21 October 2009

Don't turn the page on the humble book

I’m going to start today’s entry with a little parable. Don’t worry; this will make sense with what’s coming after it.

Euripides rolled up the papyrus scroll and placed it on the table with nearly a dozen others containing the original of Aeschylus, the Greek playwright. The scrolls were among the million or so that made the Library at Alexandria one of the marvels of the modern world. As he rolled up the scroll, he turned to his co-worker, Hypatia.
“You know, this place is great and all, but is it really a smart idea to have all of our ideas in one place?” he asked. “I mean, paper burns, right?”
“Oh, come on,” Hypatia said. “This is Egypt. Nothing’s going to happen to us, or to this library…”

Of course, that proved to be untrue. The library was burned to the ground in 391 AD as part of Christian Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all "pagan" (non-Christian) temples. Now, nearly 2,000 years later, not one of the million scrolls remains. Why? In my opinion, this happened because the Egyptians put all of their eggs in one basket. They thought, as I’m sure we do now, that their information was going to be somehow permanent because of it, but history, as it often does, has other plans.
I was reminded of this while making breakfast this morning, while a host on NPR was discussing how Barnes and Noble, the venerable bookseller (and one of my former employers) was getting into the business of developing their own electronic reading device to compete with Kindle.
The device, called a “Nook,” sounds impressive. According to an article in Wired.com, it can hold digital versions of 1,500 books. The Nook also comes with built-in WiFi, 2GB of internal storage and an MP3 player. If you go by features alone, it beats a book hands-down.
In fact, in a digital age, it makes sense to NOT make books: you have to cut down trees, make the paper, print to pages, bind them, ship them, and finally, hire some snotty kid who just graduated from St. Cloud State with a journalism degree to sell them for $7 an hour. A digital book, on the other hand, exists as the sort of miraculous “ones-and-zeroes” that make our modern lives possible. It’s cleaner – it doesn’t create paper waste, doesn’t involve manufacturing in the traditional sense, and, best of all, it’s sold by computer, not a snotty college kid.
Here’s my worry with this stuff. For now, the humble book is more or less holding its own as the dominant literary format, but the Internet, and devices like the Kindle and Nook, are closing the gap with each passing year. It’s like cell phones were in the 1990s – a luxury item that now, a mere decade later, is a ubiquitous household fixture. I could foresee a future where the book is eventually eclipsed by these sorts of electronic mediums – mediums that require infrastructure, power, constant Microsoft updates, etc.
The ancient Egyptians were probably much like we are: smugly confident that whatever we build will last forever, that nothing will ever happen to the sorts of self-aggrandizing towers we build for ourselves. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, and all it would take to have our own “Library at Alexandria” moment is for a series of solar flares to destroy all that we have worked so hard to create – including the digitally-store knowledge we’ve accumulated along the way. Here’s where books come into their own. Unlike their digital brethren, the only things they require to operate are a decent light source.

I’m not against digital progress. But at the same time, I think humanity needs to temper this desire to relentlessly “improve” everything to death. Our world, and our society, is more fragile than any of us would like to imagine, and if the unthinkable were to happen, I’d like to know that all that we’ve learned along the way would not be lost because we converted it into a format that ceases to exist when the society that created it does.
We shouldn't face the prospect of an intellectual dark age simply because we ran out of battery power.

17 October 2009

A Front Row Seat to "Progress" at 12:26 a.m.

With each concussive blow, the shock wave traveled from the heavy moving equipment working on the Crosstown reconstruction project to my house, shaking the house, and making it impossible to sleep.

That’s right. They were doing this at 12:26 a.m. this morning.

Sleep. Ha.

For the past few weekends, work crews working on the project have been taking down parts of the old freeway infrastructure (as there is a freeway wall in the way, I can never tell which) starting around 10 p.m. Friday nights, and going until the early morning hours. Usually, this is something we can eventually tune out, but last night was the worst yet. I’m not sure what they were doing, but it sounded like a war zone outside.

The jackhammers were the machine guns, the heavy equipment (probably bulldozers) was the tanks, and whatever was hitting the ground and causing my house to shake was the artillery. I’d gone to bed reading a book called “One Soldier’s War,” written by a Russian solider who had fought in Chechnya, and it reminded me of a passage he’d written about being on the front lines in a trench, trying to sleep. I’ll paraphrase: you sleep, but you don’t really sleep.

After 15 minutes of this, my normally-calm wife let loose a torrent of profanity, and went to go look out the front window. Not only were they working, but they lit up the entire scene using four or five of the brightest floodlights I’d ever scene. It was like they were playing night baseball with Cats. I shot some video of the scene, providing my own narration, and went back to bed, or tried to. Somehow, our 10-month-old never woke up.

