On Social Media Addiction

I’ve known for a while; now what am I going to do about it?

The other day, one of my Facebook friends, Lynda Weinman, shared an article from the New York Times titled “Addicted to Distraction” by Tony Schwartz. It began with the following paragraph:

ONE evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.

The author had just described a condition I’d been suffering with for at least a year — the inability to stay focused on something for more than a short while.

The author of this piece blames his problem on being connected to the Internet all the time. In his case, the problem is primarily email, although, like me, he also finds himself compulsively Googling for answers to questions that pop up in conversation or or his mind. From there, he says it’s difficult to “resist surfing myself into a stupor.” Sound familiar?

My problem is not email. In fact, email is such a nuisance these days that I don’t even bother checking it every day. I figure that if something is important, I’ll get a phone call or text. Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen. But as I type this, my Inbox has 2215 messages, 92 of which are unread. Obviously, the best way to contact me is not by email.

So if email isn’t distracting me, what is? Social media, of course.

I’ve been active on social media since 2007, when I joined Twitter. I embraced Twitter and made many “virtual friends” there, many of whom have become real friends who I’ve met in the flesh and shared meals with. I follow a select group of people who tend to post interesting things that entertain or educate me. As someone who worked alone all day — I wrote for a living back then — I considered Twitter my “water cooler,” the place I went when I needed a break from my work and wanted social interaction.

Then came Facebook and LinkedIn and Google+. I grew to dislike all of them pretty quickly. Facebook was social networking for the masses, where people lazily shared image-based memes spread around by sites looking for clicks. So many of these people were real-world friends and it was disappointing to see that they didn’t have anything better — or even more personal — to share. On LinkedIn, I was approached more frequently by spammers trying to sell me goods or services than anyone interested in a mutually beneficial, friendly relationship. And Google+ never really got off the ground so I stopped using it pretty quickly. A visit to my account there shows I have more than 700 followers there and I still can’t understand why when there’s nothing in my account to follow.

Still, Facebook sucked me in and continues to do so on a daily basis. I think it’s the potential for conversation that attracts me. Again, I live and work alone and it’s a place for social interaction during my day. I’ve stopped following the folks who have nothing interesting to share, as well as the folks who share hate-filled political messages. What’s left is a handful of people I like, posting original content or links to interesting content elsewhere on the Web. Sure, there’s still a bunch of crap in my timeline every time I visit, but I’ve become pretty good at ignoring it.

This wouldn’t be so bad if I visited Twitter and Facebook occasionally, as I did when I first began using them. But I don’t. I’m on and off both services all day long. I start not long after waking, when I’m lying in bed waiting for the clock to tick to a more reasonable time to get up. (I wake up very early some mornings and would prefer staying in bed until at least 5 AM.) Then, if I have a tablet or my phone at breakfast, I check in some more. When I sit at my computer, I’m constantly checking in to see if anything is new and either commenting on someone else’s post or replying to comments on mine. At any idle moment, I’m more likely to reach for my phone to check social media than sit in quiet contemplation.

And then there’s the sharing. Any time I see something I think is interesting or funny, I take a picture of it and share it on Twitter or Facebook or both. And, while I’m sharing on Facebook, I usually check to see what’s new and spend time reading, commenting, and following links.

Both Twitter and Facebook have become tools for “surfing myself into a stupor.” Although I’m pretty good at resisting link bait — think headlines like “Shocking new photos reveal that Princess Charlotte is very cute” (Mashable) and “Adorable baby goat learns how to hop by copying its human friend” (Mashable), and “Soda-loving bear, ‘the dress’ among the weirdest stories of 2015 (USAToday) — I do enjoy (and learn from) reading articles about science, psychology, and history (to name a few). After all, that’s how I found the Times article that triggered this post. And a great article this morning titled “12 bad reasons for rejecting scientific studies” on a site I’d never heard of before, The Logic of Science. And countless other extremely informative, thoughtful pieces. So I do learn and grow from things I find in social media. That’s good, right?

Yes and no, but mostly no right now. I don’t need to be checking in all day long to reap the benefits of social media. I can limit my access to an hour or so a day. I can use my browser’s “read later” feature to accumulate articles to read when I’m not on social media. It’s not going to kill me to miss a friend’s update or a link to something of interest or value to me.

There’s only so much information I can squeeze into my head. As the author of the Times piece says,

Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.

Some people will argue that this isn’t true. That your brain isn’t like a hard disk that can be filled up. But I definitely believe there’s at least some truth in this.

But it’s the distraction that bothers me most. The inability to just sit down and read a book or magazine without my mind wandering away to something else. Or feeling a need to share something I just thought of with friends. My inability to stay focused when I want or need to sit down and read or write.

Facebook Update
I was in the middle of writing this blog post when I stopped suddenly, went online, and posted this update. 27 minutes later, am I gratified to see that a stranger liked it? What does that mean?

This blog post is an excellent example. I’m only 2/3 finished with it and I’ve already left it several times to check Facebook. Although once was to get the link to the Logic of Science article above (which really is good), I did post comments and even send an update that has nothing to do with this blog post. (Yes, my mind wandered to my driveway and the scant amount of snow left on it by yesterday’s all-day flurry event.) Social media has become a tool for procrastination, more insidious than a television because it’s with me all the time.

