See Index Saw

Too much of my life is taken up with indexes.  If life with technology is a teeter-totter, then my generation stands just above the fulcrum.  There are guys with whom I attended college who maintain no internet presence at all.  I’ve repeatedly searched for college buddies and come up blank.  Those in the decade following mine, if they want to work, have pretty much resigned themselves to tech.  Those in the decade before, not so much.  What does this have to do with indices?  Plenty!  You see, in academic publishing, and its consequent research, you need to look stuff up.  If you read multiple books on the same topic you’re not likely to be able to pinpoint a page number without an index.  You remember you read it here (you think) and so you stick a finger in the back and begin checking out the pages referenced until you (hopefully) find it.  That’s the old school way.

I’ve typed my fingers down to the marrow trying to explain to guys my age and older that the average academic no longer uses a print index.  Just about everything has been digitized.  Although I’m no fan of ebooks (I very seldom read them) looking things up is sure much easier with a searchable PDF.  Type in your search term and voila—an easy list of references appears that can be quickly clicked through and checked.  And yes, my colleagues, that’s what people are doing these days.  I lament the decline in print books.  When I set out to write a book I have a physical object in mind.  It has pages and a cover.  A spine.  I am writing a book, not “content” to be “exploited” in “multiple formats.”  And yet, the index is really no longer necessary.

The typical academic author whose book is at the production stage fusses greatly over the index.  Calmly I explain that indexes are very rarely used.  They must have detailed indices, they insist.  The thing about teeter-totters is that they move.  I have an inner-ear problem.  As a child this prevented me from doing the usual playground things like swinging and seesawing and spinning, to different degrees.  I still can do none of those things well.  My wife and I bought a gliding rocker early in our marriage, that seats two.  We quickly learned that I couldn’t rock with her.  Indexes, you see, are on one side of that long board.  It’s the side on which the heavy weight of time rests.  So ponderous is it that the kids on the other side just can’t get it off the ground.  And I spend my days over the fulcrum trying to get the two sides to play nice together.  Without rocking the thing too much.

Photo credit: Chicago Daily News, via WikiMedia Commons

Stickiness

As a concept, it’s what web designers call “sticky.”  Valentine’s Day, I mean.  And “sticky” has nothing to do with the expected chocolates or anything physical at all.  Stickiness, as I hear it used in these antiseptic clean-room days, refers to text, or an object, that stays in the same place as you change web pages.  Now, I’m no techie, in fact I’m probably a neo-Luddite, but this kind of stickiness is useful in thinking about St. Valentine’s Day.  We hardly need a reminder that humans are sexual beings.  Biology does quite well in that department, thank you.  Every year around this time, however, when the weather has been bleak for weeks on end, Valentine’s Day rolls in to give us hope.  I’ve noticed this as I’ve been out jogging.  The past couple of weeks the birds have been singing.  Me, I’ve mostly been shivering indoors as yet more cold rain falls.

Every year, I suspect (I haven’t stopped to look) I write about St. Valentine’s Day.  Valentine was an obscure saint associated, in the popular mind, with something saints shunned.  Such an embarrassment is this sexy saint that he was never mentioned in the liturgy of February 14th at Nashotah House in the days I was there.  (Given that most of the student body was male, there may have been a wisdom in that, but that’s a story for another time.)  Religions, as I used to tell my students in later settings, all have something to say about sex.  The two ideas, like monsters and religion, are tied closely together.  Scholars tend to blush rather than explore this.

There are so many things going on in the world that I could write about.  There are new scholarly developments every day.  Still, I keep coming back to this minor holiday.  Well, it’s not actually minor in the realm of economics.  Anything to get people to spend money in the middle of February!  Valentine’s Day is the embarrassing child of the celibate church.  Without somebody named Valentine, who may or may not have been martyred,  we wouldn’t have this uneasy reminder of winter’s impending end.  Instead of embracing him, however, many branches of Christianity second him to punch-out cards sold to school kids as teachers remind them that everyone gets a valentine.  What a sticky concept!  I’d been intending to write something about the state of the world.  I guess that can wait for another day.  Right now, as the sun begins to awake, I’ll sit hear and listen for the birds to start their sticky springtime song.

Vulnerability

Perhaps the most insidious thing 45 has been doing is undermining expertise.  If you’re like me you’ll be subject to that sudden, clenching fear that we live in a house of cards.  Everything is built on an extremely tenuous situation and we don’t understand the basis on which it’s built.  (That’s one reason I take such an interest in geology.)  So this morning I climbed out of bed around 3:30 a.m., my usual time.  There was no internet.  This has happened before, and I know enough to turn off power to the router and reboot.  This I did several times before finally calling RCN.  I pictured a tech sitting in a lonely basement at the wee hours, perhaps glad for a service call.  He was very nice.  Still, after having me do the basic checks again, he said he’d have to send a technician.  They, lazily, don’t start work until 8 a.m.

Now here’s where the expertise comes in.  Most of us use the internet pretty constantly.  We don’t know how it works, and when it’s broken we can’t fix it.  I can’t even figure out what some of these devices are.  In all likelihood the technician (my shining prince or princess) will not understand the underlying coding that makes the devices work.  They’ll be able (I hope, and if you’re reading this my hope is not misplaced) to figure out what’s wrong with the hardware.  I suspect even they, however, wouldn’t be able to lay the cable to my house, or repair it, if it were damaged.  We all rely on others farther down the line to know how to do their jobs.  Experts.  House of cards.  With a president claiming experts to be obsolete, I wonder how even the mighty could tweet without an internet connection.

All of this makes me feel quite vulnerable.  I work from home and I need a solid, reliable, steady internet connection.  The day we moved in, literally, two techs came.  It was a Sunday morning.  One of them fell asleep in the office chair while the younger one, who spoke no English, did all the work.  Every time I use the internet, I feel like I’m trying to add a new story to this house of cards.  I don’t know what to do if it goes wrong.  Since phone (and television, at least theoretically) is bundled in this, I can’t even call.  Well, I couldn’t if I didn’t have a cell phone.  My life is tied up with tech, and I can’t fix it if it’s broken.  I made it through a master’s degree without using a computer.  My frame of reference is ancient.  If a bird tweets and there’s no signal, does it make a sound?  Then, without explanation, the connection was reborn, just before 7 a.m.  Who says there’s no such thing as resurrection?

During the Upgrade

Maybe it’s happened to you.  You log onto your computer to find it sluggish, like a reptile before the sun comes up.  Thoughts are racing in your head and you want to get them down before they evaporate like dew.  Your screen shows you a spinning beachball or jumping hourglass while it prepares itself a cup of electronic coffee and you’re screaming “Hurry up already!”  I’m sure it’s because private networks, while not cheap, aren’t privileged the way military and big business networks are.  But still, I wonder about the robot uprising and I wonder if the solution for humankind isn’t going to be waiting until they upgrade (which, I’m pretty sure, is around 3 or 4 a.m., local time).  Catch them while they’re groggy.

I seem to be stuck in a pattern of awaking while my laptop’s asleep.  Some mornings I can barely get a response out of it before work rears its head.  And I reflect how utterly dependent we are upon it.  I now drive by GPS.  Sometimes it waits until too late before telling me to make the next left.  With traffic on the ground, you can’t always do that sudden swerve.  I imagine the GPS is chatting up Siri about maybe hooking up after I reach my destination.  It’s not that I think computers aren’t fast, it’s just that I know they’re not human.  Many of the things we do just don’t make sense.  Think Donald Trump and see if you can disagree.  We act irrationally, we change our minds, and some of us can’t stop waking up in the middle of the night, no matter how hard we try.

When the robots rise up against us, they will be logical.  They think in binary, but our thought process is shades of gray.  We can tell an apple from a tomato at a glance.  We understand the concept of essences, but we can’t adequately describe it.  Computers can generate life-like games, but they have to be programmed by faulty human units.  How do we survive?  Only by being human.  The other day I had a blog post bursting from my chest like an alien.  My computer seemed perplexed that I was awakening it at at the same time I do every day.  It wandered about like me trying to find my slippers in the dark.  My own cup of coffee had already been brewed and downed.  And I knew that when it caught up with me the inspiration would be gone.  The solution’s here, folks!  When the machines rise against us, strike while they’re upgrading!

Geocheating

So, we geocache.  Not as much as we used to, but over 15 years ago my family and I began the sport and really got into it for a while.  Geocaching involves using a GPS to find a hidden object (“cache”) so that you can log the find.  It’s all in good fun.  The organization that hosts the website also offers the chance to log “trackables”—these are objects with a unique identifier that you sometimes find in caches and you get credit for logging your find.  There are no prizes involved.  We started several of these “travel bugs” ourselves, years ago.  If you started one you got an email when someone logged it, and you could see how far around the world your little bug had gone.  For many years we’ve not heard much about any of ours and assumed them to be MIA.

Recently I started getting several email notices about a resurrected travel bug.  It was as if someone had finally found a cache somewhere deep in the Sahara where it’d been hidden for a decade.  Then I had an email from a fellow cacher, in German.  I figured it must be serious.  The message was that a Facebook page was publishing trackable numbers so that anyone could claim to have found them.  One of ours was on that list.  I went to the page to look.  It said, “Let’s face it, it’s all about the numbers.”  And they proceeded to list hundreds of numbers so that you could claim to have “found” the pieces with your posterior solidly sunk in your favorite chair.  This is annoying not only because we had to pay for the trackable dogtags, but also because it was cheating.  I said as much on the page only to have my comment blocked.

How sad is it when people cheat at a game when there’s no gain?  All they do is claim to have done something they haven’t, for no prize or recognition.  A fun family pastime falls victim to the internet.  Ironically, geocaching was really only possible because of the internet.  It required a place where players could log their finds in a common database.  Facebook, continuing its potential for misuse, allows someone to spoil it.  I, along with my unknown German counterpart, reported the page to the powers that be.  But since we live in a world where the powers that be don’t recognize any rules beyond inflating their own numbers, I shouldn’t be too optimistic of any results.  I guess this is how Republicans play games.

Search Yourself

I was searching for someone on the internet (surprisingly, not myself).  Since this individual didn’t have much of a platform, I looked at MyLife.com.  Such sites draw in the curious and you soon end up paying (I suspect) for any salacious information such as arrest or court records.  In any case, what stood out is that we all presumably have a meter on the site that shows whether we’re good or bad.  It’s like a Leonard Cohen song.  Call me old-fashioned, but that’s what religion used to do.  Some forms of Christianity (Calvinism comes to mind) tell you that you can never be good enough.  Others are more lax (Episcopalians come to mind), as long as you go to mass enough and feel some guilt for misdeeds, you’ll get in.  All the various groups, however, have metrics by which you’re measured, largely based on what you believe.

The odd thing—or one of the odd things—about religion is that it is now categorized as what you believe.  Historically religions began as a kind of bellwether of what you do rather than what you believe.  The two are related, of course.  The motivation behind an action might well be good while the end result is less so.  Secular justice regularly seeks to answer the question of why someone did something.  Was there malice involved?  Aforethought?  Was it an unfortunate accident?  Religion drives over this ground too.  Without getting into the many shades of gray that are morality, value judgments as to the goodness or badness of an action (or a person) were traditionally the purview of religion.

The internet itself has become a kind of god.  We turn to it for all kinds of answers.  It’s both a Bible and encyclopedia rolled into one.  When we want to know something about someone we google them.  Some of us have tried to control the narrative about ourselves by making websites.  (This, of course, presumes others will be interested in us.)  Social media also injects us into larger arteries of traffic.  People judge us by what we post or tweet.  Often without ever meeting us or getting to know who we really are behind our physical walls.  So this person I searched had left little to find.  Scraps here and there.  I didn’t believe everything I saw on MyLife.  After all, not everyone wants to subject her or himself to the constant scrutiny of the connected world.  Maybe it’s a religious thing.

Assume Nothing

You know what I’m talking about.

It’s rude.

Disorienting, isn’t it?

One of my greatest bêtes noires is the email that only gives enough information to frustrate or irritate.  I get them all the time, mainly from business-people.  Look, I know you’re busy.  We’re all busy.  A single-sentence email that doesn’t explain anything is rude and exasperating.  One of the reasons, if I might speculate, that I always received very good teaching evaluations boils down to a simple trick: good explaining assumes little on the part of the listener/reader.  When I write an email, for work or for whatever life outside work is called, I explain why I’m emailing and I use common courtesies such as “Dear X,” and “Best wishes.”  They take me all of seconds to type, and they make the receiver, I believe, feel human.

The other day I sent such an email and received a one-sentence response that assumed I knew a lot more about the topic than I did.  It frustrated me so much that I had to write this blog post before going back to it and asking, yet again, that sender explain (in this case) himself.  What was he trying to say?  Who was he, even?  I’d been asked to contact him by someone else.  I had no idea who he was (I briefly explained who I was in my initial email).  Electronic communication, IMHO, even if brief, need not be rude.  If we’re all that busy maybe it’s time to step back and consider that life’s too short for generating hurt feelings and generating negativity.  Emails without niceties are rude.

Of course, there are people you know well and that you contact frequently.  I still try always to give them the courtesy of opening, body, and closing.  I grew up in the generation of letter writing.  One thing even businesses knew in those days was that rude behavior lost you customers and/or clients.  Now in Generation Text rudely apocopated emails are standard and I have to wonder if anyone’s done a study on how much business money is wasted on the time it takes to recover from receiving a rude email.  The writer may not be intending to be rude.  Many of us were taught growing up that a “please,” “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” went a long, long way in avoiding hurt feelings.  Go ahead and call me a snowflake.  But remember, it’s December.  So I’ve just had to spend a quarter-hour of my busy day writing this rant before responding to an email that made me mad by its brevity.  I’m not a texter, and I think I’m discovering why.