At Large: Besides death and taxes, here’s what you can count on

At Large: Besides death and taxes, here’s what you can count on

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“Announcements come daily of companies cutting back on spending and payrolls, from struggling start-ups to industry stalwarts like Intel and I.B.M. By some measures, the slide in technology stocks since their peak in March 2000 now approaches the magnitude, in percentage terms, of the market collapse in the worst years of the Depression. Clearly, a lot of the money, glamour, and people have left the technology business. And yet, the technology itself continues to spread, in every way.”

That was Steve Lohr, writing in The New York Times in August 2002, under a headline that reads “Technology Climate Is Gloomy, but Its Future Still Seems Bright.”

You may be heartened in some perverse and difficult-to-explain way when you are reminded that just eight short years ago we suffered a market collapse that, in the minds of many stock market watchers, resembled the worst of the Great Depression. Between 2000 and 2002, the economy was cratering, and the high tech segment was leading the descent.

Less perverse somehow is the news that following the post-tech bubble 1990s and the post-9/11 trauma, the U.S. economy, including especially the tech segment, clawed its way back to apparent health, until the housing/financial bubble clubbed us again beginning in about 2007.

It’s a mystery that we never see the edge of the cliff ahead, and a mystery that we climb out of the gulch time and time again.

For me, disappointment is common and predictable in all matters digital, never mind the stock market. It is similar to the difference between what one is led to expect from a heavily promoted new movie and what one experiences at the theater. The reality never measures up to the heraldry.

I have spent years researching and assembling the components of a phone and computer connection that would enable me to be away from the office for a few days but still do my work. I imagined myself 5, 10, even 20 miles at sea, rolling along before a following wind while downloading and uploading to beat the band. I would be at work but not be at work at the same time. Getting the gear mix right to make such a dream real became a bit of an obsession.

For a long time, you could find a portable computer that might do the trick, but what sort of cell phone could be married to the computer, and what modem would work with the chosen laptop and cell phone? And then, what sort of software would make computer, modem, and phone work together? And finally, the cell phone network: which one will best support data transmissions? Actually, the notion I had was a bit beyond the technological horizon when I began my obsession. Then, the technology arrived…or pretended it had.

The early performance reviews, I am afraid, were disappointing. The modem was too slow to conveniently transmit big files. The cell towers were too sparse, especially as bigger cities were left behind. The promise was bright, the reality dim.

What I should have done is wait and let technology come to me. The collapse of my plan in 2002 meant nothing really. In 2010, the goal, so frustratingly unreachable eight years ago, is now realized.

Along the way, as technology sputtered, promised, and disappointed, good-natured, helpful, generous humanity performed delightfully.

For instance, when the cell phone–laptop connection failed, as it so often did, I went searching for a landline. For instance, once in lovely, tranquil Bucks Harbor, Maine, at the western end of the Eggemoggin Reach, I marched up to the grocery store above the harbor. Everyone from the boats moored below and from the hilly surrounding town was at the store for groceries or breakfast. I asked the proprietor, who doubled as the cook and stocker, if I might use his hard-wired phone line for a few minutes. He said, sure. I plunked the laptop on the lunch counter, plugged his phone cord into it, and proceeded to have about 10 minutes of what we technological sophisticates call configuration problems.

All the while, from the front of the busy store, I could hear the hubbub building. A glance in that direction revealed a growing mob of sunburned folks clutching eggplants and croissants.

Soon, a powerful voice of accustomed authority bellowed, “Joe, what is wrong with the phone?”

“Oh,” Joe said, some internal alarms going off, “this fellow’s using the line.”

“Well,” the voice said, “he’s got to stop. That’s the credit card line.”

Joe’s generosity had nearly put him out of business and certainly in Dutch with his wife.

“Sorry,” he said, “but I gotta have that line. I thought it would only be a minute or two.”

I packed up my gear and skulked away, discouraged, but use to it.

From the front porch of the tiny store, across a field where a steel band (for some unfathomable reason) would set up for a weekly dance party later in the day, I spied Condon’s Garage, an auto and boat repair place.

Condon’s does brake jobs and ring jobs, valve jobs, head gasket jobs, and muffler jobs. The folks at Condon’s could keep your old Ford pickup on the road by welding a bit of steel to the frame to span the rusted hole in the beam. The parts department, some of it anyway, lay beside the building in the form of old vehicles that hadn’t escaped in running order but still had contributions to make.

Condon’s was not technologically advanced, but I guessed it had a phone. It did, and Mr. Condon, a bearish man with a closely cropped head, a sideways Downeast sense of humor, and a bemused look on his face, said, “Sure, go ahead and use the phone line. Take all the time you want, I don’t want no phone calls anyway.”

I plugged in, rested the computer on a capsized outboard propeller, and I was in business.

The market and the promoters promise this and that, but in the end what you really want are good folk, persistence, and patience.