Policing Our Information

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Long ago I was a daily subscriber to The Houston Post, a newspaper that ceased to exist after a time. It’s competitor, The Houston Chronicle, had never had great appeal to me, but in the aftermath of the Post’s failure I began to have the Chronicle delivered to my house each day. When I moved to a new home about thirteen years ago I was so busy with work and other responsibilities that I decided to only sign up for weekend delivery. Even then I hardly had the time to stop to read all of the Sunday sections. The paper often lined the bottom of my trash can without ever having been adequately digested. With the advent of online news sources I was more likely to sit with my laptop on my knees while I sipped on my morning tea and munched on my breakfast. I eventually decided to stop the delivery of a newspaper to my home and instead subscribe to national sources offering coverage on my computer.

A couple of Sundays ago when I visited with my in-laws I noticed a copy of the Sunday Houston Chronicle lying on their kitchen counter. I was horrified to see how much it had shrunk in size. It looked more like something that might be distributed on college campuses by the journalism students than the local news source of the fourth largest city in the United States. I suppose that it has come to this dire end because of people like me who abandoned the paper when it became more of a vehicle for want ads and inserts from merchants than a purveyor of good quality information. In fact, such appears to be the fate of many newspapers around the country.

It makes me sad to watch the demise of good old fashioned reporting in local papers because there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. I dreamed of gathering information on the happenings around my city and then writing stories about them. I imagined one day garnering the respect of a byline with my name on it. The thought of being a newspaper reporter sounded exciting and important to me. Never did I imagine that news outlets would find themselves struggling to stay afloat, even in places with large populations. I did not conceive of a revolution in electronic reporting that would displace almost all but the most notable newspapers with online information delivered to computers in nanoseconds.

Not even when I got my first home computer was I able to foresee the future as it unfolded. Things changed so quickly that I hardly noticed what was happening. In the nineteen nineties when I was earning an advanced degree my professors urged me to learn about email and the Internet. Both methods were still clunky and not so easy to use, but I proudly complied and thought of myself as being modern and adventurous. By the turn of the century things were progressing online at warp speed and inventive minds were finding more and more ways to simplify the process of garnering information so quickly and easily that even small children learned how to use the worldwide web. It was a brave new world that was exciting and intoxicating, and it was being used more and more often in ways that most of us never thought possible.

Suddenly we were instantly linked to people all around the world with only a few keystrokes. Those old fashioned news sources made of paper that invariably contained old information by the time they were delivered seemed outdated and inconvenient and even overpriced given that they were so late in providing us details about the world’s happenings. I suppose that only those who contrived ways to stay relevant have remained robust, and even they must worry that the day may come when the marvelous invention of the printing press will seem as insignificant as a horse drawn plow or a buggy, the kind of things relegated to museums.

When Facebook came along it was initially the domain of college students, a way to get to know and communicate with more people than ordinary means allowed. By sharing photos and messages it was supposed to bring people together, and for a time that’s mostly what it did. Eventually adults long past their younger years entered the fray, and users began to realize the power of the comments on those walls. Facebook became a vehicle for presenting points of view, and setting up discussions. It was almost inevitable that it would also be a way of sharing news stories and political opinions. Editorializing and propaganda and stories whose veracity was questionable found their way onto people’s feeds without even asking. With information flooding in from hundreds of unnamed sources it became more and more necessary to fact check virtually everything that appeared on the Facebook walls. It also lead to abuses by information gathering sources that then used their data to target certain users with political propaganda.

By now everyone has heard the accusations of attempts by the Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election by using Facebook and other outlets to spread false information. Mark Zuckerberg has defended his organization by noting that his original intent was to do good by bringing people together, and to that end he did not want to become a judge and jury for who and what should appear in the newsfeeds of his billions of users. Nonetheless he has been criticized for not being more vigilant in monitoring the information that subscribers send and see on their walls.

I’m rather libertarian when it comes to any form of censoring. I find the idea of having someone determining what I may see on my Facebook page to be far more frightening than knowing that some of what is there is false and misleading. I would prefer taking the time to fact check on my own than to be limited by some kind of algorithmic board that scans the offerings and comments. While I understand that there is some exceedingly contemptible and frightening information being passed along as truth, I stand by the idea that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we choose to accept as fact versus fiction. In fact, I think that even if Facebook were to totally change it’s standards tomorrow by only allowing greetings and photos of family and puppies there would still be places where shenanigans rule.

