Tag Archives: technology

From gadget to appendage

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Sometime during the last year, my cell phone morphed from being a oft-annoying gadget to an occasionally annoying virtual appendage. I am not a likely candidate to have made this transition. I have cursed cell phones more than praised them. Multiple days have gone by when I didn’t even bother turning on my own phone.

But now it’s fully accurate to say that my cell phone has largely supplanted my landline and office phone. After some four years of owning an iPhone 4s, I am finally using it like so many other people deploy their smartphones. I use it for calls (the ear buds free up my hands), texting (I finally gave in and started texting), taking pictures (the 4s camera isn’t state of the art, but it does the job), and checking online sites (mostly e-mail and Facebook).

I haven’t come close to exploiting all of its features. When it comes to technology, I’m the opposite of a “first adopter.” But it’s now close to being an indispensable tool. It has become especially valuable while traveling.

Before this transition, I couldn’t understand why people went into a panic if they feared that they lost or misplaced their phone. What’s the big deal? Just get a new one, I’d say to myself. Not anymore.

I still don’t get how some folks basically live in their phones. I shake my head when walking the streets of Boston turns into an exercise in dodging people looking down at their phones. And I think it’s unfortunate when people can’t be in the moment with each other because their face-to-face social interactions are interrupted by ever-present pinging and furtive (or not-so-furtive) glances at their phones.

That all said, the technology contained in the average smartphone is nothing short of remarkable. Our phones shouldn’t be ruling our lives, but they sure can make certain aspects of life more convenient. Call me a qualified but devoted convert.

On typing and typewriters

Adeline typewriter

No power needed, except that of your fingers and your mind. (Vintage typewriter courtesy of Adeline Moya)

For many years I’ve quipped that Introduction to Typing and Driver’s Education were the two most valuable courses I took in high school. Actually it’s more than a quip. If you toss my junior year American History course into the mix, I think you’d have the academic holy trinity of my high school career. (Yes, I was something of a rebellious underachiever in high school.)

Anyway, back to typing class: I really wanted to learn how to type. Even as an adolescent, I felt that typing out my thoughts and ideas would somehow render them more, well, significant. Once I learned how to type, I would use my mom’s old Royal manual typewriter to bang out term papers for school. And when I got involved in the student council, I would learn how to cut mimeograph stencils for printing out the council newsletter.

Of course, just because I enjoyed typing doesn’t mean I was good at it. I made lots of mistakes…and still do. In the ancient era before word processing programs and home computers, that usually meant using either liquid paper or Ko-rec-type to cover up one’s mistakes and then type over them. I did this a lot, and it slowed down my typing speed.

Off to college

When I went off to college at Valparaiso University, my main off-to-school present was a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Whoa…..I was now moving up in the world! This model used ribbon cartridges instead of old-fashioned spooled ribbons. If you made a typing error, you could swap out the ribbon cartridge for a correcting cartridge that would white out the mistake. It is a miracle that I did not develop a repetitive stress injury swapping out those cartridges.

My typing life changed when I joined the staff of my college newspaper, The Torch. You see, the newspaper office had two IBM correcting Selectric typewriters. Typing on those machines was a sublime experience. During down times when folks weren’t working on stories, we were free to commandeer the typewriters for our papers and projects. The presence of those typewriters is one of the reasons why that office became our unofficial hangout, even when we weren’t working on the newspaper.

Now, those of later generations might not fully appreciate these challenges, but writing term papers and other assignments in the B.C. era (Before Computers) was a very, very different experience, especially when minimum or maximum page limits were in play. Most of us would first write out our papers in long hand, and then estimate if the cumulative sheafs of paper would, when typed up, potentially run afoul of the page limits. If you didn’t have a good sense of how your cursive writing translated into typed pages, you might be in for some unpleasant surprises, leading to late nights before papers were due.

Lugging it to NYC

I took my Smith Corona with me to law school at NYU. I cannot recall how I got that heavy, bulky machine to its destination, but I may have even checked it as part of my baggage for the flight from Chicago to New York. In some ways, these challenges have not changed; even in the digital era, there are only so many ways to move one’s belongings from here to there.

This was right before the home computer revolution, and very few of my classmates had PCs. Most of us continued to type our papers, with added challenges in terms of margins and page length when writing out practice versions of legal documents. By this time, we were overlapping with the emerging age of computers. At NYU I worked on one of our scholarly law journals and on the law school student newspaper, and we had computer word processing capabilities for both publications.

