Thursday, August 6, 2015

Phoneless in Technotopia

Seldom one to hop on a technological bandwagon, I was rather more reluctant than most to own a cell phone.  When my mother was ill many years ago, I purchased a Nokia job that was about the size of a paperback book, but lost it at some point and cancelled the contract. Only much later, when one of my favorite students convinced of how much fun an iPhone could be, did I get my first smartphone--the old original iPhone "silverback." Eventually, when the operating system became too obsolete to use, I bought a 4, and then about a year and a half ago, a 5s.

Yesterday morning I awoke to a blue screen and then all manner of visual effects when I unplugged it from the charger, and after scanning the interwebs for comments from other users, I was off to Best Buy, fully prepared to upgrade to a new 6 Plus. I began thinking of a newer, jazzier phone as the communications technology equivalent of Vera (my Honda Insight, which I fully expect to be my last car).

But not so fast.  After discussing the situation with a polite young man, we discovered that I wasn't eligible to upgrade yet, due to The Contract, which doesn't allow for any improvements until January of next year.  I could, of course, just flat out buy the phone with no Contract (delicious idea, that) for 750 USD. This was not my path of choice (I am, after all, newly retired, and earning a vastly reduced income), so I headed around the corner to the cellular technologies repair shop in the same complex (an open-air mall in the next town south), and where I'd had a battery replaced a few months ago.  The nice chap there thought that I was right (a bad LCD), and said to come back in an hour or so.  So I went shopping for Emma and the dogs at the petfood emporium, and then popped in to a home-products shop for a bit of therapy, emerging with some nice pasta and a potholder shaped like a rainbow trout. It made me think of my father, and I couldn't resist.  Expenditures so far:  100 USD on food and cat litter, and another 15 on the pasta and potholder.

Back to the repair store.  No luck on fixing the phone. He tried a new battery, a new screen, and everything else he could think of, but had one last trick: a data dump.  So I went next door for a hot dog and tea (another 6 bucks) for 30 minutes while he did that.  But that didn't work, either, and he didn't charge me anything even though I'd shortened his productive life by a good two hours.

I stopped by for groceries and meds on the way home, but by the time I got back at about 2 pm, I was hot, tired, demoralized, and wholly fed up with technology. I was ready to get another land line and forget about portable phones altogether. I tried one more time to restore the phone through iTunes with no luck.  I'd been without my addictive attachment for six hours and was going into withdrawal.

About then, the Beloved Spouse came home, having received an email from me apprising him of the situation.  The only option by then was to haul off to the Apple Store, in the technology capital of north Texas, Frisco.  This wouldn't have been much of a problem, except that it's located in my least favorite bastion of modern life, An Enclosed Mall.  And not just your common run-of-the-mill Sprawlmart, but a posh, upscale thing full of Nordstroms and other high end stores (although it does have a Sears, so I guess it's not all that exclusive). I don't think I've ever gotten over the portrayal of the shopping mall as a community center discussed in a graduate philosophy class back at Stony Brook U in the seventies.  Things haven't changed much--just outside Nordstroms a group of old Jewish ladies were playing Mah Jongg.

At the Apple Store, we made an appoint to consult someone at the Genius Bar, for about two hours hence. They would text the Beloved Spouse on his non-Apple cell phone when they were close to ready for us.  Since it was, by then, nearing suppertime, we walked through a couple of stores (another 50 USD) and headed for a dinner venue: Pizza.  By the time we'd had some pita and hummus and adult beverages, we were getting closer to Genius time, so asked for the pizza to go (total tab ~35 USD), and walked through a bookstore on the way back.  Two books and another 27 USD later, we plopped down on a bench in front of the Apple Store and were summoned within a couple of minutes.

To make this very long story only a little longer, we waited at the "bar" for a "genius"--yet another charming fella who proceeded to try everything that had already been tried by me and the other guy.  The ultimate decision was to replace the phone with a rehabbed one at a cost of 291 smackeroonies. Which was better than 750, even counting the 80 or so additional bucks (not counting gas and tolls) spent during the time of tribulation for food and therapeutic shopping.

In the end, this will most likely not be my last phone after all, although I hope this is the last time I have to endure what--in the grand scheme of things--was a nuisance and waste of time but mostly just inconvenience.  I did have to re-download apps from the Cloud, and lost all of my cool ring tones for the kids and the Beloved Spouse. But I also had a relatively enjoyable time with him, and we got out of our rather stolid routine for a bit.

As much as I really like having the phone and the apps (especially the camera--which hadn't been working well on the old one, and the new one works properly), however, I still think that being so dependent on this particular technological apparatus is problematic. In one chunk of a day I discovered a bit about why my students' lives are so completely circumscribed by this one object. And now I'm even more worried about their futures than I was before.

