This won’t be the typical “year in review” post highlighting the best books, the best films, or the best songs of the year. There’s plenty of places you can get that kind of info, including here, here, and here. Instead, I want to focus on some of the more meaningful occurrences, some that may have flown under the radar a bit, but that will more than likely have a lasting impact:

andre

We lost Andre Cassagnes. Who, you ask? Well, if you grew up in the last few decades, you’ve been touched by his main creation: the Etch-A-Sketch. At the age of 86, he passed in January. I remember spending untold hours with my Etch-A-Sketch, and how when I finally painted my masterpiece, I would beg my sister to not shake it away (which she always seemed to find a sneaky way to do behind my back). It’s my generation’s Snapchat, and it gave so much to that “alone time” throughout my youth. Although it’s practically impossible to draw a circle, the Etch-A-Sketch was a toy for the ages.

(Tribute sketch of André Cassagnes by Tom Shillue)

Dealey_Plaza_2003When it comes to the events of November 22, 1963: we evolved (a bit). Yeah, 2013 marked the 50th year since our 35th president was gunned down on the streets of Dallas. First, Dallas itself owned up to its own role in that fateful day. The city’s leaders decided to honor Kennedy by producing a respectful commemoration, and for the first time since ’63, apologized for being the “city of hate” that took our President from us. The past is never in the past, but we can learn, heal and move forward. Dallas decided to do that in 2013, and it deserves praise for honoring that horrible day with a recognition it never knew how to do before. Of course, the “independent” Texas spirit is still alive and well as shown by this guy who felt the need to strap on an AR-15 at Dealey Plaza…

12.09.11-Skeuo-4We officially re-entered an era of “design rationalism”. Not wanting to be left behind, Apple fired Scott Forstall, the lone holdout in charge of Apple software design that still held onto the Jobsian design ethos of using fake leather and brushed aluminum backgrounds in software user interfaces. Microsoft and Google had already moved on, ditching ornamentation, and re-birthing the design philosophy set forth in the 1920s by the Bauhaus movement. Now, for at least awhile, pixels are pixels and old leather desk calendars are no longer allowed in your Calendar app.

 

cancerAnd, finally, 14 year old Jake Andraka showed us what Steve Jobs really meant when he pleaded for us to “always think like a beginner.” After his family friend died of pancreatic cancer, Jack was frustrated that there wasn’t an easier, earlier detection method for this common, but deadly cancer. Although he was only in 9th grade, he took the initiative to investigate a low-cost test idea he had come up with. His test was finally accepted at Johns Hopkins after he had received hundreds of rejection letters from other research institutions. Now, his low-cost early detection test is helping to transform the survival rates for pancreatic cancer. Goes to show you: persistence is critical, next up: just think of a problem you want to solve!

Photo of Jake: TED2013. Long Beach, CA. February 25 – March 1, 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Fran+Lebowitz+Wolf+Wall+Street+Afterparty+dEGeOh, and there’s no way I can forget to add this honorable mention as the weirdest/funniest/most interesting cameo in a movie this year: Fran Leibowitz as a Judge in Wolves of Wall Street! Go, Fran, GO!

Photo of Fran: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America

 


I saw an ad for The Circle several weeks ago in the NY Times Book Review, read the synopsis on Amazon, and pre-ordered it. A few days ago, it arrived on my Kindle. I read it in 2.5 days, as I was unable to put it down.

The Circle is definitely a satirical novel about a not-so-utopian future driven by technology. Lately, I’ve read REAMDE by Neal Stephenson and re-read his Snow Crash. I also tore through Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (a book I felt was written purely to be a movie). So I’ve subconsciously been seeking out these dystopian near-futures that seem to have more than enough roots in our present. I might also point out that during this fiction binge, I also quit Facebook for a while. I only recently semi-returned, albeit not entirely. I mention all this so that you can take my current mindset into account as I talk about The Circle.

The story is about Mae, a 24-year old college graduate who ended up landing a job at a fictional company called The Circle, in what appears to be Silicon Valley (although this isn’t explicitly stated, it is definitely implied). The Circle begins as a fairly accurate amalgam of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple. Basically, The Circle is a large, technology-focused company (although they are insistent they are “about humans” and humanizing) that bows to advertisers, sells user information to advertisers, makes an amazing amount of money doing it, and to whom users willing give over our privacy. The Circle has users’ health data, likes, dislikes, hobbies, love interests, education, ancestral history, virtual banking, minute to minute daily experiences – because the countless users provide it. Sound vaguely familiar?  The founders of the company are the “Three Wise Men,” who varyingly show traits of Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and wrapped in, some random cult leader whom you can’t help but trust and follow.

