Tuesday, December 26, 2006

In Withdrawal...

I've been on traveling for almost two weeks now, and a good portion of that time I haven't had Internet access available to me on the 24-7 basis I'm accustomed to. I knew I was used to using it, but I never realized quite how many of my daily and monthly errands required extensive use of the Internet. I pay bills online. I've been finishing up grad applications, and many of those have online components which take a lot of time to fill out.

On the more communications-connected front, I've missed having email and IM as an alternative to the phone for contacting some friends. Not to mention the blog-reading I'm behind on.

I suppose it's not that surprising--and even a bit healthy--that I'm a bit out of touch while on vacation visiting others. And realistically, it hasn't been terribly hard to get to places with wireless for a few minutes now and then. But it's certain that I've learned to appreciate once again my full-time Internet at home.

And on the creativity front, I find it interesting how hard it is to do, not the writing itself, but the pitching and printing of the writing without easy access to the usual tools--the Internet and a printer. It's one thing to compose without these things, but it's hard to research markets and send stuff out without them.

Now that I've had a few days with Internet, I'll be back to another week of spotty access before I get back to my standard way of life. And it seems that the potential portability of our errands nowadays, while nice, has a few potential downsides to it. But that's okay--most of my key online errands have been completed now, so all will be well.

It's been nice to get away a bit, but it's usually also nice to get back by the end. That great truth of traveling hasn't changed much with the advent of technology. It just has a technology-related twist to it at times now.

Observation Doesn't Quite Fit Either Hype...

So a few weeks ago I was walking from security to my gate in the Richmond, Virginia airport. As I did, I thought about how different the communication patterns in airports are now from ten years ago. Many more people talking on cell phones. Many more people (I was one of them) listening to iPods. People with laptops.

A critic of technology, I realized, might point out those things in the airport and say they were overly-virtualizing communication. That they were keeping from talking to each other face-to-face. Living in virtual worlds instead of the real world.

But then again, there were still lots of people reading books. Talking to people they were traveling with. But my favorite sight--one that made me smile--was two people who didn't look like they knew each other, yet were talking to each other. Why? It seemed--from a glance, at least--that the reason they had connected was because of the electrical outlets their laptops were plugged into.

It's true that communications media has changed the world to a certain degree. And it's probably unhealthily virtualized some of our relationships. But it's delightful to think that it's unexpectedly also forged face-to-face conversations between strangers.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The GRE, the Postal Service, and Internet Study Guides

So I came home the other day and there in my real live mailbox (not the virtual one) there was an envelope from ETS, the organization that manages the GREs. Now, seeing as how I didn't need to take the GRE to get into this MA program, I just took the GRE Subject Test in Literature on November 4. So when I saw the return address, I thought, "Wow! I thought the scores were supposed to take four to six weeks! That's really quick!" (I really was thinking in exclamation points.)

But then--alas--I looked down further on the envelope, and saw the label, which included the words "Practice Test." And I harrumphed. (I'm not sure when the last time is that I actually harrumphed, but I did. Honest.) You see, this was neither my scores nor my practice test for my upcoming General Test--the packaging made it clear that it was the practice test that was supposed to arrive before I took the Subject Test on November 4.

So I'm now expecting my Subject Test scores to arrive by mail sometime after I hear back from most of the programs I'm applying to. The expectations have officially been lowered. Silly paper-based tests. Silly Canadian-American postal service seeming-lack-of-cooperation.

Of course, other than it being a predictor of future mailings, getting the practice tests late wasn't actually that big a deal, thanks to the Internet. I had downloaded and printed a practice test months ago (not that I actually looked at it until a week before). And I found all sorts of helpful study guides online (especially Vade Mecum and Hapax Legomena). And I raided the Cole's Notes- and Cliff's Notes-like sites for lots of superficial information about a lot of authors and works (I find it ironic that all those sites I've been warning undergraduates away from for the last two years were perfect helps for studying for this test). And I had a book to study from (I looked at that all of two weeks before the test).

So getting the practice test two and a half weeks after the actual test date wasn't a big deal, thanks, in large part, to the Internet. It may not be a "wonder of the world," but it is quite handy at times. Otherwise, I would have been quite annoyed at ETS and/or the postal service.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Internet: A Wonder of the World?

The Web Redefines Reality: I don't know what it is--I'm a big fan of the Web--but whenever I read an article like this one, which proclaims the Internet as one of the wonders of the world, I find myself getting skeptical. It's not that I don't think the Internet hasn't changed our society, our culture, and our sense of the world.

But I suppose I've been behind the scenes too long to be amazed at "the man behind the curtain." Take part in the creation, usability testing, and maintenance of enough websites, it's hard to be in awe of "hyperlinks, routers and fiber-optic cables" that are in constant need of updating and may crash at any time.

And as an academic, it's hard to read a phrase like "It has taken giant steps toward accomplishing one of the goals of the ancients: gathering all the knowledge in the world in one place" without thinking about the huge amount of critical thinking that must be done to discriminate which parts of it are trustworthy.

Yes, the Internet is changing our lives in profound ways. But for one thing, only some of these ways are good. And for another, some of the changes are only faux-changes. Sure the Internet might show us "the interconnectivity of things," but people have been connecting things for a long time. Perhaps, looking at history, I'm not convinced that "the enlightenment of the modern world" will stand up to the test of time. And there are down sides to too much explicit "interconnectivity of things" as well: Information overload. The possibility of increased dependence on connections being made for us instead of finding them for ourselves.

So yeah, I see the point: the Internet is pretty cool. But all earthbound "wonders" have their limitations. As does the rhetoric praising the things deemed to be wonders.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"What Is the Technology For?"

"Researchers have...found that a distraction such as your cell phone ringing, has a greater impact on your concentration than smoking some marijuana.

"'Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them,' philosopher North Whitehead noted in 1911. Technology should automate the mundane--the trivial truths--so that we have more time to think about great truths.

"If technology is not making our lives more convenient, and giving us more time to think, then we need to question: What is the technology for?

--Gerry McGovern, "Managing in a Technology-Driven World"

Thought this quote was an interesting one, though my thoughts aren't wholly developed about it.

I'm not sure what I think about the statement about cell phones and marijuana... After all, cell phones can build community, and I'm not sure the idea of an attention span should be utterly sancrosanct--it is often some of the "distractions" from what we think of as our "real work" that enrich and deepen our lives the most, even if they make it difficult to concentrate at times.

Then again, there are limits to the stretching of our attention spans, and McGovern makes a good point about taking time to think about what we're using the technology for. I've often thought that our society has made an awful waste of the time we save by technology--all we've done is crammed more productivity into that extra time instead of using it to do things better (and also to do better things) during that time.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Technological Effects on Thinking: Then and Now

In pages 16-18 of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book God: A Biography, literary critic Jack Miles contends that Christians thought of their biblical canon differently because they used a different (at the time newer) technological form: the codex, or bound book, instead of the scroll.

He claims that Christians were more likely to think of their biblical canon, as they compiled it, as being small chapters of a larger work because of the package they were using to put it into, while the Jews, still using individual scrolls, were more likely to think of, say, "Genesis," as an individual book as well as part of the overall Scriptural canon. The difference, he thinks, is the technological container--one which the Hebrews moved to later, but stayed away from for longer.

This contention is a fascinating one. Because of its implications for the Hebrew and Christian understandings of books and Books. And because of its implications for the thoughts it spurs about how new written media "containers" newly available to us--e.g., the Internet, the word processing program, instant messaging, email, etc.--may be changing our thinking about how to put together written works today. My thoughts on the present-day changes are as yet amorphous, but it's a fascinating comparison.

By the way, this book (God: A Biography) looks like a fascinating one so far: it looks at the character of God in the Hebrew Bible from, not a theological or historical perspective, but from a literary "close reading" perspective. Miles studies God as a complicated character in a literary work who many, many people in the Western world have sought to emulate over the last couple thousand years.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Effects of Technology on the Novel

The Novel, 2.0: This fascinating article in Slate has so many interesting facets that it's hard to know what to respond to. I agree with the authors that technology is bound to change the face of the novel, but I'm not entirely sure how. Seeing as how bound book sales keep going up and up, though, I disagree that the novel is moving online any time soon (I've said since the advent of ebooks that until there's a really good reader with a readable screen, I doubt that online books will take off for anything but research and reference purposes--and even once that happens, there will always be adherents to paper).

I do agree that the web and other technology is changing both the way we do things and our attention spans, and I think that will affect some novel-writing and novel-reading (for instance, I think that the current popularity of mystery narratives comes in part out of our fascination with the detective-like quality to finding facts online). But on the whole, I think that people still long for the continuity and resolution provided by a narrative structure in an increasingly fragmented and information-overloaded world, so I don't see the traditionally-plotted novel as going away for quite some time.

As an editor of an online literary journal which encourages creative submissions that use the possibilities inherent in the online form--and having myself written a short online novel at one point (nothing could induce me to tell you the pseudonym under which I wrote it)--the most intriguing part of the article to me is the opportunities offered by the online form, as listed on page 5 of the article. I certainly experienced the workshop-like quality he mentions while I was writing my serialized story, and the impressionistic linking he suggests fascinates me as a creative concept. From now on, I'm determined to use such types of linking every so often in this blog, if only to stimulate my sense of creativity and wordplay.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Two Views on the Value of Web Publishing

I find it fascinating that both of these articles have crossed the threshold of my inbox (if, indeed, an inbox can be said to have a threshold) in the last week, because they represent two very different views of the value of and possible reasons for web publishing.