Image credit: Teléfono de cordel, from  A. Guillemin, El mundo físico: gravedad, gravitación, luz, calor, electricidad, magnetisimo, etc. Barcelona: Montaner y Simón, 1882. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by clusternote.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Living In Interesting Times


This post will ramble a bit, but I hope to arrive somewhere in the end.  It's prompted by several recent events and the general state of the world as I find it, approximately a week into my first quarter in over twenty years as an adjunct instructor.

My quasi retirement came about abruptly, due to my having been made an offer I couldn't well refuse to voluntarily "separate" from the company in exchange for a lump sum of cash based on my years of service.  Since last quarter had stimulated thoughts of my retiring sooner rather than later, I jumped (pole-vaulted?) at the chance, especially since I'd be able to apply immediately for an adjunct position. What this meant was that I could take the money, run, and come back part-time, teaching a couple of courses a quarter. And although it meant getting a background check and peeing in a cup (neither of which happened when I initially joined the Institution), I went for it. The drug test was a pain because they wanted more out of me than I was prepared to supply, and it took two tries; but the residue of numerous heart disease related medications didn't disqualify me, and I was indeed hired back. I'm actually teaching three courses this quarter due to a special need, but beginning in the Fall--if the planets align properly--I'll teach two on a single day and thus be able to accomplish many of the tasks I've been putting off.

This new situation has quite naturally awakened fantasies of an actual retirement involving both me and the Beloved Spouse, and dreams of big sky, off-the-grid living in someplace not Texas.  House-porn has taken a new direction (northwest, to Montana), although the Owens Valley is still in contention.  But if anything is to come of the property lust, it means that I have to devote a healthy chunk of time to clearing out the detritus of a lifetime.  

In stage one of the process, I filled up three boxes of books to take to Half Price, and managed to bring home rather fewer (I only got enough from the sale to pay for what I picked up). But this was a start, and as long as the resident super-mice don't destroy the entire library, I will be sorting through, culling, and choosing what to move eventually. Actually, the mice might do me a favor if they keep devouring things.  One seems to have an especial fondness for the Greek Anthology, and has eaten most of the covers off all four volumes of the Loeb edition.

What has really made this month interesting, though (in addition to the political circus that I keep trying to ignore), is Pluto. After waiting for nearly ten years, NASA's New Horizons people have pulled it off and are currently processing the photos sent back from the outer reaches of the solar system.  Since I well remember how incredible the Viking shots of Mars seemed in 1976, the early images of Pluto and Charon are bringing it all back. Thirty nine years ago today, this is what the Viking 1 spacecraft saw:

Viking 1 lander site, July 21, 1976

To a youngish (early thirties; my first child--who grew up to design spaceships--had been born only a few months earlier) devotee of science and science fiction, these pictures were utterly astonishing. Of course, they would later be surpassed by those sent by the Mars Global Surveyor (1996-2001), including this one that showed clear evidence of surface water in the distant past:

Gorgonum Chaos, a set of canyons in the Phaethontis Quandrangel of Mars

 Since then, of course the cute little robots Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity have contributed their share of information, and many future missions of varying complexity are planned, including one involving actual humans.  As the Beloved Spouse knows well, I'd go in a cold minute, even if it meant never getting back here; but unless they want to test the stamina of aging heart patients, I don't think he needs to worry.

The best news I've heard lately comes from none other than the venerable Stephen Hawking. He's teaming up with Yuri Milner (a Russian Internet magnate and serious science groupie) to search for aliens and spend a hundred million bucks doing it: a project called Breakthrough Listen. This will involve using real telescopes and getting real time to do it; it will also involve SETI@home, which (now that I'm sort-of retired and can get involved even minimally) I've just signed up for. I even downloaded the BOINC software, but managed to do it on a Tuesday, when they do maintenance. My computer will have more downtime now, and it will no longer go to waste. 

Do I want there to be folks out there?  Dunno.  They can't be much worse than we are, so it would at least be interesting.  When Carl Sagan talked about all this back in 1980 (I bought our first color TV, a little 13-inch job, so I could watch Cosmos in color),  the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft were already on their way, carrying the iconic "golden record" with sounds and images from earth (see opening photo).  Both of them are still "alive," sending data from beyond the solar system.  

Perhaps I've been reading too much Jack McDevitt, but I don't expect that we'll run into anyone before I die; I'm beginning to accept his basic notion (at least as expressed in his books) that even if life frequently occurs out there, civilizations are short-lived.  I can't really imagine that ours (such as it is) will survive too awfully much longer because we seem hell-bent on doing ourselves in.  Perhaps an alien invasion really is what we need to keep us from a cultural implosion.  But if ET really does visit, and doesn't much like us much, I hope they're nice to animals. Like Randy Newman, I don't want to hurt no kangaroos.

Now, if I can just find that "trigger" thing I used in More News From Nowhere, maybe I can find a nice utopia in which to retire.  Or maybe a remote twenty acres or so in southwestern Montana.

