Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Kindle, or “Geek is skeptical of new technology.”

My wife, constantly on the lookout for ways to reduce clutter and organize our home, took an interest in the new e-book reader from Amazon, the Kindle. She spent a good amount of time looking into it and other e-book formats, and given the rate at which our bookshelves expand, it makes sense to consider it as an option. I’ll admit I tried to be noncommittal while she talked about it, but, ultimately, I’m a Luddite when it comes to books. I like my printed page. There are a lot of reasons for it, and I’ll leave what I think is the strongest argument for the last. It’s a killer, in my opinion, but I think the emotional appeals have to come first.

If there is one thing that has dominated my personal history more than anything else, it is a love of (or, as some would call it, “an unhealthy obsession about”) books. One of my earliest memories is of protesting that Mom and Dad were about to throw out some old volumes to make space. I argued, cried, and cajoled, but they insisted that they were only taking up space, and no one was reading them. To fight that argument, I grabbed the top one and sat down to read. These weren’t my books, mind you, or even children’s books. They were old, musty novels. I could barely make out a word here and there through my tears, and didn’t understand a bit of what I was actually managing to read. My parents eventually won the argument based on that, but it sticks in my mind as one of my first major anxiety freak-outs. I couldn’t have been more than six or so.

Now, given that I had such an attitude so early in my development, it’s natural that I’d work on accumulating a library. I’m a pack rat anyway, but books virtually never leave my personal gravitational field. There’s something about the most trivial of words that becomes special when it gets written down. It’s been transmitted, and has the potential to then be reread as long as the page holds up. The printing press is what made the world what it is today. It’s how the world exploded from darkness into light, making it impossible to keep an idea hidden away or suppressed. That truth has always burned brightly in my mind; a printed word is a free word. I still have virtually every book I’ve ever owned, barring accidental destruction and loss. I don’t think I’ve ever willingly thrown one out. Even the silliest, most formulaic story or screed has some value to impart by its very existence. As much as I find pleasure reading online, I find it hard to make the same connection with a computer or device.

A second personal factor is the feel of the book itself. Books aren’t sterile. They gather dust, their pages yellow with age, handling wears them down; they are dropped, bent, spilled on and otherwise abused. It gives a book life (literally, in some cases). Some books become imbued with a sense of familiarity that makes them treasured to a single person. A folded page here, a note or underline there; that’s your book, your reminder, your story woven into the book itself. They become more than what they began as; they become mnemonic devices that remind us of the significant things that happened while we read them, or even just remind us of the pleasant time we had the last time we sat down and flipped those same pages. Flipping pages is an engrossing tactile sensation – the very fact that we must do so to move on increases tension, drama, and humor in a good book, when put to use by an author or illustrator. Some of this argument is well-summed up by a fictional character, Rupert Giles (the relevant part is around 44:28).

Ultimately, though, the biggest case to be made is one of obsolescence. The printed word stands the test of time; to this point, no other information storage technology has lasted more than a few decades. I have cassette tapes that play virtually nowhere. VHS is dead. DVD is giving way to the next generation of video. New computer compression formats vie constantly for position in a crowded marketplace; choose incorrectly and your files are useless. I think the best illustration here is one from my own experience. About ten years ago, I was part of the student government at my college. In the past couple of years, the yearbook, run by my fraternity brothers, for the most part, was a pile of shit. They wasted money, botched simple information, and basically ruined a couple of editions through sheer incompetence. The proposal was made to expunge them, turn the endeavor over to the media group, and produce a video yearbook. I fought one aspect of that plan tooth and nail. I didn’t care that my friends were being dragged through the coals; they had blown off responsibility entrusted to them. I didn’t care that it was being turned over to someone else’s pet group, as long as they did a solid job. What I objected to was the replacement of a hardcover printed book with videotape. I lost out, by an overwhelming majority. Now, I can go to my father’s shelves and pull out his yearbooks from half a century ago. He can pick out a name and turn straight to that person. Individuals, groups, and specific memories are easy to find, which is especially crucial because one doesn’t necessarily give a damn about everything in that book. In my own yearbooks, there are probably less than a dozen people I care to remember with any depth, though I can pick out most anyone I choose to recall. The people who have that video yearbook have no such surety. That college yearbook on videotape makes quick search impossible. Even if you know where to run the tape to your favorite parts, you wear it out rapidly; now, just a quick decade later, it’s even a hassle just to look at it at all. Admittedly, technology does begin to make up for this as time goes on; DVDs are easier to search and divide up into relevant chunks, but even they make quick searches harder than a simple book, and DVDs will be gone before long, too. My books may last a century or more; some already have. A reader will likely never be able to say that. I can pass my books to others, loan them out, trade them, sell them, or keep them as I see fit. I can’t do that with a reader. I can hold a page on my book and flip back to reread other passages, even look at other books. I can easily move between multiple books (as I often do, spread about the house and work). I just don’t see that happening with a single piece of hardware.

