platform and the freedom of choice to determine what to watch, read, and play. Mark these apps as objectionable (like you mark “explicit” music in iTunes) and force users to prove they’re adults if you must.

Steve Jobs wanted to control the entire Apple user experience, so he mandated that the iPhone platform would be a walled garden–only his preferred applications would be allowed. In the classic greek definition of hubris, Jobs decided to play god of the playground, a petty move that artificially restricts the richness of the iOS platform.

Apple’s stolen apps

It’s well known that Jobs’ hubris extends to the level where he believes that no original idea can be conceived outside of the Apple ecosystem. As evidence, take a look at the long list of iPhone applications that Apple has ripped-off wholesale:

I’m sure there’s a clause in the Apple/iPhone development agreement that says “If you develop for the iPhone platform and have a great idea that we like, Apple reserves exclusive rights to the intellectual property and to develop it in the future. In Steve Jobs’ mind, no true iOS/iPhone innovation can come from outside Apple–therefore, any applications developed in the iOS ecosystem whose features are subsequently ripped off and made iPhone/iOS features are merely the cobblestones paving the road to greatness.

Anti-environmentalist

Environmental waste

Apple came in nearly last place in the inaugural edition of Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics in 2006, scoring just 2.7/10:

For a company that claims to lead on product design, Apple scores badly on almost all criteria. The company fails to embrace the precautionary principle, withholds its full list of regulated substances and provides no timelines for eliminating toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and no commitment to phasing out all uses of brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Apple performs poorly on product take back and recycling, with the exception of reporting on the amounts of its electronic waste recycled.

Apple’s products, manufactured in China, have been criticized for using polluting supplies and plants. Some years later, Apple has improved their processes and now ranks 4.6/10 on the scale. Apple, prodded into compliance by public scrutiny and Greenpeace, has reduced the toxic chemicals used in their products, such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and other heavy metals. Despite this, note that under Jobs, Apple got their start peddling products contaminated with toxic chemicals, doing an intense amount of damage to the environment.

Foxconn suicides

Apple’s assembler Foxconn is one of the world’s leading exploiters of human capital. Based in China, they work their employees so hard that one of them, Chen Long, died at the ripe old age of 23, having worked continuously for weeks under long hours and harsh conditions. Workers earn a few hundred dollars a month assembling iPhones and other Apple devices, but the conditions are so bleak that between January and November 2010, eighteen Foxconn employees committed suicide.

After getting poor press, Foxconn has improved their wages, invested in robotics, installed netting to prevent jumpers, and asked employees to sign “no suicide” pledges. Now they’re a right jolly place of employment!

Greed

Woz Programming

From the earliest, pre-Apple days, Steve Jobs was looking for an edge over his partners and associates. This story, courtesy of Wikipedia, sets the stage perfectly. Jobs was hired by Atari to produce a circuit-board layout for their arcade game Breakout:

Jobs noticed his friend Steve Wozniak was capable of producing designs with a small number of chips, and invited him to work on the hardware design with the prospect of splitting the $750 wage. Wozniak had no sketches and instead interpreted the game from its description. To save parts, he had “tricky little designs” difficult to understand for most engineers. In the end 50 chips were removed from Jobs’ original design. This equated to a US$5,000 bonus, which Jobs kept secret from Wozniak, instead only paying him $375.

“Backdated” stock Options

Have you heard of options backdating? Basically, bigwigs wanted to grant their employees lucrative compensation while avoiding complicated tax issues–ie paying more corporate tax for the “in the money” options classification. So they backdated them to cherry-picked dates, taking advantage of vague wording in the compensation clauses to “spring load” their option grants. Under the newer SarbOX rules, companies have to declare such options grants within two days, vastly narrowing the window. According to the New York Times, “Apple has acknowledged that Mr. Jobs was aware of backdating but said he did not benefit financially from it and did not understand the accounting implications.”

Apple’s Charitable Giving

Steve Jobs’ attitude towards charity is unbelievable in an age where America’s leading CEOs and technologists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have pledged to give their fortunes to improving the world. Walter Isaacson, Steve’s official biographer, refused to speak about his attitude to philanthropy, except to deflect that it was “unspeakable.” When he took over the helm of Apple as CEO, all charitable giving by the company ceased. Apple did not have a corporate donation-matching program until September, 2011. For an interesting look into the world’s most famous misanthrope, give Andrew Ross Sorkin’s The Mystery of Steve Jobs’s Public Giving a read.

As Richard Stallman said about Steve Jobs, “I’m glad he’s gone. [W]e all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.” On the other hand, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs just came out; you can read the other side of the story for yourself. Malcolm Gladwell has also written a hilarious troll THE TWEAKER: The real genius of Steve Jobs for the New Yorker.

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