Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Technology, Unplugged – Part 1

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I've been involved in the computing industry for 36 years. As a result, more than a few people who know that assume I'm a gadget guy who has the newest technology. And while I do like to play with electronic toys, I have shown great restraint in not rushing in to new technologies. In fact, I'm very often a latecomer, preferring to wait until a fad shows signs of lasting, and if so, to see if I can justify making the move at all; and that justification often has little to do with price. The question I ask is, "Given my situation, does it make sense?" [I have often said, "This is America. We do things because we can, not because it makes sense! Here, we spell need 'w-a-n-t'."]

In recent years, it seemed to me that everyday life was getting way too complicated. However, on closer inspection, I decided that the problems were pretty much the same, yet the tools available to deal with them were numerous and complicated. Now that every gadget has a computer chip onboard, it is capable of being programmed, and, of course, every toy has a different interface to learn. For example, a typical household has a TV, a CD/DVD player, an audio receiver, and a Cable TV box, all with their own remote controls. You need a coffee table just for the controllers! Of course, there are supposedly universal controllers, but they don't subsume completely all the functionality of the individual controllers they are intended to replace. [For many years, I've had a theory that I adapted from my buddy Al (Einstein, that is): "Problems are neither created nor destroyed; they are merely transformed." And technology seems to bear that out. Each new solution we invent seems to create a completely new set of problems.]

A watershed moment came earlier this year when I started evaluating my whole lifestyle. Just what did I really need to live comfortably, what could I do with the extra time I'd have if I gave up certain "necessary pleasures", and just how much money was I spending on those pleasures anyway? As a result, I set about simplifying things. It's an on-going experiment that I'm refining as I go.

In the late 18th Century, an Englishman called Ned Ludd supposedly broke some manufacturing equipment in a factory. His actions were inspirational to those whose livelihoods were threatened by the Industrial Revolution. Those Luddites started a social revolution that opposed modernization because of its supposed negative impact on society. Now I'm no Luddite, and I don't own a buggy whip either; however, on some issues, one simply has to move with the times or be left behind. My moves just happen to be deliberate and slower.

By the way, it's been 15 years since I've worn a watch. One day, the band on my $10 watch broke, and as it was built-in to the watch, it couldn't be replaced. Then after carrying it around in my pocket for several months, I stopped taking it at all. I've found that people will tell you if you are late, and that when asked the time/date, "October" or "autumn" often are adequate replies.

The purpose of this essay is to tell you how I have dealt or am dealing with technology. I have no wish to be a missionary for any particular electronic faith. Make up your own mind, but beware of snobs and zealots.

Mr. Watson. Come Here. I need you.

Borrowing from Wikipedia, this "first demonstration of electronic transmission of speech by Alexander Graham Bell" ushered in a completely new era of communications, and one that—to my way of thinking—now has way too many options, most of which are solutions looking for problems. If you've tried to compare two phone companies' services lately, you'll know what I mean.

Ok, let's get it right out there. I do not have a mobile phone and I have no plan to get one anytime soon. If I had one, I expect I would find uses for it, but I'm pretty sure I'd have it primarily for outgoing/emergency calls and would keep it switched off most of the time. And I'm certain its ring tone would not be a 100-decibel version of Beethoven's 5th, and that I'd have some manners when using it among other people.

Once mobile phones became mainstream, all kinds of people simply assumed I had one and when I said that I did not, I sensed that they felt sorry for me. I realized I needed an offensive (as in, going on the offense) reply. And that reply now is, "You cannot simply call and interrupt me any damned time you feel like it. Call me on my landline and if I'm not there, leave a message. Or, send me an email. And if I believe either warrants a response, I'll make one in a timely fashion. As far as I can tell, you and I don't have any business that is so important that it needs an immediate response any time night or day."

The mobile phone scenario that sticks most in my mind occurred several years ago in my local supermarket. In the first aisle, a woman saw some item and called her partner. "Hi Honey, it's me. So-and-so is on sale. Would you like that for supper tonight?" Two aisles later, she spied something else, and called Honey again. And this happened several more times, in subsequent aisles. All I could think was, "It's called planning, damn-it! You make a shopping list before you leave for the store. It's called Making an Executive Decision. Presumably you know Honey's eating preferences." Unfortunately, we're living in a time of "instant-on" and "gotta-have-it-now". The marginally disciplined are becoming poorly disciplined and the poorly disciplined are becoming undisciplined.

