Monday, May 31, 2010

Gadgets and Self-Selecting Communities

I'm reading more than ever now that I have this electronic reader.  Why is a book more compelling when it's blots on an electronic screen?  And why is this kind of screen more compelling than a PC or laptop?  Is it just the size, the ultra-portability, the comparatively simple, single purpose design of a device that's for reading only?  Maybe it's just the sense of control it provides, knowing you can carry thousands of books and access any of them without getting out of bed.  There is this momentum that sets in by the end of a good book which compels you to just click through to the next one without pause, and keep reading -- provided any leisure time remains. 

A friend of mine has one, too.  She lent it to her mother for the weekend and it came back loaded with three romance novels.

Interesting how the introduction of any new toy brings out a crop of blogs, web-sites, and forums devoted to the exploration of its possibilities.  We long for these communities, of course, as human beings.  In the past we were limited in choice of community to which churches we could walk to and which neighbors we ran into at the farmers' market.  Now, we hook up online with the people who play with the same gadgets we do, regardless of physical location.

We gain a great deal of specialisation and depth this way, translating it into pure pleasure with the objects of our desire.

We lose, I guess, the chance encounters, the exposure to subjects and interests that we'll never know would delight us, as well as the chance to win over converts to our own causes.  We also lose out on every channel of communication besides text.  The inflections, facial expressions, perfumes and body odors, casual flirtations and early warning signs of disapproval -- we're numb to all of those online.  Even in a three-dimensional game-space like World of Warcraft of Second Life, the most gorgeously rendered avatar can't hope to convey any of those nuances, when their inputs are merely strings of text.

But this is me merely railing against change, as usual.  My psyche requires some guilt and reservation in the face of each new pleasure. 

It's a New Englander's characteristic, I think, to be unhappy in the absence of struggle, to distrust ease, to suspect that every joy will be punished by swift and calculated misfortune.   New Englanders seek for comfort in the past, a past whose joys have expired so long ago they cannot possibly be punished by any current accounting.

Or a past whose joys have been paid for already.  "Things were better then," we say, "when we had to wrest boulders from the soil in order to plant our crops.  The work brought us exercise and enduring stone walls."  The pleasure of those harvests long paid for, we can dwell in their memory without fear of reckoning. 

To enjoy a book, today, without even the struggle of paper and printing -- it's an abundance that makes a New Englander suspicious.  Oh, we'll enjoy it, since we have to, but we'll pretend, for a long stretch, that we don't. 

Until the next thing comes along to enjoy and worry over.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Spring Smells

The World Outside has gone from grey-brown to green, green, green, and the air is full of the sweet-grape scent of the locust blossoms.  Their flowers which last for three or four days at the most and then scatter tiny petals to the lawn and the gutters.  This is the smell of summer vacation riding in, of knowing you've only got a couple more weeks of walking past the locust trees to the bus stop to endure the too-close crowds of your classmates and the interminable, droning lectures of teachers who don't want to be there any more than you do.  It's a Friday night smell, the smell of something great on the way, all the sweeter for the raw potential before the break really hits and bogs down with all the little details of how you're going to go about enjoying it, when it's 90 degrees and humid and you're just too tired of swimming to spend any more time in the pond, and you know those lawns aren't going to mow themselves while your spending money is waiting on it.

The lawn here's all mowed, though, and just in time for the afternoon shower to come and apologise to the grass, and pat down all the dust and pollen kicked up by the rattletrap mower my stepfather found at the dump and pieced together and then passed along to us.  Lord, but that machine kicks up the stones and the dirt.  We leave the dogs inside to protect them from stray pebbles and if I didn't wear glasses I'd put on safety goggles.  There was a cloud rising from my metal roar, today.  The station wagon's gone from black to yellow and back to black. 

There's no more summer vacation for us, of course, no matter what it smells like.  At least, no vacation to stretch from June through August.  That's all right, though.  We've still got plenty to look forward to.  There's something to be said for the pleasure of mowing your own lawn after a childhood of cutting grass for others.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Narrator Submits to the Times and Purchases Barnes & Noble Nook

The hypocrisy!  After all the railing I’ve done against conspicuous consumption, gadgets, and waste, I’ve done and ended up with a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader

Forgive me if you can.  At least before you condemn me, consider the paper that I’ll save and the tiny amount of current I’ll sip from the grid while I power the low wattage e-ink display.  I can only hope that not too many civil wars were waged over the mining of the coltan and gold and other minerals utilized in its circuitry. 

(And I must shed a tear for all the sacrificed lower case letter “e”s which are going to perish in the future as we discuss e-titles, e-readers, and e-ink.  Seriously, can’t we come up with better words for all this crap?)

So, with the requisite guilt and hand-wringing out of the way, I'm happy to report that over the past couple of weeks I've grown fond of this device. This despite that it's a channel for Barnes & Noble to sell me products – and after cutting out television and radio, believe me, I was pretty reluctant to introduce another channel of advertising into my life. Indeed, taking an entire store into my home – over a million titles available for immediate purchase, items which I don't even have to haul my ass out of bed to purchase – is remarkable and terrifying. It seems very similar to the videocassette that circulates in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, the videocassette which contains a movie so entertaining, once a person begins to watch it, they sit entranced, neglecting their bodily needs until they expire in their own filth, entertained to death. (Only in Wallace's novel, watching the video didn't automatically bill the viewer's credit card as it entertained and killed them.  Barnes & Noble no doubt wants us alive as we’re more lucrative that way.)

So yeah, I’m entertained by this device.  But I’m also pleasantly surprised by the potential for thrift with it.  For something that’s clearly supposed to convert users into dedicated customers of one company, it’s remarkably open to other channels of content. 

Plugging it into a computer brings up a simple file structure with folders like “My Wallpapers” and “My Music.”  Files you dump there are easily accessible from the device once you disconnect and navigate to the appropriate menu.  So even though it is convenient to purchase an ebook from B&N with their simple interface, it’s not really that much more difficult to drag and drop a free .pdf or .epub file you download from Project Gutenberg or  And while the Nook does allow you to download free copyright-expired ebooks directly through some partnership with Google, getting these titles to display correctly seems hit-or-miss.  I’ve had better luck with the downloads, and I’ve actually been reading for over a week now without radioing in to Barnes and Noble. 

One of the first things I tried when I got this thing home was using it to borrow library books.  I’d been told this was possible but again, it seemed unlikely.  Why would B&N open another channel for reading without paying?  Fortunately, I was wrong.

You can connect to your local community library by downloading and installing Adobe Digital Editions (free, though sadly only on Mac and Windows so far – no Linux).  Most municipal library systems allow you to “borrow” electronic editions of their titles for a limited time.  The Adobe software manages the DRM so that after a week or two you’re cut off from your borrowed book and the next person waiting gets it. 

(I have almost universally negative feelings about using DRM to hinder digital content, but in the case of libraries, it makes some sense.  The more people that line up to borrow digital books, the more digital (pretend) copies the libraries will purchase.  This seems like a pretty good-faith way to support your favorite authors and maybe your library, too.)

The latest surprise I’ve stumbled on is Calibre, which is available on Linux (as well as your more common operating systems).  I discovered it when I started looking for a way to convert longer HTML files into Nook’s native .epub format.  It does a great job of this, and Calibre recognizes the Nook when you plug it in, just as easily as Adobe digital editions does.  It even simplifies the drag and drop process to a “publish to device” button. 

My biggest surprise with Calibre is its ability to connect to hundreds of news sources from around the world.  I’m not sure how it does it, but it dropped issues of Newsweek, Time, and Wired onto the device.  These seemed to have just about all the content from the print issues, complete with a navigation structure you can manipulate with the touch-screen. 

I’m not sure how long this situation’s going to last.  B&N only offers about a dozen magazines and newspapers for purchase on the device, so I’m sure they can’t be too happy to have hundreds available for free to anyone who downloads the Calibre software.  Nor can the magazines be happy to have their content – stripped of advertizing – dialed up and delivered for free. 

