Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things to be Thankful For

  • An old car with the good manners to break down within coasting distance of my own driveway, on the night before a day off.
  • A mother out of state for the winter who is willing to lend me hers.
  • A sister coming to Thanksgiving dinner to drive me from the broken down car to the running car.

Seriously, as far as inconveniences go, this one was coordinated like a ballet.

Then there’s all the other usual stuff we take for granted: a roof over our heads (that only leaks when it rains really hard), a job where I get to work with lots of kind and genuine people, food for  the table, a wife who is not only willing but happy to cook it, family to share it with, good health, and of course, also, eggnog.

And whiskey.

I work with a woman who’s mother used to punish her, when she complained too much, by sending her into the corner to count her blessings. I do tend to grumble a lot. (That’s why you’re all here, isn’t it?) But this seems like as good a day as any to take her mother’s advice and reflect on the stuff that’s going right.

So, I’ll be over here in the corner.

With my eggnog.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reading The Hunger Games feels like Reading Tomorrow’s Newspaper

I started reading the first book in the Hunger Games series. And I can see why it's so popular with today's teen set. The book reads like a dark-hearted SF thriller, but it paints a frightening picture of the world our children are set to inherit. 

Here is a society built on the ruins of the one we live in now.  It's seen the return of scarcity. It's seen the divide between first and third world conditions move within the borders of our own country. It's seen martial law in the wake of collapse, with capital punishment for theft imprisonment for hunting and gathering your own food. It’s seen a new world order with poor outlying districts feeding into the wealth of one centralized, prosperous capitol. Meanwhile, for entertainment, the "reality show" is carried to it's logical conclusion: children are forced to fight to the death on television for the public amusement, with a supporting staff of stylists, producers, "game designers," and sponsors to make it all profitable. 

Granted, the Japanese got to the conceit of kids fighting to the death on a reality show first, with Battle Royale. But their take on it was campy and cartoonish, their explanation for why it was happening was felt like an attempt to make light of problems in their public schools. But Hunger Games is deadly earnest, building on chilling economic and environmental trends. We've sown conflict around the globe; it seems inevitable that it's going to swing back and hit us at home, sooner or later. 

This is the world our children see coming: constant war, rising food prices, ceaseless advertising, the cheapening of human life in pursuit of grander virtual and vicarious thrills, the abandonment of basic rights and dignity for the poor, while the rich extract human blood in the form of tribute paid in human offspring. 

You think this sounds hyperbolic? Try starting your adult life under the burden of a student loan you can never hope to repay, from which not even bankruptcy is an escape. Kids today are slaves from the minute they graduate college. (It's a funny twist of fate that today, it's the smartest kids who don't go to school.) Already, teens face an adulthood without dignity. It's not that far-fetched to see their lives as cheap enough to throw away in televised games.

Our kids are facing the collapse of the public safety net as it's raided by the disinterested greed of their boomer grandparents, while they struggle in the moral wasteland provided by the "it's all good" parenting of their Generation X and Y parents. Reality shows show them that success lies at the end of a path of opportunism, brutality, and luck, while advertisements bombard them with tawdry and unattainable examples of what that success would be. 

The result is that life is worthless unless you're at the top. So, why not gamble it all for a shot at the prize? (Bankruptcy might not be an option any more, but kids might fight to the death if the reward were forgiveness of their student loans.)

Science fiction used to give us tales of exploration, invention, colonization and prosperity. I'm not sure what happened in the last 30 years, but SF has become something that feels chilling and malicious, more akin to horror. 

It also feels a hell of a lot more real.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On the Economy: Shrinking Pains

Natural systems do not grow forever. Populations either reach a certain point and then stabilize as they rub up against competitors and resource limits, or they drop off a cliff as they exhaust their resources. The real core of the economic crisis we are facing now is that the economy is an artificial system that has been built on a foundation of unlimited growth. At every stage it is simply assumed that growth is the ultimate goal. 

Sales had better be up, consumption had better be up, resource extraction and manufacturing and profits had better be up! 
Even as we're hoping our economy will generate more wealth and jobs, we're hoping for stabilization in world population figures. And there's actually good news here: we're seeing a slowdown in population growth. We may have passed the seven-billion-people mark, bet getting to eight will take longer than it took to get from six to seven. 

But consider: if the population doesn't grow faster this year than last year, how can we have sales that grow faster this year than last year? What happens when we reach the point where everyone simply has enough stuff, and stops buying more? And given that our currency actually represents debt (not gold, not grain, not any naturally occurring commodity), how can it continue to grow if people tire of borrowing to purchase things they do not need.

It becomes harder to make money. The incentive for crooks within the financial system to steal and cheat becomes irresistible, and soon the whole system itself is a farce. (See the Lehman Brothers collapse, the “too big to fail” bailouts, etc.)

So how can we build a financial system without a foundation of constant growth? 

Our current situation is unprecedented. The world population has never faced a slowdown in growth, never mind a decline. (The Black Plague may have decimated Europe, but it put just a tiny dent in the world population.) This turnaround is something to celebrate. It's a success of the world's increasing prosperity and education. Given that no population can grow at an accelerating pace forever (just ask any petri dish full of bacteria) we should thank our lucky stars that this is happening. 

But can we build an economic system that rewards stability instead of growth? Is it a matter of regulating the money supply? Could we turn back from debt based currency to a gold or silver standard? Or do we need to reconsider what incentives people respond to? Rather than measuring success as taking more profits than your neighbor, can we build a culture that fosters stable communities, humane working environments, and supportive relationships?

That's hippy-dippy, pie in the sky utopia talk, for sure. But the alternative sounds dreadful. If we can't adapt our economy to a population that isn't growing at a constantly accelerating pace, then both the economy and the population are bound to collapse with a viciousness that is as brutal as it is inevitable.

I don't hear anyone else asking these questions. The silence horrifies. 

Instead, I hear Bill Clinton talking about ways to restart growth. I see companies scrambling to drive down costs to save their profits in the face of declining sales, producing cheap products that suck in working environments that are inhumane. I sit in meetings where everyone breathes a sigh of relief if our percentages are just a little higher than last year's, and we say, "well, at least we haven't started to slow down yet," in the knowledge that the minute we do, we're dead. I hear European politicians saying things like, "Only growth can lift us out of the Eurozone crisis," but they never say where the growth is going to come from, who is going to buy their exports, or what fuel will power their factories to run faster than they're running now. And then I see reports of entire cities in China, skyscrapes and condominiums and shopping malls, vast and shining and new, without a single person who can afford to live in them. The government is building for the sake of their growth reports, while their citizens live in shacks, five families to one bathroom, not a one of them able to afford the empty prosperity looming above them. 

The wealth is there. The buildings are there. Why not just let the people...move in? 

An economic crisis seems like the most artificial folly on the face of the planet. Markets crash; the sun still rises, the tides flow in and out, birds still sing, all oblivious to the fact that debt figures hit some number and stocks are in the tank. An ounce of gold doesn't know it's worth ten times as much because people are desperate. 

This is a collapse of fiction. But it's been such a rewarding fiction, for so long, that we'll struggle to maintain it for as long as we can. We'll give absolutely everything we can to believe our lives can keep going on like this forever. We'll give everything we can, until we have nothing left.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Room for Second Life in a Busy Life?

It seems that the more technology I accumulate around myself, the less meaningful work I get done. I used to be able to write a story every week on my typewriter. Now, I’m lucky if I get past checking my email accounts, blog feeds, and facebook statuses.

Then, for some reason, as if I weren’t distracted enough already, I got the grand idea of checking out Second Life. Now, that has sucked up pretty much any free time remaining to me.

Oh, but it is fun! And it’s satisfying, this feeling of being thoroughly engaged, always something to check up on, always someplace to go -- without leaving your chair. And at the end of the day, I have no piles of paper bearing down on me, as I did in the old typewriter days. Am I worse off for not having told a story in the old, traditional medium? Would anyone have read it?

In Second Life, I can listen to a concert performed by folks playing together from  three different continents. I can chat with Australians and Englishmen and South Americans all at the same time. I can be told off by an irate Detroiter in one window while psychoanalyzing a graphic designer with low self esteem in another. I make friends with people from around the globe, and suddenly I’m concerned about what time zones people live in. What time is it in Poland? In Peru? There are friends there I want to talk to, when will they all be on? 

Second Life is rather like World of Warcraft, only instead of all the dull leveling up and treasure hoarding, there’s conversation, art, and music. Not all of the highest caliber, of course, but that’s true of everything. As Ted Sturgeon said, “97% of Science Fiction is crap. But then, 97% of everything is crap.”

My Puritan Guilt has me thinking this new time-sink is a terrible development. If I go after the Nanowrimo trophy this year, I’ll have to set Second Life aside for November.

Ah, but I am still holding down a full-time job, finding time to visit the folks on occasion, scratching the dogs on the head several times a day. And I’ve even gotten outside to replace that broken window-pane and re-putty one and a half whole window sashes. (Only 20 and a half more to go!) I’m going to play the moderation card on this one, just as with booze and tobacco, and say it’s all right.

Will we continue reading stories in the century to come? Storytelling survived radio and television, although it was certainly changed. But now that the words-on-paper format seems stuck in precipitous decline, just what forms will our fictions take in the future? And will we miss the old ones? Can culture survive a population that is aware only of distractions and diversions, and never focused on real content? How can we remain aware of current events when there’s a party going on every minute?


If Romans had computers, would the end of their world have looked a little like this?

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Growing Length of Novels

Is it just me, or do books seem to be getting inordinately long, these days?

Time was, people would joke about the fantasy-novel doorstoppers that Robert Jordan and the like put out, as if the girth of their text was somehow indicative of a stretched-out, poorer quality story. When the Wheel of Time series grew to eight, then nine, then ten volumes, it turned into a kind of self-parody, mocking itself just by sitting there on the shelves. (It’s still not complete, although Jordan has passed on.)

George R.R. Martin has been producing similarly sized volumes, and who knows how big Game of Thrones is going to turn out to be before the final tome takes its march across the bestseller lists. The difference is, these books are actually pretty good, and they’re making their way into the mainstream with a little help from HBO. Then there’s Patrick Rothfuss, whose Name of the Wind was perhaps the most beautifully written book I’ve read in the last decade, and who followed it up with Wise Men’s Fear, promising more of the same exquisite storytelling spread across 1,200 pages. I haven’t cracked that one yet, because I needed a break from fantasy.

Instead, I turned to my other great reading pleasure, Science Fiction, and turned to Neal Stephenson’s latest, Reamde, which title references to a computer virus within the book whose name ironically refers to the brief “readme.txt” files which have accompanied software installations since the dawn of DOS. Now, Stephenson has always written big bricks of books – for a more extreme example check out his System of the World saga – and to make his own process even more masochistic he does his first drafts in fountain pen. But I’m losing interest in Reamde about halfway through, and I’m stuck wondering if, having invested so many hours into the first half, it’s more of a waste of time to abandon the story and forget about it, or whether the greater waste would be forcing myself through to the end of a book that I have lost pleasure in reading. (This is an especially Puritanical dilemma and I wonder if anyone besides a New Englander could truly understand it.)

Then I heard that one of my favorite “literary” writers is coming out with a new novel: Haruki Murakami. His early books were spare little gems, perplexing and fascinating, inviting repeated readings and careful reflection. But it turns out his new book, 1Q84, is going to clock in at – you guessed it – over 1,000 pages. I’m not sure I can wrap my head around that much Murakami, and I’m not sure that I want to.

It’s as if someone told me they were going to bring me a fine, single-malt whiskey, and then they delivered a keg of the stuff, and then told me that, to really appreciate it, I’d have to drink the whole thing. Whiskey just isn’t supposed to come in kegs. Some things are meant to be sipped and savored, and when you see that much Murakami in one barrel, well, it makes you wonder just what you’re getting.

David Foster Wallace came out with Infinite Jest in the mid 90s, and at the time that was an anomaly in the literary world: 1,300 pages including 300 pages of rather self-indulgent footnotes. Passages of Infinite Jest were lovely, though, and heartbreaking, and brilliant. I’m wondering if my experience with Murakami will be the same as the experience I had with Wallace. I enjoyed it for about 400 tightly packed pages (including time for those footnotes) before realizing I’d been reading the same book for an entire season without getting halfway through, and so I put it down and never came back.  Still, I kept a lot of those characters and situations present in my head in a way that just hasn’t happened with many books, since. Hal, the tennis academy, the AA meetings, the league of wheelchair assassins, the VHS tape that kills you if you watch it…they’ve all stayed safely tucked away in my noggin for the past 15 years, and I didn’t even finish the damn book.

Maybe I can sip my way through half a keg of Murakami and that will be enough.

So what’s behind this trend towards freakishly long books? Did the publication of Infinite Jest win support for a format that had previously been mocked as appropriate only for low-rent fantasy literature? If so, then why the sudden increase in book-girth now, fifteen years later? Have paper and printing costs been dropping? Hardly, paper and ink is more expensive now that it has been in quite some time, and books have to be deeply discounted to become affordable.

Are editors just getting lazy? Or are authors becoming divas, unwilling to compromise and have their words cut? It does seem that, as a writer finds a measure of success, their books grow and grow as editors and publishers seem afraid to ruffle the feathers of their proven cash cows. Which is too bad, because a lot of these books would be better if they were shorter. And these editors should realize that cows don’t have feathers.

There do seem to be several factors that may contribute to this publishing trend:

  • e-books have no printing costs, and as more and more of a book’s sales go digital, buyers may actually feel they are getting more of a bargain when they download a bigger file. So I wonder, do the increased sales of a digital book offset the increased paper and ink costs of printing a huge doorstopper volume?
  • The bargain effect probably applies to physical books too. This is the age of Wal-Mart and the wholesale club. When it comes time to buying a book people really want to stock up. The difference between a 300 page paperback and a 700 page paperback is usually just a dollar or two, so it feels like you’re getting ripped off when you buy the smaller one.
  • People have become accustomed to long serial formats, and this taste has grown beyond fantasy trilogies and those mystery series themed with numbers and letters and gotten right down into the fabric of the single book. Those Game of Thrones books are like trilogies within trilogies.
  • The rest of our culture is increasingly short and fragmented. We want to set aside our Youtube clips and our Twitter feeds and have something familiar to pick up and read, night after night. People who still read might not be looking to books for an escape into something different, but rather for the comfortable feeling of returning to the familiar.
  • Computers make it easier to write at length. Authors can ramble on at a PC with words per minute unseen in the days of flowing ink and mechanical type-bars. Computers make it easier to edit, too, but they seem to have the opposite effect. Writers will let it all pour out, confident they can go back and cut and re-arrange. I suspect that, when words seemed more indelible, that more thought was taken in putting them down in the first place.

Stephen King blames the decline of the short story on people’s laziness. Once you’ve invested the mental energy it takes to enter the world of a story, it just seems like an awful lot of work to start from scratch, again, 30 pages later. And while I rather agree with him, that’s not why I’ve never been a fan of the short story. I just find that, after I’ve read a book of short stories, I can only remember a couple of them, and my memory of those is usually gone within a week.

Novels really have time to work their way into your mind and stay with you, to remind you of things you’ve long forgotten, and to even change you if you need changing. They have always seemed, to me, to be the form of art most effective at repaying the investment of my attention.

But 1,000 freakin’ pages? You’ve got to be kidding me. I just don’t have that kind of time to invest.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Canine Capacity

For those of you wondering how many dogs you can comfortably fit on a 34’ trawler, it turns out the answer is…at least four.


There’s a mother, father, and daughter in that picture, by the way. Plus what you might refer to as a “fuzzy uncle.”

I leave it to the reader to work out which is which.

Back on the Water Again

…if only briefly. (Hopefully more to come in future years.)

Stepdad traded in his sailboat for a smaller trawler, much more to his liking. And I have to say this thing does invite some serious lounging around.


And look at all the room for a typewriter table out here on the back porch.


Now I have another excuse for not finishing my novel. I need the proper boat to type it up on!

Seriously, though, the potential for serious, distraction free writing out here is fantastic. What better excuse to steer clear of the distractions of the computer than spotty harbor Wi-Fi and the need to run your generator in order to keep your batteries topped off. The more I think about it, the more I realize there can’t be a writing tool better adapted to ship-life than the manual typewriter.

So long as you keep it well-oiled. The salt can’t be good for it.

Meanwhile, the boat comes with a built-in escape from the terrible winter weather. Why use that expensive tank of fuel to heat your home when you can use it to move your home?


Anyone want to trade a trawler for a drafty old half-cape?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ultimate Writing Software

We can all agree, I’m sure, that the best distraction-free writing hardware out there is a manual typewriter. However…

After long, careful, and somewhat regretful consideration, I’ve determined that the best word processing software I’ve used over the past decade and a half is Microsoft Word 97.


Marvel as it launches, entire, within microseconds of that second click. Struggle to spot the tiny 50 MB memory footprint. Relax as you discover that it handles novel-length documents without a hiccup. Thrill as you discover the organizational potential of its online layout view. Wonder at what, exactly, software developers have been doing for the past decade and a half to improve on a package that did everything you needed, without complaint.

Granted, it’s proprietary. It’s not open-source. It won’t open the documents your friends and co-workers might email you, since they’ve most likely moved on to pointlessly newer iterations of the office suite. Oh well. Just ask them to dig into their “save as” menu for something more compatible.

Alas! When I think back on the writing tools I’ve tried over the years, only to settle back to this one. But OpenOffice takes a full 20 seconds to launch, consumes eleven times the RAM, requires the Java Runtime Environment, and from what I can tell doesn’t offer me a single additional feature I have any use for. Then there’s AbiWord, the lightweight open-source alternative, but with every machine I’ve ever run that on, the text has flickered as I type. Not only is this distracting, it leaves me with the impression that my words are the merest whispers on a screen, ready to be swept away by the slightest electrical whim. (This is true, of course. But there’s no call for rubbing it in.) Evernote does a nice job of organizing my thoughts, but it invites a bit too much obsessive shuffling around—and there goes my focus. Besides, who really wants to have their every thought and self-indulgent drivel synchronized across internet servers, anyway? That’s what blogging is for!

The Only Office You Ever NeedIt was on a lark that I popped this old Office 97 disk in when I found it during a deep tidying-up. I thought, “Gosh, this ran just fine on the computer I was using 14 years ago, and I wrote two novels with it. I wonder how well it would work on a Pentium-4 with a dedicated graphics card and dual monitors?” (Yes, I think I’ve officially “maxxed out” the old PC which I bought from the gentleman who recycles pieces he picks up at the dump.) And it turns out that Word 97 launches faster on this computer than Windows 7 Notepad.

It’s funny how hardware and software have been advancing in lockstep, with applications growing bigger and more bloated just as processors grow more powerful and memory more accommodating. Why does it feel as if it takes just as long to get something done on a computer today as it did 15 years ago? This is patently absurd. But the business plan of selling cheap hardware loaded with the latest bloat-ware—thereby making your new computer feel just a little out of date as soon as you’ve turned it on—has been doing a decent job of driving Moore’s Law into the 21st century.

The best operating environment for me these days seems to be a moderately up-to-date PC (four to eight years old) running software from the generation before. Excel 97 launches faster than the Windows Calculator, and has become my go-to tool for summing columns of numbers or performing basic arithmetic. Photoshop 5.5 (from another late 90s install disk) is more than capable of formatting images for blogging and has the capability of handling more professional photo-editing than I’m qualified to perform, and it, too, runs nimbly on a modern, high-definition monitor.

Notable exception: Windows Live Writer, which provides the simplest interface for blogging on any platform. Even Apple doesn’t have anything to compete with it, for love or money. Which is surprising. People have been blogging for over a decade now and only Microsoft has come up with a simple way for them to edit posts locally and then post them to any service. Who would have thought?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day Chores and Pleasures

The guys from N-Star were working on the street that leads down one side of our property last week, running new line to folks who had been out of power since the storm. There were up in bucket trucks, trimming trees and taking down half-broken limbs.  I felt kind of bad we never even noticed our neighbors had been without power for an entire week.  (We only lost our power  for two hours, not even long enough for me to run down the laptop battery playing FreeCell.  We had the oil lamps and board games and manual typewriters lined up, and everything, but the lights were back on before it even got dark.)

Anyway, a couple of the linemen walked around to our place. I thought they were going to tell us they were disconnecting power for a while so they could work, but actually they just wanted to chat about how old our house was and how old the trees were that they were trimming up. Answer to both: 300 years, more or less. Also, did we suggest they have lunch at the restaurant down the street. Yes. Awfully nice guys. (Or maybe they were just relieved to be talking to someone who hadn’t been without power for a week.)

They told us they’d be leaving all that wood piled up on the edge of our property outside the fence, so we go around and pick it up if we wanted any firewood.

So today I ran the extra-long extension cord over the fence to fire up the electric chainsaw again. The summer-campfire woodpile is all topped off now, probably enough to keep us going for the next three seasons. (The chainsaw needs a little bit of sharpening after all this heavy use, though. Time to ask the step-father for a refresher course in filing it. I know he showed me years ago, when I was much less interested in such things.)

Later we rode our bikes along the canal and to our usual beach, hoping for an end-of-season swim. But the Labrador Current must have been at it again, piping that ice-cold water back down from Greenland, such that standing in the surf for more than 30 seconds makes your ankles ache. Gussie dove all the way in, which surprised me, but she was out again within the minute.

It was a fine afternoon anyway, with a nap on the sand and some people watching. Plus, dogs are allowed on the beach again, post-season, which makes it a more humane place and encourages conversation. Then a stop on the way back at the hot-dog vendor with the thatched umbrella, two for me and one for the wife, and a stop again at the little ice-cream stand that opened up this year, quite conveniently along our bicycling circuit.

Rode home under thickening clouds to spend a couple hours smoking a pipe and reading out on the patio, watching the chickens and listening to the traffic out front crawling its way home from the three-day weekend.

Ha! We were already home!

Not a bad Labor Day, not at all.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Simple Hand-Me-Down Mower for Hurricane Clean-Up

Sadly, I didn't think to get any "before" pictures of the back yard. But this pile from the neighbor's place gives you some idea of what we were dealing with, before we chopped out the larger trunks and stems.

So it's nice, now, to step outside and see this, instead.

Thanks, Chief!

Hey, this guy likes his Chief, too! He's got the 3.5 HP motor, but otherwise it looks like the same machine. I love that the mower has been in his family for "almost 30 years" and is considered an heirloom.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Post Hurricane Risk Management

Any day you get to use a chainsaw while standing at the top of a ladder--without hurting yourself--has to be a pretty good day, right?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Standing Down Here, Dreaming of Up There

It's nice to know that our local grass airfield is still offering their biplane rides. It's a sign of summer around here when you see this little red fellow buzzing over the tree-tops.

Come to think of it, I haven't seen many private planes at all in the skies this summer. Every time I hear a buzzing and look up, it's this guy. No doubt the economy and high fuel prices are hitting recreational pilots as hard as everyone else.

I once had dreams of a private pilot's license and invested mumble mumble dollars in nearly forty hours of flight time, stopping just a lesson or two and an FAA exam away from the wings when business opportunities placed other demands on my capital. Those hours aloft were some of the best of my life, and I can flip through the logbook and remember every one of them. But it would be hard to come up with a less practical hobby than flying private aircraft. Even most professional pilots don't make enough to provide a decent standard of living.

It would have been a nice day to be aloft. Our own transportation was a little more prosaic.

But our fuel costs were also far more down to earth. And we had a better view of the boats in the canal.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Monday, August 1, 2011

Smith Corona Surgery

The machine:

The Typecast:

The parts removed:

The rubber bar that that metal piece is meant to jiggle back and forth to make the "Power Space" function work:

The Jeweled Escapement:

The padded carriage return:
The sliding hood, open for business:

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I'm Ready for Florida

Egad, this last winter was hard. And cold. And long. The old house is drafty and the snows far too regular. The tires are bald and the shovel is rusty. Getting out of bed in the morning was an adventure in endurance, and getting to work felt like the voyage of the Endurance.

And now we're hammered with this heat wave. 101+ degrees today and enough humidity to sweat the paint off the car. I step outside and think, this feels freaking great!

The Wife wanted me to take a swim with her, but I couldn't. The water in the pool, which she insisted was comfortable, was just too bloody cold.

I just needed to hang out in the yard and be comfortable for a while.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Our Day In Court

For free entertainment, you could do worse than going to your district court on hearing day and watching the proceedings.

We weren't there for fun, although I was determined to enjoy the experience as much as one can. Obtaining an execution to evict a tenant who has not paid rent in four months isn't a pleasant experience, but at least it can be interesting.

This district court handles civil and criminal matters together on the same day. It wasn't what I was expecting, and it had me wondering if we were sitting in the right courtroom as docket after docket was called to the bench with "The Commonwealth Versus..." I kept leafing through our paperwork to satisfy myself that "Main Session Courtroom" had to mean this big one with the double doors in the center of the building, and that I had the date right. Our tenant wasn't there either, which added to my confusion. She turned up half an hour after the appointed time, which turned out to be early enough. The criminal matters ran on and on.

So here's a question: if you're summoned to court to appear before a judge because you're accused of shoplifting, say, or operating under the influence, or assaulting your sister ("We just don't get along..."), wouldn't you want to put something on besides flip-flops and baggy shorts and a ratty tee-shirt? Maybe, if you're on probation and one more offense means a mandatory 60 day stay in jail, you could cover the gang-letters tattooed down your forearms, or take off that baseball cap? I think the reason that cameras are forbidden in courthouses is so nobody ever has to see a picture of the doofus with the puffy sneakers, the sports jersey, and six inches of boxer shorts showing above his sagging swim-trunks.

"Good grief," I said to The Wife, "a third of the people in this room have neck tattoos."

She said, "That's how you know who the bad guys are."

Having never sat through criminal court proceedings before, it amazed me just how practiced and knowledgeable all the participants were. I'm not talking about the judges and the lawyers - of course they know what they're doing. But there wasn't one criminal defendant there who didn't know where to stand and what to say. Nobody seemed confused about their instructions to contact this probation department or that district attorney. Public defenders were appointed, phone numbers were exchanged, dates were set for further was like watching a dance and trying to figure out the moves. I realized that there really are two classes of people in this country: those who regularly participate in the criminal court system and those who don't.

Things sped up when the judge switched over to civil matters. It turned out all the civil cases were about deadbeat tenants and unpaid landlords. I was nervous when my name was called, but I didn't even have to open my mouth. The judge asked our tenant if she owed the rent and she said, "Well...yeah..." and he actually laughed and sent us to mediation.

Later, outside the courtroom, waiting for the mediator, we saw some tenants (not ours) who had just been complaining to the judge that they didn't have money to feed their kid, never mind move out and rent a new place. Out here, they were showing off new tattoos to their buddies. One on the shoulder, one on the back, one on the leg. Who did they go to and how much did it hurt? Talking shop, sharing the hobby of self mutilation.

I'm thinking, huh, maybe your kid could eat those tattoos, he's going so hungry.

The result for us? Well, it seems senseless to talk about "winning" or "losing" in this situation, but let's just say that we have reached an "agreement." And we've got a piece of paper to take to the Sheriff's office in case anyone thinks about changing their mind.

And we also got to watch a couple hours of our court system in action, which was more interesting than I expected.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Young Women Today

It doesn't take long, after a shift, for some of the women I work with to get into trouble.

Today's women behave like yesterday's sailors: they work so hard just to blow their pay in a few quick hours of bad decisions and terrible behavior. Then they get up the next day to haul themselves back to work for more service to The Man.

They may not spend months at sea harpooning whales or pulling up nets. They discard their lives in shorter-interval mistakes which usually have greater consequences.

We were programmed by evolution to be stupid, impatient, and rash. The gene-pool does not reward the patient, the thoughtful, or the careful. Women used to be a civilizing force, doing what they could to temper the stupid of the human race. They were the ones who had to live with most of the consequences. This doesn't seem to be the case, any more. Either that, or they have been sold on the idea that the consequences are actually rewards.

Then again, it seems many of the people who have the most satisfying lives are the ones who started off stupid and then came to terms with their "mistakes."

The question, I suppose, is at what age do you have to start getting smart?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Neither Hoarding, Nor Collecting

When we were at the dump swap-shop the other day, getting rid of three loads of dusty and undesirable goods, I watched a man step out of a car right in front of me with a Smith Corona typewriter case and deposit it on the floor, free for the taking. Unable to resist, I opened it up to tinker and test, and found that it was clean, little used, and almost factory fresh shiny.

Only problem was the carriage mechanism, which pulled all the way to the left and would not stop, so that it took a bit of finagling to close the case again.

Still, I was tempted. Surely it had to be an easy fix, something I could piece together again in the back yard of an afternoon with my swiss army knife and my determination.

But then I remembered all the typewriters that have already, and recalled our purpose for visiting the dump: to reduce our quantity of stuff. My plan for the typewriters I have is to cart them all up to Cambridge Typewriter and beg Tom to trade them all in for one shiny, well maintained, and portable machine. Everything I've got works well as-is and could just use a bit of adjustment and lubrication, so I'm really happy to come out behind on the deal so long as I come out lighter. It seemed like adding one more maybe-functional machine to the pile would be pushing my luck.

Even the price of free was too high.

It struck me that my collecting days are well and truly over. After months of cleaning, yard-selling, and hauling the accumulated crap of three households out of our barn, I'm really, really happy to be through with collecting.

Which makes me all the more grateful for the type-o-sphere. You all have such lovely machines. It's such a pleasure to look at them.

So long as I don't have to carry or dust them.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Antique Typecast - "Rejected"

Another bit of ephemera from the family box of old documents.


I'm not as up on my historical presidential politics as I would like to be, but a quick googling of the Nine Old Men makes me think this document has been sitting around since the 1930s. Which makes the age of my previous typecast suddenly likely to be a bit greater.

It seems my ancestors were opposed to the New Deal. Again, I'm not sure if this was composed by some ancestor, or just copied out of a newspaper or magazine. I like that the level of political discourse is such that you couldn't fit it on a bumper sticker (or several) though.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ephemera Find

All right, Typosphereans and ephemera lovers. Have I got a treat for you.

A humorous poem, hand-typed at some point in the first half of the last century, fresh from a storage box that has sat in an attic for longer than most of us have been alive.

The Wife and I have been learning a lot about my family history as we've been cleaning out some spaces. I suspect my grandmother might have typed this during her education at Lasell Junior College. I doubt she was the author. More likely she was just practicing a bit of copy, or she read it in a book or newspaper somewhere and found it humorous enough to reproduce and save. That woman saved everything. But she wouldn't let us look at anything until, well, until she couldn't stop us any more.

We've got lots and lots of other documents and pictures: civil war letters from the family that adopted my great grandmother, letters to great-uncle with special needs who died in a school fire as a teen, newspaper articles about old family businesses. The Civil War stuff deserves a blog all its own, though it would take a herculean effort to scan and transcribe all those old letters. (1860s handwriting is so pretty but so hard to read.)

Anyway, this brief bit with its bellyaching about progress seemed an extra-special fit for you typewriter lovers, so...there you go.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Accelerating Change

There are times when the realities of the world really bowl me over. Like when I realize I can sit in my backyard and use a cheap four year old netbook to publish anything I want to say to a worldwide audience. (Sure, that audience consists of maybe a dozen people, but still: the potential is there.)

These kids these days, they have no idea how revolutionary this is. Brats. We'll see how they'll deal with the accelerated change that's coming in their lifetimes, after they roll their eyes at our stories of computers with keyboards and cars that burned oil and couldn't steer themselves.

They'll probably deal with it fine, actually.

Huh. So this is how it feels to be middle aged.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Yard Sale

Having a yard-sale. Brought my laptop out into the yard, once I remembered it was portable. Going on Craigslist to see what I should charge for things. 27" TV, $35? IBM Selectric I Typewriter. $60, maybe? That's less than I paid. An original Xbox with a huge stack of games. Sold the Xbox to a guy whose 11 year old son has been wanting to play Halo, but has a Wii. So now he's all set up with Halo I and II, and four controllers. The thing with the kid makes me feel a lot better about selling it. Not that I've turned it on  more than a dozen times in the last six years. Most of my save-game files date from 2004.

Chatting with neighbors and lookie-loos about our antique house; it's 300 years old and unique, so hopefully somebody will want to buy it. Also the sun is out for the first time in days and days, so moods are bright and people are friendly. Buttons the chicken has let herself out into the yard. She is the only chicken smart enough to do this, and so she gets to eat all of the bird-seed that the bluejays knock on the ground. She'll actually hold still long enough to let children pet her. How many yard sales do you get to go to where you can pet a chicken? Kids love to hear the rooster crow, and they're excited about the koi pond, too. I'd worry more about them falling in if it were deeper than 18". Maybe we should start charging admission and set up a petting zoo. Then we could sell the property with a pre-established business.

I have mixed feelings about selling the Selectric typewriter. Until I try to pick it up. Then I hope somebody buys it right away.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

iPod Touch Repair Challenge

I ended up getting a co-worker's cast off first generation iPod Touch. Like I need another gadget, I know. But the price was right (free), and it came with an added bonus that many gadgets don't--it didn't work. Stopped working a year ago, actually. The screen turns on and the battery holds a charge, but the touch-pad is completely unresponsive. We can't even push the "slide to unlock" bar. Because I like to tinker and I hate e-waste, it's a challenge I couldn't refuse.

At our local mall there is a kiosk that sells protective cases and screens for "smart" phones. They've got a big poster that says, "Screen broken? Fix it here!"

Surprisingly, getting the young fellow's attention was a challenge. Usually those kiosk guys are shouting at passer-by, doing the hard sell. This guy was too wrapped up in his own iPhone to notice the passing crowd.

When I did get his attention, and he did see the gadget, he said, "Oh, sorry. We can't get the parts for those old models any more."

"Old models?" I said. "These things were released under four years ago."

"Yeah, but we see it all the time. Touch screens stop working after a while."

"All touch screens?" I said. "On everything?"

He said, "Hey, it's like life. Things wear out and stop working."

"You're a philosopher," I said.

So...challenge accepted. Even Apple can't make a product so crappy it's unrepairable after just four years.

Can they?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Will My Computers Ever Do Anything Besides Update Themselves?

I know this might sound a bit Andy Rooney, but Good Grief!

I use the damn things so infrequently these days that it seemsevery time I turn one on, it sets itself so single-mindedly to attending to its computer business that I can’t seem to get any people business done.

First the antivirus starts updating, then the operating system, then when I launch any single goddamned program I’m asked if I want to update to the latest version. Heaven forbid I want to play a game. By the time they’re done downloading new “splash screens” and game data, my supper’s ready and free time’s over.

Then I realize the reason it’s grinding to a halt is it’s performing a virus scan. “Last scan performed over one week ago!” Thanks for the warning, jerk. I last turned this piece of junk on a week ago!

Even my word processor is out of date! Open Office has become something called Libre Office, and the Windows Live Writer I use for blogging just encouraged me to help Microsoft develop their products and switch my default search provider to Bing. Apparently it wasn’t happy just composing blog entries.

When I give up and shut the things down, they tell me I can’t turn them off because they need to finish installing their updates.

Tell me why I shouldn’t go back to using my typewriters again?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Core Inflation vs. Reality

So it’s hard to miss that we’re paying $1.50 more per gallon of gas these days then we were a year ago. It’s also hard to miss that, at the grocery store, a package of butter costs a dollar more than it did just a couple of months ago.

So it’s no surprise to read news reports about rising food and fuel prices, or to hear experts say they’re concerned about the chilling effects of such rises on the economy.

What is surprising is to read that core inflation is chugging along at a modest 2%.

Gosh, that hardly seems like anything to worry about.

Until you learn that “core inflation” specifically excludes measures of food and fuel prices.

Um, excuse me, but other than mortgage payments and internet service, food and energy are actually the only things we’ve spent money on this year. I drive to work, then I drive home to a house where I get a nice hot meal in a house that’s heated, hopefully, to a temperature that’s tolerable if I wear long underwear and two sweaters. Ben Bernanke will have to forgive me if I’m not stocking up on iPods and furniture and designer shoes to take advantage of this modest inflation rate.

Anyone else out there get the feeling that our government experts aren’t really acting with the best interest of the citizenry at heart?

Either that, or they simply have no idea what they’re doing.

I’m not sure which is scarier.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

High Tech Hallucinations

When I think about it, it seems like a lot of energy was expended in the second half of the last century trying to get high in one way or another.


Drugs, literature, art, music. Choose your poison. A lot of it came down to the pursuit of that wow man, far out, sort of experience. Jimi Hendrix playing an electric guitar with his feet, Jackson Pollock splattering canvases with house paint, Philip Glass droning on with his repetitive rhythms and harmonies, Phil K Dick blurring the boundaries between the real and the hallucinatory, movie directors translating those visions to the screen, quantum physicists seeking the cracks in the fundamental laws of nature.


There was this sense that we were constantly on the verge of something fantastic and abstract and mind expanding. Much of the time, this something didn’t seem like it could come from outside, in the world. It was just waiting to burst out from within us, if we could just find a way to give it permission. If only we could nurture our inner child and rub the right crystals and find the reiki practitioner with a light enough touch.


Well, the quest goes on, I suppose. Because, well, let’s face it: if we find these moments at all, they never last. That’s why the addict always needs another hit, and why yesterday’s paintings don’t evoke the same response the second or third time we’ve seen them.


Fortunately, there is this: the portals into these sorts of experiences seem to be everywhere now, and most of them are a good deal safer than the pills and needles so many resorted to in the past.

I just lost a couple of hours messing around with a few free gizmos on my PC which I hadn’t even been aware I had.  I’ve long used Winamp, for example—it’s a far superior media player to the toxic ITunes disaster that Apple foists on the world—and I’ve used it to rip, play, and organize my audio files for years. I just hadn’t bothered to click on the little “Visualizations” button before. Which, in a moment of idleness, I did today.


At which point these images you’ve seen here started cascading across my monitor, in full high definition, at a rather dizzying 30 frames per second, and pulsing and dancing in sync with the music. Screen edges crumpled, vortices spun, fireworks launched, fractal ferns swayed, clouds and stars fought for dominion of the moon.

It helped that I was listening to Ludovico Einaudi, who tends to be fairly meditative and soothing. But the program transformed my easy listening background music into something utterly captivating.


And I thought, hell, any one of these frames puts to shame anything Jackson Pollock ever threw against a canvas. The Evernote screen capture utility did a nice job catching a few of the stills, since I had the odd compulsion to grab some of this stuff that was being generated on the fly. But after a few minutes of doing that I just sat back and listened to the entire two-disc album.

Far out, man. The things I’ve seen. And it’s nice that I didn’t have to drop acid or otherwise put my neurochemistry at risk to do it. William Burroughs should have been so lucky.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Swearing at Citi Mortgage

We get this letter from our insurance company. They say they haven’t received payment for this year’s premium, and our policy is going to be cancelled in a couple of weeks.

Only our insurance company is paid by our mortgage company, which holds funds for such in escrow. So I try calling up our mortgage company to ask them why they haven’t made a payment.

It takes some time to get through to an operator, since none of the menu selections have anything to do with escrow or insurance payments. But hitting zero enough times finally gets me a live one, who offers to transfer me. Only he comes back on the line after five minutes of hold time to say that the escrow department is backed up right now, so why doesn’t he give me their phone number so I can call them later directly?

Reasonable enough. Instead of being put on hold, I’m prompted for my account number. I have a mortgage statement in front of me, so I punch it in.

Only the system won’t accept my number. “This number cannot be verified. Please try again.” So I do.

Eight times.

This turns out to be a very tight, closed loop. There are no options, except for entering the account number again. But even though I’m looking at the account number on my statement, apparently I don’t have an account. At one point, a voice suggests I make sure to enter all leading zeros, but I’ve been doing that all along.

Pressing zero doesn’t work, and neither does speaking the word “operator.” I’m not sure why it would, since there have been no suggestions that this is a voice-activated system. Regardless, I’m so frustrated at this point that I swear, at the top of my lungs, into the cell phone. And I’m in the middle of a rather long string of uncharacteristically vile words (many of which I haven’t used since my sheet-rocking days) when an operator comes on the line.

I had read that some telephone systems had been programmed to register stress and anger in a caller’s voice, but I’ve never encountered it before. And I actually felt a little embarrassed. The operator has a hard to understand Indian accent, but however I feel about outsourcing, she doesn’t deserve to listen to that. She seems very eager to help, though, and apologizes multiple times when it takes her a few seconds to locate my information.

She authorizes a payment to my insurance company and confirms they have the correct account number. “Just give it a few days for the payment to go through,” she says.

Only today we have another letter saying the insurance is being terminated—today—because they still haven’t received the payment. So I try calling the mortgage company again, and get in the same account number loop. This time I only try twice before launching into my vulgar tirade.

Magic! It works.

And the woman says, “If you have to call again, don’t enter the final digit of your account number. Skip anything after the dash.”

“It’s not zeros,” I say. “It’s a four.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Just skip the final number and press pound.”


Anyway, it’s all straightened out. Probably. The check cleared after the final warning letter was sent.

But what really gets me here are three things. First of all, how is your average caller supposed to know not to punch in part of his account number?

Second, When we were approved for this mortgage, it was about eight years ago. We used a local bank, who actually did the full-on credit check, employment verification, etc. We had a local mortgage officer we’d dealt with on two previous deals, and we frequently called her up with questions and received excellent service. Then, as the world proceeded to go crazy, our mortgage was sold four times before landing with Citi Mortgage, a corporation we would never have borrowed from. Each time our note was sold, we went through a nightmare trying to get the escrow department of each new bank to connect with our insurance companies and our municipal tax collectors. It was demeaning and unnecessary.

Finally, and most importantly, what does it mean that the only way to receive service from a massive corporation (and one which holds a great deal of power over you) is to scream profanities into a telephone? It just seems like another failure of decency in culture, when the system demands you act like an asshole in order to be treated like a human being.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Recent Reading: Nonfiction

I’ve been reading a lot less fiction these days. Books about reality have gotten more interesting. Or maybe my tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older. Or maybe the world has gotten scary enough that we don’t need horror novels to give us a thrill any more. In fact, the sorts of fiction that always fascinated me in the past have, today, come true. 

Today’s Internet, with its MMORPGs and virtual economies and cyber-warfare, is more strange and fascinating than anything William Gibson predicted in the 1980s. If you disagree, you know nothing about piloting predator drones from halfway around the world.

Likewise, the heroes and villains of cyberspace show complexities and transformations that a novelist would be hard-pressed to invent. It’s strange to find yourself rooting for an identity fraudster even as he’s draining your accounts.

Let’s think about the other side of the speculative-fiction spectrum: Fantasy. You’ve got knights, you’ve got pirates, you’ve got wizards. All right, fine. But how many of those pooftas could actually found a colony in a nation of “savages?” And how many novels could convey the desperate tragedy involved in such a triumph?

The Wordy Shipmates does a nice job, too, of treating with the complex and gloomy world-view of Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Puritans. And for such gloomy subjects, they’re treated with a great deal of humor.

Here’s something that gets at the darker side of one of our newly beloved (or loathed—pick your side) folk-heroes:

Julian Assange—who knew he could be a real dick to his friends? Well, his friends know, apparently. But that hair, that style, that reckless abandon…I’m still inclined to like him, even if I wouldn’t invite him to my house.

All right, let’s finish this survey off with an optimist who thinks the future is going to be indistinguishable from magic.

No, not Arthur Clarke, who actually coined that term, but a real live physicist who starts his book by saying we can find hints about the future by talking to real scientists instead of science fiction writers, and then cites Vernor Vinge regarding artificial intelligence and Isaac Asimov on robots, and winds it all up with potential doorways into parallel universes.

All of this has me wondering. Do we really need  to escape into fantasy and the supernatural to tell meaningful stories and to entertain? Is there not enough wonder in the real world to enchant the reader? Or is it, perhaps, that the real world is so overwhelmingly wondrous (not to mention monstrous) that "nonfiction" fulfills the role even better? Wired and Scientific American seem to contain more miracles than the average mind can comprehend, and the newsstand prints more drama and conflict than you can get out of a season of high-octane TV. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wallace and the Tyranny of Irony

I so wish that David Foster Wallace had stuck around a bit longer. What a waste of a fantastically perceptive mind.

I know that the tyranny of irony was getting him down. I don't think he understood that the age of irony was coming to a close.

We're not going to have time for irony when energy becomes expensive. We're going to be too busy working, and hopefully working together, in earnest, to be looking for snide little ways to put each other down. When we say something, it’s going to be what we mean, because we won’t have time for anything else. Good manners and well-defined roles will come back into style when, after a hard day in the fields, we want to settle down to good food and pleasant conversation. If we manage the transition without killing each other, life is going to start to seem very hokey by 20th century standards. And there’s lots of ways in which that could be a good thing.

But maybe that was just it. DFW was invested in the age of irony, as much as he lamented it. He excelled at it, even as his characters longed for stability and meaning. The ironic age was the only age he knew.  It may have been too much for him, to watch it start to crumble in 2008.

Or maybe he was just really, really depressed.

Damn, but I bet he’d have some interesting things to say about the next few years.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mixed Reaction to Evernote Software

As a devotee of writing tools—let’s face it, I spend more time messing about with typewriters and computers and operating systems than I actually spend writing anything—it’s hard not to get excited about this free Evernote software. 


On the one hand, it seems to do just about everything I've ever wanted a note and information gathering piece of software to do. Screenshots? No problem. One-click gathering of content from the web? Easy. Drag and drop image collecting? Even easier. It’ll sync up your notebooks among as many devices as you install Evernote on.  If you think of something on the go, you can just email it to your Evernote address and it’ll be waiting in your notebook when you get to it later.

On the other hand, it pushes all of my paranoia buttons.

  • Forcing me to register before first use. Why should I need to give out my personal information before I even know I like you?
  • Encouraging me to "sync" all of my notes to the cloud, so that I can access them from other machines. Yeah, I understand this is a benefit, but it’s one I’m not entirely comfortable with. I’d rather the program default to not syncing. Consider: are these servers secured? Do I need to assume that anything I save in Evernote will be accessible to their staff? Or aggressive government investigators? Granted, I know that once I've registered I can set certain notebooks to not sync, but given the share-happy nature of the program I'm not optimistic that this wouldn't be easily switched by accident at some time in the future. And it’s creepy that anyone who guesses my email and password has instant access to all the notes I’ve collected.
  • Loading the interface with features that can only be used by upgrading to a "Premium" account. The free version is plenty functional, but there’s plenty of buttons cluttering up the interface which you can’t remove. When you click on them, you get a pop-up asking you to upgrade. I'd almost be willing to do this, except for
  • The monthly payment model. Sorry, but I'd be much happier to purchase your software all at once, rather than a little bit every month. (Yes, I know I’ll save money if I pay for the year in advance. That’s still a period. That ends.) Say I come upon hard times? Do the notes and content I've created under Evernote's premium functions become inaccessible if I don’t pay?  
  • The use of ads on the interface. They're small and tucked in the dead space at the bottom left. They even provide you with a little "x" to click on, to close this part of the window. But clicking on that “x” brings up the offer for the premium package again. This feels like a bit of a slap in the face. Does the ad come back if my subscription expires?

This is why I never get anything done. Nice tools come along, and instead of using them to make anything, I work myself into a paranoid frenzy.  

Think I might make an exception this time, though. For gathering web-clips and doing any kind of journalistic work or blogging, this program is hard to beat. It’s one of the few cases where I’ve found something new and shiny to use on my computer that’s better than the software we had fifteen or twenty years ago.

It difficult to begrudge the software engineers’ their business model. I guess I’ll just bite my tongue and use the free version for a month or two and see if it becomes indispensible, doing my best to ignore my privacy concerns.

After all, I’m just not that interesting. What snoop is going to care what I think about ■■■■ ■■■ or ■■■■■■’■ role in ■■■■■■ anyway?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

TMI as a Meal Ticket

I heard something on the radio the other day about employers demanding that job applicants sit down at a computer during an interview and log in to their Facebook pages and their blogs.

Needless to say this was another one of those what is the world coming to moments for me. Are you obligated to “friend” your boss? Do they get to read your email, too? Or tap into your Skype conversations? Or paw through your dirty laundry?

Good grief. We used to get worried about big brother installing cameras in our homes to spy on us. Now we purchase web-cams and strap them on top of our computers.

But it has me wondering. Can someone who is unemployed use their unfortunate blogging practices as a way to continue receiving unemployment benefits? Why yes, Uncle Sam, they could argue, I have been looking for work. But nobody will hire me because of some compromising photographs I put up on MySpace in 2004.

Self-embarrassment on social media could be to generation-Y what drug and alcohol habits were to Gen-X and the Baby Boomers: that “handicap” you inflicted on yourself that means you no longer have to take care of yourself. It’s a healthier way of staying on the dole than, say, developing a heroin problem. Eats up a smaller portion of your unemployment benefits too.

Lord, it’s almost self sustaining!

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Quiet of the Future

[Note: the grandchildren referenced in the following story are unlikely to be mine. Perhaps they will be yours?]

Grandchildren, clamoring for a story? How strange. I would that we had clamored for the same. The advice we got from our grandparents might have been better than anything I can provide for you.

Still. I think I'll begin with the roaring in the ears. With the sound that was everywhere, inescapable, whether you had asked to hear it, or not.

Just another one of those things which are kind of amazing to think about, now.

Sure, many of us chose to listen to music. Or noise. Video games, movies. We had speakers in our homes, our cars, our businesses, and our pockets. If what we were listening to was not what our neighbors or roommates wanted to listen to, we had headphones--personalized speakers that we strapped on to the sides of our heads. And then later on, these were not loud enough for us. If we turned them up loud enough to satisfy, the people around us could still hear.

We were always trying to get away from each other, those days.

So we made the speakers smaller and stuffed them up into our ear-canals, so we could have it roaring loud and personal, just for ourselves. And these little ear-canal speakers were cheap. We could buy a pair for around ten dollars, which most of us could earn in an hour or two, working even the most menial of jobs.

But putting the music aside for a second, consider what the rest of the world sounded like, in America, at the turn of the century. We had a little house that had stood for 300 years. It was built along a main highway, in its day. Its timbers were hewn and raised to the sound of foot-falls and horse-hooves. But when it finally crumbled it was to the whisper of electric cars, the constant rumble of gas burning engines, the throaty growl of diesel trucks. It was a loud place to live. When the traffic backed up out front, it was like a pride of lions purring, all at once. When the traffic flowed smoothly, conversations would have to stop and resume to the whim of the vehicles flying past, vehicles that moved more miles in an hour than you or I could ride in a single day.

Most of us didn't live so close to major roads, of course. But the highways were everywhere. The most remote and isolated of us would still hear them, like a constant, distant sigh. I remember hiking in the mountains, once, and descending after a long day's walk into the crater occupied by an alpine lake. I think the hours we sat there were the only hours in my life where I could not hear any traffic. A single jet passed overhead, trailing it's contrail, too high up even to be heard.

That kind of silence was a treat, a symphony. I remember thinking, a person could become a connoisseur of such silences. The silence of the mountains, the silence of the desert, the silence of the forest. That kind of silence was precious and rare.

What a shock it was, then, when the oil ran out and the engines stopped running, and today’s silence descended, gradually, everywhere. What a surprise to hear it every day, and not even have to travel for it. But it was a cruel consolation, given the hardships we faced.

I say gradual, of course, because the gunfire went on for a bit after the cars stopped. But that was sporadic and eventually it, too, would cease—to make room for quieter violence.

How strange this must sound to you, with your carefully preserved, hand-cranked record players, as you dance at the hall to music my grandparents danced to. Anything as loud as a car or a plane is an alarm, a surprise. And music, music is a treat. There are no digital recordings of the best singers to ever sing—or rather there are, but we haven’t the machines to play them. Pianos only as good as the people who play them, guitars only sing at the hands of their players.

For the most part, that’s enough. I understand our county has a symphony again. Over eighty musicians, playing at once, well practiced and in tune. If you can afford to hear them, do. I doubt you will ever forget it.

And to think, for a hundred years there, we could listen to that sound any time we wanted to. We could turn it up and play it again and again, until we went deaf from it. Even now, I wish that I had listened to more.

But you will forgive an old man his regrets, I hope.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Nymex, Insider Trading, and Peak Oil

It would be hard to find a more readable account of the financial aspect of our present oil crisis than The Asylum by Leah Goodman.  It’s especially interesting (and a little surreal) to read this while sitting in front of newspaper headlines about the unfolding crises in the Middle East, Oil Prices spiking over $100 a barrel again, and a stock market that’s starting to shudder in what, we can only hope, won’t be a repeat of the financial earthquakes of 2008.

Futures trading has long seemed so obscure as to be almost magical to me. Why would the producers of goods allow their stuff to be traded so wildly and unpredictably? Why not just slap a price tag on their oil, their corn, their pork-bellies—whatever—and sell it to a willing buyer, charging what the market will bear?

Goodman does a good job explaining the basic concepts here. Sellers use a futures market because it guarantees them a price for their goods at a future date, and consumers (be they individuals or businesses) can plan their future operations knowing what they’re going to be paying as well. And then if there are changes to the value of stuff in the mean-time, the traders are there to absorb the risk—taking the hit or pocketing the profit depending on what happens during that time.

There’s a conflict here between the producers/consumers who want stability to plan their business, and the traders who want volatility so they can take their cut. This conflict is a good thing. It’s supposed to keep the system in balance. That’s why there’s federal regulations (supposedly provided by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, or CFTC) that are supposed to limit volatility, placing caps on price swings and the like.

What Goodman shows is how little the CFTC has done in performance of their role. Regulatory chairmen leave their positions within the government to head the very exchange they were supposed to be regulating, calling up their old cronies when opportunities to profit present themselves. The conflicts of interest are staggering, and they led to the Enron loophole (which I’d vaguely heard about) and the London and Dubai loopholes (which were new to me) and which played a huge part in the downfall of Lehman Brothers, the troubles with other major bangs which we all ended up bailing out, and the financial bubbles that seem to keep popping with increasing frequency in the 21st century.

nymexThere’s a colorful cast of characters here, and more action than you’d expect from such a dry subject. Cross-dressing, hookers, fist-fights, drugs and booze on the trading floor; class warfare among millionaires; politicking and intimidation and death threats. Goodman also does a nice job tracing the history Nymex, the New York Mercantile exchange from its roots in agriculture (mostly potatoes) into the powerhouse that controlled the most important resource ever traded on our planet, all the way to its purchase by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the changes that hit its players as they went from trading in the pits of the trading floor to the computer screen.

Goodman herself seems to be awfully chummy with some of the story’s players. Even as she reveals their most salacious and rapacious dealings, she shows them a great deal of respect—even affection. She’s reported on these guys for years, attended their conferences and functions and dinners. And in the acknowledgements she thanks them for sharing details that had to be uncomfortable. “To know you was a privilege….Your humor and sagacity transcend your extreme-capitalist alter egos,” she writes. All this after spending 400 pages detailing how they stole from their customers, taxpayers, consumers, and their own market. The assumption being, I suppose, that any one of us might have behaved the same way, if given the same opportunities.

I suppose she wouldn’t have gotten such a good story if she hadn’t been friends with these guys. But her admiration tastes a little funny at the end of a book about insider trading.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Some Good News About Books

McSweeny’s has a series of articles up on why the rumors about the death of books have been over-exaggerated, with pages about the state of libraries, publishing, and global literacy.

This is nice to hear. I’ve been having, for the past couple of years, mixed feelings about the trajectory of the printed word. Electronic readers finally seduced me with their siren song. I’ve got a Barnes and Noble Nook and spend at least an hour with it each day.  Before that, I’d turned my little Asus 701 into an e-reader for catching up on free classics from Project Gutenberg and Manybooks. What times we live in, that the whole of the Western Canon is available for download in seconds, for free.

The old assertion that “People aren’t going to read books from a screen,” fell by the wayside as soon as screens got portable and crisp enough. And then it’s amazing how quickly books change from an object of desire—something we want to handle and collect and accumulate—to something bulky and inconvenient. I’ll find myself looking at a beautiful hardcover in the bargain bin, a book I actually intend to read, sitting there available for just six dollars. And I’ll check my Nook and see that the e-book version is $11.99. This should be an easy decision. On the one hand, an elegant physical product, something I can write in and loan out or pass on or even sell. On the other, and for twice as much: the license to an ephemeral digital file that winks out when the power goes off. But I’m struck by how damn heavy the book is, and how much space it’s going to take up in my house, and how much energy it’ll take to pack up and move it the next time we re-locate.

It’s a bit hypocritical, I suppose, to bemoan the loss of our independent bookstores and the shrinking inventories of our chains, and then refuse to pay even six dollars for an object that, one year ago, retailed for five times that. And it’s petty of me, perhaps, to get irritated with publishers who don’t make the stories I want to read available in electronic form. (I’m looking at you, Europa Editions. I get that you use lovely cover art and high quality paper. But I want to read your stuff, not hang it on my wall. And what’s with you, Haikasoru? Kindle and Apple Bookstore versions only? I’m eager to exchange my pretend electronic money for your pretend electronic content. Japanese culture is supposed to feel cutting edge. So get cutting, already!)

In fact, as I look around at the books that I do have, it’s with designs of selling them, or giving them to friends, or donating them to the library. I realize that I have bought, perhaps, six new books in the past five years. (The Boston Public Library was my favorite place for a couple years, there, and then along came the electronic readers.) The last three times we moved, our library shrunk with each trip.

And then, sometimes, it hits me. Ten, twenty years down the line, I’m really going to miss books. Especially once the effects of Peak Oil set in, and cheap electronic gadgets and the power to run them are a thing of the past.

It’s a matter of both common sense and experience that hard drives and digital storage will fail. That’s fine, when storage is cheap. We backup our data, and copy information from old storage to new. I just bought a one terabyte hard drive for seventy dollars, popped it into a computer that came from the dump, loaded it with everything digital I’ve done during my entire life, and used less than a quarter of the space. When it fills up and wears out in a couple of years, I’ll buy a four terabyte drive and backup onto that.

A few years after that, who knows? Chinese factories might be producing petabyte drives by then, if the minerals and the energy needed to extract them are available. That in itself is a big if. Then, will our dollars be strong enough to pay for them? But will they be shipped around the world on 400 meter long diesel powered container ships that burn 1,660 gallons of heavy fuel oil per hour? Will they be doing this when oil costs $200 or $300 a barrel?

What, in short, is going to happen to our digitized culture when the machines that display and share it become precious and irreplaceable? What is going to happen to culture in general if so much of it is digitized right at the end of the era of cheap energy?

This is what keeps me from unloading my paper library—or at least those volumes which are worth saving and reading again. And it’s what makes me happy to know that 752 million books were sold in 2010, just a little off from the 2009 peak of 777 million. It’s nice to know that those books are still out there, getting printed and purchased. We might have a use for them again.

Even if it’s not me who’s buying them.