The Null Device


So the Apple Event revealed what everybody feared: the headphone socket is dead. The connector is being removed from future iPhones, because “courage”. In its stead, Apple will start shipping wired headphones with their proprietary Lightning connector, and (for the time being, at least) adaptors for your existing headphones (which just became “legacy” headphones). The adapters are as you'd expect: a longish cable with a socket on one end, just cumbersome enough to encourage you to dump yesteryear's technology and get with the programme; they also prevent you from charging your phone whilst using the headphone socket, but there's a $40 double adapter from Belkin you can buy that will let you do this. Meanwhile, William Gibson has noted that, soon, his early cyberpunk novels may sound slightly more anachronistic, with the phrase “jacked in” having a ring of almost Victorian archaism.

It is not clear how long the headphone socket has a future on Apple's other product lines; it'll be interesting to see whether the iPad (which is not as constrained for space) retains it. (They could argue that losing the socket would make it more likely to survive poolside spills, and if that fails, fall back to “because we said so, that's why”.) The MacBook series might retain headphone sockets for longer (even Apple's stripped-down new MacBook has two ports: the headphone port and a USB-C port for everything else), though perhaps its days are numbered even there.

For those with older iPhones missing out on this new development there are Apple Plugs to stop up those unsightly old-fashioned headphone sockets; whereas, if you want a phone that has a proper headphone socket, you can always switch to Android. (Correction: if you want a phone that has a proper headphone socket and don't particularly care about audio performance, you can switch to Android.)

(Another theory about Apple's antipathy to analogue audio connections has to do with DRM; that, in order to do deals with all-powerful record labels, demanding more end-to-end control over their precious intellectual property, Apple are moving to do what the recording industry had failed to achieve before: to close the analogue hole, making possible restricted audio formats which not only cannot be made into perfect digital copies, but can't be played into anything producing a clean analogue audio signal. Tim Cook has dismissed this rumour as a “conspiracy theory”, and said that Apple have no such plans. If there's any truth in such a theory, there would have to be several telltale indicators. For such a system to work, firstly Apple's system would have to distinguish between secure audio devices (presumably the sealed end-to-end digital headphones) and insecure ones (which include Apple's headphone adapter). Secondly, the licensing specification for Apple's Lightning technology when applied to headphones would have to specify that there cannot be a tappable signal path between the Lightning circuitry which decodes (and presumably decrypts) and the speaker drivers that convert it into sound. The headphones would have to be designed to literally fail to decode an audio signal if dismantled or tampered with, so that a pirate couldn't tap the voltages going to the speaker drivers. If the specification goes into such details, then perhaps it's time to worry.

The other announcement was that, as well as the proprietary Lightning wired headphones, Apple are selling a new set of wireless headphones named the AirBuds, which are probably more interesting than what they sound like. They charge by induction in a special container, fit in the ear, and connect to iPhones (or other devices) by Bluetooth, along with a proprietary Apple pairing protocol. They also contain microphones (for voice calling) and accelerometers, and have a few subtle features, like the ability to call up Siri on a connected phone by tapping the earpiece. The technology powering them is a new Apple chip named the W1, whose exact capabilities and specifications are unknown.

At the moment, the AirBuds are superficially uninteresting; they're essentially a nicely-designed, semi-proprietary Bluetooth headset. However, they are a trojan horse for something potentially more interesting. With their array of sensors (microphones and accelerometers) and signal processing and communications capabilities, they are clearly not a simple audio converter (like the chip in the Lightning cable on Apple's new wired headphones) but a small wearable computer running some kind of firmware; sort of like an Apple Watch for the ears. Both the hardware and the firmware are at the very first version, and so are limited in scope, but the potential's there. It's quite likely that a firmware upgrade at some point may add more functions, and a hardware revision may expand its capabilities even further. By version 3, AirBuds may be running something named airOS, with a third-party app store; there will be apps that run entirely on a set of earphones. One can imagine early standalone apps being things from talking clocks and ambient music/sound generators to self-contained versions of Zombies, Run!; if the AirBuds end up getting other capabilities, such as GPS, of course, the possibilities expand considerably. And then there is the possibility that they may eventually have their own mobile data connection, independent of a tethered iPhone; the main bottleneck is the requirement for a SIM card, and Apple have been pushing for the SIM card's replacement with a data-based credential of some sort, something that would allow far smaller devices to connect to phone networks. Perhaps eventually, the pocket-sized iPhone itself could end up going the way of the PalmPilot, replaced by a body-area network of ear- and wrist-based devices, communicating with each other by Bluetooth and sharing a mobile data plan.

