Disconnected

I just got back from an epic road trip halfway across the North American continent. Unfortunately, we drove across several southern states where everything is deep-fried. Oh well, it was only 10 days. But in that time we witnessed a total solar eclipse, took part in Cherokee rituals, saw elk sightings, a bent tree, and many other strange and beautiful wonders.

During this time, I realized the 21st century has a stranglehold on us. We are constantly connected to our world via mobile devices and wifi internet. For most of us, this is a relatively new phenomenon; many of us were born before the web was fully realized, and we can remember when instant messaging meant passing notes in class. But by the mid-90’s, things were changing quickly. The generations that followed may not feel the change, like that proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. For anyone born in the 1990’s, their expectation is that information is perpetually within reach, and like we modern, post-industrial, space-age humans who never knew a world without electricity, there is no going back. At least not willingly.

Deliberately ditching your mobile for a week is harder than you think. Being among the various parts of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Pisgah, and so on, where wireless coverage is spotty at best makes it easier to keep one’s resolve to remain disconnected. I must admit, I failed to maintain absolute isolation; my phone would periodically find a signal every other day, and a deluge of messages would drain the battery, forcing me to scramble for my charging cable. As a result, I actually turned off the device – yes, it is possible – when I could not find the cable. Problem solved: no signal, no phone. The device was reduced to a pocket calculator and a low-resolution digital camera.

This idea that being in continual contact with the rest of the world is to me a little absurd. Bear in mind I remember a time when being unreachable was a distinct possibility when leaving the house. Before we all had mobile internet in our pockets, going out into the world untethered was not as scary as it might seem to some of you. Pay phones were ubiquitous, and you always carried some change in case you needed to call someone to check in or ask for a ride. By the way, I saw more than a few pay phones in Appalachian North Carolina. Apparently, this is still a good way to connect. Wifi was available in our motel. And I took advantage of it to plan a route back home. But I felt a little guilty doing this, even though we really needed help finding our way out of the mountains. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect.

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Chimney Rock viewed from Lake Lure, North Carolina

I have to recommend trying this for a few days at least. Go to the Smoky Mountains or Chimney Rock or any of the small, isolated communities surrounded by peaks, and when you realize maintaining a connection is pointless, simply turn off the phone. After one or two days you may see things differently. I am not saying that these devices are inherently evil, although some have gone as far as to blame mobile phone use for an increase in brain cancer. Maybe we are too dependent on mobile devices. It seems tragic that we forgot how to follow a map using a compass. Maybe we have devolved a bit by losing certain skills. Without our phones, what skills do we truly have?

Most striking, I found that without my connection to the internet, and thus, no ability to instantly share my experiences, I enjoyed savoring the moments in real time. The pictures I snapped would simply have to wait until I returned. The stories, updates, comments –  everything – were being stored mentally. The experience was just mine. Naturally, I shared the moments with my wife, and in terms of the eclipse, that was a mass event, so that was pretty cool. Also, we rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, and we listened to stories from the people with us on the train. These moments are what life’s all about. They can be documented digitally, but they become the planar, two dimensional aspect, less than an echo, and the experience cannot be transferred with the degree of fidelity as first acquired. In other words, you had to be there.

I have been converted. I am a believer now. I’m sold on the notion of unplugging, disconnecting if only for a few hours. I was fortunate to have been compelled into isolation. That made it impossible to cheat, at least for a while. But now there is a larger question looming: if being disconnected makes life a little better for a short time, should that be our natural state? I spend upwards of 50 weeks all year getting stressed out, then take off for a few days here and there to “unwind.” Why would I not want to live my life unwound? Well, some of us have to work for a living. But it does seem a shame to put off living until retirement.

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One Star

I make purchases from Amazon.com a lot. I can get practically everything I need online. I shop around for the best deal, not necessarily the lowest price, and I value the customer reviews. On Amazon, customers are encouraged, rather, cajoled into leaving some feedback on their experiences with their purchases. It is important to note that not all Amazon reviews are from actual Amazon customers, and the site recently implemented a change that gives greater weight to verified purchasers. But I still think it’s worth something when I’m shopping for a product, and someone has something, anything, to say about their experience, no matter where they made their purchase.

