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Daily Prompt: Whose Planet Is This?

It doesn’t take much to feel like a visitor from a foreign planet. Humans are  good at making anyone even a little bit different feel like an alien.

shadow me

My body is a great place to start. It is rebuilt, an imitation of a human body. Fake breasts with no nipples. Missing internal organs. No belly button.

Yet nothing makes me feel more out of time and place than reading posts on Facebook. The inability of average people to use any grammar, to write in full sentences, to understand that “loose” and “lose” aren’t the same word leaves me feeling as if I have been inter-dimensionally transported to “The Planet Without Grammar.” Forget typos. I get that. We all make mistakes and usually know it. How often I have wished I could go back and correct them.

No, I’m talking about all the millions of people who don’t even know they are doing something wrong because they never knew their own language in the first place.

Then there’s music. I sound like every member of every older generation throughout history, but this didn’t start when I became a Senior Citizen. It started when I was a young music student and had to listen to 12-tone music. This is music?  To me it sounds like Tom cats locked in a trash can to duke it out until only one emerges. Howling, banging, shrieks, crashing, thumping. No rhythm. No melody. Just noise.

I can get into rhythm without melody. I can enjoy melody without rhythm. When you remove both? What makes it music? Please, someone, explain. Where do noise and music part company? My inability as a young music student to grasp what it was about these sounds that made them admirable as music signaled a lifetime of “not getting it.” Whatever “it” has been.

There are so many things I don’t get. Politics. Ignorance. Movies without scripts. Books without plots. Published authors without talent. Illiteracy (voluntary). A society-wide lack of compassion. Environmental destruction for short-term goals which will have permanent devastating planet-wide repercussions. Genocide.

And that old standby, stupidity.

I said I’m an anachronism. I wasn’t kidding. I really am. And everyday, I get worse.

 

You must remember this … Techno Memories

I wonder if operating systems will be relevant a few years from now. Change has been a synonym for technology for the past 30 years or more. Change has driven the computer industry. Change is why we need to buy new software, hardware and operating systems.

Change can make things work better, but it’s not unusual to discover that your “upgrade” is a downgrade because what used to work no longer does. You pays your money, you takes your chances.

I grew to adulthood in a pre-computer society. I started working before cable TV, when encyclopedias were huge heavy sets of books and a computer was gigantic and needed a whole building for itself. It ran on punch cards and used machine languages — COBOL and FORTRAN. Decades later, personal computers were still just one step removed from a doorstop, floppy disks were 5-1/2 inches across and really flopped.

Those early machines (personal units, not mainframes) — I hesitate to call them computers — didn’t do much. They didn’t have hard drives. There was no software and no user-friendly interface. I don’t think the concept existed. No WYSIWYG. What you saw was a black screen with lurid green letters that made you feel like you were going blind after an hour or two.

Then everything changed. First there was Apple and then Windows. Windows didn’t work very well at first, but it got better. And even better.

In the beginning, there were different players in the marketplace and many more choices of operating system. Wang and DEC plus a crazy quilt of dedicated word processors and computers made by Commodore, Atari and many others. For a while, I had an Amstrad, a European machine that was almost a computer, kind an intelligent typewriter with a screen. It spit out paper.

Soon everything changed again. Computers started to really do stuff. Magic!

The speed of change accelerated. Technology was in hyperdrive. Then came a thing called the Internet. I had to buy and install Netscape to use it. After I got connected, there wasn’t much going on, but it was cool to just roam around. Mostly, you bumped into other people looking for something interesting. And then came AOL.

You could send electronic mail — email — if you had a friends with computers. You sent them messages over old copper telephone wires and everything happened in slow motion.

Just getting on to the Internet could take … well, let me put it this way. Turn on the computer. Turn on the modem. Go to the kitchen. Prepare dinner. Cook dinner. Serve dinner. Eat dinner. Clean up everything. By the time you got back to your computer, you might have actually managed to connect to something. Or not.

Then suddenly there were ISPs popping up all over the place. I got a super fast modem that ran at a whopping 2400 BPS! Imagine that. I worked in California from my home office in Boston. Cool! Telecommuting was the cat’s pajamas.

