Posts Tagged ‘technology’

Trying to figure out the new cell phone

November 11, 2011

Often, I’ll write about being flummoxed by new technology.

When I first started this blog over three years ago, I wrote that one of the slots on the side of my laptop must be malfunctioning because twenties were not flowing out, like is supposed to happen when you have a blog.

When I discovered Wikipedia, I thought it was an online shopping site. I tried to buy three Christmas presents for my uncles there: Flucindole, a never-marketed antipsychotic drug; an Australian Wood Duck; and a Chartered Economic Analyst (ChEA).

I’ve told of the time I mistakenly recited my fast-food order into a trash can that I thought was the speakerbox interface to the order-taker.

“Ha, ha,” as we say in the humor business. “Very funny.”

Today, that is not my theme, although you’d think it would be considering that I bought a new cell phone on Monday. Today, I get to describe my mastery over at least a small sliver of the Digital World.

My old phone was so ancient that Motorola was still a respected producer of handheld sets at the time it was made. I had the Razr, a state-of-the-art device for about a month back in 2005. It had all the latest features, including a camera, internet access and text messaging. Some telecommunications analysts were even reporting you could make phone calls on it.

What I fell in love with was the text messaging. No more phone calls. No more “Hi, how are you?”, “Fine, how are you?”, “Fine. How’s the wife and kids?”, “They’re fine. How about your family?”. Now, telephonic communication could be done in a direct, efficient, soulless manner.

And the bonus was, you got to typeset. I love typesetting, as my 35-year career in the business can attest. Now I could do it anywhere.

The problem with the Razr is that it has one of those old-fashioned keypads with three or four letters to a key, so to type something like the word “feces,” you had to punch different buttons 35 times, complete with occasional pauses. I might like typing and I might like the word “feces,” but that amount of time and effort was ridiculous. The more I got into text messaging, the more I realized I needed one of those slide-out QWERTY keyboards.

When we went to the local wireless provider, my wife and son helped me consider the dozens of sets on display. My primary criteria were that my new phone have a user-friendly keyboard and be less than $100, after mail-in rebate, with a two-year contract renewal, today only. Because I have a heavy swipe finger, I also would’ve chosen to avoid touch-screen technology if that were possible, but apparently it is not.

We settled pretty quickly on the Pantech Ease. Pantech is a South Korean company that has a long tradition in the telecommunications industry, going back to at least April. The Ease is one of their most popular models.

I cracked open both the phone and the Quick Start Guide as soon as I got home, and started noodling around with the features. A certain long-tenured female in my family believed that I should read the 200-page User Guide cover-to-cover (including the last half, which was upside down and written in Spanish) to figure out how it worked. I made a different choice, and basically just started pushing random buttons.

I looked occasionally at the one-sheet overview and for some reason, a certain phrase caught my eye.

“Ease is about options. You can get quick access to the features you need in easy-to-use, easy-to-read Easy Mode,” read one paragraph. My son noticed all these “easy” references too, and made a succinct observation.

“What you’ve got there, Dad, is one step up from a Jitterbug,” he said. I think he’s probably right.

Reading further, we saw other clues that confirmed this suspicion. In a segment on mobile email, the sample address is “silverfox2″. The Cool Tools section describes how to use the “pill reminder,” a kind of alarm to prompt you to remember your heart medicine. This feature even comes with a “snooze feature” to give you an extra 15 minutes in case you’ve already passed out from your bout with angina. A box describing the available accessories called the Velcro belt-attached carrying case “fashionable.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t take me a while to master the Ease’s rather limited offerings. I’ve spent the last 24 hours puzzling through the different screens and have figured out how to send a text, how to text a picture, how to shoot video and how to send an email from my phone to my office. With an attachment. I think that’s pretty impressive.

My studies haven’t come without some trial and error. I wanted to see if I could receive video, so I asked my son to make a short film of what our three cats were up to yesterday morning and send it to me at work. It came through loud and clear. Too loud, in fact, as I couldn’t find the volume button and when I did it wasn’t very responsive.

“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” rang a high-pitched chant audible throughout the department.

“What’s that?” snapped Regina over in customer service. “There better not be a cat in here.”

When I woke up at 4 a.m. earlier that morning to get ready for work, I grabbed the phone from my dresser and apparently hit the “Say A Command” button on the side of the device.

“Say a command,” instructed a woman’s voice in a stern but friendly tone.

I was only half awake during all this after maybe five hours sleep, and you can probably imagine how aback I was taken with this middle-of-the-night directive. I thought I was caught in the midst of some S&M-themed dream. Fortunately, the Ease’s voice-recognition software didn’t know what to make of the command “Wuh? Huh? Shit! Ouch!” as I stumbled through the dark. I’ll have to come back to this feature later.

I really think I’m going to like this cell phone. There’s still a lot to be learned, so I am starting to make my way through the large User Guide. I’ve already learned you can toggle over from the Easy Mode home screen to an Advanced Mode display with three pages of apps icons if you want to attempt things like mobile social net, mobile banking and mobile web. Frankly, though, I have enough trouble doing those things standing still.

The only thing I miss so far about my old Motorola Razr was the resounding metallic thunk it made when you were done with your telecommunications business. It made me feel important and plugged-in to the larger world. People standing nearby would look admiringly at me, whispering to their friends “Hey, that guy’s got a cell phone!”

Sliding the QWERTY keyboard soundlessly back into position after firing off a text doesn’t draw anybody’s attention. But maybe, if I keep studying hard, I’ll find there’s a feature to record everyday sounds, and I can capture the sound of my slammin’ Razr for use as a ringtone.

Out with the old …
… In with the new

Hiding my defects from the brother-in-law

October 13, 2011

I think it’s because I didn’t grow up with a brother that I ended up so un-handy.

I’ve never mastered the husbandly skills that are the foundation of a well-maintained home. (Which reminds me: I need to have someone check a crack in our foundation). I spent more of my formative childhood years in pursuits of the mind than I did learning to become a Mr. Fix-It.

While other kids were learning how to bang stuff with hammers and poke the family Chevy with wrenches, I had no fraternal pressure to follow suit. I could stay indoors to master my typing skills, listen to music, and dream about the robots that would be handling basic home maintenance by the time I was an adult.

When I first became a homeowner after getting married, I barely had the skills to keep our three-bedroom brick ranch from collapsing around me. I knew how to change a light bulb. I knew how to mow the grass. I could paint the tiny tool shed in the backyard, as long as I took a week off from work to do it, and nobody minded that I used a coral semi-gloss intended for the bathroom.

Most importantly, I knew how to open a phone book to the yellow pages and find a professional who could handle the work for me. (Though, I’ll admit, it was pretty embarrassing to hire an electrician to show me how to open my fuse box).

So when my brother-in-law and his wife showed up at our home yesterday for an overnight visit, I should’ve regarded it as the next-best-thing to getting a brother. Instead, I felt threatened that someone had entered our premises who could challenge my limited dominion. What if he noticed that the bathroom sink had a drip? How could I face the humiliation?

Bob is a terrific guy. He’s been a caring husband to my wife’s sister for over 30 years, raising three children and building a comfortable life for his family in upstate New York. He’s a retired Air Force captain and, as once charged with the responsibility of keeping military aircraft from falling out of the sky because someone didn’t know how to tighten a screw, he’s pretty handy.

He’s so handy, in fact, that he spent most of his vacation visiting my mother-in-law in Charleston to help fix up her house. The stop at our place was happening at the tail end of this trip.

As I greeted them in the driveway, I hoped it was gloomy enough outside that they wouldn’t notice anything wrong with our exterior. I helped gather up their overnight bags and did my best to distract Bob from critically assessing the upkeep of our property. If I could just get them inside quickly enough, he wouldn’t have time to note how it appeared our walls were about to fall in.

Once inside, we exchanged the usual brother-in-law banter. First on the agenda, of course, was a review of his drive up from Charleston. He thought about taking U.S. 21 Bypass to get around some construction near Columbia, but ended up making better time staying on I-77. We also discussed the price of gas en route, and how the cruise control helped make his back less sore.

We stood around the kitchen for a good half-hour so they could stretch their legs after the four-hour drive, then adjourned to the living room. When we bled the topic of interstate driving completely dry, our attention turned to the television playing in front of us.

“So which one is your converter box?” Bob asked, gesturing toward the half-dozen devices beneath the set.

“Uh, I think it’s the one with the little red light,” I answered.

“Do you have a splitter?” he continued.

I have a decent fastball and a wicked slider for a 57-year-old, yet I no longer have the finger strength to put a splitter in the strike zone. But I don’t think that’s what he was asking.

“Yeah,” I answered lamely.

“Is it an HDMI?” Bob asked.

How am I supposed to know? I was hiding in the bathroom pretending to have a stomachache when my wife and son handled the entire installation.

“Sure is,” I responded. “Is there any other kind?”

Before Bob asked any other questions I’d be unable to answer, I decided to go on the offensive.

“We’re thinking about getting rid of cable anyway and going with a satellite dish,” I lied. “What’s your opinion on the advantages of cable versus a dish?”

I was hoping he’d launch into a discussion of DirecTV, which would bring us to the “NFL Sunday Ticket” package of football coverage, which would get me back to the manly topic of sports, a topic I had some familiarity with.

“Hmm,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of trees on your lot. Let’s go out on the deck and try to figure where the satellites would be positioned.”

Well, that certainly backfired. Now we were headed into the back yard, where it was still just barely light enough for him to observe what a mess we’d made of our homestead.

Bob took a few minutes to get a directional fix, then announced that issues like “azimuth” and “perigee” would likely prevent us from ever locking onto a communications satellite. Still looking skyward, he seemed to be pondering our chimney when I tried another distraction tack. I pointed at the house behind us that burned down a few months ago and still hadn’t been cleared away.

“I don’t know when they’re going to remove that debris,” I said, making the clear suggestion that even though I can barely unclog a toilet, at least I hadn’t set the entire premises ablaze.

He seemed to agree that this gave me some cred as a Man of the House. I noted that a kitchen grease fire had been responsible for the neighbor’s calamity, then coolly segued the topic to our wives being hungry for dinner. He offered to take us all out, and I jumped at the chance.

We had a pleasant enough meal, except perhaps for the parts where he talked about how he’d repaired our mother-in-law’s deck, installed new gutter guards, rebuilt her sidewalk and put in a new, taller toilet for her. I half-heartedly mentioned that our toilets were already about the right height.

He also said he had to spend an afternoon balancing her checkbook and paying her credit card bills online, and suddenly I felt a stirring of competence. Paperwork, being a sort of “pursuit of the mind,” was right in my wheelhouse. As bad as I am standing at the top of a ladder and evaluating a soffit, that’s how good I am working with words and numbers.

Repairing endangered credit and painting over subtraction errors with correction fluid — that I can handle. Building and maintaining good relations with out-of-town relatives — not a problem.

Just don’t ask me anything else about my splitter.

Bob "caulks up" another home improvement

‘Targeting hassling’ is new Obama strategy

October 4, 2011

President Obama’s success in killing off al-Qaeda leaders contrasts vividly with his inability to counter attacks from his political rivals. Now, however, the White House has begun using the same strategy that eliminated Osama bin Laden to blunt Republican criticism of his administration.

No, the president won’t be dispatching Predator drones to correct misstatements from right-wing opponents by dropping Hellfire missiles on their motorcades. But sources say he will soon begin using the CIA and its remote-control-warfare capacity to “hassle” potential rivals for the presidency in 2012.

“We’re not talking about anything that approaches the brutality of 100-pound missiles,” said an intelligence source who asked not to be named. “We just want to give them a hard time. The campaign will be more like what you might expect from a crazy ex-girlfriend than a full-on military effort.”

Similar to the “kill or capture list” that targeted bin Laden in May and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki last week, the “pester or annoy list” will inconvenience Republicans with anonymous strikes by computer-guided robots.

The effort may have already begun. Yesterday, one-time front-runner Mitt Romney reported to local police that somebody scratched a large gash on the door of his car while he was grocery shopping.

“It was the weirdest thing,” reported witness Jim Michaels of the incident in suburban Boston. “One of those motorized shopping carts for the handicapped came flying out of the store on its own and zeroed in right on his Mercedes. It left a pretty big mark.”

Romney was not hurt in the incident, though he missed the rest of the day campaigning while waiting at the Maaco shop for the gash to be buffed out.

In another apparent attack, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has asked his state highway patrol to investigate a rash of late-night phone calls that have awakened him and his wife several times in recent days.

“We must’ve had 50 calls since Sunday asking if ‘Jose’ is here,” said Perry’s wife Anita. “Then last night, ‘Jose’ calls and asks if there are any messages for him. It’s not funny.”

“Yeah, that one’s a classic,” said the source familiar with the operation. “They set it up through one of the president’s campaign offices, using their robo-call software.”

Other episodes that seemed unconnected at the time are now being checked out by officials with the Republican National Committee.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has reported that a “souped-up Roomba” vacuum cleaner skidded all over her front lawn Monday night, “turfing” large sections of grass.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul had pictures of an apparent impersonator posted on his Facebook page. The ersatz Paul was shown passed out and drunk on the floor of a fraternity party, then is later seen handing spare change to a homeless man.

“It’s obviously been Photoshopped,” said Bill Welch, Paul’s campaign manager. “Still, it does take time away from his campaigning to have to deny something as scandalous as giving money to the poor.”

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum told friends that during a recent appearance at a Philadelphia-area school, someone put a sign reading “KICK ME” on his back. Surveillance video shows it was done by a glassy-eyed teenager who approached the Tea Party favorite from behind.

“Okay, technically, that wasn’t a drone,” said the CIA source. “But we did entice the kid with some crystal meth, so he was pretty much a zombie at the time.”

Officials in the Obama White House denied knowledge of the apparently widespread effort. Targeted killing has come under considerable criticism from human rights groups, though “targeted hassling” seems less likely to present legal obstacles.

“If we had a guy on a Segway, just riding in circles around (former House speaker) Newt Gingrich, getting up in his face and chanting ‘I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you,’ I think constitutional scholars would agree that’s not illegal,” said one anonymous White House insider. “I’m not saying we’d do that, however. Especially considering how his campaign is fading on its own, and how the battery would run down about the fifth time around Newt.”

Former Senator Rick Santorum meets with a supporter

Already, Amazon’s Kindle Fire has a competitor

September 29, 2011

Following the introduction Wednesday of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, designed to be a competitor to both Apple’s iPad and other recent tablet releases, I am announcing today that I too will be offering a handy new mobile device for sale.

The CinnaBox 5000, a cardboard-based technology powered by crunchy cinnamon multi-grain cereal, will be available just in time for the holiday gift-giving season. At $5.49, it’s priced significantly lower than the Kindle Fire, the Apple iPad or any other wireless communications equipment currently on the market.

The new CinnaBox tablet will soon be flying off the shelves

“It’s a little bigger and a little thicker than most of the tablets out there now,” I’m saying. “But the big difference in price, and the fact that it provides 25% of a person’s minimum daily requirement for thiamin, niacin and riboflavin, will — I think — differentiate the CinnaBox from its competitors.”

“Plus,” I’m adding, “because we’re calling it the CinnaBox 5000, that automatically makes it 5,000 times better than other tablets.”

The CinnaBox announcement comes only one day after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told investors his company was releasing the new Kindle Fire. The Fire features a glossy seven-inch touch-screen with a dual-core processor that will allow users to access more than 18 million pieces of content in the Amazon catalog. It also offers a web browser, gaming capacity, 8 gigabytes of memory and a free cloud-based storage system.

By contrast, the CinnaBox 5000 offers ten ounces of artificially flavored breakfast cereal and a requirement that users employ a vivid imagination to pretend they’re accessing the digital realm instead of simply pawing at a marginally successful Kellogg’s product.

“I bought a box of the cereal about a year ago. I tried it once and it wasn’t very good,” I’m saying. “I just stuck it up on top of the refrigerator and forgot about it. Then, when I heard about the Amazon announcement yesterday, I thought ‘Huh — maybe I can market the stuff as the latest and greatest entrant into the lucrative tablet market.’ So I am.”

Despite the obvious shortcomings users might anticipate trying to read a book or surf the internet using only a cereal box, many analysts said they thought there was a niche to be filled by the CinnaBox.

“Not everyone can afford even the $199 that Amazon bragged yesterday was such a good deal,” said Scott Devitt, a tech analyst at Morgan Stanley. “At a price point under $6, the CinnaBox should be able to gain a significant market share.”

“It’s got tabs on the boxtop, much like you’d see tabs allowing you to open different websites on a browser,” I’m saying. “It’s a little disconcerting to hear loose stuff shaking inside the box, er, tablet. I just use earbuds to blot that out.”

Unlike the Fire and Apple’s iPad, the CinnaBox does not require periodic recharging of the battery. That’s because it has no battery. All its power is derived from the user’s ability to visualize bright video images dancing across the face of the box, rather than the static photo showing cereal bits inundated in milk.

“That could be a huge selling point,” said Morgan Stanley’s Devitt. “People hate recharging their batteries, whereas they love to eat Cinnabon-flavored breakfast grains.”

The CinnaBox promises to be just the first release of this new push to re-market simple consumer products as high-tech electronics. In early 2012, many are predicting introduction of the CinnaPhone, which will use much of the wheat- and corn-based technology seen in the CinnaBox.

“I can envision the day when you simply go to the nearest Cinnabon, buy yourself a sticky roll, and you can hold it up to your ear and start talking and texting with your friends,” Devitt said. “Just be sure to wipe the sticky white icing out of your hair when you’re done. If that stuff dries, you’ll never get it out.”

Speech recognition, I say “go away”

September 14, 2011

My son and his friend Paul were playing video games in the living room as I prepared a late breakfast for myself. While the bacon sizzled, I searched the refrigerator for eggs I knew were in there somewhere.

“Daniel,” I called out to my son. “Have you seen the eggs box? Paul, can I get you something to drink?”

“Hey, what happened?” cried Paul. “My guy just froze up on screen.”

“Dad,” Daniel added. “You messed up our game.”

How did I do that? I’m standing way over here in the kitchen. They’re the ones clutching the Xbox controllers. I’m just trying to find the eggs box.

Ohhhh … I think I know what happened.

While most of my family’s interaction with the television is done via remote control (including the stuff I throw at the screen whenever a Real Housewife appears), Daniel has set up his game console so he can control certain aspects of its operation with voice commands. If he needs to step away from the zombie-killing on “Dead Island” to deal with concerns more pedestrian than the undead, he simply says “Xbox pause” and the game stops.

When I asked “have you seen the eggs box? Paul…”, the voice recognition software heard “Xbox pause” and halted the action.

Daniel also realized what had happened. He turned to the TV and said “Xbox play,” and the automaton slaughter resumed.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, man’s interaction with machinery has come about primarily by pushing buttons and pulling levers. Occasionally, a factory worker was able to halt his equipment by fatally falling into it, though technically that still involved physical contact with the controls.

Using your voice to issue commands is a relatively new development. Like many technological innovations, it was first conceived in the realm of science fiction. I still remember watching “Star Trek” in the 1960s, when Kirk or Spock or whatever Expendoid was cast that week for the specific purpose of being killed by Klingons saying “Computer! Bring me a ham sandwich” or “Computer! Save the universe.” And sure enough, the computer would do it.

Now, like the teleportation device that rockets people instantly through space or whatever innovation made it possible for second-rate sci-fi to promulgate into countless remakes, voice-recognition technology is part of our everyday lives.

Hands-free cellphones make it possible to apply makeup while driving. Cars themselves now respond to imperatives like “change the radio station” or “lower the AC.” You can order fast-food at a drive-through speakerbox, which activates robots inside to sneeze on your hamburger, drop it to the floor, bag it, and pass it through the window.

Like everything else introduced in the last 25 years (with the possible exception of my son), I don’t like it. It just seems fundamentally wrong that we speak to inanimate objects when we already have enough trouble talking to fellow humans. Machines should be controlled by interfaces like keyboards and touchpads. Humans should be controlled by verbal threats and menacing glances.

Chatting up the Xerox WorkCentre 5755 in an attempt to convince it to make 50 two-sided color copies is just too much effort. You have to ask how its family is doing and everything.

I’ve overcome initial reservations about the corollary of voice-recognition — employing keypads to interact with people. Fewer and fewer individuals are using face-to-face conversations or their smartphones to talk to loved ones. Texting, tweeting, instant-messaging and posting pictures of your drunken self on Facebook are now the preferred ways to communicate.

And I’m fine with that. In fact, I prefer it. Concise written messages — even those strewn with emoticons and misspelled into a wireless device — may take longer to key than the spoken word, but they last longer than our ephemeral grunts. “Conversations” held days ago are now fully documented, great news if you have a dispute with your wife about what you were supposed to get at the grocery store, not so great if you’ve been caught conspiring to commit murder-for-hire.

But I suspect my objections to voice-recognition interfaces are based more on what I perceive to be a threat to my livelihood. I make my living as a proofreader and typesetter for a printing company. After over 30 years in this and similar roles, I’ve become very good at my job, especially the typing part. I can key over 100 words per minute with 98% accuracy, according to the man-eating sea creatures at Typer Shark. Even charging hammerheads recoil before my onslaught of ampersands and semicolons.

If voice-detection technology is introduced in my workplace, my typing skills could become useless. Instead of spending the day covering my keyboard with a blur of digits, I’d be reduced to mouthing the words into an input device. Instead of zipping through some of my favorite words to type — “administration,” “facilities,” “constipation,” to name a few — in a matter of nanoseconds, I’d have to say each individual letter. Speaking “m-a-s-t-u-r-b-a-t-o-r-y” into a cone is nowhere near as fun as fingering it into a QWERTY keyboard faster than you can moan orgasmically.

And if there are dozens of fellow workers engaged in the same activity, the collective drone would be enough to knock you flat out. Though sore throats might be easier to treat than chronic carpal tunnel syndrome, you’d end the day vocally exhausted, unable to talk your car into starting.

So today I’m saying “Speech Recognition, Pause.” Take your high-tech audio analysis and consign it to the scrap heap of futuristic-but-ill-conceived ideas, along with jetpacks and rocket cars and Lady Gaga. When I call a customer service help line, I want to press the “O” key, not say “representative,” then say it again, then say it again.

Only when this scourge of needless modernity is eliminated from our lives will I be prepared to again say “Progress, Play.”

Hear me now, purveyors of pointless advancements: "Knock it off"

Oh, if only I could blink …

September 12, 2011

I was almost home after work Friday as I prepared to exit the interstate. I inched into the right lane and immediately had to slam on the brakes to avoid rear-ending the truck in front of me.

Farther ahead, I could see other cars swerving and skidding to rapidly slow down. About a quarter-mile up the road, leading the column of about two dozen vehicles like a mother duck leading her brood across a meadow, was a white minivan, flashers blinking as it chugged along at about 30 m.p.h.

The posted minimum speed on the interstate is 45 m.p.h. However, it seems there is an unwritten rule of the road that, as long as you turn on your flashers, you can get away with anything.

Parking in a handicapped spot? Okay, if you activate the emergency lights.

Stopped in the middle of your neighborhood to chat with a passing friend? Just make sure your rear-end lights are blinking.

Speeding to the hospital to deliver your cousin and his sprained ankle to the emergency room? No faster than 140, if you don’t mind — just be sure you have your flashers on.

Foiled Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was well aware of this loophole in traffic law. When he tried in 2009 to blow up his Pathfinder after filling it with explosives and abandoning it on Broadway, he was careful to activate the hazard lights. Police initially dismissed the threat because the flashers throbbed so rhythmically and vibrantly. However, when smoke began to pour from the passenger compartment, they called in the bomb squad and averted what would have been a major attack.

“But I had the flashers on,” Shahzad later testified during his trial on terror charges.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” responded federal judge Arthur Cox.

Cox almost threw out the case at that point, until prosecutors reminded him that the USA Patriot Act, passed in the wake of 9/11, gave authorities extraordinary powers to halt car-bombers even if they had their blinkers on.

The folly of granting immunity to all kinds of offenses just because someone pushed a button on their dashboard is becoming more widely acknowledged. While I objected strenuously to the slow-poke minivan I encountered Friday, part of me wishes to see the concept not only maintained but expanded.

What if we could wear flashing lights on either hip which we could activate every time we found ourselves in a period of stress or uncertainty? We could warn those around us that we we’re momentarily unstable and should be given wide berth.

Think how marvelous it would be to easily publicize that we shouldn’t be approached while heading to the breakroom at work. To warn our child’s teacher that the parent conference they’ve requested will not erupt into a screaming match as long as they treat us gingerly. To urge those in front of us at Starbucks to make way and let us place our order first.

Some of this automotive-inspired technology is already entering general use. A few weeks back, I encountered one of those motorized shopping carts used by our inordinately massive citizens in the grocery store. The lady was attempting to make a three-point turn in the middle of the frozen food aisle. Whenever she threw the vehicle into reverse, a loud beep emanated from the chair.

As the maneuver progressed, other shoppers clogged the row waiting for the opportunity to pass. Most were polite enough to pretend to be looking for Hot Pockets while they waited. Eventually, the beeping stopped and the normal traffic flow was able to resume. The humongous fat lady didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of explaining to all who waited that she deserved their sympathy and, if they wouldn’t mind, that pack of frozen french fries in our cart as well.

I’d like to propose some other ideas we can borrow from our Auto-American friends to use as we amble through our daily lives.

Spoilers — These aerodynamic devices on the back trunk of sports cars could also be affixed just above human butts, so that runners and fast walkers can maintain stability as they proceed. (I, for one, often fear my speedy jogging pace will lift me right off the pavement without the downforce provided by a spoiler.)

Turn signals — Sure, most drivers don’t use these properly to begin with, either ignoring them completely or leaving them on long after the urge to turn has passed. (I’m looking at you, grandma). But think how effective they’d be on the sidewalks of Manhattan, as a way for busy businesspeople and befuddled tourists to signal their intent to make a sharp right into the subway without being killed by a passing bike messenger.

Horn — If someone walking ahead of you isn’t moving fast enough, give them either a brief beep or a full-throated “ah-ooo-ga” to urge them out of the way. (I know what some of you will say: “Wouldn’t saying ‘excuse me’ be more polite?” To which I would respond: “Why does that shuffling quartet from Iowa who’s never seen anything taller than a grain elevator deserve civility?”)

Headlights — Only cars and cats have the ability to emit a high-beam light out their “eyes” to illuminate the way in front of them. Why couldn’t humans be surgically altered, perhaps as part of their annual eye exam, so that photons come shooting out of our face, allowing us to pee more effectively in the dark?

Grill — This idea already has foothold among the hip-hoppier portions of our population, and could rapidly be expanded to others. Have all your low-tech natural teeth pulled and replaced with a shiny metallic grill. This will save on dental bills as well as improve your visibility as you swerve in and out of pedestrian traffic.

Trunk — Again, we can turn to our urban friends — who have long trumpeted the value of “junk in the trunk” — for guidance on how to give us more storage capacity than pockets and purses could ever hope to offer. If we could hollow out our too-ample rumps and use the space to keep gum, cellphones, checkbooks, cash, tissue, cigarettes, etc., our hands become more free to open doors, adjust our shorts and attack innocent bystanders with knives.

Computer diagnostics — I’d love to have a “check intestines” light come on every time I over-ate, or a heart symbol illuminate on the end of my nose to indicate I might be in need of an angioplasty. Cars have it so easy; just hook them up to the computer in the service bay and you immediately know what’s wrong. Health care costs would plummet if a simple stop at Pep Boys might head off a major cardiac event.

I call on Detroit and the medical establishment to join forces in this effort to bring humanity “up to spec.” With our manufacturing sector in the doldrums as our healthcare system booms uncontrollably, maybe President Obama can include these ideas in his jobs push.

And if they need the help, I’d be happy to write the owner’s manual. As long as I can beep, honk, screech or flash while I’m doing it.

My deepest sympathies on your loss, delivered via new media

August 17, 2011

After five people were killed in a freak accident at the Indiana State Fair Saturday, condolences came pouring in from around the nation. First among these was a message from Sugarland, the country music act whose stage it was that fell on dozens of fans.

“We are all right,” band members tweeted somewhat self-centeredly. “We are praying for our fans and the people of Indianapolis. We hope you’ll join us.”

Other show business figures were quick to join in acknowledgement of the disaster, as long as they could do it via the convenience of Twitter.

Kelly Clarkson tweeted “oh my gosh that is maybe one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.” Singer Michelle Branch said “just heard about Sugarland and the stage collapse in Indy.” Ryan Seacrest added “saw the vid of the stage collapse in Indiana … unbelievable.”

While these messages may be lacking in empathy for the victims — containing instead personal impressions upon hearing the news — they can’t be faulted for the speed with which they were delivered. Twitter has made it possible for us to be remorseful at the click of a button.

I don’t know much about Sugarland, other than the fact that they’re not the same as Lady Antebellum, which I had previously believed. But if someone as backward as country musicians can use social media to convey their regrets, I guess all of us can now enjoy the ease of modern communications to express our grief at a time of loss.

This is great news to me, as someone who always felt awkward hobnobbing with survivors. I am lucky not to have known many dead people in my life. I’ve attended only a handful of funerals in my 57 years, and therefore never quite developed the knack for conveying sympathy, much less genuinely feeling it.

As a child, the only funeral I remember attending is that of Uncle Buck, my grandfather’s brother. He passed when I was about 13. My only recollection of the memorials that followed was how appalled I was at the concept of a “viewing,” our visit to the funeral home to look and point at the lifeless body.

People in attendance seemed to be having a wonderful time, munching on snacks, laughing, seeing still-alive friends and relatives, and working into conversations as much as possible what a good guy Uncle Buck had been.

“This cheese dip is really good,” I think I recall a cousin saying. “And you know what else was good? Uncle Buck.”

I doubt I offered much comfort to the widow, Aunt Ethel. As a teenager, I didn’t really know what to say, and have long suspected that my “hey, how’s it going?” did little to soothe her raw emotions.

It’s a shame that my late uncle didn’t die in 2011, and not just because he would be world-famous for having lived to the ripe old age of 140. Here in the twenty-first century, we use high-tech communications to offer sincere-if-electronic condolences.

And it’s not just Twitter that allows us to instant-message our deepest regrets as long as they don’t exceed 140 characters. Now, you can even sign a virtual guest book and thereby avoid setting foot in those houses of death known as mortuaries.

Most local newspapers now offer a link from their obits page to a site that will record your thoughts. In days past, guest books made for wonderful keepsakes that families could take home after the funeral and peruse for comfort in the coming days of agony and despair. The electronic version is presumably just as soothing, assuming you know how to use the “print screen” feature on your computer keyboard and don’t use the back of recycled spreadsheets to print your hard copy.

And don’t worry if you can’t come up with just the right words. Instead of going to all the trouble involved in typing your own message, you can click on one of 47 “suggested entries” to locate exactly the right sentiment you’d come up with yourself if you weren’t such heartless, vocabulary-challenged soul.

Some examples:

“May God bless you and your family in this time of sorrow” (or, for agnostics, perhaps something like “may the dark void of eternal nothingness somehow manage to bring you comfort”)

“As the days and weeks pass, and as you return to life’s routine, may you continue to feel comforted by the love and support of family and friends” (or, the more-practical “hope you get a good insurance settlement”)

“Take comfort in knowing that now you have a special guardian angel to watch over you” (and the implied “hope you’re not afraid of ghosts”)

“Grief can be so hard, but our special memories help us cope” (or “might I offer an Ambien? — it’s a great amnesiac”)

You can even offer a poem or song as long, as the small print warns, you don’t use copyrighted material. So Longfellow’s “Nature” with its “So nature deals with us/And takes us away” refrain would be okay, while Lady Gaga’s “Disco Heaven” and its lyrics “Oh Disco Heaven/Get back Bunny!/It’s getting cold in here little honey” would be inappropriate.

There’s even a place that suggests what not to say, complete with testimonials from people who’ve had to endure the heartfelt but misstated wishes of certain block-headed relatives.

“I went to my ex-boyfriend’s funeral. We had broken up but kept in touch,” wrote Susan. “A neighbor asked me if his wife was pretty.”

“I am an only child, and I lost my mom in 2001 and my dad in 2004,” recalled Victoria. “A relative said to me, ‘So you’re all alone now, right? What a shame.’ ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

“My aunt told me at my husband’s funeral that I am young and will find someone else,” wrote Sandra. “Holy crap! I could’ve slapped her.”

Besides Twitter and online condolences, there are other modern choices for sending your sympathies winging through the ether.

Facebook is popular with some. Loving survivors can create a “death page” that mourners can “like” as a way of showing respect. I imagine there are also some Skype, LinkedIn and Groupon applications, though I don’t know how appropriate it is to offer coupons toward discounts on Last Rites. You could even use my personal favorite — Words With Friends — to send one-word Scrabble-like messages such as “SORRY,” “SAD” or “REGRETS” (bonus points for using all seven letters, not counting possible triple-word-play!)

I would assume simple texting is also acceptable. This might be another choice for those who have difficulty coming up with the right words, and prefer instead to send memorial emoticons, like:

😥 — crying, with an apostrophic tear

>:o — surprise or shock

D:< — horror or sadness, with a giant “D” pasted to your forehead

<°))>< — a fish, as in “he sleeps with the fishes”

Whatever media you choose, the benefits of not having to deliver your message of remorse in person are a welcome part of our new Digital Age.

And I look forward to the day when the showing-up-at-the-funeral part can become as optional as our communications. Imagine how impressed the deceased will be in that not-too-distant day in the future when you send either your own personal robot, or a hologram of yourself wailing inconsolably.

Talk about heaven.


Revisited: You can lead a cat to water…

July 31, 2011

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my responsibility to keep our three indoor cats fed. Today, I’m writing about how we keep them watered.

Obviously, I’m running out of topics.     

While watering cats might sound like a fun gardening game, it’s actually quite the real-life challenge to many pet owners. With no lips to speak of and a chronic inability to use a straw, cats rely instead on little nodules built into their tongues to capture drinking water. It’s an inefficient method that requires a prolonged lapping motion to access the same amount of liquid we humans can get in a single gulp.     

You try drinking with just your tongue nodules. It’s not easy.     

So, many cat owners face the unsettling site of their kitty standing front paws in the kitchen sink, back sides high in the air, tonguing desperately at the few drips falling out of the faucet. Conveniently forgetting that they’ve been domesticated for about 5,000 years, they’ve reverted to past primitive lives lived outdoors, where fresh-running streams provided a better-tasting source of refreshment than did stagnant pools of rainwater. They might have a dish full of liquid in the laundry room, crammed between their litter box and the noisy washing machine, but they recognize the superior ambience of the sink and do their drinking there.     

I know cats are supposed to be immaculately clean creatures, famous for spending days at a time doing nothing more than bathing themselves. Still, I’m not comfortable with their mouths slobbering all over the same spigot I use to get my water. And I know the company we’re having over for dinner is similarly uncomfortable.     

I’ve heard from friends about so-called drinking fountains for cats, so we decided to check them out. We went to the local PetSmart store to see about buying one.     

PetSmart is a wonderful pet supply franchise with locations throughout the country. It’s a big warehouse-style establishment whose most distinctive feature is that it allows customers to bring animals shopping with them. You’d have to be blind to get away with this in Sears — just as you probably have to be blind to even set foot inside a Sears — but at PetSmart all of God’s creatures are welcome, as long as they’re accompanied by a human with a credit card.     

My wife, son and I entered the store on a recent Saturday to be greeted by a live pig. (“What is this, Walmart?” my son joked). It was one of those fancy domesticated pigs owned by people so enlightened and so unique that not just any pet is good enough for them, it has to be both smarter than a dog and offer more bacon than a parakeet. Other customers gathered excitedly around the bow-bedecked swine to pet and admire him. Their dogs stood close by, drooling expectantly and wondering when the pig-pickin’ would start.     

Large signs hanging from the ceiling directed customers to individual pet categories — dogs, cats, birds, fish, etc. We headed toward the cat department, stepping around all kinds of canines at virtually every turn. Though PetSmart claims all pets are welcome, there was not a visiting cat to be seen anywhere. I’d be tempted to organize a sit-in to protest this discrimination if the store had a lunch counter and you could get cats to sit still at it. We swallowed hard to look past the blatant pro-dog, anti-cat bias, and found our way to the aisle containing what you’d normally call “tableware” (dishes, bowls, placemats, etc.) except that these would be placed on a floor in the utility room.     

There were several models of drinking fountain in three different price ranges. We read about the features of each, not really sure what was a plus and what was a minus. We’d hoped to find one that was battery-powered but all of them used electric cords. Some had reusable filters, some had visible water reservoirs, some allowed you to grow grass on the lid. We settled on the mid-range model because it promised “no assembly required” and took it home to what we anticipated would be an eager reception from Harriet, Taylor and Tom.

Well, it’s now almost three weeks later, and the Drinkwell Platinum fountain has received mixed reviews at best from its end-users. None of them had the slightest idea what the contraption was when we first set it up, so we proceeded with a makeshift training program designed to explain how fresh, flowing water would both taste good and improve their urinary tract function. Taylor, generally regarded as the brightest of the three, eventually caught on when we held his snoot near the stream and made a splashing sound with our fingers. He drinks from the fountain now about half the time. Harriet, far older and more set in her ways, never did much sink-drinking to begin with and continues to get her liquids however she’s managed all along (probably from the toilet). 

Tom is our feisty tabby, the cat most recently brought into domestication from the wild outdoors and, as by far the largest of the trio, the most intrusive in the sink. We gave him a demo similar to what Taylor received, but he didn’t seem to catch on. We gently pressed his face toward the small pond, trying to wet his lips without wetting his nose, which is no easy feat if you’ve ever studied the anatomy of the typical cat face. It could’ve been a small nuclear reactor as far as Tom was concerned — all he knew was that it made a slight hum and it was something we actually wanted him to use, so he wanted no part of it. 

I tried some more basic, remedial training. Maybe he’d get the idea by looking at the picture on the box. 

“See, Tom, here’s a cat, and here’s his tongue dipping into the water,” I pointed out. 

Tom said nothing. 

“Look, Tom, it’s a picture of the fountain just like we have in the other room, and this cat is drinking fresh, delicious water from it,” I continued. 

Still no response. 

“And if you’ll look closely at the price sticker on top of the box, you’ll see that we spent $79.99 on this device, and that’s not counting sales tax,” I persevered. 

Tom seemed temporarily intrigued, but all he really wanted to do was bite my pointing finger. Which he did. 

A thirsty and confused kitty

So we’re not sure we’re going to keep the drinking fountain after all. PetSmart promised a money-back guarantee on the purchase, and if there’s no improved participation from our cats by the weekend, we’ll probably be taking it back. Tom still prefers to get his water from the dripping faucet in the kitchen sink, and as long as he and the others are well-hydrated, I guess we’re going to have to accept that. 

But I’ll bet you anything that pig would know what to do.

Revisited Website Review:

July 15, 2011

No no no no no no no no no no,
no no no no no no no no no no no no no no
Nobody can do the shake like I do
Nobody can do the boogaloo like I do
–”Nobody But Me” by The Human Beinz (1968)

We’re at an awkward moment in the long history of humankind. We’ve mastered the land, inventing agriculture to free us from all that tedious hunting and gathering. We safely harvest critical resources from the sea (sort of). We fly through the air with the greatest of ease, the rocketpacks and balloons and zeppelins and superheroes nearly blotting out the sun at times.

And yet we still face this issue of unwanted hair. Fashion magazines have made it abundantly clear that hair is to exist only in a luxuriant and lustrous state flowing out of the top of our heads, and in smaller strips in and around the eye, on the brow and lash. Our ancestors from millennia past needed all kinds of body hair for protection from the elements, but now that we have condos and ballcaps and the cutest tops from TJ Maxx, the remaining fur is vestigial and has almost left our bodies entirely. Except for some embarrassing patches that we hope evolution will eventually get to, though frankly we have a date at 7 tonight and can’t wait much longer.

For these people, commerce has developed a number of caustic solutions and tiny gouging devices that will remove unwanted hair, if you don’t mind unbearable pain and a moderate fee. They work pretty well, as do most torture regimens eventually. However, the modern consumer longs for a more high-tech approach, i.e., one they can order over the internet.

So in today’s Website Review, I’m going to tell you about a product called the “no!no!’. Deliberately lower-cased to distinguish it from the industrial-strength “NO!NO!” being used at secret CIA rendition centers, the no!no! is a small machine offering “professional hair removal at home … finally, a pain-free long-term solution for hair removal!” Offering no hair and no pain, it virtually named itself.

Using the Thermicon™, a thermodynamic wire to transmit heat to each individual hair, the shaft becomes superheated, basically crystallizing the follicle. This both pulverizes the part of the hair that shows above the surface and cripples the cell communication below the skin that grew the hair in the first place. A buff, which comes “free” with your $284.40 purchase, then turns your skin from a bombed-out Dresden to a soft, barren desert. Self-tasering has never been so easy.

The home page of is packed with moving graphics, pink backgrounds and a spray of bullet points that would make an armed and disgruntled former employee proud. The “smart skin solutions” people at parent company Radiancy tout the no!no! as “•cordless and convenient,” “•cord-free operation,”  ”•removes embarrassing facial hair too!” and  ”•great for men and women.” It’s InStyle magazine’s 2008 beauty product of the year, and has also been seen in Vogue, Shape and Self magazines, because that’s what happens when you pay them money to run your ads. There’s also a tease of some of the other heartfelt testimonials to follow elsewhere in the site:

“As someone who struggled with unwanted hair, it is so wonderful to sit here proud and hairless,” writes one satisfied customer. “Thank you no!no! for coming into my life!”

Under the “How It Works” section, there are more details about the three distinct processes involved in permanently mutating your pores. During “First Contact” (not to be confused with the 1996 Star Trek movie), a super-heated wire separates the hair shaft at the point of contact. At the “Crystallization” stage, the uppermost part of the hair becomes coarse and prickly, and you can stop at this point if you’re into that. Most, though, want to proceed to the “Disruption” phase, where the actual “miscommunication between bulge and root” takes place, slowing future hair growth. A phase four, as-yet undiscovered but certain to be announced in the next year or so, gives you fatal melanoma.

The overly punctuated “Why no!no!?” pulldown uses an easy-to-read spreadsheet to dissect the problem women everywhere face about what methods to use on their face. Current techniques all have their shortcomings. Short-term solutions like razors, depilatory creams and electric shavers get a “no” in the pain column but a “daily” in the frequency column and all kinds of nasty stuff in the “side effects” column including razor burn, cuts, odor and allergic reactions. For mid-term remedies like “epilation (rotary)” and the tasty-sounding “wax-sugaring,” you can trade painlessness for bi-monthly convenience, though now you’re also looking at burn potential, a mess, and a lot of time and money. The long-term effects of the laser include pain, skin inflammation, odor and a costly, long-term commitment, but on the plus side you’ll be recognized by most grocery store bar-code scanners.

The no!no! option is not a miracle cure and does require commitment. For your effort, you’ll “make the dream of less unwanted hair a reality.” The simple and pain-free technique involves “no pulling, tearing or scraping, just a slow, smooth slide”. There is something called the “hot blade” involved but it’s encased in a cate little handheld device (comes in pink or silver) that you can take with you almost anywhere. And, that convenience means you can no!no! “at home or wherever,” sitting on the side of your bed, after a workout at the gym, or while running for statewide office in California.

There are some Testimonials included in one section. Frankly, they’re rather lackluster. “I will definitely recommend this to girlfriends with thick, stubborn hair,” says one woman, about to find herself seriously defriended on Facebook. “I first saw no!no! in a magazine, then heard rave reviews from a friend,” says Kennedy of Omaha. “I thought what the heck, I’ll give it a whirl. The no!no! did not disappoint. I love my no!no!” (Imagine this woman’s poor dog, trying to be a good boy but constantly hearing “no!no!”)

The best testimonial of all comes in a video format from “celebrity” Kassie DePaiva, a daytime TV star who loves her no!no! She prattles through about a dozen different 30-second clips showing her compensated enthusiasm for the product. “I’ve got a great body, it’s just the hair I don’t like,” she says. “I might’ve shaved in the morning but by 5 o’clock I’m doing a love scene and the actor says ‘gee, Kassie, do you ever shave your legs?’ I was mortified,” she confides. “It’s taken care of a huge issue in my life, a universal problem that people don’t want to talk about,” she adds. “The pain (before no!no!) stopped me from living,” she says. “I was tired of being the hairy girl I’ve been all my life.”

Finally, Kassie DePaiva has been liberated to pursue a Hollywood career that has her IMBD STARmeter rating up 22% in just the last week. After a long career on “One Life to Live,” she got her own show called “Knit & Crochet Today,” thanks in no small measure to her reduced bushiness. After being universally panned by critics — “she asks silly questions and makes comments I would expect from a ditsy teenager,” wrote one — she was canned, but not because wool-knit scarves and afghans didn’t glide smoothly across her skin.

The last piece I’ll cover is the standard “Frequently Asked Questions” section. “Does it really work?” is answered “Yes, it really works.” The question “Is the no!no! treatment safe?” brings the confusing but definitive response “Yes, no!no! is safe.” Someone asks “Can I use it with other hair removal products at the same time?” It seems you can throw the whole inventory of procedures at your upper lip if you want to — lasers, tweezers, waxes, acids, a make-out session with Zach Galifianakis — but these could interfere with no!no! benefits, so don’t come asking for your money back.

There’s a handy online order form for a deal that’s only available through June, so try to claw your way out of your hirsute prison and type on a computer if you can. They accept all major credit cards and you can make three easy payments. Obviously, certain billing information is also required but they’re polite enough to exclude a pulldown requiring you to categorize your hairiness on a scale that ranges from Alec Baldwin to Robin Williams to the Wolfman.

One final important point about the no!no! that’s contained in the fine print at the bottom of the website. “The no!no! is not recommended for use on the genitals.” I myself can’t imagine that possibility even entering my mind, though I understand that desperate people may consider desperate measures. My response to the thought, however, is much like those timeless words from the Human Beinz — “No no no no no no no no no no!”

Revisited Website Review:

July 13, 2011

Yesterday was Ascension Day, the occasion on which the world’s Christians note the ascent of  a back-from-the-dead Jesus Christ into Heaven. I thought it might be a good opportunity to look into the state of the modern jetpack, and where you might be able to get one.  

Though the Gospel according to Mark makes little mention of a mechanically aided lift (other than a vague reference to “a mighty whooshing sound and the blessed fragrance of diesel”), it only stands to reason that He may have needed some powered assistance. It wasn’t until the Nazis strapped the Fieseler Fi 103 flying bomb to the back of an unfortunate “himmelsturmer” during World War II that modern technology made use of escaping gases that allowed a single user to fly.  

Ever the practical race, the Germans weren’t really looking for a short-cut to the afterlife. They simply wanted a way their engineering units could cross minefields or barbed wire obstacles that didn’t involve training for the long jump. After the war, the technology fell into the hands of the U.S., where test pilots offered a gracious “thanks but no thanks” to the prospect of developing the concept further.  

Although we’ve since seen jetpack demonstrations at spectacles like the Olympics and the 2005 confirmation hearings of chief justice John Roberts, most sources say the only current practical use of the machine is for astronauts doing extravehicular activity in space. A Mexican company reportedly offers a tested rocket belt package, though most who’ve seen the equipment call it more of a “backpack helicopter” (wonder how you say DUCK! in Spanish).  

Jetpack deniers and their can’t-do attitude fortunately haven’t been heard in far-away New Zealand. There, a small firm called Martin Jetpack is currently taking orders for what it calls the world’s first practical personal aircraft. I’m visiting to learn more about this breakthrough for this week’s Website Review.  

The home page for this domain is as sleek and futuristic as the six-foot-by-five-foot 535-pound device it offers. In other words, it’s a bit clunky. Clicking on the “See It Fly” video doesn’t do a lot to counter that first impression, as the short film of a guy wearing what looks like the rooftop HVAC unit at your office confirms. He’s flying just above the ground around a warehouse until the whole website freezes up about 45 seconds in. I only hope the same thing didn’t happen to the jetpack, or the pilot might have skinned his knee in a 3-foot plummet to earth.  

The pulldowns across the top of the page focus more on the company itself than its product. We learn that this particular jetpack design was first developed in 1981 by company founder Glenn Martin, a pharmaceutical salesman who wanted to get even higher than his painkiller samples could take him. He and his family turned what was a garage-based obsession into their life’s work.  

“I was Glenn’s first test pilot,” says wife Vanessa. “I used to run out to the garage, get strapped into the jetpack, test it, then rush back into the house to feed our seven-week-old son.”  

That son is now 16-year-old Harrison, who also works with the family business. He tells how he was “never able to tell my friends what my father did,” supposedly because it was a secret project though more likely he was just embarrassed.  

“My friends work in McDonald’s during the school holidays,” Harrison says. “I have a slightly more interesting job as a jetpack test pilot.”  

What he probably neglects to note, however, is that instead of making $5.35 an hour, he’s paid in Band-Aids.  

You can tell the Martin firm has evolved from those early days into a real company, because it now boasts a chief executive officer and a chairman of the board and everything. It appears most of the top leadership comes from a venture capital firm that has invested heavily in Martin. These bankers can focus on guiding the company through its start-up phase and ultimately bankrupting themselves and all their investors, freeing managing director Glenn to devote his energy and creative force into crashing actual hardware.  

The company page also shows a number of consultants and advisors and designers who help with boring esoterica like avionics. Most of these men are bald, except for engineer Stuart Holdaway, whose missing photo hints that he may have been killed.  

It’s the section of the home page titled “How Do I Buy One?” that draws most of my interest. Martin is “currently accepting enquiries (New Zealandish for inquiries) from commercial customers” and these can be placed through the website. “It is expected that early orders for sales to private individuals will commence late 2010 … We will contact you when pre-orders are being taken.” In other words, don’t hold your breath, unless you plan on flying one of these things over water.  

A small “News and Press” page carries links to articles about test flights and demonstrations that have sort-of wowed the public. One reporter noted after his demo that it felt like “I was carrying a small sports car on my back,” perhaps not exactly the kind of press the firm might’ve hoped for but probably a realistic assessment.  

It’s through a list of pulldowns on the left side of the home page that we get most of our information about the machinery itself. There’s a defensive diatribe titled “What Is a Jetpack?” that aims to address those who contend that a jetpack should weigh less than a quarter-ton and contain actual jets. A carefully parsed analysis of the words “what,” “is,” “a” and “jetpack” claims that there’s a disconnect between science, engineering and common usage, and that if you have a “very narrow view of what is a true jetpack,” then basically that’s your problem.  

“In the end we found that 95% of people call it a jetpack when they see it, so why fight that?” they conclude.  

In “How Do I Learn to Fly?” we see that a required training program will be included with the cost of the machine. You don’t have to have an FAA-recognized pilot’s license, just a really big helmet and some assistants wearing industrial-strength hearing protection. The safety overview notes that all flying entails a degree of risk and that aviation users from airline passengers to parachute jumpers must decide on the degree of danger they find acceptable for themselves. In the end, Martin claims the jetpack is safer than light helicopters because it has a “minimal avoidance curve” which, if you have to have an avoidance curve, is the kind to have.  

Speaking of technical mumbo-jumbo, we see on a specifications page that the first model the company will sell has features like an engine, a fuel tank, a carbon fiber composite structure and, worrisomely, an energy-absorbing undercarriage. It has a range of just over 31 miles at a maximum speed of 63 m.p.h. You have to weigh less than 240 pounds to actually get off the ground, though the morbidly obese still might consider purchasing one to help them off the couch.  

Finally, there’s a Frequently Asked Questions section. Doubts about stability of the aircraft seem to dominate, hinting again at its lack of authentic jetpackiness. There’s the kind of small but observable wobble you might expect from what are basically two really, really, really powerful fans, though with practice pilots can correct this. Asked “is it safe?” the responder notes the presence on the machine of a parachute, not exactly adequate for what would basically be like falling off a ladder. “How easy is it to fly?” Well, you have to know that “yaw” is more than a Southern greeting. “How do I buy one?” You’ll need to make a 10% deposit. “How much will they cost?” Probably about the same as a high-end car. 

“Are we all going to be flying to work on these?” seems like the most obvious question. Martin officials say modestly “some people will use these for work” and I’m imagining how well they might perform for the landscapers at my office park who current use leafblowers and instead could be hovering above the ground. Martin admits that most people will still prefer “the comfort of a car” and that current air traffic control systems don’t lend themselves well to commuting. A “highways in the sky” GPS-based system of 3D roads is at least ten years away, more if scientists can’t figure out how to create potholes in them. 

It’s really not that bad of a website; it’s just that the product it sells seems highly questionable. Since the people of New Zealand are often nicknamed “kiwis” after the chicken-sized flightless bird native to the islands, you’d think a company based there would take the hint, both about flightlessness and about the chicken part. But I guess the entrepreneurial spirit and long-held dreams about human flight make up for the difference. 

Admittedly, it’s a major inconvenience to fly halfway around the world to train for and pick up your jetpack in early 2011, and I wouldn’t want to begin contemplating getting it through airport security and onto a plane for your return trip home. However, if you can find a string of atolls across the south Pacific that are less than 31 miles apart, and you don’t mind having the great whites and other large sharks of the region nipping at your heels as you fly just above the waves, perhaps you could just fly the Martin jetpack back to your home. 

Jetpack pioneer Glenn Martin, apparently hauling a couple of garbage cans