5 Gadgets That Changed My World, Part 2

Jul 29, 2010

This is part 2 of my column on gadgets that changed the world for me. These aren't necessarily gadgets that changed the world, not even the gadget world. But they all had a profound impact on my life, and were more important to me than simple technological tools or joyous little toys.

[Image credit Ryonix.com]

Hayes-compatible 1200 baud modem

This is sort of a cheat, because the Hayes-compatible modem was definitely important, but it came bundled with a membership to the Prodigy network. Signing up for Prodigy was one of the most important moments of my life, and it started my contentious relationship with the Hayes modem.

For those of you who are a few years younger than I, Prodigy was sort of like AOL without the rest of the Internet behind it. It was a pay service with tons and tons of original content. You could shop on Prodigy. You could read the news and send e-mail. You could post messages on bulletin boards and comment back and forth on what other people were saying. Except for the multimedia, there is little about today's Internet that wasn't already possible on Prodigy, 20 years ago.

For those of you decades younger than I, Prodigy is what the Internet would be if it were only Wikipedia . . . with comments. We had flame wars. We had anonymity. We had modems that made crazy loud beeping noises, followed by the static white noise sound. I often wonder if my toddler son will understand that sound in 10 years when he hears it in an old movie.

I could say more about Prodigy and its effect on me, but let's just say I blossomed on that early network. I made some of the best friends I've ever made. Real friends; in-person friends. I took a girl to my Junior Prom after getting to know her on Prodigy. I still talk to old Prodigy friends. But Prodigy was inseparable from that modem. I had one computer at the time, a huge beige desktop. I couldn't tell you the brand; at the time we just called it an IBM-compatible.

The modem was a giant unit that had its AC plug built into the box. You plugged the entire modem into the wall, and then plugged the phone line into the modem. My parents had to get a new line installed in our basement, where I kept the computer for homework. I had no games on the computer, since it used only a CGA graphics card, and my gaming consoles were much better. It was a computer for word processing and Prodigy.

At some point during my Sophomore year, my grades slipped a bit. It wasn't Prodigy's fault. I was hanging out with friends after school. I was blowing off work I didn't enjoy. My grades slipped from "A"s and "B"s to "B"s and "C"s, but never lower. My parents blamed Prodigy. It was easy to blame, because it was right in front of them.

When I was home, I was usually tucked into the basement, keeping up with my new online friends. Even when my parents couldn't see me, they could pick up the phone in the kitchen and hear that modem connection. Since it seemed like the modem was always connected, Prodigy was an easy scapegoat for my falling grades.

They didn't take away Prodigy, they took away the modem. Except that my parents had no idea what a modem looked like. They saw the hardware: a large AC plug with a cord running to the PC. The cord ended in a pin adapter. The modem came with two, one each for two differently sized serial ports.

Instead of taking away the modem, they took the adapter. Thankfully, the modem came with a spare that fit the other port size, and this worked fine with my machine. They took the serial adapter and hid it away in an antique apothecary scale that my father displayed on the mantel.

I kept connecting. When I heard footsteps upstairs near the phone, I would quickly kick the modem out of the wall. With no power, the connection terminated instantly. Using this deception for about a year, I was only caught once. That was enough. They couldn't figure out my trick, but they did figure out that canceling my subscription would solve the problem.

Not really, though. Like with AOL, every Prodigy account came with 6 different login names. I lost my account, but a good friend, the girl I took to prom (the one for whom I made mix tapes as well, if you read the first half of this column), gave me one of her login names. I never got caught again.

As a post script, that apothecary scale sits on a new mantel in a new house, my parents having long-since moved. I checked last thanksgiving, and the serial adapter is still there. Perhaps if my grades improve, I'll get it back, someday.

Macintosh Powerbook 520c

It almost seems like a copout putting this machine on the list. It's just too awesome. The Mac Powerbook 520c was the low end of Apple's Powerbook line at the time. There was a 540c using an active-matrix, full color display, but my machine used a passive matrix screen that left trails and a foggy picture. I loved that computer.

It wasn't the color screen, the first I'd seen on a laptop computer. It wasn't the trackpad, either, the first I'd seen anywhere. I've owned computers since I was 10 years old, and Macs since I was 17. I was 19 when I bought my Powerbook 520c, a sophomore in college, and it changed my education for good.

I had always typed papers for school, since I was in middle school. But my note taking was atrocious. I managed to squeak by. I had a good mind for math equations, and I could fake my way through any English test. But in history, science, even my language studies, I was at the mercy of my own memory. My handwriting is nearly illegible, and in all my time in grammar school, I don't once remember studying from my own notes.

After a month with my first laptop, I was bringing it to every class. In 1994, I was still the only one with a laptop in class. By the end of college, I could type out an hour-long lecture verbatim. I was sharing my notes with other people, comparing my notes to make sure they were correct.

I don't think that reviewing notes later necessarily improved my education. But being able to take accurate notes and follow closely as the class was in session was a priceless advancement for me, and I think it would help an incomprehensible number of today's students.

Note taking is a difficult skill to teach because it is so personal; but every teacher expects students to take notes and follow closely at the important moments. If every student went to class armed with a computer of her own, it would change the way students interact in a classroom.

I'm not talking about advanced networked classrooms sharing multimedia presentations and taking digitized quizzes at the end of a term. I'm talking simply about taking notes. Writing things down. Processing and recording the information as it is being thrown your way. I can't think of a better way to pull underperforming, bright students into the modern age than arming them with the proper tools for the job. In today's education system, those tools are no longer notebooks and pens, but laptops and wireless networks.


This seems like an easy choice, and I'm sure plenty has been written about how TiVo has rocked the entertainment world. But it all hit home for me about ten years ago. I was a very early adopter for TiVo. I've been a customer since the first boxes hit the shelves.

A professor of mine once said that the VCR was the most disruptive thing to happen to performance art in a hundred years. For the first time, you could pause a work of art while it was happening, leave the room for a snack, and start the piece where you left off. Before the VCR, you couldn't stop a movie, you could only choose to miss some of it. You couldn't stop a play, you couldn't only interrupt it, or remove yourself from it.

TiVo is similar, but it adds another component. TiVo is always recording what you see on television. It has a constant buffer, so if you see something you want to save for later, you can hit record and it's already done. On my oldest TiVo (of the three I've owned), I have an assortment of shows that I'm keeping for posterity. Some I even have cued to my favorite part. Press a button and George Costanza says "Well, there's nothing dirtier than a giant ball of oil." Start up my favorite Simpsons and the first thing you hear is Homer asking: "Are you really the head of Kwik-E-Mart? Really? You?"

TiVo changed the world for me on September 11, 2001. I was faxing resumes, looking for a teaching job. My wife was working in midtown Manhattan. She called to tell me to turn on the news, something big and evil was happening downtown. I turned on CNN, and even in my initial shock, I knew to press the record button. I still have those first hours of the newscast from that day.

Some day I'll show it to my children. I know they could probably find archival footage, but I want them to see the moment as I saw it. Aaron Brown starting to speak mid-sentence. The camera cuts to a building billowing smoke. That's when I pressed record, and created a memory that I'll never forget.

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