Return to the Index

GP 17 December 2008: Gizmos and Curiosities

Some of Our Best Friends Are Engineers.  In fact, we count a company of engineers and an exaltation of scientists amongst our closest acquaintances.  They’re right up there with a covey of quail, a bellowing of bullfinches, a convocation of eagles, a siege of herons, a scold of jays, and a parliament of owls.  In other words, they rank pretty high, in a league with the best creatures devised by the gods atop Mount Olympus.

This is a little ironic, since technology and science often arouse our worst suspicions. We’re Luddites who, nonetheless, constantly find ourselves exploring and fiddling with the most advanced technologies.  Often we find them terribly flawed, something we have hinted at in “Systems on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

Pain in the Head.  Take cellphones, for instance.  In the United States, most of us get our phones from two monopolies which provide us with poor coverage (your phone often drops calls and won’t work at all in many places), charge too much (one of our graduate students could call home more cheaply from Germany than from the South), and lousy equipment (some foreign manufacturers won’t even try their best things here, since the carriers are allowed to dictate such poor designs to achieve their own narrow ends). 

But that’s only half of it.  Cellphones violate all the commandments of the best Buddhist gurus who urge us to be aware of and be part of where we are now.  The phones carry us off into the prison of virtual space.  The pretty lass we see walking down the street has a vacant stare, because she is consumed by her cellphone chatter with her soulmate in another city, much too occupied to admire a handsome, well-designed building, engage a friendly passerby, or lap up the clouds and roses around her.  The cellphone disconnects us from where we are—the here and now.

As well, cellphones, as now constructed, may be hazardous to your health.  There’s a 50/50 chance that they cause brain cancer.  Some fairly serious scientists think they may zap your neurons, although the most serious research on this topic is being done outside the United States.  The Swedes and other Nordics who got heavily into cellphones well before we did are raising the worrisome red flag.  From his studies, Professor Lennart Hardell of the University Hospital in Orebro, Sweden has said that “people who started mobile phone use before the age of 20 had more than five-fold increase in glioma", a cancer of the glial cells that support the central nervous system.  The extra risk to young people of contracting the disease from using the cordless phone found in many homes was almost as great, at more than four times higher.”  Both the cellphone companies, the FDA, and the FCC are pretty quiet about all this.

A geologist, the other day, reminded us that many families now talk to each other every day, because everybody, no matter whom, has a cellphone.  He thinks it brings cohesiveness to the family.  Who knows?  Maybe it’s a drug that will knit society together.  So we will contain our cellphone rancor and not take up the hopeless cause of reviving letter writing.

Gizmos.  Since technology is very often downright unfriendly, but so very much a part of modern life, the hapless citizen needs little shortcuts to get control of it.  We kept running across gizmos that help you beat the bad system.  Here are a few you may find helpful:

  1. Flight Stats and Flight View.  When a friend is coming in at the airport, you often can’t reach the airline to find out if the flight is on time.  Sometimes the airline’s website is not working, so you cannot get current flight information there.  Several websites allow you to plug in the flight number and you can learn how things are going.  Our drivers in several cities carry notebooks, and keep up with their customers and their flights on their laptops.
  1. URL Crusher.  Or that’s what we call it.  People send you long web addresses that won’t fit into your browser, so you have a devil of a time pulling up a desired website.  Plug the annoying address into www.tinyurl.com, and it will shrink.  Then all will be well.
  1. Fighting Junk Calls.  The motor mouth advertising people are now free to plague you on your cellphone.  You can use Do Not Call to fight back.  See www.donotcall.gov/.
  1. Dealing with Viruses.  We have been assured that viruses can penetrate all the safeguards out there—Norton, McAfee, etc.  But you need protection. No scheme is foolproof, but you might as well use free software.  Many like a German brand AVG Anti-Virus Software 8.0 available at www.download.com/windows/.
  1. Watching Fuel Prices.  The Fuel Gauge Report is at www.fuelgaugereport.com/.   Gas Buddy is at www.gasbuddy.com/.  The AAA reports daily on national gas prices in the Fuel Gauge Report so that you can reliably see where the averages are headed and discover how badly you are being gouged in your state.  To find local stations that sell more cheaply than the rest, use Gas Buddy.  These days you can find variances of $.20 or more in your region.
  1. Finding out Things.  By now you have learned that your search engine will not uncover the things you most need to know.  For years Rick Meislin has maintained the New York Times Web Navigator.  In a recent interchange, he admitted to us that it is much out of date, but he hopes to overhaul it.  He has gotten us to a few places we have to go over the years.  As newspapers try to re-invent themselves, one of the things they should do most is to provide tips on how to weave through information chaos.  By the way, search engines only look at the surface of the iceberg, not penetrating into the hidden treasures on the Web.
  1. Buying the Right Airline Ticket.  Farecast at farecast.live.com/.  You can read about this amazing website in WiredEtzioni of the University of Washington realized that he had paid too much for some tickets and decided to do something about it.  “Farecast, now tracks information on 175 billion fares originating at 79 US airports,” so you can burrow around and find out what you should pay.
  1. Cutting Your Phone Bill.  Skype at www.skype.com.  The inventors of this software, which you can download for free into your computer, wanted to tear into the unfair system of phone charges worldwide.  This software lets you call for free to other Skype users around the world.  Our staff commonly reaches Germany, China, and Australia by this means.  To call non-Skypers is cheap also when you compare Skype rates to what you have to pay for ordinary calls.  Ebay has bought Skype from its creators and so the quality has declined and the MBAs out there in corporate headquarters are eroding a good idea.  But it is still worthwhile as long as you are careful.  Caveat emptor..
  1. Social Networking.  We absolutely hate all these schemes, all the meet- up sites that today supplant real conversation.  But, here is our true confession.  We have to see what it is like, because a number of people we advise are using these artificial social clubs.  So you can find us on Facebook at GlobalProvince Smith.  This is a gizmo we are not recommending.  Curiously the design of all these ‘social’ things is sort of cloddish.

