Desert of My Real Life

{July 24, 2008}   Philosophy of Jokes

On Word of Mouth today on NHPR, I heard an interview with Jim Holt, the author of Stop Me if You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. His book is short, only 160 pages, for a history of jokes. The fact that it contains history and philosophy makes me even more suspicious about how much coverage he could possibly have included in the book. But I was intrigued by the philosophy part of what he had to say. He discussed several theories about why people find some jokes funny and I think these theories can illuminate why people find some things fun.

The description of the interview on the Word of Mouth web site says, “Humor lives in the moment and the more you take it apart, the less humorous it becomes.” I think I disagree with this statement–the reason I say “I think I disagree” is because I haven’t thought about this kind of comment in relation to humor but I have heard similar comments about other phenomena and I disagree with those comments. An acquaintance once said to me that she doesn’t want to know too much about astronomy because that knowledge would take away from the beauty of the stars. I completely disagree with this statement. In fact, Richard Dawkins wrote a book called Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder in which he argues that the more you know about how the world works, the more wondrous the world becomes. In other words, ignorance is NOT bliss! I also hear comments like this when it comes to talking about games. Students often want to begin and end their analysis of a game with the statement: “It was (or wasn’t) fun.” But if I press them to articulate why it was fun, they often complain that doing so takes the fun out of the game. Clearly, I disagree with that idea. Otherwise, I wouldn’t teach game design and analysis. So I think I disagree with the statement that trying to figure out how humor works makes the humor disappear. But I do acknowledge that it is possible that humor is somehow different than these other phenomena.

Anyway, Holt discussed several theories about what we find funny and why. I think at least one of these theories can help us to understand what we find fun and why. Humans have probably been telling jokes since before they could speak (if you consider slap-stick a kind of joke). The oldest known joke book is called The Philolegos, or Laughter Lover, which is a Greek anthology from the fourth or fifth century a.d.

The theory of why we laugh at jokes that I found most interesting (and useful for thinking about game design) is the incongruity theory (which is actually about the resolution of incongruity). We perceive an inconsistency of some sort–two things that don’t normally go together or a sentence that seems irrelevant to the story being told. Inconsistencies heighten our attention–an inconsistency in our world might signal the presence of a predator and if we don’t pay attention, we might end up as someone’s lunch. With our attention (and anxieties) heightened, we try to resolve the incongruity. When the resolution finally comes, we realize that the incongruity was actually harmless and we laugh with relief.

The incongruity theory is useful for us in trying to understand why games are fun. Like Michael Shermer, I believe that we are “pattern-seeking” animals. We have evolved to look for patterns in our world–those ancestors who were good at finding patterns were good at seeing the predator hiding in the trees and so survived while those that missed such patterns ended up as lunch. As Steven Johnson reported in Discover magazine, when we find a pattern, we get a little jolt of pleasure in our brains. Games present patterns for us to discover and it’s pleasurable for us to find those patterns. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons I’m addicted to Dr Mario Online Rx. I get a little jolt of pleasure every time I resolve the inconsistency of the active viruses by manipulating the falling pills. So at least one way to put fun into games is to focus on patterns. The patterns have to present an incongruity that can be resolved by the player, but not too easily. If the player doesn’t recognize the incongruity or the incongruity cannot resolved in a recognizable way, the player will be frustrated. If the incongruity is too easily resolved, the player will be bored.

The use of incongruities in games is related to what the authors of the text that I use in Creating Games (Game Design Workshop) call challenge. In order to make a game more fun, the authors say, a game designer can focus on the dramatic elements of the game, one of which is challenge. By focusing on making the challenge appropriate to the level of skill of the player, the game designer can avoid frustration and boredom, both of which are antithetical to fun. When the level of challenge presented to the player closely matches her skill level, she enters a state called flow, in which the player “is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Entering the flow state, being completely immersed in what you’re doing, is pleasurable. As game designers, our ultimate goal is allow someone to enter the flow state while playing our games.

{July 21, 2008}   Non-FaceBook Friends, Beware

Pat sent me this article from the New York Times. So if you’re a non-FaceBook friend of mine and I don’t return your phone call, I hope you’ll understand why.

