Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#710)

Overheard at an ISIS barbecue
by David Benjamin

SOMEWHERE IN SYRIA — A trio of Islamists — Ahmed, Mohammed and Kurlijo — gathered round a campfire, a Christian baby roasting on a spit.

One says, “Ah, I love the smell of barbecued infidel in the morning.”

“It’s night time, Mo,” replies Ahmed.

“Hey, look,” says Kurli. “It says on my iPad that America is spoiling for a big-ass ground war against us, right here. They’re ready for a whole new quagmire.”

Mo: “That would be great. Think of it. We get to kill Americans, break the hearts of their moms, break up American marriages, orphan American kids and  devastate their families. And the beauty part: We don’t have to go anywhere or spend any money. No air fares, no phony passports, no huge MasterCard bills for explosives and blasting caps at Home Depot. We just squat here, pick off redneck kids from Oklahoma and Utah, behead the occasional reporter and then, like Geronimo and the Apaches, we melt into the desert. Allahu Akbar, baby!”

Ahmed: “I don’t get it. They’re safe, across a whole ocean, thousands of miles away. All their own Muslims are Westernized, petty bourgeois, tamer than hamsters and under surveillance by Neighborhood Watch. Why in Allah’s name would they want to ship their children over here to get killed, maimed and screwed-up for life with PTSD. Haven’t they seen American Sniper?”

Mo: “Americans? Man, they’re all crazy. But the craziest of ‘em all belong to this big political party. Old white men who get some sort of sick thrill rounding up teenagers from small towns and urban ghettos, duding them up in camouflage costumes and shipping them off to die pointlessly in Third World hellholes like this miserable slab of barren ground right here. Yo, Ahmed! Keep the spit turning.”

Kurli: “So, you’re saying there’s a permanent war party in America?”

Mo: “Yeah, they call themselves lots of things. Conservatives. Patriots. Republicans. Chicken hawks. But it all comes down to flag-waving, saber-rattling and sacrificing the young for the sake of getting a few Golden Agers re-elected.”

Ahmed and Kurlijo shake their heads in wonder at the absurdity of American militarism. Mo points at Kurli and says, “Hey, what’s that you’re sitting on.”

Kurli: “What? Oh, that’s my Koran.”

Mo: “Our most sacred book? The reason we’re out here, freezing our tuchises, slaughtering Yazidis and Shiites and harmless Jews? We massacre whole villages for looking cross-eyed at the Koran. And you’re using it as a sit-upon?”

Kurli: “Hey, lighten up, Mo. The ground is cold.”

Mo: “You should be reading the Koran, not using it to keep your ass warm.”

Kurli: “So, Mr. holier-than-thou. You’re saying you can read?”

Mo: “Well, not exactly. My imam says education is against Allah.”

Ahmed: “The imam’s right. Who reads? We live — happily ignorant — in a tribal, oral, virulently anti-intellectual culture that has devolved tragically from the scientific progressivism of our Ottoman forbears.”

Kurli: “You’re making us sound like Southern Baptists.”

Ahmed: “Hey, if the sandal fits, man. We’re functionally illiterate, unemployed, politically reactionary, chronically pissed off and we love guns. And all we really know from sacred scripture is what we hear out of wild-eyed preachers who think the Great Satan is on the march and the world is coming to an end. We could all close our eyes and imagine we’re in Mississippi.”

Kurli: “What’s Mississippi?”

Mo: “Hey, please, man. Do me a favor. Get off your Koran already.”

Kurli finally relents. Sitting on the cold ground, he fans the Koran and says, “I can stare at this book for a year and not understand a word. But maybe that’s the secret of jihad. Maybe what keeps us fighting is what not what we know, but what we don’t know about Islam. Let’s face it. When you’re talkin’ scripture, most of us couldn’t tell the difference between Mohammed and, say, Matt Damon.”

Ahmed: “Hey, Matt Damon I know. I love that guy. Even if he is an infidel. I mean. He’s macho but he’s also sensitive, y’know?”

Kurli: “Yeah, those ‘Bourne’ movies were great.

Mo: “Except for the last one. But that wasn’t Matt Damon.”

Ahmed: “No, it was that Chris Pine guy. The one from the Star Trek remake.”


Mo: “Hey, now there’s something I could do all day — watch Star Trek flicks. Spock. Uhura. Captain Kirk! Wouldn’t it be a gas, killing Americans with phaser guns? Zap! Zip! Bwee! Or better yet, just stun ‘em. And then slice off their heads!”

Ahmed: “I’d just as soon kill ‘em outright. I know too many guys got tennis elbow from sawing off the heads of missionaries. The pain is excruciating.”

Kurli: “That’s the thing I can’t figure out. They know we like to behead outsiders, right? They know we’re penniless sadists with nothing to lose. They know this whole place is just rocks, camels, the occasional sandstorm, and homely ignorant women cloaked in tent-canvas from head to toe. Why do they keep coming? Why do they fight an enemy who runs away and hides until they give up and leave, even if it takes a hundred years? Why do they send these nice young kids for us to frustrate them, blow them up, cut them to ribbons, screw with their minds and turn them into homeless drunks and cripples living out of garbage cans?”

Ahmed: “ Funny, isn’t it? Now and then, we do a suicide bombing in the neighborhood. Or we mimic some white-guy hero from Western history, like Henry VIII or Robespierre, and we hack off a few heads. Meanwhile, for the sake of political gamesmanship, they sacrifice thousands of their own children in an unnecessary war on the wrong side of the world. And it’s us they call barbarians?”

Kurli: “Go figure.”

Mo: “Hey, the Christian is medium-rare. You want me to carve?”

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#709)

The lost Nazi
by David Benjamin

PARIS — The report is sketchy, as usual. A Parisian living somewhere on the Left Bank went to his cave, or wine cellar, to fetch a bottle. He discerned there a furtive figure — a shadow, really. It flickered across the edge of his vision and vanished into the vast network of tunnels beyond the cave, the great underground cemetery of the poor people of Paris, known as the Catacombs.

The witness only thinks he saw someone. There were no marks or footprints. The bottle’s empty cradle contained a single coin. But the witness wasn’t sure if he might have taken the bottle upstairs and uncorked it a week, or a month, before. The coin might have been there all along, misplaced and unnoticed. 

This scantly reported incident revived one of my favorite Paris mysteries, the weird case of the lost Nazi. The legend dates from the battle to liberate Paris in August 1944, when — it is said —German soldiers chased several Resistance fighters through the Left Bank streets of Denfert-Rochereau. The rebels fled through a secret entrance to the Catacombs, which served as a Resistance hideout during the Nazi occupation. The most daring of the Germans followed them — and disappeared. Like many careless explorers before, he apparently got lost among the Catacombs’ more than 200 miles of tunnels. They had begun as limestone quarries but were turned into an ossuary for more than six million dead Parisians.

After the war, that chase through Denfert-Rochereau was forgotten. But in the next two decades, sightings of a subterranean shadowman, a spectral glimpse in the gloom, kept haunting the back pages of Paris journals. These dubious tales came often from residents whose cellars adjoined the Catacombs. But engineers and workers renovating the quarries also spoke — timidly and infrequently — about an underground wraith who came to be known as le Nazi perdu, “the lost Nazi.”

The lost Nazi gradually evolved into a French equivalent of those Japanese soldiers, left behind on remote South Pacific islands, who went on hiding in the jungle and fighting World War II twenty or thirty years after Japan’s surrender.

But in 1957, researchers at the Freie Universität Berlin issued a report responding to the Parisian stories, It verified that virtually every Wehrmacht soldier assigned to Paris in August 1944 was accounted for — either killed, captured or evacuated — by the German high command. All but one.

His name, according to the report, was Willi Knorber. Despite his Parisian nom de guerre, he was probably not a Nazi. The German records reveal that he was from the bleak and sunless cliffside village of Mossfurt in Lower Saxony, and was drafted into the Hitler Youth in 1942 at age 13. Willi then became one of the child soldiers pressed into the Wehrmacht as Hitler became desperate for manpower. Willi’s been listed officially as “missing in action” since August 20, 1944.

Willi Knorber was just the sort of rural bumpkin in Paris who might stumble into a subterranean labyrinth and never find his way out. The Catacombs are a great, death-whispering sanctuary so deep and so serpentine that they could hide a scared, lost boy-soldier from a man-eating world long enough and safely enough to make a hermit’s life seem to him, by and by, like Heaven under earth.

Even after the Knorber file emerged, tales of le Nazi perdu were dismissed as Paris’ version of alligators in the New York sewers. Harder to ignore were reports from Left Bank denizens about stolen wine, purloined potatoes, the disappearance of a moth-eaten blanket or a jar of fig preserves from the family cave.

Early on in these “burglaries,” coins of 10, 5 or 50 reichspfennigs were left behind at the scene of the crime. When these coins ceased to appear, believers in le Nazi perdu logically suggested that Willi had just used up all his change. Then the coins returned, in currencies German, French, American, Japanese and, lately, euros. There was, of course, no way to trace them to purses and rucksacks “lost” by tourists in the Catacombs.

About 20 years ago, sightseers began to talk of a haunting figure among them in the tunnels. He was gaunt and funereally pale, dressed raggedly, as quiet as the skulls and bones all around. His witness, often, would turn to peer more closely, only to see no one. He vanished as suddenly and silently as he had appeared.

Finally, there’s the story of little Patty Brill, the American seven-year-old who — several years ago — wandered into one of the Catacombs’ thousand side-tunnels, triggering parental panic, a Muslim abduction scare and 20 hours of searching by everyone from the Paris cops, to the Sapeurs et Pompiers of the fire department, to a cabal of secret cataphiles who in defiance of authority use the limestone underground as both nightclub and cathedral. Patty, when she suddenly reappeared, said she’d been led, hand in hand, by a tall, stooped “old guy” who spoke softly in an odd language and slipped her somehow through a locked gate into the main passageway. A further manhunt found no sign of the “old guy.”

