A reader has lots of questions about modern technologies.

October 12th, 2017

One day, I found two identically addressed letters in my work mailbox.

My name wasn’t on either envelope. Instead, they were each addressed to the Austin American-Statesman’s “Department of Strange Tech Questions.”

And so they came to me.

Both letters were written on 3/8-inch graph paper in small, but perfectly neat and readable, cursive. They were from an Austin woman named Barbara Ann Wilson who had a lot of questions about different technologies in her life. She asked about the health risks of Wi-Fi, choosing a hair dryer and what happens when you connect a Dell laptop to a MacBook Air to a modem in an effort to shield the Dell from online viruses, among other things.

One of the letters had clippings from a recent Kohl’s advertising circular featuring a Sonicare Bluetooth-enabled electric toothbrush and a NuWave digital air fryer. The other, more detailed letter included vertical annotations along the side, clarifications and a P.S. 

In one annotation referencing her Dell laptop situation, Barbara wrote thoughtfully: “In retrospect — this is a large ‘not useful’ digression. For me and hair dryers. But maybe others would like to know more about it and I am still curious.”

The second letter contained two attached index cards, one of them with a further P.P.S. about the availability of hair dryers at Wal-Mart and a second suggesting that while Barbara meant no disrespect or insensitivity to recent earthquake and hurricane victims, “Safety and prevention of later problems seems important, too”

At a newspaper, we get all kinds of paper correspondence, even in this digital age. Some of it is magazines we never subscribed to (shoutout, Wine Aficionado), press releases that we already received as email, and lots of letters from inmates at state prisons. You can tell those apart because the letter writer’s prisoner number is on the return address.

But handwritten letters from readers are a precious commodity. Most reporters seldom receive them anymore and when we do, they are often thank-you notes from sources or ranting, epic conspiracy theory-edged frights urging us to get to the bottom of the government’s mind-control program. (I’m still looking into that one, sir. I haven’t cracked the case yet.) Often, the latter go into a reporter’s “Crank File,” sometimes a euphemism for the nearest recycling bin.

Barbara’s letters were not that. Though extremely detailed and lengthy, they make complete sense and are friendly and searching. They are questions from a curious mind, from a person who uses technology every day but wants to know more. I find a lot of readers who call in about my tech writing want that, too. They might be overwhelmed or confused by the rapid pace of technological advances, but they don’t want to be left behind.

I wanted to know more about Barbara. 

The air fryer

Omar L. Gallaga / AMERICAN-STATESMANAn excerpt from letters sent in to the Austin American-Statesman from a reader named Barbara Ann Wilson

Dear Department of Strange Tech Questions:

What is an “air fryer?” Doesn’t “frying” as a process need to immerse food in oils? Is this what they do? Or do they use some sort of “wave technology?” ... I once bought an “air cooker” for popcorn and the popcorn tasted terrible — the kernels were hard and without flavor. Are these “safe?” — like old microwaves with heart pacemakers seemed not to be — long ago?

 — Barbara Ann Wilson

Dear Barbara,

NuWave's air fryers use less oil than traditional deep frying. They sell from about $75 to $150.

I know that air fryers have gotten popular in recent years. I’ve seen the ads, too. And I agree air-popped popcorn is the worst.

According to several articlesfound online, air fryers work by circulating hot, oily air at about 200 degrees, using less oil than traditional deep frying to give a crispy coating. As to whether the food tastes as good as deep frying, your results may vary. The NuWave deep fryer listed in the Kohl’s circular has generally favorable reviews and it’s a pretty standard countertop appliance; there doesn’t appear to be anything fancy about it apart from its Nu-Wavy name and digital-control buttons on top. In fact, some Amazon reviews suggested the mostly plastic device is not super durable. 

Hope this helps!

— Omar L. Gallaga, The Department of Strange Tech Questions

Barbara Ann Wilson’s apparent home address was listed on her letters, but not a phone number or email address to contact her. When I suggested it might be worth writing a column providing detailed answers to her many questions, my editor said I should ask permission first.

I looked for Barbara on Google. 

I didn’t find her on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter or on any Austin company or organization pages. There was no phone number or email I could find online, either.

The White Pages offered a premium listing search for $5. I paid the fee to locate the person I thought I was looking for, a woman in her 50s in Austin, but none of the phone numbers listed were in service.

Wi-Fi concerns and connected toothbrushes

Omar L. Gallaga / AMERICAN-STATESMANAn excerpt from letters sent in to the Austin American-Statesman from a reader named Barbara Ann Wilson

Dear Department of Strange Tech Questions:

Is “Wi-Fi” safe? Are there people who medically have to avoid places with it?

Why would a toothbrush have “Bluetooth and app?” I thought only smart phones and computers had “apps” and some audio equipment.

 — Barbara Ann Wilson

Dear Barbara,

There’s been quite a lot of research into this area given reports of a small number of people who are said to have an allergy to it, suffering from what’s called “Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome.” 

There’s been back and forth on whether this is a valid medical condition based on scientific fact. Yet stories of people who say Wi-Fi and other electronic signals are are affecting them persist.

Recent science suggests that given the vast number of people who live and work within Wi-Fi networks and the relatively low signal strength of Wi-Fi compared to other kinds of electromagnetic signals (not to mention that most Wi-Fi routers are idle the vast amount of time), Wi-Fi does not appear to represent enough of a health risk to warrant worrying about.

As for toothbrushes with apps and Bluetooth, it’s part of a larger movement called “The Internet of Things.” Because the technology to make gadgets connected to the Internet and full of sensors has gotten so cheap, it’s easier today to embed Wi-Fi or Bluetooth into toys, appliances and even stuff you wear. The novelty of controlling your electric toothbrush with your phone (to, say, keep track of how long your kids are brushing or to play brushing-related games) might be enough to get people to buy a gadget like that.

For me, it’s amazing enough that my electric toothbrush uses inductive charging, but I haven’t felt compelled to buy one with apps or Bluetooth, so we’re in the same boat on that one, Barbara.

— Omar L. Gallaga, The Department of Strange Tech Questions

I found an alternate address for Barbara Ann Wilson suggesting she might have moved after the date of the letters she wrote in September. Because this location was much closer to my work office than the address on the letters, I tried going there first.

In a cul-de-sac I found an empty house with a dark-blue Prius in the driveway. There was no answer. I left a business card and a short note explaining that I was looking for a woman who’d written letters to the newspaper. “If you know Barbara Ann Wilson or are her, please ask her to give me a call,” I wrote, in a way that doesn’t make sense as a sentence the longer you read it.

I drove out of the neighborhood, heading south.

The Revlon hair dryer

Omar L. Gallaga / AMERICAN-STATESMANAn excerpt from letters sent in to the Austin American-Statesman from a reader named Barbara Ann Wilson

Dear Department of Strange Tech Questions —

I bought a hair dryer this week, the first I’ve owned since somewhere before 2003 or 2004.

Since that time, I met a person who was “rabidly against” hair dryers. I thought because they used so much electricity... though he had no problems with the use of fans, air conditioning, computers. He said there are “hot, cold waves at the end of a hair dryer snout.” 

I had some trouble choosing a hair dryer. I asked the person who cuts my air beforehand about Watts (and what nots, sorry could not resist that) and the woman said just to use a low-heat setting to not burn the hair and create more split ends, which was my chief hair complaint.

There are less “On the shelf” hair dryers on the shelf than I’ve seen in the past. Some had longer or shorter snouts. I bought one from Revlon since they have been making hair dryers for decades. I figured it would be safe.

I have not used the hair dryer. I am sure it is safe to use, but mostly I bought it because in cold weather I do not like wet hair, at times it gets “Bedhead” and looks asymmetric. I have some questions:

 — Are coils in the snout of the dryer, are they like capacitors or magnets or something electrical?

— Are there better or worse wattages and speeds? I’ve noted lightbulbs now say, “replaces this old lightbulb wattage” so I guess my question is about energy use, cost and “responsibility” in purchasing.

— Is “Wave energy” a problem for some?

 — Barbara Ann Wilson


Dear Barbara,

I’m not as up-to-speed (ha!) on hair dryers as I am on other kinds of technology, but I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

RevlonRevlon's Perfect Heat Quiet Light Styler is an example of a hair dryer featuring ionic technology.

Hair dryers apparently used to be pretty dangerous, especially if you dropped one in water, but since 1991  when Ground Fault Circuit Interruptors were mandated, they’re much less likely to electrocute you, according to How Stuff Works.

 As to whether the tech that makes the hair dryer work itself is dangerous, typically they’re very simple: they contain a motor to blow air like a fan, and a heating element similar to what you’d find in a toaster. The motor blows air through the heating element and the hot air that comes out speeds up the evaporation of water in your hair.

If you’re concerned about hair damage from heat or singed hair, find a hair dryer with a cool air setting and use that.

Some hair dryers contain “Ionic” technology, which might be the wave energy you’re describing. These dryers work by interacting with ions in the product or water in your hair, not the hair itself. They can speed up the drying process, which means less time drying your hair, which at hot settings could mean less damage from the heat.

I hope your hair stays healthy and that your new hair dryer serves you well!

— Omar L. Gallaga, The Department of Strange Tech Questions

The array of condo buildings in South Austin had an entryway with an electronic directory at the front. I stopped there despite the gate being open in hopes of calling ahead.

Stopping at a stranger’s home for an interview is something reporters have been doing for centuries, but actually doing it always leads to moments of dread and trepidation. It’s never easy to approach someone unannounced.

The electronic keypad had no “Wilson” listed. I sighed and drove ahead, finding the house number from the letters Barbara Ann Wilson wrote.

I knocked on the door. A long pause.

A face appeared as a window was opened upstairs. A woman. Dark hair. Perhaps in her 50s, but it was hard to tell from the distance and angle, and through the window screen.

I said hello and held up the letters, giving my friendliest smile and explaining that I had received these in the mail and wanted to respond. I wanted to make sure I could use them in the newspaper.

I held up my employee badge as proof of my legitimacy, but I couldn’t imagine she could make it out from that high up.

After a few awkward moments of my overexplaining, she told me she was the woman who wrote the letters. She seemed surprised to see me.

I thanked her for writing and told her I wanted to respond in full as a column. She seemed pleased by that and said it was fine, since a lot of other readers probably had some of the same questions. She asked if I wrote about hair dryers.

“I write about different kinds of technology. The letters came to me probably because I write a lot about gadgets and tech stuff,” I said.

“The Revlon hair dryer broke,” she said. “It was a small one and it burned out.”

She gave me her phone number and I promised to let her know when the column would appear in the newspaper. I thanked Barbara, whose face was still at the window screen, and walked back to my car, putting her letters back in their envelopes.

As journalists, our relationships with readers can sometimes be challenging. They get mad at us and call us names or point out the ways we didn’t meet their standards. Some troll us and other readers in the comments section for stories on our websites. But sometimes they can be incredibly sweet, sharing their recipes and their photos and guiding us to stories we would otherwise know about about their family histories and secrets.

Barbara Ann Wilson, a stranger I’d never met and have only now met once through a second-floor window, made me think about hair dryers and Wi-Fi and oils and how the tech world appears to someone who is not saturated, air-fried you might say, in this space. She made me look at the world a little differently, if only for a few moments.

I hope she writes in again.

Cover photo: Omar L. Gallaga / AMERICAN-STATESMAN


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