Showing posts with label technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label technology. Show all posts

18 December 2016

The Tattletale Doll and other Tales


IoT, or Internet of Things, refers to the interconnection and integration of electro-mechanical devices (‘things’). It’s often thought of in the context of home automation (heating and air conditioning, lighting, door locks, entertainment, security, and even the promise of a digital butler), but the growing IoT can be used in numerous and yet unimagined ways.
The robots are coming and they can’t be stopped. At first blush, you won’t recognize them. They don’t possess arms, legs, or even wheels. They don’t have scary or friendly faces– they don’t have faces at all.

To be sure, development of what we think of as robots is proceeding apace. Bipedal ’bots can run, jump, gently lift an egg or crush a steel can. A few years ago, the US Army sponsored deployment of a creepy-looking headless, mechanical pack mule.

The devices I’m talking about may be called voice agents or digital assistants. Physically, they may more closely resembles a carafe, a thermos bottle, or a cigar box. Compared to R2D2, they have more in common with the cutsie robotic dogs and dolls seen in toy stores. They’re verbal assistants.

The Next Voice You Hear…

Artificial intelligence is still in the Model T stage, but it’s come a long way since the famous Eliza program that carried on a conversation of sorts. The new devices not merely entertain, they can help with small things. Not many things yet– they have limitations and a long way to go, but they can control your lights, thermostat, entertainment center, and home security. They can wake you up and put you to sleep.

Most can read you the news, make notes, look up recipes, set timers and answer simple questions. “How many teaspoons in a cup? How many grams is that? Halve that recipe. Repeat. What should I do for heartburn?”

Each plays games and tells goofy jokes. They can play music through your stereo or their own surprisingly decent speakers. Ask, and they can tell you about Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Davis, or TV’s the Jeffersons. If you zero in on a musician, ask the gadget to play their music. Some of these devices remember the context of the previous question.

Keep an ear out for occasional jokes, little ‘Easter eggs’, so to speak. For example, ask Google Home who shot the sheriff, and she replies, “Bob Marley, but he didn’t shoot the deputy, if that makes a difference.”

The current players are big names you already know: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. I’ve been living with one of these gadgets for the past couple of months. It’s not entirely ready for prime time, but that day will soon arrive. One is on my shopping list for friends.

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot, aka Alexa

Amazon Labs market the Echo, its little sister, the Tap, and the family baby, the Dot, all with personalities known as ‘Alexa’ but can also be called ‘Amazon’. Prices run $140 for the Echo, $90 for the Tap, and $40 for the Dot.

The company claims a skill set of 3000-some tasks, including reading audiobooks to you. Unlike the competition, it can order items from Amazon, (“Alexa, quick, order toilet paper, same-day service.”)
  • You can’t miss a question posed by an Amazon customer: “I have 2 children, one named Alexa and the other named Amazon. Will this present any problems?” The 100+ answers are a riot.

Apple Home Kit
Apple Home Kit, aka Siri

Siri can be found on the iPhone, the iPad, the latest Sierra MacOS 10.12.x, and now aboard the Apple Home Kit. Unlike its main competitors, Apple doesn’t offer a stand-alone device, which can be regarded as both an advantage and disadvantage. It’s nice to have one or more go-to spots without pulling out your phone. But it's convenient if you’re in your basement and want to adjust the thermostat without running upstairs: simply tell your iPhone or Android to switch on the furnace and adjust the temperature. Your kids arriving home can turn on the lights and unlock the door with their phone.

With an iPad, Siri controls devices like lighting, iTunes music, and Apple TV. Apple is rumored to have a ‘smart dock’ in the works, so they may make it possible to have both a central location and the ability to carry around the controller. Apple also has the largest ‘ecosystem’ and best integration, although that may change rapidly as Google and Microsoft gear up.

Google Home
Google Home Assistant, aka Hey Google

Unlike the competition, the $130 Google Home doesn’t have a catchy wake-up name like Siri or Alexa, but it features a plucky female personality. Ask her to play trivia, and she becomes downright excited, bouncing off the walls of her tiny Genie bottle.

