Archive for December, 2009

Tools, fire, phone

December 22, 2009

The blizzard of gadgets I’ve had to shovel off my mental sidewalk this December also includes a new cell phone, motivated by the eminent death of my two year old one which has more miles logged with me on a bike than some Cat B racers rack up in a season, because my girlfriend uses it to text me so I tend to find myself phone-less, and also I will blame an email I got from AT&T telling me I could get it for free.  Free being a word without which nothing can be sold, and which has thus been just a little degraded in meaning.  Free used to mean you didn’t have to spend anything.  In this case, I spent $150, because the new free phone requires a blue tooth headset and a different car charger.  I remember when $150 was almost real money, but now I realize it is a small enough amount to be considered free.

My candy bar Nokia is what I would call a basic phone, and my brother calls “Rick you have a real job.  Why don’t you get a decent phone… an iPhone or something”.  Bare bones for Christmas 2009 means a phone which works in over 300 countries in the world, thanks to GSM (4 years ago just being digital was amazing) and 4 bands of radios built in, text messaging, a 1.4 MPixel camera with 3:1 zoom and a night vision mode sufficient for pretty good imaging of the moon, movie record and playback with sound, an earphone jack and USB port for uploading and playing MP3 music and books, an address book that holds something over 1000 entries, calendar, alarm clock, internet access on 3G for email, banking, googling things, instant messaging (in case plain old texting, the internet at 7Mbits/s and emailing aren’t enough connectivity) games (Tetris among them), 17 ring tones and 22 other alert tones.  And who could live without at least the ability to download (a euphemism for purchase) more games, music, applications software and tones.  With this barebones phone, you don’t have to take that risk.

It also can dial by voice, handheld or via its built in Bluetooth supporting both phone headsets and listening to music in stereo.  Simultaneously.  If you hold it up to the radio and hit a key, it tells you what song you are listening to (but don’t try that on a Chopin Nocturne) and of course with one more button you can purchase, oops I mean download, the song or just a ringtone version of the song, which for some reason costs more than the song.  Did I mention it also comes with a half dozen different wallpapers for your customizable display, or you can change the display to a picture from its camera or any other graphic you download via Bluetooth or the USB port?

So like I said, a phone suitable for at least cave dwelling and other pre-agrarian societies.  It makes me happy in other ways than just its ability to ring polyphonically imitating a phone my grandparents had sitting on a wooden table in a room people used to call the foyer.  I figure my students all have phones 10 times this complex, so while they aren’t doing much in my classes, they are learning something somehow.  The world is more complicated – our brains are thriving, even if our bodies aren’t.   Thumbs excluded.

And since I was sort of a failure at Econ, it pleases me that economists actually think they can track prices from one year to another.  10 years ago having a cordless phone was for the majority of people, pretty connected.  A cordless phone costed $100. or maybe $49 or maybe $19 on sale at radio shack when you bought two, the other one of which had an answering machine in it (let’s not get into what those were) (i.e. the $19 phone cost $100 – this was the beginning of the devaluation of “free”).   Now I have this netbook disguised as a phone, ostensibly free with a 2 year extension of a contract I wanted to extend anyway.  It costs me $69 per month, vs. $24.95 for my old landline, but that one had $16.50 in taxes added it to it for line fees and other things I never understood – just wrote checks for.  But this one has free national long distance – and that 3G internet.  Worth more than its predecessor Edge?  How much more?  And voicemail and texting.

None of which do I write checks for – it shows up on a credit card which I pay over the internet (I could do over the phone but haven’t figured out yet, plus the idea of using my phone to pay for my phone worries me for 2nd Law of Thermodynamics reasons).   So excluding the labor involved in figuring out how to turn the thing on, the price of telephoning has gone… up…?

We used to worry that we would yield the ability to remember stuff, lazily storing it all, to our phones and Palm Pilots (remember those?).  It turns out remembering how to find all that stuff you stored is enough of a challenge, let alone the stuff.  But there remains a darker element stored inside the persona of my brushed aluminum and sleek black slab – lurking about in a file folder called Saved Items (don’t we all hope to end up there?).  When I first turned my new phone on, I found it came with 11 of them, which are called Templates, by me… pre-fab texts.  And what were these 11 messages, so common that every phone owner would find and supposedly use them, so vital that they are not deletable, ever, from your phone?  The list starts with the just mildly depressing:  “I can’t talk now, I’m in a meeting.  Will call you back at   “.  There is the more general “I will call you back at    “.  Then there is the “I will arrive at    “  and the always useful “meeting is cancelled   “.  Most of mine seem to be.  I had hoped to find my favorite, adopted from a New Yorker cartoon “I’m dead, would you like my voice mail? “

Lurking at the bottom of the list was the one I did not want to find, and hope never, ever to receive.  Still just the thought it is in that Top Eleven, that millions of Nokia phones, some owned by people I might today, or one day, care about…  Beware if you ever receive it – never to know if it’s real or Memorex.  It is those four little words,  “I love you too”.



