Friday Free-for-All #66: Invention, app, legal, historic

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What was the best invention of the last 50 years?

First of all, it’s really bizarre to realize that 50 years ago it was 1971, which just seems so modern day and yet — in 1971, the year 1921 must have seemed ridiculously distant. And humankind saw so many earthshattering inventions in those fifty years that it would be hard to pick one from that group.

Jet airplanes? Nuclear bombs and energy? The pacemaker or artificial heart? Television? It’s a long, long list, and things you might think were relatively new in 1971 weren’t.

Solar panels and fax machines? Oh, wait, no — those were both invented in the late 19th century, believe it or not and, oddly enough, about fifty years apart, with the fax coming first.

The pace of development continued to explode after 1971, and we’ve basically seen a constant stream of invention ever since, a lot of it driven by or connected to the internet — but I’m not going to call that the greatest invention, even though its official birthday is January 1, 1983, well within our timeframe.

No, I think the internet was just the precursor to and enabler of the invention I have in mind, but there are some honorable mentions.

Far too many come from the field of medicine and biotechnology, with mRNA vaccines, GMO food production, and CRISPR providing amazing benefits — and yes, I said benefits. If any of those three things scares you, go educate yourself. None of them does anything that nature doesn’t already do.

Speaking of genetics, though, another great invention, or at least innovation, is the ability now of cheap DNA testing for consumers that we can do on ourselves or our pets. What once would have cost thousands of dollars and taken months to carry out can be done in a few weeks and, depending on how much and what you test, can be had for less than a hundred dollars.

Almost every industry has been revolutionized by advances in technology, from retail sales to restaurants to logistics and beyond. Film and TV production, in particular, have made huge strides in computer assisted (and created) images.

One standout recent example is Lucasfilms’ latest efforts with what they call The Volume, which is a 360-degree wrap-around high definition LED screen that can basically create digital backgrounds in real time without the need for greenscreens. It’s how the Disney+ series The Mandalorian has been shot, for example.

Bonus points: When working in The Volume, actors don’t have to imagine what’s around them. They’re seeing it live.

But, anyway, my nomination for the best invention of the last fifty years is quite possibly the one you’re reading this on right now: The Smartphone, which basically debuted in 1992 as IBM’s Simon, although the term “smartphone” wasn’t coined until three years later.

Basically, it combined a portable phone with a personal digital assistant (PDA), which was your contacts, calendar, and email device. It had a 4.5” x 1.4” portrait mode LCD touchscreen (stylus only), and cost the equivalent of $1,435 at the time, plus monthly service contract.

It never really caught on, but electronic PDAs and cellphones both took off from there, but it wasn’t until the late mid-00s that real smart phones came onto the market, with Apple’s iPhone debuting in late June 2007, and the first Android phone, the HTC Dream, following in September 2008,

To say that both of them ran laps around the Simon is an understatement. What they basically did was to take the functions of a ton of devices, squash them into one, and fit them in your pocket. Telephone, computer, camera, video camera, music player, calendar, calculator, alarm clock, GPS, and more.

Sure, our old flip-phones did some of that, but more slowly and at much lower resolution, and they were hardly internet ready.

In a sense, we’re really carrying The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy with us, plus what’s essentially the compendium of all human knowledge. And games. Oh so many fucking stupid games.

Which app seemed like magic the first time you used it?

I’m not sure the name of it at the time, but it was Google’s star map, which I actually saw someone else use on their smartphone at a party in the hills above Malibu — where it’s actually dark enough, because you’re facing the ocean, to be able to actually see the starts in the sky.

Anyway, I think that someone has asked where a particular constellation was, and she pulled out her phone, did some slides and taps, then held it up and voilà. The app outlined the constellation and indicated when the phone was pointing at it.

And there I was with the second version of a non-smart phone that I thought was so amazing because it had a slide-out keyboard to accommodate my huge fingers.

This use of the technology amazed me so much that not long after I took the plunge and upgraded to my first smartphone, and I’ve never looked back.

Come to think of it, I still have the same smartphone, but don’t judge me! I like to run my tech into the ground, and the only reason I finally upgraded my computer this year was because the old one finally decided to stop booting at all. That one’s hard drive, however, is now connected to the new machine and my other external hard drive, meaning that I’ve suddenly got three terabytes of storage going on.

That’s a lot — but not as much as it used to be.

What’s legal now, but probably won’t be in 25 years?

I’ll keep this to the U.S., but the big trend seems to be tobacco, and possibly vaping. In 1971, it was apparently pretty much legal to smoke anywhere — in theaters, restaurants, grocery stores, on airplanes, probably even in your doctor’s waiting room.

