I’ve Got an Electronic Monkey on My Back

    Every Sunday I page through the Best Buy, Circuit City, Office Depot and Office Max ads for new electronic toys to help make my life better.  I’m currently thinking about buying a Palm TX, Asus Eee PC, iPAQ 200, iPod touch, Nokia N800, Nikon D40x, an external SATA drive for my Scientific American 8300HD DVD cable box, a GPS for my wife, better speakers for my PC at work and home, a 24″ LCD for my home computer, a Roomba vacuum cleaner, a Canon SD750 pocket camera, an Olympus voice recorder, a Mac Mini to put the Internet on my HDTV, a Sonos ZP80, a SanDisk E280R, a miniDV video camera, a Blue Ray/HD-DVD player/recorder, a Blackberry, and so on.  That’s the current stuff I’m thinking about. 

    When my wife brings her work laptop home, we have five computers, two printers and two scanners to do our work. We have two digital cameras and seven remotes on the table between our La-Z-Boys in the den, and that doesn’t count the expensive universal remote bought to replace the others that we do not use, or several other orphaned remotes scattered around the house. We have three television sets, two DVRs, four DVD players, two of which are DVD recorders, two component stereo systems and two cable boxes. We have four telephones hooked up, who knows how many not hooked up, as wells as our two separate cell phones. We both have iPod Nanos we always carry, plus we have several other less famous MP3 players sitting around cluttering up shelves and chest-of-drawer tops.

    Growing up, from 1962-1967 I survived off of one white GE AM clock radio.  My family had one TV and one telephone the four of us shared.  I rarely used the telephone, but spent hours with the TV and books. And I consider those years the golden years of life.  In 1968 I bought a stereo and Yashica twin lens 120mm camera which began my gadget addiction.  By the late 1970s I started buying home computers and all the junk that goes with them, plus I began the new addition of reading magazines about gadgets.  The crap has been piling up ever since and I’ve got an electronic monkey on my back.

    Do I really need all this crap? Does it make my life better? Is there a way to manage this addiction? I say manage because I don’t plan to give up using a computer, watching TV, playing music, using a phone, or listening to audio books on my iPod. I’m so tempted right now to buy a smart phone because of how cool my friend’s Treo 700w is. Laurie has one gadget that I need two to cover – a definite case of gadget envy. Three if you count the camera that I sometimes carry. Four, because roaming access to the Internet that I don’t have now at all, but would like.

    There is a struggle between what I really need and outright gadget addiction. The spirits of Buddha and Henry David Thoreau urge me to simplify my life, to seek inner harmony and withdraw from this crazy over-connected world. But my modern soul thrives on input and I constantly crave more data. Is there a middle way? One where I can maximize my philosophical growth and yet drink from the fire-hose of the Internet? On one hand I seek a monkish contemplative life with my books and on the other I want to use the Internet as a sixth sense and watch every sparrow that falls from the tree.

    What are my pure needs and how can I use technology wisely? How can I achieve simplicity of living but live in a world of fiber optic interconnection? We have seven technologies to master: telephones, computers, stereos, televisions, photography, video and games, although it really comes down to one, the digital computer. Theoretically, it might be possible to have a device that does everything, but I’m inclined to think I’ll need three: the personal handheld that goes everywhere, the general computer for each family member, and the entertainment center in the den for family and friends.

The Telephone

    The telephone is a marvelous invention that we can carry in our pocket and connect with anyone else in the world. It’s more basic and universal than the computer, and it’s no wonder that it has worldwide acceptance. I would never give it up. What would be the perfect phone be in concept? The obvious is it should have crystal clear voice communication and work anywhere from the depths of the ocean to the highest flying plane. After that, what should a phone be? You can already get phones that combine limited functions of the other six technologies, so does that make the iPhone the ideal phone?

    The concept of combining my cell phone and iPod Nano into one unit is very appealing since I carry both everywhere, but I’m not ready to buy an iPhone. I have a Motorola cell phone with a pay-as-you-go plan with no monthly bills. I upload $50 about twice a year to T-Mobile and that covers my cell phone usage. Switching to an iPhone might save pocket space but will decrease my wallet space by 8x. However, is spending more money on a gadget that brings six of the seven technologies together worth the monthly expense?

    How many of the seven essential techs are really needed in a palm size device? If I was stranded on a desert island I’d want them all.

    I’m meeting more and more people who have cancelled their home phones and switched completely to cell phones. My house alarm depends on my wired phone system, but I’ve heard they now have cell phones that can do the job too. Or I could kill off all the features from my AT&T service except a rotary dial line and devote it to the alarm. This would have the added bonus of stopping unsolicited phone calls. We’re already on the do-not-call registry, but there are an amazing number of charities and other organizations that are exempt.

