Confessions of a Naïve Tech Enthusiast (Old Draft)

I’m doing a bit of housecleaning. This is an old post I had in my drafts. Moved to Austin in the meantime, blogged about other things…

Dunno that I’ll finish this one. Should have REROed. In a way, it’s the prelude to my ultimate handheld post.

I keep dreaming of different devices which would enhance my personal and professional experience. Not that I’m really a gadget geek. But technology has, to a large extent, been part of improvements in my life.

Though I would hesitate to call “addictive” my relation to computer technology, I certainly tend to depend on it quite a bit.

Some context.

Ok, ok! A lot of context.

Let’s go back. Waaaaay back. To the summer of 1993. I was 21, then, and had already been a Mac-head for more than six years. Without being a complete fanboy of Apple Computers, I guess I was easily impressed by many of its products. During a trip to Cape Cod that summer, I got to read an issue of USA Today. In that issue, I read a review of a new class of computers, the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). I still remember how I felt. It might not have been my first “tech-induced epiphany” but it was one of the most intense. I not only started drifting off (which was easy enough to do, as I was in the back seat of my mother’s car), I actually started perceiving what my life could be with one of those devices.

Of course, I could afford any of them. Even when it became possible for me to purchase such a device, it remained financially irrational for me to spend that money on a single device, no matter how life-changing it might have been.

Shortly after discovering the existence of PDAs, and still during the summer of 1993, I discovered the existence of the Internet. Actually, it’s all a bit blurry at this point and it’s possible that I may have heard of the Internet before reading that epiphany-inducing USA Today article. Point is, though, that the Internet, not the PDA, changed my life at that point.

Whatever my computing experience had been until that point is hard to remember because the ‘Net changed everything. I know about specific computers I had been using until that point (from a ViC20 to an SE/30). I do remember long evenings spent typing from my handwritten notes taken during lectures. I still get a weird feeling thinking about a few sleepless nights spent playing simple strategy and card games on my father’s old Mac Plus. But I just can’t remember I could live without the ‘Net. I wasn’t thinking the same way.

Not too long after getting my first email account (on Université de Montréal’s Mistral server, running IRIX), the ‘Net helped me land my first real job: research assistant at a speech synthesis lab in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In late 1993 or early 1994, I had sent an email to a prominent ethnomusicologist about applying to the graduate program where she was and mentioned something about computer-based acoustic analysis, having taken a few courses in acoustics. She told me about Signalyze, a demo version of which was available through a Gopher server for that Swiss lab. While looking at that Gopher server, I became interested in the lab’s research projects and contacted Eric Keller, head of that lab and the main developer for Signalyze. I was already planning on spending that summer in Switzerland, working at my father’s cousin’s crêperie, so I thought spending some time in Lausanne interacting with members of Keller’s lab was a good idea. I was just finishing my bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Université de Montréal (with a focus on linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology). So I was interested in doing something related to sound analysis in musical or speech contexts. Keller asked for my résumé and offered me paid work at his lab for the summer. I ended up spending both that summer and the whole 1994-1995 academic year working at this lab, being paid more than some of my mentors in Montreal.

Technologically-speaking, my life in Switzerland was rather intense. I was spending 15 hours a day in front of a computer, doing acoustic analysis of speech sounds. This computer was a Mac IIvx which had once belonged to UQÀM. A very funny coincidence is that the Mac IIvx I was using had become the source of part of the funding for a fellowship at UQÀM. After I met the incredible woman who became my wife, she received that fellowship.

As this computer had a fast connection to the Internet, I became used to constantly having online access. I was mostly using it to send and receive emails, including messages to and from mailing-lists, but I also got to dabble in HTML a bit and did spend some time on the still burgeoning World Wide Web. I also used a few instant messaging systems but I was still focused on email. In fact, I started using email messages to schedule quick coffee breaks with a friend of mine who was working one floor below me.

This 15-months stay in Switzerland is also when I first got a chance to use a laptop. A friend of my father had lent me his laptop so I could work on a translation contract during weekends. Though this laptop (a PowerBook 170, IIRC) wasn’t very powerful, it did give me a vague idea of what mobile computing might be like.

Coming back to Quebec about my Swiss experience, I began my master’s degree in linguistic anthropology. After looking at different options, I bought a PowerMac 7200 through a friend of mine. That 7200 (and the PowerMac 7300 which followed it) greatly enhanced my stationary computing experience. I probably wasn’t thinking about mobile and handheld devices that much, at that time, but I was still interested in mobile computing.

Things started to change in 1997. At that time, I received a Newton MessagePad 130 through the AECP (Apple Educational Consultant Program). This was a great device. Too big for most pockets. But very nice in almost every other respect. While my handwriting is hard to read by most humans, the Newton’s handwriting did quite a decent job at recognising it. I also became quite adept in Graffiti, Palm Inc.’s handwriting recognition software based on a constructed script from uppercase latin alphabet. I was able to take notes during lectures and conferences. For a while, I carried my Newton anywhere. But it was so bulky that I eventually gave up. I just stopped carrying my Newton around. At one point, I even lent it to a friend who tried it out for a while. But I wasn’t a PDA user anymore. I still needed the perfect PDA. But the Newton wasn’t it.