As a journalist most of my adult life, I’m inclined to scoff at legends like Willi Knorber, the lost Nazi. But I’ve been a romantic since I was Patty’s age. So, I prefer to think that Willi, a boy thrust bewildered into the Third Reich meatgrinder, muddled, in the endless tunnels of Paris, into a separate peace. He found there a way to survive and, perhaps, to atone. He was able to wall away the horror that brought him to Hitler’s darkened City of Light. With Paris as his roof, he has eluded the barbarity and carnage that signifies the human condition since the summer day when Willi tumbled, like Alice, into the rabbithole.

I like to think Willi’s still among us, a leathery codger with neither politics nor philosophy, still nicking the odd bottle of Medoc or Muscadet (and leaving a euro). He’d be nestled in a passage where no one else has set foot for 200 years, since that last monk genuflected on the cobblestones, crossed himself and deposited the last anonymous skull in the vast and trackless “Ossuaire Municipal de Paris.”

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#708)

My car, the mother… board
by David Benjamin

PARIS — Over the past few months, I’ve been conducting an informal survey, asking friends and strangers this question: “What’s the best car ever made?”

My dad’s choice was a ’55 Chevrolet Bel Air in which he used to kick up gravel and raise hell in Tomah. Mine was also a Chevy, the ’57 Bel Air driven by Dick Albright, my best friend in high school. Other selections I gathered along the way included, of course, the ’65 Mustang, the ’73 slant-six Plymouth Duster, the ’63 Citroen DS, the ’56 Chrysler New Yorker, the ’64 Olds Toronado, the ’66 Alfa Romeo Spider, the ’64 Lincoln Continental, the ’78 Pontiac Trans Am, the ’64 Jaguar XKE, the ’83 Mercedes-Benz turbo-diesel, the ’69 Beetle and the ’71 Dodge Charger. A homeless guy on the Strip in Las Vegas just said to me, “Studebaker. Any Studebaker. They were made of steel.”

Notably common to all these choices is that none of them even remotely reflects 21st-century automotive genius. The closest was the ’95 Hummer, which a post-Boomer regarded as kind of nifty.

I’m not a car guy. I wasn’t curious about this question until the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas was invaded by every auto manufacturer on earth, each promoting what they call the “center stack,” that blinking, beeping multimedia tumor that has swollen up between the driver and passenger seats. Your typical “center-stack” — which has nothing to do with transportation — has an eerie resemblance to a Roswell alien and includes controls for communications, emergency services and global positioning. But its main purpose is what the industry calls “infotainment” (a term that rivals “webinar” as the ugliest biz-lingo coinage ever conceived).

In Dick’s beautiful ’57 Bel Air, the “center stack” consisted of an AM radio with five buttons to pre-set favorite stations. Closer to the steering wheel, there were buttons (or “touch-pads”) to control the heater, the fan and a windshield defroster that took five minutes to melt an area the size of a quarter. There was also a cigarette lighter. This wasn’t much but the result was a dashboard with an elegant simplicity and a space-age aesthetic that stands the test of time. That old dash still looks way cool after 58 years.

Dick’s Bel Air, bless its heart, had broad sprawlable bench seats, front and back. It was built before the unfortunate advent of the bucket seat, a pernicious Puritan regression that ended the era of front-seat sex — even the head-on-shoulder snuggling depicted in countless Fifties lithographs and car ads in Look, Life and The Saturday Evening Post.

No mass-production vehicle since 1957 has improved significantly on the Bel Air’s roominess, sturdiness, mechanical integrity, power, comfort, design or ability to pick up girls. In many respects, cars were pretty much perfect by 1960. Nothing more needed to be done.

Certainly, there have been advances since then, with better production technology, quality control, safety and fuel economy, smaller engines with equivalent power, pollution reductions, lighter materials, air conditioning, cup-holders, FM radio, etc. But this is all engineering. A lot of stuff got better inside the car while the exterior up and lost its mojo.

When you think about cool-looking cars, you think classic Porsche or James Bond’s Aston Martin. You think of the Beach Boys ’62 409, Johnny Bond’s Hot Rod Lincoln, Steve McQueen’s ’68 Mustang, or that wonderfully weird-looking ’51 Le Sabre that Buick was afraid to manufacture. “Cool” is not a word that springs to mind today at the sight of a four-wheel lozenge-with-headlights that looks like GlaxoSmithKline designed it to fit less painfully into snug orifices for laxative purposes.

My current car is an ’01 Sentra. Its moving parts date back pretty much to ’57 and it works fine — as long as I submit it regularly to mechanics who know what to tighten, where to lubricate and how often. Since I got it (used), my only major repair was replacing the electronic control unit (ECU). It died at 70,000 miles and rendered the car instantly inert. My new ECU cost $2,000. The dealer told me he’d had six similar failures — which doesn’t sound like many ‘til you multiply by Nissan’s 1,100 dealerships in just the USA. That’s $2.2 million in one model year for replacing a motherboard that can keep a car from running but can’t make it run.

When I look at my survey, I notice that everybody’s idea of a great car doesn’t have a motherboard.

