I've been busy lately, moving in with the inlaws in preparation of a new baby and readying my study for writing my dissertation, hence my fewer than usual updates. I've been doing some reading lately, namely some Gore Vidal and a really great book by Chalmers Johnson entitled Blowback that details all sorts of disappointing ways that the United States is desecrating its bed that we all have to sleep in.
But as relevant as all that is, I have to defer this entry to a very good friend of mine that I respect and admire. A few years ago he, apparently on a whim, quit his job installing cabinets and took a job as a utility pole inpector. Lest these professions mislead you about his intellectual merit, he qualified for Jeopardy (but unfortunately wasn't among the pool of qualifiers chosen for the show). He is the smartest, funniest, wisest, and kindest guy I know.
His pole inspector job sent him to Salt Lake City, Utah, for about 2 years. He recently quit that job and bicycled back to Idaho. He always has great adventures and this is no exception. As a public service, he posted a travel log of his trip at his site PB92. Even if my introduction or description of his trip doesn't sound attractive, take a minute to surf over and check out his travelog. It's a pretty good read.
While I'm raping Suckful's Spacedog Sparky's links, I might as well link to this story about a pack of feral Chihuahuas. I'd quote bits of the article to entice you to read it, but it's all so good you just need to read it yourself.
I say the best solution is to lock them in an arena and train a webcam on them, then set up a paysite that lets people watch them tear each other apart. Even better, put them on an island and let the chips fall where they may. You could take bets on which one ends up living. It could be like Lord of the Flies 2: Chihuahua Boogaloo. I wonder if they'd break into factions with head honcho Chihuahuas that organized raids on each other.
When my wife and I went to Hawaii a couple years ago, we went hiking in one of the inner island rainforests. It was a pretty hike, but there was a surreal section where we heard something in the bushes nearby. We paused, a bit unnerved, I'll admit, and then suddenly 3 jungle Chihuahuas burst forth from the underbrush. They weren't menacing or frothing at the mouth, but pattered in that little impish Chihuahua way down the path for about 200 feet before veering back off into the brush. The biggest dog was the leader of the three and the other two flanked him (her?) a doglength back and to the left and right. It was weird, like we were on the fringe of some jungle pigmy dog society and had been discovered by a security patrol. True story.
After seeing that, I don't trust Chihuahuas. If a desert ratdog can establish itself in a Pacific island rainforest, it probably has more going for it than it gets credit for. For that reason, I bet these wild dogs in Los Angeles probably aren't going to make very good playmates for preschoolers. If the judge decides to spare them euthanasia, some of those animals lovers who think it inhumane to kill them better be first in line to take them into their home.
Check out this story to see what kind of handbasket we are riding in these days. It's a(n apparently true) story about a guy who had a chat with the F.B.I. after someone called them and reported him as reading "suspicious" papers (an internet printout) at a coffee shop. Gestapo, anyone?
And they said the T.I.P.S. snitch program wasn't implemented.
Big thanks to PSH over at Suckful for pointing this out. Be sure to check his site regularly, as it be a spicy meatball!
The missus and I were out on errands today and swung into the food court at the local Takashimaya department store to get a sandwich. On the way out, we realized that we were only 15 minutes away from an ASIMO demonstration so we hung out for a few more minutes. I've seen it on TV before and it was pretty cool to see in the metal, I suppose.
The robot (the name stands for Advanced Step in Innovative MObility, a thoroughly Japanese acronym if I've ever seen one; I used to think it was a Japanized salute to Asimov, author of I, Robot) walked out on the dais and talked to the crowd for 15 minutes. It would periodically wave, hold its hand over its eyes and peer into the crowd, waved, and make other assorted movements. The arms and hands were very fluid.
It also did a lot of bowing. It had this horridly annoying and entirely un-robotic (and hence rather undignified) high pitched voice. It gave us information about itself (age (2 1/2), height (~125 cm), weight (~52 kilograms), etc. Then it recited a bunch of business phrases while bowing, essentially pretending to work at the department store. The PR lady who worked the mike and set up the jokes and conversation offered ASIMO a job, an offer that ASIMO pointed out was unnecessary as it was working for the company today and hence already an employee.
Sadly, the hand movements didn't match up with the talking much. I couldn't tell if the movements were pre-programmed or remote controlled, nor if the voice was recorded or just delivered live from someone backstage. The timing of the dialogue was good, but the movements could have been a bit more coordinated. The illusion of life wasn't really sustained.
The robot did dance the hula for us and sang the Hanshin Tigers fight song. It was a horrible singer which set up another joke about where the robot blamed his Tokyo area programmer for doing a bad job with the Osaka area team song. It would prompt the audience for applause after it did such tricks as drawing circles, triangles, and squares, dancing, and whatnot. It also talked about how hot the weather is and wished it had come to Kyoto earlier to see the Gion festival. When the host invited it to watch other festivals in August, the robot held his hands to eyes and "cried," explaining that his planners didn't do a good job planning his itinerary and it would be gone by that time. It was kind of cute.
The worst part for me was when it turned into a commercial whore and spent the last 3 minutes telling everyone to belly up and pay their money for the Atomboy exhibition on the 7th floor and inviting everyone to the all-you-can-eat-and-drink beer garden (only ¥3000 for men, ¥2700 for women). I felt bad for the poor bot. First it had the godawful voice assigned to it and then it hawked ostentatious goods. I suppose they have to finance the research somehow and it doesn't really do much but promote the Honda name. It would have been cooler if it had mingled with the crowd or done something a little less formulaic that highlighted its mobility abilities, but oh well. It was still neat enough to see.
Of course I didn't have my camera with me. I carry it often just in case of stuff like this, but Murphy travels to Japan (or maybe its his cousin Mitsunori?) and cool stuff only happens when I don't have the camera with me. I got some pics on my wife's phone camera, but she hasn't emailed them too me and they are pretty low quality anyway. I'll post them when I get a chance though.
This is posted without permission from Bruce Schneier's Cryptogram for this month. Quite an amusing piece worth reading.
[Bruce: This is the strangest piece of mail I have ever received, by several orders of magnitude. I reprint it here solely for entertainment purposes.]
Subject: I haven't a clue, really
On January 15, 2003, I was banking on-line at Lee bank in Lee, Massachusetts. Zone Alarm informed me on the computer (mostly everything I have is documented) that a "would be hacker" was trying to penetrate my account. I wrote down the port numbers, called the bank, and was told by a very young secretary that I would have to come in and change my password. The Lee Bank of course later denied it, wanting to pretend that our systems are all secure. I thought "oh, they are just changing their systems -- I'll call back in 15 minutes. I was told to come in and change my password. The bank of course, later denied it. The portal numbers were the same as the one I would run into later.
Fifteen minutes later I was back to my on-line computer and there was my ex-husband's (and now wife's) yellow e-mail staring me in the face. He was mailing things back to himself as he had done over the years. He had all sorts of "spy ware" installed on the first computer in our house. When we outgrew our, "Windows 95," I decided to get Jake a new computer. (I have 2 children, Jake and Hallie, and had remarried in 2000.) The new Compaq was bought in 1999. I don't know how long he had been e-mailing things back to himself. What came through when I pressed file, was our daughter's picture. Then, I pressed source & view and print. Pages started printing out -- So many that I ran out of paper. I showed these to a computer forensic person in Boston. He said that the program might show that they were laundering money, running pornography or Chuck could have been stealing money from George Gilder's bank account. George Gilder is the man responsible for predicting the stocks on the Gilder Technology report.
Please forgive this very unprofessional letter. My house was broken into night after night. My jewelry was all changed with copper wire and numbered. Everything I touched looked like a little disk to hold information on it and it was covered in microchips in silver and copper.
No one believed me. I had recently started taking medications for ADD. That made my second husband furious. Little did I know that he may have been involved in what I believe to be cryptography? I found a bag that the FBI will test for substances. I woke up groggy. I was followed by the same car day in and day out. They wanted to know when they could use my house. A private investigator from New York is coming tonight. The FBI will come tomorrow. I had a bag from New Mexico that I looked up on the internet. I was not allowed to use the computer when I wouldn't do my ex-husband's program. My calls were intercepted. We thought we had Verizon DSL. My computer was controlled by my ex-husband Edward Charles Frank. I had read in his notes of his running the v2ks. When I would wake up in the morning, floppy disks would be at my bedside, I was to run them and I am not a computer forensic person but I knew they weren't bible verses.
Now comes the hard part. My house was broken into at least a dozen times. Watches, purses, coats, and my own belief in myself disappeared and reappeared on a daily basis.
The Lee Police never visited my house one time. They, in fact, called in mental health -- one of the most humiliating experiences I have ever endured. The social worker said that my problems seemed to be called externally, the state police threw me out and I know how to ask calm and mannerly, as I am an opera singer. I stopped singing. They had already (I assume) been told that I was crazy, or maybe they were paid off. I just couldn't believe the treatment I received. When I called to tell them my purse was stolen out of my house in the night, I heard "Oh, you'll have to wait to talk to officer Buffis, he's handling this." For weeks the same cars followed me like hornets. Something on me told them my location. They had keys to my house and my cars. I had my locks changed. That night, even my bedroom lock and chain were penetrated.
I heard a tape of my present husband testing the mikes and I also found a tape of myself in every room of the house, speaking distinctly.
There is much more to the story and much more to be solved. I believe I am entitled to some compensation for the mental abuse and suffering I went through. 3 computers are at Kroll. Will you work with me? I started taking down license plates (about 7 or 8). Just this afternoon, all of the cars appeared across the street and seemed very angry. I have a lot of evidence, even the bag they used to drug my Labrador.
