Quick, count the number of computing devices within six feet of you right now. For me, that number is four. It would be five if I counted the laser printer, which does contain more computing power than Apollo 11. But there’s really only one criterion when determining whether a device deserves to be called a computer–can you play Solitaire on it?
Here’s a peek at my office:
How did it come to this? I remember the day I got a pager. It seemed like science fiction, just one step away from having a Star Trek communicator three inches above my left nipple. I thought, “No matter where I go, now they can always reach me. My life won’t be worth living.”
My life was still worth living, at least most of the time, but I had no more excuses for not coming when my bosses called me. I was like a circus tiger perpetually crouched on a pedestal. I couldn’t rest because the jump-through-a-flaming-hoop command might come at any moment. It’s an imperfect analogy, since I was unable to leap onto the VP of Marketing and bite his face off, although if I’d been able I feel certain I’d have done it.
Cell phones made this worse. Suddenly I couldn’t dawdle before I answered a page, pretending I was at the movies or in church. When the phone rang someone was right there on the other end demanding that I talk to them immediately no matter what I was doing. I could have let it go to voice mail, but nothing curdles my happy face like sitting on an un-checked voice mail that I suspect won’t be much fun to listen to. Might as well answer the damned call and get the misery out of the way.
I perform at a themed festival set about 500 years before cell phones were invented. It seems like half our paying customers are on their phones at any particular moment. I have to treat those phones as something other than cell phones. So, I tell people they have enormous, hideous leeches pressed to the side of their head, sucking out their brains. No one’s ever been offended. Almost everyone has laughed. Lots of people have voiced their sincere agreement with my premise.
Cell phones are wonderful devices that we cherish, and upgrade, and trick out with Lady Gaga ring tones, but on some level we despise them. They chain us to those who would steal the minutes of our irreplaceable lives.
I love computers though. I remember the day I bought my first computer, and I remember the day I first built a computer. I remember the day I swore I’d never build another computer because a Japanese assembly line could build them cheaper than I could buy the parts. There’s nothing bad about computers. Except that they enable our own poor judgement to steal the minutes of our irreplaceable lives. I go on the internet to look for shoes, and five hours later I’m staring at animated, dancing muskrats in fishnet stockings singing “The Boys Are Back In Town.” I don’t remember how I got there. If I did, I might not be able to stand the shame.
Now all the devices have been combined. Every cell phone has Solitaire. You can make phone calls from your computer. Each device links you to people and information all over the world. Each device enables you and every person in the world to waste your time like your life was just an all-you-can-eat buffet with endless shrimp fried rice.
If all this new-fangled modern computing is like Star Trek come to life, I’d like to report that it has great promise but is somewhat flawed. I’d expect better from an advanced, utopian society that seems to have no problem with inter-species sex. Maybe we should have started with different technologies, like those steaks that pop out of the walls.
Photo by Josh Semans. www.flickr.com/photos/joshsemans
I’m writing this with a tequila bottle in one hand and a five dollar cigar in the other. That’s not totally true, I guess, or even true at all in the technical sense. But I could be writing with booze and smokes in my hands if I wanted, and every writer in literary history would envy me. Today for the first time I’m attempting to use speech to text software to write a real thing that real people might read.
I’m trying this in anticipation of a neurological rebellion that might hold my hands hostage, like socialist guerillas occupying a power plant, but I’m finding it a problematic exercise. For example, in the prior paragraph the speech to text software thought that the word “for” should be “from.” When I tried to edit the word, the software obtusely led me on a Maypole dance through four or five incorrect commands. The most entertaining was when I said “select four words right,” and the software interpreted it as “Open World of Warcraft.” I am not making that up. I haven’t logged on in years, so it was a surprise. Also, it’s really hard to get this program to type the phrase “Open World of Warcraft” when it thinks you want to open the program World of Warcraft whenever you say those words.
The preceding paragraphs took me five minutes to write. They took seven months to edit, otherwise known as 30 minutes, but anyone who challenges the seven months interpretation can put on this god damn headset and try it themselves. It also aggravates me that the stupid software doesn’t understand the word “obtusely.”
A quick experiment has just shown me that this program understands almost no profanity. That is a F you see Kay I in G shame, and I expect that’s going to slow down my words per hour considerably.
Holy frijoles! (I just found out it doesn’t understand Spanish, and I had to type “frijoles.”) I don’t know why, but all on its own this software just tried to take something I said and post it to Twitter. I hope it wasn’t “F you see Kay I in G.” That’s a little bit scary if you ask me.
The biggest problem I’m having is that I’m not verbally oriented. I have a hard time learning things by listening to people, especially if they’re really boring people like most of my college professors. I learn things by doing them. That’s handy when you write by typing on a keyboard with your actual fingers. But in order to speak the words I want to write, I have to stop and think about every phrase before I say it, so that it doesn’t come out sounding like a Neanderthal on Quaaludes. (Holy crap! This program understands what Quaaludes are. I bet that’s because the people who use this program have to take them a lot.) So, for these few paragraphs that would normally take me about half an hour to write and edit, this program has demanded an hour and a half, a liter of Diet Coke, and a surreptitious pull off the Cuervo bottle. (I see it understands Cuervo too.)
Despite all that, I admit that this would be better than not being able to write at all. So I’m going to call this test successful, maybe have a party, and definitely have a celebratory bag of peanut butter M&M’s. Technology is a damn fine thing, but I will say that I never want to have software integrated into my body, no matter what technologists say. It would take me 45 minutes to pee.
Last weekend I yelled at a foreign man for wasting my life. I might have been overreacting, but it didn’t seem that way at the time. Abe Lincoln said that nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. I suspect I didn’t even make it past the adversity test.
My wife bought a new laptop computer on Sunday to replace her seven year-old Dell laptop that weighs 13 pounds and gets as hot as fresh microwave popcorn. She can’t work without her laptop because she’s a court reporter, a job that I couldn’t do if I had a thousand years to prepare. So, she needed a new machine, and I agreed to help.
My sweetie and I are not as different as night and day. We’re as different as night and a total eclipse that can blind you, even if you’re an orphan, because it just doesn’t give a shit. I’m not saying which one of us is which, but she wasn’t the one yelling at the nice foreign man.
In spite of those differences, when hunting for a major purchase we cooperate like lions on the veldt. We made checklists. We researched. We visited electronics stores so she could handle different models while I glanced from the corner of my eye at cameras and giant TVs. We Googled customer reviews for the models she liked, and she selected her target.
Then we didn’t do anything. We waited a week to be sure the smell of blood hadn’t driven us crazy and made us choose the wrong prey. We were both fine with that. That’s how well we work together when on the hunt. It’s what happens after the kill that leads to yelling and snippy comments and walking out of the room with loud steps.
A week later we went to buy her laptop. Once in the store we got distracted. My wife wanted to transfer everything from her old laptop to her new one, including the software, in one simple step. If possible, she wanted to wave her hand like the fairy godmother turning mice into horses, and it would just happen. If it was more complicated and required her to wave both hands, well that would be okay too. We found software that promised amazingly easy transfers, and it had good reviews, so we grabbed it.
When the laptop salesman walked up, my wife pointed at the model she wanted and directed him to bring her one. He had none. He checked with his company’s other stores, and they had none. He could order one, but he had no idea when it would arrive. Apparently the demo model was just there to amuse people, like a little mechanical horse in front of a grocery store.
I didn’t feel too concerned. Other stores might carry it. My wife was nice to the salesman, but as we bought the magic software and walked to the car she muttered and fumed and said some alarming things. This is one of the differences between us.
The next store didn’t have her laptop either, which sucked. But it had the newer model, which also had great reviews, and it cost less. We bought it and carried it home, giggling all the way.
Here’s how the day disintegrated from there.
My wife unpacked her beautiful, lighter, cooler laptop. She read the magic software’s manual, which might have been written by someone who studied English in another country where people who speak English are punished. She called the manual and its writers and their relatives some bad names. Nearby, I assured her that manuals are overrated anyway.
She put the magic software’s disc in her laptop, and it did nothing but make the sound a grasshopper makes when trapped in a cardboard box. But it worked fine with other discs, so maybe the disc was bad. She growled and accused the magic software and her laptop of doing this on purpose. I nodded in sympathy as I got my car keys.
We returned the magic software, but the store refused to take it back because it worked fine in every other computer they tried. The problem must be my wife’s laptop. Both grumbling, we went back to the store where we’d bought the machine. They spent an hour showing us that the laptop played a bunch of other discs just fine. The laptop and the magic software disc were clearly the god damned Romeo and Juliet of information technology, just fated to never be together. The technician suggested we download the magic software from its website and install it that way. My wife nodded and hefted her laptop bag like John Henry hefting his hammer. In the parking lot I spit on the ground and swore never to shop at either store again.
Back home my wife downloaded the magic software, as relentless as if she had twenty acres to plow. I stomped around the room and bitched about having technology more complicated than a sharp stick. At 8:00 p.m. we started the transfer, which would take several hours. My wife sat on the couch to watch True Blood. I sat next to her with my own laptop and ignored True Blood.
An hour later my wife checked her laptop and saw that some transfer catastrophe had occurred. She sighed and examined the manual as if it were a cookbook that might say she’d just forgotten the eggs. I disconnected and reconnected the cable, and each time I jammed a cable back into a port I imagined I was jamming a knife through the lead programmer’s mouse hand.
We kicked off the transfer again, and 40 minutes later it crashed again. My wife set her jaw and narrowed her eyes. She looked like the NASA engineers must have looked when one of the early test rockets had blown up. I thought about having a drink, but instead I ripped out a rope of profanity, cursing Alan Turing and Nikola Tesla, and Bill Gates too while I was at it.
The magic software people offered 24 hour support, so my wife called and put them on speaker. When the rep answered, my wife concisely explained the problem, while I added occasional frustrated and near-hysterical details. It didn’t help that she had to ask him to repeat almost everything he said because he had only slightly better diction than my cat.
The rep was polite, and an hour later he’d accomplished four things: (1) he successfully replicated the scans I’d done before we installed the magic software; (2) he verified all of our power settings; (3) he screwed up our network settings; and (4) he started another transfer. Then he said both the old and the new machines had to be in “perfect condition” for the transfer to work, so that might be our problem. I did not yell at him at that point. My wife rolled her eyes but said nothing.
Then he said that if the problem was too hard for him to solve, we’d need to pay for higher level support. That’s when I yelled at him for wasting my life, or at least the last hour of it. I’m not proud of myself. But at least I didn’t reach 12,000 miles through the phone and tear something off his body that he or his wife might want later. My wife looked at me the way she looks at the cats when they puke on the bed, and then she thanked the nice man before ending the call.
The transfer did not go well, choking after 13 minutes. I almost offered to just load everything myself, but I saw that my wife was determined to make this work. Every other person who had ever touched a computer would have to die before she’d give up. While I sat on the couch watching Duel at Ganryu Island, she tried the transfer twice more, and each failed. At midnight she called a temporary cease fire, since the next morning she had be in court to write everything said by some inept lawyers.
As of this writing the transfer’s still incomplete. My wife is considering whether to pay the magic software people to help us, but I’m arguing it would be faster to hire a chimp to load everything.
When this all started and the problems were small, my wife fretted like a girl with a lost toy. But now, when hope is almost lost, she discusses her next steps like a chess master thinking 20 moves ahead. When this all started I addressed our small problems as calmly as an elephant addressing a ripe watermelon. Now when I think about this mess I behave like a tiger with his nuts caught in a gate. This is one of the ways in which my wife and I are different. It’s not even the most significant. You should see us in the car together.
