Sunday, February 05, 2017

A New Addition to Our Home

Lesley has a new BFF. I wouldn't mind this, really, except that without even asking me, she has invited her new friend to move in with us! Admittedly, the new addition's not a lot of trouble. She's small and stays out of the way; she's quiet most of the time, eats almost nothing, and occasionally even proves herself helpful around the house. I suppose I should just be glad that she's low-key and doesn't cause problems.

Her name is Alexa. She's an Echo Dot, a gift from Amy and Karl this past Christmas. And honestly, she's pretty cool. I mean, for a little hockey puck-sized block of plastic and metal. I can walk past the table on which she sits and say, "Alexa, what is the temperature?" and she'll reel off the local temps and the forecast for the rest of the day. I can also ask her who wrote a particular song or who is the current Secretary of Education (Really, Rod? Did you go there?!), and she'll give the correct answersand without any snarky political asides, too. (Which is more than I can say for my friends. Or me, for that matter.) Lesley likes to have Alexa read her a summary of the news (via NPR, I think) in the morning, but I can't stand to have inanimate objects yammering at me first thing in the morning. I'm not a whole lot better with animate objects yammering at me, actually. What I like early in the morning is quiet. And coffee. And puppies. Puppies would be good.

You can acquire additional "skills" (read: apps) for Alexa, some of which are free, and many of which integrate Alexa with various appliances or utilities, including smart thermostats ("Alexa, please turn the temperature up 2 degrees."), smart lights ("Alexa, please turn off the lights in the upstairs hallway."), and smart sewing machines ("Alexa, please repair the tear in my orange suit jacket."). OK, I made that last one up. I don't really have an orange suit. I mean, c'mon, who would wear an orange suit?!

So Alexa is actually very cool. I can see us getting sucked into an Amazon Prime membership any day now, since her abilities are greatly enhanced if you're a Prime member. (Hey, wait a minute… You don't suppose that was the idea, do you?)

Now, if you love overpriced coffee (and who doesn't?), you'll be happy to hear that there's a new smartphone app coming from Starbucks that will allow you to order, build, and pay for your pumpkin spice latte, triple shot espresso, Frappuccino, or whatever. The app will also be integrated with Alexa, so that once you tell the app your "usual" Starbucks order, you can just say, "Alexa, order my Starbucks" and head out the door. By the time you get to Starbucks, your order should be made, bagged, and paid for, with your name already conveniently misspelled on the cup.

Alexa will also be integrating with products from various other companies, including GE, Ford, and Mattel, and that worries me a little bit. It sounds like fun, and I'm sure that some of these integrations will prove useful, but still, I wonder.

For instance, in 2015 Mattel introduced a talking Barbie. It was not a big hit, because an Internet-connected doll that could carry on a conversation with your small child was perceived as more than a little creepy. It was also thought to be a possible security/privacy risk. (And, at $74.99, it was a bit expensive, too.) Nonetheless, in spite of the predictable (and quite possibly justified) hue and cry that followed the release of Hello Barbie, the toy is still available at various outlets. (Including Kohl's and Amazon.)

But back to Alexa. So, what happens if Hello Barbie and Alexa end up in the same household? What if Barbie's chatter triggers Alexa? Could your child's new doll use Alexa to order something from Amazon? If so, I hope it's something expensive. Maybe a nice watch. Currently the most expensive wristwatch I've found on Amazon is the Arnold & Son GMT II Tourbillon in 18K white gold. It will set you back a cool $186,912. Now, I know that seems like a lot of money for a watch, but keep in mind that it's self-winding. (Also, don't forget to add the $4.49 shipping. Seriously. Because you wouldn't want to skimp on shipping that baby. Honestly, I was going to order this for myself, but then I saw the $4.49 shipping charge and I thought, "Dang! Well, that's kind of a deal-breaker, right there!) 

Perhaps one could hack into a Hello Barbie and get her to have Alexa order this watch. Wouldn't Dad be surprised?! For that matter, what if we just stood outside someone's house, possibly near a picture window or a mail slot, and shouted, "Alexa! Order this watch for me!" Sooner or later we'd hit a house with an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot sitting close enough for this to work, right?

