My Sister the Queen

“One, two, three-step, four, five, six-step” I whispered to myself as my tender legs bent, stretched and hopped across the floor of sister’s room, dancing to Bach’s “Minuet in G Major”. I looked up and saw my sister in a corner of the room, sitting on her Rococo-style gilded chair, crossing her legs elegantly while sipping tea. She looked down at me with a smug smile like a condescending British aristocrat; wearing a refined Regency-style dress decked out with puffy sleeves, a reasonable amount of lace, and a tasteful amount of décolletage. She was only one pair of white gloves away from looking like the Queen of England.

I got nervous whenever I danced for sister, she looked down at me with such a sense of superiority — as though she owned me. But I did enjoy getting a chance to wear her dresses, she had such a refined sense of taste. I was always mesmerized as I watch the pleats of my skirt twirl as I danced in circles in sister’s room, and enjoy the sensuous feeling of the soft cotton petticoat and underpants rubbing across my legs. I did not have a dancing partner, so I danced with a broomstick attached to a Roomba that had been specially programmed to dance.

Suddenly, sister clapped her hands and said, “Halt! And turn off the music.” My feet quickly stopped at her command, although the Roomba continued to circumambulate for a few seconds. I walked over to her iPod and stopped the music, then looked up at her. She was wearing a wry smile on her face as she signaled for me to come closer. Then, speaking with the most perfect Received Pronunciation, she sternly commanded, “I believe it’s time for some more tea.”

“Yes, m’lady,” I responded, using the closest approximation of the Queen’s English I can imitate, then curtsied.

She looked displeased, then said, “Thou wretched plebeian! Did I not tell thee to address me by my proper title?”

I felt nervous and bit my lips, then curtsied again and said, “I’m sorry, your majesty, your royal highness, Queen Terri Majoria, Duchess of Scotland and Bavaria, Countess of Saxony, Protector of Aquitaine, Countess of the Isle of Man and the Right Hand of God.”

She looked satisfied, then said, holding out her tea cup, “Now, some tea.”

I poured her a cup of tea, then spent a minute staring at her while awaiting for further instructions. After a while she seemed to have forgotten that I was standing next to her, and when she looked up she seemed surprised. Reverting back to her usual California accent, she said, “Well, nobody told you to stop dancing. ”

I bowed, walked over to her iPod to turn on the music, then resumed dancing. A few minutes later mom walked into the room with a scarf on a coat hanger in her hand. A bemused look appeared on her face when she saw me dancing in sister’s room in a dress, she never saw me do this before and asked, “Why are you dancing with a Roomba?”

Sister glanced up at my mother with a mischievous smile and said, “We’re playing a game called ‘queen and slave’.”

Mom wrinkled her forehead and said, “Excuse me, I asked Robbie, not you.”

“Ah, but in this game Robbie is not allowed to speak unless spoken to.”

“I see,” mom said, opening the closet to put the scarf in, then closing the closet. “How does this game work?”

“Well, I tell Robbie what to do, and he does it. That’s basically it.”

Mom shook her head with disapproval, then said, “And what does Robbie get out of it?”

“Well, he gets to wear all kinds of pretty dresses and play with my toys.”

“That seems like a pretty exploitative relationship.”

“Yeah, but he wouldn’t have to do this if you bought him some girly clothes.”

Mom rolled her eyes and said, “I’m not buying a boy a dress.”

She began walking out of the room, but had to duck to avoid walking into a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Sister decorated her room to look like a ballroom, and used me as a living prop to pretend that she’s living inside a Jane Austen novel.

After mom left the room, sister raised her tea cup, then said in RP, “Ah, my personal slave, it feels like I’m living in Regency England.”

“You know, there weren’t any slaves in Regency England,” I said.

She glared at me and shouted, “Shut up, slave!”

I stopped dancing, curtsied, then said, “Sorry, your majesty, your royal highness, queen of…”

“Yeah, yeah,” she said in her normal accent, waving her left hand, “I don’t need to hear all that, just get back to dancing.”

I bowed, then continued to minuet with the Roomba. I usually did not break sister’s rules, but I can’t stand a factual error go unchallenged. 10 minutes later my dad walked in the room; there was a special glow on his face as he saw me. He enjoyed seeing me dance as much as Terri, so he opened his arms and said, “Hey, how’s my special little girl doing?”

A smile immediately appeared on my face, because so far he has been the only person willing to call me a girl. I wanted to jump into his arms, but I still had to deal with sister. I stopped dancing, bowed down to Terri and said, “May I be dismissed, your majesty?”

“Thou shan’t be dismissed at thy pleasure!” sister said.

But dad knew exactly how to handle the situation, he grabbed a roll of wrapping paper as a pretend sword, then said in the most melodramatic Shakespearean actor voice, “I am Prince Ivan, Lord of Prussia, Duke of Zurich, Regent of Hanover, Mayor of Moscow, Bishop of Milan, Gourmand of Capon, and I have come to free this fair noble maiden from thou tyrant!”

Terri looked at dad with contempt, then said, “Robbie is no noble maiden, she is a commoner who I have taught how to be prim and proper.”

“Bloody tabernacle!” dad yelled, pointing his pretend sword at sister, “I challenge you to a duel for the freedom of Maiden Robin!”

Looking incredulous, Terri said, “‘Tis improper tusk for a nobleman to challenge a lady to a duel, knowest not thou the etiquette of the Regency period?”

Dad put down the wrapping paper, then said in his normal voice, “Look, people during the Regency period have already stopped using ‘thou’ so you’re already stretching the rules of your game.”

Terri switched back to her normal voice as well, and said, “Fine, you can have her, or him, or whatever…”

I bowed one last time to Terri, then ran into dad’s arms, squealing in joy. He picked me up off the ground carried me to my room; I looked into his eyes, so shiny and full of joy. After putting me on my bed, he said with unmatched excitement on his face, “Robin, I have a surprise for you!” He reached into a bag, at first I thought it was jewelry but instead he took out a plush toy panda. I would have preferred the jewelry, but I still squealed as I caressed the panda in my arms because I knew it was a gift from the heart.

“I noticed that you like to play with your sister’s panda, so I made you one so you wouldn’t have to share.”

I was surprised, and said, “You made it? But how?”

“Well, I took a regular stuffed panda and put some robotics and artificial intelligence into it. Here, watch,” he said, setting the panda on the bed, he said into the panda’s ear, “Sing ‘I’m a Little Tea Pot’.”

The panda moved its lips and sang “I’m a little tea pot short and stout…”

“Now dance as well,” he said, and the panda immediately got up on its hind legs and did the dance that accompanied the song. I sat there, my mouth agape in amazement, looked into dad’s bewitching eyes and wrapped my arms around his neck and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. He felt a bit embarrassed by my action, but was okay with it. He continued, “I have programmed it to do more than just sing and dance.”

“Like what?”

“Stop panda,” he said, and the panda stopped dancing. “Panda, who built the pyramids?”

The panda lowered its head as though to think, then raised his head to look at dad and said, “The pyramids were built by the ancient Egyptians from about 2700 BC to 1700 BC. The first pyramid was built by the pharaoh Djoser. The Mesoamericans also built structures that looked like pyramids.”

I was far less impressed with Panda’s ability to answer questions, because I already had Wikipedia for that. I was far more interested by his ability to sing and dance. But dad seemed to be far more interested in Panda’s ability to answer trivia questions. Dad’s face lighted up as he said, “Just imagine how much more intelligent Panda will be after a few more years of learning.”

“Can he learn how to love?” I asked.

Dad suddenly looked as though he had a revelation, then said, “It would be hard, but I don’t think it’s impossible.” For a few more minutes he watched me play with the panda, making him do all sorts of dance and song routines, then he rubbed the back of my head, walked up from the bed and said, “Well, I have to get back to work, see you later.”