    My wife objects to cancelling the home phone because cell phone reception isn’t that good at our house. That could improve, especially if Google gets to buy the current TV spectrum and use it for some super wireless network. Convergence is on its relentless way.

The Stereo

    Music has been vital nourishment for my soul since the late 1950s. Over the decades I’ve had many stereo systems. I’m not an audiophile, but I like a certain level of sound quality. I was moving toward Super Audio CD (SACD) technology when MP3 took over the music world. Coincidently, about the same time I was getting a 56″ HDTV, Apple was promoting the 2.5″ video iPod. The modern generation seems to be into small – and that’s cool. I’ve tested MP3 music enough to know that it is better quality than the stereo systems I had in the 1960s, or even the 1970s. MP3 is good enough technology.

    The burden of the past is maintaining legacy systems, and in this case, maintaining technology to play LPs and CDs. I have 1500-2000 CDs and LPs. Many of my LPs have never made it to CD, much less to iTunes and Rhapsody America. For example, I have a soundtrack, “On the Flip Side” to a 1966 TV show featuring Ricky Nelson, a teen idol from the 1950s who is probably totally unknown to the Brittany Spears generation. To maintain that music I must keep a turntable and stereo system, or convert it to MP3, and find some way to preserve those song files from being lost or corrupted for the rest of my life.

    What I really hate about giving up LPs is losing the 12″ square cover art. Boy, wouldn’t I love to find a website that has hi-rez images of all the great LPs to use for my desktop background. Scanning my LP covers would require getting a very large flatbed scanner – well beyond the practical, or set up a macro-photo stand and light for photographing the covers.

    I’ve hung onto many LPs for years but only play a couple every few years. I think I should just let go and give them away to some collector who still lives and breathes LPs. My inner Buddha tells me not to hang onto the past. And the present is Rhapsody America with tiny cover art and no liner notes. On the other hand, the present is Rhapsody America with instant access to millions of songs for $10 a month – unfortunately, Ricky Nelson, like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, are not available through Rhapsody, which shoots black holes in my life of subscription music simplicity.

    I can understand copyrights and not stealing, but I find it hard to understand why creative work that isn’t for sale, or hasn’t been for sale for decades, is protected. Is there a movement somewhere online to preserve all those forgotten LPs, including the covers and liner notes for the future? It’s a shame the system doesn’t allow the fans to digitize those old albums and upload them to Rhapsody music, and then allow the legal copyright watchdogs to set up accounting for Rhapsody to pay the original artists when the music is played.

    And it annoys me that Ricky Nelson “In Concert” is for sale on iTunes but not AmazonMP3, or as a CD on Amazon.com, or playable from Rhapsody America. Life and music should be simpler, and so should preserving the past.

The Television

    I love my 56″ Samsung DLP HD TV. Imagine combining all seven technologies through it? It would be great to have video conferencing with my old friends living in distant Miami or Australia. My TV can already be a giant screen to surf the net, play games, show photos and videos. But right now there is a good deal of complexity in doing all that. It’s complex enough that I have to set up things for my wife and all the remotes and wiring is annoying to me as well.

    The straw that broke my camel’s back was this morning when I was pricing external SATA drives to add to my cable box to get more disk space to save more TV shows on my DVR. I had to ask, what would Henry David Thoreau do? After his ghost told me to give away everything and build an 8×10 cabin in the woods, I decided to ask: what would I do? The first thing I told myself was to either watch the damn TV shows or stop recording them, but don’t buy any more crap to add to the entertainment center.

    That’s simple enough. The little red collector devil on my left shoulder whispered, “Psst, just record them to DVD+R disks.” Red has been pestering me to buy two DVD sets this week, The Complete Monterey Pop festival and Freaks and Geeks complete series. He wants to collect everything I ever loved. The fat Buddha on my right shoulder keeps pointing out the efficiency of Netflix and the virtue of non-ownership. Buddha-boy also keeps nagging me to give up my closet of old LPs and my turntable. He also wisely points out that my entertainment system doesn’t need two DVD players, and I could jettison the one that plays SACDs because Super Audio CDs never caught on and I only bought five of them. It’s too bad that my receiver/amp doesn’t come with a wireless media server built in so I could also junk the SoundBridge M1001.

    Once I start thinking that way, I begin to wonder just how many components I need in my entertainment center. The 56″ HDTV is a must. Ditto for the cable box/DVR. But what if Scientific Atlanta made a cable box with a Blue Ray/HD-DVD player/recorder built in that was compatible with all formats including SACD? What if it also had a built in amp for 5.1 surround sound? I’d go from TV + Receiver + 2 DVD players + turntable + Soundbridge + cable box/DVR to television plus superbox. I also be down to one remote, which would be fantastic. Comcast, are you listening?

