Slacking Off

The other day someone on a committee on which I serve suggested we might eliminate the problem of buried emails by using Slack to communicate.  The problem, it seems to me, is that we have too many ways to communicate and yet lack the means to do so well.  For me email is indicative of the problem.  Email was devised—and I remember its beginnings well—as a means of swift communication.  The only real options before that were writing an actual letter (which I miss) or telephoning.  At that time you might have a cordless phone that you could carry from one room to another but you probably did not.  The phone was relegated to a place on a wall or table and, although I appreciate knowing things quickly, the fact is we got along in those days.  Junk mail was evident at a glance.  You sorted it and life went on.

Now email has taken over life.  I simply can’t keep up with it.  Some time ago Google offered a trifurcated email experience: primary, social, and promotional.  Their algorithms aren’t perfect (numbers seldom are) but I can often ignore large swaths of the promotional page.  That saves time.  Most of the social is dominated by people I don’t know wanting to connect on LinkedIn, or someone mentioning something I should pay attention to on Facebook.  Or perhaps something going on in the neighborhood on Nextdoor.  Primary deserves its name, but I can’t keep up with even that.  You see, I have a full-time job.  It largely consists of reading emails.  If I get a personal email in the morning, chances are it will be buried on the second page by the time the day’s out.  It may never been seen again.  I don’t need another new way to communicate.

The pandemic has introduced the new malady of Zoom exhaustion.  It isn’t unusual for my entire weekend to be taken up with Zoom.  If I don’t have a good part of a Saturday to sort my emails into files things I promised I’d do begin to slip.  I don’t see that email—the one that serves as a reminder to this addled brain of mine.  If I order something on Amazon I have to follow up on an email asking me to rate the service.  And then, if it’s not sold directly by Amazon, a vendor fishing for a compliment.  That after getting an email to confirm my order and another to tell me it’s been shipped.  No, please don’t subject me to Slack.  Or better yet, send me an email about it.  I’ll get to it eventually, as long as it stays on the first page.


Too Fast

In the Easy Reader book Hooray for Henry (available on Amazon for $768.57; that’s $12.60 per page), our eponymous protagonist Henry can’t win any of the events at the picnic games.  One of the refrains as he participates in the races is “faster, faster—too fast” (I may have got the punctuation wrong, but then I haven’t read the book for at least a couple of decades and I can’t afford a new one).  That story seems to have become a symbol for those of us mired in technology.  The rate of change is, as in Henry’s experience, too fast.  The other day I noticed an annoying warning on my laptop that claims I’m low on memory and that I have to close some applications.  What with all that tech requires of us these days I probably do have too many things open at once.  It pops up, however, when I have even just one application open.

A web search revealed this is probably a virus (something that used to be rare on Macs, but that was back in the day when things moved a little slower).  The steps for removing it were technical and appeared to be extremely time-consuming.  What I don’t have is time.  And it’s not just my rare time off work that’s too full.  On the job we’re constantly having to learn new software.  It doesn’t really matter what your line of work is, if it involves sitting behind a computer we’re constantly being told to learn new applications while trying to find time to do the jobs we’re paid to do.  There’s no question of which is the tail and which is the dog here.  With an economy driven largely by tech, because that’s where all the jobs are, you risk everything if you don’t upgrade (about every two weeks at present).

I’ve been writing a long time.  Decades.  Some of my earlier pieces are no longer openable because the software with which I wrote them has been upgraded to the point that it can’t read its own earlier writing.  To the prolific this presents a real problem.  I have, literally, thousands of pieces of writing.  I can’t upgrade every single one each time a new release comes out.  The older ones, it seems, are lost forever.  I used to print out every post on this blog.  Given that there are now even thousands of them, I eventually gave up.  I know that they will inevitably disappear into the fog some day.  For writers who’ve been discovered after their deaths this would be a Bradburian fate.  Or perhaps a Serlingesque twist.  The world realizes a writer had something important to say, but her or his writing can no longer be read because the tech is outdated.  Faster, faster—too fast.


In Praise of Brevity

I recently read an article in praise of short books.  Marina van Zuylen, whose response led to the article by Steven Weiland, praises not only brevity, but also print.  There is a difference between reading an actual book and reading something on a screen, even if an actual book of it exists somewhere.  I don’t buy the argument that books are clutter.  Books are my life, and if you start tossing them out you might as well start chopping bits off my body.  But it’s her thoughts on short books that really caught my attention.  Not that there’s anything wrong with long books.  Good ones are like getting lost in a pleasant mind-forest.  But I miss short books and the sense of accomplishment they engender.

Maybe like me you see a book online and get excited.  You really want to read it and then you click on its landing page and learn it’s over 300 pages long.  Or 400.  Or more.  You stop to think; do I really want to invest that much time on a single book?  As van Zuylen explains, some tenure committees don’t take short books seriously.  They want heft.  This blog should stand as proof that anyone can multiply words.  There are well over a million words on this blog alone.  As a book this blog would be about 3,650 pages.  Without footnotes.  But it’s not a book, and that’s the point.  Your time is valuable.  You’re choosing to spend a little of it with me (Thank you!).  I keep my posts around 400 words.  A five-minute read.  And I like books that I can finish in a week or two, along with my full-time job and other life responsibilities.

The electronic revolution—as good as it’s been—distorts things.  Even the very definition of “book” is up for grabs.  My mind always goes back to the scriptoria with weak-eyed monks rubbing aching backs as they laboriously copied books out by hand.  Today we don’t even wait for the paperback, but download it instantly.  How is this the same?  And yet we have less time than ever.  That’s why I enjoy short books.  Some of the most impactful (oh, that word!) books I’ve read have been brief.  As Pascal long ago noted, it’s more difficult to write a short piece than a long one.  So I join Dr. van Zuylen in her praise of the short book.  Long may they live!

At least it’s real…


Look, New…

You may’ve noticed a new look to my website.  That isn’t intentional.  I woke up Friday only to learn that Word Press (which used to be friendly to individual bloggers) decided to change at least one of the few templates they allow paying customers to use (if I upgrade even more to “business class” I have lots more options).  One of those templates happened to be the one I’d labored over, sacrificing an entire weekend about a year ago to get it just how I liked it.  Now, I’m a Neo-Luddite.  Behind the scenes my daughter and one of my nieces have helped me with technical aspects of this blog from the very beginning.  Several years ago I reached capacity for the free service, where, understandably, templates are limited.  Now I pay for both the domain name and the privilege of hosting it on Word Press.  But they like to limit privileges to try to force you to upgrade.  What would Amos say?

A few weeks back my iPhone began to lose its charge at an alarming rate.  I’d unplug it, and, doing nothing but occasionally checking for non-existent texts, it would be red-lining a couple hours later.  I feared I might need to get it serviced.  This went on for several weeks.  It occurred to me that Christmas was approaching and Apple has been known to slow down devices in order to encourage you to buy a new one.  Upgrade!  Everybody’s doing it!  Well, I don’t make enough money to constantly upgrade, so I kept my phone plugged in all the time when I was home (which, during a pandemic, is pretty much all the time).  Then, a few days after Christmas, when it was clear I wasn’t buying a new one, the battery began to hold its charge again.

The tech industry has us in a strangle-hold.  As soon as you purchase that first laptop, tablet, phone, or smart-watch, you’re an indentured servant to upgrades.  So I went to Word Press’s template library and tried to find something that didn’t look too bad with the images and “feel” I’m going for here.  Almost as if they’d chosen an algorithm that made available only a handful of templates that worked worst with what I’m trying to do on this website, I found their selection extremely limited.  If I upgrade to “business class” (which I will need to do when the capacity for my “service level” (not cheap) is full) I will have a plethora of choices.  Until they add a new service level above that, that is.  Then I’ll need to upgrade yet again to unlock all the neat features they “offer.”  Thanks, Word Press.  I’ve been with you over ten years now and I have to ask, is that the way you treat a longterm, paying friend?

Remember this?


Internet Nowhere

So I wake up early.  I’ve been trying for years now to learn to sleep in a bit.  Somehow my body got to thinking the outrageous commute schedule to New York City was normal and I can’t convince it otherwise.  That means my most productive time comes before others awake.  It also seems to be the time favored by internet service providers to take their systems offline for a while.  You see, like any system the internet needs down time.  I slept in until 3:30 this morning and awoke to find internet access unavailable.  I use it during my writing, looking up answers to questions which both my fiction and non raise.  When the internet’s out there’s little I can do, but I’m already awake.  Society prefers conformists, but some of us maybe hear a different beat on our march.

The fact is we expect constant connectivity.  Many of us pay a significant monthly amount to ensure that we have it, but this is no guarantee.  Calling your local service provider at 4 a.m. on a Saturday (I’ve done this) is like dealing with IT at work: they really have no clue what’s wrong but they can talk technical to you, if that makes you feel good.  After all, it’s in the middle of the night.  So I try to decide on something else to do.  Reading works.  Books, however, often lead me to want to look something up.  But the internet’s down, at least around here.  We are utterly beholden to the tech industry that can (and does) wink out from time to time.  When the robot uprising occurs we just need to wait for the service maintenance hour.

I reboot my router.  It’s the first course of action when the internet’s out.  I think I’ll check out a personal hotspot, but to do that I need the internet.  It’s a great, constant feedback loop.  I suspect I’m not the only early riser who faces the internet dearth in the wee hours.  I know I’m overpaying because my data (whatever that is) plan on my phone always shows a monthly surplus.  When it comes to the techies, you just nod your head and pay your bill.  I do wonder what’s happening in the wider world.  Without the net you feel especially isolated in pandemic times.  It’s Saturday morning and the internet’s unavailable.  Back in my teaching days I know just what I’d be doing.  Instead I’m waiting for technology to catch up.


The End of Snow Days

It’s a chilling thought.  An article in the New York Times said it, but we were all thinking it.  Snow days may well have become another victim of Covid-19.  No, it’s not snowing yet (but give climate change a chance!), but New York City schools have figured out that if students can learn from home then one of the truly treasured memories of our youth may no longer be necessary.  In fact, snow days ended for me when I began working remotely.  My supervisor had suggested, even before that, that I take my company laptop home daily, in case of inclement weather.  The idea of awaking, wonder-eyed, at the world covered in white—that cozy feeling of knowing you had no obligations for the day but to enjoy the pristine world out your window—is a thing of the past.

Technology has changed our lives, and some of it is even for the better.  It hasn’t made work easier for some of us, but has made it longer.  We used to talk about kids and their continuous partial attention, but now work is always at home with you and that time signature on your email says something about your work habits.  As the days are now shorter than the nights, as they will be for six more months, finding the time to do what you must outdoors (it may be cooler, but lawns still insist on growing) is always a bit more of a challenge.  And when the snow does fall you’ll still have to shovel the walk.  All time has become company time for a truly linked-in world.

The real victim here, it seems to me, is childhood.  Snow days were a reminder that no matter how strict, how Calvinistic our administrators wanted to be, the weather could still give us a smile now and then.  A legitimate excuse not to have to go to school and, if parents couldn’t get you to daycare, a day off for everyone.  The strict number of limited holidays allotted by HR had limited power in those days.  Although we all know that well-rested, happy workers tend to do better jobs than those who are constantly stressed out and who have trouble sleeping, we’ve now got the means to make the sameness of pandemic life the ennui of everyday life, in saecula saeculorum.  Thanks, internet.  At least now we work where we have a window and can look out on nature and can see what we’re missing.


Eureka?

It’s weird to feel yourself becoming a curmudgeon.  Especially when it’s about technology.  Someone asked me the other day if I could send an audio file of something I’d recorded.  I stopped doing podcasts because I lost track of the server that had been hosting the files.  My “inbox was full” or some such nonsense—they’re just electrons, folks.  I’m already paying for the space to host this blog and one thing I know about audio files is they take up lots of space.  My laptop reminds me of that every time it wants to update.  Well, I recorded the requested audio file and wanted to send it along.  I couldn’t find it.  Now, I’m one of those people who started using Apple computers because they were intuitive.  You could easily guess, or reason out, where things were.  It’s not that way anymore.

I had to do a web search (use Ecosia!  They plant trees for your searches!) for where Macs store your audio recordings so that I could send it.  Buried deeply in a directory that has a nondescript name that you’d never possibly guess (it’s as if someone were to assign you Concluding Unscientific Postscript during a game of book-title charades), the helpful site said, you’ll find it.  It’s in your “Library.”  Well sir, Mac had decided that you no longer needed to navigate your way to your Library and that directory was hidden.  Another Ecosia search—more trees—and I learned that you could do a special preference tweaking (it only took four or five steps) so that your computer would display your own Library and you could find your renamed file that you’d created.

Back in the day (here’s the curmudgeon part) when you had to swap discs—floppies—and the computer had the memory capacity of a Republican senator, you knew which disc had your files.  To access them, you simply inserted the disc.  Later they were stored on the hard drive itself and the directory told you right where you’d find them.  Now who knows where your created content is stored—out there on a cloud somewhere, I hear.  That doesn’t help when a friend asks you to send a file.  I had no idea where it even was.  It’s job security for the tech sector, to be sure.  At least it helped me to plant some trees along the way.  Back in the day we used to say you can lose sight of the forest for the trees.  It works, it seems, the other way around as well.


Upgraded at Last

Those who pay close attention to labels may have noticed the tag “Neo-Luddism” appended to some of my blog posts.  Luddites were nineteenth-century protestors against machines because, their thinking went, machines denied people jobs.  I’m not fully in line with this way of thinking, of course, but I do occasionally point out the ironies of how our technological life has become, well, life.  Tech seems to have taken over life itself and some people really like that.  Others of us miss the outdoors and even the “free time” we used to have indoors.  Our computers, phones, iPads, left behind and maybe a physical book cracked open—this seems a dream at times.  I really do enjoy our connected life, for the most part.  It makes this blog possible, for instance.  What I object to is being forced to upgrade.  That should be a decision I make, not one thrust upon me.

Which cloud is it?

This is just one small instance of what I’m talking about: my laptop wants an update.  It has for a couple of months now.  Since it’s in rather constant use I can only devote the time to it on the weekends and the past four weekends have all been used up with other things, including two that had over eight hours of Zoom meetings scheduled.  Now, you see, the update isn’t just a matter of simply updating.  You need to clear space off your computer first.  I like to keep my files and the tech companies want to pressure me into keeping them on “the cloud” so they can charge me for the privilege of accessing the things I created.  Instead I back them up on terabyte drives, sorting as I go.  Photos, formerly iPhotos, take seven or eight clicks to upload and delete for each and every set.  If you snap a lot of pix that translates to hours of time.  It also means when I want to access my files I have to remember where I put the terabyte drive, and then connect it to the computer.  At least I know where my files are.

But do I?  If I were to crack open the drive would I have any means of locating what, on my laptop, looks like memories of family, friends, and places I’ve been?  Are they real at all?  If you’re sympathetic to this existential crisis created by the tech world in which we live, you might understand, in some measure Neo-Luddism.  Of course memory is available for purchase and it will surely last you at least until the next upgrade.


Zoom Game

Perhaps you’ve notice it too.  The technology blame-game, I mean.  Although it’s grown more acute since the pandemic, it has been around for as long as the tech disparity has existed.  A typical scenario goes like this: someone (often of a more senior generation) encounters a techical problem communicating with someone else (often of a more recent generation) and asks them what the problem is with their (the younger person’s technology).  I sent you the message, the narrative goes, there must be something wrong with your tech if you didn’t receive it.  Believe me, I understand how bewildering this can be.  We’ve sold seniors (one of which I am rapidly becoming) on the idea that this little device in your hand can do anything.  When it doesn’t work, it must be somebody else’s fault.  The young, however, often have the latest tech and fastest speeds and broadest bandwidth, so the problem is probably on the sending end.

I run into this quite a bit since I run a small program for some local folks that involves weekly Zoom meetings.  I’m no Zoom maven.  My wife trained me in it and I can do passably well at running a meeting.  Many of those older than me, however, often have problems.  They wonder what is wrong with my broadcasting rather than their receiving.  I’m not sure how to say ever so gently that we pay (through the nose) for high-speed connectivity.  We have to since I work from home as a matter of course.  Now my wife also works from home and the two of us use our bandwidth all day long with multiple simultaneous meetings without any issues.  The tech here seems good.  We have no way of checking the tech on the end of those who are having connectivity issues.

I’m not setting myself up as any kind of tech prophet.  If you read my blog you know that I am deeply ambivalent about this whole thing.  I’ve been thinking a lot about overpromising recently and I wonder if that’s not a major part of the problem.  Technology will not solve all of our problems.  The fact that you need a regular source of electricity for it to run shows its inherent weakness.  It is a tool like any other, and if the tool is bladed to be useful it must have a dull part onto which one might hold.  Our Zoom society is bound to have issues.  Once we can see each other face-to-face again, all we’ll have to worry about is whether the laptop will communicate with the projector, or if the microphone is on the fritz this morning.  So it always has been.


Hebrew Class

It is utterly remarkable that in this year of the Common Era 2020 that even in Unicode you can’t write Hebrew in Microsoft Word without gymnastics.  The task at work was a fairly simple one: proofread the Hebrew in a typeset manuscript ready for the printer.  This means the manuscript is a PDF at this point and to get Hebrew to appear in a comment bubble you need to copy it from Word and paste it in.  But wait!  Word only has some Hebrew letters in its Symbols menu.  Try getting a yod to appear.  I looked up a Unicode chart, copied and pasted the Unicode unique identifier and Word gave me a capital P.  Not a jot or tittle to be found.  So, to get the yod I had to fetch my personal Mac and use the language menu and type the word out.  Copy.  Paste in an email from my personal account to my work account.  Wait.  Open work email message.  Copy again.  Paste again.

Using this method, a task that would take me maybe twenty minutes stretched into hours.  There was simply no way to get Microsoft Word to display a full Hebrew alphabet shy of changing the language on the computer.  And since I don’t read Modern Hebrew I had a feeling that would lead to disaster.  Part of the problem is that programmers thought it would be smart to make Unicode Hebrew automatically appear right to left.  This has been the bane of many of us since the earliest word processors tried to replicate the language.  We grew used to typing it in backwards.  Now you never know which letter is going to disappear if you hit delete—it doesn’t help that it can act differently on a Mac than on your standard business-issue PC.  Not only that, but when you paste it the receiving document often automatically reverses word order.  Can I get a pen and paper over here?

I sometimes jokingly lament the hold that technology has on us.  In some instances the joking takes on a serious tone, I know.  I do wonder about having techies drive where we’re going.  It’s one thing to make it possible to print Hebrew letters in electronic form, but it is quite another to read them and have a sense of what they’re saying.  And those of us challenged by the whole right-left orientation and a cursor blinking on one side of a word but having its effect on the other wonder if it’s worth the effort.  There’s a reason ancient people wrote in clay, it seems. 


In the Clouds

So I’m looking for a photo.  An electronic one, of course.  And since my camera, or phone, or whatever it is, automatically names them for the benefits of machines, I don’t know what it’s called.  When I want to search for it I have to scroll and scan through hundreds of images.  It’s the price we pay for letting technology run things.  Okay, so it’s made life easier; I’m down with that.  Still, I would like to know where my info is.  I learned to find files by navigating to them, something computers taught me how to do.  But computers move things around while we sleep.   

Now that Covid-19 has moved in to stay, we all use meeting software to stay in touch.  Most of us use Zoom so businesses naturally prefer Microsoft Teams.  I don’t know the details of Teams so I watch a video tutorial.  The Microsoft official (well-paid enough to dress casual) is explaining that you can attach things in Teams, something that we’ve all had to learn how to do in email school.  He says that those sharing in your chat don’t know where the actual document is.  “Who needs to know?” (I’m paraphrasing here), he says.  “Nobody needs to know where it is.”  This is my fear—my personal files need to be where I can find them, not on some sleepy server halfway around the world.  Just the other day the internet went out here.  Just for a little while, but those were panicked minutes nonetheless.  I don’t want my files bumping around in a cloud when I need to know how to navigate to them.  What if the server goes down right when I need them?   I don’t trust clouds.  Zeus raped Io in the form of a cloud, remember.

Bordone, Zeus and Io; a picture I did find!

I’d feel better about all this if those of us pen-and-paper types were involved in the discussion.  Nothing says “ephemera” like documents made of electrons.  Maybe I need to spend more time with religions of east Asia where the idea of lack of permanence is key.  Knowing where to find important things, however, has been a hallmark of Euro-American thought.  And if your very own personal documents are being kept where you don’t even need to know where, how can you sleep at night?  Some of us are kept awake still wondering where that thing we can find since we’ve moved might be.  I get the spooky feeling that technology is training us.  For what nobody can guess.  As for me, I’ll get in line once I find that photo that I didn’t even name.


Up the Downgrade

My computer’s been telling me that it wants to upgrade.  In fact, when I first bought this laptop several years ago, and started it up the first time right out of the box, a message popped up that a system update was available.  The tech business, you see, never really sells you a computer.  They’re working on it constantly, often at the same time I’m trying to use it.  In any case, the reason I haven’t upgraded has been that I need to clear off space on my hard drive.  Each upgrade requires more and more of the limited space I have, so my work has to be shoved off onto external drives that I stack like bricks in my attic.  And that takes time.

This wasn’t a problem with my pre-internet computers.  You bought them to do PowerPoint for work and word processing for publications.  Said publications were printed out and sent via mail to publishers.  Just typing that makes me feel old.  The fact was, however, you could get by on those computers without any upgrades at all.  The system that came with it was sufficient for the life of the machine.  Once you get connected to the internet, though, you have to keep up.  I often run into websites on my work laptop, which doesn’t have the latest system, that simply don’t work.  If they’re going to upgrade, I have to upgrade, and to upgrade I have to discard stuff I want to keep.  Every day I get the red warning signal—computer is hungry but can’t be fed until I start throwing my hard work away.  Or at least putting it where it will take extra effort to get it back.

Also, how are you supposed to find the time for upgrades when you use your computer constantly?  A typical download and install takes over an hour.  If we’re so wired, when are we possibly going to find the time for that?  And I still haven’t cleared enough space on my hard drive.  My external drive’s getting too full.  I guess it’s impossible to keep everyone happy.  In the midst of all this I squeeze in some time to use my laptop for that which I actually bought it—to do my research and writing and, during the pandemic, to buy the necessities of life.  And if I don’t upgrade Zoom’s going to stop working because it’s upgrading too.  I need to buy a computer that does nothing but upgrade itself.  That might be the solution.  That, or going back to good old-fashioned pen and paper.


Nightmares with Nightmares

Although some staff members are furloughed, Nightmares with the Bible is still going to press.  Unlike many authors, I realize that Covid-19 has had a stifling effect on publishing, starting with bottlenecking books at printing houses.  Printers (along with publishers) were non-essential businesses and since you have to be physically present to run a printing press, the virus literally, well, stopped the presses.  Many publishers could work remotely, so the projects began piling up before printing houses reopened.  All of this is preamble to saying I am gratified that work with Nightmares is continuing.  Yesterday, however, it led to a nightmare of its own.

One of the reasons I don’t fight awaking early is that it is uninterrupted writing time.  Most of the rest of your time zone is asleep at three a.m., so I can write in peace.  Yesterday, however, I had to divide my manuscript into chapter files and resend it to the publisher.  No problem, right?  Technology, however, has made this once simple task a burden.  I use a Mac, and so my word processor is Pages.  Not only that, but the constant systems upgrades require me to empty space on my hard drive—really, the only stuff I keep on here are my writings and those pictures I snap with my phone.  Still, I had to load my external drive to access the final file sent to the publisher two months back.  With Pages you can’t select material from page-to-page in the thumbnails.  No, you must “physically” go to the start of the chapter, click, scroll to the end of the chapter, and shift-click to highlight and then copy it.  Then you have to open a new file, select a template, and paste.  Save and export as a Word document.  The process took about two hours.

