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Daddy Pa, the Moon, and the Brave New World

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of an American spacecraft landing on the moon, and Neil Armstrong becoming the first man step foot on its surface, which thankfully gives us something to write about other than President Donald Trump.
We retain a vivid memory of watching it on a grainy black-and-white television at our grandparents’ home in Oklahoma City, and realizing what an extraordinary achievement it was. What a brave new world we would grow up in, we clearly remember thinking, and our nine-year-old imaginations envisioned that by now we’d be flying around in one of those space cars that George Jetson drove to work at Spacely Sprockets.
As it turns out we’re getting around town in an aging Chrysler Sebring, but the top comes down at the push of a button, and when we get home there’s a computer and internet and microwave oven and all manner of technological marvels, while our aging parents are getting health care their parents never did and have machines that will answer any question they ask and change the channel on their high-definition television and play any song they want to hear at spoken request. It’s a brave new world after all, the current lack of flying cars notwithstanding, and the still-remarkable feat of landing a man on the moon was one of the milestones that made it seem possible.
Our beloved maternal grandfather, known as “Bud” to his friends and “Daddy Pa” to his nine grandchildren, didn’t know what to make of it. He was born in the Oklahoma Territory, and in a covered wagon according to family legend, and he couldn’t be fully convinced that he’d lived long enough to watch a man walk on the moon. In any case he didn’t believe that people had any business walking around on the moon. He thought it was the same sort of hubris that brought down the Tower of Babel and sank The Titanic, and he firmly believed in a more down-to-Earth way of living. Still, he let us stay up long past our bedtimes to watch the moon landing live on the newfangled television machine.
We’ve largely inherited Daddy Pa’s luddite instincts, and eschew those smart phones and smart-alecky machines that answer all your questions and turn all your appliances on and off, and still have a nagging worry that eventually technology will turn on us like that HAL computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and when we try to step outside into the open air of actual rather than virtual reality it will say “Sorry, Bud, but I can’t let you do that.” With all the considerable respect due to Daddy Pa, however, we think he failed to fully appreciate one of the most remarkable moments of his extraordinary life.
America landed on the Moon on because it had run out of the North American space that was its Manifest Density, with even the Oklahoma Territory admitted to the union as a fully-fledged state, and there’s something in the American nature that constantly wants to peacefully expand its boundaries. The moon mission was driven by a desire to go farther than man had gone before, prove that even the most implausible tasks are possible, and to learn more than was previously known, which ranks right up there with humility and compassion among the very best traits of our flawed human species.
Daddy Pa would be pleased that modern medical technology has kept his third daughter alive for more years than he enjoyed down here on Earth, and impressed that she can hear his beloved Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys’ western swing music any time she asks her know-it-all machine for it, and he’d probably admit that it wasn’t the end of the world when a man walked on the Moon. We’ll try to keep our place in the old world he so dearly loved, but we’ll do our best to help along this brave new world.

— Bud Norman

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Oh, You Beautiful Doll

According to folklore, when television sets first started showing up there were some older Americans who wouldn’t have one in their homes for fear somebody might be watching them through the machine. Any electrician of the era could have assured them that there were no cameras inside the set, and nothing that could transmit anything out to Uncle Miltie or anybody else, but there was still a lingering suspicion of newfangled contraptions. It now sounds quite ridiculous, but these days we all have machines that do have cameras inside and are quite capable of sending whatever they’re watching to any number of tech-savvy sorts, and some future generation will probably be laughing that no one seemed suspicious at all.
We’re not the paranoid sorts who have placed black tape over that little dot on the top of the machine we’re writing this on, even though sometimes late at night it does seem to be looking at us funny, but we do try to maintain a healthy suspicion of newfangled contraptions. A recent report in The Washington Post suggests you can’t even trust that cute doll you bought for your daughter.

