Whatever Happened to the Paperless Office?

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer wrote about reading the news online versus on paper. After publicly swearing off of the NYT’s print edition, Shafer admitted that he’s back on print, and loving it (or, at least, accepting it). It’s a nicely considered piece, as he talks about how print offers certain advantages, such as how it’s easier to remember what he’d read about, and easier to avoid distractions and make it to the end.

In one respect, what he’s describing are affordances, inherent traits of an object that enable you to do something. The concept of affordance comes up a lot in research on how we choose what we use, such as reading print or reading online. Paper has certain affordances (permanence, easier to control, you can scrawl in the margins, etc), while digital has its own (Shafer points out that you can search easily and read news from far away). It gets really interesting when one technology starts to borrow affordances from another, such as the Kindle’s enabling readers to make notes or highlight text.

Anyway, Jack’s piece is worth a read. And it reminded me of a short piece that Wired commissioned me to write for the Future That Never Happened package last year (but which, sadly, was bumped for space). Lucky for you, I’ve dredged it up.

Whatever Happened to the Paperless Office?

As businesses started adopting word-processing systems in the late ‘70s, everything about the office was predicted to change. Within just a couple of decades, the modern office would be a paperless one. Or, as futurist Alvin Toffler put it after composing some of his 1980 book The Third Wave on a new computer: “…making paper copies of anything is a primitive use of such machines and violates their very spirit.”

Of course, Toffler copped to printing out his drafts. And we’d all go on to violate the spirits of our desktop helpers on a daily basis as paper consumption rose year after year. (Probably didn’t help that as we bought all those computers, we were also picking up printers.)

The real problem with the paperless office was that the notion was flawed to begin with. Paper can be inefficient at times, but there are reasons we keep coming back.

As the researchers Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper describe it in their 2002 study The Myth of the Paperless Office, paper has some special “affordances.” That is, it isn’t just a container for text, but can be touched, marked, repurposed, displayed, skimmed, and can cling urgently in the form of little yellow sticky notes on the edges of your monitor. While digital has key strengths like storage and distribution, paper has proven useful in other contexts, like collaborating with co-workers.

True, our consumption of uncoated free sheet—what we feed our printers—has started to decrease in recent years, suggesting more of our paper work really is becoming bits in the cloud. But we still bought almost 10 million tons of the hard stuff last year. It’s going to take a long time to shake the habit.

environment, unfortunate

Lovely As a Tree: All That Remains

There it is. Or was. All that remains.

A pile of soggy sawdust and a few lost leaves. When I wrote about watching this tree being cut apart, I cited a useful Christian Science Monitor article on the value of trees in urban areas. And I am recently reminded of a terrific song called “The Trees,” by Pulp, an old favorite band from way back. In the refrain, Jarvis Cocker croons, “Yeah, the trees, those useless trees produce the air that I am breathing.”

Sort of a strange line.

My tree has probably been reduced to pulp.

environment, unfortunate

Lovely As A Tree

In the introduction to his monumental book Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner writes, “Trees, because of their moisture requirements, are our physiological counterparts in the kingdom of plants.” Although the book is about water (specifically, moving water around), not trees, Reisner makes an important point: an area that can support trees can support humans, from a hydrologic standpoint. And so it stands to reason that trees, in some ways, have historically been our advance signal corps, communicating whether a region was friendly and sustainable.

Reisner later notes that on North America’s western plains, during Lewis and Clark’s journey, “There was game—at times a ludicrous abundance of it—but there were no trees. To an easterner, no trees meant no possibility of agriculture.” And without agriculture, how could people settle and survive? This is a valid question of viability, one that remains robust when discussing the persistence of civilizations. But not all of the civilizing ideas of the 1800s stood the test of time, such as the famous “rain follows the plow,” or the similar basis for the federal Timber Culture Act, which required people given land in the American West to, as Reisner describes, “plant one-quarter of your quarter section with trees, a stipulation inserted because it was thought that trees increased the rainfall.” Reisner mentions later in his book, “There was not a single tree growing in San Francisco when the first Spanish arrived; it was too dry and windblown for trees to take hold. Today, Golden Gate Park looks as if Virginia had mated with Borneo, thanks to water brought nearly two hundred miles by tunnel.” My adopted city is built on man-made structure and environmental artifice.

