Things Have Changed

It is 4:58 p.m. on Thursday, October 20th, 2005. I am sitting In John F. Kennedy International Airport, in the gleaming new Jet Blue terminal, waiting for a flight to Long Beach, California. I’m flying there for the weekend to help my parents move. They are no longer young, and their health is not what it was, so they are leaving the house they have lived in since the early ’90s for a residential facility that will be a good deal less demanding.

I’ll be back In New York City on Sunday evening.

I am sitting in a surprisingly pleasant bar/restaurant, having arrived almost two hours before my flight is to depart. Looking around me I see twenty-two high-definition television screens, one of which is almost the size of a single bed. One of the screens is displaying moment-by-moment coverage of Hurricane Wilma, which satellite observations have determined to be the most intense storm ever to have been noticed in the Atlantic Basin. The satellite image is superimposed on a computer-generated map of the southeastern corner of North America, and is colored a lurid orange at the center of the storm. This is where Doppler radar observations show the highest wind velocities. Wilma is cruising through the Yucatan Channel on its way to visit a familiar type of destruction on southern Florida.

I actually didn’t know, five minutes ago, that the narrow passage through which the storm is now moving is called the Yucatan Channel. I am using a Dell Inspiron 8600 laptop computer, and to find out what that strait was called I used the touch-sensitive pad beneath my right thumb to move a small glowing arrow across the LCD display until it was above an image resembling an office push-pin. Clicking a button opened Microsoft MapPoint 2004, a detailed map of North America (down to street level, including local restaurants, but that was more detail that I needed).

When I got to the airport, having no bags to check, I was able to confirm my seat on the airplane by presenting, at a small computer kiosk, a sheet of paper I had created on my Brother HL-1440 laser printer at home. It was not necessary to stand in line, and the transaction took less than a minute.

Looking at some of the other video screens, I see stock tickers, attractively coiffed news anchors, a variety of advertisements, and an encore broadcast of last week’s Michigan-Penn State game (of interest to me because my daughter Chloë is a Wolverine, in her junior year).

Since I have been here I have received two telephone calls on my LG cell phone – one from my wife, and one from my parents in Oceanside, California.

When I am done writing I will click a button that will cause these thoughts to be transmitted by an embedded radio transmitter to a wireless Internet connection. The words will be converted to packets of electrical impulses and forwarded automatically, around the world if necessary, to my Web-hosting company’s data facility, where they will be recorded on a magnetic disc, and exposed to the entire world, for $7.95 a month.

I am 49 years old. Much of this would have been barely believable in my own childhood. A handful of lifetimes ago it would hardly have been imaginable.

The screen to my left is now displaying an animated cutaway diagram of the inside of Hurricane Wilma, courtesy of NASA, whose Cassini spacecraft, by the way, just transmitted home some truly striking closeups of Saturn’s moon Dione (you can see one here).

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