Five Essential Inventions For A Tolerable Quarantine

We’ve been self-isolating for more than three weeks now, and while many people are complaining about being cooped up for so long, I think it’s important to recognize those things that have made our collective bout with quarantine more tolerable.  I’ve come up with a list of five things that I think have been essential, listed in reverse order of their first invention.  Two of them are about as old as civilization, interestingly.

  1.  Alcohol — Where would we be without wine, beer, and other adult beverages?  At the end of a hard day of working at home, a glass of wine or a cold tumbler of suds sure make the graphs showing how curves can be flattened and the news about ventilator production go down a bit easier.  Liquor sales spiked after the shutdown was announced, and it quickly became clear that Americans put alcohol on the same exalted level as toilet paper when it comes to being absolutely certain of having a more than ample supply.  As somebody said, it’s not clear that people are drinking more during the work-at-home period, but they’re sure not drinking any less, either.  As for the invention of adult beverages, humans have made both wine and beer for so long that their dates of creation have been lost in the mists of time.  Scientists recently discovered earthenware jars containing wine residue that indicated humans were guzzling fermented grape juice more than 8,000 years ago, and beer is the subject of the oldest recorded recipe in the world — instructions that were found on ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls that date back to 5,000 B.C. 
  2. Soap — You’ve got to give people something to do during a pandemic to make them feel like they are pitching in, and for Americans the instructions are clear:  wash your hands, thoroughly and repeatedly.   As soon as we get back from our allotted exercise walks we head dutifully to the sink for our required 20-second bout with lathering, scrubbing, and rinsing.  It may not sound like much, but those constant 20-second scrubbings add up and help to pass the slow-moving quarantine time, and they make us feel good about doing our part.  Soap also dates back thousands of years, with historians believing that the Babylonians invented the first soap, made from fats boiled with ashes, about 5,000 years ago.
  3. Canned food and crock pots — It’s probably safe to say that people are cooking more at home than they’ve done in the last 50 years, and because there’s an interest in trying to minimize trips to the grocery store, people are trying to stretch their food stores and leftovers farther than ever before.  That’s where canned food and crock pots really strut their stuff.  In fact, I think it is safe to say that no single device is more adept at converting aging leftovers into tasty meals than the crock pot.  Whether it’s stews made of random items hauled from the cupboard, or last night’s chili made with leftover meat loaf, leftover sausage, a can of black beans, some chopped onions, and liberal doses of Texas Pete’s hot sauce and sriracha sauce, our crock pot has been a high-producing kitchen item during the last few weeks.  The smells coming from the crock pot also help to make the quarantine household a happy place, too.  Canned foods were first invented more than 200 years ago, and the first slow cookers — the precursors to the crock pot, which was first call the “bean pot” — were invented about 80 years ago
  4. PCs — Where would we be without personal computers and laptops?  For many of us, they are the one, essential device that allows us to work from home, and without them the unemployment statistics in America would be much, much worse.  They also allow us to get the latest news with a few touches of keyboard buttons, and to catch up on our friends and check out the latest coronavirus memes and political rants on social media websites.  The laptop PC is the fulcrum that has moved the working world, and the COVID-19 quarantine is the singular event that will probably change our approach to how people work and do business, forever.  The first personal computer — the Altair 8800 — was invented in 1975, and the first laptop — which weighed more than 30 pounds, incidentally — was released in 1981.
  5. Netflix and other streaming services — One very popular topic among friends on social media these days is swapping information about nightly viewing options.  Everybody’s got an opinion, because we’re all watching a lot of TV during this shut-in period, and we’re running through viewing options faster than ever before.  (The ten episodes of season three of Ozark, for example, flew by far too quickly.)  Netflix and other streaming services allow us to pick from an enormous array or TV shows and movies, old and new, and then advise our friends on whether options like Tiger King or Messiah are worth checking out.  What would we do without constant entertainment?  Netflix first started streaming content in 2007 — just in the nick of time, relatively speaking.

So there you have it — millennia of human invention and creativity, all combining to make the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 a bit more tolerable for American shut-ins.  Thanks to the ancient winemakers, the Egyptians and Babylonians, and the techno-geeks and food canners.  We owe you a great debt of gratitude.

And now, it’s time to check out a few websites and think about what we’ll be making for dinner tonight.

Father Of The Mouse

Most of us use one just about every day.  We roll it along the surface to guide that little arrow around the screen.  It’s how we point and click, edit our work, and drag and drop.

It’s the mouse, of course.  We take it for granted, but it didn’t always exist.  It had to be invented, just like every other manufactured item that has become an accepted part of our everyday lives.

In the case of the mouse, the inventor was Douglas Engelbart, who died this week.  He filed for a patent for the mouse in 1967 — describing it as a device that allowed the user to alternate visual displays at selected locations — and received one in 1970.

The early mouse was a clunky wooden object with two wheels, three buttons, and a cord coming out the back like a mouse’s tail.  After the patent was granted, other companies began experimenting with Engelbart’s invention, and by the 1980s the mouse had become an accepted part of every home computer kit sold at technology stores.  In the process, the design was modified and the bulky wooden mouse morphed into the sleek plastic item that conforms comfortably to our hands and that we now use without a second thought.

