Tag Archives: communications

It Used to be More Fun

Not sure when it happened, and I am pretty sure that a prime minister wouldn’t be the fix, but it used to be way more fun to search the web. An adventure: you could type in something, and one thing would lead to another and you might travel all around the world learning cool stuff. Kind of like when you open the page of an encyclopedia to learn about one thing, then get intrigued by something else on the page.

Now you “google” something and everything adjusts as if the only thing you care about is the one thing you searched on. The first thing that shows up in any search is ads followed by wiki-whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I love wikipedia in many ways. It just seems like we have to work extra hard to get a broad overview of what is happening…and sometimes self-declared experts are not the best source of information.

I once made a very short facebook post: “I have decided to go to Africa” and all the ads changed to have “Africa” in them in a blink. That was a few years ago and things were a bit less sophisticated, some of the ads were obviously just plugging in a key word from the post. I can remember laughing about a couple of them and wish I had jotted them down. I think one was about African designer shoes that could be delivered next day.

My son has experienced the same thing: he teaches kindergarten aged kids and looked up an article about how they learn. He says that now all of the news articles that show up are about kids. Nothing about the economy, earthquakes, ISIS or any of the many other things going on, just things like “two year old hit by car”. It is very limiting.

It is also the opposite of how the internet used to be, and a little scary, since we seem to be leaning more and more toward getting all of our information from the internet. Living in China it is James’s main source of information.

I wonder if this does not contribute to the increased polarity that we keep hearing about: we can so easily avoid balanced and nuanced discussion and see a whole bunch of articles that encourage us to think our initial impulse is the only way to think. Why do all the work of creating consensus or compromise if you can just rationalize your opinion and call the people who don’t agree with you names?

But then who has time?

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “New Internet Order.”

What’s Your Tribe?

Throughout history there has been a tendency for religion and politics to be mixed together. Caesar was worshiped as a god. The emperor in China was the central figure in religion as well. The divine right of kings…Even here in the US with our separation of church and state religion is becoming more and more intertwined with politics. It seems to be one of the defining elements in being Red or Blue.

Discussions of politics and religion tend to fall into two categories

Yes-Yes

Yes-No

Depending on whether the people involved agree or disagree.

Yes-Yes conversations tend to be pretty smug. Yes-No conversations are either confrontations or attempts at conversion, but there is always a sense that people think they are right.

Media loves a good conflict so they play up these differences. The type of conversation where there is nuance: “yes, but…”, “no, but…” or an honest “I don’t know” met with thoughtful discussion does’t seem to happen anymore.

Political and religious questions are often posed by someone trying to determine if you are a member of his or her tribal group. The story of people being required to say “Shiboleth” in the biblical story (Judges chapter 12) is a record of a simpler approach: if you couldn’t pronounce the word properly you were assumed to be an Ephramite (enemy tribe in the story) and killed.

I avoid discussing politics and religion for that reason, I usually either don’t fit in the box properly or, more and more often these days, don’t want to be affiliated with the owners of the box. Frequently because of how they treat people who don’t agree. We don’t, for the most part kill people literally but character assassination happens pretty often.

While I avoid discussions for the reasons above I think that both religion and politics are areas where the deep conversations, ones without foregone “right” answers are needed. The world is more complex and interrelated than it used to be and people do not live in isolation any more. We need to be learning about each other, the values both shared and different, looking for solutions that aren’t simplistic party-line approaches or “the Bible or Koran or Sutras or Hindu teaching says this” so we don’t look further.

response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Polite Company.”

Silence…Is it Golden?

The things going on in my life of late have been causing me lots of negative emotions: frustration, sadness, anger. Those emotions tend to silence me.

At one point this past week, I was tempted to go and shout at a couple of people, in a very sarcastic tone, “Heaven forbid that anyone ever do anything that is easier or more convenient for ME!!” Followed by the suggestion that they should take a long hike on a short pier. I did not do that. I do wonder a bit what the shock of the worm turning would have done to them.

