Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Evolution of Paper

Tea. Earl Grey, Hot.  What?  No? We don't have that yet? Well, we should.  We have everything else.  Well, except maybe a transporter. That would be cool, too.   If you look at all the science fiction worlds of the 20th century, written in the golden age of Speculative fiction, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek stands out as one that, for the most part, we've delivered on the prophecies made.   Look at our cell phones, for instance.  We might as well have Scotty beam us up.  But all this has been documented many times before, and you don't need me to remind you of it. The unique thing about Star Trek is that the society they live in is totally paperless.  And we're getting that way.  It's the next big thing, as it were. 

Take the mail, for instance.  The United States Postal Service has been losing money for years now.  Millions of it.  But since it's subsidized by the Federal Government, it doesn't matter.  So it can continue to do things exactly as they have done it for years and continue to lose money. The main problem is that they haven't changed as our methods of communication and commerce have changed.  I found it amazing, as I was talking to my grandmother, that back in her day (30's, 40's), the Mail was delivered to every house twice, a day!  They had that many letters to deliver.  Not so many bills, probably.  That didn't happen until there were credit cards and debt out the ears.  The doctors probably had someone hand write bills, or they just went over to your house and talked it over.  But transportation and population have grown since then.  You'd think there would be more letters to send, more bills to mail, and you'd think the USPS would be making tons of money.  But the truth is that there are so few letters sent by envelope and stamp and paper anymore.  Email (and now, Facebook) makes writing to people unnecessary.  We can just type it out.  & y typ out all th ABCs when we can abbr them?  It's not even worth using standard English grammar and usage since we only have 140 characters to spell out what's on our minds.  I write very few checks for my bills since they're all done online now.

My grandmother gets letters from pen pals that she's had for years now, children of friends of her parents.  And they write her, and tell her all about the weather, and about the quilting projects they have done for their grandchildren, and how the tomatoes are growing. The speed of their lives is so much slower.   They write once a week, as if that is part of their lives they couldn't live without, like a TV show that comes on each week.  As Neil Postman said, there's a correlation between the way people think and the media that they use to communicate.  Sure, my grandmother can talk on the phone, but she'd rather not.   I wouldn't either.  I like writing letters (e-mail, of course) because it's a slower paced conversation.  I talk, and then you talk, but there are never any interruptions.  And they had those letters twice a day to return, as obviously they had no TV, no Internet, cell phone...etc.  Maybe a radio, with music or the ball game, but that was it. The conversation was slower because life was slower.

But now, in the electronic age where things are so quick that not even words need to be spelled out to communicate (i.e.  LOL OMG WTF BTW IMHO...etc....), we have no need for that mail.  I'm lucky, when I go to the mailbox, if there's a couple of bills in there, maybe a pamphlet about voting for the next congressman.  Pizza Coupons,  a worthless catalog.  So I had an idea.  What if, to turn around the financial position of the USPS, they drastically reduce the days they deliver the mail.  Say Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays only.  Special trucks could be used for priority or overnight services, but otherwise, only three times a week.  Talk about saving money! Because it's just  not necessary anymore. 

What else could we change through the evolution of paper and ink? Think of Gutenberg's invention, the printing press.  Think of how many things changed because it became so much easier to create books, pamphlets, a brand new way of communicating.  Through writing.  Reading became a necessary skill, where before only the wealthy and the clerics actually needed it.  But what would Gutenberg think to see his ink and paper system turned into a series of 0's and 1's on an electric-run board with wires, circuits, etc.   Paper becomes, at this point, irrelevant.  But so many other things do as well.

If you give me a pen and a pad of paper and tell me to write an essay, my hand will start aching after about 10 minutes.  I can't stand to write anymore.  It does nothing for my handwriting skills which are horrid anyway.  I would argue strongly for the elimination of cursive handwriting in schools and the mandatory keyboarding class to be taught to every student.  Learning to type is so essential to today's world.  School would be much different than today's affair.  Every student would have a laptop or tablet, with all the textbooks loaded into it, as well as a word processing program and a network tie in with the system so that the teacher can illustrate points on everyone's machine, which could be saved and reviewed for later.  Setting aside the idea of learning from a computer online at home (which would eliminate the school building, altogether,) we should at least eliminate the need for school lockers that simply take up room in the hallways.  If everything was fully done online, with laptops, electronically, there would be no need for forests full of paper records.  This is highly beneficial for the special education section of most schools I've worked with, where IEPs and other forms are spread out among filing cabinets throughout the building.  It would combine discipline notes, communication between teachers and administrators...the benefits of this are endless.    

