The theme of that song, which is about holding onto the things that work for you (and are part of your memories), got me thinking about my AlphaSmart Neo.
The Neo, if you aren’t familiar with it, is an educational product that was introduced by AlphaSmart in 2004. It contains a rudimentary word-processing application called “AlphaWord,” which has basic spell-check and cut-and-paste capabilities. As it came from AlphaSmart, it also contained a basic calculator and quiz-taking applications—items that I have long since removed. So essentially, the one I have is a writing device. I write my work in any of eight key-accessible windows (it supposedly holds about 100,000 words between the eight of them), and—generally at the end of each session—I can connect it to my computer with a USB cord, push the “Send” key, and it streams what I have written into whatever application I have open (usually Word or Pages). It looks onscreen like a highly caffeinated typist is keying in the text.
I often write or sketch out scenes using a pencil and notebook, and my revision and editing virtually all takes place at the computer. But although I have owned three desktop computers over the last decade, and no fewer than six laptops or notebooks, my intermediary device—the one that takes my work from handwriting to the computer screen—is generally the Neo.
The Neo is now decade-old technology—the equivalent of the Pleistocene Era in information technology—but I keep on using it for three reasons.
The first is battery life. I’ve never been crazy about the ticking-clock nature of working on a battery-powered device, and the Neo runs for about 700 hours on a set of batteries. That means I can do 140 coast-to-coast flights before the batteries die. When they finally do, it holds my work using the power of a coin-style battery (which I change every five years). And replacement batteries are three regular old AA alkalines, which are available pretty much anywhere (I once bought a set at a drug store in the Azores). This, plus the fact that the screen is readable in bright sunlight, makes it a pretty much go-anywhere device (the screen is not backlit, but a book light and some Velcro fix that).
The second reason I like the Neo is because of what it does not do. It does not access the Internet. It cannot check email. The only thing I can do on it is write, and as I have an attention span about like the “Squirrel!”-distracted dogs in the movie, Up!, I like that ability to keep me on-task.
The third advantage of the Neo is its durability. It has taken a nose-dive off the roof of my pickup, and the only thing that happened was a key fell off (I stuck it back on). When I am on small boats, I keep it in a two-gallon ZipLoc bag, and I put it in a neoprene case before stuffing it in checked luggage, but other than that I don’t baby it.
Truth told, I have killed two Neos over the years, but the culprit in both cases was my own stupidity.
In the first instance, I stuck a USB flash drive into the USB port to prove to my daughter that it could not save to it (Neo has no disk-selective operating system). Turns out thumbdrives often hold a small electrical charge, and as Neo has no means of dealing with that, this was sufficient to fry the motherboard. So I bought a second Neo (fifty bucks, shipped, from eBay), and promptly messed up the display on that one by applying a wet-transfer glare-resistant screen protector and failing to let it dry out completely before I fired the device up.
My present Neo is a “Frankeneo,” cobbled together using parts of the two dead ones. Renaissance Learning, which bought the rights to AlphaSmart products a few years ago, stopped making the Neo last year, and I keep meaning to buy another on eBay and just pull out its batteries and stick it in the closet as insurance in case this one dies. But unless I do anything else stupid, I am relatively certain that my present Neo will outlive me.
Neo is ugly. It is precisely the same color of olive green as a plastic toy tank that I had when I was a kid, and the screen looks about as state-of-the-art as the old Texas Instruments Speak & Spell. When I use it on planes, people always ask what it is, and then look at me like I’m nuts when I tell them it’s ten years old.
But it’s neither hot nor heavy on my lap, I like the feel and near silence of its keyboard, and every time I fire it up, I know that it and I have written six books together over the years, so we are fully capable of turning out another.
That’s why “I Hold On.”
What about you? Any fiction-writing anachronism that you’re fond of, attached to or even superstitious about?
If you have one, tell us all about it in the “Comments” area below.