Ironically, when I first started writing this blog post, I looked back through older posts for one I’d written about sharing image-based text memes on Facebook. I didn’t find that one because while I was looking I found one far more appropriate to share. Written in October 2007 — yes, eight years ago! — “Is Social Networking Sucking Your Life Away?” is a foreshadowing of what was to come. Clearly I realized way back then that social networking was a time suck. Back then, I couldn’t understand why or how others could let their time be wasted in such trivial pursuits. But now here I am, with the same problem I couldn’t understand.

Now I understand it.

Back in January 2015, I wrote a blog post titled “2015 Resolutions.” The very first one on my list was to “Fight the Social Media Addiction.” I realized then that I had a problem and even came up with a workable solution to fight it: place limits on social media time and updates. Did I do this? Maybe for a few weeks.

(The only one of those resolutions I kept was to stay out of Starbucks; it’s been almost a year without Starbucks and I’m quite pleased with myself.)

Clearly, I need to try harder.

I read the comments on the Facebook post where Lynda shared the link to the Times piece. One of Lynda’s friends said, “I was a better person and a better artist before the iPhone.” I added:

I was a better writer before Facebook.

He could have been describing me here. I struggle to read now. Can’t stay focused. Reread the same paragraphs over and over. Constantly checking social media and following links to articles I shouldn’t care about. I knew I had a problem last year when I tried to include a limit in my New Years resolutions. I lasted less than two weeks.

I’ll try again. This time, I’ll take social media off my phone. And I’ll put a post-it note on my computer with one question to remind me: “What are you doing?”

Thanks for sharing this. It was a good read — and a good reminder.

What are you doing?
Maybe this will help remind me to stay focused while I’m using my computer?

Are you addicted to social media? Think about it and beware of denial. The first step to fighting an addiction is to admitting that it’s real.

Read the Times article for yourself and see what you come away with.

2015 Resolutions

A very ambitious list.

I’ve been slipping — and it’s got to stop. So I’ve decided to set up and stick to some New Year’s Resolutions.

1. Fight the Social Media Addiction

I spend entirely too much time on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Actually, if you spend more than 30 minutes a day on social media — and aren’t being paid to do it as part of your job — you probably spend too much time, too.

Think about it. Yes, you enjoy it. It’s a nice, convenient social experience. But it’s also a timesuck. And the time you spend online looking at cat photos and clicking like buttons is time you could be spending doing other more rewarding things like engaging in personal interactions with family and real (not virtual) friends, working on projects that enrich your life (or bank account), and getting some fresh air and/or exercise. These are all things I want to spend my time doing. I don’t want to sit in front of the computer after breakfast, tune into Facebook, and look up two hours later to discover that half my morning is gone and nothing constructive has been done.

So I’m placing a limit on social networking:

Less FacebookFacebook:

  • No checking in between 8 AM and 8 PM. “Checking in” refers to logging on for the purpose of reading new updates on my newsfeed and checking and responding to comments on my or other people’s updates.
  • Maximum of 3 updates per day, including updates of photos or links but excluding updates automatically generated when I post to my blog. These can be done at any time.
  • No likes. (I actually began doing this a few months ago and I find it very rewarding, mostly because it prompts me to share more meaningful commentary when I like something.)


  • No checking in between 8 AM and 8 PM. “Checking in” refers to logging on for the purpose of reading new tweets, checking and responding to notifications on my account, and adding or removing followers.
  • Maximum of 12 tweets per day, including photos, links, tweets automatically generated when I post to my blog, and retweets but excluding scheduled tweets. These can be done at any time.


Stop using it. Period. This should be pretty easy since I only check in once every month or so and always leave with a bad taste in my mouth.


Really? People still use this?

I know this sounds silly or even kind of extreme — almost like a mom setting parental controls for her kid — but I have identified a problem and I have decided to tackle it by setting limitations. Let’s see how I do.

2. Watch Less TV.

I think I watch an awful lot of TV, especially when you consider that I (1) don’t have cable or satellite TV, (2) only get 4 live channels, and (3) rely mostly on Netflix, Hulu+, and other Roku-available content for options. Again, I think this has to do with the long winter nights — I certainly didn’t watch much TV when the sun was setting after 8 PM.

What’s reasonable? I think 5 hours a week is reasonable. That’s less than an hour a day. That might seem a bit low, but when you consider that I’m out with friends a few evenings a week, it should be pretty easy to maintain.

Read a BookAnd there is this added cheat: a movie — no matter what length it is — counts as just an hour. But, at the same time, an “hour-long” TV episode watched without commercials, which is really only about 44 minutes long, would also count as an hour. I’ll need a scorecard to keep track. It should be interesting to see how I do.

What will I do instead? That’s easy: read.

3. Lose 15 Pounds

MeasureYes, I need to lose weight again. Doesn’t everyone?

Back in 2012, I lost 45 pounds and went from a size 14/16 to a size 6/8. Since then, my weight has crept up a bit, although I’m still able to (barely) fit into all of my new clothes. Time to nip that in the bud and go back to my goal weight. Remember, I burned the bridge to fat town back in 2012.

I’m not very worried about achieving this. I’m going to use the same diet I used in 2012 to lose 45 pounds in 4 months. I expect to get back to my goal weight within 2 months but will likely stay on the diet for an additional month for the added benefits it offers — mostly appetite reduction. That’s what made it possible to keep the weight off as long as I did.

In my defense, since the last 10 pounds came on very quickly — over the past two months — I suspect it has a lot to do with my reduced activity level. Winter means short, cold days here in the Wenatchee area. Unless I’m out doing something that keeps me busy and warm — like skiing or snowshoeing — I’m not likely to be outside. And there isn’t much exercise indoors — although climbing scaffolding can be pretty exhausting after a while. This is my best argument for going south for the winter and I may do it next year. (Yeah, I’m a snowbird for health reasons. That’s the ticket!)

Oh, and if you’re one of those people who think “big is beautiful” and that being thin is something that society forces upon us to make us feel bad about our bodies, wake up and smell the deep fried Oreo you’re about to shove in your pie hole. I never said I wanted to be thin. I’ve said (elsewhere in this blog) that I wanted to remain a healthy weight for the rest of my life. The added benefit is the ability to look good in clothes, have lots of energy, and feel better about myself. Don’t be an idiot. If you’re more than 10% over what’s a healthy weight for your height, you owe it to yourself and your family to shed those extra pounds. Trust me: you will be glad you did.

4. Write More

Writing PadOne of the things social media time has stolen from me is writing time. Instead of sitting down to write a blog post or an article for a magazine or even a chapter of a book, I spend that time on Facebook or Twitter or even (sometimes) LinkedIn. Or surfing the web. This are mostly unrewarding, unfulfilling activities. I get so much more satisfaction out of completing a blog post or article — especially when there’s a paycheck for the article.

I want to blog more often — at least four times a week. Blogging is something that makes me feel good. I wish I could explain it. I think it’s because I’m documenting the things I’m doing, thinking, and feeling. Creating an archive of these things.

I’ve been blogging for 11 years now and am very proud of that fact. I’m also thrilled that I can go back and read about the things that interested me so long ago. Why wouldn’t I want to do this?

I also want to explore new markets for paid article work. I have opportunities and when I can focus I can write and submit work I can be paid for. Why aren’t I doing more of this?

And I definitely need to complete a few work-in-progress books that I’ve started. And turn some of my blog posts into ebooks I can earn a few dollars on.

And I sure wouldn’t mind reopening some of the fiction work I began 20 or 30 years ago — work that was once so much a part of my life that I’d think about it in bed to help me drift off to sleep. Time to bring all that back into my life.

5. Just Say No to Starbucks

Say No to StarbucksWhy do I go in there? The coffee isn’t even that good!

I live in Washington, for Peet’s sake (pun intended), a place where there are coffee shops on nearly every corner and more drive-through coffee stands than gas stations. Why am I going into Starbucks, a place where saying “medium” instead of “grande” can earn you a snicker from the order taker?

Chocolate Covered Graham CrackersAnd don’t say it’s the dark chocolate covered graham crackers. Although it could be.

I guess I just don’t like the idea of supporting a global corporation with mediocre products when I could be supporting small, local coffee shops with slightly less mediocre products.

What I really should do is stop drinking coffee in the middle of the day.

This will be easy to do once I set my mind to it. I just have to not crave coffee when I walk into the Fred Meyer or Safeway supermarkets.


Because I’m so anal, I’ll keep a scorecard to see how I do. I’ll try to report back with success — or failure — at year’s end.

Wish me luck!

And why not share a few of your resolutions for 2015? Use the comments link or form for this post.

Lingering at the Crossroads

On the profundity of book quotes.

I don’t buy printed books anymore. I read ebooks, usually on my iPad, after either buying them or getting them on loan from the library.

Yes, I will agree that there’s something nice about holding a printed book in my hands, smelling the paper when I open it for the first time, and turning physical pages made of real paper as I read. But there’s something even better about being able to carry dozens — if not hundreds — of books with me everywhere I go and to be able to pick up any of them where I left off, no matter where I am.

Besides that, there is no place for printed books in my life these days. I’ve become transient, with most of my physical possessions packed for the day I land, hopefully on my feet, in a new home.

Highlights and Notes

Although I never put pen to paper in any of the printed books I owned — that would be sacrilege! — do “mark up” the ebooks I’ve bought. I do this by highlighting passages and adding notes. I can later go back and review these highlighted passages and think about what they meant to me when I highlighted them — and what they mean to me now.

Cover of 11/22/63I just finished reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I’d gotten it for Christmas last year (or maybe the year before) and it has sat on my iPad, downloaded into the Kindle app, for months.

Reading is one of my few escapes from reality these days, but it isn’t easy for me to do. I have a hard time staying focused on any thought-related task; I do far better with physical tasks. And I have to admit that after taking a long break from Stephen King — the last book of his that I read was The Dead Zone and I didn’t even finish it — I didn’t think his brand of horror thriller would be a good match for my mood. But the book, which centers around time travel to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, wasn’t quite what I expected. It was more historic fiction than horror — no demons in the corn or giant crabs on the beach. It was also long — 853 pages! — and I found it absorbing enough to keep my attention for the several days it took to read. I think I can safely say that I enjoyed it.

Of course, that’s not what this blog post is about. It’s about the truth I found in some of the book’s passages that I highlighted — truth that applies to what I’m going through now.

