Category Archives: SmartPhone

1000 Words: Useless

Loyal Pencillistas are well aware that I am the last human being on this planet who does not own a smartphone. I am the proud possessor of a flip phone. Not terribly long ago, I went into the Verizon store to report my phone wasn’t taking a charge well anymore. When I whipped out my flip phone the clerk recoiled, ever so slightly, as if I’d pulled a tarantula out of my pocket.

Certain tribespeople from the deep Amazon rainforest, members of isolated societies that have had scarce contact with the modern world, would snicker upon being told I own and use this thing:

I’ve already run the laundry list of reasons I don’t want to get re-reeled into the smartphone opium den but, for those not in the know, here they are again:

  • I have no desire to be tethered to the internet 24 hours a day
  • I am neither a neurosurgeon, US Air Force nuclear wing commander, nor 911 emergency call answerer so there’s no need for me to be in constant communication with anyone
  • I do not need or want a news feed that reminds me incessantly what an insufferable pack of idiots we humans are
  • I struggle with certain addictions already and do not need another
  • I won’t have my brain wiring altered

That enough for you? Oh wait, here’s one more: I’m not an obedient, easily malleable consumer.

There. That oughtta be enough of an argument for anyone who thinks my eschewing of the device is idiosyncratic. Well, it is idiosyncratic, but in a healthy, rebellious way, not in a Jeez, is that guy psychotic or what? way.

People might say that if I had kids I’d long ago have jumped on the device bandwagon but I’d like to think I’d be even more anti-smartphone. Trust me, all these generations of kids with smartphones who are shackled to their parents’ smartphones are in line for years of expensive shrink sessions trying to understand why they can’t individuate yet at the age of 42. Either that or they’ll have long been dead because they’d been smushed by a car when crossing the street while staring obliviously into their screens for the latest Harry Styles news.


And see? I don’t have a smartphone and I know who Harry Styles is. I know, bizarre, right?

Now let me explain that “re-reeled” reference five grafs above. I owned a smartphone for a short period of time five or six years ago. That fact that I felt a constant impulse to go to it during conversations, while driving, while evacuating my bowels, when waking up in the middle of the night, while eating — you know better than I do, you smartphones users — scared the crap out of me. I felt as though I was losing touch with time and place. There was, in fact, no more here and now for me; everything was there and then.

Not only that, I cracked the screen within the first year of owning the thing. Replacement phones ranged from a few hundred dollars for a cheap knock-off to well over a grand for the real thing. Like I said, I’m no obedient consumer. I’d rather spend that kind of dough on pizza and a certain botanical.

In any case, I got to thinking about this mania we have for technology and devices when our new range was installed. The manual for it runs to nearly a hundred pages. I wanted to boil a kettle of water for my morning coffee and had to stop because — swear to god — you need to program the stovetop. Not only that, the thing has remote capability.

I thought, For pity’s sake, people are too lazy to haul their huge butts off the sofa to turn the burner on or off?! And, believe me, my butt is as wide as it can get and I can barely walk thanks to hip arthritis and several other obstacle-ish maladies but I get up off my titanic derriere to turn the burner on or off.

See? Technology. Just because something’s possible doesn’t mean it’s needed. It’s like self-driving cars. I read all these articles about how it’s possible and it’s coming and I say, Why?

Take self-service check-out at the grocery store. I never recall anyone saying, My god, I can’t bear standing there while the clerk scans my tomatoes! If only I could do it myself. Nevertheless, Kroger and Publix and Meijer and Target and all the rest sank gobs of dough into the technology — not because they were wringing their hands over our convenience and comfort, but because they wanted to reduce labor costs. For that, read: cut jobs.

There are always unintended consequences from emerging technologies. Do you think Lenoir and Otto mused, when they were inventing their internal combustion engines, Hmm. I wonder if this machine may one day alter the planet’s climate to the extent that it threatens the existence of millions of species?

