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5 November, 2013 / Rob

New Home

New Home

This website has a new home at http://robertwli.com

21 June, 2013 / Rob

Born in the 80s :: Documenting the roots of my journey with computers

I had this sudden desire to see what pictures I had of my old desk setups after many months of this guilty pleasure.

Surprisingly, I was able to dig up many old photos of my desk – enough to get a sense of how things have evolved over time. The notion of what a computer is has truly changed.

That moment of surprise has re-affirmed my belief in the importance of documentary photography. It’s simply nice sometimes, and necessary at other times, to see how things were and how things have changed. I’m glad I took the time to carefully shoot, catalog and religiously backup all my images.

It brings back strong memories that otherwise might have been lost.

Somehow, those memories turned into this blog post.

The days of the Windows boxes

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My first personal computer that was all mine: a Pentium II running Windows 95 then, badly, ran Windows 98.

I have always loved computers. As uncool as this was in the 90s, I always thought they were the coolest thing.

This was my first personal computer – a typical beige, Windows box I got when I started secondary school. Before this, I used the family’s 386 running some form of DOS and then a 486 running Windows 3.1.

I wish I had photos of those machines.

Computers at that time were just for playing Doom and Raiden (for me) and doing boring spreadsheets, word processing and other productivity tasks (for “grown-ups”).

Then came dial-up modems and the internet kicked off – along with it, Warcraft and Starcraft multiplayer. I remember spending a lot of time playing Worms and Heroes of Might and Magic on this machine.

Thinking back, this machine was one of the worst experiences I had on a computer, especially when it was running Windows 98.  I spent most of my time looking at blue screens and the Windows boot screen. However, I didn’t know any better, and I assumed that’s how computers were supposed to behave.

To this day, I have not forgiven Microsoft for making me believe that to be true.

Looking back to this time (mid to late 90s when I was about 12), my biggest regret is not learning to program on this machine. I thought I was a computer genius: figuring out for myself the system’s file structure; DOS commands; making games run without the official CD; converting image files using MS Paint. Stuff that seems trivial now, but this was a time before Google and being “on-line” was a very deliberate and expensive exercise. I never knew back then there was a much deeper rabbit hole to go down. I am learning now, so better late than never.

Portable computing :: the stumble towards mobile computing

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Dell Inspiron, Pentium III, Windows XP.

Next came the era of the portable computer. I had this laptop for a long time and it got me through most of secondary school and early university.

Ironically, this computer rarely left the house. Back then, there was never a reason to take a computer with you given the 1-2 hours of battery life.

This computer taught me a lot about hardware. I think mainly because this was around the early 2000s and hardware advancement was rocketing forward, which meant computer software, mainly graphics, was rocketing forward as well. The result of this rapid advancement was that I had a lot of programs that I couldn’t run smoothly (GTA 3 comes to mind, which, ironically, can now be played on a computer device that fits in my pocket).

Through the process of learning about hardware, I learned how much compromise was baked into consumer laptops of that time. The external computer speaker on the right kind of symbolises the shortcomings of laptops of this era – that every part of it was only just good enough to get the job done.

This was during a time when the industry was trying to move to the laptop as being the ultimate all-in-one and the only computer the average person would need. They just couldn’t get it right. The laptop market evolved desperately to try to be that machine, but it was always too big and heavy or too small or too expensive. Eventually, it was the iPad that truly fit into that role as the computer for the average person – the computer for the proverbial mum.

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Nokia 8850

I thought my Nokia 8850 was the most beautiful phone on the planet. It never occurred to me at that time how well Nokia was making their phones and that computer makers should have applied that same whole product approach. Only Apple was doing that, and they were wildly unsuccessful compared to Dell who were turning computers into cheap commodities and were very successful.

I guess I never thought about it because the computer part of the phone fell away and it was just all about the experience of using the phone.

An outcome that I now know as the goal of good design.

