Saturday, November 28, 2009

What's Your Number... Again?

I have an old associate I've worked with for years... let's call him Jim Brown. Recently in the normal course of events, something popped up on my radar screen and I needed to get a hold of him. Unfortunately I couldn't remember his number, not having spoken with him in a while. But these days, between computers and cell phones, nobody needs to remember anything. All you have to do is punch in a name, press the little green telephone icon, and you're connected toot sweet.

So I turned on my phone and entered "Jim." Simple enough. But up popped "Jim Brown," Jimmy Brown," "James Brown," "James T. Brown" and "JT." Were they all him? I wasn't really sure. There were a number of different phone numbers and emails, all in different combinations. In fact, since we were working together on a project shortly after Hurricane Katrina, there was even an entry for my then favorite nickname for him, courtesy of President Bush. I can honestly say that, at least for me, "Brownie" did do a heck of a job.

It's all much more confusing than it used to be. When all I had was a simple address book, good old Jimmy would have been filed under "B" for his last name. I would scribble his number and address there, where it would remain. If he gave me a new one, I would scratch out the old and add it, or write the new one with a star next to it. And if I needed to contact Jimbo, all I did was riffle through the pages and there he was.

Then under the mistaken impression that I was making my life more organized and simpler, I decided to "datafy" the whole thing. That meant I bought a program for my computer, and spent night after night while watching TV inputting everybody's name and info into my laptop. It was grunt work of the highest order, figuring how to put the square address of the real world into the round hole of the entry fields. Was "Apartment 22" the second line of the street address? Did the spare fax/phone a friend had go in the fax box, the "other" box or both? And where did one stick the PIN's needed for all those pagers?

Eventually it all made got translated into bits and bytes, and was slowly beat into submission. So what if there were some multiple entries as I forgot where I filed things? It might have been a little jumbled, but it was all there. And the more familiar I got with it, the easier it became to find things.

Then three things happened. Everybody starting changing their cell phone numbers as they got better deals. They also started adding multiple emails to deal with work and play. And address books morphed into contact managers with much more complex layouts. Transferring the old data to the new program, as well as adding all the new info, was a terrifying experience, roughly akin to moving the residents of Brooklyn into Manhattan and praying they wouldn't fight over the parking spaces.

Eventually it all got smushed into your new PDA. Again, there were multiple entries for the same people with slightly different information. Again, new email and new phones kept getting added and prioritized without eliminating the old ones. And again you eventually wrestled it to the ground, learning along the way that your mother was both Mom and Harriett at the same time.

Now here we go again. When you buy a new App Phone, as they're being called, the nice people at the store have a handy dandy device that takes all the information you've accumulated and transfers it to the new one in a flash. But... and they kind of forget to mention this... the new phone has a different filing system. So if you're like me, your new listing of friends and family now contains over 2500 entries, including 37 "Dans," 42 "Steves" and a whopping 51 "Bobs," none with last names. Thankfully there was only one Nestor... but we stopped talking years ago.

Eventually I'll get it sorted out. The database will be a thing of beauty, sliceable and diceable to find people by occupation, zip code or preference for Mexican food. And I'll be able to lay my finger on your number in the bat of the eye. But until then, if you call and leave a message, just make sure to leave your number.


Marc Wollin of Bedford was able to skinny his 2500 entries down to 1858 in just 4 days of editing. He's still going. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Unleashing Our Inner Geek

It wasn't long ago that we as a society were a bunch technological idiots. If a piece of equipment had more than 2 buttons, it was deemed to be too high tech for all but the geekiest among us. Proof could be found in almost any home after a neighborhood power failure, when the VCR in the family room started flashing "12:00," and stayed that way until Uncle Harry visited over Labor Day and reset it.

Contrast with the future as envisioned in virtually any science fiction movie. In some hazy, though not-too-distant time, it seems as if everybody really is a rocket scientist. After all, no matter how complex the equipment appears to be, whether it's a starship, deathray or peanut butter and jelly sandwich replicator, everybody from kids to grandparents knew how to run it. And if push came to shove, there were plenty who could even figure out how to remove the plasma colatation tube from their personal communicator, and use it as a neutrino refloration device to return safely to the earth and ensure world peace.

So what happened? How did we get so smart so fast? Did some genetic mutation kick in activated by cell towers? True, we may not be all the way to that Star Trek or "Jetson's" future just yet, but we certainly have made undeniable progress in a very short period of time. No longer do things with knobs and dials cause us to wake up in a cold sweat at night. Put another way, how did we go within a generation from staring at a television set as if it were a magic transmission from space, to throwing down our cell phone in disgust because it locks up when we were trying to text on it while simultaneously looking up a restaurant review and downloading a new ringtone?

