Why Flash Drives Are Still Everywhere – The Atlantic

Why Flash Drives Are Still Everywhere – The Atlantic

At different moments, different unremarkable technical objects seem to evoke that same feeling: that one can’t have too many. These days, the things that seem to turn up all over the place—lurking in pockets of different bags, filling drawers, and junk boxes, dropped down the back of desks—are USB flash drives.

They’re everywhere. There is almost certainly one within ten feet of you right now. I seem to acquire them unceasingly—they’re handed out as promotional tchotchkes, used to provide meeting minutes and conference proceedings, and presented in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and configurations. They have become inescapable elements of the contemporary technological landscape.

The second irony, given how overwhelming the speedy pace of technological advancement can feel, is how primitive the technology on which USB flash drives rely actually is. The challenge posed by the flash drive is to find a way to work seamlessly and easily with every computer. Its solution is a technology known as the “FAT filesystem,” a system—named for its primary data structure, the File Allocation Table—that was developed as a means to manage early floppy disk storage units. Pretty much the simplest imaginable mechanism for representing data on a disk, it was speedily developed and deployed in Microsoft’s almost-ubiquitous BASIC programming system in 1977.

Although it has long since been displaced by more advanced technologies, those other technologies have frequently incorporated a version of FAT into their DNA. Some version of that same FAT filesystem has lived on, locked away inside the more advanced systems that allow for the use of today’s much larger, speedier storage technologies. When people rely upon the FAT filesystem, they’re plugging into an evolutionary throwback, like some kind of vestigial tail. It’s the lizard brain of your computer.

The flash drive exposes the great lie of technological progress, which is the idea that things are ever really left behind. It’s not just that an obsolete technology from the year of Saturday Night Fever still lurks unseen in the dank corners of a shiny new MacBook; it’s that it’s something that is relied upon regularly. The technology historian Thomas Hughes calls these types of devices “reverse salients”—those things that interrupt and disturb the forward movement of technology. They reveal the ugly truth that lies behind each slick new presentation from Google, Apple, or Microsoft: Technical systems are cobbled together from left-over pieces, digital Frankenstein’s monsters in which spare parts and leftovers are awkwardly sutured together and pressed into service. It turns out that the emblems of the technological future are much more awkwardly bound to the past than it’s comfortable to admit.

mols on Twitter: “The term “Web Engineer” intrigues. “Engineer” implies: Scientific method, creation, invention, systems, social apps, design, visualization.”

Meanwhile, not enough cats.

Meanwhile, not enough cats.

Hello reader

Where do stories belong? In books? Why not in blogs or tweets or fora or emails? There are so many means of freely publishing words these days, stories can be published anywhere, taking on bizarre new forms previously unimaginable

Fiction doesn’t have to be neatly packaged and shaped by market constraints, anyone can put it anywhere. But where will all of this freedom and experimentation leave us? Is the idea of the book outmoded? Will there still be a role for designers and illustrators in this brave new world? Do I really want to pull at this thread?

Richard Muller’s answer to What will be the most important unintended consequence of smartphone adoption that we haven’t seen yet? – Quora

Richard Muller’s answer to What will be the most important unintended consequence of smartphone adoption that we haven’t seen yet? – Quora


George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, was based on the mistaken notion that high tech would always be so expensive that it would be controlled by the government. Modern smart phones are simply the latest and greatest innovation that make it increasingly hard for totalitarian governments to continue to fool their people.

1984 contained the foremost prophecy of the cold war era, the message that Stalinism was unstoppable, and all individual liberty would be lost. The year 1984 became a symbol of future anxiety, and many feared its arrival with the same dread that people of the dark ages felt as they approached the end of the first millennium, when the world was predicted to end. I’m old enough that I read 1984 in 1960; I recall the slow approach of the year 1984 and the concern that was strongly felt at that time.

Orwell’s error was remarkably simple and easily identifiable: he assumed that advanced technology would always be expensive, and therefore affordable only to the state. It was an assumption shared by virtually every prophet and science-fiction writer, but it has proven to be wrong. A surprisingly large fraction of high technology has become cheap. As late as the 1970s, the driving force for electronic technology was the military; now the military has difficulty getting the electronics industry to pay attention to their needs, since they are small compared to the consumer market. The cheapness of photography and printers have made them an alternative to the printing-press; most of the books I read on my Kindle. Few of us can even count the number of computers we own, because we don’t know how many are hidden in our microwave ovens and our automobiles. But it is the technology of information and communications that has really made tyranny unworkable, and may soon make it obsolete. This is the true technology of liberation.