Our protagonist, Mae, is a bit of a fool, who falls into situations, not because she is brilliant but because things often go her way, even the bad things. She makes some poor love choices, and I honestly could have done without at least one of the boyfriend sub-plots. Mae also has ailing parents who are fighting the domestic healthcare system because her father has debilitating MS. She has an ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who goes on long rants about the evils of social networking and the always-on mentality. Honestly, I agree with some of what Mercer has to say, but he really does get preachy about it all. Luckily for us readers, it makes Mae want to tune out as well.

The book is divided into three unequal parts. Part 1 had me fired up, ready to defend privacy and everything associated with it. Part 2 was frustrating, because I realized that Mae’s foibles weren’t just from youth and inexperience, but true narcissism, bred by the always-on, always-connected world of her life within The Circle. Part 3 revealed a “secret” character that I’d figured out earlier. Admittedly, some of Part 3 was a little too pat for me, too contrived. But the ending? It surprised me. I expected it to go a certain way but it didn’t.

The book is about extremes. There are the folks such as Mercer, who are determined to go analog to an absolute extreme (running off to the woods with no connectivity or phone). As a reader,  you begin to expect his particulate fate, but that fate is suspenseful and well-written. Then there is the extreme of May and her colleagues at The Circle. They are so convinced that “secrets are lies,” “privacy is theft” and that “sharing is caring” with no regard to sense of self. In fact, sense of self, such as Mae experiencing a magical moment in nature on her own, is suddenly considered selfish, greedy. In that instance, Mae was alone, disconnected and not sharing, yet this was interpreted as stealing knowledge by not sharing it.

I was fascinated by how Eggers was able to take privacy and flip it on its side, showing the glass half-full version of knowing and seeing all. The Circle, in the novel, suggests that we should all – from government to the everyday office worker – be walking around with a camera around our neck, sharing all, telling all, and keeping no secrets aside from necessary human functions (like sleeping or using the restroom). Eggers somehow reaches out and foretells what the positive argument might be, yet we can hear the underlying satire.

I was taken aback by this dystopian near-future, which is an effect these Orwellian books tend to have on me. The very possibility of all of this seem so near, and so terrifying. Yet, perhaps I am an optimist. As I read the book, as I got more terrified and more determined to change this process, I realized that we won’t let this happen. The Circle in the book is something that is easily bought into and accepted by everyone. As the company seeks to improve society (always watching each other leads to being our best selves?) and eradicate all evil through accountability and technology, the populace just simply agrees and goes along with it. “Why didn’t we think of this earlier?” they ask. Well, humans are just a little too rebellious for this. We would never agree to this instant and digital subjugation. We want to have our private moments. We want to have our living-out-loud moments. We want both. We won’t easily submit to the privatizing of our governments, our health, and our personal lives.

In the book, Mae sacrifices family and friendships, in ways you can’t even imagine until you read it, for the sake of the completion of The Circle. I am always ever hopeful and I believe that we would never let that happen. The Circle is about the lack of individualism and my optimism requires that I believe, as humans, we’re more than the sum of our parts. We’re more than The Circle. No matter the size of Google. Facebook, Twitter, or the social networks that will follow, we value our individualism and will fight for it.

Read The Circle. It will surprise you and I hope, make you think. People seem to be upset about the book, often panning it in reviews, forgetting that The Circle is about a fictional potential future and not the now.

For me, at least, Eggers raised some interesting points. The Circle reminds us that we are individuals and perhaps do not have to be part of the whole. We can choose to share; we can choose not to, and we can strive to retain that sense of individualism. But conversely, many of the solutions proposed by the fictional Circle for society’s ills were pretty fantastic. The question we may need to eventually answer is just what bargain are we willing to make to get there?

Windows-8_1_3

Today sees the global release of Windows 8.1. It should start rolling out in the App Store for everyone. Although 8.1 is a minor upgrade, there are some big changes: mainly the re-positioning of SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud-based storage service. My relationship with SkyDrive has been like a celebrity marriage: lots of excitement at first, love and hugs, and then a quick unraveling as its little glitches become more apparent. It just never has stacked up well to Dropbox, or even Google Drive, for God’s sake. But, as Ballmer once told us, Microsoft is “all in” … so this update sees SkyDrive move to front and center. So front and so center that its sync engine is built-in to the core of the OS. Additionally, Microsoft has made one improvement that really excites me (the whole celebrity marriage thing reignites!) — instead of defaulting to syncing your entire SkyDrive folder to your PC, it first loads icons, and enough information required to identify the file. When you decide to open the file, it downloads it on the spot. I love that, since my SkyDrive space sometimes exceeds my SSD space! You can still set preferences to sync entire folders for offline work as well. The other magical result of SkyDrive being front and center is easy access to all your apps, files and settings across multiple Microsoft devices. Like a thin client, just login to any device and continue where you left off (kinda)!

