COULD YOU REPEAT THAT?

Bad Signal — Someone’s left you a voicemail message, but all you can make out are the last words: “I’m sorry. I should’ve told you months ago. Bye.” Who is it from, and what is this about?


We used to leave messages on our answering machines telling folks to speak slowly and clearly, but too many people thought we were being funny, that leaving a coherent message was a joke. So we get lots of incoherent messages. Usually, with caller ID, we know who called and can retrieve the number, but the contents of the message is gobbledy-gook.

“Garry, your brother called. No idea what he said. Call him, okay?”

“Hey, Jim called about something. Call him when you have a moment.”

“One of your cousins called. They left a message but I can’t dope it out.”

My favorite: “Someone called. Maybe it was important. They left a number but I can’t understand it.  Guess it wasn’t important enough.” Note: If it really is important and we don’t call back? Pick up the phone and call again. Seriously. If it’s that important, make sure we got the message.

If you choose to leave a message, speak up. Clearly. Repeat the phone number at least twice. Don’t forget to include your name — in case we don’t actually know you as well as you think we do.

Don’t mumble.

While we’re on the subject, how about those cell phones, eh? On which you can’t hear anything? From either end? I miss telephones on which you knew you had a connection that wouldn’t drop and on which you could hear what someone said to you — and know they could hear you.

“Can you hear me? Hello? Are you still there?”

It’s 1904 all over again. Without wires or operators.

The other night, my husband and I watched — for the umpteenth time — Meet Me In St. Louis. It’s the old Judy Garland musical. Vincent Minnelli directed it. Great movie, one of our favorites. Terrific songs, Margaret O’Brien about as cute as a kid can be. Nostalgia on the hoof.

The story is set in 1904 when the World’s Fair was coming to St. Louis. Telephones in private homes were the hot new technology. A call from a distant city was a big deal. Early in the story, the oldest sister, Rose, receives a long-distance call from New York.

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FROM “Meet Me In St. Louis” — SCENE: The phone rings.

Rose Smith: Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?

Warren Sheffield: Yes, I can hear you. (Pause)

Rose Smith: What did you say, Warren?

Warren Sheffield: Nothing. I was waiting for you to talk

Rose Smith: Oh. Well, did you want to discuss anything in particular?

Warren Sheffield: What?

Rose Smith: I said, was there anything special you wanted to ask me

Warren Sheffield: I can’t hear you, Rose

Rose Smith: That’s funny. I can hear you plainly

Warren Sheffield: Isn’t this great? Here I am in New York and there you are in St. Louis and it’s just like you’re in the next room.

Rose Smith: What was that?


ANOTHER SCENE: TODAY, MASSACHUSETTS

Me: Hello? Hello? Cherrie?

Cherrie: (Faintly) Hello? I’m in New York … (something I can’t understand) … signal.

Me: Bad signal?

Cherrie: No signal.

Me: How are you?

Cherrie: Tired. Running around.

Me: Miss you.

Cherrie: Miss you too. Having trouble getting a signal here.

Me: We watched “Meet Me In St. Louis” last night. Remember the phone call from New York? We’ve gone back there. Worse. THEY had a better connection.

Cherrie: (Laughter.) You’re right.” (More laughter.)

Me: I don’t think this is progress. (Long pause.) Cherrie? Hello? Are you there? (Long pause.) No, you aren’t there.

(Click. Sigh. Pause. Ring. Ring.)

Me: Cherrie?

Cherrie: Can you hear me?

Me: I can hear you, can you hear ME?

Cherrie: Hello? Hello? (Pause, faint sounds.) Is this better?

Me: Yes. A bit.

Cherrie: I turned my head and lost the signal. Boy, was that perfect timing or what?

Me: We couldn’t have done it better if we’d scripted it.

Cherrie: I’ll call you when I get back. I think I’m  losing … (Silence.)


I love progress. Especially how advanced technology has made everything so much better and easier.

A G-SPOT FINDER APP?

Back when I was very much younger and hornier, there were lots of discussions about The Spot. You know. That critical, yet somehow elusive spot on the female anatomy?

I assumed I knew what everyone was talking even though it never had a name. We never call anything by its proper name because despite there being nothing dirty, offensive, or immoral about using correct names for body parts, we are prissy about sex.