Teachers have told me for my entire lifetime to beware of propaganda which may be found even in old fashioned newspapers and on television and in the speeches of our politicians. We’ve had the rainmakers and traveling medicine peddlers forever. Those who bang on drums and attempt to fool us into believing fake ideas have been around since the beginning of time, and one way or another we humans have had to be careful not to fall for their snake oil routines. It’s in our own best interests to always and without exception be wary. If something sounds too incredible to be true, it’s possible that it actually is a tactic to mislead us. There are so many ways to unfold the veracity of ideas, and we have to learn how to use them before following our emotions rather than our reason. We must always be willing to determine fact rather than opinion, truth rather than lies. We shouldn’t require Facebook to be our police and more than we asked that of our old newspapers. That’s why we have the ability to think. Let’s put that talent to use rather than asking a stranger to do it for us.

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My Electronic Secretaries

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The holiday season is upon us. You may have noticed in the stores last week that the retailers were hardly able to wait to toss all of the fall and Halloween merchandise aside so that they might bring in the Christmas items. Some even eschewed old time tradition in favor of bringing out the holly back in June or July. The old idea of enjoying each celebration in order is long gone, and if you want to secure the prime products you have to buy them and set them aside for the future. Of course, if you’re like me that means that you run the risk of forgetting that you bought a particular item or where you stored it until needed. When you finally decide to do some spring cleaning around March or April it will suddenly appear and then you have to store it again and hope that it doesn’t grow old in the back of a closet or drawer without ever being actually used.

My husband has most recently taught me to be a bit more organized with regard to things that I need to remember. He insists that I record future events on Google calendar and that I list upcoming projects on an app called Asana. It’s actually working out rather well with the exception of those times when I am feeling hurried and I tell myself that I will think about doing my record keeping duty tomorrow. Sadly that’s a bit more often than it should be and so I can’t quite recall if the appointment that I made to have my hair cut is this week or next. I’ll have to rely on a reminder email or phone message from the salon to verify. I know that I might call to confirm the date and time, but I have to do it so often that I have grown a bit embarrassed.

In the summer I purchased some bluebonnet seeds that needed to be sowed in October. When the time came to perform the task I was reminded by my electronic “secretaries” but unfortunately I was not able to immediately recall where I had placed the tiny packets for safekeeping. After a frantic search and some Sherlock Holmes style sleuthing I finally found them hidden under socks in one of my dresser drawers.

Now I’ve created a new wrinkle to my memory keeping rituals. I add a little note explaining where I have placed things so that my reminder in the future will lead me directly to whatever I have stored away. When I took down a lovely hand blown glass hummingbird feeder from its perch in my garden I not only set a date on my calendar to return it in mid May, but also made note of where it is safely stored until spring. I felt particularly proud of my effort because I will be able to walk right to it when there is no longer a possibility of a freeze that would no doubt break or at least crack the globe. An added bonus that I received for my foresight was saving the orb from an horrific storm that raged on Halloween night that undoubtedly might have wreaked havoc on such a fragile object. It has made me think that I should also record a date for bringing the feeder inside each fall while I my brain is in gear.

We all have so many appointments and things to do that our brains go into overload at times. I’ve been guilty of missing all kinds of events, especially since retiring. Without the constrictions on my time that a job provides I find myself losing all sense of what day it is. While this is actually a very pleasant dilemma after years of being bound to a clock and an unremitting routine, it can also create problems. Using different aids to assist my memory has been a kind of saving grace. Now I get reminders on my laptop, my phone, and even on my watch.

At first I thought of such electronic policing of my time as a kind of ball and chain. I wanted to be free to be me without any form of nagging. I soon learned that my tranquil lifestyle was festooned with chaos of my own making. The reality is that we humans really do feel better when we march to a semblance of routine. We don’t have to be overworked or over stressed, but it helps to keep track of when to take out the trash and be generally aware of the time of day. Devil may care attitudes are fine now and again but on the whole things really start to fall apart without some system for managing the business aspects of living. I have slowly learned how to free myself from future worries by spending a bit more time in the moment keeping track of obligations and tasks.

Last spring my hot water heater malfunctioned and many thousands of dollars later we had repaired our home to such an extent that it was almost totally remodeled. The plumber who installed a new hot water heater mentioned that we might never have had the trouble if we had simply set aside a time each year to have the appliance inspected. It’s a small idea with great merit, and so it is now part of our yearly ritual, something we have decided to do with our truck and our air conditioner as well. All such routines are hitting the calendar far in advance in the hopes of avoiding future catastrophes like the one that upended our lives for many weeks last April and May.