With 8.1 also comes IE11… another version of the venerable web browser we all love to hate. I’m slowly becoming somewhat of an IE convert… it’s kinda become like the Republican Party — it has a loooong history of reckless behavior to overcome — but it’s actually quite a mature, responsive browser. I couldn’t ever see myself leaving Chrome, but IE11 is worth calling out in this upgrade mainly because of two seemingly little tweaks that will undoubtedly have a big impact: it now supports WebGL, so now you can play in-browser games with stunning speed and cool visuals, and IE now has a “Reading View” option, similar to the one in Safari that is the absolute #1 reason to use Safari if you’re on a Mac! Thanks for these, Microsoft. Now, if you would only grasp the idea of “extensions” like Chrome has, we would have a much more lively relationship.

Let’s not forget the App Store. Just last year, Microsoft’s App Store resembled a Soviet grocery store in the 1940s: cold and dusty with barren shelves full of nothing but moldy bread. With only 10,000 apps (and let’s be honest, some of what Microsoft counted as an “app” were thinly disguised versions of silly web pages), the App Store has now grown up a bit and boasts over 100,000 apps (but still no Instagram!). The one thing worth noting with this post, however, is the rejoicing we can all engage in because the Mail app has been redesigned. W00t! Thank God for small miracles. The Mail app has been one of the most consistent reminders of how bad an app can actually be. With this upgrade, Microsoft realized it needed to make some hefty changes. The Mail app has been completely redesigned, improved for both touch or keyboard and mouse use. You can drag and drop messages into folders, easily select multiple messages with checkboxes, and generally filter out and manage email a lot more easily. Performance has also greatly improved, with draft emails simply appearing on the right-hand side rather than taking up the full screen. Thank you, Redmond.

Even better news: this big, little upgrade is free for existing Windows 8 users. I’d say go get it now!

I deactivated my Facebook account the other night. I had a few realizations:

1. I was getting all my news via Facebook.

2. I was losing a ridiculous amount of time reading my stream on Facebook.

3. My head was always down in my phone when I was out … checking Facebook.

4. I seemed to want to share mundane things. I mean, does anyone really care where I ate or want to see a photo of what I had for dinner?

5. Facebook had an interesting effect on my emotions. I noticed two things: posting on Facebook and generating comments made me feel good, like I’d achieved something. (You like me! You really like me!) I also noticed that more often than not, my Facebook stream could make me feel pretty bad about myself, just because my achievements couldn’t compare with those in my stream.

All that together and I realized that it was time for a break. It’s a snap, really, to deactivate your account. It takes less than 5 minutes. It’s worth mentioning that deactivating is like suspending an account. It’s temporary and I can easily reactivate at any time, with no loss of data. Deleting, on the other hand, is a whole different story. (Just ask Stan in South Park.)

I want to see if I’m more attentive to the real world around me. I want to know if I’ll get my time back, and what I’ll do with it. Will I just tweet more?  And with the ridiculous stream of people and “friends” on Facebook, will anyone notice if there’s one less voice in the cacophony? (I did accidentally send my closest girlfriends into a panic when they couldn’t find me online.)

Cartoon by Rap (from Deviant Art)

Cartoon by Rap (from Deviant Art)

Where will I get my news now, if not from Facebook? Will not being on Facebook affect me emotionally? Will it be a problem with all of the “sign in through Facebook” web sites? So there are a lot of little questions to this Great Experiment. I’d like to think I’ll find other things to do with my time. As for emotionally, it’s actually been freeing to not “need” to check in on Facebook all the time. No withdrawal yet!

One of the coolest little features of the new Control Center is the options it offers.

First, did you know you can access the Control Center right from your lock screen? Similar to how iOS6 let you access the camera quickly, you can now swipe up and view the Control Center. (If this doesn’t work for you go to Settings > Control Center and select Access on Lock Screen.)

Now, the Control Center is pretty neat. You can quickly access airplane mode, wifi, bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, and Screen Rotation Lock.

Control Center

The brightness ad volume sliders are there too. But look a little further. You can pop your iPhone into Speaker mode from here too.

Additionally, if you’re fumbling with your keys on a dark night, there’s a Flashlight built in. (So long hundreds of Flashlight apps!) A timer is accessible from here, as well as the Calculator (calculate those tips) and the camera.

Enjoy!