A computer of my own

I would not own a personal computer until several years after graduating from law school, a Commodore 64 that supported a superb game library and rudimentary word processing programs. I would later move up to an IBM PC compatible machine, and at that point I transitioned from typewriter to word processing. I became enamored of the wonderful, awesome WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS program, which remains to me the best ever software package for writing productivity. In fact, ever since being more or less forced into using the tyrannical, control-freakish, and cumbersome Microsoft Word, my writing efficiency has declined.

Today, I’ve morphed over to Apple products, but I’m still stuck with Microsoft Word. Someday I’d like to give a serious tryout to Scrivener, a word processing program that has a fiercely devoted following. As for my blogs, I use the WordPress platform, which I find easy to navigate.

Changing technologies aside, it’s clear to me that my original motivation for learning how type — to share my thoughts and ideas — remains the main reason why I’m sitting before a keyboard today. And thank goodness that you, kind reader, get to read what’s on my mind with (most of) the typos cleaned up.

The joys of YouTube music videos

One of life’s little pleasures is getting lost in the world of YouTube music videos. I can watch some of these over and again. Here are a few of my repeat favorites:

If you need an energy boost, does it get any better than Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf”? The early to mid 80s is one of my favorite pop music periods. On my iPad I have a music compilation of favorite songs from that time, and Duran Duran singles are prominent among them.

I spent a chunk of the weekend watching and re-watching the incredibly hilarious number from Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” (1967 movie version), “Springtime for Hitler.” With every viewing, I keep finding new things to laugh at. (If you know the movie, then the quick cut to Kenneth Mars at around 2:18 is a guaranteed crack up.) From the lyrics, to the choreography, to the crowd reaction, it is singularly brilliant.

“Carousel” is one of the darkest shows of the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon, and it also has one of the most beautiful scores. This London performance of the ballet scene with Louise and the Fairground Boy, featuring Dana Stockpole dancing to “If I Loved You,” is simply exquisite.

One of the very best opening movie scenes ever produced is that from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” set to George Gershwin’s lush, beautiful “Rhapsody in Blue.” It is a loving tribute to the Wonder City.

Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” is one of the best shows ever produced. This Tony Awards performance of the title number, featuring the awesome Sutton Foster, is worth multiple viewings.

I love this Antwerp train station flash mob performance of a rocked up version of “Do Re Mi” (from “The Sound of Music”). It is so much fun to watch, over and again.

My favorite scene from my favorite movie: Gene Kelly singing and dancing to the title number is truly one of the most joyous scenes in the history of motion pictures. I first saw “Singin’ in the Rain” during a study break while in my first year of law school at NYU, a Sunday night screening at the legendary Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place. I knew before it was even half over that I was watching something special.

Olivia Newton-John singing “Magic” in 1980 on “The Midnight Special.” It doesn’t matter that she’s lip-syncing. How many of us had monster crushes on her? (If the comments are any indication, we still do.) Sigh, what a contrast to today’s voice synthesized pop tarts.

And finally, some (probably unintended) humor. It appears that Lawrence Welk had no idea that “One Toke Over the Line” was about smoking pot, not — in his words — a “modern spiritual.” I crack up every time I watch it.

 

Lost traditions: The Sunday newspaper

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Not too long ago, a popular Sunday tradition was spending a good chunk of the day reading through the Sunday editions of the daily newspapers. Millions experienced the tactile delight of opening up a big Sunday paper, wondering what interesting stuff waited to be discovered. Even the advertising flyers were fun to page through, especially around holiday season.

The hefty Sunday newspaper has been a journalistic tradition for well over a century. One of my favorite coffee table books is Nicholson Baker & Margaret Brentano, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911) (2005), which celebrates Sunday newspapers published during the turn of the last century.

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The World on Sunday and the tradition of Sunday newspaper reading represent an aspect of pre-digital culture that may be hard to understand for those weaned on an online world where wishes for news and commentary are instantly gratified. Fortunately, some of the major newspapers still land on doorsteps with a healthy thud on Sundays, containing some of their best in-depth reporting, feature articles, and opinion pieces.

Growing up in Chicagoland

My Sunday newspaper habit goes back to growing up in Northwest Indiana, where local papers and the Chicago dailies were readily available. Among the Sunday editions that regularly got my attention were the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Hammond Times, and Gary Post-Tribune. The Tribune excelled at covering my beloved Chicago sports teams, and the Post-Tribune did a very good job with local news.

These papers deserve credit for turning me into a Sunday paper junkie. The Chicago influence was especially strong. The Windy City was a great, great newspaper town back in the day, fueled by the city’s colorful politicians, sports figures, and crime bosses. Beyond the headliners, however, the reporters and columnists who toiled for Chicago’s daily papers also had a knack for digging out the stories of everyday people. The human interest story had a regular place in the city’s newspapers.

