Scowling at the Menu

If you were around for the glory days of Usenet, those golden years spanning the early 1990s, chances are that you were exposed to Chip Morningstar’s seminal essay, “How to Deconstruct Almost Anything: My Postmodern Adventure”, in which the author chronicles the cultural confusion that resulted when members of the Engineer Tribe found themselves wandering the unfamiliar territory of the Literary Theorist Clan.

Ultimately, the essay seemed to be saying, the literary theorists had evolved themselves into a cul-de-sac; we should be nice to them, and help them where possible. Its citation by engineers was almost invariably accompanied by a measure of self-congratulation, even smugness, as if to say, “Are we not manly men, fortunate to ply a trade with no need of such verbal frippery?”

Lately, though, I’ve noted an obnoxious trend nestled inside a positive one, and while I won’t go so far as to call the former disturbing, I find it just a touch disquieting.

The larger, encompassing trend is the increasing accessibility of the means for do-it-yourself production, especially of microelectronics. That one, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty much an unalloyedly good thing, and I’m all for it. I delight in the proliferation of inventive personal projects, and the cross-pollination which tends to result from their being shared on the web.

However, I delight considerably less in the smaller, attendant trend, which seems to involve summarizing these projects using deliberately abstruse language and self-conscious circumlocutions. It’s as though Morningstar and Farmer returned from their foray those many years ago the unwitting carriers of an absurdly slow but incredibly virulent pathogen, one that, having quietly and unobtrusively pervaded the population, is now switching over to the scything-us-down-like-wheat phase of its life cycle.

Take, for instance, the summary for Lady Ada‘s Fresh Air design, which makes my toes curl every time my eyes stray across it.

The Fresh Air project is a low-power, extensible RF jamming system for personal use. It is intended for city-dwellers who feel that their personal space is being overrun with undesired radio transmissions.

Much like the personal air ionizers available in catalogues, this device is for cleaning up the air around the user. By pinning this device to a bag or jacket, the user can enjoy a radius of silence.

I mean, come on. “People who talk loudly on cell phones in public places are annoying as Hell. Fresh Air lets you shut them down cold. Savoring their resulting expressions of helpless confusion is entirely optional. But fun.”

(Please note that I’m not trying to harsh on Lady Ada here. She has more badass electrical-engineering fu in the tip of her little finger than I do in my entire body, and is tireless in sharing what she knows with others. Moreover, her store and the kits sold therein rock just as hard as she does. I’m guessing that she had to put that verbiage in there for her thesis, and the description for the followup Wave Bubble design is, gratifyingly, much more straightforward.)

Today, though, we have this gem:

Wifi Camera reveals the electromagnetic space of our devices and the shadows that we create within such spaces, in particular our wifi networks which are increasingly found in coffee shops, offices and homes throughout cities of the developed world.

For fuck’s sake. “Hey, we built a gadget that lets you visualize the distribution of WiFi signal in the air around you. It’s neat. Check it out.” Is that so hard?

Seriously, this stuff makes me feel like a surly patron in some overrated restaurant. “Yes, I’d like the Technical-Skill Entree with the mixed Innovation, Inspiration, and Cleverness side salad. Oh, and please hold the pretentious horseshit. Thanks.”

Perhaps I’ll calm down once the drinks arrive.

3 thoughts on “Scowling at the Menu

  1. Uh.

    ::::scratches head::::

    I got nuthin here.




    Could our blogs be ANY different from one another?




    My little Mad Scientist.

  2. I know about it. I even have one of the high-powered ones, built from Lady Ada’s kit. I’ve never actually used it, though.

    Here’s the thing: TVs in public spaces are, or can be, somewhat obnoxious. Surreptitiously tuning them off is obnoxious, too. (Surreptitiously turning off TVs at an event devoted to showcasing consumer electronics is several steps beyond obnoxious, and makes the Gizmodo crew a bunch of world-class douchenozzles in my eyes.)

    I’ve thought more than once that if I ever get tired of life, and want to exit it without the mess and bother of nooses, poison, or firearms, I could always just walk into a sports bar during playoff season and keep turning off the screens.

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