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.

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A Fit of Nincompoopery

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According to the dictionary a nincompoop is a silly or foolish person. Nincompoopery refers to the beliefs and behaviors of a nincompoop. It is folly, stupidity. With a tip of the hat to Nero Wolf who first proposed the turn of the phrase, I submit that each day Twitter becomes the locale of many “fits of nincompoopery.”

Let’s face it, how much of great worth can be stated or argued in only one hundred forty characters? The comments are generally so terse that they might be interpreted in dozens of different ways, and therein lies a great number of the problems. Add to that the trolls lurking under the Twitter bridge and the so called discussions often become quite nasty, festering like plastic bags for perpetuity. Many a soul has lost a job or been revealed as a scum bag because of an outburst of tweets that might better have been left unsaid. We now live in a world of instant verbal arguments among strangers who somehow erroneously believe that they are doing no harm. It all reminds me of the back and forth that I sometimes heard among rival groups of fourth graders when I was teaching elementary school long ago.

Sure it’s a free country and all that, but frankly I’m becoming quite weary of the vast numbers of degrading tweets, particularly when they come from people who should know better than to let their fingers run afoul of common decency. We all see and hear things that make us angry, but generally control our temptations to lash out. There is a certain level of immaturity associated with outbursts that are hurtful to other people, so I find myself wondering when we lost our sense of decorum.

We have Roseann Barr, who has never seemed to know when to keep her mouth shut, losing a popular television series over rash racist observations. There is a New York Times journalist who seems to think that there is nothing particularly wrong with hurling invective at white men. The director of the highly successful Avengers series was recently fired over troublesome tweets and jokes made many years ago. Of course there is also the embarrassing aspect of the President of the United States making a fool of himself and the country far too many times with his late night rants. Regardless of the defenses being suggested in these cases, we somehow have a sense that something is going terribly wrong, particularly when we accept such behaviors as normal.

Freedom of speech is an important aspect of our Bill of Rights and certainly insults between adults are nothing new, but the more frequent incidence of such behavior is bothersome to me. I prefer a bit of propriety in public. If two people wish to engage in verbal fisticuffs in private, so be it, but why do we now seem to actually encourage public verbal executions, and even sometimes get down in the mud with the perpetrators?

Believe me, I do not wish to indict certain individuals or political persuasions because quite frankly there is plenty of criticism to go around to all sorts of people. I’d just like to encourage everyone to be careful about rapid responses that are hurtful and ugly. Those kind of things have a nasty way of coming back on us, but more importantly we need to rise above the muck and grime as a way of life. Nobody ever wins an argument with invective, and most often it’s not even necessary to attempt to do so. What does it really matter if someone disagrees with our beliefs? Why should we feel compelled to put down individuals with whom we have a difference of opinion. The likelihood that we will actually make a difference in their thinking is slim to none. Indeed what will probably happen is that we will make them even more enraged.

I refuse to be that person who gets pulled into verbal battles, and I think that we would all do well to walk away when a fight of words seems imminent. I learned long ago as an educator that ignoring nincompoopery is the quickest way to shut it down. Most people who engage in such shenanigans are just looking for an audience and I refuse to give them one. Perhaps more of us should consider bringing in the crickets whenever someone is being outrageous.

As a society we still have not yet learned how to deal with social media successfully. We forget our manners and too often neglect to take a deep breath before reacting. We have people using our outrage to stoke their own egos. We don’t have to play their game.

I am slowly learning how to move quickly past comments and tweets that make me feel uncomfortable. I choose to let them just lie on the ground seemingly unnoticed. I am seeing more and more evidence that lots of folks are following the same routine. The most egregious remarks that I see are frequently going without response, which is the way that we might all shut them down.

There is a flock of mockingbirds living in the trees in my backyard. They chatter day and night, but I have learned how to turn off the volume in my head. Now I scarcely hear them even though they are still there. I’m doing the same with Twitter.

   

Only Time Will Tell

33750316_1843978448978317_6669086996591280128_nThere was a time when I believed that the first twenty years of the twentieth century were boring, a bit of a snooze. I have since become wildly fascinated with that time in history because it was responsible for perpetuating so many changes and problems that are affecting us even to this very day. Learning more about my grandparents has also enlivened my interest in this particular time because it ultimately had such a profound influence on me.

