Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Purity" of Technology...

Several weeks ago, a colleague and I were discussing the pros and cons of the Kindle Fire vs. the Apple iPad.  For me, the biggest problem with the iPad is that Apple refuses to include technology that will play Adobe Flash movies. This is a bummer because 30%-40% of the websites in the U.S. and Canada incorporate Flash technology. And that number jumps to almost 70% in countries like China and Turkey.

Yes, I understand why Apple decided what they did: mobile computers have to be miserly with any mobile device memory, processing speed and battery life.  Apple doesn’t allow Flash movies to play on its mobile devices (iPhones and iPads) because one would have to download Adobe’s Flash Player, and this would slow the device down, and use up precious memory and battery life.  They do allow it, though, on their iMacs and laptops.

It’s a bummer, though, when you’re surfing on an iPad and most websites you want to view come up with blank spots. Yet the drawbacks of Flash technology didn’t seem to stop other mobile device manufacturers from incorporating Flash Players into their mobile devices.

My colleague defended Apple’s choice by saying, “Even though we think we want access to Flash content, it’s important that Apple reminds us that our user experience would be compromised if the device allowed it.”

Wow…. I simply thought Apple was making a technical decision by not incorporating Flash on its mobile devices.  But my colleague’s comment brought this to a whole new philosophical—and ethical—level.   Shouldn’t I be the one who decides what technical compromises I’m willing to live with in order to be able to have access to Flash content?  And it’s important to note that for most people, it’s a non-issue; most users won’t even notice any difference in device performance.

But Apple seems to know what’s better for us.

I have an Epson wifi printer at home.  I can be browsing the web on my Droid Global2 phone, find a page I want to print out, hit a button and it’s printed out.  When I try to do that with my iPad, though, the device tells me that it can’t find any Apple Air network printers.  It doesn’t even indicate that there’s an Espon network printer available.  Hmmm….. So I guess in addition to Flash, Apple doesn’t want me to be able to connect to any device that isn’t Apple-approved technology.  

Well at least they’re consistent!

At this point, I can’t help thinking that Apple’s motivation is to preserve the “purity” of the Apple experience.  That’s fine, as long as I can use the technology for the purposes I need.  But it’s not fine when it becomes limiting.  There are a lot of different types of dark chocolate out there, and some taste much better than others.  But when push comes to shove, one can use any brand of dark chocolate in recipes that call for dark chocolate.  Not Apple mobile devices, though.

It bothers me a lot that Apple seems to think that how I want to use the technology is less important than how they think I should want to use it.

This is scary, folks.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Notes From A Cornfield

The plane headed for the middle of a cornfield. Coming from New York City, I’d never seen corn before, except in a grocery store. But in its natural habitat, it looked like something right out of a Stephen King novel. It was late August, the corn was really "as high as an elephant's eye," and the plane landed on its “runway” (which to any sane person should have more aptly been called a “dirt path.”)

What was I doing moving to Bloomington, Indiana? I thought I was going there to spend the next few years studying at one of the premiere music schools in the country. I thought I was going to rub elbows with the greatest musicians in the world. I thought this was going to be my first-class ticket to fame and fortune.
But the reality of my situation was starting to sink in. I was landing in a corn field. And corn was the only thing I could see for miles around. Where was civilization? Where was the “culture” I came to be a part of?

I should have known something was wrong when the baggage handler who put our luggage in the nose of the plane on the tarmac at Indianapolis Airport took off his baseball cap and put on a pilot’s cap. I should have known something was wrong when I saw him smoking in the cockpit. And I definitely should have known something was wrong when the pilot, just before take-off, got up from his seat, looked around at us passengers (eight people on a 20-seat plane), and then pointed to a fat guy sitting in the back and said: “You. Move to the middle. And sit on the other side of the aisle.”

