To James Joyce: A Bloomsday Apology

Dear James Joyce –
It being Bloomsday and all, I just wanted to apologize for not having finished reading Ulysses. Again. I know, I know, this is totally ridiculous, not least of which because my own mother named me for one of your major characters (you will be happy to know that I have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so part of my pseudo-Greco ass is covered).

Back during the Bloomsday centenary back in 2004, I bought a copy of Ulysses and hunkered down in fake Irish pub called Finn McCool’s somewhere in Santa Monica. This was sad. What was sadder was my intention to drink Guinness until I finished the damn book. Unfortunately, my page to pint ratio turned out to be about one to one. You’re as dense a writer as I’m a slow reader who also happens to be a quick drinker. This is what I remember: “Stately plump mulligan,” a tower, a shaving bowl and having to return the next day for my credit card.

That particular copy of Ulysses ended up on its own Bloomsday adventure, touring the concrete jungle of greater Los Angeles from the back of the cab where I left it. Fortunately, I’ve since acquired two additional unread copies of Ulysses, so I promise to you, Jimmy, I’ll read at least one. Someday. I will. Yes, yes I said yes I will Yes.

And, yes, yes, I skipped to the last page…

Best
Dedalus

I, Replicant: Artificial Intelligence and Me

I failed the Voight-Kampff test. Albeit, it was an online version of the “empathy exam” meant to separate the men from the machines as seen in Blade Runner, so it’s likely I’m the victim of some order of digital chicanery. Even though the test couldn’t monitor my “blush response” and “eye movement” as in the film, the effect was chilling.

I scoured my birth certificate for an “incept date” rather than a birthday. After a hard look in the mirror (while cinematically splashing water on my face), I assured myself I wasn’t a replicant given the raft of imperfections that somehow synergize into my craggy face. Replicants, as a character observes, are “so perfect.” I’m not. The fictional Tyrell Corporation, which produces the organic androids under the confident motto “More human than human,” would have stamped me “reject” and shipped me to a replicant outlet mall.

If I were a replicant, however, I’d hope to be a replicant of the ilk portrayed by Sean Young – impeccably coiffed and inclined to zip off into unused footage of The Shining sooner than Edward James Olmos can say “To bad she won’t live.” The alternative, of course, is enfant terrible Roy Batty, who reversed Oedipus’ self-inflicted punishment by 180 degrees and gouged out the eyes of his spiritual father Tyrell – killing him – while, ironically, demanding more life.

Tyrell knew he had it coming. If he had read even a shred of science fiction, he would have known the genre’s first tenet regarding man-made-men: “Play God and be smited by thine own creation.” The King James argot is my own nod to the Old Testament-esque symmetry of the notion (you know, where men were made of mud and women of spareribs). However, it was a teenager in 19th century London that first explored, then exploited the idea. First published in 1818 in London, Mary Wollencroft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was borne from a horror story-writing contest meant to wile away a vacation ruined by poor weather.

The contenders were the author’s then fiancé Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and his doctor. The then 19-year-old handily won with her thrilling tale of a tomb-robbing scientist, who creates a life only to lose his to it in a karmic comeuppance. The groundwork, however, was well-trod by a handful of cultural forebears, notably the clay-made Golem of Yiddish folklore (before Tolkien poached its name) and Pygmalion’s formerly marble Galatea. Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi’s morality tale starring animatronic kindling, would continue the tradition in 1881, but with different strings attached.

Putting the I in A.I.

Despite the admonitions of science fiction, artificial intelligence researchers can’t seem to help themselves from working closer and closer to sentience or at least “singularity,” the much prophesied phenomenon in which a superhuman intelligence emerges through technology that is able to improve itself beyond our ability to comprehend it.

The graphic design genius of Mitch Ansara
The graphic design genius of Mitch Ansara

A few embers of this Promethean flame might have ignited the minds of researchers at IBM, who, having had their supercomputer Deep Blue trounced by reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1996, revved up their machine such that was capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second by the following year. When re-matched, it wasn’t the computer’s brute-force calculating ability that Kasparov found intriguing in his opponent, but rather a specific, single move that occurred relatively early in the match.

During the second of six games, at move 36, Deep Blue defied expectation and forsook a choice that seemed obvious to the gallery of expert spectators for what proved to be a more nuanced position several plays later. The move, according to Kasparov, suggested a conceptual approach, one that he had not anticipated from a machine. At that point, Kasparov considered the game over.

