The Infamous Lyrics of P. Nutt

I don’t know what it is about Americana that makes us decide a driving vacation is a good vacation.  Maybe it comes from the 50s, when a car was a sign of proper middle class prestige, and everyone had one.  Maybe it’s from further back, from the days when visiting the neighbors took the whole weekend and courtship consisted of rides in carriages and buggies.  Regardless, there’s this family car trip/outing idea we still have that was never a good one.  Personally the only experience with my family that I found was more scary are those egg-things you ride up in to get to the top of the Gateway Arch (Hint: If you don’t know, it’s in Saint Louis).  And the only reason that was more scary is because the enclosed space is even smaller, and it moves in an erratic jerk in multiple dimensions.

So renewed ‘local’ vacation options awake within me a certain dread.  Sure, now I’m confined to an enclosed space with road partners I’ve chosen for myself.  Friends, even.  But somehow these trips can really bring out an ugly streak in certain people.  And the conflagrations we get into about proper directions!  As a side note, I always know where I’m going.  i may not always know where I am, but I ALWAYS know where I’m going.

Back to the story at hand.  To pass the time and keep us sisters from bruising each other too badly on long drives, we had the inevitable games.  We’d do the alphabet game where people always cheated about q and I got stuck at z every time I was ahead and always lost in the end.  We played various I-Spy games and used those little Interstate bingo boards.  Finally, when we were all hot and tired and miserable, the sing-along began.  I can’t remember what the name was of our particular song book was.  I’m pretty sure it involved the work ‘family’, and possibly the word ‘best’.  I may not have had the word ‘car’ in it, but I think in some other way referred to its all-American nature.  It was a great book, but had one slight misfortune – a lack of actual music.  Sure, the WORDS to every known verse of some really popular songs were there.  But if you didn’t already know the tune, it’s only so many letters on a page.

Take the case of ‘Frankie and Johnnie’.  For most of my childhood, I knew she was her man and she done ‘im wrong, but that was about as far as it went.  Without music, the song devolves into rural whining rather than poetry.  Or the case of ‘Goober Peas’.  For the longest time, I couldn’t even get someone to tell me wheat goober peas were.  They weren’t in our encyclopedia or unabridged dictionary.  Even my grandfather couldn’t give that much of a lead – he said goobers were peanuts, so that could be what goober peas are.  So not only did I have no idea what the tune was like, but even the lyrics themselves didn’t make sense.

After a careful search with all the latest technology (i.e., Wikipedia), my long and careful quest is over.  Goober peas are, in fact, boiled peanuts – a waste of a nut if I ever saw one.  And since the song is a confederate one from near the END of the war, certain of the lyrics make much more sense.  Sure, in my white-bread upbringing I probably didn’t think much about Confederate soldiers on more and more meager rations (less and less adequate?) or any of the realities of war.  But at the same time, I probably also wouldn’t have gotten jokes about the relishing joys of bad food when you’re hungry.

Plus, this particular song is just chock-full-o-nut.  First of all, there’s the reference to the whole ‘here’s your mule’ joke (which I also now understand only with the aid of the Wiki).  Evidently some soldiers somewhere stole a trader’s mule and led him on a Blindman’s Bluff chase around the camp by yelling ‘here’s your mule’ from one corner and then another.  It’s better than stone soup!  And then there’s the funnies committed on the oldest extant sheet music, which labels P. Nutt as the composer.  Ha!  For you more snobbery types, the lyricist is listed as A. Pindar (the best known of nine Greek lyric poets who are recognised as ‘in the canon’, though he is perhaps best known because his work is the most well-preserved).

Finally and at long last, I can also listen to the tune (in MIDI format).  Thank you, Gods of Wikipedia, for blessing me with understanding.  Now the only thing I have to complain about is that I’m not as cool as this girl.

Oceans of time

I’m a big fan of unrelated bits of knowledge that clog up your brain function and sidetrack you from basic daily tasks.  That’s why I was highly excited when I heard about some of the ocean-related new features in Google Earth 5.  I can follow the migrational paths of sharks?  Excellent.  I can examine coral reefs in the Red Sea?  Awesome.  I didn’t even know they HAD coral over there.

