MetaTalktail Hour: technology is cool January 18, 2020 3:15 PM   Subscribe

This weekend, I'm thinking about little ways that technology is cool. Yes there are lots of negatives about technology and we talk about that a lot on this site... but alongside that, there are a lot of cool things. Is there any tech thing we have that strikes you that way, where you just think, hey that's pretty amazing?

Or just let us know how your weekend's going; topic is a conversation starter, not limiter. Just no politics please.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) to MetaFilter-Related at 3:15 PM (92 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

My example is something I'd never seen until yesterday, somehow, even though it's been around for a while in a lot of places in the world... In banknotes made of polymer, they can embed clear plastic windows right into the bill. So, e.g. the Mexican 50 peso note has little see-thru butterflies in it. Lots of countries have these polymer notes that can have clear sections ( page with a huge listing with pictures). That is totally cool!
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 3:26 PM on January 18, 2020 [8 favorites]

I love GPS. Remember what a pain in the ass it was to get directions to somewhere you'd never been? To pretend to understand them if it was a stranger with a thick accent in a hurry? And then to follow them by yourself with a sheet of paper in your car, or on foot in a city while trying not to look muggable? Now you don't have to worry about that. Being lost holds ... well, not no terrors, but considerably fewer of them than before.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:22 PM on January 18, 2020 [25 favorites]

I live on a lake in the country, which can seem remote but it's not—O'Hare is just 45 minutes south. I love watching the lights of planes taking off and heading north and will sometimes ask Siri, "planes overhead" to find out where they are going via Wolfram Alpha. I don't know why, but it connects me with humanity and takes me out of myself to learn that those specific lights in the distance, moving northward toward and over me, are a few hundred people on their way to London or Frankfurt or wherever, living their lives totally apart from me and yet...
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:25 PM on January 18, 2020 [19 favorites]

Not here just quite yet but bionic contact lenses! Woo, now why didn't I take out a patent when I thought of this in 7th grade?
posted by sammyo at 4:40 PM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well, I am only able to continue my professional life (and participate here!) due to an amazing stack of software that allows me to control a computer 99% hands-free, using just my voice. It is flipping amazing, and I'm incredibly grateful the technology exists. I hope to put together a FPP about it at some point, but if anyone here has questions about assistive technology that I might be able to help with, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by vers at 4:41 PM on January 18, 2020 [38 favorites]

This still works, though I use Google's built-in dictation these days.

I speak, text appears anywhere in the world. You can't explain that.
posted by Tehhund at 5:10 PM on January 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

I never cared much about having a jetpack, but I longed for one book that had everything in it—a dictionary, maps, the almanac, I wanted it all in one spot so I could find out anything I wanted to know, even though I was nowhere near the library. Then, holy fucking shit—it happened, and we all have them now?! And it's also a camera, and it fits in my pocket? I'm actually still reeling a bit from that. I do not take my cellphone for granted. It still really amazes me.
posted by heyho at 5:23 PM on January 18, 2020 [16 favorites]

I got a padded envelope in the mail today. When I assemble the contents of that envelope in a certain way, I'll have a theremin. That just delights my mind.
posted by Ruki at 5:37 PM on January 18, 2020 [11 favorites]

I'm alive because of technology, technology is keeping me alive, and I make my living using technology to counter other technology. Technology is also probably trying to kill me. I love technology, but I am also literally paid to be paranoid about technology.

Technology is a land of contrast media.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:44 PM on January 18, 2020 [9 favorites]

I would be rather isolated if not for this smart phone and the related technology. It's allowed me to be in touch with other world views that I would not otherwise experience or even know about.

Amazingly, I am connected to all of you [people] [johnny wallflower's trained dogs] on the internet.
posted by mightshould at 5:57 PM on January 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

My e-reader is my favorite tech object. I read a lot, like a lot, I mentioned in the "what have you been up to the past decade" thread that I've read almost two thousand e-books since 2010. To be able to carry around all those books in my purse at once, and to be able to acquire new ones, seamlessly, anytime I want at a moment's notice... this is a constant reader's dream existence. The e-reader is much more relevant to my daily life than a jet pack or flying car would have been.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:58 PM on January 18, 2020 [22 favorites]

That's a really good point, Daily Alice! It's not just that the Kindle makes it easier to buy and carry books, it's that you don't have to advertise what you're reading while you read it, which has been so important to me. This sounds like a joke with porn as the punchline, and it's true that I have gotten into reading romances in a way I did not before ebooks. But more importantly, I've been able to privately buy and publicly read books about psychology and self-help that I was too self-conscious and proud for in the past. Some of them have made a real difference for me.

Plus, reading standing up with one hand on a subway pole was only possible for two pages max in the past; it's easy with an e-reader or a phone app.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:16 PM on January 18, 2020 [11 favorites]

I got a padded envelope in the mail today. When I assemble the contents of that envelope in a certain way, I'll have a theremin.

On this tiny computer that fits in the palm of my hand, I can highlight the word theremin and immediately learn what one is , thereby appreciating Ruki’s comment 100x more!
posted by kimberussell at 6:31 PM on January 18, 2020 [14 favorites]

I love a feature on my car whereby I never have to remember to turn the headlights on or not. You can always manually turn them on or off, but there's another setting that detects the ambient light and switches them on or off for you.

As a cycle commuter (most of the time) I wish all cars had these. Hardly a day goes by without me wildly trying to alert a driver to their lights being off after dusk (not just for safety reasons, there's a fine of over $180 so I'm also trying to do them a favour).
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:37 PM on January 18, 2020 [9 favorites]

There are (min.) two types of people. Those who know too much Star Trek trivia and those who know too little.

Logically there's probably also a Squire Of Godlylocks type who has just the right amount of Trek knowledge, but is also a weird evolved energy being who "needs" to be taught about stuff like mouth kisses and space cutlery by Captain J. Tiberius K.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 6:47 PM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

you don't have to advertise what you're reading while you read it
I read so many books about autism while my son was going through the process of getting diagnosed. I would have had a hard time doing that if anyone had been able to see what I was reading, because I wouldn't have felt entitled to read the books until he had a diagnosis, because (I thought) people would say "Why are you reading that?" Instead I could just read the books on my e-reader at the park or the music lessons or wherever without anyone else's input.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:47 PM on January 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

EVERYTHING about recent technology amazes me. Even the terrible stuff (which amazes me about how terrible it can be. I'm looking at you, all LMS systems ever).

This weekend I'm stuck in LA, which was meant to be a 3-hour transit between Canada and Australia, but I got bumped from my plane and they couldn't get me on another one for a couple of days. So I've been appreciating the technology that makes this easier and more fun than it would have been 20 years ago.

With a click of a few buttons while on airport free WiFi I can enable my phone to work fine in this new country I hadn't even planned to visit. Then the phone can solve most of my other problems.

Ask Metafilter gave me immediate access to expertise from lots of people who know this city.

No idea where I am? Google maps to the rescue.

I can update everyone about my whereabouts thanks to email and messages, so nobody worries.

Public transport seems super complicated and I have no local cash and barely understand how tipping works. But Uber doesn't need me to understand any of those things.

And I just spent a few hours at a spa, which I had never heard of, but found thanks to TripAdvisor, Google maps, Uber... And I could pay for everything inside the spa with a magic waterproof bracelet I tapped against things.

Now I'm on the way back to the airport after two days of this kind of thing, and I checked in already on my phone in about five minutes, could look up where my seat will be, what the movies are, and what's on the menu before I even get there.

Life is kind of magical these days.
posted by lollusc at 6:52 PM on January 18, 2020 [15 favorites]

People get mad when I mention this because it's not yet shipping to the public, but my best tech item is a TextBlade. The thing is an absolute wonder.

Second best is my Galaxy Note phone.

Together, I pretty much have a laptop in my pocket wherever I go.

Third best is my Durr, but it's on its last legs and it's irreplaceable, which is kind of infuriating.
posted by dobbs at 7:01 PM on January 18, 2020 [13 favorites]

I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but podcasts are one of the best technologies around for me.

I listen for possibly hours each day, at the gym, doing housework, cooking, on public transport. Just fantastic to have on-demand "radio" on your topics of choice, in a supply so constant you could never catch up & listen to every back episode.

All the usual suspects are represented like This American Life, 99% Invisible, Planet Money, The Truth, Snap Judgement, Benjamin Walker's Theory of Everything, The Dollop, Radiolab, TED Radio Hour, You Are Not So Smart, Omnibus, and The Memory Palace which deserves a Nobel Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence (have probably listened to the entire back catalogue at least 2-3 times now, just staggeringly great).
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:05 PM on January 18, 2020 [20 favorites]

Just last night, I called 911 (not for me, for a group of people that were fighting in the street across from my house, it was getting ugly and we've had a rash of gunshots in my city) Anyway! I didn't get a great look at it, but my phone had my location in a mini-map, my phone number, my address all on the screen while I was on the phone with 911, along with buttons you could push to send a silent SOS message. Amazing! In all of my emergency response trainings, I've repeatedly heard that you need to know the address of where you are, because 911 dispatch centers are becoming increasingly merged, so they might not know something like "the Target right off the highway exit in MyCity". Having all of that info RIGHT THERE when you are on the emergency call is fantastic. Like I said, I've been trained multiple times, and I've still completely flubbed info while on the phone w/the dispatcher.

In non-techy news, I went to a test prep course for a professional certification, and yowzers. Lots of brain cells I haven't used in a long, long time. There is a -lot- of math and science with formulas I need to memorize and everything. The last math class I took was my freshman year of college, which was 18 years ago. So, I'm hitting up flashcards, textbooks, and (actually - thanks to technology!) khan academy for the foreseeable future. It's certainly a change of pace from my normal job. Unfortunately, that happens to be extremely busy right now, and I've also been really busy with church blahblah lately too, so I'm kind of feeling overwhelmed.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 7:11 PM on January 18, 2020 [10 favorites]

I have a heart rate app on my phone. It uses the camera's flash, my finger and magic. It helps me get it back to normal when I have episodes of tachycardia (goofy heartrate).
People in my dance group have feelings about volume. Sound meter app is a neutral way to keep the It's too loud and It's too soft factions less unhappy.
Just took a road trip and didn't stress about maps, Triptiks, atlas, etc. ❤️GPS. Also, I can always find a McDonalds or Starbucks for coffee, clean bathroom and wifi.
Was worried about my house being okay, so installed a Nest thermostat. From my car in a rest stop in N Carolina, I could make sure the heat was on in Maine.
Having my calendar and reminders on my phone means I am usually on time, a tiny miracle.
What's that star? checks app That's Venus, a planet.
Music and podcasts. I can carry so much music and a bunch of podcasts so even if I don't have Internet, there's great stuff to listen to.
I am never without a book as long as I have battery.

There's a ton of spam, malicious apps, privacy issues and all that, but I am still frequently delighted with carrying so much computing power. Now, if women's clothing could have adequate pockets.

On the road trip I visited several friends, some family, and drove about half the Blue Ridge Parkway, very quiet in winter, beautiful. Went to Monticello. Home in Maine, it is snowing again. Early this week, it snowed fat, fluffy, cotton-y snow. This evening it is steady tiny flakes that mount up really fast. It was 12F when I got to the Women's March. (My sign - Climate Crisis) I was well-bundled, marched a short way, left before the speeches because my toes were quite cold. It made me happy to see great signs, some quite beautifully rendered, a group of women singing feminist songs in stunning harmony, and lots of solidarity and commitment.(a bit of politics)
posted by theora55 at 7:20 PM on January 18, 2020 [7 favorites]

I've gained a serious appreciation for a form of technology that has been around for millennia: pottery.

I started wheel throwing last year, and I'm only now starting to be more consistent in making 6 inch high cylinders. Then I go look at pictures of ancient Greek amphoras and am floored at how elegantly and well made these are!
posted by astapasta24 at 7:23 PM on January 18, 2020 [13 favorites]

I saw an app on another site the other day, where you can sign up to get notifications to help out a person with visual impairments somewhere in the world with a sight-required task.

The screenshot was helping a woman buy a carton of almond milk at a supermarket.

We're only just into January and I think that's going to be my favourite internet thing for 2020.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:41 PM on January 18, 2020 [15 favorites]

The word "technologist" is in my job title and I'm paid to be rah rah about technology (though I think a lot of people would be surprised at how quick I am to tell people to stop trying to use technology for certain tasks). So, I'm grateful for my job cuz it pays the bills and I don't hate it.

I think what I'm most grateful for, though, is the opportunities it has given my kid to be creative in a unique way that I don't think he'd have an outlet for otherwise. I'm eternally grateful for all the coding/STEM toys that there are a million think pieces proclaiming are the end of childhood or whatever. They haven't been the end of childhood for him they've been a way for a kid who has some differences to use his natural inclinations to do something fun and cool and creative. He can't draw or paint, I think he may be aphantastic, he wouldn't know what to do with an action figure if you paid him, but if you want someone to code you a Star Trek bridge in Scratch, he's your kid.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:57 PM on January 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

UbuRoivas—I’m a Be My Eyes sighted volunteer. I don’t get calls that often (there are many more volunteers than visually impaired users) but when I do get to answer a call it’s really exciting to be able to help. I’ve helped set a thermostat, set the dials on a clothes dryer, and helped navigate a computer screen. It’s one of my favorite apps!
posted by bookmammal at 8:06 PM on January 18, 2020 [8 favorites]

Years ago, when my sister and I were teenagers and our grandmother was in her late 70's or early 80's, she was telling us about all the things she'd seen come into existence during her lifetime - she grew up in rural Tennessee with oil lamps and horse-powered machines and carts. Since her childhood she'd been introduced to electricity, indoor plumbing and running water, gas-powered vehicles, airplanes, television, people landing on the moon, and computers, to name just a few. That is a remarkable amount of technological advancement to see in one lifetime!

Of the technological changes during my own lifetime (so far), the ones I can think of off the top of my head are:
- Commercial supersonic flight - well, for a while anyway
- The internet, which has had a profound effect on human culture
- A computer I can hold in my hand that's more powerful than the one that guided the Apollo missions
- Huge advances in medical technology
- And science, don't even get me started - we've mapped a 520 million light year area of space around our home galaxy, and taken a picture of an actual black hole (and that's barely the tip of the iceberg)
- People living in space for weeks or months at a time, wearing street clothing and making phone calls to folks on the ground 😲
- Digital photography has done away with the need for chemicals and a dedicated darkroom, thereby giving me a new creative outlet that makes me happy
- Electric vehicle technology has started to replace the internal combustion engine, and a mass changeover could possibly happen in my lifetime

It's all so amazing and wondrous I can barely believe it.

Who knows what's next, u- or dys-topian in nature - Space tourism? Colonization of another planet/moon? The Singularity? Will climate change have its ultimate way with us, or will yet more technology save the human species? Tune in next time and find out!

At the moment, though, I'm appreciating the fruits of a pretty ancient technology: the distillation of fermented grains.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:18 PM on January 18, 2020 [10 favorites]

Distillation, of course, is a newer technology but I assume you're aware of the archaeological theories that the very beginning of agriculture may have been to produce grains specifically for beer?
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:31 PM on January 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Lots of countries have these polymer notes that can have clear sections ( page with a huge listing with pictures). That is totally cool!

Sure, but how many of them have bills that smell like Maple syrup? Tell me that? (It's true. They do).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:34 PM on January 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Youtube lets you slow down videos while keeping the pitch of the sound intact. So you end up not only having an amazing, almost endless repository of performing musicians to learn from - you can even play them in slo mo to see exactly how they‘re doing That Little Thing.

