Texting while driving

texting while diriving

I adore my mobile devices, but I like to think I’m reasonable about using them. I do not walk blindly down the sidewalk like a zombie while texting, my eyes fixed on my screen. (An acquaintance recently had her phone stolen from her in the open street; she was walking down the street in a quiet neighborhood, texting all the while, and a kid ran up and snatched it out of her hand. She was very indignant about this, because she didn’t think she’d done anything out of the ordinary.)

But it still amazes me (as an older person) how people drop into trances while using their phones and their tablets. Three-quarters of the people I see on the bus are texting or using their phones. At least half of the people I pass on the sidewalk are deep in contemplation of their devices, completely unaware of their surroundings.

Not to mention people driving cars.

I hate to think about it. I’m a pedestrian – I don’t drive a car – so I’m largely at the mercy of people driving big ugly dangerous vehicles, and I continually hope and pray that they look up often enough to stop at intersections and yield at crosswalks. Because, you know, sometimes they don’t. (Once, a couple of years ago in downtown Providence, I was in a crosswalk with a couple of other people when a driver actually speeded up toward us. I ran like hell toward the sidewalk; another guy, braver than me, stood his ground and yelled obscenities at the driver.)

But it’s the entranced drivers – the ones who are talking and texting – who worry me.

Follow this link to find an interactive test posted by the New York Times a few years ago. It’s very simple: you have to drive and text at the same time.

I failed it within seconds.

Try it, and see how you do.

You’ll be horrified.

The fragility of hardware

fragility of hardware

We love our devices, don’t we? Our laptops, and smartphones, and tablets. I have all three, and I marvel at how well they work.



Also I marvel at how pretty they are. Every evening I plug my iPhone in to charge, and it lies there pulsing with green light like a fragment of kryptonite, and I think: how lovely!



But how fragile also.



A few weeks ago, I was taking pictures in a field of weeds with my iPhone. I leaned down for a closeup of some Japanese knotweed, and –



Oops! Flip! Crash!



I’ve dropped my phone at least a dozen times before, and I’ve always been lucky: it always landed on a soft surface. This time, it landed on a jagged-edged paving stone.



The phone itself was unfazed. The glass covering, however, was shattered into a million pieces.



They can be fixed. Mine was an iPhone5, so the repair was not cheap. Luckily it was a business phone, so the company paid for the repair. But – still!



Since then, I’ve ordered a nice smothery cover for my phone, which will enfold it like a mother’s love.



Why do companies make beautiful slim little phones that slip right out of your hand like baby eels? Everyone buys a rubber/plastic guard for his/her phone. I hate that – why have a beautiful thing and disguise it? – and kept mine in a kind of holster. The holster didn’t protect it from that damned paving stone.



Apple / Samsung / everyone else: stop making things ultra-thin, if it means we have to buy ultra-thick covers to protect them.



It’s just ridiculous.


Speaking machines

talking machines

Our city buses learned to speak a few weeks ago, and you could have knocked me over with a feather.

Partner and I often ride together in the morning, and we’re used to the same things happening every day: the same driver, the same people getting on at the same stops.

Then I heard this odd mumbling voice coming from outside the bus. At first I thought I was imagining things. Then I realized that the voice made sense. “Wickenden and Ives!” it said. “Next stop, Wickenden and Ives!”

Naturally it didn’t pronounce the words very well. WICK-en-den came out WEEKEND-un. It’s a machine. It has no subtlety.

Then it began to announce stops, as follows: “STOP REQUEASTED!”




Well, as I said, it’s a machine.

Do we like things talking to us? Many of us do not. Several studies have shown that people dislike talking machines. If things are almost, but not quite, human – if they exist in the “uncanny valley” between non-human and human – they’re creepy. We want them to be one or the other.

Studies have shown that we react better to women’s robotic voices than to men’s robotic voices, because we find them gentler, less threatening, less bossy. I wonder why the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority chose men’s voices for their buses? They sound gruff and uninterested. They remind me of the nasal recorded voices I used to hear in Morocco in the 1980s when I rode the trains: “Mesdames et messieurs, nous sommes en train d’arriver a Casablanca . . .”

Which brings us to Siri.

Have you ever spoken to Siri? I have. I find her rather lamebrained. She doesn’t like being sworn at; she has lots of canned responses, like: “Such language!” and “You shouldn’t speak to me like that!” Okay. She often misunderstands me, even when I’m trying very hard to be understood. I ask her for information on Puerto Rico, for example, and she’ll say something like: “Do you want me to search the Internet for ‘What resorts are on Puerto Rico?’”

