Weekly Roundup: Be A Lot Cooler If Your Language Stacked Edition

No politics this week — at least no explicit politics. The zeitgeist is moving faster than I can target it. Instead let’s talk about something academic, in the traditional sense. Over the past year, I’ve been occasionally spending ten minutes at a time with Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas, usually during lunch or when someone is wasting my time on the phone. Unlike Godel, Escher, Bach or I Am A Strange Loop, the Themas book is suitable for “snacking” because most of it is in the form of short essays.

In parts, it’s pure Cringetopia; there’s a pair of chapters on “sexist language” where Hofstadter is painfully and obviously trying to impress some feminist fellow professor with the prehistoric wokeness of his ideas from 1985 or thereabouts. Yet even when Douglas is a contemptible, pandering geek he’s still dangerously insightful: one of his essays replaces all instances of “man” or “men” with “white” or “whites”, effortlessly predicting a future where lower-and-middle-class white men would be the Universal Enemy for American culture. (What? You thought it was rich white men, or all white men? Pay more attention.)

What has my attention today, however, is a rather innocent question Hofstadter asks in an essay on the Lisp programming language, which I’ll rephrase like so: Why doesn’t English “stack”, or contain unpackable sequences? If that question makes no sense, have no fear. I will, as they say on Reddit, Explain Like We’re Five Years Old.

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1970 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. My favorite? Well, depends on the day…

I love 1970 Cadillacs. It goes way back. In first grade, my friend Luke Carlson’s mom had a 1970 Fleetwood Brougham. A coppery gold metallic, with white leather, white vinyl roof and black dash and carpet. By 1988 it was a little rough, but it still had…presence. Something you don’t really have with any modern Cadillac save the now-cancelled CT6 and current Escalade.

What was the last year Cadillacs were really Cadillacs. In the true and healthy post WWII, successful, gin drinking, golf playing Don Draper type businessman sense? 1964? 1966? 1972? A case could be made for any or all of those years. But I’m on my third screwdriver of the evening and don’t want to delve too deeply into it; feel free to play it out in the comments. My friend Laurie Kraynick has perhaps the most gorgeous ’70 Fleetwood Brougham in all of civilized humanity, in its choice aqua hue, with matching interior and black vinyl roof, but this morning I was drawn to this stunning example in Sable Black with gold brocade interior, espied on eBay.

Starting with its inception in 1902 and continuing more or less through the Sixties, Cadillac produced well-built, well-finished, impressive–and expensive–cars. Inside and out, wherever you looked you saw chromed, die-cast metal, leather, fine fabrics and extensive gadgetry.

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1990 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency Brougham: Before The Storm…

For years–nay, decades, Oldsmobile made its bones on three primary cars: The 88, the Ninety-Eight, and the Cutlass. This secret formula of comfort, style, attainability and comfortable Midwestern middle-class prestige served them well for close to forty years. But around 1990, the party started winding down. This Regency Brougham is one of the last pre-sales-crash Oldses to be designed. A pity.

The shrunken, yet still spacious 1985 Ninety-Eight was not near as imposing as the earlier 1980-84 model, but it sold quite well, despite some quality issues on early models. But by 1987, this was a solid, comfortable car.

Ford may have mocked the mini C-bodies in their Town Car ads (and it was a great commercial), but plenty of folks liked them, especially in the Midwest.

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Made In The USA: Tactile Turn

Anybody else remember being in Catholic school and getting firmly ruler-slapped for fidgeting during class? To this day I have all sorts of odd quasi-autistic habits that I exhibit whenever I’m bored. Moving from a traditional office to a mostly-at-home setup has reduced my fidgeting quite a bit, but I nevertheless continue to expect that part of my life will consist of listening to other people speak and think at (what feels to me like) a Galapagos-esque (Galapagan? Galaxian? Galaga-ish?) pace. I was in a meeting a while ago where it was suggested that we all sit there for 20-some minutes and watch a TED talk. At times like that it would be nice to have a distraction.

