Thursday, August 06, 2009

Honk! Honk! "You've Got Mail"

Okay, enough is enough.

Over the years I've been a persistent advocate for new technologies and the resulting cultural transformations that attended them. While I acknowledge that not all of them have had a positive impact on society, I do think that many of these tools have not only increased productivity but also have shrunk our world, erasing artificial boundaries and connecting people across cultures in powerful ways.

And so way back in the early 1980's when the personal computer was just being birthed I bought an IBM PCjr, complete with a floppy disk that was actually floppy and 128KB of RAM, an amount of memory that wouldn't hold one photo of my granddaughter Ashley in today's hardware. (For those of you with more than 128KB, pictures of Ashley are available on request.)

In the years that followed I've Googled and gargled and I've Twittered and twiddled. I've dialed up the Internet with a 300 bps modem, and waited for that screeching sound over the phone that signaled a connection was made. I've processed words and spreadsheeted numbers. I've instant messaged and text messaged, and I've even used my cellphone to make phone calls. In the days before the auto save feature I've written documents of several pages in length and then lost them into the ether, where I assume they await my redemption on judgment day. That's going to be a busy day.

I've paid my tech-friendly dues throughout my career, holding off the luddites, trying to convince them that "Jesus saves" was actually a technological instruction rather than a theological one. The outcome of that discussion is still in doubt, but it's now in the hands of others. I worry.

But today I heard an advertisement on my car radio that launched me into a great sucking sound--an inhalation of air that usually only occurs when I punch the wrong button on my radio and find I've tuned in Rush Limbaugh.

The ad was from General Motors, promoting the OnStar feature in some of their cars, which they describe as an "in-vehicle security, communications, and diagnostics system." Fair enough. I've got no problem with this satellite-based program that reports crashes and dispatches emergency vehicles, not unlike a home alarm system. They say that if you lock your keys in your car you can call an 800 number and they will unlock it remotely. I've never been wild about the idea that no matter where I am some guy in Detroit can lock or unlock my car. But oh well.

Now however comes the stunning news that their program does a series of mechanical diagnostics and then YOU GET AN EMAIL FROM YOUR CAR with the results.

That's it. No more. I'm drawing the line right here. This ain't happening.

I am writing today to the management of General Motors and will be telling President Obama that this has gone too far. I WILL BE ACCEPTING NO EMAILS FROM MY CAR. I was an avid supporter, Mr. President, and I'm calling in my chits. Stop this in its tracks or that picture of you as a newborn baby in a fur parka might just get anonymously sent to the Christian Science Monitor.

I've fought the good fight. But there are times when a stand must be taken and no compromise is acceptable.

Gotta run. My refrigerator is calling. Apparently we're out of lunch meat.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ashley, Grandpa, and Baseball

We took our granddaughter Ashley to the Kansas City Royals baseball game the other day. She missed being selected on the giant scoreboard as "Fan of the Game," probably because she wasn't in her seat at the time. She didn't get to meet the team mascot Sluggerrr when he stopped by our section, also because she wasn't in her seat at the time. She didn't get featured on the scoreboard's Kiss Cam--it seems she wasn't in her seat at the time. She did, however, get kissed quite a bit.

Her first game, which I had long been looking forward to, was a lot of fun, but it wasn't quite as I had imagined it would be,

I had thought she would sit on my lap most of the game as I explained to her the nuances of defensive alignments, told her stories from my love of baseball going back almost a half century, and helped her understand that she shouldn't cry when the fans suddenly erupted in a deafening roar that scared her. "This is the Royals, sweetheart. When yelling happens, that's a good thing, believe me."

I needed to give her context here. You see, Ashley, there was the crazy owner Charley Finley and the deified owner Ewing Kauffman. There was small market economics and why we hate the Yankees. There was the World Series in 1985 and virtually no series ever since. There was George Brett and Frank White, hemorrhoids and pine tar, and there was this handsomely remodeled stadium, the K (which goes back to the deified thing).

Ashley seemed to prefer the carousel. Whether there should be carousels in ballparks is a question that should be debated in a by-invitation-only conclave of folks wearing ball caps, badly-faded t-shirts with Dan Quisenberry's name on them, and possibly carrying a tattered baseball glove just in case a foul ball comes their way.

I choose not to take up that issue here. If it takes a carousel to get Ashley to the ballpark that's good enough for me. I know that as time goes by we'll learn from each other the things we love and explore the things we want to share.

In that spirit, please permit me this brief note to my granddaughter:

And so, Ashley, love of my heart. I'm oh so glad you went to the Royals game with us. It was great fun.

Oh, and just one other thing, Sweetheart.

