Tag Archives: modern life

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?

About Me (2012)

Note: this is the latest text for my About page.

When it comes to things I do, I write fiction and am a musician and beginning composer, among other things.

My general interests in no particular order are:

  • myth and folklore;
  • writing and storytelling;
  • health and medicine (both physical and mental);
  • thinking, organizing information, and making connections between ideas.

I avoid taking on new hobbies whenever possible.

The limit, you see, is time and energy.  I’ve been an English major, pre-med with emphasis on neurobiology, a middle school science teacher, a programmer.  They’re all interests of mine that I would pursue if only I had the time.  But there are (at minimum) two true things about the world and life in it:

* We have to make decisions
* Life and time will move on whether we make decisions or not

I can either float along, paralyzed with indecision and a fear of deciding, thus accepting by default whatever comes my way and kicks down the door, or I can make the effort to pursue something more.  Greatness and happiness are not passive affairs.

In the past, I wondered and worried about making the “right” decision, but now that I’m on the other side of about ten years of worry, I don’t think there’s a right decision at all.  Instead, what I’m left with is the responsibility to choose what I feel is best for me right now.

I’m working on accepting that I’m not limited to doing one thing ad nauseum for the rest of my life.  Not only is the workplace changing and people are turning over through companies and careers at an ever-increasing pace, but I’ve found that the “one thing” approach isn’t a fit for my personality.  The core of this new idea is that I can devote time to a passion, and then move on to another passion, without feeling like I can’t commit to anything or have failed or “wasn’t serious”.  Or I can work on two or more things simultaneously, and, given enough work, reach a level of happiness in each.

In this new world of mine, there is no more guilt about not sticking with something or “killing my darlings”, said darlings being all those projects I want to do, things I want to learn, and careers I want to pursue that will suffer when my attention turns elsewhere.  Moving in a new direction does not mean I don’t care about what has come before or that I can never return to it.  After all, each “right thing” felt like the right one at the time, and each contributes to “me” as a whole and hopefully helps me become a better person along the way.

When I started this blog, I intended on writing a new “about” page for each new year–and fell short of my goal in spectacular fashion.  This update is another attempt to start a habit that I tried to form a few years ago.

When I wrote my update in 2010, I was set in a creative space (as my many updates about writing will attest).  2012 will be a year of change and new directions.  I’m still working on what that “right for me right now” decision will be and where it will take me.

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.

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.