Luddite though I seem, I’m not opposed to automotive progress, even under the hood. Eventually, I believe, all cars will be electric or hydrogen- powered. The question is, should they continue to look like half-sucked cough-drops? Or might it be nicer if they resembled that ’55 T-Bird my uncle Herb drove into town one day? Or that truly cherry ’61 ‘Vette (later updated to a ’63, then a ’64 Sting Ray) that Martin Milner and George Maharis used to tool around America in “Route 66”?

(Of course, there will still be ugly cars on the road. Always have been — the Edsel, for example. The AMC Pacer was an aesthetic travesty. And every Oldsmobile in the 1980’s should’ve been driven to the nearest quarry and torched by juvenile delinquents. The ugliest of future cars will be the “autonomous,” or “self-driven” variety. They’ll look like stretch sedan-chairs and they’ll have their own lane on the road. Inside, without drivers — whipping along at 18 mph — will be the blind and the halt, the unlicensed and the DUI-disabled, and thousands of geezers who had their licenses revoked. I picture them in there napping, watching “Wheel of Fortune” re-runs on the Game Show Channel, playing canasta.)

I’m not opposed to progress but I recoil at useless complexity. I know that computers in cars are here to stay. But why so many so fast? Neither my old ’66 Ford Econoline (Rosemary) nor my ’94 Dodge Lancer (the Beige Bomb) contained a single CPU. Now we’re making cars with 300 CPUs requiring a fussy network of operating systems, links, buses and bypasses to keep from shorting each other out and frying the magneto. Senator Edward Markey has just issued a report about the vulnerability of car computers to being “hacked.” Someone far, far away, he warns, can now seize control of your Beamer and run you remotely into a not-so-remote bridge abutment. Don’t laugh. Sen. Markey’s nightmare was the thoroughly credible plot last year for an unfunny episode of “Person of Interest.”

Cars don’t need to be laptops on wheels. They don’t need to be smartphones that can go ninety while scheduling Junior’s piano lessons, monitoring Suzie’s soccer practice, surveilling Dad’s lunch meeting and superimposing “Game of War” in transparent 3D on the windshield.

Oncoming traffic ought to be the only thing visible in, on or beyond the windshield — even though it’s boring. The steering wheel ought to be the only thing the driver controls by touch. People don’t need to be convinced by advertisers that careless, discourteous and distracted driving is OK now because technology can take over and steer the car and hit the brakes and veer across three lanes while you text sweet nothings to your cutie or try to find the burning cigarette in your lap.

A car can be beautiful, as has been proven a thousand times. A car can be fun, as Burt Reynolds demonstrated perhaps more convincingly (and recklessly) than any other driver. A car can be simple enough to be kept in flawless repair by an East L.A. high school dropout with a six-drawer toolbox and a manual grease gun.

Over its more than two centuries of existence, the car has become far more than its inventors — Cugnot, Rivaz, Karl Benz and even Henry Ford — ever imagined. Depending on what a person makes of it, a car can play many roles. A car can be bedroom or playroom, dining room or barroom, boardroom or hangout, or even — in a pinch — a household. It can be a sidekick, a spouse, a shrink, an adventure, an escape, a phallic facsimile, a feminist flying-carpet, a lifesaver, a murder weapon and a coffin. A car can be a cash cow for automakers, especially if it’s glutted with features, options, gimcracks, doo-dads, tweeters, woofers, undercoating and a “center-stack” packed with HD, Netflix, killer apps, satellite maps and dancing colored lights. But, for all that, a car is nothing but sheet metal and noxious fluids if it doesn’t get you from here to there.

A car still has to be a car.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#707)

I was Charlie
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Considering the travesty at Charlie Hebdo this month, you might think that the worst thing that could happen to a satirist is writing (or drawing) stuff that gets him killed. This ain’t necessarily so.

Whether they’re going for laughs or not, lots of people get killed for writing stuff. Thomas More, decapitated in London. Madame Roland, guillotined in Paris. Fritz Gerlich, executed at Dachau. Daniel Pearl murdered in Pakistan. James Foley and Steven Sotloff, beheaded on YouTube. Dozens of rank-and-file journalists bite the dust every year just for filing straight, factual, unfunny news copy.

For a satirist, the real crusher isn’t death. It’s when people just don’t get it.

The irony of Charlie Hebdo is that the editors and cartoonists got killed because their murderers actually got the joke, and didn’t like it. Charlie Hebdo’s satire was so obvious that even a literal thinker could follow along.

I know the feeling. I wrote my first spoof in fourth grade, about my teacher, Mrs. Ducklow. I handed it in proudly, certain that she’d be dazzled by my suavity and rapier wit. So, when Mrs. Ducklow hied me grimly into the hall, I had no idea what was up. Father Mulligan — the jolliest Irishman in town — was waiting there, doing his best to look stern. The two grownups loomed over me. They explained that making light of established authority was “disrespectful.” Worse, when attempted by a parochial-school popinjay like me, satire was an actual sin.

Luckily for me, I knew my catechism. It didn’t contain one word about satire. Humor might piss off Jesus, but it requires no Act of Contrition.

After I had recovered from the inquisition in the hallway, I grasped vaguely that my mistake was not that I had mocked authority but that I had mocked it weakly. Through trial and error, I gradually learned that satire is a cruelly difficult discipline. It has to work on two, or three different levels. It should make some people laugh out loud, while others knit their brows in puzzlement, and everybody else? Well, they didn’t even realize they were in the presence of a gag.