Next time, maybe for an inning or two, you think maybe you could stay in your @#$%&%* seat? I need to explain when it's good to try the suicide squeeze and when it isn't. It's about lefthanders and righthanders, bat control and basepath speed, pitcher velocity and upcoming lineup.

Okay, okay! I know it'll take a while. I'll be patient.

Say, maybe next time you could show me that carousel?

Between innings, of course.

{{{}}} Love, from Grandpa.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Torture, Execution, and the Other Cheek

Originally uploaded by nobt
As a long-time opponent of the death penalty, I have been listening with considerable interest to the national debate on waterboarding and other forms of torture (now delightfully sanitized by the CIA as "enhanced interrogation techniques"). President Obama has repelled the popular notion that torture helps keep us safe in an era of terrorism. Instead, he says, it is our values that ultimately save us, not our ability to extract information from prisoners through a veil of pain and fear.

Opposition to the death penalty puts one at precisely the same intersection between expediency and principle. The inmates on death row are rarely perceived as nice people. Most of them (not all, but most) are guilty of the crimes for which they were sentenced, often horrendous in scope. They do not warrant our sympathy and in most cases they should never again walk freely beyond their prison walls. The cause of abolition is not about them, it is about us. It has to do with the values that are foundational to this nation and that define our place in a global society.

I can already hear the clucking of right wing tongues against bleeding heart liberals who do not have the stomach to do what is necessary to protect our nation from suicide bombers, rapists, and murderers. And, in fairness, many of those clucking tongues do not come from the political right alone. Positions on this issue do not fall cleanly along ideological lines. Often it is personal experience that shapes one's view.

The arguments against the death penalty are numerous--it is disproportionately applied to minorities and the poor, it is far more costly than life imprisonment, it is barbaric, it has taken the lives of the innocent, and there is no evidence that it serves as a deterrent. These and many similar arguments can be documented and are good and sufficient reasons to abolish it. But there is one that trumps them all: IT IS WRONG!

Arguing from moral principle, as Obama has with the torture issue, makes one an easy mark for those who argue from positions of self-righteousness, machismo, or expediency. The bad guys are clearly bad guys. There is no disagreement there. When people are afraid it is easy to let go of civil liberties, constitutional theories, and even logic. Fear becomes the defining issue that pushes others to the sideline.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reported to have said "...if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." (Matthew 5:39 NRSV) By citing the teaching of Jesus I do not mean to build public policy around biblical proof texts. We have way too much of that already, often to our detriment. I mention it only because it is a principle found not only in the Judeo-Christian tradition but in most of the great religions of the world. Although it is often used by proponents of pacifism, I prefer to think of it as a broad social principle that rejects vengeance and violence and embraces human dignity and worth as one of the values that is at the foundation of our culture.

Believing in that principle is pretty simple. Living it is not. Rejecting torture in times such as these is one important message that speaks to the world about the soul of our nation. Becoming the last nation in the Western world to abolish the death penalty would demonstrate that Americans truly do believe in the culture of life of which we often speak, but all too rarely embody.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Simplicity is Just So Darn Complicated

Obama Explains
Originally uploaded by AndrewCline
I had to testify in a civil trial recently (not a personal matter--just a subject about which I had some knowledge). When the lawyers were "prepping" me they continually urged me to give the shortest and simplest answers possible. I'm sure I frustrated them because my tendency is to say things like, "Well, my answer is yes, but you have to appreciate the context and know a bit of history in order to understand what I mean." I'm not sure what lawyers intend to convey when they roll their eyes back into their heads, but I think it has something to do with billable hours.

These days there seems to be a yearning for simplicity. It's related in part to the economic collapse. Americans have awakened to the reality that basic assumptions just weren't so much of a sure thing after all. We all knew that putting money into a 401k or similar financial instrument would mean that it all would be sitting there once the gold watch is awarded and the rocking chair ordered. And now that has all turned to dust amidst a bewildering array of Ponzi schemes, insurance conglomerates, hedge funds, government bailouts, and multi-million dollar bonuses for failure.

It used to be that when something was thought to be a sure thing one would say that you could "take it to the bank." Don't look for that little catch phrase anytime soon.

I suppose most of us who mercifully don't feed daily on economic news just assumed that some smart people understood all this stuff. We certainly didn't, but neither did we care as long we knew those smart people were doing their job. We have now come to the horrifying realization that not only were they not doing their job, but THEY don't understand this mess either.

There is one thing that is clear from the Congressional hearings and the "expert" punditry of recent months. No one--I repeat NO ONE--knows what the hell is going on.

And now it falls to our new president, thankfully one both gifted and eloquent, to become the guy to make sense of this in terms that we economic simpletons can understand. In addition to the boatload of issues on his plate, Barack Obama has also had to become the Explainer-in-Chief. The irony is that few political figures in recent time have been as willing as Obama to talk about nuances and complexities and to eschew simple answers to deeper questions. But alas, simplicity seems to be the pathway to hope in these difficult times.

Stephen Covey, author of the Seven Habits books,
often quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes thusly:
I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
I note that in using this quote more recently Covey has offered up only his "right arm" rather than his life in exchange for that elusive simplicity (Covey, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, New York: Free Press, 2004, page 103). I suspect this may be related to the devaluation of all things in our present climate. He's probably keeping the left arm under a mattress somewhere.

The quote, however, is provocative and useful. The crisis we are going through is devastating to millions of people. There is only one compensation that I can think of and that is the hope that we will be driven back to this country's fundamental values of respect, opportunity, justice, and a rule of law driven by a democratic spirit. In the name of free enterprise we have sanctioned greed and honored plunderers. They must pay their due, but we must learn their lesson.

In the end, it's the simple things that really matter, no matter how complex they may be.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Will the Kindle Change the World?

Originally uploaded by
There has been a lot of new talk about the Kindle, Amazon's e-book reader, and e-books in general, since I posted some thoughts on the subject a few weeks ago. I have to reluctantly acknowledge that the chatter has nothing to do with my post, but with the release of Kindle 2.0. That led to lots of talk about some of its new features, including text-to-voice technology that lets the device read to you in a reasonably human voice. The overall verdict is mixed (it's still way over-priced), but the prattle over the technological innovations is also joined by ponderings about its cultural implications--a far more interesting and important issue.

In retrospect, my piece went a bit afield from my original intention, which was to reflect on how I, an unrepentant book person, experienced reading in this format. That point may have got a bit lost in my meanderings about discarding books during a time of housecleaning and remodeling. Sorry about that.

The main thought I wanted to explore was that the book person in me was finding the e-book experience to be far more redemptive than I had imagined.

Now comes a piece in Slate Magazine by Jacob Weisberg, who sees this phenomenon as world-changing. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

How the Kindle will change the world. - By Jacob Weisberg - Slate Magazine

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Gutenberg Goes Digital - Bibliophile vs Technophile?

I'm a book person. Anyone who knows me can attest to that fact. The mere thought of throwing out a book launches a full-body tic. I blogged about this point some months ago when I reflected on weeding library books.

This came into even sharper focus in recent weeks when we undertook the monumental task of thoroughly cleaning out the attic, the basement, and certain other rooms in our house. Junk was hauled away by the truckload. My family seemed to think that some of my books, numbering well into four figures, should be included. Can you imagine?

I'm sure my family, all of whom are also avid readers, will be unhappy to have it publicly exposed that they would favor throwing out books. I am sure there is a Seven Steps program for those who have this disorder and I am confident that with competent counseling this can be worked through.

But I had to mention this in order to set the stage for admitting that I, a lover of books to the point one might call extreme, am also a lover of the Amazon Kindle, a reading device that has a screen, a keyboard, and some kind of electronic "ink" that displays books in a digital format.
This device became suddenly popular last fall when Oprah endorsed it and distributed the product to her studio audience. Despite a somewhat bloated $350+ price tag, Amazon ran out of the Kindle before Christmas, creating a demand that was notable, although certainly not by Nintendo Wii standards.

The word on the Net is that Amazon will be announcing a new version of the Kindle this week. This has generated quite a surge of interest among those who are early adopters--the tech savvy crowd who don't mind trying out gadgets before they've become widely accepted. In my case I had not really been longing for a Kindle, but had expressed a passing interest based on what I read about it. My wife surprised me by making the Kindle a delightfully unexpected birthday gift.

My purpose in writing this post is to reflect on how this new technology has impacted my love of books and reading. I am not trying to be a shill for Amazon (Sony has a competitive product) nor to explain the various features. Let me try to describe it in one inadequate sentence -- The Amazon Kindle is an e-book reader, sized similarly to a trade paperback, that wirelessly downloads books, magazines, newspapers and other content and permits them to be read on a high resolution screen and navigated by use of clickable buttons and limited text entry.

For more information in addition to the Amazon link above I recommend Kindle Nation, a webpage by Stephen Windwalker who has been a generous, creative, and objective analyst and promoter of the new technology. Those links provide numerous gateways to other sites and resources related to the Kindle.

One morning I had an experience that forcefully illustrated for me the value of a Kindle. I was watching the Today Show and in particular an interview with Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War, an important new book about the war culture in which we live. As I listened I thought to myself that I really need to order that book or go to B&N and buy it. Then suddenly I thought a new thought. I picked up my Kindle, clicked a few buttons, and literally within 60 seconds that entire book was on my lap. My Amazon account was charged $9.99, substantially less than Amazon's discounted cost of the hardback volume. I was reading chapter one of the book before Matt Lauer finished his interview with the author.

I'm a mood reader and as a result always have several books going at the same time. Maybe I fancy a mystery and later a biography. Perhaps a book of essays appeals to me and then something on current events. I used to travel a great deal and frequently pondered how many books to put in my bag so that I could nourish my fickle reading habits without breaking my back as I drug the carry-on through airports. Problem solved -- the Kindle holds about 200 books with no additional weight. Even I have to admit that will do.

I don't know where all this will go. I still love the heft of a book in my hands. I like to visually see where I am in a book, something that is difficult with e-books. Cover art doesn't go away with Kindle but it is far less appealing in the black and white graphics or woodcuts that are used in the reader. There is admittedly something of a sensory loss, but then a lot of people would look derisively at me should they find that books have that kind of effect on me.

But here's one thing for sure. I will never have to take any more static from my family about refusing to throw out books. No longer will I have to submit to ridicule for wanting to keep my books on the shelf even if I know I will never read any of them again. Or even for the first time.

Hah! Hah! Fooled them, eh?

Wait a minute! That Kindle was an unexpected and surprising gift from my wife. You don't suppose...????


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Page Turns

What is to be said?

Today Barack Obama rests his hand on the Lincoln Bible and becomes the 44th president of the United States. Throughout the nation and around the globe pundits, historians, politicians, bartenders, celebrities, educators, students, preachers and plumbers have reached deep inside their souls to find words to match this moment. And still, however eloquent, words fail.

I cannot recall a time when I have experienced a public event in such an intensely personal way. One cannot understand how it feels to me without having walked in my moccasins and lived my life, complete with its moments of soaring joy and wrenching loss. I sense that many people feel similarly. What happens in Washington, DC today will put a face on this country that will resonate around the world. But in a strange way the importance of this day is not about civics or politics. It is not even about history. It is about autobiography. Not Obama's autobiography. Mine. And yours.

Among the trinkets marking moments of my life there is a lapel pin, plain in design, on which the letters FMBM are engraved. Few would know the meaning of that acronym--"For McGovern Before Miami." These pins were distributed to people who worked for or contributed to the anti-war candidacy of George McGovern before his nomination at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami. It was, of course, a doomed crusade (McGovern was clobbered by Richard Nixon, winning only a single state). But for me, a seminarian at the time, and for many of my generation, it was personal. I still think we were right and I take a certain amount of pleasure in looking at that pin and remembering.

I mention this only because I was also drawn to Barack Obama well before he became a viable candidate on the national stage. In this case it was words that did it. One day in Costco I saw a copy of what looked like an interesting book--Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, written in 1995 by a virtually unknown figure named Barack Obama. It was liberally discounted so I bought it. The writing was thoughtful and lyrical, personal and transparent. And I, like him a son without a father, connected to his story.

Most impressive was the way in which he drew upon his own search for identity, particularly his multi-racial family, to frame his emerging social and political convictions. He discovered his story, incredibly complex though it was, could be knitted together with the totally diverse experience of others to form community. He wrote:
...they'd offer a story to match or confound mine, a knot to bind our experiences together--a lost father, an adolescent brush with crime, a wandering heart, a moment of simple grace. As time passed, I found that these stories, taken together, had helped me bind my world together, that they gave me the sense of place and purpose I'd been looking for. (Dreams from My Father, page 190)
You see? It's personal. My story. Your story. We're in there. And he gets it.

The picture included with this post is of our son Brian and his one year old daughter, our beloved granddaughter, Ashley. It isn't posed. She loves to look at books and magazines. Please note that it is right size up. By sheer chance she picked up Sojourners, a magazine addressed to people of faith who seek social justice. The cover of this issue was Barack Obama and the content was devoted to a series of letters written to the President-Elect expressing their hopes and dreams.

My hopes and dreams are embodied by Ashley. I cried on election night and the tears are flowing on this Inauguration Day. At first I couldn't understand why it was so emotional for me. But now I know. It's because my story, our two sons' stories, and Ashley's story, is in that podium today.

Almost a year ago I posted here some reflections on Obama's candidacy that I entitled, Dare I Trust Obama with my Mind and Heart? Some of the experiences I wrote about there are at the heart of the emotions that have welled up within me these past weeks. I chose to trust. Now, as I post this, the oath of office has just been administered.

The page has turned.