As a teacher I lived by a calendar and religiously followed routines to stay updated and prepared for anything that might happen from day to day in my classroom. I suppose that when that phase of my life ended I would never again be required to be so fastidious in keeping up with time. I’ve learned the hard way that a little bit of preparation goes a long way. Even the squirrels understand this as they collect their stores for the coming winter. I watched many of them working hard while I was recently camping in the bosom of nature. It’s the way of survival, and we all owe it to ourselves to keep track of the future before it surprises us.

An Encyclopedia of Knowledge

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Discovering something brand new is quite exhilarating, and with the Internet it is far easier to do ever before. There was a time when a family set of encyclopedias often formed the basis of new learning, and many a curious person spent large amounts of time scanning the pages of those glorious collections of facts and ideas. Even the old volumes that were somewhat outdated still offered a cornucopia of information about the world in a time when the only other alternative for vicarious exploring was the library. Many a child lucky enough to live in a house with a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica held a world of excitement from “A to Z” at the fingertips.

Of course those old collections of Wikipedia like information have gone the way of the dinosaurs making it less and less necessary for young children to learn how to spell “encyclopedia” from Disney character, Jiminy Cricket. The Internet has taken the place of those rows of volumes that grandly announced that certain homes were purveyors and supporters of knowledge, and the extravagant investment in companies like Britannica or Compton or World Book was physical proof of dedication to learning.

There were often installment plans for encyclopedias back in the day. Patrons would purchase one volume at a time on a monthly payment plan. Each beautifully bound book would arrive along with a bill. My own father being consumed with a devotion to knowledge, books, and libraries had signed on for a set of Compton encyclopedias that were of dubious age by the time my brothers and I had learned to read. Nonetheless, most of the historical information was sound, and they became a kind of centerpiece in our family library that was lovingly stored in bookcases that lined our hallway. When my dad died, purchasing books became a luxury replaced by regular visits to the library. The encyclopedias became cracked and the pages began to rot. At some point my mother must have decided to divest herself of them because I don’t know what eventually happened to them.

Now the Worldwide Web is my go to source of quick research. As with the old books that I used, I have to be a bit wary of what I see, and I must check data against multiple sites. I find that there is always at least one address that contains quite accurate and up to date facts. It’s like living inside the great library that once graced Alexandria. I can lounge in my pajamas and munch on my breakfast while traveling through a virtual universe. Nothing is beyond my scope, and I revel in the excitement of it all.

I often think of my father and how intrigued he might have been by the technology that makes it so easy and affordable to discover faraway worlds and cultures. A good laptop provides more data at a far lower price than even the best encyclopedia. I can almost picture my dad surfing from one topic to another and enjoying all of the latest innovations with the same glee that he demonstrated for his prized books. He was a futurist who enjoyed reading about travels to the moon in an era in which such thoughts seemed to be the purview of dreamers. He had a wanderlust that he satisfied with his vacations and subscriptions to The National Geographic Society. He devoured literature and history, and never seemed to be able to find enough reading material to satisfy his voracious appetite. Having so much available with a few strokes of his fingers on a keyboard would have no doubt made him as giddy as a child on Christmas day.

Like my father I am perennially searching for interesting new ideas, and my trusty laptop is one of my most valued possessions. It takes me to places both sought out and unexpected. Each day I find that I am surprised by the new learning that it brings my way. I am admittedly as addicted to its power to transport me as my dad was to the books and the libraries that satisfied his academic thirst.

A good example of how the Internet sates my curiosity occurred recently when I was reading an article and an image popped up in a corner of my screen that distracted me for its color. As soon as I had finished the essay I clicked on the photo. It was the first in a series of slides about human towers. It seems that each year in Catalonia thousands of people converge to enjoy the tradition of watching organized groups take turns building a “castell.” These castles  are formed by creating a foundational base called a “pinya” upon which two additional bases are built before people then climb as high as nine to twelve feet into the air to form a tower of humans. Each group wears white pants and a solid colored shirt of a single color. Around their waists are sashes that also serve as a means of climbing. The process involves arranging the strongest and sturdiest of the members on the bottom level and then slowly moving upward until the lightest and most acrobatic form the summit. Then the process is reversed, all in a smooth flowing and systematic manner.

The photos that I saw were stunning in their beauty and so tickled my curiosity that I did additional research and learned about the history and terminology of this traditional event. I became quite intrigued by the difficulty of creating this human work of art, and wondered why I had never before heard of it. I suppose that next I will find some videos that show the process from start to finish.

We often complain that all of the technology that surrounds us is taking too much of our time or invading our privacy. We don’t stop to realize just how wonderful it has been in helping us to quickly and conveniently learn about the world in which we live. While the Internet has the power to drive us apart, it also might be the very thing that ultimately brings us together. We now have the capacity to see how true it is that we humans are amazing and to understand how much alike in our dreams we really are. Those dusty encyclopedias were once our bridges to understanding, but the new peddlers of information found at the stroke of a few keys are far more glorious.   

