Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Slightly Daunted Courage

So there we were, Lesley and I, smack in the middle of Kansas, when the Smartphone Wars began. (And let me tell you, there's nothing more middle than Kansas. It's about the most middle-est place one can imagine. It's even more middling than Nebraska, if that's possible.) Anyway, as we headed back from Dallas after a wonderful visit with Amy and Karl, our two phones began to squabble with one another.

I have an iPhone 5s, while Lesley has a Galaxy S5. As you would expect, these similarly named iOS and Android devices have the occasional spat, but this time it got out of hand.
The amazing story of the Lewis and
Clark expedition.
I was speaking with Siri (she gets me) about something, I forget what, when the Galaxy, which at the time was supposed to be giving driving directions and robotically humming to itself, apparently started listening to me asking Siri a question. "The Google Lady," as we call her, decided that she should participate in what had heretofore been a private conversation between Siri and myself. I must have said "Google" or some other magic word (Amazon? NSA?) that Lesley's phone picked up on, and suddenly it was a three-way conversationfour-way, once Lesley joined in.

In no time at all, both phones got totally confused, with Siri and The Google Lady spewing digital insults at one another and answering questions that neither Lesley nor I had meant to pose, with random back-chatter going on and our two devices talking smack, and God only knows what all was going to happen next. At one point, Lesley's phone decided to play hardball and began spewing Eminem at us, which I thought was very cruel and totally uncalled for. There seemed to be no way to get the Galaxy to stop playing Eminem short of throwing the phone out the car window, which I seriously considered doing. (It was Eminem, after all.)

Now, I bring this up because as we were driving to Texas and back (the return trip lasted approximately 327 hours) it dawned on me that we were carrying an awful lot of technology with us. There we were, skirting portions of both The Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark's route to the Pacific, and I kinda wanted to feel like a rough, self-sufficient explorer-type, ready to scale mountain ranges and cross the prairies using just my wits -- and perhaps a tin cup and a sheath knife. But we had in the car with us the two aforementioned smart phones (and I'm using the term "smart" very loosely here), two laptop computers, several converters and inverters, a Samsung Galaxy Tab Nook, and an iPad. (Not to mention the car itself, which is one of those newfangled contraptions with an onboard computer, but no carburetor and with the engine squeezed in sideways. I honestly don't see how the damned thing runs at all.) Lewis and Clark, meanwhile, actually carried quite a lot of stuff that was supposed to be useful, including a clock that turned out not to work very well, an air rifle that kept randomly shooting passers-by, and a folding boat that failed at every opportunity and to which the men began referring derisively as "the experiment." (The explorers also brought along some very harsh purgatives, which I imagine did work well, but I don't want to think about that.)

It was a memorable Thanksgiving, and wonderful to see "the kids," but from now on I will endeavor to stay out of spats between rival operating systems. I mean, Eminem! That's going pretty far. Who knows what The Google Lady might have started playing next! Kenny G.? Neil Diamond?! Honestly, the thought is terrifying.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The World Gets Smaller. And Flatter. And Angrier.

This is a technology blog, one that occasionally talks about writing, and even more occasionally about what's going on in my personal life—to the extent that anyone is interested in the latter. It's definitely not a political blog, and I generally stay out of the political fray; I have friends who are liberal and friends who are conservative, Republican friends and Democratic friends, and friends whose political leanings I've never learned because, frankly, I've never asked them. 

Yes, you should buy this book. (And my book too,
naturally. But this one especially.)

I do have my own opinions, of course, but at least on this blog, I try to stay away from the (often choleric) political discussions currently making the rounds. Not because I think it's unimportant; it's just not what this blog is about.

But technology has played a role in the election and in the debates that preceded (and in those which must inevitably follow) that election.

One of the things I'm seeing as a result of the recent election includes a definite technology component, and that’s the resurgence of this "America first" idea. I understand pride in our country, but I think that many of those who shout this are a bit tone deaf. They fail to hear in that slogan the strident echoes of the angry and often anti-Semitic voices of the 1930s—Charles Lindbergh’s among them—who fought FDR's every effort to prepare the country for what he saw as an inevitable conflict with Germany and to provide aid to Britain and France as they fought alone against the mightiest army the world had ever seen.