Throughout San Francisco are various non-native plants and trees, usually Mediterranean or East Asian or Australian in origin. Lands in the San Francisco Bay Area that are set aside for protection by the state or federal governments, places like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes, are bursting with eucalyptus, the biggest, and possibly most attractive, most successful weed I’ve ever laid eyes on. (In fact, the eucalyptus, massive and almost invariably surrounded by bone dry leaf litter and lengths of shed bark, helps make Marin County a tinderbox every summer. In a sort of reprise of 1906, the plentiful eucalyptus combined with the high density Bay Area sprawl will make fire a major, if not the primary, regional cause of destruction following a significant earthquake.)

Despite my ecological inclinations against non-native species, it was with a mixture of horror and disappointment that I saw the tree in front of my house dismembered by city workers this morning. The tree (I’m not sure what it is—was—except that it was probably Australian, and possibly a water gum or silver dollar gum tree) was chopped to pieces, one limb at a time, and fed into a wood chipper. Its death seemed unnecessary; it was damaged in a storm last week, but seemed to be structurally sound. Since that night, I’d been repeating the hope that it wouldn’t be removed. As I arrived home last night, I saw signs taped to it and a neighboring tree warning people not to park next to them due to construction between 7.00 a.m. and 3.30 p.m.

The early start time, combined with my late start time, combined with my lack of enthusiasm for chaining myself to it or making my bed in its boughs, did not bode well for the tree. I awoke to the sound of a saw—but (ah ha!) that was from a remodeling site near my house. When I went to the front of my house, I could see a through the windows a man in the bucket of a cherry picker. He used a chainsaw to cut the tree apart; when not cutting, he slipped the saw blade into a holster on the side of the bucket. The limbs that remained that morning poked just into view. I watched with a kind of grim acceptance as the worker gradually lopped the limbs off, segment by segment, their cut-faces a fresh buff color, the smooth bark, stretched, as always, around the tree like a silvery gray skin. Too late.

I left for work, walked out the front gate through a haze of fine sawdust, picked my way over piles of leaves and clumps of dust that had accumulated like sand blown against the walls of my building. I meant to talk to the workers to see if they knew why this tree got the chop. But the men on the ground were were busily blowing leaves and sawdust around the street. They wore headphones over their ears to muffle the noise; and anyway, they seemed to veer away from me as soon as I stepped out and surveyed the scene, no doubt conditioned to avoid unhappy residents.

It’s difficult not to anthropomorphize when writing about a tree. After all, trees are our physiological counterparts in the plant world. It is no accident that I keep telling everyone that “my tree was dismembered this morning.” (It is technically the city’s tree.) And there is that persistent, romantic idea of trees as potentially sentient beings, sources of bounty and a sort of native wisdom gained from having been around so long, witness to history. To see this tree, probably 20 or 30 years old, cut down reminded me of an elm from my freshman year of college, on which some student had posted a sign noting its age (over a century) and that it would be chopped down to make way for a library expansion; as well as the Prometheus pine, the oldest single organism known (estimated to have lived for more than 5,000 years)—we only know it is so old because a graduate student chopped it down during the course of a research project. As we talked about today’s cutting, my roommate Pablo, also unhappy, jokingly asked over the buzz of the saw, “Do you think trees have feelings?” “I don’t know,” I absently replied as sections of its leafy limbs fell unceremoniously past the window like bodies that had jumped from the roof.

Besides whatever spiritual, emotional, or historical value people or cultures may assign to trees, they have very specific quantitative benefits. They clean the air, are attractive, provide shade and privacy and windbreaks, conserve soil, slow the runoff of storm water, act as shelter for animals, reduce violence (seriously), help municipalities save money, inspire shoppers to spend money, and increase property values. In San Francisco, I feel much more comfortable in neighborhoods with lots of trees compared to those with sparser vegetation. It would be smart if the city planted a good sized replacement tree as soon as possible.

I realize that the chopping of this tree may have been a necessity: the gash that existed where it’s its wind-torn limb once stood left it susceptible to disease and infestation. It’s possible that it might even split down the middle, starting at that point. And until last week, I never spoke too much about the tree. But I often noticed it—though I noticed its absence more. (The dining room was considerably brighter.) I don’t think I ever photographed it whole.

