Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Swiss Army Knives

About ten days ago I was busy repairing a watch and grabbed a rather large Swiss Army knife, to use one of its sharp blades. Sure enough the unthinkable happened and I almost lost my left thumb. Quickly applied pressure for twenty minutes or so reduced the bleeding but it took longer than that to wipe off all the blood from the table and floor. The left thumb is not very important when playing the violin; however I was happy to realize that no major nerve was damaged in spite of the deep cut. Although combining many features in one tool can be handy, it does none of its intended tasks well. Enclosed is a picture of a Wenger $1,400 monster with 87 implements and 141 functions. The Giant Knife weighs two pounds (almost a kilogram), so I don't think it would make a useful addition to my tool and knife collection. Victorinox and Wenger are the two manufacturers of Swiss Army knives. After competing for a hundred years, the former bought the latter in 2005, promising to keep both brands alive.

We seem to be fascinated by products that perform multiple tasks. Today's cellular phones, especially smart phones, are a good example of this. Often it is necessary to read the manual before learning how to perform the primary function the phone: placing a call. If dialing is done with a slide-out  QWERTY keyboard, one needs a magnifying glass to see the numbers. Of course frequently called numbers can be turned into icons with a person's picture, but that is not an easy procedure for someone past 50. Countless times I've had to help people with muting the ringer or adjusting the volume. Naturally most manufacturers follow their own logic as to how this is done. Even turning the device on and off isn't always obvious.

Recently I read a study which claimed that today's younger people are shying away from actually talking to each other on the telephone. More often they prefer texting which forces the "conversation" to be short and the reply isn't usually immediate. Other option is to use a social network such as Facebook. A private message via that service has replaced emails for many. When electronic mail became common, advice for good etiquette was to keep messages short. Telegrams from your parents' era first became email, then instant messages and now texting. Instead of saying "you are so funny" or "I enjoy your sense of humor", a "lol" or a smiley will do. Most of us use a computer to access email and social networks but this all can be done with a smartphone. Again, it can and is done, but not with the same ease as with proper equipment. The phone has become today's Swiss knife, with more and more functions added in every new model. Finnish Nokia just introduced a 12 MP camera with the largest sensor in a phone. HD video has been taken for granted for some time.

Phones and other devices using Apple or Android systems do brisk business with small add-on programs or gadgets, taking a sizeable cut from paid purchases. These third party applications often leave a lot to be desired; also the same theme is repeated over and over again. How many HP12C emulators do we need? A stopwatch needs only one good design as its sole function is to measure time elapsed. Occasionally I use Nokia's Linux-based N800's tuner and metronome if nothing else is available and check the mail or the stock market on my 3rd Generation iPod Touch. Since I am blessed, or cursed, with perfect pitch and my inner pulse is almost as accurate as the electronic device for tempo, and I much prefer seeing text on a 25-inch screen than trying to make out words on the little device's less than four, none of this technology is any more essential than the corkscrew on the Swiss Army knife. I also have a collection of fine cameras and would use the one included in a phone only when a picture is important to have and there is no real camera at hand. It is impossible to attach a decent zoom lens to a slim phone body without the result looking like the knife pictured above. Yes, while killing time waiting at an airport, a little device might become handy to read the news, and in case the flight was delayed or canceled, finding alternate connections would help. I still wouldn't use the phone to purchase my tickets or make hotel reservations while planning a trip, although I admit having done that while on the road. Avatar, the popular film, looks amazingly vivid on my daughter's Samsung Vibrant's AMOLED screen, but four inches is still four inches and I have to keep the phone close to my face to enjoy the picture.

To a point a personal computer is also a Swiss knife of sorts, expected to perform all kinds of tasks, including music, photo and video editing. This has resulted in more and more complex operating systems. The first computers I had in early 1980s could not multi-task nor show graphics. Online services were few and they worked at snail's pace. Color wasn't available, neither was email as we know it. But the computers were also much simpler and crashed less often. Nobody expected to see what a document looked like until it came out of a noisy dot-matrix printer. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) didn't become a reality until few years later. Originally developed for XEROX, it was first adapted by Apple and later the PC camp. We early users didn't know what we were missing and yet the technology was exciting and life went on. It would be interesting to see today's youngsters stuck with an early computer: it would be a head-scratcher for sure.

But let's go back to the ever inflating operating systems: when I downloaded the upgrade to iPod Touch which made limited multitasking possible, the device became less reliable than before. Windows has always had its share of problems. I started with Version 2 which was useless in any practical sense. Much later Vista became an embarrassment to Microsoft and although Win 7 is a great improvement, I have never seen so many blue screens of death as in the two machines here that run it. While writing this a big chunk of text was lost to the blues: if I need to be certain that my text is safe, I either use an XP computer or a Linux one which almost never has issues on any kind. Her leaving for college any day now, I made sure my youngest got a nice MacBook Pro. Expensive, yes, but worth it for the lack of headaches.

A couple days ago, out came the SIM card from a fancy smartphone and went into a much simpler Nokia N96. Theoretically it provides the same benefits as its fancier cousins but it drains the battery much less and thus I don't have to recharge it every day. It has a two-way slide: one side for dedicated buttons for multimedia, the other for an old-fashioned dialing pad. I can still take 5 MP pictures if needed and browse the web. Texting isn't quite as convenient as with a full keyboard and the predictive mode only works for English. Minor annoyances: I can always send a regular email from a real computer or the iPod, using a portable MiFi hotspot.

Next time the real tools will come out instead of the Victorinox. The latter will be used for emergencies only. With the phones the jury is still out.