Feb 21

Taming the beast

Virgil isn’t the only one trying to tame the e-mail beast. 43 Folders recently posted a list of five e-mail productivity tips. One of them is to stop trying to make e-mails into literary masterpieces, and instead just bang out something that gets the message across. That’s definitely advice I need to hear. I know perfectionism is a debilitating disease, but I never expected to find it lurking in my in-box.

Feb 21

The ultimate Palm

The PalmPilot and its descendants have been around for almost a decade, but some people still aren’t convinced that they need one. Now there’s a Palm that will overcome their objections. The PaperPalm costs only five dollars, doesn’t require batteries, and can be dropped on a hard floor without breaking. There’s no software to install, and no learning curve. You don’t even need to use Graffiti — it can process your natural handwriting without error. But you may have to sharpen the stylus first.

Jan 03

My paradise

Tourists in Germany can now visit a tropical island only 50 kilometers from Berlin. Well, technically, it’s not really an island, but it has a beach, a lagoon, a rain forest, and a tropical village (just look at the pictures). And the weather is always nice, because the whole thing is under a dome.

Sep 30

Don’t say anything

I like computers and electronic gadgets, so I’m usually pretty receptive to innovative new high-tech products. But occasionally I run across one that just makes me scratch my head and ask, “Why?” For example, it’s not clear to me why I would want a talking first aid kit — especially if it costs $150.
I see that the same company sells “Intelligent First Aid Kits” that don’t talk (and are much cheaper). That makes sense, actually. Sometimes intelligence means knowing when to shut up.

Sep 29

Need a light?

Does your computer have a cigarette lighter? No? Well, for heaven’s sake, get busy and install one. What do you mean, you don’t smoke? Use it to plug in the car charger for your cellphone. Do I have to spell everything out for you?

Sep 23

A bright idea

Energizer has just unveiled an omnivorous flashlight: one that can use multiple types of batteries. An AP article reports that “the Quick Switch takes two C, D or AA batteries and works by merely adjusting a switch to the proper cell size, automatically locking the batteries into place.” If you ask me, the ultimate flashlight is the NightStar, which requires no batteries at all — but the NightStar is expensive ($39.95). The Quick Switch sells for $9.99 to $12.99, so it’s much more affordable.
I think I will buy one just so that I can finally use up my C batteries, which are currently gathering dust. Almost nothing uses C batteries anymore. (I don’t recall what device I originally bought my Cs for — but it must have died shortly after that, leaving me with a stockpile of batteries that I can’t use.) But the biggest advantage of the Quick Switch may be that, in a pinch, you can raid almost any gadget in your house for batteries to power your flashlight. That ability could be a godsend during a power outage.

May 19

It’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it

In nearly three decades of playing and working with computers, I thought I had experienced just about every way in which they can malfunction, from hard disk failures and faulty power switches (my Gateway Essential 550 did both of those) to chronic operating system instability (Windows 98, I’m looking at you). I’ve even dropped a Palm on a hard floor and heard the sickening tinkle of glass as its screen shattered. But my office computer surprised me today with a new variety of disaster.
Remember what happens on Star Trek when a decloaking Romulan ship attacks, or an overlooked gravitic mine detonates nearby? Sparks fly from the consoles on the bridge, and the air fills with smoke. It was like that. Well, okay, not quite that spectacular — but the computer gave off a bright flash and the snapping sound of an electric arc. As the air filled with the pungent smell of ozone, the computer went dead. Something had shorted out in the power supply, and now I had a rectangular beige doorstop. This computer is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker — hang on, IBM is its maker. Well, anyway, it’s definitely an ex-computer.
My coworker in the next office submitted a repair request on my behalf (that’s normally done online, so I was certainly in no position to do it). The “doctor” will come to my office tomorrow morning, but we know the patient is dead and can’t be resurrected. The best prospect is a brain transplant; he’ll bring another computer with him (actually, I think his hunchbacked assistant will be carrying it) and will attempt to swap the hard disks, then channel a bolt of lightning through the lifeless body. (Isn’t that what happens when you turn on the switch?) The result will be a kind of zombie version of my computer, which will shuffle around the office making incoherent noises until a mob of my coworkers gathers, brandishing pitchforks and torches, and . . .
Sorry. Anyhow, the deceased computer should be either repaired or replaced tomorrow.

Jun 17

Success story

Tonight I attended the June meeting of TAPIT, the Palm user group that I belong to. One of the people there thanked me for telling her about the Palm program I use to keep track of Weight Watchers points. She said that, thanks to me, she has lost thirty-six and a half pounds over the last year. Of course I don’t deserve the credit for her achievement; I’ve told numerous people how I accomplished my own weight loss, but few of them have been inspired to follow my example. Still, I’m delighted to hear that I was able to help. It’s nice to learn, once in a while, that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.

May 08


I was shopping in Wal-Mart recently (looking for a Mother’s Day card and some cardstock for printing a board game), when I heard a baby crying. That’s not unusual in a place like Wal-Mart, but it got my attention for two reasons. First, this baby was really howling — not like it was in pain, but seriously cranky. And second, the crying sounded slightly odd, in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. After a few minutes, I decided to follow the sound and find out where it was coming from.

 The source turned out to be a young woman — a teenager, really — in the handbags and accessories department. Sure enough, she had a baby, and she was briskly patting and rubbing its back, trying to get it to quiet down. Then I looked closer and saw that it wasn’t a real baby. It was a life-size infant mannequin. The crying had sounded odd because it was artificial — a digitized recording of some kind. This clearly wasn’t any sort of doll; it was a robot baby. And the girl caring for it wasn’t playing. She seemed quite serious about what she was doing.

 I didn’t want to stand there and stare, so I walked on. But as I continued shopping, I kept trying to figure out what I had seen. Where did that robot baby come from, and why was she carrying it around in Wal-Mart? As I left the store, I noticed that she was sitting on a bench just inside the front door, feeding her “child” from a bottle. I got half a dozen steps into the parking lot, and realized that I couldn’t leave without finding out what was going on. Retracing my steps, I approached the young woman and said, “Excuse me, but I’m curious about your baby. Can you tell me what it is?”

 She smiled and explained that she was participating in a Baby Think It Over class, designed to give teenagers a taste of what it’s like to be a parent. The “infant” was a RealCare Baby infant simulator. The baby is programmed to need feeding, changing, and so forth at unpredictable intervals, and records how well you care for it, so you can’t just leave it in the trunk of your car while you go shopping; you actually have to carry it around with you, just like a real baby. (That’s why she had it in Wal-Mart.) The student has to wear an wristband with an identifying disc that fits into a recess on the baby’s back. This is to ensure that the student actually cares for the baby personally, instead of palming it off on someone else. When I saw her patting the baby’s back, she was also inserting her ID in the recess so the baby would recognize her.

 I had no idea this technology existed, but it sure strikes me as a good idea. Any new parent can tell you that you can’t really know what you’re getting into before you’re confronted with the reality of a baby that you are responsible for, twenty-four hours a day. I see that the RealCare Baby comes with an operating handbook for the instructor, but none for the “parent.” Just like the real thing.