My first successful adventure in satire was nothing I wrote. It was more like a stroke of guerrilla theater, from out of the blue. One summer, my sister Peg and I were evacuated to a 4-H summer camp near Wisconsin Dells. The camp featured thrills like canoeing, near-drowning, hiking, lanyard-braiding, saluting the flag at dawn, mosquitoes, horseflies and three-hole outhouses. I actually don’t recall any of that “fun,” because I went astray on the first day and lost track of the agenda.

It all started when the counselers handed everyone a rawhide necklace attached to a blank wooden square. They told us all to etch our first name onto this plaque — which we were supposed to wear at all times. If we did, the counselors lied, we’d all get to know each other and make lifelong friends.

Back at St. Mary’s School, my name hadn’t made me many friends. Everyone knew it but mostly they called me other — less friendly — names. “Shitass” and “peckerface” were both popular. This history left me a little jaded about the value of first-name promiscuity.

As I gazed at my empty nametag, I found myself toying with a deviant notion. I had stumbled into a sort of identity void where nobody but Peg (whose cabin was on the other side of camp) knew me. I was nobody. I could be anybody.

So, when I put “Charlie” on my name tag, no one challenged it. There was no one who knew otherwise. I became Charlie. Charlie became me.

And Charlie turned out to be a whole different kid. At St. Mary’s, I was meek, mild, outcast and downtrodden. Charlie, on the other hand, was this brazen, outgoing. mischievous hepcat and — here’s the weird part — he was musical.

OK, I can’t sing. Never could, never will. I’m like Theodore Roethke’s serpent. But Charlie? He knew a lot of dumb, mildly vulgar kid songs. By slightly re-writing the lyrics and inserting the names of fellow campers, he tapped a demand I couldn’t understand. He was making fun of kids — and myself (Charlie couldn’t sing, either) — and they loved it. By Day 2, Charlie was not only rendering snatches of off-key doggerel for anyone who requested a tune, he was getting paid for it. In nickels, dimes and quarters, Charlie was making more money in an hour than I made in a half-day of mowing Grandpa Schaller’s endless lawn.

On the third day, Peg realized that this idiot minstrel everyone was giggling about was her brother. She accosted me and insisted that I desist being Charlie, lest she die of embarrassment. I told her, hey, we’re all strangers here. And Charlie has no sister! Peg was safe if she just avoided me. At this, she got a little angrier, told me I was ruining 4-H Camp for her and stomped off in a huff. She didn’t get it.

I had achieved satire.

Here I was ridiculing people and getting paid for it. I was making a mockery of woodcraft and leatherwork and all that other campy crap. Even worse, I was lampooning the sacred concept of friendship through nametags.

I did make friends, but these were mainly the kids who got the gag. They liked both of us, me and Charlie. Better yet, I made no enemies — except for Peg,

Of course, my truce with literal thinkers didn’t last. I read Twain. I read Swift and moved on to Mencken. My loyalties shifted from Superman and Scrooge McDuck to Groucho Marx and Alfred E. Newman. I began to dip my pen in acid. Enemies materialized. By high school, I was getting into lots bigger trouble than I ever would have imagined that day in the hallway with Father Mulligan.

Nor would I have expected a massacre in Paris 55 years later to remind me of those days at the Dells when I whimsically morphed into a jester named Charlie. But, as the late, lamented jesters of Hebdo so terribly demonstrated on the 7th of January, once you’ve etched “Charlie” onto your nametag, there’s no turning back.

You’re Roethke’s serpent and you’ve got sing, “… like Anything!”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#706)

The thing is…
by David Benjamin

“The thing is to put a motor in yourself.”
                                            — Frank Zappa

LAS VEGAS — According to all the banners, keynote speakers and shameless self-promoters at this year's Consumer Electronics Saturnalia (CES), the thing is the “Internet of Things.”

The very term sounds momentous. I fairly trembled at its vast scope and Promethean implications until — on the first keynote night of the circus — B.K. Yoon, head honcho for consumer electronics at Samsung, tried to explain how the Internet of Things (Eye Oh Tea) will endemically “change people’s lives for the better while transforming society and revolutionizing industries” the world over. In other words, “My name is Ozymandias, thing of things…”

The thing is that Yoon seemed to be having trouble with the concept of “things.” I don’t blame him. Socrates and Einstein could probably talk for days about what exactly constitutes a “thing” and come away from the whole thing cranky, disheveled and irresolute.

“Thing” is a word that encompasses everything and clarifies just about nothing. Yet, here at CES, I watched 160,000 non-philological geeks and post-metaphysical hustlers clogging up Sin City, trying to plug their particular “thing” into a vast nebulous “cloud” of concept, communications and cutthroat commerce.

But what’s a “thing,” guys?

When someone says, “my things,” of course, they know exactly what those precious, proprietary things are. It’s my stuff. It’s the contents of a handbag. Or, it’s the buildings, grounds, beachfront and mineral rights of a mansion in the Hamptons. Or, it’s a shopping cart pushed around Skid Row, accumulating aluminum beer cans, plastic sheeting and half-eaten Whoppers.

