12 Good Gadgets for Hard Times

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An economic crisis changes the way you think about gadgets. Is a $400 game console bundle really what you want to be spending your hard-earned money on, considering that you could be out of a job in six months?

Maybe not — though we’re sympathetic to the idea that the recently unemployed might need to blow off steam with a few rounds of Wii Boxing. If you’re spending your gadget dollars cautiously, you’ll pick gadgets that:

  • don’t cost a huge amount,
  • have lasting utility,
  • aren’t likely to break or wear out quickly, and
  • will continue to be useful even when the infrastructure around them is crumbling.

With that in mind, here’s our list of gadgets that will be handy in case the economic recession becomes a full-blown depression and turns iPhone lines into bread lines.

The guidelines we used in assembling this list: These are tools that will be useful in the event of a major economic slump that puts a lot of people out of work and affects basic services — like road maintenance or the reliability of the electric power grid — without plunging the country into total civil chaos. If it’s the latter you’re planning for, check out our gallery of crazy survival gear for some inspiration, or read up on some more-practical survival skills and survival kits.

Also, we’ve limited ourselves to gadgets that have a substantially legal use (skipping, for instance, the Slim Jim for breaking into cars). We also haven’t recommended guns, since frankly we don’t know much about them, and there are plenty of other blogs where you can read about firearms.

Having never actually lived through a major economic depression, this list is our best guess at what will work. Got better ideas? Let us know in the comments.

Multi-Tool ($50)
SwisstoolIf times get tough, you’re going to have to get used to fixing things on your own. A full set of tools is your best bet if you’ve got to do heavy construction or car maintenance, but for basic fix-it tasks, an ordinary multi-tool is a seriously handy gadget. It also comes in handy for opening cans and bottles, cutting things, prying open packages and a variety of other tasks. While Leatherman pioneered this type of tool, Victorinox makes multi-tools that are sturdier and longer-lasting; the Victorinox SwissTool is available for about $55 on Amazon.

Self-Powered Radio ($35)
If something happens to the electrical grid, you might have to go without power for several days. If things really get bad, you might see power rationing, where electric power is only available for certain hours of the day. A solar- and crank-powered radio is the best way to stay informed about what’s going on in that kind of situation. And if nothing’s going on, you’ll at least be able to tune in some radio shows to keep you entertained while you sit in the dark. Our pick: the $35 Freeplay Companion, which doubles as a flashlight and a cellphone charger and can be charged up by hand crank, solar power or standard USB cable.

OLPC XO ($400)
OlpcIt’s lightweight, durable, runs for nearly a full day on a single charge, and can be recharged with a solar panel — the XO is the perfect laptop for the developing world, and might be an excellent choice in a developed world that’s fallen on hard times, too. Whether you’re sending out resumes from the public library’s free Wi-Fi network or setting up an ad hoc electronic bulletin board in a refugee camp, the XO has you covered. Currently the only way to get one is through One Laptop per Child’s "Give One, Get One" program.

GSM-Based Cellphone (prices vary)
Cellphones are not builtfor the ages. My first iPhone went on the fritz after just one year,and I’ve had just one phone that remained continuously operational formore than two years (a Nokia 3595). When your phone dies, the easiestand cheapest way to replace it — without signing up for another 2-yearcontract — is to buy a second-hand phone, then pop in the SIM cardfrom your busted handset. That kind of identity transplant is onlypossible with GSM phones; phones for use on Verizon or Sprint/Nextel’sCDMA networks require a trip to the store before you can start usingthem. Oh, and that Nokia 3595? You can get one for less than $10 oneBay. CORRECTION 12/30: Verizon customers can activate second-hand phones, assuming they meet Verizon’s criteria, without visiting the store, by using Verizon’s website: Activate Your Phone Online.

HDTV Antenna ($20-$50)
Hdtv_antenna_2Cut the cable service: plenty of high-definition TV is available forfree, over the air. Any TV antenna will do, but one optimized forpulling in HDTV signals should help you get the appropriate frequenciesbetter. Don’t have an HDTV? Buy a digital TV converter box beforeFebruary 2009, when TV signals go all-digital, and don’t forget to takeadvantage of the U.S. government’s DTV coupon subsidy, which will cover up to $40 of the cost for you for up to two converter boxes. Thanks, Uncle Sam!