Inventing a New Way

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When I was growing up I knew a number of elderly people who lived with their children who cared for them until the day they died. It wasn’t all that unusual to see households composed of extended family members. My own maternal grandmother lived with her two bachelor sons and the rest of her children often took turns sitting with her whenever she became too sick to leave her bed. She died peacefully in her home with her loved ones hovering over her.

My husband often speaks of his grandmother and mother caring for his great grandmother who had been struck down by a stroke. It was an exceedingly difficult task because the woman was unable to move on her own and she had become chronically irritable because of her afflictions. He often heard her screaming at the ladies who attempted to tend to her every need. They understood that she was the victim of her circumstances, but that knowledge didn’t make their task any easier.

By the time I became an adult the idea of having several generations living under one roof seemingly went out of style. I only knew of a couple of people who opened their homes to elderly relatives. One was a very compassionate neighbor who lovingly cared for her invalid mother-in-law. It was hard work because the woman could never be left alone. One time I went to help out by sitting with the sickly lady, and I was physically and mentally worn out by the end of the session. 

I had one other friend whose mother lived with her, but the older woman in this case was healthy and energetic and helped greatly with duties around the house. I used to love visiting their home because the two women laughed and joked with one another constantly and always offered me fresh cookies that they had baked together. They made their somewhat unique situation seem almost idyllic.

Eventually my own mother spent a little more than two years living either with me or my brother. She was in relatively good health, but her mental difficulties required more and more monitoring as she aged. She and I both struggled with the enforcement of her daily medication intake. She felt that I was overstepping my bounds, and I felt beset upon by the battles that ensued each day. If it had not been for the clash of wills, I would have viewed her time in my home with great joy. I liked having her at our dinner table each evening and talking with her about my work day. She possessed a kind of folk wisdom that helped me, and I valued her opinion. She appeared to be doing very well while in my care, so it was shocking to learn that she had lung cancer. In fact, I was reluctant to believe that she was as sick as she was. I’m still happy that I was able to provide a safe and loving place for her until the very last few days of her life when she had to go to the hospital. 

The number of elderly individuals no longer able to take care of themselves without some supervision will continue to grow as the “Baby Boomers” enter their seventies and eighties. The question becomes how our society will be able to adequately care for those who require assistance in their daily routines. There are already a number of companies that are creating technologies that may support the younger generation in dealing with the coming surge.

Of course there are some people whose illnesses require twenty four hour care. Nursing homes will no doubt become crowded, but what I know from friends is that they are not the only answer. I know many people who realized that their parents needed to be in a more professional facility than their homes, and then found that they had to monitor the care they were receiving on a daily basis to insure that it was being carried out properly. It was an exhausting experience that required energy, patience and joint efforts by siblings.

The idea behind many of the new devices being invented and used is to provide caretakers with systems to monitor all of the necessary activities of older adults. There is technology that will detect heart problems, recognize when someone falls, note when a person has not moved for an inordinate amount of time. check blood sugar, send alarms when daily medications have not been taken, and alert caretakers and first responders in the event of an accident or health emergency. The Echo Dot is capable of turning lights on and off, playing music, setting clocks and even running microwaves and ovens. The Roomba will vacuum a house on a schedule and then return to recharge after doing the work. There are devices that help people to get out of their beds and into wheelchairs without human assistance. Cameras can run a feed to caretakers even when they are offsite.  Doors can be locked and unlocked without from afar. The cell phone has already changed the ways in which we communicate. Before long there will be self driving cars that will allow the elderly to just key in a destination and then sit back until arrival. Uber and other such forms of transportation are already taking people places with little or no trouble. Because all of these inventions will no doubt be profitable, I expect inventors to come up with even more new and better ideas at a rapid pace. 

Best Buy is banking on this kind of revolution happening to the extent that they are going whole hog into to the business of providing their older customers will all sorts of ways of taking care of themselves and keeping their children less anxious about what may be happening to them. While such a focus from major retailers won’t solve every problem, it will go a long way to encourage those with great ideas to monetize them and make them available to the public. It’s going to be exciting to watch our society change in the ways that we deal with our aging population.

Of course there is no substitute for the loving concern of family members. Even in the present it’s a bad idea to put an older individual in a facility and then just walk away. There has to be a routine of visiting and checking to be certain that all is going well. What we do know is that most people wish to stay at home as long as they can, but sometimes that just won’t work for a multitude of reasons. When we manage to find the right environment for them so much worry is lifted from everyone’s shoulders. The coming world may make our choices more plentiful and easier than they have ever been. I will enjoy watching the progress unfold.