Probably the biggest thing is that we've stopped being afraid. We've discovered that with very few exceptions, pressing buttons does not blow up the planet. Consider our approach to learning gizmos and gadgets. In the old days (just 10 years or so ago) the first thing you did when you unpacked anything new was take out the 50 page instruction book and open it to page 1. Now, most things don't even come with a manual. Once you put in the battery you're pretty much left on your own to figure it out it works by jamming the buttons until you get it to do what you want it to do. And in most cases, you can figure how to get "it" to work, be it make a call or make toast with relatively little problem.

It happened because Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and other entrepreneur billionaires beat up on the engineers building the stuff and forced them to make things fairly intuitive and usable by all. As such, my mother has gone in her lifetime from marveling as her Aunt Elizabeth tuned her Gloritone radio to her favorite soap opera "Our Gal Sunday," to having a Skype video chat with her grandson who is on an island off the coast of Colombia. That's a long road in a very short time.

I thought about all this as I unpacked and set up my new Droid. This latest touchscreen phone was developed jointly by Motorola, Verizon and Google (yes, it's cool... write me and I'll tell you more about it) and was meant to replace my 5 year old Palm Treo. When I first started out with that particular device, I spent weeks figuring out how to get my data moved onto it, carrying paper copies of everything until I was comfortable enough to rely on it. With the Droid, I bought it on a Tuesday, uploaded all my data that evening, and took it on the road the next day. I flew without a net, and other than some minor stumbles, I never hit the ground. And mind you, this thing has more power than the Space Shuttle.

The great writer Arthur Clark said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In fact we've learned a lot of the tricks, and aren't as amazed as easily as we once were. We may not all be rocket scientists, but it's starting to look that way. Yes, if you stop and think about what we can do with all this stuff you will be astounded. More likely, though, you'll just use it, and drum your fingers on the desk as you impatiently wait for the day when you can use your cell phone to clean your house.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves his new Droid. It's the first piece of tech he's been impressed with in a while. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Getting The Power

In our house, there are certain chores my wife and I share, while some are mainly hers and others mine. As an example, due to my dismal track record, I am basically prohibited from doing the laundry (put a pair of jeans in the dryer and shrink them more than once, and you get a reputation). On the other hand, keeping the family books and dealing with the myriad of statements that come in the mail falls mostly to me.

Also in the "mine" category are most things that are technical or mechanical in nature. In some cases it can be complex, such as troubleshooting the computer network or installing new software. However, it can also be mundane and routine, such as hanging a picture or setting up the Christmas tree. And also in this particular arena is replacing batteries in various gadgets when the need arises.

True, in most cases it's not that hard to do, and my wife can handle it on her own if she so chooses. Be it the remote control for the TV or a flashlight in the glovebox, it's usually simple enough. However, there are other appliances and devices which aren't so user friendly. When they grind to a halt, I usually find the offending item on the counter when I come down in the morning or get home at night. And chief in this category is clocks and watches.

In most cases these items are diminutive in size. That means that replacing their power supply entails 2 major challenges. The first is merely getting to it. Rather than having an easy to remove cover, the compartment housing the battery is usually secured with screws so small that they may as well be invisible. Fortunately, when I first discovered I needed cheaters with which to read, I bought the strongest pair I could. The 2.5 magnification proved to be way beyond what I needed for everyday use. But I kept them, and indeed they proved to be the equivalent to an optician's loupe and perfect for this particular chore.

Once I don the glasses and retrieve the set of miniature screwdrivers bought just for this purpose, I expose the innards. Sometimes it's just a matter of popping out the little button with the edge of a knife. Occasionally it means removing tiny straps and retainers obviously installed by trained squirrels working with tiny tools in slave labor camps in Taiwan. In both cases, it usually ends with me crawling around on the floor as the dead battery shoots across the counter and slides under the kitchen table, there to be found as much by feel as by sight.

Once I retrieve the useless cell, a process which takes several minutes to a solid half-hour, I have to figure out what kind it is. With regular flashlight batteries, you have a choice between cells labeled as D, C, AA and AAA (one wonders what happened to poor B). Telling them apart is child's play, with the size difference apparent. Not so with watch batteries. At first glance there appears to be about 4 possibilities, from dime-sized down to baby aspirin-sized. Look closely, however, and you will see that for some strange reason, like snowflakes, no two are actually the same. A 323 looks like a 326, which suspiciously resembles a 329. And in fact, save for a millimeter or two, they are identical. But that silly little millimeter means they are not interchangeable, unless you use a hammer to install them.