Somehow, these clues didn’t set off the red flags they should have… So there I was, landing in a cornfield.
My fellow travelers quickly deplaned and hopped into pickup trucks randomly parked at the side of the runway. The pilot, having unloaded the baggage, put his flight cap back on, lit another cigarette, shut the plane’s hatch, and then took off, heading, I suppose, back to Indianapolis.

I was alone with the corn. It was just me, wearing a three-piece, gray flannel suit that was going to serve as my “recital clothes” for the next three years… I didn’t want the suit to get smooshed by stuffing it in my large hiker’s backpack, so I--ignorantly--opted to wear it. In a box next to me was my 10-speed bicycle, disassembled and packed for transit. So, standing there in the blazing, mid-afternoon, late August Indiana sun, I put my bike back together, heaved the backpack on my shoulders, and started pedaling through the cornfield, heading towards fame and fortune, to music not of Bach but of the crickets, and wishing that I could get my mind off of Stephen King.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pure Content

I remember one Thanksgiving dinner many years ago, when I came home from college and went to my grandmother's apartment in Manhattan, where my family's annual holiday gathering took place. I had come home the previous weekend and went to see the musical "Sweeney Todd" during its opening run on Broadway. By the time Thanksgiving came around five days later, I was still under the show's spell and talked about it when aunts and uncles who hadn't seen me for a year asked me the ineveitable question, "What's new?"

I'll never foget my Uncle Alfred's response to my gushing enthusiasm. Alfred was a successful real estate lawyer and tended to be bored with shows like "Sweeney Todd." He prefered theater like "Starlight Express" (which was performed on roller skates), or "Miss Saigon" (which had a helicopter land on stage). In a word, Alfred liked spectacle. So it was no wonder that he said to me disdainfully, "Micah, you like to be educated when you go to the theater; I just want to be entertained."

His comment has stuck with me all these years. In retrospect, I think what I want is authenticity in art. I don't want to be distracted by, well... distractions. I am unabashedly a purist when it comes to content, although I think some of my friends would say that I'm a "snob" when it comes to content. I'm sure both are true, depending upon one's perspective.

Why is it that in the theater there are certain shows you just can't kill? I'm thinking of most Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and shows like "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum." Over the years, I've seen dozens of productions of these works, ranging from professional to community, and from Broadway revival to local high school. And even when the acting, singing, costumes and sets are clearly lacking, the shows are great fun anyway. Their story lines, plots, dilogues, music and lyrics are just so clever, that even a poor delivery of them doesn't dilute their quality or value.

Could the same be said for a lousy production of "Les Miserables"? Or bad productions of "Aida" or "La Boheme" for that matter? I don't think so. Some shows depend upon spectacle for their popularity and appreciation... amazing costumes and sets, and lighting effects worthy of a major July 4th celebration. And don't forget a "cast of thousands." Grand operas depend upon quality voices for their productions, since many of their stories are out-dated and silly (hence the popular belief that it's a good thing we hear most operas in a foreign language that we don't understand...)

It's interesting to me that most people like the tune "Summertime," even if they've never heard or seen "Porgy & Bess," "Bewitched," even if they've never seen a production of "Pal Joey" and "We're In The Money," even if they've never watched the film "The Gold Diggers of 1933." Ask someone, though, why they like "The Music Of The Night," and nine times out of ten they'll first start by saying how amazing the production was that they saw of "Phantom of the Opera." They'll talk about the costumes and the sets. It seems to me that they like the music predominantly because it reminds them of the awe they felt while watching the spectacle... of the "experience" they had in the theater. I'm not saying that their experience isn't valid, by the way. There's definitely a place for spectacle.

I am increasingly gaining respect, therefore, for lone singer-songwriters. Men and women who sit on a stool on a stage with their guitar or at a piano, and simply sing their hearts out to a coffee house crowd. They are putting their music and lyrics in front of us, just about as purely as it can get. There's no spectacle to distract listeners. No fancy lighting or sound processing or costume changes to wow us. What you hear is what you get, and that's what you have to base your "like" or "dislike" of the music upon.