The parking meters in my fair adopted town of Bloomington, Indiana more and more are becoming programmable, meaning they won’t take coins or bills or credit cards but will only work with smartphones. The world is turning into a device-industrial complex. Even if an idiosyncratic nudge like me wants to thumb my nose at smartphone technology, I’ll still have to join up if I want to park my car somewhere.

To this date, if you have any mental capacity whatsoever, you keep a small pile of coins in your car so you can feed the meter. That’s not too onerous a practice. Again, it’s not as if the multitudes have been shaking their fists and shrieking for remote technologies to free them from the ordeal of carrying currency.

And here’s the kicker: the company that runs Bloomington’s smartphone-activated meters says you can use the meters even if you don’t have a smartphone. Simply use its “automated phone system.” Only you’ll have to determine the correct local phone number by consulting its website, pre-register online, and complete the process by using the company’s app. In other words, you need a goddamned smartphone!

Somebody’s benefitting from all this and it ain’t necessarily me.

Much Less Frigid Air

The War We Lost

So, yesterday was the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declaration of War on Poverty.

It was one of the great moments in American history.

Loyal readers know how I feel about LBJ. He was an uncouth, bullying, macho, conniving political huckster. He also felt, deep within his heart and soul, a kinship with black human beings and poor human beings. And he acted on those empathies — for a precious moment.



Had he and the Congress allowed the resultant Great Society programs to actually eliminate malnutrition, lack of education, joblessness, and all the other ills of need that bedeviled this holy land, the richest on Earth, he would have gone down as one of the greatest three or four presidents ever.

Sadly, he got, to borrow a term he often used, his pecker caught in Vietnam.

This nation decided it was far more important to prosecute an unwinnable, pointless, poorly-executed war in the Southeast Asian jungles than to help our less fortunate brothers and sisters here climb out of despair.

Now, here we are, 50 years later. The gap between rich and poor grows daily. Commentators chirp that the economy is is churning once again after the Great Recession, yet it seems the only beneficiaries are moneyed investors and Wall Street casino players. Municipalities and social and cultural institutions are starving for cash. Unemployment remains remarkably high. And far too many of the available jobs are in the service industries, paying minimum wage.

In the War on Poverty, poverty won.

Mother Jones mag yesterday ran a piece on where we are, poverty-wise, now in the United States. A trio of authors suggest we’ve both won and lost the War. If we take the authors at their word, that the result was a mixed bag, then, really, we’ve lost. LBJ himself said, in announcing the War, “… [W]e shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it.”

Check out the six charts illustrating the depths of American poverty in the 21st Century. Some things have changed for the better. Some things. That’s all.

The political debate today is no nearer to revisiting the ideas of the Great Society than it is to the consideration of dumping all our currency, stocks, and bonds in a huge pile, dousing it with gasoline, and lighting a match.

Poor people, you’re on your own.

To me, that’s a losing coda.

[h/t to Susan Sandberg for pointing out the MJ mag piece.]

The Big Interview

Hey, dig my interview with graphic novelist Nate Powell this afternoon on the WFHB Daily Local News.



It’s the first in a new series of conversations between me and people I find compelling and interesting. Each tête à tête will run as an 8-minute feature on WFHB and then as a full-out conversation in The Ryder magazine.

Powell is the illustrator of the graphic novel, March: Book One, about the life of Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Lewis got his skull broken by an Alabama state trooper on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. That was the day voting rights activists attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge at Selma but were met and routed by local and state cops.

Powell has written and drawn a number of award-winning and big-selling comics and graphic novels including Swallow Me Whole, Any Empire, and The Silence of Our Friends. He lives in Bloomington now with his wife and two-year-old daughter.

Tune in at 5:30pm or catch the podcast (after it’s put up, natch) on the station’s website. The longer Powell interview will run in next month’s Ryder.

A Contrarian’s Rationalization

Loyal readers know I refuse to get a smartphone. Some folks look at me as if I’m from the moon when I whip out my trusty flip phone. I don’t care.

Yeah, a lot of it has to do with my fetish for contrarianism but, really, there’s thought behind my refusal to jump on the e-toy bandwagon.

Smartphone Users

Personal technology writer David Pogue laid out a good case for my narrowly-focused Luddism in last month’s Scientific American:

We all know that the cycle of electronics consumerism is broken. Because it’s an endless money drain for consumers to keep their gadgets current. Because the never ending desire to show off new features leads to bloat and complexity of design. And because all our outdated, abandoned gadgets have to go somewhere. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, we Americans threw away 310 million electronic gadgets in 2010 alone. That’s about 1.8 million tons of toxic, nonbiodegradable waste in our landfills.

See? I’m not a total lunatic.

The Pencil Today:

HotAirLogoFinal Saturday


“Radio was my pal. I was just crazy about it.” — Bob Edwards



The transistor radio just might be the coolest consumer electronic product ever invented.

Think of it, the kids of the early ’60s were able to carry, for the first time in human history, music in their pockets.

Transistor Radio

One Of Humankind’s Crowning Achievements

The iPod is merely a refinement on that earthshaking development. The smartphone can’t begin to compare, since it forces its possessors to communicate with Mom & Dad, among other insufferables.

I was eight years old in the fall of 1964. I’d seen the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show the previous February and was hooked. They were young and mop-headed and fun. I must admit I had no particular love for any one of their endless string of hits, but they opened up the Top 40 charts for me.

Because of them, I discovered the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Four Seasons, all of whom I liked much more. Wherever I saw a radio –the ungainly kind that plugged into the wall — that landmark year, I turn it on and fiddled with the dial until I could pull in WLS or WCFL, Chicago’s rock ‘n roll stations.

Martha & the Vandellas

Martha And The Vandellas

The thing I studied most that year had nothing to do with math or science; it was Dex Card’s Silver Dollar Survey. Card was the new afternoon DJ WLS had hired early in 1964 to position itself even younger and hipper than when it had originally gone to all rock ‘n roll four years earlier. Each afternoon he’d play, in order, the 40 songs on his Silver Dollar Survey compilation of Chicago biggest hits.

Image ©Scott Childers

Dex Card At A WLS Record Hop

I appeared faithfully every Friday afternoon after school at Frank’s Dime Store on North Avenue to pick up my fresh new copy of the tri-fold Silver Dollar Survey. For the rest of that day, I’d devour the thing, memorizing the position of each song on the chart.

By the way, it had taken WLS a few years after the big 1960 format change to really catch on. A lot of people who lived within range of the station’s clear channel, 50,000-watt signal were farmers. WLS could be pulled in on a good day from Minneapolis to St. Louis, Louisville to Cincinnati and Detroit. That covered an awful lot of plow-pushers. And at first, all those farmers were mightily ticked off that WLS had replaced shows like “The Prairie Farmer” and “Barn Dance” with stuff like “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles.

The rock ‘n roll DJs, including Dick Biondi (The Wild I-tralian), Clark Weber, and Art Roberts, gamely hung in there, waiting for the right break — and it came with the arrival of the Beatles in the US in the winter of ’64. Next thing anybody knew, WLS and its big competitor, WCFL, were the hottest stations in town.

WLS/Dick Biondi

That’s where I come in. Starting in September, 1964, I began badgering my mother to get me a transistor radio for Christmas. Ma gave me her stock-in-trade response, “What are we, the Rockefellers?”

She’d alternate between that and “Who do you think you are, King Farouk?”

King Farouk

King Farouk Would Have Had A Transistor Radio

I had no idea who King Farouk was, but I assumed he was filthy rich.

Generally, once she’d invoke either of those titans of wealth, I’d know that whatever I was asking for was out of the question. She had, after all, grown up during the Great Depression and that experience mixed in with her own innate neuroses and compulsions caused her to squeeze a dime so tightly that Roosevelt turned blue.

But this time, I would not take no for an answer. I hammered her seemingly daily, often earning a whack to the side of my head for my troubles.

