Remembering Y2K

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I remember as a child doing the math to figure out how old I would be in the year 2000. That millennial milestone was such a far off phenomenon to my young self. But as it loomed closer, people around the world started losing their minds.

The reason for this anxiety stemmed from a so-called Y2K (i.e. Year 2000) bug in the systems of computers that it was thought would cause massive malfunctions when the year 2000 arrived. Back in the 70s when I was calculating what an old lady I would be in the Year 2K, we could scarcely dream of how many essential systems would be impacted by the computer revolution. Computers back then were giant, unwieldy machines held in university labs. My business school friends were always wandering around campus in a haze with computer programming punch cards spilling from their backpacks.

But the acceleration of technological progress meant that by the year 1999, computers were running utilities, telecommunications systems, military weaponry, and all manner of operations that affected day-to-day life. Therefore, when news of the Y2K bug appeared, people started planning for Armageddon. We stocked our basements with water, batteries, and nonperishable foods. Most people I knew made plans to stay close to home with their families rather than go to lavish New Years Eve parties out on the town. The widespread panic gave new meaning to the famous Prince lyrics, “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999.”

Y2K fears proved to be largely unfounded. Other than minor glitches, most systems sailed through the New Year without a problem. People woke up on New Years Day to the dried up Christmas trees and other remnants of holiday revelry that they had on previous New Years. Life went on.

It’s important to remember in tumultuous times that there were many events in the past which caused people anxiety and worry. In some ways, our country has always been on the brink of conflict or disaster of one kind or another. Our politics have always been fraught. Our young people have always been criticized for not being exactly like us old fogeys  seasoned veterans.

As 2019 approaches, let’s remember Y2K and, as my husband likes to say, “Don’t panic. There will be plenty of time to panic later.”

Happy New Year!

 

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Phone Home?

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My son’s iPhone died recently, and it was sort of like losing a limb for him. He emailed us to inform us about it and to let us know he would be going to the Apple store to see if the phone could be saved. My husband asked him to borrow a friend’s phone and give us a call to talk about the options should the phone not be salvageable. The only wrinkle was that our son has no idea what our phone numbers are.

This is one of the casualties of the digital age. No one memorizes other people’s phone numbers. And no one keeps a paper address book so that they can retrieve the number even when their phone is on the fritz. Instead, a dead phone means the total loss of all the contacts stored within it. I pride myself on memorizing numbers easily. Just ask me to rattle off my credit card or drivers license number. But even I struggled when my other son got a new phone number through his work and I tried to memorize it. Since the number was stored in my iPhone contacts, I didn’t really need to dial (antiquated term!) the number. So it took me months and deliberate effort to commit my son’s number to memory.

This difficulty with phone numbers is not the only loss that has come with the digital age.  Our dependence on technology has affected other parts of our lives. Take, for instance, the art of writing. The vast majority of people never put pen to paper, choosing instead to send emails, type essays on the computer, or jot notes electronically in their cell phones. I can foresee a future in which pens and writing implements actually become obsolete. Yet research has shown that people retain information better when they physically write it down on paper. (Just ask any shopper who left her grocery list at home on the counter!)

Our ability to gather information has also become dependent on technology. Without the internet, most people wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to do research. We wouldn’t be able to find phone numbers and addresses of local businesses. Some of us would have a hard time getting our shopping done. My cousin went back to college in the not too distant past to get a bachelors degree in a new subject. When called upon to do a research project with a small group, my cousin went old school. She gathered a number of books on the subject, sat her group down, and had them sift through the information in the books to solve the hypothetical problem posed in the assignment. The small group of Millennials were a bit dumbfounded by this method, but most agreed that they got a lot out of searching for information in this way.

Advances in technology are beneficial to productivity and often make life easier for us. I’m grateful for all the ways technology has helped me perform household chores, kept me warm or cool depending upon the season, and made it easier to find what I’m looking for. But just as the use of calculators made people forget how to do basic arithmetic, the use of computers (including those mini ones in our pockets) has caused some of our basic mental and physical skills to atrophy. I think a balance between the old and the new would be a helpful way to get the best of both worlds.

Maybe E.T. could have phoned home more easily if he had just written down the number!

Dropping Out of the Digital Age

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I’ve decided to drop out of this century. I realized I am hopelessly out of date today when I completed a survey for my local library. When asked about digital materials and library resources, not only did I have no use for them, I’d never even heard of most of them. No, dear library, I don’t want ebooks or audiobooks or apps on my phone. Just give me an old-fashioned paperbound book and a cup of tea, please.

Then I noticed articles in my newspaper about the gig economy, and I don’t even know what that is. Also, states like Alaska and Vermont are offering to pay people just to move there and work remotely for a company in another state. What is that? Whatever happened to the kind of job where you get up, get dressed, and drive or take the train or bus to an office/school/restaurant/store and work there for 8 hours?