The Tactile Turn bolt action pen is made in the United States with what feels like the precision of an 1896 “Swedish Mauser” rifle. There’s no slack in the thing. I got mine in copper, with a Damascus-pattern titanium bolt, because copper is supposed to, uh, kill bad vibes or something.

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The Machine Of A New Soul

I never tire of beauty, particularly in women and crafted objects, and I never tire of intelligent solutions to old problems. You won’t find any gorgeous chicks in the above-linked video, but there’s craft and thought aplenty. Tim Sway is a musician and artist who applies modern thinking and machinery to the traditional art of guitar making, and applies it properly. What I mean: Most of the mechanized guitar-building out there is designed to imitate hand processes: Gibson, for example, now uses a CNC to cut the body blanks that were cut by pantograph-style saws in the Seventies and sawn by hand in the Fifties.

Sway, on the other hand, doesn’t attempt to replicate human processes with a machine. He creates new processes that work the way the machine works. Here’s an example: Fretboards are traditionally cut with hand saws and chisels, then inlaid with mother-of-pearl or some other material that is cut in a separate process. This is never a perfect process so then you use filler to make it right. Sway uses a CNC end mill to cut out the inlay patterns, then fills the resulting holes with epoxy. This is messy, but running an end mill over the mess levels everything out and creates a perfect inlay.

That’s the craft of it. Here’s the art: On the airplane fretboard, the airplanes are oriented to create single overlapping side dots where a traditional guitar would have a separately inlaid side dot, and oriented to create double overlapping dots at the octave marks. This works because the CNC machine shapes the hardened epoxy precisely the way it shapes the fretboard.

It should be mentioned that the airplane fretboard is destined for a 29.6″ scale bass to be played by my son. That’s not the only piece of original thinking in this particular instrument, and I can’t wait to show it to all of you when it’s done. One interesting part: it’s almost entirely recycled, both in the industrial sense (the fretboard is Richlite, a post-consumer waste product) and in the local-craft sense (the wood is all sourced from existing doors, tables, and recovered flooring). That’s not the way I’d prefer it; I like my Paul Reed Smith Private Stocks with their mammoth inlay and woods that haven’t been legal to harvest for fifty years. But Sway has his own set of ethics that he applies to the process.

My long-time mentor, Edward Tomarken, has often written and spoken about his desire to reconcile the academic division between the arts and the sciences. What Sway is doing here, creating art with a soulless machine, is just the beginning of what can likely be done with such tools. It’s usually the case that the artist doesn’t appear until well after the tool does; the Fender Precision Bass existed for about fifteen years before anyone started to play it near its potential, and another ten before anyone could envision it as a solo instrument. The Avid CNC router hit the scene twelve years ago; think of Sway as its first James Jamerson.

Weekly Roundup: I’ve Been Trying My Whole Life Edition

I don’t recall where I read this, but I was struck by the simple truth of it: “Any political philosophy that is based on the security and sanctity of individual property isn’t going to resonate with people who don’t expect to ever have any.” Your humble author isn’t much of a homeowner; 2,549 square feet in Nowhere, Ohio with the same tile used by McDonald’s. (It’s true. I picked it because they said it was impervious to abuse.) But I am, in fact, a homeowner and have been since I was 29 years old.

Therefore, I think like a homeowner. I don’t blink at my outrageous property taxes, which would finance a new Corvette, because I believe in having nice schools for the kids. I tend to advocate for, and vote for, policies that will assist me in the secure retention and enjoyment of my property, both in the tract-home sense and in the vintage-Porsche sense. When there was a proposal to put a Wal-Mart in my town, I fought it. (We won, but Wal-Mart bracketed us with the canny eye of a Marine forward observer, placing a pair of stores less than half a mile away from our southern and eastern borders, respectively.) There’s no low-income housing where I live. We let our children play outdoors unsupervised. While I am accepting of universal suffrage on a national basis, I think it’s ridiculous that someone could be allowed to rent an apartment within the township limits and then have a say on issues that would affect the community long after their lease expired. That’s like making your investment decisions by asking the fellow ahead of you in line at Burger King.

