Back in April I wrote in this blog that technological change appears to be accompanied by old jokes. That was six months ago, and jokes have dried up a bit. The boredom continues, but people have overcome isolation through the use of modern devices. The use of new technology changes how we live.
For example, new technology has changed our lives by providing us with virtual education through Zoom meetings. My granddaughter before the pandemic played drums in the high school band. The pandemic stopped that. Now she teaches younger students how to play percussion through the internet. She has two students, one eight-year-old and one about thirteen, and she has written to me about her challenges teaching drums using Zoom.
My granddaughter becomes irritated after sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours doing high school work. She takes a break by writing me a long-hand letter that she places in an envelope, stamps and mails. I’m sure she also bangs on her drums now and then for the pleasure it gives her. I treasure her letters and they bring back old memories.
Fountain Pens Were Once New Technology
My father’s pen, coated in dark red wood, felt heavy in my hand. An early fountain pen, its gold point wrote smoothly. My father loved doing this. I think his pen, a gift from his parents, brought back memories of his childhood. He loved the beautiful sleek instrument and valued it more than jewelry.
Fountain pens came with rubber inserts that carried more ink than a simple dipping, and in its day represented a great innovation, a new technology. The defective ones leaked, but fine fountain pens became works of art and style. They were favorite gifts to children, and writers used them to create wondrous long letters. Without the fountain pen, Bob Dylan might not have written the 20-page letter to an ex-girlfriend, from which he later extracted the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Fountain Pens Had Style
In response to my grand-daughter’s letter, I dragged out my old fountain pens from a box at the top of my closet. I answered her last letter using one and it wasn’t easy. Like shoes, fountain pens have to be used regularly to feel comfortable. Their points change shape over time and the pressure used by the writer affects how much ink is released. I wasn’t used to my own pens, and my favorite one seemed scratchy. In this case, technology (new pens) has changed my life for the better.
Nobody thinks about pens as valuable any more. Modern technology produces pens that write smoothly, are cheap and easily replaced. Who needs fancy pens when nobody writes letters? The old companies- Parker, Waterman, Cross- don’t exist any longer. Their brand names now belong to foreign firms that manufacture mostly in China. We communicate through smart phones and the internet.
Technology Changes Life in Unforeseen Ways
We already can see the next revolution in how people will live. Pens are ordinary cheap instruments, but changes in their use affects the economy. Great companies disappear when people no longer buy their products. We can’t foresee all the effects of people moving their work back into the home, and communicating electronically instead of personally or through the mail.
Ruth Goldman in her book “The Domestic Revolution” writes about the shift from wood to coal fuel in sixteenth century Elizabethan England. The population of London grew and wood prices became exorbitant because wood had to be shipped from miles away overland. Coal could be shipped by sea from Newcastle. Britain was the first country to convert from wood to coal fuel and it happened quickly.
The switch to coal transformed the country. Since wood wasn’t needed for fuel, forest areas were converted to agriculture. Smoke stacks with chimneys were built to vent the noxious fumes caused by coal fire. Once tall smoke stacks were being constructed, it made sense to build larger buildings and London began to see two and three-story buildings topped by chimneys.
Coal burned hotter than wood and British industry began to develop and produce cooking utensils made of iron and brass. This laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution hundreds of years later, based on knowledge and machinery using iron and coal.
Technology changed life dramatically. People cooked, ate and lived differently. Coal fires stained walls and wall hangings. Tapestries came down and wall paints were developed as well as wall papers. Coal ovens could be regulated producing a steady temperature. The use of coal-fire for cooking allowed foods to be roasted. With the new technology, the British invented boiled puddings and kidney pies.
Coal Fire Made Possible the Baking of Steak and Kidney Pie
Will the Use of Virtual Communication and Technology Change How we Live Long-term?
Moving people back to home from the place of work reverses trends of the last few hundred years. The industrial revolution began with cottage industries. Workers in their own homes had to produce goods, without regulation of hours, working conditions and no restrictions on child labor. When factories were built, they were considered an advance in living conditions. Factories had light, heat, and were designed to produce goods efficiently.
Factories moved manufacturing out of the home and away from crafts and hand labor. Eventually abuses brought about strikes and legislation regulating conditions of work.