I would go on and on spelling out the benefits of a fully electronic, paperless society.  And I would be wrong.  Because the permanence of paper is the one gigantic thing that will always keep books, newspapers, and the mail, circulating.  What if a cyber-attack wiped out the internet completely, or a virus that destroyed all electronic data on those computers.  The results would be tragic.  No medical records, no book manuscripts, no letters between presidents and their staff. All historic information saved purely this way would be lost.  All of my blogs... gone.  Makes me sad thinking about it.  And I've experienced this many times.  I don't think I actually have a single research paper from my college days in any electronic form, as every disk I ever used went bad on me, usually before I turned it in.  So that's why I have a paper copy of all my blogs printed out and taped into a Borders bought journal.  It's all there in its low-tech glory.  So while I am perfectly willing to have a paperless society, I know the importance of having paper copies of the world's information.  It would be worse than Fahrenheit 451, because the world's works would be more than burned up, they would be instantly deleted.  No one could save it.  So let us change and rely on our electronic book readers and our laptops and our online bill payment systems.  But let's also not forget that the system that Gutenberg invented some 500 years ago has lasted a good long while, and it's permanence is worth more than all the circuitry ever made.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Forever Light Bulb


(cue Andy Rooney) Ever wonder why that little filament inside the light bulb wears out?  I mean, yeah you could get those squiggly ones that lasts for years, and I get those not because of any supposed environmental benefits, but because I'm lazy, and I have absolutely no desire to change light bulbs any more than absolutely necessary.  I'd have my whole house dark if it meant I didn't have to do that every two weeks.  Why should I have to change a light bulb every month when there's no real reason why we can't make light bulbs last for years, decades, even.  Except for the fact that once everyone had light bulbs in place, given their price, the light bulb companies would go out of business.  Even the fluorescent light bulbs that I purchased recently don't last nearly as long as the ones I bought back in 2001 that would keep me from having to change the bulbs in my room for years to come (but was, incidentally, about $10 for one bulb, as apposed to $6 for three now.)  

There actually is a book that deals with such things.  Well, that's how it starts out, anyway.  Clifford D. Simak wrote Ring Around the Sun back in the early 60's and envisioned a group of people from an alternate reality (the idea that Earth is actually one of millions of Earths orbiting around the sun in a extra-temporal dimension in which there are alternate realities, generally.  These beings have figured out how to cross between realities and are looking for the right people to populate their own world.  And then they get rid of the other people in the other worlds in order to have infinitely different worlds to colonize.  They do this peacefully (in their own way) by introducing things like the Forever Light Bulb that reduces the economies of the world to ruins. (You must forgive me, it has been a long while since I've read it. And Simak doesn't always think through plot lines. It's the idea and the science behind it that is important.)

We are, after all, consumers.  We don't necessarily believe that anything will last forever (except for our computers' hard drives, which we naively believe will last, and then we curse when it dies.)  We have made everything disposable, so that it is much easier just to buy a new one than to replace or repair the old ones.  I'm sure you've heard the arguments on clothing, where in the past, if a child gets a rip in his pants around the knees, they are either repaired with a sewing kit and some fabric, or the child suddenly has a new pair of shorts for the summer.   But now, it's much easier to buy new clothes instead of repairing the old ones.  For me, who cannot use a sewing machine (mainly because, again, I'm too lazy), I've tried to get my mother to repair some of my pants for years, and they have yet to be mended.  And that would be a problem, except it is much easier to get them at Goodwill for $4.50 a pair, when you can find them.  I know whenever someone fat has died, because all their pants get donated to Goodwill and I pick them up.  And I wear them for a few months until I rip the seams somehow, and into the mending pile they go.  It's so easy to replace them nowadays.  Inflation of product. 

So what about people?  How easy are they to replace?  If one person gets sick and has to go to the hospital, why bother with the injured worker when you can hire 10 more from the unemployment lines.  We have inflation of people, now.  Where, because we are consumers, and there are so many  people now, the value upon each person, speaking from a business standpoint, is lowered.  Except we cannot just replace ourselves.  We don't just respawn in a certain place (unless you believe in reincarnation, then that's another story) like in the video games, nor do we have 4 lives plus another life for every 100 coins you might pick up.  There are no 1-UP mushrooms in this world.   Consumers are often like cattle, with so much credit, so much potential, until they are used up and pushed aside.  And while that is capitalism, I am not saying that this is something I'm against.  People have the ability to regulate themselves and not become inflated and worthless.  It is up to them.  I could always be careful with my pants that I purchase, make them last longer, or turn the lights off in my room, and the bulbs will last longer.  So it's a balancing act, one that should benefit all sides involved.

It's odd, that blog didn't go where I wanted it to at all.  And that's neat, because the
idea formed as I was writing.  About light bulbs.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Sparrow and The Plum

Book Reviews: The Sparrow and the Plum

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet By Reif Larsen

There has been recent discussion about what the media calls "The Great American Novel."  A book that somehow defines the American experience, that pulls everything together and demonstrates what it means to be alive in this particular country at this time in history.  My answer to those debaters would be To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee, or Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.  The book that I am reviewing is definitely not one of these, but bears a remarkable resemblance to Warren's brilliant novel about Louisiana politics. 

I say this not in respects to the plot line, which is basically a boy going from Montana to Washington DC to accept an award from the Smithsonian.  An award, they suspect, which is being given to a college professor, not a 12 year old.  T.S. Spivet tells of his cross country journey in his notebook and illustrates it throughout, drawing out every detail of his travels.  This includes the aspects for which is it like Warren's book.  In AtKM the main character sees the cows chewing grass by the side of the road, or sees the lighted windows from the car he is driving, and wonders about the lives of those people.  He details the omniscience of the cow, the all knowing cow, as it watches the world go by, uncaring, just as the cow does not care.  T.S. notices the pedestrians walking the streets of Chicago and tabulates who is walking with whom, and of those walking alone, how many have earphones listening to music.  He makes decisions about life as skillfully as any sociologist would.  That is the meat of the book, the treasures which should be gathered from its pages.  A highlighter or pencil is highly recommended.  The margin notations are golden observations about life. 

I did find the ending to be a little slow, as the book, as in life, is more interesting during the journey than in the end destination.  But the reaction he has to Washington DC is appropriate, as it ties everything together.  I do wonder though, about his core principle, that everyone has a map of the universe in their minds, and the journey of life is trying to map it all into understanding.  Do we know as much as the Cow  standing beside the road?  And is the cow more fortunate for, knowing everything, not caring anything about it? Or is the struggle what our journey is all about. 

If you read the reviews from the online bookstores, they basically echo my feelings, a great book with a few flaws


Under Plum Lake by Lionel Davidson.

I had to take my Grandmother to the doctors (she'd broken a small bone in her arm when she fell in the front yard. Nothing major, just sore.), and so I picked up a kid's book I found several months before.  Under Plum Lake, and I found I literally could not put the book down.  While I waited to pay the bill at Waffle House, I read pages of the book. 

When I finished it, I went immediately for the Internet to find out more about the author and his work.  What marvels of sci-fi and fantasy might be actually hidden on bookshelves just waiting for me?  The answer is, none.  Lionel Davidson is most known for Israeli-Middle East Spy novels.  His few children's books are written under a different name (David Line) and are reality based adventure books.  There's a distinct pattern here.  I can name quite a few Mystery/Thriller authors that write one amazing children's fantasy novel, which reach right into the core of Faerie, to the magical unknowns of the subconscious world, and then for some reason, never write another.  My prior review of The Magicians by Grossman, talks more about that. 

I wish I could describe the intensity to which I flew through this book.  It tells the adventures of a boy, Barry, and his discovery of an underwater realm where people are giant, live hundreds of years, and experience every type of fun and pleasure available.  His guide through the world is Dido, the son of the ruler of Egon.  But that's all I'm gonna say about it, because you have to experience it for yourself. 

I've read more than one review that likens the book to a wild LSD trip.  I won't disagree with them.  The book is a sensory overload with sparse language and very bare emotions.  So very well written, and it is an utter shame that Davidson only wrote one book that fits into the science fiction genre.  And doubly so that the book is out of print.  There are accounts of people (prior to the Internet) searching for a copy for years, making it one of their most prized possessions.  I can understand why.  Now you can order a copy (at Borders.com) easily, and have a copy of your own.  I wanted to share the book with people.  Order copies and say, "Here, you must read this book!!"  And so I will tell you, "You must read this book!!"