Friday, July 15, 2011

Old Movie Stars

I had a small realization the other day that blew my mind.  The Sassy Librarian and I were watching one of our favorite movies, "On The Town", a 1949 Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen musical about three naive sailors given 24 hours shore leave in postwar New York City.  They don't have much time to see the sights (and find some girls) but they manage to do all of that and more, along with great songs and genuinely funny slapstick humor.   One of the sailors ("Chip") is played by Frank Sinatra, who in the course of the movie falls in love with a vivacious lady taxi driver ("Brunhilde Esterhazy") played by the late Betty Garrett.

It occurred to me that when I think of Betty Garrett, I don't think of her as the singing, dancing star of
 '40's and '50's musicals, or as the longtime wife of blacklisted actor Larry Parks;
instead I think of her from the 1970's sitcoms she acted in when I was a kid.  I don't think of "Hildy" from on the town, as much as I think of Laverne and Shirley's landlady Edna Babish.  This makes a certain amount of sense.  After all, they say that "first impressions are lasting impressions" and I was an avid viewer of tv and movies when I was young.  But I realize that people of, say, my parents' generation, would think of Betty Garrett as she was when she was young.

Honestly, my image of Frank Sinatra is similarly confused.  To me growing up, Sinatra was an old, bloated former star who had a suspect relationship with Nancy Reagan and made a noteworthy guest appearance on Magnum, P.I.  But, of course, when Ol' Blue Eyes guested on Magnum in 1987, it was the last of 61 acting credits he racked, up, not to mention being one of the most famous and iconic singers of the WWII era.  Clearly, my grandparents would think of Sinatra as he looked when THEY were young, not as he did at the end of his life.

So, now that I'm getting old, it makes me think about stars of my youth.  For instance, when I was growing up in the 1980's Madonna was a huge star.  She also came out with a new look in every video for her songs, and continually pushed the limits of decency and sexiness.

  When I think of Madonna, I automatically think of her from her mid-1980's heyday.  But Madonna has continued her career, to the point now where she has recorded in four different decades, along with writing books, acting and being a celebrity (especially in Britain, where they love to call her "Madge", to her lasting displeasure).  Do kids today think of her as she was, or as a muscle-bound old lady?  Or just as Lourdes' mom?

Thought provoking, no?  How's this?  What will the children of today's kids think of when they see this 21st century star?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Courtney's First Phillies Game--History Was Made

On Friday, July 8, 2011, the Sassy Librarian and I went to Citizen's Bank Park for her first ever Phillies game.  Courtney has become a devoted and passionate Phillies fan (after 18 years with me, it was only a matter of time!) and we were thrilled to be able to go to the game tonight.

Especially when it was a showdown between the first place Phils and the red-hot 'Lanta Braves, who came into the game in second place, 2.5 games back.  We were even more excited to learn that Cy Young personified, Roy Halladay, would be toeing the slab for the Fighting Phils.

Nothing could dampen our spirits.  Not even three inches of rain that fell, flooding area roadways and adding 2 hours to our 130 mile trip to the park.  Not even the soaking wet denim of our jeans (and in my case, my sodden socks).  Not even the two rain delays that pushed the start time from 7:05 to 8:59 pm.  Despite the rain, the field looked beautiful, as did Courtney, in her stylish new Phillies cap.

The game was a nailbiter, with Braves scoring first, the Phillies answering, and then the process repeating itself.  Halladay gave a gutty performance, and despite two wild pitches and a passed ball, was still very good.  The went to extra innings, and by the bottom of the 10th, Courtney couldn't take any more--she had to go to the ladies' room!  I left my seat with her, and watched the rest of the action from the concourse.  Ryan Howard was robbed of a double by a diving catch, but then Raul Ibanez sent us all home happy with a resounding solo shot walk-off homerun to right.  As soon as the ball landed in the seats I turned my back to the field, to see Courtney dashing out of the rest room with a huge smile on her face.  They have the radio broadcast playing in the concourses, so she had heard everything.  There is no way around it, Courtney going to the bathroom is a good luck charm!

In addition to a thrilling win, we also saw history.  Phillies journeyman reliever Juan Perez got the win, pitching a scoreless 10th inning.  More than that, he pitched an immaculate inning (three strikeouts on a total of 9 pitches).  This has only happened 43 times in all of major league history, and the last time it happened in extra innings was 1923!  It goes to show you, you never know what you'll see when you go to a ballgame.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Ethan Lewis problem

I have a guilty secret.  I am an ego-surfer.  "Ego-surfers" periodically type their names into major search engines to see what comes up.  According to Wikipedia, this term has been around since 1995, which is approximately how long I've been doing this for, back when I would get different results on Lycos (now powered by Bing), AltaVista (ditto), Yahoo! (same story) and other search engines that no longer really exist.  Why do I do this?  Well, there are a few reasons, but mainly they revolve around my unquenchable need to know what strangers are saying about me.  Also, my name is not that common, which makes it easier to search for.  According to, there are only 49 people named "Ethan Lewis" (besides yours truly) in the country.  I don't know if this is totally accurate, but I think it is safe to say that there are fewer "Ethan Lewis"-es than there are "Richard Brown"-s, for instance.