Hey, Friend, Do I Know You?

Published: July 21, 2008

Not that long ago, I needed some advice on the book business and thought to ask my friend Buzz Bissinger, the author of “Friday Night Lights” and “A Prayer for the City.” The only sticking point was, we’d never met.

Although he used to be a reporter, we are not what I would call peers. He wrote one of the greatest sports books ever, and oh, one of the best books about city government ever. “Friday Night Lights” became a movie and then a television series and apart from me being a hopeless fanboy of the show, we have nothing in common.

Other than Facebook, of course, where we are “friends,” after he was referred by our mutual friend Vernon Loeb of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Taking that supplied noun as a permission, I sent Mr. Bissinger a message on Facebook and asked for advice. We got on the phone and I found out exactly, precisely what I wanted to know from, as they say in the Web world, a highly trusted source.

Isn’t “friendship” wonderful?

Facebook, which I had always thought of as a guilty diversion just a step up from Funny or Die, does have its social — and business — prerogatives. The network is on a tear right now, achieving numerical parity with MySpace in global reach.

Last month, according to comScore, Facebook had 123.9 million unique visitors and 50.6 billion page views worldwide while MySpace had 114.6 million unique visitors and 45.4 billion page views. MySpace still dominates in the United States, but if my page is any indication, a lot of people who aren’t texting OMG about the guy sitting in the next booth feel a need to opt in to social media.

According to company executives, Facebook, which has over 80 million subscribers worldwide, doubled the number of subscribers under 35 last year, but it tripled the number of subscribers between 35 and 54. Early adopters of Facebook, which was the province of students until 2006, must wonder who let all the old guys in. Sometime in the next day or so, Facebook will unveil a major new design for the site, which users can opt-in to.

As we speak, my Facebook page, a couple of months old, is crawling past 200 friends. There are people on there whom I have known since they wore skinny ties and distressed sport coats, and there are others whom I would not know if they walked up with name tags on the size of sandwich boards. But we have friends in common, and in the parlance of social media, we are connected.

Skeptics slag Facebook and its ilk as e-mail with pictures, but do not underestimate the value of a photo — oh, he seems nice — along with a referral. If the person pinging you is friends with five friends of yours, shouldn’t that person be your friend?

Once you jack in, Facebook creates its own imperatives. Why am I uploading pictures of my last family trip to the lake in the Adirondacks at 11:45 p.m.? Because I want someone, anyone, to see them. But from a business perspective, it creates some more complications. Say the head of a media company that I occasionally cover wants to “friend” me. Seems O.K., but should he really know what I look like with my shirt off? (Trust me, don’t let the image linger. I shower with my shirt on.)

I neither want to be strategic in my postings nor selective in my friending, but I should probably be doing one or the other. I am also not religious in maintaining my profile, in part because I have no personal assistant to update my page, as one executive I know told me he does.

Its viral effects can be profound. Peter Shankman, founder of Help a Reporter Out (gee, wonder how I found that?), began that mission on his Facebook page in November of 2007. The endeavor outgrew its Facebook nest and was reborn a few months later as, which offers sources to reporters who post. It started out with 694 members; now it has more than 15,000.

I think of Facebook as a middle ground between business and pleasure, sort of MySpace for post-adolescents or LinkedIn for professional late adopters like me. Facebook, developed by Harvard kids to keep track of each other, was unleashed on the world in 2004 and has become an Ivy League at large for the land-grant set, a place where it’s not whom you know, it’s whom you kind of know.

But some people want no business mixed with their pleasure.

“Web sites are similar to TV and radio stations: people expect some form of programming format,” wrote Tyler DeAngelo, interactive creative director at DeVito/Verdi. “I don’t want to hear country music on a rock station, so why do I want to hear you talk about financial reports in the same place I discuss who I have been hooking up with?” (Besides, he adds, “I’m not sure you want Tom from accounting checking out your hot daughter in her bikini last summer.”)

Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president of Facebook, noted that the site is not primarily a business tool. “We are not going to help you close a deal, but Facebook is a social utility that is relevant in many contexts, including business,” he said. “As you get older, there is this huge tapestry of your life, with many inflection points from where you went to school and the jobs you had, and as more and more people connect with you, it rapidly increases the utility.”

