Monthly Archives: October 2005

I am your technology proxy.

I am your technology proxy. Every nightmarish experience you will ever have with a piece of technology I have already had, from poor customer service, to products that don�t work as intended, to money poured down the black hole of early adoption.

Did I tell you that I dropped a $625 cellphone in the toilet this week? It was in the back pocket of my Seven jeans, and you can guess the rest. Or that I also water damaged its replacement, a Blackberry 7105t on the same day? I�m now on my second Blackberry. Yes, in a single day this week I demolished $1000 of telecommunications equipment. That was after the video IPOD arrived. (Everything they say about the screen is true: it�s perfectly possible, in fact sometimes desirable, to watch �Desperate Housewives� on a small screen). The video IPOD is now full of TV shows, podcasts, and other non-musical artifacts. My music is on its own IPOD.

And it was also after the FlyPen arrived. I bet you don�t even know what the FlyPen is. It is a pen computer made by Leapfrog Enterprises, the people who make the LeapPad, one of the most popular children�s edutainment toys (I have bought at least a half dozen of them as gifts for people with pre-schoolers). But the FlyPen is aimed at teenagers.

This is the device that will take over the world. About ten years ago, or more, there was a pen computing company in Arizona called Slate. It was a wonderful idea, being able to enter text with a pen, but it was unbelievably ahead of its time. Its genius of a founder, Vern Raburn, has now gone off to do something else that�s unbelievably ahead of its time: personal jet taxis.

But pen computing, like speech recognition, has always been the Holy Grail of men who don�t type, so the idea never goes away. It has surfaced repeatedly in various touch screens, note-taking software, and Tablet PCs. If you think about it, pen computing is now at the Best Buy checkout stand, when you sign your credit card slip with the little stylus attached to the screen.

FlyPen is different. No screens or styli are involved. The entire device is handheld like a pen, and you use it to write on, of all things, PAPER. Which makes it possible to use in, say, middle school. Or, say, fancy restaurants where you wouldn�t dream of hauling out your laptop.

You write with the FlyPen on its special lined paper, and an optical scanner takes a picture of each character and saves it in a small self-contained computer. The pen then plays back what you have written in a human voice. The FlyPen will also record music, and even create music. New software will be developed to extend its capabilities, I�m sure.

But as of now, you can make the FlyPen alert you to appointments, because it has a scheduler. You can use it to keep your contacts, because it has an address book. It tells you everything you need to know.

Because it is aimed at a youth market, it has a lot of other non-productivity related features, such as games and math help, word puzzles and other stuff of the sort that senior citizens use to ward off Alzheimer�s. I predict that�s the secondary market.

The FlyPen even has a calculator function. Indeed, if it only had a phone in it, I would trade in my Blackberry for a FlyPen, despite its age inappropriateness for me.

I suspect that one day it will have a phone, or phones will have FlyPens, and that there will be a significant share of the market that will prefer not to endure carpal tunnel, Blackberry thumb, and all the other repetitive motion injuries to which computing has made us vulnerable.

On second thought, did I tell you that I still have a big callous on my third finger from where I held the pen when I was in school?

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I just bought a video

I just bought a video IPOD, which I haven�t even received yet. However, to welcome it, I also downloaded iTunes 6, and then three episodes of �Desperate Housewives,� which I have only watched once on TV and then dismissed. I cannot wait to receive the IPOD and catch up on these important cultural artifacts while I�m on the plane to China and India in November.

And that�s why I hope they never allow cell phones on airplanes.

Before you tell me I�m a Luddite, let me tell YOU I�m the most wired woman I know; for years I�ve been the informal tech support for friends and family, although I majored in English while in college. Or maybe I majored in intellectual curiosity, so when technology became the big �happening� thing about twenty-five years ago, I jumped on board at a full run.

But all these years of early adoption have done the same thing to me that they�ve done to everyone: they�ve converted a former thinker and reader into a frenetic, connected multitasker who no longer even reads the morning paper because she already scanned the news on Google or saw it on CNBC. I live a life of picture-in-picture, with a crawl at the bottom of the screen, zapping the commercials so that every hour is reduced to forty-three minutes.