Why didn’t I do it? I recognized that they were not sole source of the negative feelings and not truly worthy of all my wrath, although I did eventually say this:

I realize that my time and feelings are of no value in the grander scheme of things, but I am trying to train myself that they should at least matter to me and get out of frustrating situations that I can avoid, since there are plenty I can’t.

Hopefully I did not go too wrong in saying that. Most things do pass or get resolved without saying anything, and saying hurtful things doesn’t usually ameliorate a situation.  But I am trying to learn how to take care of me, and just letting people roll over me without saying anything at all doesn’t seem right either.

I don’t think it is wrong to walk away and just leave a confrontational situation much of the time. Frequently people are simply not interested in anything except their own viewpoint and showing they are right, they just want the eye-of-the-tiger adrenaline rush of rising up to the challenge of a rival. Letting that fall flat is enough. It is not really worth the time and effort to correct folks, or stand up for yourself, most of the time.

One thing that always puts me at a disadvantage in stressful situations is that my feelings are feelings, not words, and it takes me a while to figure out how to put them into words. By the time I figure out what to say, the more verbally oriented have manipulated me and/or the situation or ranted until I am cornered, feeling wronged and inadequate and all I want to do is go away and be left alone.  A week or so after the fact I  often come up with a brilliant retort. But, like my tiny bit of Mandarin, the brilliant rebuttal never comes to mind when I really need it.

This isn’t a very happy post, but I am starting to plan a couple of humorous posts about some of the past week’s dramas. Just starting to see the humor in the situations is a sign that I am starting to bounce back. But it is going to take me a bit of time to find the right words.

 

What is local and what is global?

Several years ago there was a yellow haze in the air, noticeably different from anything I had seen before. It was very fine dust from the Gobi desert. It had crossed the Pacific Ocean. Amazing. The desertification in China showed up as air pollution in Seattle.

A funny thing happened when we went to the moon, we learnt that is wasn’t made of cheese…and we saw the earth from another point of view. I really believe that change of view was the most pivotal event that has happened in my lifetime. With our own eyes we saw that there is one earth, and from the moon it doesn’t look all that big. I was 7.

What changed? Our perspective. We really are on a tiny life supporting island in a beautiful, but harsh and shockingly empty, universe. .

Long before the moon landing Blaise Pascal wrote:

L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’universe s’arme pour l’ecraser. Une vapeur, une goute d’eau suffit pour le tuer. Mais quand l’universe l’ecraserais, l’homme sera encore plus noble que ce qui le tue. Parcequ’il sait qu’il meure et l’avantage que l’universe a sur lui. L’universe n’en sait rien.*

Man is but a reed, but he is a thinking reed. It is not necessary for the universe to arm itself to erase him. A vapor, a taste of water is sufficient to kill him. But when the universe erases him, man becomes more noble that that which kills him. Because he knows he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing.

I learned that by heart in my high school French class. In my head it was always connected to pictures of space. Especially those with the earth in them. My personal favorite is call “earthrise”. That photo sends chills down my spine.

We are so interconnected. Our communities can consist of people around the world…and the world doesn’t seem as big as it once did. I spent an hour just hanging out with my son in China last night, a QQ video chat about this and that. It was nice.

I worked in the space industry. I’ve looked at more rivets than most can imagine, over-driven, under-driven and just right driven. Small gouges in very thin pieces of metal had to be analyzed to make sure the aluminum skins could still do their part. We were involved in getting satellites into orbit. Many of them, on some level all of them, were communication satellites. I suppose that is almost the ultimate local-global connection: small rivets that makes communication around the globe possible. Was I talking to James via a satellite I helped, in my own small way, to launch? I rather hope so.

I also hope that they help other mothers connect with their children, and other family and friends, old and new, all around this beautiful, and fragile blue marble of ours.

 

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Think Global, Act Local.”

*This quote may not be perfect, I wrote it from memory and translated it myself.

“Beautiful Children”

That was the whole post: two words and the picture above reduced to transmit “quickly”. It was a Facebook post.
The two boys, alot of the kids, had never seen anything but a text book and the brightly colored books about the world we brought to them fascinated them. Their teachers really liked the books as well. They came into the library during breaks and after school.
The only place I could find sufficient reception for the Safaricom modem was out in the compound. it took about a half an hour to send and it was hot. The juxtaposition of the modern technology with the sleeping dog and chicken strutting by tickled my funny bone. Young man in the blue shirt is my “baby”.
Mid-day in Mulundi-even the dogs are sleeping.
Mid-day in Mulundi-even the dogs are sleeping.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Blogger in a Strange Land.”

Modern Communications-Is it QQ* Translate…or Chinese itself?

Being a mama means being there, even if you aren’t there. This morning I received this QQ* message from Emily, my son’s girl friend:

“mama,James, didn’t you call today, he felt a little worried. I told him, something the mama. If you have time, give him the phone number tomorrow.”

I am sure she typed it in cogent Chinese. It is the middle of the night in China right now so I have to cool my heels for several hours before I can get clarification.

This is not my first somewhat obscure message, I no longer panic that I cannot call right away. Instead I amuse myself during the waiting time by guessing what the message might mean.

The first message that comes through was unintentional on her part. When I tried to QQ and call James last night I didn’t get through. This message tells me clearly that James is fine (one time when I couldn’t get through he had been mugged and had his phone stolen).

The essence is that James was worried that I didn’t call yesterday.  However, since he could have QQ’d me himself, Emily may be more worried than he is.

“I told him, something the mama” is a bit puzzling. Was she worried that something is wrong or comforting him that I was busy doing something?

When I tried to learn some Chinese I noticed that they put an emphasis on different aspects of language than we do in English: for example, they do not pluralize nouns or use verb tenses. So a sentence can have both ambiguity about what the subject is (is it a generalization about dogs, or a statement about a particular dog or group of dogs) and when in time the action occurred (is the dog running now, did it run in the past, or will it run in the future?). However, the Chinese seem to have more precision when they talk about emotions than we do. For example, they have about 20 words for happy, discerning between a general state of contentment, delight in the moment, and a feeling of being fortunate.

The words Emily typed in Chinese that came out as “something the mama” and “he was a little worried”, could have had much more precise meanings than what came though in translation. For example, the Chinese word she used that got translated as “something” could have been a word with either calming or alarming overtones. In English we would perhaps have used more words: “something came up”, like an invitation to have coffee with an old friend, or “something happened”, like the car broke down.

I wonder how much our language affects our thinking. Do we who speak English care more about whether it is a generalization about dogs or the behavior of a specific one because our language teaches us to do so?

I am pretty sure that “give him the phone number tomorrow” means give him a call.

A few more hours to kill.

*QQ is a Chinese Facebook-like communications program. It is by far the largest one used in the world. It is used by almost all Chinese people with cell phones and by people who want to communicate with them easily. I can  send a QQ IM and will usually get a response in a few seconds.

Writing Sticks

notes-sketches-outlines-doodles

I think differently with a pen or pencil in my hand. Even if I am not using it! There are synapses in my brain that only fire when my hand is holding a writing stick. I have been pondering how this came to be.

I learned to write, as most of us did, in primary school and, by the end, I wrote in a close to legible cursive. I liked to write in those days and turned out many pages of stories.

I learned to properly letter in drafting classes in middle school. I spent hours learning to print and make clear sketches. I think that is when the brain connections really started to form. From then on I always printed unless I was required to do otherwise.

When I was younger my printing was easier to read than type written. Now my hands are stiffer, especially when it is a bit chilly and my letters are more like italics, the letters tend to connect together and it takes effort to achieve a standard hand. This may be due to typing so much more, it takes different hand muscles.

I learned to type my freshman year of high school, 1976, on an IBM Selectric.The typing grade dragged down my GPA.  They made me take it because I was a girl. They said you had to be able to type to get a job as a secretary.  I passionately hated typing. I was the slowest in the class, the teacher gave me a pity grade of B for the second semester because I tried so hard.  The thought of having to do anything with typing for the rest of my life was depressing.

I was much happier in drafting class and always got good grades on my lettering. I was even happier in physics where my clear sketches and printing and, believe it or not,  thinking skills, were appreciated. I stopped writing stories.