But at some point, you lose utility as well. As Simon Dumenco noted in Portfolio, Bill Gates dropped the habit after getting 8,000 requests a day to be friends. Some social truisms — the rich will always be popular — still hold in the supposedly flat world.

When a new media winner like Facebook comes over the horizon, who loses? In my case, it’s probably my real actual friends. As a reporter, I learn to hate the telephone during the day, but at night I feel somewhat social again and step out onto the porch to call buddies for a little nocturnal quality time. Now I am too busy checking their status updates to actually speak to them.

{July 20, 2008}   Identity Management

We joined millions of other Americans yesterday and went to see The Dark Knight. An interesting side note regarding my previous comments about immediacy–the movie opened Friday and the current Wikipedia web page on the movie today says: “Based on 195 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, The Dark Knight has an average overall approval rating of 94 percent, with a weighted average score of 8.5/10.” And: “The film also surpassed the $151.1 million opening weekend record of Spider-Man 3 with an opening of $155.34 million, including a record breaking IMAX opening of $6.2 million, surpassing the $4.7 million of Spider-Man 3.” The opening weekend isn’t over yet. That’s what I call immediate!

I loved this movie. It’s even better than Batman Begins. A big part of the plot of The Dark Knight has to do with the Joker trying to get Batman to turn himself in to the police so he can receive punishment for his vigilante actions. Doing so would require him to remove his mask, revealing his “true” identity. Bruce Wayne presents himself as a clueless playboy. But then he puts on Batman’s mask and becomes the courageous hero. Or perhaps he’s a cowardly vigilante who craves power and should be punished for taking the law into his own hands. An interesting question raised by the movie has to do with rules of conduct. if Batman breaks the few rules that he has laid out for himself for how he fights crime, will he still be a hero? If he doesn’t break those rules, can he be effective in his fight?

This theme of identity management, controlling how you present yourself to the world (and to yourself), comes up over and over in the movie. The Joker tells two stories about how he got the scars on his face, each story appropriate to the situation and the points he’s trying to make at that moment. We want to know how the Joker became the monster that he is but we are thwarted in our attempts to make sense of him because he won’t tell us the “truth” about how he got his scars. Identity management also comes up in the part of the plot dealing with Harvey Two-Face. Harvey starts out as an idealistic prosecutor, earnestly fighting corruption wherever he finds it. The Joker manufactures such horror in Harvey’s life, however, that he is pushed over the edge and becomes a killer. Batman and Commissioner Gordon are so worried about how Gotham will react to Harvey’s crimes that they cover them up, making sure that Gotham still sees Harvey as a hero. There’s a great scene near the end of the movie in which we’re looking at the destroyed half of Harvey’s face and when Batman and Gordon decide they will cover up his crimes, Batman turns Harvey’s head to hide the destroyed half. We now see only the pristine half, the face of the hero.

By coincidence, one of the movies we had at home from NetFlix was Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s classic from 1967. The movie apparently has several interpretations but I saw it as a movie about identity management. The movie starts with a long sequence of images (film in a projector, an erect penis, a nail being hammered into a hand, and so on) shown one after the other. As I watched this sequence, I thought of psychoanalysis and its emphasis on the unconscious. Then we see a young boy reading on a bed in a white room with what appears to be a movie of a woman’s face being displayed on the wall next to him. He slowly reaches up and tries to caress the woman’s face.