In the 1980s, that started to change, with smoking originally banned in workplaces and elevators, and it eventually expanded, depending on state, to cover most any indoor spaces. Fun fact: Restaurants used to have “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections. However, they didn’t do a whole lot to separate the airspace between them. Oh well.

Another fun fact: When I had reason to go to Dallas several times in the mid-90s, it always blew my California mind to enter a restaurant and have the host ask, “Smoking or non?”

Of course, I quit this gross, disgusting, and deadly habit almost five years ago and haven’t looked back — if you do smoke, stop! If you don’t, never start. But all the while, and particularly in this century, the habit has become more marginalized, at least in the wealthier, more urbanized states.

In California, smoking is banned in a lot of public places, like parks, as well as within 25 feet of doors and windows of commercial and residential buildings. It’s also become a lot more common for apartment complexes to not allow smoking anywhere on their grounds, although when they made the changes, they had to grandfather in anyone who was already a smoker.

Another method that’s been used to lower the smoking rate is increasing the taxes on cigarettes, and I can tell you that had I kept up the pack a day habit I used to have, smoking would have cost me more a month than my health insurance does now.

Of course, New York has California beat. The base price for a pack of cigarettes here is $8.31. In New York, it’s $10.47. The cheapest state, by the way, is Missouri, at $4.91 a pack.

In California and elsewhere, the current big push is to ban vape flavors because — surprise, surprise — tobacco companies have been subtly marketing them to children. And the astroturf campaign against this is really ridiculous.

So, yeah. By 2046, or earlier, I’d love to see all tobacco products banned, or for a ban to be redundant because there was suddenly no market for them a lot sooner than that.

What was the most historic thing you witnessed in person or took part in?

That night when Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre… Oh, wait, no. That wasn’t me. It was definitely the day, back in 2012, when the Space Shuttle Endeavour was flown to Los Angeles to take up its permanent home at the Museum of Science and Technology near USC, just south of downtown.

All over the city, everyone came out into the streets to look to the skies, and it was an unforgettable, breathtaking experience.

At the time, I worked in the Valley in a very odd complex that we used to refer to as The Bouncy Castle. The great part about it was that it was very easy to get up onto the roof of the back building, and from there we had a 360-degree view.

Now, there had been kind of a vague schedule of the flyover posted online, but nothing definite, so we wound up spending a long time up there waiting for nothing. However, thanks to our smartphones, we were able to watch live news broadcasts announcing the progress.

And, eventually, it paid off, as the 747 carrying the Shuttle suddenly appeared, following the crest of mountains between the Valley and the L.A. Basin, following the ridge traced out by Mulholland Drive. It did a nice, fairly slow flyover, becoming visible probably somewhere over Tarzana in the northwest and continuing on to turn over Griffith Observatory to the northeast.

However, contrary to the published flight plan, it proceeded to fly back to the west after the turn and repeat the trip, so we all got to see it twice.

And there were people everywhere — on top of adjacent buildings, in the street, you name it. What I didn’t know was that it was quite possible that someone I would meet a couple of years later was actually in the crowd on the street because, at the time, he lived right down the block from that office, although before he worked for the company, which is where I met him, in a different building in a different zip code.

That would be Peter Bean, whom you’ve met here before, and he has an even better Endeavour story, because he was also able to go watch as it was slowly towed from its landing site to its final destination — an epic journey that took three days and three nights.

Now, to be sure, I’ve certainly witnessed lots of historical moments in my life, but those have been second-hand, via the media. This one was live and in person and it was incredible.

Don’t make it rocket science when it’s not

So many tools

It never ceases to boggle my mind when people don’t jump on the chance to learn and fully take advantage of the amazing modern tools we’ve been handed and which are ubiquitous. If you work in any kind of office environment at all, whether it’s some stodgy traditional business or a bleeding-edge industry like tech or gaming, at the very least you’re dealing with either Microsoft’s Word, Excel, Outlook, etc., or the Apple equivalents.

If you’re using the Open Office or Chrome/Cloud versions, then this piece probably isn’t directed at you because you definitely get it. But, otherwise… really, people? These are literally the things that you use every day, and yet I constantly see very few people ever progressing beyond the merest basic ability to use any of the programs.

That is: Open document, type shit with defaults, save or send as-is.

If I open a spreadsheet you’ve worked on in an older version of Excel and see three tabs at the bottom named Sheets 1, 2, and 3, I will know that you’re an amateur. Likewise if the font is set to that hideous Calibri. Same thing in Word minus the tabs, but same crappy font, ragged aligned left, with auto-spacing before paragraphs or lines.

Word to the wise, people. The first thing you should do in Word is go in and set your default formatting so that the autospace before lines or paragraphs is 0, and line spacing is single.

Why is paper still a thing?

But this is just an intro to some recent heinous, and it’s this. I’ve managed to stumble into a situation where a lot of coworkers prefer to do things on paper, and it makes me nuts. Simple question: Why? Physical files can only be in one place, usually aren’t in the place where they’re supposed to be, and there isn’t a magic search function that can find them other than somebody maybe remembering that they worked on it recently, and where they put it. There’s also no standardization of fonts, so if someone scribbles a note in that file, there’s no guarantee that someone else will be able to read it six months later.

Not to mention that it’s just wasteful. Especially wasteful when there are so many ways to avoid it and so many resources to make that easier.

Case in point: One of the things I do regularly is enter and reconcile commission statements from various vendors, but I’ve had to do it by printing the things, manually entering the data into a spreadsheet, and then doing a careful audit to fix the inevitable errors, since some of these run to hundreds of entries.

But then I figured out how to pull the data directly from the statement, slap it into Excel, format it, and then use a few formulae to pull the new info into the old spreadsheet. The great advantages are that it uses the original data directly, so there are no entry errors to deal with. Also, the second pass just involves pulling out a copy of the original statement data and the target input by formula data, putting them side-by-side, using a few more formulae to spot errors due to differences in how names were spelled, making a few tweaks, and reconciling the thing a lot faster than before.

Pre-paperless innovation, a big statement could take me a few days (interspersed among all the other office duties) to finally balance it to zero. New method? I made it through four statements in one day, each one entered and balanced in two steps instead of about six.

The thing is, this isn’t really all that difficult, and anybody could learn to do it. One of the big helps in this process were the Excel functions INDEX and MATCH (which I’ll explain in a future post), and it took all of a two minute Google search and then reading the first good link to figure out how they worked in order to figure out how to do what I needed to do. What I needed to do: Compare the client’s first and last names and insurance plan type in one table in order to pull out a specific number from another. And this is literally all you need to do to learn how to make your office tools work for you.

Try it. Google “change the default font in Word,” or “turn off auto-correct in Word,” or “alternatives to VLOOKUP in Excel,” or any one of a number of other topics, and you’ll find the answers. It really isn’t any more complicated than reading a cookbook and making food from a recipe. Really, it’s not.

Using computers made easy

There is too much of an aura of mystery put around computers, but trust me, they are more simple than you think — and I’ve been working with them since… well, since most of my life, because I was just born at the right time. All that they ultimately understand are “Off” and “On.” “Zero” and “One.” Those are the only two states a switch can be in, that is what digital computing is, and it only gets two digits.

Maybe someday I’ll write a bit about how the electrons inside do what they do and turn it into intelligible information for humans, but for now suffice it to say that they pretty much only do a few things — input, store, and retrieve data through various devices; allow you to manipulate that data with various software programs; then allow you to re-store and output that data, again through various devices.

The nice thing about graphical user interfaces (GUIs) like Windows, OS, Android, Linux, etc., is that they tend to standardize across programs written in them, so that every program tends to use the same convention for the basics: Open, Close, Save, Save As, Print. Programs of the same type will also follow the same conventions — Format, Spellcheck, View, Layout, etc., for text editors; Image, Layer, Select, Filter, Effect, etc., for graphic design programs; Inset, Formulas, Calculate, Data, Sort, etc., for spreadsheets.

Finally, almost every program will have a Help function, whether it’s invoked via the F1 key, or by some combination of a control/alt/Apple/shift-click plus H move. Help menus, when well-done are great and, guess what? They were basically the hyperlinked documents we’ve all come to know and love via the internet, except that they’ve been around since long before the internet. Most of the time, they’ll answer the question but, if they don’t, you can always google it, as I mentioned above.

How to create job security

You may be wondering, “Okay, if my job is just doing data entry, or writing emails, or accounting, or… etc., why do I need to know so much about the software when no one else does?”

Simple. As the economy moves more and more toward service, knowledge becomes value. If you’re the one in the office who gets a reputation as the computer expert, you will get noticed, and you will save a higher-up’s cookies more than once. You’ll also earn the attention and gratitude of your co-workers if you become the one they come to when “I did something and something happened and I don’t know how to fix it,” and you know immediately upon looking that they accidentally, say, set Word to Web Layout instead of Print Layout. It’s called creating job security by taking that extra simple step that too many people refuse to. Try it!

Image Source: NASA, Apollo 11.