By the time my granddaughter was born in 1996, everybody had a computer or two. In her world, computers have always been fast, the Internet has always been the world’s shopping mall. Ebay and Amazon are no big deal.

At age three, she could run basic applications. For her, it’s like electricity was to us: something you use that is always there and always was. I’m sure she can’t imagine a world without it. It’s hard for me to remember that world and I certainly would not want to go back there.

For a brief interval, the rate of change slowed. We drew a collective breath and didn’t have to buy new computers for a couple of years. High speed connections arrived, though most home users didn’t have it right away. Everything kept getting faster and soon, with cable modems, no one could even remember what it was like to try to get onto the Internet using an old telephone line.

Every time you looked around, there was a  new generation of processors, bigger and faster hard drives, amazing super high-definition monitors and speaker systems to knock your socks off.

The Internet became a world-sized shopping mall and overnight, catalogue shopping became website cruising. The Internet was a world unto itself; I played bridge in real-time with a partner who lived on an island off the Pacific coast.

We have computers all over the house and what isn’t a computer is run by a computer or contains a mini computer … microwave ovens, smartphones, digital cameras and GPS units. I have three computers — in my office, living room and bedroom. My husband has two. My granddaughter has 3, but I think a couple of them don’t work any more. My son has two, my daughter in law has one but if she wants another, we have a spares and she can just grab one.

Eight computers are in daily use and only 5 people live here. I feel that we will soon need to get computers for each of the dogs. For all I know, whenever we are out, they go on-line and order stuff. I’m sure Bonnie the Scottie has at least a thousand Facebook friends.

A brief interruption of cable service leaves us wandering around like wraiths, without form or function. Five of the seven primary computers are less than 2 years old  so I figured we were set for a few years at least … but then everything started changing. Again.

Today, it’s all about “the cloud.” It’s still the same old Internet, but “cloud” is the “in” word for stuff stored on external servers. We’re going back to where we began, to using stripped down computers with no hard drives. Instead, everything is stored on someone else’s computer — out there. In the “cloud.” Our data might be anywhere. We have no way of knowing where it lives.

Am I the only one who finds this unnerving?

I can see advantages. When you eliminate memory sucking operating systems and cumbersome installed applications, your computer will run faster. Start-up is instantaneous because your computer doesn’t have to load services and applications. You don’t have to maintain and upgrade big expensive applications and volumes of data. You won’t need ever bigger hard drives, more memory and video RAM. You wind up with faster computers that are less expensive and easier to maintain. It’s a win-win, right?

Or is it?

How much do you trust your Internet service provider?

If your cable company has a bad day or the servers on which you store your critical data go down — even for a short while — you have nothing. As long as everything works like it’s supposed to, it’s hunky dory, but Murphy hasn’t left the building yet.

Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and will do so at the worst possible time.

Maybe it’s my age showing, but I would prefer to have data on hard drives that I control. That I own.

The idea of entrusting everything —  from my photographs to the manuscript of my book — to an unknown server somewhere in the world scares the Hell out of me. What if the building in which the server storing my stuff burns down? Gets hit by a terrorist attack? Taken down by hackers? You have no way of knowing what country your data is in, how stable its government is, or how good an infrastructure it maintains. You financial data could be in Pakistan, Indonesia, or Kuala Lampur. Or next door.

Is there a compromise possible? Because when I think about entrusting everything to a cloud, I begin to twitch.

How many times have you been unable to access a web page because servers are busy or crashed? The times when their — or your — servers are inaccessible because of maintenance, repair or upgrade. Or those ubiquitous hackers. What if you need a critical piece of data from a server while its offline? It does happen.

My bank was hacked and they had to send me a new card. Several places I shop — Land’s End, for one — were hacked and I had to redo my accounts because they’d been compromised.

If your ISP is down, you are out of business. If you think your cable company has you by the throat now, how much worse will it be if everything you need to run your life and business is dependent on their services? Facebook and Google already have trouble keeping up with the demands on their resources. How will they manage when they have thousands of times more data and tens of millions of users depending on them for everything from email and applications to data retrieval?