Curiosities. New World Kids came across the transom today.  A book by Susan Marcus and Susie Monday, it is dedicated to the proposition that our education does not do enough to help kids become creative thinkers, and we have to do something about it.  That sounds right.  The nation is in a pickle, and it will take heaps of innovation to move us out of our quandry.  We don’t see a lot of creatives around in American society, so we might as well see if we can get the next generation to get out of the box and dream of things we cannot imagine. 

We’re not sure how to prime the innovation pump.  It’s possible talking and writing and ordinary thinking will not do the trick.  Intense, unmitigated, challenging looking might help.  We simply may need to see more deeply.  We can reasonably say that many of the worker bees in all our organizations are visually impaired.  A starter, for instance, might be to look at Spain with Robert Hughes.

Robert Hughes.  We’re reminded that on a trip through the Balearics we read a book by Robert Hughes about Barcelona so as to ready ourselves for that city, the last stop on our journey.  He helped us see the place much better.  Despite the fact that he often wanders far afield, he does have the habit of seeing deeply into an artist (particularly the dead ones), a city, or a church. His closest friend is in Spain, so it’s no wonder he does his best job on that country.  He’s renowned, for instance, for his work on Goya.  We can recommend that one see him on a Gaudi dvd where he brings special passion to that exotic, mysterious architect.  But take in, as well, his Caravaggio.  If you are curious about Hughes, see what he had to say on Charlie Rose when he was pumping his memoir Things I Didn’t Know.  We would submit that one can better understand how modern Spain has had the power to revive itself if one sees the country through the eyes of Hughes.

New York Times on Art and Architecture.  The Times is definitely trying to convert to this new age—with very limited success.  As we said above, its web efforts, though vast, often falter because it is led by print journalists and conventional business people.  Its business and political coverage lacks vigor, it having become more of a journal of arts and letters and culture.  This can be seen most easily in its rather handsome video and slide show collection where the best visual stuff seems to be about architecture and artists.  We can recommend, for instance, a slide show on Irish castle restoration or a rendition of some of the works in a wonderful Italian renaissance show at the Metropolitan called the Art of Love.  Many of its other visual efforts seem to lack vitality.  We suspect that the resuscitation of the Times itself, if it occurs, will come from a better mastery of visual content.  It could take a few lessons from the great portrait photographer Annie Leibowitz who is just out with her new book At Work.   

Just Looking Wise.  There’s a new complicated book and film out called Wisdom by Andrew Zuckerman.  One hears there about wisdom from an endless array of  minor immortals—perhaps 50.  One gets so caught up in the people—how they move and talk—that all their rambling messages fade into the background.  Strong visual images can take away our compulsion to think about words and chatter.  They take us beyond  the constraints of technology and our rigid imprisonment in the present.

Getting on With Things.  We ask whether striking imagery can move us creatively because it is very much a question today how we get out of the present into the future.  Three gurus—believers in technology all—think we need to move to bigger visions if we are to surmount the 21st century.   You can find their “Shaping Strategy in a World of Constant Disruption,” Harvard Business Review, October 2008, pp. 80-89.  But the question remains: how do we get people to see over the horizon?  With gizmos that get us beyond today’s annoyances and curiosities that take our minds out of ourselves so that they will contemplate heaven and earth?

Back to Top of Page

Return to the Index of Letters from the Global Province

Home - About This Site - Contact Us

Copyright 2008 GlobalProvince.com