Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Future That's Already Last Month

In recent days I've repeatedly felt the urge to write a good, old-fashioned Year In Review entry.

Each and every time I've had that urge, however, it has been immediately followed by the realization that my little brain is no longer able to deal with time in year-size chunks. (Most days I have trouble wrapping my mind around a single minute!)

Has it ever really been different for me? Was there ever a point in the distant past when I truly comprehended the flow of events for a single second? I don't know. My little brain is now quite unable to answer that question and is indignantly demanding to know why I insist on asking it such a thing while there is chocolate in the house that I could be seeking out and feeding it instead.

Well, the chocolate will have to wait while I make a no doubt doomed-to-fail attempt to review at least December.

And by "December" I mean just two little discoveries in December that continue to leave me blinking a few times more than is proper while I try to make my bed and comb my hair and navigate my way through the world like a normal person.

The first little discovery came early in the month as I was reading the Time magazine dated Dec 6. It wasn't any news story or piece of insightful commentary that was the source of this discovery but an ad buried somewhere in the broad middle regions of my weekly dose of pre-screened information.

This ad:

I don't know what anyone else's reaction to this ad may have been, but to me it seemed startlingly alien and futuristic - the sort of thing that I simply couldn't have predicted despite having read news magazines for decades (and despite experiencing life on this planet for even longer).

The main reason for this reaction, of course, was that ultra-current QR symbol that JFK is so bizarrely spouting out of his long-dead mouth.

I suppose I'd seen that symbol once or twice before, but it was this ad which really made me sit up, drop my Hershey's bar, and pay attention to it.

Thanks to the now somewhat-less-bizarre and not-quite-so-cutting-edge entity known as Wikipedia, I was able to quickly learn more about this strange typographical animal.

To wit:

A QR Code is a specific matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code), readable by dedicated QR Barcode reader and camera phones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded can be text, URL or other data.

Common in Japan, where it was created by Toyota subsidiary Denso-Wave in 1994, the QR code is one of the most popular types of two-dimensional barcodes. QR is the abbreviation for Quick Response, as the creator intended the code to allow its contents to be decoded at high speed.

Although initially used for tracking parts in vehicle manufacturing, QR Codes are now used in a much broader context, including both commercial tracking applications and convenience-oriented applications aimed at mobile phone users (known as mobile tagging). QR Codes can be used to display text to the user, to add a vCard contact to the user's device, to open a URI or to compose an email or text message. Users can also generate and print their own QR Code for others to scan and use by visiting one of several free QR Code generating sites. Frank C. Hudetz, a US Marketing Services Professional, claims to have invented the idea of mapping bar codes to a URL.

QR Codes storing addresses and URLs may appear in magazines, on signs, buses, business cards, or on just about any object about which users might need information. Users with a camera phone equipped with the correct reader application can scan the image of the QR Code to display text, contact information, connect to a wireless network, or open a web page in the phone's browser. This act of linking from physical world objects is known as a hardlink or physical world hyperlinks....

And so on, and so forth - blah blah blah. The words (many coined long after JFK's time had passed) may provide understanding but they cannot completely dispel the feelings of unreality that one glance at a single QR symbol generates within me. It's as if each QR symbol I see opens a portal to a future I never expected to arrive.

Now that that future is here, I'm not quite sure what to do with it. I don't have a cell phone, let alone a cell phone with a camera that might scan these symbols and provide me with an instant link to... well, whatever numerous people I don't know and shall never meet want to provide me a link to for reasons I'm instinctively a bit suspicious of.

Looking at a somewhat detailed explanation of the symbol provides a bit more understanding, but can it really do anything in the long run to calm the strange combination of exhilaration and unease that washes over me as I look?

I don't know.

If you'd like to try it for yourself, here (courtesy Wikipedia) is what you need to do so:

For what it's worth, Wikipedia also tells me that various artists such as Italy's Fabrice de Nola and Australia's Simone O'Callaghan have been playing around with the visual aspects of QR symbols for at least several years now - which rather leaves me feeling like someone who's finally noticed the sun in the sky long after others have gotten rich building and selling solar arrays.

Maybe it's the tiny artist in me that's having the biggest problem with the QR symbol. Unlike the Mondrian simplicity of the barcode that's been heralding the Apocalypse since the 1970s, the QR symbol brings to mind the barely controlled chaos of a Pollock.

The combination of advanced technology and barely controlled chaos is less than reassuring.

Then again, the more I stare at the thing, the more it seems to become a shrunken version of a Martian crossword puzzle, perhaps as seen through someone else's prescription lenses....

Either way, I can only hope against hope that I'll feel much better about it after I've fed myself an adequate amount of low-tech chocolate.

The other notable discovery I made in December occurred mid-month.

That one came not from a magazine but from my TV.

My 5-year-old TV.

The one that's now hopelessly out-of-date when it comes to receiving HDTV widescreen programming.

