Archive for category Technology

Why Are There Letters on My Key Pad?

Because, back in the day, my early days, phone numbers weren’t all numbers. We had exchanges, like CRestview, BRadshaw, HOllywood, OLeander, NOrmandie, and so forth, and a phone number would be listed using the first two letters of the exchange name, plus some numbers. In Los Angeles, in the 1950s, that looked like CR 5-5555. Or, BR 2-2222. If you were saying your number, you would say the exchange name, i.e., “My number is CRestview 5-5555.”

Back then phones had rotary dials, not buttons, and two or three letters were assigned each number, just as on phone key pads now. (Note that “dial” has persisted as a verb when we speak of using the phone, i.e. “drinking and dialing,” or “dialing for dollars.”

Rotary phones were still the standard when technological advances rendered the old exchanges obsolete in the 1960s. The old two-letter exchange designations converted to all numeric. “CR” became “27,” and the phone number, 275-5555, or, you might be assigned a new number. So, why didn’t the alpha disappear as soon as the all-numerical conversion was completed?

One good reason was that our phones were hardwired into the wall. Until the late 1970s, if you wanted a phone installed, you had to call the phone company and arrange for a man (and it was always a man) to come out and stick it into the wall for you. This often meant taking a full day off work. To have a phone removed, same thing. Pain in the butt. Once you had a phone installed, that phone stayed installed until you left.

During the 1970s, rotary dials gave way to push-button keypads, but the new keypads had letters, just like the old dials. And then a big change came, about 1980, when telephones were freed from being hardwired. Yes! You could now go down to your local PacBell (or other Bell) store, buy your phone, and plug it in yourself. This did involve one more visit from the phone company to install the jack, but still, a big improvement.

Toll-free numbers (like 800) had started appearing in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until around 1980 and the breakup of the phone company that toll-free numbers became cheaper, and affordable for smaller businesses. Along with that, it became possible for local businesses to afford a vanity phone number, one that spelled something out on the alpha keypad, something customers would remember. Enter 1-800-GET-CASH, 1-800-4MY-TAXI, 1-800-GOTJUNK? We needed letters to dial, or punch in, those numbers.

The 80s brought answering machines, the first car phones, personal computers, the internet, and email. Then, in the early 90s, people began to send text messages.

Some people, that is. Not me. I got my first cell phone around 1995. It weighed about as much as a small brick, and came with a big, rechargeable battery that was good for about one and one half phone calls, before it needed to be recharged. And even when I traded that in for a text-enabled phone, there was no keyboard. In order to text, you had to switch to alpha mode, and then punch a number two or three times to get the desired letter. Good thing those letters were still there, right?

Within a few years, phones grew mechanical keyboards. I had one…I tried to find it just now, out in the garage, in my Electronics Graveyard, but couldn’t. A tiny, but full, keyboard slid out, and it had buttons the size of pinheads. And then there was the Blackberry, where texting really took off. Then, a little over a decade ago, the smart phone, which comes with a virtual keyboard, and a keypad, but still with its alphabet. The only use remaining for them is to dial (there’s that word again) those vanity toll-free numbers.

I suspect the alpha days are numbered, though. My Apple watch has a number keypad, but no letters. No doubt an Alexa or Siri-type solution is just around the corner for those vanity numbers, and all we will have to do is say the name of the business to be connected!


A phone keypad from the mid-1980s. Surprisingly, many home accessories of that time were actually this color, including a recliner we had. This photo shows three decades of dust and grime–sometimes my phone camera is better than I want it to be!



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Missing in Action (from e-Readers)

As I finished up my most recent post, I knew a reader or two was likely to tell me of restaurants in SF that I had not known about. Sure enough, a friend suggested The Vlad Taltos series from Steven Brust. Naturally, I wanted to check it out. My normal modus operandi these days in such a situation is to download it immediately. Unfortunately, I found the first novel in the series, Jhereg, was not available in digital form, although later novels in the series are.

I punched buy with one-click! on Amazon to obtain Jhereg in pb, and then wondered, what else isn’t available digitally? My first thought was to  look for great, but obscure works, items that survive on my shelf through years of culling. I was a little surprised by what was there, and what was not.

The most glaring omission were the novels of Patricia Anthony. The only novels of hers available in electronic format were Brother Termite, and Flanders. Missing was my absolute fab fave, God’s Fires, as well as everything else. (If you think you might like a novel about the Inquisition with a science-fictional twist, this one should appeal to you.)

We lost Patricia Anthony a couple months ago, and as it happens, every one of her eight books was published in the nineties. Eating Memories, and Flanders, her last books, both came out in 1998. It pains me to think that because her body of work is “old,” having missed the ebook revolution, and because she is now gone, all her fine work could be forgotten. I consider Patricia Anthony to be a significant SF and mainstream author, and I urge anyone who missed her in the 90’s to look her up. Start with the ebook if you like, then, if necessary, go for the real books.

A book I did not expect to find, and yet was disappointed not to find, was Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax. I have heard that novel was a disaster commercially, and had a negative impact on his career.

I was sorry to hear that. I loved it. Give me a thoughtful, out-there, possibly controversial version of a religion or a religious figure, and I am really, really happy. What others consider blasphemous, I consider speculative and thought-provoking. I have never believed the The Great Spirit is particularly annoyed or injured by any sincere inquiry. The Gospel of Corax is one of my favorites of these, and I also enjoyed The Three Marys, by the same author.

Beyond those two examples, I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books missing from digital stores. Many will become available, in good time, but some may not. I suppose the same goes for music, film, and TV. This distresses me. I’m not usually the quickest to adapt to new technology, but digital culture and entertainment are different. I have become entirely accustomed to having everything that has ever been played, written, or filmed available instantly. I am willing to pay for it; I don’t expect it to be free, but I want it RIGHT NOW.

And, although Jhereg wasn’t available RIGHT NOW, it arrived within forty-eight hours.

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The Space Race Is Over

This morning, in honor of Neil Armstrong’s passing, I listened to “The Space Race Is Over,” a song from about 10 years ago by Billy Bragg. It is the only pop song tribute (I know of) to the dream of space travel and the achievement of landing on the moon. The song is sentimental, heartfelt, and devoid of irony. If you haven’t heard it, here it is:

Listening to it this morning choked me up.

On July 20th, 1969, I had just turned 20. I was waitressing in a coffee shop in King’s Canyon National Park. I had asked for that night off, and had been given it. I planned to find an available TV, park myself in front of it, and watch the historic moment. But late that afternoon,the manager made a last-minute substitution. I was suddenly scheduled to work. I warned him, “I’m watching this thing. I don’t care what happens.” He assured me it would be okay to stop and watch when the first step happened.

I worked the counter that night, which was good; it kept me more or less in one place, near one of the TVs that had been brought out and scattered throughout the dining room. The landing had happened many minutes previously–it was a long time; I remember that–and we waited and waited and waited….

We couldn’t see that much. I wasn’t sure what we were seeing. It was all black shadows and indecipherable shapes against gray lunar surface. The minutes stretched on. The TV commentator kept saying, “Any moment now….”

Some man behind me barked for a cup of coffee.

I turned around and said, “This only happens once.” I turned back to the TV. I really didn’t care. I wasn’t missing this.

I grew up on fifties science fiction movies and books. One of the first books in my personal library was The Golden Book of Astronomy: a Child’s Introduction to the Wonders of Space. I had been waiting for this moment all my life. I would not have it stolen from me by some stupid clown who wanted a stupid cup of coffee.

It happened. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. He said the words. It was blurry, but I saw it. In that moment, I was still young enough, the world was still new enough, that I still believed I might get there someday myself.

I turned around. The man who wanted the cup of coffee had left.

Neil Armstrong always deflected attention from himself; rightfully so, as there was nothing more special about him than Buzz Aldrin or any of the others who made the journey, to say nothing of the massive effort of all who made the program a success. It was a journey for all of us, and Armstrong knew that. (It is worth noting that not everyone in the spotlight is capable of making that sort of distinction.) I was sorry to hear of his passing; I’d always thought of him as being younger than eighty-two.

So this morning, I listened to Billy Bragg’s tribute to manned space travel. These lines stand out:

It might look like some empty gesture/To go all that way just to come back

But don’t offer me a place out in cyberspace/Cos where the hell’s that at?

Cyberspace is what we got instead of regular nonstop service to the moon. I’m not complaining. I can’t help be aware, though, that no matter how fabulous the possibilities of this tool I use every day, it is not a place. It is virtual. At its bottom, it is no different than a movie. We are seeing fabulous video of Curiosity and its doings on Mars, but it, too, is virtual. It is not going to a place, because no one is there. Being there is different. Having a fellow human go there is different.

I’m well aware that, if I travel to the moon, the lunar wind cannot blow in my hair, and I will not wiggle my toes in any of the mares, nor enjoy the gentle scent of moon lilacs on the night air. It ain’t that kind of place. But I would see the beautiful Earth in the sky, and I would feel the odd lightness of the moon’s lighter gravity. I could bounce like a kangaroo. I could bounce like the astronauts did. I would be on the moon.