On the train to work, my music player randomly selected a piece of melancholy music by Jon Brion. Specifically, it played the song “Get What It’s About,” from the soundtrack to I (Heart) Huckabees. The last part of the song is an instrumental set piece, an orchestral interlude in the soundtrack whose sound evokes clouds ambling across the sky before it crescendos into a rainy, windy thunderstorm that settles down into a calmer rhythm punctuated by percussive tinks like individual drops of water glistening in the new sun on blades of grass. In the movie I (Heart) Huckabees, a character plants a tree in the sprawling parking lot of a big box store, and I rode the whole distance to work bothered by the loss of my tree. My train this morning was operated by a conductor whom I’ve ridden with before, a middle-aged man with a Mexican accent, a voice characterized by a sort of quacking timbre, and a Cantinflas mustache. He regularly talks to the riders over the intercom system. He says, “Remember, folks, Muni loves you. You may not love Muni, but Muni loves you.” Before I stepped off the train, he added, “Be safe. Don’t cry.”

art, education, food, music

This Week in Tim: February 26 to March 3

I don’t have much patience for those blogs that dwell on the minutiae of their authors’ lives, so I will probably hate this post. But, I can take some satisfaction in the fact that this post is about one of my favorite subjects: Tim. And Tim had an interesting week, so I’m calling this “This Week in Tim.” Tim’s agreed to go along with this, but isn’t sure if it will go over all that well. He thinks that if you don’t like reading about authors’ lives you should skip to another post.

Sunday, February 26: Tim decided he’d better get off his ass and go to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. How many people can say that? This, in many ways, was one of his grand exercises in procrastination, and it allowed Tim to put off working on his financial aid applications (the federal application—FAFSA—and the Columbia Journalism School’s aid applications), which were due March 2. But he really wanted to see the Chuck Close self-portrait exhibition, which was scheduled to close February 28. March 2, February 28, museum exhibit, financial aid—here’s where “urgency” and “priority” become muddled in Tim’s world.

Tim eventually made it to the exhibit, which he enjoyed. He was accompanied by his friend Katia and her family. It was a rainy day, but warm: San Francisco had been struck by a winter storm from Hawaii, the so-called “Pineapple Express” that brought rain up to 9,000 feet in the Sierras.

Tim had dinner with several friends later that night. He was able to put his latent puppeteering skills to use when he gave Katia’s daughter, Isabel, a little bear-in-a-sleeping-bag puppet. Isabel originally thought it was a backpack and all the rest thought it was an oven mitt. She promptly named the bear “Angelina.” Everyone was most satisfied with the evening, and when Tim discovered that his friend Vera had briefly been a mime in Bulgaria (and had gotten tips from Marcel Marceau), he thought this was a good start to what might be a promising Week in Tim. Plus, he realized that no matter how daunting all of that financial paperwork might be, on March 3, he would be free of it. Probably.

Monday, February 27: Tim arrived home from work at about 7.30 p.m—early for him. That is, he thought he was arriving home. A garbled message from his roommate Pablo indicated a tree near his house was blown over by high winds during a storm that evening. Upon arrival, Tim found his block blocked off by a firetruck and yellow tape and three firemen keeping people back.

A firefighter named Shane, dispatched from Station 5, apprised Tim of the situation.When the wind picked up (in some places, it picked up to 100 mph), said Shane, the phones all lit up. The tree in front of Tim’s house was a high priority site because the falling limbs pulled down a 1,500 kilowatt power line. The wire happened to touch down directly in front of Tim’s door. The firemen had to reroute traffic and watch the site until PG&E workers turned off the power. Then city workers would take care of the broken limbs. While Tim described the scene to Pablo on the phone, a nearby car rear-ended another car. A cameraman from the local CBS affiliate showed up to shoot some B-roll for the news. Because it would take hours to sort all of this out, Shane suggested that Tim should go get some dinner, or at least a few beers. Tim thought that was a pretty good idea.

Tuesday, February 28: Tim went to the Chuck Close show again at lunch and discovered that the new special exhibit at SFMOMA would be work by Alexander Calder. Tim was excited. That night, Tim finished his taxes, his FAFSA, and his Columbia forms. Two days early? Amazing! He stayed late at work to finish and left a little after 9 p.m. As he walked toward his subway stop, he noticed a large white van with its doors thrown open and a small storage trailer attached. Spraypainted on the door was “!” Tim suspected it was a band.

