Bob Schwartz

Category: Technology

Save, Don’t Save, Cancel

If you write on a computer, as most of us do, you face a dilemma.

When you wrote hand to paper (and still may)—on legal pads, notebooks, single sheets, scrap paper—you could instantly crumble and toss or eventually discard. As in throw away. Forever. Whether you did or not depended on lots of factors. Not the least of which was storage space. Because those drawers and shelves and manila folders and file cabinets and boxes, they do fill up.

Now your writing rests on a hard drive, flash drive, or in the cloud, just waiting for you to wake it up from a nap or from a long Rip Van Winkle sleep. It takes up virtually no space. So when you jot something down, or create a paragraph or page of text, the answer to this choice question should be easy:

Save
Don’t Save
Cancel

Why not Save?

I look at that Word choice box maybe a dozen times a day. Save would seem automatic. What if those words are the best formed and most important you have ever composed? Why not keep it, just in case?

But sometimes, even if some time and effort has gone into the work, I let it go. Not that I need the storage space available, which is now measured in terabytes (that’s a million million bytes of data). It’s the self-awareness that however good and important I momentarily think those notes/thoughts might be, many are not. And the realization that by letting them go, I am helping myself along the rocky path of humility, which in the end is really much more valuable than whatever would be in that file. No matter how much I might wish otherwise.

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“Books Smell Like Old People”

Denby - Decline of Teen Reading

David Denby in the New Yorker asks: Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?

If reading means books or other extended forms of writing, evidence and anecdote say the answer is no.

Denby doesn’t have anything particularly new to say about the big picture and long term consequences of generations who are less interested in books than ever. This is an ongoing conversation that just gets more and more attention as digital demographics continue to roll over us all.

Still, it’s worth reading his piece as a reminder and, for some, a wakeup call.

Denby mentions the related ascendance of STEM education:

The Times reported on Monday that at least fifteen state governments were offering some type of bonus or premium for high-demand STEM degrees. “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so,” Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, said. “They’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example.” (Governor Bevin, as it turns out, graduated from Washington and Lee with a bachelor’s degree in Japanese and East Asian studies. So much for the crippling effects of the humanities.)

Denby also mentions a recent book by media scholar Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age:

Much of their social life, for boys as well as girls, is now conducted on smartphones, where teen-agers don’t have to confront one another. The terror of eye contact! Sherry Turkle, in her recent book “Reclaiming Conversation,” has written about the loss of self that this avoidance creates and also of the peculiar boredom paradoxically produced by the act of constantly fleeing boredom.

Denby doesn’t come off like a snobbishly literate dinosaur. He doesn’t over-idealize “the way things were” as being infinitely and generally better, which they weren’t. He is just an astute observer making the point that extended discourse, written and read, is an essential part of moving society and civilization along. How we reclaim that, if it is in fact getting lost, is a difficult but worthwhile mission.

My Cheap Blank Tablet, My Tabula Rasa

I’ve started keeping a tiny blank black chalkboard on my desk, next to a stick of white chalk.

It is also known as a tablet. But I am not confused between it and the three other devices on my desk that have the same name, though it is just about the same size. This one cost about two dollars at Walmart and stays fully charged and useful forever. As long as I don’t run out of chalk. The others were substantially more expensive and need constant electrification.

There are the expressions “clean slate” or “blank slate.” Clean slate indicates that all is forgotten or forgiven, that one is starting over. Blank slate indicates thought that starts without prior or preconceived ideas.

In Latin it is tabula rasa, a clean, erased, or literally scraped tablet, based on wax writing tablets used by the Romans. Aristotle used this as a philosophical concept, as did John Locke.

I draw circles on it. I draw lines on it. It doesn’t have room for many words, just one or two, so I don’t do much writing on it. I do that on the other fancier tablets. Whatever I do chalk there, I always erase. Blank, for the next time.

ITUNES TERMS AND CONDITIONS: The Graphic Novel

iTunes Graphic Novel

Masterful comic artist R. Sikoryak has created one of the most unique works ever. Ever. ITUNES TERMS AND CONDITIONS: The Graphic Novel.

Sikoryak is known for his ability to faithfully reproduce the style and characters of many famous comic book and graphic novel creators. What he has now done is take the entire long, dense and absurdly legalistic mandatory iTunes Terms and Conditions and made it the text of a graphic novel. One new page a day is being released on Tumblr.

Each page is done in a different style (from Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) to Herge (Tintin) to Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey) to Charles Schulz (Peanuts) to Dan DeCarlo (Archie) to Todd McFarlane (Spawn) to Scott Adams (Dilbert) and on and on). The featured “hero” of each page is, naturally, Steve Jobs.

iTunes Graphic Novel - Heck and Romita

You can read an interview with Sikoryak in The New Yorker.

It is an astonishingly simple idea to the point of genius. All it takes to turn the ridiculous (such as the iTunes T&C) into the sublime is artistic vision and talent. Thanks to Sikoryak for gifting us with his.

Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate

Bard Prison Initiative

A team from a prison just beat a team from Harvard. In a debate.

The Washington Post reports not just the victory of the team, part of the Bard Prison Initiative, but the constraints that the debaters prepared under—including having to research without the internet, from actual books and articles, but only those approved by the prison administration.

Too many lessons to count. Among them:

The two million or so people we consign to prison aren’t all there because they are not smart enough or motivated enough to function or excel in the real world.

The people who consign themselves to our most privileged houses of learning aren’t all as smart and motivated as some of those consigned to prison.

If you want to learn, really learn, learn enough to defeat the nation’s purportedly premier scholars, you can do it offline. Just like this prison debate team. Just like Abraham Lincoln.

Samsung’s Fruit Identity Crisis

Apple Banana

Samsung wants to be an apple. What it fails to understand is that it was on its way to being a banana: basic, useful, nutritious, delicious—and ultimately way more interesting and even sexier than an apple.

Instead, it tried to be a bunch of different fruits, bigger and smaller, adding and subtracting features and flavors. In the end, it’s like one of those odd and unusual fruits that you see in Whole Foods but don’t know the name of, and don’t care because you pretty much still prefer bananas.

Okay, that’s not their only problem. They developed durable devices that worked better than well and didn’t really need replacement very often. (Apple solved this problem by convincing its tribe to switch from Fuji to Golden Delicious to Jonathan, even though they were still and all just the same fruit. Samsung couldn’t get away with this.) Samsung eliminated core features that people really liked, such as slots for a memory card. On top of that, Samsung has to deal with having a mediated channel, where wireless providers are still the last marketer and last link between them and the consumer. The feelings of most digital consumers towards their digital service providers range from frustrated tolerance to outright disgust. So having those companies as your “salespeople” is never going to be ideal.

There may not be a good solution for Samsung, at least not one that will maintain their thwarted expectations of ever-increasing sales and profits. But one thing they might do is stop thinking about apples and start thinking about why and how much people really love bananas.

Why We Should Not Give Up on Global Nuclear Disarmament

Ban the Bomb

It is picture as quaint as someone dialing a telephone: protestors in the 1950s and 1960s marching around with signs that say “Ban the Bomb.”

Quaint because so many countries now have nuclear weapons that getting rid of them all borders on the ridiculous. And it’s not just major powers; smaller nations who have developed nuclear weapons consider themselves “major” for having done so. (It sure beats the trouble of developing a sustainable, healthy economy and democracy.) Speaking of democracy, nuclear armament is all so complex that one of the bright lights of a hyperdangerous region refuses to acknowledge even having a nuclear stockpile, pretending to maintain the worst kept geopolitical secret in the world.

And yet: Blessed are the peacemakers. According to someone or other, they will be called children of God. This doesn’t mean that warmakers and hoarders of nuclear weapons aren’t children of God. It just means that the billions who live in the shadows of those bombs and missile warheads might not feel particularly blessed. That’s why we, and our children and our generations, shouldn’t give up on global nuclear disarmament, no matter how naïve or impossible it seems.

Independence Day and STEM Democracy

Thomas Jefferson with Telescope

Is the increasing hegemony of STEM education dangerous to the future of American democracy?

In Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison, Professor I. Bernard Cohen might see it otherwise. As one of the most eminent historians of science, he makes the case that the familiarity of some Founding Fathers with science inspired the new nation, and that the shape of the new democracy was directly based on scientific principles.

One review notes about Professor Cohen’s theory:

The Declaration of Independence, which he [Jefferson] wrote, reverberates with echoes of Newtonian science, as when he invokes “self-evident” truths or “laws of nature.” Benjamin Franklin, far from being a mere tinkerer or inventor, pioneered the science of electricity. Franklin also developed a demographic theory that North America would become a population center of the British world; this led to the policy according to which the British annexed Canada rather than Guadeloupe as the spoils in the war against the French (1754-63). John Adams, who studied astronomy and physics at Harvard, was a founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. And James Madison, a devoted amateur scientist, drew on scientific metaphors and analogies in his Federalist articles.

