New Year

The year 2010 still looks weird.

Love Letter to a Dying Computer

Dearest Computer,
Well, here we are.  I know all this processing is a strain, but I’d like to say this while I still can.  If you need to turn off before I’m done, I’ll understand.
Gosh, how does one begin conversations like this?  I guess the best way is to start fondly at the beginning.  Remember when I brought you home that October evening in 2004?  Five years seems at once so long ago and so recent.  Whoever returned you to Best Buy didn’t know what they were missing with such a high-quality machine.  You were at the height of your game back then – 60GB hard drive!  24x CD burner (I had been limping along at 4x)!  17.1″ widescreen with DVD capability!  3 hours battery life!  And so portable!  I couldn’t wait to take you out to a coffee shop.
Sure, things were a bit awkward at first.  There was the issue of my desktop computer, which had been a good companion ever since we had wiped Windows ME from it and installed XP.  I spent more time and trouble than I should have, getting you two to talk to each other and transfer my files.  There were times when I thought I would just lose everything.  But from the first, Computer, you were supportive and patient as I installed new drivers and software.  I’m especially glad you got along with my printer – I know it hasn’t been all there either of late, but it’s going to miss you too, you know.
And then we took our first big trip abroad!  I admit I was worried about plugging you in the first time, hoping the foreign voltage wouldn’t overwhelm you.  But you adapted very well, and pretty soon (after adjusting my default paper size to A4) it was like you had been practically built in England.  I know I didn’t take you as many places as I could have – I tended to be possessive, not letting strangers try to pick you up while I wasn’t looking.  But we wrote some good papers together … and more than a few bad ones!  Remember when we stayed up practically all night writing that Tudor history response?
You were also good about keeping me connected to my friends back home … we spent more than a few hours E-mailing, chatting, talking on Skype.  And I’ll never forget how you helped me organize all my photos, especially after my purse (including camera) was stolen a month before we went home.  Thank goodness I had left you safely at home, Computer.  I don’t know what I would have done if you had been taken that day.
When we got back to the States, you re-acclimated faster than I did, and got right to work on that summer research project.  I’ll admit I wasn’t always the most motivated, but you were there whether we were watching those “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” clips for academic or purely entertainment purposes.  We barely pulled through before having to start the next project in the fall!
But oh, Computer, how many happy hours we spent in the library together, at our little hideaway on the 5th floor.  I even kept a second power cord there for you, remember?  You might have suffered a bit with all the book dust about, but even so, you never failed to have the right music to keep me going.  And I don’t think I ever told you how much appreciated you being faithful through those critical times.  More than once I heard the lament of someone whose computer had refused to work, had crashed at a critical moment, had failed to remember a really important paper.  Maybe it was luck, but I’d like to think our relationship was more stable that of the average student.  Here we are five years later, after all.
And like any college campus, disease was rampant.  I know, I know, we should have used better virus protection, but I guess I was just a young and reckless user.  Lately I’ve been feeling guilty about that … I should have given you access to Windows Update more often, I know, and maybe that mass-download was too little, too late.  And maybe what we’re going through now is somehow the first signs of an infection long ago … but I’d like to think that maybe what’s happening now is just the way of things, the natural lifespan of even the best technology.
(You’ve been doing well the last couple days, by the way.  I’ve really enjoyed being able to spend more time with you.)
Then – exciting times – we moved to Chicago!  I have to admit, I was pretty impressed with how you adapted to that ridiculous Comcast software, despite how difficult it was being.  And how you held your own against all those shiny new Dells and Macbooks and tiny only-good-for-notetaking machines with which people seemed enamored.  Sure, you weren’t really well-suited to the classroom, but I was able to get you up to speed once I got home.  <CRASH>
Are you okay?  Comfortable?
…. And you certainly put up with a lot from me that year!  French translations, Wikipedia page archives, not to mention pages and pages of semi-coherent notes about the Leaning Virgin of Albert… somtimes I’m surprised we made it through with a thesis and a half-hard-drive of free memory.  And still, you always pulled me through.
Remember when we sat out on the Midway and picked up a rogue wireless signal on that bench by the train tracks?  Your visual display probably wasn’t happy in the sunlight (not to mention your sensitivity to pollen), but sometimes a little risk is good for you, I suppose.
When I started working that summer, I realized that was really the longest we’d been separated on a daily basis.  I hope you didn’t resent it.  Sure, there was a computer at work, but it was strictly professional – I didn’t even have administrative access.  You still seem a little sore on this point, so I just want to say, all we did was read resumes, and occasionally browse sites like Politico.com.  And any pictures I saved were forwarded right home to you.  In any case, it was a Dell desktop with an insecure power cord, not my type at all.
And when I was home, we still spent some quality time together, watching the Daily Show online, ordering from the Something Store (BFF bracelet! haha), planning those weekend trips.  You kept me connected to the world, especially when the weather was bad or when I was feeling low.  You were so good at that.
I’ll admit – and maybe this coincided with returning to the more hectic pace of the city – I noticed you slowing down a few months ago.  Taking longer to load web pages.  Not quite able to handle too many tabs at a time.  Never enough to crash your whole system, but….  Was it Firefox?  Was I too pushy with open-source software?  I know Firefox is a new program and demanding on your resources.  If that’s what’s made you upset all these months, I’m sorry.  Yes, I’ll admit, occasionally I had thoughts about my next computer, what it would be and what we would do.  But as your browser history could attest, I never went further than idle thoughts.
Remembering the decline is still hard for me.  It seemed to come out of nowhere in March – I took you into the living room, it was like you were having an amnesia episode, perpetually restarting, unable to recognize where or what you were.  That’s when your mortality really hit me, Computer.  For a moment I was afraid you’d never wake up again.  Once you settled back on the desk, however, you were fine (for the time being).  I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with you – the unfortunate impatience the young have for the elderly.  After all, you were supposed to be portable!  I’d already resigned myself to dealing with your hyper-shortened battery life, since you stay plugged in most of the time anyway.  I tried to be careful where I set you down, how warm or cold you were, not fiddling with your wireless card button.  But once you started having those memory lapses, I couldn’t pretend anymore.
You seemed to go downhill so quickly in the past couple weeks.  It hurt that I couldn’t rely on you anymore, especially so soon before we would be heading to school again.  Is this what set you off, the thought of leaving the Midwest?  You haven’t traveled for a while.  Were you feeling as though you wouldn’t be able to keep up with the other east-coast computers?  I can understand where you’re coming from, I suppose.  I think you would have been fine.  But you always knew your own processor.
… I’m glad you’re not angry about the reformat.  I was really torn that day, whether to risk everything with a clean slate, or let you hobble along with all those programs intact.  Looking back, I know it was probably an unnecessary risk to put you through, and I’m sorry things didn’t turn out better.  I’m glad at least we were able to copy everything important before you forgot it all.  The worst part was the false hope we had as you finished reinstalling XP without a hitch – I can’t even describe the sinking feeling I had when I saw that awful blue screen in the middle of restoring one of your drivers.  Sure, we went through the motions and got you functional again (after all, aren’t you accessing the Internet right now?) but we both knew it was almost time.  You might have enjoyed running a few more of the old programs, but I thought it would be best for both of us if you just focused on the essentials.
I didn’t have the heart to shop online for a new computer with you, so I spared you that, at least.  If it makes you feel better, I’m getting another HP Pavilion … but for all its capability and trendy look, I still like your classy black-and-silver lines best.  I almost got a Dell that reminded me of you, but it wouldn’t have be the same.  Certainly it wouldn’t have the memories we have.  You know, in spite of everything, I still trust you.
I’ll be honest, Computer.  Dad thinks we might be able to fix you with another reformat and maybe a quick hardware replacement, but I can’t say I’m hopeful.  In any case, I care about you too much to put you through more trauma, with so little chance of real success.  Maybe it’s just your time.  I don’t need to have you calculate what Moore’s Law has to say about you.  Don’t listen to the hype about obselecense, Computer (oh! for one more moment with your spellcheck) – you can still hold your own against those cheaper, flashier models out there.  And you’ve been perfectly healthy until now.  That’s meant a lot to me.
Where do we go from here?  I don’t know.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could go out in a blaze of glory?  Flying off the roof of the Sears Tower – drifting slowly to the bottom of Lake Michigan – colliding with the brick wall of the Lozano school, chips and keys and LCD flying dazzling outward into the grass.  Part of me wants to give you that spectacular passing.  But the sentimental part can’t bring it to fruition.  I don’t know.
What I can promise, at least, is that I’ll try my best not to remember you this way, hobbling along semi-lucid in the mornings, sitting silent and closed all day.  You deserve better, Computer.  So let’s just savor our last times together online, and not worry about things you can’t process.  I know I’ve kept you awake a long time now … but do you think you have it in you for one last blog post, for old times’ sake?
<CRASH>
… Computer?
R.I.P. Blackadder, 2004 - 2009

R.I.P. Blackadder, 2004 - 2009

On Too Much Information

I read this in today’s New York Times and was both impressed and disturbed by this use of people’s penchant for online quizzes (particularly about themselves):  RealAge is giving people’s health information to drug companies, to be used for targeted Email marketing.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/26/technology/internet/26privacy.html?scp=1&sq=realage&st=cse

I’m pretty strongly against this idea, although I suppose if the site does not have a “we won’t sell your information” policy posted, it’s legal.  On the other hand, it is amazing how much personal information people will volunteer online, so maybe it is fair game if you’re okay with posting your heart-health history and income and so on.  Certainly Google has already made some steps in the direction of hyper-targeted marketing, scanning keywords in your Gmail messages to determine which ads you’ll see on the side of the screen.

Unrelated:  marketing companies are always coming up with new (sometimes intrusive) ways to show off products.  This one was amusing at least (last photo in the post):

http://www.ctatattler.com/2009/03/some-clever-bus-ad-wrap-ideas-for-the-cta.html

Also notable are the graphic memento mori bus decorations.

On Byrne and Colbert

David Byrne on the Colbert Report!!!  Amazing.  And he actually laughs multiple times … he must be mellowing out.

Watch Byrne and Colbert’s interview at Colbert Nation

I will post something legit soon, really!

Chicago Fail

I’m toying with the idea of turning this blog into specifically my thoughts on and first stabs at forming opinions on issues of urban planning – or I might just pollute the ‘net with another blog.  In any case, I thought this worth sharing:

I attended a couple lectures as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival which honored and discussed the 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan of Chicago, the document by Daniel Burnham and others which laid out not only the physical plan of the city, but the principles behind which Chicago has developed over the past century.  Looking at the plan and a map of downtown Chicago currently, it’s interesting to see what has and has not come into being, but I think the most entertaining and tragic deviation is as follows.

In the Plan, Burnham envisioned a variety of public spaces which celebrated civic life, including museums, lakefront park space, etc.   The centerpiece west of the Loop would be a “center for civic, intellectual, and cultural life” accessible via a wide boulevard called Congress Parkway, and from which diagonal streets like Ogden would lead outward into the rest of the city. Illustrated below:

An illustration of the city according to the plan

An illustration of the city according to the plan

Here is the city now, with some labels, for reference – courtesy of Google Maps.

Downtown Chicago as it looks today (Google Maps)

Downtown Chicago as it looks today (Google Maps)

So, obviously we never got that civic center, although we did get some cool museums in the mix.  What we actually got was – in pretty much exactly that spot – a big circle of highway intersections, the interchange among 90/94 and 290 (with 55 somewhere close by).  I think that pretty much qualifies as an epic fail.

Highway interchange, and epic fail

Highway interchange, and epic fail

I think that says volumes about how much cars have polluted our cities and generally our quality of life.  This was the conclusion I came to while listening to the talk, although they only talked a little about transport in particular.  So here’s a way to think about it:  cars themselves, and not merely their emissions, are polluting our cities.

On NextFest

Finally got to check out NextFest, sponsored by Wired (and apparently Toyota, Citigroup, Xerox, and Acer) and located in Millennium Park through Sunday.  There wasn’t a great deal to see – don’t get me wrong, the stuff they had was pretty great, but in terms of billing itself as the foremost exhibition of future technology, it came up a bit short in quantity and complexity of exhibits.  Given that it’s Chicago, however, I guess I should be grateful for any glimmer of the future.

