“Can I give you a demo?”
It’s not unusual to hear those words inside the offices of a technology company, but this is the Merrill Gardens retirement community in Mill Creek, north of Seattle. The man with the cool gizmo is Bill Sleeper, 96, the resident technology guru. And the subject of his demo is a Laser Stage Lighting device on his kitchen counter.
Sleeper hits the switch and soon the ceiling of apartment is filled with a sea of colorful dancing dots.
“At night, this blows you away!” he says.
And it’s just the first of in a series of demos from one of the most remarkable people you’ll ever meet. Out comes his electrostatic wand — an “antigravity” device as he calls it — that he uses to levitate a ribbon in the air.
Then there are his beloved iPhone apps — the Dragon Dictation app that he uses to enter text, the Peterson birdsong app that he uses in conjunction with a mini speaker connected to the phone, and another one of his all-time favorites, the QR code generator. He chuckles as he talks about putting QR codes on his walker to deliver an encrypted warning to would-be thieves, reflecting his sense of humor: “If you steal my walker, the Mafia will hunt you down.”
Yes, that’s right: QR codes on his walker.
Meet our latest Geek of the Week. He knows the modern meaning of the word geek, but says he doesn’t consider himself worthy of being called one.
We respectfully disagree.
The retired engineer is a technology evangelist and enthusiast — teaching classes to his fellow residents, helping them with their computer problems, printing up mailing labels for new residents who move in, and encouraging his fellow seniors to set aside their qualms about technology and embrace the digital world, one app at a time. His four-page guide, “The One-Penny Smartphone,” helps older newbies understand and use the iPhone 3GS, and buy it on the cheap.
Sleeper’s daughter, Barbara, credits the iPhone with helping her dad through the long illness experienced by her mom, Norma, his wife of 66 years, who died earlier this year. “This is what kept him sane,” she says. “He was emailing everybody, and texting people. He gradually jumped up to every iPhone, from 1 to 4.”
Continue reading for excerpts from our recent conversation at Sleeper’s kitchen table.
What do you love about your iPhone? Here I have this thing which I consider a gateway to the world. I just can’t believe how marvelous it is. I come from so far back. … I used to read science fiction. The more advanced science fiction had this. It’s absolutely unbelievable. As you’ll see in the writeup.I call this also anti-depression, because if you use this, you can’t be depressed, especially if you go on Facebook and Twitter, you’re in touch with a million people. … Facebook is fantastic because it’s a free website! You don’t have to set up your own website.
Your favorite app? I like ‘em all. You know how it is. I got about 200. Look at ‘em all, they’re all so unbelievable. Dragon. The stock market. Movies. Camera, of course. It just goes on, they’re all wonderful. Zillow, I can’t get over Zillow. They (the other residents) like that because they want to know how much a house costs now. Yellow pages. I like the Birthday app. Man, I couldn’t live without it. Grandkids’ birthdays, who to send a card to next.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows. I know Macs are better for a creative person. I do understand that. However, because of my background, it’s a little difficult for me to transition. I’m a solid Apple person. I’m crazy about the iPhone and the iPad. I know that Windows is going to tiles, right? And they’ve got the cloud attached to the back. I’m going to go to Windows 8 the minute I can, because it’s so fantastic, what I read about it.
Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? I do like Picard. He’s calm, he’s cool, and he’s bald-headed.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine. I know I’m going to croak pretty quick, but I’d like to look beyond.
If someone gave you $1 million to launch a new company, what kind of company would you create? I would like to start a company that helps people. Have some social consequence. Not on the the scale of Bill Gates, my God, but I mean, even at the local level people are hurting so bad. I wouldn’t try to be super-rich. I’d like to do something that lasts.
Secret to your longevity? Hershey bars with almonds. In the middle of the night I slice an orange. But in the daytime, Hershey bars.
Any geek role models? Of course, Gates is always No. 1, and Steve Jobs. But there’s others way back. (Robert) Noyce (inventor of the microchip). The list is remarkable. Of course, mathematics. It’s not just one person, when you look at all the brilliant people back there.
Current phone? iPhone 4
Greatest game in history? Of course, I should be loyal to wrestling. (He was a wrestler as a young man.)
Do you play any video games? I do. You’ve gotta keep your brain sharp. I have a sequence of three that I always play. Hearts, Solitaire and FreeCell. Those are fun.
Most important technology of 2011? Advancement in other fields, genetics and the others. I’m all excited about your DNA code being read for you.
Most important technology of 2015? You can postulate everything converging more and more. Everything on this screen is on that screen. Bluetooth everything. I noticed that TVs are becoming more and more convergent already. There’s so many other trends.
Outlook on the future? I’m very positive, looking forward. Sure, global warming and everything, but you can see the underneath trend, where the knowledge is spreading and young people are saying the heck with the old.
Words of advice for your fellow geeks? Stay healthy, eat right. Remember the past is all cemented over, forget it. It’s all now. The most remarkable thing in the universe is you, a person. You have to respect every person you meet. A billion cells all working together, my God. And the brain, which is absolutely unknown. There are many levels of consciousness and that’s growing. Anybody can predict that eventually there will be more growth of universal consciousness. You can take it from there. I can go on and on if you egg me on.
Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.
Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Geek of the Week photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey, email@example.com.]