Big, dang TV time

There are moments in our lives when insights reveal themselves in special events and the world is never the same again. The birth of a child. A marriage. A devastating illness or injury. A milestone birthday. A career change.

Or when you realize your TV screen isn’t big enough.


Hurricane Irma did it for me. We were staying with friends — designated by the county as the official Thompson evacuation shelter — and I was watching The Weather Channel, mesmerized.

“That’s a big dang TV!” I told my friend. “I mean, it’s like a Jumbotron. I’m seriously concerned Irma might just roar out it and bowl me over. If I still have a house after this, I need a big dang TV, too!”

He just looked at me and said: “Yeah man, I think you do.”

Thank you, Hurricane Irma. You have helped me to see the light.

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Never trust your smart-phone

It read like a horror movie: “How smart-phones hijack our minds.” That was the headline of a piece in the Wall Street Journal — an article that immediately got my attention, and caused me to curse my phone: “Aha! It was YOU who caused me to eat all those candy corn pumpkins!!! I TOLD my daughter I had nothing to do with it!”

The article gave some pretty shocking statistics: We pull our phones out 80 times a day … our phones are actually making us less focused and sloppier … their mere presence makes us dumber and we’re willingly letting these devices “commandeer our brains” … if there is anything resembling candy corn in the house, they will force us to eat it. Stuff like that.

Truth is, if aliens wanted to invade Earth, all they need to do is buy a bunch of iPhones and pass them out for a free on a street corner. “Keys to the planet for a free smartphone? Eh … sounds like a fairly good deal! Does it come with unlimited data?”

We are willingly letting ourselves get hijacked.

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Lessons from walking into a pole while looking at a phone

I walked into a pole.

A pole!

A big, giant, sticking-straight-up-out-of-the-ground pole. In the sidewalk. Screaming, “hey stupid! Don’t walk into me!”

I walked into it. While looking at my phone.

It kind of hurt. I bumped my knee. My arm hit it so hard that my phone spun out of my hand like a boomerang and into the street.

My wife was walking along next me: “Oh my gosh!” she said. “Are you OK?” I think she thought I had been shot. Until she noticed … “Wait a minute … did you just walk into that pole?!?”

I walked into “that” pole. Yes. Yes, I did.

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Remembering names and that neural implant something or other

Torn. Absolutely torn.

Because technology is starting to frighten me. With all its advances and nefarious uses and the fact that our microwaves are now snickering at us when they see what we’re wearing each morning.

But there’s some cool stuff, too. Some of it seems awfully tempting. Like the news that tech entrepreneur Elon Musk is launching a company with the goal of implanting electrodes into our brains. One day, this could help us do all manner of wonderful things, like speed up how we process and analyze information. You know, like finding the most adorable cat videos on the Internet without ever typing on a keyboard. That way we can have our hands free to eat cheese puffs!

I’m terrified and intrigued by this idea. The cool part is how such a chip might help my feeble little mind work better. Like remember names. I’m possibly one of the worst name-remembers in history. I once looked in the mirror and had to ask myself, “So, one more time, tell me your name?”

How awesome would it be to have a neural implant in my brain that gently reminds me with tender nudges who people are: “ARE YOU FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME!?! IT’S ED!!! HOW HARD IS THAT TO REMEMBER?!?”

I could totally go for that.

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Dear technology engineers … a little help with my email password

I was watching a car commercial the other night when it occurred to me that driver-less cars are probably the next big technological milestone. Here was a car that could automatically brake in emergency situations no matter what the driver was doing. The commercial showed a couple injured in an accident getting to magically go back in time to avoid the whole episode thanks to their car’s sensors predicting the crash and bringing the vehicle to a stop.

Cool! Just like that I was a driver-less car convert.

But at the same time, it also got me thinking that if we can create such incredible inventions, why do we continue to fail on easy, low-hanging fruit?

Self-driving cars? Great. But why not pollen-resistant paint!

My two cars could be mistaken for a landslide. They’re covered in so much dust, pollen and other assorted detritus that I sometimes lose them in parking lots. I refuse to wash them because I know it won’t last more than 5 minutes. So, I lose my cars and walk around asking people if they have seen something that looks like a boulder or what a cat might have coughed up.

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Breaking free from the screens

I had just about reached my limit. That moment when I realized I had wasted enough of my time — my life! — staring at the computer screen while clicking on an endless supply of political ramblings, soccer recaps and advice columns about getting really rich while only raising two fingers. “Go do something productive!” I commanded myself. And I was just about to … when I saw the story headlined, “Luke Skywalker learned Jedi secrets while watching Youtube.”

Oh, I’ve got to click on that!

It was then that I realized I had a problem. That my whole family has a problem. Like millions of Americans, we’re hooked on screens. They’re everywhere in the house, and worse, we’re bound to them like umbilical chords. Unable to function, think or cope without them.

“How are you feeling today?”

“Hmm. I don’t know. Let me Google it.”