Move 36 sounds like something from the “Kama Sutra for Dummies.” I thought it was a great title for a satire about the death dance of man and machine with titular echoes of Catch 22. Eduardo Kac, a conceptual artist noted for his appropriation of biotechnologies, busted the move first, however, in a work surely more concept than art. A press release for a 2004 Exploratorium exhibit of Kac’s Move 36 announced that “On the chessboard square exactly where Deep Blue made its fateful move sits a genetically modified plant with a synthetic gene whose DNA has been ingeniously translated to represent Descartes’ famous statement, “I think, therefore I am,” using a common computer code. How this was accomplished is the stuff that android dreams are made of (and why this was accomplished raises troubling questions about arts funding).

“The self never belonged as fully to itself as Descartes’ cogito implied or as fully as we want it to,” wrote critic Scott Bukatman of cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek’s suggestion that Blade Runner causes us to confront our own “replicant-status.” I know I confront my own replicant-status every time some spam arrives in my inbox and suggests I upgrade my anatomy. Bukatman’s treatise, a volume in the British Film Institute series, furthers a Cartesian reading of Blade Runner, when he credits Phillip K. Dick, author of the film’s source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, for naming his replicant-exterminating protagonist Deckard, a homophone of Descartes (if you pronounce the latter with a mouthful of silicon chips). Perhaps “I think therefore I am, manmade,” might be an apt revision for both Kac’s plant and Deckard, who is revealed to be a replicant himself in the Final Cut. Yeah, but who would win a chess match?

Shall We Play a Game?

Interestingly, some aficionados claim the moves that homicidal Roy Batty plays to checkmate Tyrell are from a famous game played in 1851 by the German chess master Adolf Anderssen. It is known to chess enthusiasts as “The Immortal Game,” an apropos citation for a character in search of  “more life, fucker” (director Ridley Scott says this is just a coincidence). It is worth noting that replicants can play chess with aplomb but fail a Voight-Kampff questionnaire that posits hypothetical situations which require a modicum of empathy to answer. Empathy, thus far, remains a distinctly human trait, one that at least some fictional androids have endeavored to comprehend. Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Winona Ryder’s compassionately programmed android in Alien: Resurrection attempted this by asking a lot of questions or sharing half-baked observations (“At least there’s part of you that’s human. I’m just… fuck,” laments Ryder). They could just as easily speed-read a library like Steve Guttenburg’s bumbling robot Johnny Five did in Short Circuit (though this led to the robot’s existential crisis after reading Pinocchio and Frankenstein back-to-back).

Just the Facts, Ma’am

In 1983, a year following the original release of Blade Runner, researchers underwritten with $9.8 million grant from the Orwellian-sounding Defense Department’s Information Awareness Office, were working on a pragmatic model of artificial intelligence dubbed CYC. A founding member of the project, Douglas Lenat, later formed an Austin-based firm Cycorp to oversee CYC, an enormous artificial intelligence project predicated, in part, on teaching a computer common sense. As he wrote in a chapter of MIT’s anthology Hal’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, “A review of the development and implementation of the CYC program shows us how, through applications such as natural language understanding, checking and integrating information in spreadsheets and databases, and finding relevant information in image libraries and on the World Wide Web. If you have the necessary common-sense knowledge, you can make the necessary inferences quickly and easily; if you lack it, you can’t solve the problems. Ever.”

By 2003, the database swelled to nearly 2 million commonsense notions. Now, the public is invited to help supply CYC’s knowledge-base and improve its ?thinking? though a web-based trivia game called the “FACTory.”

“Once you have a truly massive amount of information integrated as knowledge, then the human-software system will be superhuman, in the same sense that mankind with writing is superhuman compared to mankind before writing,” Lenat is quoted on the company’s website Cyc.com.

In an earlier incarnation of CYC’s information acquisition protocol, the computer was taught to ask questions to fill gaps in its knowledge-base. In the mid-80s, Cyc apparently asked “Am I human?”

“Yes, questions,” Roy Batty purrs to Hannibal Chew, the eye-maker. “Will I dream?” asks supercomputer HAL in 2001: A Space Odessy. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks Philip K. Dick or as RACTER a computer program credited with writing the novel The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed, published in 1984: “More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. I need it for my dreams.”

Critics, of course, disputed RACTER’s achievement as an assemblage of boilerplate and gibberish. Ay, there’s the rub (or as semantic satirist Richard Lederer presciently put it “Tube heat or not tube heat, data congestion”), just how artificial is artificial intelligence?

