Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 9:31 PM on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Some Alaska ingenuity helps make technology work better




One of the advantages of living in a small Alaska town at the end of the road is you get to test — really test — technology. If you're looking to buy a four-wheel drive car that can stand up to winter, come down here and see which 1990 vintage rigs still run.

From rubber boots to raincoats, we Homerites constantly challenge the stuff that makes our lives easier. The successes you see used all over town. The failures wind up hurled into the ocean by a frustrated fisherman who really, really needed that locking knife to lock, and it didn't. We demand tools, machines and clothing that work. High tech or low tech, wool or modern fabrics, if it keeps us warm and dry and the zipper doesn't break, it's good.

On my mother's side I come from solid New England stock and the ethic of "use it up, wear it out, make it do." Yankees don't mind paying a bit more for something that lasts and, if it gets a little worn out, can be repaired easily. Form follows function, and function matters over fashion.

Which is why I'm in love with the iPad.

At the risk of sounding like an Apple fan boy, Mr. Jobs and his company make beautiful products. I like things that work well and don't break down, but I also like things that look elegant, with simple, clean lines. That's the iPad. I bought one a year ago when it first came out, and boy howdy is it ever cool.

The leading edge of what has come to be called tablet computers, the iPad doesn't have a lot of fussy controls — just a home button, a mute switch, volume control and an on-off button. The touch screen responds smoothly to finger taps, touches and swipes. When I use the iPad I feel like I'm living the science fiction future I imagined when I was a boy of 12.

At work, I use the iPad to take notes at meetings or in interviews . The 4-inch-by-8-inch reporters notebook and a pen is good low-tech for quick, short notes. For writing down long-winded orations at city council meetings, I need to type fast. I can turn on my iPad and be taking notes on the touch screen keyboard in seconds. With the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, I can type even faster. Keyboard, iPad and collapsible stand fit in my iPad man bag.

Except that at the Cowles Council Chambers, I don't have a table to type on. (Note to the city hall renovation task force: would it be too much trouble to put in some tables for journalists?) Using some scrap plywood and $3 brass hinges, I made a folding lap desk that holds my iPad and keyboard.

This amuses some people. "You know," one guy told me when he saw my contraption, "They make something that has a keyboard and screen. It's called a laptop computer." A couple of months after I rigged up my lap desk, a company came out with the same idea, the Clamcase, an iPad case with built in keyboard. It costs $119, $50 more than my keyboard.

I also needed a pouch to carry my iPad and keyboard. You can find well-made products, but I'm a resourceful son of a New Englander, remember?

I made some pouches out of a padded envelope with flannel from an old sheet glued to the inside and held together with duct tape. Using driftwood found on the beach, I made a stand to hold the iPad while it recharges. The two screws might have set me back a dime. I also made a reading stand so I can browse newspaper apps at breakfast.

I love dead-tree papers, but living at the end of the Anchorage Daily News west-side paper route, I don't see a paper before going to work. To get my morning news fix, I read the New York Times online with the iPad app.

Here's another place where technology should be simple. When the iPad came out, every media outlet from the Huffington Post to Al Jazeera developed an app. The flashiest is The Daily, Rupert Murdoch's iPad-only paper, with a twirling display of pages it calls a carousel. I'm a fan of architect Mies van der Rohe's minimalist philosophy of "less is more."

The New York Times divides its iPad paper into sections, just like the physical paper. Flip through the sections and each screen shows a handful of stories, with the headline and first paragraph and maybe a photo. Tap on the headline and the entire story opens up. Simple. Elegant.

Now Apple has introduced the iPad 2, which is lighter, faster and thinner than my iPad — and it has forward and backward cameras. My iPad has become obsolete. That's OK.

Although I wouldn't refuse a new iPad if someone gave me one, that's the other thing I believe about technology. If it works, you don't need the latest model. I'm still shooting with a 6-year-old Nikon camera. Heck, I only just gave up my 25-year-old Toyota truck, and I still see it being driven around town by the guy who bought it.

We shouldn't be slaves to technology. If our machines work, keep them working. If they don't work, get something that does. And if nothing works, then do what every Alaskan has done since the Eskimos invented the toggle-head harpoon, the tool that made living in the Arctic possible.

Make it yourself.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.

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