Voltaic Backpack ($250)
If you’re on the road, off the grid or just trying to power up your PSP when the power’s off, the Voltaic Backpack‘sembedded solar panels are your friend. They’ll generate up to 4 wattsof power in direct sunlight, and the pack includes almost a dozenadapters to accommodate a variety of electronic devices.

USB Thumb Drive ($10 and up)
A tiny USB thumb drive is probably the most practical infotech gadget you can own. It can help you download your contacts on the afternoon you get laid off, store your resume in between internet cafes, or even hold an entire mini-operating system so you can have your own desktop and applications on any borrowed computer you can lay your hands on. A larger external hard drive will store more data, but spinning-disk media is more vulnerable to damage from shock and vibration than flash memory is, so it’s not the best choice if your future includes traveling with a bindlestiff on your shoulder and a boxcar for your bed.

Pocket Camcorder ($180)
Kodak_zi6_tA video camera might not be any longer-lasting than the typical cellphone, but at least you’ll have something left when the camera goes kaput: Namely, all the videos you shot with it. And once the hard times are past, you’ll be looking with ever-rosier glasses back on these times, so it’ll be good to have some videos to remind you of how things really looked. Our pick: The Kodak Zi6, which is a bit clunkier and bigger than the more popular Flip Mino, but takes better video and costs less.

Multi-Fuel Camp Stove ($150)
If the gas and electricity get shut off, you’ll still need some way to cook the rice and beans you’ve hoarded, right? The best bet is a camp stove that accepts a variety of fuels, from kerosene to white gas. That way you’ll be cooking no matter what kind of flammable liquid you can lay your hands on. A good pick is the MSR XGK EX ($150), which can even burn unleaded gasoline.

Water Filter Bottle ($12-$35)
Katadyn_3 Finding clean water to drink can become a major problem in the event of a natural disaster — or a breakdown of the public water-processing system. A simple water filter can get rid of most of the nasty microbes — but not toxic chemicals that may be dissolved in the water. Bottles with built-in filters, like the Katadyn Micro Bottle, are the most convenient option.

Bicycle (prices vary)
There’s no better way than a bicycle for getting around without much money. Add a trailer or an Xtracycle conversion, and your bike can even transport furniture. Get a bike that’s sturdy, with fat tires (better for pothole-strewn roadways) and learn how to do basic maintenance on it. Although fancy bikes can cost $3,000 or more, you’ll do just fine with a $400 model from your local bike shop — or a used, $25 bike from your local thrift store.

Portable Musical Instrument (prices vary)
UkeAfter your entertainment budget dries up and blows away, you’re going to be spending a lot more time at home. Don’t blow your savings by downloading tunes for $1 apiece on iTunes: Learn to make your own music. It’s cheap entertainment, and it’ll work even if the lights go off and stay off. 

Thanks to Priya and Mat for helping compile this list.

Bread line photo, circa 1930-1934: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division,      FSA-OWI Collection, reproduction #LC-USZ62-91536 DLC.
Ukulele photo: midnightcomm/Flickr.

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Unwarranted optimism about the publishing industry.

I’m quoted in Folio magazine’s annual survey of editors and publishers, making an uncharacteristically wild-eyed prediction about how great things are going to be in 2009:

In 2009, we’ll see even more magazine startups, as entrepreneurs with funding (or un-maxed-out credit cards) seize the twin opportunities of cheap journalistic labor and lower competitive barriers to start up publications of their own.

Many of these entrepreneurs will come from the swelling ranks of laid-off journalists. But there’s a catch: Most of these magazines will never see print. They’ll be online-only publications, aggregators of interesting stories, pictures and miscellany—the original definition of “magazine”—along the lines of Harper’s or its more modern analogue, The Huffington Post.

Reading that quote this morning, I felt a little chagrined. It sounds like the kind of bland optimism that any entrepreneur, venture capitalist or Death Row inmate holds, right up until the moment that they get put up against the wall. But I do think that it’s a good time to start a publication, if you can. It’s that “if you can” bit that is the catch.

As I go on to say, the coming year is going to be a bear for any advertising-supported ventures, so entrepreneurs kicking off new publications in this environment either need new ways of generating revenue, or they need a lot of patience. And in either case, they’ll need deep pockets.

