Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Read this and then close the browser.

New media have nearly-limitless time-wasting potential. How do we rein it in?

Time is wasted when we get distracted from our purpose or when we have no purpose to begin with. This happens when we go to new media with open-ended questions or impulses. For example, if I want to know "what's on TV," I am signing up for a meandering journey with the remote that could consume any amount of time. And if I sit down at the computer because I am feeling lonely and it offers various products vaguely resembling the company of others, once again I could be in for a long, ultimately-unsatisfying ride.

Purposefulness in approaching these media can go a long way toward reaping the best things they promise without becoming enslaved to the worst of their possibilities. If I go to the TV to watch game 3 of the National League Championship Series, my commitment has definite bounds I am able to evaluate before choosing to engage. If I go to my computer to answer three different e-mails, there is a better chance that I will accomplish exactly what I set out to than if I just open the lid of my computer and see where it takes me.

Note that such thoughtfulness is not nearly so imperative when using older media. There are not too many ways to get tripped up when reading a book. You may read for longer than you intend, but you are still completing a task you knew you wanted to complete at some point. But in general the newer the medium, the better it is at presenting appealing distractions. Media providers make more money the longer consumers are engaged, and so they have made engaging consumers into something of a science.

For instance, last week I signed up for a trial streaming subscription of Netflix. I thought of doing so as gaining access to a library of movies and TV shows. But it was clear that Netflix thought of itself as something more than that. Right off the bat it wanted me to give it some examples of works I liked. It also wanted me to plug in a facebook account so it could tell me what my friends were watching and vice versa. Moreover after everything I watched it asked me in prominent type to rate what I had seen, the better to know the profile of my tastes. Perhaps most subtly and impressively, after one installment of a series started rolling the credits it gave no more than than fifteen seconds before going straight into the next.

So the system is constantly priming itself to dig out new things its consumers will like, and it is actually more work to stop watching than it is to continue. Netflix clearly intends to be more than a library that passively waits to be accessed. Rather it aspires to be a constant stream of entertainment freeing users to think as little as possible in order to be engaged for as long as possible.

For those who aspire to nothing more than enjoyment, that kind of service is an incredible innovation well worth the modest monthly fee. But for those seeking to use new media for their own bidding in larger pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, discipline is paramount.

Know the questions you seek to answer before sitting down. Answer them, and then stand up.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Play it Again, Joe West

Humans watching humans playing a human sport.

I am a baseball conservative and a baseball purist. My positions are two-dimensional and trivial to guess. I hate the designated hitter and I do not think Barry Bonds deserves to go to the Hall of Fame.

I do not apologize for my simplicity, for the baseball diamond is two-dimensional as well. Unlike any other sport in America we look to baseball for the simplicity, naivete, and innocence elsewhere celebrated only in childhood. Therefore I believe my perspective is warranted.

There is another issue against which I am predictably knee-jerk. This issue is that of instant replay. In recent years baseball has started to follow football, tennis, and others in admitting the use of instant replay to determine "what really happened." So far it has only been admitted in one limited, high-leverage situation: the question of whether a home run was really a home run or not. But starting next year the use of replay will likely expand, and one assumes in the future it will expand some more.

I hate instant replay. I hate it even more than I hate blown calls by umpires. But its advent is hardly surprising given the zeitgeist.

How often have I heard the complaint that ours is an overly litigious society. Well, a challenge by a team's manager to a call is effectively a lawsuit. This is a qualitative difference from the old state of affairs in which the manager could come out and kick up a cloud of dust shouting his face Phillies red, but the call as called would stand immutable. With every challenge we bring the weariness of the courtroom onto the ballfield.

Second, ours is an age that highly prizes empirically-determined objectivity. The subjectivity housed in an umpire arbitrarily bestowed with authority does not withstand for one second the scrutiny of our sensibilities. Cameras are supposedly objective, despite the fact that multiple cameras positioned at different angles frequently imply contradictory conclusions and the fact that video must be interpreted by an observer subject to the same quandaries of authority and subjectivity. At any rate, replay certainly gives us collectively more confidence that we all know "what really happened," and that the ruling in the game reflects that consensus. That confidence is what we are looking for.

Finally, ours is an age that ironically verges on the misanthropic. Previous generations may have had a low view of humanity because of the Doctrine of Sin. This idea was tempered by the idea that humanity was made in the Image of God, and God so loved the World, and so forth. Current generations have a low view of humanity because of computers, and this lowness is not tempered but rather reinforced by a materialistic understanding of evolution. Gary Kasparov's defeat at the no-hands of Deep Blue was only the tip of the iceberg. We refer to "humans" not as noble dust animated by the spark of Divinity, but as a shorthand for members of the species homo sapiens.

Just look at Wikipedia. The entire thing is written to be species-neutral, a ridiculous charade given that all of its readers are human. The page for "Human" ought not begin with, "Humans (variously Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens sapiens) are primates of the family Hominidae, and the only extant species of the genus Homo..." but rather with, "You are a human, stupid!"

Without intending to the encyclopedia literally addresses the superior machine intelligence we expect will succeed us in our office as King of Terra Firma. We see no reason why it shouldn't! We agree that evolution has left us with all kinds of quirks that just aren't rational and all kinds of weaknesses that we can engineer a better solution to. We pave the way for our own obsolescence, not just in the realm of engineering but also in the realm of philosophy.

Let the machines officiate over machine sports. I will take the ignorant, loud, biased, ornery, and overweight umpire over them any day. I come to baseball to acknowledge, experience, and celebrate my humanity. I do not need it to kick me back into the dust.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

My job is worthwhile.

When people ask me what my company Relay Network does, I tell them we're trying to make it easier for businesses and customers to communicate over smartphones. I then give a few examples of the products we offer, and they get it, but I suspect this is a case where a concrete example could bring them to the "grok point" faster.

I had an experience like that today and I thought I'd share here. The headphone jack on my home laptop broke, leaving most of my music inaccessible to me because my dumb iphone can't talk to my Linux box. It's under warranty, so I called the Lenovo 800 number to ask them to service it. I had a few observations from that experience:

- I really hate waiting on hold. We have a product that allows a company to send you a text while you're on hold that will link you to a web site where you can schedule a time for the company to call you back. I was really wishing that Lenovo already made use of it.

- The whole call took 45 minutes. If I had been disconnected during that time (which happens all the time on a cell phone!) my entire time would have been wasted because I would have had no way to reconnect with the operator with whom I had been speaking. I would love to have been given a text during that call with a tel link or at least information to take me directly back to him in the event of a disconnect. Relay could do that.

- He had to send me a document to print off and mail with the laptop to the service center. We had to spend 10 minutes making that transfer because I first had to spell out my e-mail address, then we had to wait for the message to arrive, and the first couple of times it didn't arrive because he heard a 't' where there was a 'p' in the address, then we had to slowly go through each letter in detail to find the mistake, and then finally wait again for it to be delivered. It was painful, but it wasn't the operator's fault; difficulty spelling words is an inherent limitation of the telephone medium. This is the kind of exchange that a product of ours called the Wire could make a lot easier. There would be no need to spell anything out. They would just text a link to me, and that link would take me straight to a private connection with Lenovo where the document would be waiting for me.

These kinds of interactions between individuals and corporations are quite painful as a rule, and I do believe there's a lot our company has to offer in utilizing smartphone technology to improve them.

This kind of thing isn't all we do. We are also developing tools to make it easier for customers to complete transactions with all of the businesses in their lives, things like placing a reservation or an order or refilling a prescription. The Wire is the tool for doing that, and it is already open to the public. Feel free to check it out and let me know what you think!


Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Game Writ Large

We are going to build a world together.

To adulterate Shakespeare, all the world's a stage, and we men and women might aspire to be players.

Games are generally thought of as a waste of time, but I have been reflecting lately on how useful they have been in preapring me for real life. I am thinking especially of strategy games, of games like the card game Magic: The Gathering and the German table game Agricola.

Games like these share the common thread of putting many simple pieces together in pursuit of a simple goal, whether reducing your opponent's life total from 20 to 0 or of building the most extravagant farm. Rules take longer to understand than for, say, Yahtzee, but one gets the sense of them in half an hour.

But learning how to play these games is one thing. Learning how to excel at them is quite another. My friend Zach introduced me to the word "grok" to describe what it means to be good at them. "Grok" was coined by Robert Heinlein in his 1961 book Stranger In A Strange Land, and formally it means "to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed." Less formally, to grok one of these games means to understand how to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts in ways unique to your personality and the game's character.

