Actual Versus Virtual, Again

It seems as though we are confronted with the conversion from actual to virtual at every turn these days. It has happened with newspapers, with meetings and conferences, and now it is happening with sports tickets, too.

I’m taking some client friends to Saturday’s Ohio State football game against Penn State. In the old days this would involve collecting physical tickets, like those shown above, and a physical parking pass to allow us to park in a good spot come Game Day, and then distributing the actual tickets to the members of the group at the pre-game tailgate so they could get through the gates of Ohio Stadium and get to their respective seats by kickoff.

But, with Ohio State at least, those physical ticket days are gone. Now the tickets are virtual, and you gather and transfer them electronically. It involves downloading yet another app, establishing a Ticketmaster account, directing Ticketmaster to distribute the tickets, and then entering email addresses so the ticket recipient gets notice of the transfer and can claim them. So far I seem to have been able to follow the instructions and successfully make the transfers, but the rubber won’t really meet the road until we get to Ohio Stadium Saturday night and start trying to scan in using bar codes on our phones. I sure hope everyone in my group remembers their cellphones and keeps their phones adequately powered!

I’m sure the virtual tickets are cheaper for the University, and the process has the added virtue of gathering email addresses that can be used for future notices and alerts. I still prefer the actual, physical tickets, however. It was comforting to have the tickets in hand and ready to hand out, and the glossy cardboard ducats themselves made nice souvenirs of your visit to the ‘Shoe. The cardboard parking pass had the added handy feature of a map on the back side that could guide you to your lot.

But those are the old ways, and they are going, going, gone as our worlds become increasingly centered on the apps on our handheld devices.

The March Of Trivialization

Historians used to write and talk about the “march of civilization.” You can find books by that name on Amazon, and learned quotes that use that phrase on any search engine. The underlying notion was that the story of humankind was a continuous upward journey from barbarism to the glories of the modern world. And the implication was that the march would inevitably continue to ever greater heights of achievement and refinement.

I don’t think the “march of civilization” concept holds true anymore. The idea presupposes that human beings will continue to work hard and focus on bringing on the better world with its greater accomplishments and magnificence, and these days it seems like we are a lot more interested in being distracted than in knuckling down. You might say that we are in the midst of a “march of trivialization” instead.

Consider what happens when you go to the Google app on your phone to look for something. Before you can type in a word you’ll see snippets of a series of curious stories, like the ones shown on the screen shot at the top of this post, that are designed to pique your interest, get a click, and divert you from what you were going to do in the first place. And the stories that are featured are breathtakingly banal and ultimately pointless, like the story above about the “viral video” of a woman stepping out of an Amazon truck and how people you don’t know on social media have responded to it. Typically there are multiple stories about social media videos or feigned outrages, photos of celebrities and members of the British royal family, sports world “reactions” to a play or announcement, and speculation about when a fourth (or fifth, or sixth) “stimulus” payment might be made. If you went solely by the stories on the Google front page and tried to draw inferences from them, you probably would conclude that we live in a world where there are no real, significant problems that constitute news, which is why TikTok videos and celebrity fashion dominate.

Of course, that inference would not be correct. There are lots of actual problems out there that could be the subject of the Google front page stories–but they aren’t. Why do you suppose that is the case? Is it because Google once tried to feature actual news and saw that it garnered far fewer clicks than the junk stories, or that Google figured at the outset that people typically use Google for trivial purposes–like trying to find the actual name of the character called “the Professor” on Gilligan’s Island–and therefore would prefer the amazingly inconsequential fare that we see today?

Whatever the reason, the march of trivialization continues, distractions ever multiply, and the insignificant crowds out the significant. Social media has replaced religion as the so-called “opiate of the masses,” and is keeping people from paying attention to what actually counts. It’s a weird and troubling feature of modern life.

Headlamper Season

We’re nearing the end of Daylight Savings Time for 2021, which officially ends at 2 a.m. on November 7. That means that, right now, it is pitch dark at 6 a.m., when I take my morning walk around Schiller Park, and we’ve reached the period I call headlamper season.

You can see one of the headlampers approaching in the above photo, which I took yesterday morning. They are joggers who wear a bright light on their heads as they run, apparently so they can better see the sidewalk as they scurry along. This distinguishes them from the other joggers who carry their own light sources on their arms or torsos and look like characters in the movie Tron.

Unfortunately, the bright light worn by the headlampers, which is right at eye level, has the effect of blinding the luckless walkers, like me, who happen to be heading in the opposite direction. When the headlampers get within a few feet the light is so dazzling against the darkness that I’m left sightless and stumbling forward, hoping that I don’t trip over an uneven part of the pavement or step off the sidewalk into an unbagged pile of dog doo. It should be obvious that the bright light is disturbing others–I always try, unsuccessfully, to shield my eyes with my hands and squint against the light–but the headlampers don’t seem to care. They are lost in their own personal headlamper world, no doubt congratulating themselves as they trot along for being able to afford the wondrous technology that allows them to bring their own light rather than relying on plentiful street lighting like the rest of us.

Evidently it’s the headlampers’ world. The rest of us just live in it.

An App Too Far

Governments the world over have struggled to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, we’ve seen large-scale shutdowns of businesses, mask mandates on planes and in buildings, and social distancing and stay-at-home orders. But it is the Land Down Under — Australia — that has really pushed the envelope.

This week The Atlantic carried an eye-opening article about some of the governmental edicts that have been imposed in Australia–edicts so draconian that the article carries the provocative headline “Australia Traded Away Too Much Liberty.” Consider this partial list of emergency decrees and requirements:

  • Australia has dramatically curtailed its citizens’ ability to leave the country. The article quotes a government website (which you can see here) that states: “Australia’s borders are currently closed and international travel from Australia remains strictly controlled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. International travel from Australia is only available if you are exempt or you have been granted an individual exemption.”
  • Travel between the six states that make up Australia also is restricted. You can access the governmental website that discloses the current restrictions, which include closing state borders, limiting ability to travel within a state, and mandatory quarantines, here.
  • States have imposed curfews, have banned anti-lockdown protests, and have used the military to disperse and arrest anti-lockdown protesters in Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney, more than five million people have been in lockdown status for more than two months.

But the most draconian requirement of all is being tested and rolled out by the state of South Australia. It’s an app that the state would require its citizens to download, and the Atlantic article describes it as follows:

“People in South Australia will be forced to download an app that combines facial recognition and geolocation. The state will text them at random times, and thereafter they will have 15 minutes to take a picture of their face in the location where they are supposed to be. Should they fail, the local police department will be sent to follow up in person. ‘We don’t tell them how often or when, on a random basis they have to reply within 15 minutes,’ Premier Steven Marshall explained. ‘I think every South Australian should feel pretty proud that we are the national pilot for the home-based quarantine app.’”

It’s a pretty amazing development when a democratic government claims the ability to unilaterally require citizens to download an app, respond to random government texts, and be required to respond within a specified time period with a personal photo showing they are in “the location where they are supposed to be” or receive a visit from the local police. It’s even more amazing that the head of that government actually thinks citizens should be proud that their state government is the leader in imposing that kind of extraordinary government intrusion. I’d like to think that no duly elected government in America would think that kind of action was anything other than an egregious overreach–but then, I would have thought the Aussies would never have done anything like that, too.

There’s obviously a delicate balance between preserving individual rights and liberties and dealing with public health issues. As The Atlantic article notes, Australia’s dramatic decrees can be cited as allowing it to achieve COVID-related death statistics that are far below those in the U.S. But Australia also shows how the balancing of health and rights can tip decidedly to one side, in a way that strikes at the core of freedoms that are a defining characteristic of democratic societies. Citizens of other countries should be looking at what has happened in Australia and asking themselves: “Was it worth it?” and “Could that happen here?”

Spill-Proof

I’ve complained before about the spillage that inevitably occurs when you try to pour water from a standard coffee pot into the coffee maker to make coffee in the morning. Thanks to the capillary effect, water almost always spills onto the countertop, leaving you to mop things up. It’s a supremely annoying way to start the day.

But there’s good news for those, like me, who are easily irritated by such mishaps. Some profound product engineer has figured out a way to control the capillary effect and prevent spills. We had to buy a new Bunn coffee maker this week–the heating unit on the old one gave out, for no readily apparent reason, which was irritating in and of itself–and the new pot has a tongue that extends from the lid out over the spout, as shown in the photo above. It looks strange, and I initially thought it was one of those extra packing pieces you need to remove. But in fact it’s part of the design, and it works like a charm. The water follows the tongue, and every drop ends up in the coffee maker. Whoo-hoo!

It’s a pleasure to make coffee in the morning without dousing the counters and muttering dark imprecations as I swab up the spilled water. Such small advances make for a happier life. And it’s encouraging to know that, even with a standard device like a coffee pot, some nameless person is still thinking about improvements.

The Super-Rich In Space

This month we’ve seen a lot of seriously rich people leave the surface of the planet and journey to the edge of space. Earlier this month billionaire Richard Branson took a flight launched by Virgin Galactic–Branson’s company–to a height 50 miles above the Earth’s surface, and yesterday Jeff Bezos, who is even richer than Richard, rode a rocket launched by his space company, Blue Origin, to an even higher destination, 62 miles up. And let’s not forget fellow billionaire Elon Musk, who hasn’t traveled above the stratosphere, yet, but whose SpaceX venture has launched far more rockets and capsules, traveled farther, and advanced space technology more than Bezos’ or Branson’s companies put together.

Bezos’ flight is interesting, and not just because one of the world’s very richest men wore a space uniform and took the risk of a potentially fatal mishap. The Blue Origin flight also was piloted by the oldest person yet to fly into space–82-year-old Wally Funk, who was part of a NASA Women in Space program back in the ’60s–as well as the youngest person, who also was first Blue Origin’s paying customer. The paying customer was 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, whose Dad, a wealthy businessman, bought a seat for him. Oliver filled in for an anonymous person who had paid $28 million for a seat on the flight, then backed out due to “scheduling conflicts.” (Really? Somebody paid $28 million to take a trip into space, and then let “scheduling conflicts” delay their departure? Those must have been some pretty serious “scheduling conflicts”!)

Blue Origin hopes to help fund future flights, in part, through space tourism sales. It has announced that it is now officially selling tickets to future flights, and that it has made $100 million in sales so far. It’s not clear how much such tickets might cost, but it’s obvious that there is a market for a ride into space among some segments of the megarich, and their kids and other family members. And while it wasn’t a particularly long ride yesterday–the CNN article linked in the first paragraph above described the trip as allowing the passengers to experience “about three minutes of weightlessness, unstrapping from their seats and floating about the cabin while taking in panoramic views” before coming back down to a landing–it’s obviously an experience you can’t find anywhere else right now.

We often bemoan the lifestyles and luxuries enjoyed by the super-rich, but in this case I’ll gladly tip my cap to Musk, and Bezos, and Branson, and Oliver Daemen’s Dad, and the anonymous person with the “scheduling conflicts.” If the hyper-wealthy are willing to help fund private ventures in space, and are doing it, in part, so they can enjoy a joy ride to the edge of outer space, I’m all for that. I’d rather see the affluent putting their money down to help pay for new technology that will help us, collectively, move forward into space than frittering it away outbidding each other for Picassos. And, if space tourism is going to become a real thing, obviously the first passengers are going to pay a lot–but by doing so, we can hope that they will help to usher in an era when spaceflights become routine, costs decrease, and tickets are reasonably affordable for the rest of us.

Foiled

The other day I was wrapping some food to put into the freezer. I noticed, as I have noticed before, that the aluminum foil that I was using for that purpose had one side that was decidedly more shiny than the other. But this time, that idle moment of recognition was followed by curiosity, and a question: when I wrap food, am I supposed to be distinguishing between the super shiny and less shiny sides and intentionally making sure that one side, or the other, is the inner side or outer side when the wrapping is done? In short, have I been doing things wrong for all these years by paying absolutely no attention to the sides of the foil and wrapping food randomly?

I checked the Reynolds Wrap box, which I’ve never read before, to see whether it has an instructions area. After all, manufacturers tend not to be shy in telling you the best way to use their products; in fact, you might say that product boxes are often pretty bossy about it. The Reynolds Wrap box says you can use the wrap to cover food and prevent “freezer burn,” use it to line pans before cooking, and cover bowls that are being put into the refrigerator to help keep the contents moist and avoid splatters. The box even offers tips about inventive uses of Reynolds Wrap, such as covering open ice cream with the foil to prevent formation of ice crystals, or shaping the foil into little cups to start seedlings or to hold nuts or candy. But there is nary a word about making sure to keep the shiny side against the food being wrapped.

Nevertheless, a debate rages on the internet. Some people feel strongly that the mirror-like side of the foil must always be on the interior next to the food, reasoning that the shiny side will reflect more of the radiant heat. You can read an exhaustive treatment of the subject here, which concludes that there really isn’t much difference in heat reflection. But the heat reflection analysis doesn’t make much sense to me in any case, in view of the fact that most uses of aluminum foil occur when you are putting something into the fridge or the freezer–in which case you wouldn’t care one whit about reflecting the radiant heat and in fact would want to take steps to cool or freeze the food being wrapped as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if you were using the aluminum foil to shape into little cups to hold M&Ms for a kid’s birthday party, you’d want to have the shiny side up to make for a more festive and color-reflective presentation.

In short, my effort to inform and potentially correct my aluminum foil usage came to naught. I’m convinced there is no difference, other than in the M&M cup context, with manufacturer silence on the topic being the deciding factor. So when you’re wrapping food for the freezer, feel free to place either side against the food according to your fancy at the moment.

Faceboss

I don’t really spend much time on Facebook. I post blog entries to my Facebook page, take a look at what’s on my page when I’m doing that, and try to pay attention to birthdays. But that’s about it.

But boy—do I ever get a lot of notices on Facebook. And a lot of those notices seem, well . . . pretty darned bossy. Facebook will tell me that it’s been x number of days since I’ve been to the page for a Facebook group I belong to. Facebook will call up old photos from years ago to say it was the most popular post of 2015, and ask if I want to post it again. Facebook will try to prod me to do x, y, or z using various Facebook tools. And sometimes, when one of my Facebook friends adds to their Facebook “story,” Facebook will notify me of that and explain that I can either respond or react to the new “story” post. No duh! It’s as if Facebook thinks I’ve got the mental abilities and savvy of a four-year-old and constantly need reminders and explanations to navigate through the Facebook World.

Of course, Facebook wants to encourage people to be on Facebook as much as possible—that’s how it makes money. And Facebook is also trying to monitor and curate the contents of its pages. But in our overly politicized world, where social media is a kind of public forum like the town square of days gone by, we need to be mindful of Facebook’s paternalism and somewhat overbearing attitude. As we move closer to the next set of elections, we’ll have to pay attention to how Facebook, and other social media sites, regulate their content, react to the simple expression of political views at all points on the vast American political spectrum, and instruct us about what they’ve done, and why.

I may need to be reminded to visit a group page I’ve neglected, but I don’t need to be told how, or what, to think. I’d like to believe I’m perfectly capable of sifting through the simple, unadorned political views expressed on social media and deciding for myself.

The Wright Brothers

Recently I finished David McCullough’s 2015 book The Wright Brothers — coincidentally completing it when I was 20,000 feet up in the air, flying from Austin to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and thereby owing a debt to Wilbur and Orville, the two brothers who solved the age-old puzzle of whether humans could fly.

As a native Ohioan, I’m ashamed to admit that while I knew that the Wright brothers were recognized as the inventors of the airplane, I actually knew very little about these two men from Dayton, or how they came to invent their “Flyer” that dazzled kings, prime ministers, Presidents, and ordinary people. McCullough’s book is a fascinating read that adroitly tells that story, focusing on the period when the brothers made their discoveries and inventions that changed the course of history. The book introduces us to these two brothers from an extraordinarily close-knit family who worked together for years, designed their own “safety bicycle,” which they called the “Van Cleve,” developed a successful bicycle business–and then became obsessed with solving the mystery of flight.

The context of their story is important, because the Wright brothers lived during an era when inventions were fundamentally transforming their world in countless ways–inventions like the telephone, the automobile, and the electric light, among many others. It was an era of great technological progress, when almost anything seemed possible. But human flight seemed to be the one step that could not be taken. In fact, some reputable publications flatly declared that human flight was impossible. The Wright brothers didn’t agree, and they put their noses to the grindstone and came up with the solution that now allows us to climb onto planes and cross hundreds of miles up in the air without giving it a second thought.

One theme of McCullough’s book is that the story of the Wright brothers is a story of the value of hard work, dedication, resolve, and focus. The brothers worked hard–six days a week, taking only Sunday off–and painstakingly addressed each problem presented and carefully overcame every obstacle. They talked for hours about the best way to design the wings, the rudder, and other parts of the plane, helping to spur their many innovations. They repeatedly put their lives on the line to test their invention. And each aspect of the Wright brothers’ Flyer–the wings and their design, the steering mechanism, the propellers, and the motor–had to be created and developed out of whole cloth. The Wright brothers’ story is the classic Horatio Alger tale in which the heroes achieve success through pluck, perseverance, and industriousness.

It was only a few short years between the Wright brothers’ first flight of their flyer, skimming above the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina–shown in the photograph above–and the development of a practical airplane that, as shown below, could soar above the harbor waves and circle the Statue of Liberty, astonishing the jaded citizenry of New York City. And once the Wright brothers solved the riddle, and not incidentally received patents for their inventions, everyone started building flying machines, and the modern air age began.

Wilbur Wright died young, succumbing to typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 45, but Orville Wright lived until 1948–long enough to see the airplane he helped invent used in two world wars, drop the atomic bomb, become a practical method of everyday transportation, and be upgraded with the development of jet engines and supersonic flight.

It’s quite a story, really, and well worth the read.

The Best Car Decades

The other day I was walking downtown to work when I passed this beautiful example of Detroit’s former handiwork in front of Kittie’s Cakes. This vintage convertible—which I think was a Lincoln, from the distinctive greyhound hood ornament—was freshly polished and waxed, glinting and gleaming in the bright sunshine, just waiting to be admired. It was like a mobile piece of art.

For my money, American car manufacturers designed and built their most beautiful and eye-catching cars in the ‘30s and ‘40s. In that era there was an attention to detail and gracefulness in the design of sedans and coupes and other passenger vehicles, and a kind of recognition that a car is important and says something about its owner, and therefore is really worthy of careful creation. The cars of those decades are sleek and pleasing in appearance, with lots of rounded curves, but powerful in performance, with plenty of horsepower. They look like they would be a lot of fun to drive.

Cars from the ‘20s and earlier look like antique curiosities that—unlike this specimen—could never hold their own on a modern highway. By the ‘50s Detroit was in the throes of its Fin Fixation, giving cars a look that hasn’t worn well. The ‘60s saw a brief resurgence in design, but didn’t fully recapture the classic combination of grace and power seen in the ‘30s and ‘40s. By the ‘70s, with its series of dismal, uninspired, boxy rust buckets, Detroit hit rock bottom. Since then, the focus has been on functionality, minivans, and pickups, and the days when car manufacturers would try to build a graceful, elegant, and powerful passenger car are now far behind us.

In retrospect, the ‘30s and ‘40s are the glory days. It’s great to see one of the products of that era still on the street.

Nervous About Service

I realized to my dismay that the internet service at home was out. I tried the tips and instructions about unplugging and replugging, hitting reset buttons, and rebooting, all to no avail. Then I called the customer service line, talked to a robot that had been programmed to sound like a person—complete with mimicked tapping keyboard sounds—and ultimately was faced with the choice of whether to schedule a service appointment.

I groaned in dismay at the prospect—causing the robot to politely respond “I didn’t catch that, please repeat it”—but internet service is basically an essential these days, where working remotely is an integral part of life. So I gritted my teeth, booked a service call time, and braced myself for the mishaps that seem to inevitably accompany service appointments. How many times have service people gotten lost or gone to the wrong address, missed their appointment window after you’ve interrupted your day and are patiently waiting at home, taken a look and then reported that they don’t have the right tools in their truck, or had some other issue that makes a service call a painful exercise? And the issues aren’t all pointing one way, either. Doing remote service work, with its requirements of troubleshooting, diagnostics, testing, and repair, all while dealing with total strangers and going into their homes, would be a tough job.

But this time everything worked out. The service tech arrived on time, which got things off on the right foot, and he was polite, professional, and knowledgeable. He determined that the problem was an outdoor connection, fixed it without any issues, came back inside to test the connection, and confirmed the internet service was up and running. As he left I thanked him for a job well done, he noted that I’ll probably be getting a message with a survey about the service call, and I told him it would be my pleasure to complete one. Normally I hate the constant surveying we’re subjected to, but I’ll gladly complete one in this instance.

I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I welcome a service call, but yesterday’s positive experience will definitely inform my reaction to future ones. It showed that while they are a necessary part of modern life, to be sure, they are not necessarily a necessary evil.

Over Old Mars

I admit it: I’m a space geek. I avidly followed the space program when I was a kid and watched all of the launches and landings, I joined The Planetary Society when I was a college student and got some great photos of planets taken by exploratory spacecraft of the ’70s that I tacked up on the wall around my desk, and I’ve been hooked on space and planets and the technological advances made in our exploration efforts ever since. That’s why I think what we’re doing now on Mars is pretty darned thrilling.

The photo above is a picture of the latest Mars rover, Perseverance, taken by Ingenuity, the helicopter/drone that has been taking short flights over the surface of Mars. It’s not the greatest photograph from a technical standpoint, of course, but the amazing thing is that it is a picture of human technology taken by another item of human technology on the surface of a distant, alien planet. The picture was snapped on Sunday on Ingenuity‘s third, and longest, flight over old Mars, when Ingenuity was about 16 feet above the Martian landscape and about a football field away from Perseverance.

We keep making significant advances in the space arena, whether it is developing reusable capsules and rockets, sending drones to Mars, or seeing more entrepreneurs entering the space technology and exploration business. It makes me believe that the next few years are going to see some real landmarks established: space tourism, permanent bases on the Moon, and even human landings on Mars. But for now, a blurry, grainy photo of Perseverance is still a pretty cool thing.

The Right To Be Left Alone

Louis Brandeis was one of the legendary Supreme Court justices, with a knack for turning a phrase. Early in his career, he co-authored one of the most famous law review articles of all time — admittedly, not a hotly contested area — called The Right to Privacy and published in the Harvard Law Review in 1890. Years later, in a 1928 case where the majority of the Supreme Court authorized the warrantless wiretapping of a telephone line, Justice Brandeis dissented and returned again to the concept of personal privacy. In his dissent, he wrote of “the right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people.”

