Saturday, January 21, 2012

Who Am I? Who Are You? What’s On Your iPod?

Trying To Keep Pace With The Modern World From Prison

Dateline: January 22, 2012

A fellow prisoner’s mother sent him the current best-selling biography, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Shuster, 627 pages, $35.00), and he let me read it. Mired deep in prison, isolated from the fast-spinning technoworld “outside,’ the exhaustive story of the Apple Computer co-founder and inventor of the Mac, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, brought me almost up to date on what I’d missed over the past thirty-four years. No matter how hard I’ve tried: reading newspapers, magazines and books, educating myself, taking every class and program available, it has been next to impossible to keep up with the marvels of the modern age from “inside.”

I’ve never listened to Bob Dylan on an iPod, never held one in my hand, never downloaded music from the iTunes Store, never “swiped” a multi-touch screen of an iPad, never used an app on an iPhone, but after reading the fascinating story of Steve Jobs, a brilliant genius and world-class a__hole, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011, whose drive to change the world was partly fueled by his birth mother’s abandonment and his subsequent adoption, I realize why so many people need them. Steve Jobs’ inventions indeed changed the world.

My own computer experience began as a freshman at the University of South Florida in 1968. the first class I enrolled in was “Fortran Programming” for the IBM 360, a behemoth computer that took up an entire floor of the College of Engineering. The concept, “user friendly,” had not been invented yet, and everything about Fortran Programming was a trial. Each student had to buy a box of blank IBM punch cards in the bookstore, find the key punch machines on a different floor, and figure out how to turn on the machine, how to load the cards, and then to punch the little holes in them. This was before we could even think of writing a program, which usually came back with “Error, Error, Error” printed across the wide sheets of white and green computer paper.

My first encounter with an Apple computer began in 1980, in prison at Union C.I., Raiford, when I became the clerk of the Golab, the groundbreaking prisoner self-improvement program in the Southwest Unit. The only computers in prison then were a few in the classification office, connected directly to the DOC mainframe in Tallahassee. No prisoner had access to a computer.

A newly-arrived prisoner who’d been a radio Shack manager, told me he had a brand new Apple II computer and a couple hundred floppy disks at home, and if I could figure out the paperwork and get the approvals, he would donate the equipment to the Golab. He would teach me how to use the new computer if he could have access to it. Deal. Only months before, I’d convinced the Golab president, Martin J. “Lucky” Stack, to buy an RCA color camera, VCR, and color TV for the program, which we used for video feedback of mock job and parole interviews, making teaching/training tapes, and other innovative uses we made up as we went along. When “Lucky” Stack, a retired U. S. Navy captain and decorated war hero, saw how useful the video equipment was, he jumped on the tech train. He got the computer donation approved, saw the potential, and bought one for himself.

That was the first computer in the Florida prison system accessible to prisoners. Once we got it, nobody in the power structure paid any attention to it, and we worked with it unimpeded seven days a week, for years. In the following years, prison education programs obtained grants for computer instruction, and my early training with the Apple II positioned me to jump into these programs and teach various computer classes up to college level, including instructing prison administrators how to use their newfangled machines.

Over thirty years later, with the epidemic of sexual predators going to prison for kiddie porn and other computer-related crimes, a paranoid prison system has severely limited prisoner computer access. Convicted murderers are known as the most reliable, trusted workers, at the top of the prison social hierarchy, with sex offenders at the bottom of the barrel, but so many of them have filled the prisons in recent years that sheer numbers of prisoners with sex charges have made them seemingly more accepted. But the prison authorities forbid sex offenders computer access, and rightly so.

Steve Jobs would have approved of that policy. Criticized by some for his refusal to permit any apps on the iPhone that allowed pornography, he defended his position by saying, “You might care more about porn when you have kids. It’s not about freedom, it’s about Apple trying to do the right thing for its users.”

The iPod story spawned a question that I’ve never been asked, but has been asked of most everyone with white earbuds: “What’s on your iPod?” When she asked President George W. Bush what was on his iPod in 2005, Elizabeth Burmiller reported in the New York Times that he had selections from traditional country music singers including Bush favorites by Van Morrison and John Fogerty. A Rolling Stone editor analyzed Bush’s selections and commented, “One thing that’s interesting is that the president likes artists who don’t like him.”

Someone said that simply handing over your iPod to another opens you up like a book, that your musical selections define not just what you like, but who you are. If that is true, I am Steve Jobs. Or at least we have the same taste in music.

Steve Jobs’ iPod was heavy in Bob Dylan albums, his hero, and also the Bealtles. He had songs from seven Beatle albums, including A Hard Day’s Night, Abbey Road, Help!, Let It Be, Magical Mystery Tour, Meet The Beatles! and Sgt. Pepper’s Loney Hearts Club Band. The Rolling Stones were represented, as were many sixties artists such as Aretha, B.B. King, Buddy Holly, Buffalo Springfield, Don McLean, Donavan, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, John Mellencamp, Simon and Garfunkel, and even The Monkees and Sam the Sham. Show your age — if you’re not at least fifty, you’ve probably never heard of some of those artists.

As he neared death, Steve Jobs thought more of getting older and his birth, as many people do. One of his favorite artists was Joni Mitchell, who put up her daughter for adoption and wrote the song, “Little Green,” about her little girl. He played Joni Mitchell’s greatest song, “Both Sides Now,” with its lyrics about being older and wiser: “I’ve looked at life from both sides now/From win and lose, and still somehow/ It’s life’s illusions I recall/ I really don’t know life at all.” She had recorded that song many years apart, first in 1969, and then ‘an excruciatingly haunting slow version” in 2000. Playing the latter version, Jobs noted, “It’s interesting how people age.”

I agree.

Perhaps when I am freed, I can ask Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell, to download a copy of his iPod playlist, since we thought so much alike.

By the way, what’s on your iPod?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Mike Newton here. I hope you're doing the best you can do. Keep your mind alive.

Your story reminded me of my first computer, 1985, I had an Apple IIe... with duo disk drives and it came with 128k of memory. Hard to use and GUI wasn't still in it's infancy. The most you could do was log onto AOL or CompuServe where they charged by the hour. I'm still at the same email address.