the life cycle of butterflies

December 20, 2009

a selection from our new book

March 30, 2008

My first and last biology class was in junior high school exactly 40 years ago.  Other than it confirming my distaste for animals and lack of interest in plants, I also remember something about the life cycle of butterflies and moths.  They evolve through four diverse stages with the same individual taking on completely different appearance and behavior with each passage.  Finally, they graduate to the most beautiful, the adult stage, when they show off their wings, flying precariously in summer sunshine over meadows and through deep green forests.  I wished, as an overweight and socially clumsy 13 year old, that I could hope for such a makeover sometime in my future, emerging into a life of physical beauty and freedom (from 8th grade biology among other oppressions).  I suppose that desire, the aesthetic appeal of these animals, and their freedom to fly aimlessly outdoors with no apparent destination or motivation other than to play, imprinted them, just a little, on my psyche.

But there is another reason my 13 year old self was impressed by their story.  It was not so much their designs, colors and flight, as the dissonant tragedy that can go hand-in-hand with their hard-earned maturation, and with it, the freedom to fly.  Some of the species, upon achieving their adult phase, can no longer eat.  Each individual lives for only a few weeks or at most months, burning up fuel stored during earlier lives.

Apparently the inevitability of their end doesn’t inhibit them.  Maybe it even motivates them to fascinate us, to brighten our world, and for the time that they have, to make more of living than without them we would ever know.

As you know, Nancy has not eaten in about 6 days – excepting Diet Coke, a little cran-grape juice and grape flavored shaved ice.  Last night, she and Karen watched some DVDs together.  Nancy and I spend our time, the time when she has the energy and focus, talking, watching clips on her Mac, even laughing.  It is, it has been these last few days, weeks, months, in many ways the life we probably always wanted,  one we didn’t have.  A life being together, without focus on work, a construction of a future, the mortgage and the money we should be saving for the time we might no longer be able to work.  A life orbiting just around ourselves.

Sept. 17: Life V2.0 begins

December 20, 2009

My neighborhood, working morning, light rain, cobblestones (photo Brian Pankhurst)

Yesterday I walked into my apartment here in Rome and found everything as it was when I left at 7:45 AM on Sunday, June 7, thinking I would be back in three hours to run over to the grocery store to pick up my vegetables for lunch.  It was spooky.  it reminded me that we do not know what life has in store for us – an accident, a phone call from a physician or a family member – what we take as routine can end in literally the blink of an eye.  Forever.   I have had a crash course in reality.  Hyperreality.  Haven’t we all taken that course by this time in life.

This morning waking up as I always have in the dark to work by the light of my lava lamp, it was surreal.  I did go through that blink of the eye life changing event, and yet 102 days later, here I am, a little beat up, scarred slightly, sore a lot, but doing it again.  I was saved, I have no idea why or how, and reinserted in a life I loved and lost and now can love again.  Not in the same way – it is the same in the settings, in the homework and obligations, in the bus and metro and pool and Elite grocery store (one of those ok but not great urban chains of small overpriced grocery stores New Yorkers know well) – it can not be the same, and I don’t want it to be the same because I don’t want to be that naïve.
OK, back to work and then the pool, then italian class and the university and Mario’s.  I will spend a fortune on cabs today – I am too sore from the trip to deal with any walking other than into the metro station or whatever.  But sore is not a bad thing – I am like in training for an ironman and yesterday was a hard day.  I will take a few easy ones.

fuso orario

December 20, 2009
Here’s your italian lesson for today, fuso orario.
Fuso orario – literally, the fusing together of clocks and calendars.  Which is what time zones are – a way of linking disparate time systems around the world.  It reflects an old world view when everybody ran their own clocks and there was no particular system of conversion.  The fuso orario refers to what at the time was a radical idea – a system accepted worldwide whereby everyone agrees to live in and respect the same time keeping, of a particular zone, enabling us to easily calculate times anyplace -. like we do linking dollars to pounds to euros.  There is a fusion, a linking, of time all over the world.
When I first had to memorize fuso orario, my brain resented it.  Why not just say Zona Tempo or Zona Orario like the rest of the world?  But Fuso Orario has something time zone doesn’t – it has history.  It reminds us that it wasn’t always so, that indianapolis and chicago and columbus and cleveland had at one time clocks separated by 10 minues, by 17 minutes, by an hour and 20 minutes, whatever.  Every little town had its independent time keeping system, and somehow, it is sort of a miracle to see all humanity agree to anything, the whole world of millions of independent clocks, got fused down to 24 zones, and really one universal system – the fusion of timekeeping – the fuso orario.
When I first started our project in Kuala Lumpur, I guess in the mid ’90s, they had their own ancient time zone.  it was 30 minutes different from what should have been their time zone according to the Fuso Orario Mondiale.  At the space agency they have an enormous sun dial.  Since the sun shines almost always there (except at night and the occasional afternoon thunderstorm) a sun dial is pretty useful.  It was huge and built of rock, solid and impressive.  Unfortunately, in that time they finally accepted the Fuso Orario – they became fused to the world system, and shifted their clocks for the country by 30 minutes to be in synch.  Now that sundial is the only clock in Malaysia that keeps the old time, and while at first a lot of talk was about somehow moving it to synch, now it is a little bit of history, an anachronism from when the world was not linked and every independent group of people could have whatever time they liked and without instant communications, it didn’t matter.

Life is the constant work of expanding the past

December 20, 2009

Olympus waterproof camera ride report

December 19, 2009

Brain the size of a planet. It, not me.

What I noticed is that despite my Olympus 550 WP costing just $120, it was not lost on their engineers that hey, they have a computer, power, a display and tons of memory available. Not to mention a vast reservoir of software already written for other cameras. Thus for instance, on the screen at default there are 20 variables displayed around the edges . Usual stuff like f-stop and shutter speed, plus the mélange of modes, flash status, level of zoom (electronic and optical), battery charge level, various warnings if the subject is too dark, or shaded or not able to be focused upon, and more. And you can add more by customizing the frame.

There are at least 15 shooting modes, each of which you can customize by selecting around 15 variables buried inside each one. There are 3 automatic modes (it seems less than automatic if you have to pick which automatic mode – like an automatic transmission with three speeds) but there are, it turns out, two super automatic modes which choose among the 3 automatic modes best suited, which in turn picks among the 15 options inside it, each of which has its own 15 variables, any and all of which you can change… One of those superautomatic modes senses the type of scene you are shooting – profile, night etc. Sensible. But I am drawn to the other one. It is so automatic they don’t tell you how it chooses. I like that – the Wizard of Oz Mode.

As if that isn’t enough, you have the option to record sound, to pick the frame rate, to decide among 3 types of florescent lighting and a couple types of tungsten lighting and two types of sunlight (for planets orbiting double stars, I guess). Of course you can take movies, but that’s another 20 pages of the manual I skipped over. I did note that the optical zoom doesn’t work for movies – but the electrical one does. And the audio defaults on, but you can turn it off, or toggle it on and off, or add sound later, or subtract.

In both movie and still mode you can pick your resolution among about 10 options, and within each of the ten, the type of compression you do or don’t want. A total of about 50 resolution settings. Then of course you can’t live without the power saving modes. Another few pages of the catalog tell you how to display your pictures on the camera’s screen, on various types of TV Screens (HD, widescreen, PAL etc.) and then on various Mac and PC compatible computer screens. Manually or in slide show mode – skipping some or showing all of them, with your recorded voice over, or the audio you recorded with each scene.

Oops, almost forgot to mention the self timer. 12 seconds. Fixed. What the hey?

If you are smart enough to wade through all that you must own a computer. But in case you left it at home, or on shore, you can image process all your stuff, including image improvements like contrast and gamma, and cropping, and adding audio later, or deleting audio you don’t like, or editing the audio. And you can print without a computer by “simply” (they use that word a lot) enabling PicBridge software. Which opens up a menu of menus so you can manage your printing in a million ways.

Did I mention it has an MP3 music player? Not an add on, they figure you might want to narrate your shots with music. not a problem.

It would be easier to say what it doesn’t have – a phone, a GPS, and a V-8 for driving to where you are taking the photos, with submenus to choose the comfort vs. handling of the suspension, performance vs economy shifting schedules, and presets for the temperature the seat heaters come on (separately for the driver and front seat passenger, but everyone in the back has to live with the same setting until the software update comes out – which you can download from Don’t forget to register online!!!).

It was little comfort to note that the 80 page manual, including 3 pages of safety warnings (for a camera that weighs 4 ounces? – I suppose they have to remind you it can be a choking hazard) is only the start and “lots more” (not just a little more) information is available on-line. Lucky – I was worried what I was going to do for reading in 2011. Plus there are user groups you can join for discussions on special topics. Lucky thing. If you don’t like the plug in the wall charger, a cord option is available (in some countries). Handy if you want to operate while plugged in – on the tripod (mount included, tripod optional). It takes several memory card formats, but don’t lose the little plastic adapters. Or swallow them.

There are a few pages not so much on using it underwater, but cleaning it afterwards. Don’t forget to dry it in “warm shade”, but in any case, below 105˚F. Thermometer NOT INCLUDED. I can’t believe they left out the weather station option. But it does have an underwater photos set of settings, all user adjustable (who else would?), but they advise doing that before going into the water. Wimps.

Back on land getting bumped is always a danger – especially when dialing in the long zooms. Naturally there is optional anti shake, which can be automatic, or manual. And you can tell it to anti shake faces. I like that – blurry bodies, sharp faces. I wonder if there’s a Magnum Mode to get the opposite? It does speak italian – and 9 other languages including two Chinese dialects, Arabic, Japanese and Hebrew.

Luckily for those of us not planning to enroll in Olympus University majoring in Stylus Underwater (and compared with their other cameras, this one probably only offers the Associates Degree), you can be a typical American Guy and just turn it on and snap pictures. Maybe zoom it in and out. In which case you only need to know to push the button part way down to let it think about what it thinks you are wanting to do for a few milliseconds, and then push down to take a picture. I got that far. But you will have to live knowing your camera will think, no, it will know, it is smarter than you are.