When we move work back to the home, we aren’t going back to the eighteenth century. We’ll expect our salaries, pensions, health care and other legislatively provided protections to continue.
Nevertheless, we’re moving back. A house that contains workers as well as families has to be built to accommodate all the functions necessary for the people living and working in it. Will houses be redesigned to house work spaces? What would that kind of house look like?
If very many people work at home, will food delivery services have to improve and increase? What will happen to food production and delivery, if restaurants stay in a state of decline? Will our stay-at-home chefs come up with brand new food ideas and how to prepare them?
What about big cities and big office buildings? Will the city of the future be simply an entertainment park where very little productive work is done? Technology changes how we live, how we eat, and how we work in unpredictable ways.
Technology has Already Changed How We Live and More Change is Coming
We are aware of how technology changes how we live, but we don’t see the wider picture of where we are going.
But the following describes what we are experiencing now:
- You have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach a family of four
- Your reason for not staying in touch with friends and family is that they don’t have email addresses
- Accidentally you enter your password on the microwave
- You haven’t played solitaire with real cards in years
- You pull in your own driveway and use your cell phone to see if anyone is home to help you carry in the groceries.
My newspaper this morning delivered the news about dictatorship in the world, and the role of communication in supporting or defying it. The stories told about actions taken by dictatorial bosses who did not consult the general public. Consequently, whether they liked it or not, dictators had their acts communicated to the public.
For example, three unconnected stories illustrate similar truths:
- The dictator Lukashenko in Belarus called out troops to put down protestors who claim he stole a recent election. In the old days, he would have shot a few people and gotten away with it. The protestors are organized and communicating with each other and the international press. Subsequently, Lukashenko alerted his Russian patrons that he may need military help. In a timely way, I’m reading about it in my newspaper.
- Israel imposed a national lockdown forbidding large groups from gathering, on the eve of the Jewish high holidays. Most importantly, the lockdown will last till October, making impossible worship of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by large groups of people sitting together. Ultra-religious Israeli citizens are very angry, and my newspaper presents the details.
- The Dallas Symphony for the first time during the pandemic held a concert in its usual concert hall for some of its subscribers. The symphony hall holds more than 1800 seats, and this concert played for about seventy subscribers. The program consisted of three relatively short Beethoven pieces, short because no intermissions were allowed. A famous pianist played with an orchestra of 35, under an Italian conductor who entered the U. S. by special arrangements. First steps taken against rules imposed by government, and now people everywhere know about it.
Communication has Changed Form
This blog is about as old as the current pandemic lockdown. In a way it’s a child of current trends in communication. In my lifetime, communication has moved from newspapers, radio and movies, to television, and to digital communication. Print media gradually faded into the background, replaced by cable television and digital media.
Many newspapers, book publishers, and movie theaters failed well before the pandemic lockdowns. However, fifty years ago the communications media provided widely watched and respected national news, as well as high quality popular entertainment and artistry. Newspapers and books printed educated commentary and thoughtful essays.
Newspapers Used to be Numerous
Today, instant images of events, distributed to a world-wide audience by electronic devices, stand in the place of the news reported in the old media. The time consuming business of creating thoughtful commentary today is replaced by partisan shouting on television and in newspapers. As a result, newspapers keep dying and the old broadcast television and theater-based movie businesses continue to shrink. In other words, we are seeing a Gresham’s Law in communications: bad news drives out good news.
Communication and Dictatorship
Like most complex changes, there are pluses and minuses to the transformation of modes of communication. In days when literacy wasn’t widespread and small elites owned the newspapers, newspapers could sway national leaders and affect policy. Elites monopolized national communications and could excite the public. They created fervor for whatever interested them. Newspapers could start wars. Dictators also used them to support their actions and abuse opponents..
The old dictatorships manipulated radio, movie and print communication. If they didn’t like a newspaper, they sent thugs to destroy the printing presses. They could forcibly take over radio stations and stop the showing of movies they didn’t like.
The dictator has a harder time monopolizing thought and communication when everyone is a communicator. For example, if Lukashenko sends in troops to support his rule, the images of the event will appear on cellphones and mobile media instantly and world-wide. His Russian patrons know that.
