Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Web Secret 580: Comeback of the Century

I read a surprising Op-Ed in the New York Times by frequent contributor Timothy Egan. It was titled: "The Comeback of the Century - Why the book endures, even in an era of disposable digital culture."

I thought you should read it too, abridged as usual:
In the digital age, the printed book has experienced more than its share of obituaries. Among the most dismissive was one from Steve Jobs, who said in 2008, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

True, nearly one in four adults in this country has not read a book in the last year. But the book...is back. Defying all death notices, sales of printed books continue to rise to new highs, as do the number of independent stores stocked with these voices between covers, even as sales of electronic versions are declining.

Nearly three times as many Americans read a book of history in 2017 as watched the first episode of the final season of “Game of Thrones.”

So, even with a president who is ahistoric, borderline literate and would fail a sixth-grade reading comprehension test, something wonderful and unexpected is happening in the language arts. When the dominant culture goes low, the saviors of our senses go high.

Storytelling, Steve Jobs may have forgotten, will never die. And the best format for grand and sweeping narratives remains one of the oldest and most durable.

But also, at a time when more than a third of the people in the United States and Britain say their cellphones are having a negative effect on their health and well-being, a clunky old printed book is a welcome antidote.

When people go on a digital cleanse, detoxing from the poison of too much screen time, one of the first things they do is bury themselves in a book — that is, one to have and to hold, to remind the senses of touching “Pat the Bunny” in infancy, a book to chew on.

“I think it’s somewhat analogous to what happened with food,” said Rick Simonson, longtime buyer at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. “We came of age when the commercial messages about food were all to make it instant. Now look at how food has changed ‘back’ — the freshness, the health aspect, the various factors like community.”

While our attention span has shrunk, while extremists’ shouting in ALL-CAPS can pass for an exchange of ideas, while our president uses his bully pulpit as a bullhorn for bigotry and ignorance, the story of our times is also something else. It’s there in the quieter reaches, in pages of passion and prose of an ancient technology.
I have nothing to add.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Web Secret 579: 1994

1994 was a blur for me as I struggled to manage very premature twins on heart monitors, a 4 year old, and a full time job without losing my mind.

Recently, New York Times journalist Caity Weaver described her valiant effort to live like it was 25 years ago - before Google, before texting and before iPhones.

Great! Now I could find out what I missed. Here is a summary of what she wrote (Bear in mind she was 4 years old in 1994):
Average Americans "spent 1994 eating Dunkaroos in the back seat...They were in phone booths... They were smoking cigarettes — not on domestic flights under six hours, thanks to a then-recently-passed draconian law prohibiting this, but just about everywhere else...

My assignment was to attempt, for one week, to live, 24/7, as if it were 1994...

...I would 1994-ify everything within my purview. For instance...I would avoid catching B trains to work since they did not stop at my neighborhood subway station in 1994. To the extent possible, I would use only products invented in or before 1994. I would dine exclusively at restaurants that opened that year or earlier. My irrational need to receive constant updates on all current events and internet gossip ... would have to be satisfied by the newspaper, the radio and network news.

Aside from figuring out how to get from anywhere to anywhere (which, I eventually discovered, was sadly nearly impossible in 1994), the most taxing element was preparation. At work, my primary tools would be paper — a kind of very, very thin, stiff, dry, fragile fabric for writing on — pens, and my landline desk phone. ...I would reduce my 2019 computer to word processor functionality — no email...

1994 would extend to my personal life too....I transformed my iPhone into a landline by disabling notifications for every application except calls, and leaving it plugged into a wall outlet in my kitchen. I printed out seven pages of phone contacts because I did not know any of my friends’ phone numbers, nor indeed the phone number of the man I have been dating for four years and am engaged to marry.

I bought a genuine 1994 Radio Shack television set with a built in VCR on eBay. It arrived broken. A Radio Shack cassette tape recorder also purchased on eBay also arrived broken. 1994 was not that long ago, but everything from 1994 was broken, or seemed so. I fretted that the 1994 Sony Walkman I received was also broken because no music emanated from it when I turned it on, but then I discovered that the Walkman merely demanded headphones before it would play...

...I ordered the cheapest cookbook from 1994 I could find, which was titled “Cooking Light Cookbook 1994.” I borrowed a 1994 Zagat from a co-worker.

To help me identify buildings it was safely 1994 to go into, I acquired “New York, a Guide to the Metropolis” ... For entertainment, I bought the books “The Celestine Prophecy” and “Prozac Nation.” And for exercise, I purchased guided aerobic VHS tapes on eBay.

...For a week, [my fiance] and I would be unable to enjoy one another’s company while watching streaming and OnDemand TV programming in stunning 4K resolution... All of our social plans would have to be decided in advance, since he would be unable to reach me unless I happened to be near the kitchen, at my desk at work or already with him... Most annoyingly for both of us, Taylor (along with everyone I encountered) would be banned from using his smartphone to inform me of the time, the forecast, directions, invitations, addresses, phone numbers, recipes, news he had learned from digital sources and the easily researched answers to any of my spontaneous questions...

The first thing I noticed at midnight when the clock struck 1994 was the sudden silence in the room. The second thing was the deafening volume of my inner monologue. I was getting ready for bed, performing the half-dozen mostly mindless tasks that, because they occupy my hands, normally provide a treasured window for listening to an audiobook or podcast. As I smeared surprisingly solid and burning Noxzema cream across my cheeks, however, all I could hear were my own thoughts...

In addition to providing brief news summaries, the radio was my primary source of weather forecast information. It was incorrect every single day, but never more so than the morning I embarked on a 35-block pilgrimage to visit Manhattan’s four remaining pay phones (all on the Upper West Side) and was forced to spend 20 minutes standing under scaffolding, filthy city rainwater soaking the pages of my handwritten observations.

The most time-consuming task of my week was identifying places to go, and figuring out how to go to them with paper maps. I spent hours methodically calling restaurants listed in the Zagat...to see if they still existed. They don’t. The majority of numbers just rang forever...

In the weekly allotment of time I normally spend half-browsing the internet while half-watching TV, I read three books. I reorganized my dresser and my closet. Taylor and I went for walks. One evening, I even cracked open “Cooking Light” and prepared my sweetheart a complete meal called “Dinner for Your Sweetheart,” which was disgusting.

I should have known it would be, because while light cooking is not a radical concept, many of the dishes depicted in this book were unrecognizable to me...

While I will stop at nothing to avoid making or receiving a phone call in 2019, phone conversations in my private 1994 provided valuable lifelines to the loved ones and entertainment news from which I had been cruelly severed...

By the fourth or fifth day of 1994, I’d stopped impulsively grabbing at empty spaces on my desk for my cellphone, but my reflex to quickly Google things never deteriorated. I began compiling my questions — a list of itches to be scratched at a later time — and spent the final day of my week at the Brooklyn Public Library, to see what percentage of answers I could find in books. About 17 percent, it turned out...

...alone in my living room, I discovered the only thing about 1994 I truly enjoyed: workout videos. I loved the inane prerecorded affirmations. I loved learning individual dance routine components and putting them all together at full speed...

I left the library to head to dinner with someone I had never met at a place I had never been. On the subway, I realized I had forgotten to bring the notebook where, earlier in the week, I had written the restaurant’s address. I’m used to jotting everything down (typing it in the Notes app on my phone) because I have a terrible memory. I sat up in my seat and considered the situation.

...my mind was dead quiet for the majority of 1994. I wasn’t bored. I was just thinking in a very straightforward way about whatever I happened to be doing at that moment...

Out of this silence, out of some long-since-condemned corner of my hippocampus, the address surfaced...

I pictured my frantic brain. In 2019, it spent its days firing off repeated ALL CAPS bulletins of basic information into a nonstop podcast din. ... Maybe the quiet hadn’t replaced my thoughts. Maybe my thoughts had just relaxed into their natural hushed state. 1994 was the time before the commotion. Or that seemed plausible, anyway. I couldn’t look it up."
Is 1994 Paradise Lost?