Private Eyes are watching you!

I don’t normally post links to music videos on this blog… that’s typically reserved for one of my other blogs. But… well… any way you slice it, Hall and Oates are not prog rock, so it just didn’t fit.

But I got this video in my head (yes, I can get a video in my head) and I felt compelled to share it. It’s a cool song, and a humorously low-budget video, but the main reason I remember this video so well and love it so much is that it’s intricately woven into the fabric of my early childhood memories. This song was huge right when we first got MTV in 1982, and it was on heavy rotation. I was at a critical age—8 years old—where a lot of things seem to start to gel in your mind. You understand the world in new ways… your horizons expand… and those things you enjoy most at that time seem to leave a permanent impression on who you are.

For me, in 1982, it was MTV and Atari. So hearing this song—and, even more, seeing its video—triggers a flood of memories. Maybe it does for you too. Maybe not. Anyway, enjoy…

There are so many things I remember vividly about this video. Daryl Hall’s green jacket. The trench coats. John Oates and his bug eyes. The white flashes when the hand claps come in. The list of minute details permanently stored in my brain goes on.

But there is no way I can let this pass without commenting on the one thing that drives me mad: that the video of the drummer’s hands at the beginning is “off.” He’s shown hitting the snare drum when you hear the bass drum. I’m not sure if that was a deliberate joke or if the director of the video was just too clueless and/or lazy and/or in a big damn hurry to get the video finished before they burned through the $200 budget.

Anyway, this was something I was acutely aware of and bothered by as an 8 year old, watching this video. At the time I had a tendency to point out any minuscule error anyone around me made, as if the universe assigned me the job of trying to fix all of the small faults within it. So, yes… oh yes.. I noticed this.

What would you have needed to carry with you in 1986 to match the utility of an iPhone today?

I’ve always been into electronic gadgets. I’ve also always been into carrying a bunch of crap that I “need” (or perceive that I need) around with me. My dream since I was a kid was always to be able to carry “everything” with me at once, in a convenient way.

It’s hard to get more convenient than a thin piece of glass, metal and plastic that fits easily into a jeans pocket. That’s the iPhone, and that’s today. My iPhone is almost unquestionably my most prized possession. Probably not just now, but of all time. It seems like it can do almost everything, which got me thinking.

25 years ago, I was a 12-year-old burgeoning tech nerd. I loved the Atari 2600 (yes, still) and was just a year away from getting my first computer. I had hundreds of cassette tapes and was already on my third or fourth Walkman. If you’d given me something like an iPhone back then, I probably would have died of ecstasy on the spot. But what 1980s stuff would I have had to lug around in my satchel back then to (roughly) approximate the functional capabilities I now (almost) take for granted in this one little device? I decided to compile a list.

1986 device: Sony Walkman portable cassette radio

In the mid-’80s, the Sony Walkman was the symbol of portable technology. As CDs overtook the popularity of cassettes in the ’90s, and Sony finally figured out how to make a portable CD player that didn’t skip if you so much as breathed on it, the Walkman was gradually replaced by the Discman.

And then along came the iPod, which itself has, ten years later, essentially become an iPhone minus the phone.

2011 app: iPod

1986 device: Microcassette recorder

As cool as the Walkman was, you couldn’t actually record with it (at least with most models). You could always lug a full-sized cassette recorder around, but if you were going for the latest and greatest in portability, that would be a microcassette recorder. Microcassettes never could match the audio fidelity of their full-sized siblings though, and were eventually replaced by digital devices that stored audio on a small hard disk and later on flash ROM. But why bother with one of those today?

2011 app: Voice Memo

1986 device: Nintendo Game & Watch LCD handheld

When I went into writing this post, I really hoped to at least give 1986 the original Game Boy, but my research says it wasn’t actually released until 1989. I never had one, so I didn’t remember. Yes, it’s true… if you wanted a handheld video game device in 1986, the best you could do was one of Nintendo’s single-game “Game & Watch” devices. As rudimentary as they seem today, their design was a clear inspiration for Nintendo’s current line of DS portable game devices.

