Saturday, July 6, 2019

The Chinese Typewriter: A History





The Chinese Typewriter: A History by Thomas S. Mullaney was perhaps the most exhaustive research of its kind. An academic book of 321 pages printed in a tiny typeface with 64 pages of endnotes, The Chinese Typewriter was a slow read at first, given that Mullaney populated the first chapter with so much jargon. Academic reads tend to be repetitive--and this one was no different--yet so many new terms referred to again and again made a tiring read. Fortunately Mullaney elaborated on these terms--in painstaking detail--so by the end of the book I did not feel as if any of the material was beyond my comprehension or was addressed insufficiently. If he mentioned it, he covered it. 

Mullaney started off with the myth of the football-field-size Chinese typewriter. Imagine a contraption with a keyboard so huge that you would need stairs to climb to the highest row. Chinese keyboards were never this big, in spite of the cartoonists who drew them to be as high as pyramids. The author described the earliest typewriter models and the methods each inventor used to input the language of ideograms onto paper. Mullaney gets into keyboards, of course, and we soon learn that some models of Chinese typewriters didn't even have keys. 

The mechanics and muscle memory of typing as we know it on an English keyboard--or any keyboard with letters on individual keys--is lost when compared with typing in Chinese. Mullaney covers these differences and you are left with "Oh yeah!" moments when you realize that you can't do that in Chinese. For one, there is no blind typing in Chinese. When I learned typing in high school on a manual typewriter, we eventually grew to trust ourselves to type without looking at the keyboard or the typed page. By keeping our eyes solely on the manuscript that we were copying from, we discovered our typing speed would increase. This technique, blind typing, cannot be done in Chinese. The Chinese tray bed was too vast and required extreme precision in key selection. Even the fastest Chinese typist could never do this blindfolded. 

Tray beds were customized by each typist. Chinese typists soon realized that in their jobs they would encounter certain words or phrases over and over. In PR China [1] official documents might refer repeatedly to "Chairman Mao" and "agricultural quotas", for example. These two concepts would be composed of multiple ideograms, and it was convenient for the typist to arrange his or her own tray bed so that these ideograms were side-by-side. Mullaney revealed techniques for predictive text tray bed arrangement that cut down on ideogram search time. If one character was often used in combination with others to make multiple words, it helped to surround this character with the eight most common characters to ease the combination process. The author included tray bed organization maps provided with typewriter manuals which aided the typist to personalize his or her own machine. 

Typists had to learn when to apply extra pressure to certain keys. Some ideograms--like the one designating "one", as a perfect example--could not be struck with force for fear of causing damage:

"Each time the typist depressed the selection lever, the force of each type act had to be finely attuned to the weight of each character, a measurement that corresponded directly to the character's stroke count. Should one type the single-stroke (and thus lighter) characteryi (一 "one") with the same force as the sixteen-stroke (and thus heavier) character long (龍 "dragon"), one would quite likely puncture the typing or carbon paper and have to begin the document anew. To type long with the same force as yi, however, would result in a faint, illegible registration (also making it ill-suited for carbon-paper copying)." 

In North America and Europe, typists and office jobs were often the domain of women. In China, gender disparity still put women in the majority but at a smaller percentage. About a third of the typing workforce in China were men. 

Just when the pièce de résistance typewriter model, the MingKwai, appeared in the late forties, its moment in the spotlight faded. Once the People's Republic was established--and when PR China decided to send its soldiers to Korea to battle the UN forces in the south--then American and western European support in manufacturing evaporated. During the time Mao was in power, the typewriter became an instrument of disseminating propaganda. 

My praise to Mullaney for never stooping to use the ghastly theythemor their when referring to singular persons. He always used his or her, etc., and did so with style to make the text flow smoothly. It was a pleasure to read singular pronouns when referring to singular people. 

Mullaney had opened his book with cartoons and jokes about the colossal size of Chinese typewriters, and as typewriters evolved into computers, the jokes moved into the information age. In spite of the limitless world of virtual automation where even keyboards can be projected onto a flat surface by beams of light, people are still stuck on the idea of a clunky, clumsy, burdensome mechanical Chinese keyboard--even for computers. He ended his book with this observation, which I believe can also apply to the present:

"As we continue our examination of Chinese and global information technology in the age of computing and new media, then, one of our biggest challenges remains: to liberate our imaginations from a past that never actually existed."

[1] Before the Communist Revolution I refer to both mainland China and the island of Taiwan collectively as China. After 1949 I make a distinction between mainland China, the People's Republic of China or PR China, which is not the same as China, or the Republic of China, which occupies the island of Taiwan. 

Friday, May 31, 2019

Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism



Camille Paglia is the most important cultural critic, feminist and essayist of the past thirty years. She is the only person I have ever looked up to as a hero. When she burst onto the scene in the early nineties I was mesmerized by her every word (and there were a lot of words coming out of that mouth of hers). Simply put, I agree with everything this woman says. Everything. It scares me a bit because in admitting this it sounds like a step beyond hero worship and more like goddess worship. This woman saved me by giving me the strength to stand up for what I believe in, not just about feminist or gay theory but anything in my life. I am lucky to have graduated from university when I did, in 1989, because the academic environment in the nineties took such a poisonous downturn that I would surely have been thrown out of class. I have often wiped my brow with relief in that I escaped the censorious nineties in academe. My expression of gay or feminist views was not popular--and coming from the mouth of a man made anything I said about feminism seem as a symptom of the pernicious "patriarchy" [1] that I belonged to. Thus whatever I said was reviled, yet easily dismissed. Yet had I said the same things five years later I would have been turfed from class, no doubt. 

Camille Paglia gave me the balls to argue my case. She taught me--even though I was already an academic and a student of French and German language, literature and culture, no less--to read about everything. You think you know stuff? Then read more. When Paglia was 45 years old in 1992 (when I first learned about her) I was in awe of her ability to quote so extensively from the classics and to back up her statements with references to the greatest philosophers, poets and historians. If only I could be as well-read as she was at 45! To this day I read about all subjects in the Dewey nonfiction range, avoiding no area. I could listen to Paglia for hours, and thanks to archived interview clips on YouTube, I often do. 

Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism is a 2017 collection of 36 essays that have heretofore appeared in print, either in Paglia's own books or in other sources. The title of this collection caught my eye in a variety of ways: is Paglia using Free as an adjective, or is she using Free as a verb? Could it apply in both contexts to both women and men? As different parts of speech you have opposing meanings. 

As a follower of Paglia I had already read many of these essays, as I own four of her books and whenever I hear of a new article published somewhere else I hunt it down. Thus the contents of this book were not new to me, although there were essays that I had never read before. I was able to breeze through this book and often used Paglia's voice as my mind's reader. 

In the first essay, "Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art", Paglia peppered her argument with more literary and philosophical references than in any of the essays that followed. It made for jolty reading, in that I often had to look up or otherwise review the connections Paglia was making to her argument since every word she wrote reeked with importance. She followed that with "The Venus of Willendorf", which was written in shorter alliterative sentences and read with a Kerouac beat:

"It is abdominal, abominable, daemonic." 
"Sex is probings, plumbing, secretions, gushings. Venus is drowsing and dowsing, hearkening to the stirring in her sac of waters."
"The Venus of Willendorf, slumping, slovenly, sluttish, is in a rut, the womb-tomb of mother nature."

A collection of essays, while all on different topics, is nonetheless bound to yield a certain degree of repetition. Paglia, having been asked to write a piece or give a lecture will often state the same points word-for-word. You will notice this especially in the conclusions of certain chapters. One recurring theme is that for a woman to exceed in politics at the highest level--in this case, the presidency of the United States--she needs a background in military history, not in women's studies. The Commander-in-Chief will need to be experienced in military operations, not in gender equality.

This sense of déjà vu will permeate the reading experience but does not detract from it. She has become the pariah of modern feminism for espousing certain views yet remains unequivocal in her defence of them. Where the current wave of feminism resembles blind adherence to dogma rather than nurturing debate, Paglia has always remained open to welcoming opposing ideas into her classroom. She has documented her own history of being silenced by others who, only by hearing her name, are reflexively triggered to tune her out. 

For a review of Paglia's oeuvre, or if you have been living under a rock for the past thirty years and have never heard of her or read her work, then pick up Free Women, Free Men. I would love to be enrolled in one of Paglia's classes, or at least see her lecture again. I had the pleasure of meeting her at the University of Toronto just after the publication of Vamps and Tramps in 1994. Read her work in her own voice to capture the experience of being lectured by one of the greatest intellectuals of the past thirty years.

The rest of this piece will cease to be a review of Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism and will serve the reader, as much as it will serve myself, as a compilation of some of the most controversial topics that Paglia addresses in her book. No other woman has responded to these issues with as much scientific authority as well as common sense. I focus on some of the highlights of Free Women, Free Men, and some of my own responses to these passages:

"Sex and gender have been redefined by ill-informed academic theorists as superficial, fictive phenomena produced by oppressive social forces, disconnected from biology. This hallucination has sowed confusion among young people and seriously damaged feminism. A gender theory without reference to biology is absurd on its face." (p. ix).

"I still stand by every word of my date-rape manifesto. Women infantilize themselves when they cede responsibility for sexual encounters to men or to after-the-fact grievance committees, parental proxies unworthy of true feminists. My baby-boom generation demanded and won an end to the in loco parentis parietal rules, and it is tragic indeed how so many of today's young women seem to long for a return of those hovering paternalistic safeguards. As a career college teacher, I want our coddling, authoritarian universities to end all involvement with or surveillance of students' social lives and personal interactions, verbal or otherwise. If a real crime is committed, it should be reported to the police. Otherwise, college administrations should mind their own business and focus on facilitating and funding education in the classroom." (pp. xx-xxi).

"The demarcation of certain groups for special protection, later extended to gender and sexual orientation, split them from the general populace by defining them as permanent victims, burdened by an inescapable past. I strongly oppose the categories of 'hate speech' and 'hate crimes' that arose from that law and others throughout North America and Europe. The laudable attempt to make reparation for past injustice unfortunately created segregated zones of new privilege and drew government into curbing the exercise of free speech." (p. xxv).

"Feminists grossly oversimplify the problem of sex when they reduce it to a matter of social convention: readjust society, eliminate sexual inequality, purify sex roles, and happiness and harmony will reign." (p. 4).

"College men are at their hormonal peak. They have just left their mothers and are questing for their male identity. In groups, they are dangerous. A woman going to a fraternity party is walking into Testosterone Flats, full of prickly cacti and blazing guns. If she goes, she should be armed with resolute alertness. She should arrive with girlfriends and leave with them. A girl who lets herself get dead drunk at a fraternity party is a fool. A girl who goes upstairs alone with a brother at a fraternity party is an idiot. Feminists call this 'blaming the victim.' I call it common sense." (pp. 53-54).

"In the past fifteen years, some of these administrators, especially Student Life deans and the freshmen orientation staff, have forged a disquieting alliance with women's studies programs, and we are indoctrinating their charges with the latest politically correct attitudes on dating, sexual preference, and so on. Many of the students, neglected by their prosperous, professional parents, are pathetically grateful for these attentions. Such coddling has led, in my view, to the outrageous speech codes which are designed to shield students from the realities of life. The campus is now not an arena of ideas but a nursery school where adulthood can be indefinitely postponed." (p. 82).

"It is foolish to think that substantial change in human psychology or sexual relationships can be achieved through legislation and regulation, that is, through authoritarian intrusion into private life." (p. 134).

"I have tried to bring the missing term of nature back onto the feminist agenda after a quarter century when the dominant ideology has been social constructionism, which alleges that we are born blank slates and that we become male and female not via biology but through social conditioning or environmental influences. I have argued, in Sexual Personae, that sexuality is 'the intricate intersection of nature and culture' and that we need to understand both in order to understand ourselves. Beginning in the 1970s, there was an irrational pressure in feminism to deny any kind of hormonal basis to sex differences, a scientifically illiterate fantasy that still flourishes today in postmodern culture studies." (p. 135).

"In some ways, contemporary feminism is a house built on sand, because its ideology is so removed from practical reality. One of the signs of current instability in sexual relations is a rise in the incidence of homosexuality. As an open lesbian and libertarian, I feel that every person should be free to express his or her sexuality in private consensual relationships and that the state has no business intruding. But at the same time I reject the simplistic formulas that the gay movement has learned from feminism. First of all, the idea that anyone is born gay is ridiculous. This is a misreading of very sparse and contradictory evidence. Homosexuality is an adaptation to social conditions. The present spread as well as openness of homosexuality is coming from a fatigue or discontent with the failing traditional sex roles. Homosexuality is a rejection of the conflicted state of heterosexual relations, which is also evidenced in the soaring divorce rate of the past 30 years." (p. 141).

Hallelujah! I rejoiced when I read this (and I heard it with my mind's ear tuned to Paglia's voice). I am definitely in the minority, and reviled by fellow gay men when I say this, but we were not born gay. It is entirely, as Paglia says, an adaptation to social conditions. Don't give me any of this "gay gene" nonsense--I have yet to read a scientific study that hasn't already come to the a priori conclusion that such a gene exists. 

"My final recommendation for reform is a massive rollback of the paternalistic system of grievance committees and other meddlesome bureaucratic contrivances which have turned American college campuses into womb-like customer-service resorts. The feminists of my baby-boom generation fought to tear down the intrusive in loco parentisrules that insultingly confined women in their dormitories at night. College administrators and academic committees have no competence whatever to investigate crimes, including sexual assault. If an offense has been committed, it should be reported to the police, so that the civil liberties of both the accuser and the accused can be protected. This is not to absolve young men from their duty to behave honorably. Hooliganism cannot be tolerated. But we must stop seeing everything in life through the narrow lens of gender. If women expect equal treatment in society, they must stop asking for infantilizing special protections. With freedom comes personal responsibility." (pp. 181-182).

"It is difficult to understand how a generation raised on the slapdash jumpiness of Twitter and texting will ever develop a logical, coherent, distinctive voice in writing and argumentation. And without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out for lack of continuity and rationale. Hasty, blathering blogging (without taking time for reflection and revision) is also degrading the general quality of prose writing." (p. 236).

"As a libertarian, I believe that every individual has the right to modify his or her body at will. But I am concerned about the current climate, inflamed by half-baked postmodernist gender theory, which convinces young people who may have other unresolved personal or family issues that sex-reassignment surgery is a golden road to happiness and true identity." (pp. 237-238).

I agree entirely with the statement above. I lambasted Alex Gino for his thoughtless and extremely self-centred juvenile novel George: Gino is in-your-face soapboxing to his young reader base that if you're a boy who enjoys dressing up and playing with makeup, you'd be better off with castration and penis-removal surgery.

And this exchange with Ella Whelan, of Spiked Review:

Whelan: "What did you make of Chrissie Hynde's recent assertion that she was at least partially responsible for her sexual assault at the hands of a biker gang when she was 21? Do you think that contemporary feminism is too quick to turn women into blameless victims?"

Paglia: "I have been a Chrissie Hynde fan since her first albums with the Pretenders, but this scrappy controversy made my admiration for her go stratospheric. I adore her scathing process of self-examination and her bold language of personal responsibility--that is exactly the direction that feminism must take! Hynde (four years younger than me) is demonstrating the tough, no-crap attitude of the rebellious women of my 1960s generation, who were directly inspired by the sexual revolution, created by the brand-new Pill. We took all kinds of risks--I certainly did, with some scary escapes in dark side streets of Paris and Vienna. We wanted the same freedoms as men, and we took charge of our own destinies. We viewed life as a continual experiment, an urgent pressing into the unknown. If we got knocked down, we got up again, nursed our bruises, and learned from our mistakes. Today, in contrast, too many young feminists want their safety, security, and happiness guaranteed in advance, by all-seeing, all-enveloping bureaucracies. It's a sad, limited, and childish view of life that I find as claustrophobic as a hospital ward."

[1] The best line I have ever heard skewering feminists' condemnation of the patriarchy is from Paglia: "Yes, patriarchy. Meaningless word. Big, fat, meaningless word: patriarchy. It only applies to Republican Rome, and that's it."


Monday, March 25, 2019

My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth



Wendy E. Simmons visited North Korea for ten days in the summer of 2014. My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth is her account of her trip. Since I myself took a similar trip--mine in 2011 and lasting twenty days--I knew exactly where she was coming from when she expressed her often frustration with her guides (whom she called Older Handler and Fresh Handler). I knew I was in for an irreverent travel diary from the start, based in the dedication page, where Simmons wrote:

"For Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of NoKo, for being batshit crazy enough to make this book possible. And my handlers, for showing me around."

The book was light on text and heavy on photos (as well as heavy on profanity), since Simmons is after all a photographer, yet it still took me three days to read this book. Although I know I could have finished it in one sitting, I didn't want to. Her stunning photographs and my personal reminiscences made me want to relive my own trip to the DPRK and I was mentally comparing notes all the time. The text was however too small and the font too faint, and I needed a magnifying glass to read it.

Simmons is a seasoned traveller having visited more than eighty-five countries and territories. She still experiences the thrill of arriving in a new place. When she landed in Pyongyang and was cleared through immigration:

"I was euphoric. The most exciting moments in my life, when I feel most alive, happen when I'm touching down anywhere in the world I've never been. I am reborn into a new world, where everything is a curiosity to wonder at, and even the smallest accomplishment is a victory. There was nothing but discovery and learning ahead of me. And I was in North Korea--the most reclusive country on Earth. This was going to be amazing."

It was a buildup that you know was just teetering towards a collapse. It wouldn't take long for Simmons to feel that she was being treated like an inmate travelling between prisons as she was shunted from site to site. She suffered a mini-nervous breakdown when the spa she was told she would soon be enjoying ended up being nothing more than a lukewarm bath. Suddenly all the past deceptions and outright lies that her guides had been telling her, along with their refusals, frowns and knitted brows came crashing upon her. She could not bear it any longer: this was no holiday unless you wanted to take a holiday in a country-wide prison camp.

Perhaps the main reason Simmons felt this way was that she was travelling for ten days on her own. She had two guides and a driver, but no other travelling companions. When I visited the DPRK in 2011, I was among a group of fifteen, and we still travelled with two guides and a driver. Our ratio was 15:3 versus hers of 1:3. We even had a UK-born member of the Peking-based travel company accompanying us. Simmons didn't even have that. So there were two pairs of guides' eyes always directed her way. In my case our two guides could not keep all fifteen of us in check. No wonder Simmons felt suffocated. She was exposed to the same rules as I was:

"...you are not allowed to take photos of anything outside of Pyongyang without prior authorization from your handlers or local guides because the rest of the country is a primitive, third-world shithole. You will entertain yourself devising ways to thwart this."

Thus Simmons had to devise ways to thwart her guides' prying eyes. Meanwhile, I just snapped photos of anything and everything I wanted since the guides were preoccupied with the four members of my travel group who were known to have taken unauthorized pictures. I had more freedoms in North Korea while some of my travelling companions did not, owing to their poor behaviour. I can see how even the most respectful and obedient traveller might go crazy with paranoia if travelling to the DPRK alone.

Some of her observations were laugh-out-loud funny, and it didn't require a journey to the same place to find such amusement:

"My waiter arrives, and somehow we discover that we both speak Spanish. From then on, hablamos en español sólo. There are no words to describe how horrible his accent is, except perhaps horrible--it was damn bad."

and:

"There weren't any benches to sit on, since I guess no one just sits around relaxing in the park, except for old people, who weren't so much relaxing as they were waiting to die..."

We both took trips to the DMZ and experienced similar reactions when we approached the frontier with freedom in South Korea. It wasn't so much approaching the border as leaving it. In Simmons's case:

"Back outside and in North Korea, I have the weirdest sensation of being on the wrong side of the tracks. I feel like a traitor, or a Potemkin trophy being paraded around like a hostage by his or her captors."

After she turned away from the border and in so doing turned her back on freedom, she claimed to have felt "like a traitor". I know what she means, for it wasn't just me but my entire tour group who expressed the same surreal experience when we returned to our tour bus after our visit to the DMZ. All of us were from democratic free nations, yet we "chose" to remain in the communist North when we arrived at the border with the South. Not that any of us could have stepped over the border curb into South Korea anyway--but we could leave the country while none of its countrymen could.

The exhibits Simmons saw were anything but impressive. She had me laughing out loud as I recalled my own visits to the same museums where I saw the very same things. The guides expected you to be awed by all the stellar technology and marvel at the advances in North Korean industry. In reality, they were in effect proudly showing us the equivalents of brand new 8-track tapes, cordless phones and boxy colour TV sets:

"Glass case after glass case meant to showcase Korea's engineering and manufacturing prowess displayed objects so mind-numbingly boring, anachronistic, and quotidian, I truly felt like they were fucking with me. Polyester brown pants with a matching brown shirt hung proudly in one case. Another case held a few cans of food, and another housed electronics so old, I honestly had to ask what some were (one answer, 'to make light shine on wall,' did little to clarify)."

I enjoyed My Holiday in North Korea, but felt that had Simmons done her homework, she would not have suffered the culture shock of always being told NO. The DPRK is a country where it takes thirty people to say yes, yet only one person to say NO. All of my fellow travellers read voraciously on travel to the country before leaving on their journey. A well-read traveller is prepared and even amenable to sudden change when the destination is North Korea.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Weird Math: A Teenage Genius & His Teacher Reveal the Strange Connections Between Math & Everyday Life



Math is an interesting topic but a hard one to present in a clear yet exciting way to the uninitiated. I am fascinated by higher order math—the sort of stuff that makes math indistinguishable from magic. Weird Math by coauthors David Darling and Agnijo Banerjee blends advanced mathematics with the ordinary mess of everyday life.

Most people’s impression of mathematics is that it is as solid an academic discipline as there can be. For many this subject is the epitome of precision and exactitude. It comes as a shock to many that the foundations of mathematics are an open question, that in fact there are many, many strange mysteries in mathematics. For example, there are odd and very deep connections between music and mathematics; both subjects share a fundamental relationship to harmony and order that many mathematicians find quasi-spiritual. It is also the case that higher order mathematics reveals strange new dimensions of reality. Indeed math at the highest level seems to indicate that the universe has many more dimensions then the ones we are accustomed to experiencing. In one section of the book the authors attempt to convey how it is one can think and “see” in four-dimensions (there are more dimensions but one should really learn to walk with math, so to speak, before one runs). There are also mysteries and paradoxes surrounding really, really big numbers what math experts call mathematics of the Infinite. In one chapter the authors describe a fun encounter between two professors (one from MIT the other from Princeton) each of whom attempts to outdo the other in creating the largest number they can summon with all the light their brains can generate. These products of numerical imagination are truly gargantuan—if you were to count all the atoms in the universe the result would be minuscule in comparison.

I suck at math. Darling and Banerjee are really good at math. I have always held mathematicians with a special reverence; to my mind they are like wizards who do incredible magic with numbers. I have also been thoroughly intrigued by the mysterious nature of mathematics and by some of the seemingly unsolvable paradoxes that numbers can generate. So this title was one that caught by eye.

The book caught my eye but the read was unsatisfactory. The writing and conveying of ideas about mathematics is a tricky proposition. There is no doubt David Darling and Agnijo Banerjee are brilliant mathematicians but that brilliance doesn’t always translate into clear prose about the topic they are so passionate about. The authors are excellent at suggesting the wonder of the mathematical problems that have intrigued mathematicians throughout the years, but the explanations fall short of packing their full cerebral punch. Granted the concepts are hard to verbalise, but I felt that the authors’ enthusiasm was there on paper but I couldn’t always see what they were getting at. Maybe you might have better luck (understanding).


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Before the Refrigerator: How We Used to Get Ice



Before the Refrigerator: How We Used to Get Ice by Jonathan Rees was a brief and enthralling history of the ways people kept their food cold before modern refrigeration. The first electric refrigerator that was produced on a mass scale came out in 1927, Before then, people had to rely on ice to keep their food fresh. Rees wrote about ice harvesting and the industry behind it, which started with cutting the ice from rivers and lakes and ended with a system of delivering the ice door-to-door. He supplemented the text with maps and historic photos. 

Technological innovation led to the development of artificially manufactured ice. Places where ice could never form naturally now had the capacity to make their own. Rees provided a wonderful map from 1905 showing all the US states and the number of artificial ice establishments in each. Customers preferred manufactured ice because it was made from pure water and had no sediment as was always found in ice culled from rivers and lakes. Ice produced in manufacturing plants could be designed to turn out crystal clear, which in spite of it offering no additional benefit to the product it was refrigerating, was nevertheless always a crowd-pleaser. People gravitated to thick transparent slabs of ice produced in factories over cloudy gritty slabs found in nature.

The capacity for all states to have ice available year-round had the profound effect of changing the American diet by preserving perishable food:

"The advent of artificial ice broke that stranglehold by making ice available in places where it did not appear naturally. Lower transportation costs drove down the price of the perishable food, which in turn increased the consumption of California produce." 

and:

"Besides expanding the range of distribution for perishable products of all kinds, refrigeration cut waste due to spoilage. This increased the supply of all perishable products, which in turn lowered their price and therefore made it easier for more people to consume it. In some cases, the increased availability of ice also made those products safer to consume since they were preserved better throughout their journey along the cold chain." 

As artificial refrigeration developed, reducing the size of ice manufacturing plants, those in the ice harvesting industry could see the writing on the wall. It would not be long before people would be able to make ice in their own homes. There was still a market for natural ice as long as the places they were supplying it to lacked electricity and access to an ice manufacturing plant. The last ice deliveries in the US ceased in 1960. 

As home refrigeration developed with the introduction of the electric refrigerator in 1927, consumers suddenly had a smorgasbord of foods to choose from. Natural ice wasn't as cold as artificial ice, yet with a refrigerator in your home you didn't need to worry about storing ice at all. You could set your fridge to whatever temperature you wanted and thus keep foods fresh for longer. Ice, regardless of its natural or artificial provenance, ironically spoiled food:

"The first attempts to use ice for cold storage involved placing the ice in direct contact with food. That method worked only with foods that could stand up to water--like fish. Anything else would end up soaking and moldy before too long. Once people realized that the ice had to be separated from the food, they built two-story warehouses with the ice on top and the food on the bottom, with holes in between to let the cold air circulate." 

I learned that the term icebox is in fact a retronym. The first appliances used at home to chill food were called refrigerators. Ice was stored in the lowest compartment of these refrigerators and the cool air circulated throughout the sealed compartment. With the advent of electricity refrigerators did away with needing huge slabs of ice. Those who bought one of these fancy new electric appliances had a new refrigerator, while those who still relied on slabs of ice to keep their food cold created a new name for their outmoded device: an icebox.

Before the Refrigerator was a short book of 104 pages and filled with endnotes. I found it however to be highly repetitious, and I rolled my eyes whenever I encountered yet again the line about ice increasing the diversity of American diets. Still, I never thought that I would say a book about the history of refrigeration would be such an interesting can't-put-down read.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

#DoNotDisturb: How I Ghosted My Cell Phone to Take Back My Life




Jedediah Bila wrote #DoNotDisturb: How I Ghosted My Cell Phone to Take Back My Life after she came to the realization that she was spending far too much time--wastefully--poking around people' social media pages and not living her own life. Messages or alerts from friends of friends and exes of exes would buzz on her phone and she would jump to attention, her Pavlovian stimulus fully charged. These distant people demanded (and got) her attention even though what she got out of their posts or alerts was entirely useless information. Bila would stare into her phone all day and into the night. #DoNotDisturb shares her story of how she got her life back when she turned off her phone. She didn't only get her life back when she did so: she also got a husband. Talk about a reward for turning off your phone!

I approached this book with the prejudice that I was going to rip into the author and all cellular-obsessed people like she used to be. I still am going to be merciless in my condemnation of 95% of the population as weak and impulsive lazy non-thinkers. I use that percentage based on Bila's assertion that 95% of the American population now owns a cell phone. I do not believe this figure. I think that Bila just chose the highest percentage she could find when researching how many Americans who currently had cell phones. The larger the figure, the more dramatic the effect. My own opinion--opinion, mind you, not anything based on my own research--is that this percentage is about twenty points lower. In any case, the number of people who have a cell phone far exceeds the number who don't. And they're ruining the peace and quiet of those around them.

The disappearance of quiet is nothing new. I work in a public library, an institution that long ago ceased to be an empire of shushing. Our library used to have a no-cell phone policy. Can you imagine anyone enforcing that now? What sound irritates you the most? For me, it's that five-note high-pitched bird tweet that signals a new Twitter message. I hate that sound. It is too loud, too frequent, and always invasive. As I turn into a crabby old man I have no compunctions telling people who are being too loud on their mobile phones "You have a mobile phone. Be mobile." I must admit that I stole that line from a TV show. I recall watching Hyacinth Bucket walking around her house with her new cordless phone just because she could. I wish cell phone users would realize they don't have to be anchored to one spot--like landline users such as myself--when they are having a conversation. Noise, interference, interruptions...all part of the modern world and I realize that fighting it would be a losing battle. Some steps have been made to restore the peace, and I do appreciate the phone-free train cars I have travelled in. Bila however had to come to the realization that she couldn't wait for other people to design phone-free train cars for other aspects of her life. She had to restore the peace herself. And one way to do that was to go phone-free. 

She couldn't stop her phone use on the spot. She had some weaning to do. First of all she dropped scores of Facebook people (they weren't "friends" at all) and deleted some apps entirely. Bila grew amazed at how less stressed her life was when she wasn't devoting so much of her time in other people's lives. She could appreciate the blue sky, and the different shades of blue within it. She was aware of people, animals, sounds and not centred on her little screen as she shuffled from place to place. It was as if she had discovered the real world for the first time:

"...I now had my eyes open to it all and had made the decision to put my phone away. I was like the sober friend in a room full of drunk people, the only one seeing things clearly." 

Bila had an epiphany when she rejoined the real world and started to live life again in the moment. Her personality and overall outlook changed immediately. She was happy to walk around Manhattan, looking up, not down. She was living life in the moment, appreciating sunsets and not obsessively taking photos of sunsets. She was enjoying the beauty and serenity of sunsets, and not taking selfies with sunsets, or editing or filtering her photos of sunsets before posting them on Instagram. She is not kind to people who seem to let the pleasure of the moment pass them by for the sake of social media:

"Back then, before these digital doohickeys dominated our world, we lived the lives we were living, instead of constantly trying to capture a perfect representation of those lives to post on social media, for us to then check obsessively for views. Or likes. Or whatever. Over and over." 

She has no sympathy for parents who would prefer to watch their children's concert through a tiny phone screen versus watching the wide scope of the event in an auditorium:

"When I'm at a cousin's kid's middle school chorus concert, seeing all the parents there with their phones up in front of them, recording, taking near-constant photos and selfies, texting them, posting them on social media instead of actually listening to and feeling the music, I wonder...is anyone ever actually just where they are at the moment, in the moment? Do we even know how to do that anymore?" 

When I saw the original lineup of Bananarama in concert this past February, I was the only person in the front row who was not filming the show on an iPhone. I might be overthinking this, but I did get special attention from Siobhan Fahey, my favourite group member. She smiled at me and gave me the thumbs-up. It could have been in response to me knowing all the words to their songs, but perhaps it was in appreciation for seeing me actually enjoy the show in the moment, and for not preoccupying my attention by recording it. Would I ever watch a video I took of the concert anyway? All YouTube clips of the Toronto concert are of horrible quality. How many parents play back--even once--the cell phone recordings they made of their children's concerts? They miss the show the first time in real life by recording it, and don't even bother to see a woeful recording on the narrowest of screen playbacks. It's one thing if you're not in attendance at a concert: you're not there. Nor are you even if you are present, ostensibly watching it in real life in real time, but if you're recording it all by watching it through a tiny screen, you're not there either:

"What I find unappealing: when I'm at a performance, and the audience is recording, checking their phones for something, taking a photo, sending it, posting it, FaceTiming their friend in the middle of it all. Awful. How about going back to the idea that--if you're not there, YOU'RE NOT THERE."

#DoNotDisturb was a rapid read because it was written in an oral style. Bila even included some dialogues. She used lengthy hyphenated phrases to excess, starting from page 2: 

"That said, I'm not one of those I-had-to-walk-five-miles-to-school-barefoot-in-the-snow-uphill militant memorialists..." 

and continuing almost to the end at page 233:

"Venmo often becomes yet another look-at-me, look-what-I'm-buying-and-doing, I'm-important-because-you're-paying-attention-to-what-I'm-doing sad by-product of the tech boom."

While indeed oral stylizations, this superabundance of hyphens was still an annoying sight to stumble across the printed page. I wish the author had restructured her sentences to express the same sentiments by avoiding all hyphens. 

Bila answers those who claim they carry a cell phone only in case of an emergency. I get that so-called concern whenever I explain why I don't have a phone:

"'But what if I'm needed in an emergency?'
"Which brings me back to the hundreds of years that people existed and survived without cell phones, emergencies included."

As a former teacher, Bila is worried about the next generation. Children are growing up using cell phones and laptops while still toddlers. Parents are nose-deep in texting rather than tending to their children. When she was a teacher, Bila frequently had to deal with interruptions in class:

"...the second a phone would buzz or light up, they'd stare at it momentarily, then lose all attention in the project or assignment at hand. Additionally, so many students I taught wound up being on medication for attention deficit disorder. I wasn't sure if the increase in this diagnosis correlated with the onslaught of devices, but I had a suspicion." 

Her suspicion is bang-on. I do not shy away from debating why I believe AD(H)D is a myth. Tough love from parents by removing their children's electronic devices will go a long way to save the underused brains of our youngest generation. No one, not just children, thinks anymore. People are not testing their memories or their power of recall. When I walk home from work I am obviously not plugged in. If I'm thinking about something and can't recall a fact or figure, I try to remember what it is. I test myself to try to recall it. I have twenty-five minutes to do so before I can check the Internet at home. Those who have Internet on the go on their devices would simply type their question into Google and get the answer within seconds. Do they even pause to think about anything? Do they have any skills of patience when the knowledge they want can be found in seconds? This continual state of having immediate information and providing only partial attention severely limits one's ability to focus, and could possibly also lower one's IQ.

Bila laments:

"It's been a while since I've seen a child hang out in a park, crouched over a puddle after a rainstorm, stick in hand, tracing through the surface area, watching the water ripple toward the edges, thinking, daydreaming. Or a kid on an airplane staring out the window, intrigued by the movement of the baggage handlers coordinating the freight on the tarmac. Nowadays, what do I see? Children glued to big tablets in their hands, clueless to their surroundings, entranced by the make-believe, engaged in a process that pulls them mindlessly along a predetermined trail engineered by some Silicon Valley twenty-something.
"But alas, who am I to judge those kids? I only started noticing so much of the world when I finally put my own phone down."

Indeed. No one has to totally give up his or her cell phone. Just put the damn thing down. You might--just like Bila--meet your future spouse because you looked up.



Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store


Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store by Bruce Allen Kopytek was a weighty paperback about Canada's preeminent department store chain. At 464 pages, I approached the book thinking that although it would be highly informative, it would nevertheless be a slow read. My first impression was pleasantly disproved the moment I started reading. Kopytek managed to write a lengthy and super-detailed corporate history of the retail giant while maintaining a personal touch. The result was an addictive read, a page-turner, especially since I knew something about Eaton's and was waiting for the author to arrive at certain parts about the company's history. The author filled the book with testimonials from Eaton's customers and employees going back decades, which made the read all the more enticing.

