Stranded in the 21st century

My friend Greg told me about a curious technology-related problem he had last week. While reading a climbing magazine, it occurred to him that it would be fun to watch the old Clint Eastwood film The Eiger Sanction.

Now let’s turn back the clock a few years. You can smoke in bars. The village blacksmith is nearby in case your horse throws a shoe. And (here is the important part) there’s a Blockbuster video store on every corner. In this sepia-toned world, Greg would run to the nearest Blockbuster and rent his movie. Problem solved. But since the passing of that era, here’s what happened. Greg started using Netflix. No more trips to the video store. Hooray! But after a time, he decided he didn’t like the DVD-by-mail option (too slow) or the stream-by-net option (not enough selection). So he stopped using Netflix. But while he was trying Netflix, so was Everybody Else. The world turned its back, and poof! The cigarette machines, the payphones, the blacksmiths, the Blockbusters, they all vanished.

Fast forward to the present, and Greg can’t figure out how to rent a movie. He’s stranded in the modern age, dangling like Clint between the departed past and a future that’s not quite here.


Have you had an experience like this?

I did a few years ago when my cell phone died and I really needed to make a phone call. Have you ever looked for a working payphone? If you walk into a liquor store and ask where the nearest payphone is, you will be treated as if you just rolled in a cat box.

Greg’s tale of First World woe doesn’t stop with Clint. In addition to being a talented software developer, Greg is also a talented musician (who just released a new album). His band performed live on the radio last week (WICN). Before the show, his proud wife texted the news to a bunch of friends. Several replied with words to this effect: “I can’t find a radio in my house! What should I do?” She may as well have been telling them to saddle up the old gray mare.

Now I know, and Greg knows, that there are ways to listen to the radio over the net. But some people don’t. Some of those folks sat in their cold cars because that’s the only radio they could find. It’s a neat illustration of what we might call “kicking away the ladder.” That awkward moment when you can’t quite touch the past or the future. And it may explain why Mad Men is so popular. The men were men, the women were women, and the telephones were massive Western Electric 500s made from shatter-proof plastic and mastodon bones.

By God, I need a bourbon. They still make that, right?

Christmas lights and the Jevons paradox

Which weighs more: a pound of efficiency or a pound of inefficiency?

Here’s a fact: an LED requires far less energy than an incandescent bulb to produce the same amount of light. So wherever you can replace filaments with diodes, you’re using less energy, right? Makes sense. But look at this picture.


Last December I was strolling with my family around the Quincy Market buildings in Boston. This is the spectacle I beheld. Those are thousands and thousands of tiny LEDs. A few years ago, they would have been thousands of incandescents. I couldn’t help but think of the Jevons Paradox, which states that “the better you are, the more you eat.” Actually, Wikipedia puts it like this: “technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.” In this context: more efficient light bulbs equals more electricity consumption. Let’s say that an LED is ten times more efficient than an incandescent (I’m making just this number up), but you get so excited about LEDs that you replace one incandescent with 50 LEDs. You’re using more electricity than ever! That’s what this Christmas light display appears to be doing (though I will confess I don’t have any inside information one way or the other).

Here’s a situation where I do have some data: Across many appliances and consumer gadgets, we are making remarkable improvements in efficiency. Things like furnaces, refrigerators, air conditioners, and water heaters are much better than they were a generation ago. But we’ve brought so many electric gadgets (DVRs, big screen TVs, electronics of all sizes) into our houses that it more than offsets our efficiency gains. Greentech Media: Your Gadgets Are Killing Home Efficiency Improvements. There’s a cold bucket of smugwash, eh? You’re very good, but you’re bad and getting worse.

Steve picked up this article and pointed out a depressing coda to the story. When you burn natural gas in your own house for heat, you’re doing an admirably efficient job of trading greenhouse gases for energetic value you derive. Those hydrocarbons are local workers, doing their dirty work right on your premises. But electricity doesn’t work that way. Electricity just moves the energy from one place to another. Now you’re farming out the dirty work to hydrocarbons far away, and then you’re paying electrons to ship the energy to you. A lot of it falls into the ocean on the way. Boo-hoo.

Bottom line: efficiency is good, but watch out for old man Jevons. He doesn’t have to climb on your back. But if you don’t pay attention, he probably will.

Cloud gathering: I dig Simplenote

If I know exactly what I want to write, it’s easy enough for me to sit down as a text editor and bang away. But there’s a certain kind of writing, or rather a certain kind of thinking, that can be difficult to address by sitting down and trying to write a linear document. This kind of thinking proceeds in fits and starts, and you never quite know where it’s going to go. Scraps of related thoughts and notes get collected and scattered and collected again with the hope that they all might fit together into one coherent document. If you’re lucky, and it does come together, it’s amazing how much the final product looks like as if it was the result of a linear process. But of course that’s a lie.

I find it difficult to start this process of emergent thinking, what I call cloud gathering. So I’m always on the lookout for tools that will help me jump start the process. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that it’s often easier to talk through a new idea than it is to type it out. In this respect, the quality of dictation with my iPhone has been liberating.

Here’s a process that I have had good luck with lately: I dictate into an iPhone app, and then I take the words from my iPhone and move them onto my computer for editing. That may sound like a tedious process, but I just started using an app called Simplenote that makes it easy. I open it up and start speaking, and if I have the Simplenote web page up on my computer, or the Simplenote app up on my iPad, the words appear magically one place as quickly as they appear on the other. On their way from phone to computer, the words have taken a quick detour through the cloud and back. but what do I care? I’m collaborating with myself in real time.

Do you have any favorite cloud-gathering apps? In addition to the aforementioned Simplenote, I’ve been playing around with Hackpad and Evernote. I like Hackpad a lot, but I can’t quite make the plunge into Evernote because it seems to demand a sort of religious conversion.

One last note: as a long time WordPress user, I was happy to see that WordPress has acquired Simplenote. Since I took a liking to Simplenote, I worried it was going to fail and go away. Zenbe broke my heart, and I’m currently in mourning for Google Reader. So it’s nice to know that Simplenote has been acquired by stable company.

A trip to Ireland

In April, I’m headed to Ireland on a family vacation. Where should I go? How should I prepare?

I’m availing myself of gamification. This Sporcle quiz is good for learning the 32 counties: Can you name the counties of Ireland? Apparently everybody always forgets about poor old County Longford.

Audible is helping me with my James Joyce classics: Dubliners and Ulysses. I’m not surprised, but it’s still cool to see the various Google Maps-based resources for following Leopold Bloom around Dublin, especially Walking Ulysses from Boston College.

Anybody want to recommend a good book on Irish history?

We’re renting a car, so I’m facing the prospect of shifting with my left hand, sitting on the right, driving on the left. Preparatory to this, I’m using Google Earth and Google Maps to get a feel for the roads I’ll be on. I’m told that the roads are so narrow that most of the time it hardly matters, but to me this seems worse, since you’ll come up on someone and have to remember by to veer quickly to the left, not right. So that should be fun. It would be nice to use the iPhone to help with maps, but I’m not sure if using the international data roaming is worthwhile. Are there temporary plans that make it worth doing?

I should point out that, although I sound completely clueless, I am already relying on the best possible travel resource. My wife researches and plans the trip, and I say “Where are we going today?”