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Observing political debate, I have noticed a trope that keeps recurring, particularly (these days) on the Right. I'll call it the Gordian Knot Delusion. It says, in essence, “the so-called experts/eggheads/‘intellectuals’ keep going on about how complex things are, but they're liars. When you get down to it, things really are simple.” (There is an implicit “Watch this!” after that, as the speaker purports to bulldoze their way through some issue that namby-pamby liberals and ivory-tower boffins have been wringing their hands ineffectually over, like the two-fisted, lantern-jawed hero of one of those old sci-fi paperbacks the Sad Puppies lament aren't being written any more.) An example of the Gordian Knot Delusion, on that favourite subject of taxes/economics, recently manifested itself in the following tweet from Conservative commentator Daniel Hannan:

It does not need to be pointed out that this is an extremely simplistic argument, more an act of trolling (in its original sense of seeking to provoke a pile-on of responses) than a serious inquiry in good faith, at least, if one assumes that the author is not a simpleton. It achieved its aim, in that others piled on with rebuttals on the same level, along the lines of “if olive oil is made of olives, what is baby oil made of?”. But if one takes the premise beneath it at face value, or at least treats it as something more meaningful than wordplay, the Gordian Knot Delusion comes through. Taxes disincentivise prosperity, it implies, unqualifyingly; cut taxes to the bone and watch prosperity take off like a rocket. And ignore the tweedy, elbow-patched fellow there saying that it's more complicated than that; the man looks like a commie, and is probably after your piece of the pie.

The Gordian Knot Delusion, the idea that things are simpler than they are claimed to be, is trotted out by amateur spectators in a lot of fields. Economics is a big one: witness the “common-sense” idea that national economies work like household budgets, with a largely fixed income that is unaffected by the level of spending. By this token, one can believe that deficit spending is inherently irresponsible and austerity is, in itself, good economic housekeeping. (This, of course, falls apart when one considers that economic activity generates wealth, and that savings at rest have no economic impact, but it feels enough like common sense that one can persuade oneself that these objections are sophistry by ivory-tower eggheads, Marxists and moochers.) Ecology and the environment are another area; nobody can see global warming, or when they can, one can believe that the evidence is still out, (or once it isn't, it's too late to do anything so crank your air conditioning up and enjoy the ride); and as for that habitat of endangered newts the hippies are protesting about, let's just drive a motorway through it and see what happens; betcha that everything will be alright. The bees are dying off? Who cares about a buncha dumb bugs! The coral reefs are too? The tabloids say they're not. And if they are, so what?

And then there's modern society in general: gender-neutral job titles and ladies wearing trousers and lactose-free milk in the supermarket, oh my! Your son, who used to be your daughter, is taking medication for ADHD, your other daughter has a girlfriend, your boss wears a nose ring, and the golliwog doll from your childhood is now a potential hate crime. In the good old days, these things didn't exist, or if they did, they were hammered flat like a lump under the rug; people accepted their lot in life, and, as the refrain goes, everything was alright. (One part of this is the myth that these complex conditions, from gluten intolerance to gender dysphoria, don't actually exist, but are made up by an unholy alliance of bureaucrats, drug companies, the liberal media and people who want to feel like special snowflakes; the corollary: were it not for the conspiracy, a sharp clip around the ear would sort them out just as well.)

At its core, the Gordian Knot Delusion is an application of the 80/20 rule to the modern world at large; the belief that complexity is superfluous, and that rather than fretting over it, one should just stride over and cut the knot, deciding that the world is actually simple; witnessing the lack of an immediate catastrophe, one will find one's common sense and derring-do vindicated. (The original Gordian Knot was cut by that gung-ho man of action, Alexander the Great, which is always a flattering comparison.) The other part of the Gordian Knot Delusion is the stab-in-the-back narrative of how the world started to look deceptively complex. As the paranoiac's dictum goes, shit doesn't just happen, but is caused by assholes; in this case, all that talk about how complex things are is the work of a conspiracy; a motley crew of commie traitors, ivory-tower academics, so-called “intellectuals” corrupted by book-learning, miscellaneous perverts, Satanic cultists and out-and-out crooks and thieves out to keep the gravy-train of complexity going, all the better to steal from the simple honest folks. (The trope about climate change being a massive fraud for the purpose of maintaining funding for otherwise worthless research is a classic of the genre.) It is, as conspiracy theories tend to be, a compelling story, especially those who feel themselves bewildered or victimised by the world.

Whilst ostensibly associated with the Right these days, the Gordian Knot Delusion is actually the very antithesis of Edmund Burke's Conservatism, formulated in the wake of that catastrophic leftist severing of this knot, the French Revolution. Burke's argument (framing Conservatism for a world where the divine right of kings was no longer accepted and the University of Chicago School of Economics had yet to come into being and coin its modern analogue, trickle-down economics) was that things are much more complicated than one can comprehend, that bold attempts to destroy ancient injustices are also likely to have countless unintended consequences, and that one should stick to gradual, tentative reforms at best, if not to just give up and learn to live with the world as it is in all its richness and iniquity. Today, one might expect to hear that sort of argument, but only from a hair-shirted greenie warning against tampering with Mother Gaia's blessings. The Robespierres of the Right are all too happy to break things and observe that, on a macro level, everything is alright (whilst circularly classifying those for whom they are not alright as bums and sore losers). These radicals are in alliance with a growing number of people who are anything but radical in temperament, but who have been radicalised by the rapid pace of change, and for whom the idea of turning back the clock to (what in retrospect seems like) a simpler time has appeal. The shift of the Gordian Knot from the Left to the Right could be a result of the increasingly rapid pace of social and technological change.

