Closed Captioning

As we have watched the last few episodes of True Detective — which I think has really picked up lately, incidentally — Kish and I have had the same conversation several times:

“What did he say?”

“I don’t know — I couldn’t hear it.”

“You know, I hear that a lot of people are watching this show with the closed captioning feature on their TVs activated.”

The Vince Vaughn character, in particular, seems to specialize in muttering things under his breath, menacingly but incomprehensibly, but we have have trouble understanding many characters on that show.  Is there something about the sound quality of True Detective that just sucks, or have the producers decided that whispered statements fit better with the dark themes of the show?  Maybe the “never mind” theme music is supposed to suggest to viewers that the dialogue really doesn’t matter much, anyway.

When you can’t hear the dialogue on a TV show, there aren’t any good choices.  If you’re watching a recording, you can try to rewind, but you need the deftness of a surgeon to move back to just the right spot without overshooting, and it really wrecks the flow of the narrative even if you are successful.  Or, you can crank the volume up to senior citizen retirement home levels, give up any pretense of clinging to remaining youth, and start going to restaurants at “Early Bird Special” times and using the word “whippersnapper.”  Or, you can activate the closed captioning option — which will expose your obvious lack of technological know-how in trying to find and turn on the option in the first place.

I have no doubt that my hearing acuity has declined over the years, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve got a hearing problem — at least, I don’t think I do.  Does any young whippersnapper out there have trouble following the dialogue on True Detective, too?  Speak up, will you?

Fantastic Faraway Flyby

If you’re near a TV set or computer tonight, you might want to check out Pluto.  The NASA spacecraft New Horizons will be zooming by and sending back photographs and data that will give us our first good look at the “dwarf planet” at the edge of our solar system.

The New Horizons effort is pretty cool.  Nine years ago the spacecraft, which is about the size of a piano, was launched, and since then it has traveled 2.9 billion miles on its journey.  Today New Horizons is closing in on Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, traveling at a rate of almost 31,000 miles per hour, snapping pictures and using its instruments to gather other data.  Already it has taken the first clear picture of Pluto and Charon, with a focus vastly superior to the indistinct blobs produced by the Hubble space telescope.  Eventually it will get to within 7,600 miles of Pluto’s surface.

With this Pluto flyby, human spacecraft have now visited every planet in our solar system.  We should celebrate that, and also celebrate this:  the New Horizons project is one of the most technologically challenging efforts NASA has ever undertaken.  The spacecraft won’t be able to orbit Pluto, it will approach it edge on and then fly by.  That means that New Horizons, which is traveling on an automated control path, has to hit a “keyhole” in space that’s about 60 miles by 90 miles — a remarkably precise target for a probe that is billions of miles away.  If it misses, we’ll just get pictures of empty space.

Starting at about 8 p.m. tonight, engineering data will tell us whether New Horizon threaded the needle.  You can access the NASA live feed here.

Some days, science and technology can be pretty awesome.  This is one of those days.

Computers, And Sod Carriers

We’re in the process of replacing the office computers at our firm.  This week, the wave finally hit my floor.

I had been dreading it, frankly.  I’ve had my computer for years, and it did just what I wanted it to do.  Like many aging Baby Boomers, I was comfortable with the existing technology and not especially eager to move on to something new that I would have to learn all over again.  The younger generation at the firm, on the other hand, was keen to get newer products and integrate them with the tablets, PDAs, and other electronic gizmos they’re always tapping on around the office.

IMG_6132This week, as D-Day approached, I got a multi-page memo about what I had to do to get ready for the change.  I groaned, thinking it would be a huge hassle.  But as my secretary and I walked through it, with her interpreting for the Luddite as necessary, I realized I didn’t have to do most of the stuff because I wasn’t using much of the functionality of even the older computer.  I hadn’t modified the tool bar, subscribed to any RSS feeds (at least, I think that is what it was called), added a bunch of websites as favorites, or changed my desktop, so I didn’t need to do much to get ready for the changeover.

I was grateful that the prep process didn’t take longer, but also a bit embarrassed that I really wasn’t making great use of the awesome capabilities of my desktop computer — which tells you something right there, because most of my fellow lawyers seem to have ultra-thin laptop units that they cart around and set up at every meeting.  The laptoppers seem to be far more technologically comfortable and adept than the desktoppers.  It’s like the separation that occurred in the late Middle Ages, when a craftsman class arose out of the serfs laboring in the fields.  I’m still one of the bent-backed, sod-carrying group.

When I arrived at the office yesterday, to find a new computer with a Skyping camera on top and a headset (a headset?), I was filed with wonder, trepidation — and determination.  Maybe it’s time for me to get off the sod and become a silversmith before it’s too late.

Modern Hotel Technology

 It’s pathetic, but true:  our lives have devolved to the brutal basics of the constant search for electrical outlets.  “Omigod!  My iPhone is down to 78 percent!  Where can I plug in? ”  And  we mutter and curse if wherever we are doesn’t have multiple charging stations at the ready.
Which is why you have to give the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. credit.  They’ve built outlets into the bed frame, for God’s sake!  So charge up while you slumber, compadres!  And then tomorrow charge some more.

A Serene Voyage To Nerdsville

Last Sunday I was walking home from work when I encountered a Segway tour of downtown Columbus.

It appeared to be a bespectacled family of four that was rolling along by the Statehouse, with the Mom holding her Segway handlebars in a death grip.  Even though the devices weren’t moving at a pace much faster than a good, brisk walk, all four of the riders and the guide were wearing bicycle helmets and appeared to be protected against any imaginable possibility of injury in the event of, say, a Segway collision where the rider is hurled six inches to the ground.  As I walked past, the little group was stopped on one of the Statehouse sidewalks, but after the guide had finished his spiel they went  gliding serenely and silently away in the direction of the Ohio Theater, looking for all the world like peculiar moving statues.

And I thought:  nerds.  Or, as Ogre might bellow in Revenge of the Nerds:  “NERDS”!

I’m sorry, Segway.  Your device might be a self-balancing, gyroscopic technological wonder, and another great leap forward to a future where humans don’t have to move a muscle, but helmeted people on Segways is the most infallible nerd indicator since the development of Dungeons and Dragons and the premiere of Star Trek:  Voyager.

I hate to admit it, but I would never don a helmet and take a Segway tour of Columbus, or anywhere else, because it would provoke a severe case of ipsenerdophobia.  True nerds need a refined sense of self-awareness, as a kind of defense mechanism to avoid putting themselves into obvious nerd situations, and a Segway tour sets my nerdar jangling at peak frequencies.  As a geek who wears glasses, read comics into my college years, and likes science fiction, I’ve got more than enough nerd tendencies as it is.

“Hi Urine”

Our firm uses a “voice mail preview” feature by which a computer program is supposed to interpret voice mail messages left on our phones and give us a transcription of sorts.  The idea is that busy people who are routinely checking their emails can simply read the textual “preview,” figure out what the message is and who called, and then immediately act on it without having to access voice mail itself and listen to a stumbling message that might drone on for a minute or more.

It’s a good concept, but the voice translation process is — how shall we say — imperfect.

Yesterday another attorney at the firm and I were trying to reach each other, but we had one of those days where we each just happened to be out of the office when the other called.  After going back and forth several times, I think she left a message that people commonly leave when they are mired in a frustrating and interminable game of phone tag:  “Tag, you’re it.”  At least, I’m guessing that was the real message — I didn’t actually listen to it after I got the “voice mail preview.”

That’s because the “voice mail preview” interpreted the message as “Hi urine.”

I’m hoping that the “voice mail preview” feature doesn’t an algorithm or program to determine whether the purported transcription satisfies some reasonable plausibility standard.  I’d hate to that that any such program concluded that it was deemed possible that one of my fellow attorneys at the firm would hold me in such low esteem that she would refer to me as liquid bodily waste.

Thumbing It

The other day I inadvertently caught my thumb in a door I was closing.  My thumb throbbed, I cursed, and then I realized with a start that until my poor pollex was 100 percent again I was totally unable to fully participate in essential activities of modern life.

The development of an opposable thumb has long been viewed as a crucial step in the human evolutionary process.  The thumb is a simple body part, made up of bones and hinges.  Yet the fully opposable thumb is unique to humans, and its development allowed humans to become complex organisms.  The thumb permits us to grip items securely and throw them accurately.  The thumb is essential to the use of the fine motor skills that allow us to perform detail work.  It is what made humans into toolmakers and tool users.

In the modern world our thumbs are more important than ever before.  They are our principal texting digits.  Your thumb performs the swipe that unlocks your iPhone.  Your thumbs anchor your hands on a computer keyboard and pound the space bar when you type your report.  Your thumb is what empowers you to open a clutch purse, use a bottle opener, pry open a child-proof container, and take notes with a pen.  Of course, it also allows you to signal an interest in hitchhiking and indicate ready assent in a noisy place.  The list of activities that require a thumb is endless, and it will continue to grow as inventiveness moves our species toward even greater reliance upon handheld devices.

With the enormously increased use of our thumbs these days, you’d think that doctors, physical therapists, and surgeons would be besieged by people with thumb-related ailments — but that doesn’t appear to be the case.  The humble thumb abides.