Remember when you thought fax machines were dead-matter teleporters? Ah, just me, then

No, things were NOT better in the past, so leave them there


Something for the Weekend, Sir? Video games make you healthy. Of course they do. Why would you think otherwise?

In further updates to today's rolling news feed, bears are turning Catholic, the Pope just had a shit in the woods, and we have always been at war with Eastasia.

Contrary to what I had been led to believe until I read this blog post, playing video games is now considered good for your eyesight. Visual benefits include improved visual acuity and peripheral vision, better contrast sensitivity and dramatic correction of amblyopia.

This comes as a bit of a surprise. I had always assumed the rapid acceleration in my myopia back in the mid-1990s can be traced to the long evening I spent reviewing Virtual Valerie for a computer magazine.

But it is one of the more entertaining aspects of getting older to be told by the next generation that you've been doing and thinking everything wrong. This is how it should be. I regard it a civic duty for the middle-aged to progressively envelop themselves in an ever-thickening blanket of bafflement. This provides a certain measure of personal amusement while giving the kids something to rail against as they in turn fuck things up for the generation that will follow them.

Those who haven't yet reached middle age don't realise this. Indeed, there is currently a renewed surge in the field of mentoring of young people by those in their 30s who think they know better. Ha, just you wait.

A mentorship is a bit like an apprenticeship except that neither the trainer nor the trainee get paid, which is the modern way of doing things. Any casual job search these days will turn up scores of "opportunities" to train unpaid youngsters for free, and the minimum standard of mentor expertise is way above my levels of mediocrity.

As a lifelong freelancer, I am unqualified to mentor. I lack a neat employment trail of advancement and seniority in which my professional past could be ranged like alphabetic drop files in a cabinet. Indeed, my work history looks more like the contents of a paper recycling bin on collection day.

By way of contrast, one recent local mentorship opportunity on LinkedIn was for an astronaut. How can I compete with that? I don't have the right boots.

If I was to pass on one tip – er, sorry, "life hack" – to a younger generation, it would be that they should not pine for the past when they get older. What you do right now has context; it's only when you've forgotten that context that you begin to experience nostalgia. Nostalgia is memory gone wrong.

Example: in 1966, French singer France Gall was ludicrously and unfortunately (she later refused to perform it again) persuaded by Serge Gainsbourg to record a song about lollipops.

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Ah, but it was an era of innocence, I am told. Back then, nobody for a moment imagined there might be the slight hint of a double-entendre hidden away deep in those lyrics. Perish the thought!

Let's put this into context. The previous year, The Rolling Stones released "I Can't Get No (Satisfaction)." The following year, they released "Let's Spend The Night Together." Era of innocence, my arse.

Me, I feel nostalgic about fax machines.

The feeling derives almost entirely from the first time I saw one on TV, on a popular, prime-time British science programme called Tomorrow's World. I fantasised that it was actually transmitting the sheet of paper from one place to another, like some sort of dead-matter teleporter.

When I eventually got to see a real one at my first job, I wasn't disappointed. In the 1980s, fax machines were massive, and this one was even bigger because it had an A3 carriage. I swear the legs on its dedicated trolley were bowed outwards in their struggle to defy the forces of gravity.

Tabloid page proofs sent back from the typesetting house would creep out of the monster, painfully slowly with a blit-blit-blit sound, line by line, occasionally halting for half a minute before continuing. After many minutes of this exquisite torture, while anxious sub-editors performed their sacred dance around this beige altar of solid mechanics and electronics, chanting their mystical spell of fax conjuration ("Come on, come on, bastard thing, come on…"), there would be a blood-curdling Nightmare On Elm Street metallic tearing noise as the continuous roll of heat-sensitive paper was sliced.

Then there'd be a faint burning smell as the sheet settled in the metal catch basket, to be retrieved carefully and carried reverently to the subs' desk. Once, I was even trusted to do this myself, under the envious eye of my peers. Oh what joy to experience such mighty technology in action! What memories!

This is obviously ridiculous as fax machines are shit.

Back then, they cost a fortune. They weighed a ton. They were noisy. The special paper was hugely expensive. As soon as each sheet was cut, it would curl itself back into a scroll, flop past the output tray and into an improvised cardboard box strategically placed on the floor. If you accidentally left the unit switched on overnight, you'd arrive the next morning to find two dozen unsolicited junk faxes from restaurants and nightclubs, their hugely expensive scrolls piled up in and scattered around the cardboard box.

Not least, every fax – and I mean EVERY fax, without exception – would have vertical lines running from top to bottom that would obliterate the specific detail you needed to read. As the subs observed: bastard thing.

Today's fax machines are smaller, cheaper, faster… and still shit. Worse, they are probably connected to your network while still using the same old security-free fax protocols. Got someone's fax number? Does a real fax machine answer it? Sorted: drop the payload inside an image file and you're in their system.

Ah well, maybe today's hipsters will rediscover fax and reshape it in their image, like they did with coffee, commuting, and coworking. Props to whoever first comes up with a crank-operated letterpress fax machine on Kickstarter.

I'd invest in that – for old time's sake, of course. Mmm faxxxxxx… just imagine the satisfaction…

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. His all-in-one printer can send and receive faxes but he has yet to connect it. Allowing incoming faxes would involve connecting a landline, he says, and that means 50 unsolicited phone calls a day from North African telemarketers. "Non, merci." More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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