I noticed a HUGE Verizon truck across the street at the way-station. Funny right, now we have no service at all.
[Bruce: This letter arrived in a box, approximately 10 inches on a side, filled with a pile of CD-ROMs, pens, costume jewelry, bits of metal, a fishing lure, and assorted other garbage all individually wrapped and secured with tape. Thankfully, the box was sent not to my home or business address, but to a mail drop I maintain. It might be a hoax, but the writing seems too authentic. It's hard to fake delusional paranoia that well.]
The NYTimes recently ran an article looking at the current administration's unabashed policy of assassination as a tool of diplomacy. Personally I think it is a bad policy, and not just because I'm a tree-hugging hippy. It just isn't becoming of a nation of our stature and it sets a bad standard. 'Do as I say, not as I do' just doesn't fly as foreign policy.
The article pointed out that "hunting people down, however it plays in films, excuses murder by calling it something else." This is a good point: it's chickenshit to spin murder by construing it as anything but. Assassination needs to be condemned wholesale, even if the your target tried to have your dad assassinated. Making assassination acceptable delegitimizes the assassin's role as enforcer as well. If someone really is so bad as to deserve to be killed, catch them, try them publicly, and then kill them. But to appoint oneself as judge, jury, and executioner, especially with regard to a head of state (and of the country you just invaded, to boot) seems to be asking for more trouble than it can possibly be worth.
But if assassination isn't acceptable because it whitewashes murder, how can we accept capital punishment? It is murder in every sense of the word. How can we believe that killing people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong is an adequate and efficient way of preventing future murders? Maybe if we had public executions their deterrent value would be increased.
If we didn't have the death penalty, the Taliban would have turned Bin Laden over to us after 9/11. They were willing to give him to the EU (because they ban capital punishment) but the US refused that offer. Justice or revenge there? That is telling, and indicative of the US way of dealing with the world.
It is such a shame that we squander the power and potential we have.
Here it is, July 2003, and the next US presidential election is a full 16 months (almost 500 days) away, and we've already seen campaigning ramping up. Of course I understand that a national campaign of this magnitude takes serious foresight and planning and the insane amounts of money needed to run for the office of POTUS can't be raised overnight. So I expect candidates to begin wooing donors and establishing an awareness of their intents, but there is so much time between now and then that its almost pointless to begin contemplating what is actually going to happen. Howard Dean seems to be coming on strong as a Democratic contender (I might vote for him, the only current Democratic hopeful that I'd even consider), but can anyone maintain a credible lead when dealing with fickle American attitudes? Americans in general are so faddish that they'll buy TheNextBestThing™ just because it is new. Getting a lead early on in an election campaign runs the risk of losing novelty and freshness and permitting an upstart to steal your thunder.
Japanese politics are pathetically corrupt and ineffective, a veneer of democracy at best. In no way whatsoever do I endorse Japanese style of governance. That being said, the one good thing that I've seen is that they have a very brief campaign period, on the order of weeks. Prior to this time its illegal to campaign on the street. It's a good thing, this law, because a lot of Japanese campaigning is conducted by speaker cars that drive around and spout off slogans basically pleading for votes. The candidates themselves get on the horn and talk about stuff, sometimes parking a van on a street corner to clamber up on top and scream into a microphone. It's horridly annoying, these speaker cars. Regulations restrict the times when its permissible to do this from 8 (or was it 9?) AM to sometime in the evening. I don't really notice when they stop, but son-of-a-bitch I notice when they start up, especially when they jump the gun by 10 minutes. These cars are LOUD and they drive right by my window. Good thing I don't have a shotgun....
Anyway, the point is that there is a very brief period of intense campaigning. I wish it was like that in the US as well. Personally organized rallies and stuff like that are fine for as long as one wants to put in the effort, but television campaigning should be restricted to 4 or 6 weeks prior to an election. This focuses everyone's attention as well as candidate's efforts. People get tired of the long campaigns, contributing to voter apathy I think. If its focused in a whirl-wind month of activity, people may be more likely to pay attention and get out the vote as a result.
While I'm talking about TV ads, I'd like to mention that I also think that negative advertisements should be taxed too. Candidates can run whatever kind of ads they want, but if they are going to waste valuable airtime talking trash instead of selling themselves (or are they only telling me that they aren't as bad as their competitor?!?), they should have to pay extra for it. That extra then should be funneled into a fund for helping smaller parties pay for airtime to get a plurality of voices involved.
I have lots of other ideas about how to go about strengthening the potential for democracy in the US (one idea: in case of a statistical tie in voting like we saw in Florida last time, why not just defer to the national popular vote?), but I don't want to go into them now. Consider yourself warned though.