Which is why I think we need to break away. Free ourselves from the screens. So I have come up with a 5-step family cleanse to help us do it. We will shatter our reliance on the almighty screen and here’s how:

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Big technology dreams for the future

What do kids dream about now? Like big future things. Things that make them sigh in bed at night and say to themselves, “If only I had a plutonium-powered homework eraser! That would do the trick.”

I was thinking about this as I was buying a running hydration belt that would also carry my iPhone. (Hydration belt is code for “goofy runner gets parched and needs mini-canteens on his waist.”)

Anyway, the belt needs to carry my iPhone so it will connect to my new heart rate monitor. That way I can see if my heart is still beating after I try to drink water on a long run and crash into a tree … or maybe a moving car.

Anyway, it occurred to me that all the little things that I dreamed about as a kid – super-techy watches that know your location, communicators like on “Star Trek,” devices that allow video calls, little electronic pads that tell you everything you ever wanted to know, including your vital signs – are now reality. Commonplace. They’re here and we have them and even take them for granted.

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The confounding cable upgrade call

The actual recorded transcript as I called the cable company, desperately trying to learn more about bundling my services, saving money and watching the Tour de France guilt-free:

Rep: Good afternoon. This is so-and-so cable company. How can I help you today?

Me: Yes, thank you. I’m calling because I like money and want to save some with these great deals and services I’ve been reading about. Can you help me with that?

Rep: Most definitely, sir. Let me run through some of the many choices we are currently offering. Let’s see … we have a DVR special that comes with two toppings and a side of marinara … hold on. Wrong special. OK, here we go. Our top package comes with 800 channels, 792 of which you will never watch, plus a DVR that can record 87 shows simultaneously. But don’t worry: You don’t have to watch any of those, either.

Me: OK … um … what else does it come with?

Rep: Let’s see. It says here you are eligible for our new Super Extreme WIFI modem. What makes it “super” and “extreme,” you ask? The fact that we named it that. Plus, it is so powerful, you can communicate with the probe Juno, currently orbiting Jupiter.

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Mining for Minecraft Mods

Excuse me if I seem a little tired. I was up late again last night, desperately trying to load a new Mod into Minecraft.

What’s a “Mod?” Well, I’m glad you asked … because I have no earthly idea. Could stand for “modification.” Possibly. Or “my obedient dad,” as in, “My obedient dad is going to stay up all night pulling his hair out while trying to load this thing onto my computer game.” It’s anyone’s guess.

My daughter has become a maniac for Minecraft, that video game that lets players construct whole worlds and travel through them while whaw, whaw-whaw, whaw, whaw. (I don’t actually know what Minecraft is all about, as I tend to tune out when she explains it.)

What I do know is that everything looks like it’s made of square blocks — the land, the people, the animals, the buildings.

“Oh, look how cute,” my daughter will say. “It’s an ant!”

I strain my pixel-challenged eyes and say: “No, it isn’t! It’s six black squares walking around. These graphics are terrible!”

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Alexa, and the high-tech, low-tech collision

“Alexa, play ‘Party Rock’ please,” said my daughter. Immediately the little black cylinder on the breakfast bar lit up in blue and started emitting — or spitting … The song sounds like drunken cats mewing — music into my living room.

This is the future. Our voice-activated devices do what we want. Our houses are automated and our revolutionary machines are at our every beck and call. They do fantastic, incredible things … like repeat the “Party Rock Anthem” over and over until my brain becomes tapioca pudding.

High tech.

It was followed by me yelling over the surging music and frantic dancing: “Hey y’all, I’m gonna’ go outside and set some rat traps in the chicken run.”

I was transported from the future to 1886. The voice-activated, revolutionary device snickered at me. I was about to use something that doesn’t listen, even though I begged it not to snap my finger off. I baited it with chicken kibble and ran screaming for the door.

Low tech.

This is my life. Where high tech and low tech collide. Future-man and old timey farmhand rolled into one. How did it come to this?

The little black cylinder arrived for Christmas. It’s an Amazon Echo that goes by the name “Alexa.” Part music player, part personal assistant, she will tell jokes when you ask her, give the weather, advise on stock picks, predict presidential elections and pretty much mishear everything I say.

“Alexa, please play traditional jazz,” I tell her. She replies, “Playing classic Indian waltzes.”

My family has deep, philosophical debates about whether we should talk sternly to her, or whether we have to say “please?”

The future is a strange place.

Not to mention the other concerns. Like if she’s recording everything we say and sharing it. Important things like personal information and how my wife and I fight over whether grits are an essential food group.

Will she turn against us — like HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey?” Shut off our life support? (Forget that we don’t have life support. It’s the future! ANYTHING can happen.)

So many things to think and worry about, all so we don’t have to walk over and turn up the music.

It makes my work out in the chicken run all the more jarring — a time warp from one extreme to the other — and at the same time a relief. I can’t tell if I feel silly for having to use these antiquated, low-tech traps, or find them a welcome escape from the constantly evolving high-tech world.

A little of both, probably.

As I walk back inside, I fight the urge to sternly say: “Alexa, never play ‘Party Rock’ again, and PLEASE take care of those vermin for me.”

But I know I would just hear: “Repeating ‘Party Rock’ and emailing the world that you have rats in your chicken run.”

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