Quirky directions? This should be fun

Technology, don’t ya just love it?

Cell phones with built-in navigation systems are the latest leap forward in the electronic wonderland we know as the 21st century.

According to a recent Associated Press report touting these pocket marvels of modern technology, they’re convenient, portable and considerably less expensive than a full-fledged Global Positioning System.

On the other hand, AP warns, they can be a little, er, quirky…

Somehow, quirky wouldn’t seem to be the quality most of us would be looking for when trying to navigate between, say, Oskaloosa and Ottumwa during a hailstorm.

(Although, when you think about it, anyone seriously wishing to travel between Oskaloosa and Ottumwa is already a little quirky.)

Nor do many of us breeze into our favorite electronics store and ask the bright-eyed counter nerd if they’ve gotten any really cool quirky stuff in lately.

Admittedly, virtually every technological breakthrough in the history of mankind has been plagued by some minor glitches in the beginning and it’s up to us brave consumer pioneers to purchase them because, by God, they’re there and this is America.

Think about it – navigating your way across Iowa with a cell phone is really no different from utilizing any one of a dozen other forms of new technology available to us at the push of a button.

I, for one, frequently rejoice in the voice recognition software recently installed by the phone company. It’s new. It’s exciting. It’s quirky.

Not long ago, I tried to obtain the phone number for the San Joaquin County Coroner’s Office. An automated long distance information system promptly gave me the number I’d asked for, or at least the number it thought I’d asked for.

For some reason understood only by automated electronic long-distance information robots, I got The Corner Fruit Stand.

Imagine the surprise of the fruit stand clerk when I asked her for an autopsy report I’d been trying to locate.

Now that’s what I call quirky…

Of course, if your cell phone navigation system does get a little weird on you, you can always fall back on the tried-and-true navigational aids of our forefathers:

** Directions from the amiable drunk guy sitting outside the Snort ‘n’ Whistle Tavern on the outskirts of Kewanee.

** The torn, coffee-stained old map your brother-in-law left under the passenger seat of your Studebaker back in 1978.

** Unintelligible, bullet-riddled rural road signs that may, or may not, direct you to either “Huntington” or “Hurricane.”

** Surly service station attendants who speak fluent Latvian.

There is, of course, one obvious advantage of having a cell phone with a built-in navigation system over the aforementioned directional aids. Even if it’s a little quirky, at least you can use the cell phone to call for help after you’ve navigated yourself into an alligator-infested bog just south of Frostproof, Fla….

Happy motoring, amigos.

Originally published November 14, 2004

Dumpster phones: Threat or menace?

A day seldom goes by that some curious soul doesn’t buttonhole me and ask “Hey, how’s your old buddy Sapper? I love that guy, man – what’s he up to?”

I usually have some kind of answer, since my old ’60s sidekick calls regularly from the pay phone outside the bait shop in Coos Bay to tell me exactly what he’s been up to – endlessly and in great detail.

Forever lost in the Age of Aquarius after ingesting some unidentified herbs near Bolinas in 1968, Sapper usually gets chatty about 3 a.m. and begins calling acquaintances from Barstow to Boston to let everybody know how his pet scorpion got stuck in the waffle maker. Or why George W. Bush’s middle initial proves he’s a renegade Belgian pole vaulter on the run from Interpol.

Unfortunately, Sapper entered 21st-century communications three weeks ago when he abandoned the bourbon-marinated pay phone outside the bait shop for a state-of-the-art cell phone he found in a nearby Dumpster.

Dumpster phones – don’t ya just love ’em?

Now the phone rings at 3 o’clock in the morning and I’m treated to 30 seconds of free-range Oregon static followed by “How-dee, bo! Whad-ya ‘ink o’ my nuuuuh shell phode? Pret-ty snarp, hah?”

Then there are some bird calls and stuff.

Try as I might, I can’t convince Sapper that a cell phone found in a Dumpster beside a bait shop might not be the most effective form of Oregon-to-California communication.

(Not that he can actually hear me when I try to convince him of this.)

Sapper, you see, is an incorrigible optimist. His glass is never half-empty, it’s always half-full. The Dumpster phone, he’s told me, has got to be the find of the century. He’s never seen one like it, so it’s got to be unique – probably an ultra-high-tech cell phone developed by a secret government agency and then abandoned when relentless Albanian spies began to close in on the old bait shop.

“Why else would it be there?” he asked quite reasonably over the sound of someone strangling a weasel.

So what’s Sapper been up to?

Well, judging by his last communication, it has something to do with eating nautical hardware en route to a place called Sam Damenagego…

“Wake up, ya knucklehead, I’m on my way over Fushtopfffff to Wizzzjester Bay to get a bloke I fussed up. Ate the hatch covers and muzzled the scuppers. Got a non sequitur, too. We’re ready to sail, buddha boy!”

(Buddha boy?)

Sapper, it seemed, was on his way to board a sailing craft to go somewhere. Or not.

“I’m shrewing down as far as San Damenagego an’ I’ll pro bono back round the Quart of October. If we stop in Sank Frankisko, I’ll call you an’ we’ll get a clutter.”

Uh-huh.

“Hakkadah-hakkadah, OK?”

Sure, why not?

This whole scenario might fit nicely into one of those vaguely amusing Sprint PCS phone commercials, but somehow I kind of doubt that Sprint has a lot of competition from the Oregon Dumpster phone industry.