Thank you, Neil Armstrong, and all the others who followed, for going there for us.

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One of the Last Cave-ins Caves In

I had to join Facebook. I couldn’t put it off any longer. My friends I see regularly had to tell me things second-hand that they all already knew, and that made me feel un-hip and out-of-it. Ditto my friends who live far away, only worse. I found I couldn’t comment on online news stories without being on Facebook. Heck, I couldn’t even vote for Next Food Network Star, because I was not on Facebook.

It’s been a week now, and I’m still figuring out how it works. I’ll be figuring out what to do with it (other than vote on Food Network shows) for some time to come.

The question of how to use the technology has become less challenging than why do I want to? I’ve answered the why of Facebook, but now I am led to a deeper how question. Apart from its basic workings, what combination of time spent on the app and use of tools offered by the app will maximize my experience and make a positive difference in my life? I mean, I could spend all day noodling around, looking for people, changing my privacy settings, fretting about my profile picture, etc.

And should a girl who is emotionally incapable of dragging-and-dropping a profile photo onto a page without going through a major dither-fest even undertake to ask such a question?

I can be quite the ditherer. I fret, I weigh, and I have trouble coming to a decision. The world is just too much stimulation for me. I don’t dither about everything, but I dither about enough to throughly complicate my life. I do okay with menus. Menus offer choices, and I can make the choice between, say, chicken and beef. Choices are defined and numbered. Possibilities, on the other hand are vague and limitless, or nearly enough so as to be indistinguishable. Facebook is the most recent new thing in my life offering vague and limitless possibility.

While a choice might be much better, a little better, more-or-less the same, a little worse, or much worse, than an alternative choice, a possibility can always be trumped by something more–more powerful, more elegant, more cool, just plain different. It is nowhere on the spectrum, and has no central position. It is like trying to GPS the Milky Way within the Universe.***

How can I live up to the endless possibilities of Facebook?

I can’t. And when I pull myself up out of my dithering fog, I observe that the people who Just Do It, like the ad says, have more fun. They put on their shoes, and stomp on in. They waste time. They make mistakes. They step on things. They go on. Here I go, blundering in.

I’ll wear these.

***Yes, that is a very nonsensical statement.

Photo: Mine

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The Pain of Reading Old Work

Toss old ms. into flames--what a quaint idea!

Inspired by David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital I am exploring the pros and cons of self-publishing my novel (when it’s finished) as an e-book. My post today isn’t about pros and cons, or even about the process of formatting, marketing, and so forth. It’s about the basic issue: content.

My novel is months away from being ready. I don’t know how many months, but less than a year, I hope. I would love to test the waters with something now, say some short stories. I have some already written–two dozen or so published since the late 1980s, and a handful of unpublished works. The published ones are somewhat obscure. Most were in the very excellent Tales of the Unanticipated, and five were in the British semi-prozine Interzone.

I’m in the middle of reading them all now, to see what kind of mini-collection I could put together.

Reading old work. Whoa. Scary. Weird. Some concerns emerge.

#1: Anachronisms. Oddly, this affects the science fiction and the fantasy equally. In the 1990s, I utterly sucked at foreseeing what techno marvels would come to wow us a mere decade later. Oh yeah, I’d read Phillip K. Dick while listening to a compact disk, and sneer at him for having his characters listening to their music in 1990-something on reel-to-reel tape. I never saw the mp3 player coming. My idea of an up-to-date modern household in 2050 is a big-screen flat TV and robotic vacuum. Pathetic.

My fantasy fares no better. A single cell phone can collapse an entire plot line, and a lack thereof can seem really weird in a story that’s meant to be happening in the present, turning it into a really nebulous no-time period piece. Giant shoulder pads and big hair lurk offstage.

#2: It’s old. Those handful of readers who have read my work (most of whom I hope would want to read more) want to see something new from me. It would seem cheesy to slap some old thing up on Amazon, etc., that they’ve read before and ask them to pay money for it. There has to be some previously unpublished work up there, which means I would have to write some new material, short stories, to be specific. Darn. I was hoping to have something to sell without actually having to write something.

Before I toss those old mss. into the flames, there is one other consideration: Some of this earlier work is pretty good, and I would like to see it out there again.

Possible solution: Find a way to combine old and new material in such a way, like a themed mini-collection, that would appeal to old and new readers alike. Yeah. Guess I have some work to do.

For now, I’ll keep reading.

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Too Automatic? (Herding Apple Users)

What would she have thought?

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a young man of about twenty-two. We were working side-by-side on two turn-of-the-century Macs (the blue ones), entering data, some of which came from the previous turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) into the database of UCI Arboretum’s herbarium. It’s quite a heady experience, but a difficult one as well. Some of the source material is barely legible. I do a lot of searching when I’m trying to decipher the correct place or plant name.