I was surprised, I thought he had time to play with me. As he left I grabbed his arm and whimpered, “Please, don’t go.”

Dad smiled at me and said, “Aww, don’t worry, see you at dinner.”

“But daddy, when will we have time to be together?”

“I’ll make it up to you, we’ll go fishing over the weekend, okay?” I was satisfied, but I hate the fact that he chooses his work over me. I understand it, but I still hate it. After he left I laid on the bed with Panda in my arms. I got bored after a while, so I lifted Panda in front of my face and asked, “Can you really learn how to love?” Panda rotated its head, then said, “Yes, someday, someday.” I was very pleased, and held him close to any chest as I drifted off into sleep, taking my afternoon nap.

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Disposability

Until recently, I did not have my own car. I drove a Toyota that my parents gave me. It is incredibly old, with about 170,000 miles on the odometer, but still managed to function very efficiently, getting more than 30 miles to the gallon and reach 70 mph on the highway, although I wouldn’t know it from personal experience since I would never go over the speed limit (wink). But due to the age of the vehicle, it could not pass smog check. While it was possible to fix the car so that it could, it didn’t make sense to throw so much money at such an old vehicle while buying e new vehicle would have been a better use of the same money. So I decided to retire that vehicle and buy a new one.

The year before I retired that vehicle, I noticed a change in my driving behavior. I was being much more reckless, pushing the gas pedal much harder than I had been, and making swerves that were probably too dangerous for the speed I was driving. 1 became a much more distracted driver, looking down at my phone while I was supposed to be looking at the road. It was as if knowing that the vehicle I was driving will soon be retired, I had become Evel Knivel. But as soon as I got my new car I became a much more responsible driver once again.

This got me to thinking about how the idea of disposability leads us to treat objects, as well as people, differently, usually for the worst. We usually treat things we consider disposable very poorly. Unfortunately in the world we live in, more and more things are considered disposable. The most obvious cases are the commodities we buy. Most people nowadays buy a new phone every year, and at least in the circles I go to if you don’t buy a new phone every two years you are considered some sort of cheapskate.

Human beings today are becoming more and more disposable. Romantic relationships can last however long it is convenient for either of the couple involved, then you can dump him or her when you are no longer interested. Entire organizations have become disposable. There is no nostalgia around the fact that Yahoo is slowly slipping into oblivion, despite the fact that it was once a tech giant. Even the entire global economy is disposable. It is clear from the behavior of the big banks that they knew very well that their actions will eventually lead to economic disaster, but they all seemed to have the attitude of “Après moi le déluge“, which translated from the French means roughly, “I won’t be around long enough to suffer the consequences of my actions, so I don’t give a shit.”

Ultimately, the entire Earth is disposable, the way we pollute makes it appear that we do not care whether the entire biome will survive. Capitalism has always lived on the logic of disposability. Only keeping objects that are useful to you and throwing them away when they have outlived their usefulness is the most efficient way to do business. But there are some things that are not disposable, like human beings. The Earth is also not disposable, because we have to live on it. That is, until Elon Musk develops a technological breakthrough that allows us to colonize other planets, at which point I would be glad to say goodbye to earth. But until we become space-faring cyborgs, we cannot treat everything as disposable.

Why Are People Still Going To Movie Theaters?

Nowadays people complain that the only movies Hollywood make nowadays are superhero movies (that and whatever Christopher Nolan is doing). It is true that movies have gone downhill in modern times, but let us consider the main reason that good movies are hardly made nowadays, and that reason is television.

All the way back in the 50s, many movie makers were growing concerned that television will eventually replace movies as a form of entertainment. They tried various ways to stem the tide, such as providing larger screens, making the 3-D movie, and adding better sound systems. Of all these attempts, only better sound systems attracted people to the theaters. But despite the slow decline of the movie theater, they never completely die out, and in most cities there are still a handful of them clinging to life. Why didn’t television completely wipe out the movie theaters?