 

Now, I get up this early to write and do a little reading.  Yesterday I could do neither.  Instead I was cutting and pasting like a manic kindergartener, trying to get my manuscript printed before the second wave comes and shuts everything down again.  Talk about your nightmares!  Technology has made the industry much swifter, no doubt.  When I first began publishing articles you had to send physical printouts through the postal services and await either a rejection, or acceptance, through the mail.  Book manuscripts required large print jobs and keeping duplicates (at least we didn’t have to use carbon paper!).  All I lost was a morning of writing before the work bell rang.  Still, nightmares come in all sizes, some of them quite small.


Insubstantial Reading

Because of the shortness of time, I recently bought an ebook so that I could get it done under deadline.  Although the coronavirus still has book delivery slowed down, things are much improved.  There was a book, however, I absolutely needed to read for my current research that is available only in ebook form.  Sighing, but emboldened by my recent experience, I began reading it electronically.  Shortly after I started my critical faculties kicked in and I began wondering whether the book was fact or fiction.  The author has an internet presence but is seldom addressed by scholars.  I found myself thinking, “if this was a real book, I’d stop right about now and examine my physical copy for clues.”  I’ve done that more than once when it comes to questionable material.  Books, you see, come with built-in indicators of their trustworthiness.

The ebook, however, gives you scant information.  For example, this one has no copyright page.  I may be a publishing geek, but a copyright page is essential for determining what kind of book you’re reading.  Then I would, if this were an actual book, close it and look at the back cover.  There in the upper left I would look for the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) code.  These are the words that classify the genre and subject of the book for you.  It is often a publishing professional, such as the book’s editor, who assigns the BISAC code, so depending on who the publisher is, you have an accurate description.  This ebook on my Kindle software has no BISAC code.  The publisher itself often tells you something about a volume, but this is a small press without much online information available.

I’m walking you through this because of our current crisis of critical thinking.  With a president unwilling to stick to facts and crying out “fake news” when empirically proven realities don’t match his liking, being able to assess our sources is essential.  Ebooks have eroded the possibilities.  I read esoteric stuff, I admit.  The authors had to have convinced a publisher (and don’t get me started on self-published books!) that their project was viable.  The book in my hands has a number of ways to assess whether it is accurate or not.  The ebook on my lap does not.  I’m working on a longer article on this topic.  Our ability to think critically includes the necessity of assessing the clues as to the nature of our reading material.  Right now I’m reading an ebook stripped of the helpful clues of the print book and fact-checking is limited to Google.  The truth may be out there, but if this were a printed book chances are it would be right in my hands.

 


Letterbox

It’s kind of scary.  I mean, I know that Google Maps has everything recorded.  Some family members recounted, a few years back, how they were shown raking the leaves in their yard on street level photographs.  I guess everything’s part of your permanent record now.  What was scary to me was receiving a letter with a picture of my house on the envelope.  Yes, it was from an insurance agency, and insurance thrives on the feeling of vague threat that rattles around our primate brains most of the time.  Is something  or someone out to get me?  Oh no!  They know where I live!  Maybe it was supposed to be friendly, like a good neighbor.  It just didn’t come across that way.  Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.

Not that being recorded doesn’t have its advantages.  We live in an older house, and like most older houses it has had some additions over the decades.  That means the roof is complex.  That complex roof turned out to be leaky also.  When the roofer was trying to explain why he couldn’t do just the one part where the water was getting in (we have been re-roofing on an installment plan), I had trouble imagining it.  You see, when you’ve got neighbors all around it’s pretty tough to get the right angle to examine your own roof.  I googled our address and shifted to satellite mode.  I zoomed in and found the layout of the roof.  Screenshot and save.  Otherwise I don’t think I’d ever have understood how complicated rain deterrence can really be.

But getting a letter in the mail with your own house on it—this seems to cross some kind of line.  Yes, I like our place.  I feel comfortable here.  It’s got space for lots of books.  It isn’t fancy, though.  It still needs quite a lot of work both inside and out.  And I like to spend my scant free time reading.  It’s cheaper than buying all the lumber and tools I need to do things the way they should be done.  Maybe if my job were driving around filming other peoples’ houses I’d make enough to have some contractor come in and fix things up.  But the insurance agent knows where I live now.  Covid-19 probably stops him from knocking at my door, but I do value my privacy.  Like most things, being recorded is a mixed bag.  Who couldn’t use a little extra anxiety once in a while?