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.