Technology

Clever Girl

Pale_Blue_Dot

That tiny dot about halfway down in the center of the brown line is Earth as seen from deep space by Voyager 1. Feel small yet? 

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam…

…To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

– Carl Sagan

I have a deep and abiding respect for those, like Carl Sagan, who are able to see beyond themselves and understand the precarious nature of life on this blue orb that affords us our existence. Some of my favorite images were captured by the Hubble telescope, an instrument with value that can’t be calculated in the billions of dollars it has taken to create and maintain it. Through its lens, we measly creatures are barely able to scratch the surface of the vastness of the universe. Sit for a while with a Hubble image of a galaxy cluster and allow its magnitude to envelop you. When life hands me an epic smackdown, I view photos from the telescope to put things in my life back into perspective. All the stress we feel in our tiny lives and all the weight we give ourselves is lost in those images. We are nothing. We are less than nothing with regard to what we have been able to discern of the universe, yet what we do on this minuscule speck of cosmic dust means everything to our survival.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, while disappointing and disastrous on many levels, is not surprising. Small minds yield small thinking. As full-disclosure of the president’s decision penetrated the news world yesterday, I discussed it with our teenage sons. There is nothing more important to me than teaching my sons their place in this world and their responsibility to it as educated, white males of privilege. I encourage my kids to be forward thinkers and solution seekers. There is no room for a future in a world where we live in the past. As I was lamenting the damage done by climate-change deniers and our unwillingness to make personal changes to save this planet, my oldest said this:

“The planet doesn’t care what we do. We will all die off and the earth will go on without us. The earth has suffered far worse than what we are doing to it now and it is still here.”

Dozens of hours spent voluntarily absorbing science-based programming on his iPad has given my son a realistic understanding of life’s precariousness here. We place so much importance on our impact on this planet, and for good reason, but our impact on this planet only matters insomuch as pertains to the existence of life on it. We don’t matter at all to this space particle that transports us around our star. If all humans suddenly ceased to exist, in as little as 25 years, three-fourths of paved roads would be covered by vegetation. In just three hundred years, man-made metal structures like the towers “great men” build and emblazon with their glowing, gold names would crumble and disappear. And after 10,000 years, only stone structures like Mt Rushmore and the Great Pyramids would be left to offer proof that we ever existed. We don’t matter to the earth. It does not give a shit if we cease to be.

We are erasable. For all the movies we’ve made and books we’ve written about alien populations wiping out our existence, we are our greatest threat. We know this, which is why we write stories about escaping the damage we leave behind. If we continue to barrel along, turning a blind eye to our impact on the air, water, and land we rely on for survival, then we will die off. We will have earned that fate with our ignorance and intransigence. Someday, perhaps a future population will refer to us the way we now refer to the dinosaurs, as sad, ancient relics incapable of stopping their own extinction, doomed to disappear. The difference is that the dinosaurs will have lived 159 million year longer than our species and have done so without sentient brains in their reptilian heads. Clever girl, indeed.

The Evil Eye in My Living Room

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The Evil Eye

 

My husband, endlessly keen on electronic gadgetry, came home from Best Buy with a Nest Cam the other day. He had been talking about getting one for a couple months, and each time he brought it up I rolled my eyes and ignored him. His reason for purchasing the remote video camera was that he would use it to check on the dog while we were out. He explained that the Nest Cam has a speaker so you can talk to whoever or whatever you see on the camera once it is in place. He fantasized that he would be able to yell at the dog if he caught her napping on one of our new library chairs, a decidedly verboten location for four-legged, shedding fur babies. While I could see where he was going with his idea, I told him that he doesn’t understand that she is a border collie. Border collies are a bit smarter than your average dog (and, given our current political situation, they may actually be quite a bit smarter than many average US voters).

I’ll be honest. The main reason I didn’t want him to buy the camera had little to do with its price tag and everything to do with his being able to check in on me during the day. Between the hours of 8:15 a.m. and 2:45 p.m., my house is Vegas, baby. What goes on here stays here. If I walk around in my underwear all damn day, that is my private business. If I am unshowered and sans make up and dancing 80’s style to Depeche Mode while I vacuum furniture, that is not your concern either. And if, on some off chance, I am eating popcorn and binge watching episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the last thing I want is my husband yelling at me through the speaker to get off the sofa like I am his dog. I have personal space issues. Those issues are that I need it. While the government may have photos of me that I hope will never come to light when I run for City Council, in my own world I like to imagine I am at least somewhat stealthy and secure in my personal space at home.

