Time Off in Siberia

Tsarist Prisoners in Siberia

I have a particular love for Russian prison literature. For the third time, I am reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead. By no means is it anywhere near the greatest of Dostoyevsky’s novels, but the subject has always fascinated me.

After the October Revolution, and especially during Josef Stalin’s reign, the literature of the GULAGs became a standard literary genre. I love Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s massive The GULAG Archipelago as well as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle. Also well worth reading is Varlam Shalamov’s grim Kolyma Tales.

It is a common misconception that Dostoyevsky’s book is not a novel but just a thinly fictionalized account of his own four years in Omsk. At the time he wrote it, he was trying to reestablish his literary reputation after four years in prison and subsequent time with the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion in Semipalatinsk. He was worried that if he wrote a book that was less than uplifting, he would once again be regarded as a political prisoner and suffer excessive censorship.

While it is anything but pollyanna-ish, The House of the Dead provided a rare look at the Tsar’s prison colonies on the other side of the Ural Mountains.

When Technology Leads You Astray

In Some Places, You Just Can’t Trust GPS

In Some Places, You Just Can’t Trust GPS

This post is dedicated to two hilarious posts from The Iceland Review in which foreign tourists put explicit trust in their GPS systems and were led wildly astray.

In the first instance, reported on February 2 of this year, an American tourist was looking for the Hótel Frón on Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavík. The only problem is that the website he was relying on listed the address as Laugarvegur 22a. There was a Laugarvegur, as it turns out, in the remote herring fishing town of Siglufjörður in North Iceland, just a few klicks south of the Arctic Circle, some five hours of hard driving past Reykjavík.

No sooner did the Icelanders stop laughing about this incident than the following occurred, as reported in today’s Iceland Review posting:

The Suðurnes police today posted on their Facebook page the story of tourists who had little luck using their GPS. “Remember Noel?” the post begins, referring to the American tourist who accidentally drove to Siglufjörður, North Iceland, in search of a hotel in downtown Reykjavík, putting complete faith in his GPS.

This time, tourists were traveling in a rental car the short distance between Garður and Keflavík International Airport (normally a 15 minute drive) when their GPS convinced them to get off the beaten track, onto a gravel road and from there to a sidewalk. “Unfortunately, a garbage can stood where the gravel road meets the sidewalk; the car slid on an icy patch, hit the garbage can and ended up on top of it, completely stuck.”

Police were called out, but other travelers had already come to the aid of the unfortunate ones when police arrived, managing to get the car off the can. Reportedly, the tourists continued their travels, extremely relieved.

It’s not that I’m a technophobe—I’m not!—but I like to consult maps before driving in an unfamiliar place. I am particularly leery about renting cars at the airport in a strange city. When I have to, I try to fly to an airport in a smaller city in which my chances of getting lost are less. In 2012, I flew to Spokane rather than Seattle when Martine and I drove up to Jasper and Banff National Parks in Canada.

Lost in the Twitterverse

Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg (1399-1468)

It being the fiftieth anniversary of The New York Review of Books, I read a great article by Timothy Garton Ash entitled “From the Lighthouse: The World and the NYR After Fifty Years.” There is no one I would trust more to write such an article, as Garton Ash is the author of History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s. Shortly after the collapse of Russian Communism, he traveled across the continent interviewing all the major players and trying (rather successfully, I thought) to put it all into perspective.

Probably what I remember most from the NYR article is his term “Post-Gutenberg.” That hit me right between the eyes and brought a whole lot of images into mind. I was sitting down at Bibigo in Westwood  drinking a cup of hot barley tea when a young co-ed asked me a question. I was so startled that I couldn’t hear a word she said. She inhabited a different universe than I did, a universe defined by smart phones, Twitter, and various other digital accoutrements. I couldn’t imagine a person young enough to be my granddaughter even addressing me directly in the first place, unless she held a clipboard and was soliciting long-term donations for some charity. (Part of the problem was a combination of the restaurant’s noise level and partial hearing loss caused by Ménières Disease.)

Getting back to that term “Post-Gutenberg.” If anyone is a Gutenbergian, I am one. Even though I have read three books on a Kindle e-reader this month alone, I do most of my reading in print form. In the morning, I scan through the Los Angeles Times. During lunch, I read either The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books, with resulting damage to my shirtfronts as various sauces attach themselves to me. During the working day, I visit various news websites, such as those of CNN, NBC, The Raw Story, Salon.Com, and Truthdig.Com. Home from work, I cook or warm up our dinner; and, while Martine watches television, I read a good deep-dish book.

In other words, a rather substantial portion of my day is concerned with the written word: usually in print, but occasionally in digital format. I thought  briefly of signing up for Twitter, but then I realized that my congenital verborrhea prevents me from limiting myself to 140 characters. And, being the dinosaur that I am, I prefer to use complete sentences and unabbreviated terms. Hell, I’m even a nut about the exact diacritical marks when quoting foreign words and names. (Like Ménières Disease in the first paragraph.)

So here I am, a Gutenbergian in a Post-Gutenberg universe—a Twitterverse, as it were. You know what? I am not only a Gutenbergian, but an unregenerate one at that. If you want to change me, you’ll have to send me to a cultural re-education camp where I will be forced to finger-f*ck with a smartphone all my waking hours—like everybody else.

Accepting New Technologies

What Determines Which Technologies We Accept?

What Determines Which Technologies We Accept?

Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of the most risible landmarks in my young life, came up with three predictors as to what technologies people will accept. My version comes from the Futility Closet website:

  • Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  • Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  • Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

Reading the above sends a chill racing up and down my spine. I accepted computers around the age of 20 and, in fact, found myself a career in computing.

But do I accept tweeting and touch-screen smartphones? No. Will I ever accept them? Possibly. I’ve accepted Facebook, but only with great suspicion and periodic reviews of security parameters. And I use Facebook primarily for announcing new blogs and flagging the books I am currently reading via Goodreads.Com.



The Law of Diminishing Returns

Are We Reaching the Limits of E-Mail?

Every time a new technology comes into being, it gets vitiated by overuse as an advertising medium. I remember back to the early days of junk mail, when it was still a novelty, and I was more willing to consider it as having some value. That included those little voting guides put out by Citizens For … or Taxpayers Against ….The last Presidential election turned me into a person who wound up tossing most of his junk mail without so much as a glance. The same thing is now happening with all those mail order catalogs from various Indian Missions and yuppie techno-device vendors. It’s relatively rare for me now to salvage more tha n one tenth of what ends up choking my mailbox.

That goes double for e-mail. I have learned to distrust e-mail—even from friends—unless it shows some sign of knowing who I am. Several of my good friends have had their computers taken over by Malware that sends me e-mails that contain nothing but a URL. No thanks: That’s like inviting a vampire into your house.

Then, too, there are companies in my industry that think it’s a great idea to send me half a dozen e-mails a day. Unless they are announcing a new release of their software that has to be downloaded, it all goes into the Delete folder toute suite. I get invited to more webinars every day than any human being can reasonably be expected to take, so into the Biz Bag with them as well.

I suspect that smart phones will soon become the next garbage overload medium. Although my cell phone is a very dumb phone, it’s gotten to the point that I do not even try to answer it any more. I figure that if it’s important, people will leave a Voice Mail message—and those I eventually check.

Such a pity that the hucksters wind up killing all the new technologies.