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.

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