And then the main narrative of the film begins. Liv Ullman plays a famous actress who has some sort of a breakdown during a performance. She now refuses to speak to anyone. Bibi Andersson plays a nurse who is hired to take care of the actress as she recovers. On a doctor’s recommendation, the two women go to an isolated beach house together. The film then shows several evenings in which the nurse talks almost incessantly while the actress watches and listens, never speaking. The stories that the nurse tells become increasingly personal, until she reveals a story about a sexual encounter that she has never told anyone else before. As the film goes on, she tries to get the actress to speak. She says that she understands how the actress feels: that because one has to present a mask to the world, play a variety of roles every day, every utterance is a lie and it’s easier not to speak than to have to pretend all the time, especially with the horrors that are going on in the world today. These horrors are shown as the actress watches television one night and sees footage of a self-immolation. One day, as the nurse brings the mail to town, she reads a letter that the actress has written to the doctor. In this letter, the actress tells the doctor about the nurse’s sexual encounter and says that it’s been interesting to study the nurse, that she thinks the nurse has fallen in love with her. The nurse feels betrayed and eventually has a sort of breakdown herself, hitting the actress and making her nose bleed. Near the end of the movie, the actress’s husband shows up at the beach house and speaks to the nurse as though she’s his wife. The nurse protests at first but eventually responds to the husband as though she was the actress. Then we see the nurse and the husband lying in bed together with the actress watching. In the last scene of the main narrative of the movie, the nurse has a monologue about the actress pretending to be a happy mother but in fact really hating motherhood and even hating her child. We see the scene twice, once from the perspective of the nurse and once from the perspective of the actress. This ends with an image of the two women’s faces merged together into one. The final scene of the movie shows the actress on a movie set at the beach.

So my interpretation of the movie is that the actress and the nurse are the same person. The nurse is an actress in her own life. Bergman seems to be saying that our lives are one long performance (like a movie) in which we are constantly playing roles and observing ourselves playing those roles. In the face of the horrors of the world, it is impossible to act authentically to do anything about those horrors. This is why the actress refuses to speak. She refuses to participate in the performance. And yet, in the end, she gives in and resumes her role in the movie. What else could she do?

What do these movies have to do with technology and society? I’ve been thinking a lot about identity management since I joined FaceBook, about the identities that we present to the world in various contexts. I’ve written about this issue before based on a conversation with Ann. But it seems like it’s becoming a more pressing issue for me as I explore the use of Web 2.0.

I think there are (at least) two major issues involved in identity management online. The first has to do with the content of the identities that we present. We want to be able to present different aspects of ourselves to different audiences. The second issue involves the management of that content. That is, we want control over the identities that we present.

The content issue has gotten a lot of publicity. Some FaceBook users have not managed their content well. They post pictures and comments that reveal a side of themselves that might be unflattering. The most common issue seems to involve party activities. When employers or potential employers discover that content, negative job consequences have sometimes been a result. Another potential consequence of the content issue hasn’t received quite as much attention. At the Eastern Communication Association convention in May in Pittsburgh, one group presented a study they had done concerning what students think is appropriate for professors to reveal online. (The findings were that students tend to Internet stalk their professors but don’t necessarily want to know significant details about their lives–similar to my freak out in eighth grade on discovering that my softball coach did laundry at a laundromat.) Ann and I have talked about this a fair amount and I think the main point is that we need to be conscious of the choices that we’re making concerning content. Of course, we don’t have complete control over what’s out there since others can post content about us.

The second issue involves the management aspect of all this content. We want to be able to control who sees what. That is, we want to be able to create separate identities and present those to different audiences. FaceBook has some significant controls for identifying who we want to be able to see which content. The problem, however, is that FaceBook doesn’t allow us to assign different roles to the people with whom we’re in contact. Everyone is a “friend”. And so I cannot easily present one identity to my student “friends” and a different identity to my faculty “friends. The other problem I have with FaceBook is that you cannot see what you’re friends are going to see. I would like to be able to put in someone’s name and then view my page the way they view it. A second part of the management issue arises from the growth of the social networking aspect of the web. I now have a FaceBook page, a LinkedIn page, an (unused) MySpace page, a Flickr page, this blog, and my regular web page. And those are just the pages I can think of off the top of my head. If some aspect of my life changes, I probably want to update each of these pages. It would be nice to have one tool that would aggregate my online identity spaces to allow coordination of the profiles in those spaces. While we’re at it, I’d probably also like to have a tool that updates me whenever something happens in one of my identity spaces so that I don’t have to log into each one separately to check.

The technical view of identity management has been focused on distribution and management of credentials (such as a user name and password) for the purpose of authentication (that is, verifying that someone is who she says she is). In other words, the focus has been on the security of the content (and the systems on which the content resides), to be sure that it is changed only by someone who is allowed to change it. The challenge for the next generation of identity management tools will be to allow more fine-grained control of the presentation and viewing of online identities.

