Monday, May 25, 2009

On E-books and their Readers


From an email in which I try to explain my reservations about e-book devices like the Amazon Kindle.

If these devices propagate information more thoroughly, that would be terrific. But the way they are being packaged is as a business plan for keeping newspapers and publishing houses solvent against the onslaught of digital media - i.e. an e-savior for businesses whose primary product has not been electronic. And I think the message that this will increase ready access to the written word for people who may not have it now is part of a marketing strategy to alleviate guilt in a group of people who both have strong convictions in the necessity of language & literature and a strong social conscience, and who also just so happen to be the target market for this device. Unless Amazon can alleviate the guilt, they won't be able to sell these people a Kindle.

A seduction, in other words. Like the Product Red program that "allows" people to buy highly discretionary items under the cover of making a (minuscule) donation to Africa. Absolution has become a major marketing tool in this era. In many ways, it is almost like the selling of indulgences by the church during the time of Erasmus.

Long way around, but what I think is this: don't by a red sweat shirt - send the entire purchase price to Africa and do without the sweat shirt entirely. Or set yourself an hourly rate where if you spend $100 on discretionary items, you then need to work in community service for 5 hours at an imagined $20/hour.

The language associated with e-books is the same language associated with computers 20 years ago, and yet there still isn't the democratic device in terms of computers. The OLPC is trying, but it faces many obstacles, the most complicated to solve being that the many people who would be its beneficiaries would benefit more highly from things like food, clean water and medicine.

As members of the first world, we, like Donald Rumsfeld, have a strong belief that technology is the answer to many of our issues. But as the AK-47 proves over and over again, sometimes technology pales in comparison to good old analog steel. Sometimes a book is just better. Longevity, durability, transportability, universality, etc. To read an e-book, you need electricity and an e-book reader compatible with that e-book's file system. To read a book, all you need is a little light.

If some sort of pay-to-play were worked out - Amazon and its brethren must provide unlimited access for public schools to every e-book produced in order to use the public airwaves to transmit its content to all the Kindles running through the NYC subway - I might feel more comfortable about it. Of course, they'd have to promise to keep all the e-book reader interfaces up and running. I know from many friends in academics that while school systems have little problem getting computers, maintenance is a whole other ball of wax. Lots of broken computers sitting in back closets waiting repair due to lack of funds or languishing unused due to obsolescence.

The reality is that the people who benefit most highly from e-books are the book manufacturers and Amazon. Warehousing and shipping books (along with the employees required to manage this process) must be a tremendous expense that not even just-in-time warehousing/publishing can offset sufficiently. E-books would create the possibility for greater control over profits for those entities, whether or not they would actually benefit the consumer. So all the rhetoric around e-books is suspect until the benefits to consumers can be shown to at least equal the desire of the producers to cut their overhead by eliminating warehousing, reducing employees, and cutting brick & mortar retailers out of the income stream.

Finally, because I like words and deal in their nuances, I can't ignore that while the word "kindle" can connote germination of an idea, it also means starting a small fire for the purposes of burning something larger and more resistant to flames. And that sense of the word is a bit too close to my flammable library.

I like technology and gadgets as much (or perhaps more) than the next guy. I am much more of a fan of the book publishing robot that the NY Public Library recently obtained. In 20 minutes, it can publish a book from an electronic file, allowing the library to dispense far more books in physical form that it could ever stack on its shelves. A physical book that can be read by anyone without the necessity of batteries or a device.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Light Meters


I was sitting in a gallery yesterday while listening to a docent explain to a kaleidoscope of high school students that a photo of a white person and a black person that hung on the wall before them required the photographer to compensate for exposure based on the meter's reading of the light so that the black person's skin would not be too dark and that this made the photograph more complicated. And it occurred to me that even light meters were calibrated to one thing in order to measure another and that right now somewhere in Washington DC there is a room full of photographers fidgeting with their cameras as one of them steps forward to the empty podium with a meter in their hand. They call out the reading, and each photographer does their silent calculations for exposure, turning a knob, twisting a dial and compensating.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Quandary of Traveling Responsibly


This issue has been rattling around in my head a bit lately. I think it has always been there. People have told me that I tend to over-complicate situations through an excess of empathy. And I worry that sometimes I border on unfairly paternalistic in my concern about the impact of my presence on other people. I try to recognize that everyone has their own lives that they live as best they can and from that they generate a sense of pride and accomplishment that is wholly and 100% their own. And that this self-possession is something that I can not diminish with something as insignificant as my appearance on a street corner in their neighborhood.

But I have been struck over the last several years while traveling by the relative materialism of tourists from the developed world, especially while they are visiting third world or less developed destinations. They arrive in sparkling new clothes, with lovely new backpacks carrying one or two new cameras, maybe a laptop, cell phones, pdas, chargers, batteries, and so forth, in countries where the average salary per year is less than the contents of said backpack. Perhaps even less than the cost of the backpack itself.

The places these tourists (and I include myself in this category of tourist) visit are more than happy to see us. We bring money to areas that desperately need money, provide jobs, development, infrastructure, that would otherwise not be there.

But you do not have to dig too deeply to feel that along with this welcome is a thin layer of resentment (is that the right word? discomfort at least) created by the ostentatiousness of these accessories carried by tourists from developed countries, who, in turn, barely recognize these items as anything other than the standard equipment of travel.

So there is the welcome extended and your visit graciously received for its benefit, but along with that comes a sour bite from the economic chasm between you and the people you meet as you travel.

I am not sure if I am making sense. Friends have said that I am just feeling guilty for where and into what circumstances I was born. And that potentially I am transposing that sense of guilt onto people who are independent and proud of who they are, their country and their lives. That I am being paternalistic, perhaps even colonial.

But I have had opportunities to talk to people in the countries I have visited, and I have heard them suggest that the feelings are just as complex on their end of things. Like I said, they see the benefit to having tourists come and visit, economically and politically. But they also see the incredible materialism exhibited by these tourists, and they wonder why just a fraction of that wealth expressed by giant digital cameras, laptops, cell phones, jewelry, could not instead be invested in their countries where it might make the difference for some people, not just between happiness and sadness, but between life and death.

You cannot imagine how much you stick out like a sore thumb in a third world market place. There isn't one thing about you that isn't entirely foreign in appearance. If you were dressed in dayglo orange you wouldn't be any more apparent to the people who live there.

When I worked in outdoor equipment retailing, we had some t-shirts that said something like "Leave only footprints, take only photographs." A friend of mine said he thought that in some places even footprints were too destructive. I think he used the White Mountains as an example of a place that gets so many footprints, everything is getting a bit worn away. The landscape is being changed just by the footprints left behind.

At any rate, footprints are inevitable if you go places. What I have been thinking about lately is the kind of footprints you leave. Or the depth of them. And I think this expression of materialism that is made by all the things we carry with us when we travel is a sort of footprint, a deep one that could perhaps be made a bit shallower without diminishing the experience of travel or our ability to remember what experience was had.

I don't know. I definitely have come to think less is more when it comes to travel. I have tried to reduce what I bring to what I need and not what I might need. I resolved to stop looking for the perfect camera bag and just use what I have until it falls apart. My experience on a trip is not going to be adversely affected by whether or not I can get email. Or make a phone call from a mountain top. Fill a frame with a lion's head and post on Flickr that very night. Reduce reduce reduce.

Above all, my goal is respect. If you have clothes made of gold, you don't wear them to visit your friend who has clothes made of rags. At the same time, you don't wear clothes made of rags when that is not what you wear regularly. What begins as respect can become an insult if taken too far.

