Category Archives: geek

Hacking the iPhone

George Hotz, iPhone geek and science fair celebrity

I love this lad‘s story. I hope he can take this globe spanning triumph of geek ingenuity and teenage self-belief and build something really substantial on it. He’s just started his degree course so he has plenty of time to screw it up.

Seriously, though, smart kids like George Hotz will form the next generation of leaders. Look at the US Presidency. In the current crop of candidates and hopefuls you’re seeing the last gasp of the big-picture, hyper-charismatic presidential pretender. The next US President will be a man on the old model: a Kennedy (Obama), a Reagan (Thompson), a Clinton (Edwards). The one after that, though, will be a geek. I’ll bet you a tenner…

Danny’s got a proper job!

Legendary large-brained stand-up geek celebrity and super-rich libertarian hi-tech pressure group – together at last. Danny O’Brien has gone to work at the EFF. He’s going to be coordinating activists (or, possibly, he’s going to be a coordinated activist). He’s also going to carry on with NTK – still practically the only thing I read front-to-back every week – and with a barely comprehensible column for developers at oreilly.com (what is he on about?). Congratulations Danny!

Book Review: brand fanaticism

The Cult of Mac, front cover, Leander Kahney, No Starch Press
Understanding Mac users used to be quite easy. For a few years at the beginning (maybe 1984–1989) Macs were undeniably cool and undeniably better than anything else you could buy. I encountered my first Mac in 1984 or 1985. Apple had made a gift of first-generation Macs to my college (the Polytechnic of Central London). I’d never met a computer before. I’m at least five years too old to have encountered one at school so I missed my inoculation of BBC, Spectrum, Atari and the rest. I’d never played a computer game (or even an arcade game). I knew nothing about programming or microprocessors or PCs or anything, really. As a result I was outside the geek/jock or geek/creative opposition. It never occurred to me that getting interested in computers might be in any way problematic, that people might reclassify me or demote me as a result.

I sort of figured this out, though, when I nearly failed my degree because I used a computer and not a camera to produce my degree show (although my attachment to the Crown & Sceptre in Great Titchfield Street might have had something to do with this. I blame Paul, anyway). So I figured out these strange new machines (I unpacked and set up quite a lot of them, even had a key to the computer room for a while) and began using them to make work for my degree course (which was a BA in photography). I finally conned my Dad into buying me one in 1985 – it had 512Kb of RAM and a 400Kb (single-sided) floppy disk drive (no hard disk, obviously) – it cost more than my latest Powerbook – about a year’s student grant, at the time. A fortnight later I blew about three months wages from my evening job at Marks & Spencer on a second floppy drive because I was getting a repetitive strain injury from swapping disks (they never mentioned that in the swanky West End Apple Centre where I bought it).

My Mac was a sort of khaki-beige and exotic and unutterably magnetic – I couldn’t stay away from it. It ran the excellent early MS Word, MacPaint, MacDraw, (later PageMaker, SuperPaint and the quite amazing HyperCard) and another lovely Word Processor called Nisus, which, weirdly, survives and has become my primary WP again). The Mac’s early ‘bong’ start-up sound is a perfectly preserved memory and the thought of it rushes me back to my cosy, top floor bedroom in Camberwell (and staying up late with the World Service and big mugs of tea and rounds of toast fetched from downstairs at hourly intervals). In my final year dissertation (1988) I quoted Derrida and Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and used the Sun Microsystems copy line ‘The Network is the Computer‘ as a title. I cited Byte magazine more often than any other publication. No one (and I mean no one) understood what I was on about (including me, to be quite honest). I sort of had a vague idea that there was some connection between computers, images and language. Of course, I totally failed to prove this connection and I think my dismal 2.2 was a pretty good measure of the thought involved.

When I left college in 1988, Apple’s first golden age was already coming to an end. Jobs was on his way out, making way for a long dismal decade of increasingly cheesy beige boxes; a sad, botched licensing effort (anyone remember the appalling Gil Amelio?) and the slow demise of the eccentric and over-priced Newton (didn’t stop me buying four of them, though). The remarkable thing about Apple is that the firm’s fanatical following survived the middle period at all. The irony of the period is that the brand wasn’t sustained by the band of radical early adopters who were in at the beginning but by the people they’d become – the ‘can’t-change-won’t-change’ fuddy duddies with hair growing out of their ears (people like me). We bought Macs because we knew no better and were terrified of the alternatives. Anyway, somehow, the brand survived the extended suicide attempt of the 90s and has now been translated into an utterly unique luxury brand meets cult product.

In fact, when you’re trying to place Apple on the spectrum of brands it’s much easier to put it with the kookier fashion and lifestyle brands than with the other PC manufacturers: it’s Manolo Blahnik, FCUK, Diesel, fancy mountain bikes and hi-tech watches. This is why it’s very difficult to imagine the displacement of iPod and the iLifestyle in general by a tech or consumer electronics brand like Microsoft or even Sony. It’ll probably take a Virgin or a Calvin Klein to slow Apple’s progress in this weird collision of Moore’s law and downtown style. In the meantime, I think I can recommend The Cult of Mac, a fat, nicely-designed coffee table book covering in one- and two-page features pretty much every weird corner of the Mac universe – from the subculture of fantasy Mac designs to the hordes of people proudly bearing Apple tattoos on their arses. I say I think I can recommend the book because, belonging as I do to the hairy-eared old-timers, I may not be in the book’s true target audience. I feel a bit self-conscious in the presence of the teens and geeks and goths and video artists who seem to be the brand’s biggest fans these days. Maybe I should get a Dell.

Incidentally, the enterprising No Starch Press also published last year’s Apple Confidential which entertained me for weeks with Mac trivia of the highest order.