Added to this wrinkle is that different manufacturers designate the same size different ways. It's as if the engineers at Rayovac and Duracell and Renata thought that by giving unique names to their products they would somehow preserve their market share. So when you go the store to get a replacement, you have to thumb through a well worn guide hanging by the shelf which tells you that a 321 is the same as a SR616SW, which is no different from a 611, a 280-73 or a SB-AF/DF. It's a battery Tower of Babel.

After spending way too much time taking one blister pack at a time from the rack and comparing it to the old battery I have taped to a piece of scrape paper so I don't lose it, I have to reverse the entire process. I go home and try and put the whole thing back together again. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it turns out I got the wrong one anyways. That's usually because the size designation, which is etched in 1 point type, is scratched. And so 326 looks more like 328, which is what I actually bought. And so I put it back into its package, return to the store muttering, and exchange it. Thankfully, I’m not armed at any point in the process.

I'm not saying I got the short end of the stick. I’m happy to shoulder my load of the assorted household chores. But, Honey... can I take another swing at the laundry?


Marc Wollin of Bedford just threw out an old watch rather than deal with replacing the battery. Turns out it's almost cheaper to buy a new one these days. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

No matter how good your junk mail filters are, when you open your email there are probably still dating come-ons, fraudulent diploma offers and the odd Nigerian scam letter offering you millions for helping to spirit away a few bucks languishing in some far off place. But by volume, those pale in comparison to the pharmaceutical and other product offers, which total more than 72% of all the unrequested solicitations. In fact, according to a report released by Microsoft, spam accounts for more than 97% of all the email traffic in the world.

That means that if you're like most, you spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning out your inbox. Eventually you get it down to the stuff you want to read. There you'll find a few personal notes, some business correspondence, confirmation of things you bought, and most likely some friend requests from others seeking to connect with you on some social network.

Social networks have emerged as the killer ap that drives everyone to the web. True, none have figured out how to make money at it, and so it's an open question as to how long any of them will stay alive. But just as Amazon lost buckets of money for years before it became profitable... and continued to grow and attract admirers along the way... so too do Facebook and My Space and LinkedIn continue to attract more and more people.

The whole idea behind these sites is to bring order out of the chaos of your many relationships, be it for the betterment of your social or business life. (That, and having a place for your old college roommate to post pictures you'd hope were lost to history and would never see the light of day, like the one of you in bell bottoms and Dorothy Hamill hair.) But keeping up with them is a chore in and of itself, one that can take all your waking moments if you're not careful.

Fortunately almost all of sites allow you to set up alerts to be sent to your email address if something notable pops up. If someone you know posts a new picture or makes a new connection or changes their job title, you get a bulletin letting you know that something has changed in your universe. But it can also be spam-esque to get a million little reminders of relatively inconsequential updates every day. And so many of these services amalgamate the changes that are relevant to you in a once-a-week rundown. Now when I see a LinkedIn update on a Monday morning, I can quickly catch up on the all the goings-on with those with whom I am connected. It's quick and comprehensive, and easy to follow-up should there be a need.

But while I have a reasonable number of contacts on some of these services, not so others. I think I just got tired of signing up, not seeing any real benefits coming from being part of yet one more network with mostly the same people. And it stands to reason that if the universe of contacts on a given service is small, then the updates delivered will be rather narrow in scope.

And so it is with a network called Plaxo. Nothing against the service itself, but I signed up because a client requested it, and then promptly forgot about it. I connected with one other associate named Bob through it, and then just got tired of responding to friend requests, and so pretty much ignored them. However, as a member, I still get weekly "Pulse" updates, which tell me all about what's happening with all the other people with whom I'm connected through the network.

But that's only Bob.

And so once a week, I find out everything I could possibly want to know about what Bob's been up to. And since Plaxo aggregates comments from a number of different services, I get the full range of his activities, some business, some personal, some recreational. On Monday: "Bob will be attending the Design'09 Conference in Washington." On Tuesday: "Bob is now connected to Barry." On Wednesday: "Bob is writing an article for InDesign magazine's new edition." On Thursday: "Bob can't wait for baseball to end and hockey to start." On Friday: "Not a very productive day. Time for wine."

It's all Bob, all the time. Thankfully, I like Bob, I really do. He's a nice guy, easy to work with and always smiles. I'm glad he's doing well. And he's a faithful reader of this space, so I guess turnabout is merely fair play. That being said, as much as I want to know what's happening to those whose company I keep, I trust he'll forgive me if I just delete my next set of updates. After all, you can keep up with the Bobs just so much.


Marc Wollin of Bedford never updates any of his pages. He does, however, update this space weekly, and it appears in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.