Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Communication and the Internet


I have kept a diary for some sixty-two or sixty-three years.  That’s about 22,000 short pages.  Why?  Basically, for two reasons.  In college I realized that we knew almost everything that famous people such as Winston Churchill or FDR did every day of their adult lives but that often I couldn’t remember what I had done the week before, or even the day before.  We only have one life to live and if we don’t remember living it, who will?  Does a tree falling in a forest make a sound if there’s nobody there to see it or hear it fall?

Another reason was that it seemed to me that my parents had never been young, that is, my age, so I wanted to record what I did and thought at the time so that when I got older and would have my own children, I would retain some insight of what it was like to be their age.  Was it worth the trouble?  I think so.  When I want to write about something in my earlier life, I can find times and dates and details that would not exist otherwise.  As for me relating to my children’s lives and times, the result has been less clear.  Sometimes I have the impression that they remember their own youthful attitudes less well than I remember mine.

Besides the diary, I’ve written a lot while I was working, from building specifications to reports, letters and schedules.  In the nearly two decades since I was last gainfully employed, I’ve had more time to write what I want, and when I want, which is usually when I should be sleeping.  If I kept a pen and paper next to my bed, perhaps I’d be a prolific writer but I have to rely on my memory carrying over to morning when I can write down what seemed so clear during the night.  It doesn’t always work and is probably an unhealthy way to live but I’m not the only person to be able to think better in bed than during the day’s routine.

Over fifty years ago I married a lovely Italian with great language skills.  We have always spoken English with each other and her insistence on precision and her curiosity about the meaning of words has helped my English more than any school ever did.  However, when we had children, we agreed that I would refrain from speaking Italian with them to avoid corrupting their Italian and retarding their learning of English.  This led to limited verbal communication with them, since at mealtimes conversation would be in Italian and I would remain both silent and sometimes out of the loop altogether.  Perhaps this pushed me into writing more.  Now the process is repeating itself all over again with grandchildren, who are scattered in three countries.

Technology has brought us incredible advances in communications possibilities.  We have Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp and other similar apps which can connect us, usually at no cost, to anyone anywhere in the world.  It’s wonderful but during the covid pandemic we’ve learned both the advantages and the limitations of all this connectivity.  Group meetings can be a disaster.  It’s nice to see people and hear their voices but when there are more than two voices it isn’t long before none are really heard and a frustrating chaos ensues.

Communication possibilities change all the time.  On the downside, my hearing, like that of many of my peers, has gotten worse over time.  Hearing aids help but along with audial decline, my Italian language skills, never good in the best of times, continue to atrophy.   Whatever language they speak, children speak differently among themselves than they do with adults.  For that matter, many sub-groups do the same.  Slang is developed to exclude outsiders and create a bond with a reduced group of insiders with similar attitudes, age, identities or whatever else they think they have in common.  If your mother tongues are different, the isolating effect is magnified.  I mention slang as an agent of exclusion, but professional jargon is much the same.  It keeps the layman out.  Architects, doctors, lawyers, art dealers and investment advisors all do it, not so much as to eliminate communication as to maintain their superior status.  When overdone, communication does fail.

Recently, the sister of my American son-in-law described in her own blog the difficulty of learning the younger generation’s elaborate standards of etiquette for texting shortcuts and emoji use.  Her children are beyond college age so I was perplexed.  Why would a fully grown and articulate person bother to try to understand the wilful subversion of language by people seeking to limit their communication to their peers?

With my American grandchildren, it is lovely to see and hear them so easily from across the ocean but the group nature of the electronic connections limits communication largely to waving and smiling.  My English grandson is remarkably erudite for his age and uninhibited in speaking.  However, he speaks with an accent used mostly by the Queen and people in certain parts of Westminster and Chelsea, which together with his pre-adolescent voice, largely in frequencies which my hearing aids try to augment, sometimes make our vocal exchanges as difficult as those with the Italian grandchildren, mumbling in Italian childspeak.  Their Italian is virtually incomprehensible to me, and sometimes even to their parents, but ironically, when they speak in English, they are far easier to understand than their English cousin.  George Bernard Shaw is usually credited with saying that the English and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language although Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell and Dylan Thomas all expressed similar sentiments.  People tend to forget it but the English colonized the US before the industrial revolution and the languages in each place have evolved separately ever since.