Besides, Ma never saw Christmas as a time to bestow trivial gifts like toys and such on us. Every Christmas eve, I’d unwrap her Sears gift box full of underwear and socks and then lie to her, telling her they were great. I’d be excited over the gifts my sisters Fran and Charlotte would give me, like Tonka trucks and big 64-crayon boxes of Crayolas. But not Ma’s.

Tonka Truck

At school, all my friends would gush about their new toy cranes and Erector Sets. Then they’d ask me what I got. The first year they asked, I responded honestly: “Well, my Ma got me underwear and….” I had to stop there because my friends’ howls of laughter were drowning me out.

By the time Christmas rolled around in ’64, I’d grown past Tonka trucks and crayons. I wanted — no, craved — the Rolling Stones and Martha and the Vandellas. I was growing up.

So, that Christmas eve I was decidedly less excited than I’d normally be. We feasted that night on the usual Sicilian Christmas Eve table of the Seven Fishes. My fave, then as now, was the calamari in red sauce. I’d let the tentacles dangle out of my mouth and try to force my sister Charlotte to look, at which point she’d threaten to withhold her gift from me that year. I’d stop forthwith.

At about eight that evening it was time to open the presents. I felt as though my childhood was past because I really didn’t care all that much about the whole thing. The previous year, for instance, I’d gotten a James Band 007 attache case, complete with code book, false IDs and a Luger that shot plastic bullets. Now that was a Christmas gift. The week between that Christmas and New Year I’d even written out my will in case I’d be killed in the execution of my duties as a spy. I recall folding it up and hiding it in the 007 breast pocket wallet that came with the attache case.

007 Attache Case

Now, at the jaded age of eight, nothing short of a transistor radio would do and since I wasn’t going to get it….

My brother Joey called out, “To Mike from Ma and Dad.”

He handed me the present. It was small, about ten inches by six inches, so it wasn’t the usual underwear and socks. I didn’t even tear the package open as I’d always done in the past. This time I carefully opened it, rather like a fussy old aunt who found it weirdly imperative to preserve the wrapping paper for next year.

The moment I saw the picture on the front of the box, I screamed, actually screamed, as if I were being tortured by Auric Goldfinger.

From "Goldfinger"

“Why No, Mr. Bond. I Expect You To Die!”

There it was, my transistor radio.

The Rolling Stones and Martha & the Vandellas were now mine. All mine.

I slept with that thing, the earphone attached to me, for the next three years until I got my second transistor radio. I quickly arrived at the point where I couldn’t get to sleep without the sound of music in my right ear.

Best Christmas present ever.


By The Waitresses.

The Pencil Today:


“I’d like to say I was smart enough to finish six grades in five years, but I think perhaps the teacher was just glad to get rid of me.” — Alan Shepard


Let’s talk teachers today.

A report on WFIU local news this morning mentioned the Richland-Bean Blossom School Corporation program to replace text books with iPads. The RBBSC is buying a thousand of the devices for use by students over the next three years.

Now, this seems to be a fairly good idea. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for the kids’ backs. It’s good because kids are growing up in a world wherein books are goofy things that old people waste their time with while iPads are what every cool person has.

This Used To Be Yellowwood State Forest

So far, so good.

The report, though, mentioned that teachers now will be just a click away. Should a kid need to know, for instance, how many pages the essay on the Civil War that’s due tomorrow morning has to be, all she has to do is email the teacher and she’ll have her answer within moments.

Sounds good, no?


It stinks for the teachers.

No matter how dedicated a teacher is, no matter how much she loves her job and her students (although god knows why), she needs some time away from them all.

Mother Teresa Would Belt These Kids

And, trust me, the minute kids realize the teacher is a touch of the send button away, they’ll be harassing the poor soul from morning until night.

See, this thing reeks of the current workplace zeitgeist that holds that as an employee of the corporation, you are now owned lock, stock and barrel by it. Every desk jockey in this holy land is now tethered to American Widgets, Inc. 24 hours a day via SmartPhone and Droid and all the rest.