Even if I felt the specifics were somewhat lacking, however, what I took away from the whole spectacle was some renewal of hope in the future.  I don’t know that technology in itself can save us; whether having faith in and taking comfort in science is misguided; or whether it’s okay that companies like Toyota or Xerox are coming up with as many, if not more, ideas than the traditional research centers of the universities and NASA.  It’s been just long enough since I read Toffler’s book that I can’t quite remember whether I’d consider myself a futurist, but I’m sure new technologies must fit in there somewhere.  This is not to say that new technologies will be the best answer – sometimes going back to old technologies (see:  renewed interest in and use of cisterns in residential homes) is the best thing to do, especially if we can use the infrastructure that’s been lying around.  But I think the shift in thinking we need to make is, not to ask “how can technology make my life easier?” but “how can technology make my life more fulfilling?”  It seems that a lot of inventions are meant to do the work for us, leaving us with empty time and energy that we pour into inventions that ultimately just distract us.  I’m okay with still doing some work – I’m not okay with feeling like I’ve done nothing, and had more time to do it.

In other news, I’m warming up to the idea of podcasts – and luckily they are available as regular webcasts, as I’m still not that personally-wired as to carry my MP3 player everywhere.  These are worth checking out:

* Pretty much anything on NPR.  My station of choice is WBEZ Chicago, with podcasts of individual programs.

* Planetizen – the urban planners’ online network.  Includes weekly updates and interviews

* KunstlerCast – a series of interviews with James Howard Kunstler, the anti-suburbs writer (best-known book, “Geography of Nowhere,” haven’t gotten to it yet).  He’s acerbic and sometimes pompous, but has some great insights into “the tragicomedy of suburbia.”

* Brain Science Podcast – “For everyone who has a brain.”  Dr. Ginger Campbell talks about a variety of studies of the brain.  Thanks C for the recommendation!!

I’m a pretty big fan of the idea of “radio” – in the sense of learning through audio recordings and interviews – rather than video at this point.  Maybe because my eyes have been so tired for the past year, it’s nice to give another sense a chance to take over for a while.

In conclusion, podcasts are kind of great.  I need to explore for some more good ones, I highly recommend running a search of your own for something you like!

On Where I’m Going

I need to get better at staying awake.

I mean this in a figurative as well as physiological sense.  Over the past several months I think I’ve slipped into a false sense of security, a not-grudging-enough acceptance of the day-to-day routine which dictates my thoughts and actions and moods and bedtime.  And the further you settle into this subconscious subroutine, the more mental effort is required to pull yourself back into the realm of real, meaningful, or maybe not so meaningful but at least engaging and original, thought.  Mental inactivity breeds laziness breeds inertia breeds that feeling of dread that you’ve lost whatever you had and that it’s easier to just not get it back.

Perhaps this is the bad economy speaking, but I also feel grossly overeducated and underutilized – doesn’t anyone want to hire a person who can think about things?  I guess an innate propensity towards (admittedly, sometimes melancholy) reflection isn’t a marketable skill per se, and cannot readily be leveraged in today’s ever-changing flattening no-holds-barred global marketplace of ideas and future-oriented business solutions.  Too bad.  Apparently a master’s in the social sciences can get you the following:  1) a vague understanding of what “the social sciences” means, 2) another graduation robe, 3) a different box to check on “Education Level” survey items, 4) a crash course in contemporary academia and why it’s probably going to be in a crisis in the near future, and of course 5) the occasional reminder that you probably should have just gotten a job a year sooner.  On the plus side, it gives you a broader epistemological framework to which you can make obscure references in mental and verbal discussions with yourself and others.  Example:  can Weber’s Protestant ethic explain why I keep going to work every day?

Maybe I just need to write more.  No editing yet.  This isn’t a writing sample.

Sometimes I ask myself:  “If I’m so highly qualified, why I am still here doing this?”

Or “Is it worth it?”