Because so many of my friends are completely addicted to FaceBook (and threatening not to be friends with me anymore), I decided to join two days ago (less than 36 hours ago). In keeping with the entire Web 2.0 movement, I feel that I should share my impressions of FaceBook immediately, before I’ve had too much time to reflect on the experience.

The first strange experience I had on FaceBook involved the status update feature. This is a feature that allows the user to tell her friends what she’s currently doing. One of the options was “Cathie is sleeping” and so when I went to bed, I changed my status to that. Yesterday morning, I logged in for further exploration and Liz was online (and of course, by “online”, I mean “on FaceBook”). I had forgotten to change my status when I logged in and so the first thing Liz said to me was “You aren’t sleeping.” She was right, of course. I was freaked out by the fact that my un-updated status was immediately noticed and commented upon. So I changed my status to “Cathie is freaked out by the status update feature.” This was immediately commented on by the two Robins, both of whom said something like: “It’s how we track your every movement.” Which, of course, freaked me out even more.

The second strange experience is one that Ian Bogost calls “collapsed time.” After I filled out my profile on FaceBook (entering things like where I went to high school, college and so on), the first person the site suggested that I add as a FaceBook friend is someone who actually is a friend of mine, Amy Briggs. I’ve known Amy since I was in seventh grade and she was in sixth. We went to high school together and then went to Dartmouth College together, where we were two of the very few women majoring in Computer Science in the mid-1980s. We both went on to get PhDs in Computer Science and we’re now both faculty members at small New England colleges (although she has gone over to the dark side and is Middlebury’s Acting Dean of Curriculum). Because of the similarities in our backgrounds, it was probably a no-brainer to suggest that I add her as a friend. And, of course, I did. To complete the friendship relationship in FaceBook, however, the second party must agree to the friendship. So I went to bed Monday night without Amy in my FaceBook friend list. By the time I logged into FB Tuesday morning, however, Amy had accepted my request for friendship. What’s strange to me is how FB reported this to me. It said, “Cathie and Amy Briggs are now friends.” Now we’re friends? Despite the fact that we’ve known each other for more than 30 years, now we’re friends? As Bogost has pointed out, FB collapses time to this moment. Now is the only time that matters. This freaks me out just a little bit.

The third strange experience happened this morning. I have been on FB for just more than 36 hours so I have only dabbled in exploring the many features available. For example, I have uploaded only one picture, mostly just to see how the upload feature works. It’s a picture of Ann and I taken at a baby shower this winter. (Despite the fact that I have just joined FB, quite a few other pictures of me are there because of the addicted friends I mentioned earlier. It’s another interesting and freaky aspect of these social networks that you can “exist” on the network without even knowing it.) A friend teased me via a comment on my wall (a public space on which FB members can post comments for and about you), implying that I need to get more photos out there. Although I know the comment was meant in jest, I think it illustrates an issue concerning “immediacy,” in which users expect stuff to happen immediately. The immediacy issue is related to the issue of collapsed time in that they are both about an emphasis on now. And on FB, stuff does happen immediately. And then all your friends are immediately notified about it. Freaky.

And that leads me to the last of my current impressions about FB. I’m having significant information overload. As a user, you can control the kinds of things you are notified about via email. By default, you are notified about everything. So when someone accepts your offer of friendship, you get an email about it. When a friend changes her status, you get an email about it. When a friend writes on your wall, you get an email about it. When a friend adds a photo to her page, you get an email about it. And so on. Like I said, you can change these settings but as a new user, it’s difficult to decide what you want to get an email about and what you don’t. I’m finding it challenging to keep up with it all. This brings to mind Sturgeon’s Law, which says: “Ninety-nine percent of everything is crap.” Since I’m writing these impressions without having thought them through, that’s also what I’m thinking about this blog entry.

{July 14, 2008}   Game or Sport?

While we were in Barcelona, I picked up the European (Summer Journey Double Issue) edition of Time magazine because it’s about the games that people play around the world. A number of the articles are fascinating, describing activities that I had never heard of.

