Confessions of a Computation Addict

I guess it's one of those things you do that doesn't seem odd until you try explaining it to someone else. I just wanted to listen to some newspaper articles.The great lengths to which I'd gone to achieve this goal didn't strike me as all that unusual, until I told a co-worker how I'd been spending my weekends. He stared at me with disbelief as I described my home project -- an effort that had grown to almost Frankensteinian proportions -- involving three computers tethered to each other on a network and my new Diamond Rio 500 MP3 player (www.riohome.com).Hey, once you start something you might as well see it to the end, no matter how far out there the end might be.It started out simply enough. I'd long relied on audio books -- you know, those taped, spoken recitations of texts -- to spice up my long commute and daily workout. But, having worked my way through everything from Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon to Dave Barry in Cyberspace, I found my local library rapidly running out of titles I considered even remotely interesting.Solution: homegrown audio newspapers. I hooked a cassette recorder to my computer and had voice-synthesis shareware (HELP Read: www.pixi.com/~reader1) read stories into it from Boston Review (bostonreview. mit.edu), the New York Observer (www.observer.com), New Scientist (newscientist. com), and other publications with online editions.This struck people as a bit odd. They'd ask if I found the clanky computerized voice grating. Naah, I'd reply. It's kind of like having Stephen Hawking reading me the news. And, the system cost no more than the price of a Radio shack portable cassette player, some rechargeable batteries, and a battery charger. I already had an old recorder and plenty of used cassettes.So I don't know what really possessed me to switch over to using a digital player. I mean I could recite practical reasons. There are no moving parts on these kinds of devices, so there would be fewer things that could break. Plus, no fumbling with cassettes or untangling tape jams -- a tad demanding when cruising down the highway at 80 mph.But I suspect the real reason was sheer lust for the Rio 500, a tiny, light, demure gray digital player that Diamond Multimedia just introduced this March. Audible (www.audible.com), a company that vends downloadable books, was selling a version at $169. This wasn't cheap, and even that price was contingent on my buying some overpriced Audible "books" over the next year to download onto this MP3 player. But the ad copy boasted that the player held 32 hours of spoken-word recordings. That blew my mind. I looked into digital recorders a year ago, but decided against it as the memory they held wasn't large enough to hold any decent amount of recordings.Well, a lot changes in a year, at least for the digital memory market, and 32 hours of space was enough to give me a month's worth of listening material.Here's the catch though, the problem that didn't really occur to me until after I'd bought the Rio: I got my computer to read the articles, but I needed a second computer to actually record what the first computer was "saying." I had such a beast, but it was in a different room, and for various logistical reasons I couldn't move either machine. Long story short -- I needed a third computer to grab the stories from the first one and read them to the second, which then could download them to the Rio. Simple, yes?If all this sounds to you like a justification for getting a third computer -- which in itself would only be a justification for having spent $169 in the first place on something to take the place of a $12 cassette player -- well, you're getting my drift. But that's the plan, and I'm sticking to it."You know, they already have something that you can listen to the news with," my co-worker said after I'd described my mad vision. "It's called radio."Well, duh. Sure, it would be easier (not to mention cheaper) to simply listen to the radio. So what? We live in an age when the upstart Web site eBay is worth eight times more on paper than Sotheby's. It's just plain crazy, man, and it's the power of new digital muscle that sends people around the bend. Memory and processors advance at a staggering rate. Intel just introduced its 1-gigahertz Pentium III processor (http://www.intel.com/home/prodserv/PentiumIII/prodinfo.htm?iid=uslocal+ghz3&), which is roughly five times as fast as the state-of-the-art computers processors made five years ago. Of course we need these 1-GHz processors, just like we need those 40-gigabyte hard drives now making their way onto the shelves at computer stores. Three months ago I bought a 20-gig model and wondered if I'd ever need all that space. Last week, when I returned to purchase a second one, I enviously eyed those 40-gig sweeties.I used to laugh at those fools caught up in the expensive cycle of buying faster computers just to run bigger programs. But now I understand. All this digital stuff is surprisingly malleable, and it's only getting more so. Sometimes the most amazing thing about the computer industry's steep innovation curve is all the new possibilities it creates that just weren't feasible the year (or even the month) before, like storing entire audio books in your front shirt pocket. I am in awe of the possibility of creating ever-more intricate symphonies of process.e-mail: joabj@charm.net

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