Of AlphaSmarts and Changing Technology

Not long ago, writers on one of the loops I follow were talking about AlphaSmarts (and the Neos and Danas that came after them), self-contained, battery-powered keyboards developed for school children but widely adopted by writers.

AlphaSmarts, Neos, and Danas are no longer manufactured, but quite a few writers still use these distraction-free keyboards, which don’t play games or connect with the Internet. I bought mine fourteen or fifteen years ago and used it quite a bit for several years, but it’s been sitting on a bookshelf for a long time. The mention of things like corroding batteries (the Alphie operates on three ordinary AAs) made me think I should check on mine.

AlphaSmartWhen I hit the on/off button, nothing happened, so I turned it over and began pulling out old, slightly-sticky batteries. It took a screwdriver to pry the first one out, and I had to remove the entire back of the keyboard to retrieve the third one. My expectations weren’t high, but I blew the dust and battery crud out of the channel, put in three new batteries, and replaced the back of the keyboard.

When I turned it over and hit the on/off button, it not only came on, but it remembered the eight files I last wrote on it (clearly there’s a lithium battery in there somewhere). I found book reviews, newsletter articles, and the minutes of a couple of RWA chapter meetings, dated 2008.

I don’t think I’ll start using the Alphie for novel writing, but I’m typing on it now, and I may decide it’s still handy for writing short articles while sitting on the couch in front of the TV. Of course I have yet to see how well it transfers text (by USB cable) to Scrivener. I don’t think I’ve ever used the Alphie with my current computer. (Note: When I plugged the Alphie into a USB port, it took my computer a few minutes to find a suitable device driver, but once it did, the file transferred perfectly, typos and all.)

The rapid changes in everyday technology continue to amaze me. Not so many years ago, a few of my more affluent writer friends were showing off their new “thumb drives,” precious (and very expensive) gizmos that could store 128 megabytes of data. At the time that was enough space for several novel manuscripts (software was a lot simpler back in the day). Now I have flash drives all over the place, from very old and very small to ever newer and bigger, but never big enough, as my Document directory grows ever larger. The other day at Office Depot, I picked up a set of two 16 gigabyte flash drives for less than twenty bucks. I suppose the day will come when they seem small, but I’m not looking forward to it.

In yet another case of speeding technology, I find myself thinking about replacing my four-year-old keyboard Kindle. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I use it regularly. But the new Kindle Voyage is so tempting, with its larger, paper white screen, self-adjusting light, and much higher pixel per inch count. Although I still prefer to read paper books, many of my friends publish electronically these days. It seems that a good e-reader, unheard of when those first flash drives arrived or even when Alphie was born, is almost a necessity today.

I don’t think I’ll replace my relatively simple TracFone, though. It does (occasional) phone calls and text messages, and not much else, but I can’t convince myself I need more than that (or the monthly bill that comes with a smart phone). Maybe there are some areas of technology where I don’t need—or even want—to keep up.

How Smart Should My Phone Be?

Do I need a Smart Phone, or will I only be embarrassed when the gadget turns out to be smarter than I am?

I resisted getting a cell phone for years, back in the day when people still thought of them as “car phones.” Back then, my car was very nearly the only place where I could get away from the phone. There were rare occasions when it might have been handy to have a phone in my purse, but I didn’t give it much thought.

When I started commuting to work, thirty miles each way, in 2003, I thought about it more seriously, and after I had car trouble on the Gulf Freeway one evening in early 2005, I gave in and bought a TracFone, a simple little device that could make calls and not much else. I rarely used it. In fact I rarely turned it on, and I didn’t give the number to anyone but Jo Anne, the friend I work with.

old phone 2A couple of years later, TracFone sent me an upgrade. Apparently there was some change in the — heck, I don’t know what changed, but I needed a different type of phone, and they sent me one. Every year I pay a minimal amount, about $100, for service, and they give me more minutes, of which I use very few.