I’ve owned two Game Boy Advance systems and three DSes over the past decade, but these days my DSi gathers dust in a cabinet while I carry over 50 video games in my pocket everywhere I go… thanks to my iPhone. iPhone gaming is still young, and in many ways the control schemes have yet to be perfected, but considering the significant price difference ($10 or less for almost all iOS games, vs. $30 or so for most DS games), the lack of a need for physical media, and the iPhone’s superior technical specs, it’s hard to see much of a future for the DS. (We’ll see what impact the soon-to-be-released 3DS has.)

2011 app: Angry Birds… or any of the 100,000 or so other iOS games

1986 device: Casio calculator watch

Calculator watches were so cool (at least, if you weren’t) in the ’80s, it’s hard to believe they would ever fade into laughable irrelevance. They were pretty impressive technology for the time though, and were irresistibly futuristic. It’s no wonder Marty McFly conspicuously sported one on his journey back to 1955… it bolstered his “future boy” cred in a way no nylon vest ever could.

2011 apps: Clock and Calculator

1986 device: Portable alarm clock

If you were too cool for a nerdy calculator watch back in the ’80s, your only option when traveling was to purchase a dedicated travel alarm clock. Some of these were pretty well-designed, but such a single-purpose device is anathema today. Besides, I’m sure the sight of one of these in a carry-on would raise a TSA eyebrow or two.

2011 app: Alarm Clock

1986 device: Pocket calendar/datebook

Pocket calendars have come in countless variations for almost as long as printing has existed, some more useful than others. Wallet card calendars like the one shown here are about as useless as they get, but that didn’t stop me from having at least one of them in my wallet at all times as a 12-year-old… especially since I didn’t have any money to put in it.

Now, not only does the iPhone’s calendar provide all of the capabilities of even the most overstuffed datebook, it can update automatically and even beep to remind you that you’re running late for that important business meeting.

2011 apps: Calendar and Contacts

1986 device: Pocket compass

I admit, I’ve never really had much use for a compass. I don’t spend a lot of time out in the wilderness, and I think a compass would only confuse my natural sense of direction in the city. But I recognize the importance of these devices, and thanks to the iPhone’s various internal sensors, all of the capabilities of a real magnetic compass can now live in software.

2011 app: Compass

1986 device: Mead memo book

Ah, the trusty Mead memo book. My dad wrote a thousand grocery lists in these while I was growing up, and the little bits of paper that tore off the spiral binding over repeated openings and closings were everywhere. These days there are more sophisticated alternatives if you still like to put pen to paper and then stuff it all in your pocket, but I prefer not to have to try to decipher my own handwriting.

2011 app: Notes

1986 device: Minolta Talker point-and-shoot 35mm camera

Sure, there were plenty of pocketable point-and-shoot cameras back in the ’80s, and of course the venerable Polaroid instant camera was still going strong. But no camera — truly, no device of any kind — epitomizes pointless ’80s novelty technology better than the Minolta Talker. I wasn’t able to verify that the Talker existed in 1986 — I think more likely it dates to 1987 or 1988 — but we had one, and I’ll never forget such helpful photographic advice as “Load film” or the classic “Too dark… use flash.”

Even at that credulous age, I wondered, if it can tell you need the flash, why can’t it just turn the flash on automatically?

2011 apps: Camera, Hipstamatic, Instagram, etc.

1986 device: JVC camcorder

Ah yes, the JVC VideoMovie. That distinctive red and black camcorder, immortalized by my hero Marty McFly. We owned one of these. It was the stuff of legend. It also, despite its considerable size, used the bizarre VHS-C format tapes. These were about 1/3 the physical size of a regular VHS cassette, but the tape itself was the same width and was compatible with regular VHS VCRs… with the help of a VHS tape-sized adapter that the VHS-C tapes would snap into. Unfortunately, since the cassettes were so small, they only had enough room to hold 20 minutes’ worth of tape. I hope Doc packed a couple of cases of blanks along with his plutonium.

(And, yes, übergeeks, I know Doc forgot to pack the plutonium. What, you think you’re the only ones who’ve watched the movie 500 times?)

2011 app: Camera

1986 device: Motorola DynaTAC mobile phone

When you look at early cell phones, it’s a wonder the devices ever caught on. Of course, they didn’t really catch on when they were the size of a small refrigerator and emitted enough radiation to make your head glow in the dark. But the fact is, you could own a cell phone back in 1986 and, well, that’s saying a lot right there, isn’t it?