(In practice, I still learn best from just listening to a recording or - gasp - from a real live person sitting next to me.)
posted by The Toad at 9:19 PM on January 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

Distillation, of course, is a newer technology

Depends on one's frame of reference, I suppose, but I'd consider it relatively ancient.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:49 PM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've always loved animation and we are dab smack in the middle of a golden age of it. I'm amazed at the writing and artistic talent on display.
posted by emjaybee at 9:50 PM on January 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Technology? There's no way I could live without the internet. Everything about it. Socializing, reading Metafilter and links from Metafilter, posting on Metafilter, MDN, YouTube, Facebook, shopping without having to leave the house, directions, google maps in general, APIs, my livelihood, up to the minute news, answers to every question I've ever had, long reads, games, free stuff and of course, finding new things to buy and subscribe to.

A close friend ghosted me at the end of last year and another one has now. 

I had four close friends and now I have two.

I'm listening to my best of the best youtube playlist - most of the songs on it are sad and the lyrics are depressing and I relate to them. I always think that the list will help me wallow in sadness.

But this playlist always cheers me the fuck up.
posted by bendy at 9:51 PM on January 18, 2020 [9 favorites]

answers to every question I've ever had

SO much this. I think that's one of those things that people who didn't grow up without the internet have a hard time understanding what a massive benefit it really is, in so many ways large and small. I happily admit I am enormously smarter and more well-informed now than I was pre-internet....and my mom was a research librarian who taught me how to use a library to the utmost, so I know whereof I speak!
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:13 PM on January 18, 2020 [12 favorites]

bendy, sorry about fickle friends. I know how that sucks.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:15 PM on January 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

I will never not be amazed by microwave ovens. Put food in box, beep bop boop and a hum, food is hotted up. Total Jetsons.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 11:41 PM on January 18, 2020 [7 favorites]

I like my little mp3 player. I load it up with more than I can possibly listen to of an evening, put it in my ears, and I am away, disconnected and uninterruptable.
posted by pracowity at 11:50 PM on January 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

bendy: so sad to hear about your friends.

I like your playlist, and technology is cool for enabling you to share it.

God Damn the Sun has long been a personal anthem of mine. An ex said she'd make sure it was played at my funeral. I'll have to update her sometime to Songs:Ohia The Big Game is Every Night ;) Almost Was Good Enough would be a close second.

I recommend you give it a listen, then everything Jason Molina ever did.

As somebody else who finds technology cool to help face the sadness straight on, give the second link a go first. It's raw.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:51 PM on January 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Sure, but how many of them have bills that smell like Maple syrup? Tell me that? (It's true. They do).

If only I had a penguin... I happened to have some Canadian bills next to me when I read your comment. Pat yourself on the back for getting this skeptic to actually sniff money for the first time in her life!

I couldn't smell maple syrup, but maybe it's because I'm an American?
posted by mollywas at 12:12 AM on January 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's amazing I can talk with clients (and show them a model in realtime) even when they're super-mobile, and all from my tiny corner of NZ. Tech really gears up tiny businesses (the trick is finding the simplest, most reliable tools).

And yes, questions, and answers, really mind-blowing, this place especially, sometimes (often) the answer you get ends up redefining your own question! Nothing normalized here at all, no sir!

Slightly older tech, a while back I bought an old(er than me I think) Myford ML7 lathe from a shearer in a pub carpark out in the bush. So really hoping to get that spinning this year.
posted by unearthed at 12:25 AM on January 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

To me, it is the video phone call. TO be able to talk to someone "face-to-face" across the globe is mind boggling to this oldster. My kids just laugh and say sarcastically, didn't you have facetime/Duo when you were a kid?

I asked a similar question of a relative once who was in her late 90s. She was born in 1910. I asked what was the most important invention of her time. She was born before flight, before space travel, before so many things we take for granted. Her answer was, the toaster oven. Huh? She said it freed the woman from the kitchen. Spending all day cooking meals. It changed the way we relate to each other, etc. She said to be able to pop a frozen dinner into a toaster oven freed up families, changed personal relationships, etc. She is not wrong you know.
posted by AugustWest at 12:34 AM on January 19, 2020 [7 favorites]

I love my Garmin (or my inferior for running Wear OS watch I am currently using). It tells me how far I've run and how fast and the Wear OS watch has offline maps and other cool apps that (almost) make up for the inferior running experience.
posted by Literaryhero at 12:53 AM on January 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Wind turbines are cool, but the next step, floating wind turbines, blows my mind. 100m towers on floating platforms, out in the ocean in all weathers. Wow.
posted by biffa at 1:25 AM on January 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

Those frozen veggie bags you can cook in the microwave are something.
posted by bleep at 1:29 AM on January 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

I couldn't smell maple syrup, but maybe it's because I'm an American?

It's only on the 100s (which are the color of maple syrup) and only when they're new. The government denies it but it's pretty unmistakable.
posted by dobbs at 2:27 AM on January 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

I couldn't think of anything earlier, but I just made a little Pivot Table in Google Sheets to summarize my diet spreadsheet and it is awesome, and also my brain did not have to melt during the process.
posted by polymodus at 2:36 AM on January 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

For this USian living just south of the border, everything in Canada smells faintly of maple syrup. Try running your fingers through Alex Trebek’s hair, then smell your fingers. Unmistakable.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 4:20 AM on January 19, 2020 [12 favorites]

I love being able to check the weather online. As a kid growing up in the 70s I had to listen to the radio (or if I’d grown up in a house with a tv, the TV) and wait for the weather. National weather in the US, we would check a national newspaper.

Now I pick up my phone and can find a forecast for almost anywhere in the world.

