Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kindling Caught Fire

So I'm feeling pretty sheepish here. I hinted right on this blog that a Kindle would make a great gift, trying for the right ironical twist so that whoever dared would have to feel a little silly and could back off without penalty. But, you know, Mom is always looking for the perfect gift, and word leaked out. I make no representations about my intentions, since I don't really know them.

I tend toward lamentations about days gone by, even wishing we could try horses and buggies again, slow down our eating, try for different takes on what it could mean to be human. But I'm also susceptible to cool, and am definitely into scientific discovery - not so much for the purpose of Truth, which I don't quite, well, "believe in," as for truing, like I used to do with bicycle wheels. Science is a way to find those things on which we must agree. But it can't get at everything.

I'd just finished moving my shelves and shelves of books, and then - even though there's absolutely no connection according to the doctor - landing in the hospital. A Kindle sounded pretty good up against shelves and shelves of dust-gathering yellowing fusty pulpy paper, some of it not even made to last so long.

My new Kindle is the first I've seen one, and I've got to say, I'm pretty impressed. They nailed the form factor, making it easy to hold in one hand with a screen which isn't lit and holds its picture despite the state of on or off. And amazingly to me, it includes the ability to get on-line anywhere through 3G cellular contracts - not just at a "hot spot".

Of course, by representation and disposition, I shouldn't really like the thing. I should be actively bemoaning the loss of bookmakers' craft. I should be getting paranoid about the profit margins they are making, and the destruction of local outlets. I should call it the Walmartization of everything, which it is, but hey, there's no stopping progress, right?

I sometimes like the magic of perusing actual shelves, and I sometimes get frustrated, especially after a move, with the impossibility to organize mine in any really useful way. I settle for thematic bunchings, trying to keep authors' works together, unless they strain the boundaries of their subject matter too much. The biggest frustration I have is looking for something that's long-since been lent out, never knowing if it's even there to be found.

I do wonder about the pricing scheme of my new device. When you buy a cellphone now, you know the price is subsidized by the contract they get you to sign; that they make so much money on your "minutes" that they'll do almost anything to keep your device humming. Including polite and free and rapid repairs when the thing breaks. It almost feels like a throwback to the good old days.

You just know the big American cellular providers fight against unlocked networks, where you could move your phone off before the subsidy wears away; and, well, I guess we consumers pretty much like it too. So long as there are new goodies to be had for prices which disguise the installment plans to which we've all become so addicted.

But this Kindle puts things backwards. You suppose that they are counting on your impulse buying of lots more "good reads" than you would perusing bookshelves. You suppose that not only do the cellular charges get subsidized by the purchase of the Kindle, but that the actual purchase price of that piece of hardware is pulled from thin air, or subsidized somehow by the soft lock-in to the Amazon sales network. You wonder if there's any actual labor content in there, or if it too is the new mass-media imprint with no marginal cost for each new run.

It reminds me of Ivy League tuitions, where they calculate the actual cost to educate each student at maybe $150 K each or so. Which makes the incredibly steep tuition seem almost cheap, as though you really should mortgage your soul to leverage such a return. But then they drop any tuition at all just to sharpen their claim on the best and the brightest, and again you wonder where's the calculated reality to it all.

Do they really add up the return on endowment income, the grant funded research, the unrestricted donations and actually set a "real" price. Well, of course they do, since they have to balance a budget. But it starts to feel like my cellular company which just pulled a massive profit on my failure to anticipate the number of minutes I would use for the holiday and the OMG texting, especially since getting ill. Is there really a meaning to the cost per minute, or is it whatever the market will bear? Or, I mean, is the market really working?

They apologized that they can't do what they used to do and retroactively change my plan. I'm sure that some corporate advisor gave them a cogent argument about how the profile for rebates could reveal preferential treatment toward the folks predisposed to feel entitled and be polite about it. As with hiring practices, you have to watch your behaviors very carefully now.

So, based on some customer loyalty algorithm, and some quick calculation of how much profit margin I've afforded them by doing Internet and all the rest, they gave me 40% off my overage, minus the retroactive difference in the minutes. Somehow it's calculated to make everyone reasonably happy.

You know, whatever.