I think of Justice Brandeis these days, whenever I receive an unwanted cell phone call from a stranger, or am bomboarded with unwanted emails because someone has sold my email address to someone else who wants to sell me something, or when I go anywhere to purchase a product or receive a service and am hectored to fill out a survey and provide more personal information that can be bundled and sold. Because Justice Brandeis was correct, of course: the right to be left alone is a crucial right in our society.

I’m confident Justice Brandeis would be appalled at the many and increasing intrusions into the zone of personal privacy in modern society, be they by overzealous governmental entities, annoying and persistent telemarketers, uninvited emailers, or nosy service providers. And even if you delete the email without reading it, decline to answer the spam calls, and refuse to complete the surveys, the need to do so nevertheless disrupts your solitude and makes inroads on your valuable free time.

Unless you want to totally disengage from cell phones, email, and social media, your right to be left alone is going to be eroded. Bugging people and soliciting them to buy something or contribute something is big business — the FCC, for example, recently assessed a record $225 million fine against two Texas companies that made an estimated one billion robocalls to falsely sell health insurance plans. If $225 million is the fine, how much money did those two firms make through their robocall ploy in the first place?

The right to be left alone that Justice Brandeis expressed so eloquently is being frittered away, dying the death of a thousand tiny cuts. Unfortunately, giving up some of our right to be left alone is the price we all pay for modern technology and communications devices. Paying that price might be necessary in our modern world, but we should never forget that it is a high price, indeed.

“Advanced Toast Technology”

Yesterday morning our old toaster gave up the ghost. It had been a good toaster, faithfully performing every toasting service we required of it for years and delivering delightfully golden brown slices at our command, but yesterday morning the heating elements failed. I tried banging it around and plugging it into different electrical connections–in short, the standard actions of someone who has no earthly idea how to repair a toaster but figures it’s worth a shot–but neither of those pointless exercises had the desired effect. As a result, it was clear that we needed a new toaster.

This had a thrilling benefit: it gave us a reasonable excuse to get out of the house and buy a new toaster. Sure, we could have ordered one from Amazon and had it delivered to our doorstep within minutes, but as the shutdown period nears its one-year anniversary we’re looking for any reason to get out and about. So, we seized the opportunity presented by the dead toaster development to don our masks and head to the local Target and support the brick-and-mortar merchants who provide local jobs.

When we arrived at the Target, we were surprised to find an extensive toaster selection, shown below. Target not only featured the expected two-slice and four-slice options, but also toasters that offered significant and unexpected complexity in exchange for added cost. After careful deliberation befitting the significance of the decision, we grabbed the cheapest two-slice toaster–which even so promised “Advanced Toast Technology.”

The promise of “Advanced Toast Technology” concerned me, frankly. If you think about it, toasters have been a rock of reassuring stability in an ever-changing changing sea of technological advancements that has affected even the straightforward world of kitchen appliances. The toasters of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s would perform perfectly well in a modern kitchen. Decades later, toasters still feature slots for the toast, heating coils, and a knob to be depressed to start the toasting process. No one needs a instruction manual to operate a toaster.

So when I opened our toaster and saw that it had a multi-page manual, it sent a chill down my spine. What unnecessary complexity has been injected into the tried-and-true toaster design? What new parts or elements have been added that might break down and interfere with the core toasting function? Fortunately, “advanced toast technology” turns out to be pretty basic stuff, befitting the timeless toaster functions: extra wide slots “to accommodate a variety of foods,” a removable crumb tray, “bagel & frozen options,” and seven (7!) toasting settings. I was grateful to find that there were no “smart appliance” features that require you to give your detailed personal information to toast a slice of bread. And our new toaster does a pretty good job of toasting, too.

All hail the timeless toaster, ever-immune to the confusing tides of pointless technological advancement!

The Pleasures Of Paper

Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.

It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.

Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.

I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.

My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.