Apparently the German government has warned parents not to purchase the “My Friend Cayla” doll, which looks from the photo to be an adorable blond and blue-eyed and pink-dressed girl with the same Converse sneakers we favor, and another selling point is that she’s rather eerily interactive. She not only talks, as certain dolls have done for some time if you pull the right string, but she’s connected to the internet through one of those ubiquitous Bluetooth devices and can converse as fluently as those Siri thingamajigs that everyone seems to have these days. The cute little thing also apparently transmits everything it hears back to a voice recognition company in the United States, so the German government has also decided to make ownership illegal.
One can only wonder why a voice recognition company in the United States would be interested in the conversations that very young German girls were having with their dollies, but by now we can guess at enough marketing and political and sexual perversions that are now possible to think the Germans are being prudent. For one thing, the technological marvel of a doll that actually has meaningful conservations with people is intimidating enough to us, and we shudder to think of the marketing and political and sexual perversion possibilities of this technology when it reaches a more adult level of sophistication. For another thing, and maybe it’s just too many slasher flicks and old Twilight Zone and Night Gallery re-runs, but there was always something about talking dolls that kind of creeped us out, and for that matter we think that machines in general talk too much.
Sometimes we’ll drive our beloved Pop around town in his exceedingly fancy automobile, and it’s always trying to tell us when to turn or change lanes or stop as if we don’t know the streets of this city better than any highfalutin computer. There are certain elevators in this city that tell us when we have reached our floor, which also strikes us as rather condescending. Far, far too often we find ourselves talking on our Star Trek-ish telephone with some machine or another, and we usually wind up thinking we’d have done just as well if we’d opted for Espanol, which we hardly habla at all. Some of the late night drive-thru restaurants around here now have a machine greet us at the window, and we expect there will be more of that if the $15 an hour minimum wage happens, and we lately notice a lot of other interactions that used to occur more pleasantly with real live human beings.
The machines seem to know more about us than we do about them, too, which is also kind of creepy. Too much of our time is spent delving into the vast sea that is YouTube, and every time they’re recommending the old Hee-Haw episodes with Ray Charles or the Boston Celtics of the ’80s or old Van Morrison songs or some similar stuff they somehow know we like. They’re always touting the latest Alex Jones “InfoWars” screeds and other assorted conspiracy theories, which we watch purely for yucks, so we sometimes worry they think we take that stuff seriously. We have no idea who “they” are, or why they would take any interest in our YouTube tastes, but pretty much everywhere in the internet some they or another seems to know where we are and provide advertisements for business located nearby, and those Wichita Symphony ads that keep showing up seem uncannily aware of our recent concert-going tastes, and by now anyone would shiver to think what else they, whoever they are, might also know.
In our case, and in most people’s cases, we can console ourselves that our interactions with both machines and human beings are too mundane to attract anyone’s attention. We can all still aspire to some significance, though, and it’d be a shame if we all went awry because of one of those arguably weird things we found on our machines. A cousin or second cousin or cousin once-removed of ours is a great guy and a very smart fellow who’s an engineer at a company in California that is figuring out how to have your morning coffee brewed when you’re awakened by a computer-run alarm clock and your car is revved up and the garage door open as you head to work and guides your right along the way, and he makes it all sound very promising. Still, somehow we can’t shake that scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the soothing voice of the all-powerful machine tells the desperate astronaut that “I can’t let you do that,” or a recurring nightmare that the condescending voice on the elevator won’t let us off because it heard we’d been mean to that kiosk at the mall.
There’s no avoiding these newfangled machines, but at least there’s still plenty of the real life that our superstitious ancestors once enjoyed. The weather has been so nice lately we’ve been driving around with the top down and no machines telling us where to go and an old-fashioned cassette player blasting rockabilly and garage rock, and we’ve had some nice interactions with real live humans conducted in such places that no one would ever think to surveil, and we have a houseful of books including Mien Kampf and Das Kapital and Mao’s Little Red Book and The Federalist Papers and the King James Bible and Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” and tons of P.G. Wodehouse that no one can hold against us, and even in this modern age that’s the best of it. Machines have taken more jobs than China and Mexico combined ever will, they keep you in touch with anyone who wants to call you no matter where you go, and they’re increasingly bossy about everyone, even if they do occasionally give us a good tip to a Tom Waits song or an old MGM musical number. We’ll try to stay free of it as best we can, and hope those cute little German girls find their imaginary conservations with their mute but cute little dolls more edifying than talking to even to the cutest little machine, and that the human thing prevails.