Image credits: all of the photos used above come from Wikimedia Commons, and some in particular from the Wikipedia article on Exploration of Mars.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day 2015: Drought and Denial

This morning (I'm working ahead--this is Sunday, the 19th) I went out to empty the wheelbarrows I'd been using around the yard yesterday, because we had a thumper of a thunderstorm last night that dropped at least an inch of rain in less than an hour. I even went out and moved Vera to the porte-cochère to protect her from the hail that had pretty much stopped by the time I decided to brave it. So far this year, this area  has had about three times as much rainfall as we experienced by Earth Day 2014: 15 inches vs. 5 inches. When I dumped the wheelbarrows, I also tipped the rain gauge out since there's a chance we might get more this afternoon.

Despite all the recent precipitation (including a couple of snow days in February), Collin County will remain on stage 3 water rationing through the near future. 

The irony of all this is that as I type, another wildfire is roaring away near my old stomping grounds in southern California (the Highway Fire in Riverside County), and much will undoubtedly be made of current conditions, the lack of rain, and high temperatures as immediate causes.

Only recently, as most of us know by now, California has finally owned up to the fact that it needs to do do something about water over-use. Meanwhile, in north Texas, we've been watering lawns on alternate trash days for the last three years or so. Now, I don't generally think of Texas as being particularly enlightened in terms of climate knowledge and common sense, but Texans do seem to understand water a bit more than folks do further west.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, this part of north Texas is undergoing severe to extreme drought--about the same general, long-term conditions as obtain in a large part of California. One would think, therefore, that we'd all be addressing our problems in a similar fashion. Like southern California, north Texas is building a lot more houses than it should, further taxing the state's water resources--but we've got two things going for us: the recent weather, and a little more foresight.

In the CNN report on the fire (which is the first thing that popped up into the Google window in response to one search term: drought), a firefighter immediately mentions the drought (which is causing vegetation to burn that normally doesn't), and an interviewee notes the fact that there's "a lot of new housing" nearby. A related report ("California Running Out of Water") linked to the main page interviews residents of Porterville (in the San Joaquin Valley to the north, where my father was living when he died) whose wells have run dry and who have no running water. The plight of the agricultural towns in California is dire, and the reasons are complex, so I'm not going to start in on them. They don't need some cranky ex-pat grousing about agricultural practices.

But I'm not at all sympathetic to the Los Angeles area because they've depended on the kindness of others, and the political machinations of the twenties, for far too long. The inhabitants of the Owens River Valley have been dealing with drought ever since the aqueduct that siphons their water out of the valley and into reservoirs to the south was built a century ago.  The story is legend, and well documented, and I've griped enough about it over the years; there's no need to lay it all out again, but Felicity Barringer does a nice job of summarizing the story in her New York Times article in 2012: The Water Fight that Inspired Chinatown. I should mention, however, that an alternative version of the story is available in Gary Libecap's 2005 article, The Myth of Owens Valley. I knew Libecap when he was a grad student at Penn, and he was a reasonable chap then--although our views on political economy differed. But he's right that there is a mythical element to the account of Owens Valley as some sort of agricultural paradise before the aqueduct was built.

In the end, folks went on with what they were doing, and my grandfather ended up working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power at the Cottonwood power plant--where my fondest childhood memories were formed at the edge of the aqueduct. This is the view from nearby, taken when I was home last December.

So this post is not about heroes and villains, or even about greed. It's about not being very smart for all the talking we do about being homo sapiens sapiens.  We don't plan well, we build cities without regard to the land, and then we mourn when people die as a result of our lack of foresight.  Los Angeles should be a smallish town, not a smog-spewing megalopolis. It should have been conserving water all along, not just beginning this month. And north Texas must keep rationing its water, even though we're pretty soggy at the moment and some of my neighbors are probably already complaining that all this climate change and global warming crap is a Communist plot.

But if we want to survive long-term, beyond next month, next year, next century, we need to start thinking. We need to not grow so much (if at all), so that increasing land and water use aren't necessary. We need to conserve what we have and not use up everything there is; otherwise, those people my age who have grandchildren will condemn them to future droughts, wildfires, and endless other problems that stem from a general lack of wisdom.

Sustainability has become a buzzword, when it should be a watchword.  Only abject denial or an irrational faith in our ability to overcome future problems that result from current shortsightedness can lead people to think that constant, unrestrained growth is either possible or desirable. The anthropocene could well be the last "age" of the planet.

It's time we stopped paying lip service to Earth Day and start making sure we have more than a few of them left.

Image notes: The opening shot is from Dirty Sock, south of Owens Lake; there is currently a bit of water in the lake itself, due to the dust-mitigation programs put in place to help Los Angeles not breathe in the chemicals that used to blow off the dry lake.  Over the winter holidays the Beloved Spouse and I took the puppies to Dirty Sock, where my mother's stepfather had once built a concrete pool to hold the mineral waters that well up from underground.  The second photo, of the lake itself, was taken from Cottonwood road, across the aqueduct from the power plant, which is still in operation.