On the other hand, in a disturbing trend, "Ethan" is becoming a much more popular name.  When I was a kid, I never knew any other Ethans.  My mother gave me my name because her hero, John Wayne, had named his son Ethan, and "if it's good enough for the Duke, it's good enough for me".  I met my first Ethan at Downtown Sounds in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1991.  He was working there, and when one of his colleagues walked by and said "Ethan", we both turned and said "yes?"  Interestingly, I was his first Ethan as well.  But that's not a big surprise, since according to the Social Security Administration, Ethan was the 494th most popular boy's name in 1970, the year of my birth.  Now, however, it is the 2nd most popular, in both 2009 and 2010--I better get ready for some verbal whiplash.

Another thing that affects my ego-surfing is that I want to be the top result on Google when searching for "Ethan Lewis", but I don't want to do any work to get there. As you probably know, part of what makes a search result higher on Google is how many other pages link to that page.  I've had my own domain ( for over a decade now, but I have never made a concerted effort to "optimize" the site to trick Google into making me #1.  If I get there, I want to earn it!  This is somewhat analogous to when my father used to try to pass people on the highway using nothing but the cruise control.  He said that he was willing the car to pass the other one, no human intervention necessary.  Try it sometime, it's fun!

Getting back on topic, the Bing search engine has been out (actually since the second week of Bing), I HAVE been the top "Ethan Lewis" on that search engine.  But Bing is less easy to use, because of my reflexive reliance on Google (due partly to using their Chrome web browser, and mostly due to force of habit).  Sometimes to streamline searches I use, which is pretty cool.

As you can see if you clicked the previous link, my bête noire is an economics professor at Dartmouth named Ethan G. Lewis.  For years, Ethan G. Lewis has been number one on Google, and I am number three or four (the top places belonged to "Big G", as I like to think of him).  Lately I've been picking up the pace, but I still lag behind Big G.  "Big G" seems like a nice enough chap; I've read some of his papers, and considering that I've been following him since his college days, I feel like I know him.  And while he and I are not Facebook friends, it seems that we have a number of things (besides our first and last names) in common.  So, while I would never wish him ill, and I am glad that he continues to find success in his professional life, I do sort of hope that "Big G" will go on sabbatical soon, giving me a chance to overtake him on Google.  Wait a second!  Google is often referred to as "Big G".  Could this be why they've ranked Ethan G. higher than Ethan me?  Sounds like a conspiracy to me...

Update:  My friend, über-blogger Sascha Freudenheim (the #1 Sascha Freudenheim on Google) has some thoughts about this post at his site:  Check it out!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"No Really, I Need It For Work"

You have no idea how many times I've uttered those words in regards to my latest computer acquisition.  It comes up a lot, because I've been a user (more likely) or owner (less likely) of a LOT of different computers over the past 30 years.  Inspired by a retrospective on all the guitar gear I've owned in my life, the following little trip through memory lane will cover some of the computers I've had my mitts on, and was inspired by my recent acquisition of an Apple iPad 2--which was paid for by my employer, and I need it for work!

My first exposure to computers came from watching reruns of the original Star Trek in the early 1970's.  The show resonated greatly with me, and even though it was impossible to tell how the computers really worked, it seemed like common sense to me that people could/should use computers to answer any and all questions.

Unfortunately, the voice activated computers with colorful toggle switches were only science fiction when I got my first computer in 1982.  My father was in the midst of compiling a book listing every piece of software available for the Apple II, MS-DOS and CP/M operating systems, and he decided that I should learn how to use a computer.  His computer at the time was a powerful CP/M machine called an Eagle II. This powerhouse machine sported a 4 MHz processor and 64KB of memory.  Considering that my father was using it on a daily basis to write and layout his book, I needed something more appropriate for a young beginner.  So, one day when I was in 6th grade, my father came home with a Radio Shack Color Computer.

While my machine didn't come with a sideburned sci-fi author to give me lessons, and we had to hook it up to an old color tv, it did come with a cassette deck (for storage) and the joystick that Isaac Asimov is holding in the ad at left.  To my undying regret, instead of working hard to learn BASIC coding (my father got me every book in the local library about programming) I spent my time playing an Asteroids knock-off called Microbes along with chess and Zaxxon.  If you are interested, you can see the CoCo in action in the movie This is Spinal Tap, when the band are playing computer games on the tour bus.

The games were fun, (considering the .89 MHz processor) but I can't help feeling that I missed the boat.  So many people of my generation wound up being involved in software design, but because of my weak will and poor choices, I have been relegated to the status of "computer user" instead.  But I have tried to make up for it by using a lot of computers.

When I went to Hampshire College in 1988 I was part of one of the last groups of students to go to school with typewriters.  (Unlike my friend Sascha, who had the first laptop I ever saw in person).  But after struggling on my electric typewriter for a semester, my father bought me a "word processor" from Brother.  It featured a built-in daisy wheel printer, floppy disk storage, and a CRT screen for previewing work prior to printing.   As you can see, the machine was kind of big and bulky, but it worked pretty well.  You had to load in pieces of paper one at a time, there were no fonts, and you couldn't add images to your papers, but I wasn't looking for any of that, so I didn't miss what I didn't have.

For my fourth year of college, I had to complete a major project called a Division III, which in my case took the shape of a 75 page paper (about arbitration in major league baseball).  My father was, by this time, a Macintosh enthusiast, and while he had never used one, he read everything he could about the brand and was convinced that his kids should have Macs.  So he found a way to get my younger sister and me new Macintosh Classic computers.  This was a major step up.  It had a 9" screen that could show 16 shades of gray.  As far as I was concerned, the display was breathtaking!  My father splurged for 2 MB of RAM, so that my computer could run Apple's new System 7 (the first one that allowed a user to run multiple programs at once).  I remember being very impressed with the 20MB hard drive, and wondering why anyone would ever need so much space!  I used this computer from 1991-1994.  During that time I did college and grad school work on it, designed flyers and documents for my job as a fire safety consultant in Boston, and wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in Northampton, MA.

By 1994 I was married and living in Indiana, going to grad school at PurdueMy wife wanted a peppier computer, especially one that could take advantage of the "Internet".  So we went to Sears and bought a Performa 550, a color computer with a modem (that came with an America Online account). The Performa was significantly faster, with a blazing 33MHz processor (a 680030, instead of a 680000) and it had a CD-ROM drive, could display 256 colors and had a 100 MB hard drive.   It weighed over 40 pounds (compared to the Classic's 16 pounds) which was a nuisance as we moved three times with this machine, but big screens meant big weight back then.   I wrote my Master's thesis on this computer, and learned how to make my first websites on it.  This computer was great for work and amusement, and during the mid-1990's I was an ardent Macintosh hobbyist.  Eventually, in 1996 my knowledge of computers got me a job at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, where I supported 120 Macs, and helped teachers integrate computers and the internet into their curricula.

Working at St. Paul's gave me the chance to have hands on experience with a bunch of neat computers.  Each classroom had 15 Apple laptops chained to the desks for the students to use.  Among the machines I supported were computers such as:

  • the PowerBook 520c (left): a color laptop (Apple's first).  My first day at work I had to move a cart of 20 of these ($2500 each) from one building to another.  The thought of what would happened if the cart fell over had me breaking out all over in hives!

  • the PowerBook 5300cs: this computer was quite nice, but several of the first ones off the production line caught fire due to bad batteries.  This was before Steve Jobs' return to Apple and back when quality control was less than optimal.  You can see this computer in the movie Independence Day, when Jeff Goldblum uses it to save the planet.  THAT is science fiction--these computers couldn't go more than 20 minutes in a climate controlled room without freezing and needing a restart--I doubt that they could function in an alien spaceship.  But maybe I'm just bitter.. I had one of these as my own work machine for a year, and it was heavy and buggy.

     • the PowerBook Duo 2300: the Duo series was a sub-notebook.  The docking station had a CD-ROM and floppy drive, so the machine itself was very light and stripped down.  I used this computer as the controller for the campus closed-circuit TV network.

    There were also more powerful desktop machines like the PowerMac 8500, which was the first computer I ever used to edit video.  This powerhouse had a 100MHz processor, and was amazingly fast.  I was blown away when I could edit together some video, leave for the night, and come back in the morning to find that it had rendered.  Amazing!

    After spending so much time with cutting edge Macs, the Performa started feeling less than optimal, so my wife and I took a plunge on the first generation Apple iMac.  This machine (still in my attic 13 years later) was a breathtakingly designed all-in-one machine.  It ran at a sizzling 233MHz, and was the first Apple computer (and first mainstream machine from any vendor) to forego a floppy disk drive.  Steve Jobs noted that we were living in an "internet age" and no one needed to "sneaker net" small files from place to place.  Apple took a lot of flak from this at first, but no one can deny that they were correct!  The iMac was also the first computer from any vendor to feature USB ports, marking Apple's break from the venerable SCSI connection paradigm.

    In 1999 I moved from St. Paul's to Groton School, where I took the job of Academic Technology Manager, administering the email system and continuing to work with teachers at integration of technology.  My first job was leading a program where all the faculty were given Dell Latitude C600 computers.   I had to train the teachers on the use and upkeep of these machines.  Moving to a Windows computer was shocking at first--when I took the computer home the first night I kept rebooting it--I couldn't understand why the first things I saw on the screen were BIOS notifications.  Pretty embarrassing way to start!  

    At Groton I was the "Mac guy", and I was able to take charge of a cutting edge Mac lab, featuring PowerMac G4 towers and containing photo and video editing, music composition, and advanced math and physics software.  These computers were very advanced, running at over 300MHz, they were as powerful as the "super computers" of the early 1980's.  One thing I liked to do was, by rolling around the room on a wheeled office chair, hit the power switch of each machine so that the boot up chord just kept on ringing and ringing.  Through the built-in speakers of the matching monitors, the sound was pretty awesome!  
    As the Mac guy, I also persuaded my boss to let me use a PowerBook G4  I mean, I had to do "Mac stuff" right?  I needed it for work!  This computer was made of titanium, and featured a 15" wide screen display.  It was on this computer that I first used MacOS X, when I got a copy of the OS in its beta release.  Using this laptop as a test bed, I was able to get the Mac lab running securely with OS X in early 2002.  This served as sort of a credibility builder when I moved from Groton to Wyoming Seminary in 2003.  I was going to be a history teacher/technology integrator, and when I went for my interview, I brought a bootable version of my OS X image with me.  Sem was only just beginning to consider OS X (they didn't go over to the new OS until 2006) but my experience was so strong that I wouldn't go back.  I immediately put OS X on the MacBook they gave me, and it's all I've used, on all three school laptops I've had at the school.

    In the summer of 2004, my wife began to feel frustrated by some of the limitations of the iMac, so we bought a PowerMac G5. I am pretty comfortable with saying that this is the best computer I've ever used.  It has been our main computer for seven years (I wrote this blog post on it).  It has two 1.8 GHz G5 processors, and still feels fast after all these years.  In 2009 I installed an extra internal hard drive and doubled the RAM to 2.5 GB of RAM.  The computer is rock solid, and rarely gets shut down (the longest uptime I've managed is eight months).  I've been able to do some pretty serious video and graphics editing on this machine, and probably played 10,000 games of Scrabble on it as well, including my high score of 531. I've also done some audio recording, and hope to continue to do more of that in the future.

    I'm so excited about the iPad.  Since the late '90s I've been waiting for a small, instant-on device that could be used by teachers and students in a classroom to access networked files, web pages and emails, while also being a viable tool for document creation.  Over the years I have tested (and found wanting) several devices, including:

    the Apple eMate 300: this is one of the coolest things I've ever used.  It ran Apple's Newton OS, on a 25MHz processor and used a touch screen and a stylus and could (sort of) recognize handwriting. It had a PCMCIA card slot for networking, and the clamshell case was almost indestructible.  This education market-only product fell by the wayside when Steve Jobs returned to Apple and killed the Newton.  Supposedly Apple has continued to maintain development of handwriting recognition software, but it seems to be missing from the iPad as of now.

    • the Palm pilot: I've tested numerous Palm OS (created by former Newton developers) devices over the years, some with stylus inputs, others with built-in keyboards.  The OS never seemed rugged enough for kids to use in class, and the weak processors made the machines far to slow to be useful.

    • the Psion Series 7: Before the Symbian OS became a global leader in mobile telephony, it was used to power small PDA devices.  Psion tried to take the PDA software and blow it up onto a bigger machine, with a built in keyboard, color screen, and a Microsoft compatible office software suite.  The case folded into a slick little clamshell, with a leatherette covering.  The machine used a stylus/keyboard combo like the eMate, and could connect to the internet.  When I was at Groton I met twice with the American home office of Psion, and tried to get them to give me a classroom's worth to test out.  But the retail price of over $1000 made these devices cool, but more expensive than PowerBooks that were far more powerful.    I have bought an external keyboard for my iPad, and I am hoping that it will give me an eMate/Series 7 vibe.

    In closing, this sampler of some of the computers I've worked and played with over the years has made me reflect a bit about Moore's Law.  Simply put, this concept was put forth by Intel founder Gordon Moore, and says that every 18 months computer processing power doubles, and prices fall.  A simple comparison between all of the computers I've owned personally shows this.  Each machine cost between $1000 and $1800 (with educator's discount).  But each machine left its predecessor in the dust in terms of performance, stability and capabilities.  Our PowerMacintosh G5 cannot run Apple's most recent OS versions, and soon the time will come where we may have to consider "upgrading" it to something running an Intel processor like Apple's more recent products.  And if we do, the speed and performance increase will be notable.  Who knows?  Maybe it's not too long before the Star Trek computers (maybe more like the Next Generation, than the Original Series) will be a reality!