Mastering Our Machines

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Our high tech world is glorious until it is not. We are surrounded by machines that are designed to make our lives easier, and most of the time they do. When something goes awry, however, we go into a tizzy. Our links with the world suddenly create chaos and frustration. We’ve perhaps taught Alexa to turn the lights in homes off and on at particular times, but when the Internet goes down we have to scurry again to do things by hand. Our phones keep us linked to the world wherever we go, but in a power failure they are as useless as bricks once they lose their charges. Without all systems working in tandem our computers and cameras and irrigation systems go awry. We are reduced to doing things by hand in the old fashioned ways. We get frustrated and because of that the tasks become more difficult than they need to be. The beauty of our mechanized world is glorious, but when it fails to deliver it adds to our angst.

We now take much of our progress for granted. In just a little more than a century the world has changed so much that our ancestors would not recognize the earth that they once inhabited. My own grandparents had no electricity or even indoor plumbing in the homes of their youth. They rode from place to place in horse drawn buggies. Their homes were heated by fireplaces and cooled by open windows. They communicated with far away friends and relatives with letters that often took weeks to arrive. They witnessed radical changes in their adult lives that transformed their daily routines. By the middle of the twentieth century they were literally in awe of all that they had witnessed, and spoke of seeing the first lights and hearing of the first planes with a kind of reverence.

My own lifetime has been dominated by a kind of inventiveness that was almost unimaginable. I am from the first generation that grew up with daily doses of television. I watched mankind venture into space when such feats seemed to be the stuff of science fiction. I worked in a building that headquartered IBM in my city and I recall entire floors of computer equipment that was less powerful than the laptop that I own today. The phone that I used as a child was tethered to the wall by a cord. Now I carry my means of communication inside my purse, and wear a watch on my wrist with powers that would have made comic book heroes of old green with envy The advances in science and technology came so quickly and regularly that we almost take them for granted, so much so that we become discombobulated when something causes them to fail.

The old ways seem ancient and yet it was not that long ago that we were hanging clothes on lines to dry in the sun. Television was limited to three or four channels that often went off the air at midnight. Student research required long hours culling through books in libraries and writing notes on index cards. Calculations were done with paper and pencil or maybe gigantic adding machines with a hand cranks. Somehow we managed without our current raft of devices that have become commonplace, and we’re not quite sure how we did that.

My father-in-law uses a computer that is somewhat out of date. He owns a big screen television and subscribes to a cable provider. His cell phone is quaint because it is not of the smart variety. He has accepted the newer technology only reluctantly, and usually has to rely on his son when problems with his devices occur. He admits that sometimes the new fangled machines frustrate him more than they help. He marvels at what they do, but wonders if it is worth it to try them given that he has done without most of them for ninety years.

I suppose that I might be more inclined to my father-in-law’s way of thinking were it not for my husband. He likes to be a pioneer in the use of all that is bright and shiny and new. He seems to think that he inherited that trait from his grandfather who was always the first on the block to try the latest inventions. He reads Wirecutter regularly and watches the Apple announcements with regularity. His computer reminds him of events and keeps track of business. He’s souped up our home with devices that automatically do all kinds of tasks. He enjoys discussing and installing innovations with my brother and one of my nephews. It all works quite nicely, and admittedly makes life easier, but when it goes amiss he grows frustrated.

I suppose that I most enjoy being able to write with a word processor. I recall all too well the pain of attempting to type on an electric typewriter. One slip of the finger on the wrong key required an application of a white liquid to hide the error. My printed copies were always filled with little polka dots that shouted out my incompetence with a keyboard. I much prefer the forgiveness of my laptop that gives my papers the appearance of perfection.

Once my essay is done I load it onto a website that schedules my work to appear at a certain time on a particular date. It is a lovely process that allows me to enjoy my favorite hobby of writing. Nonetheless, things do regularly go wrong, and then, like my husband I become anxious and irritable. Glitches steal my time and my joy. I bemoan the horrors of things that do not work, forgetting about how hard the same tasks actually used to be.

Our technology is grand, but I suppose we have to be careful not to allow it to overwhelm us. It’s okay to spend a day without cable television. We can wash our dishes by hand if the dishwasher breaks. We don’t really need our phones every minute of every day. Sometimes it’s actually good to take a moment to just enjoy the world without the artificial sounds and workings of machines. Putting them aside for a time stills the soul and puts us back in touch with our connections to nature and the universe. We need to now and again remind ourselves that we should be the masters of our machines, and not the other way around.