Google Home connects with Google Chromecast and can entertain you with Netflix, play internet radio and music, flash family photos on the screen, or show you a movie without your leaving your chair. One advantage is that home owners can place more than one device in the house, so a person can carry on conversations room-to-room.

Considering its massive search engine, Google would seem to have advantages over the competition, but it lags in areas, even though it has been buying up controls companies like Nest and investing in IoT research for home automation. One of the apparent issues is that Google was slow to reach out to third-party developers, so its non-home-grown actions number in the dozens compared to Apple and Amazon’s hundreds of tasks. Expect that to change sooner than later.

Microsoft Cortana
Microsoft Home Media Center Voice Assistant, aka Cortana

Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant, has received good reviews for understanding human language. However, with the fewest connectable devices, Microsoft is playing catch-up in the smart-home market.

The Redmond company has teamed up with Insteon, a player in the IoT scene. At present, the companies expect users to control their home automation with Windows computers, tablets, or Windows Phones, which seems to severely limit the market. However, Microsoft has brought Cortana and their search engine Bing to the iPhone and Android platforms, so they may intend future synergy there.

I’m surprised Microsoft hasn’t leveraged their popular X-Box into a home control system, but the company may be way ahead of me. Considering the source of the name Cortana, they should have a natural fit…

Apple and Amazon users seem happy with the Siri and Alexa names. Fans of other platforms appear less pleased with ‘Hey Google’, and downright hostile to the name Cortana. See, the name comes from the robotic AI in the first-person-shooter game, Halo. The game is fun, but bloody and violent, so many consider the awkward name inappropriate in a family setting… not that anyone expects their house to burst forth with an alien invasion.

The Others

Other companies are known for components or infrastructure in the home automation and IoT markets, including the venerable X-10, iHome, and a broad range of firms. Lack of cooperation among the major players may be offset by the interchangeability brought by the smaller team players.

A sampling of participants include mControl, HomeSeer, SmartThings, JDS Technologies, Vivint, and Iris. Honeywell, Nest, and others make thermostats and HVAC controls. Z-Wave and Zigbee are known for general controls and home IoT networking.

Concerns

All of us should be concerned these devices constantly listen. Supposedly they ignore anything until their name is called, “Hey Siri, hey Google, hey Alexa.” But the question arises about any listening post in your own home: How difficult would it be to imbed a listening device within your listening device? What if the police, or your opponent’s political party, or China where these things are made, or Mother Russia wants to listen in? But wait… a military contractor already does… listen in, that is, to your children.

Apple and Google have gone to great lengths to earn the trust of their customers. Thus far their reputations appear to be well deserved, but how difficult is it to hack any of these devices? Moreover, unless you tell them not to, all these companies upload dialogue to the cloud for voice analysis. The purposes don’t appear nefarious– yet. If you disable cloud processing, voice recognition will be less than optimal, but you can decide the risk.

Let me introduce to you two devices that listen to your children and upload the data to a military contractor.


Cayla, the Doll with i-Que

Meet My Friend Cayla. She and her brother i-Que Robot are clever playthings from Los Angeles-based Genesis Toys. Cayla is au fait with Disney and Nickelodeon, so the little conspirator can urge your small one to tug your skirt and demand more and more product.

These dolls ask for considerable information, learning your child’s name and your name. Thanks to your IP address, they know where you live, but that doesn’t stop them from asking your child for their hometown and school. Aww, it’s so cute to see your child interacting with a toy recording device.

Because that’s exactly what it is. The dolls upload conversations of anybody in the room to a Boston defense contractor that sells “voice biometric solutions” to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Your child’s talk… and yours.

Additionally, its internet connection is insecure and can be easily subverted and hacked. Bad guys could sit outside your home and listen to your conversations.

If you already own one of these dolls, consider what to do. If you hang on to it, take a couple of safety steps. First, the doll communicates through the internet via Bluetooth, probably through your phone or laptop. Disable that connection when it’s not in use. And shut off the damn doll.

Sorry to go all bah-humbug on you. But really, I want you to have a happy Chanukah and a wonderful Christmas in the privacy of your own home.

Is there already a voice assistant in your home or perhaps your Christmas stocking? What are your experiences? What are your thoughts?

“Hey Alexa, Siri, Google… read my award-winning story back to me.”

