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Digital versus analog...

Posted 11-25-2009 at 02:59 PM by Lufbery

The "holiday shopping season" is nearly upon us, which means that the holiday shopping season advice columns are here too. I just read this one from PC Mag "What Not to Buy in 2009" and it really bugged me. The basic gist of the advice seemed to revolve around getting the most value for one's money, but it failed to really address just how much value can be had for how much money.

Take for instance, the advice to get an e-book reader. The columnist's advice was to not mix types of readers within a family (don't get a Kindle and a Sony reader for two people in the same family) because then those people won't be able to share e-books. Furthermore, he says to "maybe" buy books, but says that books are more expensive than the e-book readers.

This is a silly contention. New Paperbacks aren't very expensive, and used hardcovers are even cheaper. More importantly, though, there's no problem sharing books. Once you buy one, you own it. That's not true for e-books, when come with both copy protection and are locked to proprietary formats for a particular reader! I'm not saying that e-book readers aren't neat and valuable (they're compact, convenient, and look good), but they're not a better value than books. In this case, analog beats digital all the way. The total cost and freedom (in a sense analogous to the GNU sense of the term) that comes from buying and using a book trumps any cost savings from using a Kindle.

For that matter, the advice to not buy an MP3 player that only plays MP3s is ridiculous! I understand that several MP3 players have features that go way beyond playing MP3s. But, just like smart phones, there are costs for using all those neat features. Those costs add up. So not only does the columnist recommend getting a more expensive gadget, he recommends taking advantage of fee-based services with that gadget.

Several months ago, I bought an Sanza Fuze MP3 player for $50. It works beautifully, it connects perfectly to my computers running Slackware, and it plays MP3 and OGG Vorbis files. I rip audio books to .ogg, or play MP3 audio books I borrow from the library, or rip music from my somewhat large collection of CDs. Why would I need "apps" for my MP3 player? It works perfectly for listening to music or audio books when I take my regular lunch time walks and commute back and forth to work.

I guess my complaint is similar to John Dvorak's in this column. We've added a bunch of features to our computer gadgets, but not gained much productivity -- in fact, it's easier than ever to distract ourselves. I agree with Dvorak. I'm a big fan of technology, and I understand (and even applaud) efforts to add/bundle features in our computers and electronics, but I also think the Unix philosophy of having one tool to do one task exceptionally well is a very good approach.

For my own part, the stuff I do without a computer or computerized gadget is ultimately more satisfying than the stuff I do with a computer -- with a few exceptions. I build scale models, often with my 4-year-old son. I study martial arts. My wife and I have long interesting talks -- even after seven years of marriage. I'm active in our church. I love to read. All of these things have nothing to do with a computer.

The exceptions? I really enjoy listening to audio books on my MP3 player, and I get great satisfaction from writing magazine articles on my computer. The final exception is the Internet itself -- there is a ton of really good information on a huge variety of subjects available for only the cost of an internet connection. In all the rush for the latest consumer goods, it pays to remember that the Internet is, in many ways, the world's biggest and best library. Just be careful to double check your sources!
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