Posts Tagged ‘Technology’


August 12, 2013

We have Netflix and cable and pay-per-view and more remotes than I know what to do with, but for me, inside, there will always be three TV channels.

CBS, NBC and ABC. Since I grew up in New York City, that translates to channels 2, 4 and 7, which had all the good programs. Then there were 5 and 9, which showed black-and-white reruns, 11 which showed Yankee games, and 13, the educational station, which we never watched. (I was born just a couple of years too early for Sesame Street, and my parents were not Masterpiece Theatre types.)

No matter how many remotes we have, I will go to my grave feeling that “normal” is three TV stations. I suspect many other boomers feel the same way.

Which brings me to the topic of change.

We live at a time when change is, quite possibly, happening faster and more unrelentingly than ever before in human history. Big changes like industries evaporating and little changes like moving from the iPod 4 to the iPod 5.  I thought of this again yesterday when, reading the Sunday paper, I came across a photo of Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen was one of the inventors of Netscape. When I was covering tech in the 1990s, he was the just-minted wunderkind, the graduate student with a mess of floppy hair who represented everything new and cutting-edge.

And now he looks like this:


Middle aged! (Like the rest of us.)

I have a hard time with change. I live near the geographic epicenter of technological change, and I try not to be a dinosaur, but I have a hard time with it. We are an innovative, tool-making, world-changing species but  there is also a big part of us that is designed not to expect change.

Think about how we learn to understand the world as babies – a stable, unchanging world. Would it be possible to learn about it any other way?

Parent: Ball. Say, ‘ball.’ Here. (Rolls ball to baby.) 

Baby: Baa. (Holds ball. Pushes ball back.) 

Parent: Yes, it’s a ball! Here’s the ball. (Rolls ball back to baby.)

What would happen if every time that ball came to baby, it had a different name? “No, not ball, gorphin! No, not gorphin, schminger!” What if every time baby pushed the ball, it did something else? First it rolled, but then it floated, and then it exploded? How would we learn to function in the world? How would our primitive ancestors have survived if everytime they plucked the same purple berry it was different – one time tasty, one time sour, one time poisonous?

Some of us – if we are lucky – have stable childhoods. That was my case. No divorces, war zones, plagues, bankruptcies, deaths. My family lived in the same apartment from the time I was two until I was grown; I went to just two schools; we celebrated holidays the same way each year. Even climbing the ladder of school, the continuities outweighed the changes – different teachers and subjects every September, but the same structure to the day, many of the same classmates, the same rules for what was prized or punished.

A lot of human history was pretty unchanging too. Millennia of nomadic societies. The middle ages. If you lived in medieval Europe, you probably spent your life entirely in one village. Your parents were shepherds, so you were a shepherd.  “Change” amounted to the rare arrival of a stranger in town; a new overlord demanding more tithes; a good harvest season or a bad harvest season.

In my life these days, the most unchanging thing may be my cat.  He changed a lot in the first six months of kittenhood, but now our life with him is completely unchanging. We feed and cuddle him; he finds funny places and positions to sleep; sometimes he brings us dead mice. That’s it. And that will be it, more or less, for the rest of his life. Technology is constantly changing, consumer products are changing, industries are dying and empires are dissolving, but the cat remains the same.

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

Parenthood is not like pet ownership.

Many of us go into parenthood thinking it will be stable. We think,  “Okay, my wild youth is over, now I’m settling down and having kids.” And sometimes — especially in those first few months with an infant, or during the 11th inning of a Little League game — it does seem as timeless and tedious as the Middle Ages.

But kids grow. As soon as you’ve reached equilibrium with one stage – “okay, I know how to handle a toddler” – they have moved on to an entirely different stage. You find yourself trying to take a ten-year-old to the zoo. Just six months ago they loved going to the zoo with you! And now they would rather be buried up to their necks in a hole with molasses and red army ants than look at elephants, or for that matter look at anything, with you.

This summer we’ve had Daughter home with us for three months after her freshman year of college. It’s been delightful. She is happy to be home, happy with her adult life, happy to be with us. She volunteered to cook dinner once a week. She even asks to play games with us in the evening!

And this won’t last. In two weeks, she goes back to school. We’ll have her home for winter break, but after that… summer study abroad. Internships and jobs in New York. It’s unclear when she will be at home for such an extended period again.

