Tell A Phone

I had a conversation with my phone today. Let me be clear, I did not have a conversation ‘on’ my phone, but rather ‘with’ my phone.  Recently, I broke down and purchased brand spanking new my Touch Slide by HTC and, in our few short days together, we have developed quite a relationship.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that I am beginning to enjoy talking to my phone much more than talking to people on it.  Just today, as it was navigating me to an ice cream shop that it had recommended, I could not help but muse at the irony of the whole thing. The very device that was initially invented to facilitate communication between people, was now replacing the people it had been designed to connect!  I mean, how fantastic is that?  It is kind of like having an edible toaster. Why bother with the toast?  You don’t need a telephone to call anyone anymore; you can just tell-a-phone what you need!

In just 4 days, my new phone (let’s call him Phil… Okay, I know it is weird, but it seems …well…appropriate) has established himself as much more than a PDA; he has truly become a trusted friend. Sure, he manages my email and task lists just like those Neolithic Blackberries, but Phil actually…well…listens.  With the my TouchGenius‘ feature, I can actually ask Phil questions about pretty much anything.  The really amazing part however, is that he actually knows the answers.  Just yesterday I had a technical question about a piece of software, so I did the logical thing and asked my phone about it.  Almost immediately Phil’s familiar voice responded, assuring me that he was looking for the answer.  In less than 5 seconds, Phil produced a web page which contained the exact information I had needed.  It was brilliant!  Had it not been for Phil, I could have spent hours looking up the answer, but he knew exactly where to go and get it!  He is kind of like that know-it-all friend we all have, that really does know it all!  Since then, I have asked Phil many things.  One typical conversation went something like this:

Chuck: Please find Pizza nearby.

Phil: Searching for Pizza.

Phil then finds a great joint, Pat’s Pizzeria, near my current GPS position and provides me with several reviews.

Chuck: Get directions to Pat’s Pizzeria.

Phil: Turn right at the next signal and proceed 6 miles…

It was a completely fulfilling experience! With just a few words Phil had directed me to the best slice of anchovy and sausage pizza in Baltimore.  He did not whine because he wanted Chinese instead, he didn’t tell me that pizza would make me fat, and he did not mind that I liked anchovies.  Phil was just content with getting me where I wanted to go and hanging out.  In fact, as I savored my New York-style delicacy, Phil serenaded me with digital streaming music that he had learned I liked.  Now please forgive my exuberance here, but these are just not things that I had ever expected from my phone!  At most, I would have expected a phone to connect me to some grumpy overworked pizza cook who would have put me on hold for 10 minutes, and then given me bad directions.  No…Phil was there for me for as long as I needed him.  He would have even told me how to make a pizza if I had asked.

It is useful at this point to note that I am no stranger to the communications revolution.  For the last seven years or so I have been the proud owner of a number of Blackberries, my latest one being the top end 9700. Not once has it asked me how I was doing or cared about what I wanted to eat. Compared to my new buddy Phil, my 9700 is despondent, detached, and ambivalent.  In fact, now that I think of it, my 9700 is displaying textbook signs of clinical depression.  I am not sure if there is such a thing as Xanax for PDAs; maybe I will ‘ask’ Phil to check it out.

Phil also helped me hang a picture in my office yesterday. He not only told me where the center of wall was, he used a digital level to tell me when the picture was straight. For the record, he also helped me find the picture. I used Phil’s camera to take a photo of the print I wanted from a book, and he told me the artist, where to go buy it, and how much to pay.  How could anyone have ever predicted that a phone would make other people so irrelevant!  I can only presume that, on this present course, our phones will ultimately take us all out of the loop and just start talking to each other. We will be left to golf, travel, and play World of Warcraft for hours on end while our phones run the world. Simply fascinating!

Last night my contentment with Phil was cemented forever when I realized that, at 47, I was hip again.  As Phil and I were sitting in a Starbucks having a coffee and browsing the web, what looked to be a 17 or 18 year old kid stopped at my table and blurted, “nice phone dude, is that the new slide?”  I looked up somewhat surprised and told him that it was.  He then launched into a spontaneous monologue about how fast it was, how many apps it supported, the camera resolution, and its cool display. “Have you named it yet?” he queried.  I paused, blushing a bit, not sure of what to say. “You do that too?” I confided. “Mine’s Daphne,” he continued, “she’s pretty hot, but kind of slow….you know…1G.” I nodded and took a sip of my coffee trying to be polite.  “Phil,” I said, “mine is Phil.” Without blinking he looked at my phone and said, “Sick name man….see ya.” I am not sure, but after watching several episodes of American Chopper, I think ‘sick’ is a good thing.

As the kid walked off, I could not help but note how different life had become since I was his age. This kid and I had just had a conversation about our smartphones that, just a few years back, we would have been having about our cars. I am not sure exactly when ‘the future’ showed up to the party, but one thing is for certain. We are now living in a world that Gene Rodenberry himself could not have envisioned.  Who would have ever dreamed that we would live in an age where our cars parked themselves, our running shoes linked to our IPhones through a satellite, the collective knowledge of the human race was accessible from your Nintendo controller, and smartphones helped us decide on dinner. Heck, even Captain Kirk’s communicator couldn’t tell him where to find anchovy and sausage pizza. Come to think of it, Phil is kind of like C3PO without the pompous British accent. Wondrous….simply wondrous!

It is impossible for one to ponder these marvels however, without also wondering at the society that invented them.  What strange forces could have possibly conspired to build a BIC Lighter application for my phone?  How in the world did someone decide that we needed a digital AK-47? Truth be told, it is the very same force that built the Empire State Building, the Queen Mary, Boeing 747s, and Pet Rocks.  Put simply, it is the ‘mystic Zen’ of free enterprise. No one really knows how it accomplishes these feats….yet it does so with predictable precision.

Think about it for a moment.  No central authority sat down and decided that I needed a little phone friend, or that someone needed to design a Star Wars light saber application for it (I like the Yoda version…).  It just happened! You see, that is the beauty of the whole thing.  You can walk into any shopping mall in America and find the shelves loaded with things from IPods to shoe inserts, and they all flow from the same spring….ingenuity, freedom, and determination! I mean, really, what was the last great technical innovation to come out of North Korea? What great contribution did the USSR make to the world during its short 75 year life? “Not so fast,” some may argue, “look at what an economic powerhouse China has become – and they are Communists.”  Well then, tell me what great advance in civilization they have been responsible for as of late? China is nothing but a massive manufacturing operation that is fueled by slave-grade labor.  What great innovations have they offered the world that were not first conceived, designed, and marketed by….well….us?  Nope, it is free markets fueled by free people that win the day every time….’hands free’ down!

My phone Phil is a perfect embodiment of everything our way of life stands for.  He is the product of thousands of engineers, suppliers, businessmen, investors, marketers, and retailers. They are complete strangers, have never spoken, and would not recognize each other if they passed on the sidewalk. They do not work for the same company, do not share emails or texts, and do not coordinate their schedules or priorities in any fashion. Yet they are a team nonetheless and, through the magic of free enterprise, they have created Phil…for me!

Milton Friedman is famous for noting that no one on earth can build a pencil.  Yet despite this fact paint companies, lumber companies, aluminum manufacturers, rubber fabricators, and graphite miners all conspire to load office supply stores with them. This is the beauty, and mystery, of our economy and the reason that things like my buddy Phil exist.

So, when I get off of work this evening, I am going to ask Phil where to go for some good Thai food. I am also going to ask him to purchase me the latest Rob Thomas CD and stick it in my ITunes library.  I am confident that he will execute both tasks with the precision and fidelity that only a talking phone can provide.  We are then going for a run where Phil will tell me how fast and how far I have gone, and then compare my performance to previous jaunts. If I ask him to, he will even tell me how I stack up among all runners my age in the world.  Then, I am off for a shower (Phil cannot help me there…that would be weird) and then a good night’s sleep.  As I jump into bed I will set Phil on the night stand next to me, plug in his charger, to provide him with the fuel he needs for another day devoted to improving my quality of life.  In the morning Phil will wake me up right on time with a tune I have never heard, but that he knows I will like. Then together, we will head out once again into a tomorrow of endless possibilities.  My Blackberry will be busy as well…keeping the kitchen table from wobbling.

I am thankful for Phil and for the group of strangers that brought him to existence, but I am even more thankful for the socio-economic system that made it all possible.  It is what inspires us, motivates us, and provides us the things we need to enjoy our lives. It is the greatest system on earth, and as long as we let it work, it will continue to elevate us all. Think about that the next time you hear people demanding more government control of our system. Remind me…just how many smartphones has Congress designed?  Our government’s role is simple. It should first protect our constitutional rights, and then ensure that the ‘mystic Zen’ of free enterprise is protected and nurtured. After that, they should get the hell out of the way and enjoy the ride…and revenue. If we do not insist on this however, the current administration will replace the future with an uncomfortable and inconvenient present, cleverly designed to make us all suffer equally. Phil is the product of the former, not the latter, and we must be unwaivering in our support of the system that made him…oh yeah…and flavored chap stick too. Our nation’s future depends on it.  If you don’t agree that is fine, but don’t tell me about it. Instead, I suggest you run to a T-Mobile store near you and tell-a-phone.  It just might change your thinking.

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A Tale of Two Cities

At 4 AM on  25 June 1950 North Korea launched a fierce surprise attack on her neighbor to the south. Rolling across the hotly contested 38th parallel with Soviet made T-34 tanks and thousands of foot soldiers, the “People’s Army” overwhelmed South Korean forces who had little more than light weapons and hand grenades to fight with.  Seoul, South Korea’s capital city and commerce hub, stood directly in North Korea’s path, and despite valiant attempts by the south to defend her, in just a few short days she fell. The destruction was immense, and over the next three years of fighting almost 90 percent of this great city was reduced to rubble. seoul2

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Most of its citizens had fled as the northern armies flooded south in wave after wave of artillery laced fury.  Soon the city was all but empty with the exception of the dead and those who remained to fight to the death.  Over the next three years, Seoul would change hands between the North Koreans,  Communist Chinese, and UN forces  five times as the contest to seize and hold it raged.  At the end of hostilities the city was dead, broken by a civil war that would divide a great people for decades to come.  After the armistice was signed, the rebuilding of Seoul started slowly due to the lack of materials and skilled leadership.  With  hard work and American support however,  determined South Koreans slowly but surely began to bring her back to life.