I wonder with the increase of spectacle in the theater, film and concerts, what all this says about us as a society. Can we not appreciate pure content anymore? What is it about us these days that requires added stimuli? Can we no longer tell good from bad simply from the content itself? Or have we decided that content just isn't enough anymore?

Perhaps what's happening here is similar to what often happens when one develops a taste for spicy food. We are so used to adding hot spices to our food that we no longer enjoy a fine steak or fish without pouring spices and hot sauces all over it. It gets to the point where we have to add tabasco sauce to our scrambled eggs to be able to enjoy them.

If this is what's going on in the arts, then that's really sad to me.

It is said that the Chinese dish Kung Pao Chicken was created to mask the fact that the chicken being used for it had gone bad. The story goes that the Emporer awoke in the middle of the night and was hungry. He ordered his chef to prepare something to eat. Unfortunately, the only meat the cook had on hand was some chicken thighs that had gone bad. Yet the Emporer was hungry, so the chef had to do something. So he "wok-ed" the chicken through and through, and added some peanuts, celery, carrots and lots of crushed peppers to make the dish really hot, thereby masking the spoiled taste of the meat. So the distinctive flavor of this dish was created as a distraction to the real substence (or content) of the food.
Nowadays, I can't help thinking about Kung Pao Chicken when I see a lot of theater, film and music videos. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ellie's World

Andrew Wyeth -- Christina's World
Ever since I was a little boy I remember being entranced by Andrew Wyeth's painting, Christina's World. There was a feeling I got from looking at it that was both bittersweet and full of longing. Even today, I'm not sure what exactly that feeling was, or still is. The wheat grass is healthy, nourishing and warm. The sun is shining. There is no foreboding of danger. All is safe. And the boundaries of the world are circumscribed.

As a little boy, I didn't know by looking at the painting that Christina was handicapped, and in real life had dragged herself out into the field to get the view we see of her in the painting. I didn't perceive her limbs or pose as "twisted." This truly was her world, as she was not in a position to stray far from it. And it also came as a great shock to me when years later I saw studies Wyeth had done for the painting which showed Christina's face... the face of an old woman with many wrinkles, hardship and sadness drawn upon it.

But as a child, all I saw was a youngish (because of her long black hair?) woman looking out peacefully--I wanted to believe even happily--at her world. It is a child's view of the world. Looking back now almost half a century later at how it felt to look at this painting with the eyes of a child, I can better understand the bittersweet longing I always associated with the painting. I didn't know Christina's reality at the time, but I did know my own reality. I wanted my world to be safe, warm, sunny and nourishing. And it wasn't. I thought Christina's world was, though, and I wanted her world.

Now that I know about Christina's reality, I can more accurately imagine the conflicting ideas and emotions Wyeth was trying to convey in the painting. But to this day, when I look at the painting, I still get that feeling I needed from it as a child. I tap into a feeling of being trapped by one's circumstances, yet having to find a way to embrace them anyway and accept them peacefully.

I think I have--finally--accomplished this in my life today, and am, more often than not, at peace with my world. I don't know if Christina ever peacefully embraced her world...

My beautiful hound dog Ellie is now twelve and arthritis is beginning to show occasionally in her movements. So when I saw her lying in a Christina-like pose surveying her own "world," I couldn't help feeling grateful that although my life has been more like Christina's reality (without the physical handicaps, though), I've been able to provide for Ellie a world that is truly more in line with my childhood dreams. 

Ellie's World

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Going Home

Early this rainy, Sunday morning in May, I put on some shorts and a sweatshirt, got on my hands and knees and planted Impatiens in a shady section of the garden. When I'm out in Nature, I prefer listening to its wondrous sounds. But living in town, one can never truly get away from the noise of cars and people going by. So as I went outside I put my headphones on, plugged them into my iPod, and started playing Bach organ music.  