The book started at the time of Timothy Eaton's birth in 1834 (although the Eaton family tree in Appendix B stated his year of birth as 1843) and his emigration to Canada as a young man of twenty. He was a merchant who built an empire literally from coast to coast in all ten provinces. Eaton's was not strictly a chronological read, which was fortunate because that would have made it a boring book. The first Eaton's Santa Claus Parade was held in 1905 yet the chapter about the parade only followed the chapter about store expansion and renovation in British Columbia in the 1970's. I knew that Kopytek had to write about the Eaton's parade tradition as well as the company's decision to cancel the parade in 1982. I just didn't know when he'd eventually get to it. This element of suspense--as I never rush ahead to peek at the pages to come--kept me on the edge of my seat as I ended each chapter. You could say I was waiting for Santa, and in a sense I was.

I can remember the Eaton's store on Queen Street in Toronto, and that the Queen subway platform had an escalator that led directly into the store. You did not have to leave the subway station first. If my memory serves me correctly, I remember the synesthetic pleasure of arriving from the subway platform into a bakery. Now wasn't that a smart idea for greeting customers? What better way to attract customers and to fill their heads with good thoughts than to tempt them with the aromas of freshly-baked goods? Timothy Eaton would have been proud.

Eaton's expanded from coast to coast, always trying to keep itself modern by updating its stock as well as renovating its premises. What might have seemed like a marketing blunder or over-the-top egotism was the establishment of a second major Eaton's store in downtown Toronto, merely blocks from its original location. The two stores managed to stay in business for over forty years, until the opening of the major retail colossus known as the Eaton Centre in 1977. Kopytek spent extreme detail on the architecture of each Eaton's building, whether it was the new Eaton Centre or a suburban mall anchor store. I do not have an architectural background so I had to look up some terms, such as "chamfered corners", but other structural terminology was satisfied by a photo of the store or design in question.

Kopytek filled his book with photos from Eaton's interiors, Eaton's catalogue images and store ephemera. I remember the store's metallic shopping bag dispensers, often found by the escalators. While one would certainly get a bag with every purchase, it wouldn't be one of these large shopping bags, which were made of a thicker paper and had U-shaped handles. One year in the 1970's I fell in love with the TV commercial and jingle "Eaton's Uncrates The Sun", and I bought one such shopping bag as a memento. I still have it:



I also have a small collection of old Eaton's boxes, going back to the fifties. I always place these boxes--unwrapped, of course--under my Christmas tree. I decorate "under" the tree until Christmas Eve when I place real wrapped presents there. Kopytek included photos of Eaton's ephemera from various decades. I only wish that he could have included colour pictures as some of Eaton's themes (green and, at the very end, aubergine) were quite vivid.

In the summer of 1982 Eaton's announced that it would be cancelling the Santa Claus Parade due to its extravagant costs. The store could not have foreseen the backlash of negative publicity it would receive. What the store did not realize was that people still fondly thought of Eaton's and knew the store by name as the sponsor. I enjoyed this recollection of the need for having multiple Santas on parade day:

"A dark-blue and red Eaton's van following Santa carried a second Santa, in case of a problem, along with a nurse and doctor should the excitement of the day overwhelm the parade's celebrity. In most cases, the backups were not needed, but mishaps during the parade were not unknown, ranging from an alcohol-soaked Santa who announced, 'Merry Christmas, you little bastards!' when greeting the crowd assembled to receive him to the sober but no less comical one whose 'jolly' stomach, padded out with a feather pillow, had become soaked by rain, causing his pants to drop as he ascended the ladder to the store."

Yet the downfall of Eaton's did not start with its cancellation of the parade. Eaton's ended its catalogue sales in 1976, not being able to compete with rival Simpson's. In effect Eaton's "handed over $300 million in sales to its greatest rival." The writing was on the wall. Consumer shopping was changing and Eaton's became less relevant with lower-priced retailers and having to fight a reputation that it was a store only your mother (or grandmother) shopped at.

The only criticism I had with the book was that the original newspaper advertisements were reproduced such that their text was wholly unreadable. That's what happens when you reduce a newspaper page to fit onto the page of a book. I could still read all the original copy with a magnifying glass. I am however most appreciative that Kopytek included so much detail about Eaton's culled from the nation's newspapers. He also filled the book with photos of every department store from across the country.

Kopytek ended his book with a timeline of the T. Eaton Co. Limited. It summed up major company events on a single line, but he erred with two dates. I know this, because the dates do not exist:

"1929 Calgary Eaton's opens (February 29)" and "1969 Eaton's Highfield Square (Moncton, NB) opens (February 29)".

Neither 1929 nor 1969 was a leap year. Did he mean 1928 and 1968? Or a different day in February?

The last book I read and reviewed was Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China by Jan Wong, and by coincidence Wong is quoted in Kopytek's book, where she shared her memories of shopping at Eaton's in Montreal (known in Quebec as Eaton) and Toronto. I am happy to say that I awarded five stars to Wong's book as well, and both she and Kopytek wrote to me after I complimented them on each of their books.

As with Eaton's merchandise, Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store by Bruce Allen Kopytek comes highly recommended.