Dysinventions

I Wish Touchscreen Keyboards Could Be Uninvented

I Wish Touchscreen Keyboards Could Be Uninvented

There are wonderful inventions that make things easy for people. Then there are what I call dysinventions, or bad inventions, that while seeming to advance technology actually represent a step backward. One prominent example is the touchscreen keyboard. I could see the thought forming in the inventor’s mind: “Why not get rid of the clunky keyboard and just have people hit letters on a keyboard that appears on the screen?”

Well now, that’s just ducky for texting, twittering, and other forms of second-tier communications; but I could not enter this blog on such a quasi-keyboard. Let’s take yesterday’s blog, for example. I would have to type the name of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull without the umlaut over the “o”. Eyjafjallajokull would probably look okay to most people, but it is wrong to me; and I insist on absolute correctness. To get the letter, I hit Alt-0246 on my keyboard. To get the em dash in the third paragraph, I type Alt-0151 instead of the double hyphen (“- -”) using the old typewriter convention.

I feel bad enough that there are some Eastern European diacritical marks I can’t use, such as an anacrusis or the Hungarian double-acute-accent over the “o” and “u” to indicate an extended vowel sound. In time, I will figure this out. But not on one of those touchscreen keyboards. I can imagine it would be gruelling just to type an average paragraph shifting between upper and lower case letters and numbers, let alone diacritical marks.

If I can’t make it look as if it were typeset, I would just as soon forget the whole thing. It just wouldn’t be me.

And that is why I don’t travel with an iPad or similar “crippled computer.”

I Have This Thing About Volcanoes

The Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption, seen from Colca Canyon

The Peruvian Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption, seen from Colca Canyon

I can tell you the day and time when it first started. It was at 6:00:41 am PST on February 9, 1971, when the earth started shaking. I held on to my mattress for dear life, even as it was sliding onto the bedroom floor from the massive jolts. The noise was deafening with all those structures shaking, and all the kitchen cabinets being emptied onto the floor. I had just lived through the Sylmar Quake in which 58 people lost their lives.

It was then that I realized we as a species were not exactly in control. Man inhabited a thin crust which was criss-crossed by earthquake faults and floating atop oceans of magma waiting to break out at points along the globe and cover our puny undertakings with layers of lava and ash. And there I was, right on the famed Ring of Fire, in a state with hundreds of faults and not a few volcanoes.

Since then, I have been to Iceland to see Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull, which at various points in history—the latter in 2010—caused havoc worldwide. And now, even as I write, it is Bárðarbunga which continues spewing lava after several weeks.

In September, I saw two volcanoes in Peru’s State of Arequipa spewing ash: Sabancaya and Ubinas. Both are highly active and may continue erupting for some time.

Our lives on this earth are incredibly fragile. I am most impressed by earthquakes and volcanoes, but there are other terrestrial and atmospheric events that can cut our short lives even shorter. That’s not even to mention microscopic bacteria and viruses, slips and falls, tree branches crashing down on our heads, automobile accidents, or any number of causes. Life is magnificent even when it is at its most destructive. Enjoy it while you can!

 

“Where Words Fail…”

 

At Its Best, This Is What Music Does

At Its Best, This Is What Music Does

It was Hans Christian Andersen who wrote, “Where words fail, music speaks.”

Tonight, Martine and I attended the Torrance Civic Chorale’s annual Christmas concert. It was beautiful. Conductor David Burks enabled me to step outside my usual noisily conflicted self and into an ethereal place, one of joy and celebration.

I’m not going to try to talk about what music does for me, because how it acts on me is outside the world of words. I could tell you what kind of music I like the most, but I could not even begin to describe the mechanism by which my emotions are directly manipulated.

I regularly listen to KUSC-FM in Los Angeles, which plays classical music pretty much all day. When musicologist and KUSC announcer Jim Svejda—a man who for decades has influenced my taste in music—talks about music or interviews a musician, I wish he would shut up. I’ve even told the station that when phoning in my annual donation: “Please keep Jim Svejda on, but tell him not to talk so much.”

It’s not what Svejda says that influences me: It is his choices in the music he plays.

Over the years, I have been most moved by Gustave Mahler, Jean Sibelius, and Anton Bruckner. Last night, I read Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik while listening to Bruckner’s Third Symphony. It was nothing short of sublime. Now that I have much of my favorite music on an MP3 player, I feel liberated. High in the Andes, I listened to Sibelius and Tchaikovsky and felt they were writing music about what I was seeing with my eyes even as I was seeing it..

 

 

Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Newspapers

Take a Good Look While They’re Still There

Take a Good Look While They’re Still There

I was so very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, and Borges); things associated with my past life (Cleveland and Dartmouth College), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the months to come, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today the letter is “N” for Newspapers.

I know that newspapers are in trouble, especially in this country. Still, I cannot imagine beginning my day without reading the Los Angeles Times with my breakfast. (It used to be the Herald Examiner, but that died almost exactly twenty-five years ago.) I scan the front page, the California section, the business section, and—most especially—the comics.

The comics have always given me a good feel for the way people really look at life. It’s the most “popular” section of the paper, and it cuts across age boundaries and even socioeconomic boundaries. I know I could see many of the comics on individual websites, but not easily while I am drinking my tea and munching my cheese and crackers. This morning it would not have been possible at all because I think my Uninterrupted Power Supply unit crashed overnight. Despite a fearsome rainstorm, however, my paper was still leaning on my doorstep.

There are parts of my newspaper I don’t read, including the sports page and many opinions of columnists and pundits. I’m down on pundits in general. It’s kind of pathetic that these people, who get paid for being experts, are often so ignorant and opinionated. As for sports, I have no allegiance to these highly-paid mercenaries from L.A. and elsewhere.

Will American newspapers eventually disappear? I wish I knew. In the meantime, I will continue to read the Times.

 

Fifth Graders Against Communism

Back in Fifth Grade, We Knew All About the Red Menace

Back in Fifth Grade, We Knew All About the Red Menace

When I was a grade school student at St. Henry’s in Cleveland, we received a weekly newsletter reporting on the news of the world. Most particularly, we learned how the Communists who had recently taken over Eastern Europe were persecuting Catholics and suppressing the God-given rights of the people. At no time were we ever told that Hungary and several other of the Russian satellites fought on the German side in World War Two. And now the communists were threatening us! Several times a year, we had to do drills instructing us what to do in case of a nuclear attack. If you don’t already know, this 1951 video will explain it all to you:
 

(Those school desks were marvelous at protecting students from radiation and falling debris.)

At home, several times a year my mother put together bundles of used clothing she got from church sales to send to our friends and relatives in Hungary. After she’d accumulated about twenty or thirty pounds, she would wrap them in sturdy white cloth and write the address directly on the cloth with indelible ink. Then off it would go. With luck, the jackbooted thugs that worked for the Budapest Post Office would let selected items be delivered to the addressees. The rest, of course, was a perquisite for Communist Party apparatchiks.

Things came to a head during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. When, after a few days of freedom, the Russian tanks rolled into Hungary and re-established Soviet rule, our family was appalled. Naturally we did what we could to help some of the refugees that made it across the line before the axe fell. (As it turned out, they were not nice people. How could that be? After all, they were Hungarians.)

And Now America Was Threatened, Too

And Now America Was Threatened, Too


Somehow, we made it through those dangerous years. We listened to the Civil Defense alarms that sounded a test on Fridays at noon. And we tuned in to Conelrad at 640 and 1240 on our radio dial. There was so much else, too, bad we licked Communism in the end. Or did we?

Beatniks Then and Now

Fifty Years Before the Opera Came the Novel

A Full Fifty Years Before the Opera Came the Novel

A hundred years before Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation came into being, there were the “original” Bohemians—although, possibly, one could make a case for tracing them all the way back to François Villon in the 15th Century—popularized by Henri Murget in Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (or Bohemians of the Latin Quarter). We are probably much more familiar with the operas based on this popular novel of the 1840s, including Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. Ruggiero Leoncavallo also wrote an operatic version, and the Broadway musical Rent is loosely based on  Murger’s novel of 1846-1847.

The big difference between the Beats and Murget’s Bohemians is that, while the Beats were more heavily into booze and drugs, the Parisian artists and artistes of the 1840s were more into surviving. The whole picture of the starving young artist really came into fruition around then. We see pieces of it in Honoré de Balzac’s Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions) and some of his other works, but it was Murger who popularized it, while graciously acknowledging Balzac’s contribution.

In Murget’s novel, there were four main heroes: Rodolphe, Marcel, Colline, and Schaunard, along with their mistresses, especially Mimi and Musette. What distinguishes Murget from Balzac is that he is nowhere near as dark. His Bohemian artists are impoverished, but generous and good-hearted. Although it has a “where are the snows of yesteryear” (itself a quote from Villon) sadness to it, we do not feel there is any evil present, except perhaps in the landlords who persist on asking for rent. As Marcel cynically says at one point toward the end:

It is no longer possible for us to continue to live much longer on the outskirts of society—on the outskirts of life almost—under the penalty of justifying the contempt felt for us, and of despising ourselves. For, after all, is it a life we lead? And are not the independence, the freedom of mannerism of which we boast so loudly, very mediocre advantages? True liberty consists of being able to dispense with the aid of others, and to exist by oneself, and have we got to that? No, the first scoundrel, whose name we would not bear for five minutes, avenges himself for our jests, and becomes our lord and master the day on which we borrow from him five francs, which he lends us after having made us dispense the worth of a hundred and fifty in ruses or in humiliations. For my part, I have had enough of it. Poetry does not alone exist in disorderly living, touch-and-go happiness, loves that last as long as a bedroom candle, more or less eccentric revolts against those prejudices which will eternally rule the world, for it is easier to upset a dynasty than a custom, however ridiculous it may be. It is not enough to wear a summer coat in December to have talent; one can be a real poet or artist whilst going about well shod and eating three meals a day. Whatever one may say, and whatever one may do, if one wants to attain anything one must always take the commonplace way.

Unfortunately, not many people today read Murger. It is interesting, however, to trace an idea back to its origins; and Murger makes for pleasant reading. You can find a free English translation on Gutenberg.Com.

Welcome to the Weimar Republic of America

We’re Bringing Back Those Cheery Days of Yesteryear

We’re Bringing Back Those Cheery Days of Yesteryear

Last month’s midterm election has soured me on American politics.What with the growing inequality between the rich and … everybody else; with the increasing police violence and “open carry” of firearms; with the growing respectability of organizations such as the NRA and the Ku Klux Klan—with all this and more I think we as a nation are transitioning toward a really, really bad time that is just now waiting in the wings, waiting for the Confederate battle flag to be hoisted on the Capitol Building in Washington, perhaps?

I’m not so simplistic as to think that a Hitler-like dictator is next. But with such a small number of Americans exercising their right to vote, maybe we’re just not that interested any more. We have our own cabaret: We take it with us on our smart phones and MP3 players. Maybe we won’t replicate German history of 75 years ago, but we may come close. As long as Taylor Swift is cooing in our ears, we just don’t give a rat’s patoot about anything else.

Look Familiar to You?

Look Familiar to You?

We call the ultra-wealthy the 1%, and they’re much like the mustachioed tycoon in George Grosz’s illustration above. Note that the poor man on the left is getting the boot. Today’s styles might be different, but the direction is substantially the same.

I will of course resist. I vote in every election, even when I don’t detect a clear demarcation between the varying candidates. We live in the world described by William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.