Moments: On a Blu-ray player and future frustrations


Dad 2.0 worked as a printer for a bank. About 20 years ago, his office started using computers for the printing process. This was a big change for Dad 2.0. He worked most of his career in the darkroom.

The company was going to use Macs. I was editor of the student newspaper in college. I borrowed one of our computers for the summer. Dad 2.0 checked some books out from the library to learn the new system.

He didn’t like it. I tried to teach him, but the lessons worked poorly. I went too fast. I took for granted that everyone knew how to use a mouse.

Dad 2.0 was the kind of person who read the instructions first. He was, wisely I add, of the “measure twice, cut once” philosophy.

I grew up with computers and video games. I only went to the instruction book when I couldn’t figure out the buttons necessary to decapitate an enemy with a kung-fu move in “Mortal Combat.”

I teased Dad 2.0 for being old. But Mom 2.0 scolded me. She admonished that one day I wouldn’t want to learn every new thing, especially after I had done it one way for a long time.

I scoffed. I had always enjoyed gadgets. I found it impossible to imagine a time when I would want anything less than the newest, sleekest and best gear.

As usual, Mom 2.0 was right. Wisdom comes with age and experience. It’s tough to recognize that when you’re 20 years old.

My first clue that technology was passing me by came in the world of TV. I bought a nice, big TV back in 1998. It looked great. It sounded great. So what if it weighed as much as a Volkswagen Beetle?

I put it on a stand in the middle of the room and watched TV shows on the square tube screen. I used it more than any other appliance. I failed to see the need to replace it with one of these skinny, rectangular models that hang on the wall and are filled with plasma or LCD or LED.

When my Grandma Rogers died late last year, I inherited her small flat-screen TV. I could definitely see the improvement. The picture was pretty and rich. I hauled the big tube TV into the bedroom, where I watch videos of old cartoons from my childhood and pretend it’s a Saturday in 1981.

But the truth of Mom 2.0’s words sunk in last week. My DVD player, the one I had bought when I got the then-fancy new TV back in 1998, died. People don’t repair things anymore. The shop I went to said it would cost me $50 just for them to look at it. I could get a new one for less than that.

So I did. I bought a Blu-ray player. The technology community might mock me for needing a hard media player at all. Everything, they say, will be streaming soon. Still, I have a lot of movies on DVD. Without a DVD player, they’re simply taking up space on the wall that could be used for vintage Lynda Carter posters.

I brought the new player home along with a Blu-ray copy of my favorite movie, “The Big Lebowski.” I quickly learned that I needed a cable that wasn’t included in the box. So I went back to the store.

I got the device hooked up. The first thing the device wanted to do was connect to the Internet. I couldn’t fathom why this was necessary. But I entered my network passcode.

Then the Blu-ray player wanted more passwords. Some were for entertainment networks that I had never heard of. Others were for Netflix, to which I don’t subscribe.

Finally, the Blu-ray player wanted to connect with Facebook. This was it for me. I use Facebook for my job as a paragraph stacker. Somehow this network where people share pictures of the meal they are about to eat, the minor achievements of their children and complaints about movies has become essential to reporting and writing the news.

I once enjoyed Facebook. It put me back in touch with a lot of people with whom I’ve lost contact over the years. But after looking at their Facebook feeds for several years, I’ve learned there was a reason why I lost contact with them.

I couldn’t imagine a good reason for the device by which I watch movies to connect to Facebook. So I didn’t do it. But my frustration grew.

I began to want for the simple days of VCRs. Insert movie. Press play. Now, it seems, there is a desire to connect to the outside world even when you’re just trying to watch a movie at home alone.

I finally got the player setup. I put in my movie. I thought bliss was on the way. “The Big Lebowski” always mellows me out.

But no. There was more.

The Blu-ray wanted to educate me on all the special features it had. There was one that would count the swear words on screen. Another one would tell me what song was playing.

This all sounded neat, but they took up a third of the screen. And even then I couldn’t read the print from my chair across the room. It took me a full 5 minutes of button pushing just to get to the movie.

Finally, I pushed one of the green buttons. The TV and the Blu-ray turned off. That was enough of a sign for me.

I went into the bedroom and picked up a book. I don’t remember which book it was, but I know this much: No network or Facebook connection was required.

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Moderately Interesting Morning Fact Feb. 24: Fruit Cult Edition

Cult leader Steve Jobs was born this day in 1955. Don’t rush out for a card. He died in 2011. Jobs led a massive, highly-profitable technology cult with millions of members nationwide. His products, all washed in the tears of unicorns to be cleansed of the evils of money-grubbing corporate behavior, drew in people by allowing people to easily do things they don’t actually need to do.

