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Category: Culture

Going, Going
Manson H. Whitlock died last summer at the age of 96. I don’t imagine there will be a national moment of silence or much attention paid to his passing at all beyond the few isolated news articles. I hope, though, that someone will commission a statue of him and offer it as a donation to my pet project. His looming presence would be a prized addition to the Museum of Lost Arts.

Mr. Whitlock repaired typewriters for a living, and despite the small resurgence in the popularity of these desktop curiosities, his noble profession will soon cease to exist. It will join a growing list of antiquated skill sets that have no place in our modern, computer-driven society. The Museum aims to keep these virtuosities from vanishing without the recognition they deserve.

Other displays at the Museum of Lost Arts (or MOLA) might include, for example, a tribute to practitioners of shorthand. This skill was wondrous enough when it was a common one, condensing language, as it did, into a form that could be written as quickly as even the gabbiest speaker could talk. Amazing, but I’ll bet there aren’t more than a handful of people who can still do it.

Driving a car with a manual transmission will soon suffer a similar fate. The coming of electric vehicles has all but guaranteed the demise of this once-handy aptitude. Cursive writing is also on the way out, following good penmanship, which has been extinct for years. Adjusting rabbit ears on a television never got the respect it deserves as a field of expertise, and now I fear that it never will — except in the Museum. Also on the short list:

Reading a broadsheet newspaper. Dexterity, large muscle motor skills, and a keen sense of spatial awareness all play a part in this challenging (and now passé) ritual. I see an interactive exhibit with large squares of newsprint available for kids and parents alike.

Talking face to face. You still see this method of communication in use today, but mostly it involves elders for whom those tiny keypads are just too demanding. Watch while you can, boys and girls; these old geezers’ use of odd facial tics, such as eyebrow-cocking and smiling, will soon be obsolete.

Sitting quietly with your own thoughts. This deceptively simple pastime began to disappear with the advent of television. Soon, all of us will be plugged in (literally, I predict) all the time, and the fate of the meditative state will be sealed. I imagine a diorama at the Museum with a featureless, horizon-less vista and no sensory input at all. Medical staff will have to be on site at all times to treat nervous breakdowns.

Modesty. We hope to have workshops for those who want to experience what it used to be like not to share every little detail of one’s life with the whole world.

We can’t bring Manson L. Whitlock back. Not without asking his permission, anyway, and that’s not possible without bringing him back. Besides, I’ve read too many Edgar Allan Poe stories where that kind of thing turns out to be a really bad idea. We can honor him and his craft, though. Even if this MOLA thing doesn’t fly, I’m hanging on to my old Remington Noiseless as a tribute to a bygone age when cars and keyboards were strictly manual.
The French
I take back
what I said
about the French

Oh sure
there are the pointy shoes
the murses, the chain smoking
and the little dogs
that go poop in the street

But they are a pretty people
so passionate
and mais oui, polite!
Bonjour, monsieur! S'il voux plait! Merci!

And there is the history
layer on layer
built up and pulled down
Death and rebirth
darkness and light
popes and kings
and obscene excess
and finally, revolution

There is bread and cheese and wine
and love
flowers, carousels, fountains, long rows of trees
along grand boulevards
chic Parisian matrons
with coifs of wine-copper

And in the caves
the Metro, the streets
the museums-within-museums
art, art, art
art to make you wonder
art to roil you up
so much art it makes you weep

Mais oui!
The French!
Meat Me in the Future
Oprah Winfrey was in some hot water in Texas a while back. She had some disparaging words for beef products, and a bunch of Lone Star cattle ranchers sued her for meat defamation. It was a silly lawsuit based on a silly law, but at least those cows had someone to stand up for them.

The Frankenburger is not so lucky. There is no petri meat anti-defamation league, no champion for lab patties, no mommy and no daddy. If you don’t know, “Frankenburger” is the name the press has given to the meat patty created in a laboratory using only stem cells from cows. The cells were first soaked in nutrients, causing them to multiply, then coalesced into strands. Later, they were collected into pellets, frozen, and finally compacted into patties. Coalesced, collected, and compacted — I wouldn’t wish that childhood on my worst enemy.

What’s more, even the technicians who made the meat seem apologetic about it. Dr. Mark Post, leader of the Maastricht University team that created the meat, admitted, “There’s still much work to be done.” Not exactly the proud parent the little burger might have hoped for.

I feel badly for the Frankenburger. It comes from living tissue, after all. Those first quivering strands of cells could be said to be alive… before they were coalesced, anyway. Who is to say that they didn’t have a soul, even if it shone only dimly? I don’t know, but I do know that this humble quasi-being deserves better than the abuse it has suffered.

The media have been particularly cruel. That is not surprising; this defenseless bit of flesh is just the kind of victim they relish most. They use a mocking tone, for the most part, with very little regard for the meat’s feelings. Special attention is given to the meat’s color (a dull yellow until tinted red with beet juice and saffron), its taste (“animal protein cake”), and its pedigree (non-existent). One commentator in London’s Daily Mail said that the whole idea turned her stomach. I wonder if she could hold onto her cookies in a slaughterhouse.

I’m sorry, but I cannot abide this kind of slander without saying at least a few kind words about the Frankenburger:

It does not fart. Because cow farts are rich in methane, they contribute mightily to climate change. Methane, in fact, is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide in this regard. For this reason, cows add as much as automobiles to global warming. The humble Frankenburger, on the other hand, emits no gasses at all. It exists only to serve us, quietly and without unseemly odor.

It’s low fat because it’s all muscle. That also means no gristle (if you’re on a gristle-free diet).

It does not require large tracts of land to sustain it. In theory, it could be cultured in huge underground factories, leaving the surface to more planet-friendly food production and to more paving.

It appeals (or should appeal) to our fundamental humanity. If we can love a cow, how can we not find a space in our hearts for a hamburger that has never felt the sun on its back, the breeze in its face, or the company of other cows? I would like to think that Oprah Winfrey would feel empathy for this beleaguered little beef-thing. She seems like a nice person, and little Frankie definitely needs the love.

We probably won’t hear about the Frankenburger for a while. At $330,000 a serving, it will only appeal to the kind of people who can afford Teslas. Even so, it’s never too early to start making room in our lives for this orphan meat, no matter how unappetizing it may be.

3Doom
Were you a little spooked when someone made the first 3D printed gun? Did it trouble you when you realized that anyone with the digital designs for the component parts and a 3D printer could make assault weapons in unlimited numbers in his basement? Me too.

I guess this technology kind of snuck up on us. When I first heard about it, it sounded like the set-up for and absurd joke. Copy your ass on this Xerox machine, and… Ha ha. Now it doesn’t seem so funny. Handguns, assault rifles, and who knows what else can now be conjured up practically out of thin air — bringing us one step closer to a society bristling with armaments and soaked through with paranoia.

This is sobering, to be sure, but I think we could probably cope with it all — if only technology would stop and take a breath. It won’t, though; it never does. The next big breakthrough, no matter how absurd it may seem conceptually, is waiting just around the corner.

If 3D copying can challenge us with its consequences, how will we react to the next logical link in this chain of creation? What if that advance carries us beyond our ability to deal with its unforeseen outcomes? What if it brings a change so fundamental that one deranged person could use it to destroy us all?

What if the next big thing is 4D printers?

Yes, I am talking about printers that can make guns — that travel through time! I don’t want to be an alarmist, but what if the Persians had had AK-47s at Thermopylae? How different would our lives be if The 100 Years War had lasted a week? Where would we be now if the redcoats had been packing Uzis?

If these scenarios fill you with icy dread (and they should), remember that we set ourselves up for this. If only we’d had the good sense to say, when those first big Xerox monstrosities hit the market, “No thanks, I’ve got a mimeograph machine.”
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee