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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Last Typewriter Repairman

I just read this amazing article. Wow.

One of America's last typewriter repairmen

By Michael Birnbaum, Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Manson Whitlock peers into the typewriter on the table. It's a big avocado-green IBM Selectric from the '60s. Something is jammed and pieces are scattered around the machine. Eventually, he finds what he's looking for – a screw has fallen in, causing the type mechanism to stick. Out goes the screw. Using a spring-hook, an implement that looks like it could come from a dentist's office, he reassembles the typewriter – plastic cover plates, the metal paper tray that directs paper onto the main roller, and the cylindrical rubber platen itself. Then he taps some keys, examining how each letter moves.

"Good enough. For government standards anyhow." He draws a smiley-face on the repair order, and calls the client on his old black rotary phone.

Mr. Whitlock is 90, and though he looks younger, his tweed jacket, silk tie, and sweater betray him as a man from a different era. His face is lined and friendly, crowned by thinning combed-back hair that recalls Lyndon Johnson's without the grease. The ring and pinkie fingers of his right hand are gnarled, but that doesn't keep him from his job.

Whitlock probably has been repairing typewriters longer than almost anyone in the US. When he started in 1930, Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight was a fresh memory, Herbert Hoover was president, and the Empire State Building was under construction.

Whitlock's Typewriter Shop is jammed with tools, books, machines, and memories that have accumulated over the past 77 years. After his 1990 "retirement," when he moved upstairs from the larger storefront below, Whitlock filled a dumpster with typewriters and flotsam. Still his shelves are laden with repair catalogues, a bust of Mark Twain (the first author to turn in a typed manuscript), "A Treasury of Jewish Humor," and the 1978 New Haven telephone directory. There are boxes full of platens, type-balls, type-slugs, and typebars.

And of course there are the typewriters themselves, in various states of cannibalization. Some gleam as they might have in 1920. There's an old black Underwood – the kind you'd see in a Howard Hawks movie. A German sky-blue Olympia built like a tank. Seven strains of electric Smith-Corona, four breeds of IBM Selectric, and one exotic Oliver No. 5, its typebars clustered like mouse ears on either side of the roller.

Whitlock says that he has repaired around 300,000 typewriters in his career. The avocado IBM was job No. 300,001. "If you put the typewriters I've repaired end to end, it would take days to drive past them," he boasts. Cars are as modern a motif as there is in his life – a painting of his old 1953 Jaguar XK120 decorates his living room (he sold the car itself to pay his late wife Nancy's medical bills).

"Typewriters don't go vroom, vroom," he concedes, noting that's one reason his two sons didn't follow him into the business.

But even cars might be a little too modern for Whitlock: "Airplanes, automobiles, television, computers; they've changed the world too quickly. It was nice 75 years ago!"

Whitlock has outlived most of his contemporaries – both the typewriters and the people. His older brother, Reverdy, is the only one of Whitlock's five brothers still alive. Reverdy and Manson worked together at their father's general store, which was a New Haven institution long before either was born.

Clifford Everett Hale Whitlock started his business out of a bike garage next door to the Skull and Bones tomb (the exclusive Yale secret society). At 15, he ambitiously billed himself "bookseller to Yale." Manson's name, too, came from ambition – he was named after a bank executive so that his father could "stand in good" with the bank, he says. A promotional pamphlet from this era shows the shop, dark and wood-paneled, every inch the ancient general store. It aimed to anticipate all needs, advertising, "Yale Men, your Telegrams will be received till 8 p.m. at Whitlock's Book Shop."

By 1930, when Manson started working at his father's store, it had moved to Broadway Avenue, New Haven's main commercial block. The store always had a big typewriter section, with window displays of the mouse-eared Olivers. Sometimes a company representative would come and awe onlookers by "drawing" pictures with the No. 5. He taught young Whitlock how to draw a line of soldiers across the page using an 'O' for the head, a slash for the body, hyphens for arms, and a caret for legs. "It was pleasing for little minds," Whitlock reminisces. He was interested in mechanics, so when the time came to work in the shop, he gravitated toward typewriters. He was never formally trained. He says he learned by "osmosis."

Reverdy Whitlock took over the family bookstore in the '40s. The brothers didn't get along very well, and the split was acrimonious. Reverdy recounts coming to the store one Sunday to find Manson loading typewriters into an old wood-paneled station wagon and moving them to a storefront around the corner. Manson just smiles ruefully and says that he has a much better relationship with his brother now.