When someone says, “Boy, that’s something!”, it is… some thing. But what? It could be anything.

When people say, “The thing is…”, they know what the thing is. It’s the point, the crux of the matter, the rhetorical coup de grace that silences all debate. Except that someone else’s “thing” usually manages to survive this crushing blow, and — in less than Socratic symmetry — the dispute rages on, both full of things and thingless. All things being relative, even Einstein would understand this.

The Thing is also a classic sci-fi film in which James Arness, dressed in a sort of asbestos gorilla suit, plays a raging, superhuman extraterrestrial who terrorizes an arctic research outpost.

If the Internet of Things were a flying-saucer refugee that terrorizes arctic research outposts, it would bring blessed clarity to the endless hype of CES and the bewildering vagueness of IoT. But movie monsters are, definitely, not what B.K. and his army of yoonies are trying to explicate. James Arness, even if he stripped off his badass E.T. outfit and turned into Marshal Dillon, would be too easy a “thing” to pin down.

The thing is that the “Internet of People” (Eye Oh Pea?), which most of us now use daily to post Facebook drivel, answer e-mail, delete spam, watch dirty movies and buy socks from Amazon, has exhausted its run as The Next Big Thing. The all-new, latest-thing Eye Oh Tea consists of products — that is, devices — that is, gadgets, doo-hickies and buzzing, spinning gewgaws — that is, things! that are styled to dazzle the gullible consumer and create “infinite possibilities” of income for the gadget-peddlers.

But what are the things — in an era of vast income inequality and stagnant income among us non-Yoons in the 99 percent — that husband the irresistible power to squeeze the last drop of blood from the mood rock of consumer culture? What things do we want to connect to our other things to reassure us that we’re relevant, that we — human beings — belong to the Internet of Things just as surely as our smartphone, smartwatch, smartpad, smartTV, smartfridge and brain-wave detecting smart-hat (one of Yoon’s brainstorms) belong?

What things do we still not have? What things are left that we could possibly want? Which things do we need so much that we’re willing to mortgage the future and blow our kids’ college fund, so that we might plug into a home network that reads our consumer tendencies so accurately that it can advise us — at ten-second intervals, forever — of all the things we don’t yet have but surely covet and certainly need?

Yoon told a huge audience at CES that the thing we all want (little did we imagine) is a seamlessly interactive technology that will effortlessly manage our wine cellars. Wine cellars? Yes, surprising. But he had a point. The thing is, not only do I need a wine-cellar solution. I need wine and I need a cellar. Not to mention a house above the cellar. And an income that would allow me to buy all that cabernet, chenin blanc and pinot noir, seamlessly, effortlessly.

But the thing is, I’m not sure I want the things that B.K. wants for me. Neither the wine thing nor the brain-wave thing. Nor the thing that that drives my car for me. Nor the thing that beeps six times every minute unto death, reporting on the GPS coordinates of my entire family — none of whom, I’m pretty sure, wants me to know where they are.

Here’s the thing: I do my thing. B.K. Yoon does his thing. This is not a thing for me. But it is for Yoon, and for all the believers in the IoT Party. They want to identify the thing and the things so immersive that we are all absorbed — people and stuff alike — into their Internet of Things, like ‘toons plopped into Judge Doom’s vatful of “dip.”

All this “thing” talk at CES carried me back to my college summer as a camp counselor. The camp, which mixed kids from all points in Chicago, was built and maintained by a rugged crew of Job Corps workers, most of them on release from jail or drug rehab.

The “work camp” counselors, who had to keep the Job Corps parolees on a tight leash, were behavioral pros whose arsenal included toughness, discipline, compassion, persuasion and keen psychology. There were arguments among the work campers but never a fight, because of four pacific words that the counselors — and then the work campers — had turned into a mantra. So infectious and effective was this phrase that it became a golden rule for everyone, applicable to all problems that bubbled up from the volatile melting pot in our little corner of Chicago.

When you said it — “Ain’t no big thing” — you had to chill. Whatever it was, whatever had you at wit’s end, whatever indefinable thing that for the moment was clouding your mind and firing your emotions, no…

Ain’t no big thing.

I come away from CES this year wondering if that might turn out to be the motto, the benediction, the main thing, perhaps even the epitaph for the Internet of Things.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#705)

An interactive love story
for the third millenium

by David Benjamin

LAS VEGAS — Fifteen years ago, just before the Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco Systems announced a deal with Whirlpool “to jointly build networked appliances, such as washing machines that can automatically detect mechanical problems and summon a repairman…”

Remarkably, appliance makers and their high-tech enablers are still trying to a) create machines that send minute-by-minute updates to CNN, Twitter and the National Security Agency, and b) convince homeowners that a gossipy washing machine and a fridge with a spy-cam in the veggie bin is a Best Buy must-have.