My daughter’s schools and camps now insist that all documents be scanned and uploaded to their websites. No more mailing or even faxing! No wonder my postal carrier looks glum these days. Online classes and bill payments, electronic grade reports, medical MyCharts. Sure, I feel totally secure having all my personal medical information on the web -NOT!

There is some evidence that I’m not alone in my discomfort with runaway technological progress. A recent report indicates that a large majority of people aren’t comfortable with the idea of owning or riding in a driverless vehicle. Ironically, all the titans of tech in Silicon Valley send their kids to schools where use of technology is verboten.

I admit that I like the convenience of ordering online, Googling, and even playing games on my phone in doctors’ waiting rooms. The digital age has even made it possible for me to share these curmudgeonly thoughts with a wide audience.

But I lament all that has been lost as we focus on our phones and other electronic devices. Face to face conversation, cursive handwriting, letter writing – they all seem to be facing obsolescence. Let’s face it. Anyone under 40 is incapable of balancing their checkbook by hand. (My kids don’t even know what balancing a checkbook is.) Call me crazy, but I would rather order my broccoli cheddar soup from the Panera cashier than punch a bunch of buttons on a machine and make my lonely way to a table, where soon, no doubt, a robot will deposit my food.

So I am dropping out of the digital age. You will find me at the library reading real books and writing in my paper journal with a pen. And if you see me, please stop by for a face to face chat. I’m still doing those.

 

Scary Clowns Emblematic of Election

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In the months leading up to Halloween, there has been a rash of scary clown sightings across America. While many reports are mere urban legend, individuals have been arrested for filing false police reports, making threats, and even chasing children while dressed as a clown.

I don’t think I could find a better metaphor for this year’s presidential election campaign. In the early days of the presidential primaries, Donald Trump’s candidacy was considered nothing more than a joke. His outrageous comments, orange hair and skin, and cartoonish bluster all pointed to a buffoon whose primary purpose seemed to be entertainment. But as his candidacy picked up steam, the ugliness of his rhetoric and of the way a certain segment of the American people really think started to come to light.

While many people think of clowns as funny slapstick figures in circuses, many others are genuinely afraid of clowns. Numerous sources estimate that about 12% of the population suffers from coulrophobia, a pathological fear of clowns. Turns out that clowns have always had a dark side. According to a recent New York Times article, one of the earliest forms of the clown was the Harlequin, who first appeared in literature as a denizen of the underworld. Subsequent scary clowns throughout history include “the baby-bashing, wife-beating, serial-killer clown Punch,” the murderous clown in the opera Pagliacci, and more recent killer clowns, such as in Stephen King’s frightening novel It. (“What Do the Scary Clowns Want?,” The New York Times, Sunday, October 16, 2016.)

The NYT article goes on to explain that the figure of the jester has historically been “the only person who could speak truth to power.” Indeed, many supporters and even detractors see Donald Trump in this role. The problem is that Trump’s malevolence overshadows any perceived truth telling. In recent months, he has threatened press freedom, vowed to sue or imprison his critics, and encouraged violence against his opponent.

So while Trump’s appearance and demeanor, his crazy ramblings both during and after the debates, and his willful ignorance about world affairs all make him ripe for mockery, his sinister threats and the disturbing rants of his followers make him a very scary clown indeed.

 

Dying for Boredom

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It has been way too long since I’ve heard or said two magic words of childhood: “I’m bored.” I can remember hot, sticky August days, deep into the dog days of summer in the era before air conditioning, when I would lie listlessly on my bed or swing in a desultory fashion on the backyard swing set and think to myself, I am dying of boredom.

Is it weird to miss those days? Nowadays, I have to-do lists a mile long and kids to chauffeur to appointments and housework on an endless loop. I need to find time for exercise, writing, playing piano, and paying bills. Even my leisure activities, such as watching television, are accompanied by chores such as folding laundry. So my days fly by, and I never once feel that sensation of stillness, of having literally nothing to do.

Even my kids can rarely be heard whining about how boring it is around here. When my oldest ones were young, I did hear those classic complaints, “I’m bored,” “There’s nothing to do,” and “Are we there yet?” My answer was usually to throw them outside and force them to confront their boredom with their imaginations. The result was beautiful. They would be out in the backyard playing a pretend game called Mountain Dew and Sea Squid. The swing set was safety while the yard was a shark-infested sea. If it was a cold or rainy day, they might build something with Legos or make a huge fort in the basement.

Those were the days before iPods and smart phones, Facebook and Instagram. Now my kids are forever in front of screens. If it’s not the TV or video games, it’s their own little private electronic paradise. I rarely even see their faces full on. And I never hear those words I once dreaded but now long for: “I’m bored.”

I wonder what will happen to creativity and imagination. Creating something new requires mental space and time to think. In our fast paced world, we have given up that mental space for constant stimulation and instant gratification. I once read that the director of a medical school was concerned because her students lacked problem solving skills. They could spit back every fact from Gray’s Anatomy, but they couldn’t use what they knew to diagnose and treat patients. That’s scary to me.

And that is why I miss boredom. Boredom is the fertile ground in which ideas take root. Most of my ideas for blog posts come to me when I am driving by myself or taking a walk. In those times, my body might be busy but my mind is free. And ideas just pop up. And sometimes, when the house is unexpectedly empty and chores can wait, I have been known to sit with my cup of coffee and just think. Maybe it will just take growing up and life experience for our children to realize the virtues of boredom and to seek it, rather than avoid it like the plague.

World Wide Web

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It used to be that when I got up in the morning, I would make a pot of coffee, sit down with my breakfast and open the newspaper. You remember those, right? Rolled up bundles of newsprint thrown on your lawn from an old Chevy at 6 in the morning? If you’re really old, you remember some 12-year-old flinging yours from a bag on his shoulder as he rode his bike along the quiet streets.

Nowadays, while the coffee is brewing, I fire up the laptop and start to peruse the lighted screen. If I am feeling diligent, I do some writing. After all, that memoir is not going to write itself. Then I check my email and Facebook. Here is where I feel myself getting sucked into the web. Before I know it, two hours have gone by, and I have little to show for it.

The internet has been both blessing and curse. If I need to find anything – a fact, a phone number, or a place to host my kid’s birthday party – I just Google it. Yes, that word is now a verb. I picture the creator of Google, not as a savvy business person, but as an evil mastermind developing the ultimate addictive drug – instant information. Soon I am Googling everything from SAT statistics for a blog post to new Nike shoes for my son to the name of the actress on that old Seventies TV series, “The Partridge Family.” (It’s Susan Dey, by the way.)

It is also more than a little unsettling to find the results of your online shopping scrolling down in ads on your Facebook page. Facebook recently received flak for doing a psychological experiment with people’s moods as they used the social website. Is there any doubt in our minds that the employees over there are cackling maniacally while tinkering with our brains?

Remember when Al Gore took credit for inventing the internet? Well, it’s a good thing Bush stole that election from him in 2000 because if Gore had been president, he would have used the internet to completely manipulate our thought processes and enslave us with technology. I’m pretty sure we would all be marching in lock step while chanting things like, “Parental warnings on CDs” and “Global warming is killing us!” 

How many cute but useless memes do I have to read before I awaken from my stupor? How many clever You Tube videos do I have to watch before I realize I should be doing something more productive? Maybe if I received a “Like” every time I got the dishes or laundry done, I would be more motivated. As I write this, it is only 9:25 am here in the heartland. I think there is still time to salvage the day. 

I’m getting off the internet right now and unrolling that mysterious bundle I found at the end of my driveway this morning. 

What’s So Smart About a Smart Phone?

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Before I got a smart phone, friends would tell me, “You’ll love it” or “You won’t know how you ever got along without it” or “It will change your life!” Now, such accomplishments would be a tall order for my soulmate, never mind a piece of technology. Still, I was getting tired of people making fun of my little flip phone. One friend, whom I’ll call Jen (because that’s her name!), upon seeing me pull out my phone, exclaimed incredulously, “What’s that? Is that a phone?”

So I dutifully signed on to two years of an expensive data plan and secured my first smart phone. Sure, it’s cute, slim and sleek with a bright green plastic cover and a smooth surface. And yes, it can even speak. Siri, can you spell “bandwagon”? Listening to Siri, however, only highlights the limitations of the so-called smart phone.

My daughter likes to amuse herself by asking Siri such questions as “How do I look?” or “Who’s a better singer – Rihanna or Beyonce?” Siri’s usual robotic answer is, “I don’t understand the question.” If the phone were really so smart, Siri would reply, “You look fabulous,” and “Rihanna, of course.”

I know, I know. You can check the weather, watch TV, send emails and perform Google searches with your smart phone. And when I’ve had a hard day, I do like to play Quizup against total strangers, doing serious battle over who has more useless trivia stuffed in our heads.

Despite the fact that I can watch an episode of “Game of Thrones” while waiting in the supermarket checkout line (“Dismemberment in aisle nine!”), I find that I primarily use my smart phone for those old fashioned operations, calling and texting.

A smart phone cannot think for itself, dream up a cool idea, or engage in a meaningful conversation. It is, after all, only a device, a tool for modern humans to make our lives a little easier.

The smart ones are the marketers who convinced me to buy one.