Sundays in New York

When I lived in New York City (1982-1994), the Sunday papers were a special treat. The Sunday New York Times was an especially heavy load, a multi-pound door stopper packed with goodies and advertising circulars. The early edition of the Sunday Times would come out on late Saturday evening (and still does), and many a weekend night out included picking up a copy on the way home.

My personal favorite, however, was New York Newsday, the now gone NYC edition of the venerable Long Island daily. New York Newsday wasn’t as worldly as the Times, but it spoke more closely to the city’s middle class and did a superb job of covering local politics and sports. Its thick Sunday edition was chock full of extended features and commentaries. To this day, New York Newsday remains my favorite-ever newspaper.

And now in Boston

My Sunday paper of choice remains the New York Times. The Times has not abandoned the idea that the Sunday edition of a newspaper should be something special. I especially look forward to its Week in Review and Book Review sections.

The major daily here is the Boston Globe, and I have an online subscription. I have an on again, off again relationship with the Globe, and for now we are on digital terms only. In fact, despite a surfeit of subscriptions to printed periodicals, I increasingly get much of my news and commentary online.

And to be honest, I wouldn’t trade the remarkable world of information and news available online for the days of waiting for the paper to be delivered. I, too, have been spoiled by point and click access to news coverage from around the nation and the world. However, at a time when we can use more civilized, enjoyable, and affordable rituals in our lives, reading the Sunday newspaper remains a pretty good choice.

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This is a revised version of a piece I wrote for another blog three years ago.

Too many road warrior gadgets?

....and add my iPhone, which took this photo

….and add my iPhone, which took this photo

This week I took a super quick, one night trip to Washington D.C. for an awards banquet, and I found myself chuckling over how much gadgetry I was packing for my short sojourn: My MacBook, iPad, Kindle, and iPhone. (Yeah, I’m mostly Apple these days.) That means four charging cables as well.

That’s a lot of gear for a 24-hour trip!

Curiously, on balance, I’m a light traveler. For all but the lengthiest of trips, I will travel with a backpack and a roll aboard bag that fits comfortably into even a small overhead aircraft bin.

So why all the gadgets?

For starters, the laptop is a work machine. The tablet is my most-used device when I’m en route anywhere…the subway, a short pitstop on a walk somewhere, and certainly out-of-town trips. The cellphone, while perhaps my least used hardware, is invaluable at times and takes pretty good photos. And although I much prefer printed books to an e-reader, the latter allows me to travel with the equivalent of a small library.

A pain in the ash

Maybe I now err on the side of taking all these devices with me because five years ago, I was stranded in Germany for several days without them and felt quite disconnected as a result. In packing, I had decided that for a short international trip, I could leave my laptop at home. Dumb move.

You see, I was participating in a conference at the University of Augsburg, and it so happened that during that time, the big volcano in Iceland was spewing out ash clouds that swept across Europe and shut down the airspace.

Now, there are worse places to be stuck than the beautiful medieval city of Augsburg, but I had not planned on an extended stay. Because my hotel had only one guest computer and the proprietor looked sternly at anyone spending too much time on it (i.e., me), I made multiple treks to the local Internet cafe in order to catch up on e-mails and keep track of the news.

After all, in a pinch, you can do some laundry in the sink or the tub, but you can’t turn your scrubbed out socks into a computer.

Next Gen???

Perhaps the march of technology will allow me to consolidate functions into fewer devices. My current gadgets are of slightly “older” vintage — iPad 2, iPhone 4, etc. — so I’m thinking it’s time to be on the lookout for an upgrade. I was looking covetously at the newly announced iPad Pro, but I’ll wait to see the reviews.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to pack all my toys whenever I’m about to hop on a plane or a train.

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Related post

Have our gadgets sapped some of the adventure out of travel? (2014)

Classic movie report: April 2015

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. Here are my two selections for April:

WarGames (1983) (3.5 stars out of 4)

WarGames may not be a great movie, but I find it so eminently entertaining and re-watchable that I have to give it 3.5 stars.

Matthew Broderick stars as David Lightman, a young computer maven and high school student who manages to hack into the U.S. Defense Department’s new super computer. In doing so, he engages its artificial intelligence in a way that almost causes a nuclear war. Ally Sheedy plays his adorable sidekick, Jennifer Mack, and the two become partners in crime.

The chief adults in the movie are Dabney Coleman as Dr. John McKittrick, the computer expert who persuaded the government to adopt the new mainframe, and John Wood as Dr. Stephen Falken, a withdrawn scientist whose theories become central to the story.

