Thursday, October 29, 2009

You're probably wondering why I'm (not) here!

I haven't stopped posting. I've simply moved to what I believe is a better location:

Check out my most recent postings there! I'll be looking for ya!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I sure miss Ma Bell...

Photo Creative Commons 2009 The Fuddler.
Non-comm, attrib, no derivs.

Last week, I found an mid-1970's-vintage desk telephone. It was sitting out at the curb next to boxes of trash, and an old steel record caddy full of 45 RPM records (which I also glommed). Needless to say, it needed cleaning, and I did a thorough job (didn't the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy remind us of the importance of telephone sanitation?). I lightly spritzed some contact cleaner into the phone's base cord and handset cord jacks as well as the modular jack on the receiver. Half an hour and a new base cord later, I was ready to test it. I connected the base cord to the phone, then plugged it into the wall jack. I picked up the receiver and heard the dial tone. Good sign. I called up a friend, who was kind of blown away by the fact that I was calling her on a 31-year-old phone!

As you can see from the photo, this relic of the disco era has no controls other than its keypad. No redial, no mute, no LCD screen counting off the number of minutes I've been talking, just the numbers 0 thru 9 and the usual star and pound signs. How lovely it feels to press those keys which give when you press them, so luxurious compared to dialing the keys of modern phones, which make you feel as though you were stabbing your fingertips into the wall or the desk on which the phone rests. It's solid too. Your cat will not be able to knock this baby off the table, unless your cat's an ocelot or a leopard. When it rings, there's no missing or mistaking it, for under that sleek black plastic enclosure reside two 2-inch-diameter bowl-shaped brass bells. Not a ringer, not a ringtone, bells, which are struck by a vibrating electric hammer when someone calls. They're loud too!

The phone's receiver is primitive by today's standards. The technology of its carbon-button microphone capsule and dynamic earphone is almost a century old. Yet, people that I called had no problem hearing and understanding me. I heard them loud and clear too, even the ones using cell phones with speakerphones. What does that say about today's high-tech digital cell phone system over which some conversations simply cannot be heard clearly, period?

This simple, cleanly-designed, almost-indestructible device from a bygone era was the industry standard for telephones until the breakup of the old Bell System in 1984. It was purpose-built for just one thing – making and answering telephone calls, something which it did without fail. No touch-screen, no camera, no MP3 player, no video games, nothing but an unfailingly dependable communication device. These phones were built to be rented to subscribers for decades, and their build-quality shows it (if General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had borrowed The Bell System's playbook, seeing a Toyota, Subaru or BMW's on the road would be a curiosity rather than commonplace). Compare that with the pocket-sized toys of today which are designed to be obsoleted in a few years by newer models with more gee-whiz features and ever-more-annoying ringtones.

Call me a Luddite if you want, but I'm starting to take a shine to this piece of old school technology! I might never break out my cell phone again!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Deal with it.

About 8 summers ago, I rode up an ancient, hilly two-lane road in rural upstate New York with my friend Terry., who was searching for the grave of one of her 19th-century ancestors. We pulled off the road next to a cemetery in the middle of no place in particular, which couldn't have contained more than 20 or 30 graves. It was nestled at the forked junction of two roads which were bordered primarily by woods. She was jubilant when she found the grave of one of her distant relatives. As we were leaving the cemetery I happened to notice an inscription on one of the gravestones. I don't remember exactly how the flowery Victorian verse read, but the upshot was this:

Where you are now is where I once was.

Where I am now is where you're eventually going to be.

Deal with it!

The way many of us deal with the whack upside the head which is the realization of our own mortality is to resolve to be remembered, to live on in some form. We build actual or symbolic monuments to ourselves. We try to be famous, or at least conspicuously successful. We let funeral directors talk us into arrangements to purchase monuments worthy of a Civil War general for when the Grim Reaper finally comes knocking on our door. Those of us with millions to spare donate buildings named after ourselves to universities whose students will never know or care who we were, or set up endowments for organizations devoted to our promoting our hobbies, attacking our pet peeves or nurturing causes close to our hearts.

There's nothing wrong with respecting yourself enough to want a dignified exit. Giving money to organizations which support your world views is the sincerest way of backing those views up. But as for being remembered after you pass, my own view on the whole matter is this: if you want to be remembered after you're gone, don't try to do it by plopping a great stone monument with your name on it over your grave. Do you know how many people drive right past those things every single day without giving them a second glance or thought? No, if you want to be remembered, leave a legacy. The late composer/performer Frank Zappa remarked, shortly before his own untimely death, that he had no intention of making any extraordinary effort to commemorate himself as many politicians and celebrities routinely do (his grave isn't even marked). He didn't have to. His music will doubtlessly be studied and enjoyed by scholars and music lovers for many years to come.

To further clarify my point, how many of you have ever heard of Waldo Semon? Not many, right? Well, it just so happens that in 1926, Mr. Semon perfected a material called polyvinyl chloride, often simply called vinyl. I'd never heard of Mr. Semon until very recently but DJ's and “crate diggers” the world over (like yours truly) have him to thank. Even though vinyl is no longer used as extensively as it once was as a medium for recorded music, it made high-fidelity sound recording and marketing practical. There would probably be no CD's, MP3's or FLAC files if not for Mr. Semon's invention.

Frankly, if the only legacy that you leave behind after you're gone is the circle of friends, lovers and relatives who shed tears at your funeral, you're doing pretty well.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Be altitude...

James May, emcee of the BBC's venerable Top Gear music program, gets high, I mean, relly high, in a U-2 spy plane.

You really need to watch this in full-screen mode for maximum effect.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Remembering America's Most Trusted Newsman

My father called him “Mister Disease”. He wasn't slagging on America's most trusted news man, he was just cracking a joke. In his mother tongue, German, the word “krankheit”, pronounced the same way as Walter Cronkite's surname, meant ill health or disease.

The world of news reporting was a lot less sick than it is today when Walter Cronkite held forth on the CBS Evening News each weekday at about the time most of us were eating dinner. There was more emphasis on hard news and news analysis, and even though there has always been a spin factor in news, it seemed to be much less prominent at least on Mr. Cronkite's turf. His competitors, NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, had an excellent daily news program which ran for a full 90 minutes. It too featured hard news and news analysis. Its theme music was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which gives you a very good idea of how highly network executives thought of their viewers.

Today, the only extended-length daily news programs left in America are National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Weekend Edition and All Things Considered. Television news, once an intellectual oasis in the vast wasteland that was and is commercial TV, is now just more “entertainment” programming. “All-news” channels repeat the same 20 minutes' worth of headlines over and over again, taking little time for covering details or doing in-depth analysis. The emphasis is now on celebrity gossip, hot-button political issues and high-profile disasters. AM radio is chockablock with cookie-cutter programming by loudmouths who appeal to the basest emotions of a frustrated working class with inflammatory rhetoric. One fair and balanced TV network is so disdainful of fact and of viewpoints other than its own that it's ended up becoming the biggest propaganda outlet since the Soviet house organ, Radio Moscow went off the air. Newspapers are folding one after the other. Pundits blame TV and the Internet, but their unceasing rah-rah drumbeat of blind support for the Bush administration's misadventures is said to be another factor which turned off many now-former newspaper readers.

Walter Cronkite lived to see and report on the assassination of a U.S. President, the resignation-in-disgrace of another, man's first landing on the moon, the worst commercial nuclear accident in our history and the Cuban Missile Crisis which almost plunged us into World War III. And he lived to see the profession he devoted his life to, the one which our nation's founders considered vital to the functioning of a free society, mutate into a cheapened, weakened and thoroughly co-opted shadow of its former self.

And that, as the man used to say every evening, is the way it is.

Friday, July 24, 2009

We interrupt this blog for a public service announcement

From Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator from New York via The Huffington Post:

There is a historic effort underway in Washington right now to finally address the health care crisis in this country, and I need your help.

As I've written over at DailyKos and as I told Howard Dean last week, I believe that a robust not-for-profit public option must be a part of the health care reform package Congress passes this year. I feel that opening up a Medicare For All type system to everyone would lower costs and increase efficiency by injecting some much needed competition into the market. ...

Read the entire article here.

In other news, a bulletin from Bill Maher.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

GM, Mark of Failure

My first car was a 1968 Oldsmobile Delta 88. Rocket-455 V-8 engine (bigger than the one in a Hummer H3). 10 MPG city, 15 highway. (Cost of a gallon of gasoline when I had the car – about US$0.89). The car has a special place in my memory not only for that reason, but because it was my grandmother's car. Shortly after she'd bought it, she took me on its maiden voyage. We took a road trip, just her and I, to Quebec City. I was in charge of reading maps. I sucked at it. Instead of hitting the brand-new, high-speed four-laner, I mistakenly guided us to slower but much more scenic back roads, some of which ran parallel to the new highway. We stayed at the historic Chateau Frontenac. We walked around the charming old section of the town. I tasted Veal Cordon Bleu (the real deal) for the first time. I watched an episode of Lost In Space which had been dubbed in French. Nothing like watching Dr. Smith cower before an alien-possessed Will Robinson and grovel for his life in a language which I would not study until I began high school that fall.

My grandmother kept the car until the late 70's when my parents drove it up from Florida. My younger brother got it a few years later. He drove it until the mid-1980's, when it was handed down to me. It had its issues, as you would expect with a four-owner car, everything from occasional funny noises at certain speeds to refusing to start on winter mornings without radical intervention when the temperature went below freezing (read:squirting starting fluid into its carburetor and begging jump starts from passers-by). Nonetheless, for a car its age, it delivered stellar performance. Despite worn springs it had the rock-steady ride of the massive cars of that era. It got worse mileage than a modern SUV, but it had the kind of styling and grace that today's butt-ugly iron-box-on-wheels monstrosities don't. It was easy to fix, which was a good thing because it needed a lot of fixing. Its cracked and crazed paint looked like soil after a long drought but the body was thick steel; fender rot didn't set in until very late in the game. It looked beat-up on the inside, bit it was comfortable. Decrepit though it was, it accelerated on a nanosecond's notice. Passing cars was a piece of cake. It laughed at steep uphill grades. It met an untimely demise in 1991 when, while parked on the street, it was crashed into by someone driving another Oldsmobile - same model, same color, and exactly 10 years newer than my car (cue music: theme from Twilight Zone).

They definitely don't make 'em like they used to.

They can't make 'em like they used to. Economic realities, technological advances, safety requirements and fuel-efficiency laws long ago sent the classic 1960's road-whale the way of the rumble seat and the 8-track tape player. They won't make 'em like they used to. The taken-for-granted reliability of American cars started going downhill in the 1970's. “Buy American” has a nice ring to it. Expensive monthly repairs and frequent product recalls don't. Outsourcing to slave-wage nations and further aggravated the situation.

So now, the company which symbolized American industry for so many years - no, decades - which built my first car, which powered an economy and changed peoples' travel habits forever, is in bankruptcy.

So who's to blame? The Japanese? Well yes, but not for the reasons you might think. They simply made cars with far better reliability than Detroit. Detroit lobbied congress to have tariffs placed on import vehicles. This, they thought, would cement their place in the U.S. Car market. Except that people continued to prefer the Japanese and European cars, even with the stiff tariffs. That should have been a wake up call for GM, Chrysler and Ford, but they apparently chose to ignore it. The imperious, egotistical and stunningly ignorant businessmen who ran the American auto industry into the ditch brought this situation upon not only themselves but all Americans.

Now our government is in the car business whether we like it or not. And I don't think I do. Trouble is, if we need tanks, troop carriers and engines for aircraft carriers, we can't exactly outsource that. The reason we won the second world war so handily is because our industries were up to the task. So the too-big-to-fail GM gets bailed out and Chrysler gets bailed out, for a second time, with taxpayer dollars. This despite years of both firms exporting American jobs to Mexico, China or anyplace else where people work for a daily wage that would get you an order of fast-food French fries here (doubtlessly served up by former autoworkers). The smaller businesses which have gone under or have laid off thousands of family breadwinners never get that kind of treatment. The poor slobs who have been watching their unemployment benefits or lifetime welfare benefit quota get used up don't get that kind of treatment.

To president Obama's credit, he didn't just unconditionally toss cash at these corporate behemoths as the previous administration had a habit of doing. But it still burns my grits that these few big companies in a few towns get a bailout while small business operators watch their livelihoods dry up and blow away.