Media Bistro gave my prediction a nice treatment in their blog post about the Folio story: 335 Magazines Launched in 2008 And Other Observations on the Future

Unwarranted optimism about the publishing industry.

Silicon Valley Conference Aims to Raise Planetary IQ

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Forty years ago Tuesday, a Silicon Valley engineer named Douglas Engelbart made a presentation so influential that computer scientists now call it "the mother of all demos." More than a mere product demo, it was a down payment on an ambitious idea: that networked computers could help groups of people work together more effectively, raising the collective intelligence of the human race and making it possible to solve some of our most pressing problems, including pollution, famine, disease, and war.

More than 100 hopeful believers in Engelbart’s vision gathered Monday at San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation, in the heart of Silicon Valley, to talk about the ways that they can help foster greater collective intelligence.

The conference, called Program for the Future, features Engelbart himself as well as tech industry luminaries such as Google’s director of research Peter Norvig, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, computer scientist Alan Kay and MIT professors Thomas Malone and Hiroshi Ishii.

Engelbart, now 83, is a stately, if quiet, presence at the conference. But his ideas and his personality loom large over the crowd. Ishii, for instance, called Engelbart his "god" and his "hero," citing the latter’s inspirational effects on his own career and on the development of the computer industry.

Google’s Peter Norvig was a bit more cautious. "A lot of what we do follows from him, but not everyone who works at Google necessarily recognizes that history," Norvig told Wired.com, referring to Engelbart’s 1968 demo. That might have something to do with the relative youth of Google’s workforce: With an average age of 29, most Google employees weren’t even alive in 1968.

Program for the Future organizer Mei Lin Fung called the event a"changing of the guard," a handoff from an older generation of computerengineers to a younger generation of students and entrepreneurs.Indeed, the audience demographics (as revealed by real-time wirelesspolls) showed a broad range of attendees, young and old, nonprofit andbusiness, academic and industrial.

Iobrush_collectionHiroshi Ishii‘s presentation showed one way that handoff might happen. While the sounds of laughing children visiting the museum filtered into the conference room, Ishiiscreened videos of some of the work that he and students at the MITMedia Lab’s Tangible Media Group have been working on, including onecalled the I/O Brush: a video camera hidden inside a large calligraphy brush and connected toa drawing program running on a big, white screen. Users touch the brushto an object, and can then paint on the screen with the image that they"picked up," just like the eyedropper tool in PhotoShop. It even worksfor video, prompting cries of delight from the children who were shownin the video, who pointed it at their eyes and then painted with aseries of blinking eyes.

Ishii’s lab’s work has also led to a truly Minority Report-style interface called G-Speak,which lets users interact with large datasets on wall-mounted screensand tabletop displays by waving their arms and "grabbing" virtualobjects with their hands.

What many attendees had in common was an earnest belief in the powerof collective intelligence to improve the world, a deep appreciationfor Engelbart the man, and a level of comfort with the jargon ofcollective intelligence. A long mural illustrated the significance ofthe 1968 demo on a 20-foot "co-evolution" timeline(4.4-MB image file, part of which is shown at top of this page) that paralleled Engelbart’s life and stretched past2008 into the future. On the timeline, significant events andinventions were marked with icons, while "The Demo" took the shape of ahuge, blue tidal wave of ideas: email, networked computing, onlinepublishing, video conference, hyperlinks and — of course — the mouse.

Attendees were invited to add their own ideas to the timeline with Post-it notes. After doing so, the organizers asked for a minute ofsilence while everyone contemplated the ideas being discussed, and somemembers of the crowd bowed their heads prayerfully. Afterwards, peopleshouted out their best ideas: "World 2.0," one man said, to answeringcheers, and "Life in an integrated domain," yelled another one,prompting whoops from the crowd.

It wasn’t all jargon and hopeful visions. "One-to-many"presentations were intermixed with more collaborative sessions, inwhich participants were asked to come up with ideas for advancing thecollective intelligence program.

But in the end, the conference came down to a fundamental beliefthat technology could help people get better at solving real andpressing problems.

Engelbart boiled his theory down to the single principle of continuous improvement, Norvig said. "If you continuously improve, everything elsewill take care of itself."

"But really you also need to be improving in the right direction,"Norvig continued. "The reason Doug passed over this is that he had suchmoral clarity he knew what direction he wanted to move in."

The rest of us, it seems, are still trying to catch up.

The Program for the Future conference continues through Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon, Stanford University will host a 40thanniversary celebration, Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing.

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Dec. 9, 1968: The Mother of All Demos

1968: Computer scientist Douglas Engelbart kicks off the personal computer revolution with a product demonstration that is so amazing it inspires a generation of technologists. It will become known as “the mother of all demos.”

The presentation included the debut of the computer mouse, which Engelbart used to control an onscreen pointer in exactly the same way we do today. For a world used to thinking of computers as impersonal boxes that read punched cards, whir awhile, then spit out reams of teletype paper, this kind of real-time graphical control was amazing enough.

But Engelbart went beyond merely demonstrating a new input device — way beyond. His demo that day in San Francisco’s Brooks Hall also premiered “what you see is what you get” editing, text and graphics displayed on a single screen, shared-screen videoconferencing, outlining, windows, version control, context-sensitive help and hyperlinks. Bam!

What’s more, it was likely the first appearance of computer-generated slides, complete with bullet lists and Engelbart reading aloud every word onscreen. Fortunately, the proto-PowerPoint section only made up a small fraction of his otherwise understated and impressive tour de force. And though it took years for the industry to catch up, many later computer scientists acknowledged their debt to Engelbart.

The demo was the fruit of nearly 10 years’ work into ways that computers might be used to help ordinary people work better on intellectual tasks. And by “intellectual,” Engelbart wasn’t thinking of analyzing data on nuclear fission experiments, he was thinking of ordinary office workers whose jobs involved writing memos, looking up information, filing things, communicating with others, persuading groups of people through presentations, and working collaboratively to solve difficult problems.

While most computer scientists concentrated on making computers smart (artificial intelligence), Engelbart was interested in how computers could make humans smarter, or what he called augmented intelligence.

The initial inspiration for Engelbart’s life work came in the mid-1940s, when he was an electronics technician for the U.S. Navy. Looking at a radar screen, and perhaps inspired by Vannevar Bush’s groundbreaking essay “As We May Think,” Engelbart imagined a radarlike display that would let people manipulate symbols and concepts instead of merely monitoring bogies and blips.

At the Stanford Research Institute, a think-tank–research-lab offshoot of Stanford University, Engelbart was finally able to set up a lab, the Augmentation Research Center, to develop his ideas on computer-assisted intelligence.

By 1968, the lab had developed a complete system, which the researchers called NLS (a somewhat oblique abbreviation for oNLine System). The system included an SDS 940 mainframe computer with 12 time-sharing terminals — each of which had a keyboard, a cathode-ray–tube display, a mouse and a strange five-key “chord key set” for operators to enter commands. The SRI team ate their own dog food, too: They used NLS for their daily work, including using it to write and organize the code that ran NLS itself.

NLS was more difficult to learn than today’s graphical user interfaces, but for an adept user it was remarkably fast and efficient. Watching the film of Engelbart’s demo, even a modern-day computer user might feel envious at the speed and ease with which he moved words, sentences and outline headings on the page.

Helping Engelbart make the demo a success was a team of engineers back at SRI headquarters in Menlo Park. The computers were connected to Brooks Hall with a microwave link and two high-speed 1,200-baud modem lines (which were capable of not quite 1,200 bits per second, or about 0.3 percent the speed of a modern DSL line). And a young Stewart Brand — who would shortly launch The Whole Earth Catalog — operated one of the cameras in Menlo Park. Brand, along with others, would later take Engelbart’s ideas about computers, add a dose of psychedelia and populism, and kick off the personal computer revolution in earnest.

Engelbart’s career never again hit quite such a high note, and his ambitious visions for computer-assisted collaboration were never fully realized. While the tech industry enthusiastically adopted the mouse and many other innovations from his lab, few people carried forward the idea of making computers tools for collaborative problem-solving. Now 83 years old, Engelbart is still committed to his program — and still uses a version of NLS on his computer at home.

President Bill Clinton honored Engelbart in 2000 with the National Medal of Technology for his groundbreaking work in “creating the foundations of personal computing.”

An event at Stanford Tuesday commemorates the 40th anniversary of the historic demo.

Sources: SRI, Stanford University, Douglas Engelbart

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