For many centuries, records of what went on in the world were kept in libraries.  Andrew Carnegie became as famous for all the libraries he built as for how he made all the money used for them in the first place.  Many of those have survived but many have been repurposed.  Libraries everywhere are struggling and often being defunded.  What will happen to the society’s collective memory?  Will Google keep everything?

That brings us back to computers.  Within my family we have differences of opinion there almost as strong as in politics, except that the alliances are reshuffled.  In the past few decades there has been a duopoly in computer software as absolute as the monopolies over a hundred years ago of Standard Oil and US Steel.  The proprietary systems of Microsoft and Apple have dominated everything.  Recently Android has moved in on cell phones, creating autocompletion nightmares even worse than those of its predecessors.  Open systems essentially refer to Linux, which is used by few people but by many, if not most, governments.  Public agencies, such as NASA, cannot afford to be tied to one dominant monopolistic company.  The battles of Facebook and Apple begin to be reminiscent of the battles between streetcar producers and the car and tire companies a century ago.  As then, it’s usually the public that loses.

The systemic divisions are reflected in those of many families, whose members go with the system they prefer.  Microsoft and Apple have been forced by economics to make compromises with each other and with other systems to avoid the sort of fiasco we witnessed a few decades back with video systems.  I still have many videos in the Betamax format which I haven’t seen since they lost the competition with VHS.  Will half of our computers also go extinct soon?

Many Apple users love their devices despite, or maybe because of, their very high prices.  Microsoft dominates much of the market but seems more willing to collaborate to maintain its dominance.  I find Linux simpler and easier to use but it requires a computer expert to keep it updated and there are few of them around.  I certainly don’t qualify.  The grandchildren show promise but will they learn anything more than Microsoft wants them to know?  Will any of them want to devote their lives to studying the workings of computer operating systems?

How the collected wisdom of the world is to be preserved is beyond my grasp but within families and groups of friends, the sharing and storing of data will continue to be a problem with so many incompatible programs already in existence and more emerging every day.  We will have to learn to be versatile and knowledgeable with regard to all the systems, their defects and limitations.  Our many devices can now be synchronized but what happens when the sync doesn’t work?  Who do we ask, Google, Apple or Microsoft, or is it up to the browser?  It doesn’t really matter.  Nobody is listening.  A website will put you in touch with other members of the public who may be able to offer advice, as well as asking “was this article helpful?”.

When computer use and the internet got going on a wide scale, it seemed to be mostly about the sharing of information.  Increasingly it appears to be driven by advertising and entertainment and the sharing of information sometimes means texting people who are standing right behind you instead of turning around and talking to them. The sharing and saving of information, other than that by government security agencies and advertisers, seems to have withered away.  Sharing cat and dog videos can be enjoyable and perhaps we may even be helped somehow by governments knowing our whereabouts but how many books can be stored with the same number of bites as yesterday’s forgotten phone video of us waving from the Eiffel Tower.

If the i-clouds and our computers are all full of selfies and the libraries are all turned into discos or restaurants, where will the books go?  Maybe it’s time for the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, the trustbuster, to appear and make his presence felt. The monopolies have gotten out of control again.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

What's in a Name

 Do people make a name for themselves, no matter the name, for example a John Smith, or do they grow into their name.  We all receive a name at birth but we can shape it or change it.  Most movie stars had fake names that somebody in marketing thought sounded better.  A young man in the Midwest named Frank Wright called himself Frank Lloyd Wright by inserting an old family name in the middle and went on to become the best and most famous architect in the world.  Talent drove all that but it included the talent to design his own name. 

James Earl Carter, Jr., with exaggerated American informality, went by Jimmy and was elected President of the US, a trend continued by Bill and now Joe.  No George would go by Georgie and Barry never caught on for Barack but little George was often called Shrub.