For example, one article describes parkour like this: “It’s not quite a sport, and it is certainly no game. But for sheer athleticism, the French-born extreme activity is unmatched as a spectacular thrill.” The article goes on to describe parkour as part gymnastics and part tai chi. It involves moving through an urban landscape as quickly (running) and as efficiently (leaping over obstacles such as walls and gaps between buildings) as possible. Clearly, it requires considerable skill to not get hurt. We saw some young men engaging in this activity while we were in Spain and would have had no idea what they were doing had I not read the article. It’s difficult to imagine without seeing someone do it (pictures, video). But the thing that I found most interesting about this article is that it was about an activity that is “certainly no game.” If this special issue is about games that people play, why would parkour be included?

The question came up for me again in another article about competitive computer gaming in South Korea. Apparently, however, to call this activity computer gaming is to commit a faux pas. Instead, the activity is called e-sports. Gaming doesn’t engender the same respect that sport does and the professional gamers in South Korea definitely want respect for what they do.

So this got me to thinking about what distinguishes game from sport. And why does one activity command respect while the other doesn’t? I’ve had a similar conversation with Liz and Ann about art vs craft. I think it’s human nature to want to categorize things and so there are furious debates about what is art and what is craft. Apparently, lots of people have also argued about the difference between game and sport. Until I read the Time magazine articles, I hadn’t given serious thought to what is sport and what is game. In fact, the only reason I think this is an interesting conversation is because of the respect that seems to be accorded to one and not the other.

According to, sport is: athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.
2.a particular form of this, esp. in the out of doors.
3.diversion; recreation; pleasant pastime.

And a game is: amusement or pastime
2.the material or equipment used in playing certain games
3.a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.

Each word has about 15 or 20 other definitions that are not quite related to this discussion. For example, someone can be a good sport or be in the real estate game. I’ll ignore those possibilities.

These two sets of definitions are very similar. Both a game and a sport are a “competitive” “pastime” involving “skill”. One difference seems to be that sport involves “skill or physical prowess” while physical prowess doesn’t seem to be part of the definition of a game. Instead, games involve “skill, chance or endurance.” But that makes me wonder why ESPN, which considers itself to be “the worldwide leader in sports”, shows the World Series of Poker (WSOP). One could argue that because winning the WSOP requires days and days of poker-playing, it requires physical endurance (which makes it a game) but there is no way to argue that it requires physical prowess.

Wikipedia says: “Sport is an activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively. Sports commonly refer to activities where the physical capabilities of the competitor are the sole or primary determiner of the outcome (winning or losing), but the term is also used to include activities such as mind sports (a common name for some card games and board games with little to no element of chance) and motor sports where mental acuity or equipment quality are major factors.”

Once again, physical prowess appears to be an important factor. But this definition might help us a little in understanding why poker is shown on ESPN. According to this definition, some games, those with “little to no element of chance”, are also sports (presumably even though the games do not involve physical prowess). The role of chance in poker has a name–we call it “a bad beat” when someone should win a hand but chance intervenes to make her lose. While chance might play a role in a particular hand or even entire game of poker, in the long run (perhaps over a series of games), the poker player with the better abilities will come out ahead of the lesser player. So perhaps we can say that poker is on ESPN because chance plays only a small role in determining the outcome. And perhaps that’s also why the South Korean gamers insist that they play e-sports. My guess is that most of the computer games they’re playing leave very little to chance and the very best gamers win these competitions.

I don’t think the distinction between games and sports is important except to the extent that the playing of games is considered “kid stuff” and accorded little respect. In Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson argues that today’s popular culture, including video games and television, is making us smarter because of the complexity presented to us through these media. I would argue that games (including non-video games) have made us smarter throughout all of history (not just today). Through the playing of games, we practice and develop mental and physical skills in a safe space, a space that Johan Huizinga called “the magic circle”, where the stakes are lower than they are in “real life.” In other words, the magic circle is a learning space. Rather than demanding that our game activities be called sports (as in e-sports), we should be proud to play games since doing so shows we are engaged in lifelong learning.

{July 8, 2008}   Reading 2.0

On our trip to Barcelona, I brought several novels as well as a couple of non-fiction books related to my work life with me. I can’t stand being on a plane without something to read but I also wanted to minimize the weight in my carry-on luggage. So I put all but two of the books in my checked bags and took one work of fiction and one of non-fiction in my carry-on. I started reading the work of fiction in the Manchester airport.