Now, if you do happen to order that watch using my Amazon Associate link, you will have just paid for my trailer and possibly a new Honda Rebel motorcycle. Just something for you to keep in mind. Not that I'm begging. Begging would probably be . . . unseemly. Heck, I'll bet I could even afford a shiny new orange suit.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Stuff I Don't Want

As Lesley and I count down toward retirement and the move to Oregon, we've begun making decisions about what to take, what to sell, and all like that. In other words, since we'll need very little in Oregon, at least for the time being, we're divesting ourselves of as much as possible. After all, why pay to ship stuff to Oregon and then pay to store it once we get there?
I'm told by people who should know (e.g., people
whom I am married) that I buy entirely too many
cars. Which is ridiculous, of course. This is "Winnie,"
a 1957 MG.
This exercise has made it apparent that I have too much stuff. The thing is, I like stuff; always have. Books, for instance. I love books, and getting rid of them is difficult, almost painful. Of course, books are very heavy and take up a lot of space. The ones I really need, I'll keep, and I can buy (or check out from the library) digital versions of other books as they come along. I love books, I truly do—their heft and smell and feel, even the sound they make when you turn a page. But there are ecological and economic imperatives at work here; as wonderful as printed books are, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to attach weight (in the form of paper) to a weightless commodity (information) and then pay to ship that information all over the world. At least, not all the time, and not when you have other alternatives.

And a 1969 VW bug. Because look at it! How could
I pass it up?
But it's not just books; there are other things, too. I guess I've always been somewhat acquisitive. Like a crow. I need new things. Shiny things. And even if I don't need them, well, I need them, you know? So over time, I have collected stuff: I have tools and guns and guitars and computers and . . .  well, lots of things that I really, really wanted at the time. (Cars, too, but I purposely didn't mention that. No need to remind Lesley of how many cars I've had over the course of our marriage. On the other hand, we've been married almost 30 years, and I'm almost positive that I haven't had 30 cars during that time, so really, I'm doing pretty well. Not an issue. A non-problem. Completely under control. You know, in case she should happen to mention it.)

And a '69 Ford Bronco that I might have accidentally
On the other hand, in spite of my love of technology, I keep encountering techie things for which I have absolutely no desire. They strike me as either silly, overpriced, useless, or (perhaps worst of all) as potential security/privacy risks.

Here's a list of "cool tech stuff" that I don't want:  
  1. Smart watches. I really like watches, but I like analog watches that don't try to do anything except tell the time—and maybe the date, although that's getting awfully fancy. I don't really need a watch that buzzes to tell me that I just received an email on my smartphone, which is right there in my pocket and which already buzzed anyway to tell me the same thing. Actually, I have a bunch of watches; I should probably get rid of some once I retire. I mean, one of my retirement goals is to not give a damn what time it is, so who needs a bunch of watches? Especially when at any given time at least half of my watches are sitting in a forlorn little pile, awaiting a trip to the store for new batteries.
  2. Smart TVs. I really just want a TV that works well and to which I can connect Web-enabled goodies (Roku, Chromecast, etc.) when—and only when—I choose to. (Because, after all, life without Netflix would not be worth living.) That way, when the Roku (or whatever such unit) dies, I still have a TV.
  3. Autonomous cars, trains, planes, skateboards, unicycles, etc. Yeah, count me out. I know too much about software to feel comfortable in two tons of remote-controlled steel and plastic and glass careening down the highway at 70 mph under the control of a bunch of programmers who may or may not have gotten enough sleep before writing the "how to avoid an accident" subroutine. (And Lesley could never handle being in an autonomous car; she can't stand not to be the one driving. She'll only grudgingly let me drive; she's certainly not going to allow a computer program to drive.)
  4. Foldable phones, computers, and screens. If it's small enough to drop into a pocket, it's at risk of being sent through the wash, and I have enough trouble with Kleenex, flash drives, business cards, and packets of gum. I definitely can't risk a $600 foldable phone. Anything that folds up to fit in a pocket would either go through the wash or get lost. 
  5. Laptops with touchscreens. I can see the need if you're an artist, say, working on a larger system (maybe an all-in-one) and you're actually drawing on the screen, but what I really want is a very thin, very light laptop. And if it's that light, it'll tip every time I attempt to poke at the screen with my clumsy finger. And besides, a mouse and trackpad was good enough for Grandma and Grandpa, right?!
  6. Fitness trackers. Not for me. I don’t need a machine watching over my caloric intake and exercise levels; I'm married, after all. Also, I'm not fit enough—and don’t plan to get fit enough—to require tracking.
  7. Web-enabled toothbrushes. Or forks, kitchen scales, or vacuum cleaners. Yes, all of these things exist. The Internet of Things (IoT) is pretty amazing and, in many cases, very useful. But there seems to be this rush to connect everything to the Web, largely as a way for one to differentiate one's product from one's competitor's products. Not a smart move, security-wise; keep in mind that everything is hackable, and then think about the potential security risks inherent in even practical-sounding IoT gadgets such as thermostats, toaster ovens, fire alarms, baby monitors, etc. In any event, sometimes it seems a little silly. A Web-enabled coffee pot? Really? A connected trashcan that posts to Facebook? An IoT egg tray? Internet-connected diapers? A connected dog treat dispenser—with video chat, no less? (Speaking of which, there's also a dog fitness tracker.) Yes, all of these things really do exist, and many more, besides, and I neither have nor want any of them. (Although Annie-The-Dog might vote for the Web-enabled treat dispenser. Then again, she's pretty smart. She'd probably figure out a way to hack into it, and then we'd wonder why we were going through 12 lbs. of dog treats every week. And why she can no longer make it around the block without being carried—not that we could lift her.)
Actually, I guess I kinda like "dumb" stuff. I like having a device that is dedicated to doing one thing and which does it very well. Having a tool that's mediocre at half a dozen things doesn't do much for me. (It is possible to create a multifunction device that does several things very well, of course. Our computers and smartphones are proof of that. But it's fairly rare, and almost never on the first iteration of a technology.)

My current vehicle. We needed something to pull
the trailer. Right?!

Come to think of it, when Lesley and I were first thinking about getting an RV, that's why we decided to buy a trailer instead of a motorhome. Motorhomes are awesome for full-timers (or almost full-timers), of course, but they're full of the sorts of compromises that are unavoidable when you want something to fulfill more than one function. Our biggest objection to a motorhome, though, was that we'd be paying for an engine and running gear that would end up sitting in storage for several months out of the year. Since we already have (and are paying for) an engine and running gear in the form of a very nice pickup truck, why buy another vehicle that's going to sit underutilized while we continue to pay for it?

This does not even count. It only has two wheels, right?
So... Maybe half a car?
Similarly, I'm not crazy about paying for an Internet-enabled toaster oven that I can control from my office when I would only do that once in a great while. Even when I'm not communicating with it over the Internet, I'm still paying for the ability to control it from my office. And I especially don't like the idea that some other person might figure out how to control it from his office.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Saved, By George!

When I was very young and very stupid (those two often go together), I was almost bitten on the ass by a rattlesnake. Now, at the time, the standard first aid advice for snakebite was to have someone suck out the venom. In this particular case, that would have been a great way to find out who your friends really were. (The most recent recommendation is to skip the whole sucking-out-the-venom thing, a change which must have helped avoid many an awkward situation.)

This is a horned rattlesnake, such as one might find in the California or
Arizona deserts. If you see one, do not stop to pet it. Nasty disposition.
Not cuddly. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons user Tigerhawkvok.)
In any case, my friend George saved my . . . Well, you know. 

It was a very warm day in Los Angeles up on the fire roadsthose are dirt and gravel service roads that wind through the mountains between the San Fernando Valley and L.A. As it happens, we were actually out looking for rattlesnakes. (See? Stupid. But we got 30 cents a foot for them at a time when gas was 35 cents per gallon and a movie wasn't a whole lot more.) Even back then I was pudgy and out of shape, so I was hot and tired and about to throw myself down on the ground in the shade of a small water tower when George tackled me, pushing me out of the way. Coiled in the shaderight where I had intended to sitwas a rattlesnake. It was simply minding its own business, trying, as were we, to get out of the heat. Nonetheless, I don't think it would have taken too kindly to being sat on, on account of, you knowit was a damned snake! A species of pit viper, in fact; they're not known for being all warm and fuzzy and sweet-tempered. (There's a reason you never see cute little girls in front of the supermarket giving away young snakes from a basket of newborn reptiles. Kittens, yes. Puppies, maybe. Snakes, no.)

I bring this up because George was (and is) good at . . . well, stuff. I mean, saving lives, yeah, but he could also skin a rattlesnake, fix a sink, tune a car, repair a guitar amplifier, or build a barn. He could find his way by looking at the stars, he knew what plants were safe to eat, and he could tell the height of a tree by measuring the shadow of a pencil. Somehow. It apparently involves math and ratios and such. (I never quite understood the point of it, mind you. Seemingly, the Boy Scoutsan organization of which we were both members, George being an Eagle Scout, of coursefelt that it was important for us little scoutlets to know just how tall the tree was. Maybe there was a tree-height-measuring merit badge or something, I don't know.) Anyway, without George, I surely would have perished, bitten by a snake, poisoned by some plant I had thought was safe to consume, or possibly crushed by a too-tall tree. (George: "Well, officer, I know it's not much help now, but it might be useful to know that the tree that killed Rod was exactly 48 feet, 7 1/2 inches tall. Also, it fell pointing north-by-northeast, and as it fell, it uprooted a number of delicious milk thistle plants. Here, try one!")

George was adept at the technology of the day, andhere's the important parthe knew what to do when the technology failed, because he knew how the technology worked and he knew what had preceded the technology of the day. George is simply a handy guy, whereas I . . . well, I'm good at Scrabble and that's about it.

Unlike George, most of us are so reliant upon our technology that we would have no idea what to do in the absence of that technology. When our fancy tools fail, we're lost. I mean, if I come down in the morning and no one has set the timer on the coffeepot, I'm helpless; all I can do is stare at it and whimper softly until Lesley comes to save me. God only knows how I would cope with a real emergency, like if Netflix went away.

But not George; he would know exactly what to do.

And so would the guy who runs the Primitive Technology YouTube channel. This is a young man who wanders around the bush in Far North Queensland, Australia, creating tools using no tools other than the ones he created. Seriously. He's awesome. Watching his videos, you can learn how to build a shelter (complete with a tile roof and a built-in fireplace), weapons (like a shepherd's sling, a bow and arrow, or a spear thrower), or a fire for a forge, complete with bellows. (Keep in mind that he's doing this in the wilds of Australia, an entire continent where everything tries to kill you, including the beer. He seems unconcerned about this, and says that the only real danger is from snakes, so he takes care ". . . when walking about and lifting things from the ground." That's it. He "takes care." He is made of sterner stuff than most of us. I have to "take care" just getting out of bed.)

It's an amazing set of (so far, 22) videos, and it's educational and even inspiring to see how indigenous people learned to live off of (and live with) the land. Admittedly, this young man is strong, fit, and healthy, so he has some advantages over us old, pudgy has-beens. (Or, in my case, a never-was.)

But mostly what he has is a brain and an impressive skillset. He uses both to show that it is possible to fashion from nature's raw materials everything one needs to surviveand even thrivein the wild. As Duke University’s Henry Petroski has said, “Tools build tools.” And our Australian friend builds technology by creating the tools he needs in order to build still more tools.

He makes the rest of us look pretty helpless. Except for George, of course.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Virtual Cliff Diving

I'm about to step off a cliff. Not sure where—or how—I'll land. It's a cliff of my own making, though, so I really have no one but myself to blame if things go astray.

I'll back up a little.

I've been teaching, on and off, since 1978, which means that I have been teaching for much longer than most of my more recent students have been alive. This is a sobering thought. I started off as a high school teacher in Oregon. (Klamath Falls, Oregon, to be exact; home of absolutely nothing. A newspaper editor there for whom I'd written a series of articles was not impressed when I referred to the residents as Klamath Fallopians, though I thought it was a perfectly suitable name. Somehow my reference was deemed too flippant and was expunged from the article before it went to press.) After 6-7 years of teaching, I returned to California, where I taught at a military academy in Carlsbad.

According to an old school yearbook, this is what I looked like when
I began teaching in 1978. As I recall, the rest of the faculty looked
just as goofy. Especially Dave Raffetto.
A few years later, in a fit of madness that I can only assume was brought on by having too much free time, I signed on as an adjunct instructor at a private college in San Diego. I have taught at one college or another ever since.

I've spent the past 11 years teaching evening English courses at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska. Obviously, I've greatly enjoyed my tenure there, or I wouldn't have stuck around for so long. (I'm not sure what I expected to find, but I've been astonished by the intelligence, background, and experience of the faculty at SCC. There are several PhDs on the English department staff, and most of the rest of us have Master's degrees. All of them love teaching and all care about, admire, and respect the students. Every single person I've met has impressed me with their knowledge, erudition, and dedication. Incredible group of people. Lincoln and the surrounding area is very lucky to have them.)

But now, as some of you know, I'm planning to retire from the publishing company where I've worked for several years. (I took a few breaks in between, during one of which Lesley and I moved to Fort Worth, Texas for a year or so. Although there are some beautiful spots in Texas, Fort Worth is not one of them; it's basically Los Angeles with cowboy hats and, somehow, even worse drivers.) I then came back to Lincoln to work for (about which more in a moment) and eventually went back to work for the publishing company, which is where I am today.

Anyway, after retiring, Lesley and I will head to Depoe Bay, Oregon, where we'll move in for the time being with Lesley's mother. Andi is a long way from doddering, but she is getting on enough that she could use some help around the place; Lesley and I love spending time with her, we love her beautiful home, and we love coastal Oregon—and this will also put us closer to Lesley's father in Kingston, Washington. Definitely a win-win for all concerned. To be honest, we can hardly wait.

Once we get to Oregon, we'd like to do some traveling and have ordered a trailer in which to do that traveling. We'll pick up our 19' Escape in August, and then do a bit of a "shakedown cruise" in Canada with Lesley's dad and stepmom, yet another thing to which we're very much looking forward. (I'm sorry. Really. I tried, but I just couldn't bring myself to end that last sentence with a preposition, Winston Churchill be damned. Thus, the awkward—but correct, dammit—sentence structure.)

And now comes the cliff. (Remember the cliff? I promised you a cliff at the very beginning, some 600 words ago. It's a metaphorical cliff, of course. I mean, if one is to leap from a cliff, a metaphorical cliff would be best, right?)

The question is: How am I to teach and travel? And the answer is: By teaching online courses! One must still dedicate just as much (or possibly even more) time to teaching an online course as to a face-to-face (F2F) course, but one can dedicate that time from just about anywhere. (Or at least, anywhere with a decent Wi-Fi signal.)

So, I'm about to embark on my first real online teaching experience. Next quarter, I'll be teaching the online version of an SCC course entitled Beginning College Reading & Writing. I've taught the course many times before, but always F2F.

Oddly, I do have some background. As mentioned, I spent a couple of years working for, which was a commercial spinoff of UNL's CLASS project, an enterprise in which educators and educational technologists came together to design—you guessed it—online classes. I helped design some of the courses and the software that delivered them, and tried to coordinate the efforts of an amazing group of instructional designers, programmers, illustrators, and other talented folk. Which means that I helped blaze the very trail that leads to the cliff off of which I'm about to jump!

So I suppose that it's only fitting that I come full circle and find myself once again working with what was once called "distance learning," these days abetted by some incredible technological developments that allow me to chat with students in real time, hold virtual "office hours" that include live videoconferencing, and engage students in ongoing discussions and debates (or even arguments) designed to help make them better critical thinkers and more accomplished readers and writers.

I'm looking forward to the new experience, and to seeing if I can make an online course as interesting, as relevant, and as interactive as the F2F courses I've been teaching for years. Stay tuned.


I get asked this a lot: No, I do not require my students to buy my books! That would be tacky. But I do sometimes assign them to read my blog, where they might accidentally stumble across a link to one of my books. And where one could, if one wished, purchase one (or several dozen) of those books. If one wanted.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Photos Are Made With Your Eyes, Not Your Camera. Who Knew?

It pains me immensely to admit this, but my wife is a better photographer than I. Much better. (There's no need to spread this around, of course.) And this is in spite of the fact that I've studied photography fairly extensively. Worked with a fine wedding and portrait photographer back in California during my college days, while employed at a photo lab in Pasadena, CA. (Hope you're doing well, Jack Belcher. And that your 1970 Ford Pinto is still running.) I've even taught photography, because it turns out that as a first-year teacher, when the principal asks if you can teach this or that subject, you say, "Pfffft! Absolutely! Why, if I hadn't become an
Sunset over Holmes Lake in Lincoln, NE. Click
image to enlarge. (Photo by
Lesley Jackson Scher)
English teacher, I definitely would have become a biogenetics researcher. Or a painter. Or possibly an astronaut. So, yeah! Bring on those science, art, history, or home economics classes!" (But no math, please. There are limits to just how much fakery I can manage.)

Luckily, I actually did know something about photography.

But not as much as Lesley, apparently. In spite of the fact that technically I know more than she about rules of thirds and golden means and horizon placement and F-stops and reciprocity and the like, she can take (a real photographer would say "make") better photos than I. Consistently. And she can do it with a three-year-old Android smart phone camera, even when I'm using the fancy Olympus digital with the awesome zoom lens and the dozens of nifty attachments that I just had to have.

Actually, I should have known that the technology doesn't make the photographer. When Ansel Adams taught classes, he often had his students peering through cardboard paper towel rolls for days before he allowed them to use real cameras. It was a low-tech approach, but what he was doing was teaching them to really see what they were looking at. And when my students would ask if they should get motor drives (sigh… it's a film-camera thing; you young people wouldn't understand), I knew what they really wanted. They wanted to be able to go home and tell Mom and Dad that Mr. Scher had said that they should run out and get motor drives for class. (They made a slick, ratchet-y, whirring sound that today's cameras approximate electronically. All the cool people had motor drives.) But I didn't tell them that. I told them that they didn't need motor drives. I told them that if they were taking bad photos, a motor drive would simply allow them to take bad photos much more quickly. And I was right.

But now, I have digital cameras. And they do indeed allow me to take bad photos much more quickly than before. Why, even with a motor drive, I could never have taken bad photos this quickly! It's a miracle of modern technology!! Digital cameras have made mediocrity attainable, and much more easily than ever before. This is a great thing for those of us striving for mediocrity.

TANGENT WARNING: By the way, I really miss darkrooms. The slightly musty, humid air. The smell of fixer and stop-bath. Strips of negatives wiped down with Photo-Flo and hung with clothespins on a wire strung across the (always too-small) space. Trays and test strips, filters and squeegees. The orange or red bulb casting a dim light. The paper safe with the door that always jammed. Enlargers with motorized headsnot that I could ever have afforded one of the motorized monsters. When we moved to Lincoln in 1992, one of the first things I did was . . .  Well, I was going to say that I built a darkroom, but what I really did was cause a darkroom to be built. By a very intimidating fellow whose first comment when looking at the framing I'd done so far was, "So, hey… OK if I tear all of this crap out?" So my contribution was limited to writing a check. Actually, I probably didn't even do that; most likely, Lesley  wrote the check. (Lesley is not only a better photographer than I, she is also much better with money.)

So, go figure . . .  Apparently the technology isn't what makes a good photographer. Or programmer. Or mechanic or teacher or cook or writer. And I guess that's worth keeping in mind.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Slightly Daunted Courage

So there we were, Lesley and I, smack in the middle of Kansas, when the Smartphone Wars began. (And let me tell you, there's nothing more middle than Kansas. It's about the most middle-est place one can imagine. It's even more middling than Nebraska, if that's possible.) Anyway, as we headed back from Dallas after a wonderful visit with Amy and Karl, our two phones began to squabble with one another.

I have an iPhone 5s, while Lesley has a Galaxy S5. As you would expect, these similarly named iOS and Android devices have the occasional spat, but this time it got out of hand.
The amazing story of the Lewis and
Clark expedition.
I was speaking with Siri (she gets me) about something, I forget what, when the Galaxy, which at the time was supposed to be giving driving directions and robotically humming to itself, apparently started listening to me asking Siri a question. "The Google Lady," as we call her, decided that she should participate in what had heretofore been a private conversation between Siri and myself. I must have said "Google" or some other magic word (Amazon? NSA?) that Lesley's phone picked up on, and suddenly it was a three-way conversationfour-way, once Lesley joined in.

In no time at all, both phones got totally confused, with Siri and The Google Lady spewing digital insults at one another and answering questions that neither Lesley nor I had meant to pose, with random back-chatter going on and our two devices talking smack, and God only knows what all was going to happen next. At one point, Lesley's phone decided to play hardball and began spewing Eminem at us, which I thought was very cruel and totally uncalled for. There seemed to be no way to get the Galaxy to stop playing Eminem short of throwing the phone out the car window, which I seriously considered doing. (It was Eminem, after all.)

Now, I bring this up because as we were driving to Texas and back (the return trip lasted approximately 327 hours) it dawned on me that we were carrying an awful lot of technology with us. There we were, skirting portions of both The Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark's route to the Pacific, and I kinda wanted to feel like a rough, self-sufficient explorer-type, ready to scale mountain ranges and cross the prairies using just my wits -- and perhaps a tin cup and a sheath knife. But we had in the car with us the two aforementioned smart phones (and I'm using the term "smart" very loosely here), two laptop computers, several converters and inverters, a Samsung Galaxy Tab Nook, and an iPad. (Not to mention the car itself, which is one of those newfangled contraptions with an onboard computer, but no carburetor and with the engine squeezed in sideways. I honestly don't see how the damned thing runs at all.) Lewis and Clark, meanwhile, actually carried quite a lot of stuff that was supposed to be useful, including a clock that turned out not to work very well, an air rifle that kept randomly shooting passers-by, and a folding boat that failed at every opportunity and to which the men began referring derisively as "the experiment." (The explorers also brought along some very harsh purgatives, which I imagine did work well, but I don't want to think about that.)

It was a memorable Thanksgiving, and wonderful to see "the kids," but from now on I will endeavor to stay out of spats between rival operating systems. I mean, Eminem! That's going pretty far. Who knows what The Google Lady might have started playing next! Kenny G.? Neil Diamond?! Honestly, the thought is terrifying.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The World Gets Smaller. And Flatter. And Angrier.

This is a technology blog, one that occasionally talks about writing, and even more occasionally about what's going on in my personal life—to the extent that anyone is interested in the latter. It's definitely not a political blog, and I generally stay out of the political fray; I have friends who are liberal and friends who are conservative, Republican friends and Democratic friends, and friends whose political leanings I've never learned because, frankly, I've never asked them. 

Yes, you should buy this book. (And my book too,
naturally. But this one especially.)

I do have my own opinions, of course, but at least on this blog, I try to stay away from the (often choleric) political discussions currently making the rounds. Not because I think it's unimportant; it's just not what this blog is about.

But technology has played a role in the election and in the debates that preceded (and in those which must inevitably follow) that election.

One of the things I'm seeing as a result of the recent election includes a definite technology component, and that’s the resurgence of this "America first" idea. I understand pride in our country, but I think that many of those who shout this are a bit tone deaf. They fail to hear in that slogan the strident echoes of the angry and often anti-Semitic voices of the 1930s—Charles Lindbergh’s among them—who fought FDR's every effort to prepare the country for what he saw as an inevitable conflict with Germany and to provide aid to Britain and France as they fought alone against the mightiest army the world had ever seen.