Cell Phones Tell the News When it Happens
Lukashenko can’t stop cell phones from working in Belarus and throughout the world. When Israel decreed the lockdown, the government couldn’t stop loud complaints. When the Dallas symphony took small steps at reopening, it was reported not only in Texas but in The Wall Street Journal.
Forms of Communication and Content
About eighty per cent of the readers of this little blog use mobile devices. In other words, people are reading this mainly on smart phones. Since I’ve already reached my 80th birthday this delights me, At my age, the feeling of being relevant is very enjoyable.
The digital world has no geographic limits. My readers live in India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other places. Because I write in English, and mostly about the lessons of American history, I’m not surprised my readers live mainly where English is spoken.
I can’t tell which blogs do best in which place. I guess comments about the contributions of women to history and visions of grandchildren are appreciated everywhere.
Communication and the Breakdown of Dictatorship
As everyone probably knows, state governments have imposed a pandemic lockdown on those of us living in the United States. We are also enduring a national election.
Local governors have seized emergency powers, without resort to public approval. They are miniature dictators, imposing rules by emergency decree. They dictate the size of group gatherings, spacing for social distancing, and the opening or closing of various businesses. Governors decree what size of group can meet where and where people are required to wear masks. State governors decree whether restaurants can open and when they can serve indoors. They dictate the distances people must observe when out in public. Governors make decisions about placing sick people in nursing homes or quarantining nursing homes.
These rules vary from state to state. Some states permit large numbers of people to carry on public protests. If protests become too violent, governors make the decision whether or not to call out the national guard. Social media report events in real time, instantaneously. Newspapers and television follow up with partisan shouting and little objective analysis.
It is hard to measure the effects of widespread instantaneous communication. How soon do people make decisions on elections? Do they wait for debates? Which is more prone to partisan manipulation and outright deceit: newspapers, television news reports, or social media?
Dictators have a harder time with social media. They can’t ban the use of phones and digital media without harming the general economy: business requires regular communication and ease of data collection. But with that, you get twitter, and personal tweets from the president down (or up?) to everyone, including children, and the reverse.
It’s the reverse that counts: dictators now can hear what people are saying and can’t control everything that’s said.
My book, Blackbeard’s Legacy, recounts a fictionalized story of Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Thatch or Teach. Set in the early 18th century, it presents a story of Blackbeard’s use of power, the people who knew him, and his business. His eventual conflict with Governor Spotswood of Virginia forms the backdrop of the tale.
Blackbeard, a real person, commanded a fleet of over forty ships at the height of his power. He rivaled the navies of many countries of his day. For example, he blockaded Charleston harbor and lifted that blockade in exchange for a chest of medicines.
Blackbeard knew what he was doing. He visited most major ports on the east coast and corresponded with governors and attorneys-general. He had regular customers who paid for the goods he sold. There has never been evidence that he killed anyone.
Blackbeard was and still is genuinely popular. For example, he became captain by election by his crew. He was a popular commander, and seamen wanted to sail with him. Sailing with Blackbeard was safer and more profitable than sailing with weaker, lesser armed vessels..
Pirates are Popular
Blackbeard is known to everyone as a pirate. Museums up and down the east coast are dedicated to his story, especially about where he lived and how and where he died. The towns of Bath, Beaufort, and Ocracoke in North Carolina are very proud of their connections to Blackbeard. There you can see coves where he anchored and houses in which he supposedly lived.
At a book signing about a year ago, people from North Carolina with family members named Teach came to see me. They claimed to be relatives and descendants of Blackbeard and they were proud of the connection.
Why do people enjoy stories about pirates? A very old and rich literature depicts pirates as fiercely independent. They’re described as violent people, maimed in many battles but surviving them. They have lost eyes and limbs, show deep scars, suffer bad teeth, and wear peg legs. In the literature they prey on women, hide treasure chests, and leave complex coded maps. Little boys visiting the pirate museums love dressing up to the part: they wear eye patches, three-cornered hats, and shout “Aargh!!!” while waving little swords.
Blackbeard’s Use of Power: Reality Check
A pirate, by definition, is a seaman operating outside of the law. During Blackbeard’s day, local governments insisted that ships entering their ports be certified. They required ship operators to obtain licenses or pardons for which they paid. With the pardon, they were privateers; without the pardons, they were considered pirates. Accordingly, local governors collected fees from legal ship operators and shared in their profits.