To grok the game 7 Wonders is not just to choose the cards that you will hold but to choose the cards that your opponents will hold as well. To grok Agricola is to pull abundance out of scarcity and to paint with it a picture. To grok Magic might be to create an infinite loop of resources, or to stand down an entire hoard with a single angel, or to offer your opponent a version of the "heads I win, tails you lose" choice.

To play a game that one has grokked is an immensely creative enterprise. It is to pick up a plowshare and see a sword, to pick up a stone and make bread, or to think for the first time of marrying peanut butter with jam. It is to take simple, unadorned pieces and write poetry with them.

Seen this way, life is a game writ large. Days generally move one into the next without much fanfare, and most things we do are mundane. But all the while there are endless problems to be solved, and endless pieces waiting to be put together in search of solutions. We might make something entirely new in the service of something dearly needed.

Games give me hope that solutions can be found by giving me glimpses of what it looks like when everything goes right. Games give me the confidence and the courage to try something new in the face of intractable difficulty. Games are ideals that breed healthy idealism.

Despite the reputation they have for drawing people away from and supplanting real life, it need not be so. I advocate rather for a healthy dialectic between life and gaming: games for fun and practice and inspration, and life for doing.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Epic Commuting

Since starting a new job my morning commute consists of a four-mile bike ride uphill to Overbrook Train Station, where the R5 carries me onward to work at Radnor. That is unless it rains, in which case I take West Chester Pike to the Blue Route.

Rarely does a commute pass without a sense of urgency, by which I mean I'm usually running late. Over time that urgency has combined with my imagination to produce some names for various spots in the commute. The names aspire to the Homeric, and I enjoy them too much not to share them.

On the car route, just into Upper Darby one meets the Three Sisters. The Sisters are three traffic lights spaced very close together with seemingly no coordination as to when they turn red and seemingly no cross traffic ever on the streets they guard. The result is that if one doesn't get you, the other will, and if she doesn't the last will turn her Cyclopean glare on you.

At a similar point in the bike commute one meets Girard: Graveyard of the Proud. The foolhardy biker might meet the gradual incline that starts at Girard with a full head of steam. Were he to do so, the steeper incline he meets after turning onto Lancaster Avenue would surely mean his demise. To escape Girard intact requires humility.

Happy is the traveler who turns onto Lancaster Avenue and is passed by a SEPTA train going east before he reaches 59th Street. This train is called The Harbinger of You're-Probably-Okay. He can relax a bit, for his predecessors have all made it to the Elysian bliss of the 8:26 train.

The very last stretch, the length of 63rd Street between Lancaster and City Avenue, has a dual nature. On good days it is simply the Victory Ramp; on bad days the sudden short incline leading to the railroad bridge is the Tongue of Taunting.

Names like these give me a little extra bump when I am in a hurry in the morning. In the case of the bike ride that's a good thing because it can translate to faster riding. In the car, however, nothing I do makes lights greener or other drivers faster; I feel far more like Sisyphus than Odysseus.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

I Swear

Are bad words bad?

I have been thinking about this question lately. I started a new job a few weeks ago. My teammates use the f-word liberally, which is a change from my last job. Also, my dear friend Zach has debated whether the name for his new blog (welcome to blogging, Zach!) is too colorful after he realized it made it harder for his parents to enjoy it.

I discovered profanity with the rest of my peers in sixth grade, though my first use of it was actually in the home. In a conversation one evening about bad words my uncle, who along with my dad would swear as a matter of course but rarely with vulgarity, asserted that I was a "good boy" and thus did not curse. Surging with the beginnings of adolescence, I tremulously replied "Hell no!"

That year I remember many profanity-laced arguments in the back of the school bus, and from that conversation on I did not hold back when I was alone with my dad. However it was not long before he was unnerved by my sudden coarseness, and he asked me to stop. This request of course shed light on his own practice around me, and prompted a resolve for reform on his part as well.

I found myself in a similar position when I worked as a camp counselor the summer after my freshman year of college. I felt it was of crucial importance that I was the same person in front of my charges that I was after they had gone to bed. Otherwise my persona in front of them was a lie, as was all of my teaching to them, and I had betrayed my boyhood self as well.