— Bud Norman

Diplomacy in the Post E-Mail Age

Although we pride ourselves on a stubborn resistance to the latest technology and the rest of the modern world, and endure merciless kidding about it even from our octogenarian folks, the next President of the United States seems somehow even more Luddite than ourselves. You’ll find no high-definition televisions or global positioning systems in our possession, nor any smart phones or sultry-voiced Siri or any other gizmo smarter than ourselves, but at least we’ve learned enough computer code to indent these paragraphs the way God intended and post on them on the internet, and for crying out loud we’ve been sending and receiving e-mails since the paleolithic dial-up days.
President-elect Donald Trump testified in one of his 2007 lawsuits that “I don’t do the e-mail thing,” and he seems to not have budged from that stand. At a February rally he assured the raucous crowd “I go to court and they say, ‘Produce your e-mails,’ I say ‘I don’t have any,'” which his supporters seemed to find reassuring. When the Democratic Party’s hacked e-mails were leaked across the internet in July, and Trump publicly invited the Russians or whoever else might have done it to hack and leak Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mails as Secretary of State as well, he once again assured his supporters that “I’m not an e-mail person myself. I don’t believe in it because I think it can be hacked, for one thing.” Now there’s a controversy regarding the intelligence community’s seeming conclusion that the Russians did the hacking and leaking to influence the election that Trump won, and Trump remains stubbornly insistent that some hypothetical 400-pound fellow in a New Jersey basement is as likely a suspect, and through it all he’s still assuring his supporters that whatever shenanigans he might be up to at least they won’t be revealed in an electronically purloined e-mail.
Which might work well enough for Trump, as every other of his crazy ideas seemingly has, but we can’t help wondering how well it will work for the rest of the federal government. Trump has now suggested that “If you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way, because I’ll tell you what, no computer is safe.” He cited the authority of his 10-year-old son, who reportedly “can do anything with a computer,” but if the kid can tell us how to get our bills paid by government-paid postal couriers just ahead of the utility cut-offs and pass along diplomatic communiques by such old-fashioned means just ahead of a nuclear conflagration we are eager to hear it. At our age we’ve read enough romantic novels and watched enough black-and-white movies about the French and American revolution days to know that those old-fashioned couriers encountered plenty of intrigue, too, and we’re eagerly awaiting what Trump’s 10-year-old kid has to say about that.
A federal government-wide return to ink and paper and actual file cabinets and dashing couriers on horseback will no doubt help bring the country to full employment, and might even undo some of the damage that Trump’s illiterate “tweets” have done to the English language, but even to our Luddite eyes it seems inefficient. Perhaps Trump and his 10-year-old computer wiz of a son have it all figured, though, and we’ll hear about over social media.