In the eighteenth century, ships at sea had to fear larger better-armed ships wherever they went. On the sea, no law enforcement existed. The famous pirates who were caught and executed for crimes, for example Captain Kidd, were seized on land surreptitiously, not at sea.
Blackbeard’ use of power benefited his business. Whether or not he broke laws, he was very successful at what he did: he delivered goods to virtually every port at prices that people were happy to pay.
When he was assassinated in 1718 by hitmen hired by Governor Spotswood of Virginia, Blackbeard lived in North Carolina and held a legitimate royal pardon. Spotswood never consulted with the governor of North Carolina, disregarded Blackbeard’s pardon, and simply wanted a share of Blackbeard’s wealth. Who was the criminal then?
Have you heard of Spotswood? There’s a Spotsylvania County in Virginia and a golf course in Williamsburg that carries Spotswood’s name. In comparison, when Blackbeard died, he was a king of his day known virtually everywhere, and remains so. Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography mentions that he wrote poems about Teach when he began his newspaper writing career.
Blackbeard’s Popularity: His Flag
Blackbeard’s fleet of ships sailed under Blackbeard’s individual flag, easily recognized by many people in many locations. Today, we would call that marketing, and Blackbeard was clever at self-promotion.
From southeastern Virginia to Charleston there are numerous small museums devoted to Blackbeard. The stories they tell are multiple, and they sell a flag that is supposed to be the one he sailed under:
Does this flag frighten you? The skeleton wears a crown, is shaking something like a large drink in one hand, while his arrow points at a heart that he’s not looking at. He’s also smiling; in fact, the whole skeleton seems to be shaking with laughter. Was Blackbeard a comedian?
Some stories say that Blackbeard had fourteen wives. Others say his only wife was fourteen when they married. Apparently if a tavern maid could claim to be Blackbeard’s wife, that claim was good for business. That may explain why he’s said to have so many wives!!!
On Saturday. May 30, my grandson received his bachelor’s degree from Cleveland State University (CSU) in a virtual graduation ceremony. For him it was a great achievement and represented long hours of preparation and work. His degree is in computer science with a minor in mathematics.
May 30, many of us will remember, was the date on which Memorial Day used to be celebrated. I remember some of my parents’ generation called it Decoration Day. That day families went to the cemetery to decorate the graves of the war dead.
For my parent’s generation, the war dead were near and numerous, not theoretical. World Wars I and II in some way touched every family and Memorial Day was somber, not the beginning of summer as it is now.
Graduations used to come in June, and took place before large happy crowds of people. This virtual graduation event was certainly the first of its kind for the university.
A Virtual Graduation
My husband and I sat in front of the zoom screen on my computer and listened to remarks by the president of the university, the mayor, the lieutenant governor of Ohio, and several previous CSU graduates. I was able to locate my grandson’s major department on the computer screen.
The names of all computer science graduates marched across the screen individually, with appropriate graduation day background music. When my grandson’s name arrived, we saw a video of him, in cap and gown, looking very happy. He smiled and thanked his parents and grandparents for help and support.
We have attended many graduations, and this was the first one where we heard every speaker and actually saw the face of the graduate. It reminded me of my daughter’s graduation from a small college outside Richmond, VA. Then we sat in folding chairs on a field on a very hot day, quite far from an outdoor stage. Nearby, a level railroad crossing bisected the town.
Amtrak kept its schedule that day. Fairly frequently, a train came through the town at a slow speed, blowing its whistle all the way. We barely heard any of the speeches, but we did see our daughter at a distance.
My grandson is now a graduate and I’m grateful for the computer and zoom. We were able to join the family electronically that evening to congratulate him.
Another Graduation Day: Me and Lymphoma
My grandson is not the only member of our family to face some final test results this early summer. On Thursday, I am scheduled for a mammogram. Two years ago a mammogram led to a diagnosis of an aggressive type of lymphoma for which I was treated over six months and for which I have undergone numerous lab tests and PET scans.
