Back when people used typewriters

Mark Twain was a famous early adopter of fancy technology, and he helped to popularize the typewriter. Isaac Asimov, author of more than five hundred books, had two IBM selectrics; if one broke, he shoved it aside and kept writing. It was a different time, when most information was distributed on dead trees. You know, right up until 22 years ago, before the World Wide Web.

Check out this video of kids reacting to a typewriter. Funny how a couple of them… want to keep it. It is sort of magical, letters appearing on the paper like that. The sound, the mechanism; this thing has authority.

I had a very difficult time with fine motor coordination* as a kid, and my handwriting was terrible. My sister taught me how to use a typewriter; home row, hands in position, strike the key – magic! A crisp letter on paper. I could get my thoughts out, finally.

I got very good at typing. In college, I made spending money typing papers for grad students who couldn’t spell. You kids, remember this: Spell Check won’t save you from using the correctly spelled wrong word. Homophones lurk, waiting to make you look like an idiot. But I will be sympathetic, pat you on the back and say; “There, they’re, their.”

Here’s what I like best about a manual typewriter: it has infinite patience. While you compose your next words (and you do compose, because it has no error correction), it waits, silent, wanting nothing. No electricity, no software patches, no pop-up ads. It offers no half-assed electronic opinions about your spelling or grammar. It has nothing else to do but wait for your next words. Now, that’s power.


  • Dave Hill compares his Smith Corona typewriter to a firearm… (Give me the typewriter any day.)
  • *Spinal meningitis, age 4. I was “lucky” but effects persist to this day. My handwriting has improved. The typewriter was a godsend.
  • Today I use a computer. My favorite is my Chromebook, which has a very long battery life, and no fan.
  • Next time you have some serious writing to do, instead of a word processor, try a code editor in “clean screen” mode. It’s the closest thing on a computer to using a typewriter. My favorite is Notepad++.

Something I learned from fixing things

Sewer Repair
Your savings? They are gone now.

Recently our sewer pipe broke, and it’s going to cost us 10 grand to fix it. Our yard is a mess with an excavation eight feet deep and 80 feet in length. But that isn’t the important thing.

The important thing is that in the last 5 years, most of the houses on the block have had to have this repair done. All the houses were built about 50 years ago. Buried clay tile only lasts about 40 to 60 years.

If you build a lot of something, they will all start to break at about the same time.

I’ve spent a lifetime fixing things. Cars, bicycles, photographic equipment, computers, and more. When something breaks, people turn around and look at me. From this I’ve learned that systems and objects have a “service life”. That is, you can expect them to last about n years before they need repair or replacement. If you have 100 of them, and plot how long they worked until failing, a failure curve will emerge.  Most of them will fail at approximately n years and a few will fail before and after.

The big picture

Crude MTBF concept sketch
Crude MTBF concept sketch (click to embiggen)

If you build a bunch of houses, most of them will need new sewer pipes around the same time. The same goes for roofs, furnaces, sinks, etc. Each of these systems has a Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) curve. When you look at that curve, you know about how long it takes the system in question to wear out or at least need maintenance.

Ideally, you should use this information to plan ahead. Because fixing them is gonna be real expensive.

This also applies, broadly, to roads, bridges, tunnels, train tracks, schools, water mains and sewers, and much more. Now suppose you cut way back on maintenance and replacement? What would the result be?

Right: the roads, bridges, pipes, and whatnot will all start failing at once. It’ll be like an invasion, with foreign saboteurs dynamiting your vital infrastructure. Only in this case, the saboteur is named “Entropy” and you were supposed to be staying ahead of him all along. It is doubtful that actual terrorists could do as much damage on as wide a scale.

But maybe you were distracted by fighting wars you didn’t need to fight, propping up financial firms that were too big to fail, and just generally pretending that Entropy didn’t exist. Eventually you won’t be able to deny it anymore, and by that time the economy will be suffering because the infrastructure that supports it will be in shambles. It didn’t take much foresight to know Entropy was coming. All our experience in everyday life tells us about him.  Our leaders would be morons to pretend otherwise, and we’d be morons to keep voting for them.