I was named Robert, the most popular name in the US for eleven straight years and I took it as an offense, as though a coin had been flipped and it could only be Robert or Richard.  Worse still, I was called Bobby, Bob and Tubby, all horrible although the latter was also weird since I was a skinny kid.  It could have been worse; nobody wants to be called a dick.

Eventually I learned that I had been named after both an uncle who had died as a child and a great-grandfather who had emigrated from Prussia to avoid the on-going wars of the Kaiser, only to find himself in the US as young men were being conscripted to fight in the Civil War.  You could pay someone to take your place in that war, which he did, making him a trans-oceanic double draft dodger.  We apparently had more in common than our name, both of us seeking a better life across the pond.  He was a dyer in a silk mill mixing colors, something I have done all my life in a different context and he brought beer home in a bucket from the brewery.  I haven’t done that but the affinity is there and yes, I was told that I even looked like him, except he was bald.  Robert Kinner, I’m proud to bear your name.

Name changes, whether self-chosen or imposed, may bring advantages such as pronounceability, simplicity or familiarity but they risk a loss of historic richness and traceability.  One side of my family was named Meyer and they were from the Netherlands.  Only in recent years when I tried to find out more about their origins did I learn that Meyer is not a Dutch name and that their name in Holland was almost certainly Meijer.  It would be an easy mistake for immigration authorities, or any bureaucrats, to make.

As a fan of Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali throughout his career and life, I was disappointed  when he changed his name.  For perspective on that event I recommend the fine new film, “One Night in Miami”.  Many Americans were unhappy, most of them because he was changing to a Muslim name.  I could understand that under the circumstances but the new name seemed super generic whereas Cassius Marcellus Clay dripped with historic reference, from ancient Rome to Louisville, his birthplace.  It also sounded good.  Few people anywhere start life with such a rich name.

We all have our preferences in names.  I happen to like Roman names, perhaps because I live in Italy, as well as the fact that they usually denote sex, a function currently out of favor.

Like so many Americans, I have recently been caught up in some name controversies, owing to the fact that I am a graduate of Washington & Lee University.  The school started in a small building on the back campus and was known as Liberty Hall Academy in the mid 1700’s.  Years later, George Washington endowed the school with money that continues to help the University, which had become Washington College.  At the end of the Civil War Robert E. Lee was pardoned by President Lincoln for his role in leading the Confederate Army, and he spent the remaining five years of his life as president of the college, setting the curriculum and standards and bringing the school back to life after the long and devastating war.  For that he was honored after his death by renaming the school Washington & Lee University.

Recently I was shocked to discover that there was a movement afoot to change the name of the school and that a majority of both students and faculty favored a change. A majority of alumni did not.  I’ve been shocked by almost everything going on in the USA for the past two decades, with the shock growing out of control over the past four or five years so the “little” controversy in Lexington sort of went unnoticed here in Italy.  Several major committees were formed to study the issue and reports were issued. 

When I was an undergraduate, there were no black students.  That was unfortunate but it was also the norm in the South, part of the nation’s tragic legacy of slavery.  There were also no women, which was part of the reason I went there, having seen what being in class with a lot of teenage girls had done for my academic performance in high school.  Diversity is now an unexamined and ill-defined cliché in American life but it struck me that there was a lot of diversity in the student body in those days.  There were rich and poor, southerners and northerners and people with many different interests and ambitions.  The Dean of Students knew all 1000 students by their first names and he guided us in imparting a sense of community.  The student body now has grown to 1800, less than double what it had been.  There are now students of all colors, ethnicities, nationalities and religions.  Is there more diversity?  On the surface it would appear so but more than half enrolling students now come from private schools so how deep is that diversity?  There is now a five-member Office of Inclusion and Engagement, all ministering to a number of specialized sub-groups.  Dean Gilliam assured a high degree of inclusion.  For sure, certain non-fraternity kids in my day may have felt excluded from some of campus life but with the new Office of advisors to the fragmented identity groups of the student body, how much less inclusive must the place feel?

However, I digress.  This started out as a discussion of the importance of names.  With all the studies and calls for name change, the one thing never mentioned is what is to be changed and what name/s would be the alternative?  Is Lee the offending name or must Washington go too.  Both were southerners and both owned slaves.  Some commenters have focused on Lee being a traitor, turning against his country.  He did not favor secession but he was a Virginian and would not fight against his own people.  He may have been guilty of sedition but the president of the US pardoned him upon surrender.  Washington also engaged in sedition and had he not won his war, would probably have been hanged as a traitor by the King he led a a war of independence against.

Having heard no suggestions for an alternate name in any of the solicited comments, I’ve tried to come up with a few on my own.  Given that it all started with the Liberty Hall Academy, Liberty University would have a nice ring to it along with some historic resonance.  Unfortunately, Jerry Falwell got there about thirty years ago with his ever-expanding right-wing holy roller university in Lynchburg. His less holy son now runs it and being a businessman open to every sort of deal, might be open to letting W&L become a regional affiliate, let’s say Liberty University Lexington, or LUL for short.  Would that appeal to alumni donors or student applicants?  They would have to answer that. Another option would be to go by a semi-secret name, “Woke and Libertine University”, which could avoid making obsolete all the W&LU gear already stocked and sold in the college book shop.

That the faculty in what I remember as a first-rate liberal arts college could advocate the rewriting of history is disappointing but given that liberal arts curriculums are being deemphasized for more entrepreneurial and vocational training, we shouldn’t be too surprised.  It’s all about money now.

The origins of the uproar seem to have been generated by the presumed discomfort of black students having to live amongst reminders of the racist past.  Some say they feel that deeply and are disturbed while others are not.  Lee died a century and a half ago which raises the point of where and when do we develop an acceptance of history.  I remember the first time I visited Rome and was entranced by walking between buildings that had stood in the same place for two thousand years.  For centuries the Romans had slaughtered Christians or fed them to lions as entertainment. But I, who had been brought up as a Christian, felt no sense of horror or outrage.  Maybe because the Christians had eventually taken over Rome, or perhaps because I’m just naturally insensitive.  When I got to the segregated W&L I felt more or less the same lack of outrage and I’ve never been able to muster much anger over the founding fathers’ failure to eliminate slavery two centuries before I arrived on the scene with my own moral failings. 

What about now?  If students are agitated about centuries old symbols of oppression, how do they live with what’s been going on now.  The ex-president has been making racist statements and doing racist acts non-stop for four years.  I realize that the epidemic of police killings of people of color has created fear and bitterness but is it all to be unleashed on the ghost of Robert E. Lee?  In 2003 our then president, after a build-up to war based on a foundation of orchestrated lies, attacked and destroyed a country of twenty-three million people which had nothing whatever to do with our problems or with the 9/11 attack on the WTC and the Pentagon.  Today’s students were just being born then but what about the agitated young faculty?  Rather than advocate for destruction of historic names and relics, what have they been doing to strip that president, who unlike Lee, is still alive, of all honors, pensions and benefits.  I would aim a little higher and push for a trial but trials in the US haven’t been going well lately.  The American “leadership” couldn’t even muster the courage to convict the recent occupant of the WH after he incited of riot of his more violent followers to cancel the presidential election in which he had just been voted out of office.  What are our sensitive students and faculty doing to correct such horrors?

Is this a southern thing?  Yes, the South was built on slavery, but slavery was legal throughout the US in its early days.  We’ve mentioned the lives and contributions of Lee and Washington but the founder of Yale, Elihu Yale, was a British-American merchant and slave trader who was affiliated with the East India Company, an entity the American Revolutionaries were fighting against every bit as much as King George.  What will be the new name of Yale, East Ivy University?

Some names leave a major imprint.  Washington is one of the biggest.  Our capital is Washington DC, Washington is also a state and many educational institutions bear that name.  Another is Columbus and the related term Columbia, as in District of Columbia.  That appears on the banishment list too just as many of the people trying to change our university’s name hope to see DC become a state.  I hope they succeed but how do they push statehood for a place named after two “unacceptable” historic figures?  With most of history to be cancelled, do we just use numbers identify places and institutions?