It was a great book–a graphic novel called Strangers in Paradise. I’ve been reading graphic works since I read and loved Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. I’ve enjoyed some of the graphic novels that I’ve read but mostly I am not part of the intended audience for those works and so they don’t particularly speak to me. Strangers in Paradise took some getting used to but the over-the-topness of the main character settled down as the work progressed and the back story was filled in. I ended up really liking it and the great thing about that is I’ve only read the first of six paperbacks in the series. So I have some future reading to look forward to. The bad thing about liking the graphic novel is that I finished it before we left the United States. So I was looking at an 8 hour plane ride with only work-related stuff to read (and who was I kidding–I was going on vacation!) or I would have to purchase a new book (when I had perfectly good books available in my checked bags). I chose to purchase a new book (Boomsday by Christopher Buckley–great satire) at an airport bookstore. So I ended up carrying more books than I had planned in my carry-on luggage as we crossed the Atlantic.

I think my decision to sacrifice breadth of reading materials for the sake of the weight I was carrying was a good one but in retrospect, I should have chosen two works of fiction to carry with me. And it’s not all bad in that I read Boomsday when I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. But it’s a shame that I had to make that decision in the first place. This is a situation for which I can completely understand the appeal of the Amazon Kindle reading device.

The Kindle weighs only a little over 10 ounces but can hold 200 titles to be read on electronic paper that is apparently fairly easy on the eyes. The device uses wireless cell phone technology so that downloading books, newspapers and magazines can be done nearly anywhere in the United States without having to find a wireless hotspot. I haven’t seen one or tried to read a book on one but that day in the airport, I certainly would have been happy to have access to additional fiction titles without having to carry additional weight. The reviews of the Kindle are mostly good (the big complaint seems to be that the page turning buttons are easy to hit by accident) but the one big drawback that I see to the device is the price. Amazon sells them for $359.

If that price meant that you could purchase books for significantly less than the cost of physical books, I might be able to justify spending $359 for a reading device. Since there is no need for printing, binding, shipping and so on, it would seem that the Kindle editions should be sold much more cheaply than the physical editions. But this is generally not the case.  For example, the list price for the hardcover of David Sedaris’ new book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, is $25.99. Amazon is selling the hardcover for $14.29 (plus shipping and handling unless you get Free Super Saver Shipping on orders of over $25). The Kindle edition is $9.99. For non-trade books, the difference in price is typically even less. For example, Gary Genosco’s McLuhan and Baudrillard is $30.90 for the paperback and $27.81 for the Kindle edition. These price differences are fairly representative of what we find between the least expensive edition of the physical book and the Kindle edition. It would take a lot of book purchases to make back your $359. But perhaps the convenience combined with the ability to put not just books but also magazines and newspapers on it will convince some people to buy the Kindle.

I’m intrigued by the idea of being able to conveniently carry an entire (digital) library around with me in the same way that I’m intrigued by the idea of being able to carry lots of (digital) music around with me. It certainly would make trips to Europe easier to deal with.

{July 7, 2008}   Conservation

Spain (and probably most of Europe) is way ahead of us in terms of energy conservation. Flying into Barcelona, we were struck by how many wind farms there were in the mountains as well as in the desert area south and west of the city. As we rode the bus from Barcelona to Bilbao, we also saw a bunch of solar panel arrays, perfect for that desert area. But the thing that struck me most was how many of the activities that require energy use were designed only to work if someone needed them to.

For example, we used public transportation a lot. In the subway systems as well as on the trains, the doors to each car had buttons on both the inside and the outside. If no one presses the button, the door doesn’t open. Another example is that the escalators slow down and eventually stop if no one is on them. As soon as a passenger steps on, the escalator starts moving at the normal speed. A final example is that in the hotel rooms, the lights will not go on unless the inhabitant has put the key to the room in a special slot by the door. When the inhabitant leaves the room, she takes her key and the lights go out. The only way to leave the lights on when you aren’t in the room is to leave your key in the room. Each of these examples is small but I bet they all add up in terms of energy savings. It makes me wonder why we aren’t doing this kind of stuff more in the US.

I think part of the reason that we don’t do more of this kind of conservation is cultural expectations. Many things in Spain, including things that have nothing to do with technology, do not happen without an explicit request. The most interesting of these (interesting mostly because it was the one that we never got used to) involves getting the check when you eat at a restaurant. In the US, when the waiter comes to pick up the dishes and asks, “Would you like anything else?”, we expect that when we say “No” the waiter will bring the check. In Spain, that doesn’t happen. Saying that you don’t want anything else is not the same as asking for the check. You always have to explicitly ask. I think it’s probably because they don’t want to be rude and try to rush you out of the restaurant in case you want to sit and chat. As I said, we never got used to this and often found ourselves sitting at our table for an extra 15 or 20 minutes trying to get the waiter’s attention so that we could put in our explicit request for the check.

So perhaps there needs to be a cultural shift in the United States in order for us to do the kind of energy conservation that we saw everywhere in Spain. But I think it would be worth the effort.

{July 6, 2008}   Back Online

We got home last week from Spain. Great trip and only a little interaction with technology. We did find a place in Barcelona that offered free Internet access and so we couldn’t resist checking our email. The keyboards at this place were built into the counter, which required significant pressure to type so it was a bit uncomfortable. In addition, because Spanish (and probably Catalan which is the main language spoken in Barcelona) has some extra letters not found in English, the keyboards were arranged somewhat differently than what we are used to. For example, the @ is still above the 2 but it is the third character above the 2. So there’s an extra shift key that allows you to get to the third characters. The second character above the 2 was “. As you can imagine, this took a little getting used to.

I had a ton of email when I checked, but none of it was critical and in fact, most of it was junk, ready to be deleted unopened. I suppose if we had taken the trip during the semester, this might have been different but it made me realize that I really don’t need to check my email multiple times per day, especially in the summer.

One problem that we had with technology (although it was technology that was hidden from us) was that our bags didn’t make our connecting flight on the way home. We left Barcelona on Tuesday, July 1, flew to Paris with a 2 hour layover there, then flew to Philadelphia (5 hour layover) and then home to Manchester. When we got to Philadelphia, we had to go through Immigration, pick up our bags (even though they were checked all the way through to Manchester), go through Customs and then recheck the bags. Our bags had not made the switch of planes at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris so we didn’t have them in Philadelphia. When we spoke to the person in Philadelphia about it, she said that even a 3 hour layover between connections would not have been enough time for bags to make the connecting flight at Charles de Gaulle. This surprised me because I would think this huge airport would have the latest in baggage handling technology so that much of the routing of bags would happen automatically using the bar coded tags on the bags. The truly stupid thing about all of this is that even though she told us that the earliest they could possibly make it to Manchester would be the following day, we couldn’t put in a lost baggage claim until we got to Manchester. And she said that the bags would not be put on another flight until we put in the lost baggage claim (“for security reasons”). I would have thought that the airline would be able to figure out that it was their screw-up that caused the bags to be delayed and so they would automatically put the bags on the next flight to the US. But she said that it’s a security risk for the bags to travel without the owner of the bags on the same plane and so they need to be sure that would only happen when the baggage had been “lost”. And the way they know the bags are lost is that someone has filed a lost baggage claim. Of course, this explanation makes no sense to me and seems to be another example of security theater that is performed in airports around the world. So as a result of all these rules, our bags did not arrive in the Manchester airport until nearly midnight on Friday, July 4. That’s right–our bags arrived in Manchester three full days after we did.

When we filed our lost baggage claim in Manchester, the clerk asked us if there were any distinguishing items inside the bags that would allow the handlers to definitively identify the bags. I don’t understand why they would have to open the bags to identify them. Isn’t that why we are required to put an identification tag on the outside? And isn’t that why they put a bar coded tag with the routing information on the outside of the bag? The whole incident made me realize that although it is pretty amazing that millions of bags are handled each year and mostly they get where they’re supposed to go eventually, there could be some improvements in the use of technology in the system.

In any case, we’re glad to finally have our bags back. And we’re glad to be home.

et cetera