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04 June 2009

Forces of Habit

TO writes this post using a laptop computer's battery, during an early morning power outage. Using an analog telephone, assurance has been obtained from the local utility that a crew is in the area and that service restoration is anticipated within the hour. TO anticipates that the post will be uploaded sometime thereafter, when routing to the Internet becomes once again convenient.

TO's immediate environment is quiet under the circumstances, except for a cordless telephone that beeps periodically as a reminder that its accustomed power supply is not currently available. From TO's perspective, this recurring signal appears more annoying than useful. It seems unlikely that a human awake in the immediate vicinity would be unaware of a lack of power, or that such an individual would immediately be able to satisfy the device's energy demands. TO hopes that the telephone's recurring chorus will not soon be joined by similar demands from other domestic devices. The resident humans are already aware of the situation, and have taken appropriate action.

TO is reminded that use of electricity is habitual at an almost unconscious level. One turns on a light switch when entering a room, even if entering the room specifically in order to report the known fact that said switch's operation will have no effect. When electric service was a new novelty, did its subscribers often enter dark spaces with candles in hand, only then to remember the toggle mechanism on the wall that could cause a filament within a glass globe to illuminate?

17 May 2009

Going Through The Mail

TO has been accustomed to email as a primary means of communication for Quite Some Time. As such, it came as a shock when not one, but two, email providers experienced simultaneous failures. Malfunction of these networked nerve endings caused a stinging sensation, and motivated adoption of a new email environment. Messages from many years were located, imported, and consolidated. A contiguous corpus of personal history became viewable and manageable; thanks to IMAP, TO also gained the ability to access it from multiple and diverse clients. Musings ensued as a result.

As people have grown to send fewer letters on paper, the fact that email doesn't offer the same tangible kind of memento of a correspondent has sometimes been mourned. For better and worse, we now have just the words, not the handwriting or the touch of paper. No more boxes of enveloped letters to revisit, perhaps with intriguing stamps affixed. But, also, no more boxes of letters to store and lose, and it's much easier to search and find particular messages when represented in bits than when physically enveloped.

It's possible, and sometimes satisfying, to clean away undesired or superfluous items; announcements that past years' telephone bills had become available for payment, e.g., are unlikely to warrant renewed and focused attention. Offensive or annoying advertisements can be avenged with delete buttons, when they've managed to traverse the filtering gauntlet and reach the inbox grail in the first place. Within generous storage limits, though, the urgency of cleaning has diminished. Unread entries in mailboxes aren't nearly as disruptive as accumulating papers on a desk. Some of today's minutiae will become tomorrow's valued ephemera. Can we anticipate which ones?

01 March 2009

Vanishing Diseconomies

TO recently had occasion to make a targeted venture to a shopping mall, in order to obtain a specific item. While not one of TO's regular recreational activities, such a visit offered an opportunity to sample the state of retail affairs. At lunchtime on a workday, the complex was notably quiet. It seemed that many stores, and perhaps even some of the shorter corridors, were empty except for staff hoping that customers might enter. At least one store's contents were being packed up, its decorative merchandise apparently having failed to elicit sufficient sales in the face of current economic circumstances and perceptions. In the Madoff scandal, it appears that participants were misled into investing in purported assets that didn't actually exist and hence lacked underlying value; in retrospect, this has generally been considered to be bad. Loan revaluations have disrupted financial institutions and systems. In a consumer-driven economy, participants have sometimes been encouraged and motivated to buy as an end in itself, or to obtain some form of perceived status, independent of the value that the goods confer after purchase. It seems likely that at least some items would fail a "after I buy this item, will my overall satisfaction increase?" test if applied, and that more consumers are applying such a test by choice or necessity in the current recession than had been the case before. To the extent that an economy embodies investments and purchases whose worth may not withstand critical assessment, does it necessarily become unsustainable? Can stability and economic progress be achieved in a post-trinket society, or must we hope that this situation is temporary?