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.