The move allowed Whitlock to expand – at its height, the store stocked 400 to 500 machines and employed six mechanics. Success enabled Whitlock to keep the older manuals to himself and delegate the electric typewriters to others.

A 1910 Oliver is the oldest machine that Whitlock keeps in his shop today. Despite its ears, it is fairly conventional compared with other early typewriter designs. There was the Hammonia, Germany's first writing machine, which looked like a bread-slicer. The Blickensderfer No. 5, which had keys that stuck out in all directions, making it look, in Whitlock's words, "sort of like a centipede." And, best of all, the Williams, which had a "grasshopper" type-action in which a jointed typebar kicked up, over, and down onto the platen roller.

Today, despite his former objections, Whitlock works mostly on electric and electronic typewriters (electrics are mechanical but run by a motor; electronics have computer chips). That's all people bring. There isn't any point in keeping manuals other than for decoration and company.

One afternoon, Whitlock lets me take apart an electric Smith-Corona. Its motor connects to a spinning ridged shaft. A key, when pressed, catches onto a ridge of the shaft, whose spin kicks the typebars forward against the page.

Whitlock tells me to remove the typebars, which look like spring-loaded frog legs. I try one, and he says "Never force anything." Right. I try harder. "You're forcing!" he says, taking it in his fingers and, with a flick of his wrist, disconnecting the bar from its linkage to the key.

I take the next typebar and flick my wrist. Nothing happens. He takes it and humiliates me again. I end up having to use two hands to remove the bars one by one.

Whitlock tells me to look at the escapement, the jumble of gears that moves the carriage from one letter to the next. He tells me how it works; I'm completely lost. He smiles and tries to phrase it differently. I poke at the escapement with my screwdriver. He prods it too, didactically, and presses the spacebar a few times. Finally I understand: It resists the carriage's tension; it doesn't actually cause movement. A few days after I destroyed his typewriter, he tells me that if I'd come 20 years ago, he'd have given me a job.

After my repair lesson, I want a typewriter of my own. I tell him that I've been looking for one on eBay. He has never used or even seen the Internet, but he has heard of the site and is intrigued.

So, disregarding the first thing he ever told me – "You work a typewriter, a computer works you" – I bring in my shiny silver laptop and we sit down to scope out the market.

"I'll be darned," he says, when 1,782 items pop up. "Let's see that Remington. Remington Rand No. 5. Clumsy, not as nice a feel as Royals."

I ask if he can see the computer well enough. "It's got such a clear screen!" he marvels. "I had thought it would be blurry like a TV!" He smiles and looks at the $10.49 Corona No. 3 I've clicked. "Goodness gracious. Unbelievable. They were made during the First World War. The last one I had I sold for $100. Surprising that they're so cheap."

He takes a shot at moving the mouse around. "Underwood – hmm, that's not old, '40s or '50s. They're calling that an antique?"

It's as though eBay is an electronic Metro-North for Whitlock, who used to go to New York City pawnshops weekly to buy old hocked models.

The next day I bring my computer again. The wireless connection flickers, then sputters out – eBay won't load. I fiddle with it the way he fiddles with typewriters – pressing buttons, shaking it, cajoling it. Whitlock asks if there is a cattle prod button to startle it into compliance. I give up; there's nothing I can do to fix it.

Whitlock looks at me. "Well, it was neat," he says quietly. "But I'll stick to typewriters."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

History of Robots

Last night, I went to a talk about the history of robots, which was presented at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The speaker, Daniel Grossman, distinguished between devices that merely performed an interesting function -- like mechanical clocks -- and devices he considered to be true robots. According to Grossman, robots, unlike mechanical clocks, behave in surprisingly animate ways. Thus, Grossman would not consider old cathedral clocks to be robots, while he would consider ASIMO, the walking humanoid device built by Honda, to be one.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Red Box Nebula

Wow: this nebula is very cool:

Here is information about this cosmic gem:

Ker Than
Science Writer

If symmetry is a sign of splendor, then the newly discovered Red Square nebula is one of the most beautiful objects in the universe.

Seen in the infrared, the nebula resembles a giant, glowing red box in the sky, with a bright white inner core. A dying star called MWC 922 is located at the system's center and spewing its innards from opposite poles into space. (A nebula is an interstellar cloud of gas, dust and plasma where stars can both emerge and die.)

'This spectacular event is the death of a star,' said study team member James Lloyd of Cornell University.