My wife borrowed my earplugs and eventually went to sleep, and I contented myself, using “One Soldier’s War” as a sort of metaphor: I was behind the front lines, I was warm and safe, and I could deal with the noise. Eventually, I fell asleep.

This project has been going on for more than a few years now, and in that time, we've seen our freeway wall taken down (meaning friends could see our Christmas tree from the freeway, a sort-of nice benefit) and rebuilt, our front street torn up and redone, and have fallen asleep more than once to a symphony of back-up alarms, compacting rollers and the banging gates of dump trucks.

We've had windows crack. We've had things fall off of shelves. We have worried, at times, that our 60-year-old house won't take the strain. Somehow, the old girl always holds together.

There have been times when I've wanted to go out and ask the workers when they'll be done, or if they have any clue how much this activity affects the lives of the people who are closest hit by it. Ultimately, I realize that these workers are mere cogs in a huge machine, and talking to them would be about as effective as sneezing at a dragon. I scheme about recording the noise with the best equipment money can buy, renting a flatbed truck covered in speakers, finding the homes of the heads of the project, and blaring to them, in the middle of the night, just exactly what we fall asleep (or don't) on a regular basis).

"What's that, officer? You say this noise level is criminal? Well, that's exactly the point I'm trying to make!"

It's evil, I admit. But a lack of sleep can do that to people.

I understand the need to fix the infrastructure we use every day, and I understand why they do it at night. But this is our home. We can't go anywhere else. the reconstruction project is something that’s easy to understand during the daylight hours, when you aren’t trying to go to sleep amid utter cacophony. It’s amazing how important things can shrink in comparison when matched against needed sleep.

The best part about this entire experience is that, as in the past, we will no doubt get some form letter from MnDOT on Monday morning, days late and written by someone who lives in a place like Prior Lake and doesn’t fall asleep to construction noise, that we could expect some noise disturbances from night construction Friday night.

I’ll hang on to that letter. I will no doubt use it, in the form of chewed up paper, to make crude earplugs to try and blot out the sounds of “progress.”

15 October 2009

"It was clear to me that Dylan entered the school with the intention of dying there" - Columbine parent breaks silence

In the 1990s, Generation X was spared much of history’s cruelty – the job market (in the latter half of the decade) was booming, there was no draft, no pandemics, and the high point of fashion for the better point of a decade was comfy flannel.
For me, that innocence of that decade shattered April 20, 1999, when two young men killed 11 others before taking their own lives at Columbine High School in Colorado. I watched the event live on CNN, spending nearly five hours in front of a flickering screen that promised death at every angle. The legends started early: the boys did it because of Marilyn Manson, they killed Rachel Scott because she believed in God, they were bullied, etc.) For weeks afterwards, it was hard to talk about anything else. Part of this was the unspoken fear that the person next to you, or even you yourself, could be capable of such an act if pushed too far.
While we heard from plenty of victims and the families, we never heard from the two shooter’s parents. In a way, I don’t blame them. What do you say when your child does something so unspeakable? Are there even words in the English language that can convey the depth of trauma that would likely result in knowing that your progeny was responsible for the deaths of 11 people in the worst mass-shooting at a school in American history (until 2007)?
This week, one of those parents broke her silence. In an interview with O Magazine, Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, wrote that she could not accept Dylan's participation in the massacre until she connected it with his desire to die.
"Once I saw his journals, it was clear to me that Dylan entered the school with the intention of dying there. And so in order to understand what he might have been thinking, I started to learn all I could about suicide."
In a video shot that morning, Dylan and Eric Harris posed in their military-style clothes, and Dylan said goodbye to his mother (transcript found at www.acolumbinesite.com).
Eric: "Say it now."
Dylan: "Hey mom. Gotta go. It's about a half an hour before our little judgment day. I just wanted to apologize to you guys for any crap this might instigate as far as (inaudible) or something. Just know I'm going to a better place. I didn't like life too much and I know I'll be happy wherever the f-ck I go. So I'm gone. Good-bye. Reb..."
Eric: "Yea... Everyone I love, I'm really sorry about all this. I know my mom and dad will be just like.. just f-cking shocked beyond belief. I'm sorry, all right. I can't help it."
Dylan: (interrupts) "We did what we had to do."
Even after the echoes of gunshots and police sirens faded away on the high school campus, the hatred took more lives. Carla Hochhalter, whose 17-year-old daughter was paralyzed in the shootings, shot herself in a gun store while the clerk had his back turned to do a background check. She later died at the hospital.
In a way, I think part of all of us died that day – the part of us that wanted to believe that school was a safe place; the part of us that wanted to believe that evil was something that existed somewhere else; and the part of us that knew, deep in the back of our minds, that it was possible to leave for school one day and never come home.