Monday, July 4, 2011

Swirl of Cacaphony

I owe it to my punster bro that this is the name of a new Ben and Jerry's flavor. Artificially sweetened chocolate - fake cacao, get it? Cacao phoney?? With a twist.

I don't do puns. There's something wrong or right with my language black-box. I am back working though, this time using Chinese on a daily basis.

Since the Chinese has lain dormant for at least 15 years, and since this is a new job in a new state (of mind - California) and since I'm doing things which are somewhat new to me, I do sometimes feel as though I'm navigating a cacaphonic swirl.

I've been issued an iPhone. It works enough better than the Windows Mobile phone (the one I've been trying to talk myself into loving for so long now), that I almost can't credit it. I don't want to like a smartphone that much, but it handles Chinese natively, which is still a little better than I do, and moves seamlessly among tasks. I think they were smart enough to close off "multi-tasking" since you can only look at one thing at a time on a phone, and it keeps its state way better than Windows did, which was always trying to give me my cake and let me eat it too.

The Windows phone would try "intelligently" to decide how much memory I needed, but to a human there was no predicting when a backgrounded app would be closed according to some kind of better judgement, and its state might or might not be kept depending on the talents of the programming staff. At least Apple exercises some control over what will be allowed on their platform.

The one thing I do miss, however, is that Swype way of entering text. It's quicker, and I haven't learned to thumb on a virtual keyboard. But even still, there are limits to the turn of phrase one will attempt on such a tiny platform. I wonder when they'll make one I can dictate to reliably (ouch, turns out there's an app for that!)? Or something which can monitor my nerve endings maybe the way Kinect does my body movements. So I could just waggle my typing fingers, and the phone would take the cue.

'Till then, there can be no question that the language that we use is being lowest-common-denominatored. I've found that when I'm speaking English to someone I've spoken Chinese with, my English has become that kind of simplified that I often wish they'd use with me in Chinese. It's not that hard for a speaker to bring his language to within what can be followed with certainty, and not to do so would be some kind of rude.

And then if I email the same person, I find that I can't even access my native English stylistics, such as they are. I seem only to have a kind of pidgin - clear enough and precise, but lacking in the nuance which I do so enjoy while writing an email to someone I know well enough to skate the edge of sense with. Gentle Reader.

There's lots of celebration of the Twitter now, for the discipline imposed by such a compact package. No possibility to build any context from which the Tweet can be removed.

Once upon a time, we all learned to be careful with our emails since something about the medium prevented the careful tone with which paper letters once were invested. And bosses and colleagues and would-be lovers would take or give offense meaninglessly, because of a context wrongly inferred.

This defines our political discourse now, no?

Discourse is, of course, far too lofty as a description of what passes for it. Grand notions are reduced now to advertising slogans, obliterating all and any hope that opposing sides might be brought toward some kind of respect for the opposing position. At least I find that some familiarity with the origins of a position, and with the experiences of the people that hold it changes a lot about how you regard those people and that position.

Ad hominem becomes the order of the day, and so you match opposing viewpoints against what amount to cartoon caricatures as offered up by what passes for journalism. Photo and video mediated of course.

Our likes and dislikes are generated in the instant, upon first vocal and visual impression. How absurd to accuse the Obama haters of racism, when whatever happened happened in the same instant that we all formed our opinions of Sarah Palin. And I do try and I have to confess that, well, when I really try I can find Glenn Beck likable. I understand where he's coming from. I get Palin. I know they each connect with people who aren't making connections otherwise. Who feel excluded.

But to like someone is not to evaluate their job performance, right? And when someone else makes that mistake, then we hate them too. We generalize. We fill in all the context because the language we use simply isn't rich enough to provide for context.

And I guess that will have to be enough for this re-entry to my little private blogosphere, after a different kind f re-entry to the world of work. I'll end with a visual pun. I came across it during the course of my new work, where it behooves me to stay abreast of developments in Higher Ed.

I've been aware of modern logistics and warehousing operations for a while now, because of my work in IT. Big box distribution stores now use scan codes and robotics to store and retrieve pallets from their precise slots in massive warrens.

The California desert is dense with such places, each one employing very few humans, while the goods are moved from semi-trailer to shelf and back again using artificial intelligence to minimize latency on the shelf where money can't be made. But the shelves are valuable when they can facilitate volume purchase or taking advantage of price fluctuations. It must be a beautiful thing.

And now the University of Chicago, short of space, has built its new library underground, where books are bar-coded and stacked in crates. Robotic retrieval systems can move the crate to where a human can retrieve his written quarry. And it must be a beautiful thing.

But I have to wonder, and don't you? If the word is the thing, then why does it even matter that the physical object be brought to hand? This feels to me like some sort of bizarre and obsolete gold standard, and I feel my context-building prejudice machines resenting all the money spent to fetishize rare objects.

Shouldn't all this robotic intelligence be used to digitize the books before they're lent? Maybe it is and will be, but shouldn't it also and at the same time be made available to anyone anywhere, and not only to the folks at the University of Chicago with library privileges?

I remember when CD jukeboxes were state of the art, because so much data could be made accessible so cheaply. And now they just seem silly up against data stores so massive that the capacity is given away just for the asking. This library would seem the same kind of future obsolete, as new-age and high tech as it is.

I wonder if they will take my advice to call this travesty what it is - the Dead Letters Office from the long gone age of the missive. When people who wrote took upon themselves also the burden to create a context, and when readers were similarly obligated in return.

There is a design field of which I'm newly aware. It's called Ux or usability experience. It's masters design the interfaces between man and machine, and when you think about it, this is a very important business. One wishes that they would go to work someday real soon on the interface sported by the office copier/network printer/scanner/fax machine, but meanwhile these designers have become the analog to what teachers used to do.

They frame your interactions, as on my new iPhone now I'm constantly amazed at the generous gestures built in for my more fluid interactions. It's wordless, this framing, and therefore multi-cultural. Certainly, there's no need for translation, or, um, has it already occurred by the time the user interface is useful? Is the inter-language translation radically redundant by the time a "user" gets the interface?

Let me think here. Is the instrumentation on the user interface really somehow analogous to the role of the teacher? Some kind of formalization and channeling of the moves which might be made. And what of notions of active learning, or engaging the students with one another. Does that just go right out with the Windows?

There must be a difference between digital reality and real reality.

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