A tall man with shaggy brown hair, thick brown earlobe tunnels, and a shaggy brown fur jacket stepped out from the small group clustered near the van and said to Tim, “Excuse me. Do you know any cool bars around here?” The tall man was polite and exuded a sort of rock star charisma. His friends, an assortment of young men in black leather or hooded sweatshirts and scruffy beards, all seemed excited to be in San Francisco, but had no idea where to go.

“What kind of a scene are you looking for?” Tim asked, suspecting he knew the answer based solely on the style choices of his interlocutor. But before the tall man could respond, a shorter, high-strung man dressed all in black leather, with massive mutton chops and clenched fists interjected, “Anywhere where there’s no fuckin’ rich pricks!”

“Fair enough,” Tim said. He was tempted to tell them, “You’re in the wrong neighborhood for that, if not the wrong city.” But Tim didn’t want them to be discouraged. He suggest they go to Zeitgeist, in the Mission. Tim was probably right on with that suggestion: the Mission is more their style, though it, too, is full of rich pricks (just dressed differently). But they wanted to go somewhere within walking distance. Tim eventually suggested the 21st Amendment Brewery, five or six long blocks away, and their eyes lit up at the word “brewery.” They seemed like decent guys, so Tim felt bad that he couldn’t make a better suggestion.

When Tim got home, he went to and listened to what this band describes as hardcore/punk/rock music. It was sort of like Gwar and Rollins Band and unintelligible. Their band was called Mich!gan, and they were from Salt Lake City, unsigned, on their own little tour of the West Coast.

Wednesday, March 1: Nothing much happened today.

Thursday, March 2: Just kidding! Something happened on Wednesday. OK, let’s go back to Wednesday.

Wednesday, March 1: Really?

Thursday, March 2: Yes. Go ahead.

Wednesday, March 1: Tim went to lunch with Mike, the Sierra Club’s Webmaster. As they walked through the Financial District, they noticed a man walking parallel to them across the street. He wore headphones and, when not vaulting over fire hydrants, trying to climb over street signs, or jumping into the window recesses of buildings, he danced in place. Mike was entertained by the acrobatics and Tim speculated that the man was on drugs. At one corner, Tim tried to get a picture of him from across the street. Unfortunately, the photo came out blurry. The man noticed Tim taking the picture, but since Tim was fiddling with his camera, he failed to notice the man scowling and giving him the middle finger.

After a block or two, the man crossed to Tim and Mike’s side of the street. He pretended to walk in front of them for a short distance, then turned to face them. He slouched backward and yelled, “Why don’t you take a fucking picture? It’ll last longer.” He had a discernible Scottish accent, which meant he said “fooking.”

He also said, “It’s just a lark,” which Mike interpreted to mean the man was not high or drunk, simply very enthusiastic. In any case, Tim didn’t take his picture, though he now wishes he had. At lunch, Mike and Tim talked about corruption. Later that day, Tim wrote an embittered blog post about tilt-shift photomanipulation.


On the eastern side of the eastern block of Union Square, on Stockton Street, there is a tall man with dyed blonde spiky hair. He wears slick suits and wraparound sunglasses and stalks up and down the street. His job, apparently, is to hand out brochures and to direct people to an upscale men’s clothing store. He used to be somewhat massive, but in the last year and a half, he appears to have lost at least forty pounds. Tim sees the suited man as an enigmatic figure, tense and aggressive.

Tim thought it was strange to see the suited man out of his element later that night. Stranger that he saw him at Tim’s gym, and stranger still that the suited man wore to the gym a fine black turtleneck sweater, black dress slacks, and shiny Italian-looking black leather shoes. Alas, no suit. But he also carried a black and white tartan scarf to wipe down the equipment. Tim was profoundly embarrassed, because this is also his gym outfit, yet he still managed to grin and gleefully whisper to himself, “How bizarre!”

