Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rates of Change

In calculus, the second derivative of a function describes the rate of change of a rate of change. So if you're heading east along a highway at a constant speed, the derivative of your position with respect to time would be your speed, and it would be positive, but the second derivative of your position with respect to time would be zero . . . until you accelerated.

Late last year, I became the proud owner of a Palm TX. It was a good purchase, because I've actually used it quite a bit - it stores memos and contact information for me, reference materials that I use often for my work, and local transit schedules. It allows me to surf the internet (if I've got a Wi-Fi signal), functions as a second alarm clock, and I can play chess on it.

The other day, a coworker saw me tapping away on it, and remarked "Don't you feel a little outdated using a Palm, now that everyone's got iPhones and BlackBerries? I mean, tapping away with a stylus?"

I grew up around computers. When I was little, my parents started a small business, building and selling them. Though they've more or less abandoned it now, they still have a few clients who call them for service and upgrades. I was the first kid in my class who could boast of an internet connection at home, which really wasn't much a boast since none of my classmates had ever heard of the internet, much less thought that there was anything cool about it.

Paradoxically though, I have never owned a Discman, iPod, portable gaming device, or any other fashionable piece of consumer electronics. My only phone is of the kind that has no roaming charges. The idea of walking around with electronic equipment wrapped around my head has never appealed to me, and to people who know me personally, I'm sure I seem like quite a Luddite.

Not 300 years ago, if you bought a vehicle, chances were that the horsepower was not that great. Actually, the horsepower was unlimited so long as you could get that many horses to run in step. If it was 1750, and you went to buy a new axel for your the buggy you bought in 1730, nobody said "sorry, they don't make those axels anymore." That's how it had been since the discovery of the wheel and the domestication of the first animals, and that's how it continued until the invention of the automobile (considering that few private citizens have ever owned trains).

My paternal grandfather bought a 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster. It is a good car, and I can use the present tense because it is still in operation. The engine has been re-bored and the pistons changed, and it has probably had some other replacements, but it is still essentially the same car; it's the only car my uncle owns.

My parents, on the other hand, have owned 4 different cars since 1978, and have leased a few others in between. People my age seem to get a new one every two years.

A device that I purchased in September is now considered outdated.

"Planned obsolescence" is often lamented as scam, dreamt up by engineers at GM or IBM, or some other large, faceless, blamable corporation as a scheme to fleece the consumer by bringing out a new product every year with totally different components and requirements from the previous year's offerings.

It certainly is a scam, but it takes advantage of our own weaknesses, raised as we are in a consumer-oriented economy, inundated with advertisements from those same corporations. How much better does an iPhone make a person's life? It might be true that using one finger to get directions or send e-mail while "on the go" (the default state of the modern North American) probably does have advantages.

But then, probably not as many advantages as whatever comes out next year.

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