12 July 2015

Techno-dull


Mr Robot
Edgy. It’s what a new USA Network television, Mr Robot, is trying for, so edgy that producers are getting ulcers trying to make it happen. And cyberpunk. It’s oh, so cyberpunk, rebel without a clause, pass the opiates please. It’s new, it’s now, it’s different, and it's supposed to be ultra-tech-savvy. It has exciting technology working for it… or does it?
One of Dorothy Sayers' novels, The Nine Tailors, is noted for its portrayal of campanology– professional bell-ringing. Sayers was largely complimented for her accuracy of detail. In a small way, she created kind of a techno-novel. Since then, many authors have created stories detailing technology of one kind or another– military, espionage, aerospace, medical, or computing.

Bluffing computer experts is tricky, especially the ‘leet’, the priesthood as it were, the 1% of 1%, the dei ex machina, code-slingers, bit busters, programmers of the programs that run programs. Rendering a story about computers takes more than networking verbiage and Unix gibberish. Bear with me as I wade into technical detail.

Going Viral

John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider introduced the concept of viruses, but most novels and virtually all movies get the technology wrong. That doesn’t mean a reader can’t enjoy some stories. Thomas Joseph Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 was a good read. 2001 A Space Odyssey was smart, the letters HAL being one displaced from IBM. And for hopeless romantics, Electric Dreams gave movie-goers a Cyrano de Bergerac love triangle featuring a computer named Edgar.

But a story shouldn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. An Amazon review about a computer novel by a top-rated mystery writer said the commenter got laughs reading aloud excerpts to employees in the company lunchroom. That’s not the kind of critique anyone wants.

Dennis Nedry
Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park
Casting Stones

Casting is another problem with computer shows. Techno-geeks’ IQs typically run high, but that’s seldom how computer experts appear on the screen. One example of awful rôle selection occurred in Jurassic Park, that of an unlikely computer sysadmin, the oafish and creepy Dennis Nedry. We’re going to talk about lack of subtlety: Nedry / nerdy, get it?.

If Hollywood doesn’t stereotype a sallow, shallow wimp with taped glasses, they opt for the opposite, a busty beauty in a skin-tight action figure costume. Movie makers think an eye on the décolletage prevents audiences noticing thin characterization.

When I think of actual top geeks (someone without my movie star looks– stop laughing), I think of colleagues like my friend Thrush, programmer Bill Gorham, software architect Steve O’Donnell, or a handful of others. These ordinary guys possess the extraordinary ability to make machines dance to their own tune.

Robin Hoodie

The show’s idea of characterization appears twofold. First, dress the part: Make the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, sullen, slurring, antisocial, slouch through life in his hoodie. Have ruthless, junior exec Tyrell Wellick wear designer ties and suits. Decorate drug dealers with lots of tats. Mission accomplished.

The other part of the simplistic characterization is the creation of a polarized ‘them versus us’ atmosphere: hoodies v suits, punks v preppies, young v old, crackers v hackers, morphine users v tweakers v coke-heads, Anonymous v the establishment, bad guys v the other bad guys, capitalists v socialists v nihilists v anarchists… which might be interesting if someone had bothered to delineate a bit.

Elliot, the main character, is a morphine-addicted presumed programmer– he once mentions source code. The guy is a pathological liar who lies even to himself, then follows up by telling people in slurred speech, “I’m just being honest.” He drinks ‘appletinis’ and tells his shrink he’s not a junkie, even as he snorts his drug of choice. Supposedly this doesn’t impair his ability to dig into the bowels of computer networks.

A major problem here is that mainly druggies find drug users entertaining. One shouldn’t have to be stoned to appreciate a television show, but drug use and overuse underlies a major theme of Mr Robot. Elliot’s Asperger’s syndrome one can deal with, but his continuous mumbling is hard to stomach.

Of all the cast, only the female characters appear likable and worthwhile, Elliot’s shrink, Gloria, and his childhood friend and co-worker, Angela. Elliot and Angela telegraph to the audience their unrealized attraction as in a third-rate romance novel.

