The Last VCR

This month the last VCR to be manufactured will roll off the assembly lines at a Funai Electric factory in Japan and will be sold, somewhere in the world, under the brand name Sanyo.  Last year Funai sold only 750,000 VCRs, just a tiny fraction of the 15 million units it sold annually back when VCRs were selling like hotcakes and you just couldn’t keep them on the shelves at places like Circuit City.

vcrsOur family had a Sanyo VCR at some point — one of about 10 VCRs that we went through over the years — but we haven’t had a functioning VCR in forever.  Why would we?  With the other options available, from desktop to streaming to Netflix and Hulu and God knows what, who would want to fuss around with a VCR, deal with the tapes, tears and clogs, rent videos, buy videos, and pay late fees?  Not us.

Interesting, isn’t it, how quickly technology moves.  I remember when we bought our first VCR in the early ’80s — first stupidly choosing the Beta format that promptly was crushed in competition with VHS — and how in the blink of an eye were Blockbuster video stores in every strip mall.  But home entertainment was such a fertile market that entrepreneurs, inventors, and visionaries came up with multiple options that turned the once-hot VCR technology into the horse and buggy in only a few short years.  Now VCRs are going the way of the dodo, thrown onto the ash heap of history, a technology so antiquated that people can’t even give them away.

Thirty years for an entire industry to bloom, flourish, and die.  The world moves awfully fast these days.

There Goes Somebody’s First Job

Popular Science has an interesting article about the development of a robot in Germany that grills sausages and apparently does a pretty good job of it.  So what, you say?  Here’s what:  the German robot shows just how easy it is for robotics to eliminate jobs.  And, since robotics mostly focuses on performing basic, ministerial tasks, the jobs that are eliminated tend to be entry-level jobs — the kinds of jobs that many of us had as our first jobs, back when we were teenagers.  Whether it is grilling sausages, flipping burgers, washing dishes, or bagging groceries (which was my first job), we’re likely to see increasing robotic inroads, which means fewer jobs for kids trying to earn some spare money so they can take their significant other on a date or go to the prom.

If you’re the owner of a sausage restaurant, why wouldn’t you use a robot instead of a teenage kid?  The robot in the Popular Science article has a natty moustache and is wearing a chef’s hat, apparently issues some German witticisms as he grills, and will never, ever complain about working conditions or fail to show up for work on time.  You wouldn’t have to pay for health care, perform withholding, or worry about unionization.  And, since we all remember the personality issues that inevitably afflict the teenager years, you wouldn’t have to deal with sullen, hormone-addled employees, either.

When robots take over those “first jobs” that many of us had, I think it will have a profound impact.  I thought getting that first job was an important step on the road to adulthood, where I jarringly realized that not everybody is going to treat me with kid gloves like my parents did.  If teenagers can’t get a first job, how are they going to get a sense of the working world, and how are they going to stay out of trouble?

Going Juvenile

The Washington Post reports that the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is trying to get people to stop playing Pokemon Go in the museum itself.  Apparently the museum has three “PokeStops” in the game, so there are people walking around the museum with their eyes glued to their smartphones, playing the game rather than actually looking at the exhibits and thinking about the monstrosity that was the Holocaust.  The Holocaust Museum is now trying to see if it can be removed from the game.

maxresdefaultIf, like me, you don’t know what the hell Pokemon Go is — even though the Post article describes it as a “cultural phenomenon” — some background is in order.  Pokemon Go is a game you play on your smartphone in which you walk around the real world and find and collect digital creatures.  It came out recently and quickly became ridiculously popular and downloaded by huge numbers of people.  The game encourages players to “catch ’em all.” PokeStops, of which the Holocaust Museum unfortunately is one, are places where you can win free items that evidently help you do better in the game.

The game is supposed to encourage people to get out and explore the real world — really, are we at the point where we need a phone app to do that? — but of course there’s something kind of bizarre, sad, and dangerous about people walking around outside focused on their phones rather than their surroundings.  Just what we need, more hopelessly distracted smartphone watchers to join the constantly texting crew out here in the real world!  Predictably, some Pokemon Go users are reporting suffering injuries because they’ve tripped, fallen into holes, crashed their skateboards, or — get this! — learned that you shouldn’t try to play the game while riding a bicycle.

I’m not a gamer, so I’m not going to get the allure of playing a game in the real world when you could just be interacting with the real world as it is.  I’m not going to understand why people playing a smartphone game would risk life and limb trying to catch digital objects rather than, say, making sure they aren’t walking into traffic or stumbling into holes in a sidewalk.  But you’d think that people would at least understand that it’s inappropriate and disrespectful to be playing a silly game in a place like the Holocaust Museum.  And apparently the problem isn’t just with kids — the Post article linked above quotes thirty-somethings at the museum who were playing the game.  It’s just another sign that, in some ways, the world is becoming a more juvenile, less serious place.

What’s next?  People stumbling over cemetery headstones and interrupting burial services while trying to catch “Squirtle”?  Players wandering around hospitals or nursing homes or churches hunting for “Doduo”?  It’s embarrassing.

Out With The Old

I think we need to start thinking about buying a new home computer.  I’m kind of dreading the process and trying to forestall it for as long as possible.

IMG_1232Our current computer has served us long and loyally.  It’s stored countless to-do lists, been a repository for family photos, served as a mailbox and news ticker, and been a blogging platform.  It’s moved around with us to the point that we don’t really think our household has been established until the computer is hooked up and functional.  I’ve watched and rewatched YouTube videos of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ run to the National Championship on it countless times.  The keyboard characters have been tapped so often and the mouse clicked so frequently that they’ve acquired a worn, comfortable feel to the fingertips.

We’ve totally lost track of how long we’ve had the computer. Has it been six years?  Nine?  Longer?  We’re really not sure.  All we know is that the computer has been a staple of the desktop for as long as we can remember.

But lately we’ve started to have some performance problems with Old Faithful.  It’s sputtering and slowing down.  That annoying spinning circle, shown as the computer processes commands, seems to spin ever longer and longer.  “Force quit” has become a more frequent solution to apparently intractable problems that even the spinning circle can’t resolve.  We get more messages about certain programs “not responding.”  It’s as if they’re mad at us and have simply decided to give us the silent treatment — even though, so far as we know, we’ve done nothing to provoke such disrespectful treatment.

There’s a certain out-of-touch embarrassment factor to our computer set-up, too.  Our techno-nerdy friends who have those razor-blade-thin and ultra-light laptops and tablets, the kind that make even techno-nerds look a little bit cool, laugh at our clunky desktop unit.  Once it was cool and cutting edge, now it’s more like relying on an “adding machine.”  The ongoing technology revolution waits for no man, and no computer, no matter how faithfully it has performed over years of service.

So we’ll work a new computer into the home budget, and once we’ve saved up we’ll head to the Apple store, look with a lost and vacant expression at the lines of gleaming laptops and desktops and tablets, and hope that one of those bright instruments of the modern era speaks to us.  Hey, which of you wants to come home with us and become an important part of the daily pattern of our lives?

 

A Whiff Of The Hyperloop World

The futurists among us got a charge yesterday when the first test of the hyperloop transportation system occurred in the desert north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

3_hyperloop_hyperloop_concept_nature_02_transparent_copyright_2014_omegabyte3d_cThe hyperloop system sounds like something from The Jetsons or a science fiction story.  Using magnetic levitation technology and special propulsion units, the hyperloop would send sleds of people and cargo rocketing through above-ground tubes at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour.  Proponents say the finished product would allow people to get from San Francisco to LA, or from Washington, D.C. to Manhattan, in just 30 minutes.  Hyperloop buffs also argue that the system would have lower energy costs and would create no carbon emissions.

The test yesterday wasn’t much — it lasted two seconds, and saw the propulsion unit push a ten-foot sled to speeds of more than 100 miles an hour before hitting a sand bank — but the founders of the start-up company Hyperloop One viewed it as their “Kitty Hawk” moment, when the concept of a new form of transportation get its first practical test, just as the Wright brothers’ plane did.  And the promise of the technology is sufficiently attractive that other companies are pursuing the hyperloop concept, too.

Hyperloop has a long way to go, and there will be huge issues involved in developing the technology, getting the land rights and funds to build the sleds and elevated tubes and, eventually, convincing people to use a system that would put people in the position of the bullet in a gun.  Still, we should all welcome the pioneers who try to develop new transportation approaches.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they prove uneconomical — anybody remember the SST? — but they always push the technology forward.

A fair question, though, is whether a sufficient number of people will be willing to sit in a tube and be propelled forward at hundreds of miles an hour.  Why not?  When you think about it, that’s basically what happens when you board an airplane.

Birthday Wishes

  
Today is my birthday.

It’s great to live in modern times because, among other things, it’s easier to wish people happy birthday, and in more communication methods and forms, than ever before.  I’ve received grossly inappropriate, unforgivably ageist cards from family and friends, Facebook congratulations from pals old and new and a post from UJ with a picture of us as toddlers, text message birthday greetings, and nice emails from clients and colleagues.  It’s been great to be the target of so many good wishes.

I’ve even received happy birthday emails from my optometrist, my periodontist, and the America Red Cross.  I suppose there’s a kind of message there, too.

Password Obscenity Roulette

Hacking hackers are everywhere these days, and all at once.  For the IT guys amongst us, that means tinkering with firewalls and new defensive software and systems vulnerability checks and incident response plans and all of the other technical gibberish that makes IT guys boring death at a party.  For the rest of us, we can only groan in grim anticipation, because we know that we’re going to be asked to change our password . . . again.

rouletteOne of the great challenges of modern life is remembering all of the different “passwords” that we must inevitably use to access our various electronic devices and internet accounts and computer access points.  Unfortunately, we can’t use passwords like Allen Ludden would recognize. In fact, they can’t be a properly spelled word at all.  So that it’s a “strong” password, it’s got to include a weird combination of capitalized and lower case letters, numbers substituting for letters, and random characters, like ampersands and pound signs and question marks.  The result often looks like the sanitized representation of cursing that you might see from the Sarge in a Beetle Bailey cartoon — minus only the lightning bolts.  (@#%*$^@#!)  In a way, that’s pretty appropriate.

Of course, all of these suB5t!tu+ed characters, plus the fact that you need different passwords for different devices and accounts, plus the fact that passwords now must be changed much more frequently, make it impossible for the average human being to remember the passwords in the first place.  How many of us sit down at a computer or pick up our tablet and idly wonder for a moment what the &*%$# the password is?  And there’s the new year/check writing phenomenon to deal with, too.  When a new year comes, how long does it take you to stop automatically writing the old year in the date, because you’d been doing that for the past 346 days?  I had to change my iPhone password several weeks ago, and I still reflexively type in the old password every time I’m prompted, until I dimly realize that I’ve changed it and it’s time to key in the new one — if I can remember it.

There’s a positive aspect to this.  We’re all getting older, and people who deal with aging say that if you want to stay mentally sharp as the joints creak and the brain cells croak you need to play word games or solve puzzles.  Well, this generation has got that covered.  We don’t need silly games, because we’ve got frustrating passwords.