Web journals threaten peer-review system: In this USAToday article, the academic debate about web publishing--in which there is mostly a negative view of the web--is showcased. The concern here seems to be that research be rigorously vetted before it goes public so that people don't act on faulty information.

Get published to get ahead: In Gerry McGovern's latest article on web content he advocates using the web, which he says is "becoming the global memory," to publish your ideas on things, to raise your status. Interestingly enough, he uses the academic "publish-or-perish" idea as a backbone to encourage the broader public to publish their ideas on the web to become known there--clearly a more positive view of web publishing than exists in many parts of academia.

Clearly Gerry McGovern (who is a highly-regarded voice on web content) is encouraging a different type of--and reason for--web publication than those who disagree with the lack of peer review on online academic journals. And I'm not sure where I fall on the debate--I suppose I agree with elements of both sides.

The crux of the question seems to be about trust in the quality of content based on editorial process or lack thereof. And it's fair to say that editorial processes which use experts to filter out shoddy work are still important in today's society--in some ways more important than ever in a world where information overload is so often king. And it's also true that people also do a fair bit of their own filtering of content, whatever they read--the information-literate web visitor today is also fairly used to sorting out whether they trust something themselves, to a certain degree.

And that's more okay with some content than it is with others. More important for some web-publishing venues than others. An email or an IM conversation is different from a blog, which is different from an e-zine, which is different from an online academic journal. As there are is in speech and in print, electronic publishing has many different levels and audiences with unique requirements. And those different levels and audiences often require different levels and kinds of editorial process.

The thing is that this debate has been around, in a slightly different form, since the printing press, if not before. It's definitely not just a web thing, this concern about quality and editorial process. But because it's applied to a relatively-new medium, it seems new. In some ways it is, but in others, it's the same. Having fairly recently come from Gerry McGovern's world into the world of academia, I'm fascinated by it, and look forward to seeing where this print-world debate will go next now that it's being applied to a medium with slightly different possibilities and limitations.

(Naturally, this thoughts-in-process reflection article has only been self-edited before publication on this blog. Please feel free to filter its contents--and the contents of this whole blog--for quality yourself.)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Capturability and Fragility of Today's Conversations

A bit over a year ago, Brenda and I lived across the street from each other. We would go for long walks a lot. And when we went for walks, Brenda was often gracious enough to brainstorm plots and characters for my stories with me.

Now that we live on different continents, we can't go for walks quite as well. Instead we chat on IM a lot. I miss the walks, but at least we can still stay somewhat caught up this way. So today we were chatting and she was gracious enough to brainstorm about the characters of my latest story with me. And I must say that however much I miss the walks and the face-to-face time, it was rather delightful to still get to do that. And it was also delightful to discover how easy it was to highlight the character-related bits of the conversation, copy them, and paste them into my notes for the developing story.

The point of this slightly rambling story is that it's becoming easier and easier for us nowadays to record, reread, reuse, and share info than it ever used to be. And I think this is part of some sort of fundamental shift in our society (though it started around the time people started chiseling things down, it's gotten exponentially faster, easier, more portable, and a greater part of our behavior lately, which is definitely changing things, though I'm not yet sure exactly how). At times (as in the case of my conversation with Brenda), it's quite helpful for creative work as well as other endeavors.

Then again, if you read this article from last week's USA Today (Instant-messaging conversations can easily linger for years...), you'll see that the recordability that was so handy for me today isn't always so nice for senators and others who so easily forget this aspect of today's written media... I was wondering when the courts would catch on to this.

Of course, it's also true that, as the article points out, writing that is easily captured is also quite mutable. And as the article doesn't point out, it is often quite fragile: dependent on quirky hard drives, web servers, etc. for its continued existence. Not to mention the whims of humans who change and/or overwrite their content, both on purpose and accidentally, on an ongoing basis. Which means the capturability only goes so far and we as humans, as well as our innovations, still have quite a few limitations.

That said, I'm pretty darn excited about the character notes.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Free Audiobooks, Here I Come

Librivox.org: So I just found this website, and I'm already planning to be addicted. As a graduate student in English, I spend a lot of time staring at pages, so it's nice to have a break from that occasionally. And my auditory learning ability has increased tremendously over the last year (God bless a graduate school education).

So I'm very excited to see this site. Not only does it mean I can listen to a very nice recording of one of my thesis texts, Walden, on my iPod for free, it also means that someone out there came up with a marvelous idea: having people volunteer to read aloud public-domain literature and upload it so that anyone with Internet access can listen. Among other things, there's a nice collection of children's literature, some of which are hard to find in print or at the library anymore (like some of the Oz tales beyond The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).

So yeah, check it out and spread it around. Volunteer if you can. It sounds like fun.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Not Technological But Social and Cultural"

"The deep and enduring changes of our age are not technological but social and cultural. They are thus harder to see, for they result from the gradual accumulation of small, incremental changes in our day-to-day lives. These changes have been building for decades and are only now coming to the fore."

--Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class

Now since I read this on a "Quote of the Day" email, I'm not entirely sure what Richard Florida went on to say, but I find this quote fascinating and at least partially true. People get so sidetracked by the seeming-newness and the promise of newness that comes with technology at times, to the point where they often either claim it as a savior or blame it for everything. But when you look back in history and story, people are much the same today as they were years and years ago. They might interact a bit differently with each other and with technology--and that's fascinating. But then, so are the continuances.

Take the virtual Chia Pet for an example (see last week's post). I've always been bad at plants, so it makes sense I'd be bad at them online as well.

Or the gym (my most recent post). To be honest, I've always had a bit of trouble getting motivated to exercise when I've been slacking off at it, which is at least part of why I've had trouble staying focused in the gym. Then again, it's easier when I'm chatting with a friend while I exercise, which is hard to do in the gym environment with carefully-spaced treadmills and TVs. Or thinking, which is also difficult. Or listening to my podcasts, which must be blared over the music. So yesterday when I recognized the machines were full I zipped upstairs to the nearly-empty walking/jogging track and had a delightful long walk. And it was still inside, but it was better.

I have no idea what this says about the "deep and enduring changes of our age," but it certainly says that my motivations and difficulties of staying motivated are similar no matter the technology. But it doesn't necessarily follow that culture and society won't gradually be changed, one way or another, by a bunch of people like me enacting these motivations through a variety of kinds of technological or non-technological environments.

That change is hard to see while it's happening, but it's fun to try to capture all the same.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Thoughts from the Gym

So I was at the gym tonight, watching silent close-captioned TV (which definitely changes the experience--you forget how much of TV is auditory till you start going to the gym regularly). I was also listening to the slightly-dull piped-in techno music, but I was missing my iPod, which I'd left at home.

So as I was pounding away at the elliptical machine and the treadmill, trying to keep myself diverted (it's always harder to think the sort of deep thoughts on a treadmill that you would think outside on a walk), I wondered: if your caloric usage is supposed to be lower than your normal levels when you're watching TV, and you're trying to burn as many calories as possible at the gym, is it counter-productive for them to have TVs at the gym? Or is the lower-than-normal thing only true if you're sitting in front of the TV without doing anything else?

Or is it only true if the audio is on?

Furthermore, does it say more about my need to be entertained or more about the gym environment that I need three different "entertainment" sources at once to keep myself working out for a full hour?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Can't Even Keep a Virtual Plant Alive

I've known for years that I've had a black thumb. The one time I managed to keep a plant alive for six months, I used that victory as proof that it was okay to get a couple of pets. Well, thankfully the pets are still alive (mostly because they play a much more active role in making sure I know it when they're low on food or water), because the plant died shortly after I got the pets.

But today I descended to a new low: I killed a virtual plant I'd been tending.

To be exact, it was a virtual Chia Pet on my Mac Dashboard.

I'm still not quite sure what happened. All I had to do was give it two virtual drops of water every day or two. I'd been doing so well. It was thriving.

But today I opened up my Dashboard, and there it was. On its back with X's through its little faux(virtual)-ceramic eyes.

Of course, I quickly pressed a button and--presto!--it disappeared, to be replaced with a fresh new virtual Chia Pet instantly. No time allowed for guilt in the virtual world. No need to clean up the dried-up plant detritus. No one around to witness my negligence. Things carry less weight in the virtual world; it's easy to think there are fewer consequences. In some ways, there are. Because things evolve so quickly, it's easy to give anything that occurs in a virtual space less weight than anything that occurs in the real world. It takes an extra effort to give things the significance they sometime deserve.

Not that the death of my free virtual Chia Pet is one of those things that deserves significance. But on the other hand, I feel like I've descended to a new low. It seems like I can't even keep a virtual plant alive.

Which proves, I suppose, that there's some continuity between the physical and virtual parts of my life. There are many people who would see that as healthy. But it's still sort of sad that my virtual Chia Pet died. A virtual moment of silence, please.

[insert moment here]

Okay, that's enough. It's just a plant. One made out of pixels at that. And it was free. Of course, it did look like a turtle...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

These Days, It Costs to Fail...

At $9.95 a Page, You Expected Poetry?: In this New York Times article, the reporter did a little investigative journalism to show that the web has only made it easier for cheating students to fail. If they don't choose the incredibly-easily-available (and therefore incredibly-easily-detectable-by-professors) free term paper sites, they have the choice for "pay for an original paper" sites. But according to this article, a random sampling of these sites produced papers that would get low or failing grades. Apparently the people who run these sites aren't rocket scientists--or maybe they are, and don't know anything about Hamlet or the fall of the Roman empire. They certainly seem to be good economists--the sites wouldn't be around in such plenty if they didn't get plenty of business. *Sigh* Technology may change, but the ugly side of human nature doesn't.

