Category Archives: Musings

The Culture of Impermanence

Books, records, photos. Tangible things. They are disappearing. Kids growing up now don’t even know what a negative looks like. What will happen to our libraries when everything is digital?

As I write this blog post, I am aware that it is only going out in bits and bytes and could with a single key stroke disappear in an instant. Back in the day, 20 years ago, if you wrote something, it was permanent for at least the amount of time it took to disintegrate or be destroyed by you on your own time line. A book could be passed on to your friend, or checked out from a library to read and return. With Kindles and their clones, the book could simply disappear. Will they still be referred to as books? Digilit? Will the library survive? Will the poor be shut out of the reading world? Will all books have to be downloaded to a digital tool? Will it take some sort of energy just to read a book?

As more and more newspapers and magazines go digital, will it become cost prohibitive to publish and the magazine disappear, too? Will the differences between high end publications on a really nice stock and the tabloid printed on newsprint be erased? What of tearing out photos and those perfume inserts? Will Mom and Dad read their morning news on a tablet at the breakfast table?

On the one hand, the computer age did promise a paperless society. In futuristic sci-fi movies there were always computer screens everywhere, and it all seemed very clean and tidy. But now that we are living that future, already there have been some significant losses. I loved album art. The cover of a CD is about 14% of the size of a record album and the art you can see on your iPod is even smaller. Yes, I know that artists always find places to display their talents, but the album art was and the book covers are extensions of the art they wrap. And while they will still be made, viewing them on a tiny screen is an entirely different experience.

And there is the sharing part. When you had an album, a CD, a book, a magazine and you wanted to share it with your friends, no one told you that you couldn’t. Not any more. The new paradigm is you pay more and you can’t share. And should you have a problem with your computer, tablet, iPod, etc. and lose your digital copy, you can just pay again.

For photographs it is a whole other set of issues. We have so many ways to take a photo and so more and more digital images are floating around, but fewer and fewer are getting printed. We upload them to Facebook, show them to our friends on our cell phones’ tiny screens, post one or two from time to time to our families, but mostly they live and die on our computers or phones. I have several friends who have no idea how to get them off the phone and onto their computers, so when the phone is full, they get trashed.

And the most serious problem to me is that we do not have any permanent way to save our digital information. Every few years a new medium comes along and we copy everything over, but there is always the chance that some of it won’t be there, will be lost in translation. I have a box full of floppy disks with information that I might want, but no way to access it. I also have a few other disk formats that only lasted a moment. And I have tons of photo CDs and DVDs and know that some of them may not be playable. I bought an external disk to copy things on and have an off site backup of some of my documents, but I miss having negatives. My old photography is preserved in a dozen or so binders full of proof sheets with negatives and several boxes full of old family prints. I can look at them any time I want without having to boot up a computer and search through a file structure or a binder of CDs. They are different sizes, different kinds of paper and different color qualities and touching them really does make a difference.

I know it sounds like I am a total Luddite, but I’m not. I like my computer and my digital camera and I am happy that we are saving trees by putting literature on a tablet, but I am lamenting the death of permanence. And I worry that by having everything brought to the same weight by virtue of impermanence, the concept of importance will disappear.

Maybe the digital age is the great equalizer. All things made of bits and bytes are equal and the people can decide. Of course, even online right now, there are sites that get it right and those who don’t. The best rise to the top. But qualities that differentiated the best are being tossed aside. And formats are disappearing. There is a difference between reading something in Vogue and in Teen Beat. And the layout of a page in one of the artier magazines was a thing to behold. But now everything is the same computer screen size with a scroll bar. Or even smaller for the cell phone screen. The beauty of the whole page is lost. I have no doubt that since we are still in the early years of the digital age, the art that is lost from the printed page has not had time to migrate into cyberspace. It feels like certain kinds of tangible beauty are slipping away and I guess I am more than just a little impatient for the digital renaissance.

But the Buddha’s last words were: All conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence.

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The Most Intriguing Man in the World

Anyone who knows me knows that I am usually very quick with a strong opinion, but I am very conflicted in my thoughts on the whole Julian Assange story. One part of me loves the anarchic spirit of his leaking all kinds of government secrets, laying them out for all the world to see. And yet another part of me sees him as a brilliant hacker showing off for the world and thumbing his nose at the powerful elite. Those two views are not totally incompatible though. My unease, however, comes with the concept that laying bare all the backroom lies and game playing is somehow necessary for us as a people, and that all forms of secrecy are created equally bad. Is knowing what diplomats say and think of one another something that everyone needs to know, if it hurts the diplomatic process? Is hacking into secret material to expose some morally reprehensible action justifiable at the end of the day?

In an interview with El Pais Assange humbly noted that, “… I believe geopolitics will be separated into pre and post cablegate phases.” Though not a journalist in the classic mode, he has received awards from some very reputable journalistic organizations including the 2009 Media award from Amnesty International, which is intended to “recognize excellence in human rights journalism” and he has been recognized as a journalist by the Centre for Investigative Journalism. The US State Department, however, declared that Assange is not a journalist, and also stated that the US State Department does not regard WikiLeaks as a legitimate media organization. Alex Massie wrote an article in The Spectator called Yes, Julian Assange is a journalist, but acknowledged that “newsman” might be a better description.

Assange himself points out he has been publishing factual material since age 25, and that it is not necessary to debate whether or not he is a journalist. He has stated that his role is “primarily that of a publisher and editor-in-chief who organizes and directs other journalists”. That is indeed a more apt description, or maybe Info Aggregator, or perhaps Secrets Clearinghouse Manager. But then journalism and what a journalist is has really changed in this computer age. Many people get most of their information from the internet, without filter or with their own particularly chosen filter and the writer/journalist is becoming less prominent in the process. Raw information without context passes for journalism. But even with Wikileaks, there is a choice at some point by someone (Assange?) to leak particular information. By his own admission, they have millions of documents. So there is indeed a subjectivity or agenda about what is being fed to the public. Why do we need to know that Qadaffi travels with his hooker nurse? If this tidbit had not been on the “to-leak” list, what might have been in its place?

To some he is Robin Hood; to others the AntiChrist. A quick look at the blogs turns up conspiracy theorists on both sides. He is either a plant from the hard left or he will be killed any day now by the CIA. And those who love and hate him are sometimes surprising. Michael Reagan is hoping they hang him, but Ron Paul is defending him: “In a society where truth becomes treason, then we’re in big trouble. And now, people who are revealing the truth are getting into trouble for it.” The people who were aghast at the outing of Valerie Plame are calling for his canonization, and those on the right are shocked and horrified. He’s been on the run in hiding. But he has kept popping up in interviews around the world. Now he has been jailed in England and will almost certainly be extradited to Sweden on some sort of sex crime charge. People are lined up on the guilty/not guilty sides that fit with their assessments of his goodness to the world. And meanwhile, his hacker acolytes are wreaking havoc in the cyberworld.

I always want to know what motivates people like Assange to do big things like this. And a quick read of his childhood story points to this theatrical life on the run being familiar.

Assange was born in Townsville, Queensland, and spent much of his youth living on Magnetic Island (love that name!) Assange’s parents ran a touring theatre company. In 1979, his mother, Christine, remarried …The couple had a son, but broke up in 1982 and engaged in a custody struggle for Assange’s half-brother. His mother then took both children into hiding for the next five years. Assange moved several dozen times during his childhood, attending many schools, sometimes being home schooled, and later attending several universities at various times in Australia.

The word of the moment is transparency. The thought is that the more transparent things are, the better. Our politicians on both sides of the aisle talk about it, but rarely really embrace the concept. They trot it out when they want to tarnish the other side. “What we need is transparency.” But would things really work out perfectly if we were in on all of what was going on in government? Could they actually function if that happened? If we knew how they wheeled and dealt with one another to get to the final bill, would it matter, if we liked the final bill? It is a big puzzle, and for me the final decision of whether Wikileaks and Assange as the face of it are good or bad in total is still up in the air. Openness is definitely great, but does airing every secret and every diplomatic email make us better if we still only see the bits and pieces that make up the story we want to believe? I’m afraid that the more you leak, the tighter the secrets are held.

Does Assange come from a place of philanthropy or of egotism or a combination of both? Could it be he really believes that in the absence of secrecy, the world and the evil governments (and corporations that run them) would be forced to act in the best interest of the people? Okay, I’m warming to it. (And I’m really hoping that the next leaks are about the intersection of corporations and world governments.)

Assange explains his motivations here in his pretty low-key TED interview:

Interestingly, in the middle of more conspiracy theories than any other person alive, Assange has a rational take:

When asked about whether he believes in conspiracy theories, Assange said, “I believe in facts about conspiracies. Any time people with power plan in secret, they are conducting a conspiracy. So there are conspiracies everywhere. There are also crazed conspiracy theories. It’s important not to confuse these two. Generally, when there’s enough facts about a conspiracy we simply call this news.”

To view the above full sized click here.

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Losing It

What are we losing with this great rush to embrace new technologies?

My Mom is moving and downsizing, so she wanted to get rid of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was the 1977 edition and took up more than 4 feet of bookshelf space. And you can get it online now, or so they say. But it started me thinking about how we look at books as opposed to the way we get our information from the internet. I was one of those kids who loved to flip through the old encyclopedia, the really old one we had from the 1890s, and discover things. An illustration or a word would jump out at me and I would devour the contents before moving on. In our modern mode, we know what we are looking for and mostly limit ourselves to whatever Google tells us is the most important. Those pages before and after don’t even enter our view. Those happy accidental discoveries are sadly MIA.

And the ways we acquire our knowledge base must have changed as well. When I was in college, a day in the library, searching through journals for relevant articles, or reading through parts of non-relevant information to get to the parts I need surely left me with more bits of data rattling around in my heads that might someday bump up against each other and produce that great idea. (Yes, I am still waiting, but nonetheless.)

Smart Phones and texting are also taking away something. This instant gratification, not letting ideas ferment, percolate, leads to unformed decision making. Studies have shown that sleeping on it is indeed helpful in working out solutions to complex problems, but attention spans across the board have been cut down by the endless streams of our sound-bite, Tweeted lives. And it extends to the TV news cycle. How many stories have been rushed to the air (or blogosphere) before they were fact checked, only to create a feeding frenzy of pointed fingers after the truth comes out? What is gained and what is lost when truth takes a back seat to knee-jerk?

I have a saying for what a lot of people need to do these days when faced with something that may need to be slept on; “Take a deep breath and think of hot chocolate.”

Since the beginning of time, new technologies have come and things have been shaken up. People have embraced many for good reason, but some have been used badly. I think of radiation. After Marie Curie made her discovery, people were off and running using radium and x-rays all over the place. Sure x-rays saved some lives, but by speeding their use into practice, untold thousands of people died of radiation poisoning or cancers from their use. Radium dial painters, see-your-feet machines in shoe stores, even x-ray as entertainment were some of the many fatal mistakes that were made is the rush to exploit the new technology. And today we are into knee-jerk airport security and are switching over to x-raying people again, because “we have the technology.”

Another of the new technologies that I see taking rather than giving is GPS. Sure, for the seriously directionally challenged it is a big help. I have a niece who could not find her way to the school she attended for a year. But for many people, it means not paying attention, giving the responsibility of knowing where one is over to a gadget. And it is not always correct. Here again, by using a tech tool, the beauty of wandering and discovering something off the path is taken away. Not to mention knowing how to read a map. Will the next generation be unable to get from here to there without their GPS? Not to mention that, looking at a map, you might discover something interesting between here and there that the machine won’t point out.

I don’t want to come off as a Luddite. I was an early adopter of many of the last couple of decades’ biggest hits — the laptop, the iPod — but I am not sure that machines are not going to take over the world because people are giving up their brains to them. And I am not alone in this thought.

John Markoff writes in a N Y Times Article titled Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man:

The idea of an “intelligence explosion” in which smart machines would design even more intelligent machines was proposed by the mathematician I. J. Good in 1965. Later, in lectures and science fiction novels, the computer scientist Vernor Vinge popularized the notion of a moment when humans will create smarter-than-human machines, causing such rapid change that the “human era will be ended.” He called this shift the Singularity.

This vision, embraced in movies and literature, is seen as plausible and unnerving by some scientists like William Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Other technologists, notably Raymond Kurzweil, have extolled the coming of ultrasmart machines, saying they will offer huge advances in life extension and wealth creation.

“Something new has taken place in the past five to eight years,” Dr. Horvitz said. “Technologists are providing almost religious visions, and their ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture.”

It is the end of the world as we know it. Not sure how I feel about that.

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Happy 2010! Now what?

The world is at such a volatile place right now that nothing that may happen could really surprise me. In my mail box since the turn of the decade are a slew of newsletters predicting one thing or another, various wishes for a better future and a lot of craziness. Here are just a few tidbits:

From my newest newsletter writers over at Guns & Patriots comes the following, penned by Susan Dale whose expertise seems to come from being a “former George Washington historic interpreter” :

One would think that dignity is an easily understood concept, an equally easily understood word, and to retain one’s dignity an easy thing to do, as it is a self-determined activity.

Will someone please explain this to our fearless, Ivy League over-educated, leader?

She goes on to list the many instances where she sees Obama being less than dignified, including trying to get the Olympics for Chicago, giving the Queen of England an iPod, and ignoring an invitation to dinner with the president of France. (Yes, the very same people who were pushing Freedom Fries and pouring out French wine are now dissing the President because he bowed out on dinner with the French.) She goes on to say:

Since there are more of us than there are of them, every once in a while they have to pay lip service to the fact of America’s greatness.

Okay, the us and them. The us is patriots and the them is Obama and all of us on the left. She seems unaware that the majority voted for him for president. She goes on to list all the other things he has done like the “czars”, that bogeyman that the right has invented of late to scare the B-Jesus out of their flock complete with the talking points given out by Rush or Glenn or whoever.

This group consists, of: let’s see, we have the charming Chavez admiring FCC czar, Mark Lloyd; the lovely self-proclaimed activist pederast, Kevin Jennings, as our ‘safe schools’ czar; John Holdren, our brilliant science czar, who is an able advocate of forced abortions and sterilization of women (as the great Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up), and so many more of the like that it stuns the 21st Century mind, much less that of George Washington.

Full text is here, but suffice it to say, she can find nothing in the present administration but treasonous villainy and most of the comments are right there with her with their guns and ammo at the ready.

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Then from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous I read in The Guardian this headline:

According to the article:

Writing in the New York Press, Armond White claimed Avatar “misrepresents the facts of militarism, capitalism and imperialism” and described it as “a guilt-ridden 9/11 death wish”. This view is echoed by John Nolte on his Big Hollywood blog, who dubbed it “a Death Wish for leftists; a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy”.

I am not a fan of the movie. I saw it in 3D even and I think it has a very weak script, but this makes me want to see it again just because I can. 😉 My review is here.

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Then finally coming from The Omega Institute, a new age clearinghouse for all things groovy came this:

In 2010, the energy of the planets will accelerate, with some of the most energetically packed planets aligning with the cardinal points Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn. The last time we experienced anything vaguely resembling this was the summer of 1969: Woodstock, the moon landing, and much else changing not just the world, but our cosmology. The coming year will make the 1960s look like a walk in the park. Our survival is at stake, and we need a creative approach to facing our personal challenges and those of humanity in order to make the world a better place.

So 2010 will be like the end of the sixties? I do think we’re in for a lot of upheaval. The right is on the war path and the left may just get some gumption at last, so anything could happen. Stay tuned. (And have that exit visa ready.)

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Popular Delusions

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one!”

screen-capture-21Many years ago I bought a book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Written in 1841 by Charles Mackay, it examines times throughout history where large groups of people have been led to believe in falsehoods and what has been the fallout of those beliefs. I have thought of this book many times recently when reading about the financial follies of Wall Street and Madoff’s scheme. What caused so many smart people to “believe” that things were working just fine? From the book, it is clear that people are easily led to believe in schemes that promise them wealth even when on the face of it, it makes no sense.

In the 17th century, wealthy Europeans were throwing their fortunes into tulip bulbs only to lose bundles when the prices fell to rational levels! In the 18th century, the South Sea bubble was more like our current mess though. But at after it all fell apart, at least “the estates of the directors of the company were confiscated and used to relieve the suffering of the victims.” I am appalled that the CEOs, CFOs, and others who were at the helm when everything fell apart are still getting their huge salaries and even bemoaning the losses of their bonuses. Why can’t we take their estates and spread it around for the victims.

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Dollar a year Men

united_states_one_dollar_bill_obverseWhere are the captains of industry when we need them? There is precedent for business experts actually coming to the service of their country when we find ourselves in dire straights. And we are in a real crisis now, are we not?

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the moral fervor of the American commitment, inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s ringing call for a “war to end all wars,” motivated a large number of prominent merchants, manufacturers, bankers, professional men, and others to enter the service of the government as executives in departments in which they were expert. For their service they accepted only a token salary of one dollar per year, plus their necessary expenses. These federal appointees, and others who later followed their example, served primarily in times of national emergency, such as during the world wars.

Couldn’t some of our millionaire citizens come to the aid of their country now? Could we ask all the heads of companies we bail out to take $1 a year until they get back on track? Are there no decent rich people out there? How many millions does any one person need?

Iacocca did it in 1980. Would the CEO’s of the big three do it?

In 1979, a dollar at Chrysler was worth, well, a dollar. But on Jan. 7, 1980, that buck turned into $3.5 billion. Chrysler borrowed $1.2 billion by 1981, a year in which it cut losses to $500 million, from $1.7 billion in 1980. By 1983, the company paid back the loans years in advance and made $500 million.

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Where we are today

The economy is going down fast and still McCain is confused about what to do or what it all means.  He spouts platitudes and nonsense and is trying his hardest to explain how he could be saying “the fundamentals of the economy are sound.”  But is anyone listening to what is coming out of his mouth?  Will the dire situation actually change the race?  The Wall Street Journal last week said that Obama’s plan for the economy made a lot more sense than McCain’s, but did I hear anything about that in the past few days?  No.  Not a word from the “liberal media”  or the Obama campaign.

Last week in the NY Times one of the bloggers referred to an article about why people vote one way or the other. The upshot is that Republicans can somehow understand how Democrats think, but Democrats cannot get inside the heads of Republicans.  I know I have said many times “I don’t get how they can say that.”   “Do they really believe that?”  Apparently, Republicans know just how I feel and they are laughing, knowing that the more they do the angrier we get.

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