Tyrell Wellick represents the only alpha male in that universe, a ruthless junior exec but one who keeps his eye on the prize. As the best drawn character, he’s a sadomasochistic and exploitative bisexual who goes all out for what he wants. The actor speaks fluent Swedish but god-awful French, more than once butchering the word ‘bonjour’. Wellick does win on other points: When his pregnant wife asks for a bondage session, he’s reluctant to proceed, trying to be gentle.

Anonymous

A major factor– or malefactor– in the series is Mr Robot, a sociopathic anarchist played by Christian Slater looking exceedingly bored throughout. ‘Mr Robot’ is the name of a tech support company, passed on to Slater.

He’s formed ‘fsociety’, a squad of hackers patterned after the group Anonymous. Instead of Guy Fawkes masks, fsociety uses the likeness of that Parker Brothers’ mustached tycoon, Rich Uncle Pennybags aka Mr Monopoly.

Uncle Pennybags © Parker Bros.
In reality, fsociety is disappointingly unlike Anonymous. The latter is focused on justice and exposing inequity and corruption, not anarchy for its own sake. Anonymous gives an impression it values human life, unlike the show's producers who suck hours out of your life never to be returned.

Unsubtle

Those of us in the US tend to confuse and conflate capitalism with a free market economy; Mr Robot drops any distinction at all. Fsociety is dedicated to gutting Evil Corp (which deserves it) within a larger goal of bringing down the economy.
  • E: Evil Corp– that’s its unimaginative nickname– is the company that Elliot, Angela, and Tyrell work for. Obviously, subtlety isn’t held in high regard among the writers. The company’s E logo simultaneously hints at an actual secretive government provider and evokes ‘E for everyone’ entertainment ratings.

  • F: Two guesses what the F in fsociety stands for, subtle like a sledgehammer.

I tried to imagine the original cocaine-fueled pitch for the series. I think it went something like this:
“Like okay, man… (sniffff) There’s this guy, hacker dude, we’ll dress him in a hoodie so everyone thinks Robin Hood, see. (sniffff) And there’s this evil corp, we’ll call it Evil Corp so the audience can’t miss it. (sniffff) Listen, I confuse free markets and capitalism, but let’s say we burn down the economy… What do you mean, how would I cash my paycheck? What does that have to do with anything? Oh, irony, I get it. That’s good, that’s good. We’ll include irony.”

Verisimilitude

The series makes a stab at hi-tech realism, not particularly savvy, better than some shows, not as good as others. Writers drop a few Unix buzzwords (Gnome, KDE, TOR) and gloss over how their network was penetrated.

Elliot identifies a supposedly infected file that fsociety wants him not to open: fsociety00.dat. Amusingly, the IP address associated with the bogus file is 218.108.149.373, an impossible address like movies using 555-1234 as a phone number. (Geekology trivia: An IP address resolves to four bytes in binary, so each number of the group must be less than 256.) Mr Robot offers no specifics how Elliot tracked down the file in error, but the date and a bogus IP address should have clued in even a noob, never mind our ersatz hero.

Elliot passes the file on to a colleague, saying he’s done the hard work and ‘all’ that’s left is the encryption, as if that’s nothing. *bzzz* Wrong answer.

The program promulgates the notion that if someone has a root kit or hacker tools, they’re somehow an ultra-savvy user instead of being like any other mechanic with the right toolbox. The real guys with the smarts are the black hats who write the hacker tools and the white hats who find ways to combat them.

The show also advances the prejudice that ‘old people’ (presumably over 25) can’t deal with technology. A little reflection would have shown that the very systems Elliot and his hacker friends are using were designed by the old guys who themselves built on the shoulders of greater giants. (Articles on Anonymous have shown that the inner core of the organization isn’t strictly young guys as popularly imagined, but largely socially conscious programmers from the late 1960s and early 1970s who range upwards in age into their 50s and 60s.)

Elliot sneers at the CEO of E-Corp for carrying a Blackberry, ignoring the fact that an executive can run a company or tinker with technology, but probably not both, not at the same time. The US State Department deliberately uses Blackberries because they’re less susceptible to hacking… but that sort of realism would cut the series short.

Later, Elliot denigrates a hospital IT manager, William Highsmith, but even as he’s disparaging the IT guy, Elliot uses his supposed superior hacking skills to type the word NEGATIVE into his drug screen. Nothing screams phony like spelling out a presumed binary value instead of clicking the bit setting like true experts and their grandmothers would have done.