When I’m shopping online, especially on Amazon (the rating/reviewing feature is ubiquitous on the web these days), I pay close attention to how many reviews a product has as well as the proportion of 1-star reviews there are to the total. For example, a Texsport 6 person dome tent has an overall rating of 3.2 out of five stars. More than half are 4- and 5-star ratings. But the number of 1-star ratings is 12%. By contrast, North Gear Camping 6 person dome tent has an overall 2.4-star rating. 60% of the reviews rate it 1 star, the lowest rating. To be fair, this tent is much less expensive than the Texsport product. But price is not an indicator of quality in all cases. Yes, you get what you pay for, but slapping a Kelty logo on a tent doesn’t always make it better. It’s worth noting that the North Gear tent received only 5 reviews.

I like to read the 1-star reviews. They’re sometimes off target, blaming the shipper, rating the product poorly because it arrived damaged. Sometimes a negative review is given because the buyer was unhappy with customer service, which is a valid reason to be dissatisfied. And once in awhile the customer is just telling us shoppers about their particular experience and not necessarily that the product is defective or inadequate. But I value the negative reviews almost more than the positive ones. That being said, it’s human nature to complain when something goes wrong rather than to sing praises when things are just okay.

Do I want myself rated? Not necessarily, but I do subject myself to feedback when I speak in Toastmasters. After some time you do develop thicker skin, not that people are brutally honest in their assessments. Maybe they should be, but we don’t want to scare anyone off. If we could speak face-to-face with those online merchants, would we be willing to be so frank, or in some cases, cruel? Probably not. The ostensible anonymity of the web makes it easier for people to be more “honest.” If you read Youtube comments, you will see that it often goes too far. And people are uncivil in their comments to what end? They very often do not offer constructive feedback, and they complain about things that cannot be changed. The worst of them are openly racist or homophobic. And it gets a lot worse.

That 1-star review might be a very good thing, when it is offered in earnest of making a difference. Telling someone that I didn’t like something without offering a suggestion for improvement is a pointless endeavor. I work harder every day to be more constructive. Of course, sometimes I just complain. I do it here. I’m probably doing it right now. There’s value in the negative. It enables us to hear about ways to improve, provided the review process is being handled the right way. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but we need honesty without too much emotion to get in the way. We shouldn’t be afraid to let our opinions be heard. And don’t use the word “humble”. Opinions are bold. They’re part of our makeup. And they matter, to us at least.

Most people won’t bother to offer feedback. It’s overwhelming, actually. The other day I was watching an awesome video on Youtube. It had, at the time, over 800,000 views. Disproportionately, it had 7,000 likes. That’s less than 1 percent! You might have noticed that many YouTubers solicit for likes and subscriptions. They practically beg. And it’s no effort at all. But people just don’t want to leave feedback, even if it means only clicking a button. But if they hate it, you’d better believe they’re going to say something. And that’s the power of the negative. I guess this is why we hold to the adage, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Even if this is a myth, it appears to have a little truth to it. Well, I’d give that at least 3 stars.

 

While You Were Sleepwalking

As I was driving through the parking lot at a local shopping center recently, I was stopped by some pedestrians leaving a shop. Courteous and watchful motorists should be on the lookout for people on foot always. This is especially true in crowded commercial districts that allow a mix of vehicular and foot traffic. What’s more, seasoned city dwellers will tell you that, essentially, pedestrians and cyclists alike are invisible to the average driver, and it is known among the non-motorists that extra vigilance is in order. On behalf of the casual urban ambler, it is the duty of every driver to be extra watchful, because for the occasional walker, we are their eyes and ears.

Back to my recent encounter. Various shoppers were crossing traffic to get to their cars, where, it is hoped, they would assume a commensurate position of vigilance while behind the wheel. A mother and her daughter were walking across my path, both captivated by tiny screens. I expected the pre-teen holding her mobile device would not be paying attention to the world around her. People born in the 21st century are not afforded any skills beyond those required for them to interact with the virtual world through technology. Human interaction is as foreign a concept to them as using technology would have been to my grandparents. This is not a judgement but an observation. A sobering, devastating observation.

