Balanced on the Bleeding Edge
What is this edge on which we are balanced?
WYLE E. COYOTE
Is it like a cliff edge? Run run run, the ground is clear, the obstacles few, until, whoops! The edge! Stop suddenly. Arms whirling. OR. Worse. Run just a bit too far, like Wyle E. Coyote, realizing there is no ground below and plummet to the earth.
What is the clear ground in technology?
Books are pretty familiar. And telephones. Television. These are all comfortable technologies, are they not? I know them well, I know how they work.
Run run run, life is good.
Whoa! What’s the edge?
Television leaves the tube behind. For some it may be this flatland of HDTV. Our TV stopped working properly years ago. Before it did, we got one of the early digital video recorders. I got one that was built on Linux and allowed me to outright skip the commercials, it was called ReplayTV. That skipping commercials idea got them sued. But really, Tivo won the race and took over the TV world. So maybe I ran a bit past the edge on that one, but I learned a lot on my fall to earth. I learned that TV without commercials was shorter, an hour could fit into 45 minutes, a half hour only took 20. I learned that I liked watching a few episodes of my favorite shows at once, that I liked watching shows _after_ the kids were in bed, rather than while we were settling down. My ReplayTV also allowed me to do something that Tivo took years to imitate: I could move shows from the DVR to my computer. I learned that I really most liked watching my shows in bed at night, kind of the way I read books. All this on the way down to earth. It didn’t hurt too badly, Wyle E. Coyote always seemed to walk away little the worse for wear. My ReplayTV still works today (though it won’t do much after June).
Our TV, in fact, broke a few years back, no channel changing, no sound. We never replaced it. My son still uses it for video games and ReplayTV (we’ve hooked up little speakers). Now TV is all Hulu and DVDs for me. Well, that and a bit of theft, I’ll get back to that.
What about telephones? We are all pretty familiar with the landline to our homes, and now with cell phones in our pockets. But I’m pretty finicky. When I left the U I was bummed about having to advertise a new work number. I went dropped my expensive cell plan, but that forced a new number on me as well. Our home number didn’t change, but that was a number I didn’t want to change. Plus I was off to Austria for a year. It turns out a phone number is not what it used to be. I can set up a phone number here in Saint Paul to ring my grandmother’s phone in Austria. You won’t even know I’m there. Or use Skype to take the call on my computer wherever I am.
Better yet, I found I could get a number that would ring any other set of phones (home phone, cell phone, wife’s cell phone, my mom’s house) whenever a call came in. Now called Google Voice, this service lets me hand out one number to family, friends, and work colleagues alike. If I get a new desk job, my number won’t have to change. If I move to a new home, everyone can still reach me on the old number. My messages get transcribed into (goofy) text and emailed to me. My voicemail sits on the web for me to pick up and listen to. I can call any number in the USA through this service and pay nothing for long distance. I can call most numbers around the world for two cents a minute. What does it cost? Nada. Downside? The service went down for a day once. Sometimes one phone or another does not ring properly. Sometimes an outbound call is not completed. Upside? I can borrow and share cell phones at home, it hardly matters which phone I actually carry or use.
Ironically, books are still hard for me to read in any way other than paper. I love the texture of books on a bookshelf. They are my wallpaper. My insulation. Still, I hate the tight gutter on paperbacks, I have to work to keep that book open, it’s hard to read it while I eat cereal. So I’ve sought alternatives. Reading on laptops. Reading on Palm Pilots.
The Kindle is a big deal these days, but I find it hard to justify paying $300 for the privilege of paying $10 per book when I usually buy paperbacks. But recently I found an application for the iPhone that turned out to be a whole lot of fun. Stanza was easy to populate with content (simple purchasing interface built in), easy to read (tap tap), and fun to use (dogears!). Upside? My pocket feels very big when I have a whole library in it, my eyes appreciate the attention to font size. Downside? While the iPhone is at least a multipurpose device, it still costs $300 and comes with a monthly fee. Luckily Stanza will work with the iPod touch. Unluckily (I think), it has just been bought by Amazon.
Run run run, to the edge of what is comfortable, and sometimes beyond. I have to consider costs and the joy these technologies bring me, but the only way to do that is to explore a bit beyond that edge, peer over, sometimes, like with ReplayTV, fall off.
DEPRESSION and DESTRUCTION
That’s one kind of balancing on an edge. Here’s another.
I’m walking a balance beam. One side is a sticky trap of a life I know but am unsatisfied with. The other side is dark, and calls me to some actions that make me question the me I think I know. I try to find that boundary between depression and destruction, and walk it gently, trying not to judge myself too harshly for mistakes I may make along the way, for those times I fall off the beam in either direction.
Chores of the checkbook, uncertainty of the invisible. I had used Quicken for decades (really!) but found I never got around to certain things, like importing credit card data or building a budget. Too much of my financial life lived outside Quicken. Depressing.
During my latest bout of frustration with the quality of my knowledge of my own finances, I discovered something new: Mint.com.
Overseeing my domain, giving away the keys to the kingdom.
How much to I risk my own destruction giving away such data?
I love DVDs. They are digital data. Back in the VHS and Laserdisc days I refused to buy any movies because the data was too inaccessible. But DVD promised digital fidelity, small package, and high quality. Wow. We now own over 300 movies, granted, a bit overboard.
Still, they turned out to have a darksise. Scratched disks, yelling at kids, coordinating schedules to watch those we rented. Depressing.
About 18 months ago I decided I would experiment with ripping DVDs. Remember DeCSS? The secret key that unlocks DVDs? DMCA makes it illegal to distribute, it’s a good thing I don’t have slides here or you would all see it and I’d be a criminal for showing it. These days it is built in to all sorts of tools. Take Handbreak, multiplatform, multiformat. Everything on a hard disk. Upside? Backup, easier viewing on planes and travelling, viewing on iPhone, clips for classes. Downside? Being a criminal!
Even worse, I open the case for season two of the West Wing, you know, the one that starts after the cliffhanger where President Bartlett, his aid, and his daughter were in the middle of an assassination attempt? We own all of The West Wing, but this disc is missing. Really depressing. I don’t even have it to rip!
Mininova, bittorrent, and the missing episodes.
This all started with CD’s and MP3. Now torrent the Beatles.
How much do I risk my own destruction participating in this black market?
Isolation of the consultant, life of few friends.
Contact with some of you (Heather and Jerilyn’s life with kidlets, Lara’s singing) that I never even had when I worked with you, communication with family and friends well beyond what I’ve had for many years. At what cost to privacy, to saying no to some would-be-friends, of exposure of my own foibles.
Worse yet, do I risk the destruction of real-world friendships?
My best friend back in Cleveland is a high school friend, Denis. I have always made it a practice to see Denis face to face whenever I got back to town. Last fall I convinced him to join Facebook, so he and I could keep in touch more effectively in between those times. It is great having a little thread of Denis through my life even at a distance. And then some of my other high school crowd found me, and I’m in touch with some folks I’d not thought of for many years. Cool!
Except when I had a chance to visit Cleveland four time in six weeks this spring, I never caught Denis face to face at all. Is some of the motivation taken out of my sail by the electronic contact? What do I lose in this exchange?
YouTube and ThruYOU.
The world is getting shorter and sharer. Mini and mobile.
Choosing who I am day by day. What law I respect, what secrets I share.
Choosing to enjoy the balance, to allow for the inevitable falls. To embrace the travelers I meet on the road.
To me it feels like play, this bleeding edge. I know it is risky. Sometimes it is hard to take another leap into the unknown. Changing my ways risks changing me, some wariness is warranted.