Tuesday, November 25, 2008

It's the network

I'm worried about the Internet. I'm starting to wonder what effect it's having on us as a global society. That is to say, the Internet seems to have made us into a global community, but is that a good thing or not?

I still remember after all these years that night I managed to hear Timothy Leary talking about the great wonder that the World Wide Web would be, and how it would allow us to all come together and communicate in a new and better way. There's a certain sense in which I think this is true. The Web has continued in the decade and a half it's been in existence to make great strides forward in increasing the ways we can interact. I wonder...does increasing the ways of and opportunities for interaction with other people actually increase the quality of that interaction?

There was a phenomenon that I noticed about the very portions of the Internet that are designed for ease of interaction. I'm sure I'm not the first one to notice and comment on this by far, but in the Internet age, we've redefined the word "friend". I think the thing that I'd seen that did it for me was a short article in the newspaper sometime very early in the election cycle. The article informed me that certain candidates had such-and-such thousands of "friends" on their MySpace pages, and that if the number of "friends" a person had was an indication of their likelihood of winning, then so-and-so surely had the election in the bag.

Thousands of friends? I suddenly realized the silliness of it. Nobody has thousands of friends, but there are probably many who have thousands of "friends". Professional and amateur philosophers have discussed throughout time what friendship means, and how deeply one needs to care about another before they can be considered a friend. How deeply do I need to care about someone to call them a "friend"? Enough to click a button next to their name on my computer to add them to a list.

Actually, you don't need to care that much; I'm sure all these politicians who collected thousands of "friends" on their MySpace pages didn't even actually take the time to even click buttons, but simply had a staffer set up a page, and told them to click on anyone who indicated interest in becoming "friends". Heh, I did that once. In eighth grade, when I got my yearbook and it was time to go around to friends and have them write "Your a grate friend. Have a cool summer." I actually hired a seventh grader to circulate my yearbook for me. It was a sort of social experiment. I told him I'd give him a penny for every signature he collected, and I probably got the signature of three-quarters of the school (which lucky for me was a small school). How many actual friends did I have though? Probably about half a dozen, and I made no new friends in the process, not even the kid who did the legwork for me, whom I chose at random. The truth is, I didn't regret not having as many friends as I had signatures. The few friends I had were great guys, and really, who could sustain relationships with a couple hundred kids?

There really is an inverse relationship between quantity and quality when it comes to interpersonal relationships. I'm not a member of any social networking sites, but I do have a free account on Classmates.com, a site that really illustrates this concept best to me. I went to a small-town high school, and so when I look up my Classmates links for my high school graduating class, there are around fifty people, and at one point, I knew them all. Conversely, when I look at the graduating class for my college, there are several hundred people, and I don't know a single one of them.

It's interesting to me that I did go to a small enough school that I knew my entire graduating class. I went to high school long enough ago that the World Wide Web wasn't even a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee's eye yet, and while the Internet and e-mail were beginning to show some prominence, I'd never heard of either one.

Now, I'm not saying that it's impossible to have real friends on the Web; I have a small handful of people that I know only from online interaction, yet consider them my friends. (Heck, if Steve Wells were in my neighborhood and called me up, I feel close enough I'd invite him out for a coffee, even though to call him a friend would probably be a stretch.) Yet consider, if I'd had access to the Internet during my high school years, and I'd occasioned to spend as much time using it as I do today, would I have had the time to make as many "IRL" friends as I did?

There's something really cool and culturally powerful about being able to reach out and make contacts with people from across the world. Sitting on the floor of my living room in California and chatting with some guy from Finland is incredible, but am I really likely to make anything like the sort of connection I will make from talking face to face with a family member?

This is why I worry. In many aspects the dreams of the two Tims are alive and well: the ability to communicate globally with just about anyone at any time opens us up to culture in a way that was never possible before, but we have to pay for the opportunity with the valuable resource of time. We have to choose between the world at large and the world "at small" if you will. When the Internet is sometimes the thing you end up with more time to devote to, there can be a sadness to it. At least, I know there is for me. As the economy globalizes and the information we deal in globalizes, people become much more mobile and physically disconnected. Marauder seems to be one of my closest friends these days, yet he lives on the opposite side of the country in a state I've never even visited. He's a great guy, but what sort of friendship can that really be? When all of your close friends live hundreds of miles away, it's hard for them to feel "close". Through the Internet, I can communicate with all my friends every day, but still feel profoundly lonely, as I wonder whether, without physical proximity, they may just be "friends".