Engelbart’s colleagues considered him a visionary.  He also came up with far-sighted concepts concerning computer networking, digital collaboration, and video teleconferencing that the computer types consider to be even more significant than the mouse.

They may be right, technologically, but from a social standpoint it would be hard to top the impact of the humble mouse, which helped make computers accessible and usable for bloggers, and Facebookers, and other average folks like us.  We thank you for that profound contribution, Mr. Engelbart, and we will remember you.

About Skeuomorphism

Did you ever wonder why the delete file on your computer looks like an old-fashioned wire trash can that you haven’t seen in years, or why your email icon looks like a letter?  The answer has to do with skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphism — in addition to being a great Scrabble word — has to do with the concept of patterning computer images after “everyday” objects.  It was a focus of Steve Jobs, who thought it would make computers more accessible and user-friendly to people who don’t wear pocket protectors and button their short-sleeved shirts up to the neck.  Rather than typing a line of code, you could just drag something you wanted to delete to that trash can on the screen.  The use of skeuomorphic objects made computers easier, and almost intuitive, to use, even for skittish people who formerly worried that one false keystroke could cause a hard drive crash.

But those skeuomorphic objects have grown more and more . . . anachronistic in our fast-moving modern world, and an increasingly tech-savvy populace started to make fun of them.  Who uses actual file folders, anyway?  Will kids even know what those objects are supposed to represent?  Why should your e-books be displayed on a cheap-looking wooden bookshelf?  Who wants ’70s-era, bulky looking headphones on the “desktop” of their sleek, super-thin, ultra-light laptop?  And we all know that, in the modern world, something that becomes the object of ridicule isn’t likely to last long.

So apparently skeuomorphism is out, at Apple and elsewhere.  The tech designers are confident that people are comfortable enough with computers that they don’t need to clutter computer screens with representations of outdated objects.  I’m not quite sure what will replace it, but that wire wastebasket is going to be tossed in the trash bin.

Death Of The iMac

Yesterday, I got the bad news that I feared — the resolute iMac, faithful blogging friend and desktop companion, has permanently given up the ghost.

Earlier this week the iMac screen went opaque.  I turned it off, hoping it was just a rebooting issue, but I couldn’t turn it back on.  Yesterday I took it to the Apple store and the blue-shirted folks at the Genius Bar opened it up.  It was weird seeing the iMac with its innards exposed — like being present in the operating room when a family member is getting an appendix removed.

The Geniuses took one look, saw that the capacitors were blown out, and advised, with appropriate respect and regret, that nothing could be done.  Our iMac is so old — or, as one of the Apple Geniuses said, “vintage” — that they don’t even make replacement capacitors for it anymore.  We removed the hard drive so that I can try to retrieve stuff from our iPhoto and iTunes folders, closed it up, and I carefully carried it back to the car.

The demise of the iMac leaves a physical void on the desktop in our study, and I think wistfully of its 8+ years of steady reliability and service.  But life goes on.  I’d welcome any suggestions from readers about Apple desktops that can fill the void and try to fill the big shoes left by the iMac.

The Need For Speed

We’ve been at the Sawmill Creek Lodge in Huron, Ohio the past few days for the Webner family reunion.  Although Sawmill Creek has many fine amenities, it does not have in-room wireless connections, and therefore Kish and I can’t use our own laptops to access the internet.  As a result, we have made liberal use of the business center and its PCs.  Frankly, they are a bit slow compared to our Apples.  We find ourselves drumming our fingers on the tabletops as the seconds drag past, seemingly eternal in their duration, and the computer labors to make the necessary connections.  How frustrating!

Of course, it was only a decade or so ago that we were thrilled to have dial-up connections to the internet and to hear that weird boinging sound when the connection was made.  Then, when the internet was new and the novelty of so much information at our fingertips had not worn off, we were happy with downloads that took a minute or two.  With each new computer and internet service provider, however, the speed of connection and the size of the data stream has improved, and now a wait of more than a few seconds to fly to a new web address is just intolerable.

I suppose we should be a bit more patient in modern America.  After all, what’s a few seconds?  Why should a very brief delay be so bothersome?  All I know is:  it is irksome.  It will be nice to get back home to the iMac and to be able once again to rocket around the internet at the accustomed astonishing speeds.

The Impact Of A Tinkerer

Dr. Henry Edward Roberts — called by some “the father of the personal computer” — died recently.  Roberts was a tinkerer who invented the Altair 8800, a personal computer that could be assembled at home.   The build-it-yourself kit sold for $395 and was featured on the front cover of Popular Electronics in 1975.  That article was read by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, computer buffs who decided to call Dr. Roberts and offer to write software for the device.  They later moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Roberts’ company existed, and formed what was then called “Micro-Soft” to sell the software.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The BBC article linked above is interesting in that it features positive comments about Dr. Roberts and his significant impact on the development of the personal computer by Gates and Allen as well as by Steve Wozniak of Apple.  If Microsoft and Apple agree on something dealing with computers, it must be significant — and clearly Dr. Roberts and his tinkerer’s device were.  As we sit in the comfort of our homes, tapping away at our keyboards and using our personal computers for all manner of things, we should all give a nod to Dr. Henry Edward Roberts and his contribution.