Archive | tech life

Dave Eggers Has a New Book…and Big Brother look like a nice guy by comparison

I wrote a review of Dave Eggers’ new book, The Circle, for the newspaper here, and in their quest for space, the editors cut the first line of the review.  (I know–my deathless prose, snipped! Unbelievable.)

Here’s the line: “I didn’t like Dave Eggers new book, but I can’t stop thinking about it.”

And that’s the paradox: because as a novel, as a gripping story populated with characters we understand, it’s not that great. But as a novel of ideas–most of which are terrifyingly possible but I hope to god not accurate–it’s brilliant.

All of which is to say that probably you should read The Circle–but be warned: you will start to be warier about your whole social media world, if you have one. And if you don’t have a social media world, well, then, this book will scare the bejesus out of you, too.  And yes, of course I see the irony of me telling you about this technophobic thriller here, on this here newfangled interwebs thing. Of course. And frankly, I’m going to ask you to “like” and “tweet” and just generally social media my review all over the place, irony be damned.

Here’s the review--and I’d love to know what you think of the book, after you’ve finished it.

Continue Reading · on November 3, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Books, tech life, The National

why i can’t quit facebook

The other day (okay, last month) I read this piece on the fantabulous Arnebya’s blog (she of the Chipotle story, among others) and read what she had to say about all the various ways we have to “communicate” with each other.  Think about it: we have endless iterations of social media “contact,” from tweeting and pinning to vine-ing; we can google+ (although I don’t know what that really is) and get linkedin; we can email and IM and DM and godknowswhatM. It’s stunning.

Letters, actual mail? Like with envelopes and stamps and stuff? That’s so twentieth century. I don’t write letters any more and no one writes to me, really (yes, I see the causal link there), but I remember how nice it was to open my post-office box at college and see letters. Do any of us get that same little bubbly feeling from an email inbox? Methinks not.

But I’m not going to wax nostalgic in this post. Reading Arnebya’s post made me think about why–despite annoying ads and strange video clips of cats and squirrels and the pesky and constant changes that facebook keeps imposing–I can’t quit facebook or twitter (I tried to quit last year. And it totally worked.  For like an entire hour I was tweet-free).

Here’s the thing: my job demands a lot of computer time. I write, I answer student emails, I put together lecture notes. I’m old enough to remember doing these things without a computer — when I taught high school, back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was still using a DITTO MACHINE.  Brief pause here while those of you of a certain age remember the giddy inhaling of freshly dittoed worksheets.

Anyway. I spend a lot of time starting into the computer under the best of circumstances but since we’ve moved, my screen time has become something akin to an addiction. (And right there is why I don’t let my children read my blog. I spend too much time yapping at them about their own screen time to let them know about my own sickness.)

I have days where I look at the “likes” that other bloggers have on Facebook and wonder how they got so many thousands of people when I can’t even crack a second hundred; or why I too don’t have entire herds of twitter followers; or parsing the analytics on my blog like some kind of twenty-first century soothsayer, hoping that somehow overnight I’ve turned into The Bloggess. I wonder about “monetizing” and “branding” and syndication.

Yes. That would be a lesser-known use of social media: social media as self-flagellating device. How to make yourself feel bad in three easy clicks.


But then I realized the real reason I loves me some social media, and it goes even further back in time, earlier than the use of the ditto machine.


Yep, that’s right: “Romper, bomper, stomper boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, have all my friends had fun at play?”

That mirror she’s gazing into? That’s social media for me, over here in this half of the world. I look through my little facebook mirror and wait to see what’s happening in the world. Sometimes it’s as if I’m seeing things like those time-lapse photographs from space of the sun moving across the surface of the earth: I see the East Coast talking about their morning routines while the West Coast talks about their after-dinner drinks; the news rumbles in from points in the Mideast while the US sleeps; my brother in LA is going to the gym before work while my sister in NJ picks up her daughter after school. And my magic tweeting mirror offers the paradox of feeling utterly involved in the immediacy of people’s lives, even though I’m nowhere nearby.

There you have it. Social media may not be doing much for me professionally but I am no more capable of putting down my magic mirror of facetwitter than I am of putting my hair in that magnificent, Marie Antoinette-esque beehive.



(Of course, if you’d like to like Mannahattamamma on facebook, I’d be delighted to have you. Romper, bomper, stomper boo…)

Continue Reading · on May 31, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, expat, pop culture, tech life, writing

war games: the real surprises

A few weeks ago, Liam announced that he was going to be a computer hacker when he grew up and that for his first hacking endeavor, he thought maybe he’d go into his school’s main computer.

When I pointed out that that sort of hacking is pretty much a felony, he was devastated. “I’m not going to do anything,” he said. “I just want to see if I can.”