In the third episode, Elliot gives a stoned soliloquy on debugging. He’s correct in that finding a bug is usually the hardest part of the problem, but then he awkwardly extends an analogy of bugs into the real world of people and society.

Commodore 64
Halt and Catch Fire

Based on a single episode, a competing series Halt and Catch Fire has a much better and more realistic grip on technology and story-telling. Their team planned how to fake an AT&T computer by kludging together parts from a Commodore 64. Unlike the vague buzzword-dropping, watch-the-other-hand unexplained ‘magic’ in Mr Robot, the HCF scheme could actually work.

From both a writing standpoint and a hi-tech background, Mr Robot disappoints. I expect more… more characterization, more plot, more realistic tech. And less morphine, please, much less. I’m a minority, but my tech-savvy friend and colleague Thrush, who still keeps his hand in the land of Unix, also expressed dismay, finding the show dark and dismal with a poor handle on technology.

Mr Robot is like a 1960’s drug culture anti-establishment film, entirely unentertaining. But that’s my take. What is yours?

12 March 2014

VistaVision


Brando's ONE-EYED JACKS showed at the Lensic theater here in Santa Fe this past week. It's something of a curiosity, the only picture Brando ever directed, but more to the purpose, it was last major release shot in VistaVision, a widescreen process that lasted about seven years.


First of all, let's explain "aspect ratio." This refers to the shape of a movie's screened image, and for many years, the standard aspect ratio was 1.33 to 1, horizontal to vertical, so the image is a little wider than it is tall. (More or less the size of a television screen, back in the day.) This was the negative size of a 35MM film frame. Widescreen had been used, for example, THE BIG TRAIL, released in 1930, which was shot in 70MM, with an aspect ratio of 2.10:1, and a projection process called Grandeur, but most theaters didn't have the equipment to show it, and there was an alternative 35MM version.



Widescreen didn't really catch on until CinemaScope, and THE ROBE, which came out in 1953. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1.  Again, not to try your patience, another technical explantion. Scope is an "anamorphic" process, meaning that the lenses do the work. The image is compressed, when the picture is shot, to squeeze it onto a 35MM frame, and then opened up again when it's projected. Scope lasted well into the 1960's, when it was overtaken by Panavision 70. Now, this too has fallen out of favor, with the introduction of digital, which is a story in itself, but technology eats its own young, and that's where I'm headed.

VistaVision was different because it wasn't
anamorphic. Instead of compressing the image, it opened it up, to fill two frames of film. The nuts-and-bolts, oversimplified, are that the film traveled horizontally through the camera, and exposed twice the image area. The result is a print with finer-grained detail. You increase the depth of field and get far more color saturation.


Directors loved it. Ford used it for THE SEARCHERS. John Sturges, in a couple of pictures. Anthony Mann, always contrary, shot with it in black-and-white, the blacks coming out deep and crisp. Hitchcock used it five times, most strikingly in VERTIGO, where the color becomes part of the story.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_VistaVision_films

But the format was doomed. Even as careful and canny a director as Ford or Hitchcock, who shot only and exactly as much as they needed, still had to shoot twice the footage, because of the double-frame. By the time Brando came along, and famously went through a couple of hundred miles of film, it was the kiss of death, and Paramount pulled the plug. The studio never used VistaVision again.

The process had a half-life, though, for another fifty years, primarily for effects work and process shots, and then CGI took over. It's interesting that even on DVD, with a good digital transfer, you can still see why so many directors and cinematographers liked working with it. You got a lot of bang for the buck, particularly when you wanted to make it appear

you were shooting in low light. The seduction scene between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in
TO CATCH A THIEF is a good example, or the chase across the rooftops at the end of the picture.

The technology is never static, and we keep pushing the envelope. There was a time when VistaVision was state of the art, and this post isn't intended to be elegiac, but you get the sense that something is lost. There's a plasticity, a word I've used before, to film, as opposed to digital. Not to be a Luddite. I don't want to go back to using a manual typewriter. We shed our old skins, we reinvent ourselves. Still, among the discards and the hand-me-downs, there might be a few things you decide not to put out at the next yard sale, some talisman or another, a vintage bottled in the past.

10 June 2013

Smith's Law


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape
 
Bet you've never heard of Smith's Law. Well, don't fret. I'm sure you've heard of Murphy's Law? Well, my late husband, Elmer Grape used to claim that Murphy was an optimist. That whatever did go wrong was going to get worse.

So I had my internet tech out last week & got my desktop back online and then sorta got the laptop going also.  Well, it was working; it just takes thirty minutes plus to load. Since computers were working I delayed buying a new laptop. And today is when Murphy's Law kicked in. Things got worse.

This afternoon while trying to get my article written and posted, I cannot get online with either computer. The desktop is totally hopeless. I managed to get online with laptop but after 40 minutes of the cursor spinning it just would NOT open the sleuthsayer website.  So I'm writing this on my phone. Thank goodness I bought a styles thingy last week. I can't  imagine trying to type this much with a fingertip.

And so things won't be a total crying towel, pitiful Patty, I'll give you an idea of what my original article was about.  I've had people say that my policewoman sounds exactly like me. Or that this character or that character is Aunt Whosit or Uncle What's his name. In reality none of that is so. The characters I make up are just that "made up."

If Zoe Barrow sounds like me...it's probably because you give her a Texas accent because I'm from Texas.  Like most writers say, there's a little bit of me in several of my characters. But Zoe is younger, thinner, prettier and braver than me. (I got that one from Sue Grafton about comparing Kinsey to her.)

However, I take bits and pieces of people I know or see to compose a character. I've gone to a mall to people watch. To note gestures, walks, body language.   You may take a trait of Aunt Whosit and marry it with Cousin Whom.  When you do that you do need to be careful they don't recognize themselves. A friend once said she made her mother-in-law into a yippy dog but the MIL never caught it.

Characters are fun to create. But don't just give a list.of hair and eye color. Give us something to their makeup as a person. Thats when characters come to life.

I think this is about all I can type this way . So until next time watch out for Murphy.

29 June 2012

Rebirth in a Smartphone


SleuthSayers is about Reading and Writing and Mystery. 

At least, that’s how I understand it.

So, this week’s blog is about all three: Reading, Writing, and a very special type of technical Mystery my dad and I experienced this past week.

An odd thing happened to me on Tuesday. 

I became the new owner of a Smartphone with an unlimited data package.

This strikes me as odd, because — up until Tuesday — the only cell phone I had access to was a Virgin Mobile prepaid flip phone that didn’t even text very well. (Not that I have a lot of “texting” friends, at 49 years old.)

Even more striking, perhaps: the computer I use to make my posts on this blog is hooked to the internet via aol dial-up! Which means that I can now access this blog site faster on my phone, than on the computer I use in my office.

I don’t know about you, but I find that fact a bit odd.

( I know: Some of you are still thinking, “DIAL-UP?!? What — has he got a club in the corner that he hunts dinner with, too???” To those folks I would simply say: “It’s not a club; it’s a shillelagh. And it hangs in the sacred spot beside the empty slot where my Kukri (or Khukuri) used to hang. Because – as of last weekend -- my Kukri now hangs on the wall in my 4th-Grade son’s room!” And NO I did not trade my Kukri to my son for a smart phone. He asked if he could hang my copy of the famed Gurkha knife on his wall.)

Nonetheless, I find the fact that my phone can access this website much faster than my work computer a bit of a shock.

It shouldn’t really surprise me, of course. As the son of a guy who taught computer programming at the local university, my childhood was steeped in the belief that we would all be walking around with computers on our wrists by 2050 or so — which now sits just under two-score years away.

I personally thought we’d also all beat the morning rush hour by wearing personal jetpacks, by this time. Evidently, I was wrong about the jetpack thing. And, my smart phone probably wouldn’t fit too comfortably on my wrist, unless I were one of those guys who like to wear gladiator cuff-bracelets that extend half-way to the elbow. On the other hand, I can do things with this new phone that Dick Tracy never even dreamed about — even if he did have a two-way wrist radio!