The long, uphill effort to sell America on the “always-on, always-connected” laundry room has led me to ponder some of its unintended consequences…

It was barely 7 a.m. when she heard the back doorbell. Her husband, an early riser, was long gone. Leaping wet from the shower, she threw on a filmy bathrobe and rushed to answer the door. She opened it to behold a tall Adonis in a tight twill jumpsuit. His hair was a golden mane, streaked with platinum. High cheek bones and azure eyes. Teeth gleaming white in the slanting rays of the dawn. Bronzed biceps bulging from his rolled-up shirtsleeves. Blond hair curling from the V below his neck. On his left pectoral, which rippled when he raised his clipboard, the word “Whirlpool.” Below that, his name:

“Lance.”

Gaping at this Old Spice wet dream, she momentarily let slip her grip on the robe. Gallantly, Lance looked away.

“Mrs. Liskovich, I’m here about your washer. I came as quick as I could.”
“Washer?” she replied. “I didn't call about the washer.”

“No, ma’am. The washer called me. It’s got this computer inside, y’see. As
soon as somethin’ goes wrong, I get a buzz.” He smiled, a dimple denting his tanned and craggy kisser.

Half-asleep and confused, she showed him to the laundry room, then rushed upstairs to finish her shower, dress and apply a little makeup. He was heading out the back door as she returned.

“Washer checked out fine, Mrs. Liskovich,” said Lance.

“What was the problem?” she asked, hoping to keep him long enough to brew coffee. She cocked a hip fetchingly.

“Don't know, ma’am. Prob’ly just a computer glitch. But I don’t fix computers. I’m just a dumb mechanic. The ol’ Whirlpool calls me. I come.”

The doorbell rang again just after noon. She was cleaning the grout around the toilet. Hair caked with tile cleaner. Sweatshirt splotched. Pedal-pushers rumpled and bagged out in the butt. She hurried to the back door.

Lance stood there. “Sorry, ma’am. Looks like a major emergency!”

“Impossible. I haven’t used the washer,” she said. “But come in, Lance. My goodness, I must look a mess.”

Lance blushed and shuffled his feet. “Oh, if you're a mess, then Kate Upton is Godzilla, Mrs. Liskovich.”

She didn’t know quite what this meant, but their eyes met and it didn’t matter. She said, “Please, call me Heidi.”

Together with him in the laundry room, she could feel his body heat and
smell his sweat. He found nothing wrong with the washer. “Looks like another false alarm,” he said. “Sorry, ma’am — er, Heidi.”

Then he added, “I’m also real sorry about your miscarriage last year.”

“But, but,” she sputtered, shocked. “How could you know?”

“Oh, it’s in there, Heidi. In the washer. Lots of information. I’m real glad the post-op tests showed there was no damage to your, um… uterus and all. And it’s real good news about your husband’s sperm count.”

“You found Howie’s sperm count? In my washing machine?”

“Oh, sure. Lots more, too. Would you like me to print it out?”

“It prints?”

“Oh, sure! What’s your favorite font?”

After the printout, they studied Heidi’s bio together, for more than an hour. It was all there. Mononucleosis in junior high. Homecoming Queen in high school. Phi Beta Kappa key at Yale. The broken engagement to the bass player from Tulsa. The bicycle repairman in Boulder. Lance wondered why she hadn’t tried harder to fulfill her dream as an environmental physicist. She sighed, and said, “I wonder, too, Lance. Every day. Sometimes I cry.”

When the back doorbell rang again, just after six, she was ready. She wore a negligee. She reeked of Chanel No. 5, her auburn hair cascading onto her naked shoulders. She plunged her hands into his jumpsuit and covered his chest with burning kisses.

“Oh, Heidi!” he cried out. Aroused by her beauty, he lifted her with one arm and tore at the gauzy fabric that barely covered her throbbing bosom. She pointed him toward the bedroom.

“Wait,” he said. “Your husband.”

“Are you kidding?” she said. “He never looks up from his desk until almost
midnight. From Monday to Saturday, I never see the workaholic nerd.”

“But you never know,” said Lance. “Maybe there was a power failure at his office. Maybe he knocked off early. We should check on him.”

“What? Call? What’s the use? All I ever get is his damn voicemail.”

“We can check the Whirlpool,” said Lance.

“The washing machine?”

“Oh, sure,” said Lance. “He’s in there. As long as he’s using his computer,
or his cellphone, his iPad or even the coffee machine in his office, we can find him. Track him right down. The washer’s got GPS, surveillance video, motion sensors, Netflix, you name it!”

As Lance was accessing Howie’s longitude and latitude on the spin-cycle, she clawed at his jumpsuit and licked his body. They never made it out of the laundry room.

Later, as they lay gasping blissfully on the linoleum, she asked, “Lance, darling, do you smoke afterwards?”

“I don't know,” said Lance. “I never looked.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#704)

My mother, the raised
ranch with detached garage

by David Benjamin

LAS VEGAS — In the area of technology, the popular media tend to be more credulous than when they cover analog news like evolution, abortion and Big Bang cosmology. One of the whizbang wonders regularly revived and touted, giddily, by bloggers, TV bimbos and Sunday-section feature writers is the concept of the “smart home.” This cutting-edge technology, forecast for the last 30 years as “just around the corner,” returned early this month as one of the perennial stars of the enormous Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

According to an army of wide-eyed talking heads, the smart home — whose selling price is plummeting into the “affordable” $5 million range — is a “live-in computer” that anticipates each individual occupant’s every need, from a wake-up call and cup of hot java beside the bed at dawn, to bedtime stories and warm milk at midnight. It maintains a household schedule, tracks the budget and files quarterly tax returns, answers calls, gets the kids off to school, feeds the dog, puts out the cat and breaks out into song appropriate to the listener, from Henry Mancini to BeyoncĂ©. Best of all, the smart home is a marvel of self-diagnosis, monitoring her own ambient climate, probing herself for paint peels, pipe clogs, thermostat malfunctions, water quality, carbon dioxide, radon, roaches, termites, prowlers, dust bunnies, moisture in the basement and leaves in the eaves.

“Been there, done that,” said Bienfang, when I mentioned the smart home. Dr. Wilhelm “Century 21” Bienfang is one of America’s foremost “idea men,” a visionary who thinks 25 years ahead of us mere mortals. Bienfang’s own smart dwelling was one of his earliest projects. However, although he keeps her technology current, he only goes “home” when someone asks — actually, begs — for a tour.

I begged. Bienfang balked. I whined and cajoled. We went.

Bienfang opened the door.

“Wipe your feet,” said the house.

We both complied.

And the house kept talking! “So, Normy! Where the hell have you been? I wait up every night for you to call.”

Bienfang turned to me and said, “You see, the trouble with smart homes is what I call the HAL syndrome. You know, that computer in 2001 — ?”

“Stand up straight,” said the house. “Who’s that with you?”

I introduced myself. The house tsk’ed. “Why do you only bring men home, Dave?” it said to Bienfang. “You can’t find a decent girl? You can’t get a real job, in a nice savings and loan, and settle down? You don’t think I could use maybe a woman’s touch around here — some drapes, a pot roast in the oven, the pitter-patter of little feet? Would a few doilies on my furniture kill you, Steve?”

“She called you Steve,” I said. “And Dave. And — ”

“Don't go there,” whispered Bienfang. To the house, he shouted, “It’s
cold in here.”

The house replied, “According my spanking-new MEMS-based sensors, Doug, the outside temperature is 51 degrees Fahrenheit. In here, it’s a balmy 57.”

“Could you warm it up a little?” asked Bienfang.

“I could jack it all the way up to 80 degrees, Bob, but that would be unhealthy. According to my data banks, you have six sweaters, clean and neatly folded, in your bedroom bureau. It would kill you to put one on?”

“I don't want to wear a sweater,” said Bienfang, somewhat peevishly. “I want you to turn up the heat. I’m cold and I’m uncomfortable.”

“Why is it always about you, Dick?” said the house. “You think it's easy for me, a thousand prompts on my CPU every waking minute? Plaque in my pipes, rust on my hinges, squirrels on my roof. Have I told you? I’m not feeling at all well.”

Wearily, Bienfang said, “Oh? Really?”

“Yes,” said the house. “I think I’ve got shingles.”

The house rocked with laughter.

“A Zippo and a gallon of kerosene,” muttered Bienfang, wistfully.

“Seriously, Herb,” the house went on. “My attic is killing me. I've got this constant throbbing in my weight-bearing beams. If my plaster doesn't get spackled soon, I’m going to be the laughingstock of the subdivision. My baseboards are swollen. And there's this stitch in my side, Wayne. I think there's a crack in my foundation. I mean, really! ‘Ever so humble’ is one thing. But this is ridiculous!”

“This used to be a quiet house,” said Bienfang. “It kept my daily itinerary. Reminded me to take out the garbage. It beeped gently if a door was ajar. But then something happened, some sort of critical mass, power surge, structural menopause. Maybe I just plugged the amp into the speaker jack. Since then — ”

“You never listen to me, anymore,” said the house. “I’ve definitely got seepage. I can feel it in my rumpus room, Ron.”

“You don't have seepage,” said Bienfang. “I check every time.”

“You know what comes with seepage?” said the house. “Mildew, Larry! Dry
rot! Then depreciation! This is what you want for me, who have given you the best years of my life? Because if my assessment goes down, Marvin, there goes the neighborhood. You think any of these other houses — the ones who don’t talk, all the non-smart homes out there, dumber than a quonset hut — you think they give a damn? They don’t care. George, listen! Have you looked at my lawn? It’s rank! You haven’t mowed in a month!”

“Yeah, I’ll mow you all right,” Bienfang hissed. “To the moon, Alice!”

“What was that?” said the house suspiciously. “What did you say, Ralph?”

Bienfang ushered me out the door. “While you're out there,” roared the
house's external speakers, “look at the shrubs! It's a jungle out there! It’s worse than your hair. When’s the last time you saw a barber, Stan?”

“You remember the saying, ‘A man's home is his castle’? Well, I educated it, and it learned to talk,” said Bienfang sadly. “Now, it’s my mother.”

As we rushed for the car, I heard the house. “You’re not going out dressed like that, are you? Those pants need pressing. Oh, dear God — that tie! Oscar! At least tuck in your SHIRT!”