This bullshit in D.C. has been planned from the beginning. Doesn't anyone think that it is odd that Bush made the effort to mention in the State of the Union that the information we got about the Iraqi attempts to buy uranium was from the British? There was no need to qualify where we got the intel from, but because everyone who had even the slightest awareness of facts knew that this was a complete falsity (including me, who discovered the truth about the uranium forgery in 12 seconds online way back when I first heard about it), I cannot help but believe that false information was intentionally used with the qualifier that it came from the British precisely in case the American public caught on to the lie. Then, as Rumsfeld and Rice have been saying lately, it will be possible to truthfully argue that Bush never lied about it. It is a fact that the information came from the British, and that is what Bush said. Never mind that it was known to be false.
Essentially Bush and his team are saying that they weren't really saying that Saddam had tried to buy uranium, they were just saying that the British told them that Saddam was trying to buy uranium. This is low-handed backstabbing of Blair and his adminstration as well, leaving them out to flap in the wind.
The simple mention that we got the information from the British just smells bad. Why bother to mention it unless you were setting up some insurance later on? They knew the information was false, but they said it in a way that duped the American public yet left them with a safe exit. And Bush campaigned on integrity...
This is but one example of the well-known ability for the Americans to allow themselves to buy into whatever it is their government and media are selling. It serves to emphasize the importance of a variety of media sources in a regular information diet, but considering that most Americans don't even have passports, it's probably expecting too much.
The New Republic has drawn my attention to this delicious quote by Ari Fleischer. I've included TNR's emphasis:
I think the American people continue to express their support for ridding the world of Saddam Hussein based on just cause, knowing that Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons that were unaccounted for that we're still confident we'll find. I think the burden is on those people who think he didn't have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are [emphasis added].
You tell 'em, Ari!
I like living in Japan, enough so that I currently intend to live here for as long as I can. It has all (well, most) of the creature comforts of the U.S. and I'm surrounded by people with fundamentally different ways of perceiving and processing world, a constant stimulation. It's a great environment for preventing one from become to rigid or enamored with a particular way of thinking.
All is not paradise in Eden though. Japan still suffers from some serious conservative thinking. There was a big discussion a couple years ago at a Sumo tournament where tradition dictates the Osaka prefectural governor hands the trophy over to the tourney champion. Only problem was that the Osaka governor is a woman, and women aren't allowed on the dohyo, the raised mound of sand that the wrestlers compete on, due to their "impurity." To be fair, society was split on this, but enough people felt that traditions were to be preserved and the exclusion of women from the dohyo was felt to be an important tradition for some reason by a fair number of people. Some wrestlers even stated that they would quit the sport if she stood on the dirt to give this trophy. She eventually stepped out of the way and avoided making a big stink about it, letting the vice-governor hand it over. That really disappointed me, but it was something I could handle.
But two things have happened lately that really have me up in arms. I'll start with the least shocking. Waseda University in Tokyo has just discovered that a group of male students created what has been dubbed a rape circle (circle is used in Japan to describe clubs, like a knitting circle, only they have circles for everything: chess, tennis, manga, anime, mahjong, radio broadcasting, whatever). These guys were part of a party circle that organizes parties, roughly the Japanese equivalent of house parties at colleges in the U.S.
Only these guys would prey on girls. Scout freshman on campus, recruit them to come to the parties, then liquor them up and gang-rape them. It's been going on for a few years now and they just got busted.
This isn't the bad part though. After this happened, a politician, speaking at a news conference with many other people, casually observed that these rapists were genki, which means spunky, cheerful, energetic, full of pep, in good health, etc, and that society needs people like that. When asked to clarify, he didn't catch the nuance in the question that implied that what he was saying was grossly inappropriate.
Encouragingly, the news media and society in general are upset about this, but what pisses me off is that nothing happens. He isn't going to lose his job and will likely win reelection due to the bass-ackwards election system they have here in Japan (I'll explain that later). This type of behavior and these types of attitudes persist with impunity. I suppose that progress is being made, as seen in the criticism in the media, but sheesh. Trent Lott lost his job as Senate leader for a much more innocent comment than that. And this type of mentality among politicians explains a lot with regard to the downward spiral Japan is stuck in.
But the really really really really really messed up thing:
Last week, a 4 year old boy was kidnapped from a store, taken 2 miles away to a parking garage where he was assaulted and then thrown from the roof of the building, whereupon he died. This crime itself was infuriating to me. I typically have low expectations for what humanity is capable of doing, but to throw a baby off a roof... I don't think capital punishment is really worthwhile, but I have a hard time convincing myself that anything you could do to the perpetrator short of killing them wouldn't be acceptable.
Well, yesterday they caught the guy.........and its a 12-year old junior high school kid!!!!. But the real kicker is that under Japanese law, okay, you might want to take a deep breath before reading this, and don't have any coffee in your mouth :
Children under 14 are exempt from criminal law.