About fifteen minutes into the planting, I had already lost track of time. I had ditched my work gloves ten minutes earlier, for I wanted the feel of the moist, healthy dirt on my fingers. The rain was very gentle... almost more of a fine misting. And the reverberating sounds of Bach--in my humble opinion, the closest thing to perfection a human being ever produced--filled my head.

At one point in the music, when the Bach prelude I was listening to was wrapping up after a long, carefully built-up pedal point (the classic sign that the piece was about to end), he played a deceptive cadence that came out of nowhere. The six-minute piece spun on for another two glorious minutes!

When that deceptive cadence hit, I was on my knees with my upper body and head reaching through a blooming Spirea bush, and I had a huge smile on my face. And I suddenly realized that at that moment, I was truly content. Gone were the day-to-day cares of living, of planning for the future, worrying about all my responsibilities and reflecting upon the past. I was in a continual "now," with no cares in the world for anything other than the present moment. If this is the state Buddhists call "nirvana," then I was in the zone.

What made it possible? I suppose removing myself from my work desk, being outside, connecting with nature (rain, dirt and living plants), and listening to music of the highest quality, played loudly enough that it didn't allow any other aural distractions. 

Whatever allowed it to happen, I am grateful that it did, for it was a bliss that bordered on ecstasy. And it felt like "home."

Friday, March 4, 2011

Why I Like Freelance Writing...

When I’m asked what I do for a living, I reply: “I’m a college instructor and a freelance writer.” And when people next ask me what it is that I write, I reply: “Whatever the client is willing to pay me for. Really.” I love freelance writing gigs, and here are my top five reasons why:

#1: Location, Location, Location… 
Because the work is virtual, I can do it pretty much anywhere. If I feel like working at home, then home it is. If I want to sit in a coffee bar sipping lattes while writing, I can do that, too. I’m not tied to an office, so I can travel wherever I want, and, as long as I have my laptop, I can write. Some of my best writing, in fact, has been done while sitting peacefully outside in botanical gardens.

#2: What Day Is It? 
Freelance writing gigs are great because I can work when I want to. The client gives me a deadline for when the piece is due, but then it’s up to me to decide exactly when I want to write it. So if I can’t sleep some night, I can get up and write. And if I want to sleep late some morning, it’s no problem… I can always write when I get up. If I wake up and it’s unexpectedly sunny outside, I can head to the woods with my dog and write the article tomorrow (when rain is forecast.)

#3: The Spice of Life…
I rarely get bored as a freelance writer, since my subject matter usually changes with each assignment. I’ve written about saving pomegranate seeds, formatting USB drives, homeopathic remedies, pianos, Flash animation techniques, canine antibiotics, vasectomies, how to drain an above ground pool and the ten things you should ask a realtor you’re thinking of hiring.  With all the trivia I know, I'm a blast at cocktail parties. The only time I ever started going bonkers as a freelancer was when I was hired to write fifteen slightly different articles about the nuances of quitclaim deeds (for SFGate.com, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle.)

#4: No Messy Guesswork Or Calculations…
Three graduate students in physics were given a lab assignment to determine how long it would take to cook a three-pound roast beef at 350 degrees so that it was medium rare at its center.
  • The first student bought a three pound roast beef, put it in her oven and timed it as she periodically tested it with a meat thermometer. Then as she wrote up her lab notes she was able to munch on roast beef sandwiches.
  • The second student spent hours writing page after page of mathematical calculations based on heating curves, beef density and altitude formulas. Eventually, he came up with his answer.
  • The third student called her mother and asked how long it would take.
I’m kind of like the mother in this scenario: I’ve written so many articles that these days you simply have to say that you want an article that’s funny, 500 words in length and about Argyle socks and I’ll know down to the minute how long it will take me to research and write it.