While I’m of the age that I may have avoided a mammogram two years ago, for some reason I didn’t. My radiologist found something funky on the picture and that led to biopsies, CAT scans and further lab tests and scans. After three months the doctors came up with the lymphoma diagnosis.
I can’t say I’m looking forward to the mammogram, nor am I looking forward to a PET scan now scheduled for July. The PET scan is sort of a graduation day for me. If they find nothing, I will be considered cured with no further tests or medical procedures.
For me, none of this will be virtual. The tests will be done according to normal procedures and the results will either be good or bad.
Graduation, Old People and Old Jokes
As the grandmother of a college graduate, I am an old person. Here is a story about old people:
“Six retired Floridians were playing poker in the condo clubhouse when Meyerwitz loses $500 on a single hand and drops dead at the table. Showing respect for their fallen partner, the other five continue playing standing up. Finkelstein looks around and asks, “So, who’s gonna tell his wife?”
They draw straws. Goldberg picks the short one. They tell him to be discreet, be gentle, don’t make a bad situation worse.
“Discreet? I’m the most discreet person you’ll ever meet. Discretion is my middle name. Leave it to me.”
Goldberg proceeds to the Meyerwitz apartment and knocks on the door. The wife answers and asks what he wants.
Goldberg declares, “Your husband just lost $500 and is afraid to come home.”
“Tell him to drop dead,” says the wife!
“I’ll go tell him,” says Goldberg.
Mother’s Day in a lock-down requiring social distancing was bound to be different than the norm, but for me it actually wasn’t. As in most years, I received phone calls and promises of future calls and maybe a future zoom meeting.
My children and grandchildren are busy people. I know they are stuck in their houses and they continue with school and music lessons. In time for Mother’s Day, I received a video of two granddaughters playing piano. The video showed them individually and I could see their hands hit the keys. They were socially distanced from everyone when the video was made. Nobody heard me, but I applauded loudly for each of them, just like a grandmother should.
I received delivered gifts: a box of candy and a bottle of dessert wine from my daughter and her family; a box of candy and flowers from my son and his family. I did not have direct contact with the delivery man, just as in previous years, but this time I practiced social distancing.
Since Mother’s Day was still “locked down”, the florist called to say he’d be delayed. The good flowers weren’t yet available. Since I wasn’t going anywhere, I thanked him for the call and the information. The flowers arrived two days later and were worth the wait. Here is a picture (including the box of candy):
Mother’s Day Roses and Lilies
The roses opened to about six inches in diameter, and a week later, the lilies were still open and wonderful to look at. But they didn’t compare to my outdoor Russian iris:
Russian Iris: No Social Distancing
Social Distancing: the New Normal?
We’ve had a warm and wet May and the birds and flowers are loving it. They have no thoughts of masks and barriers and social distancing. Whenever I go out on the porch there is a jumble of tweets and loud sounds from a mass of small birds. I’m sure many of them are a lot closer to me than six feet.
We have been advised by the local authorities and some local businesses that we should get ready to go back to work, shop and live in the world again. This will be different from before, if everyone takes these rules seriously. For a haircut, there will be no shampoo; I will have to arrive with my hair already shampooed. There will be no children or pets allowed in the place. I will have to wash my hands before being issued into wherever the hairdresser will be located.
Social Distancing and Health Care
The Cleveland Clinic sent me their directive on their “new normal.” They are ready to resume in person healthcare services, but they encourage patients to use “virtual” visits. The notice states that with a virtual visit the patient can see a provider right away, or schedule an appointment for routine care using the smartphone.
I’ve already had one virtual appointment with my doctor and it was hardly a medical exam. There were no tests, and because I couldn’t figure out how to turn on my camera, the doctor could only speak to me. He saw nothing. We both agreed to schedule a regular in-person visit in September. Likewise, my dentist will see me in October. Maybe over the years I’ve been overdoing it with annual doctor’s visits and semi-annual dentist visits. Routine care doesn’t have to be constant care.
As with my hairdresser, the Cleveland Clinic will not permit patients to bring anyone with them for an appointment. On the other hand, children, elderly patients, those with special needs and those having surgery requiring an overnight stay may bring a guest. That probably accounts for a large percentage of the non-routine procedures done at the clinic. The notice states that the clinic is among the safest places in healthcare.