As far as finding out exactly what Sapper’s been up to, I guess we’ll all have to wait until the Quart of October…

Originally published September 22, 2002

Lissen up now – but not too hard

A colleague and I were discussing the state of the nation over two platters of steaming calamari limone a few hazy afternoons ago when he paused to wring out his goatee and express concern about the status of interpersonal communications.

“Ever notice how people, in general, seem to sound a whole lot stupider these days?” he asked, brandishing a forkful of chewy, marinated tentacles.

He then launched into a lengthy diatribe condemning the educational system, the news media and prime time television.

I nodded sympathetically, but deep in my heart I knew he was only scratching the surface of the conversational stupidity epidemic that seems to be sweeping across America.

The real problem is, alas, the proliferation of cell phones in public places where the average, usually taciturn American, can now be heard blurting out non-stop nuggets of stupidity with giddy abandon.

You see, before the advent of the cell phone, people only felt comfortable mouthing stupidities while they were in the privacy of their own homes speaking on their own telephones.

The home-based telephone was a place where they could relax, cut loose and be goofy with understanding friends, relatives, drinking buddies or the Internal Revenue Service.

Once outside, conversation was safely limited to “Hey, what’s happening?” and “Looks like it’s gonna rain, unless it doesn’t – know what I mean?”

Now the very same conversations about root canals gone bad, the state of Uncle Ernie’s liver cysts and the likelihood of a human child raised by bats are being bellowed out in shopping centers, supermarkets and at the occasional funeral.

For some reason, people who would never think of discussing the condition of their colons with a stranger are now blurting out all the details before dozens, sometimes hundreds, of complete strangers because the presence of the ubiquitous cell phone has given them some sense of privacy in some very public places.

And because of this false sense of security, cell phone users have gradually grown unaware of just how stupid they sound while shouting out a quick recap of the previous evening’s “Big Brother” episode or their hilarious misadventures in housebreaking a stubborn schnauzer.

It’s heartwarming to exchange a few “Goo-goo diddy-wabums!” with an infant grandchild over the telephone in your den, but it just sounds goofy when you’re standing in line at the bank.

The cell phone has, unfortunately, effectively removed the stupidity filters from our collective consciousness.

Worse, once conversational stupidity is loosed, it’s almost impossible to stop. It’s liable to burst out anywhere at anytime, regardless of whether there’s a cell phone present. Before you know it, complete strangers will be buttonholing you and shouting out detailed descriptions of their pet spider monkey’s mating habits or the effectiveness of their favorite laxative.

And then it’ll get ugly. People will enthusiastically begin babbling about pattern baldness. And golf. And (shudder!) politics.

Golf and politics?

Hey, it doesn’t get any goofier than that, amigos…

Originally published September 1, 2002

Oh, sure, this’ll be just swell…

Cellular phone technology is about to take a giant leap forward and make life considerably more interesting for all of us.

According to a recent Associated Press story, the latest generation of cell phones will offer optional video games which will allow cellular subscribers to play alone or join battle with like-minded gamers across the country.

No longer need you simply chat on your ever-present cell phone. Soon you’ll be able to fry space invaders and vaporize zombies with it.

Wheeeeee!

Sounds like fun, but I’ve got to admit that the thought of pop-eyed, cellular phone game players swarming over the landscape with giddy abandon gives me some cause for concern.

Think about it – when was the last time you were confronted by a wandering, 7,000-pound SUV whose grinning driver was happily chatting into a cell phone? Last week? Yesterday? Five minutes ago? Or perhaps it was shortly before you regained consciousness in the emergency room?

Unfortunately, people who try to operate motor vehicles and yammer away on their cell phones at the same time are not the most focused folks in the world. Give them some video games to play – and a crafty opponent to play against – and you’ve got a lively recipe for vehicular chaos.

Of course, the cellular phone companies are going to come out with some wishy-washy warnings to make it all right, telling customers not to play cell phone video games on the freeway if such activities prove detrimental to the operation of their motor vehicles. You know, something like: “Driving while distracted can be hazardous and possibly even illegal if you drive through the front window of a convenience store or flatten the postman…”

I’m sure that hardcore cell phone motorists are going to pay at least as much attention to such warnings in the future as they have in the past – blink, shrug, blink…

Once the video game cellular phones have caught on, you can bet it’s only going to be a matter of time until some genius adds a jack for an electric toothbrush or mascara applicator.

What could be better? Take care of important dental hygiene, customize those eyelashes and engage in a spirited game of Frogger while you’re rolling down life’s highway.

Don’t laugh. There are people who’ll do this. There are people already doing this. And they all drive bigger cars than yours.

Worse, this kind of mobility isn’t limited to crowded freeways or curvy mountain roads.

The same chatty folks drifting into your lane on Interstate 80 are just as likely to inadvertently make your acquaintance on a suburban sidewalk or in the aisle of a neighborhood grocery outlet.

There’s no escape, amigos.

One minute you’re happily picking up a bag of English muffins at your favorite supermarket and the next you’re swept off your feet and mounted on the front of a careening shopping cart piloted by an oblivious lunatic who’s cell phone-bonding with his golfing buddies in Gilroy.

Yeah, a good cell phone video game could really make this a win-win situation…

Originally published May 27, 2001