I suppose there’s nothing they can do about it.  As Cory Doctorow says, information is never going to get harder or more expensive to copy in the future.  Still, B&N might want to get off their tails and at least offer a few more of these publications for purchase.  The rates on the magazines they do offer are reasonable, so for those who don’t want to be troubled to install software and hook up to their PC to manually manage downloads, and those who feel some obligation to compensate the fourth estate for their efforts, there’s value to be had in wireless, automatic delivery of your subscriptions.

It’s only a matter of time before I start using this thing to purchase content.  There’s too many good books coming up these days for me not to.  But the fact that the Nook is open to so many other channels of content is kind of endearing. 

Anyone else out there setting aside the codex that has served us for the past thousand years or two for something new-fangled and shiny?  How are you liking it?  What are your thoughts?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pancake Packing Robots

Watching these flexpicker robots in action fills me with a boyish wonder. 

There’s lots more videos out there of these in action – a quick search on Youtube will bring up dozens.  It’s almost hypnotizing to watch them work.  It’s like watching a pianist who is incapable of striking a wrong note.

Still, I have to ask: all of that technology, all the programming, all the materials and equipment – all to produce shrink-wrapped pancakes?  Why are people buying pre-made pancakes at all, when you can whip them up from raw ingredients at home in about ten minutes? 

On another note, isn’t it remarkable who those shiny white flexpicker robots look eerily similar to the murderous infrared gun turrets in the video game Portal


Life used to imitate fiction.  Now it’s imitating video games. 


The Immortality in Archives

On what media is written the content of our days? 

We flatter ourselves that we're all written down somewhere.  Someone's keeping track.  Someone knows about all those horrible and wonderful things you did, even the things you never told anybody.

I think we cling to the legend of Heaven not so much because we cannot comprehend the idea of no longer being alive and conscious (after all, we pass in and out of the alternative every night) but because, right now, while we are alive and awake, we cannot stomach the possibility that no one around in the future will remember us.

It's drummed into us from an early age, this need to be acknowledged and remembered forever.  At least it's drummed into those of us who pay attention to the rules of society and long to "do well".  We hand in our homework, show up for our exams, and wait with eager anticipation and apprehension for authorities to evaluate and rank us.  "The results of these tests will determine which universities will accept you, which employers will hire you, mow much money you earn and where you retire and die.  Our evaluation of your behavior will go on your permanent record."

"There's a permanent record?" we say.  "Thank Heaven for that."

A permanent record, chiselled into a database of stone. 

Once, they only carved statues of legends and heroes.  Only Caesar's face would be embossed upon the coin of the realm.  But now, we're told, there's a permanent record for each and every one of us.

Is this why we're blogging and tweeting and sharing our most intimate details on Friendface?  Look at what we pay for it: the loss of privacy, the marketing, the imposition and potential shame of shared indiscretions.  But they're all a small price to pay in exchange for the knowledge that our information is important to somebody.  We don't even care that other folks are making money from our data.  It's just flattering to consider that someone considers us worth paying for, at all.

We love grades, sales rankings, credit scores.  We don't even have to know what they are.  We don't even worry about whether they're correct.  It's enough just to know they're out there.

* * *

Ah, but bigger minds than mine have touched on this already.  In The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, Rudy Rucker wrote:

Lifebox is a word I invented some years ago to describe a hypothetical technological gizmo for preserving a human personality.  In my tales, a lifebox is a small interactive device to which you tell your life story.  It prompts you with questions and organizes the information you give it.  As well as words, you can feed in digital images, videos, sound recordings, and the like.  It's a bit like an intelligent blog.

Once you get enough information into your lifebox, it becomes like a simulation of you.  Your audience can interact with the stories in your lifebox, interrupting and asking questions.  The lifebox begins by describing the retiree's common dream of creating a memoir and ends by creating a simulation of its owner....