Now and then she gets it right. Ask her about the weather, or a stock price, and she’s nearly infallible. And she’s very demure about it.

But she sounds – I don’t know – defensive when you ask her anything off the beaten path.

Stupid robot.


Technology and its discontents


Some time back, Partner’s nephew appeared on Mecum Car Auctions (you should watch it sometime, it’s fascinating), driving a couple of the cars being auctioned. We wanted to share the video experience with Partner’s sister, because there were a few good shots of her son in the car.

Probably, with the right connections, we could have plugged into the TV or the DVR and extracted the images.  But neither of us is very good at that, and I have struggled for a long time to figure out how to do it.  We have a conventional DVD player / VCR wired into the system, but I think I connected the units in the wrong sequence; according to the DVR manual, I should be able to record programming onto a videotape, but I can’t. And I’m sure somewhere in the wide world there’s a cord that I could plug into the TV or the DVR to connect it with the laptop, but after buying at least three different cords (and facing blank stares from Best Buy staff members when I labor to explain what I want), I have given up.


So this is what we did:

•   We recorded the show on the DVR.

•   I took my little Polaroid digital camera (which takes videos too) and made a mini-movie of the relevant clip (Partner was behind the remote control on the DVR; it was a two-man operation).

•   I uploaded the clip to Facebook.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely Partner’s nephew, and if I do say so myself, it wasn’t bad.

•   I called Partner’s sister on my cellphone and told her to log into Facebook.  She assured me that she was no longer on Facebook, because she hadn’t logged in for so long.  I assured her that she was wrong.  I talked her through it, step by step.

•   And finally I heard her shriek: “OH MY GOD!  MY BABY!  MY BABY BOY!”

It was worth it.

But I desperately need to figure out a better way to do this.

I am told that the DVR has something like a computer’s hard drive at its heart.  If so: why can’t I dive in there and copy out a file?  It would be so much easier.

And can someone please go beat the bejeezus out of those stupid boys at Best Buy for me?

New improved websites!


I do not read the New York Times online much anymore, as I have said elsewhere.  I do, however, read David Pogue.  I hate his smarminess, but I love his advice, and he’s right about technology most of the times, and he has taught me a lot.


One of his recent articles (which you may or may not be able to read, depending on your subscription status) talks about kids and their familiarity with technology.  In short, David says to stop telling stories about how your eight-year-old helped you fix your iPad, or reset your LCD projector for you.  Your children were born into a technology-rich world; of course they know how to do these things.  (I think back to when I was a kid, growing up with TV.  I was completely comfortable with it, but my parents treated it as if it were breakable.  I wasn’t allowed to touch the channel knob (yes, channel knob, no remote controls in those days) until I was maybe ten or eleven.)



So: at the age of fifty-four years, I am a knackered old horse in a field full of Kentucky Derby winners.  The young people are laughing at me and running circles around me, as I complain and try to figure out how to format something in Microsoft Word or Excel.



But, kids, can I make a couple of suggestions?



        One: logout buttons.  I pay a lot of my online bills at the end of the month, in one long session; I log out of one site and into another.  The login is easy; how many ways, after all, are there to format a “username” / “password” page?  But the logout – sheesh!  Sometimes it’s a tiny six-point “logout” at the top of the page; other times it’s a big red button at the very bottom of the page, down below where I haven’t scrolled.  Suggestion: make it a nice visible red button at the (let’s say) top right of the screen, with the words LOG OFF written on it.  Make this an industry / Internet standard.  This would be very nice.


        Two: checkout pages.  They’re all different. Some want my life story; others want my name and credit card, and that’s it.  Let’s standardize them. What’s the harm?  I would think that this kind of standardization would appeal to the banks and credit-card companies, and everyone else besides.  It would be kind of like shopping in a real flesh-and-blood store: the checkout process in Home Goods resembles the checkout process in TJ Maxx, and Walmart, and Stop & Shop, and CVS.  Is there any reason it shouldn’t?



        Three: passwords.  I know my own system.  I use a simple password for things I don’t care about, like logging onto a news website; I use a more complex password for anything financial.  As a result, I get all mixed up.  I try systems and mnemonics and all kinds of things.  I end up writing my passwords down, which we are told is exactly the wrong thing to do.  Can someone please figure out a better way to do this?  Thumbprints?  Scanning my driver’s license?  Retinal imaging?




These are my brilliant ideas.




Now I, the old knackered horse, will go lie down in the field and die.



“We don’t have a TV”


I was talking to a new guy in the office the other day. I said: “Do you watch ‘The Simpsons’?”  And he said: “Oh, we don’t have a TV.”



