Episode Thirteen: The Auto Show, Learning to Code and Niggling Thoughts

by danhon

1. The Auto Show, Continued

So if Twitter replies were any indication, the geek date that Matt Haughey and I took to the Portland International Auto Show where we were seduced by the BMW i3[1] caught the attention of a few people who wanted to know why, exactly, we liked it so much. So here’s a non-video, text-only, geek-point-of-view version of Top Gear where I give my reckons about the i3:

- You know in those cars where you have to pull down a front seat to get into the back row? And how you can never find the handle? And you end up hunched over, contorted into a shape that normally you’d have to pay someone to persuade you to get into, scrabbling for a handle or a clasp or something, anything, that will mean that you’ll stop thinking about the fact that you’re pointing your arse out into the world? You don’t get that with these cars, because the handle’s in the headrest. It’s right there! Honestly, it feels like now I’m 34 and a dad I’m entirely all too easily impressed by something that means I don’t have to bend over.

- I touched on this a little in the last episode, but it really was refreshing to see something that wasn’t a traditional car console design. There were little swoopy bits (and in a break with tradition, I’m actually going to embed an image) made out of that sustainable bamboo (and again, being impressed by just a different texture that wasn’t goddamn stitched leather, for once). In other cars, they would’ve just stuck a crap, fake mini iPad in the central console that would’ve irritated you, but in the i3, a) the screen wasn’t the normal 4:3 ratio that you normally see and instead some weird elongated more-than-16:9 which, combined with the sweeping bamboo, already made me feel a bit like I was Worf standing at the curvy bit of the Enterprise-D behind Riker, Troi and Picard; b) it was floating and not embedded in the console itself, and fuck me if the most impressive thing about car design is the fact that the central multifunction display isn’t embedded in the console itself. Do you see what I mean about the industry needing some capital D disruption?


- The OS of the car appeared to be BMW iDrive 4.2, which is, I guess, the newest version? It has a 200GB hard drive and 3D graphics[2] and an iPod-esque vertical/horizontal menu navigation mechanic. There’s a lot of what feels like extraneous swooshing going on with the curves on the left hand side which makes the UI look more like something you’d see in Mass Effect than in a real life car you could be driving right now.

- The doors open in a weird way, which already makes you kind of endeared to it.

- It had a ridiculously small turning circle, which impressed us as we circled around a potted plant.

- Apropos of nothing, there was a context-free sign hanging in the BMW i3 area that just said: “URBANIZATION”, which sign Matt and I found hilarious.

- If anything, it was also the sales patter that Matt and I found endearing. It genueinly did feel like we were being sold on a car that had been designed for the city, and one ground-up, at that. The drive was pleasant (at a screaming 17 miles an hour) and to be honest I spent more time than I should’ve geeking out over the touchpad in the iDrive controller and spelling out m-e-t-a-f-i-l-t-e-r in the web browser before we were reminded that there was a line of people waiting to get into the car.

[1] http://www.bmwusa.com/standard/content/vehicles/2014/bmwi/default.aspx
[2] http://www.bmwblog.com/2013/04/25/interview-with-eric-sargent-on-new-bmw-apps-for-idrive-ecall-and-update-on-iphone-5-connector/

2. Learning to Code

There’s a lot that’s already been said about the UK government’s support of 2014 as the Year of Code[1], ably so by Adrian Short[2, 3]. So I thought I’d add to the noise. As a precocious little snot of a kid, I loved messing around with the BBC Micros that we had at school. My parents, being academics, borrowed computers home from work any chance they had, so I wasn’t really afraid of the box and the monitor in the corner. For a few years at the beginning of the 90s, computing lessons (for 11-13 year olds) were about plugging breakout boxes into those BBCs and trying to get robots to do things by writing BASIC programs for them. And then the school got a bunch of money for becoming a Technology College, bought a bunch of PCs (at the time, Elonex boot-from-network 486SX pizza boxes) and computing became not, well, learning how to *do* computing, but a vocational thing: here’s how you use Microsoft Excel, or Word.

