Friday, December 12, 2014


I don't have a so-called "smart phone", maybe because I'm not smart enough to operate one. I do have a flip-phone, which cost almost nothing, and the cheapest connectivity plan I can find ($100/year). I can't use it the half of the year when I'm in Ireland or Exuma. No matter, I hardly ever get a call anyway. In fact, it's seldom turned on. So why have it? For making connections while traveling, or for emergencies while driving.

Nevertheless I live in the cloud, unavoidably.

By "the cloud" I don't mean the usual definition of that word -- the giant server farms that store gazillions of bytes of user data and information. I mean the invisible cloud of electromagnetic radiation in which we live and breathe and have our being. We swim in it. We are enveloped. A little while ago my flip-phone rang in my pocket. How did that happen? How did a signal filling all of local space, passing through walls and bodies, find me? Make my phone ring? I could have been anywhere, Miami. San Francisco. How does it work?

I don't know.

I have a degree (circa 1958) in electrical engineering, and an advanced degree in physics (circa 1964), and I don't know how it works. Oh, I understand radiation, and modulation, and the other basic principles, but still it seems rather like a miracle. Buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz "Where are you?" "I'm in the library."

Years ago -- I think it was on the occasion of an exhibit at MIT of replicas of Hertz's equipment with which he made the first electromagnetic transmission, all varnished wood and shiny brass -- I wrote about being able to snag out of the ether Mozart or Motown with my hand-held radio. That was before everyone had cell phones and WiFi. That universal, invisible sea of modulated radiation. It wraps the planet. It leaks into space. It fills my fingertips as I type.

And here, unplugged in my comfy library chair, I'm in touch, at virtually the speed of light, with every one of you.