Those of you who are old enough to remember the great Northeast power blackout in the mid 1960s know what I mean when I say that overloaded systems can go down like dominoes. I am all in favor working together with my fellow human beings throughout the world, but at a certain point, when does inter-dependency make us excessively vulnerable?

If you put the world’s eggs in one basket, if the basket falls, that’s a hell of a lot of broken eggs. That’s not an omelet — just a mess.

I worked for more than 35 years in development. That was my world and although I’m not an engineer or developer, I know what’s behind a user interface. For example, modern word processors embed commands in text, but behind the interface, it’s entering the same commands I entered directly on the huge IBM mainframe by hand. It’s faster and prettier now. You get to see how your document will look when it’s printed, but it’s nothing but an elegant wrapping on an old familiar box.

My concern is not the graphical user interface (GUI) that overlays our computer (regardless of operating system), but that these new operating systems are designed to work with “The Cloud” … a meaningless term that represents servers located anywhere and everywhere. We don’t have to know where they are; they’re in the Cloud … kind of like Angels and God. We are being herded toward using external storage and we aren’t supposed to be alarmed that we have no control over it.

We use services consisting of server farms located somewhere on the planet. There is where we store our bank records, personal correspondence, photographs … everything. We use these servers directly when we use “the cloud,” but we also use it indirectly because that’s where our bank, our vendors, the places from which we buy goods and services store their data … or more to the point, our data as it pertains to them.

We assume the people from whom server space is leased are dependable, not criminals looking to steal identities and data … and their infrastructure is secure and won’t collapse from a power outage or hacker attack. And finally, we trust our ISPs to deliver the goods, keep us online so we can access the stuff we need.

Charter Communications is my cable company and controls my high-speed internet access, as well as my TV and telephone. I have difficulty controlling the wave of rage I feel when I think about them. How do you feel about your cable company, eh?

Even if the servers that store your stuff are safe, you can’t get there without a high-speed connection and that, my friends, means your local ISP … cable, telephone, satellite, whatever you use. They already have you by the short hairs. You are not independent and you rely on their services. Does that sound like a great idea? It makes me sweaty and itchy.

Anybody anywhere can build a server farm. It’s a great business that requires a bunch of servers, a climate controlled place to put them, and a few IT people to tend the equipment.

Where are these places? Most are in countries whose government is, by any standards, unstable — possibly dangerously so. How good is the infrastructure? Are they in the middle of a war? Are their electrical generating facilities dependable or sufficient? What protection against hackers do they provide? Are they trustworthy? They could as easily be a bunch of criminals and the data they collect is the mother lode.

I’m not comfy with the idea of entrusting a lifetime of my work to unknown, nameless entities. Google uses servers everywhere, as does Amazon. So does every other “cloud” provider. Your data and mine is unlikely to be in one place, either. It is broken into many pieces that are stored wherever it went when you saved it. You will not know and cannot discover where your data is, was, or will be.

I won’t get into how links and pointers let us retrieve data, but the potential for error, loss, and piracy is huge. So, I’m not buying into the Cloud, at least not for anything that really matters to me. Call me cynical, even paranoid … but I think that the computer-using public is buying snake oil. I want my stuff on my own drives. Use the “Cloud,” whatever it really is. But have good, dependable external drives too.

Or, as the Arabs say, trust in God, but tie your camel.

Daily Prompt: Pat on the Back and a Big Attaboy

When I married Garry, it was my third marriage, his first. It wasn’t because he hadn’t had relationships. More than enough of them. Just never married anyone. So, there we were. Me at 43 and he at 48 years old. Really getting married. Wow. We had a not-so-small advantage in that we had been friends and lovers for more than 25 years, but married? I never thought he would marry anyone and certainly not me.

GarryReduxPUB

Scene: Epiphany Lutheran Church, Garry’s home church in Hempstead, New York. His brother was singing as were two of my friends. A bagpiper was there to pipe the guests in, open the ceremonies, and pipe us on our way.