In early 1998, I went to Mali for the first time. Before I went, I bought a portable cassette recorder to record interviews and some musical performances.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN in September 1998 to do my Ph.D. coursework, I literally had no computer at home. As I had done for a long time during my bachelor’s degree, I spent long hours in computer labs on campus. The computers themselves were quite good (and updated fairly regularly) and IU had one of the best Internet connections available.

In mid-to-late 2001, when rumours of an Apple-branded portable device started surfacing, I was getting ready for my main ethnographic and ethnomusicological fieldwork trip to Mali.

I kept thinking about different tools to use in the field. For some reason, portable equipment for computing and recording was strangely important for me. I still had my Newton MP130. And I was planning on using it in the field. Except if something radically better came along. So I was hoping for the mysterious handheld device Apple was launching to be something of a Newton replacement. Sure, I knew that Steve Jobs had always hated the Newton, apparently for personal reasons. But I secretly hoped that he would come to his senses and allow Apple to revolutionise the handheld market it had spearheaded back in 1993. When I learnt that the device might be related to audio, I thought that it might be both a PDA and an audio device. More importantly for me, I thought that it would have some recording capabilities, making it the ideal field research tool for ethnographers and ethnomusicologists. I was waiting impatiently for the announcement and, like some others, was disappointed by the initial release, especially when I learnt that the iPod didn’t have any recording capabilities. Soon after this, I bought the main devices which would accompany me in my main field trip to Mali: an Apple iBook (Dual USB) laptop with Combo Drive, a HandSpring Visor Deluxe PDA, a Sony MZ-R37 MiniDisc recorder, and a Sony ECM-MS907 microphone. I used all of these extensively throughout my field trip and, though Internet access was spotty, being able to regularly send and receive messages from my iBook was very beneficial for my research practises. I left the MiniDisc recorder and microphone with Yoro Sidibe, the main person with whom I was working in the field, and had to buy other equipment on my way back.

By mid-2004, I bought a used iPod through eBay. I was still living in Montreal but was moving to South Bend, IN, where I was going to spend a year on a teaching fellowship. To make things easier and cheaper, I had the eBay seller send the iPod to my future office in South Bend. When I arrived in South Bend a month or so later, I finally took possession of my first ever iPod. It was an iPod 2G 20GB with FireWire. It came in a rather big box which also included: the original AC adapter, two extra adapters (including a car one), two pouches, the original headphones, and the original remote control.

My iBook (Dual USB) only had a 10GB hard drive so most of my MP3s were on CD-Rs that I had burnt for use with a CD-MP3 player (at the time, a Rio Volt that I had received as a gift a few years prior). I had also brought in my CD collection, in CD Projects (and similar) carrying cases. Hundreds of CDs, a rather heavy and voluminous burden.

I eventually got a good part of my CD collection on the iPod. And I rediscovered music.

Funny to say, for an ethnomusicologist. But pretty realistic. I had lost touch with this type of private music listening. As convenient as it was to use, my Rio Volt didn’t really enable me to connect with music. It merely allowed me to carry some music with me.

Fairly early on, during my first iPod’s career as my main music device, the remote control started acting funny. Sometimes, it would reboot the iPod for no reason. Using the headphones directly (without the remote control), I didn’t have that problem. Though I know very little about electronics, it seemed to me that something was wrong in the connection between the remote control and the jack. I asked the prior owner who said he never had had a problem with the remote control. I resorted to not using the remote control and went on my happy way to iPod happiness for almost two years. Apple was releasing new iPod models and I would have liked to own them, but my finances wouldn’t allow me to purchase one of them and my iPod 2G was still giving me a lot of pleasure.

When Apple introduced podcast support in mid-2005, I became something of a podcast addict. I subscribed to tons of podcasts and was enjoying the iTunes/iPod integration to its fullest potential. A portion of my music MP3 collection was still taking the largest amount of disk space on my iPod but I was spending more time listening to podcasts than listening to MP3s from my personal collection.

In early 2006, I finally transformed my whole CD collection to MP3s thanks to the large hard drive (160GB) in the refurbished emachines H3070 that I had to buy to replace my then-defunct iBook. The complete collection took over 90GB and it took me quite a while to sort it all out. In fact, large chunks of this MP3 collection remain unexplored to this day. My main “active” collection represents about 15GB, which did fit on my iPod’s 20GB hard drive with enough room for lots of podcasts. So, despite being quite outdated by that time, my iPod 2G was giving a lot of pleasure.

Then, in mid-2006, I started having problems with the headphone jack on this iPod. Come to think of it, I probably had problems with that headphone jack before that time, but it was never enough of a problem to detract me from enjoying my iPod. By mid-2006, however, I was frequently losing sound in one headphone because the jack was moving around. My music- and podcast-listening life wasn’t as happy as it had been. And I started looking elsewhere for audio devices.

Which is how I came to buy an iRiver H120, in July, 2006.

Should follow this post up, at some point

5 thoughts on “Confessions of a Naïve Tech Enthusiast (Old Draft)”

  1. Hi Alex:

    I stumbled upon this entry while reading some of your more recent and decidedly more personal thoughts. Even when you write about tech details, your narrative is imbued with humour, passion, and warmth.


    1. Why, thanks Saro!
      You’re certainly not alter-deprecating… 😉
      One thing that’s fairly clear for me is that, at least in social media, I’m better off writing the way I wish to write and not let the topic dictate how I write. Of course, I do style shifts on occasions. But there’s something liberating about maintaining the same “pen,” regardless of topic.

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