Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thumb drive

"You just have to be 10 percent smarter than the machine," says Will, a friend and fellow former Scout leader.

He has said this many times.

Or maybe I have just heard it many times.

Maybe Will has intuited the futility of this particular man against the machines.

Machines are winning.

The latest machine might deliver me the death blow.

I got a smart phone. Yeah, a dumb guy got a smart phone.

Playing hard-to-get with technology, I'm typically the last on my block or my continent to embrace these Tools of Amazing Convenience,™® Doing Things I Never Thought Possible or Even Necessary In Any Measurable Way!©®

I derided such devices as Whiz Bangs. "Get out your Whiz Bang," I'd say to my son. "Tell me where China Beach is from here."

A Whiz Bang of my own finally seemed necessary. At least that's what we're telling ourselves. I need it to conduct business remotely, since I'll be going to a job job but keeping my old job. The family, each of whom has embraced smart phones with something approaching ecstacy (meaning they might actually have affixed the free Apple®™ logo sticker on something others might see), has felt sorry for me.

They have all been helpful. Maura handled the basics, setting up the phone, taking me through "on" and "off" and "volume" and "lock" and "charger," and how none of this is possible without opposable thumbs.

Nancy has shown me some features while driving, but we shouldn't have been doing that so I won't mention it here.

Liam has been trying to solve remotely why my emails won't send from the phone, and how I can schedule my blog to post regularly and link it to a facebook®™ status update.

Which is the only reason I really need a smart phone.

I gave up my flip phone and accomplished all that seemed useful with it. Over the last four years I had moved through the Five Stages of Mobile Phone:
Indifference: I know I have a phone. I don't know where it is. I don't want to look for it. It's always bleating to be recharged. How do I make it stop bleating?

Empathy: My loved ones would like me to find my phone. They think it's a fine idea that I keep track of the phone so they can communicate with me.
Dawn of Man: I answer phone calls ("Are you there?! I can't hear you very well." "Well, neither can I!" "What?!") and learn to text, beginning with several months of the repeated opus, "k." My loved ones learn to frame statements and questions that can be answered with "k."

Renaissance Man: I can type "ok."
Acceptance: I text like a mad fool. My thumb can leap tall buildings.
I had come to love the cumbersome way to text with a flip phone, in which I have to press a keypad button a certain number of times to produce a certain letter, number or punctuation mark.

I got quite good at it, and the more I did it, the more it appealed to my vestigial childhood wonder about cyphers and codes and spies and secrets. They intermix with the wonder of magic and sleight of hand, and American Top 40®™ and animation and paleontology.

I have daydreamed in the last few weeks about a secret code based on my flip phone — a symbol for the position of the keypad button, say, and another symbol for the number of times to press the button,  equals a letter number of punctuation. Probably no punctuation; or maybe sometimes, to throw off the enemy.

How robust would such a code be? Probably not very. I wonder if anyone has made such a code.

I'm right back in third grade, writing notes in lemon juice to send to my childhood friend Lance, who would have to carefully pass the paper over a light bulb to burn the juice traces into visibility. (Owing to the shrinking supply of incandescent bulbs, lemon juice may come back in vogue as a spy medium.)

We each had plastic cards from Pop Tarts™® boxes, the cards incised with symbols. Trace the symbols in certain orders on paper to create messages, the meaning of the symbols known only to Lance and me. And anyone who ate Pop Tarts™.

Typing on the new phone is not code-like. It's foreign and unwieldy, my thumb pressing around every onscreen letter but the one I want. I am saved, grudgingly, by the predictive spelling feature which saves a lot of pressing and guessing.

But I press and slide and tap and double-tap, and pitch and spread my fingers and watch the images slide and bounce like cartoon characters at my sorcerer's gestures, and wonder at this technology, new to me, common to you.

Here's the thing, though: The phone is big. Bigger than my wallet. A phone is my watch, real watches falling off my wrist too frequently when the sweat of my arms saws through leather wristbands.

The flip phone fit in the palm of my hand, and I could hide it without too much trouble when leading a tour of the Old Sacramento Underground. I could direct visitors one way, turn the other and palm my phone out of my costume apron: OK, I'm right on time.

The new phone feels like I'm pulling a surfboard out of my pocket, and looks just as subtle. Tour visitors are going to wonder what the dude in 19th century duds is doing with this otherworldly device spilling out of his hands. (He is just trying to learn the time; look over there, please.)

I have no particular need for the phone 99 percent of the time. I take it out with me to lunch, checking facebook®™ (you can fall far behind if you're not vigilant, which you know). I have even taken photos with the phone. I have even found where the photos are that I have taken.

Yesterday I pushed myself to the technological zenith: Before finishing a three-mile swim, I climbed out onto the far shore of Lake Natoma, took a photo, called up the Internet, checked the water temperature, posted my swim on facebook®™ to other swimmers, and attached the photo — all before I had even finished the swim — and then got back in the water to reach the dock and my car.

In the old days I went home, post about the swim — no photo — sometimes hours after the fact.

No more. A new era has dawned.

The phone sits at my elbow as I type, a black obelisk as imposing and mysterious as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It holds unimaginable power, untold wealth of capabilities and conveniences.

I sense its urge of obligation, like The Ring to Bilbo. I won't see the masses, together but alone, gazing down into their machines anymore … because I'll become one of them.


Maybe tomorrow. Although: What time is it?

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