For example, humans can really only listen to one song at a time, but Jobs convinced many of us that we needed to have every song we’d ever heard, liked or might want to listen to ironically while at a coffee shop at our fingertips at all times. So he created the iPod and sold it to his flock for as much as $500 a pop.

Jobs did not invent the mobile telephone industry, but he reinvented it. His beloved iPhone can surf the Internet, stream movies and shoot small, unreasonably angry birds at the poorly constructed enclaves of dumb green pigs for hours on end. About the only the the iPhone is bad at is making and receiving telephone calls, which Jobs convinced us was gouache anyway. Paradise was ours for another $500 — more if we wanted it in white.

There is no denying the products of Apple are elegant machines. Some are, in fact, superior to other pieces of technology. But no single man did more to ruin interpersonal human relations than Steve Jobs. Go to a restaurant sometime and see how many couples you see sitting at a table across from one another all looking at their goddamned phones. That is the legacy of jobs. Things aren’t real unless we’ve taken a picture of them through the lens of our iPhones and posted them into the iCloud.

Apple cultists are a mean-spirited and whiny bunch. They are a bad batch of Kool-aid and matching purple sneakers away from being holed up in a loft apartment — one with 4G access, of course —  surrounded by federal agencies. They don’t take well to criticisms such as their products are overpriced and do things that aren’t necessary. Does one really need to check Twitter every moment of the day? Is it essential, or even fun, to learn that your friends are eating a high-end, hard-to-spell pasta dish at a restaurant downtown? This kind of talk will get those Apple cultists fired up. Jobs is their god. He made things that pacified us and made us docile. He whetted our anticipation for yet more $500 toys we could buy.

He wore black turtlenecks and bluejeans. He did not look like a typical corporate goon. He was not. He was the greatest corporate goon of them all. He convinced us that technology — specifically his technology — was a moral choice. If you bought Apple products, you were a part of a special group of people who got it, who understood how beautiful and wonderful and creative and special every single soul is. That’s why everyone has an iPhone. So they can express themselves as individuals by buying the same stuff as everyone else.

Jobs is dead now. So it goes.


On the Feed

Originally published in The Des Moines Register, Saturday, February 25, 2012

A few years ago, I read a book called “Feed” by M.T. Anderson. It’s a science fiction story about a future in which most people have implants that let them surf the Web in their brains.

The thought terrified me. How would the brain cope with all the noise? I would never allow such a thing in my head.

I read the book in 2005. That was before Twitter. Facebook was still just for college kids. My cell phone sent and received phone calls and nothing else.

Nearly seven years later, I am very much connected to the Feed. I email, blog, surf, tweet, text, game, stream and surf. I do it on laptops, tablets and my nifty “smartphone.”

My mom, a retired east Des Moines hairdresser, does not like the term smartphone. She thinks they make people dumb, or at least rude. A while back she got sick of watching me fiddle with my phone and scolded me. She scolded me one day over Sunday dinner. She said I was addicted to my phone.

I protested I was just like everybody else. The average person sends and receives about 40 text messages a day. Twitter processes 2,200 140-character posts from users per second. There ares blogs to follow, funny photos of cats to post and …

Well, this argument went the way it usually goes with my mother. I admitted she was right. I was addicted to the Feed. I seldom let more than a minute or two pass without checking for a new message, tweet, post, text, video and whatnot.

The truth was, all this stuff was mostly junk. It was junk I invited into my life without thinking about how much time it took or how much clutter it crammed into my head. I felt a little overwhelmed by something that ought to be mostly an amusement and occasionally a tool. I need to wean off the Feed.

Last summer, I visited my friend Dave, an artist in Omaha. He told me he turns off his phone every night at 10:30. His family and friends are on notice. He doesn’t take calls between 10:30 p.m. and 7 a.m. Whatever it is, Dave said, it can wait until morning.

I liked the idea so much I stole it. I created a house rule in my home: No “screens” after 11 p.m. Screens include TV, computers, cell phones, tablets and other gadgets that might connect me to the Feed. I don’t even listen to music.

The first few nights, I thought I might go nuts. I was sure I was missing something. What if my New York Yankees made a big trade? What were the day’s page views on my TV and movie review blog? How would I get along without all those funny cat videos?

Now, though, the no-screens time zone is my favorite time of the day. I prop myself up on a stack of pillows, turn the pages of a good book and let the stresses of the day ease. By the time I put out the bedside light, I’m relaxed.

The practice reminds me of my favorite part of church when I was a boy and attending services at Winterset First United Methodist Church. The pastors always set aside a few minutes for silent prayer and reflection. It quieted and focused me. External worries faded. I could be where I was with my mind on what I was doing.

I’m not cured. I’m still plugged into the Feed during most of my waking hours — except during visits with a certain retired east Des Moines hairdresser.

Then the phone stays in the car.