I realized this week that three desktop computers, three laptops, a smart phone, a cell phone, a digital camera, and two iPods are not enough information technology in my home. I have enough digital storage to hold every major film made in the last 15 years, yet my household cries out for more. So, I bought my wife an iPad.
Actually, she’s mentioned a couple of times that the thinks an iPad would be convenient for her. But I knew she wouldn’t buy one for herself until our kids were out of college. Considering that we have no children and don’t plan to have any, my wife’s iPad would be moping around, lonely on its shelf at Best Buy, for a long time. So I stalked an iPad, slapped down some cash, and brought it home to her.
My wife seemed thrilled. She read every word of the online manual before she plugged in her iPad, because that’s the kind of gal she is. Then she fired it up, hooked it to her Windows computer, and played with it. A few hours later she realized some things. (1) She wanted an iPad cover that wouldn’t attract cat hair. (2) She got an error every time she tried to register her iPad. (3) She got an error every time she tried to use iTunes—although iTunes still worked fine.
I realized that a trip to the Apple Store awaited us.
We arrived at the Apple Store at 2 PM on Saturday. It was like one of those photos of penguin hatching grounds, except that everyone had an iPhone grafted to his hand. Nice people helped my wife with a few questions, and she found an iPad cover in a classy shade of camel. Then we went to technical support.
Mike helped us. Some of the other Apple Store employees had told us that Mike was the best tech around, so I’ll admit I had high expectations. I expected strong Apple loyalty from Mike, and some serious proselytizing. That’s just doing a good job. But most of his explanations for the technical problems revolved around the complete inferiority of Windows. The rest involved the absolute inadequacy of Dell laptops. But he attacked the problems with fervor, and I maintained faith in him.
Mike’s fervor consisted of telling us to uninstall every Apple software component, restart the laptop, and wait for him to come back. This we did. After a while Mike came back and pronounced our work good. He paused to complain about the inferior knowledge and ability of his coworkers. Then he started to download iTunes, but he stopped to ask my wife, “Is this a 32-bit or 64-bit machine?”
My wife said, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either. It’s your computer. I’ll just install the 32-bit version, and if it’s wrong we’ll find out when it won’t run.” Mike clicked download.
I said, “Wait,” as Mike walked away. Mike did not wait. So I checked the laptop, downloaded the right iTunes version, and installed it. As I did so, I imagined my upcoming conversation with Mike when he returned.
“Hey Mike. Do you like Apple?” I would say.
“So do you want to sell iPods and iPads and such only to the 12% of computer users who own Macs?”
“That means that Apple products need to work with Windows computers then, right?” I’d say.
“Well… I guess so…”
“So as the big tech brain around here, you ought to learn how to check the system properties on a Windows computer before you do something as fucking stupid as randomly loading a version of software without checking to see if it’s the right version, ya think? In fact, be honest—you knew perfectly well how to check it, you just wanted to walk away like a willfully incompetent motherfucker, right?”
“Yes, sir…” Mike would say while looking at his shoes.
About this time I realized that my wife was staring at me with concern. She might have noticed the sound of my teeth grinding—I’m not sure. She asked if I needed to leave the store in order to not disembowel Mike, who after all was probably a fairly nice guy if you got to know him over a beer. I said that I’d be good.
Mike returned. The reinstallation of iTunes had resolved none of my wife’s technical problems. Mike took a jaunty couple of steps backward and said, “That’s a Windows reinstallation problem! That’s what that is! A Windows reinstallation problem!” Then Mike gave us the toll free number for customer service.
I crushed a brand new camel colored iPad cover in my left hand as we packed up my wife’s unregistered iPad and whiny, error-spouting laptop. We walked out of the store and through the mall Food Court, past Panda Express, and into the parking lot. I discussed my thoughts with her. I might have cursed a few times. I’m certain that flecks of spit were flying.
Out in the crushing summer heat I said, “I was thinking about, maybe, buying a new iPhone while I was there. I’m sure as hell not going to now.”
“But what about the two people who were nice to us? That’s two out of three.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I may get a Droid.” I wiped a little foam off my lips.