30 January 2009

Technology and Me

Recently, someone said to me, "When I was in grad school, there was no Internet, that's how old I am." Well, when I was in grad school, the Internet existed, but it didn't do very much. "I had to type my dissertation on special paper." I printed my thesis out using a dot-matrix printer.

In 1981, I was 16 years old, and still writing term papers out by hand. Even at Queens College, most of my instructors allowed assignments to be handwritten. When I started working for temp agencies that year, I was limited to straight receptionist and filing jobs because I was utterly hopeless with a typewriter. After a few years at SUNY-Binghamton, though, I became pretty proficient with my Smith-Corona--so much so that I periodically had to take it into a repair shop to get key covers replaced--(I was more of a POUND typist than a TOUCH typist--still am).

I remember browsing Macy's while I was in college. Apple computers were on display, selling for around $2,000, maybe even more. They looked so cute! Those little screens. That scary ESCAPE key (there were signs, as I recall, that said "PLEASE DON'T PRESS ESCAPE!") Totally out of my range, but I liked daydreaming about them. Instead of a computer, for graduating college I got an electronic typewriter with a 3K memory. If I remember right, it was about $500. I thought it was fabulous. I'd type into the memory (watching my words scroll across the 2-inch LCD screen) and then load a piece of paper, press a key, and watch the typewriter bang out the page.


In 1986, I bought my first PC for $800. It was an XT-compatible custom-built by a professor and contained two 5.25" floppy drives and no hard drive. When you wanted to use your computer, you put a DOS boot disk in the top floppy drive (A:) and waited for about 10 minutes for the system to be ready. Then you took out the boot disk and put in a disk containing a software program--say, IBM Writing Assistant, which let you create documents. You would type a command to start the software (say, write). Then you would type your document. When you wanted to save it, you would put a formatted data disk in the bottom floppy drive (B:). Saving your file would take about a minute, and the computer would make grinding noises.

A few years later, I realized I needed a hard drive. I sent away for one from an electronics store in Brooklyn and installed it myself. I thought I remembered that hard drive was 20 MB, but as I research what that would have cost in 1989, I realize that I could never have afforded so much storage. Maybe 10? Whatever the case, it was fabulous not needing to put a disk in the drive to boot up, and I remember thinking there was no way I'd ever need more.


At work, I went from a typewriter to a Wang word processor, which was connected to a letter-quality printer that actually typed out the documents. There was no email. I typed out memos on the word processor, printed them out, and delivered them by hand or put them in envelopes and sent them by mail. By 1991, my business unit had a single IBM 286, loaded with Microsoft Windows, which we all shared.

Then we moved to Seattle to go back to school, and used our student loans to replace my old PC-XT with a 386. It seemed so slick! The top floppy drive (A:) was for a 3.5" disk; the bottom was for a 5.25" disk. It came with a modem that promised fast connections and we used it to access the Internet, such as it was in the early 1990s. Text and UNIX-based, more interesting for the fact that it existed at all than for what you could actually do with it.

It was in Seattle that I bought my first laptop. It was reconditioned, so I was able to get it for less than $1000, which I considered a coup. I loved the novelty of it. I could write at the local cafe.

It was also in Seattle that my conversion from (text-based) WordPerfect to (GUI-based) Word happened. In a Microsoft town, there was really no other possible outcome. I still missed the "old" WordPerfect for a long time, though--the WordPerfect for Windows never caught on with me.

The World Wide Web was starting to make the Internet more interesting. But at the company where I worked (1993-1995), technology managers doubted the utility of providing employees with access to the Internet. They also doubted the benefit of the company investing in its own website.

They have a pretty slick site now
, though.

Since leaving school, we have changed computers every few years. Each time we get a new one, it seems improbable that we should ever need more (speed, storage, functionality), but software continues to increase in complexity as the dual costs of storage and memory continue to diminish. Our entire music collection (more than 500 CDs) is on a hard drive now, and I look forward to the day that we'll be able to store our DVD library on disk, too.

From a world in which a two-hour download of the text of a single newspaper was considered a marvel, to a world in which such access is nearly instantaneous, and in which I can ask my computer virtually any question and get a pertinent answer, in fewer than 30 years.

I can't even remember how I did some things before I did them electronically. I guess before there were online options, I used to look up airlines in the phonebook and how much it would cost for a ticket or go visit a travel agent. And we would mail away to government tourist bureaus to get information on what to do in faraway places (like Nova Scotia, where we took a vacation in 1999). Of course, before Mapquest, we had maps.

Made out of paper. Really.

