Antique Communication

Antique Communication

Communication is a curious endeavor. It is one of the things that (supposedly) makes us humans superior to all other creatures. (That statement is worth a book all on its own – human civilization is short and we have big problems getting along, so “superior” might be the wrong descriptor.) But over the last few hundred years, our methods for communication have evolved so dramatically it is mind bending.

Once humans were able to speak and write, we could send messages to each other via courier, whether that be person or pigeon. This was great, but it took days, weeks, or even months to deliver that message to its chosen audience.

The advent of the telegraph in the early 1800s was a game changer. Through a series of long and short tones, we were able to communicate across the country and eventually across the ocean, in real time. Getting an “instant message” in San Francisco from your parents back East instantly shrunk the world down. It was at this point that privacy became a concern. Everyone in that communication chain got to hear what you were saying. Telegraph messages were received and delivered but, someone had to translate Morse Code back to words.

army telegraph cartoon smallWith the emergence of shortwave radio in the early 20th century, we learned how to send the sound of a voice to anyone that had the receiver to pick up the signal. By bouncing a signal off the atmosphere, we were often able to send those signals long distances. With this medium, there was no privacy at all.

But, humans are a resourceful lot. During the cold war, governments needed to keep in touch with their spies in other countries. A telephone call wasn’t secure because it could be tapped or traced. But, a coded message via shortwave became a viable option. The spy could tune into the predetermined frequency at the predetermined time and get a coded message. The odd part is, these number stations still exist and even now are broadcast over the internet so that anyone, anywhere, could receive them. The overlay of antiquated technology with modern (internet) communication creates an unusual juxtaposition.

Sometimes, when I am working on the layout of the next issue of the N-News and I get bored with listening to the radio, music or some other more overt distraction, I tune into number stations. The calming hiss of the background signal sounds like a constant wind or waves and then the tones, or voice of some person trying to communicate with some other people feels like I am listening to a world from a hundred years ago. And there is something about listening while creating a print magazine and concentrating on old tractors that somehow seems to connect.

Antique tractors, antique listening.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things

Amazon has Alexa, Apple has Siri, Google has Google Digital Assistance, Microsoft has Cortana and Samsung has Bixby. Why do I care? I don’t really.

Don’t get me wrong – I have been a technology enthusiast since the 1980s. I love being able to stream a movie or order some esoteric book or tool that I can’t find at my local store. (I still go to the local store as often as possible for fear the local store might not be there some day soon.)

And for communicating with my kids, my parents, my friends and the N-News readership, technology offers quick ways to interact.

The N-News office has multiple computers in it and I couldn’t make this magazine happen without them. In fact, niche magazines like this could not exist without the advent of desktop publishing.

BUT, when it comes to the intimate details of home life, I’m not so sure I want all of the technology that is available.

I recently perused a JC Penney catalog which featured a refrigerator that had four video cameras in it, allowing you to check the contents of the refrigerator from the grocery store. I’ve talked in previous editorials about a front door lock that unlocks when you get close.

There is a whole array of “smart home” devices (locks, thermostats, appliances, light bulbs – even an outdoor electronic smoker) ready to automate every facet of household management. To me, most seem completely unnecessary and maybe downright silly.

Alexa speaker next to laptopThe part that I find most repelling is having some phone /computer/smart speaker listening to what is going on in my kitchen or living room 24/7. I don’t think I am going to (willingly) participate in the “internet of things” revolution that is growing all around us.

Although Siri might be great for dealing with a hands-free phone call while driving, I still think I would prefer my fingers on a keyboard for looking up movies that are playing nearby or remembering what year the 8N was produced.

If I hear that Siri or Alexa can help out with springtime chores like stacking firewood for next winter, planting the snow peas and grading the driveway, that would definitely get my attention.

Until that day, I will stick with my old Ford tractor as a primary tool for managing things on the home front.internet-of-things-cartoon

Work, Money & Happiness

Work, Money & Happiness Most people in Vermont have at least two or three jobs – it is just the nature of living in a rural part of the country. I am no exception. Certainly the N-News is my primary job and it takes up full time hours (sometimes more), but there are other things I do as well. My extended family has grown garlic for the past twenty years. We have a few small plots growing a total of eight to ten thousand heads every year. It is a labor-intensive crop since much of the work has to be done by hand. It brings in a little extra income, makes for some good family and friends time and keeps … Continue reading

Seize The Day

Seize the Day Regular readers of the N-News know I always have a pile of books I’m working my way through. Some are oriented towards tractors, motors and biographies of people involved in these areas. But I also read with the goal of finding some deeper meaning, both philosophical and aesthetic. Sometimes it’s possible to glimpse those goals through the books I review in the magazine, such as the two black and white photo books of barns in this issue, which offer a sense of place and history. This past quarter, I have been spending time reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by author and surgeon Atul Gawande. If you haven’t heard of him, I encourage … Continue reading

On the Seat & In Your Head

On the Seat & In Your Head There is something about driving a tractor that is so similar to riding a motorcycle it is uncanny. Obviously it isn’t speed or that feeling of the wind in your hair. Nor is it about the physics of counter steering or leaning into a corner. But there is something there in the “non-thinking” aspect of both endeavors. When I am running the mower on the tractor, or more recently cultivating the garlic with the 861 a few months ago, I am not actively thinking about anything. I am purely in that moment. I am observing where the front wheels are, glancing over my shoulder to watch the discs cut through the earth, focusing … Continue reading