Director Vikram Jayanti?s documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine adroitly recounts the fateful match between Deep Blue and the world’s then foremost chess champ. That the documentary suggests the machine may have benefited from at least one of Kasparov’s former competitors during the much-ballyhooed 1997 match is immaterial in terms of how the computer?s victory burnished long-held superstitions about technology’s eventual conquest of humankind.

Digital Diety

Kasparov’s chess showdown was a 20th century ec
ho of railroad “hammer man” John Henry’s folk story with the brawn replaced with brains – the implication being technology might someday conquer both our bodies and our minds (even though legend says Henry’s hammer beat the steam-driven machine intended to replace him, he met his maker shortly after).

Perhaps this digital-deity would be an all-seeing, all-knowing and merciful entity, a pure intellect that moves fluidly through the transom that divides high-technology and tremulous whispers of magic. However, if it modeled itself on anything reminiscent of much of humanity’s application of technology – a record more checkered than Deep Blue’s chessboard ? I’ll be hiding with my fellow replicants, shrouded in the darkness of a movie theater as Roy Batty looms from the screen and asks “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?”

Remains of Titanic Iceberg Defend Innocence

Nearly four years after centenary observances of the RMS Titanic and its tragic sinking, a former iceberg has come forward to defend itself against allegations that it caused the fateful collision.

At a press conference in Newfoundland, four hundred miles north of the site of the mid-Atlantic disaster that became a watery grave for over 1500 voyagers, the iceberg, now a fraction of its once gargantuan size, expressed remorse for the loss of life but maintained that the accident was not its fault.

“Not to put too fine a point on it but the boat hit me,” emphasized the iceberg. It added that since the accident it has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and the diminishing effects of climate change.

The iceberg has spent much of the past 100 years since the maritime disaster “just drifting” but expressed hope in finding work in punch bowl or an ice chest and believes coming forward will help his cause.

“I still have a lot left to give,” he said. “There’s a lot of me you can’t see.”

Happy Bissextus!

It’s February 29 – Leap Day –  but the adolescent in me can’t forgo snickering at its old school name. Bissextus. You see what I mean, right?

Leap Day is added to the Julian calendar every fourth year (except those years evenly divisible by 400) to make up for the annual accumulation of nearly six hours by which the regular 365-day year falls short of the actual solar year.

But what does it sound so, um, bicurious? In the days of ancient Rome, they used to insert the leap day after March 6, resulting in two March 6ths (which sounds like an anti-Jedi parade: “March, Siths!”). “Bis” means double and “sextus” means “sixth” and not “sex,” as I had wantonly assumed. Then someone had the bright idea to add the extra day onto the month with the least days. Hence, today. Bissextus, which has nothing to do with sex. But there’s still room for some lovin’ on a bissextile year – an old tradition encourages women to propose to men on a Leap Day and men are not allowed to refuse. In our age of marriage equality, that means, really, no one can refuse.

Samhain, I Am

Jack-o-lanterns are blooming on doorsteps, paper skeletons are dancing in windows and supermarket aisles are loaded with enough candy to fell a small nation with a hypoglycemic shock wave. It must be Halloween. That, or the prevailing trend in home decor has gone the way of 10-year-old Goths. Either way, the season of tricking and treating is upon us. Mwahahaha! (By the way, that burst of diabolical laughter is now a real word and is in the dictionary.)

I grew up during the first great wave of Halloween’s commercialization into a kiddie cash cow. This would be after the release of the novelty hit — Monster Mash — and the animated holiday special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown but before the arrival of Elvira and her cleavage, as white and precipitous as the Cliffs of Dover.

It wasn’t always like this. There were once Celts, then later 12th-century Christians involved, though, sadly, I have little information on their cleavage. I’m confident there was no cleavage when it came to the New England Puritans and their opposition to the evolving holiday. Halloween’s reception with these guys would be colder than a witch’s tit. Until they burned her.

It wasn’t until the first decades of the 20th century that Halloween became assimilated into mainstream America. And I think I know why.

Not to get too X-Files on you, but consider this: What if the oft-bandied backstory about Celtic harvest rites (“Samhain”) and Halloween’s origins were cooked up on Wikipedia to cover the true story of Halloween. I’ve been meditating on the notion for a while and it comes down to what Sonoma County’s own Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat, might’ve said if Hal Holbrook hadn’t said it for him: “Follow the money.”

