Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Don't mess with techses?

Everyone's Gone to the Moon, The Only Living Boy in New York-- choose your favorite old song about being left while everybody else is away-- heck, choose I'm So Ronery, the Kim Jong Il puppet's song from Team America, I don't care. Point is, everybody's away. People from school are all either in the States or lying on some Southeast Asian beach during our 4 1/2-week winter break. I've gone to hashes, but between people's vacations and bone-chilling weather, they've been sparsely attended. Kyung's had house guests and spent the New Year with her daughter, so it's been ten days since I've seen her and it'll be four more before I do again.

Even Tug was back in the shop for observation for a bit. Selfish little creep.

So I've had lots of time to reflect. (However, I have not been refractory.) What I've been reflecting about today is tech, what we've lost and what we've gained.

What happens when we're left to our own devices? So to speak.

A packed Seoul subway car is quite a sight: 40 or so people, none talking to anyone else, 35 of them absorbed in their iPads and iPods and iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S's and Android phones. I'm not making fun; when I'm on the subway, I'm probably listening to a podcast or checking my Facebook or Angry Birding, too. (Did it ever occur to you that maybe the Birds are so Angry because they need a giant slingshot to fly?)

The locals' absorption in their tech dovetails with the facts that-- how should I put it politely?-- Koreans have a much narrower conception of personal space than Americans do and many have no sense whatsoever of who's near them. The result? Many near-hits and the occasional near-miss (that is, collision) as they stroll through subway stations and down streets sending texts, playing games, and watching Korean soap operas. (Costco has a sign prohibiting cell phones on the moving sidewalk.) For that matter, a lot of the cab drivers have GPS's that double as TV sets; you're as likely to ride with a TV watcher as a GPSer.

One example of personal tech making us more separate: I remember when I first started coaching cross country in 1999. We'd rent vans once a year, or twice if we advanced to the regional championships, and head over to Gainesville or Tallahassee, seven kids with me driving and seven with my friend and co-coach Brian. We'd talk and joke and laugh and rag about each other's musical taste as we swapped CD's in and out of the player, and we'd build a real team (it might not be too much to say a real family) atmosphere. But within a couple of years, everybody in the van but me, the driver, would be lost in his or her own earbudded world, and from five minutes out of St. Augustine to five minutes before Gainesville, I would in effect be driving alone.

And of course we could all name lots of other examples of how tech separates us from the people we're near, even as it links us to people far away (...he said, sitting a Pacific away from most of his audience.)

The proximate cause of this perhaps-not-entirely-original musing is the fact that I've finally given in to the e-reading wave. I've been resisting out of loyalty to the idea of The Bookstore-- I love a place where you can go and pick up any book, read the blurbs, open a page at random and skim a paragraph or two, and buy a book (even though said book often doesn't look as appealing sitting on the nightstand as it did the moment I decided to pay for it). I love being around people who love books.

Heck, I've owned a bookstore. And worked in a newsstand shop. And at the public library. And, back in Florida, run my school's textbook sale. And I hate to see the bookstore wither away. But it is, just as the newspaper is. And the record store and the abacus and buggy-whip industries did.

Still, I need to read more books, especially as I'm working on my own fiction, and it's a heck of a hassle to have to travel an hour each way to buy one. Also, I've been reading a blog about self-publishing e-books; the author (admittedly one who is experienced and prolific) earns six figures a year without ever paying a publisher or an agent. And on an e-reader, you can download entire out-of-copyright books and sample virtually any book for free, as well as checking out books from libraries. (Yeah, not sure yet how that works.)

The Mom's English Club, which I emcee on Thursday evenings at school, was reading Because of Winn-Dixie when I took the club over with four hours' notice. There wasn't a spare copy to be had in the Republic of Korea; I downloaded it onto my Android phone for three bucks. A hashing friend, who came back to Seoul to cover Kim Jong Il's death, showed me her Kindle and I was impressed, but she told me it was her second device and she liked her Nook better. On my phone, I read Tom Sawyer and I'm in the middle of Connecticut Yankee and sampling the first chapter of Stephen King's 11/22/63. All for free.

The prices have come way down on the infernal contraptions, and I've finally given in; frankly, reading a novel on a phone is less than ideal-- you have to hold it close to your face and turn the page every five seconds. So I asked my friend and colleague Bob to pick me up the low-end Nook at Barnes and Noble while he's in the States this month. (The import fees and shipping on American goods are prohibitive.)

Why a Nook and not a Kindle? Well, the reviews are slightly better for the Nook; I'd have to have Amazon ship a Kindle to somebody in the States from whom Bob could pick it up; Amazon is evil (it's a terrible employer and is engaging in Walmartian levels of undercutting brick-and-mortar stores); and I'd rather support a real bookstore chain, even one that's driven googols of little stores out of business, than a place whose entire physical presence is the warehouse we last saw at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Apparently the Nook is keeping Barnes and Noble from Bordering on bankruptcy.

I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my little darling in two weeks or so. It already has a pet name... I was considering calling it Da Nook of the North, but that's too much of a stretch even for me. So I'm calling it Nookie.

Don't you judge me.

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