A lifebox is a person reduced to a digital database with simple software.  So in my book title, I'm using lifebox as shorthand for the universal automatist thesis that everything, even human consciousness, is a computation. 

If this were true, our days could be written on anything.  (Since we know that we can run a computer processor with checkers -- given enough time.)  Elements of my father could still be consciously dreaming in the pages of the three typewritten journals he left behind, interacting wirelessly with the impressions they made upon me when I read them and the memories he left behind in the other living people who knew him. 

He's left and lost control over this afterlife, certainly.  That would be the appeal of Rucker's lifeboxes, then -- making the effort now to get them right so we're still the people we want to be once we're gone.

I think Rucker's full of crap, myself.  There's no way we're going to encode the complexity of our 100 billion neurons with their 100 trillion synapses in our blogs and twitter streams -- even if we live up to our promise to update our blogs at least once a day.  And when I go through my old journals, I have to say, the version of myself I've recorded there isn't someone I'd want to hang around with for more than half an hour.  What a drag he is!  And that's too bad, because this version of me, attached to these fingers typing this up right now, isn't too miserable a fellow.

We may live on in the minds of those who read and study the artifacts we leave behind, but that's not through computation or simulation.  That's through metaphor. 

And suppose for a moment we could upload enough of our consciousness to a lifebox to be able to live on in the minds of others.  Isn't that being just a bit selfish?  That folks remember us for a while is fine.  But to expect anyone to participate in a simulation of our consciousness after we've gone?  That's outright grabby.

No, we're not going to be able to preserve our own lives on foolscap or in silicon -- as much as I'm convinced this impulse is behind so many literary and artistic endeavours.  That doesn't mean our lives aren't written elsewhere, though.  Maybe in our DNA, or Saint Peter's guest-book, or the weather, or the water. 

After all, it's hard to watch the wind fight against the current and the tide, stirring the surface into all sorts of gnarly fractal waveforms, too complex to comprehend even if we could hold them still, which we never can, and yet so completely changed by the drop of a single pebble, dropped almost without thinking -- too hard, I think, to watch that even for a single minute and conclude that it signifies absolutely nothing. 

I think you could store a mind in that kind of complexity.  I think you could store everything there.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Costs of Forcing the Anachronism

It's becoming harder than ever to live the anachronism as the rest of the world turns to tools and toys we have reservations about. 

To stay in touch with Facebook, for example.  Broadcasting carbon-copied letters with the minutiae of our lives to all our friends around the world for just the price of electricity.

To live second lives in the fantasy world of an MMORPG,  Battle after battle bringing a gradual accumulation of wealth, while we don't tire out more than a finger muscle. 

To communicate with anyone in the world who wants to follow our Twitter stream.  It's a miracle of public relations!  The only barrier between ourselves and our audience now is our own vapidity, the marketplace of ideas the ultimate laissez-faire free economy, rewarding the fascinating and clever with eyeballs and attention.  (Granted, you have to be fascinating and clever and have the equipment to blog, but these are low hurdles in this age of falling electronics prices and rising unemployment.)

As much as I'd love to get on-board, this all makes me very uneasy.

These electronic readers, now.  Folks resist them at first.  People have an attachment to books.  They're sacred, nothing like CDs or VHS tapes.  Everyone talks about how much they want to hold a book in their hands, turn the pages, smell the paper.  They say they'll never exchange their library for another electronic gadget.  But there's no mistaking the thrill in their eyes when they realise they can hold thousands of books on one machine, or download millions of titles instantly, from anywhere.  I feel the thrill myself.  After moving house 16 times in 33 years, the argument that this gadget could free up my shelf space and reduce my clutter reaches right into my limbic system and strokes my pleasure center.  If it weren't for my stubborn refusal to associate my identity with a credit card number, I'd be tempted to pick one up. 

But I've also got the reservation that a digital library can be wiped out in one hard drive failure.  (Solar flareElectromagnetic pulse, anyone?) and that despite every benevolent corporation's promise to maintain copies of every book I've purchased along with my paid licences for reading, we need only look back a handful of years to see how quickly corporations can dissolve, and wonder, what happens to all the precious data I've licensed, if that happens.  Who takes care of my digital library when goes away?