Monday, November 10, 2008

More is less?

I bring it up for a quick comment more as a matter of my penchant for ironic statements rather than strong disagreement (although I do disagree). Anna Quindlen writes a column this week in which she states, concerning Obama's election:

"It is impossible to overstate what that means to this nation."
Uh, Ms. Quindlen? I believe you just did.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Minute in G

On a very different note, what is it with the letter G?

Seriously. I've always been interested in typefaces, and it's fascinating to me that there are some serious differences from one font to another, and yet at the same time, there's a great deal of similarity overall in the way each individual letter is displayed across all typefaces. Think, for instance, about the vanilla simplicity of the letter O. Some fonts display an O with uniform thickness all the way around, while some show it slightly larger on the sides; some show it as an elliptical shape, while some are sort of a rounded-off rectangle. Despite these variations, pretty much every font shows an O as essentially a circle, for that is, at heart, what it is.

Similarly, other letters have an easy-to-define shape: The X is two diagonal lines crossing one another in the middle. The T is a vertical line with a horizontal crossbar that meets at the top in a capital and slightly above the center in lower-case form. The J is a vertical line with a tail at bottom curving left. Anyone care to define what a G looks like?

You might be tempted to say it's simple, as most people have who I have accosted with this most unusual subject on the odd occasion. (Ususally they look at me like I'm crazy and say, "Uh, it looks like a G; what do you mean?") If pressed, they draw a G, and it usually looks like this:Fair enough, it seems straightforward. If you had a good description of the lower-case O and J, you might use them and say it looks like an O stuck to a J, because it does. The real problem with the letter G is not that it's difficult to give an example of one in form, but that any example you give is likely to have little in common with other examples.

Case in point, most typefaces don't use that form of the letter G, they use something more like this: What is that thing? Where did it come from? Something that I also tend to think about when I happen to be thinking about letters and their shapes is that there is a sort of overall feel for the way letters look throughout the Latin alphabet. Someone who didn't know our alphabet looked at a collection of randomly-selected Latin letters with, say, a Hebrew letter thrown in, they'd probably be able to pick the odd one out. Conversely, some of the letters of the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets look like they could blend right in among Latin characters, like the Gamma (Γ), Lambda (Λ), Be (Б) or Ya (Я). If there is one letter that actually belongs in the Latin alphabet, but you might accidentally think it doesn't, it's got to be that lower-case-g-thing.

But that's just the beginning, because one might be tempted (as I had once been, being a long time obsessive over typography) to try and define two types of lower-case Gs. You might think, well, one's for serif typefaces, and the other's for sans-serif, right? If only it were so. Call the one that looks like an O stuck to a J a g-type-1 and the one that looks like a deformed pair of glasses a g-type-2. Now start looking at fonts and comparing Gs. My laptop has about 120 fonts on it, 35 sans-serif with type-1, 17 sans-serif with type-2, 3 serif with type-1 and 30 serif with type-2. (The rest are capitals-only or stylized special display fonts.) This implies that there's definitely a trend towards correlation of font type to lower-case G type, but it's far from a hard-and-fast rule.

Furthermore, the distinction between types is blurred and the characteristics of types are not often typical of all instances. The type-1 Gs have, as stated, a lower portion that resembles a J, but to what extent? The tail often curls up at the end, but not always. Sometimes it curls up so much that it loops back on itself!You'd think that the lower loop of a type-2 would always be closed, until you saw one that wasn't.While type-2 Gs exist in sans-serif fonts, that little serif-looking topnotch is always present, while the topnotch on a type-1 seems to be optional. With all these strange variants, eventually you come across lower-case Gs that don't easily lend themselves to classification.Now another funny thing about G is the fact that the capital G doesn't look much like the lower-case G, unlike some letters, but even the capital is difficult to pin down in form. If anything the only unifying theme I can think of for capital Gs is that they're like capital Cs with character. The differences between different sorts of upper-case Gs are more subtle than lower-case, but they exist.