Twenty-three years have passed and old maxims don’t apply. Both we old dogs have learned a whole lot of new tricks. Garry — the fussy bachelor — has turned into a great husband and a true pal. He shops, launders, if beaten with a stick, even cooks a bit sometimes. All the things I can’t manage, he takes care of … including me.

But more than any tasks or work he may do, he has become my rock. As my health has continued to decline (against all odds … I’d have thought I’d hit bottom already, but apparently not) … he is there. Always. Dropping whatever he might have wanted to do to take care of me.

Photo: Debbie Stone

Photo: Debbie Stone

How do you say thank you for that? Are there enough words? I don’t think so, so I’m not going to try. Not only did I never suspect a man so wrapped up in his work could transform into a great husband (he was always a great date and friend … it was the husband part with which he had no experience), I’ll bet he didn’t think he could do it either!

You’re my better half, so much better than I ever dared hope. Baby, you’ve done it. You’re the best.

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85,000. What it means. What it doesn’t.

To put this into perspective, my “about” page and five top posts account for around 35,000 hits. “The Me Page” alone has gotten more than 12,000 hits.

75-85000-NK

Still, the cumulative effect is that a lot of people have visited this little blog of mine, for whatever reason and it’s a bit humbling to realize that’s the number of people in a pretty big town, more than a packed crowd in Yankee Stadium. I know there are people out there whose statistics put them into the hundreds of thousands. What’s weird is I see if I don’t quit, I’ll get there too. Not tomorrow, unless something I write goes viral (unlikely) … but I’ll get there. Because every day, I get around 200 hits, unless the première show for the 2012-2013 season of Criminal Minds is playing — in which case I get closer to 1000 hits (that’s how I know the show is airing).

I am writing this before I quite hit the 85,000 mark. At this moment in time, I’m at 84,958, so I’ll cross that bridge tomorrow. I don’t have the exact numbers, but it ought to be more than 85,000. I’m probably jinxing myself.

Number of posts? Closer to 1500, but I deleted several hundred and I’ll probably have to do it again to keep the website from collapsing under the weight of too many posts. I’ve been a busy writer. Meanwhile, I’m beginning to rerun posts because — hey — I think they’re pretty good and worth running again.

The ups and down of statistics can produce a lot of anxiety, so … you gotta have faith. I don’t just look at raw numbers because they are only a part of the puzzle. I don’t have more visitors or even as many as I did — the total number of visitors is down considerably from the peak last fall. It was the election and the Internet was a wild and crazy place. Yet the overall hit count has remained reasonably steady because guests spend more time on my site, read more posts, look at more pictures. The average number of posts hit per visit is greater than 2, sometimes a lot more. That tells me I’m doing something right.

It tells me I’m writing more interesting stories, posting better pictures. This matters to me far more than raw numbers. To know you come and stick around, enjoy my work enough to read more than a one post makes me feel pretty good.

The numbers of followers I’ve got has topped 400 from WordPress. I’ve got a bunch more from Twitter and Tumblr, maybe a couple of dozen from Facebook (not quite as many as WordPress counts them). A year ago I couldn’t even imagine so many followers.

Followers get  emails. Many people read posts in email and don’t bother to visit the website. It’s a peril of email notification. If you can read it in email, there’s no incentive to go to the main site since the emails contains 90% (or more) of the post. It’s a trade-off. Followers are good to have, even if they only read the email. Honestly, I don’t care if they read my posts on a telephone pole. Where isn’t important.

Sudden drops in hits are alarming and baffling, especially when numbers pop back up the next day. What was that all about? You will never know. One of the great mysteries of blogging. Numbers by themselves don’t mean everything, but they don’t mean nothing, either. A lot of hits indicates interest at the very least. Hit counts on individual posts tell me a lot too.

There are two kinds of posts in the blogging world. There are posts that are highly topical and burn really hot for a short time. Most of these involve breaking stories, current events, scandals, stuff like that. And there are slow burners. Timeless material, fiction, reviews.