One reason might have to do with nostalgia. Because movies have been around decades longer than television, there are more classic movies than television shows, which gives the medium prestige. More professors study movies than television shows, and aspiring actors and directors study movies when they go to school more than television shows.

But the major reason is movie theaters are still in business is the fact that the movie theater provides a much more immersive and sensual experience than television. Movie screens are huge, they fill the entire visual field of the viewer, allowing people to see things in greater detail and giving the feeling that they are immersed in the movie. Television has a much smaller screen, it is a much more limited sensory experience. Unlike in a movie theater , you are constantly bombarded with distractions. Also, the acoustics of a movie theater is much better than your home, adding to the wealth of mum sensory experience.

But television has two major advantages over movies, the first is that television is convenient. You don’t have to go to drive to a theater to enjoy a show, just stay in your living room. Computers have made television even more convenient, it can be something you can enjoy on your laptop or even your phone. The second advantage is that television show can be serialized, so it can be longer than a movie. A movie can only be around 3 hours long at most, people tend not to be able to endure sitting for longer than that. If a television show lasts longer than 3 hours, it can be divided into episodes and put into a series. In theory, movies can also be serialized, but for some odd reason this doesn’t happen very often. The only movie to be successfully serialized was Star Wars, most other examples of successful movie serialization were adaptations from books (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and so on).

But movie theaters still have the advantage of providing a better sensory experience. This is taken advantage of by movies that use a lot of special effects, where the immersive sensory experience of the theater is possible. We already see this trend beginning with Star Wars. Ever since Star Wars, the films that make the most money tend to be visual-audio spectacles, such as science fiction, fantasy, disaster and superhero genres(and also certain films in the action genre).

Can movies go much beyond the special effects spectacles they have become? Movies that focus on personal relationships are still being made, but they are less successful than other genres. it looks like that for the time being, if we want serious drama we will have to turn to television. But is there something about the human experience that can be better dramatized through the spectacular experience of the movie theater?

Weapon of Mass Distraction

One of the problems of the Internet is that it constantly serves us with distractions. I am not quite as affected by it as many of my friends, but it has affected me nonetheless. YouTube has decreased my productivity by a third to a half, since I find it so irresistible to click on any of its myriad of videos. The worst part is, much of the content of that site is quite banal, such as people complaining about the quality of KFC food or knick-knacks at dollar stores. The trouble is that such content, in all their inanity, is nonetheless insanely addictive. I find it difficult to concentrate on my work or writing with so many potential sources of distraction.

Wikipedia is also one of these sites that become addictive. The problem with Wikipedia is that I have to sometimes use it for work, and while initially I might be looking up something work-related it can quickly devolve into a self-indulgent stroll of hyperlinks, as I waste my in time looking up dead celebrities that have been long forgotten or a mathematical theorem so obscure only the most dedicated math geek will care.

The thing is, it didn’t used to be this way. When I got my first computer back in the 90’s I couldn’t connect to the Internet, because I was given an outdated model that did not have a phone modem. You couldn’t play music or videos on the machine because Windows 3 did not have the appropriate software, and the machine lacked a sound card. My first computer was more or less a glorified typewriter, it allowed me to write and edit documents in Microsoft Word, has advanced functions such as the ability to change font size and use bold and italics, and use the magical feature of spell-check. Those features may not sound impressive now, but that was back in the 90’s. What it lacked in functionality it made up for by the absence of any distractions such as Facebook or YouTube.

The world of my childhood, the world before the juggernauts of Facebook, Google and YouTube, and smartphones, is forever lost to us. I wouldn’t want to go back to a time where I couldn’t simply check Wikipedia on my phone whenever I needed some piece of information, yet it is also a world where I am constantly bombarded with having to make decisions which I never had to make before. Should I take a look at that notification I got from Facebook or should I work on that assignment from work? Should I enable notifications from my phone in the first place? In a world of constant distraction it is difficult to decide whether one’s obligation in the cyber world trumps ones obligations in the real world.