And that was where the shift was, I think.

When Lottie Dexter talks on her Newsnight interview[4] about being able to code being a vital part of first understanding and then functioning in the world that we now live in, we’re never really given the chance to unpack what that means before the Paxman is unleashed on her and she wanders into loosely joined words. Similarly, the video package put together of kids learning how to code is, from the point of view of someone who knows how to code, not exactly, well, helpful.

I’m all for teaching people how computers work, and giving people – and from a young age, children – the ability to explore that understanding. And I’m not entirely sure if I buy off on Adrian Short’s neoliberal agenda that the Year of Code is the thin end of an axe driving a work and employment agenda. But nonetheless, there is something that, again, smacks of trying to implant “code” into people, as if it were some sort of didactic skill that could be introduced and reinforced in the same way, factory style.

Ah, factory style. And now we’re into the whole model of education, in the UK anyway, the way that our classrooms were built and curricula established to serve a very particular need of providing bodies for a rapidly industrialising nation. At the same time, I don’t know what to feel about friends who are pulling their children out of formal schooling and are instead home schooling. The idea, as it’s presented and as the rhetoric comes across, of being able to teach people to “code” in a year is about as interesting as teaching a whole nation Japanese or Chinese in a year. And yes, I do see the insight in “code” being potentially a more valuable language in terms of employment or earnings opportunity than “German”.

But here are some things about what living in a world run on code means. It means that we create a finance system backed by interdependent systems that we, as human beings, are increasingly unable tease apart and understand as a whole (if we have ever, in fact, been able to understand such systems). Knowing “code” ultimately means training a country’s worth of new mini Snowdens whom conceptually are able to understand how to manipulate large amounts of information, effortlessly. Knowing “code” is more about knowing the end result that you want to achieve and the abstracted steps that you need to take to achieve that end goal. And then you get to teach jQuery.

But knowing “code” won’t get you a job. The ten year old interviewed thinks she needs code to work in a bank so she can create her own website. Honestly, one vision of the future we had was that she would know enough code in her banking job to automate most of the work she has to do. And then what? Code is a means of expression. Or, as Microsoft’s new CEO would put it, the best code is poetry. The point of code isn’t just to get you a job.

[1] http://www.yearofcode.org
[2] http://adrianshort.org/2014/02/06/year-of-code-neoliberal-agenda/
[3] http://adrianshort.org/2014/02/09/lottie-dexter-quit-year-of-code/
[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7x7GYItzS4

3. Two Niggling Thoughts

3.1 What’s the video-on-demand equivalent of Google getting better at design faster than Apple’s getting better at software? The perception is that Netflix is killing it in the original content space: series like Orange is the New Black are picking up award nominations, and their list of original series isn’t anemic[1]. You’ll note, though, that I didn’t include House of Cards, and that’s mainly because as a) a Brit and b) someone who’s seen the original, House of Cards doesn’t count in my mind as a new Netflix commission. It’s not *that* original. In contrast, my anecdata of one-comment-from-a-friend is pointing me in the suspicious direction of Amazon not really knowing what they’re doing with their original content (the new Chris Carter series, The After[2], is apparently terrible) and, uh, who else is commissioning content that’s skipping broadcast or cable?

3.2 I don’t understand what it is that’s preventing iRobot and their Roombas from taking over the world. Young people these days, they’d love an autonomous robot vacuum that they could control with their iPhone. And they live in tiny flats or apartments now with no stairs. What’s happening? In fact, you wouldn’t even need to sell them the Roomba. Just rent it to them for about $15 a month. Of course it could just be that manual labour is cheaper and more effective, but that’s never stopped anyone from doing upselling. Or downselling. I don’t know.

A bit of a weird one today, I’m afraid. We’ve had a solid long weekend worth of Snow in Portland, Oregon, so everyone is freaking out. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.