WarGames has its serious side. On occasion it has been cited by scholars as an excellent pop culture depiction of how Cold War mentalities and an uncritical worship of the “wisdom” of computer technology could lead us down a disastrous path.

But it’s also a ton of fun. Broderick and Sheedy are well-paired in this movie, and their scenes together include some hilarious high school moments and (now) nostalgic depictions of early personal computing and video games.

For me it pushes nostalgia buttons as well. I first saw WarGames when it was at the movie theaters in the summer of 1983. It was right after my first year of law school, and I was living in one of the law school dorms. In consultation with a couple of friends, we picked it out of the Village Voice listings and decided to give it try. I enjoyed it from the opening scenes, and I’ve watched it many times since then.

 

Gallipoli (1981) (3.5 stars)

Mel Gibson and Mark Lee co-star as young men from Western Australia who enlist in the Australian Army during the First World War. They find themselves deployed to the Ottoman Empire (now modern day Turkey), as part of the Allied Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.

The film starts as something of a buddy movie with some 80s-style artistry, but by the time the climactic battle scenes arrive, it is a story of the terrors of trench warfare. It also reinforces a common First World War theme of utter futility, with senior officers repeatedly ordering their troops to go “over the top” in charges met by murderous machine gun fire.

Gallipoli isn’t the best of the WWI movies, but it belongs on a list of “should watch” films about the war, including the classic All Quiet on the Western Front and the excellent Paths of Glory.

In terms of 20th century history, I relate more strongly to the Second World War than to the First, but that gap is closing as I learn more about the Great War during this period of centennial observation (1914-18). It is a fascinating historical story, one infused with a haunting sense of loss due to the brutality of trench warfare, as well as the knowledge that the terms of surrender eventually imposed on Germany would help to fuel the rise of Nazism in the decades to come.

The Apple Watch: Cool, but too close to being a computer implant for my taste

Screen shot of the Apple Watch webpage

Screen shot of the Apple Watch webpage

So if the hype is accurate, the Apple Watch is the Next Big Thing in digital gadgetry. According to the product descriptions, it’s basically a mini-computer that doubles as a wristwatch.

I’m betting that the Apple Watch will be very popular. Once it creates a new market for watches that do everything except walk and chew gum — and Apple has a knack for creating new markets — it will spawn many imitators as well. (Surface Watch, anyone?)

While I own my share of Apple devices, I’m gonna take a pass on this one. When it comes to smaller e-gadgetry, I’m already ambivalent about cellphones, to put it kindly. Especially if I’m not traveling, many days can go by without my bothering to check my smartphone. To me, the Apple Watch seems to be only a step or two away from surgically implanting computers into our brains.

I know this is an overreaction from a 50-something who now sounds like a Luddite. But I’m really not anti-technology. I’m on my computer for hours each day. And hey, I do write two active blogs. It’s just that personally speaking, there’s a point at which the gadgetry is too close to becoming a part of me, literally and figuratively.

As for my friends who are drooling to get their paws on an Apple Watch, I do get it, because that’s how felt about the iPad. I would go into Apple stores and play with the machines there, while trying to convince myself that so long as laptops were around, these tablet thingies would be expensive indulgences at best. My thriftier instincts lost out, however. Fortunately the iPad would prove to be much more than a plaything, and now it often goes wherever I go.

I read an entire, hard copy book — and enjoyed it!

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This is a rather pathetic title for a blog post, especially by someone who calls himself an avid reader. But lately my reading has been very task-oriented, both books and articles alike, and almost entirely of the non-fiction variety.

So I credit Stephen King for serving up a novel that I eagerly read from start-to-finish over a week’s time. Mr. Mercedes (2014) is King’s foray into hard-boiled detective fiction, and it’s a good one. The main protagonist is a retired police detective, Bill Hodges, who gets caught up in an unsolved multiple homicide. The perpetrator — identified very early in the story (no spoiler alert necessary) — is a pretty messed up dude with serious mommy issues.

I enjoyed this book, and easily place it in the “didn’t want it to end” category. Thus I’m delighted that King launched it as the first of a planned trilogy featuring Hodges and his sleuthing pals, with the next title expected sometime next year.

Back in January, I sang the praises of the latest incarnation of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, especially for folks who travel often. However, last weekend I decided to take this hardcover edition of Mr. Mercedes with me for a quick out-of-town visit with friends, even though it took up precious backpack space. (Although this is not among King’s longer works, it still clocks in at a hefty 440+ pages.) I’m glad that I did. Reading Mr. Mercedes as a printed book rather than as an e-book was such a pleasure. Hey, it’s not often when you’re wishing the plane ride was just a little bit longer so you can squeeze in another chapter!

