June 1st, 2010

[LINK] "Meet the Last Generation of Typewriter Repairmen"

Thanks to Tom for linking to this Matthew Schechmeister article from Wired. I own a typewriter, actually, left at my parents' place on Prince Edward Island after I moved. It still worked, and for a time I liked it because of its tactile feel. The fact that I didn't think of bringing it with me says something about the future of the industry, but not everything.

It’s easy to forget how much time computer word-processing programs have saved the writing public. Before computers, any typewritten document that needed revision had to be retyped again and again. And that’s hardly the end of it. Total up all the hours that people spent whiting out errors before the Delete key … how many zeroes would the final figure have? Combine the surface area of every lumpy smudge of liquid paper: Would it cover the country? The world?

Despite these inefficiencies, there are a few places where typewriters still clack away. New York City police stations, the desks of a few stubborn hangers-on, and, increasingly, the apartments of hip young people who have a fetish for the retro. Mechanical devices with a lot of moving parts, typewriters require maintenance by technicians with specialized knowledge and years of experience. A surprising number of people still make their living meeting that demand.

[. . .]

California Typewriter Company works on both vintage and modern office equipment, but surprisingly, over the last 10 years, the sale and repair of manual typewriters has constituted an increasing share of their business. Most of the people buying the older machines are under 35, the company reports, and are mostly people looking for an interesting gift or a decorative conversation piece.

In addition, girls under 12 have become a significant market, following the example of the titular character of the recent movie Kit Kittredge: American Girl, who frequently uses a typewriter. California Typewriter Company also worked on machines for celebrity clients including Danielle Steele and Tom Hanks, and sold a replacement ribbon to Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.

In addition to having beautiful pictures of all sorts of models, the article includes interesting notes on everything from the economically emancipatory role of typewriters for women's independence in the early 20th century to the use of typewriters at prisons across the United States (prisoners are not allowed computers). Go, read.

[LINK] "The Innocents Abroad"

Some days ago, the very interesting 'Aqoul had an extended analysis of Mark Twain's 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad. Israeli nationalists, people who justify the Zionist settlement in the Levant by saying that no one lived there, look, Mark Twain said so, have fundamentally misread the point. He was not writing sociology; he was writing humour.

The Innocents Abroad tells the tales of the legendary American writer's long trip across Europe and the Near East in the late 1860s. He wrote a series of diary-based articles based on the journey. These ultimately became the book. The travel humor is alive and well today, and not especially outdated, and relates well to the ups and downs of modern tourism. The work, however, is also oft-quoted these days by some Israel supporters, hence Netanyahu's literary excursion.

Twain's account of his desultory Holy Land visit is usually used to demonstrate the minimal presence and/or general backwardness of Palestinian Arab life in the recent past of the area (today: Israel, Jerusalem 2.0, the West Bank, and Gaza with its uncomic Strip). In standard Israeli/Zionist nationalist lore and Paul Newman filmography, the once neglected land is transformed in the 20th Century by the manifestly-destined and returned True Owners from its sleepy grimy primitive empty form into a more clean and civilized place of, well, recurrent terror and strife. (OK, the latter negative reality is not part of the idealized lore.)

[. . .]

To use "The Innocents Abroad" in polemics is thus a bit weird. Pro-Israel partisans employing this book to denigrate Palestinian Arab presence and history is like using "This is Spinal Tap" as a rock music guide. Or challenging Sarah Palin's intellect by running a Saturday Night Live sketch.

In Twain's denigrating portrayal of the Holy Land, based on a hot summertime excursion into what are today still the more arid and lesser populated subareas, he was willfully exaggerating ugliness, emptiness, and hopelessness. His primary aim was not anthropology or demographics but to deflate religious Americans who manifest literalist Biblical sentimentalism and credulity.

Besides, the people who claim that he saw nothing there somehow managed to miss a passage.

For even critics of the misuse of Twain's travel-log in the Palestine debate tend to miss one brief but very revealing passage in Chapter 49. There, Twain momentarily takes in a significantly large expanse of Palestine territory in a different direction from where he is traveling:

The view presented from its highest peak was almost beautiful. Below, was the broad, level plain of Esdraelon, checkered with fields like a chess-board, and full as smooth and level, seemingly; dotted about its borders with white, compact villages, and faintly penciled, far and near, with the curving lines of roads and trails. When it is robed in the fresh verdure of spring, it must form a charming picture . . ..

This little passage about a large expanse viewed as pleasant even in its off-season is forgotten by reader and writer alike. It hardly fits the themes of no-habitation, neglect, or ugliness that are otherwise portrayed. Nor does it fit the image of a complete cynic doing the observation.

[LINK] Daniel Drezner on how Israel is coming to resemble North Korea

Yesterday evening I retweeted Daniel Drezner's suggestion that Israel is starting to behave like North Korea.

[T]he parallels between Israel and -- gulp -- North Korea are becoming pretty eerie. True, Israel's economy is thriving and North Korea's is not. That said, both countries are diplomatically isolated except for their ties to a great power benefactor. Both countries are pursuing autarkic policies that immiserate millions of people. The majority of the population in both countries seem blithely unaware of what the rest of the world thinks. Both countries face hostile regional environments. Both countries keep getting referred to the United Nations. And, in the past month, the great power benefactor is finding it more and more difficult to defend their behavior to the rest of the world.

The Obama administration has reacted to this incident in remarkably similar ways to China's reaction to the Cheonan incident -- with a call for more information. Rachman wonders if there will be a quid pro quo on Iran and Israel at the Security Council. I wonder if the quid pro quo will involve Jerusalem and Pyongyang.

After a stormy reaction in his comments and the blogosphere that included (among other things) accusations that he was an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew, Drezner defended his argument. Israel is a much smaller country than the United States, and has many fewer opportunities for alliances than the US, especially with Turkey now being strongly disenchanted. (A Turkish naval effort to run supplies through Gaza past Israel, as mooted, could end badly.) If Israel comes to be seen as inhererntly and violently unreasonable as, well, any rogue state, then even Israel's legitimate security complaints could come to be ignored. Shades of the boy who cried wolf.

[LINK] "The Tyranny of the Local"

The Global Sociology Blog enunciates some of the main reasons why I dislike anti-globalization movements ("globalization" being defined by me as any effort to create a relatively centralized or ideologically homogeneous global community): some local communities just can't be trusted with power. Some of them need to be disciplined. SocProf starts with two specific examples.

“The chief rabbi of a West Bank settlement has prohibited women from standing in a local community election.

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement, near Nablus, said women lacked the authority to stand for the post of local secretary.

He wrote in a community newspaper that women must only be heard through their husbands.

No women have registered for the election due to be held later on Wednesday, Israeli media reported.

The rabbi made his comments in the community’s newspaper after an unidentified young woman wrote to him asking if she could run for the position of community secretary, the Israeli news website Ynet News said.”

[. . .]

“KABUL, Afghanistan — The two Afghan girls had every reason to expect the law would be on their side when a policeman at a checkpoint stopped the bus they were in. Disguised in boys’ clothes, the girls, ages 13 and 14, had been fleeing for two days along rutted roads and over mountain passes to escape their illegal, forced marriages to much older men, and now they had made it to relatively liberal Herat Province.

Sumbol, 17, a Pashtun girl, said she was kidnapped and taken to Jalalabad, then given a choice: marry her tormentor, or become a suicide bomber.

Instead, the police officer spotted them as girls, ignored their pleas and promptly sent them back to their remote village in Ghor Province. There they were publicly and viciously flogged for daring to run away from their husbands.

Their tormentors, who videotaped the abuse, were not the Taliban, but local mullahs and the former warlord, now a pro-government figure who largely rules the district where the girls live.

National governance is sometimes necessary to fight tyrannies; regional organizations can help surveil their member nation-states; global organizations can do most anything if they can get mobilized. There might be democracy deficits in different areas, but they can be remedied, or compensated for. In the two examples cited above, the press has revealed the atrocities that some local communities would like to commit, raising the possibility of remedying it (as was the case for those Afghan girls, fortunately). Destroying globalization altogether would be a catastrophe for humanity: I don't trust the local. And neither should you.


After some sort of security-related incident at Spadina station, the westbound subway cars were halted one station east, at St. George. Fortunately 26 Dupont westbound leaves from that station, and even more fortunately, it arrived at the station just a couple of minutes after I arrived on the platform. When I got off the bus, dropped off a couple dozen metres from my doorway, I reflected on my love for the TTC, how it helps knit Toronto together, collapsing distance and letting all sorts of non-geographically defined communities formed.

That is part of why these two news items, reported by Torontoist, make me so unhappy. Is the TTC never going to be what it can be?

  • Transit Stuff, the official TTC merchandising shop in Union Station, is closing down.

  • Transit Stuff was opened in 2006 by Legacy Sportswear, a Woodbridge-based apparel outfit, to better make use of the company's TTC merchandising contract, which it was first granted in 2000.

    Since then, it's received mostly negative attention over the years (if it's received any attention at all). After it opened, Eye called the shop "a sort of CNE-grade t-shirt store"; BlogTO referred to the merchandise as "ugly, boring, bland and painfully unfashionable"; and former Torontoist contributor Kevin Bracken wrote that "you wouldn't be caught dead wearing it."

    In four years, nothing changed. In its dying days, Transit Stuff’s shelves were still stuffed with cheap apparel with designs that looked like they were stolen from the 1980s (not in the good way), with knick-knacks, and sweaters for the Leafs, Raptors, and Blue Jays. Perhaps the most authentic part of the store was its grimy interior and utilitarian layout, which managed to perfectly capture the worst of the TTC's aesthetic.

    </li>TTC chair Adam Giambroneseems to have confirmed that the Downtown Relief Line, a subway line that would helpd ivert traffic from the main east-west Bloor-Danforth line by tracing an arc southwards towards Toronto Harbour, is going to be trapped in study hell.</li>

    Seeing the current and future challenges at Bloor-Yonge station, on the Yonge line, and perhaps eventually also the Bloor-Danforth line, the TTC recently restarted studies on the Downtown Relief Line. The study will cost three million dollars, and is being broken down into two phases. Phase 1, which will be completed by the end of this year, will look at ridership, capacity, and transit policy issues for serving the downtown core. Phase 2, which will be completed by the end of 2011, will consider rapid transit needs up to 2031; it will look at different technologies, possible routings, and possible station locations. And, importantly, it will let the City know what property must be protected so that future construction may be considered.

    At the current $300 million per kilometre cost for subway construction, this is anywhere from a three billion– to eight billion dollar–line, depending on how long it is. Due to the large amount of big buildings in the downtown core, this will be a very challenging project and, unlike the 1980s, when surplus industrial land was available in the east end for a new car-house, today much of that land is already spoken for.

    [. . .]

    There will be public meetings late this year and early next year, and the study will be done by the end of 2011. While the DRL is in the twenty-five-year funding plans, the last few months have shown there is little appetite financially at the Province for large projects, so it will be interesting to see if the DRL is ever built.

    So. The TTC is no longer going to have much of a material existence in popular culture--no shirts, hats, badges--and it isn't going to be expanding its critical subway routes significantly. I mourn.