How to make an interesting movie about Superman

Superman – you know him, right? Super-powerful, super-nice guy. He’s so super it’s difficult to find villains who pose any challenge to him. He can’t be wasted on thugs and crooks; Superman stories tend to ratchet up to planet-threatening scale (even though a mugger or a rapist is just as big a threat to Lois as Lex Luthor could be).

In the most recent Superman flick Man Of Steel, the big guy wound up in a destructive world-saving fight before most Earthlings knew he existed. Here’s the trailer:

Not that a Superman movie could be realistic, but on the day when thousands of people die, most people just learning of his existence would need a play book to know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. The most likely reaction is that people would want him off our planet as soon as possible. Out-of-context, he is a terrifying character.

It was a really lousy movie – the fight scenes went on forever while the audience struggled to find some reason to care. But it wasn’t a total loss. Watching Man Of Steel gave me a chance to figure out how to make a Superman movie that would at least be interesting to me: by turning the lens on the people around him.

Look at the problem differently: Young Clark is not twice as strong, not five times as strong as most people, but thousands of times as strong. To him we are as fragile as rotten eggshells. His biggest problem isn’t keeping a secret identity, it’s learning how (and why) not to kill people. He needs a reason to value human life, and a literally inhuman level of self-control. Jonathan and Martha Kent must figure out how to raise this dangerous child. And that’s where you spend your first movie; he isn’t the star, his adoptive parents are.

Scene: Jonathan Kent is in the local hospital with three broken ribs. Toddler Clark (only beginning to gain strength) awakens from a bad dream and lashes out, knocking him into the hallway. To the doctor Jonathan explains that he was kicked by a horse in the barn, though the bruise mark on his chest looks more like the hand of a child. He’s a bit doped up as he and Martha discuss what to do.

You see the problem? The conflict? They can’t turn loose of this found-child, but they are in way, way over their heads. He’s only going to get stronger, and stronger, and stronger. They don’t know yet that he will be able to fly, or cut steel with heat rays from his eyes.  As the magnitude of their problem dawns on them, they acquire a new – and probably unwelcome – life mission.

There’s never any respite from raising Clark. It isn’t like they could leave him with a babysitter and go out to the movies. They couldn’t just hand him over to the government, which never saw a new phenomenon that it didn’t try to weaponize. No, they’re stuck with him.

How do you wake a super-child who is having a nightmare, or even a childish tantrum? How do you teach him to stand out? Be a “pretty good athlete”? Have compassion – he must have compassion – without trying to fix the whole world? How to be an honest person while living an enormous lie?

They can’t wait until he’s a teenager to tell him his true origins. Who’s to say (as Man Of Steel suggested) that someone equally powerful, but grown up, won’t come looking for him? He needs to know. They need him to know. They can’t raise him without his help. This is as “bootstraps” as it gets.

Jonathan and Martha are raising perhaps the most difficult child in the universe, while keeping that difficulty an absolute secret. Maybe there’s someone in the community they can confide in, but maybe not. Who can they trust? Joseph and Mary surely had less trouble raising Jesus (and I doubt the initials are accidental either).

In my Superman movie, a childless couple in Kansas pull off the most high-stakes, high-wire-without-a-net child raising in history. Pretending to be Clark Kent most of the time is the most difficult thing that Superman ever does. And the first few times Superman makes the news, it has to be in an unambiguously positive way. There can’t be any cities in ruins before the world knows that Superman is a good guy.

Maybe the second movie should be about The Daily Planet. Let the third movie be a catastrophic, world-threatening crisis. But my bet would be on the first two as worth watching.


  • Let’s assume the Kents have seen the Twilight Zone episode, It’s A Good Life.
  • I see that movie makers have decided it’s OK to do 9-11 style destruction scenes again. Think of how many movies in the last year have involved destroying big buildings with people in them – Superman, Pacific Rim, Star Trek, Transformers, probably others. A bit overdone, if you ask me.
  • Man Of Steel touched for a moment or two on the problem of Clark learning self-control, but it got lost in all the planet-threatening violence.
  • The very enjoyable TV series Smallville hinted at the problem of Clark, but really it was more like a teen-spirit version of the grown-up Superman. At least, the episodes I saw; we didn’t get that station very well.
  • Lance Mannion wrote an excellent series of reviews on Man Of Steel – all of them targeting deficiencies in the movie. Here’s a re-post of one with a list of all the others: But Superman Would Never Do That.

Security theater, nuclear holocaust edition

First, Gizmodo: For twenty years the nuclear launch code at US Minuteman silos was 00000000.

Many people will set super-easy passwords to the systems they control. No matter how high the stakes, in some part of their brains, they just can’t believe anyone would get in and do anything wrong. So the lesson is this: any system that depends on everyone involved understanding the stakes and acting accordingly and conscientiously… is doomed to be more insecure than any one person will know. Systems should be designed so that Pollyanna won’t blithely compromise them with naivete.

One commenter noted that all-zeroes is no more random than any other series. But effective hacking begins with sets and series before it goes random. Also it is far easier to remember and send by phone a launch code that is a set or a series.


Personal and corporate secrets

Corporate secrets are usually for competitive advantage or to shape public opinion. These can include a hidden scandal or documents from the NSA (blurry line there). When individuals keep secrets for personal competitive advantage we call them treacherous. When they reveal scandalous corporate secrets for the public good, we call them traitorous. But most of the time people keep personal secrets in self-defense against finger-wagging moralists – who can be very vindictive, even oppressive in their exercise of personal or corporate power.

The Republican’s sudden concern for voting process integrity

When the Voting Rights Act was overturned this year, (on the basis that racism is a thing of the past and it just isn’t needed anymore) Republican-dominated states responded by reigning in early voting, and with a plethora of “Voter ID” laws. The ostensible reason was to stop all that voter fraud which their fevered imaginations told them must be the only possible reason for their electoral losses.

Actually, no. Even if the actual reason weren’t blindingly obvious, a couple unguarded statements have let us know the real reason was to prevent Democrats from voting. Don Yelton, North Carolina Republican official, admitted the reason for their voter ID law was to “kick the Democrat’s butt“. And Florida’s Jim Greer straight-up admitted voter suppression was the reason for their election law.

Of course, as Don Yelton says, the photo ID is “free”. All you have to do is provide proof of identity at the Department of Motor Vehicles and you’re all set. And what constitutes “proof”? Former speaker of the US House of Representatives Jim Wright did so, but was turned away. Only a certified copy of his birth certificate would suffice. Of course most people already have a driver’s license, for which they didn’t have to provide a birth certificate. So the law will mostly affect the elderly or the very poor. Or young urbanites who don’t drive.

College students are targeted in a different way. You may recall that 18-year-olds won the right to vote during the 1970’s. Somehow it just didn’t seem right to ship them off to the Vietnam war without giving them the chance to vote. (The 18-year war was almost over by then. There were people registering for the draft who were born the year the war started.) But now Republicans want to reel that back, and residency requirements make a good start. After all, when a student is away at college, what is his residence? Shouldn’t he return to his home town to vote? (I use the male pronoun here deliberately.)

Republicans aren’t thrilled with (overwhelmingly pro-choice) women voters either. The curious custom of a woman changing her name when she marries is an opportunity to nudge them aside at the polls, as Texas judge Sandra Watts found out.  It’s also a problem for people in nursing homes, who are disproportionately women. And who have a lifetime’s experience being told by men what their options are in all things reproductive.

This concern for electoral integrity is odd considering the push for electronic voting machines, which are far less secure than Las Vegas slot machines. How do you check information stored on a chip, when the company that programmed it says it’s a big secret how it works?

Attempts to cheat “the other side” out of voting are not new. Today’s Southern Republicans are yesteryear’s Democrats, who were welcomed into the Republican party after Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the… Voting Rights Act. The tactics then were underhanded and occasionally downright vicious, but the goal was the same: to keep poor people, women, and especially black people, from voting. As a nation, we often claim to be some kind of a beacon of democracy. I suppose, as long as the right “kind” of people do the voting.

  • Join me for discussion of this topic on G+
  • Important clarification: The endire Voting Rights Act was not struck down, but section 4 was.
  • The Daily Show on Voter ID laws
  • History teacher Ed Darrell: “No one questioned who he was. He just can’t vote with the ID he has. If Jim Wright can’t easily get an ID to vote, who can?” (Do you read Ed’s blog? Crikey, you should.)
  • In Texas you can show a concealed-carry permit to vote. Maybe all Democrats should go out and get concealed-carry permits. Think of it, Republicans! Nearly every black person over 18 possibly packing.