That is not a typo. If you are under 14 in Japan, you can't be charged with a crime. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Bash in windows, walk. Spray paint a bus, walk. Kill cats, dogs, and zoo animals, walk. Throw a 4 year old boy off the roof of a carpark after trying to rape him, walk.
Well, he doesn't entirely walk. He may have to go to this special camp for trouble-makers where he has to talk to a counselor. But this is only for a year. Basically he'll get a lecture, and that is it.
More details are still coming to light, but it appears that the kid may also be responsible for a string of child rapes in the area as well a rash of cat and dog murders. It looks like he was trying to rape the 4-year old this time too, but tossed him over the edge when he started crying or screaming.
As if I haven't piled it on enough, lawmakers had to deal with a similar type problem over a murder a while ago. I don't know the details off the top of my head and writing about this got me all worked up again, but essentially some juvenile committed some atrocity but couldn't be punished because kids aren't held to the law. So they talked about changing the laws, and I think all they did was lower the age the laws are applied to by a year or two. But they didn't take the needed step of creating juvenile criminal law, and this kid is going to walk.
Okay, I think I'm doing writing now.
As probably everyone knows by now, these twins, conjoined at the head for 29 years, died yesterday when the surgical attempt to separate them failed. They died from massive hemorrhaging within 2 hours of each other.
Some claim that the surgery was irresponsible. The ladies did have some trouble finding doctors willing to attempt the surgery, but they had a chance. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to live like that and not at least try. Sure, there are some conjoined twins who like it, or at least don't have a desire to separate, but if you did want to be apart....
Who are we to suggest that it was a bad decision. The women knew what they were risking, and they took it willingly. I don't think the doctors should be criticized or condemned for trying. We have amazing technology at our disposal, and what is it for? There are bound to be failures and attempts to reach a goal that fall short, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make the attempts.
If these had been children whose parents forced the surgery on them or if a rogue doctor had discovered them and pushed for the surgery, things would be different. But these women didn't want to live together any longer. It is sad that they achieved that by dying, but I applaud their courage and the courage of the doctors. Perhaps next time will be a success.
On a slightly different note, I wonder what it would be like to have fundamental differences of opinion with regard to lifestyle when you are conjoined. Reading and listening media are fairly easy to distinguish, but you'd have to agree on TV at least. You have to compromise on where to go for recreation as well.
But what about drinking? They share a blood supply, so if one gets drunk or stoned, the other surely feels it. And what if only one wants to be separated? What then? We'll have to bring this up next time we get together for beers.
And finally, here is a thread over at AsylumNation about an African baby born with 4 legs, 3 hands, extra kidneys and other stuff. She's predicted to live normally once they excise everything. There is a picture too.
The Gods Must Be Crazy guy died a couple days ago, apparently of natural causes. I haven't watched this flick in a while, but I remember just wailing with laughter at it as a kid. Funny, funny, funny!
Happy Hunting Grounds, little fella.
I've noticed that my attention span has dropped to seconds and I've often attributed it to my excessive time spent online. Gaming is one of the few things that I can do to the exclusion of everything else, and its been argued that the attraction of gaming is that it provides constant new information and feedback, satisfying a particular kind of short attention span.
When I'm online, its common to have multiple webpages open, IRC, perhaps a movie or music, and some work documents. Actually it isn't that common any more because I've learned the hard way that no matter how productive you feel when multitasking, you end up getting nothing accomplished. You have to invest a particular amount of time to achieve progress, and if you keep switching to something else, you never get the productive investment capital built up. Kind of like the game Weakest Link where they keep banking their money too early and thus never hit the big bucks, or at least not as often as they could.
It's most detrimental when I'm offline though. We all know (now) that I have a lot of books and I find myself wanting to be reading a different book whenever I'm reading something. Or when I'm working on my dissertation, I'll get into an article and find pieces that I want to write about or that remind me of other articles and authors. I can't resist then moving to the text editor or switching papers that I'm reading. I end up accomplishing very little but spinning my wheels. It sucks.
Now the NYTimes has a pretty good article on online compulsive disorder akin to attention deficit disorder. Interesting read, and a bit scary to see people who deny these sorts of changes exhibiting the symptoms themselves. The worst is the guy who beats his kid in Lego fights so he can check his email while the kid rebuilds his airplane.
The article is publicly available I think, and if it isn't, its just a free registration that I've never been spammed with. Regardless, I've C&P'ed the article on the backside of this entry. Click to read.
New York Times
July 6, 2003
By MATT RICHTEL
THIS is Charles Lax's brain on speed.
Mr. Lax, a 44-year-old venture capitalist, is sitting in a conference for telecommunications executives at a hotel near Los Angeles, but he is not all here. Out of one ear, he listens to a live presentation about cable television technology; simultaneously, he surfs the Net on a laptop with a wireless connection, while occasionally checking his mobile device — part phone, part pager and part Internet gadget — for e-mail.
