Category: essays

Dictionary Dilemma

I am in the market for a good dictionary, but I am afraid that I will never use it. These days, spell-checking software take care of the vast majority of spelling-related issues I have (some still slip through). Then, too, I discovered earlier today that Siri will spell things for you if you ask her to. No one ever told me this. Between meetings, I just said, “Siri, how do you spell hippopotamus?” and she replied the letter-by-letter spelling. It is particularly useful because sometimes, when I don’t know how to spell a word, I give up and choose a different word instead.

A dictionary seems like an essential tool for a writer to have on his or her desk. I have a copy of The Elements of Style, and I even refer to it on occasion, if only to remind myself to OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS. That is good advice and rarely seems to stick. But there is no dictionary on my desk. It is too easy these days to type a word into a browser search to get a definition. Why have a dictionary cluttering my desk when I have the entire Internet at my fingertips?

The answer is because I want one.

I received my first dictionary as a present during the holidays when I was six or seven years old. It was the Macmillan’s Children’s Dictionary. My brother got the Grease soundtrack record. I remember that dictionary well. It was large and white, and had lots of pictures set in with the word definitions. I was careful to use the guide words to find what I was looking for—they’d taught us that in school. I don’t know what happened to my old dictionary. I suspect it is in a storage barrel at my parent’s house.

Before I headed off to college, my grandmother gave me a dictionary. I had that dictionary for a very long time, and I got a lot of good use out of it, but time has erased it from existence. I can’t even recall when I stopped using it.

Wanting a dictionary isn’t enough. I want the right dictionary. There are too many to choose from. I did a search for “best dictionary for writers” and Google returned 24 million results. The top result was the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, which sounds promising, except I’d never heard of it before. I’m familiar with the OED, of course, but how is a dictionary for writers and editors different from an ordinary dictionary?

One post I read seemed to prefer Webster’s Dictionary over Oxford for what seemed like good reasons. Webster’s appealed to me because of that line in Johnny Mercer’s song, “Too Marvelous for Words”:

Your much too much, and just too very very
To ever be, in Webster’s dictionary

I’m not sure that is a good enough reason to choose one dictionary over another. Besides, Webster’s Dictionary has been replaced by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. I don’t know who Merriam was, and I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole trying to find out. All things being equal, it seemed to me that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary would suit my needs, so I searched for it on Amazon and saw that they had it in stock for $3.87.

But there’s a problem. Amazon also lists a new edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary which comes out on January 1, 2016. The previous edition is twelve years old. Probably I should wait for the new edition to come out and get it after the new year. Using a dictionary more often could be a New Year’s resolution.

In the meantime, I’ll practice asking Siri how to spell words. I just asked her to spell philately. If I have spelled it wrong here it is because Siri can’t spell—and I lack a good dictionary.

Going Wireless?

Here is a list of things I end up taking on a family trip just to make sure that all of the various gadgets work:

  • A plug for my MacBook
  • USB cable for my the kids’ iPad
  • USB cable for Kelly’s iPad
  • USB cable for my iPhone
  • USB cable for Kelly’s iPhone
  • A cable for my Kindle
  • A cable for the digital camera
  • Pocket charger for the iPhone
  • A small USB cable for the pocket charger
  • Earbuds for my iPhone
  • Backup earbuds for my iPhone
  • The charging dongle for my FitBit Flex
  • A wall adapter for USB charging
  • A 6-place power strip.

It often seem that most of the space in my backpack is taken up by cables that support the various devices. No matter how hard I try to keep the cables neat and tidy, they always end up in a knotted mess. I have a Grid-It that I use, but the Grid-It will not support more than a handful of cables. I’d need two or three of them for all of the cables I take.

Cables

We could share cables, but it never works out. The devices are not all compatible. The kids use an iPad 2, and Kelly’s iPad is a much newer model, which uses a much newer type of cable. We always seem to need to charge our iPhones at the same time, so having two cables saves charging time.

The pocket charger may seem excessive—except that every single time I go on vacation, it seems my phone is drained before noon. The pocket charger helps to prevent this. My FitBit charge lasts five days at most. But it seems to last longer the less active I am, and I am often more active while on vacation.

A 6-place power strip might also seem excessive, until you’ve hunted around the hotel room for five minutes trying to find an empty socket. Business hotels are getting better at this, but when we take family trips, we are often staying in less expensive hotels—the kind you can stay in for the night while driving from Virginia to Florida.

I could probably charge my Kindle before leaving for a trip and not worry about needing to charge it again—but I do worry, and so I toss the cable in with the rest on the off-chance I my Kindle runs out of power while I am sitting by the pool.

If there is a right way to wrap a cable, I don’t know what it is. I twist them this way and that. I wrap them around themselves. They still look as intimidating as the Gordian knot. But they keep the devices working.

Of course, one must ask whether it is worth bringing the gadgets on vacation in the first place. Vacation is a time to disconnect, and relax. This sounds wonderful, kind of like a sleigh ride over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house—and just as likely as such as sleigh ride. Like it or not, these devices have become part of our life, and while I can put them away for a day or two, I wouldn’t be able to do it for a few weeks while on vacation, not very easily anyway.

I hope that when my kids are my age, they’ll look back at our road trips and laugh: “Remember when we needed all of those cables, Dad?” The case of their iPhone 19 will serve as a solar panel and charge from the ambient light even as they use it to teleport from Maui to Lihu’e.

Lightsabers at Radio Shack

The first time I saw Star Wars was at a drive-in movie theater somewhere in New Jersey in the spring of 1977. I was five years old. I saw it again, sometime later, in a regular movie theater. I don’t remember too much about either occasion, but I must have been impressed by the movie. I wanted a lightsaber1.

I didn’t want to be a Jedi. I just wanted a lightsaber. The blasters they used in Star Wars were cool, but the lightsaber was something I had never seen before. I liked the sound it made. It was a comforting sound.

I was a naive child at five. At some point, the question of obtaining a lightsaber came up in conversation with my father.

“Radio Shack sells them,” he assured me.

“Can we get one?” I asked.

“Oh no, they are far too expensive. I think the cheapest model is about $10,000.”

If Radio Shack sold lightsabers for $10,000 today, you can bet that quite a few people would own one, but $10,000 in 1977 was a lot of money—the equivalent of nearly $40,000 today.

I had no reason to believe my dad was just having good time with me. I went to school assuring all of my friends that a lightsaber could be had at Radio Shack for a mere $10K. In my own defense, it was a reasonable thing to believe. If my dad had said that you could buy a lightsaber at Toys R Us, I might have been skeptical. I knew Toys R Us told toys, and I was smart enough to know that a lightsaber was no toy. After all, didn’t Obi Wan cut off the arm of some creature in the Creature Cantina with a lightsaber? But he chose Radio Shack, and that was the perfect choice for 1977. Back then, the store was full of all kinds of electronic miscellany. It was the perfect place to purchase a lightsaber.

There were other things that I seemed perfectly willing to believe as a five or six-year-old. Once, when I asked my mom if she could cut my hair instead of the barber at UFO Salon, she told me that she couldn’t. “You need a license to cut someone’s hair, and I don’t have one,” she told me. I imagined that if she had tried to cut my hair without a license, a policeman would show up at our front door after the first snip.

Another time, I asked her how she happened to know all of the answers to the questions on the game shows that she watched on the television.

“I took a course in game show trivia in college,” she told me.

Both of these answers stayed with me for a long time, and I repeated them to many friends before realizing that maybe, just maybe, my mom was having a little fun with me.

I told the story of the lightsaber to the Little Man—who is six-and-a-half—when we were driving to his swimming lessons the other day. “Isn’t it silly,” I said, “that I thought you could get a lightsaber at Radio Shack?”

“Yes, it is, Dad,” he replied. He paused thoughtfully, and then asked, “But if you can’t get one at Radio Shack, where can you buy one?”

“Home Depot,” I said, without missing a beat.


  1. I was uncertain whether lightsaber was one word or two, so I checked. StarWars.com lists it as one word. My confusion arises from Obi Wan’s line in the original movie when he says to Luke, “It’s your father’s light saber.” There, it clearly sounds like Sir Alec Guinness is saying two words.

The “Mobile Pause”

Mobile Pause

I don’t drive as much as I used to. When I lived in Los Angeles, I commuted 20 miles from Studio City to Santa Monica. Five days a week for eight years. That gave me my fill of driving. Today, I live five miles from my office. On the rare instance when there is traffic, it takes me 20 minutes. Most times, I can make it to the office in under 15 minutes. The record is 12 minutes. All things considered, I can tolerate this commute.

We drive to Maine each summer, a trip of just under 700 miles each way. Each Christmas, we drive to Florida, a trip of just over 1,000 miles each way. I enjoy these drives. The family is together. We take our time. They are much more like road trips than commutes.

You can’t spent 27 years driving without becoming an observer of how other people drive. One trend in the local commute that I have noticed over the last few years I have christened the “mobile pause.” It goes like this:

You are sitting at a stoplight, at least one car back from the light itself. Eventually, the light changes from red to green. The cars in the lane next to you all begin moving forward, but for some reason, the car (or cars) in front of you don’t move. There is a pause just long enough to where you begin to wonder if you should tap your horn. Just as your hand hovers over the steering wheel, the car at the beginning of the line zooms off suddenly, as if in a hurry to catch up with the cars that have gone ahead.

It took me a while to figure out why this was happening. Then it hit me. The driving of the car at the front of the lane is looking at their mobile phone. It is safer to look at your mobile phone when you are stopped. The problem is, if you don’t look up, you don’t see the light turn green. I can imagine this person updating Facebook, or reading an email message. Suddenly, almost like a sixth sense, the realize that they have been sitting there for a while. They look up—and the light is green. They gun the gas, wanting to be sure to zoom ahead before anyone has a chance to honk at them.

According to the Virginia DMV:

Anyone under 18 years old is banned from using cell phones or any other personal communication devices while driving.

Texting is banned for all drivers. In Virginia, it is considered a primary offense, which means police can pull you over if they suspect you of texting while driving. The fine is $125 for the first offense, and $250 for subsequent offenses.

People are always trying to find ways around the law and I suspect that many people feel that it doesn’t count if you are stopped at a stoplight. This has been happening with increasing frequency. Several times a week, even in my short commute, I am on the verge of honking at the car in front of me after the light has been green for five seconds or so—and just before I can do it, there they go!

Having named it, I find it doesn’t bother me as much. Perhaps the phrase will even catch on.

“Honk at them,” Kelly will say when the light turns green and the car in front of us doesn’t move.

“Don’t worry,” I reply, “they’ll move in a second. It’s just a mobile pause.”

The Great Chip Card Debacle

Protecting your identity is important and credit card issuers appear to be taking this seriously, dare I say enthusiastically. In the past several months I have received chip cards to replace my bank ATM card, and all of my various credit cards, including store cards like the Target Red Card. I ordered a card for Kelly to have as a backup, and not only did they send her a chip card, they sent me one, too, even though I already had one.

The idea behind the chip card is that the chip built into the card generates a unique security code each time you use it to make purchases in a store. This prevents the card from being used even if the number is stolen, because it still needs that unique security code for the transaction to go through. This is a good plan. It is similar to the notion of RSA tokens used in multi-factor authentication.

I have only one complaint about the chip card so far: it almost never works.

Each store I go into has been updated with new card reader machines. You can slide your card the old-fashioned way, or slip them into the slot at the base of the reader, chip-first, to ensure a secure transaction. Every time I motion to slip my card into that slot, the cashier waves me off, “Sorry, that isn’t working. You have to slide it.”

It happened several times at Rite-Aid. Then I noticed it happen at other places. So I began keeping a list. Although these stores appear to be equipped to handle the chip cards, I have been waved off multiple times at Hair Cuttery, and Sports Clips. I tried to use the chip reader at Subway on Saturday, and was told that it doesn’t work. My local Safeway has not yet implemented the chip reader so I don’t have to worry about being waved off there.

Target is the only retailer where my chip card works on a consistent basis. It adds a few seconds to the checkout, but so does my attempt to use a chip card at places where the machinery still doesn’t work.

None of these retailers have put up signs by the register warning customers that their chip reader is malfunctioning. Wouldn’t it save everyone time and frustration if there was a sign that instructed you to slide your card? Nothing fancy, just tape a piece of paper over the chip slot with the word NOPE printed on it.

Of course, it would also save time and frustration if the chip readers worked in the first place.

Even when they do, they don’t. When I first got my chip card and used it at Rite-Aid, the machine told me I needed to slide my card instead. I slid my card. There was a pause. The machine said, “Please insert your chip card into he slot.” I did this. I was asked for my PIN, which I dutifully entered. A moment later, the machine indicated that I needed to slide my card instead. I recognize an infinite loop when I see one. I took my card and ran, leaving behind a baffled cashier.

Next time I came in she told me that the chip reader wasn’t working. It hasn’t worked since.

Today, all of my bank and credit cards have been replaced chip cards, and the stores I shop in have new card readers. However, as stores can’t seem to get the machines to work, the result of what must have been a monumental effort is that my level of transaction security is exactly what it was before the new cards were issued.