A few years ago, after I was released from a hospital stay, I was taken by a nurse to the entrance of the hospital in a wheel chair. As I got out of the wheel chair, the nurse said to me, “Take care, and don’t come back.” We both knew that hospitals are unsafe places.
Do the masks protect everyone? People now own them and wear them, but if you can’t see someone’s face, how can you trust him or her?
Insecure? It’s Happened Before.
I remember a Woody Allen story. Feeling insecure, Woody moved to an apartment building in the city because it employed a doorman for protection. On his second night, when he returned to the building, Woody was mugged by the doorman.
Let me end this with a Henny Youngman story about doctors:
A guy says to a doctor, “I’m having trouble with my love life.”
The doctor says, “Take off twenty pounds and run ten miles a day for two weeks.” Two weeks later, the guy calls the doctor, “Doctor, I took off twenty pounds and I’ve been running ten miles a day.”
“How’s your love life now?”
“I don’t know. I’m 140 miles away!”
Spring has come to Virginia. The state still is closed down and we venture out only for groceries, about once a week. But spring has arrived: we have birds, flowers, warm sun and corona-virus lock-down.
We live in a marina where the docks, moorings and supporting structures have been under construction for about a year. Staying outside, for example, on my porch, is an ear-bending experience. We have views of massive cranes and hear the sounds of giant generators. But the corona-virus lock-down has made staying at home more than a construction experience.
We have become much more vigilant about the immediate surroundings, and not just the construction. This year we really saw the coming of spring, and the birds and flowers have been stunning.
This year we see and hear the birds. Not that we could have ignored them. Over eighty varieties of birds have been counted by birdwatchers in my neighborhood. I really don’t know much about them, but this year one of our bird houses has been occupied by bluebirds.
They are amazing neighbors. They sing to us almost constantly, and they seem to chirp to us personally. Every time we go out on the porch and say something, we are greeted by a loud song from some little bird. I’ve never seen the little loudmouth. The song is two notes repeated four or five times, but in a rhythm that sounds very much like conversation. We’ve gotten used to whistling back or talking to the bird. In the evening we say good night. It reminds me of having a two year old, a small living thing that talks all the time.
While I’ve never seen our talking companion, I’ve taken my camera to the water’s edge. This year brought some unusual sights. For example, for the first time I’ve gotten a shot of what I think is a young eagle, perched on a pole near my house. He’s quite young, but has those white head feathers and an imperial beak:
It’s spring, so I imagine that the birds I see are all young. They chirp loudly and seem very happy. The eagle looked lost, not sure of what to do now that he was atop a tall pole. He stayed there for quite a while. I’m sure he can fly, but maybe he has no nest to go back to. Eagles fly very high and coast like kites in the air. This one is bigger than a baby, but not fully grown. He’s like a teenager sent out into the world, not sure of what’s next.
I also took a picture of a heron. We see lots of herons near my house. They come to fish, and are striking when they dive looking for their next meal. Here is the heron:
You can see the heron is also young and thin. He has a beautiful takeoff and a graceful flight. He hovers like a helicopter over the houses before landing near the water.
In addition to birds, we’ve had to confront the spring flower situation. Since we’re stuck in the house, we have no annual flowers. I usually plant some pots of petunias and geraniums. I also normally prepare a few tomato plants in pots. Now I have to be content with the plants that carried over from last year.
We’ve had a very wet spring and seem to get rain every other day, but the weather has turned warm with temperatures mostly in the 70’s. I haven’t fed or watered anything. We still have three pots of pansies from last fall, and they are spectacular. About five mums never went away, and one seems ready to blossom (mums in May?). I also have a window box full of some light purple petunias.
We had a profusion of daffodils and crocus, and now a rainbow of irises and peonies, all from previous years. Here is a picture of some cut flowers, a peony and a few irises:
Peony and Irises
Coronavirus and Jokes
I’m sure we will survive this pandemic and remember the lock-down as a little overkill. But, like the birds and flowers returning from last year (or never leaving), old jokes are also making a comeback. Here are some I received last week:
“A dentist and a manicurist married. They fought tooth and nail.
No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationary.
If you don’t pay your exorcist, you can get repossessed.”
I hope all are staying safe and healthy.