My wife and I always wanted to have a child named Tiberio, the Italianized form of the name of the Emperor Tiberius.  We both like the name, the sound of it, and maybe the fact that that he was associated with Capri, one of the most beautiful places in Italy.  Still, he was a nasty piece of work, though an effective general and good administrator.  He remained in power as Emperor for much longer than most of the people who followed him.  When he felt that his underlings were becoming a threat to his control, unlike the recent American would-be dictator, he didn’t fire them or insult them; he just had them killed.  He could fairly be described as a cross between Charles Manson and Jeffrey Epstein.  Nasty fellow but we still like his name.  Two thousand years is a long time.  Maybe it’s time to deal with the issues of the day and lighten up a little about figures of the distant past. 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Incitement to Violence

In recent weeks we’ve come to associate the phrase with acts of the lame duck American President and his most craven lackeys to incite mobs of angry followers into attacking the American Capitol in a quixotic effort to cancel the 2020 Presidential election.  I don’t believe I’m a particularly violence-prone person but I can relate to the ex-president’s frustration.  In these troubled times of the corona virus pandemic we are all stimulated to the edge of violence by many routine events, some of them trivial.

For example, every month I must pay a fixed amount to maintain service on my cell phone.  Over the past several decades communications services have expanded and improved at a pace unimaginable just a few years back.  As if to establish some sort of balance in the universe between progress and decadence, the sales and administration of those expanded services have undergone an inexplicable equal and opposite regression.  Perhaps with the sales of used cars now being taken over by efficient internet programs, all those people endowed with super con man skills have been forced off the used car lots and into the telephone service call centers, unless they are the elite of the elite and have moved into politics.  Be that as it may, I have selected and signed up for a program offered by my service provider, yet each month as soon as I’ve made my payment I receive messages saying “respond yes within 48 hours and you’ll get “zzzzmb” “ and then what?  More charges?  More “services” that I didn’t ask for?  If an app were available to set off a small explosion in the offices of the service provider, I might very well go for it, and I’m no Marjorie Taylor Greene.  These things are minor irritants but they add up and my indignation does rise.

Just think what the ex-president must be going through.  With his presidential immunity gone, he will be facing a number of criminal investigations and charges we’d need a huge legal staff just to enumerate, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of personal loans he has coming due in the year ahead.  As ex-president, he can no longer pressure officials of countries seeking favors to frequent his overpriced properties, which are already hurting financially from the COVID induced slump.  Faced with such a bleak future, how many of us would not resort to desperate measures to maintain our privileges? 

As for his supporters in Congress, the motivation is less obvious. Should they suddenly discover some heretofore unnoticed moral fiber, they will face unwinnable primary challenges from the Proud Boy wing of the party in their next electoral campaigns but despite losing their nice salaries and perks, their economic opportunities as lobbyists would almost certainly be a step up the economic ladder, so what is it?  Is being a seditious celebrity villain preferable to being seen as a normally decent, if quietly compromised, elected official?

I have resolved to stop worrying about the futures of the craven clan and stick to the small problems at hand.  How to get even with my disservice providers!  When my bank upgrades its security measures so that I can no longer access my account on-line, after a learning curve of years to get there in the first place, shall I simply switch banks, or start picketing the bank?  Hire some Proud Boys?

There have been some small satisfactions in the evolving virtual world.  We know that internet companies are invasive in their data gathering and they tailor their ads to our preferences before we know them ourselves.  Not buying anything on-line in combination with a little trickery can yield some positive results.  My actuarial table-generated advertising profile theoretically should include ads for prostate relief, disability insurance, erectile dysfunction cures, elevators to glide up and down the stairs at home and all the other new remedies that pharmaceutical companies urge you to ask your doctor about, but by clicking on ads for lingerie, perfume, sports cars and Caribbean cruises, all of which I have neither budget nor use for, I can assure that my cluttered computer screen is at least cluttered with attractive images instead of the morose stuff.

In the age of COVID, any consolation available to us that makes life a little more pleasant and less stressful, whether it’s respite from the ex-president’s crude tweets or a more attractive computer screen, is to be cherished.