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.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Fashion Jackson: The Tale Of A Digital Entrepeneur

We received a call from our daughter Amy last weekend with some exciting (though not all that unexpected) news. Her fashion blog (Fashion Jackson), on which she's been working for a few years now, has attracted enough attention that it has now become her full-time job. She resigned her corporate gig, and is now working full time on the blog. She had monetized Fashion Jackson long ago, and it has been picking up steam ever since; she's now at the point where she can make a living by sharing her incredible fashion sense online and by using her blog to help other companies market their wares, generally clothing and accessories—all of which are gorgeous, as is Amy herself. (And that right there, by the way, is everything I know about fashion. As you can tell by looking at me.)

Amy, looking all beautiful and fashionable
and such. (Photo by Karl Mayer)
Lesley and I responded as I suppose parents would typically respond to such news: We were simultaneously proud, excited, and fearful. After all, we were raised in an environment in which we recalled our parents and other adult role models having worked for decades for one company, only to retire after 30 or 40 years with the obligatory gold (probably plated) watch. Our generation, the baby boomers, was a transitional one; it was much rarer that we worked that long for one company. I have worked for several companies, after all, and in fact have had more than one career. But still, we worked at what we thought of as "real jobs," meaning that most of us sat in Dilbertian cubicles working for corporate overlords of one stripe or another. (And don't get me wrong: We wereand still are, for the most parthappy to do it. It's what we were raised to do, most of us. For us, this is what constitutes "normal.")

But the newest generation of workers, the millennials, they look at work differently. They think nothing of switching jobs much more often than we did, and they're not at all afraid to strike out in new directions. Neither they nor the more informed of today's employers believe that one must stick to a job for 20 or 30 years. Some do, of course, but employers nowadays understand that if a worker is unhappy, not challenged, receives a tempting offer, or simply feels that it's time to move on to something new, that person will pull up stakes andall other things being equalthis does not in and of itself make him or her a bad employee.

But what really strikes me about Amy's move (other than the fact that we're very proud of the talented, intelligent, articulate, and hard-working young woman that she's become) is the technology involved. (You knew I'd get around to technology eventually, right?)

Amy's Fashion Jackson site. You should visit. And you
should buy stuff, so that Amy can afford to take care of us in
our old age, which is rapidly approaching.
Amy is making a living running a blog, for God's sake! Something that did not exist when I was her age. The blog (or website; the line between the two is sometimes blurred) is delivered via the Internet, which also did not exist (at least, not in its present form) when I was her age. The photos that her boyfriend Karl shoots for the blog (he's an incredibly talented photographer and designer) are taken on digital cameras, which (you guessed it) did not exist when I was her age. She's become an expert at marketing clothing and accessories sold by very fashionable companies, many of which also did not exist when I was her age. (Of course, to be fair, I'm old enough that very little existed when I was her age. The world was mostly dirt and rock. The continents had only recently broken apart. Keith Richards was a teenager.)

In the end, we're both proud and a little befuddled. Even as something of a techie, it shocks me a little to see people (Amy is far from the only one) making a living by utilizing technologies that I still view as somewhat magical. But they're not magic; they're just tools. And back in the day, I suppose the old folks stared in awe, trembling fearfully at their first sight of a pencil.