For big trips, we would call up the Automobile Association of America and ask for a Triptik to be drawn up.

And when we wanted to buy things, we had to go to stores. In person. Every time.

Crazy, huh?

27 January 2009

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology

This odd little book by Lawrence Wechsler celebrates the odd little Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) in Los Angeles. Really, the book celebrates wonder itself.

I have not been to the MJT, but this book has certainly put it on the itinerary of my next trip to LA. Presenting itself as a natural history museum, the MJT features meticulously detailed exhibits that may or may not pertain to "real" phenomena. The pronged ant of the title, for example, may be unknown to science under the name Megolaponera Foetens but, as Wechsler discovers, its odd life history is perfectly plausible: a large ant, and the only one that produces a cry audible to humans, normally forages on the forest floor; however, after ingesting the spore of a fungus, it climbs upward and then waits to die as the fungus consumes its body from the inside, finally generating a spike about an inch long from the place where the ant's head was, which distributes spores downward, to be breathed by other Megolaponera Foetens.

The book (and, presumably, the MJT) makes you think about the purpose of museums, and whether the relative "truth" of things that astonish you matters.

(Since reality routinely outdoes what we can imagine, why quibble?)

As Robert Louis Stevenson has pointed out:

The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings

A Dangerous Friend

There are not many writers as good as Ward Just. I can think of just a few--the others are Robert Stone and Graham Greene--who manage to write persuasively and compellingly about politics and war without feeling like a newspaper or like pulp. But where Stone and Greene mainly focus on outsiders of one kind or another, Just writes from the perspective of ostensible insiders; in this case, a true believer who comes to realize the flimsiness of the vision in which he put his faith.

A Dangerous Friend takes place early in our Vietnam adventure. It shares with The Quiet American a view of American preoccupations and methods as dangerously naive and tragically ignorant. In a way it is a small story, dealing with a single awful event in a war sadly full of even worse atrocities, but the reader can't help but feel its reverberations--it becomes a prism for looking back at the entire conflict and particularly our role in it.

Beautifully done, although once I started I was anxious to be finished--I kept telling people, "It's good, but it's not timely." At the beginning of a new administration in which I place a great deal of hope, it's hard to read about so much failure.

23 January 2009

Memory Mambo

This novel by Achy Objeas tells the story of a young Cuban-American lesbian on Chicago's west side. It's a decent read, but it's the kind of book that promises revelations that don't arrive--ultimately not entirely convincing.

22 January 2009

Today's GOP: Stagnation You Can Believe In

Republican legislators are delaying the confirmation of Eric Holder as Attorney General because they are worried that he will prosecute U.S. agents for torture.

(They have expressed no particular concern about U.S. agents engaging in torture.)

Other legislators are delaying the confirmation of environmental nominees Lisa Jackson and Nancy Sutley reportedly as part of a strategy to derail the appointment of Carol Browner to the newly created Climate/Energy czar cabinet position and delay/weaken action against global warming.

Now, I hear they're objecting to Obama's new ethics rules.

Does the GOP think this is the way to win elections? As the pro-torture, anti-environment, anti-ethics party?

Good luck with that, GOP.

15 January 2009

What I Loved

Visiting friends recently recommended this novel by Siri Hustvedt. I started reading it before I was done with the Houdini book and stayed up till three in the morning the other night to finish it.

So that tells you something about how much I liked it.

I never read anything by Siri Hustvedt before, but this novel makes me want to read more. Contemporary fiction is not often so learned. Richard Powers is the only other author I can think of right now who manages to convey such fierce intelligence and rapacious curiosity and knowledge about the world in invented characters.

The invented characters in this novel include an artist, a professor of art history, a Henry James scholar, and a sort of cultural critic. The novel contains friendships, love stories, joys, griefs, sane people, crazy people, and even a murder.

What makes a novel great?

I am not sure, but I know that this is a great novel.

Revolutionary Road

We went to see this movie last weekend. I had read mixed reviews, and knew it was likely to be very sad, so it was not on the top of my list for a long time, but last week I re-saw Road to Perdition on DVD, which reminded me that I love Sam Mendes' movies, regardless of how sad they are, and finally at the ticket counter I asked the girl "we're trying to decide between Revolutionary Road and Slumdog Millionaire. What's your vote?" And she said "I'm a big fan of Revolutionary Road." Which surprised but delighted me, and that was that.

In the event, it was fully as good as I hoped and expected. Every scene was beautiful. About halfway through I had to pee, but I waited because I didn't want to miss a moment. Kate Winslet was astonishing. Her face is a wonder--you can read it like a book. Leonardo DiCaprio was fine, but he looked about 12. I didn't understand why they didn't do a better job of aging him. He doesn't always look like such a kid in movies.