Note that the Gs in the top row all have tails at the lower-right, the Gs in the center row have a corner at the lower-right, and the bottom-row Gs have no feature on the lower-right to distinguish them from a C, but all are recognizeable as Gs. The three columns also each have something in common, but I'll leave it to the astute observer who actually bothered to read this far to determine that for themselves.

I seriously can't get over this wacky letter, believe it or not.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Barack Obama for President in '09

I've got some news for you, and you may be shocked. You see, Barack Obama's our President.

No, really.

I'm not sure whether you heard it or not, since it was hard to make it out over all the shouts and sounds of celebration. It may have been an election of epic proportions, as it seems a large portion of the population would be gathering along Pennsylvania Avenue to spread palm branches in his path as he rode to his inauguration on a donkey's colt. Meanwhile, in other locations, there would be a weeping and gnashing of teeth as people stood by to witness the abomination of desolation.

See, this is exactly the sort of thing that's been bothering me for so long, and I'm afraid it's not going to stop now that the election's over. It's been so long since we had a "normal" election, that I think we forgot what it was like. John McCain's concession speech was quite moving and humble, but a speech like that should be the norm. Politicians like McCain and Obama must live in the eye of the storm, where there is calm enough that they can actually graciously bow out of a race or accept victory. How many people were surprised and disappointed when John Kerry conceded after only a day of waiting, rather than fighting it out over weeks like we did in 2000? In the age we live in of electronic counting of votes, there should rarely be a reason that elections take more than 24 hours. This Election Day went satisfyingly smoothly, like that refreshing beer that most people would probably enjoy sharing with their candidate, but not the other. (Side note for those who still think Barack Obama is a Muslim: I thought he should have dispelled rumors by being photographed eating pork, but he was photographed drinking alcohol, which wasn't enough for some. No matter.)

I myself would probably enjoy sharing a beer with either candidate, or even President Bush, despite our differences in politics. Maybe that's my problem; that I don't try and divide people into who I'd enjoy being around and who I wouldn't. I've commented many times before actually that while I strongly despise what Osama bin Laden stands for, I suspect he's rather friendly and personable on a one-on-one basis, since he's only human. All of these people are only human. They're just people. To quote from C.S. Lewis' Prince Caspian:

"You come from Lord Adam and Lady Eve," said Aslan. "And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content."
Whether you believe in the story of Adam and Eve, whether or not you're of any particular religious persuasion, I think this is a deep truth, and one we need to apply to all of our leaders, as well as our aspiring leaders. We're all just human beings.

There's a lot of talk about the fact that Obama is now our first black President, and what an historic moment it is. This is definitely true, but I think there's something to be said about it after we savor the moment as simply a moment. A pundit on television election night made an interesting observation as he was talking with an elderly black gentleman who had been involved with the struggles for racial equality in the '50s and '60s. I don't remember his exact words, and not being connected to the Internet as I write this, I can't look them up, but he said something like, "The really great thing about this transition point in history is that unlike similar transitions in the past, there was not so much of a struggle, but simply an acceptance of it. This was the act of approval by the whole country." Yes, unlike the desegregation of our schools, our places of business, and our professional sports, which largely had to be forced, the desegregation of that exclusive 44-member club came about with about as much conflict as any other inauguration (although the actual inauguration is still two months to come).

Really, this should be no surprise on at least one level. Sure, if you want to make sure there are people of certain races in the local school, you can endeavor to force them to go there, and force those who don't want them there to accept them, albeit begrudgingly. It is, however, the nature of a democratically-elected office that you can't force this one, so of course it happened peacefully. There may indeed have been people who voted for Obama because he's black, but I doubt the number that voted for him specifically for that reason was high. Speaking for myself, I would never vote for Al Sharpton, nor would I vote for Clarence Thomas (were he to run), but it has nothing to do with their race and everything to do with their politics. It's simply the case that given the current political climate, Obama was more palatable than McCain to a majority of voters.

In some ways, it's this matter-of-fact-ness that I see as the reason we have to let this moment pass. Yes, it's a great day in our history, but it still has potential to be a dismal four years. Obama is still just another politician; I have high hopes for his term in office, but like everyone who has gone before, he will disappoint us. Not all the time; hopefully not even much of the time; but certainly some of the time.