Televised writing and logos have been annoyingly running off both sides of its once-mammoth 25" screen for months, but it wasn't until just a few weeks ago that I noticed that everyone appearing on the local NBC affiliate looked like Abraham Lincoln after he'd been stretched out on the rack. Apparently to avoid the side run-off problem, someone at the station decided to squeeze things inward - making everyone appear way too thin and tall in the process.

Having inherited (and stuffed away in the bedroom) a 32" widescreen TV last year, I decided to check things out on it a bit more closely. After a bit of fiddling, I was able to get the folks on NBC to look more or less normal, but... it wasn't as easy as it should have been. The set offers me three wide screen modes: Normal, Full, and Zoom. But it doesn't remember what I prefer when I switch channels, so I'm constantly having to readjust it. And the Zoom mode - which, all in all, I like best - cuts things off at the top and bottom.

The set also takes about 15 seconds to boot-up when I first turn it on.

So, here's the deal: The more I'm aware of the technology I'm using to do something, the more it takes the pleasure out of whatever it is that I'm trying to do.

The latest TV "advances" have taken a lot of the pleasure out of watching TV for me - and there wasn't a whole lot there to begin with.

If I hadn't inherited one of the newer sets, I doubt that I would ever buy one.

All of which perplexes and annoys me.

The last TV we had in our living room worked fine for nearly two decades. It did what it was supposed to do as unobtrusively as possible and without needing a single service call. Now its replacement has been rendered functionally obsolete in a mere five years - and *its* replacement is acting like a little pain-in-the-ass princess. This is *not* the sort of wonderful future I imagined back in 1975 when I was taking Radio & TV repair classes and huge flat screen TVs you could hang on a wall were seen as one of the hallmarks of a perfected human life.

It boggles my mind that we've gone from the "instant on" transistorized sets of the late 1960s to the 15-second boot-up sets of today.

It also boggles my mind that after having an exceedingly simple and easy to use set for nearly two decades, I'm suddenly back to the "needs fiddling whenever you change the channel" days of rabbit ears and UHF loop antennas....

So it goes. You either stand on the shore and watch the ever-higher waves of the future steadily erode away the past you're standing on or you grab a board and learn how to surf.

Or you eat chocolate.

Lots and LOTS of chocolate.

And vainly congratulate yourself on your wise decision to not even try to review an entire year when reviewing even two minor things from the last month takes more time and energy and words than any sane person not being paid to sit on a presidential commission should have to spend....


  1. I remember when CD burners were new, the software to burn CDs came with mind-boggling sets of options and you had to choose your own options from every single category with no default or hint of what you might want.
    The design philosphy seemed to be, "Since this was hard to make, it should be hard to use."

    "Do you want ISO-9660 or Apple MFS or Apple HFS or UFS? Joliet or UDF? Do you want the CD to boot? Hahahaha. You silly mortal, you're not smart enough to make a CD that boots and here's another set of options to prove it..."

    Eventually you could buy software that just let you click one button to copy a CD or drag files to a folder and burn one. Later still, that became part of Windows.
    Uh. I'll stop reviewing ancient history now.
    Anyway, I remember when HDTVs were new the reviews all talked about dismal setup sessions where you had to negotiate color patterns and magnetic north and gOd knows what else before you could see a picture.
    HDTVs should be to the "just push the button" stage by now, but they aren't. It might be an unintended compliment from the designers to think the average teevee-watching American knows or cares to know or even CAN know all these things.

  2. I am quite amused by the fact that only this past Monday, you were writing disdainfully of "alarm clock journalists [...] writing the same old calendar-triggered stories, year after year" and now you're itching to join the club, barred only by your supposedly time-impaired memory. (Methinks this is just to show us another way in which "things change.")

    However, lest you think this is criticism, nay, I'm most impressed by your brilliant take on the alien takeover of JFK. And I'm simultaneously appalled and yet somewhat relieved, maybe, by hearing that my ancient ('96) 32" tv set isn't the only one to have its picture falling off the screen, lately, and am beset by gloom to learn that fiddling with antennae may lie in our future, and not anything to do with Rudolph the pet grasshopper. Thanks for the warning!

  3. I have been afraid of "the future" since buying Dippin Dots at the zoo. Have you had this bizarre phenomenon? It claims to be ice cream, but it's made up of tiny little colored spheres that always remind me of styrofoam pellets before they've been melted into bizarre shapes to package 32" TVs and what not. The flavors all look the same, but the magic is that they taste different depending on the flavor you get. I don't know, maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I want my chocolate ice cream to look like chocolate ice cream. And what was so wrong with ice cream to begin with they had to change it???

    It claims to be "the ice cream of the future", but if that's true I am canceling my reservation.

  4. Ahh, I haven't had the pleasure of experiencing the ice cream of the future. The ice cream of the past seems good enough for the likes of me.

    But maybe that's silly. I never felt good enough for Space Food Sticks, either....