I admit that the idea of concentrating on solving our own issues has a certain appeal. We have problems here, after all; there is something to be said for wanting to take care of "our" problems first, before we provide aid for countries (even allied countries) around the world. For instance, consider that there are more than 8,000 homeless people just in Washington, DC. Almost half are parents and children. This is the seat of power of the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth, and yet its sidewalks and shelters are teeming with desperate people who . . . let's put this as plainly as possible . . . have nowhere to go. They have no place to live. The adults do not know how they're going to feed their children, and the children do not know where (or if) they’re going to sleep tonight.

Should we not address this before venturing out to help others around the world? And should we not similarly address our other issues here before spending money to help those in faraway countries?

But there are some problems with this argument, one of which is the simple fact that we are currently not addressing this issue (among many other issues we seem content to ignore). In fact, many of our policies are contributing to them. When we close mental institutions that could aid a large percentage of the homeless, we add to the problem. When we cut funding to clinics that provide birth control and other services for women, we contribute to the problem. When we close shelters for battered women . . .  Well, you get the idea. It would be one thing if we were in fact stepping up to confront these issues, but often we are not doing so.

Yep, buy this one too. Can't have too
many books, after all.
And then there’s that technology component. Our tools have flattened the world, as Thomas Friedman has noted. Like it or not, it truly is one world, and mainly that's because of technology. An insular and insulated existence became slightly less viable when that first caravan ventured across the deserts and when the very first ship sailed across an ocean, looking to trade spices for fabrics or iron for wood or steel plows for animal skins. When the telegraph arrived, the world became just a little flatter. And then radio flattened it some more. And the same when other technologies came along and were brought to bear on our trade, our communications, and our infrastructure: telephone, television, film, the automobile, the airplane, computers, the Internet, and on and on. 

By now, like it or not, the entire world is interconnected and interdependent. My "American" truck is made largely of parts from Germany and France. Some of it was assembled in Mexico, and the leather used in its seats came from Brazil. The user's manual in the glove compartment was printed in Canada. The sales infrastructure is the only truly American thing about it. (And even there, my so-called American car company has branches and dealerships around the world.)

The computer on which I'm typing this was made by a Taiwanese company. But that company has manufacturing facilities in mainland China, Mexico, and the Czech Republic. It has a worldwide sales force, and its computers include processors made by "American" companies. (But those processors, too, are made all over the world and were perhaps sent to China by way of a Dutch shipping line, traveling packed in corrugated cardboard made mostly in the American Southeast.) 

The thing is, for a variety of reasons—many of them technological and/or economic—it’s no longer possible to differentiate oneself from the "rest of the world." We ARE the rest of the world. What we do here affects markets in Spain and farmers in New Zealand. What happens in France affects investments in Northern California. A work slowdown in South Africa means that an American grocery chain's profits drop. A tumultuous election in the U.S. affects markets around the world. Simply put, everything we do is connected to everything that everyone else does, and this has been the case for some time. (It’s part of the natural order of things. As John Muir said about nature: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”)

Would you like to change that? Would you like to withdraw from the world? Disengage? Unravel the fabric that connects us? I think some people would, maybe because it's easy to equate less interconnectedness with a simpler, "purer" way of life, a time back before things got so complicated, a time when America could concentrate on its own growth and its own strength. And believe me, I long for a simpler time—if ever there really was one.

But it can't be done. Among (many) other things, attempting to do so would trash the world's economies, including our own. There is no way to extricate ourselves from the vast and interconnected marketplace that the world has become. That would be the same thing as attempting to de-technologize, and that's exactly what it would require. We would have to actively work to sever those connections: political, technological, and economic. We would find ourselves living in a new Middle Ages: dirty, cold, and alone, hungry and desperate, trying to scrape by in what William Manchester described as “a world lit only by fire.”

We can complain about "unprotected borders" all we want, but the fact is that borders have become more and more porous and less and less meaningful as technology and economic interdependence have worked to flatten the world. They're artificial constructs, after all; they served a purpose, certainly, but they may simply no longer be as important, as effective, as real. From space, one can see no borders, just a world. Our one world. The one on which we must learn to live in something approaching harmony.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Fashion Jackson: The Tale Of A Digital Entrepeneur

We received a call from our daughter Amy last weekend with some exciting (though not all that unexpected) news. Her fashion blog (Fashion Jackson), on which she's been working for a few years now, has attracted enough attention that it has now become her full-time job. She resigned her corporate gig, and is now working full time on the blog. She had monetized Fashion Jackson long ago, and it has been picking up steam ever since; she's now at the point where she can make a living by sharing her incredible fashion sense online and by using her blog to help other companies market their wares, generally clothing and accessories—all of which are gorgeous, as is Amy herself. (And that right there, by the way, is everything I know about fashion. As you can tell by looking at me.)

