Monday, November 30, 2009

Speed of Light vs. Speed of Lint

Black Friday! The day people look to celebrate peace on Earth and good will towards men by elbowing their way past grandmothers and nuns in order to get their mitts on a big screen television. Actually, the last few years I was one of those people rousting myself out of bed at a time roosters scorn to witness in order to get my hands on something one of my children didn’t really need at a price I believed I couldn’t pass up. I was a lemming running towards the consumer cliff with credit card abandon.

This year I am going to sleep until the sale junkies have already cleared the aisles and maxed out their Mastercards. The foremost reason for this is last year wasn’t any fun. The previous years there was a sense of camaraderie. People laughed. People poked fun at themselves for standing in a discount store at five in the morning. People gave each other directions on where the various cool things were stashed in the store. Last year there was blood in the water and the sharks thought Robert Shaw was somewhere nearby singing about ladies of Spain. (That is a reach as an analogy but if Richard Dreyfuss happens across my blog he’ll enjoy it.)

Another reason for my non-participation in the feeding frenzy of electronics and Cabbage Patch Kids (okay, I am that old) is I no longer feel the need to hurry up. I’ll be more leisurely in my approach to shopping. As I get more mature (mature = gray hair, expanding waistline and attention to things having to do with IRAs and prostates) I find I value calmness more and more. Multi-tasking and speed seem much less necessary. I am perfectly willing to be the tortoise except even though slow and steady wins the race I don’t even care about winning. I just want to finish well and avoid the need for ace bandages and Ben Gay.

Recently I was reading a book called “In Praise of Slowness.” In this book there is discussion of the term time-sickness, the obsessive belief that time is getting away and we must go faster and faster to use it all. The author mentions in other cultures they see time as always coming as well as going. Time goes away, but it also keeps showing up. Time waits for no man is the modern day way of thinking about it, but it might be healthier if we all realized that just like the manufacturers of Doritos chips, they’ll make more.

This demand for fully utilizing every minute causes people to the believe time is so precious it is deemed horribly imprudent to waste it. This leads to road rage (the bozo in front of me allowed a full three seconds to elapse after the light turned green before he hit the gas), shopping rage (the bozo in front of me has 12 items in the 10 items or less express lane), airport rage (the bozo in front of me is taking forever to remove his shoes and now he has walked through the metal detector with his stupid car keys still in his pocket), drive-thru rage (the bozo in front of me has ordered enough food to sate the appetite of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir after a week long fast), and newspaper columnist rage (this bozo has written 117 words already and he still hasn’t finished this stupid sentence). There may be a dearth of time in our lives but there is an abundance of bozos.

There was a reference in this book about a novel written in the 19th century (when the industrial revolution was first starting to make time the master and man the servant) in which a civilization develops where time is the currency of the realm. Think about that. We pay each other for things with time. You fix my car and I owe you a couple hours. The problem for the guy who fixed my car is my list of skill sets doesn’t lend itself to a fair exchange. I could write 800 words about why machines are turning into people and people are turning into machines or I could answer any question he had about “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. On the other hand this could be the only way he ever gets anyone to watch his home movies of the family trip to Niagara Falls.

A Stranger in a Strange Land

It has often been described that people of my generation are immigrants to the world of technology and members of my children’s generation are the natives. This makes sense because their world has always had technologies which we, as children, only saw in science fiction movies shown on one of the three fuzzy television channels the black and white Magnavox could tune in after the sun went down.

Like many people my age it was not the Statue of Liberty welcoming me to the new land but rather the VCR. Instead of a blazing torch held high in the sky lighting my way to freedom and prosperity the video player had a digital clock bravely blinking “12:00” into the darkness of technological ignorance. The problem was getting the darn clock to stop that.

I soon mastered the VCR. I was able to command it do irrational, possibly even unnatural, acts. Such as taping one show while I watched another. I could also be a timeshifter. This meant I could watch “Miami Vice” at eleven in the morning on a Sunday instead of all those poor folks in my technologically backward homeland who had no choice but to watch it at nine on Friday nights. I was no longer a slave to the whims of network programmers. I could watch “Cosby” AND “Magnum P.I.” even though they were opposite each other. Talk about your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to watch “Misfits of Science” any time we darn well pleased, this was the promised land.

Next I became a guide for the newcomers. I worked at a video store (known at the time as Popingo, later as Popinwent). There were many, many times I fielded a phone call from a techno immigrant who was struggling to program his VCR to do its magic for him as well. If I was unable to talk him through the process the last resort was to ask a single question. “Is there a twelve year old kid in the house? Put him on the phone.”

In the ensuing years I learned about DVD players, universal remotes, cordless phones, video games (beyond Atari), and the ultimate benchmark of a true techno devotee, the home computer. I mastered e-mail, surfing the internet and googling – a verb that sounds at once childish yet vaguely dirty. I have graduated to a point that I write blogs, watch YouTube, listen to podcasts and have even been known to occasionally wiki.

Having achieved something akin to resident alien status there are two basic phrases I use when dealing with my new homeland. The first one is used when I come across something really amazing to me, like when I got my first iPod. Even though it resembled a piece of Juicy Fruit and had no moving parts it was able to store and play, with crystal clear sound, dozens and dozens of songs. This prompted me to say, “This shouldn’t work.”

The other phrase is used when struggling to get the infernal computer to function correctly. Often I have been called to fix a problem and as the tension and blood pressure mounts the phrase my family hears shouted from the deepest recesses of the basement as I stare determinedly at the completely unsympathetic, nay, tauntingly brazen cathode ray tube is “Do what you are designed to do!” This is sometimes followed by terms best not published in a respectable newspaper.

My latest evolution as a citizen of Technovania was the purchase of an iPod Touch. This is something about the size of cassette tape (for the technology natives you’ll have to ask one of your elders what that was) which does a myriad of impossible things. I can connect to the internet via WiFi. I can download apps. It may even have Bluetooth capabilities.

Okay, I have to admit I am still an immigrant because I just used a bunch of words from a foreign tongue. I have an idea what I was saying but I could be totally wrong. Kind of like that guy who goes to France and using his high school French class from fifteen years ago as his template attempts to order roast chicken with rice and actually boasts to the waiter that his aunt’s pen in on his uncle’s chest of drawers.

I am learning how to use it even if I do not understand how it could possibly work. Of course the chief thing I use it for at the moment is playing solitaire which I could do with technology from the 9th century, playing cards.