Or “Would drudge work be easier if I was working toward a clear and significant goal?  Is this how other people justify their drudge work?”

Or one that particularly bothers me, “How does everyone else make it through the day?   What do they know that I don’t?”

I need to find a place where I can be excited about things.  That doesn’t have to be a workplace, but it needs to be a source of energy – one that increases my interest in the big questions and the little questions, not one that saps physical and mental energy to the point that it becomes difficult to get excited about anything.

More thoughts to come eventually.  For me, the blog represents a conflict of interests – the desire for self-expression (and the long-shot chance for human feedback for your ideas) which drives me to want to have a blog; the realization that this is becoming a professional tool as well as personal hobby for many people, and it’s worth being able to navigate this world in a social and technical sense; etc.  But at the same time, writing a blog rather than reading those of others produces, rather than processes, content.  Not that the two (being reader and writer) are mutually exclusive, but in terms of time commitment it’s more difficult to be well-read on blogs and write a great deal yourself.  My inclination to want to organize and make sense of existing information, rather than creating more of it, should compel me to think about others’ thoughts and not write down my own.

There must be a middle ground here – it might have to do with RSS feeds.  I should look into this.

The goal for future posts:  explore one thought concisely, and stop using parentheses.

Update

I know I’ve been silent for quite a while now.

Unfortunately I don’t have the time to do full justice to all the thoughts in my head at the moment -

But for now, suffice to say, I think urban planning – that is, the issues of design, infrastructure, and redesign of human habitats and in particular American cities – may be the closest (secular, materialist, non-deterministic) thing to a calling I’ll have.  I need to do a lot more reading and writing about this, and plan to do so in the near future (among other things).

And also for now, a link to an awesome lecture by James Howard Kunstler, the conclusion of his talk on “The Tragedy of Suburbia” in an awesome new series I need to explore further, TED.  I found it, and other videos, on Youtube.

“Please, please, stop referring to yourselves as consumers.  Consumers are different than citizens.  Consumers do not have obligations, responsibilities, and duties to their fellow human beings.  And as long as you’re using that word ‘consumer’ in the public discussion, you’ll be degrading the quality of the discussion we’re having, and we’re going to continue being clueless, going into the very difficult future that we face.”
~ James Howard Kunstler

I am not a consumer; I think I might have found a way to be a responsible citizen.

On Remembering the Dead

A friend and I were out in Scoville Park this afternoon, sitting in the sun on the First World War memorial in the middle of the hill.  For a while we sat on the bronze plaques of the names themselves (eventually feeling this was probably not the most respectful thing we’ve ever done, and moving), then mused a while on memorials, on memory, and other topics somewhat ill-fitted to the first warm spring weekend of the year.

The Tribune’s headline for today was tragedy in a similar vein, not of a foreign war but of teen violence in our city, specifically in Chicago Public Schools.  In this century it seems no longer appropriate to erect granite obelisks and idealized bronze figures to the dead, but who’s to say what is?  “Honor rolls” of the fallen?  Makeshift shrines with plastic flowers and snapshots of childhood?  A running tally in the corner of CNN’s Headline ticker?

Number of Chicago P.S. students killed so far this school year:  22

Number of US soldiers lost in Iraq so far (confirmed):  4013

Number of Iraqi civilians lost so far (estimated):  82,682-90,207

On Space Wars

Mike Moore’s new book, Twilight War:  the Folly of U.S. Space Dominance

I haven’t read this, but I was struck by an argument made by the author during a brief radio interview that I heard today, that a “space-based war” would take the form not of a Star-Wars style dogfight between small ships, but more likely a mutual launching and destruction of satellites meant to collect intelligence about the opposing side, and probably destruction occurring from land-based missiles.

The unintended consequence of this would be the creation of a great deal of floating and uncontrolled space debris, which would essentially make space unnavigable for any craft (as hitting the debris could compromise the hull or cause other problems).

So basically, yes – there is a way that we could actually screw up space.  Not in the sense that we ruin its substance, but we would render it polluted with junk and completely useless.

This was hilarious and sad to me.  Not only could we mess up the whole planet, but we could also mess up space.  Wow.

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