Maybe. But in fact, most of those in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress from which the Declaration of Independence emerged were not scientists or even science fans. And even those whose philosophy was shaped in part by science enjoyed a much broader education, one that gave complete dimension to their thinking, what we now call liberal arts. So that while the intriguing questions that Professor Cohen raises are significant, so is the parallel question: If the Continental Congress had been mostly or entirely filled with 18th century scientists, just what kind of Declaration would have been produced, and more broadly, what kind of nation would we be?

Nowhere can the nexus of Big Science and Big Political Philosophy be better seen than in Richard Rhodes’ magnificent book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It is sort of a fun house mirror of what Cohen claims for the American founding. Rather than world-changing political thinkers with a scientific bent, we have equally historic scientists with a worldly and philosophical bent. They had been educated in the early 20th century, many in Europe, and the standard for education then and there was broad learning beyond the laboratory. In the end, their science was driven by the realities of World War II and Hitler, but that did not stop them from philosophical ponderings and quandaries about the work they were doing and its ultimate impact.

So, yes, it may be that science did help give us what by all measures is a remarkably robust and resilient democracy, starting with the rousing rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. And we should educate scientists, to make progress and to advance the liberty, peace, and security we want. But we should also have many other thinkers, scientists or otherwise, who are capable of leading and having enlightening debates about exactly what we do need and want, and about the means we choose to get there, and about where it might lead. We do need scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. But it is never enough, not nearly enough, at least not in this democracy.

Technology Saves Us Again with Infinite Self-Tying Water Balloons

Bunch O Balloons

Just when you think that 21st century technology has served up all it can—for better or worse—along comes Bunch O Balloons .

Let them tell the story:

Bunch O Balloons is the ultimate way to make water balloons! Fill over one hundred water balloons in just seconds with this ready to go bunch of self-tying water balloons and blast the competition out of the water.

One hundred water balloons in just seconds!
Self-tying water balloons!

We barely had the audacity to wish it.
They had the inspiration and creativity to build it.

Other modern marvels will have to step aside. Even the atomic bomb—the fiercest and most significant technology of the 20th century, maybe of any century—can sit in the shadows. We now have a means of mass warfare that it is fun and relatively harmless (except to Wicked Witches and others sensitive to water). It’s true that some spoilsports will think about filling the balloons with liquids other than water. And that those who could only throw one water balloon as a symbol of protest will now have an unlimited arsenal.

But seriously, how can we not be in awe of a development so, well, awesome?

Stay dry, my friend. If you can.

Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’

Laudato Si'

The Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si’, has been much in the news. Whatever you’ve heard about it, if you haven’t seen it, you really don’t know the whole story.

You’ve heard it is about the environment and climate change, which is in small part true. You’ve heard Catholic presidential hopefuls such as Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal admonish the Pope, their spiritual father, telling him to stick to religion and stay out of politics.

The encyclical is much bigger than climate change, the environment, and certainly bigger than Bush or Jindal or dozens of politicians. It is a big statement about the moral and religious shortcomings of this modern world and us modern people. You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian or faithful or religious to read and appreciate it. You just have to read it.

It is full of inconvenient and uncomfortable truths. Which is probably why the coverage has focused on the environmental exhortations, rather than on the broader cultural, media, technological and social ones. In essence, it is nothing less than a call for radical evolution, in the spirit of the radical evolutionary upon whom the church is built. There are plenty of established institutions and powerful interests and individuals, including the media, who could be forced to change if such radical evolution came to pass. And many of them don’t want to change, and don’t even want us to listen to the Pope talking about it.

The encyclical is a long and deep but very readable work. Download it, sample it. You don’t have to read it all, or all at once. It is naturally grounded in theology, and in some particular theology, but be assured that the observations and conclusions don’t require you to hold any sectarian beliefs. It only requires that we believe that things are far from perfect, and that after we take a close look at ourselves and others, we believe that we have the power and obligation to make things better.

It is filled with so much quotable inspired thought and inspiration. Here is just one brief excerpt:

114. All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

Laudato Si’ PDF

Laudato Si’ epub and Kindle