Amy, looking all beautiful and fashionable
and such. (Photo by Karl Mayer)
Lesley and I responded as I suppose parents would typically respond to such news: We were simultaneously proud, excited, and fearful. After all, we were raised in an environment in which we recalled our parents and other adult role models having worked for decades for one company, only to retire after 30 or 40 years with the obligatory gold (probably plated) watch. Our generation, the baby boomers, was a transitional one; it was much rarer that we worked that long for one company. I have worked for several companies, after all, and in fact have had more than one career. But still, we worked at what we thought of as "real jobs," meaning that most of us sat in Dilbertian cubicles working for corporate overlords of one stripe or another. (And don't get me wrong: We wereand still are, for the most parthappy to do it. It's what we were raised to do, most of us. For us, this is what constitutes "normal.")

But the newest generation of workers, the millennials, they look at work differently. They think nothing of switching jobs much more often than we did, and they're not at all afraid to strike out in new directions. Neither they nor the more informed of today's employers believe that one must stick to a job for 20 or 30 years. Some do, of course, but employers nowadays understand that if a worker is unhappy, not challenged, receives a tempting offer, or simply feels that it's time to move on to something new, that person will pull up stakes andall other things being equalthis does not in and of itself make him or her a bad employee.

But what really strikes me about Amy's move (other than the fact that we're very proud of the talented, intelligent, articulate, and hard-working young woman that she's become) is the technology involved. (You knew I'd get around to technology eventually, right?)

Amy's Fashion Jackson site. You should visit. And you
should buy stuff, so that Amy can afford to take care of us in
our old age, which is rapidly approaching.
Amy is making a living running a blog, for God's sake! Something that did not exist when I was her age. The blog (or website; the line between the two is sometimes blurred) is delivered via the Internet, which also did not exist (at least, not in its present form) when I was her age. The photos that her boyfriend Karl shoots for the blog (he's an incredibly talented photographer and designer) are taken on digital cameras, which (you guessed it) did not exist when I was her age. She's become an expert at marketing clothing and accessories sold by very fashionable companies, many of which also did not exist when I was her age. (Of course, to be fair, I'm old enough that very little existed when I was her age. The world was mostly stone and rock. The continents had only recently broken apart. Keith Richards was a teenager.)

In the end, we're both proud and a little befuddled. Even as something of a techie, it shocks me a little to see people (Amy is far from the only one) making a living by utilizing technologies that I still view as somewhat magical. But they're not magic; they're just tools. And back in the day, I suppose the old folks stared in awe, trembling fearfully at their first sight of a pencil.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Workin' for the good stuff!

I really need to learn how to turn down work. Or maybe just budget my time a bit better. Right now I find myself buried beneath a mountain of tasks, all of them vying for my time: First, of course, there's my actual jobthe one that pays the bills! (And about which I really can't complain. Good people, interesting work, decent boss. So it deserves my full attention during the work week. And there are those bills, after all.) Then there's the writing course I teach at Southeast Community College. And, since I'm preparing to teach an online course next quarter, I'm also taking a course on how to teach an online course. (Yes, the course I'm taking to learn how to teach an online course is itself an online course. Of course!)

This past weekend I delivered an address to the annual APCUG conference in Las Vegas. It was a remote presentation using Zoom, a tool I had never used but which I highly recommend. Very slick, very powerful, very intuitive. The address went well, and it was fun reconnecting with some of the folks that I used to visit back when I was the editor of Smart Computing. The prep work to put together the presentation took several hours, but it was worth it: it was fun and useful, it was a good learning experience for me, and it was a good opportunity to plug the new book. (I may be able to provide a link to the presentation, assuming that the APCUG tech guyJohn Kennedy, who was both incredibly helpful and extremely patientrecorded it.)

Yeah, the good stuff! Now we're talkin'. Maybe we'll
even get a cat!
Then there are the freelance editing gigs. I really wasn't looking for those (yet), but I didn't want to turn them down. A new publisher contacted me (yes, it all boils down to networking, past contacts and friends, etc.) with the first of what promised to be several jobs, perhaps even an ongoing relationship. Since I'm planning to retire soon (in exactly 193 days, as it happensnot that I'm counting, of course), I was hoping to continue doing the occasional (or even regular) freelance editing or writing job, so that after retirement Lesley and I can afford to eat the good cat food; you know, the canned stuff, rather than the generic store-brand kitty kibble. Anyway, those jobs kept coming, and the publisher pulled me off of an initial project to jump on a time-sensitive second one, and then a third. I'm about to finish that off and get back to the original job, unless I get pulled off again. But hey, this is what you need when you're going to retire but still require A) a revenue stream and B) something to keep your brain active, learning, and engaged.
Nature's perfect food.
Anyway, I'm hoping things calm down a bit. I miss hanging out on the porch with Lesley and Annie. Maybe we could even go to a movie or something. (Me and Lesley. Not Annie. Annie would spend the entire movie scouring the theater for spare bits of popcorn and licking up Thin Mints and God only knows what else.)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Student Writing: "The Prisoner"

Teaching writing is hard work, but it's also enjoyable and rewarding, and almost always a learning experience in itself. It's wonderful to witness students realizing that language is a tool, one they can learn to master, and that once mastered, it can be used to powerful effect.

Illuminations is the Southeast Community
College magazine of literature and the
arts. This student essay is reprinted with
permission of the author and of the
And sometimes along the way, we teachers encounter a student who loves and respects the language, who is willing to work hard, and who learns to wield the language with both tenderness and ferocity.

This is one of those. Donna is a strong writer and a wonderful person; a former student of mine, I'm now proud to call her a friend.

Compared to the length of my usual posts, this is a bit of a long read, but it's a worthwhile one.

The Prisoner
By Donna Salas

It was a beautiful October afternoon in my small home town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The weather was warm and inviting—as if fall had forgotten to be cold and gloomy, had an identity crisis, and wanted to be spring for a day. The trees had started their annual art crawl across the city, painting its neighborhoods with splashes of red, gold, orange, and yellow. Even the trees that had completely shed their leaves added a beautiful nakedness to the landscape. The seasons were on the cusp of that beautiful blending that happens as spring slides into fall. It was the time when the earth started to settle in for a long, cold nap, and Mother Nature started to slow life down. It was on this beautiful and perfect day that he decided to settle in, too. He couldn’t have picked a more perfect day to die.

I woke up early in the small apartment in the basement of my parents’ house. I showered quickly, threw on jeans and a t-shirt, and raced upstairs. My mom stood in the kitchen, her back to me, making tortillas. The smell filled my nostrils and woke my stomach, stirring it to growl. She turned toward the stove to flip a tortilla. I could tell she had been awake for hours already. “How’s he doing this morning?” I asked my mom as I kissed her cheek. She looked tired and worn out. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail; small frayed ends of hair framed her face and stood out like fragile wisps at her temples.

“He had a rough night. Didn’t get much sleep,” she said and turned back to the counter to start rolling another piece of masa. I poured myself a cup of coffee and headed out of the kitchen toward his bedroom at the front of the house. I suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore.

His light was on, and the door was open. His TV was on the Spanish channel Telemundo, but the sound was turned down to a muted muffle. His oxygen tank breathed in and out in a raspy hiss like an aggravated cat by his bedside. The police scanner buzzed and beeped on the night stand; disembodied voices broke through speaking in code every now and then. His eyes lit up when I walked in the room.

“Good morning, Dad. How’d you sleep?”

He smiled and said in his most serious voice, “With my eyes closed.”

We both giggled. This was a running joke we said every morning to each other. I kissed his cheek and sat in the big red recliner at the end of his bed.

We made small talk. How’s work? How’s the truck running? (I had been having belt issues with my truck, and he had walked me through changing the belts and setting the timing over the phone.) We talked about everything except his illness. I didn’t ask how he was feeling because I could see how he was feeling. I knew he was in pain every waking second. His body had swelled to twice its normal size. He was an athletic man of 5’9” and about 250 pounds. I remember thinking, “My daddy is the toughest, strongest man alive. Nothing can defeat him.” I could have never in my life believed that he’d be done in by a 12-ounce aluminum can of beer. Now here he sat, his body so swollen that he couldn’t move or walk; he literally could not lift the weight of his own leg. All he could move were his arms and head.

We talked briefly about nothing special when I asked what time it was. I had to leave for work soon. He told me I had about ten minutes until I had to leave. He fell silent at those words. A melancholy fell on him, and he suddenly looked so sad. I pretended not to notice; I refilled his coffee and kissed his cheek. “OK, Dad, I gotta go. I love you, and I’ll see you after work.”