Reviews can have a very long shelf life. People keep coming to read them over and over. Many of these are informational in nature, reviews of technology, books, movies. Oddly, reviews of extremely obscure movies do quite well, maybe because it’s difficult to find reviews of them anywhere. Camera reviews seem to have an eternal life. Book reviews of popular authors continue to be accessed months after original publication.

The posts with a long shelf lives gather a lot of hits over the months. One of my top three posts has more than 5000 hits, but it took more than 9 months. As long as the material remains relevant, people will find it. Good placement on Google helps too, but over all, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the longevity of reviews in general, technology in particular.

So for all that WordPress doesn’t think much of my work, a lot of other people apparently feel otherwise and in the end, that matters. It matters a lot. My followers, my readers have become a kind of family. We share each others’ lives, pains, joys. We celebrate and mourn together. We’ve never met, but we aren’t strangers.

I still save every “like” and every notification of a new follower. I would follow all my followers, but I’m out of time. I can’t keep up with that many blogs. I can barely keep up with the books I’m supposed to be reading and reviewing.

I can’t imagine how people do this when they have full-time jobs and young children. I’ve never been more impressed than I am with homemakers and career men and women who manage to handle their family obligations, jobs and blogs. All honor to you. You are the real rock stars.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Salutations? Who cares?

WordPress

WordPress says:

Where do you stand on the grand salutation question? Do you instinctively write “Dear…” even to your siblings? Do you drop any attempt at deference even when writing to your boss, professor, government representative? Do you mix-and-match depending on your audience’s status, age, or culture? Answer the poll below, and then, in a separate post on your own blog, expand on your thoughts regarding etiquette in the age of email. Stories, anecdotes, poems, opinion pieces, essays short and long — all are welcome contributions. Don’t forget to tag your post with DPchallenge, so that we can all read your take on email (in)formality.

I almost choked with a combination of laughter and astonishment. And I thought Facebook (last week’s challenge) was silly. But this is so much sillier! Wow.

Why does WordPress wants us to address this as if it were a meaningful questions? An issue? “Salutations” on email messages? Someone really cares? Do they — the good people at WordPress — really care? Really and truly? Because if this is the big controversy in their world, they are missing the point. Which point? All the points. Everything that matters and makes a difference.

Serendipity Says

Mom always said: “You ask a silly question, you get a stupid answer.” You might want ponder the inner, deeper layers of meaning of this classic, yet still charming truism. You guys are not joking? Because if you are, that would be fine with me. If you aren’t, and I guess you aren’t, okay, I’ll tell you.

I don’t care.

I never did.

I never will.

If you are talking about formal communication with superiors, teachers, employers and colleagues, there is typically a standard for email messages at school and/or in the workplace. There’s no need to guess. Just follow the rules. I’ve written guides for students and faculty to deal with this issue. Some schools encourage informality as do some workplaces. Learning basic manners is another issue and goes way outside the boundaries of email salutations. In reality, in any kind of structured setting, there are rules and standards. Follow them or pay a penalty.

The question of whether today’s young adults know when to be formal vs. informal, even know the difference or understand how to be civil is a separate — and much larger — area of discussion. It might be an issue worth discussing.

Short of someone spewing obscenities (why am I corresponding with anyone who’d do that?) or outright insulting me (again, why am I corresponding with someone who’d insult me?), what matters is my friend. The message. To that end, I ignore missing punctuation, grammar, typos, missing words … all of it. This isn’t school. My role is not that of a judge or school marm. Spelling and punctuation matter to the extent they clarify the message. Otherwise, all I care about is content. I won’t notice if there is a salutation or not.

To sum it up again: I don’t care. Not one little bit. Not in a minor way. Or a major way. Not in any way.

Who is extremely polite in email? Scammers and spammers. They address you with your full name, as if you were a dignitary. That is one of the markers to warn you it’s fake.

Are we so cocooned in our little corner of the blogosphere that all we care about are silly things? Email salutations? I think we are better than this. Now, if this were meant to be funny … that I could wrap my head around, but as an issue I’m supposed to take seriously? Good Lord, no.

What’s the underlying issue?