We had a lovely little teaching moment about such things as trespassing, privacy, and respecting the rights of others. I am fairly sure that my laptop hard drive is still intact and I’m reasonably sure that when I think Liam’s playing “League of Legends,” he isn’t busy writing code to break into the UAE central banking system.

I think.

But you can see why the movie “War Games” would be a natural choice for family movie night, right? Lest you’ve forgotten this deathless bit of cinematic history, let me refresh your memory: a teen-age kid, David Lightman (played as always by Matthew Broderick, who looks alarmingly like Liam might, after Liam gets his braces off), slacks off at school to spend all his time with his home-built computer system. He inadvertently hacks into the NORAD computer and almost starts World War III when he activates what he thinks is a game but is actually a military simulation of a nuclear attack.

David’s high-tech computer system looks like this:


 (Yes. that’s Ally Sheedy playing a teen-ager, as she seemed to do for decades until suddenly she was a bitter drug-addicted middle-aged photographer, in “High Art.”)  Note, please, this computer, which is huge, and which worked in sync with the multi-colored buttons and whatnots in the background. But in 1983, this system was the pinnacle of home computing.

Liam and Caleb took the big computer in stride.

This high-tech gadget, however, threw them for a complete loop:


“That,” said Husband, “is how we used to look things up. It’s called a microfilm machine.”  I almost couldn’t look. I spent hours and hours and hours peering into microfilm readers and–even worse–microcfiche readers during graduate school.  The machines lurked in the basement of the library and a more perfect migraine delivery system has never been invented.

As David races the clock, trying to figure out how he could stop the NORAD computer from launching missiles into the USSR, he relies on his wits and other high-tech research aids:


 “More looking up,” said Husband sagely.  The children were flummoxed. All this…labor…just to figure out the name of the scientist who’d created the computer system?  The boys didn’t ask, but I could see their shared, incredulous thought: there was a time before google?

As the movie winds to its climax, David finds himself in a phone booth (which my children recognize because they’re New Yorkers and know that those are the little kiosks used for ads), and consults yet another research tool:


“I know what that is,” said Caleb, “that’s a phone book!”

“I’ve never seen a phone book,” says Liam. (Yes he has: they used to pile up, unread, outside our apartment in New York.)

“I have. They have really, really small writing inside,” says Caleb, in tones used by oracles and other prophets.

Liam shakes his head. “This movie is old.”

After the movie, Caleb said, “I might have nightmares about World War III.”

I might have nightmares about microfilm.

Liam still thinks being a hacker might be pretty cool.


image sources

war games still


microfilm source

card catalog

yellow pages



Continue Reading · on February 9, 2013 in family, Kids, movies, tech life

in which I try to buy a new phone: phase three

Recap: you don’t even want to know. Apparently if you are given a phone by your employer and then want to migrate that number into an account with your own name, you are dreaming the impossible dream.  I decided that I’d just suck it up, get a phone with a new number, and then spend god knows how long trying to figure out how many accounts, passwords, and services are pegged to the old number.

This time, though, I went to a different kiosk, in a different, glossier mall, and I would make no mention of the fact that I had ever had any kind of phone at all, much less a business account.

The woman behind the counter looked at me. You want a new phone? Do you have already an existing account with Etisalat?

I remembered to breathe. No, I said. I just want to buy a phone. No contract, month-to-month, just buy the phone.

Oh. yes, ma’am we can do that, absolutely.

Great. I began to put my various forms of ID on the counter.

Oh but ma’am, the system is down. We have the technicians working but the system is down. You come back maybe this evening?

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

I nodded and smiled and did what any good Emirates-dwelling person does when confronted by hardship in a mall. I went shopping. Bought a lovely pair of shoes for work, on big sale, from a shop called Hotic, which is apparently a big brand in Turkey. For all I know it’s like the Payless Shoes of Turkey, but what the heck, they were on sale and will be great for work.

My retail therapy worked: miraculously, the Etisalat counter was up and running! I got in line, behind a man buying three phones for work, and a couple buying a pair of phones. I waited. Waited. Waited. The kiosk is a miserable place to work: it’s just an island of counters, with sales clerks working on three sides, each with its own queue. There’s nowhere, in short, to hide, when you’re working the kiosk.  Business guy took his three phones and left, first person in the couple did her paper work, then the guy did his paperwork, and then a technician appeared.

You will have to shut down. I need to fix the wiring.


Okay, I did not, actually, say that. But it may have shown on my face nevertheless, because the woman running the kiosk said that my transaction could be finished and then they’d shut down.

And we began: ID cards, credit card, which plan or no plan, pre-pay, post-pay, this or that, white or black, actually black is all they have in stock in 16GB, okay black it is, then.