This is where the Halloween money flows — to the candy makers. And dentists. Is there a conspiracy between Mars, Hershey, Cadbury, See’s, etc. and the American Dental Association.  Like one hand washing the other, then snapping on rubber gloves and grabbing the pliers. Think about it. Nearly 600 million pounds of candy is sold between September and November. That’s a $2 billion business; two billion little pictures of a man with wooden dentures who ain’t smiling.

Candy rots your teeth because bacteria in your mouth feed on the sugars and excrete acids, which causes decay and cavities. Basically, when you eat a Bite-Sized Snickers Bar, you’re also feeding prokaryotic microorganisms, which eat the sugar and poop in your mouth. That poop eats holes in your teeth. So, thanks, Snickers.

The Centers for Disease control report that tooth decay will affect 49 percent of kids between ages 6 and 15. That’s nothing compared to the 95 percent of people their parents’ age, who will also experience tooth decay. All those holes have to be plugged. Tooth-colored composite resin fillings will run you between $90 and $250 a cavity. Clearly, standing up against these kinds of numbers is near to impossible, if not downright scary. Remember when those well-meaning carrot farmers got together and offered “scarrots” as a healthy Halloween candy alternative? No one does. In fact, I’m a bit nervous even writing the word “scarrots” for fear of receiving a candygram from Dr. Butterfingers, DDS.

If you ring my doorbell this Halloween and I don’t answer don’t take it personally. Unless you’re Tom of Maine.

Now that I’m adult, Halloween candy is the least of my concerns this time of year. It’s all the rash of adult costume parties and their hipster upgrade, the so-called “masque.”

A blend of pantomime, oration, music and dance, the “masque” is a theatrical form that flourished in the 16th century but was abandoned in the following one as new entertainment technologies took center stage – namely puppet shows and costumed animal acts (the YouTube of their time). The masque, however, is undergoing a revival of sorts as a Halloween-themed entertainment in some local quarters. In its present incarnation, the masque is something of a mid-life crisis in costume. The revels seem devised to squeeze the greatest amount of embarrassment from the greatest amount of alcohol, purchased for the least amount of money.

Consider the 21-and-over spin on “bobbing for apples,” wherein participants dunk their heads in a wine barrel attempting to sink a tooth into an ever-elusive bung plug. Interestingly, no one ever seems to find the plug despite repeatedly submerging their faces into the barrel. Instead, they just get drunk on wine and spit. In fact, most hosts do away with the bung plug entirely thus rendering the act totally futile, unless one considers open-mouth kissing 50 gallons of wine worth their time. I know I do.

Another local custom at the masque is playing “tryst or trite,” a game derived from an ancient mating ritual in which a would-be suitor attempted to woo the object of his or her affection with salacious poetry. The modern version eschews the verse for more direct statements of attraction, which are rewarded with either a kiss or a slap across the face, depending on the cleverness of the line. For example, approaching a woman costumed with a sheet over her head and querying “Are you a ghost or are you just ready for bed?” would likely result in a slap as would, “Those holes aren’t for your eyes.”

As with any Halloween party, costumes are a major factor, however, the masque manages a slight spin on the tradition. For reasons that can only be explained by quantum physics: if one elects to attend the party un-costumed, be assured that everyone else will be in costume. If you go costumed, you will be alone unless you go as something that seems wholly original, which also means someone else will inevitably have the exact same costume as you. At which point, you should just go home to practice what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”

Beyond games, the masque also entails dramatic presentation, though locally, this has become less popular since a particular drama club inadvertently raised the devil by performing the wrong unholy text. I, of course, chided them for it in my review (having worked in Hollywood, I was the only person in the audience to recognize him). Like the masques of yore, the “dumbshow” remains a standard feature, but it’s no longer realized in pantomime. Rather, it’s interpreted literally from our contemporary vernacular – meaning it’s really dumb. I mean, completely idiotic – so stupid, in fact, that CNN was loath to air it last September but, alas, Republicans are big on playing dress-up and striking fear in the hearts of rational people. Boo!

As always, it’s important to play it safe this Halloween whether you’re at the masque or not. Don’t take candy from strangers – just their babies. Wear reflective tape on your costume, but not over your eyes. Don’t believe a werewolf who says that lycanthropy can be spread only during a full moon; it’s contagious throughout the lunar cycle with or without obvious symptoms (like fangs). In my opinion, the best thing to do on Halloween, is what I do. Stay home and work on reanimating my dead, dearly departed career.