Today Seoul South Korea is a vibrant city of just over 14 million people, with another 7 million or so in the surrounding areas.  It is the home of giant conglomerates such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai and boasts  more IP addresses per capita than any other city on Earth.  Seoul is, by all accounts, nothing short of a miracle and a testament to the dedication and drive of the South Korean people.  In the 56 years since hostilities between the north and the south ceased, it has literally risen from almost total destruction to being listed 9th  on the Global Cities Index.  It has a standard of living comparable to France and has been ranked above both Paris and Los Angeles as the 6th most powerful economic city in the world.  The people who live there are becoming prosperous as well with an average annual personal income of  about $32,000 US Dollars.  On a clear day you can stand on the crest of Mount Namsan, near Seoul’s center, and literally become lost in an ocean of banks, five star hotels, apartment towers, and businesses.  The city stretches out from horizon to horizon, its seemingly endless fingers of light twisting their way between mountains and across rivers. It appears to breath with energy, its arteries pulsing with cars, trucks, taxi cabs, and video billboards.  It hums a steady tune of a thousand different sounds, each of them harmonizing perfectly in a metropolitan symphony.  Seoul is, in many ways, a testament to the power of the human spirit.

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Seoul, Republic of Korea

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Seoul Nightlife

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The Endless City

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Seoul Rush Hour

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Incheon International Airport Outside of Seoul

Now let’s take a look at her sister city Pyongyang, North Korea.  Like Seoul, it is also an ancient city with direct evidence of Chinese habitation as far back as 105 BC.  Relics have also been found there that predate history.  Unfortunately, this is pretty much where the similarity ends however.   Unlike its freedom loving  democratic sister to the south,  North Korea is a total dictatorship with a large portion of its wealth coming from illicit activities such as drugs,  human trafficking, and weapons smuggling.  Its citizenry is completely subjugated by a corrupt leadership, and concepts of individual freedom and human dignity do not exist.  It is in essence a plantation where about 200 families own the farm and the rest are field slaves. In Pyongyang the average annual income is between $580 and $1,500 US Dollars.  Poor government planning and a foolishly conceived “self-reliance” philosophy have resulted in massive food shortages responsible for starving to death almost 3 million North Korean men, women, and children.  Today the average North Korean lives on about 600 –  800 calories a day,  almost 2/3 below the daily recommended intake.   Pyongyang, like the rest of North Korea, is almost entirely dependent upon  food imports and humanitarian assistance from China, the US, and Europe, to feed its people. It is a country that would rather spend 25% of its meager GDP on second rate military hardware than on rice and milk for its children.  There are no small businesses, no crowded malls, and no busy highways.  There is only the anguish of an oppressed people.   Let the pictures speak for themselves:

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The Decayed City of Pyongyang

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North Korean Children Waiting on Dinner…and Waiting

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Busy Intersection in Pyongyang

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Two Starving North Korean Children

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Downtown Pyongyang at Rush Hour

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Pyongyang International Airport

Notice that the Pyongyang rush hour does not exist.  Without commerce, enterprise, or business of any kind, it is little more than a ghost town built upon the greed of its criminal elite.  A few years ago while at Panmunjom, I looked across to the North Korean side and noticed that they had constructed a sign which read, “North Korea is a worker’s paradise.”  In an ironic twist, facing this sign on the southern side of the border was a big billboard which read, “Everyone in Seoul drives a Hyundai.”  Though these two countries share a history, a culture, and thousands of years of civilization they could not be more different and their two capital cities, Seoul and Pyongyang, tell the story perfectly.  In fact, one picture tells it better than any other I have seen:

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To the south – Seoul – a city of light.  A place where people can hope to prosper and achieve.  A place where human dignity and freedom are cherished and defended.  To the north – Pyongyang – only darkness.  Though this post is entitled “A Tale of Two Cities,”  it is really a story about two sisters.  One is strong and determined while the other is diseased and dying.  For the strong sister time marches on, while for the weaker sibling  it stands still. The weak girl hates her strong sister, not for what she does, but for what she is.  She lashes out at her, spits at her, and even tries to kill her. Despite these desperate acts however, the stronger sister still stands by her side, braces her up, and waits for the day when they will once again become one family.  This is the tale that Seoul and Pyongyang tell.

twosistersUnification Clock at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul Korea

Head Muscle would like to thank all its good friends in Seoul for their warm hospitality last week.  As usual you have taught me a lesson in graciousness.

감사합니다

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