November 2020

Steve Allen speaks to Jack Kerouac

One of the more bizarre interview formats. Did Kerouac enjoy this? I doubt it — he looks extremely uncomfortable. But great to watch.

Update: Oh, looks like he wrote about this experience in Big Sur.

“(remembering that awful time only a year earlier when I had to rehearse my reading of prose a third time under the hot lights of the Steve Allen Show in the Burbank studio, one hundred technicians waiting for me to start reading, Steve Allen watching me expectant as he plunks the piano, I sit there on the dunce’s stool and refuse to read a word or open my mouth, “I dont have to R E H E A R S E for God’s sake Steve! ” — “But go ahead, we just wanta get the tone of your voice, just this last time, I’ll let you off the dress rehearsal” and I sit there sweating not saying a word for a whole minute as everybody watches, finally I say, “No I cant do it, ” and I go across the street to get drunk) (but surprising everybody the night of the show by doing my job of reading just fine, which surprises the producers and so they take me out with a Hollywood starlet who turns out to be a big bore trying to read me her poetry and wont talk love because in Hollywood man love is for sale)”

Coronavirus in the Bay Area is on the up (among white people)

Black and brown people were worst hit during the first coronavirus waves in the Bay Area. But, the Chronicle reports, things seem to be balancing out:

“The trend is emerging weeks after counties began easing restrictions in many places, including reopening indoor dining and increasing capacity at gyms and places of worship. That prompted many residents to let their guard down and expand their social bubbles, county health officials said.”

That’s one theory. Here’s another:

“The participation in testing sites is declining,” [Omar Carrera, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Canal Alliance] said. “People don’t want to get tested for multiple reasons — misinformation, lack of trust. The economic burden is so big that people feel, ‘Because I have no symptoms, I don’t have the need to go get tested. Because if I get tested and I’m positive, I’m not going to be able to work for two weeks. I might even lose my job.’

Entering court

Striking work from Hong Kong-based photographer Tommy Walker. Pictured is Agnes Chow, one of three opposition activists due to be sentenced early next month over their role in anti-government protests in June last year. Chow was charged with taking part in an unauthorised assembly, in breach of the region’s controversial national security law. “If I get sent to prison, it will be the first time ever for me,” she wrote on her Facebook page, according to the South China Morning Post. “However, compared to a lot of my friends, I know I am shouldering very little. I will try to handle this bravely.”

Dying of disinformation

Can’t have it both ways

The brilliant Ed Luce on the damage Trump is doing to American democracy:

“The limits to what Mr Trump can do lie not within himself but in the reactions of other people. So far, too many elected Republicans have acquiesced with the fraudulent postal ballot line, which makes no logical sense. The Republican party gained or held seats in many of the swing states that are in question. Many Republicans celebrating their wins are thus simultaneously questioning the ballots that pushed them over the finishing line. They cannot have it both ways.”

I disagree with Ed on that last point. The Republicans have shown us, time and time again, they can very much have it both ways. That’s what makes this whole farce so very alarming.

Bird of the Year 2020

“I’m not sure what kind of person could do it, but I like to assume that it’s somebody who just really loved native birds.”

— Laura Keown, spokeswoman for New Zealand’s Bird of the Year competition, on discovery of a rigged vote. The winner was the kiwi pukupuku. Or was it…?

Writing tool

I’m a sucker for any piece of software or hardware that promotes distraction-free writing. This appeared on my feed today:

Astrohaus’s Freewrite Traveler

“The Freewrite Traveler is a portable writing tool that looks like a miniature laptop but removes all internet-related writing distractions. It comes with writing software and only enough Wi-Fi access to back up documents.”

The premise is terrific — a little keyboard and attached screen that allows writing and nothing else. Sadly, it’s $600, a price so absurd I can’t believe its makers bothered to bring it to market. That’s not close to the sum of its parts, nor the quality of its IP. And besides, in solving one problem with writing — distractions — it abandons another: comfort. The keyboard is 60% size, meaning it does away with the arrow keys, and bunches your fingers together space smaller than the average laptop. The small keyboard means you must use shortcuts to shift your cursor around the document, an unnecessary hassle for anyone who knows writing is as much about tweaking as it is typing.

And besides, I’ve long maintained the key to a good writing machine isn’t necessarily in removing all unrelated functionality. Like many people, I’m often wowed at how productive I can be when on a flight — though I’m convinced that’s due to shit internet rather than no internet. It’s there if I need to look something up, a single solitary fact, but it’s an internet stripped of its addictive richness of video, images and chatter.

I want a device that allows me to set strict parameters — such as typing only, throttled/text only internet — that can only be changed when I restart the machine.

Work rate

“She’s done more than a story a day, on average, and stories with her byline have accounted for hundreds of millions of page views this year alone. That’s more than anyone else at The Times.”

— Ben Smith, the New York Times’s media columnist, writing about Maggie Haberman. Something tells me there’s plenty of reporting on Trump to come yet…

Gummed up

In Derry, N.H., a bit of hand sanitizer briefly gummed up a ballot reader on Election Day.

— via the New York Time’s election live blog, following an election day free of any significant technological hiccups, unless you count the fact we still don’t know who won.

Humans win this round

Walmart has ended its experiment with a shelf-scanning robot it had tried out in around 500 stores. The Bossa Nova Robotics machine crawled down the aisles and logged price tag details, stocking and so on. From the Wall Street Journal:

Walmart ended the partnership because it found different, sometimes simpler solutions that proved just as useful, said people familiar with the situation. As more shoppers flock to online delivery and pickup because of Covid-19 concerns, Walmart has more workers walking the aisles frequently to collect online orders, gleaning new data on inventory problems, said some of these people. The retailer is pursuing ways to use those workers to monitor product amounts and locations, as well as other automation technology, according to the people familiar with the situation.

It may be tempting to paint this as a setback for robotics in the grocery space — but I’d caution against that. The Bossa Nova machine — which I saw for myself at a Walmart in Bentonville, Arkanas — was an inelegant solution. It was slow, stopped dead at the mere sign of interruption, and was, to put it simply, just in the way — whether for customers walking around, or human workers trying to get at the shelves.

Robotics in groceries means rethinking the store itself, not designing robots to replicate human behaviour. Here’s a much more likely scenario from Massachusetts-based Alphabot, which is also working with Walmart: