419 Some of my obsolescences

Schwartz finds himself reminiscing about past procedures he has mastered and devices he has used that have now become obsolete. Why? Angst, maybe?

In the summer of 1953, with my bar mitzvah money, I made my first purchase of a media device. Badly wanting to play records in my room in Far Rockaway, I went to a music and audio store on Central Avenue and bought, for 10 or 11 dollars, a three-speed turntable and for 35 cents a 10-inch, 78 rpm record – “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams. I took them home, plugged the turntable in, turned it on, and full of expectation put the needle in the groove. All I could hear was a bleak hint of the song. What I did not know is that a turntable needs an amplifier and speakers in order to get audible music from a record. I went back and bought them, for I think another 15 dollars. In a way this experience anticipated some of my future, naive behavior with devices, like the time I forgot that the starter on our new Citroen Azam did not work, as Loekie gently pointed out, unless you also turned the ignition key.

For no particular reason, although the rise of ChatGPT may have something to do with it, I find myself thinking about all the apparatus I have owned and the skills I have practiced that have lost their meaning. Take cars, again. Until about 1975, when our Simca was taken off the road by the Zeist police force just because there was a hole in the floor (they later paid us 80 guilders of the amount they sold it for) and we bought our first second-hand car with automatic shift, all the cars I drove had a manual shift, sometimes requiring delicate operating. To shift gears, for those of you who have never done it manually, you have to disengage the current gear by stepping on the clutch, a third pedal in the floor, to the left of the brake and the accelerator, and then moving the shift, sometimes mounted on the steering wheel and sometimes in the floor between the driver and the passenger, to the new slot of the three, four or – in overdrive – five available, those or reverse. In some cars this went smoothly and in others you would hear and feel the crunch of metal on metal in the gearbox, calling for delicacy in the shifting or for double-clutching, going into neutral between gears.

The unforgettable highpoint in my automotive sensitivity took place one night in 1963, on the New Jersey Turnpike between Elizabeth and Newark, when I said to the girl I was driving from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to New York, where we were to lodge in Greenwich Village with my friend Eric Haron (never mind what happened there), “The next time I step on the clutch, the short linkage rod is going to snap.” This indeed happened as prophesied.

The car I was driving was a porphyry 1956 Austin-Healey 100M Le Mans, a gorgeous model with a leather strap over the louvered hood and a retractable windshield, of which the seller, the late Peter Manso, with whom I shared an apartment in Baltimore, told me only five hundred were manufactured. (Wikipedia puts the number at 640.) Did I love that car, and was I heartbroken, being unable to pay for its maintenance, to have had to sell it. Just look at these pictures, of a model Sotheby’s sold in 2016.  The average price of the car in recent years is $150,000, which amounts to an increment of $2,500 a year in the 60 years since I sold mine. That wouldn’t have covered more than a third or a quarter of maintenance and garage costs had I kept it, even without factoring in the decrease in purchasing power of the dollar. I say this to console myself.

You can still get manual-shift cars, but my own mastery of the skill has been retired. What has retained its value for getting around on wheels is bicycling, the technique and devices for which have not basically changed since my father, running beside me in Highland Park, took his hand off the saddle of my two-wheeler and gave me one of the great thrills of my childhood, realizing that I was riding on my own.

In one of my first summer jobs, in a fruit shipping company on the New York waterfront, I was entrusted, perhaps unwisely, with conducting communication with the Chicago office via telex. This was one of nicest forms of long-distance communication I have ever experienced. It was like chatting on Internet, but with a sentient being, not a bot or a human acting like one. You operated the clunky keyboard only when you had initiated contact, by telephone, with a conversation partner at the other end, in this case a female I never saw but to whom I was joined by a dedicated connection of wires and cables, a thousand miles from door to door. You typed a message that went down on paper and tape and electrical registration, then clicked on a lever to transmit it. A reply would come back at near conversational speed. She and I knew that whatever we wrote, about refrigerated boxcars with fruit crossing the continent from west to east, was being preserved for our bosses to review, but we still made something personal out of our exchanges. It was almost as if we were touching each other’s fingers. You ended a session by typing bibi, pronounced not like the nickname of the Israeli prime minister, but bye-bye.

My first job in publishing, part-time during my junior college year at NYU, 1959-60, was working for a man who was a legend in twentieth-century literature. In 1917 Albert Boni had co-founded the firm Boni and Liveright that, quoting Wikipedia, “was the first American publisher of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, E. E. Cummings, Jean Toomer, Hart Crane, Lewis Mumford, Anita Loos, and the Modern Library series.” When I worked for him, though, as owner of the Readex Microprint Corporation, Boni had moved on to reproducing historical materials in a technique to which he held the patents. The project on which I served was “Early American Imprints, 1639-1800” – an invaluable, comprehensive collection, on sturdy 6 by 9 inch photo-paper cards each carrying up to 100 pages of text at reduced but, with a magnifying reader, eminently legible scale (not in the internet image above), of all the significant printed matter produced in America in that period, based on outside, authoritative bibliographies. My inspirationally sensible job was to scour library directories for the names of the flesh-and-blood individuals who made the actual purchase orders for research libraries, and to write sales letters to them. Microprint is far more attractive, stable and user-friendly than microfilm or microfiche, and it is still used for security printing. Its function for scholarship has however been superseded by online digitalization. Readex is still going strong, but no longer on cardboard.

“Ozalid machine in use with the City of Seattle, City Light office, circa 1954”

The other obsolete technique I practiced there was the ozalid, a wet-dry, chemically corrosive, time-consuming and nasally irritating copying machine that I hated and couldn’t get to work reliably all the time. The fumes regularly put me to sleep in the back office, which I think may have led Mr. Boni to terminate my employ.

About typing – most readers of the Schwartzlist will have gone through the same progression as mine from the mechanical typewriter to the electrical, in a succession of modes, to the word processor to the computer. If you haven’t, ask a parent. I do have to tell about how I jumped the gun on the personal computer. In 1974 I bought a deplorable digital device, as big as a desk, for some 10,000 guilders. It consisted of a keyboard with a screen that showed only one line of text, a dot-matrix printer and two digital drives. They were not the small contraptions with slits for a dvd that you buy today for fifty bucks or euros. They were as large as bass hi-fi speakers, and had a capacity of a few thousand kb. In my thirst for automatization I convinced myself that generating direct-mail letters to the potential buyers of my books as a publisher was going to pay for this enormous expenditure. Fortunately for me and my family, the machine made plain, stupid mistakes (like Bard), so I could take it back – also to Zeist, as I recall, like the Simca – for a refund. My real love affair with the computer was born in 1983, at the Apple stand at the RAI office machine fair in Amsterdam, which I should not even have attended. There the Lisa was demonstrated, and I saw for the first time how a mouse can move a cursor and manipulate content. I was sold. Fortunately, I did not buy a Lisa, which was quickly shunted off by Apple.

While all of this was going on, the main required skill, typing on a qwerty keyboard, has remained as useful as ever, despite its being the most arbitrary of the techniques here discussed. Among the obsolescences discarded en route are the carbon copy, of which I have thousands in the attic, and the sticky and chalky mechanisms for correcting typing errors. The declining relevance of penmanship I cannot call a personal loss, since my achievements in this realm, from first grade on, have never been good.

Yes, it must be AI that has brought this on. The skills I acquired as a researcher in libraries of printed books, journals and card catalogues, skills on which my reputation as a scholar is based, have already been converted, with a loss of rarity value and a decline in ranking, to a knack for conducting searches on internet. What is now threatened is already happening. Chatting with AI bots is improving day by day, and the point is approaching when say a Rembrandt bot will not only give more complete answers in a second than I can give in a month, but will ask itself better and more relevant questions than I do.

[24 July 2023: Photo of UNIVAC I, added to illustrate my response to Bill Alschuler, below]

© 2023 by Gary Schwartz in person. Published on the Schwartzlist on 22 July 2023

Since the last column, written after the integrity of the Russian state was impaired by an unpunished insurrection, the Dutch government has collapsed and its main figures have announced they are leaving politics. I find the sequence of events less pretty than most of my countrymen. The cabinet fell because the four parties in the coalition were unable to agree about the right of refugees in our borders to bring family members into the country. Since this right is protected by international law, it should not have been even debated, let alone seized on as a breaking point for the government. What caused the break, as I see it, is that the right-wing faction of the premier’s party, the VVD, insisted that measures be taken, any measures at all, to reduce the influx of refugees. The premier, Mark Rutte, has time and again promised the VVD xenophobes that NOW he was really going to get things done. After failing for thirteen years to arrive at a satisfactory formula for receiving refugees, in the party congress of November 2022 he solemnly swore to deliver results before the summer. The exaggerations of which his cronies were guilty, in pursuing this aim, should be punishable. Henk Kamp, a former VVD minister, pronounced in funereal terms on national tv that last year 400,000 foreigners entered our little country, as if that were the problem, a problem only the VVD dared to confront. What he did not say is that most of them came from European Union countries, so that all they had to do at the border was show their driver’s license, and that the largest group of others who came in were Ukrainians on temporary admission. By the figures supplied by the government itself, in 2022 46,400 arrivals claimed refugee status, including 925 family members – the ones who brought down the government – who came in later. The refusal to acknowledge this right is not only sickening, I believe it is illegal. That the VVD Minister of Security and Justice – a deplorable combination of functions – Dilan Yeşilgöz, speaks of masses of refugees we cannot accommodate is a reprehensible lie. She is now the favored, further right-wing successor to Rutte as party leader for an election in November.

When Rutte, the longest sitting prime minister in Dutch history, was asked the day after he handed in the resignation of his cabinet to the king whether he was planning to run again for office and form his fifth cabinet since 2010, he said, “If you ask me today, the answer is yes. I am full of ideas and energy.” Yet, when debate in the lower chamber of Parliament ensued the day after, he prefaced the affair by saying that he was unavailable for the next election, and that once a new cabinet had been formed (the last formation took 299 days!) he would resign from Dutch politics. His declaration was greeted not as evidence that he had misled everyone the day before; not as a cop-out to stave off the fierce debate the opposition had drafted, up to a motion of no confidence that was now rescinded; not that he was shielding himself from being thrown ignominiously out of office by the bigots in his own party; not that he was securing a decommissioned status that cannot be undone by Parliament, but as a self-sacrificing, sincere, even tear-jerking surrender. A move that frees him to go on to the positions that are going to earn him five or ten times more than his salary as prime minister, in corporations he has benefitted in the last 13 years. [24 July: I have promised a dear friend to retract the latter insinuation and apologize for it if in a year after he leaves government Rutte has not taken a high position with Shell or Unilever.]

The Dutch media are showing only interviews with Dutch politicians and commentators, not reports on the victims of these developments in countries at war. I know it’s an ideal to respect people with different opinions than your own – we on the left keep saying so – but this is not a matter of opinion or ideology. It’s the cynical sacrifice of stranded children and wives of refugees from Syria and Eritrea and Afghanistan as tokens in the intraparty politics of the VVD.

Otherwise, things are fine.

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4 thoughts on “419 Some of my obsolescences”

  1. I have some examples of similar experience with tech evolution. When I was in college, I ran model stellar atmospheres on the computers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. They were the supercomputers of the time and were running daily orbital predictions of all the space satellites and known junk for the Air Force. I am typing this on a desktop computer with many times the computation capacity and speed of those super computers.

    Some years later, in 1979, I was in an early computer shop in Cambridge thinking about buying an Apple II, mostly for my business of energy consulting, when a guy walked in, sat down at an Apple II, took out a floppy disk and put it into a disk drive and ran a program.
    I watched as it showed a set of columns and rows that he filled in with equations and numbers. What absolutely amazed me was that if he changed one number input then all dependent variables would instantly recalculate. That made my mind up instantly and so I bought one of the Apples and the program, which was published a month or so later. The guy was Mitch Kapor and the program was Visicalc, the first spreadsheet program for pc’s and the granddaddy of Excel and all others.

    The third example is that I am now the owner of an e-bike. It is a peddle-assist type, so its motor kicks in only if you are peddling. It has 4 levels of assistance, but I have only ever used the lower two. At level 2 it feels like a small rocket kicking in which makes it pretty easy to go up San Francisco hills and into headwinds, when I use it.

    My handwriting is deteriorating. I only use cursive for my signature and my printing, which was very good, is becoming wavery and sloppy.

    AI is a real concern to me principally because of its potential for falsification and bias of every sort coupled with the replication power of social media. Maybe there should be a law that limits the number of “sites of interest” recommendations to just one, with fines, say a dollar per violation, to be paid to a public fund. Also, AI bad advice should carry liability for the originators…..

    1. In response, Bill, let me add the first computer I ever got close to. As a freshman at NYU in 1956, I gazed in awe at the building on Waverly Place, across the street from Main Building, that housed the first UNIVAC I to be installed in a university, in 1953, paid for by the Atomic Energy Commission.

      Wikipedia speaks:

      “UNIVAC I used about 5,000 vacuum tubes, weighed 16,686 pounds (8.3 short tons; 7.6 t), consumed 125 kW, and could perform about 1,905 operations per second running on a 2.25 MHz clock. The Central Complex alone (i.e. the processor and memory unit) was 4.3 m by 2.4 m by 2.6 m high. The complete system occupied more than 35.5 m2 (382 ft²) of floor space. The main memory consisted of 1000 words of 12 characters each. When representing numbers, they were written as 11 decimal digits plus sign.”

      You also read that, like my turntable, it was not a stand-alone device. “UNIVAC did not provide an operating system. Operators loaded on a UNISERVO a program tape which could be loaded automatically by processor logic.” This required “up to 10 UNISERVO tape drives, a Remington Standard electric typewriter and a Tektronix oscilloscope,” a separate printer, card to tape converter, and tape to card converter.

      See image added to column, above.

      The 1000 words in the memory amount to about 1.6 Mb. The memory in my Pixel 6 Pro smartphone, which admittedly also needs an outside printer, is 12 Gb, 7500 times larger. What will the next 70 years bring?

    1. Whenever the thought of stopping crosses my mind, dearest Marilyn (which it never does), I think of you and plunge back happily into the work I love. Love you, too.

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