So, on this one specimen, I threw a guesstimate of the spelling on an obscure location into Google and pushed enter. Safari promptly crashed. It has been doing this lately. It will successfully load a full web address, but will crash a Google search.

I sighed and commented to the student working next to me, “I think Steve Jobs must be haunting us.”

Well, I thought it was clever, but he looked confused. He asked, “What was the big deal about that guy, anyway?”

I had heard that response before from younger people. They didn’t grow up expecting or considering the personal computer. We older folks grew up thinking we would be waited on by robots, and would drive flying cars. Instead, we got the personal computer and all its babies–cell phones, digital music players, etc. We had to learn computers at a later age. We remember what frightening and intimidating objects the first personal computers were. Some of us, including me, became increasingly frustrated by how difficult they could be to use. Quite a few of us found Apple products so much easier to use. I came to see Steve Jobs as the person with the vision to make computers, cell phones, and music players better than I ever dreamed they could be. He insisted they not only work well, but be beautiful, effortless machines that a person would enjoy using. What a concept.

My life and environment are messy, but when I use my computer or one of my devices, I feel free and easy. I feel I have stepped into a House of the Future.

Except for the iPad. And this Cloud business.

The iPad is populated by Apps, short for applications. We’ve always had applications. Word, iPhoto, iTunes, et cetera. An application is supposed to perform a specific task, and these three are excellent at what they do. When I open Word, I don’t think about anything but writing. In iTunes, I can perform a bunch of functions, buying and downloading music, playing it, ripping it, and organizing it. I can also download podcasts (what a great invention), and also movies and TV, if I want. More importantly, I can find things on iTunes–not everything, but a lot–including some fairly obscure musical items. When I use iTunes, I don’t think about anything but being entertained. iPhoto gives me a central location to load my photos, old and new, and a way to organize them. This is a bigger deal than it seemed at first, because I find I look at my photos more often in digital form than I did when they were in albums, and certainly more than when they were in a shoebox at the top of my closet.

The lock screen of my iPad shows a turn-of-the-20th-century formal portrait of my grandmother in full Gibson Girl style. I never expected to have such a thing as this. And yes, that’s the photo at the top.

When I use all these applications, I feel free. I don’t run up against many roadblocks that limit me. I don’t have to choose between 5 fonts; I have hundreds to use. I can upload photos from any source, not just one or two; ditto music.

When I open iBooks on my iPad and go to the store, I am offered a display of featured books and best sellers, a display that reminds me, in its content, of one of those soulless chain bookstores I groaned about a couple posts ago. If I go to “Categories” and browse the list of authors, many of my favorites appear to be absent. Sometimes, however, if I search the author’s name, I find he/she indeed does have books for sale on iBooks. Practically, this means that if an author whom I like but who has slipped my mind has a new book out, I will not see it. Psychologically, being aware of this problem gives me unease, the same kind of despair I feel when I step into a bookstore featuring nothing but celebrity bios and the like. “Yes, but where is the real stuff?” I want to say.

In iBooks, I feel the real stuff is being hidden from me, as if the app is herding me and my fellow readers into the little app icon-box. Yesterday I listened to a radio interview with Ann Beattie on her new book, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines A Life. It was there, but you had to know a writer with the name Ann Beattie existed to find it. Amazon is faster and better at finding books, and of course, gives you more options as to the format. If, however, I want the digital equivalent of bookstore browsing, I need to go to an online bookseller of non-digital books.

And then there’s this Cloud thing.

I love the idea as a backup, as another layer of security, so that I don’t lose my photos and libraries, but I do not want Apple to take away my computer (i.e. my hard drive) or the CD slot on the side, and just access everything “in the cloud.” I have a reasonable amount of trust in Apple. Whenever I have had an issue with any device or content, like content that disappears, or gets garbled, or fails to download, they have been nice and quick to put things right. A book or e-zine I’m only likely to read once is fine in the Cloud. The rest of it is not.

But the latest Apple ads and promotions seem to be preparing us for a future without our own large hard drive, and without the CD drive (or the CD). We won’t have to “worry” anymore about synching or carrying around fat, heavy laptops. When anybody tells me not to worry, I worry about exactly the thing they tell me not to worry about. That’s only common sense.

I worry that Apple, leader in telling us what we want before we want it, may be going too far. It’s as if I am looking at a Cat Carrier App. They are trying to put me into it. I, limbs splayed, am resisting. They may be taking me somewhere I want to go, but somehow, I don’t think so.

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