Those changes — kids growing up, adults growing old — aren’t unique to our era. But all the other modern changes added on top make things feel overwhelming sometimes.

How much of my desire for stability – my refusal, deep inside, to accept that there are more than three TV stations – is a quirk of my own upbringing? How much is hard-wired into us all as human beings?

And how much might be generational? Will generations like my daughter’s — raised with technology turning itself inside-out every year or two — have any less of a gut yearning for constancy?

Picture yourself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies –

Oops, not that kind of boat. Picture yourself on a boat, yes, but more like punting on the Cam, just floating lazily down a quiet summer river. You’ve got an old-fashioned Polaroid camera. You’re taking photos of the shoreline, trying to preserve the views you love the most.

But it takes time for you to click, and for the camera to whirr and process and slowly spit out an image.

By then you’re long past the scene in the photo.

It’s gone.

The shortest path between two points is a gadget

December 27, 2011

My husband got an apple corer as a Chanukah present from my sister. This is nothing high-tech — a simple plastic circle with metal blades that you push down over the apple and voila! Apple slices. But he was delighted. He rushed into the kitchen to core me an apple.

And it was fine. It was tasty. It was nicely cored and sliced. But I thought, Why do we need this? I’m perfectly happy slicing my own apples. 

Riddle: What do these two orange objects have in common? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And this was just a simple little human-powered gadget — it didn’t plug in, didn’t beep or blink, didn’t burn fossil fuels or contribute to global warming or require a log-in and a password. But still, I started thinking — as I spun the salad for dinner in my plastic salad spinner — why do we want all these gadgets?

This is similar to a riff goes through my head when I’m putting away dishes. It’s only twenty feet from the dishwasher to the dining room hutch where we store our china, but I always feel a compulsion to do it in as few trips as possible. I stack salad plates on top of dinner plates, I balance beer glasses on top of soup bowls. For what — to save 10 calories of walking energy?

I guess we human beings are hard-wired to conserve effort and energy. It must go back to our African savannah or European ice age days, when food was scarce and starvation was a constant threat and you didn’t want to burn any more calories than necessary. And certainly there are times when saving effort makes sense. If I were building a stone wall or tilling a rocky field, I would damn sure want to domesticate a horse or invent the wheel.

But today? To my knowledge, no one in my household is facing starvation. No one is physically overworked. In fact, the opposite is true on both counts: We’re all perpetually fighting too much weight and too little activity.

Today it’s better for most of us to take the stairs rather than the elevator. We’re healthier if we eat less and move more. Those hard-wired drives to grab every ounce of fatty food and avoid all unnecessary exertion are no longer helpful — they’re harmful.

But still, I stack those salad plates to save a trip into the dining room. My husband beams at the ability to core an apple with one firm shove rather than twelve little slicing motions.

We have as many gadgets in our kitchen as any good yuppie. How much of why we buy them is mindless consumption (The Next New Thing!), how much is intellectual appreciation of an ingenious solution or elegant design, how much is this primordial drive to do less work?

And it’s not just gadgets. After spinning my salad in the salad spinner, I reached for some Satsuma oranges to add to it.

Now, I love Satsumas. They’re my favorite fruit of all time. I love their tart, juicy taste. I love that they are only available for a few months every winter.

And I also love that they are so easy to eat — the peel comes off as easily as wrapping paper, and pits are rare. There’s no digging your nails into peel that refuses to leave the orange, no juice spurting all over your sleeve, no ragged slices that are missing chunks.

Is my love for Satsumas just a fruit version of the gadget phenomenon?

It used to be that the shortest path between two points was a line.

Today it’s a gadget.

Death of a hard drive

April 30, 2011

With Passover barely a week past, plagues are still on my mind. Blood, frogs, cattle disease, death of the first born….

And a modern one — death of the hard drive.

Image by Audrey Polichenko

I didn’t manage to post this week since my hard drive bit the dust last Monday. It exhaled a desperate DOS error message, powered off, and when I turned it back on, was a ghost of its former self. It couldn’t access any documents. It could surf the Web and it could access my email files, but no photos, music, recipes,  invoices, interview notes, query letters, journal entries, freelance assignments, or (oops) novel manuscripts.

Before you start hyperventilating in sympathy, let me say that I didn’t lose anything permanently. This was not Hemingway leaving his manuscript on a train. My wonderful in-house tech support guy (yay Sam!) had persuaded me about a month earlier to sign up for Carbonite, a “cloud computing” service that automatically backs up your computer. So there were copies of everything stored somewhere in the ether on Carbonite’s servers.

It wasn’t a disaster, just a pain.

On the plague scale: Closer to frogs than to death of the first born.

Caving into to my teen daughter (longtime Mac evangelist) and husband (recent Mac convert), I decided it was time to make the switch from PC to Mac. I ran off to the Apple store in Emeryville and bought a Mac Powerbook Pro. At the same time, I was using an old Windows laptop to try and download the backed-up files from Carbonite. And I was using my old limping desktop to view emails and print out the important ones just in case. At one point, I had all three computers running simultaneously in my study: It looked like some mad scientist trying to emulate the NASA command center.

So now I’m having to figure out how to use a Mac. For years I’ve listened to Apple users wax on about the ease and elegance and intuitiveness and overall complete and utter superiority of Macs to PCs. But I’m not exactly blown away.

Maybe it’s that over the years, Microsoft copied enough Mac features that Windows now does pretty much everything that Macs do, at least for basic word processing-type activities. But whatever the reason, I feel irritation rather than liberation.

I’m having to re-learn a bunch of minor computer habits — things like having to type “command c” and “command v” to copy info from an email into a Word document rather than click on the familiar Windows “copy” and “paste” icons. (Unless there’s some easier way to do it that I haven’t found?)

I miss having a right-click feature on my mouse. I miss having both a “backspace” key and a “delete” key.

I feel a little like a stroke victim having to relearn basic motions of daily life — holding a spoon, tying my shoes. Small abilities we take for granted until… one day they’re gone.

There are Hebrew blessings for many of the activities of daily life, expressing gratitude for waking up in the morning or eating a meal or washing your hands.

Is there a blessing for a properly functioning computer?

Two modern phone stories

January 8, 2011

Dear Ma Bell:

Do you ever wonder what your great-great-grandchildren are up to in this modern era? Here are two small stories of cell phone crime and (sort of) love.

#1 – The Crime Story

I had a birthday this week and Sam took me out for a festive dinner. Apparently it was festive enough that we forgot to lock his car when we came home, because the next morning we found that someone had broken in. The doors were slightly ajar (no locks jimmied or windows broken), the glove compartment and ashtrays wide open, papers and other stuff strewn all over. The thieves didn’t take much —  a couple of cell phone charges, Sam’s Blutooth speakerphone, and his spare change.

But they left their cell phone on the passenger seat.

Duh! I suppose this could be a teachable moment for my teenager: See, darling, it’s important to pay attention to detail, even when breaking into cars.

I was tempted to call up the thief myself, but used better judgment and called the Oakland police. When a police technician arrived to pick up the phone, she told me that this kind of thing happens every so often. Sometimes the police call up the thief, pretend to be a passerby and say, ‘Hey dude, found your phone.’ When the clueless wrongdoer comes to retrieve his phone, they ask him if it’s his, if he was the last person using it before it went missing, and boom! under arrest.

My story does not apparently have such a neat ending. With the city’s tight budget and limited staffing, they apparently won’t track down the phone owner with just one victim complaint. The technician suggested I ask my neighbors if they have suffered similar break-ins… and if there are several, we’d be more likely to get an investigation.

The way it was

I posted this story on my block’s e-mail listserv yesterday. (Ma Bell, do you need me to tell you what a listserv is? Think of those party lines that the whole town could hear in your day.) So far, reports of two similar break-ins.

The crowning irony: The cell phone was a model called the Boost Mobile

But when Sam pointed this out to his staff, the folks in their 20s and 30s had no idea of the meaning of the slang term “boost.”

#2 – The (Sort-of) Love Story

Again, it started with my birthday. Dozens of people left lovely birthday wishes on my Facebook wall. Then, the next day, I got a Facebook message from a woman in the security office of the Cal-EPA building in Sacramento.

They had found an iPhone somewhere in the building, and couldn’t identify the owner but saw that she or he had posted a comment on my FB page. Could I help them find the rightful owner?

So I posted a FB status message. The owner didn’t see it, but a mutual friend did, and told me who they thought it was, and I messaged him, and indeed it was his phone.

Not a true 100% love story, although I understand that many iPhone owners harbor suspiciously strong feelings for their devices. But I did feel like a supporting actor in a romantic comedy, uniting two painfully-lost soulmates. (When Harry Met Cellphone?)

Or maybe the village Yenta. Ma Bell, she’s been around even longer than you have! But today she has forsaken her Yiddish name for the modern one of JDate iPhone App.

Technology marches on, and we skip along with the parade

November 7, 2010

Like many of us, I use technology so much that I barely notice it. I sit at my computer for hours each day noodling around with novel revisions, blog entries, freelance articles, and it all seems quite unremarkable.

Then every so often something makes me remember how new this all is.

Recently it was holiday photos. Snapfish had a 30 percent discount if you ordered holiday cards by Oct. 31st, so I corralled Sam, Becca and the cat for the annual picture.

When Becca was a baby, I still had to take rolls of film into the photo store to be developed. I’d wait several days to get the pictures back, choose the best one, and return to the photo store to order the cards.

Now we use our digital camera and see the results immediately. This year Becca even photoshopped our favorite picture to remove wrinkles, blemishes, shadows and gray hair! (An unexpected benefit to having an artsy teen – we will look younger every year, a la The Holiday Card of Dorian Gray.) I uploaded the photo, clicked through a bunch of card options to find one without any crosses, mangers, trees, ornaments or red-and-green… and that was that.

It’s only been 12 or 15 years, but the old process of slogging back and forth to the photo store seems like ancient history.

That started me thinking about other technological changes in my lifetime.

If you were chronicling your life for archeologists from the year 3000, what would you remember about new technologies? Do you recall a specific time, place, circumstance when they appeared in your life?

For instance:

ATMs. I started college in 1976, just about the time that ATMs were introduced. I remember going to the BayBank branch in Harvard Square to open my first-ever checking account, and getting a plastic card that I could use to get money. Wow! My parents never got money with a card. It felt very cutting edge.

COMPUTERS. I used electric typewriters all through college; computers were still huge boxes off in the science building. After I graduated in 1980, I worked for a while as a clerical temp where I was thrilled to be able to use IBM Selectrics. The height of luxury, I thought, would be to have a Selectric at home for personal use.

I think I first ran into word processing machines when I was temping; I vaguely remember being awed by a machine at one company that had a screen that showed REAL WRITING with ACTUAL FONTS rather than bunches of little electronic dots. (My first glimpse of a graphical user interface?)

The first time I used a desktop computer for writing was when I was living in Jerusalem in 1984-5 and writing a novel. My Israeli friend Ivonne, a graduate student, had a very early pre-Macintosh Apple. I would hand-write pages at my apartment, and then go over to her house to type them onto a floppy disk. When I returned to the U.S. for journalism school in 1985, I bought a PC (“Leading Edge” brand with its own proprietary word processing program!) and paid to have the files transferred from Apple to PC format.

During my first reporting internship at the Waterbury Republican in 1986, we filed stories from the field on Radio Shack TRS-80 computers – warhorses that would have probably survived a drop from the Empire State Building. They had displays that showed about two lines of type – the equivalent of a Tweet! – and rubber cups that you attached to a pay phone in order to transmit your text. I suspect any boomer-age newspaper reporter reading this blog remembers them.

EMAIL. When we were starting to organize the Julia Morgan School for Girls in 1996, email was still relatively new. We had long, earnest discussions about whether it was equitable to send messages to parents by email – would we be excluding families without the means to buy a computer? Today those discussions seem quaint. The school hasn’t sent out a paper newsletter for years; everyone reads it on the web site.

Those were just the first personal takes on tech history that popped into my head. It’s interesting how we date historical events — whether technological change, moon landings, or political events — by remembering where we were and what we were doing at that moment.

How about you — any moments in your life that are linked to the arrival of a new technology?

Some things, of course, remain the same despite any and all technological changes. When I was little, my parents took Instamatic holiday photos of the three of us kids and the cat. The cat invariably was half out of the picture, squirming and clawing to get back under the bed where life was sane and normal.


If you look at our 2010 holiday photo at the top of this blog post, Bowie doesn’t seem much happier.

I guess you could photoshop some kind of Zen-relaxation-expression onto a cat. Or you could photoshop in the entire cat.

I can envision the PETA-friendly disclaimer: “No real cats were annoyed or even slightly inconvenienced in the making of this greeting card.”

But somehow the holiday photo experience just wouldn’t feel the same.