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This bashful unwillingness to just say what we mean produces some bizarre communication problems between the sexes. It’s akin to taking a vacation but not being allowed to say the name of the hotel. You can only identify it as The Resort. You are also forbidden to give the street number. It’s “somewhere on Main Street.” Good luck finding your destination.

It’s not only men who can’t find The Spot on wives or girl friends. It’s also persons of the female persuasion who (apparently) can’t find it on themselves.

Say what? A friend of mind commented that even if the finger can’t figure out which does what, the spot itself should immediately contact the brain with the information — DING, DING, DING, THIS IS THE SPOT!

So what’s with all these girls growing up who can’t find it? I’ll bet every little boy in the world knows where his Spot is. He didn’t have to take a seminar. His brain said “Right here!”

More relationships have been destroyed by a woman’s inability to say “A quarter inch to the left, please” than by adultery. The same people who fight, argue, email, text and post online the most intimate details of their lives, are unable to tell a partner that he (she?) is missing The Spot. Oh puleeze.

I thought we got squared away on this 50 years ago. Or more. Apparently not. What are all the people who can’t find The Spot doing in bed?

The time has come for technology to take a hand (no pun intended). We need an app for that. How about one for the iPhone? Grab your phone and like a Geiger counter, it tells you when you’re hot — and when you’re not.

As you zero in, the Hot Spot Finder App says “YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION!” in stentorian tones. The Hallelujah Chorus starts playing.

Everyone uses a mobile phone for everything, so let’s solve this problem once and for all. Please, give us an app for that!

I AM OBSOLETE. AGAIN.

PhotoshopWhen I got my new computer, I decided to try Adobe’s 30-day free trial for photographers. Find out first-hand how I feel about their subscription service.

It was everything I expected it to be, nothing I hoped it might be. Which means I hated it. Because it’s online, it takes significantly longer to open and close than your own software.

It didn’t work with my NIK filters (though the NIK people assure me they are working on a solution to that), so I felt as if half my tools were missing. The software would not remember my library locations, no matter how many times I opened it.

And of course, without a WiFi connection, your tools don’t exist. Vapor-ware has finally come of age.

The third day after signing on, I signed off. Adobe has the absolutely worst, most inept customer service I’ve yet to experience — and that’s saying a lot. Long telephone wait times (“Your business is so important to us that we have put you on hold and play merry tunes to keep you grinding your teeth”) combined with operators who don’t know anything about the products they are supposed to service.

Nothing. At all. “How can I help you?” is a trick question. No matter how simple the question, they have to go ask someone, leaving you on hold. Again. It took hours to cancel the contract with me giving them every possible identifying detail of the contract. It doesn’t bode well for customer support should you decide to subscribe long-term.

It’s all part of the plot to make repairable equipment obsolete … probably to make us obsolete too.

A year ago, ZDNet declared:

The repairable PC is dead

… Amazon … launched their Workspaces offering yesterday. (It) provides a remote Windows environment … to run all your business-critical and personal applications in EC2.

Amazon is certainly not the first service provider to do this, but its endorsement of the technology speaks volumes about where we as an industry are going.

You don’t need an expandable, serviceable PC to get to that desktop and the applications that are hosted there. Indeed, Windows still serves a very key role in that scenario, but within the datacenter and public clouds. —  From ZDNet, November 15, 2013

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They keep telling us we are obsolete. So far, they’ve been wrong, but they’ll keep at it until eventually, they will make it true. Now that subscription is the “way to go” in the software biz, those of us who can’t afford subscriptions will inevitably fall behind. There will be no place for us in the new scheme of things.

I don’t mind old versions of applications if my tools get the job done. I have gone for years without upgrading. But corporations don’t make big money selling software to folks like me.

Enter subscriptions. No more nasty upgrades. We’ll always have “the latest version” (assuming this is a good thing, which I doubt) because we will rent software, not own it.

If you are one of millions of computer users living on a fixed income — or merely poor — this is terrible news.

If you’re barely surviving, subscribing isn’t an option.