Sometimes I take refuge in the charm of outdated technology. Instead of writing everything on a computer, I sometimes use a typewriter. The mechanical workings of a typewriter feel more substantial than a computer. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m being a real writer. Also, it frees me up from some of the distractions of writing on a computer.

But I can’t run away from technology forever, because modern technology is far more efficient. I can’t easily blog or tweet something I’ve written on a typewriter. (Although people are developing solutions to this problem.) The solution is to learn how to use the new technologies more efficiently. Avoid the compulsion of clicking on whatever click-bait that comes in our direction, avoid the compulsion to fill our lives with social media. Eventually the people creating online content will need to be more responsible as well, crafting content that is more useful than distracting. It will be a long time before we learn how to use the new technologies responsibly. In the meantime, we should be more mindful of what we do on the Internet.

Technological Nostalgia: The Manual Transmission

Recently I need to buy a new car, so I searched online for some inexpensive entry-level automobile. Somewhat to my surprise, I found some models with manual transmission. These are not old models that were made in the 90’s, but ones made this year. Technologically, there are no reasons for making cars with manual transmissions anymore. A few decades ago, automatic transmissions were expensive, fragile and impractical for consumer-level cars. But now the technology has improved to the point where automatic is inexpensive and reliable.

I have never driven a car with manual transmission, but I understand that it takes some skill to do it. Understanding when to shift gears is not something a novice can get a hang of easily, and doing it inappropriately can kill the engine and put you in danger. Some claim that shifting manually is more efficient than shifting automatically, but such gains in efficiency are so small that it can be easily overcome by getting a more powerful engine. Automatic transmission makes driving much easier, yet manual transmissions continue to be produced today.

The reasons that some people still prefer manual transmission are mostly psychological. People who drive manual feel a greater sense of control. Perhaps the word “control” is inappropriate, perhaps a better term is that they “feel at one with the car.” I know this sounds quasi-mystical, but learning to drive a car isn’t learning how to control a machine, but to accustom oneself to the workings of a vehicle so one feels that the car is a part of one’s own body. This is quite a powerful feeling, since it makes the person feel they have appropriated the power of the car for him or herself. Having such fine control over the gears of the car enhances this feeling of power.

Many Americans have an image of themselves as ridiculously macho figures who are powerful both physically and psychologically. Sometimes they express this image through their choice of vehicles, which is seen in the plague of SUVs, pickup-trucks and sports car in our streets. The manual transmission is another version of it. We shouldn’t underestimate this factor in our choice of cars.

Technological Nostalgia: The Steam Locomotive

When the steam-powered locomotive was invented, it was the most advanced technology ever developed. In the 19th century, there were all sorts of concerns about the technology, such as what would happen if the locomotive travels faster than 30 miles-per-hour. Doctors of the time thought that it would create a vacuum inside the carriage, causing the lungs of the passengers to explode. Fortunately the doctors were wrong, people can travel faster than 30mph without suffering any ill effects. But it goes to show what people’s attitudes were towards the locomotive. The poet Wordsworth didn’t like them, and had a train track in front of his house rerouted because he thought it ruined his view of nature.

Nowadays we have almost the exact opposite attitude towards steam-powered locomotives. People nowadays enjoy seeing the beauty of nature on steam-powered trains. Today when we see a steam-powered train going through a beautiful rural landscape, we think of the train as a symbol of the quaint countryside. The reason for this is because steam-power is now seen as old-fashioned. Since the 19th century we have developed far more advanced forms of transportation. Electric trolleys, the automobile, diesel locomotives and airplanes all make steam-power rail look outdated. It would be shocking if we see a Boeing 747 in the middle of a flowering meadow, but completely normal if we see a steam-powered train in the same scene.