This conviction I felt and still feel very strongly. As a rule of thumb, anything that is shameful to do in front of children or in the knowledge of children is shameful, period. How then could I justify profanity? I could not, and I resolved to stop using it.

There are other arguments against swear words. Paradoxically, while they feel the most natural expressions of emotion, because of their versatility they are among the least expressive words. The f-word can be any part of speech and mean almost anything, and therefore in itself it means very little. If the goals of language are expression and communication, then we are better served by thinking a little harder and finding words that convey our meaning more precisely.

You could also argue that a degradation of speech leads to a degradation of thought which leads to a degradation of character.

All of that said, I do not get too upset when people swear around me. For one, I understand the appeal and trust other adults can weigh the pros and cons of their actions. For two, moralistic insistence on such standards can crowd out much more important subjects. Zach himself remembers far too many conversations in his evangelical upbringing about the matter. I consider it ultimately a minor if still important issue. Though I am concerned as the actions of those around me will inevitably influence me to a degree, often it is just not that big of a deal.

And I still curse. Almost always it is under my breath when no one hears me but God, and it slips out in the face of some undesirable surprise or development. In this as in many areas I am unable to hold myself to a standard that I think is good. To be a hypocrite is human, and I should be understanding with others as well as with myself in this regard.

But even such lapses strengthen my conviction that it is good not to curse. I find that doing so makes insignificant things significant, such as when I make running late in the morning out to be a crisis, and significant things insignificant, such as when something as sacred as sex is made into a joke.

May I have no part of it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Making Friends with Microbes

This, my first sourdough bread, could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Are you afraid of animals?

What about plants?

I would not want to be at the mercy of a great white shark, and I never intend to wipe my face with poison ivy. But I have never met anyone who is categorically afraid of either plants or animals. However I cannot say the same for microorganisms, whether bacteria, fungi, or protozoa; it is not uncommon for an adult to express an unqualified aversion to them.

The prototypical pathological beahvior I am thinking of is the compulsive use of Purell hand sanitizer. I want to know how big of a party they threw at Purell headquarters when the H1N1 virus came out a couple of years ago. All of a sudden the dispensers were ubiquitous in public places, the implication being that using Purel was an extra layer of precaution on top of using soap and water when leaving the bathroom. Enter a room, use Purel. You won't get sick that way.

Of course, pathogenic microbes present a serious danger, significantly greater than that presented by predatory animals or poisonous plants. And basic sanitary practices developed in light of our understanding of microbes go a long way toward keeping us alive and healthy well into our old age. But we should not let a few rotten apples ruin our perception of the whole bushel.

The vast majority of microbes we encounter are benign, and we even depend on many in order to live. Bacterial cells within us actually outnumber our own cells by a good margin (they are much smaller), and they help us by assisting in digestion, by keeping the bad guys from getting a foothold, and by who knows what else. So when I think about microbes I think more of the good guys, or at least the indifferent guys, and I actively cultivate (no pun intended) a positive relationship with them. For example, I know this is controversial but rather than cooking the good with the bad in my milk, I buy milk from trusted farmers who take good care of their cows. Then I drink it raw, thinking fondly of the good work the associated bacteria will do in me.

I even keep microbes as pets. While my housemates have a dog abd others keep potted plants, I have on our kitchen counter a little colony of yeast and bacteria. Every morning I feed them some flour and some water and in return every few days they flavor and leaven my bread. I am still getting the hang of it, but I am new to this and all pet ownership is touch and go at first.

I realize that I may be too credulous, and like an owner of a Burmese python my trust may one day come back to bite me. But I would rather not overstep sensible habits like washing my hands with soap and in so doing put myself in opposition to the whole weight of no less than three taxonomic kingdoms.

People are meant to live as part of an ecosystem of flora and fauna, both micro- and mega-, and not as atoms in a sea of sterility. When we attempt to inabit the latter we come out less healthy because our bodies are simply not designed for such a context. What's more we dilute our weaponry when we use it indiscriminately against all things microscopic and not just against the bad guys.

In short, there is a such thing as too much caution when it comes to our invisible and ever-present companions. We have much to gain by acknowledging and cultivating a right relationship with them, even while maintaining proper vigilance against those who would destroy us.

I hate virsuses though. Get me away from viruses. They freak me out.