Build The Right Monument

Until things change, this is pretty much my last word on 9-11. (Re-posted from 2011 entry on my old blog)

Annual 9-11 monument on campus
Annual 9-11 monument on campus

Do you care what I was doing when I heard about the September 11 attacks? I won’t be offended if your answer is “No”. Among hundreds of millions of people, practically every activity you could possibly think of was in progress when the planes crashed.

But there will be a lot of memorial services, monuments dedicated, special newspaper sections printed, and somber editorials. Cable television will be smoking-hot with replays of 9-11. Millions of little plastic flags will be planted. My dentist even sent out a memorial email.

On 9-11, innocent people died, who had nothing to do with conflicts between Muslim extremists and US foreign policy. We have a human need to make sense of it all, if we can, and try to steer a course to a better world from that awful day. If we can.

Almost every incident of mass death attracts monuments because the human race has a powerful forgettery. We forget context, we forget (or never knew) how it looked for the other side. We can forget the whole damn thing with astonishing ease. Battle of Antietam? 23,000 Americans dead in a single day in an area barely 8 miles square? Few remember that, but we remember symbolic acts like Washington throwing a coin across the Potomac… which did not even really happen.

So how best to remember 9-11? How best to honor the dead and elevate the living? I have a modest proposal.

When we’re done with the bronze and marble and granite and limestone, build another monument in our global moral standing and our daily freedoms. When we arrest someone, citizen or not, on our soil or not, let’s set the global standard of human rights instead of trying to maneuver around it. When someone points a video camera at a policeman in uniform on a public street, let the rest of the world see that our authorities are not afraid of accountability. When we talk on the phone let’s be certain that no one is listening without getting a warrant. Let’s not hide censorship behind corporate welfare. Let’s stop crotch-feeling 8-year-olds in airports and calling it security.

Bush was right about one thing: our enemies DO hate our freedoms. But in exercising those freedoms we will discover friends we never knew we had. A blogger, a gay couple living openly without fear, a citizen asking pointed questions of a politician or a policeman, peaceful Christian and Muslim neighbors, are all in a way ambassadors for our country. Every exercise of rights sharpens the distinction between us and our enemies.

Let’s get back to declaring war as Congress’ job – and pay for our wars on the books in real time. Let’s never again be manipulated and goaded into a vastly disproportionate response. Let’s recognize false pretext to war as a criminal offense. A former president in jail would send a powerful message to our allies and enemies: we really do believe in justice. You can trust us.

We spend more on “defense” in this country than the next 19 countries combined, while scientific questions go unanswered. In 1969 the physicist Robert Wilson had to explain to Congress why we should spend money on a National Accelerator Laboratory “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another”, he said; “the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

In asymmetric warfare, the moral high ground truly is the defensible position: there is more power in trust than in any weapon. Battles and even wars might be won on the battlefield, but the future is won by the elapsed time between the last American shame and today’s date on the calendar. It is won by using our power to elevate others. It is won by our courage not to back down from our principles in search of an illusion of security. Our real strength isn’t anything that explodes; it’s something that only endures as long as we insist on it.

Let’s make it a flag worth waving. That would be a “monument” worthy of a day we really do need to remember.


NOTES and updates:

  • In Hiroshima there is a monument that says, optimistically; “Please rest in peace. The mistake will not be repeated.” No mention of whether they meant Pearl Harbor or The Bomb. Or the oil embargo that led to Pearl Harbor? Or their expansionism that led to the embargo? Atrocity always has antecedents.
  • Luckily the cable news networks are going to be responsible and low-key about this. They’re going to mention it, in a “this day in history” sort of way, without endless “Man In The Street” interviews and egregious repetition of horrifying videos. They won’t run up ratings by making life miserable for people with PTSD. Which is a lot of people, given that two of the four attacks happened in one of the most populated spots on Earth.
  • (Sorry, that last link was satire. You know the networks will milk this anniversary for all it’s worth.)
  • Mike the Mad Biologist nails The Hardest Thing about remembering September 11, 2001
  • Stephanie Svan’s meditation on The Importance of Forgetting: “We do not always learn the right lessons from history”. And Dana Hunter’s on Why We Have To Remember: “A terrorist act cannot destroy a country. A country can only destroy itself.” If you only have time to read one, read both anyway.