Part of the romance of the railroad has to do with its macho connotations. In the past, men were worked on the rails were quite tough, and had to deal with the dirt and grime of the smoke of coal-burning engines. Of course, there was the entire hobo tradition of sneaking onto cattle cars for those who don’t have enough money to ride in the passenger compartment.

Ultimately, what steam-powered train represent is an “old-fashioned” world that is lost to us. Most steam-powered trains have shut down operations, and those that are still running cater mostly to tourists. It is a technology that is a bridge between modern and ancient times. The steam engine is not something so ancient that we cannot understand, yet it is clearly an old technology that has become obsolete. Riding on a steam-powered vehicle, we are traveling fast enough to feel like we are traveling on a modern vehicle, yet it still feels like we are participating in a ritual from the past.

Technological Nostalgia: The Typewriter

There is no writing implement that symbolizes the profession of writing quite like the typewriter. In classic movies, journalists often write their assignments on a typewriter. The movie “The Shining” has the main character, a frustrated writer, type the words “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again. Event in recent works such as “The Simpsons”, when Homer became a food critic he writes his articles on a typewriter. Even after the invention of the word processor, the typewriter is still recognized by almost everyone despite being obsolete.

Even though the typewriter is almost synonymous with the profession of writing, it is a recent invention. The first commercially available typewriter was put on the market in 1873 by the Remington company, which up until that point was an firearms manufacturer. It was originally intended to be used by clerks to dictate or transcribe documents, not for creative writing purposes. Early on, people did not use a typewriter themselves, but hired a typist to type for them. The reason was that learning to type is an arduous task, something most people would avoid if they can pay someone else to do it for them. Eventually many people saw the value in being able to write quickly and legibly and started learning how to type themselves. Mark Twain was the first to write a book on a typewriter, and it caught on from there.

With advances in technology, the typewriter is no longer the fastest way to get an idea from the mind onto the page. Computer keyboards, because they are not as limited by the physics of mechanical gears and linkages, can be much faster. With computers, you can have predictive text. Chorded keyboards, which are used by clerks in courts, can be even faster. Finally, all this might eventually be replaced by speech-to-text software, or some kind of advanced brain-to-computer interface that can literally read your mind by detecting brain waves.

However, there is something romantic about the physicality of using a typewriter. In order to type a letter, you have to press down hard on the key, and you feel the strain in your fingers every time you type a letter. There is also something special about the sound the machine makes. When you write on a computer your work is accomplished in silence, but working with a typewriter you are almost announcing to the world that you are accomplishing something creative. Each time the typebar hits the paper make it makes a very loud clacking sound, each time you reach the end of a line a bell rings. Also, there is some satisfaction in knowing that you are writing a book the same way many great writers before you did, like Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway.

In recent years there has been a revival in typewriters, and at the risk of sounding like a hipster, I was participating in this trend even before it was a trend. In around the year 2006, I bought a typewriter off eBay. It is a Smith-Corona, and it is not in very good condition. The machine has this yellow tint that comes from age, the platen (the roller that feeds the paper into the machine) is severely dented after years of use, parts of the return carriage keep falling off, some of the letters on the typebars had been intentionally damaged, and none of the capital letters align correctly with the platen when I engage the caps lock. But the machine cost $30, which is a bargain. Despite all these problems all the mechanisms in the machine work smoothly, therefore I decided to keep it.

The problem with using a typewriter in a modern environment is that your work does not immediately get born into a digital environment. You can’t simply copy and paste your typewritten document onto your website, but have to go through an elaborate process of scanning it and then using software to turn it into text. This is somewhat more challenging than what I am used to.

But there are advantages. When you are typing on a typewriter, you do not get distracted easily. You can’t open YouTube on a browser and forget to write your book, or if you do the sound of the typewriter will drown out YouTube. Also, since you know it is difficult to delete text, you are forced to think about what you will type more carefully before you commit your words to paper, so you will make fewer mistakes. All these benefits are at the cost of having sore fingers when you are done.