Two years ago I upgraded on my own to a much nicer TracFone model. One might even call it a moderately intelligent phone. It has a larger screen, with colors and icons. I can leave it on and it only rarely makes calls on its own. It supposedly can access the Internet and my email, but I have yet to figure out how. The instructions it came with are utterly worthless, and those available on line not notably better. But I can make and receive calls and text messages, although I rarely do. I have more than 6000 minutes on my account. If I have to call AAA for help, I can. As far as phone service goes, what more do I need?

But I’m being tempted by Apps, and all those things people do with their phones these days. My phone has a calendar, and notes, and probably a lot of other not very useful built-in functions, but not enough memory to download Apps. It has a camera, but no way to get the pictures off the phone, at least not that I can find. (I have an actual camera for that.) I don’t want to send pictures of my lunch to Twitter anyway. I don’t want to read books on my phone (my Kindle is small enough!), but sometimes it might be handy to hop on the Internet and look something up, or read my email when I’m away from home and computer.

I have many friends, most of them younger than I am, who seem to carry their whole lives on their phones, even some who never take the Bluetooth gadget out of their ear (apparently because any incoming phone call would be more important than the live human beings in the same room). I don’t want that.

On the other hand, tonight I got an email from my car insurance company offering an App that might be genuinely useful. It wasn’t the first time I’ve wondered if I’m really missing something. I’m frequently surrounded by people my age and older who seem to find their smart phones genuinely useful.

Smart phone? IPad? Kindle Fire? I don’t know what the heck I need. No, I know I don’t actually need any of them. I’m trying to decide what I want. Maybe I should make up my mind before I’m the last person alive without a “mobile device.” Maybe I just have a growing case of gadget envy.

What works for you? Advice and suggestions welcome!

Whatever Happened to Instruction Manuals?

When I bought my first computer, back in 1984, it came with a stack of fat instruction manuals, each an inch or so thick, one for each software program, one for MS-DOS 1.2, and one for the computer itself.  Of course, none of them appeared to have been written by someone whose first language was English, but there was information in there if we dug deep enough.  Over the years the software manufacturers cut their manuals down to the level of pamphlets, but publishing companies stepped in and produced guides for just about everything.

These days we really don’t need printed manuals.  Computers and software have become far easier to understand, and the help files in the software actually help.  Even huge, complicated programs like QuickBooks, the bookkeeping program we use at the Scorekeeper, no longer come with books of instructions.

I don’t miss those old software manuals (or most of the old software!).  But I spent a good chunk of my day off today figuring out the myriad features of my new cell phone, and an actual instruction manual would have been a big help.

When I decided to upgrade my Tracfone service from an antique Nokia with a monochrome screen the size of a large postage stamp to an LG800G with a colorful touch screen, icons and widgets, browser access and a camera, I didn’t expect it to be a five-minute process.  I didn’t expect it to take six telephone conversations with various denizens of the Tracfone Customer Care department, either.

Mind you, I’m not complaining about Tracfone’s service.  Everyone I spoke to was unfailingly courteous and helpful.  The system just had a problem with someone who paid for service by the year, collecting tons of minutes that she didn’t use.  The first call got the phone activated and the phone number transferred, on Sunday afternoon.  On Tuesday morning, another helper got my minutes transferred, but not my service days.   This morning someone else got the service days added, and then it took two more calls (one from Tracfone to me) to set up the voicemail.

So by this afternoon I had a fully functional phone–and very little idea of what to do with most of the functions.  The phone came with a lot of packaging and a small “services guide.”  Half of that is in Spanish, and half the English section is legalese, leaving about twenty pages, maybe four by four inches in size, with information on the phone and its functions.  Some of its functions.  The basic functions.