When my PCs stop working, as one of them recently did, before replacing it, I call Jeremy, the computer fix-it guy.  He comes to the house. Replaces the broken bits. Cleans out viruses and generally tunes it up. I give him a hundred bucks, he gives me a card with his number on it so if the problems come back, he will come back too, no charge.

I don’t quickly decide to dump my equipment. There has to be a problem that can’t be worked around or fixed. I can’t afford to replace things only because I want something new and shiny. The computer that was not working for me has been re-homed with my granddaughter. Eventually it will need to be reloaded, but if she treats it gently, it will last for years. Despite its inadequate graphics card.

Aside from not having money to replace things on a whim, I hate the whole idea of disposing of stuff so casually. I deplore our throwaway society and its mindset. It’s destroying our planet, trashing the environment. Polluting landfills. Making a profligate society even more wasteful.

It’s the definition of how we’ve gone wrong.

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Does no one in the computer industry look at the effects of their business in a social context? Does no one recognize a moral parameter to business at all? Do they not realize what a dangerous path we are treading?

If one thing is going to doom our world, throwing stuff away rather than fixing it will put us on the fast track to doom.

Long time ago when Garry and I were working a ridiculous number of hours, we started using paper plates to avoid washing dishes. After a while, I found myself washing the paper plates. I couldn’t bear to throw them out.

That was when I rediscovered the concept of reusability. I remembered I had real dishes in my cupboard. I could wash and use them again! Revelation!

We are turning into a world of paper plate users. Everything, from your car to your computer, to your kitchen appliances is junk. If it stops working, dump it. Don’t even think about fixing it.

Change your cell phone every six months. Toss the old one. When in doubt, throw it out.

Because we hold fast to the myth that somewhere on our planet, there is a giant, bottomless hole into which the trash goes. It will never fill up, so we don’t have to worry about conserving resources. If only it were true.

A WELL-SPICED SUCCESS STORY

The Spice of Success — If “failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor” (Truman Capote), how spicy do you like your success stories?

I ran this in mid-October, but it is so “on the button” for this prompt (and I have to be out of here shortly to go vote and other early morning stuff) that it seemed a perfect time to post it again.

Tech writing is not the kind of career which grants one victories or notable success stories. It’s a job. A good job if you are lucky. When you do well, you may be rewarded with further employment and a bigger paycheck. Real victories are few and far between. Sweet success moments are too few to count.

This was a big one — maybe the only one of its kind in the 40 years of my professional life — thus worth retelling. Personally, I never get tired of it. Perhaps the scarcity of winning moments makes this one all the more dear.


In the mid 1980s in Israel, I worked at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot with the team developing DB1, the first relational database. Those familiar with databases and their history should go “Ooh, aah.” Feel free to be awed. These are my bona fides certifying my “original geekhood.”

I was never a developer, just a computer-savvy writer, but I worked extensively on Quix, the first real-English query language and documented DB-1. I was eventually put in charge of creating promotional materials to sell the project to IBM. They bought it and from it, DB2 and all other relational databases emerged. Cool beans, right?

Technical writing was new. In 1983, it didn’t have a name. I was a pioneer. I didn’t chop down forests or slaughter aboriginal inhabitants, but I went where no one had gone before. Breaking new ground was exciting and risky.

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The president of the group was named Micah. He was the “money guy.” Micah knew less about computers than me, but wielded serious clout. His money was paying our salaries, rent, and keeping the lights on. The definition of clout.

As the day approached when the team from IBM was due, it was time for me to present the materials I had created with Ruth, a graphic artist who had been my art director at the failed newspaper I’d managed the previous year. (This was well before computers could generate graphics properly.) Ruth was amazing with an airbrush. I’ve never seen better work.

The presentation materials were as perfect as Ruth and I could make them. I had labored over that text and she had done a brilliant job creating graphics that illustrated the product, its unique capabilities and benefits. And so it came time for the pre-IBM all-hands-on-deck meeting.

Micah didn’t like me. His dislike wasn’t based on anything I did or even my disputable personality. He didn’t like women in the workplace. I was undeniably female. As was Ruth. Strike one, strike two. At the meeting, he looked at our materials and announced “We need better material. I’ve heard there’s a real hot-shot in Jerusalem. I’ve seen his work. It’s fantastic. We should hire him.” And he stared at me and sneered.

