415 · 9 January 03
In an attempt to lose some weight, I have switched computing platforms. Wait, maybe I should back up.
Over Christmas, at my parents', my mother and my sister were going through boxes of old photographs, and turned up one of me from, I believe, the summer after my freshman year in college. In it, I look pretty good. I don't mean "good" in the sense of overall physical attractiveness, due to a haircut and dye-job that attempted to balance a sort of Flock of Seagulls ambition against a complete refusal to engage in any routine upkeep. But I look trim, at least. I have not actually kept a record of my weight over the years, but it's my recollection that during college I weighed about 150 pounds, and at the point in my growth where my proper 501 inseam length first reached its apparent terminal point at 30 inches, I am pretty sure my waist size was 29. I do not recall either of these figures fluctuating noticeably during college, despite prevailing expectations. Since college, however, I have grown. In many ways, I would contend, but clearly among them are the horizontal dimensions. My adult "lifestyle", in the sense that one means the term when talking about weight, has involved eating whatever I wanted to eat, and avoiding any form of routine or prolonged exercise, and this combination has some unsurprising consequences. Periodically, when I went to replace a worn-out pair of 501s, I would discover that for some reason the next size up fit better. If questioned, I don't think I would have actually voiced my standing suspicion that Levi's were slowly adjusting the cut of their pants, but it had to be a factor. After examining the bits of evidence in stray old correspondence and the occasional medical report, though, I feel I can now quantify what was going on. In the course of a single year, I gained four pounds.
I do not believe I am being unacceptably lenient on myself when I stipulate that gaining four pounds in a year does not indicate a crisis-inducing level of indiscipline. Unless you are engaged in a business in which you are periodically photographed naked, virtually nobody will ever notice a four-pound change in your body weight, and certainly not if you're careful to gain it that slowly. At the end of the year, though, there is another year. In the course of two years, I gained eight pounds. Eight pounds, you can probably start to discern. And if you can't, twelve is even easier. In fact, as best as I can tell, I kept up a four-pounds-per-year pace with obscurely admirable consistency from the day I stopped eating late-Eighties Harvard dormitory food. That, unfortunately, was a few years ago now. I finished college in 1989. Four pounds a year, over the course of twelve or thirteen years, is enough to push even the most earnest 150 towards the arbitrarily worrisome point where the first digit changes. When the last set of provocatively clingy 29-inch-waist 501s perished, a couple years after college, I moved up to the more mature 32s. Some time later, I switched to the relaxed idiom of 34s. Eventually I even found myself more comfortable in the generous grace of 36s. I kept meaning to confront Strauss & Co. about this trend of theirs, because imagine how demoralizing it must be for fat people. According to the generic Body Mass Index calculation, a person of my height is "overweight" beginning at 170 pounds, and "obese" starting at 204. But, I mean, who isn't overweight? Clearly I was not obese. I know what obesity looks like. "Pudgy", I could accept that. "Solid", if you were feeling kind. My mother, in her role as pesterer with my best interests at heart, had begun suggesting, although not this bluntly, that I might enjoy being less fat. In her other role as a person who has known me a very long time, though, she simply observed that some day I would decide to deal with it. And since it didn't seem to be reducing the quality of my life in any concrete (read "impossible for even a very lazy and stubborn person to deliberately overlook") way, that day had not yet arrived.
And then, last winter, I hurt my knee. As my doctor was strangely reluctant to admit to me but my physical therapist was perfectly happy to spell out, I partially tore my left ACL. There was astroturf, most of me was turning rather sharply, and the part of me from my left knee to the ground was not. As with, come to think of it, pretty much all of my injuries, I do not recommend this. A somewhat involved course of physical therapy was required just to get me walking normally again, and returning to the point where I could run, never mind play soccer, was either going to involve a significant surgery, or else a long and methodical process of training the other muscles involved in the movement of my knee to take over some of the supporting function of the damaged ligament. And as I attempted to begin the latter long and methodical process, I discovered that the rest of my body wasn't up to it. My knee needed treadmills or exercise bicycles or ellipticals or something, and my lungs balked long before any of them could do any good. And while never running another step in my life didn't seem totally unacceptable, never being able to run another step if I really needed to just felt like poor planning. Apparently the day for dealing with it had come.