The youth, engrossed by her smartphone, walking into the path of moving cars would be disturbing enough without the image of her mother, 4 meters ahead of the girl totally engaged with her own tablet and oblivious to me, also not looking up to make visual contact with, well, anything in her immediate vicinity, apart from the small screen, and especially not paying attention to her child. Now, the fact that this scene alarms me is testament to the rarity of such extent, and most parents probably do watch their children with eyes in the backs of their heads, like mine apparently had. So it is a bit of a relief that it is uncommon to witness such neglect, but imagine how much goes on without anyone watching.

Ever since the Palm Pilot came onto the scene, followed by the Blackberry, humans have been bowing their heads in adoration of the silicon god, the mobile device that connects us not to the person seated across from us, but to the technophile at the other end. Worse things can happen than simply missing out on human contact, I suppose, but we may be approaching the apogee of stupidity while glued to our screens. Meanwhile, the President of the United States seems to be leading that charge.

I believe the blind leading the blind will never really understand the peril they are putting themselves – and their children – in by blundering through life playing Pokemon. I don’t mean to say I disapprove of video games. I enjoy a few on my phone. But sometimes it’s good for us – maybe necessary – to put it away, if only until we make it across the street. I’ll just continue to be their eyes and ears. Oh, and next time, I’ll drive through a nearby puddle just to make it interesting.

 

What’s in Your Wallet?

I don’t wish to alarm anyone, but our economy is a bit of an illusion. Goods and services are being exchanged for currency, which is mostly held in bank accounts as electronic records, instead of a proper certificates and legal tender. Many of us have abandoned cash, opting instead in favor of credit and debit for monetary exchanges. Putting aside the astounding amount of consumer household debt in the US for another time, I want to talk about the economy of everyday life.

A very long time ago, people exchanged one good or service for another in a bartering-type system. For example, a farmer grows cabbage and potatoes, but he needs other commodities, like rice and wheat, milk, cooking oil, and fuel. So he goes to the market and exchanges his goods for the things he needs. This works well until he decides to hire someone to help him pick his crops. The farm hand cannot realistically be paid in cabbages, so a form of currency is needed. The various precious metals, copper, silver, and gold, are established as acceptable remuneration for any debt or fee, and would eventually be codified to a standard we accept as legal tender.

Fast-forward a little, and we find ourselves in our current state where money is held in accounts, not in safes or mattresses. When we pay for something, we whip out a debit card (if there’s money in that account) or credit card and authorize payment. We don’t really think about it, but what’s keeping all this going? Maybe it’s just my mind being manipulated by watching Mr. Robot,  and I do get a little anxious with each episode, but I’m bothered by the way our modern banking system seems to control everything. And what’s stopping the whole thing from falling apart? (I’m searching for a specific passage in a science fiction novel where I read that the end of the world was not caused by plague or war, but by cascading failures of electronic banking computers. The entire world economy was in memory somewhere, and something went wrong, horribly, catastrophically wrong. I was sure it was Arthur C Clarke, but I haven’t found the reference.)

My point is that the economy is extremely vulnerable. If you recall 2008 when the housing market crashed, the whole thing was caused by bad loans and greedy investors. If it happened once (and it has repeatedly) it can, and will, happen again. Except this time maybe it will be caused by hackers like the ones in Mr. Robot. What will happen if money is useless? What is money, really? Like I said, that legal tender concept is nice, but it’s just paper. And coins are not worth much. They contain very little precious metal, and no silver or gold. Pennies aren’t even made from copper anymore. Money is only worth something if the authority backing it says so.

So, let’s imagine what the world would look like if banks stopped working. You couldn’t use a debit card, and there’s no electronic “wallet” or other e-payment. Online bill payment is not an option, and no one accepts checks. The little cash there is might be accepted, but it’s only paper, like I said. In post-WWI Germany, inflation was so high that people used bank notes as fuel to keep warm. Eventually, a new economy would appear. Food and firewood are the new currency. Maybe you can trade some commodity for either. If you have a particular skill like making soap or metalworking, that is definitely worth something. If you’re thinking Fight Club you’re following me.