The latest version of the Kindle app offers four highlighting colors: pink, blue, yellow, and orange. I used pink to highlight five brief passages that made me stop and think about my divorce.

The Crossroads of my Marriage

A good portion of the book deals with the relationship that forms between the protagonist and a woman he meets in his travels. They fall in love, but he’s got a secret that he can’t share with her. It’s got nothing to do with her or their relationship, but his inability to share that information with her is causing problems with their relationship. He writes:

Sometimes a man and a woman reach a crossroads and linger there, reluctant to take either way, knowing the wrong choice will mean the end…and knowing there’s so much worth saving.

In hindsight — which is usually 20/20 — I know when my husband reached the crossroads of our marriage. It was in mid 2011, before I got back from my fourth summer season in Washington.

By the time I got back in October, my husband’s roommate had finally left, leaving our Phoenix condo open for me to move in. We still had the house in Wickenburg, of course; my husband had been living in Phoenix during the week and in Wickenburg on weekends for the previous three years. He had a roommate in Phoenix most of that time and his roommate did not make me feel welcome. So I avoided the place as much as I could. With him gone, however, things changed. We got new furniture and blinds for the condo and I moved my office into the second bedroom. I lived there with my husband and our dog and usually went back to Wickenburg on weekends with them.

I thought being together more would make our relationship better, but it didn’t. My husband never seemed happy; I assumed it was his job, which I knew frustrated and annoyed him. His behavior frustrated and annoyed me. Things deteriorated, fights erupted, he gave me a steady diet of disapproving glances whenever I wanted to do something that he didn’t like. But he never talked to me about what bothered him so I continued believing it was the job.

In reality, he’d reached a crossroads that I hadn’t seen. I don’t know exactly when he got there — I suspect it was during the summer, while I was away. A year later, in September 2012, he told a mutual friend that I hadn’t told him that I loved him when he came to visit me for my birthday in 2011. He was carrying around that disappointment (or anger?) for over a year but hadn’t said a word to me about it. (I never was much of a mind-reader.)

So he reached the crossroads and likely felt very alone. He lingered there, waiting for something — I don’t know what — to happen. Meanwhile, I was chomping at the bit — as I so often am — anxious to move in one direction or another. His malaise and my inability to make it go away by doing what I thought he wanted me to do — making a home for us in the condo — bothered me, but I still didn’t see what the real problem was.

He got to the crossroads without me, while I was spinning my wheels in frustration just down the road. Or maybe up the road.

He lingered at the crossroads of our relationship from at least October 2011 through my departure for my summer season at the end of April 2012. And then he decided on a path — one that clearly proves that he didn’t think what we had was worth saving.

He began looking for my replacement. He found her in the form of a desperate woman eight years older than him, a woman who sent him photos of herself in lingerie, a woman who convinced him to ask for a divorce. A woman who even provided him with lists of divorce attorneys to call, along with the advice that he should call as many as he could because I wouldn’t be able to work with any of the ones he’d spoken to. A woman who called him “baby” and would eventually manage his side of our divorce.

He reached the crossroads of our relationship and made a decision without me. He put his fate in the hands of a stranger. And I’m living — no we’re living — with the fallout from that decision now.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. Relationships need to be completely honest and open. As two people travel through life together, they should do so hand-in-hand so when they reach a crossroads, they reach it together and can guide each other to make the right decision on which way to go.

I wish we’d both understood that.

Undeserved Anger

Later in the book, the main character gets caught lying to his girlfriend. He gets angry about it and thinks:

We never get so mad as when we get caught, do we?

This sentence hit me like a freight train and brought me back to the August day when I discovered that my husband had lied about having an affair and hiring a divorce attorney. I caught him in the lie and texted him about it. He reacted with rage — rage directed at me.

Yes, he was angry at me because I’d caught him in at least two lies.

His reaction bothered me a lot. The man I’d fallen in love with would have been calmer and possibly — but not likely — apologetic. He would have attempted to offer some sort of explanation. He wouldn’t have reacted in angry rage with a threatening and accusatory email response.

As if it were somehow my fault that he’d lied to me.

We never get so mad as when we get caught. I knew firsthand what that meant.

The Bad Dream that Doesn’t End

Later in the book, the main character and his girlfriend have a falling out — mostly because he’s hiding the truth from her. (His motives are good, but how can she understand that when she doesn’t know the full story?) The fight is over and he’s leaving. He’s thinking:

Part of me was thinking this was all just a bad dream, and that I’d wake up soon. Most of me knew better.

This describes my state of mind since June 30, 2012, my birthday, when my husband called me on the phone to ask for a divorce. I didn’t know then that he was probably calling from the home of the woman he was living with, the woman who had become his mommy and would direct his actions against me for the next nine or ten months. Back then, it was just a shock — only weeks before, we’d been discussing him and our dog spending the summer with me.

For months, they subjected me to every form of harassment they could muster, trying to wear me down, trying to make me give in to a proposed settlement that would take away nearly everything I’d worked so hard for my whole life, leaving me homeless with my savings drained. It wasn’t enough to be wronged by his lying and cheating — they wanted to ruin me financially, too. Every time they’d throw some new form of harassment my way, I’d think that what was happening couldn’t possibly be happening. It must all be a dream — a terrible nightmare — and that if I were lucky, I’d wake up soon in my own bed with my husband beside me and my dog at the foot of the bed.