A Kindle, or something like it, may change the way the world reads. I don’t know that it’s a good thing. Technology ages, fails, and is replaced at a rapid pace, but the printed word reaches out over centuries and millennia. Over-dramatic, I know, but it’s the truth.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Night Sounds

I was lying in bed with my son the other night, having some quiet time after the completion of his bedtime story. I insisted on the light being out, which he didn't mind too much with me there. As we snuggled up, I head a train clacking and blowing in the distance. The train tracks in question are about two miles from our house, were you to measure out a straight line. That's a pretty good distance over which to get clear sounds, but there's a lot of open land between us and the tracks. We live fairly close to an airport (the sky is rarely empty over our house), but get relatively little noise from it. I talked to my boy for a minute about the noises, but he wasn't paying a lot of attention; it was dark, and he was tired. The thoughts persisted for me, though, and I got to thinking about other night sounds I've known.

I grew up fairly close to a "main" road (as things go in West Virginia), and less than a quarter mile from an Interstate. I learned to sleep to car sounds and the rumble of tractor trailers on an overpass. It seemed comforting that no matter how late my insomnia kept me up, there was always someone out there in the same boat, running around in the night. I could hear the cars for some distance as they approached, the sound rising and falling. That wasn't all when it came to night sounds, though. Living in an ancient trailer (and trailer park), there were always creaks, sounds of movement, people talking. Things were never quite quiet, and anything out-of-the ordinary would wake me up fast. One of the more important sounds, though, was one I almost always slept through.

Dad was a volunteer firefighter, so he carried a pager for station calls. I still remember the pattern that distinguished calls for his station from others on the frequency -- a long low tone, a long high tone, and then about ten or fifteen fast, pulsing tones. And, as it was supposed to be an attention-getter, it was loud. I mean, "the neighbors across the road heard it" loud. Being for a volunteer emergency response group, there were no shifts, and things happen at all hours. However, no matter how many times my father (and later, brother) left the house to fight fires in the dark of night, I almost never woke to the pager. Occasionally, I'd hear them running through the house, or a door slam, but never the two or three pager calls. My rare bouts of sleep had tuned them out; somewhere in my brain, something managed to say "not for you". That's something that's both served me well and harmed me over the years.

My brain is good at sorting night sounds into "no problem" and "weird, needs action". That it can do it at all is one of the few things that allows me to sleep, the fact I still wake up at night has a tendency to make me a bit paranoid when it happens. Even in college, the smallest sounds would filter through. My first dormitory has an issue with people pulling the fire alarm at night. Sometimes it was random, sometimes it was on a schedule. What most people didn't notice was that the alarm was wired in such a way that you could hear an electric hum traveling through the system before the siren actually went off. My brain learned to wake up during that second and a half of hum, so that I wouldn't be startled awake by the alarm. Often, I'd be swinging out of bed before the alarm sounded. I also had a far more accurate internal clock while asleep than awake. When people were pulling alarms on schedule, or when I consistently woke with an alarm clock, I'd almost always wake a minute or so before they sounded, because I didn't like waking to noise.

The same thing happens with my family. I can sleep through most anything, but I've woken to my kids' breathing patterns changing on the other end of the house. That was as a new parent, though. My brain has learned when to take notice. I think, ultimately, I end up missing some things I'd like to hear, though. I like nighttime. I like hearing insects and animals, and we live in a rural enough spot to get some of that. I like hearing that train in the distance, no matter when it comes through. I guess I'll just have to close my eyes and listen more.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Skeptical news

Big stuff going on on the Stop Sylvia Browne front. Skeptools tells the story better than me, though, so go there and do what he says, if you haven't already.