30 May 2008

R.I.P. Elinor

My grandmother, Elinor Sachs Mandelson, died last Wednesday, May 21, 2008; she was 95, and in an advanced state of decline both physically and mentally.

Elinor was a complicated woman. Very smart, and educated beyond what was typical for her generation, she tried hard to apply the Dewey(esque) philosophy she learned at Radcliffe College to every area of her life, imparting a clear sense that one should speak truth to power (though she probably wouldn’t have used that phrase). In my experiences with her, it seemed clear that she believed that knowledge and logic could serve as the mechanisms for overcoming life’s hurdles, and I think she felt this particularly strongly where women were concerned: that women had, in some way, an obligation to try harder to be logical and unemotional in confronting life.

But in spite of my ability to articulate this sense of her, Elinor and I never quite understood each other. As a child, I found her stern, and her love of many of the same things that interested me – books, for instance, or discussing politics – never compensated for that feeling that I was always bumping up against her rules. That was one area where her devotion to logic failed her: her own rules, once established, were hard to break no matter the external (or exigent) circumstances.

Later in life – hers and mine – we both tried to push past this early history, to redefine our relationship and find more common ground. It worked, for a time. Elinor took an avid interest in my writing, and since the web was hard for her to access, I took to sending her large-print copies of many of my articles, along with letters about one thing or another. In 2001 alone I sent more than forty letters. Invariably, within a couple of weeks, I would receive discursive replies in her classic long-hand, on the same stationary she had used for as long as I could remember. This was, I think, a cathartic series of exchanges for us both.

I say “it worked, for a time,” because my grandmother’s deteriorating mental abilities made such exchanges impossible after a certain point. I cannot imagine how this degrading experience must have affected her, and can only wonder (or, perhaps, hope) that her decline was maybe less obvious to her than to those around her.

My lingering sense, from childhood through early adulthood, was that Elinor always wanted something from me that I couldn’t seem to give to either of our satisfaction. And I suppose I felt the same way: I wanted a more emotional connection from someone for whom that kind of love did not, I think, express itself easily. I also had developed such a bond with my paternal grandmother that working harder to evolve my relationship with Elinor did not seem like a priority until very late in her life. We only get one life in which to work out these relationships, and all we can hope for is that we tried our best to do so. Ultimately, I tried, we both tried. What remains now are memories – the very things that, as my grandmother herself discovered, are never as easy to hold on to as we would like to think.

19 May 2008

Visual Search

A few years ago, I read about a new kind of internet search engine, which held out the promise of a different, better way of presenting information from the web: as a series of visual worlds, with lines delineating the interconnections between each piece of information, and thus emphasizing relevance. In other words, showing search results from the web as map of the web itself. That search engine was called KartOO, and from time to time I have returned to it, to see how it has changed or improved.

In the years since, the basic KartOO presentation has stayed the same, while the features and functionality have evolved and expanded. Users can subdivide their search according to specific categories (e.g., images, videos), or zero in on better results by selecting from a “topic” on the left side navigation. Moving the cursor over the results reveals the connecting lines between different bits of information. Scrolling forward generates a new “map,” showing the next set of results and their web of connections. Searches can also be saved for later use.

The reason I keep coming back to KartOO is the hope that it might somehow prove useful – more useful than it so far has. “Visual” searches have an intellectual appeal, a la mind mapping software, but do I necessarily care that page X links to page Y if one, both, or neither have the information I need? Maybe a system like KartOO is just ahead of its time: maybe the reliability of information within and throughout the internet remains so inconsistent that revealing the relationships is currently more confusing than clarifying. Still, I encourage people to test KartOO: each of us processes information differently, and some may find such visual representations more effective than Google, Yahoo, or other’s straight lists.

That said, I have also wondered when a competitor to KartOO would appear. There are two other visually based search engines of note, though neither functions with KartOO’s level of detail. The first is Snap, launched about two years ago, which tried to expand upon the basic search approach by providing users with a “preview” of the web site related to each search result, with a list of links and text on the left, and the preview pages on the right. Conceptually, this is used the idea of visual identification to support search: if the preview picture showed a blog, but users wanted a newspaper, it would be easy to dismiss the result and move to the next one.

SearchMe (currently in beta testing, but accessible to the public) takes a similar approach, but with an even stronger emphasis on the pictures. Results show “pages” for the user to scroll through, with the relevant text highlighted at the bottom and literally circled on the page. Recognizing this is not a fully launched product, it’s hard to be too critical – but I found that the search tool itself generated inconsistent results, while the idea of trying to decipher the often-small print on a pictured web page made determining the right result a real challenge.