People circled the kiosk like sharks, not believing that the booth was closed if I was still standing there, very clearly finishing a transaction. The woman helping me wasn’t sure of the code, didn’t know what to copy, couldn’t open the cupboard, tried to help a man with his delinquent bill, dropped my cards, typed in the wrong plan, asked her two co-workers for help at every point, and all the while the technician stood and watched and waited. It was like the reverse “Waiting for Godot:” Godot had arrived and no one was ready for him.

Finally, after 90 minutes of standing at the kiosk, I had my new phone. I also now have a new number.

And I also, of course, still have my old smashed phone, with my old number. I have no idea how to turn off the old number, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to take a letter from my employer saying that it’s okay to shut it down.



Continue Reading · on January 30, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, tech life

in which I try to buy a new phone: phase two

 To recap: iPhone iFell to the iCement, screen smashed, time to replace phone lest shards of glass eat their way into my eardrums. I take myself to the Etisalat kiosk to buy a new phone.

I am pleasantly surprised that there is no line.  The nice woman at the counter nods as I say I want a new phone and she types in my phone number.

No ma’am, that is a business number. We cannot give you a new phone.

But I’ve been paying the bills on this phone for a year and I bought this phone, right here at this counter. So can’t I just buy a new phone, with the same number?

No ma’am, so sorry, this phone is registered to the business, so we cannot sell to you without authorization from them.

Okay, what if I got a new number and just paid for it myself, without the business.

Ma’am you are already having a land-line or Etisalat account in your own name for six months?

Well, no, but you can see that I’ve been paying the bills on this current number for a year.

No ma’am, that will not work. You need to have an account in your name already for six months, ma’am. Is the new rules for the 5, ma’am.

Okay, okay, so fine, I won’t get a 5 right now, but I need to replace this phone. I’ll just get the 4s and replace this broken phone.

No, ma’am we don’t have the 4s in stock ma’am. Only the 5. You need a letter, ma’am, from your employer, saying that it is okay for you to switch this number to your own name and then we can give you the 5, ma’am.

[Please note that I have not yet raised my voice, throttled anyone, or thrown anything. I am telling myself that it is not the counter-person’s fault that I can’t just BUY.A.GODDAMN.PHONE]

I left the kiosk, emailed two different people in business services and human resources to explain that I needed a permission slip to buy a new phone. When we first arrived in Abu Dhabi, lo these many months ago, we got little Nokia phones that were already switched on and ready to use, a fact that I appreciate way more now than I did then. That phone number migrated with me to the 4s that I bought (with no permission slips) last year.

Approximately fourteen emails later, a wonderful woman in HR issued a stamped, signed, very official letter giving me permission to have full control over “my” phone.

The next day I went back to the kiosk, official letter in hand, sure that I would be leaving the mall with my new phone. Two different people were working at the kiosk, but hey, that shouldn’t be a problem, right? I mean, I had an official letter, stamped and on letterhead, with signatures and serial numbers. What could go wrong?

See earlier on bwhahahahaha…what could go wrong, indeed?

Ma’am you want to switch this number to your own name? You have been having an Etisalat account already in your name, a land-line or TV or something?

No, I say, but I have a letter here saying that I can switch this phone to my name.

No, ma’am, not without a pre-existing account, ma’am. I will verify with my supervisor, just a moment ma’am.

I decide there are few things more frustrating than confronting a bureaucracy where many of the decisions are conducted in a language you don’t know.  The man returns to the counter, deeply saddened, I can tell, by the news he is about to deliver.

No, ma’am, we cannot switch this phone to your name. You could maybe have a new number but only with the pre-existing account, ma’am.

Okay. Fine. Let’s just keep this number in the company name and I’ll get a new phone.

You need a letter to buy the new phone ma’am. From your employer.

You have a letter right here, saying I can switch this number to my name. Isn’t that pretty much the same thing?  It’s what I was told yesterday. And a year ago, I bought this phone right here, at this counter, with no permission from my employer  [it’s possible I may have shaken my smashed phone just the eensiest bit in his direction].

The man frowns, types something into the computer, looks up at me. No, ma’am that is impossible, a mistake. You should not have bought that phone here.

Yes but I did buy this phone here and now I want to replace it.

No, ma’am, I am sorry but you need a letter saying that it is all right for you to buy the new phone. And with that letter ma’am, then you can buy the new phone and keep your number.

You’re saying there’s really no way to migrate this number to my own account?

The man looks devastated, truly regretting what he is about to say. No, ma’am. There is no way. You need a letter to get the new phone with this number.

So if I come back here with a letter saying I can get a new phone, then we can just take care of this upgrade?

No ma’am, I’m so sorry. You will need to go to the main office. We cannot do any of these sorts of business transactions here. Only personal mobile service here, ma’am. Yours is a business number.



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Continue Reading · on January 30, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, expat, tech life

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