Airplanes and yoga retreats are my only surcease. On an airplane, I can�t turn the computer on until the aircraft reaches some altitude the pilot thinks makes it okay for me to use my electronic devices, and I can�t connect to the Internet at all. It�s a nice break from the habit I picked up in the �90s of waking up in the middle of the night to check my email.

I suppose I could make a phone call, and indeed have done so, but only at a cost I refuse to incur except in an emergency.

So I�m left to my own devices. I can sleep. Or I can read. And because I fly often, I have come to look forward to plane rides as times when I can actually start and finish a book. Sometimes I start the book on one flight, and it happens to be the tail end of a trip, when I am heading home, which happened to me coming home from Africa, when I started �The Zanzibar Chest,� a book about African history. I was fascinated by it.

Until we landed. Three months later, when I flew the next time, I had to pick up where I left off, and I couldn�t even remember what I�d read. I finally did catch up and finish it, although not between flights. I�ve begun to take notice of my habits, and I notice that I do not read books in the course of my every day life.

Why should I? How could I? Every moment of my life is packed with communication. I listen to music or talk radio, speak on the phone with my Bluetooth headset, instant message and email all day long, web conference when necessary, attend meetings, shop online, and hang out in bars and at Starbucks. When I go home, I sleep, usually with the TV on.

And kids who are growing up now are less contemplative than I am, if that�s possible. They also play video games. Many of them don�t have a childhood habit of reading to remember.

I�m not saying there�s anything holy about books. I�m the first one to tell you film is compelling, and knowledge can be gained through any medium. No, it�s �down time� that�s holy, and we just don�t have it anymore as a nation. Or as a world. Somehow it�s one of those things we can�t afford, like some people in third world countries can�t afford food.

But I�ve been reading (or perhaps I should more accurately say scanning) a lot of articles lately about how the US is losing its lead in research and development, or innovation. And I think these things are related. Bombarded daily by stimuli, unable to find a moment to think, how can we innovate anything?

So perhaps it�s not such a bad idea to keep on banning cell phones on airplanes. We might get a fortuitous invention from an engineer or a scientist going back and forth from India or China who has a moment to think.

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Move over, Hollywood. There’s not

Move over, Hollywood. There’s not much you can do to rival the natural disasters that have occurred this year for sheer awe-inspiring video. In December we had the tsunami, and just as Katrina and Rita were running their courses on CNN, we were given (by a universe that MUST be angry) the earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir.

But I’m still an optimist. It’s amazing how tragedies have a way of bringing people together and creating opportunity from despair. It’s impossible to ignore the number of human lives sacrificed to these tragedies, but it’s also impossible to ignore the people from New Orleans who have been taken into other American cities and given homes and jobs.

It’s equally impossible to forget that the rebels have put down their arms in Indonesia, and now the people of India are offering aid to the people of Pakistan, and the Pakistanis are accepting the aid. The universe is telling us that we are all interconnected, and that petty land disputes, or even religious doctrinal differences, should take a back seat to our common humanity.

In Pakistan we have a special opportunity to help. I have a friend there, American educated, who returned home to start a technology business. He has been active in a charity that builds English language schools in Pakistan. It’s a
professionally managed, not-for-profit organization, established in August 1995 and formally incorporated in September 1996. The organization was set up by a group of citizens who were concerned by the dismal state of education in Pakistan.

TCF runs a network of 244 well-managed, purpose-built schools in urban slums and rural areas across Pakistan and serves all persons and communities on a completely non-discriminatory basis. In the past ten years, it has grown to an enrollment of 30,000 children, and pays special attention to enrolling women.

Do you know how much it costs to build a primary school in rural Pakistan? Only $84,000. Do you know many lives can be influenced by that school? Tens of thousands. It’s my personal belief that we could make more of an impact by building schools than by all of the fighting we’ve done in Iraq. I’m tempted to take up a collection to build a school myself.

But the earthquake creates a more immediate opportunity. Because it already runs the schools, TCF is in a great position to provide aid to the earthquake victims, and it has already gone into action.

“The suffering is of such a magnitude and scale that TCF was prompted to plan a two-phased strategy to provide systematic relief to the victims of this national calamity in the Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir.

Immediate Relief: Starting today, we will provide basic care packages including tents, blankets and food rations to 20,000 affectees for the next seven days, for which we need Pak Rupees 30 Million.

Permanent Housing: In the second phase, in association with other partners, we plan to construct 5,000 seismically designed homes over the next two years, each costing Pak Rupees 400,000. Our engineers and experts are already in the area and are monitoring the requirements on site, both short term and long term.”

Here’s where Americans can make a difference.

There’s a donation form on the Citizens Foundation web site. You can do it by credit card. It’s not like sending the money to the Red Cross, where you don’t know where it will go. If you donate here, you know it will go to earthquake victims directly, dispensed by people who know who they are, and who are familiar with our belief in education as the way to upward mobility.

I know we’ve already given a lot to victims of Mississipi and New Orleans. But next time you are thinking of going out to dinner, maybe you want to send some money for earthquake relief instead. You may avoid a future war by doing so.

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I’ve been watching the Bob

I’ve been watching the Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home” on PBS. In case you missed it, it’s part of the American Masters Series and I’m sure it will come out on DVD if it hasn’t already, because Martin Scorsese, always one of my favorite directors, is the director of record. I�ve heard many people worked on the film before he was brought in.

I was never a fan of Dylan, whose early lyrics I couldn’t understand over the screeching of his harmonica– an instrument I always hated– but I grew to admire him as I watched Scorsese reconstruct the environment from which Dylan created his music. The amazing part about Bob Dylan is that he ever found the traditions that later formed his musical influences. For him, discovering folk music was as serendipitous as, say, George Harrison discovering the sitar, or a rapper being influenced by Tibetan chants. Dylan�s influences, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the legendary John Jacob Niles, didn�t easily swim into his sphere of vision. He had to work hard to find them.

Watching that documentary, I was struck by the changes in the music scene that have occurred since I was a child. Music from all over the world is accessible now, to almost anyone. It�s easy to forget that it wasn�t always like that.

Bob Dylan is almost precisely my age, but he didn’t grow up in New York City as I did. He, poor guy, grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota during a time without television. He had to listen to 50,000watt radio stations from far away places at night to hear anything besides Patti Page singing “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.” Hard to believe, but there was actually a hit song by that name in the �50s.

The entire lyric, which I remember because it played endlessly even on the New York radio stations, was “How much is that doggie in the window, arf arf/The one with the raggedly ta-a-a-il/How much is that doggie in the window, arf arf/I do hope that doggie’s for sale.”

And yet, he found them. The day after high school, he left Hibbing for New York. New York at the time was the epicenter of the music scene. In Harlem, it was the blues scene. On 52nd Street, it was the jazz scene. and in Greenwich Village, it was the folk music scene. People actually gathered in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons and played music for each other. Good music. Live music.

At night, the scene moved inside, to places like Cafe Wah and Gerde’s Folk City. These were the places we went in high school and college. There were very few concerts; most music was played in intimate venues like night clubs, for a few hundred people who were just as busy smoking and drinking as listening. If you weren�t one of them (I was, because my dad was in the entertainment biz), you might never have heard the great names of jazz, folk or blues.

I’d say there is no true epicenter of the music scene now; there’s the Austin scene, the London scene, the Seattle scene–you get the point. I hear great jazz in Half Moon Bay. You can hear good live music almost anywhere, because the young musicians can hear truly good recorded music on which to base their ideas. If you’re a fifteen-year-old and you want to be in a band, or start one, your IPOD can show you the way.

Now I’m not sure such increased access to music from all over the world will spur people to creativity like Bob Dylan’s. Maybe it will just spawn generation after generation of imitators. (Which I think is happening right now in hip-hop; it all sounds the same to me now, after years of sounding fresh and new.) But I do believe that music is a universal language, and that the wonderful new music dissemination technologies can do much to unite the world. Perhaps that�s why the radical Islamists find it so dangerous and want to ban it.

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