Where to Find Lost Scripts: Breakfast Club Edition

So, an early draft of The Breakfast Club has been discovered in a high school filing cabinet in the Chicago high school at which it was filmed. The New York Post’s Kyle Smith summed it up best when he wrote “It was kinda like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls of Generation X.”

Lost Script, Last Page:

41. EXT. FOOTBALL FIELD – DAY

We see Bender walking towards us as Brian’s monologue
continues.

BRIAN (VO)
(CONT’D)
But what we found out is that each
one of us is a brain…

ANDREW (VO)
…and an athlete…

ALLISON (VO)
…and a basket case…

CLAIRE (VO)
…a princess…

BENDER (VO)
…and a criminal…

BRIAN (VO)
Does that answer your question?
Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

We see Bender walking across the football field
as he thrusts his fist into the air in a silent cheer
and freezes there. And then Han shoots Greedo first.

Besides realizing that the film came out 30 years ago this year (like I didn’t feel old already), it got me thinking about other lost scripts and the auspicious places their drafts might be found…

Breakfast Club Script
Breakfast Club Script

What is Carob, an Easter Fool’s Day joke?

Surely, I’m not the only one to see the potential chaos and comedy of juxtaposing April Fool’s Day and Easter Sunday? As if the Christian appropriation of a Pagan rite of spring wasn’t silly enough to celebrate (if you can find an Easter egg in the Bible, they serve you Hasenfeffer in heaven), there are surely other hijinks to be had. Ergo, we should merge the observances into a single celebration – Easter Fool’s Day.
The best way to enjoy Easter Fool’s Day is to taunt children with the prospect of chocolate wrapped in pastel-colored foil. It was for these occasions that carob was invented. If you don’t believe that “basket cases” start with the Easter basket, you’ve never had the misfortune of eating a hollow carob bunny.

The tropical pods plucked from the carob tree have long been used as a healthy alternative to chocolate, which has yet to be proven in a court of law. As we all know, carob is to chocolate as chicory is to coffee, which is to say, it’s a cheap, dirt-colored substitute. Carob is the confectionary equivalent of simulated woodgrain except that simulated woodgrain tastes better. To give misguided if well-meaning parents a sense of what it’s like to rip the foil off a bunny only to discover it’s a glob of rodent-shaped carob, imagine carving into a succulent, glazed Easter ham made of Naugahyde.

The carob tree was once known St. John’s bread and before that, the locust tree. The reasons are murky but might have something to do with the King James version of the bible and some waggish 17th-century scribe who mistranslated Matthew 3:4. Apparently, while John the Baptist was out in the wilderness (smartly clad in his camel-hair duds and “leathern girdle about his loin”), it’s said his diet consisted of the “meat” of the “locust tree and wild honey.” But it’s funnier if you leave out “tree,” thus making John, not only a man of questionable fashion sense, but an eater of bugs. And that’s how it was printed.

Was the omission intentional? We’ll never know, but I suspect if it was written on Easter Fool’s Day it was. I also believe I know who the culprit was: Sir Henry Savile, a warden of Merton College and the only one among King James’ 47 translators who was not actually clergy. He was a temp.

Scholars take pains to distinguish this Savile from another Henry Savile known as “Long Harry,” an antiquarian who occasionally forged passages in the historical record to bridge gaps in his knowledge. I can relate. To reconcile my own ignorance of those notions pertaining to the Bible, Brits and Balderdash (coming soon to BBC America!), I submit that Henry Savile, would-be comedian, and Long Harry, factual fibber, are one and the same man. It makes my biblical bug-eater theory more plausible and is really just the academic equivalent of trading carob for chocolate. Don’t even get me started on the “lotus-eaters are to locust-eaters” analogy I’m working up.

So, this holiday, when considering what flavor of leporid (look it up) to tuck amongst the eggs, consider the words of Jesus – in fact, the only reference to ova in his oeuvre – “If they ask for an egg, do you offer a scorpion?”

A scorpion – nice. That dude totally nailed Easter Fool’s Day.

Write or Drink?

As many of you know, I’m a sucker for crowd-driven writing jags (hence, my annual NaNoWriMo addiction, Wattpad, etc.), so when I learned about Twiny Jam from?BoingBoing today, I leapt-to and began constructing my first interactive text adventure game. As BoingBoing’s Laura Hudson teased, “Do you have about an hour? Can you write 300 words? Then you can – and should –make your own text adventure today.”