As children all four of my grandparents grew up in homes without plumbing or electricity. Neither of my grandmothers had enough education to know how to either read or write. At the dawn of the twentieth century they were both still wearing long dresses that modestly covered their legs, and women in the United States did not yet have the right to vote.

My European grandparents were subject to the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a conglomerate so vast and diverse that ruling it was unwieldy, leading to laws that prohibited the use of their native tongue and culture. Life in Slovakia was difficult but moving to the United Sates of America brought the promise of possibilities. Thus my grandfather bought a one way ticket to Galveston, Texas on a steamer that he boarded in Hamburg, Germany only a couple of years before the outbreak of World War II. What an adventure that must have been!

After working on all sorts of odd jobs, scrimping and saving every penny, and living all alone in a boarding house near present day Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston he was able to send for my grandmother. The two of them worked in the fields of a farm near the Houston Ship Channel and in the wooded forests near Beaumont just as oil was being discovered.

The little country of the United States that was still somewhat of a joke to the powers in Europe was on the move with an industrial revolution and an inventive spirit that thrust the United States into the modern era. Towns were being lit by Mr. Edison’s marvel known as electricity and two brothers had flown a plane for the first time in North Carolina. Mr. Ford was making cars affordable for the common man and people were marveling at having running water and working toilets inside their homes. It was an exciting time when the sleepy giant known as America was waking up and stretching its limbs.

My paternal grandparents were both working in Oklahoma where oil and almost free land was luring people from all parts. They would meet each other in a boarding house crowded with people seeking a living and, if lucky, even riches. Wild and crazy places like Tulsa and Houston were booming at a time when everyone seemed to be on the move in search of something.

Back in Europe the winds of war and revolution were blowing ominously in ways that would ultimately change the face of not just that country but places as far away as the Middle East and Africa as well. By 1914, everyone was honoring alliances and choosing sides in a battle that was supposed to end all battles once and for all. Modern warfare reared its ugly head producing weapons more terrible than anything ever before seen.

In the middle of it all the Communist revolution unseated the Czar of Russia and locked the world into an idealogical and political battle between Communism and Capitalism that continues to this day. My Slovakian grandfather was said to have been eternally grateful to be safe in Texas rather than locked into a lifestyle that would have limited his options and those of his children had he stayed in his native country. 

In 1918, the world experienced one of the worst outbreaks of influenza in history. Research into the disease did not lead to a cure in time to save the millions who died, but would create a better understanding of how such diseases are spread and lead to the discovery of antibiotics that would help to stem the tide of future outbreaks.

By 1920, women in the United States finally had gained the right to vote. Along with this victory came short skirts and other once unimaginable freedoms. Their homes began to fill with modern conveniences and appliances that made daily routines easier to perform. Radios provided instant news from the world and travel became available to even the common man and woman thanks to Mr. Ford.

In the meantime the treaty agreed upon at the end of World War I created unresolved problems across the globe that still echo in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, not to mention much of Europe. The United States was seen as less of a backwater nation and more of a possible partner in world affairs, and the spirit of innovation accelerated along with an emphasis on more universal education for both men and women.

The stage was being set in motion for my parents to be born and to live far more prosperous lives than their parents had ever known. The city of Houston continued to attract men and women with a pioneering spirit and a willingness to take audacious risks. It was not the boring and quaint time that I once imagined it to be, but in fact was exciting and bursting with some of the most important changes that humankind had ever known.

We often hear the men and women of the World War II era being called “the greatest generation” but there is great evidence that those who navigated the first two decades of the twentieth century like my grandparents may well have been even better. They were members of the transitional forces that led the way to modernity, unafraid to enter brave new worlds.

My Grandpa Little often spoke of experiencing the wonders of that era firsthand. He recalls seeing a city lit up with lights for the very first time. He remembers the first radio broadcast that he ever heard. He brags that he went from a tiny home with no plumbing and no electricity to using a television in the comfort of his home to view a man walking  on the moon. He did this all in a single lifetime. 

I sometimes wonder if the first twenty years of the present century will bring the same sense of awe to future generations. What is happening now that will still have an impact on the world in a hundred years and will we be remembered for being creative and courageous? Sometimes I fear that we are guided more by a tendency to cling to the past than a willingness to imagine the future. Only time will tell if we possess the same can do spirit that so defined the first years of the modern age .

