Every few years, an invention appears that makes all previous life seem backward. The digital camera is an obvious example. I might be nostalgic for old albums full of glossy prints. But the idea that it could take days before you saw how a photo had “turned out,” that you could snap only so many pictures before the roll of film was full, that the only way to share pictures was through the mail—these assumptions are hard even to imagine now.
For my own workaday purposes, the most useful recent invention has been the Livescribe Pulse pen, which I bought just after its introduction early last year and now can hardly be without. It looks like a somewhat bulky, cigar-shaped metallic writing instrument. Inside it contains a high-end audio recording system and assorted computer circuitry. When you turn it on, it starts recording what you are hearing—and also matches what is being said, instant by instant (in fact, using photos it takes 72 times per second), with notes or drawings that you’re making in a special Livescribe notebook. The result is a kind of indexing system for an audio stream. If a professor is explaining a complex equation during a lecture, you write “equation,” or anything else—and later when you click on that term, either in the original notebook or on images of the pages transferred to your computer screen, it plays back that exact part of the discussion. (Works on both Macs and PCs.) For me this means instant access to the three interesting sentences—I just write “interesting!” in the notebook or put a star—in the typical hour-long journalistic interview. The battery lasts for several full days’ use between recharges, and the pen can hold dozens of hours of recordings.