There was once a time when the median young American lived like I do, and thought like I do, and voted like I do, and that’s how you get the America of 1960, I suppose. Today’s median young American doesn’t live that way, particularly when you narrow it down to people below forty. He’s living in rental housing, usually owned by a faceless corporation or some distasteful oligarch. (True story: much of the rental housing in Columbus is owned by civil-court judges, many of whom received seller financing and low-fee property management services. Chew on that for a minute.) He has no path to home ownership: zero, zilch, nada. Sure, he could move to Mississippi or downtown Detroit and buy a home for a hundred grand. How far would he be from work? How safe would be be?

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Well, He Was Right About That

Is it a cover if you’re just playing the music again with different people? When MTV used The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” to open the channel in 1981, very few people realized that they were hearing something between a cover and a remake. The original version was written by a trio of British artists and recorded in early 1979. Half a year later, two of the three got back together as “The Buggles” and recorded the definitive variant.

While looking for the lyrics of “Video” today for an Avoidable Contact column, I came across the above live peformance from 2004. Trevor Horn, the bassist and vocalist, is in fine form, as are the original backup signers from 25 years prior. It’s a true pleasure to watch, even if Horn commits one of the few mortal sins in music by playing the electric bass with a pick.

Were The Buggles a one-hit wonder? Possibly — but Trevor Horn was anything but. He produced everything from “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” to Seal’s debut album. Along the way, he was executive producer on Jeff Beck’s infamous “Emotion & Commotion”. Oh, and he also was the actual musician behind Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”, playing all the parts himself after the band couldn’t quite make it work in the studio.

It’s easy to see Trevor Horn, the prototype of the inventive and technically flawless musician/producer, as a dying breed. But not only is the idea of the bass-playing producer alive and well (cf. Fiona Apple’s dueling bassist/producers, Jon Brion and Mike Elizondo), Horn is also partially responsible for the changes in music between his performing heyday and today. In the course of producing Poison Arrow by ABC, he learned how to program the Roland TR-808, then learned how to trigger it via MIDI. So in a way, Horn wasn’t just a prophet of video killing the radio star, but also an instrument of digital music killing the analog star. Oh-a, Oh-a!

Weekly Roundup: The Day They Dropped A Nuke On Savannah Edition

Today the clone and I visited the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum near Savannah, GA, in the company of said clone’s grandfather. Having been thoroughly spoiled at an early age by the Wright-Patterson AFB Museum in Dayton, OH, which is either the second-best air museum in the world or the very best depending on how you like the Smithsonian’s politics, John was slightly confounded by a facility with a total of four aircraft under its roof. The Mighty Eighth Museum has a lovingly restored B-17 displayed with a decent P-51 and a ratty-looking Bf109, but Wright-Pat has all of that plus pretty much every other significant plane that flew over Europe back then.

To be fair, the Savannah museum isn’t really about the planes; it’s about the people who flew them. A detailed tribute to the Greatest Generation, the place is faithfully manned by expert staff who can tell harrowing tales of collapsed wings and frostbite amputations that verged on the commonplace. Furthermore, there’s a garden outside with a gently decaying example of a plane that was once ubiquitous above this country but is now almost gone from memory: the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.

Which is a shame, because there are plenty of reasons to remember the Stratojet, not the least of which is this: it once dropped a Mark 15 nuclear bomb on Savannah.

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Beater Buttons And The Stupidity Of Tomorrow

Apologies for the relative flurry of content here at Riverside Green; I’m just getting a bit of work in before I disappear with my son for a week to ride bikes in the South. Alas, I’m going to have to visit another gas station before I do so, because the one I visited this morning was suffering from… let’s call it technical idiocy.

Today’s post is dedicated to all the people who Bleeping Love Science, and all the people who don’t.

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