In college an electric typewriter was a requirement, word processors were starting to peak over the horizon, but they were harder to use than some programming languages are today (does anyone remember Word Star?) and there was no computer access to speak of. I wrote everything out, turned it in printed  if I could get away with it and painstakingly typed out if I couldn’t. But I was glad I had learned to type: I took a computer programming course and it made inputting  programs much easier. Many of the guys hadn’t been forced to take typing and I had a bit of an advantage.

Slow forward to today: I still brainstorm, outline, sketch and doodle with a pen or pencil, even though I have a  blazing peak typing speed of about 20 words a minute. I think that having a holistic idea of what I want to say scribbled on some bit of paper helps me to compose. That said absolutely nothing beats a computer for ease of editing.

So here I sit at the computer with a writing stick and pad by my right hand. Even if I don’t use it it helps me think.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Pens and Pencils.”

A Picture and a Phrase Book Saved My Day

This ATM ate my debit card…It lives inTerminal 3 of Beijing Capital Airport.

My heart stopped, then beat so hard I could hear it. I didn’t want to leave to get help: what if it gave my card to someone else? I tried to to ask for help (any Mandarin I might have been able to pull up in calmer circumstances had evaporated so this was harder than it sounds). I did have the presence of mind to take this picture.

One helpful soul pointed to a phone number on the screen. I called it, pressed the number to get an English speaker…and got a recording in Chinese. Finally, I got out of the way and watched. After two people successfully used their own ATM cards (and didn’t get mine back) I sought out the airport’s help desk.

I showed the woman at the help desk this picture and she called the number they had for that bank. Her reply was that  no one could help me until 9:00 a.m. I was told I could come back then and she would call for me, or I could go downstairs to the branch ofice that would open at 9:00 a.m.

I sat on the end of my luggage cart (I travel pretty light so there was room) right in front of the door to the branch office, by now it was around 8:00 a.m.  Since I had a little time, I got out my trusty Lonely Planet Phrasebook and found this phrase: “the ATM took my card” (qukuanji chile wode ka).

When the armed guards with the bank employee bringing in a suitcase walked around me I didn’t approach them, but didn’t budge either. The next emplyee that came I did approach: I just said “excuse me” (I tried to learn some Mandarin before the trip but it always evaporated when it would be useful) and pointed to the phrase in the book. She seemed concerned and went in and brought out another employee. I was able to show him this picture on my camera screen and zoom in to read the ATM identification number. He went off and was soon back with my card.

If I understood (a big if) the reason for the ATM’s appetite was a safety feature: I had tried too many times (I couldn’t get English instructions to come up on the screen and kept guessing wrong about what stuff meant).

All of this happened before 9:00 a.m.  I caught the first bus of the day to the south train station. I got where I was going as if nothing had happened!

I LOVE the US Postal Service!

I love the US Postal Service!!!

We take the US Postal Service for granted, and often grumble about it, but it may be that the ability to send things to people and know they will get there without tampering, prying, or undue delay is a big part of what makes the “first world” first.

Today the world is a smaller place than it was when I was a student in Boston, MA back in the early eighties. My family is all on the west coast and the cost of homesick phone calls was a significant part of my budget. My own son has lived, and is living now, in places much farther away. To call him in China using Skype costs next to nothing (1.1 cent per minute). I can send him pictures in no time using email and, if he happens to be someplace with broadband or wifi,  video chat with either QQ or Skype for free.

But getting a physical package or letter to him is another story.

In Japan, 2007-8, we had no problems, the US Post Office has a flat rate box that would get things to him in less than two weeks. In Kenya, 2011, we were told: “don’t even try” for anything more than a greeting card, and “nothing is private”. You sent mail care of someone who had a post office box in town, usually a family member or friend who either lived in town or went there on market day. They would deliver when they got a chance.

China has a postal system but folks don’t seem to have mail boxes or regular delivery. Both DHL and the postal system need a phone number, which they call and arrange a meet for delivery.  I am sure that any package just left would be viewed as abandoned and taken. Experience has shown that DHL, in spite of what is advertised and charging a pretty hefty premium ($210 versus $85 for the same package) does not get things there any faster.

Back to the good old USPS.