I admit that the idea of concentrating on solving our own issues has a certain appeal. We have problems here, after all; there is something to be said for wanting to take care of "our" problems first, before we provide aid for countries (even allied countries) around the world. For instance, consider that there are more than 8,000 homeless people just in Washington, DC. Almost half are parents and children. This is the seat of power of the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth, and yet its sidewalks and shelters are teeming with desperate people who . . . let's put this as plainly as possible . . . have nowhere to go. They have no place to live. The adults do not know how they're going to feed their children, and the children do not know where (or if) they’re going to sleep tonight.

Should we not address this before venturing out to help others around the world? And should we not similarly address our other issues here before spending money to help those in faraway countries?

But there are some problems with this argument, one of which is the simple fact that we are currently not addressing this issue (among many other issues we seem content to ignore). In fact, many of our policies are contributing to them. When we close mental institutions that could aid a large percentage of the homeless, we add to the problem. When we cut funding to clinics that provide birth control and other services for women, we contribute to the problem. When we close shelters for battered women . . .  Well, you get the idea. It would be one thing if we were in fact stepping up to confront these issues, but often we are not doing so.

Yep, buy this one too. Can't have too
many books, after all.

And then there’s that technology component. Our tools have flattened the world, as Thomas Friedman has noted. Like it or not, it truly is one world, and mainly that's because of technology. An insular and insulated existence became slightly less viable when that first caravan ventured across the deserts and when the very first ship sailed across an ocean, looking to trade spices for fabrics or iron for wood or steel plows for animal skins. When the telegraph arrived, the world became just a little flatter. And then radio flattened it some more. And the same when other technologies came along and were brought to bear on our trade, our communications, and our infrastructure: telephone, television, film, the automobile, the airplane, computers, the Internet, and on and on. 

By now, like it or not, the entire world is interconnected and interdependent. My "American" truck is made largely of parts from Germany and France. Some of it was assembled in Mexico, and the leather used in its seats came from Brazil. The user's manual in the glove compartment was printed in Canada. The sales infrastructure is the only truly American thing about it. (And even there, my so-called American car company has branches and dealerships around the world.)

The computer on which I'm typing this was made by a Taiwanese company. But that company has manufacturing facilities in mainland China, Mexico, and the Czech Republic. It has a worldwide sales force, and its computers include processors made by "American" companies. (But those processors, too, are made all over the world and were perhaps sent to China by way of a Dutch shipping line, traveling packed in corrugated cardboard made mostly in the American Southeast.) 

The thing is, for a variety of reasons—many of them technological and/or economic—it’s no longer possible to differentiate oneself from the "rest of the world." We ARE the rest of the world. What we do here affects markets in Spain and farmers in New Zealand. What happens in France affects investments in Northern California. A work slowdown in South Africa means that an American grocery chain's profits drop. A tumultuous election in the U.S. affects markets around the world. Simply put, everything we do is connected to everything that everyone else does, and this has been the case for some time. (It’s part of the natural order of things. As John Muir said about nature: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”)

Would you like to change that? Would you like to withdraw from the world? Disengage? Unravel the fabric that connects us? I think some people would, maybe because it's easy to equate less interconnectedness with a simpler, "purer" way of life, a time back before things got so complicated, a time when America could concentrate on its own growth and its own strength. And believe me, I long for a simpler time—if ever there really was one.

But it can't be done. Among (many) other things, attempting to do so would trash the world's economies, including our own. There is no way to extricate ourselves from the vast and interconnected marketplace that the world has become. That would be the same thing as attempting to de-technologize, and that's exactly what it would require. We would have to actively work to sever those connections: political, technological, and economic. We would find ourselves living in a new Middle Ages: dirty, cold, and alone, hungry and desperate, trying to scrape by in what William Manchester described as “a world lit only by fire.”

We can complain about "unprotected borders" all we want, but the fact is that borders have become more and more porous and less and less meaningful as technology and economic interdependence have worked to flatten the world. They're artificial constructs, after all; they served a purpose, certainly, but they may simply no longer be as important, as effective, as real. From space, one can see no borders, just a world. Our one world. The one on which we must learn to live in something approaching harmony.