Onto the table he tossed booklets as well as other promotional and presentation materials for a product being developed in Haifa at the Technion. I looked at the stuff.

“That’s my work, ” I said.

“No it isn’t,” he said firmly. “I’ve heard it was created by the best technical writer in the country.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Me.”

He was not done with humiliating himself. He insisted a phone be brought to the table and he called his friend Moshe in Jerusalem. I’d worked for Moshe, quitting because although I liked the man, he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. I had a bad-tempered, jealous husband — something I didn’t feel obliged to reveal.

Moshe gave Micah the name of The Hot Shot. It was me.

“Oh,” said Micah. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. The deadpan faces around the table were elegant examples of people trying desperately to not laugh. Micah wasn’t a guy you laughed at, not if you wanted to keep your job.

It was a moment of triumph so sweet — so rare — nothing else in my working life came close. I won one for The Team, for professional women everywhere. Eat it, Micah.

TECHNOLOGY CHANGES. PEOPLE DON’T.

Buyers, Beware? — The year is 2214. Your computer’s dusty hard drive has resurfaced at an antique store. Write a note to the curious buyer explaining what he or she will find there.


Yesterday, I transferred ownership of the my Dell XPS laptop to the (hopefully) loving arms of my granddaughter. Kaity’s computer up and died. It was the computer I gave her when she started high school 3 years ago. It was a cheap computer. I’m surprised it lasted this long.

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The XPS she inherited is not a cheap computer. Top of the line, state of the art when I bought it. With a fast 750 (7200) GB hard drive, 8 gigs of RAM, and an Intel Core i7 processor. It is still superior to most of the crap they are selling these days. Fatal flaw? Graphics-cum-audio card. When I bought it, it was the only choice. They didn’t offer another video card and no other card fits in its slot, so upgrading was not an option. How Apple of them!

It wasn’t a big issue in the beginning, but as photography has gained prominence in my world, the inadequacies of the graphics card have become serious. Blue screens follow every use of Photoshop. Recovering from these crashes is harder each time. The card shares space with sound, so I can’t listen to an audiobook while photo editing. It kind of took the fun out of it.

With no way to fix it, I reluctantly replaced it.

Yesterday, Kaity dropped by to collect the computer and snag a few bucks to put gas in her car. I hoped to reload it before passing it on (I have the original windows installation disk) but life got in the way. The operating system is cranky. With a reload, it could easily run for years … as long as Kaity understands its limitations, doesn’t mistreat it, allow it to overheat, or drop it.

What’s on that hard drive?

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39,000 (give or take a few hundred) photographs. No worries, mate. I transferred all of them to external drives. They are as safe as modern technology can make them. There are also 3000 documents including my novel, illustrations, covers, and the stuff I put to together to promote it … before I got cancer and somehow the book wasn’t all that important.

Applications. Card games. Scrabble. Photoshop. Lightroom. Chrome. Specialized software for Canon. Software for Panasonic and Olympus cameras.

Since Photoshop CS5, I haven’t needed the special Olympus software anyhow. Maybe I deleted it. Not sure. Buried in there are also versions of Photoshop Elements and Corel PaintShop Pro which were my fallback positions until I got my own Adobe licenses.

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Open Office is on that drive. I stopped liking what Microsoft did to MS Office. I found Open Office and have been using it for the past decade. Price? Free, but they appreciate contributions from developers and civilians. It will open and edit documents created by pretty much any office application, except Framemaker (Adobe) and no one uses Frame except weirdos like me.

Tens of thousands of system files. Windows is bloated. Somewhere in every Windows computer are every other version of Windows. Microsoft does not clean up their code. Ever.

The computer Kaity inherited is a time capsule. You can see the changes computers have gone through in their passage from office machines to the one thing we can’t live without.

200 years from now? The hard drive (or whatever they will call it) will be made of different stuff. It will easily contain a universe of data with no moving parts. It won’t ever wear out but it will become obsolete every couple of years anyway because the profit motive won’t disappear either.

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A personal computer (maybe called something else but performing the same functions) will be part of everyone’s life. As will a communication device and a personal vehicle. There’ll be many kinds of media players. If not TVs, then something which performs entertainment functions. Everything we have now will be there in the future.

