29 December 2022

A Personal History of Technology

I have noticed, over time, that technologically things can get better.  And I am deeply grateful. 

Writing this in the middle of a cold snap (it was -18 air temperature, with -45 wind chills folks, with a  four day straight ground blizzard), I truly, truly, truly appreciate central heating. I remember with absolutely no nostalgia whatsoever the coal furnace that came with our first home in Bristol, TN.  We couldn't afford both a down payment and a new furnace, so we just laughed and said we'd find out what life was like in the 19th century, and we did.  It sucked

Coal smells bad, like living next to 1970s steel factories.  (Unlike peat, the traditional Irish fuel, which has a sweet smell to it.)  It's also dirty to handle and the heat comes out of the vents with soot that sticks to everything. And you can't just dust it off, or even wipe it off - that oily smut requires scrubbing. It is the reason spring housecleaning used to be mandatory, and required fun things like lye.  So yes, give me central heating and air conditioning any day.  

The same is true of the tools of the writing trade.

I began writing, not quite like John-Boy Walton with his Big Chief pads of paper and a pencil, but by hand on legal pads. Did that for years, in fact. But at one point it dawned on me that the days of sending in handwritten ms were over, and I bought a typewriter.  

My first was an old Royal typewriter - remember them?  Sturdy little beasts, as long as you didn't fling them out the window in a fit of despair. 

Then I upgraded in the late 70s to a used Selectric typewriter.  Wow!  Bunch of cartridges and Secretary's White Out, and I was in business!  So what if it hummed so loudly, so strongly that the desk shook (it was a flimsy desk, okay?), and the typeball was a bit noisy - I was a professional!

How little I knew about decibels.  Yes, Selectrics were noisy, but not as noisy as my next upgrade (around 1989):  the daisy-wheel dedicated Brother word processor.  Printing my Master's thesis drove away every woodpecker for miles.  

And then, some time in the 1990s, we got our first computer - a Gateway, if I remember correctly, and it cost about $3,000.  Thankfully, we were fully employed by then.  

But from then on, we never looked back.  The last time I bought new computers, one for each of us, they cost less combined than my old used Selectric did back in the day.  Technology not only gets better but cheaper.  

But what isn't getting cheaper (or as far as I can tell much better) is the "ergonomic" chairs and desks that supposedly would help you set up the perfect workstation in which you'd never again get any of the muscle / back aches or pains that plague mankind.  Seriously, when they're advertising $1,600 ergonomic chairs as the best for your money - I'm like, well... Surely there's a workaround for that.

And there is. In fact, more than one.  

This year I acquired the following items I never want to live without:


Because I have the ability to distract myself with nothing but my own mind, much less things like the  squirrels that love to run up and down the fir tree outside my window, and that's even before I turn on the freaking computer with its news items and message alerts, I really cannot be trusted with 24/7 access to the internet.  Every once in a while I need to fence that off from myself, and the free Freedom software does that for me.  Huzzah!  

Stands of all Kinds: 

Everyone needs a paper stand next to their desk, because.  

A cell phone stand. Because sometimes you're on a long call and need to look something up on-line, or you just get sick of holding the damn thing, etc., etc., etc.  

Everyone needs a lap reading pillow, because sooner or later, your neck is going to be as arthritic as mine, and you need to raise that book / Kindle up a lot higher than your lap.  They're available all over Amazon, Wal-Mart, etc., and come in many colors.  And they run anywhere from $10-$50 bucks.  Enjoy!

BTW, I have two lap reading pillows, one for each of my favorite reading spots.  I also use them as a stand for a tablet during Zoom meetings, so I can sit in a comfy chair instead of always at my desk.

Speaking of arthritic necks, you should check into 

A portable monitor.  

Why did I get one? Because when my old clunker died on me after years of faithful service, I found out that all the new regular monitors are behemoths designed for the gamers* and movie-watchers of the world.  I bought one, but it was so large, that I couldn't get used to it. The percentage of the screen that was dedicated to say, reading the latest substack newsletter or my actual writing was small, and I couldn't expand it or get it where I wanted it, and I finally gave up.  And they were still heavy enough that trying to get them to the right height for my neck was... difficult.  

So I got an Asus ZenScreen, 15.6" monitor, which weighs 1.6 pounds. USB ports, no glare, super-fast refresh rate, supersharp picture, etc.  I can lift it one-handed and place it anywhere I damn well please. And it comes with its own stand. I love it.

*But gaming equipment is not all bad - in fact, some of it is unbelievably good, and here's my favorite:

A split keyboard.

I bought a Kinesis Gaming Freestyle Edge RGB Split Mechanical Keyboard, and I can't rave about it enough. Check out the colors!


But the real reason I love it is that the two ergonomic halves of the keyboard can separate as far as 20 inches, so that you type not hunched over in the traditional position, with your hands right next together and your elbows out like you're about to do a sitting chicken dance, but sitting up, with your hands directly below your shoulders. Or wherever you like them. It's great. I've had pain in my upper back, under my shoulder blades for years from typing almost as obsessively as I've read, and... it's not there anymore. Seriously. 

Caveat:  The keyboard does take a while to get used to - for one thing, while the typing keyboard is the same, the direction keys are in different places. And I mean different. The "DEL" key is above the "HOME" key, and I'm still going home half the time when I want to delete something, and deleting something half the time I want to go home.  But it's getting better, and I don't think I'll ever go back to a traditional keyboard.  Plus the colors are a lot of fun. (They change as you type.)

All of these are available on-line or at your favorite electronics store.  So take those gift cards and put them to good use and welcome the New Year in with physical comfort and the snazziest keyboard around!  

Oh, and stock up and settle in for your next snowstorm (which is happening here in South Dakota as you're reading this), with a hot drink, a good mystery, and a warm house!



  1. Absolutely right on, although I am a bit nostalgic for the sound of the mechanical typewriter, so much nicer than the plastic click of computer keys.

  2. Thanks, Anon. I'm sort of nostalgic for the mechanical typewriter, until I make a really bad typo in the middle of a page and think about the days when I'd have to retype the whole thing.

  3. My next step up when converting from yellow legal pads where cut-and-paste involved scissors and Scotch Tape was to an AT&T desktop with Word Star and a Brothers daisy-wheel printer. Insert a 5-1/4 inch floppy to load the operating software, take it out and then insert the 5-1/4 inch data floppy to write. Now I have three of my young grandsons to tell me how to operate (and correct my wrong moves) on these new fangled machines. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  4. I don't think I could give a typical keyboard, but those colors do look fun!

  5. Oh, R.T., I remember those 5-1/4" floppies. And the 3.5" ones, too.
    And Barb, the colors are great - and the actual qwerty keyboard part is exactly the same. it's just some of the direction keys that are different.

  6. I certainly agree with central heating and air-conditioning. I very much remember as an elementary school child going to the basement at 3am with my older sister to restart the fire in the coal furnace. My older brother would forget to "bank" the fire so it would last all night and my sister was too scared to go into the basement by herself. We moved into a new house when I was 10 and I remember gazing in amazement at the little box on the wall in the hall-- you just set the temperature and that's all!! SUPER COOL (or warm)

  7. Yes, those of us who have lived with a coal furnace will never forget the experience!


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