Bother me less (or: I don't want your notification's nose under my attention tent)

Photo of electric bell

The Apple Watch seems to be inspiring a lot of uninspired thinking. Things like all the news that fits on the wrist. I for one cannot imagine why I would spend hundreds of dollars so a device can annoy me with yet more notifications. I certainly don’t need to have my work/flow/conversation/meeting/meditation/relaxation interrupted with news about people I don’t know in places I’m not. That crap can wait until I’m ready to lean back and browse the headlines. That’s what Feedly and Flipboard are for. I see articles of other app developers eagerly working to get out their own Watch versions and/or extensions of their apps.

That’s great! But … no thanks.

I don’t want more, streamlined, easy-to-access notifications. I don’t want yet more interruptions to pull me out of what I’m doing.

I want fewer notifications.

Right now, I have basically two levels of stuff being pushed at me every day: the most important stuff that I always want to know about asap (e.g., phone calls from my family); and the rest of the stuff, which on any given day might include things which I may be interested in seeing right away, but not always (e.g., an email from a long-lost friend, a call from someone I’m meeting tomorrow, a text from an acquaintance with whom I chat asynchronously, a server alert requiring attention), intermixed with the general crap I’m inundated with all the time (e.g., outsourcing spammers, newsletters I find myself magically subscribed to, newsletters I actually subscribed to, professional listservs, non-urgent business emails that may or may not require any response, Kickstarter updates, email from developers of apps I’ve downloaded over the past several years, non-urgent server notifications from my own sites, server alerts of all kinds for clients I had eight years ago, political action emails of all stripes, and so on — all of which arrive with the rhetorical fanfare of OMG YOU WANT TO READ THIS NOW!!!).

I’d love to be able to have multiple levels of urgency smartly applied to the things that interrupt me. The phone, with its dozens of apps, each with their own arcane notification settings, does not offer that. The system is too dumb, as in limited by the simplest of algorithms. Same with email rules.

Maybe, just maybe, something like the Apple Watch can allow me to set up yet another level of urgency filtering, so that I can leave the iPhone in the drawer, thus enabling it to leave me alone and bother me less. That makes me hopeful, and is the #1 reason I’m interested in the Apple Watch. Maybe I hope for too much. But there must be an improvement upon the Monolith of Distraction.

[Image: "DoorBell 001" by HNH - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.]

Building a better superego

Punishment in 18th century Bristol by John Latimer

’Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, a tradition floated by best hopes and intentions for the future … and grounded by the reality that most will fade long before Summer Solstice, some forgotten by the first day of February.

The problem with resolutions is that they are, for the most part, structured as demands upon ourselves. We look at our shortcomings and shake our heads. Dissatisfied with our unworthy ways, we try to parent ourselves into doing better.

And so we make lists, and read listicles, and download apps, and sign up for seminars, and buy books — somehow convincing ourselves that this time things will be different, this time you won’t let yourself fall off the bridge to success.

It doesn’t help that there’s an entire industry of task management apps, books, workbooks, videos, seminars, retreats that all focus on constructing a better way to parent ourselves.

The problem, however, is that so many of these approaches focus on scolding ourselves into achieving, and their answer with all of these systems is that somehow we can engineer the building of a better, more effective, more powerful superego, and that super-ego will parent us into success. Here’s how it works:

The developing superego absorbs the traditions of the family and the surrounding society and serves to control aggressive or other socially unacceptable impulses. Violation of the superego’s standards results in feelings of guilt or anxiety and a need to atone for one’s actions. The superego continues to develop into young adulthood as a person encounters other admired role models and copes with the rules and regulations of the larger society.

In other words, according to Freudian psychology, the super-ego — the ‘over-I’ — is the voice that scolds oneself for doing poorly, that triggers guilt over things done or not done, usually by the id — the ‘it’. When you cheat on your diet and feel guilty, that’s your superego at work. When you get depressed because you sat around drinking coffee instead of getting up on that treadmill to exercise, that’s your superego at work. When you flog yourself emotionally when you see in March that your savings account is not nearly as flush as you had intended in your New Year’s resolutions, that’s your superego at work. Desk not cleared, inbox not zero, fruit in the fridge not eaten, thank you’s not sent — all occasions for self-pillorying.

If superego had an IPO, it would instantly become the biggest company in the world.

The thing is: it doesn’t work.

At least it doesn’t for me.

I don’t believe I’m atypical in spending most of my free time doing things I enjoy rather than things I’ve decided in the past I should do (for my own good). We all do it. Why? Because we’re human, because we’re animals, because we want to be happy and we end up doing things to achieve that. The only problem with that is that we often do the wrong things, and therefore end up not meeting our needs. We eat ice cream to find a modicum of joy, only to hinder our goal of losing weight. We go to Facebook to find connection with others, only to hinder our productivity and perhaps reduce our wherewithal to enjoy even stronger connections with others in person.

And when we see ourselves doing this, we scold ourselves. “Bad you! Bad bad you! Don’t do that!” And duly chastened, we parent ourselves into behaving better. And yet the next week or next hour we find ourselves doing it all yet again.

In Dharma practice, the super-ego is something that usually brings nothing but anguish. Simply wishing things to be other than they are only brings anguish. And until you can let go of that anguish, you’re trapped in this self-flogging cycle, unable to see clearly, and thus unable to effect the change you yearn for.

