Tag Archives: culture

The Evolution of the Bit

What would the reaction be like if we could go back in time to the 50s to tell computer researchers that, yes, not only do we have more powerful computers than anything they could imagine–and we carry them around in our pockets–but that we spend the majority of our usage talking to one another in little text chunks and playing games.  Seeing as our phones are likely orders of magnitude more advanced than what folks in the 60s used to ship people to the moon, it only makes sense that the main usage for our iPhones and Androids is to hurl little aviary missiles at the digital equivalent of Lincoln Logs.

Would it blow their minds to learn of the vast server farms that we run or the coverage of 3g connectivity? Wireless Xbox controllers?  Accelerometers in Wiimotes? The consumer-available motion capture technology in the Xbox Kinect? Could they even imagine the flood of cheap processing, memory and storage that made all of this possible? Would they understand how much we rely on it?  Hell, I haven’t used a phone book in at least a decade. Imagine all this from the perspective of a time when computers were the size of a small house and processing the motion of a peripheral to update a mouse cursor on a display would have been too much computational overhead. A “waste of cycles.”

I had an electronics teacher who, in addition to working in the industry, also worked for a while at NASA, teaching radar to astronauts. One day, he told the class about a day in the lab where everyone gathered around a display and watched as one letter at a time blipped up on the screen in slow succession; someone was sending them a message from a remote location.  It was the first time anyone in the room had ever seen anything like it.

Despite being raised on technology (my parents joke that I was born with a Nintendo controller in my hand), four areas of computation still amaze me:

  • Touch screens: Until we get implants and equal rights for cyborgs, there’s not much we can do to remove the barriers between computers and humans, but this was huge.  Touching things is just human nature.
  • Speech recognition: This one goes both ways, text -> speech and speech -> text. Another barrier knocked over, one that makes computers more like us, and is only in its infancy.  If I could go back in time, computational linguistics would be a fascinating career choice.
  • Drivers, hardware / software interaction: despite my years as a computer user and programmer, somehow it still twiddles my mind that on some fundamental level, these 1s and 0s interact with physical things.
  • Virtualization: The guys in 1950s lab coats were so proud of their room-sized computers.  Imagine their faces when we tell them, “Oh yeah?  Well, we have computers that run entirely inside of other computers,” like some kind of binary turducken.

Where do we go from here?  Is there a limit to Moore’s Law? If we look at what has happened in the last fifty years, can we even predict what our digital lives will be like in another fifty?  Or even another ten?  We’ve come a long way from the period I call, “Geocities, 1999,” where the only dynamic content was the animated GIFs we all loved, then hated, and now love again, thanks to Tumblr.

In Their Natural Habitat

After a day of open-mall shopping, my girlfriend and I returned to our vehicle in the parking lot, behind which was a gaggle of seagulls embroiled in a noisy grand melee over a paper bag full of discarded food.

“Seagulls in their natural habitat,” she noted.

Seagulls in their natural habitat.  on Twitpic

In further conversation, we agreed that they probably couldn’t catch a fish if their life depended on it, seeing as–thanks to human influence–the diet of an average seagull now consists of equal parts french fries and cheesy puffs.

The manner in which I spent the day made me think deeper on what I was seeing.  Despite the ability of humans to change our habits and our lifestyles, we’ve done ourselves no favors: are we so different from seagulls, given our fluttering about, loud complaining about anything and everything, and our focus on getting our share of the fries?

On Shaving (LIKE A MAN)

There’s some deep part of my psyche/DNA/gooey insides that tells me nothing is more manly than scraping my face with bare, sharpened steel.  Perhaps unfortunately, the rest of me agreed–or was too wussy to fight that other part for fear of getting clobbered.

At any rate, that led to me researching straight razors about a year ago, which then got put off, and has culminated so far in my buying a Dovo shavette, which is basically a plastic handle that houses disposable straight blades.

So far, no portions of my face have gone missing.  But shaving with a straight razor is difficult at first.

It requires learning a new skill.  And using said razor in my left hand. I have to remember that I have roughly 15 years of shaving experience with a normal razor.  Combined with a normal safety razor requiring nothing in the way of skill, it’s no surprise that shaving with a straight razor has required some adjustments.  Much like when I started shaving my head, it’ll take time to become proficient and not feel like I’m liable to lop something off at any given moment.  By now, shaving my head is routine, and so I hope that, with practice, a straight razor will be, too.

Part of the appeal was to try to reduce the amount of waste I’m producing.  I feel guilty every time I toss away a used cartridge and pop in a new one.  Granted, my current razor uses disposable blades, as well (no plastic), but I bought it as sort of a trial run before I spend $200 or more on a more permanent razor.

Another part is to hopefully get a better shave.  Often it looks like I haven’t shaved even when I just finished shaving, and my skin gets too irritated if I try to make multiple passes. So hopefully once my skills are up to speed, the quality of the shave I get will go up as well.

A big reason to switch, too, is purely for the sense of doing something “the old way” and trying something new.  We didn’t always have these cartridges-on-a-stick.  Used to be, men (MANLY MEN?) would strop and hone a metal blade and then rub it on their face.  Or else have a barber do it for them.  Only in recent times have companies tried to sell us better and better solutions for doing the things we’ve always done.