I started out thinking this is a non issue. As phrased, it is. But underneath the question, are serious unasked questions about how to strike the appropriate tone and content for various types of electronic communications. Formal versus informal. Social context. Command structure. The nature of internet relationships with people who are not friends or family members. Respecting boundaries, something about which many young people are hazy. If you didn’t learn at home, you will learn quickly out in the big bad world the first time you inadvertently show disrespect to a boss or co-worker. Or, God protect you, a commanding officer.

Early in the cyberworld, before email formats were standardized, there were issues about salutations and signing off to identify sender and recipient. Today, the embedded format of email programs, from gmail to whatever your office or university uses, is set to handle this stuff. Automatically. And getting better all the time.

When you’ve got an electronic header, a salutation for an informal communication is redundant or optional at most. Email isn’t snail mail, just faster. It is a different animal. So many conventions of traditional paper mail are embedded by format in email from CCs and subject lines to headers. Our software takes care of details. We need guidelines for content. It’s not just about grammar and punctuation. It’s the whole cyber-culture where there are no rules and everyone makes it up as they go along. Until suddenly, that’s not good enough.

Other than a ritual adherence to form without substance? What’s the point? Email is what it is. Now, if you’d like to discuss manners in communication, that’s a meaty subject.

I beg to differ …

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I beg to differ.

Garry at the riverYou can’t? Ever owned dogs? If you have the right treat, you can teach a dog of any age whatever you want. A piece of liverwurst? That old dog will do the tango then sing Stars and Stripes Forever with particular emphasis on the piccolo solo.

But I know you aren’t really talking about dogs. You’re talking about people. Older people and if you are a heterosexual woman, you’re talking about … men. Guys. Probably your Other Half. Him, the one in the recliner.

In my humble experience, you can’t teach young guys anything. They know everything already. Just ask them. On the other hand, you can teach old guys plenty, especially if it doesn’t involve climbing ladders, getting up really early, driving long distances, or turning off the television.

Nan now.

Nan now.

Everything else? It’s all in the presentation. If you can figure out a way to transmit the information without triggering any of his hot buttons? You’re home free. Which hot buttons? That’s your problem. I’ve got my own husband.

BonnieAs for the dogs, anything that tastes or smell like liver works. Or salami. As for our furry kids? If it is remotely edible, they’ll take it. They are not picky.

All summer, they favored watermelon, but with the ending of the season, they are back to backing for anything I have in my hand on the theory that “how bad can it be?” They really aren’t picky.

Bonnie will go pretty far for a slightly used paper napkin. This does not work with men, although I’m told that pizza has a similar effect.

Stop laughing, do you hear me? Stop! No one takes me seriously.

Where there’s smoke …

Among the many inane things we say when we don’t have something witty of our own to offer (hey, don’t knock it … someone else’s bon mot beats out “duh” every time), there are a few genuinely despicable ones.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

It’s a justification for accusing someone based on rumor, hearsay or malice. I won’t bother to address the physics except to point our there can be smoke without fire, and fire without smoke. No multiple interpretation for these words. This means only one thing.

96-FirepitHP-013

“I haven’t a shred of evidence, but I’ve heard stuff about you-know-who. He/she/they must be guilty of something, right? Because where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

No one with good intentions uses this line. Never. It’s mean-spirited and downright un-American in a nation founded on the principle of never convicting anyone without due process. Being unpopular is not proof of wrong-doing. Neither is attending a different church, or no church all. Or dressing funny, having a bad attitude, failing to mow the lawn, keeping to yourself, being anti-social or even rude. It’s legal to be different.

And hey, how about gossip, eh? People say all kinds of shit. It can ruin reputations and careers, destroy families. All because a guy said something to another guy about someone else. Then a couple of other guys in a bar repeated what they thought they’d heard, plus a few embellishments. Their girlfriends passed it to their BFFs who published it on Facebook. Voila.

That’s the smoke. Fire is inferred, after which you’ve got all you need to get a quick conviction without benefit of judge, jury or trial. The next thing you know, a lynch mob is forming.

If ever you hear yourself saying “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” or words to that effect, stop. Ask yourself what gives you the right to judge. Because you too can be judged and I bet you won’t much like it.

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