So what do I use for phone calls? Two cans and some string, of course! It's very cheap, it's low maintenance, I don't get any unwanted solicitations, and I don't need Caller ID; I always know who has the other can. But seriously, I have a landline with various extensions throughout the house (I work from home). And I even an old-style phone that gets its power from the phone line. If the power goes out, I still have phone service! Back in the old days of dial-up internet access, I had a second line installed, and I shared that with a computer-based fax program. As part of my recent simplification, I discontinued that line and my fax support (almost all those I received were junk anyway). I also had call waiting on my primary line to alert me if another call was coming in while I was on the line. I found that I rarely used it, and as my good friend, John told me, some people consider it rude being put on hold while you take another—apparently more important—call. (And that applies in spades to mobile phone users and text message proponents who think nothing of interrupting a serious conversation to take a call or read a newly arrived message.)

My one surviving landline includes 50 local calls per month and has no long-distance or international call package. It's a bare bones system and it suits my needs. Now, each month, I do make quite a few international calls for pleasure and, occasionally, for business, as well as a few calls around the US, but I don't use my phone service (see later below).

My business model involves working mostly from home where I have ready access to a landline. And if I am teaching seminars, that's an all-day job, so I can't be interrupted then. Likewise for when I'm traveling and when I'm sitting in daylong conferences and meetings, especially in time zones far-removed from home. I was an early adopter and fan of Skype, and for $3/month I get an unlimited number of minutes within North America. And for around 2 cents/minute, I can call landlines in most countries using Skype-Out. (Calls to mobiles are often 10 times that price, so I rarely make them.) And whenever my account goes below $2, my Skype account is automatically topped-up from my bank account. That lets me make any call from my desk using my computer or from on the road using my laptop or netbook from my hotel or public wifi hotspot. For people like my wife who don't spend their days tethered to their desk/computer, I have another option. Via Skype, at no charge, I have a local phone number that can be called from any phone and used to place calls using Skype. I currently use a Bluetooth earpiece for Skype, and for the most part that works well. My netbook has a built-in microphone, and that always works, plus it comes with a webcam, which Skype supports.

I can count on one hand the number of times I could really have benefited by having a mobile phone. One that comes to mind was on a ferry from Helsinki, Finland, to Tallinn, Estonia. I'd tried to call my host family from the ferry terminal before departing, but was unable to figure out how to use the Finnish public phone system. Then once onboard, I discovered there were no pay phones. However, that being Nokia's backyard, everyone (literally) had a mobile, so I asked a businessman if I could pay him to use his mobile to make a call, and he said, "Go right ahead, and as I have an unlimited plan, there is no charge." The down side of mobile-phone mania is there is a growing shortage of public pay phones available, and I avoid using the phone in my hotel room due to the ridiculous fees they charge.

Answering machines are worth a mention. I have come to rely on them on my phone and on others'. Yet it is interesting to note just how many people hate talking to them. Of all the people I phone on a regular basis only one does not have an answering machine, and that took some getting used to on my part.

One question I like to ask mobile phone aficionados is, "Just how much time is 1,000 minutes?" They generally reply, "What do you mean?" To which I reply, "Just how many hours is that each month that you can talk? And what were you doing with that time before you had that mobile plan? Or did you not have a life previously?" [FYI, 1,000 minutes is 16 and 2/3 hours.]

Television: Is it Still the Idiot Box?

For years, I've subscribed to a Cable TV service, each month paying for the service as well as one or more converter boxes and remote controls. And each year it seemed that the price increased. At some point, I moved payment to an automatic debit from my checking account. However, that meant that the cost was somewhat hidden as the monthly bill no longer received any scrutiny.

Of the 100-odd channels I had, I probably watched programs on 10 of them, at most, and more likely five of them, on average. [All attempts to legislate a la carte cable TV programming in the US have failed, so one is stuck with an all-or-nothing program selection. Only premium channels are unbundled.] My service provided no way for me to limit the channels in the selection list to only those I watched. What's more, that program list included all the channels available, including those for which I had no subscription!

More than 10 years ago, I was watching five hour-long series each week, but then I went abroad for six weeks without access to my regular programs. On my return, I simply stopped watching them, and I haven't watched any show on a regular basis since. I have to say that I don't miss them one bit. [Perhaps I don't need the escapism many of them provide.]

Fast Forward to the era of Digital/Hi-Definition TVs. I love watching movies, documentaries, and various other programs, and I like a big screen experience as much as does the next person. However, I don't view it as essential. As poor as the NTSC [sometimes pooh-poohed as "Not the Same Color Twice"] analog system used here in the US (and elsewhere) might be, it's been adequate for me. Recently, 18 months after I started looking at digital/HiDef TV, I stuck my toe in the water with a 40" screen that cost less than $500. Then I did several heretical things: I experimented with a digital antenna and I looked at recording to DVD and, yes, even to VHS tape!