Meanwhile, my physical books are my own responsibility, and I need only protect them from flood and fire.

I've got this constant tug-of-war going on between lust for the shiny and new, and a desire to preserve and make do -- and dig in my heels.  There's no denying the net increase in pleasure and well being brought about by scientific advancement and the introduction of new gadgets.  But am I really happier with my iPod than my stack of CDs?  And does this cell-phone make me any happier than the wall-mounted rotary phone I grew up with? 

I grew up with a lot of hand-me-downs: grandfather's 8-track players, the Atari 2600 the tenant left behind in the rented room, older brother's reel-to-reel tape recorder.  I learned to enjoy technology on its terms, not mine.  So I mess around with Linux distributions, making old computers work as well as they can.  I lubricate an old bicycle picked up for free on the side of the road.  I think: here is the hand-me-down or the estate-sale find.  What does it have left within it that I can bring out?  I never think, here is a thing I'd like to do, let's go out and get the equipment that'll help me do it.  Objects are not so much tools as an obligation for me.  Here's an old lamp, better find a place to use it.  Here's a stack of old grocery bags.  I can't possibly throw them away.  What can I possibly do with them?

Is it any wonder that the acquisition of more stuff fills me with trepidation?

So I try to romanticise the stuff nobody wants any more.  I may not be able to afford the exclusive experience, the vintage wine, the rare cigar.  But I can pick up the furniture at the dump that has been through a lifetime of use already.  Nobody else in the world is going to have that.  I can spend hours in the musty basement of the used bookshop, sniffing the pages of books nobody is going to buy in these precious years before the shops shut down and disappear entirely.  I feel compelled to save these anachronisms, because I hate to see them discarded and turned into toxic waste.  Instead, they can be just mine. 

It's an easy and affordable way to feel unique, at least, this embracing of discarded artifacts.  For those of us who can't afford to play the consumer game as it's been laid out, those who don't have the cash or ready credit to accessorise their iPads with patent leather accessories from Kate Spade, or to keep up with H&M clothing stores' 26 annual fashion seasons.  IKEA gives us thousands of ways to customise our living rooms in their 200 page catalogue, but if we have the patience to sift through the garbage, we can put together a space nobody else in the world has, for free.

Perhaps it's because I have no children.  Maybe I'm turning into one of those neurotic middle aged men who assign importance to all the wrong things, worried more about the location of their misplaced walking stick than the performance of their retirement portfolio.

But I'm not the only one who is this way.  I wrote last week about a co-worker who loves typewriters as I do.  (She, likewise, has no desire for children, but loves dogs.)  Even more recently I was speaking with another co-worker, a young man who may not be old enough to drink, but who has always impressed me with his thoughtful dress sense, the manner with which he tips his antiquated hats, and the care he takes in hand-rolling his cigarettes. 

Despite these cues, it still surprised me to learn that he owns his own antique store already.  It was given to him by his grandfather.  "It's closed for the season," he told me, "and that's why I'm doing this for the winter." 

I asked him, of course, if he had any old typewriters in his inventory.  He assured me yes, a Royal, at least, and a Hermes Rocket with the original case and instruction manual.  A Selectric I as well, which he knowledgeably described as "the famous electric typewriter from IBM with the ball."  I was tempted by the Hermes, of course, and told him so, but cautioned that I collect antique typewriters and have too many already.

"I know what you mean," he said, "I collect them too."

The fact that this strange affectation has struck three individuals in the same workplace must point more to some great yearning in the human spirit than to coincidence.  We long for the simple, established, and effective, even as the marketplace tells us why we need the new, the novel, the upgraded.  (The marketplace tells us this because it needs to, not because it wants us to be happy or healthy.) 

Three employees in the building is not many, perhaps, but it's more than I would expect, and it shows there may be even more unexpected anachronisms among us.