Monday, September 11, 2006

In Memoriam: 9/11

Tonight, as I was watching some of the ubiquitous 5th-anniversary-of-9/11 coverage on TV, I was pulled back, as so many Americans (and so many others) likely were, to the emotions I felt while watching the much, much more ubiquitous coverage that was taking place nearly five years ago about this tragedy. Much could be said about whether the coverage birthed and/or egged on the grieving process for the U.S., how much technology took part in that role, and whether that was healthy, but I don't really want to talk about that. I'd much rather say that I'm glad they took the time to interview some prominent poets at the time, who said that, among other things, art would help us to heal. And I'm glad that technology helped us to hear that message with the others.

It certainly helped some of us. I, of course, like so many others, wrote a (very healing, at least for me) poem about the event, and I thought it would be an appropriate memorial of the 5th anniversary to share it here:

“Seven of ten adults aren’t sleeping”

Who can sleep? with the questions
sighing above our heads and no words
to describe them much less the answers.

Oh, there have been words, borrowed words
grasping words, but we the people
are beyond finding appropriate words,

definitive words. The events (such the
wrong word, makes them sound like a
football game or concert) are so

inappropriate (and that’s the wrong
word, like some naughty kid swore
in church), so discomforting (wrong

too, as though we sat collectively on
a hard sofa), so terribly unreal and
already fading before we can catch

our breaths, before they’re counted,
before the others are done lifting the sickening
tons of human ash mixed with mighty steel

fallen. Who can sleep?

--Deborah Leiter, 9/24/2001

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Connection Between E-communication and Creativity

"The drive to write, that primal glee we felt as children when we learned the letters that formed our name and then the words that formed our world, is a drive that has been buried in our frantic, electrical, telephonic age.

"'E-mail' is a rebalancing of the wheel. People love e-mail because they love to write. Furthermore, because it is instantaneous, e-mail tricks people into evading their censor. E-mail isn't 'real' writing. It's something more casual and quirky and inventive. It's somehow naughty and anarchistic, like passing notes in school. E-mail tempts us into writing because it's a nonauthoritarian place to write. We can dash off quick notes, break thoughts in the middle, say, 'I'll get back to you later.' E-mail allows us intimacy without formality. No wonder we love it. It lets us drop the rock."

--Julia Cameron, The Right to Write (1998), on the stimulation of creativity through electronic communication (34)

Judging from this quote, I have a feeling Julia Cameron is gleeful over blogging and instant messaging now that both have taken off so thoroughly. And although their frequent use in business has meant these media are beginning to evolve their own levels of formality and informality in the same way that conversations and speeches have such levels, it's true that in general the instantaneous nature of these media often mean that we write much more, and much more creatively, than we ever thought we could.

I know I've had many a case of writer's block solved by writing out an idea in an email to a friend. And I know perfectly well that the times in my life I didn't think I kept a journal could be well documented by the email conversations I exchanged with my friends during those months. It's funny, because I've heard many people say the level of literacy in North America is going down because of the use of such media. Although I don't deny that the sort of writing often produced through such forms is a different kind of writing than what's been done before, I maintain that the written word has become more important than ever. But because it's easy to write and often more informal and easily deletable (not to mention a bit unstable--think of hard drives), it doesn't count in our minds.

Of course, the sort of writing that "evades the censor" isn't always the best final-draft material, which has gotten quite a few people in trouble during the last few years, as e-communication has gained a certain amount of ascendancy in our culture. But Julia Cameron's certainly right when she claims that it helps to start brainstorming in writing, to overcome writer's block and to stimulate our creative use of language. Furthermore, instantaneous communication also means instaneous response, which allows us to more easily hone our communication abilities during the early-draft stages of writing than ever before. If practice in writing makes perfect, our culture (you would think) would be well on its way.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we necessarily have as much practice at really polishing things before we send them off on their merry, instantaneous way--which is probably the situation to which those decrying the literacy levels are referring. I definitely agree that the fact that we as the members of our society are feeling too rushed to polish our writing is a definite loss. As with most things, there are both up sides and down sides to this e-communication revolution. The question, of course, is: which situation is better? I'm not sure that question is ultimately answerable except on a case-by-case basis, but it certainly is an interesting one...

Saturday, September 02, 2006

"Eavesdropping" on the Web

I know, I know--it's become a cliche to comment on the richness of information available on the Internet. Nonetheless, a new usage for the Web--this huge, widely inconsistent but fascinating source of communication, information, entertainment, and so much more--occurred to me today, and I'm so glad it did.

To explain, I should go back a few years, to the time when I started researching my first novel (which I'm now trying to get published). I didn't live in the place where my characters lived, so I took a lot of trips to the locale to gather information and research. Sure, you can find out a lot of stuff at the library and online, but nothing replaces experiencing the place, meeting the people, and doing a bit of stealth research by way of observing closely (and occasionally overhearing conversations) at local hangouts. As any writer will tell you, understanding dialogue and culture are key to writing well... And reading too many written personal accounts, real or fictional--newspapers seem okay, but not those that go through an editorial process before being published in a book--feels like cheating to me. I don't want to be unduly influenced by other writings.

So to zip back up to the present day, that novel manuscript is done (if that's possible, particularly before it's been through the long editorial process it's bound to undergo if it gets accepted and eventually published) and is working hard being regularly flung out out of the nest into the big, occasionally cold world of editors and agents for review. Enter new, baby novel being brainstormed, planned, researched, and generally gestating in the womb.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the places I need to visit to do experiential research for this new novel aren't as far away as the first one, so I've been able to spend a few hours and days here and there trying to understand the sorts of milieus my characters would live in and come from, what their mindsets would be, the sights, sounds, and smells they would experience, etc. Nothing can replace experiential research--there are things I'd never be able to understand without it. It's invaluable.

However, I've always felt a little uncomfortable about some of the sneakier parts of research, and particularly with the subject of this novel and my upcoming schedule, I may only have limited opportunities to do it anyway for this project. Plus, I know how uncomfortable people are with being possible subjects to be "studied" for a novel, and I never want people to feel they've been exploited as subjects (even though the actual fictional outputs end up quite different from my original material). But I need an opportunity to make sure my characters are real and well-rounded and believable. So I'm glad to have thought of a way to "eavesdrop" on the stories, attitudes, and culture of the sorts of people my characters would be around that wasn't available until the recent boom in--you guessed it--blogging.

That's right--all those personal blogs out there are a mine for someone interested in character study. They're usually not as refined as something that would be published in print, and that rawness, that spontaneousness, is perfect for my purposes. I'm particularly fond of the kind of blogs that are written under a pseudonym, since they seem to often be better material. After a couple of short Google searches, I found some lovely ones today that will suit my purposes admirably. I'm very excited to start keeping up with them--it will complement my in-person research excellently.

Thank you, creators of the Internet.

And thank you, bloggers. I appreciate it. Don't worry--if bits of people like you end up in my novel, you'll never recognize it. Besides, as an author I have a code: I never write a story until I can empathize with all of the types of people who appear in it. Thank you for the opportunity to help me with empathizing with you and others like you so I can (hopefully) introduce others to that world in a slightly different way than you've let me into yours. As a fiction writer, it's my job.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

(Deborah Wipes the Virtual Sweat from Her iBook Screen)

Well, I'm definitely relieved to find out that the battery for my iBook is one of the ones that was made by a non-Sony manufacturer--which means no laptop fire anytime soon. While I believed the whole "struck by lightning" odds thing reported in USAToday, I'm rather glad I'm not even likely to have my computer spontaneously combust (though, come to think of it, such a situation is great grist for a story).

It all goes to show how dependent I've become on my little white computer. I could say that this Apple recall just came at the wrong time, what with the grad school year starting up again soon and becoming this year's managing editor of The Fieldstone Review and trying to pitch my novel and starting to work on a new novel idea. That would seem like a great excuse--many needs for my computer. But the truth is that there would be no particularly good time for even a small disruption of my iBook-related life. There's always something, and although I have access to other computers, I would be in withdrawal.

The interesting part is that I was never this attached to my computer when it was a desktop. Nor, for that matter, when I was working full-time before I became a grad student... Hm...

I do think part of it is that it is now my primary computer--and the portability definitely helps it to become even more primary than a desktop would be. In a way, I wonder if it's like the difference in concern you show over a place you rent and a place you own--when you work full-time, they maintain a computer you use most of the time for you, so you don't have to worry about it as much if your home computer goes on the fritz. It's like getting to rent a computer (without having to pay). But when your primary computer is your own, you really want that computer to work well all the time. And you know you'll have to worry more about the details if it's not working (sort of like when you own a house). I doubt if that's deep, but it seems true at the moment...

Friday, August 18, 2006

Article: TV as a Painkiller

TV found to be a painkiller for children: An interesting article from USAToday. I've certainly noticed the numbing power of TV when I'm going through a particularly stressful time, so I can certainly understand that this study would have turned out this way. Hm, I wonder if the painkilling power would rise or fall with children if they were watching something like "Snakes on a Plane" (which, incidentally, I don't recommend for children or those who are quite conservative) instead of cartoons...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Now That's Some Good Digital Marketing

So tomorrow night I'm going to the new Samuel L. Jackson film Snakes on a Plane. Seeing as how I haven't gone to the movie theatre to see a movie since Christmas and have only rented one movie in the last year, this is a very special occasion.

I wouldn't have agreed to go now, particularly to such a cheesy-looking movie, had not I gotten an email with a link to a personalized Flash message from Samuel L. Jackson himself seeking to persuade me to go to the movie. He admitted that the title of the movie sounded stupid, which, I thought, was very humble and honest of him. He seemed almost to be making fun of the movie, in fact--which really seemed the only possible way to sell a movie such as Snakes on a Plane, if you ask me. It is at least partly in honor of his having struck just the right tone that I'm going tomorrow night.

To be serious, I am partly going to honor the wonderful job the marketers of the movie have done in promoting the movie. It reminds me of the perfect union of two strategies: the fill-in-the-blanks personalization game reminiscent of the Madlibs game from some of our youths and the beat-it-home repetition marketing strategy used for promoting movies and books throughout Europe (which I'll explain more in a second). Plus it helps that the message is distributed via more than one communications technology: you could get not just an email from Samuel L. Jackson, but also a cell phone call.

The reason the ad campaign reminds me of the European posters for movies and books in subway stations--in which the exact same ad is repeated in exactly the same way all over, making the viewer eventually either want to scream or rush out to see the movie/read the book--isn't that the ad is repeated exactly the same way. (It wouldn't be, seeing as how the ads are personalized.) The reason it reminds me of this strategy of marketing is the repetition within the ad of the name of the movie over and over, until you either want to scream or rush out and see the movie.

In this case, I'm choosing the latter option. I tell myself, as I'm sure the marketers intend me to, that I'm doing it for the kitsch value of it. But really I'm doing it to honor an excellent job of persuasion. I took "Persuasion and Propaganda" in my undergraduate years--I know a good job when I see it. I know people like me were the target of this promotion, and they did a great job of hitting their target, so, although I feel a bit guilty about it, I'm leaving my nine free library movies sitting at home and am digging a bit into my grad school budget to go see Snakes on a Plane. (Plus, Samuel L. Jackson has an amazing voice. And, well, he threatened my life if I didn't go to the movie.)

P.S. (Aug. 18, '06, 1:31 a.m.) I just got back from having coffee after the movie, and I must report: I haven't laughed that hard in a long, long time. I'm still not sure if I was laughing at or with the movie and in what proportions, but I don't think it matters. I think it helps to have very low expectations when going into it, and I think it also helped to have a crowd that cheered frequently. All I can say is, "Snakes on a plane, folks. Snakes on a plane." (By the way, I also appreciate the assonance in the title. I think it helps the comic effect considerably.) Not to give away any key plot points or anything, but there certainly was a plane. And there were snakes on it. Many of them. Multiple colors and sizes and breeds. So yeah, I think that's all I have to say. Well played, marketers of "Snakes on a Plane." Well played.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Transportation Technology=Communications Technology? Part 2

So now that I've driven 95 hours and almost 6000 miles in less than a month, I can report more fully on the capabilities and limitations of the automobile as a communications device.

The car CAN communicate/facilitate:

  • hugs of family and friends, particularly nieces and nephews (wonderful and hard to get through other communications media)
  • mosquito bites and heat and humidity (also hard through other media, but some would prefer not having them communicated in any case--good to whine about, though)
  • the sight of Walden Pond and the feel of its water on the skin (lovely on a warm day, especially for one studying Thoreau, and hard to get properly through a photo, even in The Annotated Walden)
  • the smell of baking garbage on the streets of New York (ditto the comment from the mosquito bites et al.)
  • lots of in-person conversations, complete with the bobbing eyelids of friends who are getting sleepy as you talk late at night (lovely and easier to interpret than through the phone)

The car CAN'T communicate:

  • as quickly as other communications media (unless you're driving just down the street, in which case you might as well walk for the exercise)
  • as simultaneously as other communication media (no switching lines as with phones or cc'ing to more than the group of people than can be assembled in the vehicle and/or caravan)
  • as virtually as other communications media (it's shockingly real-world, which is often wonderful but can at times, as in the list above, be seen as a drawback if, for instance, you don't want the mosquito bites or the sweat rolling down your back)
  • as cheaply these days, what with the cost of gas and such

As with most other communications technology, the automobile is also prone to occasional "dropped calls" or "delivery delays," though oddly enough, this sort of thing, when a vehicle is involved, may actually increase the numbers of people you communicate with (which is roughly the case with the other media as well, in which a problem in communicating with someone may cause communication with one or more customer service representatives of the company facilitating the service).

To draw an illustration from out of the air (i.e., somewhere near the early part of this week), a flat tire--or even, say, two flat tires on subsequent days--is likely to delay the communications you wished to make with people at your destination, but may, in the case of the first flat tire, facilitate communications with a police officer stopping on the side of the road, an emergency roadside assister with a much better jack than your car came with, and/or other people in other vehicles, and in the case of the second (who carries two spare tires?), family and/or friends, insurance agents, tow truck guys, tire diagnosers, fixers, and salesmen, etc. Which is to say that in case one communications technology--such as an automobile--may fail, it's always good to keep one or more other communications devices--such as a cell phone--handy.

The corollary to this final point--that transportation technology facilitates communication with random people you may meet along the way--is, besides its communication of fully-rounded experiences (exercising all the senses at once), one of the best things about this form of communications technology. We've rather discouraged random sorts of these communications through many other media--in phones there's the do not call list, in email there's spam laws--and rightly so, considering the blatant exploitations of the technology that caused the discouragement. But using transportations technology (and, at times, our own feet), we may still meet new acquaintances and have conversations with them if we choose (and they agree). Those unexpected meetings enrich our lives, yet I fear we risk losing these sorts of serendipities in our society by limiting ourselves too wholly to other communications media... I hope we never lose them.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Connection Between Snail Mail and IM

In a face-to-face conversation brought to me by my lovely, if slightly glitchy communications technology of my automobile (which I'll blog about more later), my friend Angela and I were talking about the immediacy of cell phones and such in comparison to the older communications technology of snail mail. She was talking about how much we've become accustomed to the speed of such communications and was comparing that concept to the time when people would wait for letters to arrive elsewhere.

And that reminded me of the way people who wrote to each other frequently in the "olden days" would have letters cross in the mail, leading to lots and lots of conversation threads that may or may not have been tied up. Which led to a thought: IM definitely has something in common with that mode of frequent letter-writing.

In fact, some of my friends have complained about using IM simply because you often get several threads going on at once in an IM conversation. It's true that it does happen in IM, and that it's sometimes hard to get them all tied up, but is much easier than it was in letter writing, where there were often paper constraints to deal with. It's certainly interesting to think of the two media having some of the same phenomena in common...

I don't know if it's profound (after all, heat + humidity + camping with some mosquitoes and need to get up and on the road early recently hasn't produced much quality sleep), but there it is. Instant messaging might be faster and more informal, but it's sort of fun to think it's at least a bit like the older communications technologies that have been wandering around.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Another (Rather Nice) Obsession Made Possible by Technology

So this week I've been enjoying a proto-Waldenian retreat at a pond. Okay, so it was a lake. And it wasn't just me, but also my 9 nearest relations. At, not a small cabin with bare furnishings, but a 4-bedroom cottage with most of the trimmings. No phone, it's true, but a full kitchen complete with microwave, a TV with 20 or 30 channels. No DVD player, but then we brought one with us, along with an iPod with speakers (not a video one, but lots of music and podcasts) and 3 laptops we could have watched movies on (though mostly my brothers played Civilization 4 on opposite sides of the room and chatted about it).

So that's all to explain that the retreat was only proto-Waldenian. But that's okay. It was nice, but I must say that I'm rather glad to be back to email and Internet again. Thoreau I'm not, and that's okay.

But that's not what I wanted to blog about. What I wanted to talk about was my viewing of the first season of House last week. And, since I never blogged about it a couple of months ago, I thought I'd also mention my super-West Wing first-five-season marathon of a couple months ago, in which I gulped down five seasons' worth of my favorite show in a little over 10 days (it was before my spring/summer classes started).

The thing I noticed most during both of my DVD TV-show marathons (something almost everyone I know, even those who don't watch much TV on TV, seems to be doing lately) was the impressive sustained storytelling in these shows. When you watch the shows week by week, you're excited to find out what's happening next, but you don't notice to nearly the same degree how much ongoing character development and big-picture plot development is going on slowly over the course of a season and even from season to season. It's pretty amazing, really, and quite creatively stimulating for me as a novel-length storyteller.

Of course, the sustained storytelling, when you have an opportunity to see it all at once like that, makes it like one long movie. Which means it's sort of hard to stop watching. Soon you find yourself staying up till 4 a.m., watching some over breakfast, etc. It's easy to get obsessive when it's a show you really like (I know I'm not alone in this). It's also amazingly easy to finish a season in less time than you would have thought possible.

The nice thing, of course, is that because you can pause at any time, you can stop at any time to go do other stuff. Which makes me wonder what Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 character Faber would think about this way of viewing TV shows. After all, one of the things he liked about books (as opposed to the TV "parlors" with ongoing programming) was that you could "play God to them" by shutting them to think about them, digest them, and develop opinions about them. DVD TV shows seem to be about halfway in-between: on one hand, they're pretty visual and compelling so they're hard to turn off, but on the other hand, the pausability (and natural breakup into episodes) is a beautiful thing. The latter does give you time to think about what you're viewing.

Of course, TV has had these capabilities for at least 25 years, since VCRs came out, but the DVD TV show trend (and the iTunes selling-shows extension) moves the ability to watch whole seasons from organized TV viewers like my dad into the mainstream, where anyone can not just buy, but also go to the library and borrow whole seasons of shows.

And the fact that so many people are doing it fascinates and amazes me. I don't know if it's a completely good or bad thing or not, but it's certainly an interesting trend, and there are at least a few genuinely good shows worth watching this way. And let no one say that today's generations have no attention spans or senses of dedication and commitment. :)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Transportation Technology=Communications Technology?