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The world moves one step closer to gender equality, with the announcement of a washing detergent specially formulated for fragile-masculinity sufferers. Named Frey, and packed in a tactical-black bottle reminiscent of engine oils, it allows those afflicted to do their own washing without feeling emasculated by the pastel-blue packaging or the sheer unmanliness of the activity of putting clothes into a washing machine like a little lady. It's also musk-scented, so, upon putting on the freshly-washed clothes*, one can smell like an alpha-masculine sexbeast, and not some domesticated house-husband.

Still, assuming that they have done their market research and there are people who would buy this sort of thing, one shouldn't laugh at those people; after all, they are suffering from a very real, and very debilitating, condition. Also, they might punch you.

* Presumably the target market would only be washing their own clothes, either because they live alone in a state of primal, untamed masculinity, or because their partner is understanding enough to accommodate their needs.

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This week I was at The Conference in Malmö; here are a few of the things I learned:

  • People are moving away from social media (like Facebook/Twitter) in favour of 1-to-1 messaging apps (and group apps) like WhatsApp and Slack. This is partly due to messaging being more immediate, and partly due to social concerns such as privacy and the need to be able to engage differently with different people one knows (i.e., your coworkers don't need to see your family photos). In some places, there are businesses which run entirely on messaging platforms: gyms whose only point of contact is a phone number linked to WhatsApp, and property transactions in which the legal documents include screenshots of banking app transfer screens.
  • Minecraft is teaching kids a lot of useful skills, from digital logic (building machines using redstone gates) and computational/design thinking, to social skills from self-organising build teams to designing and enforcing social contracts to protect from griefers. A big part of its success is because it is not a top-down product handed down from the authorities, like, say, Scratch or Swift Playgrounds, but something the kids can do whilst out of sight of grown-ups (much like the Commodore 64 back in the day).
  • There is a lot happening with generative art. The most familiar form, describing a space of potential outputs parametrically and searching the parameter space by one means or another, is common enough, and appears in settings from art installations to web apps Twitter bots. Now, advances in neural networks and deep learning are making an impact. Style transfer (think apps like Prisma, the photo-styling app for mobile phones, but also software for cleaning up rough sketches or colourising black-and-white images) has the potential to democratise or commodify (depending on whom you ask) artistic style. Meanwhile, deep learning with multiple media can produce synaesthetic examples, like the following output of a network trained on the text of romance novels and subsequently fed an image of a sumo match:
  • Smart cities, digitised to the millimetre with LIDAR, surveilled by drone, and managed by app, promise an end to the long nightmare of politics. Now a city can be run from above by impartial, objective algorithms—Plato's Philosopher King rendered in code. Everything in its right place, every space accounted for, all inhabitants managed with the efficiency of an Amazon warehouse, and all the dogs in the city are walked by drone. Until feral ravers disrupt the city's fiducial architecture (the patterned markers which guide the drones), conceal themselves from its managerial gaze with dazzle make-up and asymmetric haircuts, hijack the self-driving taxis and party in the spaces the machine does not see.
  • Then again, one objective true point of view is a myth. The Jesuits found this out when, in an attempt to Christianise China, they tried to persuade the Chinese of the superiority of European-style one-point perspective over the aerial perspective used in Chinese art (which they saw as backward and inferior, for its ignorance of the point of view).
  • The term “Perspective Collision” describes what happens when designed objects inadvertently reveal their designers' limited perspectives. Examples include camera film not showing dark-skinned people properly, or air conditioning in buildings being optimised for men. This is related to the Malkovich Bias, the idea that everybody uses technology the same way one does.
  • Animal-free animal products are starting to appear. There now exist genetically engineered yeasts which, when fed with sugar, produce egg albumen and bovine casein, i.e., egg white and cow's milk. These are identical to the real products on a molecular level, and can be used for all the things real egg white/milk can be used for (as opposed to current animal-product substitutes, which tend to be specific to various uses). Actual animal-free meat is taking a little longer (growing more than thin layers of meat requires some form of structural scaffolding to feed the cells). This is known as cellular agriculture, and, once it matures, will work a lot like brewing: artisans/craftspeople managing a technical process.
  • Stereotypical images used to represent the idea of “young people”: cartoon figures with shaggy/spiky hair and horizontally striped shirts; strobing photographs of wild-looking rock concerts.
  • National Geographic, famous in popular culture for publishing photos of bare-breasted “exotic” non-Western women (something it has been doing since the 19th century), published its first photo of a bare-breasted white woman in 2016
There are videos here; I'll be watching the sessions I missed.

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