After pacing around agitatedly for several minutes, the suited man settled on the lateral pull-down, and yelled at a nearby person in an effort to ask if the equipment was available. Apparently, he was unable talk to anyone in a normal tone at the gym; the atmosphere inspired him to speak with loud-mouthed gruffness. Tim remembered that this is how the suited man always talks. On the machine, the suited man leaned far backwards and jerked the bar toward him with as much force as he could muster. He did this for about 20 repetitions, with audible exertion. After a short pause, he did another set of 20 reps. And then a third. During those breaks, Tim says the suited man tried to “pick conversations” with people, which Tim describes as being like picking a fight, except that it is aggressive engagement in conversation, not aggressive engagement in physical combat. Sometimes, Tim adds, the man tempered his aggressiveness with a dose of amiability. For example: “Not as easy as it used to be,” barked the suited man at one unwitting bystander. The bystander just nodded in agreement. “It’s not like when I was these guys’ age,” he added, indicating the other men at the gym. He sat back at the lat pull-down. “When I was 25, it was a lot different.” The suited man’s self-consciousness overwhelmed his coherency, and he half-barked, half-mumbled, “I’m just starting. I haven’t been doing this long. When I was younger, this was a lot easier.” And then, with special emphasis as he re-commenced pull-downs, he proclaimed, “I was huge.”

Thursday, March 2: Tim no longer works in the Conservation Department, but he still attends SNAX, the weekly Conservation Department ritual of eating sweets provided by a rotating host. The hosting had rotated to Tim, so he was a little on edge. Every SNAX host worries about the reception of his or her snacks, and that said reception will determine the participants’ perception of the host. No SNAX host gets to enjoy his or her own snacks. Of course, the participants almost never judge.

In an effort to allay his own concern, Tim decided that SNAX should be a tool to be wielded, not an obligation to be feared. The realization crystallized in his mind that he could view this SNAX as an opportunity to impose his dessert aesthetic on a ritual marked by rampant chocolate partisanship. He also realized he could view SNAX as performance. He notified the department of his intentions:

E-mail from Tim. 12.19 p.m.
Subject: SNAX: An opportunity for change
Brothers and Sisters,IT IS REVOLUTION!

We are overthrowing the TYRANNY of Chocolate!

Too LONG HAVE WE SUFFERED under the sweet, GOOEY thumb of Chocolate. It has grown corrupt and lazy with its homogenous corporate taste and insipid
style while we are left to chew mindlessly through the AGONY of its banality. We see through its DARK sometimes SEMI-SWEET curtain. We know the TRUTH.

No, Chocolate, no, you WON’T FOOL the Children of the Revolution.

JOIN ME! Our staging area is the Yellowstone Room at 3 PM. Bring any tool at hand to help us achieve this dream: your shovels and hoes and pitchforks and regular forks and plates and hearts (and/or minds), or possibly just your hands if you want the Paul Newman vegan-friendly GINGER-CREME OPTION.


*Note: There will be no caramelized snacks at Snax. However, we will not be swayed from our plan to subvert the dominant chocolate paradigm.

Beside the aforemention Newman-O’s, Tim also brought a box of mandarin oranges and a mixed fruit shortcake from Tart to Tart. It was an astounding success, much to Tim’s satisfaction. People actually came up to him and said things like, “I’m at SNAX today because you don’t always get a call to arms like that.” Others said they were there to support the revolution. Nobody seemed to mind that Tim had asked his friend at the bakery to write “Down With Chocolate” on the cake in yellow frosting. It was all lustily eaten by the assembled.

Tim was prepared for an uproar, if not a full-scale counter-revolution, provoked by his criticism of chocolate. So uncertain was he of the reception and the viability of his revolution that he snuck a can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup into SNAX. He was prepared to sarcastically drench everything in syrup if the complaining got too loud. Not wanting to tip anyone off, he disguised the can like so:

And he prepared a statement to be read in case of popular dissatisfaction:

Even the most zealous revolutionary eventually learns to sacrifice principle for the sake of politicial expediency. Which is to say he’ll do whatever he can to keep his job. Even though one form of chocolatey tyranny may be deposed, another, simply in a different form, may rise to take it’s place.And since I can see the natives are getting restless, I have this….

Brothers and sisters, eat it and weep.

Here is another view of the label. The expression on Tim’s face was a point of much discussion. It was merely a file photo that he had on hand.

Friday, March 3:
As I write this, it is Friday morning, and I’m not sure if anything interesting enough to warrant bloggging has happened. But something will probably come along. Maybe at the airport—I’m going to see Alisa in San Diego. We’ll see. But in the meantime, I have posted what one successful blogger has termed “too much content.” So we will leave it at that.