So in my 26 hours spent bonding with my car earlier this week, I had a crazy thought: could transportation technology, at least at times, be considered communications technology? Sure, it's not always what you think of when you think of communicating with other people, but there are lots of family and friends I wouldn't be communicating with face-to-face if I didn't have such devices as cars to facilitate that face-to-face communication. The same goes for business travelers who fly all over the place to network and have meetings with people--in those cases, airplanes almost become a kind of communications technology for them.

Of course, when I was a kid going on family vacations, I always thought the car gave me a little too much access to communicating with my family for a bit too long of a time in a bit too cramped of a space, and transportation technology also facilitates seeing and experiencing things as well as people, but all the same, I find it an interesting thought. Granted, I have been spending a lot of time in my car lately (something on which I'm glad to blame the long sentences and Victorian-style italics in this post)...

P.S. (7/13/06) It occurs to me that the North American Laura-Ingalls-Wilder-type pioneers--with their covered wagons and long arduous travels--would certainly have seen cars and airplanes as wonderful communications technology devices.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Cartoon about how Legitimacy Is Affected by Technology

Cat and Girl Versus Legitimacy: Hilarious Cartoon about the debate about whether technological and societal advances have helped or hurt legitimacy of people's voices. Having just taken a class in textual scholarship (the history and the future of the book, etc.) where very similar topics were debated in very similar language, I find it hilarious as well as providing good stuff to think about. Thanks to Rilla for linking to it (and for blogging about my "Epiphany about Blogs" post).

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Grapes of Wrath Today?

Grapes of Wrath and Communications Technology: Amy Gahran, one of the bloggers I've been watching the longest for quotes on web writing style and implications, has an interesting take on whether Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath could take place in today's media conditions.

Monday, July 03, 2006

My Epiphany about Blogs

It occurred to me, in a blinding flash, the other day. Okay, so maybe there wasn't actually a flash, but I had a thought, which for an M.A. student in her last week of classes (working furiously to get to the "All But Thesis" state) is a pretty amazing thing.

My thought was that blogs are not so much like online journals (to which they are so often compared) as they are like the kind of "open letters" sent in the eighteenth century (around Alexander Pope's day). Back then, when you sent a letter to someone else in the literate society, you knew there was a possibility that it could get published at some point or other, which meant that although it was a private expression, it was also open to public comment.

This description of the eighteenth-century trend is more than slightly oversimplifying the matter, but the point is that the openness and community orientation of blogs makes them different than just online journals. And the eighteenth century practice of printing letters--which were often followed with printed agreements and disagreements--is the closest thing I can think of to what a blog does in our society today.

Of course, there probably are blogs that authors treat like online journals. That is, I could see that blog authors could get easily lulled into thinking that a blog is a completely private journal or a letter to only a few friends (fine if you can avoid names, etc.--which means, again, recognizing the public dimension--but I believe recent errors along that sort of line have gotten some people into trouble with potential employers, etc.).

One fascinating experiment with the "online journal" concept is the guy who's throwing the nineteenth-century author Henry David Thoreau's journal entries up on the Web as blog entries. Then again, the fact that much of the material in Thoreau's journal was re-worked and then re-used in his lectures and in works such as Walden and The Maine Woods seems to show that Thoreau's journal wasn't necessarily a purely "private" journal either--he, too, seems to have had a public audience in mind for some of the material down the road. (I'm sure I'll be able to report much more precisely and authoritatively on this matter once I get further into my thesis research.)

The point is that public/private, even when it comes to personal journals and letters, has been a bit squishy longer than blogs have been around. The method--and some of its implications--may be new, but the concepts behind it aren't.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Quote about Technology's Affect on Our Wonder

"It may be that as civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. But it is ironic that just as technology frees us to be full human beings, not mere survivors of the earth's rigors, at this very moment we may be about to lose the whole planet because we have lost our sense of wonder. For finally only reverence can restrain violence, violence against nature, violence against one another."

--William Sloane Coffin in Credo

Okay, so I've been meaning to post this for a month because I really liked this quote. He's right--it's a crucial Catch-22. It's easy to be amazed at first at how easy things become to do with technology, but our sense of entitlement tends to grow with the easier things are to do. And when we feel entitled it's hard to be amazed by things. And when we're not amazed by things it's hard to treat them with respect. And when we're used to being not-amazed at some things it's easy to become not amazed by other things. I'm not one for the slippery slope, but this argument has more irony and reality to it than slipperyness. Some genuine food for thought. (Hm, funny how sometimes it takes me a month to decide that's really all that needs to be said.)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Bird Better than a Recording Studio

Video of a Bird Who Can Imitate Chainsaws, Etc.: I've been thinking a lot lately about the false dichotomy between what we think of as the complex, cool things technology can do and the "simplicity" of nature. In honor of this train of thought, I decided to post a link to this bird video which turns that idea upside-down. Thanks to my former colleague Calvin for the link.

P.S. I wonder if the bird would hiss and meow if it ran into a cat? That would confuse the heck out of my cats, at least...

Saturday, June 17, 2006

How I Learned to Like ;) Emoticons

I was IMing earlier with a friend who's just gotten on MSN Messenger, and was therefore reflecting on how I changed from an emoticon snob to someone who quite likes them--in their place, which in my mind is only in IM conversations except for judiciously placed smileys :) and winkys ;) in emails to be sent to people you already know.

I fully admit that a part of the reason I like them in IM has nothing to do with better communication beyond spreading amusement with the little animated ones--my favorite in messenger is the little one that squinches up his eyes before crying. (I actually go out of my way sometimes to find appropriate occasions to use that one.)

But the real reason I was converted to emoticons within the IM environment is that they're actually very important to communicate tonality in a conversational medium that otherwise lacks the nonverbals a face-to-face conversation would have. However cheesy they look, they actually play an important role in IM communication--provided the people you're chatting with have a comparable viewer with all the same emoticons so they don't get hit over the head with the complicated ASCII-character-based hard-to-decipher versions that seem a bit overly in-group for those who know them.

But I don't agree with the extended use of them in emails (for which they were actually invented). There's just so many email programs that chances are, someone's going to see the clunky ASCII-based variations there. And so using anything there beyond a simple :) and ;)--which seem fairly self-explanatory--seems like it would not only be showing off, but would hinder communication rather than helping it.

Okay, so reading over this I'm thinking that I haven't lost all my emoticon snobbishness--but I've certainly warmed up to them. :)

The Occasional, Mysterious, Self-Healing Power of Technology

Today I walked out to my car, and for the first time in over a month, when I half-heartedly depressed the "unlock" button on my car remote, the doors actually unlocked. I can't account for it. For weeks when I've pressed that button, nothing's happened, forcing me to--gasp!--actually walk up and turn the key in the lock to unlock the door. As a girl who's studying the simple life in such works as Walden for my thesis, I hate to admit it, but it had annoyed me quite a bit.

(I justify my concern by saying that it wasn't so much the inconvenience that bothered me so much, but the niggling worry that since the internal trunk release also wasn't working, it could be a beginning symptom of one of those large expensive electrical problems that could cost me money I don't have. But yes, the inconvenience was also obnoxious.)

So I had nearly reconciled myself to having it checked out at some point. I had given up the hope that a mere battery for the remote would fix it. I had mourned the loss of the ability to lock and unlock my car from a hundred yards away. I had (nearly) moved on.

And today when it worked again, it was a bit, well, mysterious. My heart leapt within me with joy, and yet I was a little bit scared by the sudden resurrection of my remote. I'm still not sure what to do with it. The experience makes me understand people's fears of Artificial Intelligences and other technology developing beyond what we can handle. It's hard to know exactly how to react.

Speaking of serendipity, Saturday's "Writer's Almanac" poem--the one that just arrived in my inbox--seems an appropriate response to the delightful side of the thing, so I'll include a bit of it here:


Some days I find myself
putting my foot in
the same stream twice;
leading a horse to water
and making him drink.
I have a clue.
I can see the forest
for the trees.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ah, the Peace...and Ring Tones

Fishing hole is no place to share life's details on cell phone: Interesting article from the Anchorage Daily News about how technology is taking the silence out of the great outdoors. Of course, cell phones are very handy in some sort of emergency, but it seems that they can definitely be abused. This article puts that case well...

Word Processing and Novelists

From Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac for today (June 14, 2006): "For the first thirty years or so of the history of computers, it was mostly businesses that used them for accounting purposes. But in the 1980s, the word processing powers of computers made them attractive to writers—although Stephen King said that when he first started using a word processor, he lost the ability to pace himself by the number of pages he had written, and his books grew longer and longer. Russell Baker said, 'Computers make writing so painless that the writer cannot bear to stop. On and on the writer goes, all judgment numbed. Before you know it, you've written a book.' Some contemporary writers still don't use computers. Joyce Carol Oates writes all her first drafts in longhand. Don DeLillo still uses a manual typewriter.

"But, the novelist Stanley Elkin called his word processor a 'bubble machine.' He said, 'The word processor enables one to concentrate exponentially; you have absolute command of the entire novel all at once. You can go back and reference and change and fix ... so in a way, all novels written on the bubble machine ought to be perfect novels.'"

I find, like Joyce Carol Oates, that I write my first drafts of most creative writing in longhand. And yet once I have it all typed in, I can see Stanley Elkin's point. And that, ironically, is one reason why I didn't write my first draft of my novel manuscript onscreen. If I could "go back and reference and change and fix" indefinitely during the first draft, I would still be doing that, not with the whole novel, but with the first chapter. Without seeing those real, blank pages to fill and guilt me into working on them instead of tinkering with what came before, I wouldn't have finished.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Weight of Paper

So last week I got back a politely worded rejection of one of my novel-excerpts-turned-stories. Seeing as how I've become thick-skinned to this sort of thing from working within the wide world of publishing, my main response was not "Oh my goodness! The entire world hates my stuff and I want to die!"

Instead, I sort of hm'ed and might have let out a half-sigh when I got the email. The sigh was partly because I'd been rejected. But mostly it was because that meant that the next journals on my carefully-researched list of venues were all ones that would only take submissions by mail. And that meant that I was going to have to print stuff off. And pay to send it off. And trust the glorious union of the Canadian and American postal systems to get my submissions to the right place in a reasonable amount of time (and when you're planning on 4 to 6 month reading times as it is, another 2 weeks for it to get there isn't a thrilling prospect).

Basically, it felt like a lot of time and energy (not to mention the expense) to send things by paper mail instead of the oh-so-easy email many of us have grown to love. But I was committed to keeping things in the submission cycle at all times. So on Monday I did it (in spite of a crazy homework day).

And once it was done, it felt like a more significant event than the last couple of submissions, which I did by email. Email is easier, but, perhaps because it takes less effort, has less emotion attached to it. I had one of those small twinges of the overused metaphorical creative writer "sending out one's babies" emotion when I sent it by email, but when I sent it by mail, I really felt it. Perhaps a part of this is the seemingly greater damageability of the paper en route, as well as the uncertainty of the timing of the delivery--both things I take for granted knowing instantly when sending an email.

But there was more to it than all that. It's true that sending things out by mail costs quite a bit more--even the in-Canada submission was a chunk because it was the longer story--but there is something to be said for paper. In spite of its inconveniences, it has a greater feeling of accomplishment attached to it.

I wonder if that's one of the reasons we've come to expect so much productivity of ourselves in today's society--if you've done it by email, it doesn't feel like you've done as much. I wonder what would happen to the pace and sense of accomplishment of people in today's society if everyone had to do at least half of their correspondence (including business correspondence) using paper and the postal system. Would be interesting to see. Not that I'd be keen on being in on the experiment itself, mind you. But I wonder whether, if the experiment was tried long-term, whether people would gradually come to feel like they had done more.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

My Life as a (Faux)Geek

Some days I realize I'm a geek, or at least a faux-geek. Yesterday was one of those days, and the realization leaked over into today. The occasion for this particular realization was that yesterday I got my student copy of my new bibliographical software program (Endnote), and I got inordinately excited about it. (To be fair, at least I'm surrounded by other academics, so I found other people who thought it was cool too. Plus, I wouldn't be quite as excited about it had I not gotten my copy only a few days after my thesis proposal was officially accepted.)

The thing is that it is a wonderful program for a girl embarking on a 80-100 page M.A. thesis with 50 or more books and articles that I'll be trying to read, keep straight, and potentially quote. What it does is allow you to search for, then download reference information for books, articles, etc. from various databases and library sites. When researching, you can save your notes for the reference in with the rest of the information. Then as you type your paper in Word and add a quotation, it allows you to easily choose the source from the list and formats the citation information and works cited information for you in whatever format you need it in.

Anyway, I'm told that it takes a little time to learn up front, but is indispensible for a large project like a thesis or dissertation. We'll see. If it does half of what it promises, it will help with my thesis. Together with my other favorite organization software tool, StickyBrain (which allows me to right-click and save and organize notes and articles from the Web), I should have to spend a lot less time losing things, then re-researching them later. (Provided, of course, I take notes efficiently the first time from those pesky print sources.)

Monday, May 22, 2006

The "Not Real" vs. the "Real" Part 2--Dishes, Laundry, and Such

Seeing as how I've just talked about how I need to continue to work on the balance between "not real" and the "real," I thought it would be highly appropriate to note that "not real," virtual, or abstract, activities--including intellectual ones--often don't significantly help one to complete "real" chores, something that monastics have been balancing for centuries and Thoreau also addressed within Walden.

To illustrate, some examples of abstract, virtual, or activities that some might otherwise class as "not real" (though some of them are actually my job at the moment): spending much time in thought and on the computer completing class-work-related activities, and at home with the TV on, whether watching a DVD or something else, or with it off and nourishing my creativity with a good book, researching venues to which to send my novel, working on new short story and novel ideas.

Some examples of "real" activities that I cannot make my cats do while I'm working on the above: washing dishes, doing laundry, vacuuming, filing those last few boxes from last summer's move (mostly filled with real papers I haven't gotten around to going through, but don't want to outright throw out).

Were I to figure out how to train my cats to handle these and other chores, I'm sure I would have much more time to work on both my "abstract" and "real" communication tasks, as well as the reality-based long walks I'd love to take more of now that it's gorgeous weather out. I'd love to take any suggestions for completing these activities, either virtually or via cat-labor. If not, I'm sure I'll get to more of them soon now that my West Wing marathon has come to an end.

(Side note: I did dispose of the paper-filing problem this weekend by lining the boxes up, draping a sheet over them, and calling them a coffee-table. It makes a good place to put my laptop, and the cats like to sit on it. So let no one say I accomplished nothing real and useful while in graduate school. I left out the case of paper for sending out novel manuscripts, however, so I could continue to trip over it until the book gets accepted somewhere.)

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The "Not Real" vs. the "Real"

I was telling someone tonight that I like to turn on The Lord of the Rings while I'm writing a paper, because then it's there for me to pop in and out of and usually lasts about as long as it takes to write a draft of a ten-page paper. In the conversation that followed, she mentioned that she supposed TV could be a kind of company in a way. Since then, I've been thinking about the potentially good and potentially bad aspects of that.

First, the potentially bad. There's something that seems a bit anti-social (in the standard colloquial sense of the word as opposed to the psychological sense of the word) about the act. After all, if I didn't live alone and had to interact with a real person during my paper-writing, I would have to deal with a real person who might not distract me when I wanted to be distracted. They might interrupt me right in the middle of a thought. And that might be good for me. Make me less self-centered about the sanctity of "my" time.

There is definitely something to be said for this angle. I would hate to "grow up" to be one of those curmudgeonly people whose life was built around things and people who didn't take me out of myself and my needs at times. As Thomas Lynch, poet and undertaker, writes about the culture's paradigm shift from caskets surrounded by family, friends, and co-religionists to golf bag-themed caskets surrounded by co-hobbyists: "we are...required, as [Robert Pogue Harrison] insists, to choose 'an allegiance--either to the posthuman, the virtual, and the synthetic, or to the earth, the real and the dead in their cosmic densities.'" There is something that seems wrong about abandoning human community for the TV.

But then, I can't believe that it's all gloom and doom for my movie-watching "company." After all, seeking company in the company of characters in a DVD is no worse than seeking it in books or any other form of story, or the "not real." Including the characters that occasionally find their home in my fiction-writer's (admittedly odd) brain and leak their way out onto paper. As Margaret Atwood writes in her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, "not real can tell us about real." Through story, through these odd unreal characters that jump into our brains from books and movies and TV shows, we can learn about who we are in relation to other very real people and things.

Children's writer Katherine Paterson, in an article called "Making Meaning," balances both of the aspects of this question--interaction on a "virtual" and a "real" level--nicely: "As a writer I can try to make meaning for...children through the words of a story, but I can't stop there, thinking that my task as meaning-maker is done. Nor, I dare say, can you. It is up to each of us not simply to write the words [or take in the story], but to be the word of hope, of faith, of love."

Although she was saying that her role as a writer should be balanced with the role of the in-person teacher/mentor/parent in children's lives, her point seems to be a valid one for the current discussion as well. Both the "not real"--or the virtual, or the symbolic--and the "real" are important, and if we live in either of them exclusively, we risk losing something in our lives. So I think I'll continue to watch the Lord of the Rings during paper-writing times, but I'll also continue to, from time to time, write in places where people can interrupt me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hilarious Onion Story

Heroic Computer Dies To Save World From Master's Thesis: This article, which I found hilarious--admittedly at least partly because I'm about to hand in my M.A. thesis proposal--gives a twist to the idea that technology makes it easy for anyone to write lots of material.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Is the Visual Overcoming the Written?

“We recognize that the use of image and icon is fast displacing the written word as the dominant communication system of our culture—a trend easily identified when Nike can strip its name from the swoosh icon without losing an ounce of brand recognition or equity—but we fail to perceive what the new iconic symbol system truly has the capacity to do and undo.” –Shane A. Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Media

I understand Hipps' point about understanding what icons can and can't do, but I disagree with him on two points: (1) that image is a stronger communication system than the written word in today's culture, and (2) that the power of image and icon is something remotely new.

As to the first point, with email and IM and blogging and all the rest, many of us are writing and reading more than ever before. It doesn't mean we're writing and reading high quality material all the time, but we're writing and reading a lot. Image and icon are strengthening, but that doesn't mean they're overcoming writing. And that's important to remember.

Which brings me to my second point. Image and icons have always had power. In fact, before we had the printed word, most people only ever learned through image, icon and auditorially. So the Nike swoosh without the words is hardly a new concept--in fact, it's a very old one. And the thing is that I'm not sure the power of image has lessened over the years. Even in writing, we use imagery all the time. And although that's different from actual images, it evokes them in our heads.