The Computer

    I actually spend more time with the computer than any other technology or with any other human being for that matter. The brain is where our five senses come together to be processed by our conscious mind. The computer is where our technologies meet and our conscious mind uses it like a sixth sense to examine all of reality. It probably does deserve the time I devote to it, and although it keeps me from physically being with people, I know a lot more people through the computer than I know in real life. There is a philosophical balance there.

    Now, the question is how to build the ideal computer. Many people have come to love the laptop, but I find a large high resolution screen essential for my extended viewing of reality. I love photography, art and other recordings meant for the eyeballs and there’s nothing like a large screen for my personal art gallery or showing HD video. I currently have a 19″ widescreen LCD, but I’m planning to buy a 24″ replacement. 1920×1200 pixels allow the computer world and the HDTV world to intersect and overlap.

    The ideal CPU will have all the processing I need for as few watts of power as possible to help promote Green Living. It should be silent and cool and ultra-dependable.

    Next it needs great sound. I’m working on that. My desk is still cluttered with Bose bookshelf speakers and Sony AV receiver I use to play music from my computer. I’m just ordered Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 speakers to simplify that problem so I should get back a couple square feet of my desk’s top (I hate to say desktop since that might be confusing since the old word, desktop, has been hijacked by computer phraseology). The goal though is to process all the music digitally inside the CPU and play it with the highest fidelity speakers I can afford, yet be the smallest.

    My Canon MP600 copier/scanner/printer has already simplified things nicely in the paper related department, but I’d love to live in a world without paper and printing. The ideal future will be when I don’t have to scan anything in, print anything out, or copy anything at all. I wonder if that’s possible. My wife and I have inherited the family photos from our dead parents, so we have a heritage to preserve. Once those photos are digitized I don’t think I’ll need a scanner any more. I think I’ll package up the physical photos and give them to my sister who hates computers. That will free me of a lot of physical possessions and make my inner Buddha smile.

    I’m still burdened by those 1500-2000 LP and CDs. The thought of digitizing that much music is daunting. Rhapsody Music has become so easy to use that I rarely play CDs. If Rhapsody were to go bankrupt though, I’d want those CDs & LPs. Getting rid of 15 heavy boxes of physical music sure would make Henry David T happy.

The Camera

    I doubt they will ever make an iPhone type device with a camera I will like. I’ve played around with photography off and on throughout my life. When I was younger I had a darkroom and did black and white work. Later on I built a dark room for my wife and she did color printing. Digital cameras and Photoshop are absolute magic compared to those messy chemical days. I want a digital SLR like the Nikon I use at work, but if a cell phone had a 7 megapixel camera with 4x optical zoom and a quality lens, it would be very valuable to carry around all the time. I don’t know if technology can make a phone small and light enough and still be a worthwhile camera. The iPhone is nicely sized for showing off photographs, although I’m thinking a 4″ screen like on a iPAQ 200 would be better. A 4″ screen is also superior for GPS, data and e-Book reading.

    I currently want to get back into photography and that means carrying a camera around at all times. By today’s tech I would have a cell phone, iPod and camera. I’m quickly moving towards needing a purse. If I got a SLR with flash I’d need a backpack. The elegance of a handheld device that does everything is overwhelmingly attractive.

The Video Camera

    I don’t know if I need a video camera because I don’t take video now. However, I damn sure wished I had own one my whole life because my old brain just can’t remember things like it used to and it would be nice to see all the places and people I knew growing up. If a video camera could be added to my list of functions on my handheld device there might be times I would use it and save the results. That’s a whole new area to explore philosophically and intellectually. What does it mean to have such a well documented life?

The Game Machine

    I feel left out and old because I don’t play video games. My wife loves playing games on her laptop but doesn’t want an Xbox or Wii. I do wish I could play chess or Civilization, and sometimes think I should get into games as a way to exercise my aging synapses. Like video, games are another thing for me to think about in the future.


    Besides my addiction to gadgets, I have the weight of thousands, if not tens of thousands of albums, books, magazines, photos, DVDs, important papers and mementos to carry on my back as I march forward into old age. If I chose one object a day from my lifelong clutter to give up, I’d be dead before I could achieve Thoreau like living. Getting rid of 10 objects a day would probably allow me Zenplicity before I’m sixty. I’m fifty-five now, and choosing ten items a day to jettison from my collection would require real work. Having everything digitized is a wonderful dream, but I don’t think it will happen. To achieve at home Nirvana, I must reduce the number of gadgets I use, but also let go of the past, and just get rid of my junk. The real importance of having the right-minded technology is to improve your life and help others to improve life on Earth. Ultimately, it’s more important to study reality than play with gadgets, but realistically computers are far more powerful tools to do this exploring than any telescope or microscope.


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