The cost of my cable service had gotten out of control, and I didn't even have any premium channel packages. It was time to re-evaluate the whole "being connected" thing, so I started preparing for the scenario of not having a Cable TV connection at all. In the process, I was pleasantly surprised at the range of (the more than 30) channels being broadcast over-the-air in my area; almost all of the ones I watched regularly via cable were available free of charge. Don't you just love that when that happens? [Interestingly, neither my TV tuner nor my converter box pulled in all of the local channels, and the sets of channels that they did find were not the same. One got some the other didn't, and vice versa.]

I have a big investment in prerecorded VHS tapes (which I continue to buy from thrift shops for 25–50 cents each), home movies on VHS, and I have several players and recorders, so I wanted to preserve that investment. The obvious argument against that is that the analog quality is lower, so why not simply record to disk using a Digital Video Recorder? As it happens, my Cable TV company would be happy to let me do that, but at a cost of $13/month, and I'm trying to reduce my bill. Alternate services ran the same cost, and while there is software to allow this sort of thing to be done in conjunction with a computer, I'm not quite ready to go that route.

I am very happy to report that there is life outside of subscription TV. And in the case of my 90-year-old very vital friend, Jim, life can be full without having a TV at all! [Hmm, Jim might still own a buggy whip; I'll have to ask.]

The Omnipresent Internet

I live by email, and as I travel away from my home time zone at regular intervals, email is the best way to reach me. No matter where I am in the world, I deal with important email in a timely manner, typically within 12 hours. I also use Instant Messaging (IM) with a few colleagues and friends. As such, I have a tethered version of text messaging, which is adequate for my needs. However, I never did learn to type with more than a few fingers, so it's not my preferred medium.

As for browsing the web, I do very little of that. From time to time, my work requires me to upload or download (often-large) files. On occasion, I play a few puzzles at the USA Today newspaper site, I look at the headlines and sports scores in several Australian newspapers several times a week, and I visit Wikipedia and Wiktionary from time to time. (And, yes, I know that Wikipedia is full of lies!)

I was paying for some really fast internet service that came through my Cable TV connection, but, recently, it occurred to me that the extra speed was totally wasted. My in-house network uses an 802.11g protocol router, which is limited to wire connections of 100 Mbps with wifi at 64 Mbps. Unless I upgrade to an 802.11n router and matching receivers on all my computers, the extra speed means nothing. Yet, it is hard to get a slower service. After all, everyone must need the fastest speed possible, right? Yes, there are times where I really need throughput, but they are few and far between. All I really care about is not having to wait for web pages to refresh. Recently, I downgraded my service from 6MB to 1MB, and I'll try that for a month or so to see if it is adequate. I also recommended a friend use a DSL service instead of a much higher speed (and more expensive) cable connection.

I love the fact that I can get affordable, if not free, broadband internet access in all sorts of seemingly unlikely places. Running my business certainly became easier once I could do it while on vacation or business travel in some remote spot.

Play Me a Song, Mr. Piano Man

I love music, so much so that in my next life (yes, dear reader, I'm planning on coming back for another round), I plan on being a songwriter, composer, and musician. I probably own only 100 CDs and another 100 cassette tapes, mostly recorded from albums and radio. I've also ripped 10–12 CDs to my computers, primarily so I can play them when I'm on the road. And when working from home, I have one favorite radio station I listen to for my regular music fix.

I don't download music and I don't have a portable digital music player. (Are my Luddite tendencies showing, again?) I look at the various music-player ads and I hear that a certain device allows storage for 5,000 songs. Even assuming I had 5,000 favorites, and I wanted to spent $1 each to buy them—you aren't copying them illegally are you?—when would I have time to listen to all of them? 5,000 songs at 2½ minutes each runs 208 hours, or twenty-eight 8-hour days. That means that if I had no life, I could hear each of them once a month. Hold me back! Where can I buy such a useful device?

Much has been written about how more and more people are retreating into their own private world, and I believe it. That said if I had to sit on a train for 2–3 hours each business day getting to/from work, I could imagine having a music player, but I think 100 songs would suffice. I'd be more likely to load it up with podcasts of current affairs and entertainment programs from the radio, or perhaps listen to books being read. As for those who are using such devices to avoid contact with their fellow man, well that's their choice, but we already suffer considerably from the inability of many people to express themselves clearly, and becoming even more disconnected from the real world won't help. [In the US, the level of business English is 6th Grade, and fewer and fewer of us can say a phrase—let along a whole sentence—without using the word "like" inappropriately. Right? Like, yeah; that is really like true!]

Stay Tuned

In Part 2, I cover automobiles and GPS, still and video cameras, the written word, a digital data preservation strategy, and my right-hand gadget.

By the way, by dropping my subscription TV service and lowering my internet speed I'm saving $73/month.