You Are Ours

Anyone who isn’t at the constant beck and call of management and coworkers is not getting ahead. Not only that, those recalcitrant fools risk being axed forthwith.

When pagers became widespread in the 70s and cell phones started coming on the scene in the 90s, advertisements for them often featured the likes of heart surgeons extolling the virtues of whatever device was being peddled. The idea was, If it weren’t for this cell phone, my patient would have died horribly and with great suffering.

Now the pager and cell phone peddlers knew they couldn’t survive solely by marketing their toys to heart surgeons but they were banking on the rest of us watching their commercials and thinking, Man, I want to be super-cool and indispensable just like that doctor.

Next thing you knew, office supply salespeople and fast food restaurant managers were wearing pagers and, later, cell phones in clip cases on their belts.

This Person Never Wants To Have Sex Again

The sane among us considered them geeks but as the years slipped by, more and more of us became geeks. And by extension, fewer of us remained sane.

Now, of course, anybody who doesn’t have a cell phone with texting and Internet capabilities is, for all intents and purposes, a nut.

Call me a nut.

I subscribe to the Louis CK philosophy of gadgets: Just because a technology has been invented doesn’t mean you have to use it.

But the sacred corporation has embraced these technologies with all the fervor of born agains. There’s no better way to keep tabs on your wage slaves. You like your $65,000 a year gig? You’ll give yourself over to us like a high school dropout in love for the first time.

Nobody asked me, but if the Richland-Bean Blossom School Corporation wanted my vote, I’d say leave the poor teachers alone for a few hours a day, wouldja?




Now let’s look at the other side of the teachers’ coin.

This pic has been circulating in the Facebook universe lately:

In case you’re having a hard time reading the note, it begins: “I am a teacher. You are able to read, write, do arithmetic and much more because of people like me.”

It’s part of that whole I-Am-the-99% thing wherein the downtrodden of this holy land speak plainly and plaintively about how greed capitalism is crushing them. And generally I agree with every word they write.

But this one bugged me.

Yes, I’m all for teachers. And yes, the right wing, god-fearing, anti-intellectual gang that runs things these days would like nothing better than to break teachers unions, slash funding for schools to the bone, and mandate that the story of Noah be taught in science class.

Alright Children, Time For Your Biology Lesson

I buy the argument that a society that doesn’t value education — as ours largely does not — is marching toward its well-deserved grave.

Still, the hubris in the above screed rankles.

We humans take to reading and writing innately. The argument has been made, most notably by renowned linguist Steven Pinker, that the capability to produce and reproduce language is hard-wired in us, much like the ability to spin a web is written into the genetic code of the spider.

I’ll give you a bit of anecdotal evidence. I was sick throughout most of my kindergarten year. I had some weird low-grade fever deal that kept me home from school most days.

Anyway, I taught myself to read as I sat home. I flipped through the World Book Encyclopedia constantly, especially the parts that had to do with World War II, airplanes, trains, and maps. I’d see the little squiggles beneath the photos and ask my mother what they meant. She’d be grating breadcrumbs or making spaghetti sauce and she’d reply, “That says ‘tank’,” or “Illinois.”

Aw, Cool!

And I’d repeat the word or words. Mainly, though, I gleaned words and sentences through repetition, seeing them again and again in different places. I started to understand what “the” meant, or “men,” or, for that matter, “World Book Encyclopedia.”

This is how humans learn.

Teachers have their place as guides through the thicket of rational thought. Ideally, they help us learn to think critically. They steer us toward effective ways to study. At best, they inspire us to keep those childlike senses of wonder and curiosity we’re all born with.

But teachers are human. Some are good at what they do. Some are not. Too many of my teachers were far more interested in teaching my classmates and me the lessons of conformity and obedience.

The only things I learned from them was how to reject those lessons.

I see no reason to believe teachers have changed all that much since I was a school brat.

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