I don’t know why this always sticks with me as an example of the awesomeness of new technology, but it does.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:09 AM on January 19, 2020 [9 favorites]

I drive a 6 year old Nissan Leaf, and every time I go somewhere I feel like I am living in the future. It even plays me a song when I turn it on! Japanese automotive time travel is amazing!
posted by Maarika at 5:12 AM on January 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

Stirling engines are so brilliant it's not even funny.

I like boats a lot. Trains also.

Looking forward: photovoltaic cells, electric aircraft, and guillotines.

Wind turbines are cool, but the next step, floating wind turbines

Agreed. Have you ever seen the big turbines in the North Sea? They are awesome (in the older sense).
posted by pompomtom at 5:26 AM on January 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

Officially, doctors can only diagnose Alzheimer’s disease on the basis of autopsy: so you only have a guess at what’s killing you, while it’s killing you. But we now have radiotracers that will let us image the aberrant proteins responsible for Alzheimer’s disease in the brains of living people. This amazes me.
posted by eirias at 5:27 AM on January 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

I love stories about technology being used to level the playing field for those with challenges, whether the challenge is physical, mental, financial, whatever.

So, I love that my students who don't live near reliable public transportation, or have family/work commitments, or have physical challenges, can take college classes online.

And virtual and augmented reality apps are, by definition, cool, right? But I once met someone who was researching ways to use VR and AR to expose young children with sensory-related challenges to the concepts involved in crossing a street safely. I mean, really. How cool is that?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:28 AM on January 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

Since I work on it daily, inertial navigation still seems like black magic to me. You know that exhibit at the science museum where you sit in a rotating chair and you hold a spinning bicycle wheel in your hands? And when you turn the bicycle wheel, the chair spins around? You can navigate to space using that basic principle. And we have!

It's all incredibly simple science at its heart. I have a little thing that spins, and on its axis of rotation there's a resolver. If the spinny thing moves, the resolver picks it up and drives a motor to try to counteract the movement. The amount of work the motor has to do is sensed, and that's how you know your vehicle is accelerating or rotating. It's all analog - no computers required. If the power is interrupted, the mechanical configuration of the whole instrument is retained, so it basically has a memory that requires no electronics. It's rugged enough that it can survive being launched on a rocket but sensitive enough that, if I put it on my desk, I can sense the orbit of the moon with it.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:51 AM on January 19, 2020 [9 favorites]

The advances in language translation. I mean it's not perfect by any means but things are getting way better fast! I can photograph a sign and have it translated. I can play words in different languages with a click of a button.

There is definately a need for true interpreters still, but for basic language communication its astounding.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:20 AM on January 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

Instant Pot! It doesn’t do anything you couldn’t do without it, and it’s not necessarily faster, but it can do it unattended so I can walk the dog or read metafilter while my lunch is cooking.
posted by moonmilk at 6:28 AM on January 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

AugustWest, video calling for me too, along with non phone cost messaging like WhatsApp. I moved abroad for the first time in 2003, and was emailing to stay in touch, the second time in 2008, used Skype, and took a long time to convince my granny (88 at the time) that it didn’t cost anything, and then finally in 2013 and still abroad, WhatsApp and FaceTime have made it so much easier.
posted by ellieBOA at 7:35 AM on January 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

Personally, it's got to be a combination of networked portable computers and GPS.

A year ago I went to a work conference, in a country I had never been to and whose language I didn't speak a word of. I didn't know where my hotel was, where the airport was, anything about the geography. (I'm usually less of an asshole tourist, but it was a busy time and a conference I regretfully attended at the last minute while desperately finishing other things.) The realization that I just assumed my international data roaming, GPS, and machine translation would work was kind of astonishing.

When I was in high-school, I had a Thomas Guide. I also spent six hours making wrong turns in the mountains trying to find the turn-off to a ham radio camping trip, arriving at 3am and sleeping in the car. (Luckily they had gas tanks for the generators that I could use to refuel my car.) I spent half a day wondering through the suburbs of Siberian city desperately looking for a hotel that would take foreigners, 'cause my guide book was five years old and my compass wasn't working and I couldn't figure out where the hell I was.

As a young adult, I hand copied detailed subway exits and turn-by-turn street directions onto paper, 'cause I was very modern and didn't have a printer. Half the time it failed. On my second date with my current spouse, I showed up at a theater 4 miles away because I confused the actual venue with a very similar named one in another part of town. I showed up 45 minutes late for a 30 minute film screening, sweaty and out of breath, 'cause I lived across the bay and didn't have a clue what the bus map looked like. (Yeah, it was probably posted on bus stops. Live and learn.) The difference today is astonishing.

I'm not sure how you take that sort of thing into account in economics. It's a truly qualitative change. That I also have a nearly-pro still and HD camera and surprisingly good audio recorder in my pocket at all times is also pretty amazing. It's been a long time since I've had to ponder whether or not taking one photo that might not turn out is worth the developing costs.

Fifteen years ago, I would have been that guy and argued that the last half of the 20th century is when most people in the world get electricity, and the first half of the 20th century is when most people in the world get safe drinking water and indoor plumbing, and that those are the significant technological advances of our era. That's not entirely wrong. But, the number of households with cellphones but not clean drinking water convinces me the story is a lot more complicated than people like me have a habit of assuming.
posted by eotvos at 10:30 AM on January 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

I love stories about technology being used to level the playing field for those with challenges, whether the challenge is physical, mental, financial, whatever.

Ditto. I grew up in a technology house, my father was really interested in gadgets and so we often had them around while he'd try to figure out how they worked. My parents were both into photography and I loved just the idea that if you liked looking at something, you could take a picture of it and keep it with you (old hat nowadays but wooo). Now I teach people how to use technology, whatever it is, to solve problems and I love being able to pair a person with a thing that will fix something for them, whether it's a better mouse, speech-to-text (so many people with smart phones don't know how to use this) or an add-on for their browser.

Building on the GPS thing many have mentioned (on preview, hi!) my favorite thing about GPS is that there are devices where you can use it anonymously. That is, I can get access to GPS without having to give up my personal information, my location, or anything. You can get a GPS signal without giving up anything in return. Of course, that's not how it's implemented in many places but the technology itself, free for you to use without surveillance. Also: Network Time. A miracle.
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 10:33 AM on January 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

Google's translate camera and Photomath seem kinda like magic to me. Also I have a barometer, seismograph, compass, emf detector and several wifi diagnostic tools on my phone. Oh, and a decibel meter.
posted by Splunge at 11:06 AM on January 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

I make my living keeping up with and teaching people how to use web technologies, and so I can pretty blasé about a lot of technical advancements.

However, last year I was still shook by the ease of which anyone can publish and distribute music. $20 on a service like Distrokid allows any musician in the world to send their audio digital files and cover artwork up through the internetz where they are then redistributed to servers and pushed into the catalogs of Spotify, ITunes, Amazon, etc. at which point anyone in the world can then listen to your music.

Intellectually I know this is just a complex transfer of digital bits from one computer to another but it still blows my mind at how easy it is.
posted by jeremias at 11:22 AM on January 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

Signing up for, managing, and terminating services over the internet!

I have one week until we move our whole life to Singapore. In my naivety, I foolishly agreed to let my wife go ahead of me, so she could set stuff up, not realising I had just volunteered to take on 90% of the moving internationally-work, and none of the fun stuff!

In between filling up two (2!) 9 cubic metre skip bins, I have been working full time. So work all day, come home and throw shit out at night, basically, for hours.

Thank god for the internet, and its ability to let me cancel reams and reams of services!

I am on the home stretch, thank christ, and currently feel like a bucket of beef mince left in the sun.
posted by smoke at 12:43 PM on January 19, 2020 [7 favorites]

Have you ever seen the big turbines in the North Sea?

I've flown over the Thames Estuary sites, and they are very impressive. I drove across North Wales from Anglesey to Liverpool about 18 months ago and i hadn't realised how many offshore wind turbines there were there now. They were visible along the whole drive.

I have also seen a floating wind turbine from the air, off Portugal a few years ago. It doesn't look like anything different from above of course.
posted by biffa at 1:14 PM on January 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Smoke, best wishes for the smoothest possible transition and your new adventures!
posted by vers at 1:14 PM on January 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

Here's another thing that just makes me giddy about technology/internet access.
(Background: as a kid, I lived in a small rural town and always watched the Academy Awards on tv with my family because, although I wasn't usually a big fan of most movies we'd see, I loved watching movies, and I knew that better ones existed because I'd catch glimpses of them, thanks to this awards show. I was mostly drawn to the brief clips of the foreign and short films. So each year, I'd sit in front of the tv with pencil and paper and quickly write down the names of all the films I would eventually have access to when I got big and moved to a city. Kid logic.)

Technology advanced, I left my small town for a bigger town with a great video rental shop, and I could finally find the kind of stuff I wanted to watch. However, I still couldn't get my hands on that great cache of film I knew was out there—until the internet bloomed and became a true gateway.

Here's what I just watched that triggered this childhood memory for me. There's a world of really, really fantastic film out there, and I can access a staggering amount of it now. It's a little thing, but it's so great! This is precisely the stuff I'd dream about as a kid. Some guy shoots a film in Tunisia in a language I can't speak, I hear about it, and I have instant access to it. It's completely fucking amazing!
posted by heyho at 3:01 PM on January 19, 2020 [7 favorites]

I sometimes go running around a massive wind farm, and I love how small I feel running under these structures. Each blade is much larger than an aircraft wing, and they're spinning around almost silently with the promise of a future we can all live in. I'll never live in an orbital ring, but maybe if we can get things under control, my descendants will. If you don't believe the future will happen, there's no incentive to be a good ancestor, and the farm gives me that.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 3:46 PM on January 19, 2020 [10 favorites]


Wait, what?!
posted by Literaryhero at 4:36 PM on January 19, 2020

Fly board/jet pack

posted by clavdivs at 6:12 PM on January 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

My mind is regularly thrown into a frenzy by the knowledge that there are ROBOTS on MARS and it is baffling to me that everyone around me treats this like it is not a big deal.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 10:24 PM on January 19, 2020 [12 favorites]

I adore the BOM rain radar (Australia). Have spent the day watching storms approach digitally, and then running outside to see the reality (giant hail hit about an hour ago).

The fact that I can do all my banking from my phone is also magic. Also tandem accelerators.
posted by kjs4 at 10:56 PM on January 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

On Saturday i visited a friend staying with a friend of theirs at a house built around a pipe organ in 1890, more recently modified to record and electromechanically replay performances like an elaborate player piano. My tour of the house included crawling in amongst the pipes on a narrow wooden access path, while someone not there played for me. The tech itself isn’t anything exotic, but encountering it unexpectedly — finding myself crouched there in a forest of boxes, tubes, louvers and levers, listening, on what had been an ordinary Saturday morning, was... not ordinary.
posted by jon1270 at 6:00 AM on January 20, 2020 [6 favorites]

  • Entering some lyrics into a search engine to find out what song that was (and then, watching the video, which I'd never saw before)
  • Also, image searching, in general, and especially
  • Viewing YouTube videos to see How It's Done.
This talk of floating wind turbines made me think of "Big Hero 6" -- but you mean, floating on the sea, not in the air. Not yet.
posted by Rash at 9:04 AM on January 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

One of my favourite MeFi comments remains this one about how technology is fucking magic. I think about that a lot.

I grew up in a place that was behind the curve technology-wise, and I moved away right at the point where the internet first exploded. It is still kinda locked in the internet-exploding era, because they are so far behind the broadband curve that the resource heavy internet sites of today are pretty taxing for their connections. They can do some things on the internet, but not everything. Nominally they get 15/2 but it's satellite based so their data caps are low enough that they have to constantly be vigilant about bandwidth. They still have no cell coverage at all until they get about half way to the nearest city.

My job now involves getting broadband coverage to places like that, and it feels so much more important and personal to me than it does to some of the other people on this project. They're good people and they care about the work but they don't care about it in a visceral way.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:43 AM on January 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

So many great ones have been mentioned but for me, it's air travel, even though most of the logistics of it are terrible.

Every time I step off a plane, I feel like a dog that's gotten off an elevator - bewildered at the new reality in front of me. As awful as commercial flights are, it's still magical.
posted by Twicketface at 10:37 AM on January 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Hearing aids get a bad rap, mostly because the cost is high and they usually aren’t covered by insurance, and they are imperfect. People want them to be like glasses and they just aren’t.

But, they’re totally amazing. They can put out 140 dB of sound, on a 1.45 volt battery, with almost no lag time at all, while being small and light enough to sit behind your ear. There are few pieces of technology that are as powerful, small, fast, and energy efficient.

And this to say nothing of all the other nifty things they do, like focus on sound from certain directions and reduce noise and stream music from your phone and all of that.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:13 AM on January 20, 2020 [10 favorites]

Through the magic of an internet connection I can work from a cabin deep in the forest for a company based in the Bay Area.

I've been working remotely for years and it never fails to blow my mind what a gift this is, and how technology makes it possible.

Also i enjoy having instant access to vast amounts of knowledge on a bit of glass and plastic that also takes video when the deer in the yard do something cute.
posted by ananci at 11:44 AM on January 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

When I was a kid long distance phone calls were expensive - my parents would often have $500+ monthly phone bills. We used to record audio tapes to send to our cousins when people we knew were travelling to Pakistan. Today? We would be able to chat using a free program for as long as we want and even have a video conversation. My kids are able to see and talk with their grandparents in Japan a couple of times a week.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:43 PM on January 20, 2020 [8 favorites]

Also, GPS is amazing for recreational navigation. When I'm hiking a map and trail markers are usually enough to figure out where I am but being able to more or less definitively know is a huge relief. Last weekend I went snowshoeing with some friends on a trail with very few markers (it is apparently a very wide multi-use path so markers aren't needed when the whole thing isn't covered in snow). We were the first people out on fresh snow so without GPS and Pokemon Go we wouldn't have known if we were on the trail or not.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:53 PM on January 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

MTA Bustime. You can see where the next bus is. It’ll tell you when it will actually arrive. It’ll tell you where all the nearest bus stops are and what lines service them. You don’t even need to know where you are to find out all these things. The kid who used to freeze her butt off waiting for the highly unreliable bus before dawn in deep Midwestern winters never stops marveling.
posted by praemunire at 1:52 PM on January 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

When I was a kid long distance phone calls were expensive - my parents would often have $500+ monthly phone bills.

I remember that when I was a kid, every couple of months, my dad would get up really early in the morning to call his mother in Germany when it was still the overnight rates and my mom would set a timer so he could keep track of how long he had been on the phone so the calls didn't get too expensive.

When my brother and his wife went to Japan to adopt their daughter, sometimes they would point an iPhone at her and we would FaceTime with them. We wouldn't even necessarily talk to each other all the time -- just watch the baby sleep like it was some kind of overseas baby monitor.

The difference between carefully measuring the time you spent talking to your mom and "lets spend half an hour using this sleeping baby as a screensaver except live over the internet" is kinda amazing. In between there were other stages like 'talk as long as you want for 50 cents a call' domestic long distance, which set up a pattern that persists to this day of me phoning my mom on Sunday nights and talking to her for a couple of hours about whatever. We use Facetime for those calls now, but the pattern persists.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:07 PM on January 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

It isn’t strictly technological, but I am a bit in awe when I think about how I know have at my fingertips a bit more than 100 years of audio and video history. From silent films up through modern movies, and from early FDR fireside chats, radio dramas, and music of the ‘20s up to the latest news and music of today.

Yes, there are gaps in that record, and yes, you occasionally have to go through a few hurdles to get something, but this is such an immense change from the entirety of human existence before things could be recorded. The ancient Greeks were just as human as any of us, and yet they seem so much more remote because they only exist through what fragments and documents have survived. We have so much of our recent past available to us now that sometimes I just cry.
posted by Going To Maine at 5:51 PM on January 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

The washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, electric pressure cooker, microwave and robot hoover that allow me to run my one person household while holding down a full time job, eating decently and not living in a complete pit of filth.
posted by quacks like a duck at 5:45 AM on January 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Already mentioned above but I have to concur. Hearing aids. My son started wearing one seven years ago, he was five. He recently got a new one and the technology is just amazing. Rechargeable, TINY, he can control it with his phone or his watch, his teachers have a tiny little mic that streams their words right to his ear...his friends think it’s super cool and helped him pick out his new color (he chose royal blue). I’m always amazed and thankful for the technology behind hearing aids. 🦻🏻
posted by pearlybob at 10:07 AM on January 21, 2020 [6 favorites]

This talk of floating wind turbines made me think of "Big Hero 6" -- but you mean, floating on the sea, not in the air. Not yet.

Well, there has been some work done on that too...
posted by biffa at 10:16 AM on January 21, 2020

The anti-gravity module in Python.

import antigravity

This is actually valid code and part of the reference implementation.
posted by signal at 11:15 AM on January 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

All technology should be assistive, but so much of previous jobs has been fixing it when it gets in the way. I do open source assistive tech now and it is the best.
posted by scruss at 1:23 PM on January 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

it is very handy to be able to locate the nearest gas station with my phone, when I am on the freeway with a low tank.
posted by supermedusa at 1:50 PM on January 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Real-time translation. First used it as WordLens, now bought by Google translate. Point your phone at a road sign in Tokyo and see it in English. Doesn't always work, but it was one of the first things that made me feel like I was in the future.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:54 PM on January 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Metafilter user Mom has favourited my comment about my Dad and I calling our respective Moms and now I am not 100% sure that my mom isn't on MetaFilter.

She joined Facebook last week, so anything is possible.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:48 PM on January 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was just now thinking about this. I am a professional rock musician of 40+ years, which means I lived through a digital revolution in signal processing that has shaped me as a musician. This morning I am packing my compact hatchback with 400 pounds of PA and guitar gear for a gig tonight — 4000 watts, enough juice to fill any average sized bar/club with room to spare and bottom end to shake the walls. I never cease being grateful for the fact that I can now fit in a Mazda hatchback the kind of audio power and processing capability that used to take a van or a truck to haul around. It costs less. It lasts longer. It works better. It spares my back and my carbon footprint. And technonostalgic analog gear fetishists aside (Yes I own tube amps, but I never take them on the gig anymore), it just sounds better. So I’m grateful for digital audio generally, and class D amplifiers and modern signal processing gear and plastics (lightweight speaker enclosures!) for my ability to keep rocking into my retirement years from the day job (coming soon!).
posted by spitbull at 6:58 AM on January 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

And to be explicit, the PA power I have in 400 pounds of gear would have weighed 2000 pounds in the 1980s and well over 1000 pounds in the 1990s. And really my PA is only 300 of that 400 anyway, as the rest is guitar and keyboard gear.
posted by spitbull at 7:04 AM on January 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

ThinkPads. I love mine. I can remember my best friend at High School having a ZX81 and loading games onto it from a tape cassette (if you were lucky). Cut to my current tricked out ex-corporate T450 with the RAM maxed out. It resumes from sleep in literally a couple of seconds. Boom. Ready to go. That's a massive improvement on even five years ago, let alone 35 years ago. Still amazes me.

That and Micro-SD cards with gb capacities. I remember thinking that 100 mb Zip cartridges like giant floppy disks on steroids were amazing, so I still just can't get my head round having something the size of my pinky nail with THAT MUCH DATA on it that just goes in my phone...
posted by Chairboy at 7:08 AM on January 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's gotta be electronics, computers.

I once heard a technology historian suggest that you should really never treat computers as a model for "technological improvement" because they're so incredibly unlike anything else in human history.

70 years ago computer projects like the Manchester Baby or the EDVAC had hundreds to thousands of bytes of memory and retired maybe 1000 instructions a second. And took up rooms to do so, using the best engineering of the day.

In 2020 a largeish (but my no means "supercomputer") commodity rental SKU has 24TB of memory and retires something like 38 trillion instructions a second. And the fleets owned by major companies or governments have tens of thousands to millions of machines. Actual (expensive) supercomputers (eg. Summit) have petabytes of memory and retire hundreds of quadrillions of instructions a second. So say .. very ballpark-y computers have improved by factors of .. a trillion? Ten trillion?

Any other field of human endeavor, a factor of a trillion improvement in technical capability would make the world a completely different place too. We just haven't seen anything like that in any other field. The parallels sound ridiculous, or at least so far into science fiction as to be impossible to predict the impacts of. With a trillion times faster transport technology we'd be able to take day trips to alpha centauri (or travel to anywhere on earth in a microsecond). A trillion times bigger buildings and we'd be building Dyson spheres around the solar system. A trillion times better energy efficiency and we could power all of human civilization by a single person on a stationary bike.

Not even a tiny fraction of comparable improvement has happened in other fields. We've lived through a miracle with computers.
posted by ead at 9:16 PM on January 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

Being able to say to my phone "What song is this?" and getting a correct answer more than 95% of the time. Sometimes I do it with passing cars playing great music with their windows open. It’s like catching a spirit from the air.
posted by pickles_have_souls at 2:17 PM on January 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

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