So images have been around for a long time. And writing isn't going away. That doesn't invalidate Hipps' point, but it certainly raises questions in my head about it. I do wonder what new things are happening with icons, images, and the written word--I think it's quite possible new things might be happening with them. But the media themselves are hundreds of years old, and neither of them is going away.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Deborah (re)Discovers* Podcasts

I’d been working in the Internet biz, so I heard about podcasting since about the time people started playing with it--a few months after iPods were released. I heard all the hype. It was this innovative new way of listening to the radio without having to have a radio, whenever you wanted to listen to a segment. It was to be very exciting.

And I thought: “Oh boy, another new technology to keep up with. *Sigh.* Won’t do much good until there’s enough decent content to be worth listening to.” (When you work in the constantly-evolving world of the Web, it's somewhat easy to get a wee bit cynical.)

A few months ago, I discovered that the time for lots of decent podcasting content has come. And now that iTunes supports regular podcast downloads, I actually started to subscribe to a few. And now I listen to them. Sometimes. I don’t listen to them all the time, but I have fun with them sometimes.

Ironically, when I listen to them (which isn’t as frequently as I read my email subscriptions), I don’t do it on my iPod. I listen to them on my computer rather than on my iPod—I love my iPod but I’m too busy listening to music and audio books on it to keep up with podcasts on the device they’re named for.

I do like podcasts. I’m studying in Canada right now, but I’m an American, so it’s lovely to listen to NPR whenever I want to. And it’s nice to listen to free radio-like broadcasts when I’m not near a radio or the Internet. And it’s fun to choose when I want to listen to them. And if I want to share them with someone else from far away, it’s easier than with radio, even Internet radio.

So what’s the point? New communications technologies take awhile to catch on. And if they do catch on eventually with the general public, it’s because they’re well-supported. And good content helps tremendously.

All the same, I don’t think podcasting is the huge new wave I’d heard it was. Sure, it’s delightful to listen to live local acoustic music from Long Island whenever I want, and it’s easier than taping the radio used to be, but it’s really not that different. And, like most media, it’s not necessarily going to replace other media, though it might change the way we consume other media and in what proportions we consume it, as well as open up opportunities to participate in faraway communities. Which is of course both good and bad.

No matter what, it’s interesting to think about. Oh, and for those of you creating good podcasts, make sure they’re submitted to the iTunes directory. That’s the only way I and lots of other people will ever get around to subscribing to them.

* The parenthesizing of partial words is quite popular in academic writing, so I thought I’d try it since this was the first time I’d ever found an opportunity to use this fascinating (rather e. e. cummings-like) way to use words.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Moose, Communication, and Technology

Sterling Safety: Group Studies High-Tech Ways to Prevent Road Collisions: I read a lot of articles about moose in Alaska. One does when one is working on a novel that is about a moose artist who lives in Alaska. But it is not often that I find an article so well suited to my media researcher side as well. So I'm quite excited.

The scoop as to why I’m excited (besides the fact that weird stories about moose fascinate me) goes back to last summer when my friend Brenda and I were driving to Alaska. We made lots of jokes about moose not being able to read moose crossing signs on the highway. (I admit it’s entirely possible that these jokes were only funny to us because we'd been in the car for about 200 hours during the course of the trip.)

At any rate, this article sort of sidesteps the humor in those jokes. Because apparently there may soon be ways for moose to communicate with us whether they’ve read the signs or not.

It isn’t all that weird in one way—at least it’s no weirder than those annoying highway signs that tell you how fast you’re going in an effort to slow you down. It’s actually very practical as well. And it’s a good thing—hopefully this new “communication device” will save both some lives: both moose and human ones. Roadkill moose, from what I’ve heard, is good eating once you remove the mushy parts, but its production process, from what I’ve heard, is a rather unpleasant and costly one.

But it is also quirky that moose (other than Bullwinkle) can “tell” us when they’re crossing the road. That’s sort of odd to think about. So I thought I’d link to the article. Because it’s not the sort of example of technology’s connection to communication that we usually think about. And it’s always good for your mind to be stretched.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

When Virtual Paper Isn't Enough

So I found out today that my novel manuscript did not get accepted by the first venue to which I sent it. I can't say that I was shocked. A little disappointed, of course, but not shocked. I worked in publishing. I know how it goes.

So in the next week the goal is to get online and in the stacks at the library to research more venues to which to send the manuscript. Agents, publishers... Important to research carefully and find the right ones. Then to get it back out there.

Some might think I need a rest first. But the thing is, the publishing world is at least partially about persistence. I know this, so I am fully committed to sending it out repeatedly until it gets published. And I have a tangible, trip-over-it-in-the-living-room reminder of my commitment in my living room at home--a case of printer paper I bought after I finished the thrd or fourth draft. Virtual paper is cheaper, but sometimes you need to stub your toe on the real thing a few times to remind yourself of both the need to accomplish your goals and the chances that it will take awhile.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Reflection on Giving Up Solitaire for Lent

After my previous post about playing solitaire on my computer during the Olympics, I decided to give up solitaire for Lent. (Well, actually, I decided to give up both of the games I played to procrastinate from schoolwork, which meant I also gave up Bejewelled on my cell phone.) Now that Lent is a whole two days past (on the Western calendar, at least) I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my experience. So here goes.

The most interesting part of my journey happened in the first few weeks. I was surprised how guilty I felt when I had to procrastinate in other, less mindless ways. It felt more like procrastinating when I socialized with my classmates, read books I didn't have to read for classes, or even watched TV.

What it came down to was that I had convinced myself that when I was playing solitaire and Bejewelled, I wasn't actually using up as much time as I was. Because I wasn't really using my brain during that time, I had nearly convinced myself that the time I spent playing these games simultaneously: (1) didn't really exist because I didn't use my brain and (2) was somehow necessary because it allowed other ideas to develop under the surface.

The first one wasn't true at all, and the second wasn't nearly as true as I thought it was. Sometimes I'm pretty good at lying to myself.

So anyway, I came to realize that I can be a pretty hard and unreasonable boss sometimes. I realized that it was okay to not spend every minute of my day working on schoolwork (i.e., it was sometimes okay to procrastinate). But I'd somehow come to believe that one of the only ways it was okay to spend some of those mid-day off-hours was to play solitaire, which was silly. Once I gave these games up, I gradually started to have a healthier, more well-balanced set of off-hours activities. Unfortunately, it was still too cold outside for a lot of time spent outside for most of Lent, but I did find myself doing the following:

(1) I found myself watching more TV, then getting sick of it earlier and eventually turning it off quicker. Now it's true that TV isn't all that much healthier than playing solitaire, but it can potentially take a bit more brainpower. And I find that when I force myself to give it all my attention, I eventually turn it off quicker and turn to other activities.

(2) I found myself reading more books that I didn't need to read for my classes. And this was a good thing, since it was around this time that I was reading quite a bit of dystopian speculative fiction for one of my classes. Since very little books of this genre (think 1984 and Fahrenheit 451) have happy endings, I found myself reading a lot of mystery novels (which usually end with some kind of justice) to balance out my book consumption. These books didn't take too much brainpower, but they were more food for thought than solitaire.

(3) I found myself socializing more. I especially had to tell myself that the socializing was okay. For some reason it felt more like I was goofing off if I talked to other people instead of doing my work. Maybe that was because I felt like I was pulling others into my non-working mode as well. But once I realized that others often wanted to socialize and that it was one of the best ways to spend my time (especially since I live alone), I realized that it was a good thing. Not only did I get to blow off steam, discuss ideas, and build community, but also it pulled me out of my sometimes-too-introverted world of self.

So on the whole, I'm rather happy with my Lenten experiment--so happy that I feel no need to go back to playing games now that Lent is over. Now that I made it through a whole paper-writing season without this procrastination tool, then I really don't need it in general. Not that I might not play occasionally in the future at some point. But for now, it's spring, I'm on vacation, and it's nice outside. I'm much too busy taking walks and catching up with friends to play solitaire.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Now That's Why I Bought a Cell Phone

Five years ago, my avowed reason for turning from a cell-phone hater to a cell-phone buyer was that it would be helpful if I ever got into an emergency when I was driving long distances alone. Well, that and I realized the long distance minutes were nice.

Well, I've used up plenty of long-distance minutes over the years, but I'd never gotten into one of those near-emergency situations that would truly justify the phone's existence. I was sort of thankful for that, but I felt like something was missing. I needed to complete the justification of this gadget's existence in my purse.

This week I got my wish--in the midst of my 26-hour Saskatchewan-to-Michigan end-of-grad-school-term drive.

Let me pick up the story just south of Winnipeg when I turned from the bypass road toward the North Dakota border as the sun was beginning to set. I was alone, 10 hours into an estimated 12 for the day. I was a bit sleep-deprived and just wanted to get to Fargo. I'd been seeing flooded fields all day--it is spring, after all (side note: the buds came out just in time for my arrival in Michigan--I'm very excited). But none of my roads were closed. Until this point, at least. When I turned onto my road, there were road closed signs right away. They were terrible signs, though. Hardly the type that would make me get off the road before I was kicked off. They recommended a detour but didn't tell me how to get to the recommended roads.

So I stayed on the highway until "they" (whoever they was in this case) actually kicked me off. When "they" did that, telling me that the highway was flooded south and giving me helpful arrows pointing both east and west, I turned to the west. I had glanced at my atlas enough while driving to guess that was where the recommended detour was.

But there wasn't a direct road to those other roads. The dusk was coming on. I had a motel reserved in Fargo, 2 hours' drive on the other side of the border. And I was worried about border crossings closing before I made it to one. I needed a quick route--one that was easy to find and not too far out of my way. And my map wasn't terribly detailed. The road I was on wasn't on it. Not that I was terribly surprised at the fact that Manitoba 422 wasn't on it, but still...