Terribly sad, of course, but good-sad, not pointless-sad.

The Way We Were

I'm a sucker for sentimental tearjerkers, so I recently seized the opportunity to buy this on DVD for cheap. Watching it last night, for the first time in years, I was surprised to find that it wasn't as sad as I remembered.

Or else I don't cry as easily.

The movie, which stars Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, and is directed by Sydney Pollack, is a love story between Katie, a Jewish girl (Katie) with a social conscience, and Hubbell, a goy prince with (apparently) none. They meet in college, where he is a celebrated jock with surprising depths, demonstrated in the short-story class they take together. Katie wants desperately to be a writer, but apparently lacks the talent. Instead, she pals around with communists and tries to organize the student body against Franco.

They don't get together in college--Hubbell is paired with the prettiest girl you can imagine (Lois Chiles)--but there are a few moments that spark a mutual attraction. They meet years later and begin an exciting affair, which is periodically troubled by Katie's concern about Hubbell's lack of seriousness (particularly as evidenced by the shallowness of his friends) and Hubbell's concern about Katie's inability to let well enough alone. Hubbell tries leaving Katie, but she won't let him go. They get married, go to Hollywood (Hubbell's now a screenwriter), and are on the cusp of having a child together when crusades against reds in Hollywood begin, and Katie of course entangles herself in political battles. Meanwhile, Hubbell is under tremendous pressure at the studio to be more of a team player, while Katie has been encouraging him to move to Paris with her and finish his second novel. Finally, they split up.

Years later, they meet by chance in New York. They're involved with other people now. Clearly, they haven't been in touch, and Hubbell hasn't seen his child. Just as clearly, they're as attracted to each other as ever. They wish each other well and go on with their separate lives.

Anyhow, very enjoyable movie--Sydney Pollack's work is pretty consistently entertaining and you can hardly go wrong with the young Streisand and Redford. The emotional sincerity of the movie somehow overcomes the cloyingness of the theme music, which has of course been done to death in the past 30-plus years.

Among the extras on the DVD is a fairly substantial "making of" documentary, featuring interviews with writer Arthur Laurents, director Sydney Pollack, and star Barbra Streisand. The documentary features deleted scenes that apparently Streisand and Laurents still blame Pollack for cutting. The scenes have a lot of political content. Pollack notes that one preview (with the political scenes) was a dud, the other (without the scenes) was a hit.

Both Streisand and Laurents talked about how you can't possibly understand why the two characters split up without those scenes. Streisand says the viewer ends up thinking it's because of Hubbell's one-night stand with an old girlfriend; Laurents says the climax is missing from the movie and the viewers are just too dumb to notice.

What the star and writer don't seem to notice is that the movie traces a classic story of lovers who are strongly attracted but ultimately incompatible. Streisand seems to think they parted because if they had stayed together, Katie's political past would have destroyed Hubbell's Hollywood career. Laurents thinks two scenes that made this explicit were the missing crux of the movie.

On the contrary, these scenes would've made the movie trivial, because, finally, politics is trivial, at least in the world of movie romance. If it was just politics, why not get back together when the politics had changed? But at the end, when the politics had changed, Hubbell says to Katie, "I can't. I can't come for a drink," and Katie nods and understands, and they hug, and that's that.

We talk about opposites attracting, and the glib assumption is that opposites, once attracted, can also live together. But it is not easy to make the adjustments necessary to accommodate a person who is very different from you. This reality underlies The Way We Were and makes it poignant. That's why the plot details don't matter, and the "missing" scenes don't feel missing at all.

13 January 2009

The Secret Life of Houdini

I have been carrying this heavy book around for weeks, through a holiday trip to Germany and on bus rides downtown. It's rather slow going, but the other night I finally finished it. An interesting account of the life of a household name who seems too iconic to be real. The biography succeeds on evoking a real person, with real passions and real flaws, but it doesn't really succeed in making Houdini seem like a whole person. We feel we are getting the results of thorough research; the synthesis of that research is less satisfying.

For example, a scene is recreated between Houdini and a woman not his wife. The scene carries clear implications of an affair. Following this construction, with its implications, the authors note, "we will never know..." if the affair occurred. There are a lot of similar instances, where research points to possibilities the authors highlight but won't completely commit to. The result is a biography where you feel you're repeatedly led down the garden path and then left to make your way back to the standard narrative on your own.

Ultimately, it leaves you wondering about the point of the biography. Ostensibly, it contains revelations about Houdini's romantic entanglements, his relations with the U.S. Secret Service and spy and police organizations throughout the world, and about the orchestration of his unexpected death by key members of the Spiritualist movement (folks who use seances to consult with spirits) who he had spent many years trying to expose. But the revelations are all--or mostly--heavily qualified, which tends to detract from their value.

In the end, the book is of great interest for people already curious about Houdini--it certainly contains a wealth of detail. But I doubt it will hold other readers.

07 January 2009

Milwaukee Treat

For Victor's birthday, we took a train up to Milwaukee, and visited the Milwaukee Museum of Art. We were so delighted with the place, and so sure we'd return, that we bought a membership.

Aside from the gorgeous building, MAM has a very impressive and eclectic collection, spanning decorative arts, ancient artifacts, and classical, modern, and contemporary works. Recommending we visit, our friends particularly praised the soon-to-close Act/React installation and the ongoing Sensory Overload exhibit, which also features relatively recent work. Both of these exhibits were interesting and impressive, but we found ourselves struck by the strength of the MAM's permanent collection as well as less flashy exhibits such as the naturalist art of Mark Catesby and his influence on subsequent artists including Audubon, and a small selection of the work of JoAnna Poehlmann, which I found tremendously charming. Eager to see more work by this artist.

06 January 2009

Hooded Merganser in Belmont Harbor

Out walking yesterday afternoon (beautiful, sunny, cold day), I saw some black and white ducks in the distance. Wasn't sure what I was looking at. Scaups? Buffleheads? Goldeneyes?

My vision isn't what it was.

Sat on a handy bench, and after several minutes my patience was rewarded. That telltale white crest behind the eye. At least one of the ducks was a hooded merganser.

Wintering ducks are a terrific compensation for the brutality of this season in Chicago.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

This movie is both funny and dirty, as you would expect; it is also sweet, as you might not. Enjoyable, but by the end doesn't hang together all that well. Kevin Smith copying Judd Apatow copying Kevin Smith--something gets lost in translation.

Still, it's entertaining enough.

05 January 2009

Mata Ortiz Ceramics @ the Field Museum

A couple of years ago, the Art Institute of Chicago presented a fantastic exhibit of Casas Grandes pottery--beautiful stuff from more than 500 years ago, unearthed in Northern Mexico.

Until the end of next week, the Field Museum is hosting a small show of Mata Ortiz ceramics--a newer pottery tradition very much inspired by the Casas Grandes example.

Highly recommended, if you can find a moment to get out there.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

I had been avoiding this Romanian movie for a long time. Of course I had heard all the acclaim, but it is hard to want to see a movie about a young woman seeking an illegal abortion.

So we missed it in the movie theaters, but it was added to our Netflix list. It arrived a few weeks ago, and we delayed and delayed. When, finally, we put it in the machine, we found it was unwatchable. Literally. No picture, no nothing.

Last week the replacement arrived. Last night we watched it, and for the first half hour or more, I felt I'd been right: who wants to see such a thing? But, by the end, I felt it was one of the best portraits of a certain kind of friendship that I'd ever seen. It's an interesting movie because the abortion turns out to be its thematic centerpiece but not its emotional centerpiece. Other urgencies intervene.

It remains quite a grim movie, but not in the way you expect.

04 January 2009

Richard III

I studied Richard III in high school (where it made an indelible impression), but never saw a performance of it. This rendition, starring Ian McKellen (Gandalf!) certainly does justice to my memory of the play. The thematic implications of recasting the story in an alternative, fascist 30s England--with Richard a Hitler-ish, charismatic dictator who brooks not an iota of dissent--are pretty interesting. Richard's seduction of individuals can be seen as a demagogue's seduction of the masses, and the patterns of his rhetoric and propaganda (turning his victims into oppressors and using his own violence as a pretext for reprisals against others).

Even more striking, though, are the ways the director leverages the timeshift to enlarge his cinematic storytelling--this is a Shakespeare story that is only minimally play-like. Richard's first soliloquy ("Now is the winter of our discontent...", for example, starts as a speech to the assembled company, presumably broadcast to the populace. Tanks, gasmasks, trains, early aircraft, drug addiction, and fur collars all do their part in the storytelling.

My only quibble with the movie is McKellen's rather unsubtle portrayal of Richard. Sure, this is a bad guy, but he even falls to his death with an evil cackle. (I think this is a matter for the director, Richard Loncraine, as well.) You see why people would be afraid of Richard, but it is hard to see how they would be much fooled by him.

Still, very much worth watching, and, further, makes me want to reread the play.