Dear Mr. Z

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Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I heard you testifying before Congress last week, and I for one totally understand and appreciate you purpose in founding Facebook. I have enjoyed the benefits of being reunited with long lost friends, as well as being kept up to date with family events since I joined several years ago. Each morning I go to my Facebook wall while I eat breakfast and find out who’s having a birthday or anniversary and what has happened overnight. This early morning routine has become a very pleasant part of my day. I really don’t know what I would do without Facebook because I am now retired and don’t often get to see or hear from my friends in any other way.

I write a daily blog and have a page to introduce my topics and to invite people to read my work. You don’t charge me a thing for doing that or for getting together with friends, so I just want you to know how much I appreciate your amazing creation. I live in Houston and during Hurricane Harvey when fifty one inches of rain fell on our city Facebook became my main means of knowing how family and friends were doing. I learned who was in trouble and who was lucky enough to make it out of harm’s way. My Facebook friends and I looked after one another during those intensely stressful three days and then were able to help one another in the weeks after the water subsided. I was able to quickly find out who was looking for assistance and what they needed. I felt that Facebook was a godsend in so many ways. I can’t imagine enduring that tragic time without the information that came to my wall. I never really thanked you for that, but I feel that I especially should now that you are under fire.

We Houstonians had so much fun sharing our enthusiasm for our Astros as they raced toward a pennant. It was good to be able to smile and celebrate after the undeniable stress of the floods. My wall was filled with excited comments and wonderful memes. You have no idea how great that made all of us feel. Along the way so much money was raised via Facebook for people in our city who had been so affected by the rising water. I’m not sure that would have happened otherwise. Facebook made our devastation real.

I’ve joined prayer chains that began on Facebook, and been the recipient of prayers in my own times of need. I’ve found interesting tips for home care and beauty regimens, as well as suggestions of books that I might enjoy. Mostly though I have smiled over and over again at the photos that fill my wall. I’ve seen newlyweds, babies, graduates, puppies, birds, gardens, and so many lovely images that brighten my days. I know that this is what you envisioned for all of us who enjoy your creation.

Of course you run a business that must generate income somehow and so there are advertisements. I don’t mind those at all. I have to admit that I mostly just ignore them, just as I do the political posts. In fact, I really do doubt that any memes or articles or even fake news influenced many folks in the last election. I generally find that people believe what they believe and aren’t affected by ads or emails or any of that. I also don’t think that you should have to police what is happening on people’s walls. You should not have to become a censor or arbitrator. In fact, that would actually be creepier to me than knowing that once in a great while someone may create an advertisement to entice me to think in a particular way.

Long ago I understood that we can’t believe everything the we see on the Internet. Only a very foolish person would take something as gospel without doing a bit of research to determine its veracity. I always do my homework, and I’ve found that most of the people that I know do as well. Admittedly I wasn’t a fan of President Trump and so I paid no attention to positive commentaries that appeared on my wall. On the other hand most of the people that I know who do like him voted for him mostly because they simply did not want Hillary Clinton or they worked at jobs that they felt he supports.

Anyway, I hate to see big changes on Facebook just because a political group used information to target potential voters. If I’m not mistaken the Obama campaign did something similar and everyone thought that it was genius, which it was. Our world is changing and we need to move along with it. You are an innovator and what you have given us is wonderful. I really do hope that things work out well for you in the end, and that Facebook doesn’t change too much.

In the meantime I don’t mind getting political emails from both the far left and far right. I actually find them interesting and sometimes even humorous. I use Google and Amazon and Apple, so the odds are quite good that someone somewhere knows a bit about me. I write this blog and pretty much tell whomever is willing to read my words about my life and my feelings because I have nothing to hide. I’m not so easily influenced by any form of propaganda, so keep up the good work and know that I’m someone who will stand behind you. Thank you again for bringing so many of us together from all around the world. You’ve done a very good thing.