As proof of this, I offer Exhibit A.

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I am great at not sharing.

Yesterday, my son’s phone was accidentally taken home by another student. Concerned son asked me to use the Find iPhone app to locate it. While I was checking on its whereabouts for him, I used the app to illustrate my privacy issues for my husband. All three of my Apple devices are always and famously not sharing location for the exact reason stated above. Rest assured that if I go missing in the Colorado wilderness and the bloodhounds can’t track me, you should just write me off as eaten by a mountain lion because you won’t be tracking me using a Find iPhone app that I voluntarily engaged. Not. Ever.

But, I digress. Yesterday hubby set up the Nest Cam while enduring my vigorous and wordy protests. He tried to reassure me that he had zero plans on spying on me. He told me he would set it up so that the only time it was activated was in my absence. He reminded me of the house security system and its camera, which he pointed out had never been abused to stalk me. I consequently reminded him this is mainly because I made him mount it in the garage because my home is Vegas, baby. He had me stand in the living room while he tested the audio capabilities. Then he asked me if I noticed what he had named it. He named it Hal after the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I told him he wasn’t funny. If you haven’t seen the movie, let me elucidate; Hal is a little smarter than you would want your computer to be. He’s nosey, sneaky, and he’s creepy as hell. Steve was doing little to further his case. I started imagining terrible things accidentally befalling Hal during a routine dusting task. A smack on the back of its little black head with a baseball bat, perhaps?

Later, an email message came in for Steve from Hal. He saw it, began laughing, and forwarded it to me. It reinforced my concerns.

damnyouhal

Damn you, Hal!

Hal had tracked me to my own living room at 8:17 p.m. There I am looking down at my iPhone, probably right after I got an alert that Hal spotted something in my living room, namely me. The level of creepiness just got upped. All I needed was Hal’s soft and calm voice saying something like, “I’m sorry, Justine. I’m afraid you can’t do that,” and I would lose my shit. I told hubby that I hate Hal. Secretly, though, I hoped Hal hadn’t heard me because I know what he is capable of.

I went to sleep last night not exactly sure where we would eventually land on this whole Hal development. I kind of hoped hubby would return the stupid thing, but he seemed pretty hell bent on using it on the dog as planned.

Today he got his opportunity. While I was out at an appointment, Ruby did indeed help herself to a comfy seat on her preferred library chair near the picture window. Upon receiving notification of movement in the living room, Steve panned Hal around to check the chair. And there she was. Vindication would soon be his. Steve pressed the microphone button on the Nest Cam app and proceeded to chide Ruby loudly to scare her from the furniture. She didn’t budge. He tried again while people in his quiet office silently wondered what the hell he was shouting from his cubby. Ruby lifted her head but remained steadfast. She had seen through Steve’s little charade and she was having none of it. She put her head back down and went right back to sleep. She’s border collie smart.

When I got home, I had to scold her for sleeping in the chair, but I apologized later. She may not be the best behaved dog ever, but she was on my side about Hal. We females have to stick together. The camera is going back. Our house is still Vegas, baby!

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High five from my furry soul sister

 

 

I Am The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog

What? I don't look like a killer rabbit to you?

What? I don’t look like a killer rabbit to you?

Tonight I am celebrating because today I did something way out of my comfort zone. And I survived!

A few weeks ago, the boys’ school hired a company to make a promotional video that would be used on its website. The company planned to interview teachers, administrators, and students. They also wanted to interview some parents. Anyone who knows me knows that I cannot stand to be on video. I hate it. Emphasis on the word hate. Did I mention hate? It makes me so uncomfortable I want to puke. I loathe video chat. I wholeheartedly believe Facetime was invented solely as a torture device. If someone brings a video camera within 20 feet of me, I disappear faster than a case of cheap beer in a college freshman dorm room. I would honestly rather have a full on Brazilian bikini wax by an aesthetician student than appear in front of a camera. When I first saw the email asking for parent volunteers, I immediately resigned it to the Trash folder. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities at the school, I reasoned. There’s no need for you to jump in on this one. I was not going to do this. No way. No how.

But as the week wore on, that email vexed me because I knew I was exactly the kind of person that should be talking about that school. With not one but two sons with learning disabilities there, with our six years’ worth of struggles as we tried to discern how best to help our boys, with the exponential growth we’ve witnessed in them over the past eight months, I was a poster-child parent for this project. I was being a coward and I knew, that like Emmett in The Lego Movie, the self-doubt that plagued me was keeping me from reaching my true potential. I opened the Trash folder, found the email, and responded that I would be happy to help with it. I clicked send knowing that I was doing the right thing. The minute I heard the whoosh sound, I felt the bile rising.