As one of the few bits of spam that still consistently eludes Apple Mail's junk filter repeatedly confides, "If you're like me, you've tried EVERYTHING to lose weight." Although I don't wish to be insensitive to the constraints of individual metabolisms, I do now feel obliged to pose a clarifying question. "In 'EVERYTHING', do you include adopting a mild and minimally invasive exercise regimen and applying even the smallest amounts of intelligence to your diet?" In early July I bought a rowing machine (lower-impact than a treadmill, more upper-body involvement than a stationary bike, and locatable in my living room where I do not have to cope with the company of the dreary sort of people who exercise) and after a slow ramp-up, I now pry myself out of bed and row for half an hour every morning, except the mornings when I don't quite manage to, which usually works out to a rhythm of two or three days on and one off. I watch Japanese music videos or Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs or something while I row, and the time passes rather pleasantly. My heart rate increases, I breathe hard, I sweat, and I usually feel a little unstable by the end, but the rest of the day I'm in a distinctly better mood. Along with this, I have tried to identify the gloppiest 10% of my old food repertoire (cheese omelets, spaghetti carbonara, low-grade pizza, whole bags of potato chips at once) and replace it with things that are healthier and usually more interesting anyway, such as lots more sushi, a variety of other ideas that involve seaweed, and vegetable treatments that do not entail smothering them in asiago and/or heavy cream. As bodily self-improvement programs go, this one is far from an ordeal, and really it's screwed with my cooking far more than anything else in my life. Nor, mind you, is its efficacy liable to be trumpeted in tabloid headlines, either: measured a week at a time, I don't quite lose a pound. The scale goes up and down, actually, and from one day to the next it's not always clear whether I'm really making headway. From one month to the next, though, it's clear enough. Since I reached my target workout length, about the beginning of August, my weight has been rewinding at about a month for every year of gaining it. I really was at 200 when I started, I was alarmed to discover. I'm now making my way down through the upper 170s. 175 was my original goal, but unless I suddenly hit a wall somewhere, I now don't see any good reason not to try to get all the way back to 150. More to the point, this seems like a perfectly sustainable way to live, so I'm content to see if it produces an equilibrium, and then evaluate what that looks and feels like. So far, the chart and the mirror still say, pedantically, "overweight". I hope they are enjoying themselves while they have the chance.
And although this is applying a metaphorical parallelism with a more comprehensive precision than even my high tolerance for such things usually allows, the story of me slowly turning into a pudgy and too-easily-winded person is exactly the story of PC computing and Microsoft operating systems. My father bailed out of academia and went to work at IBM right before I started college, and with his employee's discount bought me my first computer suitable for anything other than playing with a computer, a boxy PCjr with memory-expansion modules you literally screwed onto the side of it and a years-ahead-of-its-time wireless keyboard (but not, thankfully, the years-behind-its-time chicklet-key first edition). In college my friends all had Macintoshes, which were bright and cheerful and disgorged these little non-floppy floppy diskettes you could take over to the Office of Information Technology and get your papers printed on those rather astonishing "laser" printers. The PCjr ran state-of-the-art DOS 2.1, which sported the same grim, unwelcoming empty screen as DOS 1.0, but included some mind-altering advances like the ability to rename a directory without having to delete all the files from it first, or possibly the capacity to make the glowing meaningless letter "C" into a purple, flashing glowing meaningless letter "C". OIT didn't have any laser printers hooked to anything that could read my actually-floppy floppy disks, nor did my PCjr have enough computing power to run any genuine word-processing software at typing speed (nor enough memory to compose anything longer than haiku, even if the speed didn't drive you insane), but no matter. I whipped up a little print-formatting program of my own in line-number BASIC, and thereafter could elicit bold or underlining (or, in version 1.4, both!) from my dentist-drill-sounding dot-matrix printer with only four extra keystrokes and a little bit of manual paragraph rejustification. My first job out of college was answering the tech-support hotline at Lotus, which meant I spent large parts of every day attempting to explain the underlying principles of DOS to a wide cross-section of international English-speaking society, and I very quickly realized two things: a) a frightening number of people had effectively no clue at all how a device their livelihoods depended on operated, and b) there was often no conceivable way they could learn those details if that itself were not the purpose of their jobs.
Those, of course, were the good times. DOS was eventually replaced by Windows, which was an improvement in the same way that a plush passenger train with a buffet car is a better thing to drive down a dirt road than a LeSabre on three spares. And year after year, four squishy pounds at a time, the PC has grown doughier and wheezier and less enticing. Windows solved some very real problems (those of you too young to remember how DOS handled printing wouldn't believe me if I explained it), but it solved a lot of them about a decade ago. Release after release, I have upgraded at home or at work or both, and release after release I have failed to become any happier about anything. The PC on my desk at home, on which I am not typing this, is still running Windows NT. The one on my desk at work runs Windows 2000 Professional, and the others I have to deal with run Windows XP Professional. They do not make me feel Professional, they make me feel like I have been tricked into misplacing something and then forgetting what it was. The chief advantage of Windows 2000 over Windows NT is that the control-key shortcuts for Save and Find work in Notepad, and the chief advantage of Windows XP over Windows 2000 is that you can get English menus in the Japanese input editor. These are oversimplifications, admittedly, but the underlying point is that at no time during my adult computer-using life have I felt like any technical advance in PC-platform operating systems constituted an identifiable improvement in the moral quality of their users' lives, nor a component of any kind of social revolution I would feel proud to lead. At best, upgrades have belatedly and/or partially alleviated pains their predecessors had no business introducing in the first place. More often, they've deferred disasters until they can do even worse damage, or helped people who don't care about you control more of your life.
But this is retrofitted disgust, which until fairly recently I'd been building up largely without noticing. It's been my job, ever since escaping from tech support, to make non-operating-system software that does improve its users' lives in some small way, and it hadn't really dawned on me that I could be getting more help. When my company was acquired, recently, and I realized I was probably going to have to start traveling more, I figured I should probably get a portable computer, and while my company would certainly give me one, I needed it more for my own purposes than theirs, so I decided to poke around and see whether there was anything distinctly cooler than what I would be issued. PC portables, however, are obdurately dull and depressing, and can basically be divided into two groups: the bloated ones, and the ones that are missing at least one critical feature. Plus, they all just run the same versions of Windows as the desktop machines, which meant that there was virtually no chance that a new machine would change my life. Arguably that's a dumb thing to ask of it, but I could readily think of three other uses of that amount of money that seemed like they would make a difference, so why shouldn't a new computer? At some twist of this internal dialog, a stray heresy unexpectedly intruded: Doesn't Apple make portables, too?
I distrust arbitrary change for arbitrary change's sake. You can always provide yourself with new challenges by deliberately fucking with something that was working fine, but that's disconnecting work from progress, and discarding the wrong one. No doubt learning a new operating system would be diverting, but it wasn't another diversion I needed. I've had Macintoshes at work over the years, for testing purposes if nothing else, and maybe the operating systems have been a little better than Windows, but the applications always lag behind, so on the whole it's never seemed to make much difference. There are more fonts, but fewer mouse buttons, and maybe everything is supposed to work together better, but if it somehow doesn't there's no cover to pry off to see what's wrong. No matter what colors they come in, computers suck, and there wouldn't be half as much urgency to my job if they didn't. Don't change things unless you actually have a reason.
I am typing this on a Macintosh. Actually, it's rather more than that. My PC was already due for a scheduled replacement, budgetwise, but I got some extra money from the acquisition, and Apple now has most of it. Not only did I buy a PowerBook, but I got a big second monitor for it, and a wireless-networking base-station, and an iPod, and a small arsenal of gadgets whose purpose is not obvious from looking at them. And then I bought my sister an iMac, too, and we'll see what it takes to convince my parents. What began as a relatively harmless idea about checking email and watching DVDs in a hotel room has become an upheaval in my belief system, and turned me into a zealot about one more topic. I have Switched. If computers have not been the central mechanical forces in your entire daily adult life, like they have been in mine, maybe you think I just sound geeky when I say this, but I'm telling you there is a real revolution underway. It is actually quite difficult to deduce this by playing with a Macintosh in a store. In five or ten minutes you can tell that there are a lot of colorful icons and shimmery buttons, but Windows XP has colorful icons and shimmery buttons, too. You can open the various built-in applications, but everybody knows that built-in applications are worthless, and even if they weren't, you can't tell much from blank documents and sample data. If you're used to PCs, you'll spend most of your five or ten minutes just trying to figure out where the hell the Start menu is, why you can't see two applications' menu bars at the same time, and why windows keep mysteriously disappearing and how in the world you ever find them again. Even if you get someone who knows what they're doing to show you their own machine, with their real life taking place on it, one by one the details don't seem so incredible. OK, so there's a jukebox program. You can get jukebox programs for the PC, too. OK, so the email program has a button for marking something as junk mail. You can get spam filters for the PC, too. OK, the little icons for applications bounce as they're opening, that's pretty cute, but surely you'll get fed up and turn that off after a week. And there's finally some kind of command-line thing, but the mouse still only has one button, and only a total moron would fall for the "these computers don't suck as much" line yet again.
But here is the thing you will learn from really using an OS X Macintosh, and must somehow accept on faith if that's what it takes to get you to Switch: Apple makes design decisions based on a sincere desire to make your life better. Maybe they always did, but they've gotten better at it. OS X is not just less-bad than Windows, it's Good. Yes, Apple also have sleazy marketing weasels, and the salesdrone at the Apple Store in your mall may be the same woeful grade of maladjusted cretin as the one at Best Buy that tries to sell you $49 monster cables for a $59 VCR, but somewhere in California, in the back corner of some office building where they're deciding what should appear on the screen when you click the next button, somebody is asking themselves not only what could appear on the screen that corresponds vaguely with what you nervously hoped you hit the right button to make appear, but what could jump a couple steps forward and startle and delight you. Executives in the PC business use the word "sexy", in such a way that I'm always surprised to discover that their children aren't adopted, and the Mac interface is not "sexy" or sexy, and it would be grotesque to want it to be. It is, in fact, playful, often well over the line into frivolity. It is not businesslike, in precisely the way that nothing should be "businesslike". The bouncing icons (and the puffs of smoke and the pipe-organ speech synthesizer and the way dialogs tidily resize and the drop-shadows on the windows and the jellybean buttons and the eject key on the keyboard) are not individually rationalizable on utilitarian grounds, and they do not pretend they mean to be. They are there to, in aggregate, change the nature of your relationship with the device. They are joyful, and they hope their joy is infectious. The more you use a Mac, and the more of its secrets you learn (and the bizarre truth is that although simple tasks are designed to be much simpler on the Mac than on a PC, the Mac is also much more deeply and pervasively capable of being tweaked and customized and automated and shortcutted), the more you will like it. This is exactly, radically, totally the opposite of what happens in Windows, where every damn thing you learn after the first ten minutes will make you hate it more and more violently. In software we talk about "usability", usually in the same tones with which your mother told you that the medicine in the spoon was "grape flavor", and Windows, when its features aren't designed to sell you something, is usable in just that sticky, barely tolerable sense, and the fact that you don't throw up doesn't make that half-retching sensation "grape". And not everything on the Mac is great, either, but at every click and gesture there is something that wants to be. I'm sure things will break, but I haven't quite had mine a month and already more things have "just worked" on the PowerBook than did in the lifetime of the PC it's replacing. The machine and its software (and in OS X the "built-in" applications are real and exciting, not cynical placeholders for something you'll have to purchase separately later) are role models for a different conception of the function of objects in human lives. Objects ought to be part of communications between people. Windows, idiotically, tries to factor people out of both ends of the conversation, so that the computer has no evident personality and you can't easily bring any personality to bear on it when you use it. When the Mac talks to you, it does so in human words and sentences, and you respond by touching and pointing and jabbing, and although many of the pieces of the hardware are the same ones you'd use on a PC, the grammars are not, and the character of the dialog is not. To use the Mac is to be confronted, over and over, with the idea that the most mundane task can be done artfully and compassionately, beautifully and invitingly.
And I want to do better, want us all to want to do better. I don't know what you do, but between us we do everything, and I believe that if the tools with which we do things were all this inspiring, we would do them better. And it compounds: as you make your things better, the person who uses your things to make their things makes their things better. Maybe you think I've been drugged, and a few bouncing icons can never instigate a better world, but better worlds have to start being better somewhere. Many somewheres, of course; the German who insisted on putting gel-damped grab-handles in my Golf is starting somewhere, and the Korean who designed the backlighting for my cell-phone keypad, and the manager at BMG who agreed to make the rest of the My So-Called Life DVDs. Tomorrow, or the next day, you'll get a chance to start somewhere, too. Whatever you do, you'll get a chance to do it like you are you for a moment, not an agent of some disembodied and hateful process. You will have a rule to waive, or a loophole to paint instead of closing, or a hand to hold instead of an eject lever to yank. The inexorable process of everything getting gradually and powerlessly flabbier will continue, with you swept along, and you will get to decide whether it's the day for dealing with it yet. It is. It's tomorrow or the next day, or it's even today. My knee is improving; you could wait until you tear something, but don't. Make up an excuse. Get off your ass and start something you've been delaying, something you know you ought to be doing already. Don't put it off because you're not yet as fat as me, don't despair because you're fatter. The right things are never a tenth as impractical as you think, the scary changes are never a hundredth as painful. The most horrible truth is that everything trundles merrily towards hell, and the second most horrible truth is that you're probably pushing them that way by how you lean. But the most hopeful truth is that despite every physical law pulling the universe towards entropy, it still gets there so incredibly slowly, and the second most hopeful truth is that it takes such tiny counter-pressures to save the parts you love. Even less to save yourself. So start anywhere. Pick a better way, and switch.