Technology: Ally or Anchor?

Movie poster for Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, from December of 1984.

Movie poster for Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, from December of 1984.

I stumbled upon an airing of Starman this weekend on one of the movie channels and sat down to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. I was shocked to realize this movie came out in 1984, during the middle of my sophomore year in college. It was an instant favorite and had many lines my friends and I repeated to each other for months afterward. Jeff Bridges was amazing and I had a serious crush on Karen Allen. (Kids, think Emma Stone, but not as prolific)

As I watched, with my bowl of microwave popcorn, I enjoyed the reminiscence, but was also struck by some things that were missing. Chief among these were cell phones and the Internet. These items are so ubiquitous today that it’s shocking to think of a time when they weren’t part of our everyday lives.

1984. That’s just over 30 years ago. The first cell phones (analog) were introduced in the US in 1983 and calling them “mobile” was a stretch of the word. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the devices really became practical for the average consumer. The Internet didn’t become something used by anyone other than scientists and other academicians until the late eighties and early nineties. Boundless information has only been available to us at the touch of a few keystrokes, or the swipe of a screen, for a little over 20 years.

My two daughters, born in 1990 and 1995, have never known a world without cell phones and the Internet, just as my generation never knew a world without television. And my parents never knew a world without radio. What revolutionary piece of technology is in its infancy today that my grandchildren will grow up never knowing a world without?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember (or conceive for those my daughters’ age) a time when communication and information weren’t instantly available to us. My childhood would have been vastly different had I grown up today, as opposed to 30 years ago. The technology has become an integral part of our lives.

A few weeks ago, a storm blew through and knocked out power in my neighborhood for several hours.

I had no idea what to do with myself.

Eventually, I decided to be somewhat productive and use the time to make a trip to the store I’d been putting off (I’m certain grocery shopping exists as a form of torture in one of the mid-to-lower levels of Hell). I grabbed my shopping list and hopped in the car, soon after looking for a parking place in the asphalt behemoth outside my nearby Wally-world. After finding a spot, I strode to the store entrance, only to find a handful of people milling about with bewildered looks on their faces. I walked past them and almost ran into the automatic door that refused to open at my approach. It was only then I noticed the hastily written sign taped to the door: “Closed. No power.”

The bastion of all things retail had been shuttered by a lack of electricity.

The simple act of buying and selling could not be performed without computers and the Internet.

And, more importantly, I couldn’t restock my cupboard with cheese puffs.

This got me to thinking, after I got my breathing under control — no cheese puffs! — what would people do if the whole grid suddenly went down with no hope for speedy recovery? How would my daughters cope without texting, Instagram, and Snapchat?

512181main_rbsp-orig_fullTechnology helps us in countless ways, makes our lives easier and richer, but we don’t often consider just how fragile the whole system is. Approximately 1,100 satellites orbit the Earth, governing everything from basic GPS to nearly all our communications, including television, cell phones, and the Internet. The basic structure of the power grid in the US uses elements that were first developed in the fifties and sixties and haven’t been significantly updated since that time. A catastrophic event, either in space, such as a giant solar flare, or widespread weather disaster, could render huge sections of the country without power or communications for days or even weeks, depending on the severity of the catalyst. Would we be able to manage life without these things we deem essential nowadays like our phones and computers? What about light and heat?

Of course, part of my preoccupation with these ideas is a kernel for a new story I’m working on, but I’m curious to hear what you think. Could you survive without your electronic devices for an extended period of time? What would you do? How would you live? Would you enjoy living “off the grid” or would it drive you crazy?

Give me your answers in the comment section below, and I’ll choose one to receive a paper copy of either A Measure of Disorder or Knot in Time (your choice) and you’ll also receive an e-copy of my new book (tentatively titled The Devil You Know) when it comes out later this year.

Black Widow and Children Deserve Better

Many news outlets have already discussed this, but as the father of two daughters (even though they have grown older than the target demographic) I felt the need to weigh in on the apparent black balling of Black Widow from the Age of Ultron toys currently hitting the market.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Black Widow is a female super hero member of the Avengers and a relatively key character (apologies if my sarcasm drips onto your keyboard) in the latest blockbuster from Marvel and their parent company, Disney. An example of her awesomeness is shown below and was one of the scenes featured in the trailers for the movie.

blackwidow

She drops out of a jet on her motorcycle and speeds off to help save the world. What child wouldn’t want an action figure of that, right?

Evidently, Hasbro, Marvel, and Disney think no child would. Here is the play set based on this very scene that has been rolled out for kids to play with:

Avengers-play-set-11

Do we notice anything missing from this? Hm. It seems to have a definitive lack of Black Widow.

Yes. That happened. Black Widow was replaced by Captain America in one of her signature scenes from the movie. In fact, there is no Black Widow action figure to be found, even if you wanted to buy one separately and have a proper representation of the movie.

My question is: why? Even if your marketing showed you wouldn’t move as many units of Black Widow figures as Cap, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk (Hawkeye has proven to be a poor seller, yet he is still represented), wouldn’t you feel it prudent to at least produce a small run of them? There are so many things wrong with this lack of foresight, I have a hard time even typing this post.

We all want our children to grow up in a better world than the one we did. I think that is safe to say for any parent, regardless of generation. I, for one, would like children to grow up to view all people as equals, regardless of gender or race or religion or sexual preference or whether they like broccoli or not. (Broccoli was spawned from Hell, in my opinion, yet I don’t begrudge others who enjoy this waste of a plant — at least most of the time) What sort of messaging does this merchandising send to kids? I certainly can’t see anything positive about it.

So, come on Hasbro, Marvel, and Disney! You can do better! We want our kids to understand that being a hero is not about gender or race. It’s about our actions and what we believe in.

The Adversary of Change: Acceptance

“Daddy, why do people die?”

I look down at my six-year-old daughter. Her bright red hair is pulled back in a sloppy ponytail and a dusting of freckles dots her nose and cheeks. How can such a such a serious question come from something that personifies adorable? “It’s hard to say, Honey. As our bodies grow and age, things start to wear out I guess. Kind of like the doll you got last Christmas. You played and played with it until the hair fell out and the arm fell off so many times we just couldn’t fix it anymore.”

“Yeah,” she says, pausing to blow the seeds off a dandelion and watch them flutter away in the wind. “But why do people wear out?”

“I don’t know, Sweetheart. Some things we just have to accept because we can’t change them.”

* * * * *

Sometimes I think back to those days when my kids were young and regret explanations like that. True though they may be at times, they encourage us to stop asking, “Why?” When we’re little, every utterance is a question. Eventually, even the most well-meaning parents tire of answering the ceaseless queries and the “That’s just the way it is” answers start to come out. After enough answers like this, children become less verbally inquisitive and the parents breathe a sigh of relief, but is this really a good thing? I can only imagine having a small child now.

“Daddy, why are those people fighting on TV?”

It’s a question that deserves an answer, but is it an answer we can give? How can we explain race relations, or income inequality, or religious persecution to a child without quickly coming to a spot where we give up and say, “I don’t know, that’s just the way it is, Sweetie.”

Unfortunately, what seed does that plant in our children’s minds? Social issues have no solution. Just accept them. That’s the way it is.

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear in Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Reuters/Jim Bourg

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear in Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Reuters/Jim Bourg

Can we afford to accept these problems any longer? Reach inside and draw on your inner child. Allow yourself to ask, “Why?”

And when figures of authority answer with, “That’s the way it is,” don’t accept it as an answer, because it’s not. Be persistent.

Science has progressed throughout our history because some people refused to accept conventional wisdom at face value. They repeatedly asked, “Why?” until they found answers to satisfy them. And later, those answers were questioned once again. Elements of science fiction such as artificial intelligence and warp drive are becoming teasingly close to becoming science fact. Who knows what other things we previously thought impossible will someday become commonplace?

In order to affect social change, we have to approach it in the same manner. Question why. Why are people, living in the richest country in the world, subjected to conditions that resemble life from two centuries ago? Why are we uncomfortable interacting with people who are different from us? Why does that discomfort seem to always lead to violence?

The cycle can only stop if we refuse to accept it.

Guest Post: Robbed of Soul by Lois Brown

Recently I published a mystery novel called Robbed of Soul that combines a modern-day mystery with a 150-year-old legend of Montezuma’s gold in Utah. This is how the book came about.

In the spring of 2013 I received a strange email. It was from a television producer in England. They were filming a television series called “Myth Hunters” and wanted to do an episode about Montezuma’s Gold in Kanab, Utah. They had found my name on Amazon. I had published various short stories about treasure hunting, including one about Montezuma’s treasure. A month later we met in Kanab and they interviewed me for the show. (See a peek of the episode here.)

A year later I was in Kanab again, this time spending the day with a film crew from “America Unearthed,” a top-rated show that airs on the History Channel 2. Together we explored the mysterious 500-year-old cave Freddie Crystal excavated in search of Montezuma’s gold. (See a promo video of Montezuma’s Gold.)

Me with the film crew of “America Unearthed”

After that, I knew I had to write a book about Freddie Crystal and Montezuma’s gold in Kanab, but I didn’t want it to be a historical novel. So I ended up with Robbed of Soul, a modern-day mystery that incorporates historical facts and legends.

Do you like books? Do you like Zions National Park? Join the ROBBED OF SOUL book launch giveaway and you may win 3 nights in a vacation townhome in Kanab, Utah.
(Thirty minutes from Zions.) A $450 value! (Or a $100 Amazon gift card if preferred.) 
 

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Rescued but psychologically damaged from a failed mission, ex-CIA officer Maria Branson takes the job of police chief in the quiet town of Kanab, Utah. Rest and relaxation are the doctor’s orders. She gets neither. Instead, a missing mayor, the spirit of a dead Aztec warrior, and the over-confident-yet-attractive head of Search and Rescue await her in a town whose past has almost as many secrets as her own. As Maria investigates a modern-day murder, she disturbs a world of ancient legends and deadly curses. Yet most lethal of all is Maria’s fear someone will discover just how empty her soul really is.

 



The following are pictures of me and Scott Wolter taken as we filmed segments of America Unearthed near the infamous Freddie Crystal cave in Johnson Canyon outside of Kanab, Utah.

The Personal Nature of Language

I spent three and a half years in college because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

In those three and a half years, I learned many things about the world and about myself. The last thing I learned was I didn’t want to be in college anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love to learn new things — always have. I had just grown tired of doing it in that particular environment. I had been working toward a degree in English Literature, largely because, at the end of my sophomore year, my counselor informed me I had to choose a major in order to continue. English Lit was the degree I was closest to fulfilling from the mishmash of classes I had taken to that point. Yes, that was truly the determining factor, because I simply couldn’t make up my mind. I was interested in everything. Why the University thought it necessary for me to choose one area of study didn’t make sense, yet I had to play by their rules, even though I (or more accurately, my mom) was paying for me to be there. I had courses in biology, physics, three semesters of calculus, psychology, history, religion, and philosophy under my belt. I also took creative writing, Medieval literature, Shakespeare, Victorian literature, as well as courses in linguistics, two semesters of French and one of Russian. I even spent three semesters in the drama department as extra-curricular — Charlie Brown with wispy red hair? Yes, it was a thing.

Suffice to say, language and how we communicate has forever fascinated me. I also had a year and a half of Spanish in high school and was tutored in Japanese for several weeks as part of a job I had subsequent to leaving college. The variety of the spoken and written word around the world is astonishing. Even within the United States, regional dialects can differ wildly — sometimes to the point of confusion and miscommunication. And don’t get me started on the British Isles, South Africa, India, and Australia, all of which purportedly speak a language dubbed “English”.

Dictionaries give us a basis of understanding, but even they morph and change as language evolves. New words are added each year and the definitions of old words are adjusted in some cases if their meaning or usage has changed over time. Words and definitions can vary between brands of dictionaries. But, why all the confusion? Why isn’t something like the way we communicate more structured and immutable?

Because language is personal.

ScarletDressYes, many aspects are fundamental. If I describe a woman walking down the street as wearing a red dress, we all will conjure a picture in our minds. That picture would be different for all of us, but we should all be able to agree on the basics: woman, walking, red dress. But what if I said the dress was scarlet in color? It’s still red, but the word “scarlet” will evoke different images — different emotions — within each person, based on our experiences. A young reader might be encountering the word for the first time and have to ask about its meaning or look it up. A fan of the movie Gone With the Wind might first conjure an image of the glamorous Miss O’Hara upon seeing the word. Someone who recently read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter may react negatively toward the word given its use and meaning in that story. Same word, different reactions. What if I used “crimson” instead? Again, more disparate meanings and feelings toward the word — and, by association, the woman wearing the dress — because of the individual experiences we each bring when we read or otherwise communicate.

As a senior in high school, I took AP English and one of our assignments was to read The Old Man and the Sea. I enjoyed the story and during one of our discussions about the symbolism and allegories within the work, my teacher mentioned an interview with Hemingway where he claimed he simply “wrote a story about a man and a fish.” In other instances, he, of course, talked about the deeper meanings within the story, but the quote got me to thinking. We all bring our own frames of reference, biases, and experiences when we read a work and can’t be certain how an author truly intended the reader to feel as they progress through a book. In fact, while doing some research for this post, I ran across an article where some scholars feel Hemingway had been so heavy-handed with the symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea, he might have been poking fun at the critical literary community. That shines an entirely new light onto the story.

Which brings me to the reason why I never finished that English degree.

As I took higher level literature classes, I noticed a pattern. Analysis of the assigned pieces drilled deeper and deeper, investigating why the author chose a particular phrase, or even a particular word, at a certain point in the work. I even remember a lecture on what happened during a dash — yes, a dash, just like these — within a story. At that point, I realized my professors had lost sight of the forest for the trees. Language is too personal to make absolute statements about intent and meaning. We can, more often than not, agree on basic premises when we communicate with one another, otherwise the world would be like the biblical Tower of Babel. But, for me, or anyone else, to say with certainty all an author meant by using a certain word at a particular point in a three hundred page novel just doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking Picasso why he placed a particular brush stroke where he did and why he chose that particular color. Maybe he had a specific reason, or maybe his brush slipped and he thought it looked good. Seeing deeper meanings in a piece depends as much on the viewer, or the reader, as on the artist.

Sometimes, the dress is just red.