I even dreamed about him. I dreamed about making love with him. I dreamed about him holding me in his arms, comforting me as I sobbed from the grief I feel every day. I dreamed of him saying he was sorry, that he didn’t mean to hurt me, that the woman he left me for meant nothing to him and he was coming back to me.

But there’s no waking from reality, no matter how unreal it seems.

And I know that.


In the book, the protagonist had been married to an alcoholic who went to AA. He mentions one of her AA slogans:

FEAR, standing for false evidence appearing real.

This reminded me of the paranoia that my husband and his girlfriend/mommy were apparently suffering from. She followed my Twitter stream like a circling buzzard’s eyes follow the trail of a wounded rabbit. She’d seize upon some innocuous tweet and send it to their lawyer as evidence of some imagined wrong-doing. I tweeted about flushing a dead fish down the toilet and it became evidence that I was destroying my husband’s valuable exotic fish. I tweeted about scanning and shredding documents as part of my paperless filing system and it became evidence that I was destroying my husband’s documents. These claims went as far as the court, along with fifty pages of other tweets, accompanied by demands that I stop destroying my husband’s property and grant him an immediate inspection of our home.

The only problem was, the fish belonged to me, they’d cost less than $10 each, and they were already dead. The papers I was scanning and shredding were all mine. I’m not a complete idiot.

Their — or perhaps just her? — paranoia led to fear: false evidence appearing real.

It’s almost sad to see my husband stuck with someone so psychologically unhinged that she reads between the lines and sees threats everywhere. Almost. But as my friends tell me, he’ll get what he deserves. Apparently he deserves to live out his life with a vindictive and paranoid old woman.

Why Does Life Have to Bite?

The last passage I highlighted is a piece of dialog from the protagonist’s girlfriend. At the risk of sharing a spoiler, let me just say that she was attacked and severely scarred. She says:

“Also, I’m angry. I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel, as well? Why does it have to bite?”

And this is my problem with the whole situation.

My divorce ordeal — and I really can’t use a more appropriate word — has hit me hard, harder than anything I’ve ever had to live through. My parents’ divorce, deaths among family members and friends, personal illnesses, financial hardships — nothing comes close to the pain and suffering I’m dealing with right now, every day of my life.

There’s no closure until it’s over — and even then I doubt I’ll ever have the closure I need. That’s mostly because I still don’t understand how it happened. I still don’t understand how the man I spent 29 years of my life with could throw away everything we had to shack up with a woman he’d met less than a month before. I still don’t understand how a man I loved and trusted with my life could betray that trust and subject me to the kind of mental torture he’s been throwing at me for the past nine months.

But I need to put things in perspective, as my wiser friends have pointed out.

One friend likes to talk about the hypothetical “little girl with cancer.” Yes, I’m better off than she is. At least I’ve had 51 years of life and most of it was relatively pain-free. The little girl with cancer won’t have that.

And, closer to home, I have a very good friend who is also going through some difficult times with her partner. On so many levels, her situation is far worse than mine.

Or I can just read the news and think about the millions of people worldwide, living in hunger and poverty or in war-torn nations. Losing family members, homes, livelihoods. Living in situations so horrible I can’t begin to imagine what their lives are like. I don’t want to imagine it. Like most other Americans, I’d rather turn a blind eye to the world’s more serious problems and wallow in my own grief.

And I know that’s wrong.

But it’s all relative.

Life is hard, life is cruel, life bites.

I suppose I should be happy that things aren’t worse. But that’s a very difficult proposition to grasp, especially with my future so uncertain after so many years spent planning and ensuring my — no, our — financial security.

My Crossroads

Now I’m approaching a crossroads of my own life. It’s not a place I ever expected to be at age 51. I planned and worked and saved and did everything I thought was best to avoid being someplace like this. I doesn’t seem right that I should be here.

It isn’t right.

But right doesn’t matter. As much as I’d like to believe it does, it really doesn’t. No one really cares about right and wrong. I’m naive to think otherwise.

Eventually, my divorce ordeal will end. The loss of my husband, my dog, my home, and the life I loved will be complete. The man I loved and the dreams I thought we shared will fade away like so many broken and dried autumn leaves on winter’s first cold and windy day. I’ll stand at the crossroads and I’ll make the decisions I need to move forward alone, with whatever the judge decides I’m allowed to keep.

As so many of my friends tell me so often, I’m a strong woman and I’ll be okay.

But I can’t help thinking about the mistakes that were made at that other crossroads, the one I didn’t see. And I’ll always wonder how things could have been different if the man who’d reached that other crossroads had chosen a path that I could rejoin him on.

Ebook Review: The Pillars of the Earth

Ebook FAIL.

Since this week’s blog theme seems to be FAIL, I figure I’d finish off the run of FAIL posts with the most epic failure of all: Penguin’s “ebook,” Pillars of the Earth. This attempt at ebook publishing is so full of FAIL that I almost don’t know where to begin.

When is an Ebook not an Ebook?

Home ScreenWhen it’s an app.

That’s the first problem. Announced almost the same day as Apple’s announcement that iBooks would support multimedia elements, I made the assumption that this new, “amplified” edition of Ken Follett’s novel would be an example of iBooks’ new capabilities.