#5: Wham, Bam, Thank You…
Like the best of outpatient surgeries these days, writing an article is a quick, in-out procedure without any major surprises. Unlike a college course that lasts three months (and you’ve got the student from Hades who never bathes sitting in the front row every class), writing freelance articles have a relatively fast turnaround time and usually a quick paycheck gratification, too. If you end up taking an unpleasant gig with a client who keeps changing her mind, draft after draft, don’t stress about it: it will be over real soon…. And then you never have to work with that client again.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Ohio's Deep Freeze...

Understanding the workings of world climate conditions is anything but simple. But global warming, in very simplistic terms, is the theory that the average temperature of the world is increasing due to the burning of fossil fuels.

Heavy icing
It's hard for those of us in the Midwest of the United States to immediately attribute our more frequent deep freezes to global warming. Nonetheless, I have long been a supporter of the notion of global warming and all of its negative effects on the environment and society. Intuitively, it makes sense to me, even if I don't understand many of its nuances. I always thought that detractors of the theory were oil-industry stooges, including the many politicians beholden unto them.

But if I'm going to be really honest with myself, I also have to admit that I want to believe in global warming. I mean, there's got to be a reason for why I have to deal with increasingly extreme weather in my life, and I don't want to believe that it's all part of a natural cycle of temperature change over millennia. Besides, I really don't like oil and gas. I don't like paying exorbitant heating bills and $3 per gallon for gasoline for my car. Yes, since I want there to be an excuse other than nature, fossil fuels and oil-industry greed are pretty good targets. After all, fossil fuels are nasty and unpleasant materials. And many companies make sinfully large profits from them, because we all are addicted to fossil fuels--and dependent upon them.

So for lots of reasons, I guess I am motivated to believe in global warming.

It came as a shock, therefore, when I read Micheal Crichton's novel, State of Fear, and learned that there are many, many legitimate scientific studies that either refute claims for there really being global warming, or simply point out flaws in other studies that support global warming. No, Michael Crichton is not a scientist, and yes, he does have a pretty amazing imagination. But he IS a thorough researcher who is happy for others to validate his claims, and his book contains a 37-page annotated bibliography citing his sources.

A quick search of the World Wide Web will show dozens of responses, both positive and negative, to Crichton's novel and conclusions. But when someone like Crichton says we need to question our assumptions, it's not the same as coming from an EPA-funded or BP-funded researcher; attention must be paid.

By the way, Crichton does not claim that global warming is a sham. His point was that there are many motvations researchers, organizations, governments and businesses have for supporting certain views and conclusions about global warming, and we need to be aware of them. Furthermore, since the media has latched on to the idea of global warming, right or wrong it keeps getting reinforced in viewers' minds. The "truth" seems to be that the findings from research as a whole are contradictory. Crichton's point is that we don't really know the truth at this point, and a lot more independent research needs to be done.

So where does that leave us?

After being troubled by this question for several days, I've come to the conclusion that it really doesn't matter whether or not global warming exists, since it's tangential to the real issue we should be looking at.

We need to be developing renewable energies like wind and solar power anyway, because, very simply, they are preferable to burning fossil fuels:
  • Their technologies are far-less invasive to their surroundings;
  • They don't have to be "refined," as does crude oil, so there are no extra steps and extra costs involved;
  • They can be harvested "on-site," rather than brought in from afar;
  • Since they're local, renewable energies don't depend upon cooperation from foreign governments (who, by the way, don't particularly like us...);
  • Since they're locally harvested, renewable energies require a local workforce, which is ultimately healthier for our economy and citizenry;
  • As long as it's not excessive, no one has to be worried if the sun shines on your face or the wind sweeps through your hair. The same can not be said for fossil fuels.
  • Etc., etc., etc.
This, for me, is the REAL issue, and has nothing to do with global warming directly. If global warming really does exist, then moving to renewable energies will help reduce it. But if global warming doesn't exist, then using renewable energies is a better way to go, anyway. As far as what we should be doing here, global warming is a non-issue.

I think we've lost sight of what's really important.