I know it has become something of a cliché for those who love the printed page to say they prefer the tactile experience of reading a physical book to the convenience of using an e-reader. Nevertheless, count me among them. Even with my fifty-something eyesight (oy…) and frequent travel schedule, there remains something very cool about reading an old fashioned printed book.

 

Have our gadgets sapped some of the adventure out of travel?

You'll find a lot of advice about gadget management in today's leading travel guides!

You’ll find a lot of advice about gadget management in today’s leading travel guidebooks

During my recent trip to Chicago, I was talking with one of my friends about how our digital gizmos — cellphones, tablets, laptops, and so forth — have changed the experience of travel. In some ways, they have greatly enhanced travel in terms of access to information, safety & security, and keeping in touch with folks back home. But at the same time, I suggest that they have sapped some of the adventure out of travel by shrinking the world so much that it’s harder to get that sense of exploring the Great Elsewhere.

You could be visiting a wondrous National Park, while talking to a friend back home on your cell. You could be gazing at a beautiful European cathedral, while texting a family member with a reminder to water the plants at home. You could be sitting on a beach with the Pacific Ocean before you, while reading an e-mail about a pending project.

The fact that our electronic gadgets now tend to follow us everywhere is hardly a cutting-edge insight. But I submit that we haven’t fully appreciated the trade-off between the advantages of instantaneous communications and the sense of being away that even the most modest of sojourns once could deliver more easily.

Perhaps you have to be of a certain age to get this. If you are old enough to have experienced travel during the B.C.E. (Before Cellphone Era), then it’s much more likely that you understand where I’m coming from.

My most formative travel experience was a semester abroad in England back in 1981 B.C.E. Now, I would’ve killed to have access to something like the Internet back then, when even long-distance international phone calls were student budget busters. But I also know that the sense of distance I felt, while sometimes a source of homesickness and anxiety, was part of the grandness and personal growth of the experience. It also was a time when the art of letter writing was not lost on us, and daily mail deliveries were filled with anticipation. Quite a different experience than checking your inbox.

Sometimes our gadgets create interesting twists. A few summers ago, I was part of a storm chase tour in the heart of America’s Tornado Alley. While the storm we were on showed promise of developing into something big, the real action was back in Massachusetts, where a freak severe tornado captured the weather headlines for the day. Two of us on the tour were from Boston, and we followed the breaking news with cellphones and iPads. Cool that we could do this, but it distracted our attention from what was right in front of us.

We can’t go back on this one. Oh, I suppose it’s possible that on my next longer trip, I could leave behind anything that has a microchip and requires recharging, but I know darn well that I won’t. And try as I may to ration my time online, I’ll be taking regular looks at my e-mail and favorite Internet sites. Even progress has its compromises.

Throwback Thursday: Aloha to an old warhorse

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Two weeks ago I wrote that my old television set had seen its best days and that I was awaiting a replacement. I’m all set now, with a new flatscreen unit and a technologically upgraded cable package. As I made the transition, I decided it was time to say goodbye to my 22-year-old VCR machine. Here it is, pictured above, unplugged and soon to be disposed of, after many years of steady service.

Despite my enjoyment of movies, I was a latecomer to VCRs. Living in New York, I was happy to see old films in the city’s several revival movie theaters, and I was living on a tight budget to boot. But as VCRs became commonplace and more affordable, I finally took the plunge. In the summer of 1992, I went to an electronics store, pretty much arbitrarily picked out a VCR (my usual quick-hit approach to shopping), and set it up in my Brooklyn apartment.

I wouldn’t want to estimate how many hours I spent watching movies using my VCR that summer, as the answer would be highly suggestive of addictive behavior. Suffice it to say, however, that I was a loyal supporter of video stores near work and home. As I wrote last year in a lament over the closing of Blockbuster video stores, it was such a treat to survey the shelves of these stores in search of old favorites and new discoveries.

Given how many movies have played on that machine, it’s something of a miracle that it lasted so long. Over the past decade, of course, I’d morphed over to DVDs, but on the few occasions when only a VCR version of a movie or show was available, I could pop in the cassette and watch it.

I tend to be resistant to jumping to new technologies right away, so these days I find myself preferring DVDs to streaming video. My Netflix subscription still includes the discs, and I continue to get a short spark of little-kid-like happiness when a red envelope shows up in my mailbox. Alas, my luck with DVD players has not been as good, and it looks like I’ll be buying a new one soon. Perhaps I’ll upgrade to a high-def model. They seem to have dropped in price in recent years, and now I have a TV set that justifies the purchase.

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