I was wrong.

Not only is this a standalone iPad app, but it requires a whopping 1.54 GB of storage space on an iPad. “Updates” — and there has been one so far — are equally huge. In fact, Apple warns you:

Do not attempt to download this product wirelessly. Download in the App Store on your computer and transfer to your iPad by synching your apps.

The product itself is poorly designed, consisting of:

  • An ebook reader module. There’s nothing special about this at all. While it mimics the iBooks’ curling page flip, its implementation is sluggish and buggy; more than once, the page flip happened so slowly that it was impossible to turn the page. (It just wouldn’t move enough to “flip” over.) I had to quit the app and restart it to continue reading. The table of contents is broken down to the chapter level which wouldn’t be so bad if the chapters weren’t 50+ pages long. As a result, if you wanted to go back to a previous part of the book, it took forever to go to the page you wanted and then return to where you’d left off. Ebook settings do not include font size; you have to pinch to change that and more than once, it reset itself.
  • Character TreeA “Character Tree.” This feature is supposed to help you understand the relationship between characters. I found it nearly impossible to navigate and parts of it seemed to be locked out. It was more of a source of frustration than information. I still can’t figure out why some characters have flashing halos.
  • About the Author material. This includes text and video information about Ken Follett, author of mostly spy thrillers. This book is not spy thriller.
  • About TV Series material. This is the extras stuff that’ll likely turn up on the DVD. Starz marketing material, through and through. I figured I’d go through it when I was done with the book, but after the disappointment of being locked out of content, I figured it would be better to avoid additional frustration.
  • Links. I guess if they’ve got us, they may as well shoot marketing material at us with both barrels.

The settings screen is a joke. While it might have been a good place to put font settings, instead it offers just two options: Page Flip Sounds and Use Night Theme.

Annoying DialogI think the ultimate indicator that this is a poorly designed app is the dialog that appears every single time you open the app. Illustrated here, it includes a Don’t Show button. I tapped it every single time, but the damn dialog continued to appear.

Typos, Missing Breaks

The ebook text had its own problems:

  • There were typos. Real typos. I stopped counting after seven.
  • There was no indication of scene changes. For example, you’d be reading a scene where two characters are talking or doing something. Next line, another character who isn’t in the scene is talking or doing something. Huh? While the printed book may have used additional space to indicate a scene change, the ebook version doesn’t bother with such niceties. I guess they think the reader needs to be jarred to his senses once in a while.

Apparently, copyediting is not part of the ebook production process at Penguin.

The Movie Clips

Embedded in the book’s text are icons that, when clicked, may or may not display a movie clip from the Starz dramatization of the book. There were four problems with this feature.

  • Movie ClipThe clip usually did not match the text. The screenplay is apparently not a faithful adaptation, so dialog, characters, and scenes are different. Watching these clips while reading the book is like reading a book and watching a movie roughly based on it at the same time. Not a very rewarding experience.
  • The clips are teasers. There’s not enough content to make them valuable. They’re merely a tool to get you to watch or buy the Starz series.
  • The clip would not reliably play full screen width. You had to coax it to fill the screen by tapping a button in the upper right corner.
  • Unable to PlayThe clip would not display until it had aired on Starz! This zapped me early on. After reading a passage that described the cathedral under construction, I was pleased to see a video icon, hoping to be able to visualize the rather complex description. Instead, a dialog box (see image) told me that “speed-readers” had to wait until that clip aired more than a week later! My surprise quickly turned to anger when I realized I’d been sold a marketing tool for Starz.

The Book

Ken Follett writes spy thrillers. I’ve read a few of them. They’re good. Ken Follett should keep writing them and stop writing medieval historical fiction.

At first, the book was a pleasure to read. It introduced me to medieval times with an air of authenticity — other than dialog, of course — that was enjoyable to me. The dialog was not authentic at all and I think that’s okay. I don’t think I could have struggled through medieval dialects, spelling, and grammar.

But the book got very long very quickly. I’m a fast reader and can normally knock off a novel in two or three days, reading in the evening before bed. This one took more than a week. It seemed to go on and on and on. The story got boring. Even when it was supposed to be exciting it got boring.

About halfway through, I realized that I wasn’t enjoying the book anymore. I’d passed the point of being able to watch video content — nothing was available to me — so all I could do was read. And what I read was disturbing.

Spoilers Ahead!

The book had several antagonists. One was a violent man named William who couldn’t seem to have sex with a woman unless beating her was part of the act. He raped one of the protagonists while her brother was forced to watch and then had his groom rape her, too. He basically went through the book, beating, raping, and killing. There was no stopping him. He literally got away with murder again and again.

It made me sick.

Another antagonist was a bishop who would forgive William for his sins. No matter how bad they were. He was evil in his own way and also seemed to get away with his acts over and over.

These two antagonists, and a few other minor ones who wound through the plot, had their way with just about anything. It was heartbreaking to read their latest dastardly deeds, page after page. After a while, I wondered why I was reading. There was no enjoyment in the plot, no real reward for the reader who needs to see good triumph over evil. It was simply a long, drawn out punishment for the good guys.

We’re not talking about a short book here. The mass market paperback — the version you’d buy in an airport bookstore, for example — is 983 pages. That’s a hell of a lot of evil to wade through.