This vision of the future frightens me. It should frighten everyone, because not many people will thrive in this environment, and those who can are dangerous. This is why the governments of the world are working hard to keep economies flourishing. They will even go so far as to artificially prop up currency valuation or offer bailouts to prevent the unthinkable. By 2009, the US had spent $700 billion from taxpayers to prevent catastrophe (according to the Forbes article, it’s much more). And I think we were closer than is generally known.

When I go to the supermarket to buy coffee or potatoes or strawberries, I am participating in global trade with many different players. Coffee plants do not grow in the continental US. They require a specific climate that is best found in mountain regions in the tropics (high altitude, lots of sun and moisture). Strawberries in February come from Chile. We have to assume that people are getting paid all along the way. But if we paid what is fair – and whose definition of “fair” are we going by – that coffee would cost five times more. And strawberries in February would be cost-prohibitive. But through a careful balance of trade deals and other machinations, we can get what we want, and we don’t worry about what we can’t see, right?

Now I don’t recommend hoarding cash. And I am not condoning a policy of austerity and self-deprivation. That said, I am not the consumerism fan-boy. Capitalism is highly susceptible to greed and corruption. Marxism is also deeply flawed. Wherever there is a monetary system, it seems that people tend to fuck it up. We could theoretically live in a society where everything is traded; no one takes advantage, and there is trust. Borrowing and lending are simplified yet rarely implemented, but everyone buys only what they can afford. In this utopian economy, would money exist? I guess if that world could exist, maybe not. But unfortunately, we live in the real world, and that world must get paid.

Going International

If you ever wish to feel completely isolated and shunned by society, try promoting the Metric System in the USA. It is an exercise in frustration, and you will be astounded by how much resistance there is to something that makes so much sense. The truth is that we already use metric units in a lot of areas of our lives, and it is standard in science and medicine, for the most part. On my recent doctor visit, as I stepped on the scale, the nurse interviewing me asked if I knew my height. I responded, “170 centimeters”. After some silence, I looked at her and rephrased, “1.7 meters, then.” Ultimately I acquiesced and said I was around five feet seven inches.

This moment notwithstanding, many of us are already using metric units, as I mentioned, whether we realize it or not. For instance, most Americans know how far five kilometers is. Many of us have actually managed to run that distance in under an hour. We can all recognize a 2-liter bottle, and we know how much 500 mg of Tylenol look like, and we know a little about Celsius. So, I think we can handle it. We underestimate our own capacity for adaptation. I think we should see converting to the metric system as a challenge worthy of accepting.

But I often feel utterly alone, inasmuch as I have most of the rest of the world on my side. You see, the United States is one of only three nations that have failed to adopt the metric system formally. The other two, Liberia and Myanmar, may have a pretty good excuse, having been locked in civil war and oppressive military rule, respectively, for more than a decade. What’s our excuse? But as I said earlier, we have already started the process, so a few more steps shouldn’t be to difficult to make.

First, it is not uncommon for street and highway signs to be replaced, and yes it costs taxpayers to replace them, but these costs are always part of state and county budgets, and that’s what taxes are for! Therefore, when speed limit signs are replaced, why not print miles per hour and kilometers per hour (km-h is preferred to kph). The result would be that next time we’re driving on the highway, we might see a sign that reads both “70 mph” and “113 km-h”. After some time, the mph can be removed entirely. That way, when you see a sign that reads “50 km-h” you know you will need to slow down because you’re in a residential zone. A school zone should be about 32 kilometers per hour. It’s a simple matter of learning the new scale. No calculation is necessary.

The same may be said for learning Celsius. In Fahrenheit, we know that water freezes at 32 degrees and it boils at 212º. Celsius is a bit easier to manage with freezing at zero and boiling occurring at 100º. Americans get very confused about where our comfort zone is within this scale. I tell people it’s really pretty easy. We know that zero is the freezing point, so we’ll say you need a coat and gloves, that is we in Texas would agree with this because, well, this is Texas. Anything between zero and 10º is still pretty cold (again, this is Texas), but once you get up to 20º C, you might be okay with no jacket at all. When the temperature hits 30º, it’s warm enough to go swimming (my friends in Norway would go swimming at 14º, but okay). Between 30º and 36º is about where we live in Texas, and it gets above 37º at the peak of summer. 40 degrees is very hot, about Jacuzzi temperature. After that, you’re in some serious heat. Then there’s 50º, which is about the highest temperature in Death Valley or the Iraqi desert. (Actually, I think the world record is nearly 60º.)

Death Valley
Death Valley

I tend to lose people here. But today when I offered to go for a walk with a co-worker, she asked if she needed a jacket. I told her is was 16º and no jacket was needed. After a couple laps around the campus, it was clear that it was warm enough, especially in the sun. I hope she remembers that reference point, and she might be inspired to think metric in the future. But even my wife resists learning the metric system, even though I have a compelling argument, about how it’s based on tens, and a cubic centimeter of water is one mililiter, and it is very close to one gram in mass, depending on temperature. That’s the simplicity of it all. You can divide a meter or a kilogram or a liter by any multiple of ten. Meanwhile, in the States, a foot is one third of a yard, and it is divided into twelve inches. A mile is – whatever! Just use the metric system!

So, I continue on my quixotic mission to get the US on the metric system. One way to immerse yourself is to tell your smartphone to use metric units. At first it will be challenging when your phone tells you, “in 800 meters, turn right…” or when you ask what the temperature is and Siri responds, “it’s 28 degrees C…hot!”. (Okay, Siri. Remember? I live in Texas.)

Eventually we will be on the International System, as it’s called. The internet has exposed Americans to the metric system better and faster than our 4th grade teachers ever could. (I sometimes forget how old I am, and that most of you don’t remember when President Carter tried converting the US back in the 1970’s). Well, we’re ready now, and I think we can switch at long last. Like I said, it’s already started. And I smile as I look at the label on the plastic water bottle next to me, as it reads “500 ml”.

Your Honor, I rest my case.

 

Morphology

Words are important. Context is even more so. Words can have multiple meanings in the same sentence, like “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.” In this case, “ducks” is a verb, but because it follows “hunts”, we first assume it is the object of the hunt, the animal. The sentence would be better understood by inserting another word and adding a comma, “The man who hunts animals, ducks out on weekends.”

But sometimes a word starts to take on a new meaning, and it becomes less ambiguous. The original meaning is morphed. This is why we call every facial tissue a Kleenex, using a specific brand name. Or why people often say “literally” to describe something with emphasis, when in fact, they are misusing the word. Saying “I literally died laughing,” is a completely inaccurate statement unless you were resuscitated after laughing so hard that your heart stopped.

I studied language and linguistics, so I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to choosing the right word. I am by no means as rigid about language as so many lawyers, but I believe it’s important to be accurate. For example, people often say, “whatever” when they can’t think of the right word or when they’re simply being lazy. I heard two people coming out of a store talking about where they would go next. One woman in the group said, “we’ll go to Bed, Bath, and whatever,” as if “whatever” was easier to say than “Beyond.” My wife and I joke about this, and whenever we need to go shopping, I say, “we need some ‘whatever’.”

Laziness might be less to blame for the emergence of textspeak. The need to be succinct because of the cost of mobile data usage, and the 140 character limit of Twitter, not to mention our lower attention spans, have all contributed to abandoning of proper grammar and spelling. “You’re” is now “UR”, and “that’s hilarious” or “very funny” are now “LOL”. This is probably the beginning of persistent changes to language as we have known it, and indeed English has changed dramatically over the past 200 years. New words have entered our lexicon, and older, lesser-used, words have become extinct. Some have taken on new meaning. Case in point, we don’t use “gay” to mean happy anymore.

Some things are slow to change. A mobile intensive care unit (MICU) may still be referred to as an ambulance, even though it doesn’t resemble that antiquated vehicle much. Also, we have abandoned the word “pianoforte” for the modern “piano”, and the list continues. Things change, and sometimes change is pretty fast. As people live longer they will no doubt witness more changes in their lifetime. The late grandmother of one of my friends reportedly remembered arriving in California in a covered wagon as a little girl, and she lived long enough to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon. A lot of radical changes happened in the meantime, as you might imagine.

I expect many things will change in my lifetime. I have already witnessed dramatic changes to the English language, and I am split. On one hand, I lament the disappearance of the language I grew up with, but on the other, it is not good to remain in the past. I think I will always insist on proper 20th century American English when I communicate here or in business. I dare not elevate my language when texting or on Twitter. There’s no room, and there is no call for it. I say “lol”. But I say “you are” or “you’re” as opposed to “UR”. That’s just my brain’s unwillingness to cut off pathways to the memorized portions of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s hard to let go. Kind of like trying to breathe while submerged.

Change will happen whether we like it or not. Just like people don’t ride around by horse-and-buggy, some things aren’t meant to stick around. That said, I say “toodle-oo”, as the old folks say. (God, I’m glad that’s no longer a thing.)

Pants on Fire

I need to institute a new policy whereby anyone who lies to me is permanently disavowed. Perhaps they deserve a second chance. Sure, but I’ve been lied to repeatedly by some people, so they squandered their opportunity a long time ago. Why does this bother me so much? There are many reasons. Most importantly, I believe lying is a true showing of one’s character, or lack thereof. Dishonesty is a most unappealing quality. It not only displays a person’s open willingness to deceive someone, but it also demonstrates his ability to abandon the conventions of society.

We here in the modern world, especially those in civilized society, have come to expect that people are honest in their dealings with us. It stands to reason that there are those who would rather live outside the law, stealing and causing harm. But most of us want to live within the bounds of social norms, acceptable practices. We want people, especially government officials, to be honest and truthful. Every election year, it appears that our collective tolerance for outright deceit hits new heights. We sit in disbelief that politicians are allowed to slander one another, stating the boldest of lies, and telling fantastic tall tales. All of them do it. Every single one.

But real human being, non-politicians, people you work with, family members, friends; these people should have no reason to lie to us. Understandably, you may need to cover up the truth because you wish to spare someone’s feelings, or the truth is too embarrassing to be revealed. But I’m not talking about “white lies”, those little untruths we tell others: “That looks great on you,” or “nice job.”

I have one or two family members who are habitual liars. It’s very frustrating, because they act like they have every reason to be trusted, but they are completely unreliable. It should be no surprise, and yet they persist. I guess it would be worse if they were thieves. (Well, that’s also the case.)

I believe we should forgive people. But forgiveness doesn’t have to include a change in my treatment of others. In other words, if someone lies to me over and over again, I will never trust that person. Why should I? I can forgive that person, whatever that really means. But trust and forgiveness are not the same thing.

Now, let’s look at the big picture. Some people just are not real big fans of facts and figures. They’d just as soon repeat the latest gossip or urban myth than actually look up something to verify it. The fact that the entire world’s information is instantly available to practically everyone you and I know has not changed the fact that there is an abundance of misinformation to counter the truth. Nevertheless, we all have the ability to gather facts. Yet not many people bother, and everyone seems to have their own version of the facts. Again, politicians and others seem to have no problem with spreading lies. Check out Politifact.com to explore how often and how boldly our leaders just flat out lie to us.

I do not always tell the absolute truth. But I work very hard at not lying to people, especially my friends. Of course, when my dad calls I might tell him I’ve been up for hours, when I actually might have slept in til 10 am on a Sunday. Hey, I work nights sometimes. But that’s more about my unwillingness to engage in a discussion about my values and priorities when I first wake up. So I tell a little fib to avoid that whole thing.

Seriously, people should try to tell the truth. And if that’s too hard, perhaps they should change their patterns of behavior so that lying is no longer necessary. I’m trying not to judge; instead, I want to help. Because if people are willing to change their ways, perhaps I will start trusting them again. But I make no promises. (And that’s a topic for another day.)