From noreply@youremailhere

I don’t turn off my cellphone when I go into a movie theater. At one point I didn’t bother with the process because my phone couldn’t get reception in the sound-proofed rooms anyway. Now I turn on airplane mode in silent protest of the seemingly endless series of warnings to turn the device off. One of those messages asks the audience to wonder if phones dream when you turn them off. The clip instructs you to text the number provided after the movie to find out what your phone dreamed about.1 I mention this clip because it implies that your phone has a mind of its own and that you can communicate with it. Don’t worry, though, your phone is one of the good guys, not those computers that come to terrorize the human race in The Matrix or Terminator franchises.3

“We want you back.” So the automatically generated email from Yahoo! (sent to my Google account) just told me. Once the images appeared, the email from Yahoo! consisted of text informing me that my Yahoo! account will be deactivated in July and an image of a pretty Asian woman with long brown hair and a sweater looks at a smartphone (an iPhone, I think). I guess she is supposed to be looking at her Yahoo! email account. Further observation reveals that she is standing on a rocky beach overlooked by mountains that jut out into the sea. In the blurry background several of her blurry friends are setting up or taking down a blurry picnic. But she seems dispassionate about her surroundings and oddly enthralled by her phone and, by insinuation, her Yahoo! account.

Now, I have checked my phone while hiking along the side of a mountain the middle of New Hampshire, but, in my defense, I was trying to warn some other hikers about a treacherous stretch of trail. As it turned out, there was no reception on the mountain anyway. That was just as well. The message from this picture is clear though: go enjoy the outdoors, but nothing there is going to be quite as thrilling as whatever it is that Yahoo! provides.4

This email in and of itself has exerted a hold on me because while I have used certain Yahoo! services in the past few years,5 I haven’t actually used a Yahoo! email account in close to a decade. I sign into my Yahoo! services through my Google account. So when Yahoo! sent me an automatically generated message meant to imply that the people at Yahoo! care about me and want me to return to them, I interpreted the message as my Yahoo! account begging me not to end its existence. My Yahoo! account and the affiliated servers were the “we” in the message, not the company or the employees.

Maybe the Asian girl in the picture has an intimate relationship with her account that makes interaction with real people (let alone nature) unsatisfactory. I don’t know. In any case, my Yahoo! account is a stranger to me.

1 I have been vaguely curious whether anyone actually tries to find out what their phone dreams about about. For one thing, the same clip that supplies the number to send the message to has just ordered the audience to turn off their phones, the same devices that serve as memory crutches. How many people in that darkened theater have pen and paper to write down the number? And even for those people who stay until after the credits to catch a thirty second glimpse at an upcoming sequel,2 there is no reminder that your phone has been dreaming and there is a number you can use to psychoanalyze your phone. My phone stays on at almost all times except when I drop it sending the back cover and battery skittering across the floor. But that is less like going to sleep and more like being bludgeoned with a baseball bat or knocked cold after falling from a ledge.
2Or, as I sometimes do, you just must find out what that song was that was playing at the crucial moment.
3I assume this is the case. Who knows? Maybe your phone is dreaming of world conquest rather than of Giga pets romping around a digital yard.
4Then again, there is a danger of being so distracted by your phone that a bear will surprise you.
5For instance, fantasy baseball, fantasy hockey, and college football pick’em.

Google Calendar

I was a moleskine guy. Starting in my senior year of college, I carried around a pocket moleskine calendar almost everywhere I went. There I kept track of assignments, meetings, classes, and social engagements. If I lost the calendar I was at a loss as to what I was supposed to do. But back in January, I switched over to Google Calendar, in part because I couldn’t find a new physical calendar I was comfortable with (for some reason I was having difficulty finding a moleskine one this year).

There are things I like about Google Calendar. For instance, a red bar that tells me what time it is vis a vis the rest of my schedule, and the ability to have certain events recur (classes weekly, or birthdays annually) are rather nice. I also use the tasks feature, and it is convenient to be able to quickly and easily change due dates to various tasks.

At the same time, though, a pen-and-paper planner forced me to adhere to the schedule of my choosing. On Google Calendar, the tasks due on days past glare out from the completed tasks only until you move the due date to the future. Sure, it is a useful feature, but it is also symbolic of the impermanence of the internet. Similarly, I have been hesitant to delete the completed tasks because leaving them in place makes it possible for me to look back on the calendar and feel as though I actually accomplished something. One click of a button and, in an instant, the “proof” of weeks worth of work will disappear.

I will always prefer pen and paper to the computer, even if being a print columnist might actually net fewer readers than I currently have access to on this blog. But one of the things that troubles me the most about the internet is how easily changed things are–and Google Calendar is no exception. You may have a particular due date in the real world, but the digital calendar has the functionality to allow you to change the date you assign it without leaving a trace behind. You may have accomplished a great number of tasks, but, unless you leave a cluttered tasks tray behind (as I am currently doing), there is no record of it in your calendar. At least with a physical calendar you can have a sense of achievement as the pages get filled up and crossed out.

Then again, call me old fashioned, but I enjoy the feel of a good pen in my hand.

Assorted Links

  1. Why Che’s daughter fights to preserve his image as idealistic revolutionary-A story in the Guardian about Che Guevara’s daughter as the 45th anniversary of his death approaches. The article addresses both the bloody legacy of Guevara and the financial success that has come with his image.
  2. How Google Builds Its MapsA story in the Atlantic about how Google has mapped the world, increasingly accurate and updated. The article then suggests that, going forward, the maps (both for the data and applications of the data) will be the most valuable asset owned by Google.
  3. Narrative Trust-An essay in the Time Higher Education about how academics have a responsibility to write clearly, concluding: “If we want our work to be consequential – to have an impact in the world – we owe it to our readers to write with conviction, craft and style.”
  4. ‘Moral’ Robots: The Future of War or Dystopian Future-An article at the Chronicle about an ongoing project to develop a moral conscious for battlefield robots that could be programmed to abide by international rules of engagement and, perhaps, limit civilian casualties. They admit that there would not be any moral reasoning that takes place, but that the machine would make fewer mistakes than humans. I understand what the intention is, but it seems to me as though war is already too impersonal (and therefore easier to enact), so even using machines that can’t shoot civilians does little to ease my conscious on this.
  5. Polished Roughhewn– From the New Yorker, some discussion of the terrain and literature of Hemingway, specifically addressing the variety of techniques he employs that do not necessarily conform to ‘good writing’ in order to create his landscape. This is an article that I agree with, particularly in that there are times when Hemingway’s efforts come across as indulgent and fall flat. They are still Hemingway and it is not as though he put little effort into them, but when compared to some of his other writing (e.g. there are scenes, paragraphs, and sentences in For Whom the Bell Tolls to which I have not yet found peers to in English Literature (though I prefer The Sun Also Rises as a novel)) they come across, at best, as put on or contrived.
  6. That’s Dr. So-and-So to YOu– An interesting note at the Chronicle of Higher Education about academic and professional titulature.
  7. “The Satanic Verses,” the Fatwa, and a Life Changed– An account of Salmon Rushdie’s life and how the Fatwa changed it. The article mostly narrates the period around the release of The Satanic Verses and the aftermath of the Fatwa. This article also helped me make the decision that once I am done with Coming Up For Air, my next fun book will be The Satanic Verses.
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Midnight musings: social media

When Google+ first released I resisted joining, adamant that I was more likely to quit social media altogether than to join yet another new craze. I was a freshman in college when Facebook first took off (along with the ill-fated i2hub), so of course I joined. Joining Facebook was almost a rite of passage that helped define the college crowd and enabled communication, interaction, planning, and, of course, procrastination. For similar reasons I had a blogger account, which quickly gave way to a Livejournal. I also joined Twitter, which removes much of the excess baggage from the other social media accounts and provides a platform for shorter statements. The stereotype that Twitter (much like the Facebook status update) is for announcing publicly that one has taken a shower or eaten dinner has some truth to it so I will not deny that, but I find that it is actually a good medium for some discussions that would not otherwise take place, commentary on shows, movies, games, and books, among other uses. By and large it is far less private or personal than even email or Facebook messaging, but it is meant as an immediate form of communication. So, since I have all these platforms, some of which are not actually actively used (even to the extent that I blog), why do I need Google+? Or, perhaps more to the point, why did I change my mind?

The short answer is that I do not and did not. I have two blogging platforms, six or seven emails, Facebook, Twitter, and probably a Myspace account out there somewhere, and now Google+, all with varying levels of (in)activity. I added Google+ for several reasons, not least of which because it still has limited membership and so, when the opportunity came, I took it. I was genuinely curious as to how it was set up, and did feel some drive to sign up for the new toy when it arrived. Moreover, I like the setup, and would like to have a social media platform finally live up to the promise of the bringing me closer together with people, if for no other reason than that it gets lonely in the middle of the country.

It seems logical that when I left my job managing a Quizno’s for a university some of the technological opportunities and impulses would grow rather than shrink. The reverse has been true, which I am reminded of each and every time I return to the east coast. While I was in New York I overheard a business meeting wherein a programmer made a pitch for a phone app that would help bring together fans of particular teams, which struck me as just one example of the way in which the application of technology is consistently commonplace in metropolitan areas (New York and Boston are the two with which I am familiar), while any application at all only trickles slowly to more rural parts of the country. I have also noticed a growing disconnect with these sites. In particular, I have made it a practice not to comment on birthdays or anniversaries on Facebook. This is a policy I may wish to reconsider, but it is borne of the thought that if a) I cannot otherwise remember a birthday or b) I would not otherwise wish that person a happy birthday, then my wishes are not really of any value. Of course, I do allow Facebook to remind me of birthdays, and then I will sometimes put in the extra effort to make a more direct birthday wish. Perhaps this is all semantic, but I find that social media (at least on my pages) is more often a silent acknowledgement of posts than active participation. Then, if there is no actual interaction, what is the point of social media?

Right now, in no small part because of various apps on my iPod that allow me to post directly, I mostly use Facebook to post links to articles that I find interesting. I will likely do something similar, but to a more limited extent, with Google+. The bulk of my intended audience remains on Facebook right now, but if that changes then the bulk of my post would also change. Otherwise the bulk of my thought, writing and activity remains in pen and paper. I hope to replace some of that pre-digital activity with a set of social and communal sites, but until I find a way to do this efficiently and with wider participation I suspect that it will remain nothing more than another of my idealistic, unrealistic ambitions.