What hath humankind wrought?
Sunday, February 5, 2017 11:24 AM
Fifty years ago, in the fall of 1966, in Mr. Hixon’s junior year chemistry class, we were formally taught how to use the slide rule. I had already been using my dad’s aluminum K&E slide rule (I still have it, by the way) for a couple of years and I was now allowed to bring it to school for chemistry. It was considered high-tech.
When I was a senior in college, the calculator debuted. My old roommate, who had ditched engineering for geology, had bought an HP calculator for the unheard-of sum of $400 (this was when I was making about $150 a week). He graciously allowed me to use it to take the Ohio Professional Engineer’s Engineer in Training Test.
That was the first year calculators were allowed in the test, and because I was one of only about a half dozen in a room of 400 (and the test was given several places besides where I took it) who had one, I scored beyond my expectations, as the test was graded on a curve.
He gave me that calculator about a half dozen years ago, so I have it, too. How did he identify that calculator as his? He put a “dymo” label on it with his Social Security number on the label. My, how things change.
I bought my first calculator at Christmas 1977. I bought my first computer, an Apple II+, at Christmas 1979. In those days, there were no programs available, not even spreadsheet programs, so I wrote my own in “Basic.”
In another year, I was teaching introductory computer programming part-time at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Five years later, a friend and I opened a computer store where you could rent computer time and take classes from us. We called it “The Computing Place.”
Since those days, I can only begin to guess how many computers I have bought, personally and for business. I would suspect it is close to 300. I know in one office where I was the general manager, I bought 200. I suspect I have bought another 100 for my own businesses.
Today, I use four computers (the one in my office is a workstation with four screens and counts as only one of the four), two tablets, four Amazon Kindle devices and an iPhone. I am an early adopter, computer junkie. I seldom go anywhere without at least three of these devices.
This is true as I write this. I am in Mesquite, Texas and have an iPhone, an iPad, a Kindle and an HP laptop with me. (I am writing this on the HP laptop.)
After all of this, you would think that I would be jaded, that the folks who dish up this stuff could not possibly come up with anything else that would get my juices flowing.
Mr. Bezos has. The Echo Dot from Amazon, and its sultry-voiced Alexa have put me over the moon. Siri never wooed me. Cortina is suspect. But Alexa has won my heart.
If you have not seen this device, it looks like a hockey puck. I have three of them – one in the family room, one in my office and one in our bedroom. My wife, Laura, stares daggers at it.
Actually, what really has her freaked out is that Alexa is always listening for her name, “Alexa.” Laura says, “how do you know she is not recording everything else?” The answer is, I don’t, but in these days of mistrust, I have chosen to trust Jeff Bezos.
I use Alexa to do math. “Alexa, what is 12 x 27 x 350?” She promptly comes up with the answer. She will do square roots, cube roots and on and on and on. This is very handy when I am writing reports for my clients.
Alexa also knows the scores of ball games, tomorrow’s weather, the current temperature, you name it. Alexa will tell you corny jokes.
However, when I am home alone in bed, Alexa shows her stuff. “Alexa, play ‘Tennessee Ford’s ‘Sixteen Tons.’” She delivers. “Alexa, play Patty Page singing ‘How much is that doggy in the window?’” No fuss.
I went through a whole night of this – trying to remember hit songs from when I was a little boy. I felt a bit guilty when Laura came dragging in from a business trip and plopped down beside me – a little resentful, too, for Alexa and I could not play our game. Three’s a crowd.
Our latest activity is the best so far, though. I have a pretty good, detailed two-dimensional map of the United States in my head – lots of cities and towns, lots of highways. I have driven the entire country, parts of it many times. One evening recently, I happened to ask Alexa the elevation of a city. She promptly delivered. Then another, and another. We did this for a frenetic hour. The two-dimensional map in my head began to become a three-dimensional map.
Now, when I get a chance, I am repeating the elevation questions so I can firmly finish this picture.
You could say Alexa has added a whole new dimension to my life. Shhh! Don’t tell Laura!
Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press.