See, that feeling so many of us feel that is seen as a moment of triumph has great potential to become a moment of sorrow. Every time we look at Obama and say, "Look at how great our President is doing...and he's black!" we give an open invitation for his detractors to say at other times "Look at how terrible our President is doing...and he's black!" Is that what we want?

I'll mention Asimov's biography again, as I've been doing ever since I read it. A Jewish friend once came to Asimov (who is likewise from a Jewish background) and said, "I'm really proud that an inordinately large number of Nobel laureates are Jewish!" Asimov replied, "Did you know that an inordinately large number of pornographic film producers and directors are Jewish?" The man was stunned. "Is that true?" he asked. Asimov replied, "I made it up, but it could be true. How would you feel if it was?"

The point here is, if you're going to take everything Obama does in his life and put it in the mental sorting bin of "African-American achievements", then you're going to have to put his failures there, too, and he will have them. George W. Bush has left behind more than a few messes to clean up that simply won't be pretty no matter what the resolution. In inheriting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, history will put part of the blame for the aftermath of those wars on Obama's shoulders. Do you think a really happy ending is likely there? Do you think it's unthinkable that yet another war might begin while Obama is in office? Contrary to the beliefs of some (and such beliefs I find offensive, even as a Democrat who is no fan of the Bush presidency), the 9/11 attacks were on our country as a whole, not on any particular administration. If al-Qaeda strikes again in the next four years, don't think Obama will fail to respond with some sort of military action.

But I'm getting off track. I think Obama is going to be a good President, maybe the best we've had since Kennedy, but we really can't know how things will turn out, can we? As a T-shirt slogan I saw on the Internet said in reference to Obama, "Dare to hope. Prepare to be disappointed." I think it was referring to the election, but really, we should have an attitude like that about the next four years.

Barack Obama is just another President, and compared to some people it makes me a pessimist (compared to many others, it makes me an optimist, of course) to believe that the next four years will just be a fairly run-of-the-mill time period. But think about it, all you Obama true believers and hopers: in comparison to the last eight years, wouldn't "run-of-the-mill" be a great improvement? I, for one, welcome it.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day:An open letter to God

Dear God,

This is election day.

I already voted via mail, and I prayed that I would make the right decisions concerning my vote. I prayed that I would vote according to Your will, and that I would have a clear conscience about it, whatever Your will might be. I also know that You love us and care about what we feel, and I want to ask You for your grace and mercy on this, democracy's Holy Day.

Lord, I don't know who You want to hold office, but I do know that whoever does, they will have been put there by Your will. I pray that I and my fellow Christians would not cease to pray for the well-being of our next President, no matter who he (or she) might be, no matter their political affiliations or personal beliefs, no matter how close this election gets. I pray that the new President would be kept in good health, would be protected form harm, and would be focussed on doing the best he can to lead our country towards a brighter future.

I know that we as a country are in the middle of two wars which have stretched longer than most people thought, and I pray that you would bring resolution to these conflicts. I pray, not that peace would reign on earth, because I know that will never come before You do, but that the wars that we do fight will be fought for justice and righteousness, not for greed or hate, and that they would be resolved with minimal bloodshed.

Lord, I pray for our economy. I do not pray for easy answers and a speedy recovery, but for the people of the world who have lived in prosperity to experience enough struggle that they see money in itself is not the answer to their problems. I pray that people would turn to You in their troubles, and find the grace they truly need for their souls, not their wallets.

I pray for my children, and for all the children of the world. I pray that their parents and grandparents will make choices that will leave them a world where they can live in freedom and peace, and that we would manage to set a better example for them than we have, both politically and spiritually. Let us all realize that while we hope and vote for a government that will solve the problems of the world, in the end, it is us as individuals who have the power to shape it and do what's right, and no government can fix the problems of a people who choose to live with selfishness in their hearts.

That is why most of all, I pray for me, Lord. Shape me into the man that You would have me be. Let me be everything my family and community needs of me. Let me look on others, whether they be family and friends or strangers, with compassion. Let me listen for Your voice guiding my path in Your ways, so that I can be an agent of love, not hate.

Lord, I thank You for the gift of prayer, that You, King of the universe, would allow us to talk to You, and hear our prayers. I offer up this prayer in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ.