Thursday, 28 October 2010

Goodbye (Magnetic) Yellow Brick Road

Earlier this week, the Sony Corporation announced it would cease production of its famous "Walkman" devices. For those unawares that music was actually once something one either paid for or waited patiently to hear on the radio rather than "on demand," this machine was a revolutionary little device that allowed one to listen to FM radio or cassette tapes whilst exercising, working in the yard, or engaged in some other mobile pursuit.

Oh; I reckon I ought to add that a "cassette" was a type of media that was popular somewhere back in the late Cretaceous Period that allowed one to record music for later playback.  And it involved moving parts.

My first "Walkman" was about half the size of a tissue box - it seemed incredibly compact at the time, and I used it walking back and forth to school or when cutting the lawn.  In those days, that latter task was not yet one "Americans wouldn't do."

There is little doubt in my mind that the pace of technological advancement is getting faster (see Moore's Law as an example;  devices are becoming obsolete quicker than you can say "Akihabara." ), and that generally, this is a good thing. I don't lament the passing of the Walkman.

My thoughts today are about how, with the change in technology comes another sort of evolution that is going unrecorded, and that is around the obsolescence of language itself.  In 10 years, will people know what a "cassette" was?  Or, more obliquely, will euphemisms like "rewind" remain, even though the meaning is lost?

It's a bit of a rhetorical question, but not one that's unprecedented.  Examples are manifold.  Think of the colloquialisms that are common in our language"

  • "Dial" a number
  • "Turn" the channel
  • In the same "Area Code"
  • Performing "in the clutch."
My brother in law is only 10 years younger than I am, but when I was discussing music with him some years back and mentioned listening to "45s," he was truly puzzled.  I might as well have said I heard it on the wireless or purchased scrolls for the Victrola.

No one owns a rotary phone, so "dialling" is essentially meaningless.  We use digital tuners on our televisions.  Area codes, once actually tied to physical locations are no longer applicable (my mobile is in the 408 "Area Code," which is 2500 miles away.)

So, to the Walkman, I simply quote an oldie by the Stone Ponies (a band from the late 1960s):

"Goodbye... I'll be leaving.  I see no sense, in crying and grieving."  

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Were the Good Old Days REALLY that Good?

Time waits for no man, as the saying goes, and thus I like everyone fortunate not to run into medical (or other) problems of a serious sort, confront the wonders of middle age.  In looking back at memories that grow longer from a life that grows shorter, I am often struck with nostalgia.

But I wonder... Were the old days really that "good?"

Case in point.  A couple of weeks ago, in travelling home from a trip to Hawaii, we stopped for breakfast in a restaurant in LAX called "Ruby's Diner."  For those of you unfamiliar with Southern California, it's a retro-themed diner that claims to be a purveyor of "40's style food and fun" (emphasis added).

I'm not sure, exactly, what "40's style food" is (my imagination is a lot of simple meat-heavy meals fried heavily in lard), but I was struck by the idea of  "40's style fun."  When I think of the 40's, I think of a terrible war, rationing, and austerity.

What of that is "fun?"

One might argue that the times were simpler (some aspects of that may be good, some less so), or that the movies were better, or perhaps the music.  But it seems more likely just an appeal to nostalgia.

I wonder if, in history, people have always been so eager to recollect earlier times so fondly?  I'm not talking about on a personal level - most of us who are over 40 recall with some fondness our youth, when we had less responsibility, less pressure, and perhaps less weight around the middle.

Retro-style seems to be omnipresent, whether it's the new wave of nostalgia for the 1980s that has arisen with Sony's announcement that it will discontinue the "walk man," or flashback music on the radio, or movies that paint the times of Queen Elizabeth I in soft-cell light (ignoring of course the abysmal hygiene and squalor that the time held for most).

I'm a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote light opera in the Victorian era.  One of their most famous works - a play that formed the subject of the acclaimed movie "Topsy-Turvy" about 10 years ago, is "The Mikado," a comedy ostensibly about Imperial Japan, but less obviously, a satirical commentary on Victorian England itself.  In the First Act, the Lord High Executioner has a song called "I've Got a Little List," wherein he delineates a group of people who, if necessity arose, would go onto his list of convenient "customers" whom society would not miss.

On his list is the

         Idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone.
         All centuries but this and every country but his own.

So apparently, at least these to recognised the theme of remembering the past as being better than it really was.

It's my opinion that at some points in history (the 1950s, perhaps) the focus was on the future and not the past.  It was the space-age.  Cars looked sleeker.  People envisioned space travel.    

Then again, maybe I'm guilty of my own nostalgic myopia.  The 1950s also was a time of yellow and avocado coloured appliances, polyester suits, and cars with monstrously ugly tail fins.


Monday, 25 October 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad (and Foreign) Wolf?

Fear is back in fashion, at least if the chattering classes are to be believed.  Not that it ever went out, of course.

In the space of a week, we've seen at least a couple of flaps that lead to cries of 'xenophobia.'  First, German chancellor Angela Merkel, in addressing young members of her party, made the comment that Germany's attempts at building a "multicultural society have utterly failed."  And more recently, liberal columnist and writer Juan Williams was excommunicated from even more liberal National Public Radio for comments he made regarding his personal fear of people who "are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims."

Both cases resulted in a wave of editorials on the impolitic nature of the comments.   In particular, James Carroll of the Boson Globe here declaimed a perceived rising tide of xenophobia.

Whatever one's opinions of the comments, I think it's fair to ask, "where does one draw the line between a legitimate desire for a nation and its people to ask those who wish to join them to accommodate their new homeland, not the other way round, and real, honest-to-goodness xenophobia - the irrational fear of those who are 'foreign' solely because they are foreign."

Setting aside the history of Germany towards its ethnic and religious minorities and semantic arguments about what a "Christian" country is, if one examines the facts on the ground - not only in Germany, but more generally in Western Europe - is it fair to ask how successfully the so-called multi-cultural model has actually worked, and not in some sort of Pollyanna way, but in reality?  Are ethnic Germans and ethnic Turks skipping through fields of daisies singing "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke?"

Carroll's own article points to second and third generation immigrants with scant language skills, stuck on the economic fringe.  The Guardian in London - hardly the English equivalent of National Review  commented on, e.g., the fact that German mosques need to bring in Turkish imams because the population doesn't speak German sufficiently well, and  there are simply none trained in Germany who can speak Turkish.  Regularly, we are treated to stories about riots in the ethnic banlieues of Paris, or the murders of people like Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands.

I disagree with Angela Merkel on at least this - Western democracies, and in particular the US, are pluralistic societies, and to some degree, innovation, growth, and advancement in the arts, science, culture, and industry have been the hallmarks of the West for nearly 500 years because of our willingness to incorporate new ideas.  And I think that our societies benefit enormously when industrious, enterprising people are welcomed to our shores.  Nations that shut their doors to new paradigms are doomed to stagnation and decline - one need look no further than China during the end of its imperial days, or the Arab middle east today.

But I think it's entirely appropriate as part of the bargain that those coming make an attempt to assimilate to the nation that they've chosen to join.  And it's not xenophobia to ask that some core principles that can define a nation beyond simply a geographic, economic, and political corporation be identified.  

E pluribus unum, despite what Al Gore mis-spoke some years ago, means  America is more than a place to sleep and way to earn a dollar.

Put simply - Carroll is right that this is not a "Christian" country; but separation of Church and state equally applies to separation of Mosque and state.  And in this respect, Williams's comments that those who self-identify ostentatiously that, first and foremost, they are any particular religious adherents and then and only thenAmericans are cause for pause, whether they be extremist Christians, Jews, or, yes, Moslems.