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. :)