We will need food, shelter, transportation, entertainment, ways to organize and distribute information. We will read and write. We will have old and new ways to create art. People will live in old houses they restored and modern houses with all the bells and whistles — just like they do now and always have. We will build places to live, furniture, and toys for children.

These things define us as people.

Unless we make our planet unlivable, we will change the form of what we use, but the functions will continue. Technology changes. People don’t.

CLARKE’S THREE LAWS OF PREDICTION

NASA's own time machine

NASA’s own time machine

Formulated by the British author Arthur C. Clarke, these three laws — especially the last one — are accepted as science fiction “fact.”

Clarke’s three laws are so ubiquitous in the literature, they are (with Asimov’s laws of robotry), the basis of many stories by a wide spectrum of authors in the science fiction and fantasy genres.

For your enlightenment:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Murphy’s Corollary to Clarke’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

SORT OF LIKE ENTROPY

I’ve been trying to find a word that describes the process by which an application that used to be great goes downhill. It’s sort of like entropy. But also, sort of not.

Hi-tech venture capital development was my world for more than 30 years. I retired five years ago. Now I watch the process as a consumer. It’s definitely a new angle.

Here’s how it goes. A group of smart computer jocks are hanging out in the garage one day. One of them has a brilliant idea. Another says, “Hey, you know? We could really do that. And sell it. I bet someone would give us money to build it.”

PhotoshopSo they start asking around and eventually find some rich people willing to take a risk (or a tax write-off). Start-up money!

They find affordable quarters, hire a few more people — including me. Now we’re a team. We create a fantastic product, something so forward-thinking and unique, it’s as close to perfect as an application of that kind can be.

After which:

1) They run out of money and everyone regroups — or looks for a new job

2) Against all odds, they sell the product to a couple of big customers and are in business for real.

I’ve been with a lot of start-ups. Too many.

Most of them went under. A couple made enough to keep going but not enough to thrive. A few took off and went on do great things.

Assuming success came and assuming the company only has (so far) one product — what next? How to keep customers coming back and paying more for the same product?

Upgrades.

The initial one or two new versions are free. These usually consist of bug fixes and tweaks to smooth out the interface. Eventually, though, there’s no avoiding it. You need your customers to buy a new version. And the only reason to create a new version is to generate income.

Software companies rely on upgrade income to keep alive, from Apple, to photoshop-CS6Microsoft, to the guys in the cold garage.

The eventual result of this are upgrades which add pointless bells and whistles — without improving the product. Ultimately, though, the upgrades become downgrades. The product’s functionality decreases. The application becomes bloated, overloaded with stuff no one needs or wants.

Look what happened to Microsoft Office. Word was a great text handler, but no longer is. Outlook has noticeably less functionality than it did 8 years ago and it’s harder to use.

You see it happening on WordPress as their “improved, easier blogging experience” isn’t easier and surely is no improvement. There are countless examples, all of which basically demonstrate how companies ruin their own products to create a revenue stream. And of course, also maintaining the image of a forward-moving organization.

Developers get caught between a rock and a hard place. They can’t charge customers for fixing bugs, or at least shouldn’t. And no one is going to pay them more for an unchanged application.

Leasing.

That’s how come Adobe and Microsoft are trying so hard to get us to “rent” our software rather than own it. It’s why Apple’s operating systems become obsolete before you’ve entirely unpacked your new computer.  Everyone is caught in the same loop.

“Leasing” provides a revenue stream. On the positive side, at least companies can stop making destructive “upgrades” to good products (one would hope, anyhow).

Other than leasing, how do you keep money coming in after perfecting your application? You can create ever fancier bells and whistles, but you can’t make people want them.

From the consumer’s point of view, it turns everything into an ongoing expense instead of a final purchase. We find ourselves buying a product again and again — wondering how we got suckered in. Because the latest, greatest version isn’t great. Not even as good.

For some of us, it’s a serious economic issue. We don’t have money to lease everything. We won’t have it in the future. We are stuck. There’s no positive outcome for us.

Is this “software entropy”? Or … what is it? Is there a name for this?