Neither Snap or SearchMe aims to do what KartOO does, however: they are “visual” search engines only in their reliance on pictures of web pages. For now, as far as I know, KartOO stands alone in trying to map the process of searching the internet.

Users who have comments on these search engines - or recommendations for others - are encouraged to submit them, and relevant comments will be published.

11 May 2008

Old Signs

Living in New York – an old city by the standards of this country – one is surrounded by a constantly shifting combination of the past, the present, and hints of the future. New apartment buildings rise up next to existing, stately pre-war structures; new parking meter systems arrive to replace old ones; new bus stop shelters are erected next to newsstands from a bygone era. This is to say nothing of the dramatic changes – like the conversion of the old, stately Apple Bank (really the Central Bank) building into high-priced apartments – or the monumental ones, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed creation of a series of buildings over the Hudson Railyards.

One element of aging that I find perpetually engaging concerns signs. Signs in New York City, as elsewhere, seem less inclined to change with the surroundings. Signs seem to be forgotten, orphaned, even as the streets or buildings or whole neighborhoods around them evolve. Even when new signs are added, old ones are often left in place, anomalous reminders of some recent or not-so-recent past – and an inviting home for the graffiti and other detritus that is yet another aspect of life in New York.

So, here are some aging signs from the Upper West Side. Oddly, there seems to be a theme here ... one not much different from another set of signs about which I wrote back in 2006. And even though these are from the West Side, one sign does have a sticker that says “Yorkville”; whether that’s represents an invasion from the East Side or a sense of Yorkville’s value, we’ll never know.

10 May 2008

Hello Muddah

Five days from now my daughter will be 11 months old; five days and a month later, we will celebrate her first year with us. Right now it is just an average Saturday in May – and yet it is hard to convey the degree of excitement and passion involved simply in this moment, a very generic moment except for thinking about such things.

At almost-11 months, my child is a joy beyond anything I could have imagined. She is smart, funny, loving, communicative, both dependent and (trying to be) independent, and by and large gives the impression of someone who knows exactly what she wants and when she wants it. As a parent, I will lay no claim to perfection, but I take joy in the fact that my daughter is excited to see me when I come home from work, or that she hands me books to read and knows when I’ll make funny faces she’ll want to look up to see.

At almost 11 months, what I want for my daughter has not much changed, either. I want her to grow up to be a strong and independent child, and then a strong and independent woman, someone who engages with the world and who discovers the things she enjoys in life – and who gives back to society in some meaningful way, too.

And where Mother’s Day is concerned – or Father’s Day, for that matter – my thoughts have not changed since I wrote about the subject last May, before my daughter was born. This year, the holiday comes just as the Bush administration’s new “economic stimulus” checks are going out to people across the country, with the expectation that folks will use the money to buy more stuff, thus providing more “economic stimulus” than they otherwise might given the shoddy economy. No doubt that with Mother’s Day happening tomorrow, more than a few retailers are hoping to catch an early slice of that so-called and very short-term “stimulus.”

I still think these holidays are terrible, because if you love your mother (or father) then one special day is irrelevant and unnecessary. Every morning when my daughter sits up in her crib and says “Hi,” and every evening when I come home to her, and all those other moments in between ... make just about every day feel like a father’s day. If you are someone who hates your parents, then you have bigger issues than these two holidays will ever solve. And if, like most of us, you have a complicated relationship with your parents, well, the day may feel like a burden to try to address something significantly more challenging than a card or a special brunch can. Instead, the flowers or the card or the brunch become a placebo, helping us pretend to feel better about a situation that remains emotionally fraught.

So, along with all those other things I hope for my daughter, I hope that she will approach these holidays (and others) with the appropriate degree of skepticism and independence, and figure out what (if any) meaning they have for her, and make her decisions from there – without guilt, without a sense of obligation from her parents, and without some absurd sense of societal judgment. More importantly, as I wrote last year: “I certainly hope for my child’s love and affection – and I definitely hope that we never find ourselves in a situation where the expression of those feelings is channeled towards a single day or event.”

04 May 2008

Still No Mystery

Back in March, I wrote about a band called Murder Mystery.

Well, the Murder Mystery wagon keeps rolling along: the band was recently featured on daytrotter.com, in a very nice piece by Sean Moller, and on Yahoo’s Better Living Through MP3 blog, by Ken Micallef.

Both sites feature MP3s to download, including (on daytrotter.com) two previously unreleased songs, so if you haven’t listened already, here’s your chance, or visit the band’s own website at http://murdermysterymusic.com/.