So as I turned south on Manitoba 422, I picked up my cell phone and called my friend Brenda.

Why Brenda? We'd driven over similar territory the summer before on the way to Alaska. I knew she was good with maps. And I knew she was good at dealing with me when I was a bit confused.

Brenda was home. And she had wireless internet. So she looked up Google Maps.

What followed was a fascinating lesson in interactive geography. She would tell me if there was a possible road coming up--I would tell her if it looked feasible or not (i.e., whether it was paved or dirt). She would tell me how many streets the village I was coming up to had--I would tell her what kind of buildings it had and how slow I had to go through it.

I could go on, but the upshot of the episode was that she got me to a rather deserted border crossing 42 minutes before it closed, leaving me before my phone went to roaming on the other side of the border with information on what roads were open and what rest areas were closed in North Dakota.

In essence, my 60-mile detour only took me an hour and ten minutes beyond what I'd planned for the trip, which isn't bad as far as "emergencies" go. Doesn't really qualify in some ways at all as an emergency. But then again, without the cell phone it would have been much closer to one. I didn't really have the map I needed to get to a border crossing in time. And as a single female driving alone at night, I probably would have been unlikely to stop to ask directions. And without that friendly voice in my ear, I wouldn't have been nearly as calm as I was.

So, thanks to a combination of my cell phone, my friend Brenda, my old laptop I'd sold to Brenda, a wireless internet connection, Google maps, and road conditions websites, I was fairly painlessly driving into North Dakota on a bright-mooned if occasionally foggy night shortly after I got detoured from the flooded highway. The most dangerous part of the whole experience was the skunk crossing the road in front of me shortly after I made it through customs.

Before I go, there are two points I wanted to make about this incident in connection with my broader points about technology's effect on communication:

  1. Community-building through technology. Many technology nay-sayers claim that technology isolates us--which is sometimes true. But in this case--and many others--it meant that in a very real way, I didn't have to travel alone when I otherwise would have had to.
  2. Intelligence of people who can manage technology. I knew that if I didn't call someone who could read maps--and do it quickly, juggling it with little searches for road conditions, etc.--the call would probably increase my stress and possibly get me more lost than I would have been. Now while it's probably true that you could program a machine--or a GPS router--to do most of what Brenda did, I'm not sure I would trust it to be as good at reacting to my frequent "not-taking-that-road-because-it's-gravel" route changes. I was glad I was definitely glad I was being directed by Brenda, not a GPS system.

No matter what the effects of technology were on the experience, what's clear is that in my post-end-of-the-semester grad school state, the low layer of occasional fog (over which I could always see the bright-mooned sky), seemed to be some sort of emblem of the evening. It's also clear that once I hit the bed at my motel a bit later, I slept the blissful sleep of the sleep-deprived for 8 1/2 hours before heading on to Chicago the next day...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Will androids take over the earth? Or will technology just take over our heads?

Some of you may question whether androids will take over the earth. Some of you may stay up late some nights wondering if that will happen. Whether we'll create such sentient technology that we'll have to give it the status of another living being.

If you're one of those people, I must say that I'm not in your camp.

I can honestly say I've never worried about whether androids, were they to become popular, would ever take over the world or deserve the status of human beings. I don't think, at the current time, technology's headed in that direction. I suppose that's why I'm not convinced by books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and Neuromancer by William Gibson.

However, I am fascinated by a related question asked in some of these sorts of speculative fiction books, one I think is more likely. That question is whether we will biologically engineer some sort of technology connected with the human body that will blur the lines between us and technology.

Take, for instance, the technology implanted in humans in one of my favorite recent books: Feed by M. H. Anderson. Implanted in people's brains, the "feed" allows for someone to constantly experience the Internet, TV, telepathic email, etc. all the time. One of the really scary parts of this device is the individualized marketing based on mood. So for instance, if a character is feeling depressed, he might get a message from the "feed" that he can cheer up by buying a sweater from so-and-so shop online, and instantly do that.

The scarier thing is that the teenagers in this book respond positively to that kind of invitation.

I tend to emphasize the positive sides of technology more often than not, but the warning in this aspect of the book hits not too far from the mark. It's not as if people haven't escaped their true emotional needs for years by other means, but technology does behoove us to be more and more intentional about how we respond to such stimuli (which are already pretty easy to find around us). And what happens to humanity if technology becomes so "user-friendly" that it's part of us?

Fascinating book--won lots of awards. I highly recommend it.

That said, I have a paper to work on for one of my classes--sort of wish there was an easier way than to have to extract the information painstakingly from my head and insert it into the laptop, then re-write to make sure it all made sense. Hm... Maybe there is a market for a reverse kind of feed... But then again, if it integrated with our brains as well as the implants did in Feed, I'd be sporting unidentified lesions on my skin in a matter of years...

I suppose there's no way around it. I'll have to write the essay the old-fashioned way--from my brain to my fingers keyboarding the words into the laptop. *sigh* Life's so rough these days. :)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The First Issue of The Fieldstone Review is Live!

My excuse for posting this slightly brazen, seemingly-marketing-driven post is that I'm excited. After all, as Senior Fiction Reader for The Fieldstone Review, I've read a lot of fiction submissions in recent months. So I'm happy to announce that the inaugural issue of the journal is now live. I'd like to particularly draw your attention to the story "Why Jesus Santos Lost His Faith" by Leslie Wayne Jones.

(The current excuse for the blatantly Fieldstone-promotional nature of this post is that the Fieldstone is an online literary journal, which means that it hits all the topics of this blog, simply by communicating creative writing through the Internet.)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

iPods at Work

Music hath charms for some workers — others it annoys: This article at USAToday evocatively discusses the new phenomenon of people listening to iPods and other MP3 players at work. The most interesting part of the article is the part that talks about people who actually sing as they're listening. It seems that some people don't know how to use common sense...

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Occasional Bliss of Being Useless

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately (notably Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut and Mockingbird by Walter Tevis) in which technology takes over the function of humans, taking away livelihoods and making humans useless. In these worlds, some of the humanity is replaced at the same time. However much I understand the authors' concern, which was/is a valid one in some respects, most days I find myself wishing something I’ve wished for years: that is, I wish I allowed myself a bit more time off in compensation for how much faster I can do things because of technology.

I can tell most of these types of books were written pre-personal computer and pre-Internet. Since then, I remember related concerns that surfaced around the beginning of these and other technologies that have emerged in the last twenty-five years. People were concerned that they would take away jobs, that the unemployment rate would go up.

It’s true that some jobs have gone away because of various technological devices. But it seems that what's happened is more that the job market has shifted, not lessened. And somehow, work days (at least in North America) have not, for the most part, gotten any shorter because the technology works so much faster. We just expect more of ourselves and each other. Even an older invention—electrical lights—has changed things more than we realize. With the use of a few watts, we can stretch our work hours as long as we want. And some people do.

That said, I think I’m going to post this so I can do something completely “useless” and unproductive and non-mechanical (and profoundly, enjoyably human) with my late-night electricity. There’s this great mystery novel I’ve been reading…

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Simple Life; or, Looking for Wireless in Whitehorse

It was about 6 months ago that I returned to Saskatoon after a 12,000-mile driving/camping trip to Alaska and Michigan and back. I loved that trip.

It was the simple life.

My friend Brenda and I slept in a tent when we didn’t have the opportunity of crashing on someone’s floor or, sometimes, slightly better conditions. (I dimly remember a bed every once in awhile. That was lovely.)

We bought a few groceries every so often and sometimes cooked over a fire. We ate out a few times, but not very often.

We stopped on almost every long driving day to get at least one walk or hike in. We stopped for bears and herds of bison crossing the road and took detours down gravel roads to see waterfalls. We experienced many beautiful things firsthand.

That is to say, in many ways, it was a very simple, physical, elemental time. And yet, besides the wonderful people we spent time with and the natural beauties we experienced, some of the things I’m most thankful for from the trip were technology-related. I’ll just list a few of them:

  • An iPod with FM transmitter: Since I was moving to Saskatoon, we had a U-Haul truck for about 30 hours of the trip. With only a radio in a vehicle to help the driver stay awake, an iPod with an 8-hour mix made just for the trip—and with audio books on it for the occasional change of pace—was just the thing. And if the other person was asleep, it was safer for the driver to not have to change CDs all the time.
  • A digital camera: I’d used a digital camera at work before, but this was my first vacation with one. We borrowed a digital camera from some of Brenda’s friends, and it was lovely to look at our pictures right away—and not have to worry about wasting film.
  • A laptop and wireless: I’d had a laptop before, but I’d mostly used it at home and had only gotten a wireless card a few months before, but I hadn't tried out the wireless away from home much. It was lovely—and sort of amusing—how excited we’d get when we found a coffee shop, ice cream shop, or restaurant with free wireless so we could send emails and get online.
  • A travel blog: Lots of people we knew wanted to hear about our adventures. But we didn’t necessarily want the rest of the world to hear. So I hunted up MyTripJournal.com, which for a small fee would let us have a password-protected blog complete with 120 photos, maps to show where we were going and where we’d been, a guest book, and unlimited entries for two months. It was just the right way to tell our friends and families about our adventures without sharing them with the whole world. We could have just kept personal journals and told stories, but it wouldn't have been the same.

I’m definitely not the sort of person who likes camping with a TV and all the other conveniences. But I can’t deny that these items—made out of complex technology—enhanced the trip. For that matter, they give me an easy way to look back at it when I’m feeling nostalgic, as I am today. All I have to do is simply turn on my Sask-Alaskan Adventure mix on my iPod, open up my album in iPhoto and read my archived version of the blog on my laptop.