Machine Age Patina and the Orbit of Attraction

There is something about the aesthetic of machine age objects that enchants many of us – a humanistic element or perhaps a beautiful simplicity. It would be easy to forget that the culture of the late 19th and early 20th century promoted the concept of machines replacing man and animal in doing work. When seen from our perspective now, industrial design of that period (say, 1900-1960) looks amazingly elegant. With its smoothness, its “form-follows-function” simplicity and its straight forward conception, nearly anything could have a sense of awe and inspired grace – including the Heathkit condenser tester from the January issue. Add the patina of age, and you have a formula that culminates with a directness of design, and in … Continue reading

Richard Barsotti’s Ford Truck

My neighbor Richard restores vintage motorcycles. Harleys, Nortons and Triumphs have come through the shop. Even more Vincents and BMWs have graced the doors of Wasted Spark Motorcycle. (www.wastedspark.com)The owners hope to get their bikes back to factory specs and Richard is the man for the job. Fifteen years ago, Richard decided he wanted a vintage pickup truck – something to cruise around in when he needed to move more than he could carry on a motorcycle. Continue reading

How Could I Help?

“How Could I Help?” Perhaps the four nicest words you could ever hear. It is that simple. My youngest daughter is about to become a teenager. She has been exhibiting the signs of teenage hood for a while; eye-rolling, exasperation, a general unwillingness to do any of the family chores. You know the story. But a few weeks ago I saw the positive signs as well, the light on the other side of the tunnel. She saw I was struggling to get the next issue of the magazine done, keep on top of the fast-growing late spring lawn, plant the garden and maintain the garlic plots (and the long list of other distractions) and she said, “How could I help?” … Continue reading

Equinox & Mud – Spring 2014 Editorial

 Equinox & Mud For whatever reason, I have always looked upon spring and autumn as transitional seasons. Of course, they represent a demarcation in a cyclical solar event, our trip around the sun every year. We just passed the point at which the earth is half way towards its opposite solstice, the longest day of the year, June 21th . (The other is the shortest day of the year December 21st). The spring (or vernal) equinox, March 20th and the autumn equinox, September 22rd, are the two days a year when the sun is directly over the equator, meaning both the northern and southern hemispheres have the same day length. It feels spring and autumn are the most volatile of … Continue reading

My Eyes and My Stomach – January 2014

The holidays can be difficult for me. I feel bombarded by an overabundance of great food, pressure to meet the expectations of the kids and family, getting the homestead ready for winter, all the while trying finishing the January issue of N-News. Sometimes, I just want to escape and go read a book by the wood stove. It is hard enough to find the time to do that, and harder still to decide what I  should be reading. Now that the holidays are behind us, we have the coldest months of the year ahead. (Well, with the exception of the handful of you in the southern hemisphere.) The axis of the earth is starting to slowly come back around and … Continue reading

Simplicity And Acceptance

If only life was as straight forward as trying to get your tractor to start. With the tractor, there are just a few primary things you need: fuel, air and spark. If you have these in adequate supply, you move to a secondary line of thinking, “How’s the timing and fuel mixture?” With enough time and effort (and parts), you will get your tractor started. Living a life well, is much more complex. There are so many variables, most falling into the gray areas, and few seem black and white. Growing garlic (or any crop) is somewhere in the middle. If you plant your seeds properly, conditions are right and you weed it on a semi-regular basis, chances are, you … Continue reading

Rhubarb & Waiting

Every year, the rhubarb is the first thing to really explode out of the garden. And it keeps growing all summer long-it even chokes out the bishop’s weed that grows all around it, but can’t survive under its massive leaves. This year, on the first unofficial summer weekend (Memorial Day) it snowed in central Vermont. In fact, if your place was above 1600ft, you got 2-4 inches. Good thing we didn’t have the tomatoes and basil in the garden yet. But the rhubarb just didn’t care. It sent out more stalks, laughing at the frozen precipitation and the strawberries shivering down to their roots. But rhubarb, for all of its exuberance, is not one of my favorites in the garden. … Continue reading

Spring, Mud, Change & the Present

At the end of every season, I can’t help but look forward to the next. As much as I love the idea that spring and summer are around the corner, I know, come the end of August, I will be looking forward to cooler weather – though that seems impossible right now. The same goes for autumn. The first few times I smell wood smoke in the crisp, low-humidity air of October, I am reminded of the excitement of snow, cold, moving firewood and plowing with the tractors. But, right now as I think about spring and mud season, winter seems like a mouthful of cod liver oil. Why is that? Normally, I would say I am not one to … Continue reading

Cold Blue January Snow & Elizabeth

My neighbor Elisabeth (now long gone) who, by the time of this story, lived by herself in the middle of a three hundred acre hill farm, milked cows by hand and, even in her early seventies, would think nothing of walking a mile to my house. She didn’t seem to be bothered much by the darkness of winter. In fact, she didn’t seem to be bothered by much. Elisabeth always had a smile on her face. One cold, snowy, January day, she drove her 1972 F250 pickup down to get the mail. Halfway down, she got stuck. Even with chains on all four wheels, low gear and in 4wd low, the truck slid and got caught in the ditch. She … Continue reading