It is either a blessing or a curse to be living in these modern times if you are enamored of gadgets. And I do love my gadgets. It is possible that I received this blessing, or curse, in my childhood. Every now and again Santa would bring an electronic kit needing assembly, and before you knew it, I had a collection of home-made gadgets: an AM radio, an analog computer, and my favorite, an AM radio transmitter. I believe I was infected then with the gadget bug, and have since lived with a bad case of gadget-itis.
I was born in the early 1950s, so what constituted a gadget has changed considerably during my lifetime. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the laser was the latest thing. It was The Death Ray, real Buck Rogers stuff, a thing of mystery. The first time I ever saw a laser in person was in the late ‘60s, at N. C. State University. The event was some sort of enrichment day for high school students, and we all were mesmerized by the collimated beam of coherent red light issuing forth from one end of the laser. Fascinating stuff. By now, everyone in America has owned at least three laser beams (I understand there are three in a CD player), and the technology no longer excites. People even use laser beams as pointers for overheads, which to me is a bit like using an atomic bomb to kill a cockroach: overkill.
I think it was during my sophomore year in college that the department received it’s first portable computer. It was a Hewlett-Packard, which was portable only because the CPU, and the compiler, and the paper tape reader fit nicely into a metal rack outfitted with coasters. We could thus roll it from room to room, and hook it up to the teletype machines scattered throughout the building. It was definitely during my sophomore year in college that I saw the very first of the pocket-sized electronic calculators. These, too, were Hewlett-Packard machines, specifically the HP-35 calculator. (I am ignoring the SR-10 calculator made by Texas-Instruments. The SR-10 performed only 5 functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and the extraction of square roots. Price tag: $125.) Every professor in the department received an HP-35 (price tag: $400 each). I wanted one badly, but couldn’t justify the cost until the next year, when two semesters of physical chemistry practically demanded that I have one. By then, the HP-35 had dropped in price to $300, because of the introduction of the newest model, the HP-45. Being a gadget guy, I of course bought the HP-45 (price tag: $400).
That was 1973. I still have the HP-45, and it still works. They stopped making battery packs for the device decades ago, and some years ago I tired of soldering Ni-Cad batteries together to make my own battery packs, so the 45 is officially retired. But you need to get a feel for the cost of gadget-itis. I spent $400 on a calculator that is inferior to the $13 calculators you now see on the end caps of the calculator row at Staples. The real indignity is that I can buy an iPhone app for the “vintage 45” for $0.99, and turn my phone into a 45. From $400 to $0.99, such is the sacrifice we gadget guys make in order to have the latest and greatest.
I suppose my worst experience with gadget-itis was in 1984. The VCR recorder was coming into its own, and I had to have one. But I didn’t want just any VCR. I wanted one that was portable, so that I could hook a camera into the recorder and make family films. That meant I had to have one that could run off an internal battery pack, in addition to running off standard AC. But more than that, I had to have a VCR that was highly programmable. I wanted programmability for weekly shows, daily shows, one-off shows, the works. I really didn’t need all this flexibility: I just wanted it. That is how I ended up spending $800 for a VCR, and another $800 for a camera. Christmas of 1984 was quite expensive.
In retrospect, I could have saved a few hundred dollars by buying two VCRs: one that was highly programmable but not portable, and one that was portable but not programmable. These are the mistakes we gadget guys make.
What has prompted these reflections is the condition of the battery in my iPhone 5S. The device holds a charge, and works for quite some time at what appears to be a steady discharge rate. But when the phone reaches some critical threshold value of charge, the battery life drops off drastically. Friends tell me this means the battery, and hence the phone, is on the back nine. I don’t know how much longer we will be together, but it probably will not be much longer. So I have to buy a new gadget.
But the thrill of buying a replacement gadget is gone. The 5S and I have been around the block a few times over the past five years, and I hate to part with him, especially if it means a change in my telephone-access habits. I hear the new iPhones don’t have a home key. The fellow at Best Buy reassured me that after an hour with the new iPhone I would be completely comfortable with it. I doubt it. This represents change, and as I have noted in the past, I’m no longer good with change. I haven’t been all that happy since Queen Victoria died.
So my transformation is complete. I am no longer the starry-eyed young gadgeteer, playing with his home-made AM radio transmitter and dreaming of laser beams. No, I am now the crotchety old geezer wondering why in hell Apple can’t make a battery that will last until I finally get around to kicking the bucket.