Not only can I access the internet with my new phone, it’s also easier to read this blog on my phone, than it is on my computer. I mean: I can see the words better. That’s not a huge thing to me, when the person in question is myself. But, it had an entirely different meaning — a HUGE new meaning! — when it came to my 85-year-old father.

You see: my dad got a Smartphone the same day I did; we got them together. 

He’d been out, the day before, with a woman who sometimes comes over to lend a hand. She drove him to an appointment, but made a wrong turn along the way. They got a bit lost. That’s when the woman pulled out her smartphone and brought up Google. She entered the address they were looking for, and her phone (as dad put it) “told her how to get there.”

Dad REALLY wanted that application! I think I know why he wants it, and it makes sense to me. In fact, it’s the whole reason we wound up getting new phones.

And, a magical thing happened at the phone store.

 My dad’s sight was restored.

 I don’t mean that his vision problems were miraculously cured. What I mean is: My dad was able to see something he hadn’t been able to see in over a year-and-a-half

His EMAIL!

To explain: Dad lost all vision in one eye over a year ago, after undergoing his 13th eye operation. And, the vision in his other eye has been deteriorating badly. All this, while my mom was in the hospital, then brought home in Hospice care, and during the next eleven months or so as dad became her primary care-giver (at his insistence), until she passed away six months ago. Since then, he’s had 40/200 vision in his good eye, with only glasses on, and improved (though far from perfect) vision when wearing both glasses and a contact lens. As one doctor put it to me: “It’s sort of like your father has about one-half of a good eye.”

Even wearing both contact lens and glasses, dad hasn’t really been able to see his email messages — or very much else on his computer screen. In truth, he can’t see much on the printed page, either; not unless it’s blown up to about a font size of 75. Instead — in print, or on-screen — he had to puzzle out the blurry shapes he was seeing, piece each letter together in his mind, then mentally assemble the words from those letters, and try to reason out the meaning. And, he did this while under extreme stress (as his wife lay dying), then extreme exhaustion (because he’d worked himself half to death taking care of her). Yet, he insisted on personally handling his finances and other daily business, as he’d always done, as well as sending out letters and emails informing distant friends of my mother’s death. I suspect you can understand the constant tension of working under such circumstances.

 Here’s a bit of mystery about smartphones, however:

Evidently, the magnification system available on the smart phone is quite different from that on a computer. The phone (from what I’ve noticed on mine, at least) is designed so that when you magnify a website, it magnifies portions so that they fit the screen size. Leigh could probably tell us that this has more to do with the way a smart phone interacts with the internet, possibly even that the phone actually interacts with a different part of the net than the computer does. I don’t know: I don’t understand these things, nor do I let that fact keep me up at night.

To me, the important thing is that -- when the phone store guy got dad up on the new smart phone, and dad got to his email account -- I heard him gasp, “I can SEE it! I can REALLY SEE IT!

For the first time since that last eye operation, over a year-and-a-half ago, my dad could actually see his email — because of the particular way his smart phone displayed it.

And, looking at him, hearing the excitement in his voice — seeing that excitement light-up his face! — I realized: I had just witnessed my father having his sight restored.

That dad’s sight was restored through technology is not just incidental.

 He taught computer programming at Arizona State, when the field was so new that he had to invent his own curriculum. That technology provides the only “dad-friendly” reading venue we’ve been able to find, to date, seems somehow fitting. And let there be no doubt: this phone is like a key for my father, unlocking his ability to read and write, once more. I thought he’d eschew typing with the on-screen keyboard, and just opt for the microphone aspect his phone provides, when it comes to writing things into his phone. But, over this week, he’s become pretty adept at using that keyboard too. And he's talking about finding other ways to exploit the new-found doorway back to the world of the written word. 

I find myself constantly reminded of what he told me in the car, as we drove home from the phone store: “Son, I can’t explain . . . . It’s like I’m coming ALIVE again!” 

My father was a voracious reader all his life. But, for the past 18 months, he hasn’t been able to really read at all.

Now, he can read again. It’s had a huge impact on his life. And, when he realizes that his phone can access books, that impact will grow even more. If he can find a way to exploit the phone the way he wants to — Well, even I, a fiction writer, can’t imagine where this will all end.

