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Thursday, December 31, 2015

In Praise of Analog

There are few things in life quite as rewarding as a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter's day, served up with a morning newspaper and plenty of time to enjoy both.  I happen to be among that very small minority that prefers the cold, gray days of autumn to the long-suffering, suffocating heat of summer. I have a closet full of sweaters that I'll probably never wear simply because it doesn't get really cold very often where I live.

That doesn't stop me, however, from enjoying my coffee experience. I wake very early and pretend the cool of the morning is going to last all day, even though it rarely does. Those are special times for me. I didn't realize how special -- or why they're so wonderful -- until I looked up and noticed my coffee maker.

This is my coffee maker. Actually, this is a photo of one just like it. I was too lazy to take one myself. It's a vintage Sunbeam, circa 1960 give or take, and she is a thing of beauty. The first thing you notice about her is that her shape definitely resembles a Barbie doll. It is not lost on me, I assure you. Her hourglass figure is beautifully chromed, fitting top and bottom together in a clever composition in which design not only complements function, but actually enhances it.

Without getting too technical, the fresh grounds are loaded into the top chamber; fresh water fills the bottom. One flick of the power switch begins heating the water, which forms a vacuum that sucks the scalding water into the upper chamber, from where it gets pressured downward into the lower chamber as brewed coffee. There are no pumps. No software. No computer chips. No beeps, bells or buzzers. It's almost magical.

The Sunbeam is just one example of the superiority of analog design, a reminder of a time when form may indeed have followed function, but never was overwhelmed by it. When you look at the Sunbeam, it's like looking at a piece of art: you actually get a good feeling from it.  But the real beauty of the Sunbeam is its analog spirit.  Like cuckoo clocks and V8 engines, the Sunbeam was built in a time when men were curious about how things work and spent their hours pitting their creativity against natural forces to overcome real world challenges. Unlike today, where most devices are "black boxes," hollow facades whose inner workings are hidden from view instead of proudly displaying their genius; controlled by software code rather than human imagination.

I won't apologize for it:  There's far more romance and richness in the analog world than the digital world will ever know. Music aficionados can hear it in the vinyl pressings played through amplifiers powered by vacuum tubes instead of transistors, which may explain why sales of vinyl records have rebounded to their late twentieth century levels and vintage tube stereo equipment now sells for collector prices.

You like Photoshop? Fabulous. But the art it produces possesses no soul. Analog art is produced by human heart and hand. You can feel the artist's effort reaching out to you. It's palpable. Analog is the difference between human connection and a simple picture of stuff. It's like electric cars: Sure they get you there, but that's pretty much all they do. 

As the world steadily descends into its death spiral of dumbness, an ever-increasing number of people will never know the  the beauty, the cleverness and the pure romance of the analog world. They'll never realize that all great things begin with their own human curiosity, rather than the latest system update from the cloud.  Analog will be lost forever, and so that all-important human spirit.

And to think: This is what I get from a simple cup of coffee.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Why Climate Change is Perfect

Ask anyone about global warming and you're likely to get an answer about how the polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising and carbon gases are choking our atmosphere to death.  Ask the guy standing next to him, and he'll tell you that nothing of the sort is happening. Weather, he'll explain, is not constant. In fact, he'll continue, nothing in nature is constant.  Change is essential to life, and the only things that don't change are those which are dead.

Maybe global warming is caused by humans, but that doesn't explain severe and prolonged weather fluctuations that occurred centuries before the first petroleum-driven engines were ever fired up. Then again, I suppose there has to be some kind of damage when billions of self-involved creatures spend eons plundering a planet's resources.

The truth is that nobody has the answer and I couldn't care less.  Sure, the environment is important, but the more important issue that everyone seems to be missing is the issue itself: Climate change is the perfect issue of our time.

Think about it. We live in an age when even the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet won't refer to radical islamic terrorists as, well, radical islamic terrorists. Why? Because the man doesn't want to offend anyone. He's just a nice guy trying to be fair.  It's one of those -- and I hate this overused term -- "politically correct" things. These days, there are no stupid kids, just challenged kids. Believe me, they're still stupid, but somehow it makes people feel better when they condescend to them in euphemistic terms.  It's all part of our Participation Trophy world, where nobody is bad and everyone is beautiful. 

And that's what makes climate change so perfect.

With climate change, there is no single person to hold accountable, we're all accountable. There are no national villains, either, like there were during the Cold War.  In those days, the Soviet Union was known as the Evil Empire, and China was the epicenter of monolithic godless Communism. They were easy targets. They were countries with big armies and nuclear bombs that threatened our way of life.  If the Russians or the Chinese attacked, we knew exactly where to aim our guns and missiles.

That can't happen today, though. Nobody wants to point the finger because nobody wants to be held accountable. They're too afraid of lawyers, the media and losing popularity.  With climate change, there is none of that. It's a feel-good, let's-hold-hands-and-wish-real-hard kind of issue. There's no clear villain. Instead, there are lots of little villains sprinkled throughout every rich, industrialized country. Plenty of blame to be shared by everyone, which means it will never be solved by anyone.  

This is the kind of issue that Aldous Huxley wrote about in Brave New World, where the strength of society was achieved by people's focusing their attention a common enemy. Only in this case, the common enemy isn't Hitler, Stalin or Mao. It isn't even human. It's a concept with no direct ownership, designed to distract an ever-growing population from solving other vital threats with real, tangible solutions.

Sorry, kids. The real threat of climate change isn't rising tides.  That warm feeling is public policy makers sedating you while the real terrors of the world peek through your double-paned windows.