Very highly excited, I downloaded the new version and set about trying to figure out how to key into that whole shark-tracking thing.  Usually I am a somewhat tech-savvy person, a bit of a nerd but not so much so that I can’t talk other than in geek speak.  However, the search function on this program gave me no help finding the sharkies and made me feel consistently dumb.  I mean, how does shark migration get linked to data on shark attacks?  I mean, I know the shark has to be in the area ot bite, but still – one is delightful knowledge, the other is potentially painful.  As Seth Rosenblatt mentioned “For Google to fail so hard with its search algorithms is like Ford failing to stay on top of developing car tech.”  Eventually I just scrolled around coastlines looking for something good, and eventually came across a shark icon, which gave me this.  Hurrah!


I especially enjoyed the little ocean floor ‘swim with me’ video that allows you to view at least some of what teh shark would’ve seen while swimming.

Finally, I have yet to explore the Mars maps, but they look interesting, as does all the good ol’ night sky stuff.  I look forward to spending future days pondering the available information, really delving in, and hopefully eventually being mroe able to instantly find what I want.

Back from the dead – for Alex

My coffee machine has returned from the dead. this ‘wondrous modern marvel’ is back on-line, bringing over-caffeination and binge-consumption of liquids to my veritable fingertips. For this reason (and because Alex made the foolish mistake of telling me not to), I have a new name for that beloved machine of the morning – Lazarus. We all feel the power. Oh yes.

Robots that Fetch: Yet another reason to let your muscles atrophy.

I’m all for helping those with difficulties.  I’m all for home health care and making the elderly more self-reliant when possible.  And for particular cases, a robot like El-E would be a meaningful life improvement for people.  But there is nothing keeping such a robot from being something other than a home health care device.

I know a guy who used to ride around on motorized scooters and pop wheelies on them.  Then there’s the episode of Seinfeld where George pretends to be disabled.  An extreme case, but we all at least know someone who’ve ridden the electric carts for the handicapped around Walmart until their charges run out.  Some of us have gotten up and just left them after, walking away.  These are tendencies that are not goo, not because some person in need was kept from using a device, but because they breed disrespect.  A robot can be a toy, but a home healthcare robot shouldn’t be.

Some people may ask why.  If it isn’t damaging anyone, or damaging the tool, why not have a little fun with it when it’s free?  Why not become familiar with such technologies through use?  Perhaps such testing and play is not all bad, but I think we let it get out of hand.  We forget, in the wonder of a new toy, that we don’t need the device.  We forget, on the scooter, that we have two legs to walk with.  We forget that we can go over and pick the remote up ourselves, or even walk over to the TV itself and turn it off.  Experimentation is one thing, but too many of us do not recognise the shift from testing the limits of a tool to becoming habitually dependant on that tool.

A good example would be cell phones.  At my high school, they were not allowed.  If you had one for emergencies, to contact parents or others while you were travelling to or from school, or for other legitimate reasons, that was fine, but they were expected to be kept in cars, or lockers, or otherwise out of sight for the duration of school hours.  If you were caught with one, you lost it.  But as years passed and my means of communication with the outside world narrowed due to distance, I used mine more frequently.  I could have taken to answer the thing out of hand on the first ring, but I’ve tried not to.  I cultivate accidents.  I forget to charge my phone before long trips, before going home for Thanksgiving, before spending the night at a friend’s.  I do, on occasion, turn it off.

But I wonder if this is enough.  I wonder if all of us, despite protests and reserve, will have our own Rosie the robot maid of Jetsons fame.  Perhaps it will nto make us totally lazy, in the end.

The story of THE FUTURE.

I was asked recently (as I seem to be asked whenever I complain about my current career or lack thereof) what I would do if the normal constraints of family, friends, finances and talent were eliminated.  Usually I go with some sort of writing, but in this particular instance, inspiration struck.  I would be a wandering storyteller.  I would wander from town to town, sharing stories and telling tales and generally amazing crowds with my talented tale-spinning and imposing persona.  I would be just like the minstrels of old, except without the lute.

It seems, however, that the MIT Media Lab has beat me to it.  They’ve recently created a new ‘Center for Future Storytelling‘ with the express purpose of “transforming storytelling into social experiences, creating expressive tools for the audience and enabling them to embellish and integrate stories into their lives, making tomorrow’s stories more interactive, creative, democratized, and improvisational”.  Hm.  Sounds strangely like the minstrels of old.

But before you get huffy about a supposed ‘tech’ school going old-fashioned, keep in mind that they plan a wide range of virtual tools to be integrated into this ‘modern’ storytelling.  Key features to be newly included are ‘synthetic’ characters (go robots!) and new imaging technologies, both of which are supposed to make stories more interactive and adaptable to audience response.  Of course, all this new stuff doesn’t add up to a real, live minstrel.  But one day it might, putting me right out of the job i never had.

For the tin man.

There has been a fascination for us with the interaction between the mechanical and the visceral since the early popularity of L. Frank Baum’s books.  A range of characters portray the variations of what are supposedly the central issues of the two types of ‘people’.  Tik Tok, Data (from Star Trek: The Next Generation), and Adam Link (of The Outer Limits ‘I, Robot’ episode) all deal with the issue of becoming more human.  They, like humans who may want the advantages of being stronger or more durable or faster, are searching for something they don’t quite have the reach for.  Others, like David from A.I. or Andrew from Bicentennial Man, are searching for the acceptance of what they feel but others don’t see.  And some – the cyborgs – are simply seeking to regain what they have lost.  The most notable of these is the tin man, who has even lost his heart.

To a certain extent, many of us will be cyborgs in the future.  We’ll have prosthetic limbs that respond to nerve twitches in still-functioning parts of our body, or special exoskeletal devices to make us stronger or faster, or nano things in our blood to prevent disease.  We have new organs of a mechanical variety to replace the old ones as they give out.  Heck, they’re already doing it with hearts, and I have to say that the one in the article looks absolutely awesome and amazing.  But despite the replacement parts, we seem reasonably confident that we can remain ourselves.  The hope is that we can recombine in new ways, instead of stagnating, when we cheat death through more mechanical means.  I’m comfortable with that, as long as we don’t cheat life too.

Leave it at work.

When you wake up early on a Saturday morning because a mobile device from your work is going off, you work too much.  If you think that checking a work email eveneings and weekends is ‘normal’ or ‘a part of your job’, you work too much.  If your work cell phone rings when you’re on vacation in the middle of the Sahara, you work too much.

The internet is a wonderful tool.  Blackberrys are wonderful tools.  Remote access to the workplace is a wonderful tool.  All of these great tools make us more effective at doing our jobs.  They give us ease, and speed, which is as it should be.  They should not become excuses for allowing your job to take over your life.

In a recent survey, almost half the respondents said mobile technologies make it harder to disconnect from work when they are supposed to be off.  46% said they increase the amount of time they are expected to work.  That’s unacceptable.  If a company requires someone to be available day and night, you hire multiple shifts of workers.  If there’s an situation that requires someone to be in touch in addition to typical work hours, the word is ‘overtime’.  You don’t expect mobile technologies to raise the amount of hours someone works, whether inside or outside the office.

In an emergency, a company might need to contact an individual during vacation or when they are off the clock.  But when that contact becomes habit, and occurs daily or even weekly, that’s a breech of the employment agreement.  We have labor laws for a reason.  If you’re off the clock, either stay off the clock or demand from your employer what you legally deserve.

Tap your right toe to the ground for five seconds…wait for the beep.

Here’s a nice little review of  some new shoe innovations going on here in MA.  Take a read.  While New Balance’s smash lab I thought was pretty cool to hear about, the whole Verb For Shoe thing was a little more curiosity-rousing.  Sure, telling your computer how you walk funny might be useful.  ANd knowing what parts of your shoe are wearing out is useful, but something that could be put to better use on say, a spaceship or submarine, where your life depends on the integrity of the parts.

That fol-der-ol aside, the contact exchange system is hilariously brilliant.  At first I was contemplating the idea of being able to subtly check out some guy on the T, noting his shoes, and then grabbing his contact information on the sly.  Of course, then there’s a correlary of a scary old guy getting yours.  But after checking out the website, I wa a little more reassured.  For privacy reasons, there has to be user prompted interface on both sides.  The ‘dance’ that prompts this interface, however, is hilarious.  If you go to the website, look under ‘tech’, then ‘share’, then ‘click to learn more’.  The resulting video just flattens me.  Be sure you have your volume up.