Home on Lagrange

I first came across Lagrangian Points many years ago in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel A Fall of Moondust. It boggled my young mind, picturing satellites orbiting in seemingly static positions around the Moon! Of course, in fact they were orbiting Earth and the Moon, affected by and in balance with both gravitational sources. (This is what the best science fiction does: explore scientific concepts, even in passing, within a fictional story.)

This morning, while researching for a project I’m working on, I found myself returning to Lagrangian Points, a phenomenon beautiful in its simplicity.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines Lagrangian Point as:

Any of five points in the orbital plane of two bodies, one of which is much larger than the other, at which a third, even smaller body will remain in gravitational equilibrium. Bodies located at Lagrangian points appear stationary with respect to the larger two bodies.

But that doesn’t really capture the magic.

The Australian Space Academy describes it as:

For any two massive bodies rotating about their centre of mass there exist five ‘stationary’ points where the force on a third small body is zero (in the rotating reference frame).

As my physics teacher would always say, “When it doubt, draw a picture!”

Lagrange points2

But a picture is static, and can capture only so much of something that moves. I found this video animation that I think beautifully illustrates how these Lagrangian Points are stable in motion (if that makes sense). At about 1:05 the animation trails the paths taken by the objects at the Lagrangian Points.

Then there’s this A/V lecture explaining the concept.

And if you really want to get into the nitty gritty, there’s this MIT lecture by J. Kim Vandiver on the physics behind it. (Hello, math, my old friend. Where’ve you been? I hardly know ya.)

In this age, when we’re constantly discovering things we’ve never seen, theorizing things that had never occurred to us, and realizing how much we don’t understand about the universe — a marvelous time — it’s oddly comforting to take in the simple beauty of the Newtonian physics behind these five points of equilibrium.

Digital: ephemeral

Zathras die

What happens to this blog when I die, when I no longer pay the monthly bill? What happens to my emails when my card no longer covers the autopay on the account? What happens to the gigabytes of archives I have tucked away on Dropbox when the account is not renewed? Unless I provide for their continued maintenance in my will—assuming I have any estate that outlives me—they will go away, gone forever.

Even the free services—GMail, Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter—could just quietly drop the accounts after we pass on. There's obviously a business there: curation of our collective individual histories. But so far, companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter want no part of it.

This isn't just about sentimentality or attachment to our intangible cultural legacy. What about digital assets with real value—music we create, videos we produce, books we write? Copyright protects us (somewhat) from piracy, but not for preservation. As we ourselves become worm food, our digital tracks, so much a part of our lives, disappear into the ether.

Over the centuries, so much of our human legacy written on perishable hides, papyrus, paper, even stone has been lost to the ages. Even in the past 100 years, how many books have gone out of print and disappeared forever? How many hundreds of movies disintegrated or burned in studio vaults—or were never archived at all once the initial film prints were shipped to theatres?

We're smarter about these things now, but have we arrived at an actual solution yet? We like to think digital is forever, but if the account is closed, the service is shuttered, or the provider just doesn't want to have to deal with the ex-you at all, that timeless legacy is suddenly lost, likely never to be found again. And digital files you have saved locally will require a device to interpret them. Heck, they need to survive long enough on the medium on which they're stored! When you can’t just pick up and read a document (a story, a journal, an essay, a letter to a loved one), listen to a recording, or watch a home video — when you need some kind of device with the proper hardware to read the medium and proper software to interpret the files, and those things aren’t handy, how forever is that content?

I've been writing over thirty years. I have short stories, screenplays, miscellaneous documents saved to 3.5" floppy drives—some even on 5.25" floppies. A few of these documents are in a Wordperfect 3 format, others in a screenwriting format created by a vendor long since gone. Lord knows if these ancient discs are even still readable! I don't even have a machine that can read floppies. I wrote my college thesis on a mainframe computer (with inline formatting not much unlike hand-coded html), but I never received a digital file because I didn't have a mainframe computer with which to interpret it—or even a PC to read the disc, or tape. Everything I did in grad school, and since then, has been on computer, but through machine deprecation, floppy disc backups, software obsolescence, scratched and disintegrating CD backups, hell if I can get at most of it. Video work was on now-deprecated formats requiring what are now ancient machines just to play—and that is if the tapes haven't flaked off their magnetic coating, or simply degaussed over the years. Film work was no more hardy, with answer prints saved on celluloid—with low-quality optical audio, the mix masters lost to the ages. My first blog was on Geocities, now gone. All the personal and business websites I created from 1995 to 2003 are long gone as well.

So what are my most persistent records of my old work? Paper notes, paper journals, paper printouts.

So which is the archive medium, ultimately?

Mahlerficent occasion

MahlerFest 2014 orchestra


Last night, on impulse from a friend’s suggestion, I had the immense pleasure of attending the main concert for this year’s MalherFest. Historically I haven’t been the biggest Mahler aficionado, but last night did about all that’s possible to make me a convert.

The orchestra itself, comprised of mostly local musicians with a few flying in from around the country, was quite wonderful.

When I lived in Chicago, I went several times to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When I lived in New York, I heard the NY Philharmonic and many other concerts at Carnegie Hall. (Shura Cherkassky’s birthday concert stands out as an especially fun experience.) When I lived in LA, I went several times a year to the LA Philharmonic.

And yet since I moved to Colorado, I’ve heard precious little live classical music. And yet it’s obviously all around us. I’m really going to have to get out more.

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