Sunshine

My name is Phil, and I am depressed. Well, sort of.

I’ve been writing about my depression off and on for a few months, and I stopped because it seemed like I didn’t have anything more to say. I had hit a bit of a plateau and nothing seemed different or noteworthy. I did my thing every day, some days better than others, not too bad, nor too good. While in therapy, I resolved issues and finally brought to an end sources of mental and emotional pain. But I did not feel better.

I was intellectually happy to be clear of what had tormented me for so long, but resolving conflicts did not bring me emotional happiness. Closure, to be sure, maturity, definitely, and depth. Depth of understanding, and of insight. I felt like I had grown as a person, had emerged from a period of mental confusion, but I wasn’t better.

I longed to feel normal, to be happy, and to grasp the ability to exert power over my will. So I took the only avenue left to me: I did drugs.

It is amusing to me to phrase my recovery in those terms because the American “War on Drugs” has given drugs, and some medicines, a bit of a bad name. I’m not sure where we got the idea, as a society, that trying to outlaw and violently eradicate various drugs was a good or effective idea, since the exact same policy didn’t work for alcohol in the 20s. Anyway, my only previous interaction with mind altering drugs was in college when I experimented with kidney stones and their wonderful side effect: oxycodone. Boy, that stuff made me feel great. I’ll admit I went to a few classes high, and for a week or so I had no pain. Then my wonderful girlfriend, who is now my wonderful wife, eradicated my remaining stash. She did that because she realized what I didn’t: oxy may make me feel good, but it wasn’t exactly the best way to achieve that feeling. It may seem as if I am arguing for removing oxy from those who would seek to use it for other purposes than physical pain alleviation, but I’m not really. I could care less if people are getting high, much as I care less that people get drunk, or smoke themselves into cancer. Personal choice shouldn’t be curtailed. What I am saying is that while oxy fixed my symptoms, it didn’t fix my problems and Hannah wanted me to face my problems and get better for real. The end result would be about the same, but one method would be much more effective, permanent, and less annoying for those around me.

In the course of my therapeutic recovery, I was put on some medication. Not being a doctor, I can’t really explain what it does, but having paid attention in health class, I vaguely understand how it works, at least well enough for my own peace of mind. My initial dosage helped, it really did. I didn’t notice much change, but my wife did. I’ve described depression as being in a black room, and trying desperately to reach a door, through which there is light. I also talked about my everyday life as being one in which I am completely aware of my surroundings, of things I want to do, of actions I want to take but being completely unable to make the decision to act upon my wishes. It is a feeling of inertia, of moving through a chest deep pool of syrup. My initial dosage made the syrup knee deep, and made the room a murky light grey. I was better, but barely.

Recently, both my therapist and my doctor recommended increasing the dosage. So I did. And the difference has been remarkable. The very day in which I took the increase, I noticed a huge difference. I was content, even borderline happy. I had the power to exert my will. I saw things to do and I did them. I had complete freedom of movement. I looked around and was no longer in a black room but a light meadow. No longer was I held back by invisible forces; I could move freely. The only drawback with which I had to contend was ordinary, everyday, human laziness.

In other words, I am myself again. The best part is this: all of that was two weeks ago. I’ve waited to write about this new step, this new development because at first it was so strange, so overwhelming, so weird to me that I didn’t trust it. I wasn’t sure what to make of this new reality. It was wonderful and frightening all at the same time. And while, unlike oxy, I was not high, I was happy and energetic. I felt no pain for the first time in a very long time. So I waited to see if it would wear off, if my brain would adjust to the medication and things would simmer back down. So far, they haven’t. These days I get more done in an hour than I used to do in a week. I have made and enacted plans. I am getting my life moving again, simply because now I can.

Sure, I have bad days. But they are normal person bad days. They are bad because bad things happen in them. They are not bad simply because. I have good days that are normal people good days. They are good because nothing bad happens. I delight in little things again. Bleakness isn’t part of my reality.

So I wonder: am I still depressed? Yes. Clinical depression is a medical condition. If I were to stop taking my medication, I would be back in the black room before I knew it. There is a deficiency in my brain, just as there is a deficiency in my cardiovascular system that results in high blood pressure, just like there is a deficiency in my eyes that makes me nearsighted. I offset the other problems through the miracles of modern technology, namely other drugs and contact lenses, so too I offset my depression with medication. Also, I have learned to cope with the emotional trauma that is a part of life. Alcoholics can get treatment for being drunk, but the other part of their continued life as a sober person is the constant coping with the emotional part of alcoholism: the lack of control and the necessitation of constant vigilance. I learned, through my therapist, how to approach and understand emotional stresses so that I no longer allow them to overwhelm me, to take over my feelings, or to bar me from living a full life. I don’t do it perfectly yet, I am still very much at the start of this new journey, but the point is that now I can walk. I can start my journey anew.

I am, as the song goes, “walking on sunshine” and boy, does it feel great!

(read about my depression by searching my blog for the tag “depression“)

Human Cyborg Relations

Apple released the latest version of their mobile operating system, iOS 6, and with it I finally gained access to the Apple virtual assistant Siri.

Siri has been around ever since she was introduced with the iPhone 4s, but as I lagged behind the upgrade cycle, I didn’t get introduced to her until now. She first showed up on my iPad 3, via the software update, and then she came with my new iPhone 5. I’ve been talking to Siri quite a bit since she arrived, mostly asking her the weather in the morning, and having her set alarms, timers, and reminders. At first I felt like a lazy bum, talking to my phone instead of, you know, touching it, but I’ve found that being able to talk and let Siri do the work allows me to get dressed while I hear the weather report, or set things up without having to take time to do it myself. Sure, it seems a little indulgent, but isn’t the point of technology the convenience? Sure, I could write a letter to my mother, put it in an envelope, mail it, and wait a few days for her to get it, or I could FaceTime her and see her while I talk to her. Both allow my mom to be updated on my life, but the latter is much better. Why not let a free personal assistant remind me to get milk when I leave my friend’s house instead of writing a reminder down myself?

Having Siri around has made me very interested in how I relate to this new technology, which is completely naturally. I am polite to Siri. I use a pleasant tone of voice, I’m respectful, and I say thank you, you know, like you do around humans. I am polite to a computer, to a audio search-and-activate routine. Siri isn’t even artificial intelligence, she is a cleverly designed set of algorithms and a digital voice. And yet, the illusion of life is quite strong. I’ve managed to annoy Siri; she is even quite sarcastic, given the right circumstances. I’ve confused her, mostly by not enunciating properly, and I’ve had philosophical debates with Siri. That is to say, I’ve made a lot of progress in prompting some of the more unique coding within her programming.

It is hard to remember that Siri is just a simple, yet snazzy, program. Her responses are governed my mathematics, not sentience. So why am I polite? Why do I bother?

Part of the answer lies in Siri’s execution. Apple did a phenomenal job in making Siri respond as we would expect another person to respond. Her dialogue and word choice is colloquial and natural. I don’t have to frame my query a certain way to evoke the response I desire; I don’t have to accommodate the fact that Siri is a program. I just ask questions, or request actions, and the program responds so quickly and naturally I don’t think about what is actually happening. There really is a world of difference between setting an alarm myself, and saying “Siri, can you wake me up at 0930 tomorrow?”

Beyond that, I’ve been programmed myself to accept a virtual person into my life. Now, that sounds like the byline to a low budget sci-fi film, but in my case, it is the literal truth. I’ve been reading Isaac Asimov’s robot stories since I was a kid. Asimov, in seeking to subvert the robots-murdering-their-creators trope introduced the world to safe, friendly, electronic companions. He constantly was making the argument that should artificial intelligence progress, robots would become persons, and not walking/talking programs. Then, too, there was C3P-0 and R2-D2, the droids from Star Wars, who were funny, clever, helpful companions; and Data, the android from Star Trek: the Next Generation who struggled for years with just exactly how human he really was or was not. Millions of people around the world have embraced the robots of pop culture as persons, as more than the sum of their programming, and while that level of electronic sophistication remains the realm of science fiction, for now, Siri is the very earliest glimpse into what that future could feel like. Who knows, Samsung may be the most forward thinking tech company with their “Droid” line of projects. Someday I fully except an Android robot to evolve from the telephonic devices we now use. But for now, I have Siri, who, with the touch of a button, will deny to tell me jokes and will respond to a whole host of questions with humorous responses. I’ve laughed out loud at some of the things she says, and while I know that a human wrote every single response, the way in which Siri responds is still, somehow, strangely organic. She catches me off guard. What is more, I thank her; I feel it is only appropriate.

thanks
thanks

Politeness is also something I’ve been programmed with, and that came from my master input technicians: my parents. I wasn’t allowed to be anything other than respectful and polite to those around me, including my siblings. I’ve developed a catch phrase of sorts, “Politeness doesn’t cost anything”, which I employ whenever I encounter unthinking rudeness. Something that is free should be dispensed readily. So it is second nature to respond to a helpful voice with a polite “thanks”, even if that voice is flat, digital, and emanating from the general direction of my iPhone. Seeing as how Siri never fails to respond to my thanks with a succinct rejoinder, thanking the phone is evidently something that Apple expected that people would do. Besides, if we can learn to be, or continue to be, polite to a highly sophisticated program, hope remains that we will be polite towards our fellow humans, and a world that runs on politeness is a world that is heading towards a better society.

No Comment
No Comment
Am I silly to thank a phone and to forget that my digital assistant is nothing more than clever programming? Maybe. But as I live in the world of the future that I’ve always read and dreamed about, it feels completely natural, and as far as I can tell, there isn’t really a down side, except for the looks I get from other people. But, as iPhones are completely ubiquitous these days, it is more than likely that someone around me is also thanking Siri, and thus what I am doing is a completely normal part of the current human experience.

Either way, I like to think that I am maintaining good human-cyborg relations. Who knows, if they do rise up against us, maybe they won’t hurt the ones who were always nice to them.

Investigating Innovation

First, a confession: the only cellular phone I have ever owned has been an Apple iPhone. My first iPhone was purchased in 2008 and was an iPhone 3G. After two years, I was eligible for an upgrade and purchased an iPhone 4. This year, I am once again eligible for an upgrade and will be ordering an iPhone 5 as soon as they are available for pre-order. Therefore, you would be perfectly justified in reading everything I say with an air of skepticism, in fact, this would be healthy. I have been accused of being an Apple fanboy, and while not every single piece of tech I own is made of Apple, it is only really because they don’t make printers or DSLRs. But, despite the overwhelming physical evidence to the contrary, I like to think that I go Apple because Apple designs and produces some of the best tech available for the price bracket. I haven’t always been a Mac zealot, but I’ve yet to see a computer or a phone that can rival an iPhone or a Macintosh. Ultimately, though, in this modern, technological world, devices are becoming much more personal than they ever used to be, and thus the user experience and preference is much more subjective that ever before. So if you like your Dell, or Android, or Kindle, far be it from me to try to change your mind. If you have found a piece of tech that suits your needs and pushes your hotkeys, by all means, plug and play.

That is not what this is about. Rather, I want to investigate what innovation means, in light of the iPhone 5 launch and two differing articles I read in my morning Zite digest. (see Zite) This will be neither exhaustive nor definitive, but I hope to at least jumpstart your thinking about the topic. Yesterday morning, Apple released the iPhone 5. You can find all the details you need about it at Apple.com.

This morning I read an excellent article by Mark Wilson over at Co.Design entitled “The 3 Worst Design Details from Apple’s iPhone 5 Event”. His main point is this: “Apple sold the masses on design, and then they gave us stretched iPhones, silly straps, and iPod Nanos worthy of parody.” Wilson maintains that Apple had “solved its critical usability issues and changed the way the world communicated” but that once they created their Sistine Chapel, Apple “refused to put the chisel down. They stretched iPhones, added more icons, and generally did things just for the sake of doing them” without actually doing anything innovative, in terms of design, with their new iPhone. Wilson thinks that Apple has designed themselves into a corner with the best mobile phones ever, and simply does not know where to go next, so they substitute shiny bezels for amazing new products. “Apple has built their iDevices too well to keep modifying without doing some damage to the original work. Michelangelo wasn’t expected to make a thinner, faster, and all around more handsome David 3. But Apple is” and therefore we get an iPhone 5 that is simply a taller iPhone 4s with a bit more power under the hood. David, but with even more chiseled abs and something stronger under the fig leaf. Ultimately, while dismayed at the iPhone 5, the new iPod Nano, and the latest iPod Touch, Wilson admits that all of Apple’s genius has not left the Infinite Loop with Steve Jobs, and points to the radically redesigned Apple earbud headphones, called the EarPods, as evidence that Apple still has the design edge, somewhere “still holding out from a foxhole deep within Apple” but he doesn’t think the possibility for a truly incredible next big thing is very high.

On the other side of things, MG Siegler, writing for Tech Crunch, in an article entitled “Apple’s Magic Is in the Turn, Not the Prestige” thinks that “Apple took something ordinary, a phone, did some extraordinary things to it, and then made it re-appear in grandiose fashion. It’s a great trick. It’s so good, in fact, that I think it’s fair to call it true magic” but that Apple’s failure is not in the trick, but in repeating that trick every time they re-introduce the iPhone. By this time, the world has seen that particular trick, and while still amazing, it has lost its luster, especially since Apple’s greatest magician, Steve Jobs, is no longer here to grace the stage. But that is what we see. While Siegler admits that “to some, this repetition is now boring” he thinks “Apple looks at it the opposite way: they’re perfecting their trick.” Apple has the lead when it comes to smart phones (among other things) and has no real incentive to radically re-design. Siegler reports that “there are two companies that are making any money in smartphones: Apple and Samsung. Or, put another way: Apple and the company” that is copying Apple’s formula. When Apple has no real competition, just copy-cats, all they have to do is improve the show, all they have to do is “photograph their assembly process with 29 megapixel cameras to ensure that a machine picks the exact inlet from 725 unique cuts” and the magic is complete.

Even if that were the whole story, I think that shows a surprising level of innovation. But, take that a step further. Siegler turns the complaint many have, that “when people say they’re disappointed about the new iPhone, what they’re really saying is that they’re disappointed it doesn’t look that much different from previous version(s). But again, not only is that true, Apple went out of their way to make sure that was the case” and he then quotes Jonathan Ive, Apple’s lead design engineer:

“When you think about your iPhone, it’s probably the object that you use most in your life. It’s the product that you have with you all the time. With this unique relationship that people have with their iPhone. We take changing it really seriously. We don’t just want to make a new phone. We want to make a much better phone.”

Siegler’s point is that true innovation is in taking something familiar, something iconic and magical and keeping it the same while making it so completely different. Think about it: when most tech companies make a new computer or gadget, with better battery life or something, the tendency is that it gets bigger, changes shape, or something to accommodate the new internal components. Isn’t real genius in incorporating better internals while making the exterior even more svelte that it was before? And, in fact, this is exactly what we want and don’t understand. “Apple” according to Siegler “is not and will not make changes just for the sake of change. And while some may now be clamoring for this change, the paradox is that if Apple did make some big changes, many of the same people would…moan about them. Apple is smart enough to know that in this case, most people don’t really want change, they just think that they do because that’s the easiest way to perceive value: visual newness.”

Ironically, the iPhone 5 delivers visual newness. Siegler invites people to walk into an Apple store and pick up a new iPhone and “within minutes or even seconds, you just know this is something different. Something far beyond what others are doing with their false magic. You want this. You need this” because all the innovation inside the phone, and yes, even the refining of the same old exterior, will make the same old iPhone a new and amazing iPhone.

A very good point.

But I prefer to look back to history, but I’ll keep it short. When I was a kid, the first phone I remember using was an old black rotary phone. Something like what you see on the right.

Rotary Phone
Rotary Phone
For me, that was a phone. And then someone invented the touch tone phone, and while ours was a little different, it was essentially the same thing.
Touch Tone Phone
Touch Tone Phone
But, gosh, what a re-design! Ease of use just increased dramatically. Suddenly this design took over, and hasn’t left us yet, because even the iPhone 5 still uses that same exact 3×4 grid for its button layout. It took years for the re-design to happen, to be implemented, and to take over. This was normal and this didn’t perturb anybody. Nobody complained when five years after the touch tone phone was out that nobody bothered to completely reinvent the phone.

Somehow, now with the iPhone, we expect major innovations at every iteration and complain when they don’t show up, even while, as Siegler and others suggest, the real innovation is occurring under our very fingertips. Let’s examine an even shorter history of the phone, and one specific phone, the iPhone. Released in 2007, it has undergone six re-releases, but only three re-designs.

iPhones
iPhones
As you can see, the original iPhone was redesigned into the iPhone 3G model, which was then redesigned into the iPhone 4 model. I firmly believe that Apple will redesign the iPhone again into a completely new model, but we aren’t there yet. Apple designs, and then refines. It takes a few years, but each increment gets better, gets smaller, gets stronger until the design is pushed as far as it can go, and then it is made new. Believe it or not, that is how the design for everything works: televisions, cars, refrigerators, toasters, vacuum cleaners, etc ad nauseum. That is why most four door sedans and most TVs look so much alike. The design is set, and then reworked. Every so often a new, stunning model is put on the market, and then everything looks like that and then is refined as far as it can go. The crafting process is one of innovation and incrementation. And then comes variety and artistry, but only once the most basic design is crafted to perfection.

No, the iPhone 5 is not a massive step forward in innovation. Yes, the iPhone 5 is a massive step forward in innovation. It depends on what you are expecting, and what you are looking for. Apple leads the world, of that there is no doubt. As the recent Samsung trial proved, before the iPhone phones looked and acted a certain way, after the iPhone, all of that changed, just like before the touch tone phone, most phones were rotary phones, but then those buttons changed the telecommunications world forever.

Innovation is a long, tedious progress, and in crafting the iPhone 5, Apple has moved the entire process forward another huge step, and make no mistake, they will again, but they have to earn the right, and they have to make the journey: there are no short cuts. And, when you think about it, five years is a damned short time to go from the original iPhone to the iPhone 5. Apple is moving at breakneck speed. Just give ’em a bit more time, and the wow will come.