OK… I really can’t come up with anything to justify the existence of this monstrosity. Incidentally, the guy in the picture is Martin Cooper, inventor of the modern cell phone. Depending on your definition of “modern.” Note his seeming reluctance to get it too close to his head.

2011 app: Phone

1986 device: Rand McNally pocket road atlas

I recently watched the classic 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, and was amused by the GPS-like device Bond had in his car. (GPS was just becoming available to civilians in the ’80s, and it looked like this.) As far as I know, not even Her Majesty’s Secret Service had anything approaching this kind of technology in the ’60s. In many ways it seemed as futuristic (or more so) as some of the stuff that would appear on Star Trek a couple years later. And yet, it’s now something that is not only common in a lot of ordinary cars, but we even carry it in our pockets.

Back in the ’80s, though, the only way to carry road maps in your pocket was with a little book like this, which was only useful if you were willing to limit yourself to freeways and a lot of guessing.

2011 app: Maps

1986 device: Newspapers, magazines, books

No industry is reeling from the iPhone (and the iPad) the way publishing is. Newspapers, magazines, books… publishers of all kinds are trying to discover viable business models in the world of paperless publishing. (And here I thought we’d already worked all of this stuff out with the web over the past 15 years.)

One thing is certain, though: however you like to get your news, information and entertainment, with an iPhone it’s already in your pocket.

2011 apps: Reeder, Instapaper, newspaper/magazine apps, iBooks, Kindle, etc.

1986 device: Citizen portable LCD TV with 2-inch B&W screen

Yes… a portable LCD TV in the mid-’80s. Don’t believe it? I had one of these, exactly as shown. It had a 2-inch black-and-white screen. And, strangely, the screen was in the top of that flip-up lid. The bottom part had a mirror, which was what you looked at to view your program. Why? Well… backlight technology was feeble and battery-sucking. The lid was translucent, and if you were in a bright enough environment, the ambient light would shine through, illuminating the screen. There was also a bulky snap-on backlight attachment for use in dimmer surroundings, but if this was in one of your pockets, the rest of them better be filled with AAA batteries or you wouldn’t be watching much.

True, TV tuner technology doesn’t exist in the iPhone. But what the iPhone has is better… with iTunes, Netflix, PBS and more, you’ve got on demand TV… in full color, backlit, no snap-ons or AAA batteries required.

2011 apps: iPod, Netflix, PBS, etc.

1986 device: Flashlight

OK, OK. This flashlight is from the 1960s. But my grandparents had one exactly like this when I was a kid in the ’80s. The big black thing on the side had magnets in it, allowing it to stick to the side of the refrigerator, which is where they always kept it.

If you don’t have an iPhone 4 (which I don’t, but which has an LED flash for the camera), the only source of light is the screen itself. Pretty dim for a flashlight, but it works in a pinch. There are flashlight apps out there, but unless it’s one that powers on the camera LED, I think just turning the thing on so the screen lights up is as good as any of the dedicated apps.

2011 app: Any one of the countless flashlight apps

1986 device: TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer

It’s a bit of a stretch to call the iPhone a portable computer, at least when compared to modern portable computers. But considering the capabilities (and perhaps I’m using that term ironically) of the portable computers that existed in 1986, the iPhone is like having a Cray supercomputer in your pocket. A 3.5-inch touchscreen is never going to replace a full-fledged computer for serious work, but still, if you really have to, you can get some work done. I’ve managed to do some emergency sysadmin work from my iPhone sitting in a gas station parking lot while traveling.

2011 apps: Documents To Go, AirSharing, iSSH, etc.

All of this just barely scratches the surface, of course. But I think it demonstrates the huge impact the iPhone has had on me as a manifestation of all of my childhood fantasies about futuristic technology. You can keep your flying cars. Just let me keep my iPhone.

Image sources:
Marty McFly with JVC VideoMovie camcorder and calculator watch
Sony Walkman portable cassette player
Aiwa microcassette recorder
Nintendo Game & Watch handheld LCD video game
Casio calculator watch
Braun travel alarm clock
Coca-Cola pocket calendar
Pocket compass
Mead memo book
Minolta Talker camera
JVC VideoMovie camcorder
Cell phone inventor Martin Cooper with a Motorola DynaTAC
Rand McNally Pocket Road Atlas
Time magazine cover featuring Space Shuttle Challenger explosion
Citizen portable LCD TV
Rayovac 1960s flashlight
TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer
1980s GPS equipment

Addendum, April 2, 2011: If you’re hoping to truly recreate that 1986 experience on your iPhone, check out this Game and Watch-inspired iOS game, Monkey Labour!

Panic’s “Atari” game art, framed and hung at Room 34 HQ

The other day I mentioned the super-cool watercolor-and-pencil game art Panic recently commissioned as part of a reimagining of their Mac software as early ’80s Atari 2600 games.

I ordered both the reproduction game boxes and the art prints, and they arrived just four days later (i.e. yesterday). They look amazing. As recommended by Panic, I headed out to IKEA this morning and picked up a couple of Ribba frames. The art prints were specifically designed to fit perfectly into these frames. I contemplated getting frames for all four of them, but at $20 a pop it seemed a bit much. So I went with two, for the two Panic programs I actually use (Coda and Transmit). It was just as well, anyway. Since they’re so big, two is all that fit on the wall above my desk!

The photo below shows Room 34 HQ, now graced with these fantastic looking prints. This wall was blank for months, and I had just been thinking I really needed to hang something up there, when these prints became available. The timing was perfect and I couldn’t be happier with the results! (Unfortunately the photo probably reveals, more than anything else, the limitations of the iPhone camera, especially indoors at night. I had every light in the place turned on but this was the best I could manage.)


Were we really once so easily amazed?

Technology has come a long way since the ’80s. I remember this commercial. I don’t remember it seeming so utterly stupid. Maybe that’s because I was only about 10 when it originally aired. Or maybe it’s because back then this was cutting-edge.

All I know is, the phrase “sneaker phone” sounds way more natural to me than it should. I guess this commercial embedded itself in my subconscious all those years ago, permanently tainting my worldview.

Source: Merlin Mann

Update: 1991? Holy crap. Yeah, I didn’t watch it far enough when I first posted this to hear the voice-over guy say, in a semi-lewd tone, “the revealing 1991 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue” (cue whistles). Since that comes out in February (or so I’m told), that would mean this commercial is most likely from 1990 or very early 1991, meaning I was 16 when it aired. You’d think by then I’d have been old enough, or at least jaded adolescent enough, to see how utterly stupid it was. Maybe.

Finally, more than 25 years later…

I think it was probably around 1983 that I got my first Rubik’s Cube. Wasn’t that the year they really hit big in the U.S.? Anyway, I just never had the patience or the logical foresight to be able to solve it. Never. Not once. Oh, sure, I was able to solve one side. I think once I might have solved two. But I could never envision how to put it all together. It’s the same reason I suck at chess.

Before long, I knew that it wasn’t possible to just solve the whole thing one side at a time. And, unnervingly, when you were closest to having the whole puzzle solved, just a couple of turns away from a complete solution, there would be a sequence of moves where none of the sides were solved. That was just too much for my 9-year-old brain.

Eventually I just gave up on ever solving my Rubik’s Cube. It didn’t help that I had also learned that you could turn one side to a 45-degree angle, pop out the middle edge piece, and easily disassemble the entire thing, reassembling it in perfect order. And so it was, that my speedy solution to the Rubik’s Cube, sadly, always involved a screwdriver.

This year my parents gave me a Rubik’s Cube for Christmas. (It’s OK… that’s not the only thing they got me for Christmas. I also got this, which rocks.) Today I decided, by gum, I’m gonna solve it! Of course, not on my own. These days Rubik’s Cubes ship with a little pamphlet revealing the magical seven-step solution. (No, not seven moves, more like a hundred or so. But seven basic logical steps.)

I was doing great… halfway through the seventh and final step, when… well, the whole thing fell apart. Not literally. They’re made pretty well — and it’s no longer possible to pop out the edge piece with a screwdriver. (Don’t ask me how I know that it’s no longer possible. I just have my ways.)

I realized after a moment of fretting that I had misinterpreted part of Step 7. I was left with this:

Almost had it...

One good side, and five sides of crap. (Much like Yessongs. Sorry… had to say it. Not too often you can work in a joke about a 36-year-old prog rock triple live album. By Yes.)

After dinner I was sufficiently distanced from my devastating defeat that I was willing to have another go, and this time… success!