I'm reminded (ramble ramble, but I should be allowed to do that in the hospital, although you know I'll take any excuse) of this "media summit" I attended last summer, being named in honor of my Uncle Lou, whose memorial service was to be held concurrently. The pundit gurus up on stage, brought there to predict the future of media (100% Television, they confidently predicted, regardless of the medium for its transmission) browbeat their young and cool audience about the equivalence of unpaid digital downloads to actual theft of physical property.

I wasn't a bona-fide participant in the summit, so I sat on my hands, but still I wanted to yell out, "yeah, yeah, steal this book you sheep." There is nothing moral about making something super easy to steal and then holding people responsible for doing so. It feels a lot like a sting operation on a whole generation, so that we really can feel smug about being better, from the golden oldie days.

Let's say the purveyors of digital books were willing to grant me the license I already own for the IP (Intellectual Property) I've already bought for the books now on my shelves. I'd even be willing to pay a premium to have the perpetual digital property. I'd even be (almost) willing to burn the physical specimen if it were paperback and had no intrinsic beauty, if that would make them happy.

Anyhow, then I might be willing to allow their exclusive franchise. "They" being anyone wanting to enforce some kind of copyright on digital reading materials. Or digital music or videos. They should let me lend my stuff, and keep it cataloged for me somewhere in the cloud. I don't mind a check-in check-out system, giving over my authority to whatever repository I choose. I see the future, and it's about my own control of what I've paid for. I think the folks at Amazon actually see it too.

I'm pretty sure there is some definite - if hard to locate - divide between "content creators" who make lots of money and those who are simply desperate for exposure. Of course, just like the cellular companies, the publishers are going to set their prices so that they're always making money, which pretty much means that the minor creators will have to keep a day job, even thought the publishers can find their work profitable - in aggregate.

So there might even be a built-in conflict of interest between most artists and the enforcers of copyright.

I heard on the radio that the local library will be stocking digital titles, and that I will be able to download them without even visiting the library. So there is a kind of check-in/check-out license which limits the number of copies in circulation. Just like my family hopes that I will keep my books "for decoration," it would be too bad if no-one has to actually visit the library any more, but still it's a pretty attractive prospect, don't you think? It surely has a high cool factor.

But what shall the price be? Shall it be set by the owners of the medium for transmission? The monopoly holders of the marketplace, like e-Bay or Amazon where you will almost always go - or NetFlix - because they will definitely have all the titles.  So if you're a new author, you'll give them whatever massive cut of the price, just because they have the distribution network. Almost precisely the way that Google calculates ad-sense.

It feels very much as though we've created a brave new monopoly world, where there's only really room for a single player in any given category, where price can be set at will, almost without constraint, and the "little guy" has nothing at all to say about it. "Whatever the market will bear" has a different meaning when there's only one real player.

I have an image of pinnacles getting ever steeper with a small set of Ivy League colleges toward the top, say, or e-Bay, Google, ATandT and Verizon, and then a scattering of regional colleges and companies which can make a credible claim to offer a similar service.

But the value proposition continues to out-favor the ones at the peaks. They let you roam around the entire country at will, give you the best prospects for "in" connections and signals in obscurity. Their diplomas are global in reach and recognition, as are their faculties, and the entire game is premised on some sense that quality is distributed that unevenly also.

And so the spread between CEO and worker salaries gets wider and wider, in perfect imitation of the divide between Walmart prices and the ones from the style boutique. And the quality also is made to imitate a perfect spread in value and discerning eyes can tell in an instant from the drape and the finish and the placement of the buttons.

All built on a fiction as if such distinctions can be calculated and as if there really are great ones and lesser ones in fact and not just in fiction.

There shouldn't be such a stretch between the bottom and the top. The rest is details:

I think random tends toward monopoly concentration without proper context for moderation. I think there's even a name for this - the Pareto principle. It's what locust-style humanity on the planet is about; it's what the Ivy leagues are about, it's what happens to everything without regulation and proper feedback loops.

I'm not against making all sorts of distinctions, nor against specialized treatments for the distinguished. Some folks really know how to fiddle, some are incredible on ice-skates, and some are really really brainy and bright.

But as often as an IQ test suggests that some hidden talent might be lurking, I'm pretty sure it over-selects for privilege or a unidimensional form of brain-power which might never get trued by failure. Especially when a premium gets placed on never showing weakness. Having headed a school for "gifted" children, I know a thing or two about these matters.

Clearly, some of our most important thinkers and shakers and movers never did excel at any particular measures. It's only the government meritocracies which get overloaded by Ivy grads. In the "real world" of science and industry, there are plenty of dropouts and state college types.

OK, so here in the hospital, what I would really like would be someone to respect my intelligence; someone who isn't programmed - as much by client expectations as by personal predilection or training - to think I want him or her to be the expert. I'd like someone to debate with me to the point of my own satisfaction that there is no connection among and between all "symptoms" of my "lifestyle" which have led up to this singular event of a clot forming in my lungs.

It isn't clear that it came from my legs, although the literature all declaims that. There's no evidence that there's any connection to my general decline in conditioning, which makes this pulmonary emobolism feel an aweful lot like a punctuation mark to a general trend.

They have a good theory, they have a cause and an effect, and it's very clearly documented, with lots of case history and treatment success. I know from my own professional work as a computer network and systems troubleshooter that that's what you need in order to fix things. You need a good solid theory of how things work, what might have happened, and then you can go about setting things right.

But in this case, I have evidence from the inside, as it were. I have the poetic shape of this happening on Christmas, and the stresses and strains of trying to sell a house in time to move and find some kind of work before funds and insurance both run out. I have irregular patterns of exercise, and eating and drinking.

Weight gain descended from a broken leg, a torn muscle, and the general sloth which sets in from living alone in the country where work erases the daylight hours, and the highlight of each day is cooking and eating dinner tuned precisely to my self-indulgence. As often as not enhanced with wine or beer, and I know that now if I drink too much my heart pounds in exactly the same way that it did when my body was screaming for more oxygen and there was a clot in the way of its getting there.

I even know that my liver makes the stuff which clots my blood, and that when they give me blood thinning drugs, I'll have to watch my steady intake of vitamin K containing green leafy veggies. I know these things all interact, and it seems pretty likely that if I'm on a roller coaster of "life-style" I'll be pushing things toward and maybe over all sorts of limits.

I don't want the isolated cause and effect which can be represented by the schematic of theory.

But there isn't a doctor on the earth paid well enough to have that conversation. There are lots of armchair doctors, but there also seems to be some inverse relation between propensity for out-there private quackery and the taciturnity and vagueness you get from a well-trained and practiced clinician.

This, to me, is very frustrating. I'm happy enough to get the good treatments I've been receiving. I'm happy enough to make my own safe-enough conclusion that I should even out my habits, lose some weight, get more regular exercise, and live, well, a lot more primitively.

I'm on the "user" side of tech support, pretty much in the way of the doctors getting their work done to the extent that I want to take and play a role. And believe me, I'm not a difficult patient - I'm compliant in everything I do. Well except for the Lipitor, which just seems extreme to me given my overall makeup. And oddly, no-one's implicated that in the clotting. Hmmmm, should I do an Internet search?

Well, and so I've been sprung now. My sister tells me of the strange fact that her friend getting an embolism triggered her going in for a sonogram of her veins. And then my brother had similar symptoms. And then I go to the hospital. And on Christmas Eve, in echo of my previous experience!

The doctor explained that the echo-cardiogram confirms that the heart had been laboring against the clot, but that it is recovering well. There were no clots in my legs, and it was way too soon for them to have been reabsorbed. So, I'm left with a purely poetic explanation for what happened, and just like with new knowledge that asteroids might hit planet earth, why let that change the way you live each and every day?

Well, except for the observation that there is no real excuse for replacing reality with schematics. There is no real excuse for letting technology exaggerate the differences among us by allowing corners against all purchases in any given medium.

I come away with a nearly pure conviction that trued love is the kind which doesn't depend on perfection or anything approaching it. That if your love or respect or honor depends on maintenance of an illusion, then the person stuck in that endless loop is the saddest person of all. The one who has an image to keep up. The one who is absent from himself.

I'm glad to be home, and recovering however slowly. I'm glad to be alive. Now, please excuse me while I play with my new Kindle.

1 comment:

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