Elon, Larry, Mike and More

Starman_SpaceXIt’s been a very long time since I have felt the rush of excitement that I used to get whenever a new space mission was televised. I grew up in an era of rocketry firsts that literally took my breath away when they were happening. I saw Alan Shepard become the first American to go into space. I watched John Glenn make history with his orbits around the earth. I was tuned in when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words as he stepped onto the surface of the moon and worried with the rest of world when the crew of Apollo 13 announced to Houston that they had a problem. I marveled at the Space Shuttle and the very idea that there might be a vehicle that could return from a journey to be used again and again. I was watching in horror when the Challenger blew up just after launching. I enjoyed the advances that allowed astronauts to make repairs and live for weeks in a space station. I believed that the most wonderful qualities of humans were encapsulated in the space program and as it all seemed to fade away I felt a sadness that was difficult to explain. Then seemingly from out of nowhere came a most remarkable feat that has reawakened my belief that one day in the future we will be able to journey across the universe.

The launch of Falcon Heavy by SpaceX last week was so stunning that I literally found myself crying tears of sheer joy and excitement. Everything about the event was spectacular from the music by David Bowie that accompanied the liftoff to the glorious humor that sent a cherry red Tesla into orbit with its Starman passenger gleefully hitching a ride. Perhaps even more stunning, however, was watching the booster rockets return to earth and land precisely on target to be used again, a triumph that at one time seemed impossible. Elon Musk, the innovator and maestro of the flight is surely a pure genius, who like Da Vinci and Einstein before him has an ability to see the world in ways that move all of mankind forward in our quest for knowledge. He is one of those people who does the impossible. He has managed to make America and humanity great again in ways that no politician has enjoyed.

Progress has always depended on those who are unafraid to gaze into the future. They are the dreamers and risk takers among us. Sometimes we scratch our heads as they announce their ideas, thinking them foolish or worse. We can’t always comprehend the seeming silliness of their notions, but they believe nonetheless and are compelled to move forward in spite of the negativity that often surrounds them.

I have a friend named Larry who long ago announced that he wanted to start a business selling t-shirts with messages and illustrations on them. This was at least fifty years ago at a time when shirts of all sorts were generally plain and of all one color save for stripes or plaids. The very concept of clothing with more personality seemed strange to those of us with whom he shared his proposal. He wanted to set up a kiosk inside a mall to sell his wares. He had heard of a machine that would place a decal on a shirt using heat. He imagined people flocking to personalize their clothing, We instead insisted that he would be wasting his money and his talents to pursue such a bizarre notion. How were we to know that he was indeed on to something very, very big? He was a seer of sorts, while we were too tethered to thoughts of how things had always been to be willing to accept his out of the box thinking.

On another occasion when we visited Larry he proudly showed us a huge box near his television. He explained that the machine would record any program that he wished to keep for the future. We were polite as he explained how it worked and what its uses might be. Inside our heads, however, we felt that his had been a ridiculous purchase. After all,  we wondered, who would ever want to make a recording of a show? Once you watched it why would you want to see it again? We simply did not have the vision that Larry had. Our ability to see ahead was far too limited. Unlike Larry we were not willing to think of the world as it might be.

My brother Mike was very much like Elon Musk and Larry from the time that he was only three or four years old. He walked around with a book written by Werner von Braun that told a tale of man one day  going to the moon. He tucked it under his tiny arm like a treasured toy and gazed at the illustrations of rockets and living quarters in space vehicles as though he was enjoying the characters of a little Golden Book. He told everyone who would listen that one day a man would go to the moon and that he was going to be a mathematician so that he might help to design systems for building the craft. Adults laughed good-naturedly at his assertions, but he was totally serious, and he built his life around those goals. He created a marble computer when he was in high school that won him the Grand Prize at the Houston Science and Engineering Fair. He went to Rice University and studied mathematics and Electrical Engineering. In time he went to work for Boeing Aerospace in conjunction with NASA and eventually authored the computer program for the navigation system of the International Space Station. He too was someone who was always able to envision a future that was far more exciting and complex than most of us are capable of realizing and he sustained the confidence to follow his journey.

Now I have a grandson named Jack who is imagining the possibilities of one day being part of the SpaceX team designing software. A granddaughter named Abigail is already recording ideas for making the care of animals more humane. Grandson William is writing stories about the future. The odyssey of the mind continues with amazing individuals who see a box of junk as a source of possibilities. These kinds of people turn problems into magical creations. They are the thinkers and dreamers who move us ever forward. They are the future and instead of chuckling at their imaginations we would do well to encourage them to propel us forward.