Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"Long Distance..."

Though we are not yet the recipients of the imagined Jetsons lifestyle, promised in a television cartoon show – and if you can’t trust those predictions, what can you trust? – it behooves us, nevertheless, to occasionally stop to acknowledge the remarkable advances modern technology has bestowed upon us.  Or otherwise seem incredibly ungrateful.

This from a person who still has a “flip-phone” (monthly charge: eighteen dollars and forty-three cents), and refuses to carry it.  I admit that I have often railed against modernity in this very venue, hewing whiningly to the “What do we need it for?” rationale. 

This, from a man who enjoyed the ribs-preserving benefits robotic heart surgery (they went in the side), and a man who would be at precariously loose ends had the internet not provided a previously unavailable avenue of communication.  When it comes to ingratitude, my supercilious dismissals of progress may take the (medically advised, due to advances in nutritional understanding) gluten-free cake.          

And yet, on our recent excursion to Paris, even I found myself marveling at a technological advancement, which, if it did not entirely take my breath away, did induce pantings of awe and admiration, and the near onset of miracle-inducing tears.  (Sorry for the embellishments; recent converts to anything are famous for abrupt “one-eighties” in their enthusiasms.)

We are sitting at a bus stop near the Place De Vosges (This oldest planned square in Paris, completed in 1612, embodies the first European program of royal city planning, its environs serving as the longtime residence of both Cardinal Richelieu and Victor Hugo, though not in the same century, quelling the salacious and inaccurate rumors that the two of them lived together.) 

We are awaiting the arrival the “96 Bus” that will return us to, or at least hopefully near our hotel.  Being short-term visitors, we are less than conversant with Parisian bus travel.  Though we are relatively certain the “96” will not carry us further from the hotel than we already are.  Unless, being on the wrong side of the street, we board the “96” headed in the opposite direction. 

Ah! – the endless excitement of overseas travel!

Suddenly, as we sit there, wondering if we’d be heading back to the hotel or to somewhere we have never visited before, Dr. M’s iPhone starts to ring, easily recognizable, because its ringtone is “a wailing locomotive entering an intersection.”  Why she chose that, you would have to ask her.  I think she likes trains.

The caller is baby Milo’s Mom Rachel, checking in from Los Angeles.  Dr. M chats casually on the phone.  And I, suddenly enthralled by marvels of modern technology, simultaneous think,


We’re sitting at a bus stop in Paris, and she’s calling from her Prius in L.A.  And the call went straight through.  No intervening “Operator.”  No static on the line.  No lost words, no technical interruptions. 

Rachel’s calling from seven thousand miles away, and it’s sounds like she’s across the street.


That this is a possibility is, especially to someone who has no idea how it works, and maybe others as well if they would take the time to think about it…


A Trip Back In Time (not way back – in my own lifetime, not, like, the Middle Ages):

Calling Long-Distance used to be a really big deal.  First, there was no guarantee the connection would be made.  You were calling a long distance.  They were making no promises.

If you did reach the party to whom you were calling, there was no certainly that the phone line would be clear.  It was like trying to tune in a far-off radio station – you totally took your chances.  Anything could impede the clarity of the call – a faulty system, inclement weather, a heavy bird sitting on the wire somewhere between you and the call-ee.   

The rules for Long-Distance phone talking were two in number: 

Talk loud (because of the distance) and talk fast (because of the expense.) 


“Not too long, sweetheart.”


“Tell Grandma you love her, and give me the phone.”


“Honey, it’s expensive.”


‘Grandma doesn’t care about the Leafs.  Tell her you love her, and give the phone.”


“All right!  That’s enough!”

“H, I…um, um…oh, yeah… J, K, M, N, L, O, P ”


That was Long-Distance.  People hovering nervously over you as the call’s mounting minutes ate away at their life’s savings.  I don’t even know why they charged more for Long-Distance.  I think it’s because they could.

Now with some cell phone plans, it costs the same.  It’s incredible.  The same money.  No matter where you call.  Maybe it’s because they no longer use wires in the process.  Though how much could wires cost?  And by the way, what exactly are they using instead?

Normally, I am not interested in how things work.  To me, it’s all magic, and, as with actual magic, I prefer to remain mesmerized and in the dark.  But this one’s an exception.  I’d like to know how phones today work.  I know there’s a satellite involved.  But that’s like saying electricity has to do with Niagara Falls.  I believe there are intervening steps.  Otherwise, there’d be water coming out of your light bulb.

If you can explain to me, in layman’s terms – by which I mean imagine that I’m ten – how a person driving on the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles can initiate and complete a crystal clear call to two people sitting at a bus stop in Paris, I would really like to know.  Also – for extra credit – tell me how my bedside electric clock-radio can continue to lose time, even though it’s always plugged in.

The phone thing is amazing. 

The clock-radio, merely perplexing.   


PG said...

I have no idea either, but marvel at how 'kids today' just take this all for granted. In my college days, I headed overseas on a 3 month tour of Europe. It never even crossed my mind EVER to place an expensive long distance call home to check to see if everyone was still alive, or, more importantly, what my exam marks were. My family was quite content to receive an occasional filmy aerogram from me and I picked up a few letters here and there at various American Express offices in capital cities.
What about those 'western' days of yore....when folks set out in wagon trains for months, never to be heard from again, unless the pony express happened by?
I guess you guys haven't heard of Magic Jack yet. Speak into your iPad to a friend in Buenos Aires (Freda) for free!
What a world!

Robert Robins said...

I don't pretend that I can tell you about a cell phone's inner-workings. But here's an explanation that may help you. It did not help me as much as I'd hoped, but maybe you'll understand it. If not, maybe one of your legion will be able to translate for all of us!

Mac said...

International phone calls work by a combination of science, magic beans and pixies who carry the signal overseas. That's as far as I understand it and until I'm proven wrong, I'm sticking with that.

Rebecca said...

What about typewriters? Every now and then, I remember with a great deal of disgust all of the trouble involved in creating college papers. Word processing with electronic cut & paste instead of scissors & scotch tape, with automatic reformatting, would have been a Godsend.

In any case, I am a big lover of technology. Before computers, I was a gadget freak. Now, phones, tablets and computers are just more gadgets for me.

But what I give thanks for, almost every time I use them, are Skype & Kindles. Getting to see and speak with family far away is HUGE. The fact that it's free is utter perfection. And almost every time I download a book in the middle of the night and start reading it immediately, I take a moment to remember all those times I wanted something new to read in the middle of the night and had no way to get it.

Even just within the last ten years, my dream phone was one that would enable me to carry everything on my computer in my pocket, leave my camera behind, listen to my music and provide GPS info should I need it. And now I HAVE all of that!

All of that is heaven for me. I can actually do business from almost anywhere with just the 4 oz. device in my purse or pocket. Literally a dream come true.