I put the whole thing out of my mind because I figured there was no point stressing about it for weeks. Deep down I knew it would all be fine and that I was doing my usually brilliant job of making mountains out of mole hills. Over the weekend, with the video date rapidly approaching, I made a conscious decision not to think about it. I would not pick out an outfit or practice speeches. I was going into this with the most laissez-faire attitude I could muster. I’ve been working on this skill lately…trying not to borrow trouble. It would all be fine, even if my hair wasn’t perfectly coiffed and I stumbled over some words.

Today was video day, and I went in more or less off the cuff. I had an inkling of things the interviewer might ask. I prepared myself for those questions. I was feeling fairly confident…right up to the point when I walked into the room with the big video camera, boom mike, and lighting set up, and saw a single wooden stool in front of it all. I did my best to give useful answers, but found it challenging to be articulate while I was simultaneously reminding myself not to slouch, touch my hair, or look anywhere but at the interviewer. I’m not sure how long I was on that stool, but it felt like forever. As the minutes wore on, I felt my cheeks turning pinker and rounding the corner to full-tilt-embarrassed red. Finally I gave an answer that seemed to satisfy everyone, and my time in hell was over.

As I was walking to my car afterward, I found myself somewhere between needing a drink to relax and needing a drink to celebrate. I’d done it. And, despite the fact that I was now rethinking every single comment I’d made (on camera about my children in front of school staff, nonetheless), I was proud of myself. I had gone out of my comfort zone and faced a dirty, rotten fear. On the drive home from school, I quizzed the boys about their fifteen minutes of fame and then I talked about mine. I told them how good it felt to do something I really didn’t want to do but knew I should. They asked me if I was glad I did it. At the next stoplight I grabbed the Bunny Buddhism book (I carry it everywhere these days) and shared this:

Bunniness is not learned in safety. One must seek unfamiliar ground and hop without fear.

Like the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, I go forward prepared to leap upon any challenge that darkens my path. There are no fluffy bunnies here. Bring it!

 

 

 

 

Draw Something Resembling Anything

And the drawing is...

Guess it? This was an easy one.

Our boys are growing up so fast. Once upon a time, they were connected to me. Then, hubby went and cut the umbilical cord. Ever since then I’ve been herding cats, desperately hoping to catch them and hold them long enough to get some quality time. These days they’re connected to other things…like their iPads, Xbox360, or their Mac. These are their new lifelines. So, I’ve done the only thing I could do. I’ve decided to meet them on their ground. I text them and I send them game requests. I’d friend them on Facebook if they had Facebook pages.

One game I play with my sons is DrawSomething, which is an online version of Pictionary. You draw something and the person you’re playing with attempts to determine what the scribbles you just traced onto the screen of your device mean. My first world problem is that it’s hard to draw a detailed image on an iPhone (even the iPhone 5 with its larger screen). Luke is a natural born artist. He has always enjoyed drawing and his creations on this app are quite detailed and contain appropriate contextual clues so that the amount of guesswork is deeply reduced. Joe…well…let’s just say his drawings are basic. They require a lot of creative thinking on my part. I don’t always know where he’s headed with his art but, as his mother, I feel it’s not an option to guess incorrectly. So, this simple game of drawing becomes a game of mental gymnastics for me. I become Sherlock Holmes. To solve the mystery, I must enter into the mind of the drawer who, in this case, is an 11 year old boy.

Tonight, after weeks of pestering him mercilessly, Joe finally acquiesced and sent me a drawing. This drawing was of a large brown object, which I eventually conjectured was an animal despite the fact that it seemed to be headless. I stared at it blankly for a few seconds and then traveled into the depths of Joe’s frenetic mind. I had an idea but had to verify my mental image with the letters provided for the drawing. Thankfully, tonight’s drawing was an easy one. You see, where I will draw the clue I think I can represent most easily for the other person’s interpretation, Joe most often chooses to draw clues that have a personal meaning for him. Translation: I see a lot of shark, prehistoric creatures, Star Wars, and superhero drawings. Tonight’s was no different. The minute I entered into Joe’s 11 year old brain, I could see where he had gone. To the ice age, of course. Why not?