The Tracfone web site does include a set of tutorials for each of its various phones, and those covered a different (but overlapping) set of functions and tasks.  From other sites I downloaded two entirely different manuals in pdf format–one is the sort of “quick start guide” that comes with electronics and one is actually 45 pages long, although only the first 18 cover the phone functions, the rest being Safety Guidelines from the FCC.  And after reading all four of these, I still have quite a few questions about mysterious settings and widgets, things I can’t find explained or identified anywhere.  Things, perhaps, that I am not meant to know.  Or mess with.

Speaking of Messes

Here are a few random lines from the Safety Guidelines, the cell phone equivalent of don’t stick your hand under the lawn mower while it’s running.

Never place your phone in a microwave oven as this will cause the battery to explode.  Gee, that was high on my list of things to do with a new phone.

Do not paint your phone.  Darn it, I had in mind a tasteful chartreuse.

Do not turn your phone on or off when putting it in your ear.  I’m having a hard time visualizing this one.

Do not take notes or look up phone numbers while driving.  Or read the newspaper, or put on makeup, or shave.

Could be some of the most important instructions really are buried in the Safety Guidelines.

Another Shaky Rung on the Technology Ladder

I am not a Luddite.  Really, I’m not.  I’ve had a computer–several generations of them, in fact–since 1984.  I’ve used email since the mid 90s, and I love it.  If I want to know something, I turn to Google.  I love computers, and I get along quite well with them.

But cell phones are another matter.  I’ve owned one for several years, a simple prepaid unit from Tracfone.  It makes phone calls.  It occasionally receives text messages, all of them from Tracfone wanting to sell me more minutes.  I’ve never tried to send a text message myself.  I barely know how to make a phone call with it.  I bought it because I drive sixty miles a day, and I can’t deny that it’s foolish to do that without a phone.  I use it now and then–the morning my battery died at the gas pump, for example. I called AAA.  I give out the number rarely, mainly when I need to rendezvous with a repair man–and then I feel uncomfortably tied to the phone.

I marvel at–and not in a good way–people who walk around with BlueTooth receivers sticking out of their ears.  All those people driving up and down the freeway talking into their phones make me very nervous.  I once saw a man talking on his cell phone while zooming down I45 on a motorcycle.  (He wasn’t wearing a helmet, either.)

But one can only resist the tide for so long.  When I started to think about keeping in touch while I’m in California for the RWA conference, I considered buying a tablet or a laptop, but I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for either.  Then I saw a much more modern Tracfone than mine on a rack at Kroger, and decided to investigate an upgrade.  Maybe if I had a better phone, I thought, I’d actually learn to use it.

So I went on line, of course, to research the idea.  I’m not ready to sign up for a long term contract, my service with Tracfone is paid through next February, and I’ve accumulated more than three thousand unused minutes.  So I checked out the phones on offer, picked out an LG with a touch screen, a camera, web and email access, and lots of features I don’t understand and may never use, and ordered it directly from Tracfone.  I don’t know the technical definition of a smart phone, but this one is clearly far more intelligent than the one I have, a Nokia with a monochrome screen the size of a large postage stamp.

The first minor hitch was the web site’s insistence that someone be available to sign for the package.  I knew I wouldn’t be if I had it sent to my home, so I had it sent to the office, where it arrived right on schedule Thursday morning.  It sat safely in its packaging until yesterday afternoon, when I excavated it from all that plastic and plugged it into its charger.  The instructions said to let it charge for five hours the first time, so I left it on the kitchen counter and went back to an exciting evening of doing laundry and watching old Star Trek episodes.

This afternoon I went on line to follow the simple instructions for transferring my account to the new phone.  All went well until I got to the point where they told me what they were transferring–1100 minutes.  Whoa!  I may not use the phone much, but I want all my minutes.  The screen gave me a phone number to call, which I did.  Apparently the automatic transfer system can’t handle people like me who don’t actually use their minutes, but a helpful woman on the phone found my account in the computer system, confirmed the total minutes my old phone was reporting, and walked me through a number of code entries on the old phone designed to move the account to the new one.