And I don't expect everyone to share my concerns. Travel as you will. Just that this is something that I have been thinking about - before during and after travels - and I guess in a way I haven't really come up with a suitable answer for myself.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Sartorialist


You wouldn't know it by looking at me, but I have always had at least a passing interest in fashion. Friends kept mentioning this site, and I finally spent some time looking at it. I must admit I have a certain amount of envy when I look at these photos (if I had only, to borrow Nike's slogan, just done it,) but I am not sure whether I would take these photos necessarily myself. Or whether I like the work of Bill Cunningham, the venerable street fashion photographer from the NYTimes to whom these photographs owe a sizeable debt, better. They feel, to me, to lack a certain vitality, if that makes any sense. Or rather, they feel shot with a bit too much sang-froid. I do like very much that the subjects often feel like collaborators or at least, co-celebrators, in their appearance. Happy in their skins, emphasis on the plural. That must be a response to the care with which they are approached by the photographer. And no matter how or in what you dress yourself, happiness should be the measure of (fashion) success I think. A pair of Converse All-Stars and a favorite pair of jeans is often enough to make a bad day better. But then, sometimes there is that little nuance that makes those All-Stars and jeans even better than that.

The Sartorialist

Factories, Nostalgia and the Intellectual Elite

swimmer 1

I have never understood this antagonism towards intelligence. One, I think there is a disconnect when people vote for people "like them" and then complain about the poor quality of elected officials and two, I think Americans have a giant intellectual inferiority complex, complicated by a diminished set of expectations for themselves that developed during their experiences with education.

I have met many people who do not think of themselves as intelligent who are in fact, intelligent, but simply because they do not have the confidence to believe in their own abilities, they tend to defer to those who seek power. And that deferral sets them up for a cycle of belief and betrayal that further diminishes their expectations.

On the other hand, when I taught a class on the Renaissance, I took my college students to the Phoenix Art Museum. After walking through the exhibits and showing them the PUBLIC research library in the museum, one of my students turned to me and said, "That was really cool. I didn't know that we were allowed to come here." I thought at first she meant the research library, but then I realized she meant the entire museum itself. This was a smart kid, a good kid, and she didn't know that she was allowed to go to a PUBLIC art museum.

I think the careful erosion of quality education by conservative (I won't say Republican, because that's not correct) entities in this United States has led a lot of people to feel like there are a lot of places they are not allowed to go. They are not smart or cultured enough. Because education funding has been continually gutted, people without extra financial support or academic traditions already part of their family's resources had mediocre instruction in school: it wasn't interesting, it didn't serve their needs, etc. And as a result, their only experience with the place where many of us gained a solid sense of our intelligence and developed a reasonably healthy and reliable relationship with it (as opposed to Homer Simpson's relationship with his intellect - "Brain, I don't like you and you don't like me...") was unsatisfactory and unfulfilling. At the same time, the educationally under-served are smart enough to see that having that solid relationship with intelligence is the membership card for doing a lot of really desirable things in this world.

I think the conservative degradation of education funding has its source in an antiquated idea of labor, and what is a suitable expenditure on education for the labor force, based on labor price and expectations. This antiquated idea still clings to a split educational path where workers work and the intellectuals lead. In short, no one believes more in an intellectual elite than the conservatives who use it as a rhetorical pry-bar on those who might otherwise vote against their designs.

In the old USofA, the people who now feel denied this membership card by a lackluster educational experience would have then gone into industry and worked in an auto plant or other factory work where their skills and intelligence that were not perhaps measured well by books & grades could be developed, giving them a sense of honor, identity and self-worth. But conveniently for the captains of industry, they were still undereducated, and therefore their wages would never be more than a certain level, assuring industry a ready supply of labor at a good price to profit ratio.

But those jobs are gone. We don't make anything anymore. We are now a country where the two industries are retail and Wall Street. And there are very few opportunities to develop a sense of honor and identity if you are working in retail or service. The wages required to make a profit for the retail industry are so low, they are insulting even to the worst educated. We have people discussing minimum wages as living wages when the minimum wage was originally meant to be like the minor leagues in baseball. It isn't supposed to be comfortable, because you are supposed to go to the major leagues. You weren't supposed to stay in the minors for your entire life. Now we have way too many people stuck in the minor leagues.

Where the frig am I going with this - just that I can see where a candidate like Palin is the backlash to the death of the industrial revolution in this country, just like the defeat of the bail-out package is a denial of the new central role of the investment industry to our national economy. We are going through a major transition in national identity, very similar to some of the adjustments that people in Eastern Europe had to go (and are still going) through when the "new" international economy arrived after the Wall went down.