He looked straight ahead, a blank stare filling his eyes, and said, “OK. I love you, too, mija.” He said these words to the nothingness outside the bedroom window, not making eye contact with me. I knew deep in my soul that something was wrong. He didn’t say “I’ll see you later” back.

I worked an uneventful eight-hour day. For some reason, I decided not to call home at lunch like I normally did. I know now I was scared that I would get bad news. I would call, and Mom would have to tell me that he had taken a turn for the worse, and I should get home now! I had told my mom that if she needed to get a hold of me during the day to call my boss’s office phone, and she would come get me. But as my day progressed and Marilyn never came out of her office to get me, I began to think my fears of that morning were just paranoia. Maybe I was overreacting.

3:30 p.m.—I had made it! I’d worked all day and had no word from Mom. As I walked confidently through the parking lot toward my Toyota pickup, I thought about stopping by the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread and other odds and ends to get me through the week. I had my hand on the handle of the truck door when Marilyn came running out of the building.

“Donna! Your mom just called. She said you need to get home now!” My stomach tightened, and my throat closed. For a moment, I just stood there trying to process her words. It was almost like they had been said to me in a foreign language that I knew only the curse words to. The ten-minute drive home seemed to take an hour. I don’t remember much about the drive, but I remember thinking, Please let it be something stupid, like, “Get home now! Your dog made a mess in the basement.”

When I finally pulled in the drive, I noticed my Aunt Cathy’s car parked in the street. Nothing unusual there—she would often come and spend the whole day with my dad. My grandmother had moved in when dad got sick, so my aunt would come over and visit her, too. My aunt and my dad were as close as a brother and sister could be, and there was no place in the world she would rather be than with her baby brother. They shared a birthday, and twelve years later, just a week short of my dad, they also shared their final breath.

What was out of place was Andrea’s old maroon Toyota Camry parked outside. Andrea was a good friend of the family, and I’d known her my whole life. She was also a hospice nurse and had been assigned to us when my dad was put on hospice two months ago. She had been to the house only a few times during the day to help Mom bathe Dad in his bed since he couldn’t get out of it and to change a dressing on his leg when he came down with thrush. Most of the time, she was there was as a friend. This was not good.

I ran into the house through the front door since that was closest to his room. He was laying in his bed, his arms folded on his chest; the fleece blanket Mom had made him a few years ago for Christmas covered his bloated body. We had bought him a hospital bed a few weeks ago, and it took up so much of the room that we had to put it in at an angle, covering up the closet door. My aunt stood on his left, my grandmother was at the foot of the bed, and my mom was standing on his right. I pushed my way into his cramped room and took my mom’s place on his right. I took his hand; it felt cold and still. I scanned the room looking from face to face and saw that everyone looked worried. “I think it’s time, mija,” my mom said as she put her hand on my shoulder.

“Did anybody call Adrian?” I asked, just then noticing that my brother wasn’t there. He would be crushed if he couldn’t be there. He would never forgive us! Looking back now, I know that a small part of me didn’t want him there. I felt that if he wasn’t there, then Dad would not leave. It was a childish wish. My aunt nodded and said he was on his way. Dad’s breathing was so shallow it was almost non-existent. We stood watching him sleep, nobody ready to cry just yet.

Adrian finally ran into the room and took up post on the left side where Cathy had been standing. He took Dad’s other hand. We looked at each other, and a quiet understanding passed between us. We both leaned in at the same time and whispered in his ear, “It’s OK, Dad. You can go now. We’ll be OK.” A silence fell over the room, like someone had sucked the air out of it and we stood in a vacuum. A clock ticked somewhere, and the angry cat hissed in and out on the nightstand. Then, like that, he was gone. We all just looked at each other. Andrea came into the room and checked his pulse and looked for a heartbeat. She shook her head and said he had gone home. And just like that, on a beautiful fall day in October, my dad went to the clearing at the end of the path.

The most profound heaviness fell on me, and I ran out to the front porch and wailed. I cried like I had never cried before. The weight of my grief fell on me like a 20-ton cement block, and I collapsed to the floor. I felt paralyzed and numb from head to toe. My girlfriend scooped me into her arms and carried me into the living room. People all around me were in different stages of sorrow. My brother was in shock and just sat at the dining room table. My mother and Aunt Cathy were holding my grandmother. I went to her and hugged her. I began to cry again. I told her I was sorry that she had to see this. I was sorry she had to watch another son die. No mother wants to see her children suffer or feel sad, but deep down, all parents are selfish and hope to pass away before their children. In the end, nobody wants to lose someone they love and would do anything to not have to feel that pain.

Someone called hospice, someone called my Aunt Joanne, and someone called the rest of the family. I had moved to the back yard with my girlfriend and my brother. He had called his wife, and she was there, too. We began to tell stories about how funny Dad was, and we started to laugh. Our laughter floated into the house, and before I knew it, everybody was outside. One by one, we each told a story, and our tears of sorrow were replaced by tears of joy.

The funeral home had come to take Dad, and they waited with us for over an hour until the last of the family could see him. Family and friends came and went for the remainder of the evening, and by 9:00, we had said goodbye to the last of the visitors. It was just Mom, Grandma, my girlfriend, and me. We stripped his bed and cleared all his medication from his room. We cleaned that room until it was spotless. The hiss of his oxygen machine had been silenced. The TV had been shut off hours ago, along with his police scanner. There was a sense of peace now, like the weight of his sickness had made the room sick, too, and now it was healed.

It had been an exhausting day, and I was surprised to find myself yawning. We were all drained and needed a good night’s sleep. I said goodnight to my mom and grandmother and went with my girlfriend down to the basement apartment. As we lay in bed, she asked me if I was OK. I laughed and said, “Not really—my dad just died,” but I was going to be OK.

I rolled over and looked at her. “I never thought it would be like this. You prepare and prepare, but when the time comes to say goodbye, you’re never really ready. It hurts like hell that he’s gone. It hurts so deep in my soul that I am forever changed—forever. But I also feel this sense of relief that it’s finally over. I’ve lived on edge for months now. I’m not afraid of the telephone ringing anymore. I don’t have to worry about getting THAT call.”

She stroked my arm. I could see the tears running down her face. “But you know what else I feel? I feel honored to have been there. I felt dignity come back to him. He isn’t this sick person that can’t take care of himself anymore. He is a whole man again. He’s not trapped in that body filled with disease and pain.”

I began to cry again, but these were tears of joy. My dad was free, and I didn’t have to worry about him anymore. He wasn’t in pain, and he wasn’t scared! Death had given him his pride back and taken him out of a world of pain and shame. The cell doors had been opened, and he was free from that prison of a body. Death had given him freedom, and because of that, I was happy to let him go.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

"Attending" APCUG

I'm not much of a joiner, and have never really been into club membership. (And besides, as Groucho Marx is reputed to have said when resigning from the prestigious Friars' Club, "I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members." Back when I was editing Smart Computing magazine, I did try to start a motorcycle gang. It was going to be called "Hell's Editors," but the plan came to grief when no one could agree on the placement of a semicolon in what was to have been our Mission Statement.) 

Clubs and organizations do serve a purpose, of course; for us technophiles, they provide an opportunity to discuss, learn about, share, and commiserate regarding new technologies. Hence, the computer club: a place for hobbyists and technologists and just plain old users to get together and share information and advice. (Drinks may occasionally be served, but usually only at the post-meeting meeting.)

Gordon French, one of the cofounders of the Homebrew
Computer Club. This photo was taken in 2013. Photo used
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Unported license.
Among the earliest of such clubs was the Homebrew Computer Club, a Silicon Valley hobbyist group that met from 1975 through 1986. (Fittingly, the first meeting was held in a club founder's garage.)

The HCC was an informal gathering of what would prove to be many of the industry's future movers and shakers, including engineer Lee Felsenstein (the designer of the Osborne 1 microcomputer), activist Fred Moore, Paul Terrill (who would go on to open The Byte Shop, an early computer retailer), and Roger Melen, the future cofounder of Cromemco, an early microcomputer company. Steve Wozniak was a member, and Woz has said that the first meeting of the club (at which was displayed the first MITS Altair microcomputer) inspired him to design what would become the Apple I.

So, computer clubs have a long and storied history, although membership seems to be declining now. Perhaps as a technology becomes more familiar and more integrated into the fabric of our everyday lives, the perceived need for special gatherings to explain, popularize, and celebrate the technology is diminished. You never hear of a light bulb club, these days, or an indoor toilet club. (If there happens to be one of the latter, I really don't want to know about it.)

Clubs do remain, of course, often more and more specialized. There are clubs for computer "modders," for instance: hobbyists who modify or enhance their computers to make them faster, quieter, cooler, or simply more aesthetically appealing. (Check out CPU Magazine for some great info on modders and modding, and also to learn more about high-powered computers and gaming in general.)

But organizations aimed at general users (rather than at specialized practitioners of the modding arts) do still exist. The grandfather of those clubs is APCUG, the Association of Personal Computer User Groups, an international group that holds its annual meeting in Las Vegas. APCUG isn't really a "computer club" so much as a consortium of computer clubs, an umbrella organization that has spent the past 30 years encouraging communications among computer-oriented user groups.

I have been privileged in the past to attend the APCUG convention, sometimes just wandering the floor, sometimes manning the Smart Computing booth. In either case, it was always fun to meet with readers, attend presentations, and check in with the many clubs whose members supported the magazine and who seemed to genuinely enjoy talking, learning, and teaching about computers.

And, as luck would have it, I'm about to "attend" the convention once again! Sort of. I'm scheduled to give a remote presentation on some of the tech topics in my book. (The book is called Leveling the Playing Field. I may have mentioned it once or twice.) So, come Saturday, October 22nd, I'll be hunkered down in my little basement office in Nebraska using some of that incredible technology to beam my face and my words to what I'm sure will be throngs of enraptured attendees in Las Vegas, many of whom will no doubt be nursing tremendous hangovers, because . . . hey, it's Las  Vegas!  

Saturday, October 01, 2016

We Have A Winner!!

Aaaaannnnnd we have a winnner! Woo-hoo!

But first, in a blatantly obvious attempt to ramp up the suspense just a bit, let me start by thanking everyone who entered. There were some awesome photos of people reading and posing with their copies of Leveling the Playing Field, and some even awesomer shots of various pets reading . . . well, someone's copy of the book. (I'm almost positive that Roxy-the-Dachshund, being a bit spoiled, has her very own Amazon Prime account, so I'd imagine she ordered her own copy. And also a new Macbook Pro, because she's very tired of trying to surf the web on that antiquated Dell of hers.)

"I bought this book, but I . . . I just realized . . . I don't have any
! Mom! Come open this book for me!"
There were also a number of people who garnered additional entries by sharing my original contest announcement, thereby spreading the word even more. That was greatly appreciated, of course; my ace marketing department informs me that spreading the word is key. (My ace marketing department also informs me that I've been loading the dishwasher incorrectly.)

All in all, it was a well-received contest with lots of entries and quite a bit of buzzand most of all, a lot of people had a lot fun. Fun is always good.

We chose the winner by throwing all of the names up into the air and then trying to decide which person was most likely to invite us out to visit them when we're vacationing in our travel trailer.

No, that's not what we did! My ace marketing department wrote each name down on a Post-it (multiple Post-its for those who had multiple entries) and then shuffled them around while making chanting noises. We then wrote numbers on the back of each Post-it, and I wrote a very sophisticated program to generate a random number between 1 and the total number of entries. 

Well, not really. I just said, "Hey, Siri! Generate a random number between 1 and X." So Siri, being Siri, said, "Hmmm… Let me check on that," and displayed a list of Wikipedia articles about the history of mathematics, a Quora discussion on the nature of randomness, and 37 movie titles, including Random Encounters (2013), Random Acts of Violence (2012), and The Random Factor (1995). (And also an article about malware making its way onto the Google Play store. Not sure how that got in there.)

Brian Wilcox and his prized possession. Also,
he has a book.
When Siri did eventually spit out a random number (OK, so technically it was a pseudo-random number), it turned out to be Post-it #6! So, there you go! Our lucky winner is #6!! We certainly hope that #6 enjoys his or her $50 gift certificate to either Amaz . . . 

Wait . . . I'm being told that we can't give the prize to a number. It has to go to an actual person represented by that number. Sheesh. Man, I didn't realize this was going to be so complicated!! OK, so it turns out that Post-it #6 belonged to Brian Wilcox, of Huntington Beach, CA. We'll get in touch with Brian (or his representative, whose name, we're almost positive, is Alison) and mail him/them a $50 gift certificate for either Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble, his choice.

Stay tunedI'm sure there will be more contests in the near future! In the meantime, keep in mind that the holiday season is approaching, so you'll want to have on hand as many copies of Leveling the Playing Field as possible. Because what could possibly make a more thoughtful and heartwarming gift than a book?! I'm almost positive that you can get a discount when you buy them by the case.