Peace. Quiet. Solitude.

One of the greatest vices of the modern technological age is not leaving people well enough alone.  I’ve had friends who’ve taken ‘breaks’ from the internet.  I’ve had bosses unable to leave their Blackberrys at home while on vacation.  I’ve seen people on all modes of transportation with things in their ears, whether for business or pleasure.  Constant contact of one form or another is a tool that becomes a habit and eventually an addictive handicap.

It’s not that I think virtual instant contact is ‘bad’.  I can remember when my family first got cell phones.  We never used them to keep in touch, but they were kept in the car in case of emergency or accident.  In such a case, a cell phone would be serving a good cause and would allow help to arrive more quickly.  The internet made my two years in China more of an inconvenience rather than a burden.  New technology has also been handy in the research and the distribution of information, the selling of consumer goods, and increasing close communication worldwide.  But that reliance does eventually get in the way of what i think life should be.

Today the banjo man was playing at Davis Square T stop.  I saw him – I didn’t hear him play.  I had my noise-cancelling iPod headphones on, which are protecting my delicate ears from the screechings and engine turns of the trains.  But I also realized that since I got this shiny new toy for music, I haven’t been listening to the world on my way to work.  I’ve felt the wind, but only on the outside. I don’t necessarily know what my new neighborhood sounds like.

Earlier this week, Yellowstone officials revealed the new draft plan for increased cell phone coverage in the park.  The plan is aimed to address issues of preservation while still allowing for visitors and guests to have the convenience they expect from modern technology, at least in the more built-up areas.  This is probably a valid request, particularly since such an increase will also benefit park rangers who are committed to keeping the public safe and for whom instant communication might be a necessity.  As spokesperson Tim Stevens said, “it’s critical that Yellowstone continue to provide the solitude and peace and quiet that our first national park has to offer”.

Let’s take a moment and consider these three gifts a national park is supposed to provide.  Where do we get peace and quiet and solitude in our daily lives?  Do we take time for it?  Or do we let such things just traipse along by without it?  Are we using the excuse of safety and convenience too much?  Should we just leave our cell phones off more often?  I’m not sure, but I think a part of the answer comes naturally to me, in my own forgetfulness.  if I leave my cell phone at home, it’s really not that big of a deal.

Ahh, to live in a tree.

I’m a big fan of the treehouse.  Not just because of the secrecy of being above everyone else, or the hilarity of people who never look up.  Or for tree-climbing-as-sport.  Or for the views, or the way sunlight streams green through the leaves to wash your face.  Or from the accomplishment of building something yourself, with your own two hands.  It is all of these things, but also more nebulous (and idealized) getting in touch with my big backyard.

While it’s true that I may occasionally push through tangles of things, leave sticks in my hair, have grit under my nails, or eat bugs, I’m not a complete nature enthusiast.  I like camping, just not for weeks at a time.  I like coming home to a shower at the end of a grungy day or weekend.  As such, the treehouse is my ideal home away from home.  Cozy, quiet, and a bit removed, but still within shouting distance of all the conveniences of home.  So the thought of an actual tree home is appealing – it seems quieter somehow, more relaxed and at peace with itself.  Most likely, that’s all idealizations, but the Swiss Family Robinson has always been a little romantic to my way of thinking.  I almost want to be stranded on a desert island.

Thanks to aeroponics, I may not have to give up civilization for my ‘real’ treehouse.  Instead, we’re learning to grow houses made of tree from the roots up.  I’m all about the benefits of natural heating a cooling, and the pictures do look pretty good.  However, despite the fact that I’ve also been intrigued by geodesic dome houses, why are our treehouses roundish little bubbles?  If we’re training the tree how to grow, we can make it however we want, rather than like an airport terminal with leaves.  I like square shapes – they tend to fit the things I have.

But who knows?  Maybe by the time these houses are actually affordable (it will take 10 years for even a prototype to be ready, as we are growing these things from scratch), all the appliances, furniture, and random ‘stuff’ we tend to acquire will be fitted to this sort of curve.

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