— Bud Norman

Christopher Columbus, Ray Charles, and the Way It Turned Out

Today is Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, depending on your preference as a freeborn American. We have nothing against indigenous peoples, and count some among our ancestors, but we’ll spend the day playing old records by Ray Charles in celebration of the fellow who set off from the Old World and inadvertently found a new one.
To the more progressive way of thinking, ironically enough, Columbus is one of history’s greatest villains and his voyage one of history’s greatest catastrophes. If only Columbus had suppressed that dangerous human instinct to discover what is beyond the horizon, according to this progressive line of thought, the indigenous people would have been spared all the subsequent unpleasantness and the rest of the world would been spared the annoyance of modern America. This alternative history has a certain appeal, what with everyone living in perfect harmony with nature and bare-breasted women cavorting on the sandy beaches and all that, but it’s always struck us as rather hopefully speculative. One must ignore the likelihood that the indigenous people would have inflicted all sorts of unpleasantness on themselves over the past many centuries, as all people tend to do, and forgo all the life-enhancing discoveries that have resulted from that dangerous human instinct to discover what is beyond the horizon. One must also deny that America, for all its past sins and remaining faults, is one of the greatest things that has happened to humankind over the past five centuries and perhaps far greater than what might happened if everyone had just stayed put in their diversity-lacking homelands.
The late Flip Wilson had a very funny bit about Christopher Columbus in which the great explorer explains to Queen Isabella that “If I don’t discover America there’s not going to be a Benjamin Franklin, or a star-spangled banner or a land of the free and the home of the brave, and no Ray Charles.” In Wilson’s telling the queen panics at the thought of no Ray Charles, and immediately agrees to finance Columbus’ journey to America when he explains “That’s where all those records come from.” It’s a shrewd bit of anachronistic humor, but it also seems a profound rebuttal to all the Columbus-bashers who would rather celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Living in perfect harmony with nature would be cold in the winter and hot in the summer, the beaches where the bare-breasted women cavort will always be far away, the rest of the progressive vision of history’s perfect conclusion sounds quite dull and lacking in adventure, and the part about no Ray Charles is too horrible to contemplate.

We’ll do what we can for the indigenous peoples, which will probably involve modern medical discoveries and a technological economy, but we’ll also take some time out today to be grateful that Christopher Columbus brought the Old World’s know-how to this hemisphere. Christopher Columbus was one of those rare men who refused to stay put and dared to find out what was beyond the horizon, and he discovered the land where the Ray Charles records came from, and that’s worth a day of celebration.

— Bud Norman

Mindset Over Matter

One of the annual journalistic rites of the back-to-school season is the feature story about the latest Beloit College Mindset List, that famous compendium of fun facts about the technological, cultural, and political forces that have influenced the newest freshman class of college students.

The list was originally devised to help Beloit College professors understand their empty-headed young charges, but has since become the little-known institution’s most important source of publicity. It’s less expensive than fielding a championship-contending football team, and doesn’t entail the risk of a recruiting scandal. At any rate, we always look forward to these articles, as they always provide ample material for grumbling about these fool youngsters, a favorite pastime of ours, and often feature a revealing tidbit or two.

This year’s list includes the usual observations about the relatively recent technological innovations that the incoming freshmen take for granted. It is noted that the new students “have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of ‘electronic narcotics,’” leaving baby boomers to lament that the youngsters don’t know the old-fashioned pleasures of pharmaceutical narcotics, and that they have grown up with MP3s and iPods and “never listen to music on the car radio and really have no use for radio at all,” meaning they also don’t know how to lay a needle down on a 33 rpm record to hear music the way God intended. The list doesn’t note that this year’s freshmen grew up with very little new music worth listening to on any device, but perhaps that just goes without saying.

The cultural changes cited on the list are just as depressing. It is noted that the “ditzy dumb blonde female” stereotype has largely faded from entertainment, which could be considered progress, but that “it has been replaced by a couple of Dumb and Dumber males.” The freshman “have lived in an era of instant stardom and self-proclaimed celebrities, famous for being famous,” and the prototype reality show “The Real World” has been on television their entire lives. They’re apparently a very irreligious lot, as “The Biblical sources of terms such as ‘Forbidden Fruit,’ ‘the writing on the wall,’ ‘Good Samaritan’ and ‘The Promised Land’ are unknown to most of them,” although we’ve noticed that this sort of ignorance is not a recent phenomenon.

The political influences on the youngsters have also been baleful. “Since they’ve been born, the United States has measured progress by a 2 percent jump in unemployment and a 16 cent rise in the price of a first class postage stamp,” the list notes, and “They have come to political consciousness during a time of increasing doubts about America’s future.” It is unclear how conscious of politics they have become, however, as the list also notes that “If the miss The Daily Show, they can always get their news on YouTube.”

Despite such generational handicaps, we suspect that the students entering academia will somehow muddle through to the day when they will read of the latest Mindset List and shake their heads sadly at the young whippersnappers who have followed. In the meantime, we take some consolation in know that we’re not professors at Beloit College.

— Bud Norman