Mr. Lax flew from Boston and paid $2,000 to attend the conference, called Vortex. But he cannot unwire himself long enough to give the presenters his complete focus. If he did, he would face a fate worse than lack of productivity: he would become bored. "It's hard to concentrate on one thing," he said, adding: "I think I have a condition."
The ubiquity of technology in the lives of executives, other businesspeople and consumers has created a subculture of the Always On — and a brewing tension between productivity and freneticism. For all the efficiency gains that it seemingly provides, the constant stream of data can interrupt not just dinner and family time, but also meetings and creative time, and it can prove very tough to turn off.
Some people who are persistently wired say it is not uncommon for them to be sitting in a meeting and using a hand-held device to exchange instant messages surreptitiously — with someone in the same meeting. Others may be sitting at a desk and engaging in conversation on two phones, one at each ear. At social events, or in the grandstand at their children's soccer games, they read news feeds on mobile devices instead of chatting with actual human beings.
These speed demons say they will fall behind if they disconnect, but they also acknowledge feeling something much more powerful: they are compulsively drawn to the constant stimulation provided by incoming data. Call it O.C.D. — online compulsive disorder.
"It's magnetic," said Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard. "It's like a tar baby: the more you touch it, the more you have to."
Dr. Hallowell and John Ratey, an associate professor at Harvard and a psychiatrist with an expertise in attention deficit disorder, are among a growing number of physicians and sociologists who are assessing how technology affects attention span, creativity and focus. Though many people regard multitasking as a social annoyance, these two and others are asking whether it is counterproductive, and even addicting.
The pair have their own term for this condition: pseudo-attention deficit disorder. Its sufferers do not have actual A.D.D., but, influenced by technology and the pace of modern life, have developed shorter attention spans. They become frustrated with long-term projects, thrive on the stress of constant fixes of information, and physically crave the bursts of stimulation from checking e-mail or voice mail or answering the phone.
"It's like a dopamine squirt to be connected," said Dr. Ratey, who compares the sensations created by constantly being wired to those of narcotics — a hit of pleasure, stimulation and escape. "It takes the same pathway as our drugs of abuse and pleasure."
"It's an addiction," he said, adding that some people cannot deal with down time or quiet moments. "Without it, we are in withdrawal."
ACCORDING to research compiled by David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, multitaskers actually hinder their productivity by trying to accomplish two things at once. Mr. Meyer has found that people who switch back and forth between two tasks, like exchanging e-mail and writing a report, may spend 50 percent more time on those tasks than if they work on them separately, completing one before starting the other. As a result, Mr. Meyer said, businesspeople who multitask "are making themselves worse businesspeople."
He says little research has been done into why some people are compulsively drawn to multitasking. But he theorizes that the allure has several layers. Multitasking offers a guise of productivity, a "macho" show of accomplishment, and similarities to a quick amphetamine rush.
"It's related to what happens to skydivers or jet pilots," he said. "They put themselves in situations where, if they don't perform at peak efficiency, they'll crash and burn. In the aftermath there is a rush of chemicals."
Patrick P. Gelsinger, the chief technology officer at Intel, says it is clear that the overall time spent in front of screens — whether desktop computers or hand-held devices — is rising. "Time spent watching television is down," he said. "But over all you see a discretionary increase in the amount of time people are connected to technology."
The presence of such devices, as well as their power, will only grow. Networks that provide wireless Internet access are in their early stages. Intel has put the full force of its science and marketing effort behind wireless devices and the superfast miniature microprocessors that power them.
Intel portrays computers as pushing productivity, and Mr. Gelsinger scoffs at the idea that digital devices have a compulsive or physically addictive draw. "We don't make drugs," he said. "We make technology building blocks that move the world forward in all ways." But he concedes that there can be a point at which the constant accessibility of information is hard to escape.
In one meeting at Intel, Mr. Gelsinger said he found himself sending an instant message to his boss across the room — a potential distraction, though he argued that by doing so, he did not have to engage in "disruptive whispering." At other times, Mr. Gelsinger has had to remind himself not to use e-mail on his laptop during a meeting because it can send the message that he is not paying full attention.
SOMETIMES, discipline must be imposed from the outside. At a recent technology conference organized by The Wall Street Journal and attended by industry heavyweights like Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple Computer and Stephen M. Case of AOL Time Warner, people were discouraged from using their wireless Internet access during presentations.
Bucking the recent tradition at trade shows and technology conferences, the organizers decided not to provide wireless Internet access inside the conference. "We wanted people to absorb what the speakers were saying," said Walt Mossberg, a technology columnist at The Journal. "We decided that if you have Wi-Fi, it would be destructive," he added. "If you have the Internet, it will win out. People imagine they can multitask, but sometimes people overestimate the extent to which they can do it."
If multitasking creates a problem for people, the cause is not the gadget makers themselves, said Jeff Hallock, the senior director for consumer products at Sprint PCS, the mobile telephone carrier. The company has been selling the manna of multitasking: phones that can also take digital pictures, send e-mail and instant messages and download music. But Mr. Hallock says those functions help people stay organized, not make them frenetic.
"We're enhancing people's lives so they can have more control of the flurry of activity that's seemingly coming in," he said.
"You don't have to check your voice mail," he added. "We're giving you the chance to do so."
The notion that using all these devices creates a harmful addiction is absurd to Bruce P. Mehlman, assistant commerce secretary for technology policy and a former executive at Cisco Systems. Mr. Mehlman said the presence of many gadgets in people's lives created not a cacophony, but harmony and balance.
Mobile phones, wireless Internet devices and laptops have liberated executives, he said, allowing them to leave the office and to spend more time at home. The users of these technologies are constantly wired, he said, but to a very positive goal.
"Ten years ago, you had to be in the office 12 hours," said Mr. Mehlman, who said he now spent 10 hours a day at work, giving him more time with his wife and three children, while also making use of his wireless-enabled laptop, BlackBerry and mobile phone.
"I get to help my kids get dressed, feed them breakfast, give them a bath and read them stories at night," he said. He can also have Lego air fights — a game in which he and his 5-year-old son have imaginary dogfights with Lego airplanes.
Both love the game, and it has an added benefit for Dad: he can play with one hand while using the other to talk on the phone or check e-mail. The multitasking maneuver occasionally requires a trick: although Mr. Mehlman usually lets his son win the Lego air battles, he sometimes allows himself to win, which forces his son to spend a few minutes putting his plane back together.
"While he rebuilds his plane, I check my e-mail on the BlackBerry," Mr. Mehlman explained.
Mr. Lax, too, cannot pass up the chance to use every bit of technology that comes his way. A graduate of Boston University who lives outside Boston, he is managing general partner at GrandBanks Capital, a venture investment firm. He serves on the boards of three companies, working to turn them into successful ventures. "I build companies one customer at a time," he said, adding that his investments are up against other well-financed competitors. "It's a race against time."
Mr. Lax uses technology to keep up. He is, by his own admission, "Always On."
On his office desk is a land-line telephone, a mobile phone, a laptop computer connected to several printers, and a television, often tuned to CNN or CNBC. At his side is the aptly named Sidekick, a mobile device that serves as camera, calendar, address book, instant-messaging gadget and fallback phone. It can browse the Internet and receive e-mail. He has been known to pick it up whenever it chirps at him — and he acknowledges having used it to check e-mail while in the men's restroom.
There is no down time in the car, either. "I talk on the phone, but I have a headset," Mr. Lax said. Does he do anything else, like using his Sidekick to read e-mail? "I won't be quoted as saying what else I do because it could get me arrested," he said, laughing.
Mr. Lax said he loved the constant stimulation. "It's instant gratification," he said, and it staves off boredom. "I use it when I'm in a waiting situation — if I'm standing in line, waiting to be served for lunch, or getting takeout coffee at Starbucks. And, my God, at the airport it's disastrous to have to wait there.
"Being able to send an e-mail in real time is just — " Mr. Lax paused. "Can you hold for a second? My other line is ringing."
When he returned, he said he shared this way of working with many venture capitalists. "We all suffer a kind of A.D.D," he said. "It's a bit of a joke, but it's true. We are easily bored. We have lots of things going on at the same time."
The technology gives him a way to direct his excess energy. "It is a kind of Ritalin," he said, referring to the drug commonly taken by people with attention deficit disorder.
BUT he said technology dependence could have its down side. "I'm in meetings all the time with people who are focused on what they're doing on their computers, not on the presentation," he said.
During the Vortex telecommunications conference, held in May in Dana Point, Calif., he and dozens of others were using wireless Internet access. He said that he was paying attention to the speaker, using his Internet connection to look up information about the cable industry.
"I was supporting the effort of the speaker by figuring the elements he was talking about," Mr. Lax said. He paused. "I was also doing e-mail so I guess I wasn't giving 100 percent," he added. "I was 40 percent supporting the effort, and 60 percent doing other things."
Indeed, he said, the technology can be a bit distracting. "But it's not a problem," he said. "Being able to process lots of data allows me to be more efficient and productive."
"It allows me to accelerate success."
It's almost fractal, the way that complaining about my life ends up being the thing about my life that I want to complain about today. Recursive networks are pretty bad-ass, I have to admit.
So I was complaining about my compulsive book buying last entry. What that boils down to is that I have money to spend on books, I'm educated enough to have an interest in books with more words than pictures, and I'm too lazy to make time to read them. The first two issues here aren't even bitch-worthy; I ought to be thankful for it. The last is a personality flaw, but not one worth really focusing on, especially since all I have to do is step away from the computer and sit down with a book. It's entirely up to me how I spend my time, so why am I complaining about how I spend it?
But I didn't realize how petty it was (I knew it was petty, just not to the extreme degree that it actually is) until last week. I got an email from a student on Thursday explaining that she has mental problems (it's a translation artifact, she actually means psychological troubles, a nuanced but important difference) that make it difficult for her to see people. I had a friend in high school that developed extreme sociophobia, or whatever you call it when people get panic attacks when they interact socially with other people. She was a fun light-hearted person up until this problem, at which point she became housebound for at least 3 years, after which I've lost track of her.
Back to my student. She hadn't turned in her last two assignments (a paper proposal and outline) and was worried about her status in class. I'm a pretty tough teacher when it comes to deadlines (pure vicarous existence, I know, but I work best with a looming deadline), but I figured that I'd find out if she was getting help with the problem and cut her a little slack.
We talked after class and I found out that she had gone to the school counselor but wasn't able to talk to her about the problems. Turns out that medical records in Japan are essentially public, in that many jobs require a physical which includes all sorts of vitals and would also have information about psychological issues. This would preclude her getting a job, or at least she was worried about it. We talked a bit out the class and she seemed serious about wanting to get the assignments in and we worked out a plan where she wouldn't suffer the full late penalty. This concluded our discussion and we then walked down the stairs.
She mentioned that she had just got back from an 8 month study abroad in the US in Los Angeles and that many of her friends had graduated, hence leaving her alone in life in many respects. I commented that since she got back at the end of May she is most likely suffering from reverse culture shock, which is commonly more stressful and disorienting than the initial shock experienced when traveling abroad.
She agreed that perhaps this was part of it, but that she has had problems in the past as well. Turns out she is bulimic as well. This was a much more serious issue than I was expecting, and it came out kind of suddenly. I urged her to talk to someone, but she told me she can't talk to her mom because her older sister is mentally and physically handicapped, and she can't burden her mom with the additional stress of another daughter with problems. After hearing this news, I asked for some more clarification of the social phobia to which she explained that she is afraid to see people because she fears they'll criticize her looks or think she is ugly. Sheesh! She is a pretty good looking girl too, probably in the top 5 of the 23 students in my class.
I was a bit overwhelmed, both by the magnitude of the issue and the ease with which she was talking about it with me. I've often found that people talk to me about things; I don't know if she talks about this with other teachers or if there was something about me that made it easier for her here. Regardless, it was shocking to see a beautiful person trapped in a fucked up mental state. I gave her the best encouragement I could but I know that I'm not going to solve her problems with a 10 minute talk in the hallway at school.
Made me realize that my life is pretty good after all. Sure, we all have some sort of mental issue that could be called a problem, be it being too smart, too dumb, overly confident, lacking confidence, quirky, boring, whatever. But most of those "problems" are just natural human variation and aren't anything to worry about, unless you are neurotic. But some people allow these naturall issues to manifest in full psychological disfunction and end up with depression and eating disorders and all other sorts of stupid shit. I'm not blaming the victims here. It's more of a function of our innate pyschology not being suited for the world that we live in. By that I mean a world with radical extremes in social structure wherein we are constantly bombarded and manipulated with advertising quackery and PR spin. Something has to give, and its often the mind.
I am addicted to collecting books. I went to Hawaii last weekend and bought 14 books, then came home and ordered 8 more from Amazon. Easily 2000 pages of text. With my current schedule of non-essential reading of abotu 5 pages a day, that is over a year of books purchased in abotu 2 hours of effort. All this on top of a reading list that is close to 50 other titles of personal interest. Not to mention the 300 or so books and articles that I have to read and organize into a dissertation by the end of next month. Who am I kidding?
Add in my inability to reel my internet reading in and a new computer that is capable of playing the games from the last year that I've wanted to play but haven't been able to (namely Black and White, CivIII, Tropico, and WarcraftIII) as well as can now play with digital video.... Why do I keep buying books?
My Amazon wishlist is 15 pages long with 300 items on it, but there is a fair amount of DVD and CD material there as well.
I suppose I just need to unplug for a bit. A friend of mine is riding his bicycle from Utah to Idaho...goddamn but I am jealous of that. I still believe that taking solo road trips in a car are good for the soul, but what he is doing is just awesome. But I need to stay out of IRC and quit foruming (although in my defense I've stayed away from everything but contact with friends and a computing forum.
I want to build a kayak and paddle around Japan.
Man, this entry sucks. I meant it to be a lighthearted look at my book fetish, but its devolved into a pathetic autiobiography. I hope someone out there has bigger problems than me and can post here to make me realize that my life isn't so bad after all.