Are safety razors easy?  For sure.  After shaving with a straight razor, I have a whole new appreciation for how easy they make the process.

But easy can be bad.  Easy means I don’t have to pay attention.  I’ve come to resent the act of shaving, which seems a crime.  It’s one of the few ritual acts men have that, to me, carries some sense of history and propriety.  Shaving with a straight razor also requires that I pay attention to what I’m doing. I can’t space out and think about other things, or I’ll cut myself.  And those things are sharp.

There’s another part of me, one that’s zen-like, I suppose, that finds the idea of being present and paying attention to the current moment rather fulfilling.  And I’d rather not hate something I need to do every day.  The manly thing is mostly in jest.  It’s possible that I’ll go back to a safety razor.  We’ll see.  At least I’ll have tried.  If I can turn around how I feel about  shaving by changing the tools I use, so much the better.

In the meantime, my pride leaks out in tiny red rivulets accompanied by stinging and swear words, but perhaps I’ll appreciate the process even more once I get the hang of it.

On The Fate of Paper Stories

Readers are passionate people who care about what they love. As such, the proliferation of ebook readers and ebooks has stirred up the readership side of the publishing industry as well.  People seem fairly divided along the spectrum: some have adopted ebooks whole-heartedly, others mix them in, and still others have drawn a line.  With the latter, the implication is that you can have their paperware books when you pry them from their cold, dead hands.

But what these people I think are missing–and like I’ve explained to people who have asked me about my Kindle and what I think of it–is that paper isn’t going anywhere. For some books, I read them and forget them, and they stay on my shelf, sometimes shoved into the back or with other, newer books stacked on top of them.  These are the books that I can’t remember when I read it last, only somewhat remember what the story was about, and can’t see myself reading again any time soon.  This is one of the sweet spots for ebooks: the joy of reading it, immediately and at hopefully lower cost (here’s looking at you, publishing industry), and then it doesn’t clog up your shelves.

Then there are the books that I remember very well:  those old friends who I’ve read time and time again.  These are the books that ebooks will never replace, the ones with dog-ears, underlined passages, scuffs and scrapes, and so on, memories of buying it in high school or as a gift from a college romance, books where I’ve taped up the spines just in hopes that they’ll last longer.

As the future grinds on, bookshelves will become a showcase.  Not like the ones like Michael Nye mentions (bookshelves for show, to project a cultivated image), but rather an honest showcase of the stories and authors we hold most dear.  Our homes are full of the things that matter to us and the space we give to our books no less so.  The same drive that motivates readers to drive hours to visit an author signing or to locate and buy an old first-edition copy is the same drive that will ensure the acquisition of a paper copy of our favorites.  I have books that I would never consider an ebook copy “enough” and will always keep a paper copy.  There will always be a market for these paper stories, and where there’s a market, there’s a profit to be made and a company to fill it.  Papers books might just be tomorrow’s collector’s edition.

After all, I don’t own every single movie I’ve ever watched.  But I do own a copy of my favorites.

Thankfulness and Expectations

Note: Norton’s Ghost is the Book of the Day over at http://www.kindleboards.com.  I wrote this entry as a little tidbit for the forum and am reposting it here.

I’ve had people ask me if the story of Norton’s Ghost is autobiographical.  I like to think that this means I got something right in the telling of it.

Beyond the usual “there’s a little bit of the writer in every part of the story,” it’s completely fiction.  I’ve never hitchhiked through California, have never experienced homelessness, am thankful to still have my father, and though I did leave school a few times, it wasn’t so that I could go gallivanting around.

At times, I wish it had been.

In a way, the telling of Kyle Dearmond’s story in Norton’s Ghost was a way of doing what I myself couldn’t:  cut loose.  Stop doing things just because it’s supposed to be a good idea to do them.

It’s often said that authors themselves don’t know the ending to their book until it spills out onto the page.  Oh, sure, sometimes we have an idea how we would like it to end, but seldom do our inspirations and characters march lockstep with our idea of what the story should be.

Kyle Dearmond set out to get away from what was expected of him and to find his own way.  I myself felt the pull of the expected as I wrote the story.  “You’re dumb for doing that,” I told him.  “That’s nuts.  Go back to school, get a job, buy a house.”

In all:  “Be like one of us.”

He refused.  In part, he was running from the things he couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with, but I can’t say I blame him for that.  And so I wrote, all the while wondering myself whether he would come out okay in the end.  As the author, my job was to tell the story–not to help the character along to a happy ending.

Today is the day after Thanksgiving.  Most of us are probably still full from yesterday (oh, but those leftover potatoes in the fridge still call to us, yes they do) and we’ve spent time with family and food and reflected on what we’re thankful for.  We sometimes forget these things during the rest of the year, when the roller coaster of life sends us thundering down the slope or rocks us around a hairpin turn.

But in the end, when the time comes, we remember.

For Kyle Dearmond, Norton’s Ghost is a crucible, a stripping away of expectations and an attempt to step off the roller coaster for a while so he can figure out what really matters–and to have the memories and experiences to properly treasure it.

Little does he know that he steps out of one roller coaster and onto another.

Such is the way of stories.