I swear, it’s like saying “We don’t have electricity,” or “We haven’t put in one of those newfangled flush toilets yet.”



It happens at least a couple of times a year: someone telling me that he/she doesn’t have a TV, or that he/she doesn’t watch TV at all.  (At least this guy hedged and admitted that his family had Internet access, which means that Hulu and all kinds of other things are probably already polluting his kids’ minds.)



But I still feel that I’m been judged and found wanting.



I feel like someone in ancient Rome asking my neighbor if he’s going to the big Bacchus thing next week, and he says gravely: “Oh no.  We believe in Jesus now.” 



Don’t you just want to take that Christian neighbor to that Bacchus thing and offer him up as a sacrifice?



Well, hm, no one is pure these days, there’s that consolation.  This guy admitted that his kids probably watch TV on their computers.  A few years ago, a TV-hating friend of mine finally bought a TV, but only watched VCR movies (which she got from the local public library) on it.  I can tell you that, by now, she has certainly moved on, and I’m sure she’s watching “The Good Wife” as I’m writing this.



“Television,” after all, is no longer a discrete medium.  It’s just a delivery system, like a syringe.  You can absorb the sweet poison of your choice – “The Good Wife,” “NCIS,” “Jersey Shore,” “Bad Girls” – in so many other ways: mobile, laptop, tablet.



Televison sets seem so inert now.  You have to hook things up to them to make them interesting: a cable box at least, a Roku unit, a Wii, an Xbox, a DVR.  Otherwise, you (with your rabbit ears and digital converter box) will be stuck with four fuzzy local broadcast channels, just like when I was a kid.  (Well, we had five – the three networks, a Portland independent station, and PBS – but the PBS station had lots of static, and my mother was convinced that static ruined the TV set, so I could only watch it when she wasn’t paying attention.)



TV haters: come out of the closet!



We know you’re watching something!



Just admit it!





As a citizen of the Internet, I assume you’re aware of SOPA/PIPA.  It looks as if both houses of Congress have tabled the original versions of the legislation (largely because of the huge anti-SOPA/PIPA movement here on the Net), and are rewriting them to be more specific.



I am uninformed, and can only tell you my feelings on these pieces of legislation.



Very simply: I was alarmed by them. 



Supposedly they were all about stopping piracy, and that’s fine.  But the corporations pushing the legislation were playing a double game: they were pretending that it was all about cracking down on websites (mostly outside the USA) that illegally distribute movies and music and such, while they were really thinking of the law’s very real application within the USA as well.



Did you notice the word “corporations” in the above paragraph?






“Piracy” can be very broadly defined.  “Piracy” could be something as innocent as a Tumblr blogger posting Disney images.  “Piracy” could be posting a link to a song you like, or a video clip. 



Which means that almost all of us out here posting our favorite quotes and links and clips on our blogs and on Facebook are pirates!



Not so, not so, croon the pro-legislation people.  We’re only after the real pirates.  David Pogue, who alternates between intelligence and toadydom, decided that the Google / Wikipedia approach – to black out their websites in protest – was an overreaction, and that they were siding with the pirates.



Well, yes, David, they were.  This is because we are all part of a big incestuous system called the Internet, and it’s all about trading information.  And Google, and Wikipedia, and all the rest, were perfectly aware that, once the legislation was in place, it would not be used merely to go after Swedish and Korean and Russian sites, but to go after sites here in the USA too.  Sites like mine and yours and everyone’s.



How much of a pirate am I?  Not very much.  Last summer I watched the “Thor” preview on a probably-pirate Russian website, but – hey – a two-minute trailer?  If I go to Hell, or prison, it will not be for that particular transgression.  And sometimes I scoop up images to use in my blogs or on Facebook, and I do not always inquire about their copyrights.  And sometimes I quote books and poems and all kinds of things, and I do not add complete copyright information (though I try hard to credit the authors).



But I suspect that I too would be in violation at some point down the road if SOPA/PIPA in their original forms were enacted.



Because that’s what corporations do.  They restrict access



The Internet is a zoo. I love the depictions of it on shows like “Futurama” and “The Simpsons,” with people actually entering it as if it were a place, flying around among buildings marked GOOGLE and FACEBOOK and ONLINE GAMBLING and NAPSTER.  And that’s exactly what it’s like. 



Frankly, it has always seemed to me that I have the right to share media with my friends.  It’s like handing a newspaper or magazine to another person so that they can read something.  I paid for it; am I the only person who can read it?  Really?  And how exactly are you going to enforce that?



I didn’t call my congressmen this time.  But if this legislation comes up again, in anything like its current form, I will.



So there, David Pogue.




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