I love that Joe is not the least bit concerned about his drawings. He doesn’t wonder if they will be understood. He draws what he likes, no matter how hard it might be to convey. I imagine that Joe is so used to meeting the world the way he is required to, so used to following conventions that don’t work for him or even make sense to him, that when it comes to this game he feels free to be himself. And, that is an awesome, wondrous thing. I enjoy these occasional opportunities to get inside his head. I figure it’s the closest I will ever be to him again.

 

Schoolhouse Rock!

Schoolhouse rocks!

Schoolhouse rocks!

Today, my son’s dyslexia tutor suggested we get him some recorded songs to help our auditory learner remember his multiplication facts. Thinking that was a brilliant idea, I hit up my friend Google for some suggestions. As I was flipping through the treasure trove of information, I happened upon something I could not resist. Schoolhouse Rock! Need I say anything more? I have many happy memories of sitting in front of Saturday morning television watching cartoons and catching all kinds of useful information from Schoolhouse Rock! I tell you with absolute certainty that the only reason I can recite the entire Preamble to the Constitution is because I can sing it first in my head to a tune I remember from those Saturday mornings. True story.

Joe was sitting with me as I was looking  at Amazon trying to decide which DVDs to order. He looked over at my laptop and saw Schoolhouse Rock on the page. He got very excited.

“I’ve seen these!” he exclaimed. “My teacher shows these to us in class.”

“Really?” I replied. I knew his teacher, Mrs. Downs, was good people.

“Yes. All the math ones and some social studies ones. Here….I’ll show you,” he said as he ran off to grab his iPad.

He came back with a bunch of videos queued up on You Tube. He opened up the Elementary, My Dear video about the two times table and hit play. We sat and watched it. It made me smile. After that we watched Three Is A Magic Number. Then, I saw it in the side margin. A video of The Preamble. I clicked on the link.

“I know this one, Joe. Watch.”

Then, along with the video, I sang the entire Preamble while my son watched in complete amazement. At least, I think it was amazement. I prefer to think he was looking at me with awe because he had no idea I knew these videos rather than in horror because I should by law be banned from singing publicly. I prefer to think he’s continually shocked by how smart his mother truly is.

I have to wonder if my boys would have had struggled as much as they have with their math facts if they would have had the pleasure of sitting each Saturday morning and watching Schoolhouse Rock like I did. I’m not entirely sure that the Schoolhouse Rock songs cemented the math facts into my head, but it is kind of intriguing that 35 years later I still remember the words to the Preamble I learned while catching my dose of Saturday morning cartoons. It can’t all be coincidental. Some of the things I saw as a child stuck.

I wish more networks made programming choices based around what was best for people rather than what made them the most money. There was a time when there were public service announcements on television for our children to watch, things like Time for Timer where kids would learn about healthy food choices. Now, though, our kids get nothing but a healthy dose of ads for all sorts of processed junk food and then more junk food in the form of brainless programming all hours of the day and night, on demand even.

Maybe it’s a romantic notion to wish that we could go back to a time when there was some actual thought given as a society to how to raise children to become well-balanced, informed, thoughtful, healthy, and creative individuals. I admit it. I wish kids had less homework and more time on their bicycles, fewer hours of television and more hours for creative and social interaction with friends via a means other than texting. I’m a dinosaur, I know. I’m not suggesting we go back to the 1970’s (personally, bell bottoms pants were never a look I could rock), but it would be nice if we could give our kids a little bit of the childhood we had. It might be nice to give them a break from the innumerable activities topped off with hours of homework. As I think about Schoolhouse Rock, what becomes clear is that it’s not that our children watch too much television but rather that they watch too much of the wrong television. The things I learned on Saturday mornings have stuck with me this long, and now I’m going to share them with my kids. Hopefully they will remember Conjunction Junction and I’m Just A Bill and forget everything they’ve ever seen on My Little Pony.

Siriously Awesome

My iPhone screen is bigger than yours…if you have the 4 or 4S.

Today was a red-letter day at my house. The Fed Ex man delivered a lovely, small brown box to me today, a box containing my brand, spanking new iPhone 5. Did you hear the heavens rejoicing as I opened that box and beheld the wonder that is a shiny, happy iPhone? Sigh. It’s been a couple years since I got to sink my teeth into a new Apple, so I couldn’t wait to try it.

After I synched it with my MacBook and got connected through AT&T, my first order of business was to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Siri. My previous iPhone was the 4 and not the 4S, so I had never formally made Siri’s acquaintance.

Me: “Siri, I would like you to call me Justine.”

Siri: “Of course. I will call you Justine. What a lovely name.”

Me: “Siri, do you like pizza?”

Siri: “Surprisingly, I haven’t tried that before.”

Me: “Are you my friend?”

Siri: “What a question! Of course I’m your friend.”

Well, now that we’d established our friendship, I thought it was safe to get personal.

Me: “Siri, Am I fat?”

Siri: “I would prefer not to say.”

Huh. Here I thought she was my friend. Feeling a bit disappointed with her response, I tried to curry favor with her.

Me: “Siri, you are my best friend.”

Siri: “I don’t really like these arbitrary categories, Justine.”

Okay. Back to business, then.

Me: “Siri, play The Smiths.”

And to my complete joy, “How Soon Is Now” began playing. Even though we’d gotten off to a rough start with her unwillingness to tell me I’m not fat, I began to see what she might be good for. I had her schedule an appointment, text my husband, and tell me the weather forecast for tomorrow. My kids think Siri is the best thing since sliced bread. They keep trying to ask her questions about which superhero is better, but she just sends them to the Internet (which, by the way, is precisely what I do when they ask me those questions).

Is this new iPhone everything I expected it would be? So far, yes. It’s lighter, thinner, and light years faster than my old phone. It can text for me, which is awesome. And, Siri is fun, even when she can’t understand my bizarre requests. Although…she did offer to find me a swamp to hide a dead body, so that makes her a better friend than most. And, at the end of the day, it’s nice to thank someone for their help and have them politely reply, “Your satisfaction is all the thanks I need.”

 

The Zombies Have My Boys

This is how my boys spend their computer time.

My house has been taken over by Creepers, Zombies, and Endermen. Just three months after the Skylanders invaded our home, they are out and Minecraft is in. Our neighbor’s son, helpful kid that he is, turned our boys onto Minecraft just two weeks ago. Now, they are obsessed. (Minecraft, in case you are not game savvy, is one of the hottest games out there right now with over 41 million registered users and about 7.5 million games sold.) In just two weeks, we’ve already threatened to take the game away from them no less than 10 times. It’s that powerful.

When Joe convinced me to download it to his iPad using the last little bit of the iTunes gift card he got for his birthday back in June, I had no idea that this would become the new “thing” in our house. But, sure enough, the $7 app for his iPad became the $27 computer version so both boys could play. The first night Joe tried out the online game on his Mac, he made me sit and watch.

“What do you do in this game?” I asked.

“You try to survive,” Joe said. “See? Look…I am swimming. It’s daytime. When night falls, the Zombies come out. They can kill you so I have to try to find a village for safety. I’m looking for land so I can find a house.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. When you told me about this game, you told me it was a game where you build stuff in another world. Now suddenly you’re killing Zombies?”

“And Creepers too,” he went on.

“So, if you’re in a house, the Zombies can’t get you?”

“No. They can break down the door. Then you have to find a way to kill them,” he said.

“Oh, holy hell,” I said under my breath to no one in particular since he was already absorbed back into the game.

Just hearing about Minecraft began to stress me out. Fearing I might start dreaming about killing Zombies, I stopped asking. Today though, after weeks of denial, I finally accepted that it is not going away. I asked Luke to describe it to me so I could better understand their new favorite activity. This is what I found out. The Creepers can’t really kill you, but for some reason they can explode so if you’re near them when they explode you die. There are four game modes (Creative, Adventure, Survival, and Hardcore), but Joe only likes Survival and Luke only likes Creative. According to Luke, at night the Creepers are “highly aggressive” and in the day they are “semi-aggressive.” You cannot kill Endermen with a bow and arrow because they “just teleport away.” You can revive Endermen, Creepers, and Zombies, although I have no idea why you would want to revive something that is trying to kill you. In Creative mode you can’t die and in Survival mode you can revive yourself if you are killed, but in Hardcore mode when you die you’re done. Creepers and Zombies are both green but Endermen are black with pink eyes. You can keep Creepers in a zoo. There are all kinds of animals in this world, including cows that grow mushrooms out of their backs. (Somebody was tripping when they came up with that animal.)

Luke confidently and competently explained to me how he was able to build a fortress that included rollercoaster tracks that run right through the house. He described how you survive your first night in the game. He told me how you can smash bricks and turn them into other things. My 9 year old son talked for 7 minutes to the Voice Memos app on my iPhone, explaining this new obsession in ridiculous detail. When he was done talking, I asked him how to spell “blare,” one of the words on his spelling list that he has written down no less than 16 times in the past four days. He got it wrong. I shook my head. Apparently, the Minecraft Zombies have already eaten my sons’ brains.