Those people in Eastern Europe who have language skills, who are resourceful and resilient are doing really well. They are the burgeoning middle class. Those people who have no language skills, who are conservative in their ability to shift with the times, who are middle-aged or from families whose identity is linked with industry & mining, are having a tremendous difficulty. As a result, there is backlash of conservatism and ultra-nationalism, along with a tremendous amount of nostalgia for a system that was proven to be economically bankrupt in the 1980's. In Eastern Europe, this means communist parties get perhaps 20-30% of the vote in elections on nostalgia & backlash alone. Here, it means that candidates that espouse conservative recidivist ideas like "family values," traditional simplistic responses to new multiplex issues, and maintain a belief in fundamentalist power structures, probably get about 20-30% of the vote in elections from a group of people who are totally under-served by an economy in which factories no longer have a place.

I think that's Palin's role here. To make solid a 30% of voters that McCain can add 21% to by convincing a few slow-moving moderates & paranoid senior citizens and thus eek out a win. And I am going to bet, that it will be McCain, not Palin, who will fail to hold up his end of the bargain.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

1st Bail-Out Vote Fails


The vote on the bail-out in Congress today (09/29/08) was an interesting piece of politics. I think the Republicans wanted to push the Democrats into carrying the bill, so they could return to their constituents with the words "Tax & Spend Democrats" on their lips. With voter phone calls evidently averaging something like 99:1 against the bill, the Republicans teetering on the edge of losing their fights for re-election wanted to make voting for the bill an election issue. The hard political reality of this economic meltdown is that as each day goes by, the Republicans have less and less to run on. They want support for this bill, which is wildly unpopular, to be the responsibility of the Democratic party, not the result of Republican infatuation with Reaganomics & unilateral "diplomacy".

However, Pelosi reminded everyone in a speech made before the vote, that this was a bill to begin to repair the complete failure of Republican-backed economic policy over the last eight years. By doing so, Pelosi signaled to the Republicans that the Democrats made their votes under protest. Then when it became obvious that Republicans were not keeping up their side of the effort, she refused to push the bill through without at least 1/3 of the support coming from Republicans. Now they are saying that the speech she made is the reason the bill didn't go through, when the reality is that the Republicans are no longer a house in order. The bill was drafted by their man in the Whitehouse! How could they not vote as a party in support of this bill?

Frugality? Worries about spending tax-payer money irresponsibly? Eight years and a $10trillion budget deficit later and the Republicans are suddenly getting frugal with tax-payer cash?

140 Democrats to 65 Republicans voted for the bill. That's a sad statement on the power of the current President AND the optimism within the party that Republicans are going to do well in the upcoming election. Check out this detailed breakdown of the vote, and you will see that the Republicans voting "no" were the ones locked in the closest contests.

Mets are gone. Shea is gone. Long live Citi Field - or whatever its name will be after all this is over.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Presidential Debate #1, September 26, 2008

regular people

I am 100% all about being politically involved, but in the current epoch, when candidates do so little in public that isn't scripted, the extemporaneous speaking skills in a Presidential debate are a painful display. A Congressional debate on CSPAN is an opera compared to a Presidential debate. And I mean in no way to diminish the importance of a Presidential debate, or the chance for everyone with a television set or a computer screen to see and hear the candidates. But politicians these days, with very few exceptions, are really sorely tested to sound like they are in control of their ideas, even if their ideas are good ones and even if their ideas are indeed of their own making.

The debate ends up being a bit like NASCAR where everyone is sitting around waiting for someone to hit the wall and burst into flames. Like as not, if you are a Jeff Gordon fan at the beginning of the race, you are a Jeff Gordon fan at the end of it.

But civic duty is not easy, I suppose, nor perhaps should it be. So we watch, listen, scratch our heads, and add up the pluses & the minuses along the way. And the politicians, good soldiers that they are, go unsteadily forward while trying to avoid the walls and the flames.

Mets lose 6-1 to the Florida Marlins. You could hear Jerry Manuel's teeth grinding on the radio.