Now my old phone has no minutes and my new one won’t be activated until tomorrow, hopefully with all my three thousand plus minutes available.  If not, I have a ticket number that should show the next operator what the total should be.

Once I finally managed to turn the phone on–it came with minimal instructions, and even the manuals I found on line seem to assume the reader knows a lot more than I do–I spent some time learning to input my short list of contacts.  I accidentally moved a whole bunch of (mostly unidentified) icons onto the main screen, and fumbled until I figured out how to move them off again (not explained in any of the instructions!).  I hit the camera icon and waved the phone around, marvelling at the pictures, none of which I tried to save.  (The phone accepts an extra memory card for such activities, but I had to resort to Google to find out what said cards are called and where one can purchase them–good old Office Depot, as it turns out).

Tomorrow I may be able to make a phone call.  Or even send a text message!

Computers and Confusion

When I registered for the RWA National Conference, coming up next month in Anaheim, I started to think about buying myself a New Gadget.  Last year at RWA in New York City, my friend Jo Anne Banker and I shared her laptop computer and an in-room Internet cable.  We checked email and I posted daily recaps here, mostly for my critique group.

This year I’m going alone, faced with the prospect of several days off the Internet.  I don’t have a laptop, or even a smart phone.  I do own a cell phone, a pre-paid Tracfone that makes phone calls and receives occasional text messages–from Tracfone, offering me more minutes.  I don’t need more minutes.  I have enough rollover minutes to talk for weeks.  I’ve never even tried to send a text message.  I have used the phone to call AAA when my car battery died, and to let Jo Anne know I’ll be late to work at the Scorekeeper.  Now and then I have to turn it on for the convenience of a repairman, like the fellow who came out to my house last week to pronounce my twenty-two-year-old air conditioning system dead.  I detest the feeling of being tethered to that little phone.

So upgrading my phone service isn’t particularly appealing.  Maybe an IPad?  People seem to love them, and they certainly are beautiful.  But I have an e-reader, and I really have no desire to watch movies on a screen the size of a book.  Come to that, I don’t seem to have time to watch movies in the comfort of my living room very often, and when I do I have a lovely HDTV meant for that very purpose.  I’ve seen BlueTooth keyboards for the IPad, but I haven’t heard anyone rave about writing on one.

So a tablet’s probably not the solution either,  if I’m going to buy a New Gadget.  I like toys as much as the next person, but I have a practical streak.  I may be thinking of staying in touch with my Houston friends while I’m in California, but I need a better excuse than that for spending several hundred dollars.  Especially after writing that large check to the air conditioning service last week.  And opening the bill for my annual homeowner’s insurance premium this afternoon.

Clearly, if I need anything at all, I need something that will take me to the Internet for email and blogging and research, that will let me read books with a Kindle App, and mostly that will encourage me to get busy and write.   Sounds like we’re talking about a computer, doesn’t it?

Yet Another Use for a Computer

So this morning I drove over to the local Fry’s Electronics, where I bought my current desktop computer a couple of years ago.  Fry’s is a huge store.  Even the twenty percent or so of the floor space devoted to computers is overwhelming.  I went in telling myself I wasn’t actually going to buy a computer today, and I had no trouble sticking to that.  There were just too many choices, and none of them jumped up and waved at me.

My other errands took me near the local Best Buy, another really big store, but not quite as cavernous as Fry’s.   Not as many choices, and what they had was better organized.  They had a nice Hewlett Packard computer at a reasonable price (I’ve been an HP fan for years), and next to it was a sign offering a visit from the Geek Squad to set up a home network for $70.  That’s tempting.  My techy friend Ha (who buys all his electronic equipment on line and keeps the computer network at the Scorekeeper running) tells me I can easily add a wireless router to my DSL modem, but I’m not so sure.  It took me an hour on the phone with a nice lady in the Philippines to get the DSL modem working in the first place.  But if I buy a laptop, I definitely want WiFi available at home.  I’m not going down to the local Starbucks to get on line.  I don’t even like coffee.