Oh, every once in a while, the protagonists would win a small victory. They defended their town against William and his raiders, “only” losing 70 or so people in the process. Hooray. That was after William had burned their town to the ground on the previous raid, killing innocent men, women, and children, including one of the protagonists, and causing the financial ruin of the woman he’d raped while her brother watched. Talk about insult to injury, huh?

Throughout the whole book, I kept waiting for William to get his just desserts. He finally did, on the last pages of the book. Somehow he and the rest of the cast had managed to live — during medieval times, when Wikipedia reports average life expectancy to be only 30 years — to their 50s, 60s, and beyond. It was then that William was finally hanged. An astute reader will realize that the bad guy has lived a long and comfortable life, directly responsible for the rape, maiming, and murder of hundreds of people, and it is only in his old age that he’s finally punished. We’re supposed to be satisfied with that?

The interaction between the characters was unrealistic and contrived most of the time. I’d read a scene and wonder why they did (or didn’t do) what they did (or didn’t do). It doesn’t seem to make sense sometimes. It’s as if the author’s only purpose is to set them up for something in the future — something unpleasant. And there are only so many times you can get into a character’s head and read the same thoughts before you stop caring about what’s in there.

And sex? Not only is it prevalent throughout the book, but it’s often quite graphic, with various private parts being stroked, grabbed, fondled, squeezed, sucked — you get the idea. I don’t know how it got past the Apple censors with this rating:

Rated 12+ for the following:
• Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content or Nudity
• Infrequent/Mild Realistic Violence

Mild? I don’t think so. The graphic descriptions of the rapes with their violence against women were disturbing enough to warrant a more protective rating than that.

And I don’t think I’ve read the words fuck and cunt so many times in a book in a long time — if ever. If this were a movie with that language, it would be rated R — that’s 17 and older, Apple.

But the most tasteless bit of narrative? One of the protagonists having sex with a stranger within hours of his wife dying while giving birth to their child. And we’re supposed to like these characters?

Finally, the book was supposed to be about the building of a medieval cathedral. In reality, it was a book about the brutality of the ruling class, the corruption of the Catholic church, and the rough life of peasants during medieval times.

Spoilers Done.

A Learning Experience

I thought this “ebook” would be a publishing breakthrough. That’s how it was heralded on USAToday and other news outlets.

After seeing the excellent Wired app — which I need to review here, too — I had very high expectations for ebook publishing. I thought that publishers finally “got it.” I didn’t expect them to take advantage of readers by selling them advertising material for a partner organization. I didn’t expect to be locked out of content I’d paid for. I didn’t expect an ebook to take up so much precious space on my iPad.

I’m not the only one disappointed by this mess. The iTunes store shows only 29 ratings averaging only 2 out of 5 stars. I wonder how many other buyers have demanded their money back, too.

My refund comes this week.

Highest Duty

A book review.

Highest DutyLast night, I stayed up late to finish reading Highest Duty by US Airways pilot Chelsey B. “Sully” Sullenberger. Captain Sullenberger was the pilot in command of US Airways Flight 1549, which landed with no loss of life in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.

I’d been wanting to read the book for a while but I kept putting it off. I wanted it to be my first purchased ebook experience. I was supposed to get a Nook for Christmas, but the idiots at Barnes & Noble were completely clueless about customer service and timely order fulfillment, so I canceled the order. I wound up with an iPad in April. After weighing the benefits and drawbacks of ebook reader software — iBooks, Kindle Reader, and B&N Reader — I decided to go with the Kindle software and ordered the Kindle edition of the book from Amazon.com. From what I hear from Twitter friends, the iPad makes a better “Kindle” than Amazon’s Kindle.

On Heroes

I’ve always been intrigued by Captain Sullenberger’s modesty and apparent reluctance to bask in the limelight of his extraordinary experience. People call him a hero but he [rightly] refuses that title. He quotes from a letter he received after his Hudson River landing: “I see a hero as electing to enter a dangerous situation for a higher purpose, and you were not given a choice.”

I agree with this definition of a hero. Captain Sullenberger did what he had to do and was fortunate enough to have the knowledge, experience, demeanor, and team to carry it off successfully. His love and respect of life — including, of course, his own — is what motivated him to do everything he could to succeed.

In many ways, that’s better than being a hero. When a terrible situation was thrust upon him by circumstances he could not change, he rose to the occasion and emerged victorious, saving the lives of 105 people. Along the way, he gave the rest of us hope — after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, in the midst of a serious economic recession, with wars going on in the Mideast — he showed us what people can accomplish when put to the test. He gave us the happy ending we all needed.

It Wasn’t a “Miracle”

Another thing that intrigued — and, I’ll admit, pleased — me about Captain Sullenberger was his failure to credit his success to the intervention of some supernatural being. I’m talking about God.

I can’t tell you how sick I am of seeing famous athletes and celebrities and just plain people thank God for something good happening to them. Scored a record number of goals in a basketball game? Thank God! Won a Grammy? Praise Jesus! Tornado took out the house next to yours but left yours unscathed? God was watching out for you!

It makes me sick. People don’t want to give themselves credit where credit is due. They work hard, they train, they practice, but they give God credit for getting the ball through the hoop. They learn music, they practice singing, they get a great producer who helps package their material, but they give Jesus credit for winning that Grammy. They don’t want to admit that luck has a place in our lives — good luck preserves one house while bad luck takes the one next door away. What of the people who lost the basketball game or the Grammy or their home? Did God simply not like them as much? And what about when these winners get their own dose of bad luck — injury, illness, scandal, death? Did God change his mind about them?

Captain Sullenberger, however, did not thank God or any other supernatural being for the positive outcome of his Hudson landing. At least I didn’t hear him do so in any article, interview, or elsewhere. I wanted to read the book to be sure that he didn’t thank God within its pages. He didn’t.

And that just makes me respect him even more.

The Story

The book mingles autobiographical material with events from the day of the landing. The autobiographical material was presented in a roughly chronological order, but did bounce around a lot with side stories, including references to the Hudson landing. I’m not sure that was the best approach, but it did keep me reading.

Captain Sullenberger is clearly a true pilot. He entered aviation because of his love of flying. From his start as a teen, he took aviation seriously, learning what he could to be a better, safer pilot. He understands the importance of knowing an aircraft’s systems inside and out. He understands the value of studying past accidents to prevent future ones. He also understands that all the things that happen in our lives define who we are and how we will react in a given situation.

Flight 1549 from Wikipedia

This iconic photo of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River by GregL originally uploaded to Flickr can be found on Wikipedia under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

A detailed discussion of the events of January 15, 2009 begin about 60% through the book. The story is riveting. He combines his narrative of what happened with references to his past that he believes influenced him to make certain decisions. For example, his knowledge of research into why military pilots sometimes ejected too late is part of why he decided not to worry about saving the airplane by attempting an airport landing and instead concentrate on saving the people by landing in the river. (There’s a lot more to his decision than that; this is just part of what went into it.)

Throughout this part of the book are bits and pieces of the cockpit transcript, recorded by microphones during the flight — the so-called “black box” data. Even though I knew how it would end — don’t we all? — I found the details fascinating. It was a great example of teamwork between Captain Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeff Skiles. Later in the narrative, it was clear that the flight attendants were also part of the team, helping passengers off the plane in as orderly a manner as possible.

The aftermath of the experience also made interesting reading. Getting an inside look at the mail Captain Sullenberger received from people on the plane — as well as many people who had no direct connection to the flight or its passengers at all — revealed the psychology of people. I’m not the only one who appreciated the happy ending to that seemingly doomed flight.

The Soapbox

One of the complaints people have had about the book is the soapbox aspect. Captain Sullenberger believes that airline pilots are not treated as well as they should be by their employers considering the hours and responsibilities of their work. He believes that pay cuts and pension cuts are making it ever more difficult to attract and retain quality pilots who actually care about their work. He suggests that airline pilots are like bus drivers of the sky.

Although I don’t have intimate knowledge of the airline industry, as a professional pilot who has worked for a large tour operator, I know exactly what he means. Aviation employers don’t care how good a pilot is. As long as the pilot meets insurance requirements and can do the job, all that matters is how much that pilot costs. In my experience, many employers would rather hire a cheap, entry level pilot than a seasoned professional who costs more. They don’t see the benefit of the experience. They’re gambling, of course, on the equipment and circumstances of flight — when something goes wrong, will the entry level pilot have the experience and knowledge to bring the aircraft and passengers back safely?

In the airline industry, pilots are locked into their employers for seniority. If they leave one airline, they lose all seniority and start at the bottom at their new employer. This prevents experienced pilots from looking for better jobs. It stagnates the employee pool. And although Captain Sullenberger didn’t mention this, it prevents good ideas from one airline from migrating to another.

Captain Sullenberger does discuss how many airline employees have simply stopped caring about anything other than what’s in their job description. As budget cuts reduce non-essential staff, customer service suffers. Captain Sullenberger talks about his personal experiences going the “extra mile” to help passengers who can’t get the help they need from other airline employees. He talks about how most airline employees are simply tired of doing other people’s jobs. He doesn’t blame them — he hints that they’re underpaid for what they’re supposed to do — but he does decry the system that results in this poor attitude.

He also believes that budget cuts have the potential to reduce safety. A good example of this is the emergency procedures book that his first officer needed to consult on the loss of both engines. In the past, the book had numbered tabs that made it easier to find content. The airline, in a cost-cutting measure, had stopped including the tabs, making it necessary to thumb through the book and look at individual page headings to find content. In the slightly more than three minutes the cockpit crew had to land the plane without engines, every second was valuable. Yes, this flight had a happy ending — but could other flights be lost due to cost cutting measures like this? It certainly makes you wonder.

My feelings about Captain Sullenberger’s soapbox are mixed. I didn’t like reading his complaints, but, at the same time, I knew they were valid. And I know that his experience and the interviews, articles, and books that come from it are the perfect way to get the message out.

While Captain Sullenberger was careful not to criticize his airline, it’s clear that US Airways is just as bad as the others when it comes to matters of pilot compensation and cost-cutting. Perhaps his insight will help make the situation better?

Sadly, it probably won’t.

Thumbs Up

In all, I give the book two thumbs up. While it’s especially good reading for pilots and others interested in aviation, I also think it makes a good guide for young people who want to make something of their lives. And for the rest of the world, it’s a great look at one of the most amazing emergency landings we’ll likely ever see.