To be sure, technology has introduced problems. Like anything else that is out of control, it does not always lead us where we want to go. But at a time that technology is frequently under attack, it is worthwhile to think about its role in spreading truth. It has proven to be too cheap to be directed by governments. It was not Stalinism, but the spread of information that proved to be unstoppable. If, in fact, democracy does spread across the world, let us not forget to notice this contributing force, led (I predict) by the smart phone and its progeny.

Note: this essay draws heavily from one I wrote in 1991 (I own the copyright, so I freely take paragraphs from it) which still appears on my personal website,www.muller.lbl.gov. It continues to be relevant today.

At Home Among the Stacks – CityLab

At Home Among the Stacks – CityLab

There’s a certain way of moving through a used bookstore. Walk in, nod to the owner. Have no expectations about what you might find. Don’t ask: where’s the fiction? Where’s the poetry? You’ll find it. Go slowly. Pull out the spines that interest you. Read the back covers. Search through the bottom shelves, the stacks on the floor (especially the stacks on the floor). Read the fliers on the wall; read everything. But most importantly, just look.


Moving that often, I’d get presumptuous; I would think I had a city figured out after just days or weeks of being there, only to break down when I’d miss a turnoff biking home at night, lost without brightly lit landmarks.

But inside a bookstore, I always knew where I was. They absorb the cities around them: fliers advertise local bands’ performances and events with hometown authors passing through on tour. But at the same time, from place to place, they are overwhelmingly, comfortingly, the same. The smell: woody, maybe a little damp. The stacks: cramped, overflowing onto the floor, religiously alphabetized if not proudly haphazard.


Seeking out bookstores was my attempt to translate a pattern from my past onto my new city. And it’s true that each time I walk into a bookstore in Brooklyn, I’m comforted: I feel like I’ve arrived somewhere I understand. But it’s not an act of regression. By searching for these pockets of familiarity in an unfamiliar city, I’ve brought the whole borough closer to me, and every day it feels more like home.

Expert Read | Grafik

Expert Read | Grafik

Vienna-based designer and typographer Paulus Dreibholz has published a beautiful volume all about that fundamental human activity, reading.


Along with music, architecture, literature, acting, dance and other cultural activities, typography claims only a small niche in the totality of human communication and interaction. However, due to its direct relationship to language, its complexity and ubiquity, its influence on our society and our society’s consciousness and development, typography constitutes an interesting and significant element of social life.

Typography is a wholly cultural phenomenon. Invented and refined by human beings, moulded to their needs and developed by their interaction with it, typography allows people to communicate across space and time. Typography cultivates and is cultivated: we form it and it (in)forms us.

Although man-made, typography is not exclusively based on learned, abstract knowledge: its influence and strength draw on our innate abilities to perceive and read. The purpose of the following text is to recall these skills, to make them conscious once again, with the ultimate goal of turning them into tools that designers can actively use in their work.
Reading and meaning

One of the most striking characteristics of human beings, and probably the biggest difference between humans and animals, is humans’ developed ability to communicate. The exchange of information – whether real or hypothetical, whether within ourselves or with others – allows us to establish distance between our being and our thoughts, and makes it possible to expand our consciousness in new ways. There is no such thing as communication without meaning (since even meaningless communication is open to interpretation). As a reciprocal process, however, communication begins first with the reading of meaning and not with the sending of information. Only when something has meaning can I see it, try to understand it and accordingly construct my own message. Because of this, I believe it makes sense to consider first the process of reading and to return to the process of design later.

The ability to recognise meaning and allocate it correctly is the basic requirement of semiotics, the study of meaning generally, and thus also of semantics, the linguistic study of meaning. Without this capacity to interpret there would be no meaning, no content to messages and no sense; only formal relationships and empty constructions containing neither purposeful nor coincidental relevance would exist. Meaning arises during the processes of reading, in particular the processes of acquiring and interpreting information. Let us examine the misunderstandings that result from two often prematurely drawn conclusions with regards to this process. The first preconception deals with the relationship between the reader and the word.

In conventional use, we take the written word as a precondition for the process of ‘reading’, and with that we leap directly to typography, the study of the printed word. This is, however, a premature connection, since reading encompasses more than the reading of letters. The verb ‘to read’ is the root for many characteristic modifications, as in ‘a reading’ or ‘the reader’. And, indeed, reading refers to the processing of more than only the written message. (The term ‘literacy’, incidentally, also alludes to media in general and not only to typographic messages, just as texts and other written messages, works of art, experiences and developments can also be read.) This broader definition of reading is not exclusive to the English language: in German, one also speaks, for example, of reading traces or tracks (Spurenlesen), likewise activities that have nothing to do with the written word.

But what exactly does it mean to read, to decipher or to interpret? What processes do we set in motion, which of these are automatically triggered: what happens to us when we read?