After MWC 922 ejects most of its material into space, it will contract into a dense stellar corpse known as a white dwarf, shrouded by clouds of its own remains.

The Red Square nebula discovery is detailed in the April 13 issue of the journal Science.

What is particularly astonishing about the Red Square, the researchers say, is the degree of symmetry seen in lines, or 'rungs,' that bisect its surface. The rungs appear as shadows, and their makeup is uncertain.

'The high degree of regularity in this case may point to the intriguing possibility that these bands are shadows cast by periodic ripples or waves on the surface of an inner disk close to the star at the heart of the system," Lloyd said.

The Red Square ranks among the most symmetrical objects ever observed by scientists. 'If you fold things across the principle diagonal axis, you get an almost perfect reflection symmetry,' said study leader Peter Tuthill from the University of Sydney in Australia. 'This makes the Red Square nebula the most symmetrical object of comparable complexity ever imaged.'

The Red Square's extreme symmetry suggests the star's surroundings are extremely still and not buffeted by external stellar winds or other turbulence.

The researchers propose that similar conditions are contributing to the extreme symmetry of another system, the Red Rectangle, whose central star is cooler than that of the Red Square.

'The Red Rectangle is mostly symmetrical, but it has some asymmetries,' Lloyd told 'It wasn't clear whether it was because the outflow was very symmetrical or whether material in the outflow was encountering some other material' which introduced the symmetry.

The new findings suggest the system's perfect form results from an even outflow of gas. 'The reason the Red Square remains so symmetrical is that there is no material that has interfered with the outflow, so it has preserved the symmetry it was born with,' Lloyd said.

Tuthill and Lloyd spotted the Red Square using the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Caltech's Palomar Observatory and the Keck-2 Telescope in Hawaii.

Both telescopes utilize a relatively new type of imaging called adaptive optics, which uses a laser guide star as a reference and a rapidly deforming mirror to correct image distortions from the Earth's atmosphere in real time.

Adaptive optics 'acts like a myopia cure for a telescope,' Lloyd said.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Trilobite Art

I love the whole notion of trilobite art. Fantastic.

Hamster-Powered Shredder!

Well, what can I say: this is an amazing device.

Digital and Analog

I just had a great idea for showing the difference between analog and digital. One could hold up two belts: one with notches, and one without (like a hiking belt). The notched one could be seen as digital, with discrete settings, and the hiking belt could be seen as analog, with a wide range of settings.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Money and Mathematics

Well, I am hoping that nobody reading this posting steals any of these ideas, but, anyway, here is a thought I have been mulling for a while:

Money and mathematics seem to have a lot in common. I don't mean that both fields involve numbers, or addition and subtraction. Rather, I mean that the underlying theory of both fields is very similar, and that by studing the nature of mathematics, one can also learn about the nature of money, and, of course, vice versa.

For instance, in the history of American money, there have been attempts to disconnect the value of a dollar from the value of gold, or of silver, and so, in effect, ungrounding the definition of a dollar. But why has this disconnection caused people to become nervous? The reason, I think, is that when a dollar is not defined in terms of gold, people suddenly aren't sure what a dollar *is* anymore. Before the ungrounding of money, in theory, an American citizen could walk into a federal bank and exchange his paper money for the equivalent amount of gold. A paper dollar was a place holder, a substitute for a precious metal. In fact, in just the same way that a person can exchange a check for cash, people used to be able to exchange cash for gold. But if the value of a dollar does not depend on gold, then what are dollars? Do they have value anymore? The whole notion of money is suddenly called into question.

The same concerns, I think, have popped up in the realm of mathematics. For a long time, the exact definition of each of the natural numbers -- 1,2,3, and so on -- was not known. The natural numbers are the currency of mathematics, so if these entities were not completely understood, then, for all mathematicians knew, the entire set of theorms that depended on the natural numbers might be in doubt. Mathematics depended on making sure that the natural numbers had the properties people commonly believed they had. So, in the early twentieth century, Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead tried to define numbers and basic mathematical operations like addition and subtraction in terms of the rules of reasoning, which are more or less certain. They didn't succeed, but I want to stress that, in this case, as well as in the realm of money, the notion that the basic entites should be strictly defined seems very important.

(I am sure I have made many mistakes in the above posting, so if you see any, please let me know.)

My First Posting

This is my first blog posting. I don't know quite what to write yet. If anyone has any ideas or suggestions, let me know.