At the far end of all the thinking I’ve done this week, however, I’ve come to an incontrovertible conclusion: The writer who ignores a technology that’s capable of having such a tremendous impact on the reader, does so at his/her own peril.  I know other writers on SS have covered this topic before.  But, I thought a slightly different "insight" might not be a bad thing.

 See you in two weeks!
 --Dix

08 March 2012

What If?


A writer spends a lot of time considering the What If's for stories. I sometimes wonder about the What If's of my own life, too.
What if I'd been born in another time and place?

Right smack in the middle of a technological explosion, todays's writers are considerably blessed to have computers with the formatting, spell check and grammatical help so readily available at the touch of a keyboard. Imagine what minds like Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler or Rod Serling could have done if they'd had such conveniences and didn't have to pound out their stories on a manual typewriter? I'm thinking of all the writers who dipped a quill into an inkwell with awe. Today's writers are quite fortunate to have technology on their side.

Thinking about the faster access to research questions is amazing, too. Even turnaround time between most publishers is quicker via e-mail than traditional snail mail submissions. Speedy acceptances keep a writer's soul happy. You notice I didn't mention that rejections also reach us sooner, too. But because we've spent less time waiting for an answer, the pain of a refusal isn't even as dreadful as in the old days where a writer haunted our mailbox and practically attacked our mail carriers for news about a submission.

Ask almost any college-age or younger person how to do something (especially on a computer) and following the inevitable eye roll, will be the answer, "Just Google it!"

While it's easy to find out to do almost anything via the Google search engine, sometimes I miss the one-on-one when another person shares information instead of leading me to directions on a computer screen to dicipher.

However, I admit I appreciate the fact that Google never balks at telling me what it knows. That and being available 24/7 not only is terrific, but soothes my ego by not reminding me I am lame for not already knowing the answer myself. I'm often writing into the wee hours of the morning (or night depending on your half-empty or half-full theory). Most of my friends do not wish to be disturbed when I have a question at that time of the day about whether a law in effect in my state would be the same in another or how a weapon would work under certain situations. Google loves to answer day or night without qualms and is never too tired and rarely uncertain about the information.

I'm sure somewhere in time, some people groused about the telegraph wires messing up the landscape as much as people do about everyone having to have a cell phone (or tablet or computer) at their side, practically attached to their hip. Fearful they will miss "something important" if they aren't plugged in, these people are becoming more and more the majority.

Yes, the telegraph lines did take away some majesty from the scenery, but look what they brought to society; communication capabilities changed the world.

Yes, I get annoyed when people are texting from the bathroom stall, plop their cell on the table while we're lunching and keep more an eye on the device than they do our conversation. (You know who you are! LOL)

But, I do understand the awful sinking pit in the stomach feeling when I realize I forgot my cell and realize I am on my own if something goes wrong with my vehicle or need to get in touch with someone immediately (Have you noticed how few public phones are available these days?)

Technology is like a frenemy. We can't escape them and desperately need to keep a close eye on them.

What if I didn't find inspiration as a writer? Or acceptance for my work? What if no one wanted to read my stories?

Without any chance of publishing, I'd still write. Without any other person beside myself reading my work, I'd still write. It gives me joy to do so ... and because I don't know how to stop. If I were to never find any new inspiration, I'd resort to strictly writing the facts. Nonfiction is also good for the soul.

What if instead of writing about crimes, I lived a life of crime? First, that's impossible for several reasons: 1. I'm too chicken to attempt many of the things I write about. I couldn't personally live with the immoral choices of breaking the law. I have toomuch respect for law enforcement to ever want to be sitting in the back of a patrol car. And 2. I wouldn't do well in jail because I am sure I could not handle those uniforms (the same kind every day???) and especially the shoes they make you wear is enough to make a girl cry.

What if I'd gone into law enforcement or became a lawyer or a judge? Hmm, I'm not certain I'd want to chase a perp down a dark alley or have to represent the bad guys in court (and the prosecutors don't get paid enough to work that hard.) I'd probably enjoy being a judge, but they expect you to work your way up to that, so I guess that's out.

No, it's best I stay where I am and stick to writing. The only What If's I need to employ are the ones that concern my characters. I think that's the best answer for me and I didn't even have to Google it.