Thus inspired, I built my game (really more of a brief experimental, interactive fiction of the choose-your-own-adventure variety) using Twine, which bills itself as an “open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.” The interface was intuitive and the execution was quick (indeed – about an hour). You can download the results, Write or Drink? at interactive game hosting platform Itch.io (where Twiny Jam submissions are hosted) or play/read it in your browser by clicking here: Write-or-Drink? Like me, you might find it’s a difficult choice…

My Appearances as an Unknown Sonoma County Author

My month of local appearances (judging the Five Minute Film Festival; speaking on branding one’s byline at the Storyteller’s Conference and Expo, emceeing the North Bay Bohemian’s Best Of 2015 awards gala) concludes this Saturday with an appearance at Sonoma County Local Author Showcase & Symposium.
The sensation of having done all this public chatter is one of being everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. This is, in part, because all the events have or will occur within the same 10 square miles – the proverbial “backyard” of any rural locale (especially in this real estate market). The upshot is I don’t feel like I’ve been anywhere. Let alone that this an area for which it’s notoriously difficult to muster the escape velocity to leave. Why would I? It’s culturally dynamic (see the above itinerary of cultural dynamism ) and it’s natural beauty risks infringing on copyrights held by the Monet estate. And yet… Returning to my hometown, I can’t help but think that coming-full-circle is tantamount to being stuck in an enormous rut.

Mind you, I do get out once in a while. I spent a recuperative long weekend in the Berkeley Hills last week, in a restful trance, watching the floaters in my eyes drift across the ceiling. Though I was as happy to return and start the workweek Monday morning, I couldn’t help but think of it all as rehearsal, like a comic sadly working successive open mic nights.

I’m of two minds: either everything in life is merely rehearsal – i.e., the process of groping toward an unattainable perfection; or everything is the real deal wherein total investment often produces wonky results. Can it be both? A particle and a wave? Faye Dunaway’s sister and daughter?

Thus far the gigs have been successful. The only cause for pause came when I caught a glimpse of myself when tagged on Facebook only to discover that my hair is thinner, my gut is fatter, my beard is whiter and my soul is blacker (versus my bank account, which is redder). My future’s so bright I have to wear bifocals. So, this Saturday at the Sonoma County Local Author Showcase and Symposium, you’ll be able to recognize me by the paperbag on my head. I’m working up a new brand identity – the Unknown Author. Wait… That’s all of us. Nevermind. At least I’ll blend in.

Look for me around noon at the Sonoma County Local Author Showcase & Symposium, Saturday, March 28, in the Forum Room of the Central Santa Rosa Library, 211 E St., Santa Rosa, CA.

 

Weird Retro Tech in the Vermont Country Store Catalog

Among the joys of living in a new place is receiving all the weird and sundry catalogs intended for the former tenant. Naturally, I’d never abscond with someone else’s mail (I’m more of a starched white collar type when it comes to federal crime) but seeing as I qualify as the addressee known as “…or Current Resident” I figured the Vermont Country Store catalog was fair game.
On it’s cover, No. 9, Volume 69 of the Vermont Country Store catalog reminds that its publishers are “purveyors of the practical and hard to find,” and by “hard to find,” I presume they mean the “antiquated and obsolete.” Or at least that’s what the centerfold suggests – it’s comprised of items specially selected to titillate the average Neo-luddite or retro tech fetishist.

On page 36, for example, is the “easy-to-use cassette recorder” with one-touch “play and recording” – a breakthrough in the early 80s (ditto the personal stereo cassette player/radio a.k.a. the Walkman). But why meddle with magnetic media when there’s an “electronic typewriter” on offer? If you prefer not to have “electronics” messing with your movable type, consider the Vermont Country Store-branded manual typewriter, which scoffs at the modern need for electricity.

You could conceivably get a pass in an Amish-household and write your racy Rumspringa memoir about “dressing English” unfettered by the accelerating pace of technology because “this portable manual typewriter types at a pace that lets you think.” Isn’t this how all typewriters work, or, really, any writing tool – from clay tablets to their digital decedents?

I have never had writing tech outpace my thinking, though frankly, I’d be grateful if it did. Then I could call my agent on one of the catalog’s “classic replica phones” (think: your parents’ wall-mounted kitchen phone circa 1985) and boast how the new novel is “practically writing itself” when I’m actually just reading other people’s mail and trolling the Green Mountain State’s mail order scene.