Then the salesman (who was born several years after I bought my first computer and wouldn’t remember what passed for a “portable” computer in the 1980s) showed me a couple of UltraBooks.  Talk about tempting–usable screens and keyboards in a computer about the thickness of a real spiral-bound notebook.  The Toshiba model even managed to squeeze in a CD drive.  Amazing.  And, of course, twice the price I had in mind.

No, I didn’t buy a new computer today.  I’m sliding in that direction, but I’ll think about it a bit longer.  If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Digital camera, Brownie brain.

I haven’t had a working camera around for years.  My cell phone makes phone calls and receives the occasional text message from TracFone offering to sell me additional minutes that I will never use, but it doesn’t take pictures.  So when I received an entry level digital camera for my birthday, I was delighted.

Now I have to learn to use it.  I’m not a technological doofus.  I’m good with computers: I can generally make the software do what I want, and  I can keep the peripherals in line.  (When in doubt, reboot.)  I’ve learned to keep my DVR/cable boxes in sync with my TV sets, and I’m very fond of the clock radio that knows what day it is and doesn’t try to wake me up on Saturday or Sunday.  But this impossiby tiny camera (a Casio Exilim), slightly smaller than a pack of cards, is a different animal altogether from any camera I’ve ever owned.

When I was a little girl, I had (like most every kid of my generation) a Kodak Brownie box camera, the simplest possible point and shoot technology.  For something so simple, it produced surprisingly good snapshots, and I still have a handful, conveniently dated by the processor: September 1958.  My family had moved to the suburbs of Miami the year before, and I was allowed to fly, by myself, back to Milwaukee to spend the summer of 1958 with my cousins.  There we are, five little girls, eight to twelve years old, dressed in 1950s kid clothes, smiling at the camera.  I’m only in one of the pictures, probably taken by my aunt Marie.  The rest I must have taken myself:  my four girl cousins, my grandmother in her stylish pedal-pushers, places that meant so much to me then.  That was a good summer, so long ago.

In the hall closet I have a carton of much newer (that is to say twenty or thirty years old instead of fifty) photographic equipment, decent quality camera bodies, assorted lenses, tripods, and cases, all used to document the archeological surveys Jack and I worked on from the 1970s through the early 90s.  Jack was a pretty good photographer; I could fill in when there was no one else available, but it wasn’t art.  In truth, there wasn’t much art in involved, not in the photography, anyway.  After I boxed up the cameras, I looked through the years of photographs we had accumulated.  About ninety percent of them were pictures of dirt.  That’s what archeologists do: examine dirt, move dirt, look under dirt, where there is usually more dirt.  Plain dirt, dirt with rusty bits, dirt with plant roots, now and then (and this was the exciting part) dirt with a bit of bone or shell or pottery.  You get the picture (pun intended).

After I opened the Casio box and admired the adorably small camera, I managed to install the battery and charge it up, install the memory card and format it, set the date and time (twelve hours off, as I later discovered) and fish the Quick Start Guide out of the box.  Didn’t quite get to the taking-a-picture part that evening.

Yesterday morning I set the picture size (small) and started snapping the nearest subject, my cat Nutmeg, who looked thoroughly bored with the whole idea.  I also stuck the accompanying CDRom into my computer and downloaded the manual (141 pages worth).  The disc also offered three programs, one that transfers images from a computer to the camera (anyone know why that would be useful?), one that uploads video (yes, this tiny little thing records video) to YouTube, and one that reworks photos to look like various types (oil, pastel, etc.) of paintings.  Maybe I’ll want to play with those some day.

I looked at the manual long enough to reset the time (AM, PM, there is a difference), but I used the Quick Start Guide to copy some photos to my computer.  This may take a while to master, but at least I’ve made a start, and here’s Nutmeg (with a few books) to prove it: