This is what I have been up to lately. And why I am tired in a really good way.
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.
There is currently a young woman tweeting up a storm that she was friends with him and last time she spoke with him, (a few years I think) he was a “lefty.” Please let that not be true. Jeez, what if it was one of the many totally pissed off progressives? Not likely given his talk about gold standards and such, but then how important is it really to the whole discussion to put him in a political slot?We would all like to apportion blame. Could it be the Beck/Limbaugh/P***n hate spewing influence? That seems like the easiest explanation, though I fear it may be much more complex and dealing with it should be priority number one for Congress. But I am sure the finger pointing, political points counting and grand gesturing will stop them from confronting a growing risk to everyone from the deep divides in the country.
The other issue that must be faced is that this may just be one deeply disturbed man who should have gotten mental health help, but our country is not set up for that. And so the irony is, he shot a Congresswoman who has been fighting for health care for all, including the kind he needs the most.
If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities. — Voltaire
I realized last night at a party the I have entirely shifted my Sarah Palin obsession to Julian Assange. For two years, she’s been sucking me into reading useless news stories. What astounding idiotic item would pop up about her next? What didn’t I know about the Palins’ train wreck? And even though my expectations were low, my heart-rate would definitely rise with just the thought of She Who Must Not Be Named. But then, fair haired Julian appeared on the scene and that changed my tune to the opposite end of the dial. There is talk that the whole Assange thing is itself a massive international conspiracy. But, so what if they are pushing him and his story into our consciousness for a reason? All I can say is, “Thank you, Big Brother.”
So it’s “choose your extreme personality obsession” time. She is extremely aggravating, more than annoying, blood pressure endangering and mostly just stupid. He is a bit creepy, more than a bit egotistic, but entirely brilliant and maybe fascinating. If I had to choose a personality type to follow, for my health, I think choosing the smart one makes more sense. Curiosity beats the hell out of indignation any day.
My new year’s resolution is to never speak the name P***n again. We on the left who cannot fathom her have kept her in the news, and it is time to let She Who Must Not Be Named fade to dust.
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.”
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.
Last year my brother gave me a bike. It sat for a year in my entrance hall, used now and again as a coat rack, until spring cleaning took hold of me last month and I took it in for a tune up. Then it languished again waiting for its inaugural ride for a month. Every time I passed it, I made a mental excuse for not getting on. But the exercise Goddess was not going to let me get by that easily. My season pass for the Biltmore Estate was up for renewal and they made a note on the email about getting the upgrade to their Explore Biltmore Pass — just another 20 bucks for “access to estate bicycle trails at no additional cost.” So when my new pass came in the mail, the guilt began to build. And today I finally succumbed.
First thing this morning I loaded up and headed over. I’ve seen the bike paths on the side of the road on the estate for a long time and always planned to take advantage of them “someday.” Now, I have not really been biking for a number of years (and that number is in the double digits.) Just riding back from the bike repair shop to my house nearly killed me. (There was a hill.) I knew that most of what I’d seen from the road was pretty flat, so I was only a bit worried. What else was there that I couldn’t see? Undaunted by those fears, I helmeted up and mounted my bike and before I knew it was feeling “Born to be Wild,” the wind rushing through my hair, free and cool. Out on the path, it was glorious. Big fields spread out before me. The French Broad River ran by to my right. Sometimes the path was beside the main road, but for much of it, the trail took me through the trees. No traffic, though I did run into a couple of other bikes, the occasional horse, a hiker and a fleet of Segways.
It was hot today, muggy, but flying down hills, through shady groves by the river, you’d never know it. I was riding on cool air. But then, coming out of the trees, the path headed uphill, really uphill, and suddenly I had two problems. First, I forgot how to use the gears to make it easier. And second, I had no idea where the path would go. So I turned around and headed back to Antler Hill Village where I’d parked and the Bike Barn where they have maps and people who know this place. On the way, I passed the Lagoon where the resident geese were terribly busy corralling their adorable herd of goslings. It was a great ride for the first time out.
The Biltmore Estate has changed immensely since I was a child. Then, there was just The House surrounded by a lot of beautifully landscaped grounds. Now, there is an inn, a winery, various restaurants, and since last month, Antler Hill Village, a grouping of bistros and shops. I wonder what George Vanderbilt would think. He wanted his estate to be self-sufficient, a feudal fiefdom and it seems to be turning into a Disneyeque park. Nevertheless, it is the best place in town to bike.
So I have a map and I will return. There are a lot more trails to explore. I just need to figure out that gear thing and I’ll be a biking rock star! Now when I pass my bike as I come and go, I have no excuses. And I do have a coat rack.