The Last of the Typewriter Men

March 2nd, 2015

Here’s a paean to a vanishing breed – the typewriter repairman. Yes, there are a few left, but you might have to travel to New York to find one.

On a recent bleak, winter afternoon in the Flatiron District Paul Schweitzer was once again hard at work, trying to breathe life into a black, jazz-age Underwood typewriter. Behind his spectacles was a furrowed brow and behind that was a tangle of keys, steel, carrying cases and filing cabinets of rollers, spools, levers and keys, a morgue of mechanical guts.

To Schweitzer’s right, his son, Justin, performed a surgery of sorts on an IBM Wheelwriter, its beige frame cast aside and green electric boards splayed open. The smell of ink and WD-40 hung in the air, and only the occasional phone call or test clank of a machine’s keys interrupted their focus. The elder Schweitzer had spent the morning schlepping around the city with a black leather bag doing “house calls.” Some of Gramercy Typewriter Co.’s clients have had relationships with the company dating all the way back to its founding during the Great Depression.

Well aware of his status as a walking anachronism, Schweitzer, 76, now fixes approximately 20 typewriters a week. Some of them are used as props for movies or television shows recreating eras he was a part of, a fact that makes him laugh when he happens to see his machines while flipping through reruns. Schweitzer’s clientele, recorded in two boxes of handwritten notecards behind his desk, includes several high-profile names, including noted typewriter aficionado Tom Hanks.

“They don’t have a choice!” Schweitzer said, strolling through the two rooms of his office. He pointed at the wall of photographs and news clippings with weathered hands, which he concedes have been ink-stained since the Eisenhower administration.

The Tragedy of Canada’s census

March 1st, 2015

In 2010, the Harper government, in a fit of ideological insanity, decided that the census would no longer be mandatory. Now the chickens are coming home to roost, as provincial governments, cities, non-profit organizations, and corporations are finding that they lack crucial, up-to-date information about the makeup of our country.

Here’s the kicker, though: This new survey, the one that provides less data than the one before it and has left academics, government officials, demographers, social planners and businesspeople wondering how to calculate exactly how many people live in Canada, and where, also cost more money. Maclean’s, the Canadian weekly, reports that Statistics Canada needed an extra $22 million to cover the “costs associated with increased questionnaire production and mail-out.”

“Voluntary surveys are simply a waste of money,” Munir Sheikh, the Chief Statistician who resigned over the switch to the voluntary census, tells CityLab in a phone interview. “[They] cannot provide you the kind of accurate information that you need to make your policy decisions. So in my view, this is the worst of both worlds.”

Whither democracy?

February 26th, 2015

SF author, Charles Stross, has been working on some near-future SF recently and thinking a lot about what could happen in the next twenty five years or so. He’s not optimistic. Start at the beginning, work your way through his train of thought, and see how you feel.

  1. We’re living in an era of increasing automation. And it’s trivially clear that the adoption of automation privileges capital over labour (because capital can be substituted for labour, and the profit from its deployment thereby accrues to capital rather than being shared evenly across society).
  2. A side-effect of the rise of capital is the financialization of everything—capital flows towards profit centres and if there aren’t enough of them profits accrue to whoever can invent some more (even if the products or the items they’re guaranteed against are essentially imaginary: futures, derivatives, CDOs, student loans).
  3. Since the collapse of the USSR and the rise of post-Tiananmen China it has become glaringly obvious that capitalism does not require democracy. Or even benefit from it. Capitalism as a system may well work best in the absence of democracy.
  4. The iron law of bureaucracy states that for all organizations, most of their activity will be devoted to the perpetuation of the organization, not to the pursuit of its ostensible objective. (This emerges organically from the needs of the organization’s employees.)

The Canadian government’s war on science

February 25th, 2015

I knew it was bad, but the extent of the current Canadian government’s war on science is appalling.  John Dupuis, Science Librarian at Steacie Science & Engineering Library, York University, Toronto, has done us all favour by compiling what he calls a “brief chronology” of our government’s ideological hate campaign against evidence-based decision making. I wish it was brief; sadly, it’s not.

As is occasionally my habit, I have pulled together a chronology of sorts. It is a chronology of all the various cuts, insults, muzzlings and cancellations that I’ve been able to dig up. Each of them represents a single shot in the Canadian Conservative war on science. It should be noted that not every item in this chronology, if taken in isolation, is necessarily the end of the world. It’s the accumulated evidence that is so damning.

Most of the items come from various links I’ve saved over the years as well as various other media articles I’ve dug up over the last week or so. This series at The Huffington Post has been particularly useful as has this article at the Wastershed Sentinal.

A long list of various environmental programs that the Harper government has discontinued or slashed funding to is here. I haven’t found individual media stories about all of them, so they aren’t in the list below. If you can help me find stories about some of those programs, etc, please let me know. As well, some stories are treated multiple times, with perhaps an initial story telling the big picture or introducing a large series of cuts and later stories fleshing out details.

Tracing the roots of English

February 24th, 2015

English is a complex language, as anyone who has tried to learn it as an adult will testify. In my case, trying to learn Old English as part of my English literature studies was almost enough to drive me to Esperanto. English is a language of assimilation, and its roots go very far back.

Now linguists are digging back almost 10,000 years to discover the origins, not just of English, but most European languages.

Historical linguists can reconstruct many words of proto-Indo-European from their descendants. For example, there was probably a word “kwekwlos,” meaning wheel, which is the ancestor of “kuklos” in classical Greek, of “kakra” in Old Indic and – because K shifts to H in Germanic languages – of “hweohl” in Old English, itself the ancestor of wheel in modern English.

From the reconstructed vocabulary, the speakers of proto-Indo-European seem to have been pastoralists, familiar with sheep and wheeled vehicles. Archaeologists find that wheeled vehicles emerged around 4000 B.C., suggesting the proto-Indo-European speakers began to flourish some 6,500 years ago on the steppe grasslands above the Black and Caspian Seas. This steppe theory, favored by many linguists, holds that the proto-Indo-European speakers then spread their language to Europe, India and western China, whether by conquest or the appeal of their pastoral economy.

This theory was challenged by Colin Renfrew, a Cambridge archaeologist who proposed in 1987 that the languages had been spread by the Neolithic farmers who brought agriculture to Europe. Under this scenario, the homeland of proto-Indo-European was in Anatolia, now Turkey, and its speakers started migrating some 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.

The end of privacy in Canada

February 23rd, 2015

It seems that our supreme leader is bent on forcing Bill C-51 through Parliament with little debate. I’ve not made any secret of my distaste for Mr. Harper and his government – I think he is the worst prime minister in the history of this country, and in his tenure he and his government have managed to dismantle three generations of social progress. Now he is hell bent on turning this country into a defacto police state.  Michael Geist has a good analysis of what’s in Bill C-51 and the consequences for Canadian’s freedoms:

At this early stage, I can say that I am concerned with the breadth of the new authorities to be conferred by the proposed new Security of Canada Information Sharing Act.  This Act would seemingly allow departments and agencies to share the personal information of all individuals, including ordinary Canadians who may not be suspected of terrorist activities, for the purpose of detecting and identifying new security threats.  It is not clear that this would be a proportional measure that respects the privacy rights of Canadians. In the public discussion on Bill C-51, it will be important to be clear about whose information would be shared with national security agencies, for which specific purpose and under what conditions, including any applicable safeguards.

Roach and Forcese dig further into this issue, concluding that the information sharing provisions are excessive and unbalanced. There is much to digest, but the privacy concerns largely come down to three linked issues:

  • First, the bill permits information sharing across government for an incredibly wide range of purposes, most of which have nothing to do with terrorism (“It is, quite simply, the broadest concept of security that we have ever seen codified into law in Canada.”).
  • Second, the scope of sharing is remarkably broad: 17 government institutions with the prospect of cabinet expansion as well as further disclosure “to any person, for any purpose.”
  • Third, the oversight over public sector privacy has long been viewed as inadequate. In fact, calls for Privacy Act reform date back over three decades. The notion that the law is equipped to deal with this massive expansion in sharing personal information is simply not credible.

A more detailed look at each issue follows below. The cumulative effect is to grant government near-total power to share information for purposes that extend far beyond terrorism with few safeguards or privacy protections.

If you think I’m overreacting, read this. And this.