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Wi-fi card expansion

Even after all those years putting up with the shitty trackpad, build quality and battery life of the Dell and the pile of buggy shit that was Windows, I can still appreciate the PC/Windows industry’s love for tinkerers and always providing the ability to easily expand and replace hardware components at will – even on a laptop. What I didn’t know at the time, however, was that with this flexibility, you end up with an inherently unstable operating system (given it must be built to accept a vast variety of hardware). Knowing that now, I have a much better appreciation and respect for what Microsoft did with Windows back then…but it doesn’t change the fact Windows was shit.

Design :: computers as products

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iPod (3rd Gen) and Palm Tungsten T

As I progressed through university and started working part-time, I was able to acquire a few more gadgets, which, thankfully, allowed me to explore the world outside of Windows based computers. These new gadgets had different human-machine interfaces, both hardware and software, which were simply better than anything I had experienced before.

I absolutely love how these two products changed my perception of how computers should work. I stopped looking at computers as computers and started to look at them as tools designed to solve problems.

Looking back, these products were what sparked the beginning of my passion for whole product design. Meaning, it’s not just the way the software works or how the hardware works. The important thing is how the product works to help you solve your problem.

Before that time, I always looked at hardware and software separately, which is how the Wintel PC industry looked at it (and the main reason for why they were shitty experiences).  I feel, back then, only a few players, like Nokia, Apple and Palm, really understood the importance of design when it came to computer products.

They understood that design was about so much more than just the way something looks but the way something actually works. They understood it was about the user experience. A term so widely embraced now it’s simply known as UX.

The progression of the Mac and iPhone took that spark and propelled design to be one of my main interests today. These products proved that good design was the only thing lacking in computers – stopping them from becoming mainstream wonders that everyone can appreciate.

Great design revealed a computer’s magic to everyone that for a very long time only nerds (and Macintosh diehards) could see.

I am just happy that product design is a core part of the computer industry today.

Designed in California :: a glass of ice water after being in hell

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iMac G5

I saw an old interview with Steve Jobs where they asked him whether the iPod’s halo effect was why people were switching to Macs. He replied that it was a big reason, but another reason was how bad Windows Vista was.

For me, the reason was both.

The only Apple product I had owned up to that point (the iPod) worked really really well. On the other hand, I had owned many Wintel PCs which worked really really bad – I just didn’t know it yet.

At this point in time in 2005, the Wintel PC market  was probably in the worst state it had ever been in. This was a time when Dell was the epitome of a PC: shitting out cheap, crappy boxes that broke a lot, and infested every home and every office. Microsoft was still on XP and was about to roll out Windows Vista which was widely regarded as a terrible OS – so terrible, most people skipped it.

Apple, with Mac OS X and the digital hub strategy, on the other hand, were doing everything right. Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger had just been released which looked space age compared to anything else out there (to this day, I cannot multi-task on Windows as well as I can on OS X). They were focusing on making the OS more compatible with Windows which was traditionally the main reason not to use Apple products. Most importantly, the iMac was good value. Outside of building your own PC, given like for like components, a Dell PC box wasn’t that much cheaper.

The traditional reasons to not switch to a Mac were fading away and the seeds planted by Steve Jobs after his return to Apple in 1997 were finally in full bloom. And who could forget these ads.

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iMac G5

My experience with my first Mac wasn’t all roses though, especially not at first.

Whenever people ask me if they should switch to Mac, I always warn them that it takes a while to get used to it. It took me about 3 months…3 months of swearing at the computer and asking it why it had to be like that. I guess it took some time to rehabilitate from a decade of being warped by Windows usage.

However, after learning why the Mac does things differently, I’ve come to really appreciate the thought gone into those decisions. All the problems that the designers had to overcome to give the user the best possible solution and experience.

Even for little things.

Like the ability to scroll through content inside non-active windows by mousing over them and scrolling. The way the save dialog box is attached to the application it relates to and doesn’t stop you from doing anything else. The way the indicator light disappears completely when off.

These details, showed a level of care and obsession by the creators of the Mac that resonated with me deeply. Their commitment to simplicity, clarity, efficiency and bringing order to complexity.

It wasn’t all good though. Apple does some things really badly. Like the one-button mouse. In fact, they’ve never made a good mouse. Great ideas throughout the years but never created anything that really hit the mark. This doesn’t just go for the mouse hardware, the default OS X mouse acceleration curve is absolutely terrible.

Ultimately, I think that’s why they gave up on it and put all their efforts into the multi-touch trackpad…which is perfect. This dedication to product design is why I use a Mac.

I have never looked back.

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1st Gen Mid-2007 MacBook Pro (one of the worst laptop keyboards ever made)

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Mid-2008 Intel Core 2 Duo iMac

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Mid-2011 iMac – current main computer

The post-PC era :: the computer, finally a human tool, a bicycle for our minds

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iPhone 3GS

I could go on and on about post-PC devices, but I’ll just say this – the iPhone along with the iPad, really embodies my belief in what computers are all about – their purpose. Steve Jobs said it best with this anecdote:

I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific America had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.

And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

Throughout human history, progression has been made through creating and using tools. Our species progressed on the back of the creation of tools and passing down this knowledge from generation to generation throughout the ages.

For the computer, this tool, to be useful, it has to be easy to use.

Not just for nerds like me, but for everyone. People are tool makers and these tools help us do amazing things. The computer is probably the most powerful tool we’ve ever had. That’s why it’s so important that everyone has access to it and the ability to use it.

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Computers are now truly just tools

I think the picture above says a lot about where the computer industry is right now – a great place. We live in a world now of multiple devices which are all extremely powerful and easy to use.

IMG_1750

A picture taken of my current toolset by another computer (iPhone 5) that fits in my pocket and is more powerful than the machine that NASA used to put the first person on the moon (and bring him safely back). Amazing.

There is a lot of choice in the market and companies are focusing on product design. Even Microsoft (where it all began for me) has started making complete, whole products (end-to-end: software, hardware and user experience) like the Surface and the X-Box. Even Windows 7 is very good now (for what it is).

What’s next…

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If I had one comment on where things are headed, it would be that the computer industry, and Apple in particular, may be too focused on the consumer market – making products that are great to use for the average user, but not including features that power users want.

The 2013 Mac Pro, I feel, is an example of this. Apple’s computer hardware is becoming too locked down. You used to be able to swap out most components that become obsolete very easily (hard drive, RAM, etc) but these are becoming proprietary and sealed inside. Even the Mac Pro is becoming more like this.

I don’t think hardware expandability should be achieved by using a modular approach for now. The parts and cables are too expensive and simply not advanced enough yet compared to their cheaper and faster internal (PCIe) counterparts.

This approach is limiting the choice available to power users. Power users are the ones who eventually go on to create the next generation of tools. Their choice shouldn’t be limited.

However, I’m not worried about it. Things change in the computer industry – I probably would have felt the same way about the floppy disk disappearing.

I’m simply excited about what’s next.

28 January, 2013 / Rob

Learning :: eBay chair

I took this eBay listing as an opportunity to use my camera and lighting equipment. Here if you’re interested in buying.

Nothing fancy…just blasted a SB-900 speedlight into a wall at one end of a corridor and put the chair at the other end. I just wanted to create some consistent soft light by shutting out the ambient.

I think my settings were f8 at 1/200 of a second shutter speed and ISO200 with speedlight at full power. Camera settings were used to kill any ambient with shutter speed used at as fast as what I feel comfortable using some cheap Chines made radio triggers so I didn’t catch the shutter half way across (and even then I did with one frame – weird). I think the sync speed for my D700 is 1/250 (from memory) so 1/200 I felt was decently safe. I wouldn’t mind a set of new pocket wizards, but money money money.

Post processing was simple. Just did some white balance adjustments (for some reason the Adobe Camera Raw default pumped way too much red into the picture and the walls were turning my speedlight yellow – at least I hope it was the walls and not my speedlight being faulty). Adjusted the tones a bit to boost up the contrast. Did some straightening/cropping to fix up some lazy camera composing. Done.

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23 January, 2013 / Rob

Travel :: Italy September 2012

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7 January, 2013 / Rob

Travel :: France September 2012

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